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crocuses in sunlight

Is Book 2 easier or harder than Book 1?

In 2013, with The Bone Dragon finally written and edited and proofed and polished and re-polished and re-proofed and then polished some more, I embarked on Book 2.

Everything started beautifully. Next post is all about What Happened Next, but this one is about What Went Right.

So there I was, facing Book 2. Unlike a lot of my debut-writer friends, who were struggling with the pressure of being published, of having a contract and expectations levelled at them from all around, I found I had a newfound sense of confidence and freedom.

For me, having a truly amazing agent and a published first book was a liberation. I knew that from then on if there were problems with one of my books my brilliant agent would help me fix them. She’s a fantastic editor in her own right so if it’s possible to get there with a troublesome book, she’ll help me make it happen.

Also I have a publisher: I have amazing publishing industry people waiting and wanting to read what I am writing.

So all I have to do it write well… which is no small task, but I am a writer after all. It’s kinda the minimum requirement.

How different from Before, when I wasn’t sure that anyone would ever like what I was writing, would ever in a million years agree to publish it, would ever even consider giving me a helping hand to get from Really Quite Good to the magical Publishable level that for so long seemed like it belonged to a different world I’d never find a way to reach. But I did reach it.

That’s what I have now that I didn’t have Before. I know where Alice’s rabbit-hole is. I know where the Narnia wardrobe is. I have my Hogwarts letter.

And, yes, I want my agent to love Book 2. I want my publisher to love it. I want readers to love it. I want everyone to think it’s even better than (or at least as good as) Book 1. Yes, it’s a big ask – writing a good book always is – but is it a bigger ask than Book 1 was? It depends whether you think people having expectations of you as a writer is a bad thing or not.

Yes, there’s a degree of pressure… but either I can write or I can’t. And there’s not point worrying about it: that won’t get me anywhere. The answer is to get on with making it ‘can’, by hook, crook and lots of hard work. I’m a grafter. It’s one of the things I like most about myself. I don’t fuss about whether I’m inherently talented or not – there’s nothing I can do about that. Instead, I try to focus on making the most of whatever talent I have and bridging the gap between that and ‘as good as possible for me’ with the determination to get there: to produce another good book. Somehow. In whatever messy, gruelling way necessary. Maybe some people can just sail through and it comes naturally and beautifully, but I’m not one of them and there’s no point crying about it. My first book proved I could get there. And so I will again if I just keep slogging and dreaming and working…

Eventually I will get there because now I have all the backing a person could ask for. That’s the magic of moving beyond Book 1. You’ve got people’s attention already. That’s so much of the battle. If there’s a problem, at least it’s at a higher level: now problems come in the form of amazing publishing industry people telling me ‘this isn’t going to work’ or ‘let’s think again’. Of course I’d rather have no problems, but when does life work like that? So this type of problem I’ll take – Yes, please and thank you.

At least the problem is no longer a wall of backs turned my way where no one will let me through. Anyone who’s struggled to find their way to publication knows what I mean. That endless bit where you have no idea if anyone will ever turn around to you and say ‘Oh, hello. Would you like to go through to the other side now?’

Claire Wilson, my extraordinary agent, was the person who turned around for me. Who made a gap so I could step through from the world of Writer Hopefuls to the world of Published Writers. And it really has made all the difference.

So bring on Book 2, and Book 3 and all the books after, with however many problems they come with. I’ll still just be so very grateful to be here, working and grafting and, eventually, getting there again.

Women You Should Know About screencap from Emerald Street article

Women (writers) you should know about: Reading women on International Women’s Day

First some good news! I am so honoured that the amazing Suzi Feay has picked me as one of her top four up-and-coming women writers. Read the full article here. Suzi will be on two fantastic panel discussions ‘On Reading Women’ (at the British Museum, Saturday 8th March 3.30-4.30opm: find out more here) and ‘Celebrating Women Writers’ (Working Men’s College, London, Thursday 13th March, 7pm: find out more here).

I was planning a post about reading women writers anyway, so here it is!

Now that people can start calling themselves feminists again without everyone assuming that they subscribe to any of the sillier brands of academic feminist theory (a legitimate worry if, like me, you’ve ever worked in academia), we can get back to the business at hand: recognising that although things have moved forward men and women are not yet equal in the world and we must continue to strive to make it so.

But please let’s do it without every second word being ‘phallocentric’ or every phrase involving a ‘binary opposition’ that ‘essentialises’ something. We don’t have to induce a mass headache to make an important point.

‘So what’s the relevance to reading?’ you may ask. ‘Is this going to be just another article moaning about how men get more press coverage, and more reviews are written by men about men, and men are selected more often for prizes and…’ The fact that all this is still true means it’s worth repeating, but it’s not really what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how all this relates to reading habits.

Another thing the statistics show is that while women make up the majority of fiction readers, they read books by both sexes (and, yes, I’m leaving aside the debate about whether there is, indeed, a simple ‘binary opposition’ between sexes) while men tend to read books by other men.

I mostly read books by women for one simple reason: what I read about books by women (in blurbs, in articles, on Twitter, in blog-posts, and in reviews) tends to make me want to read these books, whereas I quite often don’t like the sound of books by men as much. Also my experience is that, as a rule, I’m more likely to enjoy books by women. However,  of my favourite-ever books, quite a few are by men while I’ve read plenty of shockingly dire books by women. I would never not read a book because it was by a man. And I would never not read about a book by a man. I set myself up to read and to like books by men as much as those by women.

It’s probably worth saying here that I quite often ignore the author’s name entirely. I’m dyslexic and I find it very hard to read names I don’t know. I once nearly failed a maths exam because I couldn’t tell if Michael was the name pronounced ‘mi-kal’ or the name pronounced ‘mi-shell’. When I don’t recognise a name, I quite often skim over it – for entire books if necessary. Until someone explained that ‘Her-mee-OWN-ee’ was actually the much more attractive ‘Her-MY-oh-nee’, she was just ‘H’. So for about three Harry Potter books…

I tend to focus on titles rather than author names because names are hard for me and, usually, I don’t think they’re worth the trouble. It’s what’s inside the book, not on the cover, that I really care about. If the author’s initials are given, I rarely try to find out if the book in my hands is by a man or woman. In general, the only reason I ever know is that I read the author’s bio and the acknowledgements before starting a book, and that quite often gives the game away. But the point is that it doesn’t matter to me. Other things have drawn me to the book and it’s only after the fact that I realise that, yes, my reading ratio is 75:25, give or take, in favour of women writers.

But what if you’re the type of person who does look at the author’s name when you pick up a book, beyond pure brand-recognition? Maybe there’s something to be said for making an effort, at least for a while, to go 50:50 on your reading habits… and see if you’re still reading as many books you like as before.

The question I’m left with is this: do men read fewer books by women because they don’t tend to enjoy books by women as much, as a rule, as those by men or are they dismissing these books out of hand? I’d really like to know the answer to that question.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that men and women experience the world differently. Perhaps it’s purely because of the way we’re socialised and the social expectations we live with: I think women expect to be called on to a different extent by a wider-range of people needing a wider-range of things than most men – and, in general, we seem to feel more bound to answer these calls. Of course men have to be different things to different people in their relationships too – some more than others – but I think this is more so for most women. As a result, I quite often find that in books by men the characters seem to lack a normal degree of connectedness with other characters and people in the world of the book: this makes them come across to me as rather odd and asocial (even when they’re clearly not meant to be), cardboard cut-outs driven only by internal motivations rather than also by a web of relationships that mean they need to be different people at different times.

The other key thing I find missing in a lot of books written by men is a sense of how being a woman shapes your life. Most female characters in books by men don’t seem to do things like look into the wardrobe and think ‘Oh, I’d love to wear that’ and then feel they have to decide not to because (a) it’s likely that at some point during the day a man will say something sexually aggressive if not actively try to touch them (and, true, it’s not fair but if it’s avoidable better to avoid it), and (b) because various people will turn up their noses at a little exposed flesh below the neck or above the knee. I quite often do my shopping now in the frumpiest, scruffiest outfit I can find because I am so very sick of men breathing down my neck in queues when I wear, say, shorts and a tank-top or finding excuses to touch me (and, yes, it’s mostly on the arm but it’s still unnecessary, unwanted touching as if I shouldn’t have the right to dictate ALL the touching that involves my own body). Being a woman shapes a lot of what I do, largely because men make it so… and that’s what’s missing from a lot of books by men. It’s not about anger or taking a feminist position or decrying sexism, it’s about the fact that actually women do pay a price for being women pretty much whenever they leave the house. And often in the home too. And that’s not because of all men being beasts all the time, but enough of them are beastly enough quite a lot of the time that it has a real impact on what life is like.

Of course I don’t have any experience of being a man, but it seems to me that men, as a rule, are less aware of being male – with the exception of when something challenges their ‘manhood’ (the physical or socially-constructed version). But maybe that’s not so: I’ve never been a man, so feel free to tell me otherwise.

What I do know is that the people who inhabit a lot of books by men often don’t feel real to me the way that characters in books by women tend to, mostly because in books by men characters often don’t seem to be as intimately connected to a web of people – friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances – as I and most of the women I know are. That’s at the heart of why I tend to like books by women more: the relationships feel more rounded, more interesting, more recognisable as human relationships… and that’s one of the things I’m most interested in when I read: the people and the way they relate to each other.

So here’s the heart of what I’m trying to say… If you don’t pay attention to whether you read men or women writers, but have a tendency to like books by one sex more than the other, then it’s fair enough to have a reading ratio that tilts one way or the other. But if you basically don’t read books by one sex, how could you possibly know? Isn’t it worth making an effort to balance your reading stats, unless you’re truly ‘blind’ to what an author’s name implies about their sex?

Isn’t it always worth being open-minded enough to leave room in your reading for both men and women writers?

A novel is not a fable: moral messages vs moral questions

I’m one of those authors who reads *all* their reviews, feedback and comments. For me, being a professional writer means doing everything I can to keep developing, and the key to that is to get as much feedback as possible. How else can you judge if, on balance, your subtext is too obvious or too obscure? How can you determine if something speaks to as many readers as can be hoped or not? Feedback patterns are particularly important.

A few readers have expressed their anger and upset about the ‘moral message’ they believe I’m trying to convey in The Bone Dragon. The thing is The Bone Dragon doesn’t have a moral message. I’m not trying to tell anyone anything: I’m trying to ask questions and leave it up to readers to answer them – if they can: the questions I’m interested in asking don’t necessarily have good answers, but that’s precisely why they need to be thought about.

So why are a handful of readers upset about a message that, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t there? The fact that they assume the ending of the book is a moral message seems to be the heart of the problem. Fables and parables end with moral messages, but that has never been a requirement with novels. So why do some people believe that every novel’s end must be read as a moral? This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding about how gloriously varied novels can be. Many do have a moral message to impart, implicitly or explicitly, but many others don’t. What happens in a book, especially at the end, does not necessarily represent the author’s idea of right and wrong.

I think these assumptions about endings have bled out of the expectation that, at the end of a story, the ‘good’ should triumph and be rewarded, and the ‘bad’ should fail and be punished – because that’s what a story is: according to this view, all sorts of bad things can happen to ‘good’ people during stories, but at the end we all need to be very clear about what’s right and wrong, and who deserves what. This expectation seems to govern many popular forms of storytelling, and therein lies the problem: we’re so constantly bombarded by this message (about messages) that it’s easy to forget that stories can have a wide range of functions. One of those is to ask questions about moral issues instead of answering them.

A more interesting take on fiction is summed up by the much-quoted Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’ Wilde’s definition keeps things purposeful nebulous. The fact that he uses the terms ‘happily’ and ‘unhappily’ points to an ambiguous understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ too. Who is ‘good’? What does ‘happily’ mean? To be ‘happy’ does a person have to be in the ‘right’? Isn’t it all, ultimately, an issue of perspective?

The Bone Dragon plays with the subtleties that Wilde leaves room for here. From the protagonist’s point of view, the ending is a happy one, but from readers’ everything is rather more complicated (I hope). When readers close the book, I want them to have had a vicarious emotional experience that allows them to understand what answer each character would give to the implicit questions the story asks. Above all, I want readers to engage emotionally with Evie’s happy ending but then ask themselves ‘Now I’m not seeing through Evie’s eyes, what do I feel about the things that happen at the end of the book? Is it a happy ending from my point of view?’ I don’t have a message, moral or otherwise, to impart to readers because I don’t know the answers to the questions the book offers. I just know that we need to ask them and that fiction has a very particular and important role to play in that process.

Of course none of this is to say that readers aren’t entitled to dislike books that don’t have a moral message at the end or those where the ending is not intended to be read as such: different people find different sorts of endings satisfying and that’s as it should be. But I do want to respond to the idea that it isn’t permissible in fiction to abstain from ending on an implicit or explicit moral message. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m interested no matter whether that opinion pleases me or not. I choose to leave a lot of things open for interpretation in the book because one of my principles as a writer is to leave space for the reader’s creativity and imagination. The downside is that sometimes people don’t see what you want them to. But, at the same time, that’s what’s wonderful about books and reading: a book in one reader’s hands can turn into something completely different in another’s. The more a writer tries to ensure that everyone’s reading the same book, the less scope there is for the reader to be an active collaborator. And some readers prefer that, feeling that it’s the writer’s job to do that work for them. But some readers (and I’m one of them) don’t like to be told all the time: they want to be allowed to discover things for themselves.

So don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about the book. My view isn’t any more ‘correct’ because ‘I’m the author – I outrank you’ alla The Producers, but I am the authority on what I was trying to accomplish with the book and it’s nice to be able to put that out there in the world. This is why late last year I approached a wonderful book blogger who I knew had mixed views on The Bone Dragon to see if she would be willing to have an online discussion. First and foremost, I wanted to know more about her thoughts on the book, but I also wanted to do something positive in response to a series of recent angry exchanges between authors and readers/bloggers: I wanted demonstrate that people can disagree passionately but positively, enjoying their differences and what these say about how fiction works. You can read the wonderful post Kelley from Another Novel Read put together from our discussions here. Discussions about books don’t have to be a competition to see who is right and who is wrong: it’s much more fun if we recognise that people won’t always agree and explore all the fascinating reasons why that is so.

Diversity is what makes literature exciting. And part of this is how different writers approach the issue of morality, especially in terms of whether they have a moral message to share or whether they choose to ask moral questions and leave it to the reader to answer them.

 

Next post (hopefully tomorrow!) I’ll be talking about why moral ambiguity is important in YA fiction.

 

 

WaterstonesChildren'sBookPrize banner

The Bone Dragon shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize

Read it all about it!

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/childrens-book-prize/1185/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookprizes/10633552/Waterstones-Childrens-Book-Prize-2014-shortlists.html

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/faber-leads-waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist.html

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/feb/13/waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist-2014

 

So thrilled and honoured to be on this amazing shortlist. Happy paperback publication day to me indeed! 🙂

Church dome w/ circle skylight

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

 Over on www.alexiacasale.com I’m starting a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth. I’ve decided to publish the introduction to the series here as well in case anyone’s interested, but the rest will be over on the sister blog, so do check it out if you’re curious!

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of either blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

The Bone Dragon book cover

Read the first 15 pages of The Bone Dragon now

… on Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature here.

Buy it now from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Telegraph bookshop, Sainsbury’s and, of course, your local bookstore!

In the US, The Bone Dragon is available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Hay Festival event screengrab

Dream come true

So excited to be able to share Part 1 of my dream-come-true news: I’m speaking at the Hay Festival on 29 May!

I’ll be doing an event with Sally Gardner, winner of the Costa Children’s for Maggot Moon, and Nick Lake, winner of the Printz for In Darkness, both shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2013! We’ll talking about happy endings: what makes a happy ending, whether happy endings are necessary, and so forth…

My parents and I used to go to Hay-on-Wye every spring when I was a teenager and I’ve always wanted to go to the festival. I’ve never managed it before because Hay’s always been at give or take the same time as Wychwood Festival, where I ran the Box Office until last year – and anyone in the entertainment industry will tell you there is Absolutely No Time Off just before or after an event you work for. Anyway, now, not only am I going, but I’m going as an invited author!

It is one of my lifelong dreams to one day be invited to speak at a biggish festival. Any biggish festival. I absolutely cannot believe that I’m going to Hay and… but the and is another story.

It’s especially hard to get my head around the whole Hay thing with The Bone Dragon not even out until 2 May. Thank you, thank you to the amazing Laura, my publicist at Faber, for making this happen and literally making one of my dreams come true.

So, the event itself is at 5.30pm on Wednesday 29 May 2013, on the Hay Festival Starlight Stage. If you’re looking to book, the event is called ‘Happy Ever After’ (HF70). Tickets are £5 and you can book here.

Hay-on-Wye is an amazing place: a beautiful old town filled with bookshops (mostly secondhand and antiquarian), so paradise if you’re a bookfiend like me. It also has amazing cafes and a few lovely jewelry shops, or it did last time I was there. It’s on the edge of the stunning Brecon Beacons so not the easiest place to get to but it’s a beautiful journey. For more information, visit the main festival site here.

It’s the perfect setting to launch a Dragon.

(Or for a Dragon to lunch, in case of any hecklers. Consider yourselves warned.)