feedback

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Reviews, reviews: thank you to all the lovely reviewers!

All traditionally published writers will be more or less familiar with getting ‘feedback’ by the time their book comes out, but reviews are different thing altogether.

Feedback from family, friends, colleagues, friends of friends who are in the book industry, agents, editors, and other people at your publishing house comes in so many different forms that you start to ask yourself ‘how different can a review be?’ The answer is very different, especially in terms of what reviews feel like.

The big difference between a review and feedback is that reviews are generally formal: they look and sound official. Usually, they’re carefully crafted and well-edited. They’re pieces of writing in and of themselves.

Feedback, on the other hand, is often spoken, jotted down or written purely as information. Moreover, feedback is generally geared to unfinished/published work: there’s a sense that the purpose is to inform the writer about your thoughts while there’s still time for this to have an impact. For this reason, feedback given after a book is published usually looks forward to the author’s next book.

The critical thing is that the purpose of written feedback is to communicate with the writer. The purpose of a review is to communicate with the reviewers’ readers. So reviews have a life apart from, though closely connected to, the work they critique. Feedback doesn’t seek to led a separate existence or appeal beyond its usefulness to the book and/or the writer’s other work.

It’s only when I read my first review that I realised how different receiving reviews feels to receiving feedback: how different it is to hear what people think of a book that is done, printed, bound, published and ‘out there’ for strangers to see. It’s certainly more daunting, but with good views there’s enormous confidence to be gained from the fact that they feel permanent because they’re about the finished product. Feedback often feels transient because it relates to a particular incarnation of a work in progress, so it’s harder to decide whether you should store it inside your head to bring out on days when Nothing Works and Everything You Write is Cr*p.

Also, feedback is usually provided by someone with a vested interest in you and/or your work: even freelance editors are not entirely dispassionate, and certainly your agent and editor won’t be. In all three cases, their investment is professional and their feedback is grounded in how they think you book will do: something which will affect their own careers to a degree – at least in as far as their judgement proves correct or incorrect. But reviews are often written by complete strangers. And of course these strangers have their own vested interests in books and literature and all sorts of things – but usually those interests don’t relate directly to the writer. So they feel independent, though they aren’t really any more objective because reviewing is, ultimately, a highly subjective business.

Feedback is invaluable. It’s what makes a writer a better writer. It’s what helps you improve and learn and develop. It’s how you write the best book you can. It’s how you fix problems with a flawed draft that could be a great book. It’s what keeps you going.

But reviews are what you measure your work against. Have I suceeded in writing the book I wanted to write? Did I really communicate the things I wanted to? Have the key issues and questions come across? Has the book worked? Do people like it? Feedback gets you to the point where reviews can give you the answers.

So here, with huge, enormous thanks to the wonderful people who took the time to read my work and write down their thoughts, are the initial reviews for The Bone Dragon. Thank you all ever so much.

Suzi Feay, Financial Times (5th May 2013): “In a beautifully crafted narrative that constantly confounds expectation – her friends are kind, her foster parents are saintly – the final act is anything but comforting. Sometimes anger and vengeance aren’t just understandable but essential tools for survival.”

Michael Codron: “A work of startling imagination, that holds you to the last page.”

Wendy Cooling: “Loved The Bone Dragon, gentle and wonderful and hard to put down.”

Lindsay Foley, Weekend Editor Sugarscape: “Absolutely hypnotic”

Mary Byrne, Hay Festival’s Children’s Programmer: “[Alexia Casale] writes beautifully – a complete pleasure to read”

BookTrust: “There are numerous young adult novels dealing with dark subjects such as bereavement, illness and abuse, but The Bone Dragon stands apart from the crowd. Bold, brave and often unsettling, this tale of a teenage girl profoundly affected by a past that she cannot talk about – even to herself – is also both understated and beautifully-written. As well as dealing with challenging issues, with its positive and thoughtful depiction of adoption and adoptive parents, it is a tribute to unconventional families and friendships of all different kinds. An intriguing blend of psychological thriller and fantasy, this is an impressive and unusual debut.”

Luna at Luna’s Little Library: “The Bone Dragon is wonderful, magical, touching, mysterious, fantastic, unique and so many other words I could use. I love this book. It will be a story that will forever have a special place in my heart. … there is so much about Alexia Casale’s book that is truly outstanding. I feel I should be filling pages of how effective and beautiful her writing is. … Evie is a rare gem in narrator, both lovable and true. … The Bone Dragon is special. Read it.”

The Bone Dragon was also Luna’s Book of the Month #12. And it has lovely mentions on Stacking the Shelves #40 and is on the VIP Bookcase. Luna also talked about The Bone Dragon in her Around the World post at Falling for YA. Luna was the first person to read and comment on The Bone Dragon and has been so amazingly generous in telling people about the book and giving it space on her blog and in guest-posts for other blogs. Thank you *so* much.

Sugarscape: “If you like a book that’ll make you think then The Bone Dragon is definitely one for you. Unsettling and at points uncomfortable, this clever novel gives insight into the bruised mind and makes you ask the question; where does reality end and fantasy begin? … Chilling and utterly hypnotic, this will leave your mouth wide open and every bone in your body tingling as it reaches its chilling conclusion.”

Jake Hope, Lancashire Libraries: “I read it in one sitting and found it utterly captivating and beguiling. The manner in which juxtaposed issues of abuse, neglect against those of family, friendship and belonging were deeply impressive and highly affecting. The dragon which Evie carves with the help of Uncle Ben feels an excellent analogy for the level of meticulous detail and craftsmanship within the story, with its careful interplay between gritty realism and magic.  It feels like a fable for our time, highlighting the way in which our pasts continue to exert influence over our present. I’m going to recommend it to our Virtual Schools team who look after the education of children who are looked after in residential care, a lot of the experiences and feelings that Evie undergoes will resonate particularly with these young people and I think it could definitely help to contextualise their own lives and pasts.”

Katie at Storytellers, Inc.: ” won’t explain how a rib becomes a dragon, or how it opens up the nightscape to Evie, who is so often crippled by pain in the daytime but comforted by the sharp feelings of being alive and awake in a world that should be confined to dreams. The dragon is more important to Evie than it is to her story. And that’s sort of what makes The Bone Dragon that much more interesting that other books that deal with this subject – ‘this subject‘ being domestic abuse – because really we learn very little about what Evie has been through. Casale doesn’t even think about dwelling on the details in that uncomfortable way that those ‘tragic life stories’ so proudly advertise (surely more sick lit than any John Green!). Yes Evie has had a traumatic time but she doesn’t want to talk about it, to her friends or to us, the reader. It’s a brave move that might leave some readers feeling a little (wrongly) mystified; but for me it’s the stand-out feature. Evie is a sweet narrator, honest and endearing and she doesn’t ever really sound like a victim because she’s constantly reminding herself how loved she is now, firmly putting the past behind her and trying not to let it ruin the life in front of her. She’s also wonderfully youthful, which sounds a strange thing to say about a 14 year old and of course may well be a side effect of the abuse she has suffered but she’s in no hurry to grow up and that is so refreshing. … Phee and Lynne have their own serious problems too so it’s unfair to write them off as sideline airheads and Evie wants (needs) their friendship more than she initially realises. Again this is a smart underplaying of a serious topic; Casale’s simple subtlety speaks volumes. Overall, it’s an impress debut and I’m already looking forward to seeing what comes next. For a book so full of ‘issues’ it comes less like a punch in the face and more like a slow creeping presence. The Bone Dragon enters quietly in a dignified puff of dream-like smoke and the gentle pull of his unusual tale might curl around your consciousness for days after you’ve finished reading.”

We Love This Book, review by Tracy Eynon: “This powerful opening scene is the beginning of Evie’s acceptance and understanding of her past. … This book is the debut of an exciting and mature young writer who shows real skill in writing about the little details of life, bringing a realness to her characters and making the situations she writes about so very believable. The Bone Dragon is a story that combines escapism with the acceptance of reality; of coming to terms with the past by embracing the future. Intriguing, compulsive and wholly absorbing, Evie’s tale is beautifully told and is ultimately warm and uplifting. Written by a young writer who has struggled with dyslexia it is also extremely inspiring, and a rewarding read for both young and older adults.”

Laura at Sisterspooky: “I utterly adored this book because it gave me a way of understanding what it’s like to struggle with issues as big as these without ever having experienced them personally.  That’s a real credit to the writing ability of Alexia Cassale.  She’s a hidden gem of writing and I’d be surprised if this book doesn’t get continual praise upon its release date.  It really did break my heart at times seeing Evie struggle so much even after all she’s been through.    The fantasy element really is such a clever way of discuss issues that are so difficult to approach because they are just that awful to even think about.  A truly wonderful book that has the power to make you wish for a bit of magic to exist in the world for those that need it.”

Chrissi Reads: “I was really impressed with The Bone Dragon. It’s such a great debut novel, it felt like Alexia had been an established writer for years. Her story-telling skills are so impressive. I didn’t expect to be moved as much as I was by this story and particularly Evie. The Bone Dragon is a raw and powerful story which for me, could’ve easily been longer and I would’ve still loved it. It’s got a wonderfully magical element which really works. … Alexia Casale has created such a wonderful, interesting character with Evie. She makes the reader really take Evie into their hearts. I’m so surprised at how much I loved Evie. I felt like I knew her. She had that much depth and credit has to be given to Alexia’s talented writing skills because of this! The Bone Dragon is a perfect mix of mystery, magic, pain, loss and truly lovable, relatable, real characters. I wholeheartedly recommend it.”

Betty Maguire at INIS: “The story’s opening, with Evie awakening in hospital after having a section of her ribcage removed, immediately grips the reader and draws them into the plot. Throughout the novel the author makes excellent use of the narrator’s voice, while the other characters are distinctive and realistic. … One of this book’s strong points is that not all of these questions are resolved at the end and the reader is left to ponder and to try and resolve some of those issues … Difficult themes are tackled in this story such as abandonment, abuse, betrayal, bullying and  vengeance, which is skilfully reflected  through occasional references to Hamlet. This is not an easy read, but it is a very worthwhile one.”

Annabelle Hammond at Read, Write and Read Some More: “The Bone Dragon is such a powerful debut novel. …I wasn’t expecting such a raw and powerful story with such a strong main character. Alexia Casale has shown that she is a talented writer who can pack such an emotional punch in her prose. The Bone Dragon left me wanting more, I couldn’t believe when it ended, I wanted the novel to continue so I could learn so much more about Evie. It’s an emotional ride that’s mixed with mystic and magic, set against the vivid backdrop of the fens.  … I am still surprised at the sheer depth to the character and how real she felt. It really feels like I know Evie after reading this book. She is an unforgettable character and one that will stay with me for a while yet. … The Bone Dragon is… There are so many ways I can start this sentence but none of them seem to fully fit the emotion and power this novel has hidden in its pages. You have some incredible characters that are all so realistic, each with their own little flaw.  I particularly liked how Evie could tell by certain things that her adoptive parents were lying. It’s these small details that add to the depth of the storytelling and make it even better. If you’re looking for a promising new writer, then Alexia Casale is the one you want. The Bone Dragon has the correct mix of mystery, pain, adventure, happiness and of course an enchanted dragon. It’s a book that, not only will you enjoy, but it will also stay with you for a long while. So there you have it, I don’t even want to say goodbye but this review is already long. The Bone Dragon is simply a book that you should all read.”

BookBabblers: “The Bone Dragon is an outstanding debut novel by Alexia Casale. It is a dark, magical story about fourteen year old Evie who has to undergo major surgery and have a rib removed. … It is an absorbing plot that blurs reality and fantasy, I was completely hooked. Friendship is also an important aspect of the novel and the relationship between Evie and her two close friends Phee and Lynne is prominent throughout the book. This is a beautifully written book that is full of mystery, suspense, friendship and hope. It is a powerful read that is like a modern day coming of age story. I did not want to put it down and can’t stop thinking about it now that I have finished. I loved the cover of this book, it’s one of my favourite covers of the year so far.”

Children’s book of the week, Dudley News & Worcester News (25th May), review by Lynley Myers: “The Bone Dragon is an enchanting young adult novel steeped in mystery, and will keep young readers guessing until the very end.”

Emily Gale at Readings (Australia): “Evie’s voice convincingly navigates us through both her wisdom and her anguish. At 14, she’s suffered more pain than many of us will in a lifetime, but this is no misery memoir. Through her dream-like visions and the difficult conversations she has with those trying to help her adjust, we learn just enough of her past to understand what she’s up against. However, the focus is on dealing with the present. … While the dragon is a regular fixture, overall the story is fairly light on the magic realism elements, leaving just enough room for the reader to interpret what is happening.”

Editor’s Choice: Trinity Hall College (Cambridge)

Lauren Smith at Violin in a Void [SPOILER ALERT!]: “At first glance, The Bone Dragon looks like a fantasy novel, but in truth it’s more a psychological drama that walks a fine line between fantasy and realism. … It does however, make The Bone Dragon one of the most sophisticated and psychologically compelling YA novels I’ve encountered. As I read, and then as I went through my review notes and re-considered the story, I was increasingly impressed by the psychology of Evie’s character. … I was struck by how dark this novel. It’s not something you notice at first glance. After all, it’s not bleak. Evie is strong, she’s recovering, she’s got a wonderful family. The plot isn’t depressing: there are many happy moments with Evie’s friends and family, we see her work through her problems, and of course she has her magical dragon. And as I mentioned, you don’t relive the abuse with Evie. But there are grim, brutal things that very quietly crawl in under your skin. … Then there’s the ending, which I think would could spark and interesting discussion because that’s where the issue of the dragon’s reality becomes the most important. I think these things creep up on you because it’s not a dramatic book. It just calmly gets on with its very serious, painful and even shocking subject matter, while making room for the positive, heartwarming stuff too. And then it stays with you for a while after you’ve finished. I like Evie more than a lot of YA characters I’ve read, even though she scares me a little. The Bone Dragon is also a more mature and emotionally complex kind of YA than the kind I normally find myself reading, and I appreciate that. Not that I necessarily prefer all my books to be grim, but it’s good to see the genre handling something with such gravity too.”

Catriona Morrison, Waterstones: “An outstanding and heartwrenching adventure What a wonderful, magical and touching book. Evie is a character worth remembering forever.”

Waterstones Picadilly Circus, in-store review: “A magical story about love, friendship and survival. Absolutely Spellbinding..”

Another Waterstones Bookseller review: “How dark is The Bone Dragon?! I was completely taken aback by how well written this is; the descriptions of Evie’s midnight walks with the dragon are stunning. A really unique blend of fairytale and brutal real life. I love that teen fiction is getting a bit more serious”

George Hanratty, Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop: “Alexia Casale’s debut novel is powerful, compelling and moving. I couldn’t put it down.”

Victoria Park Books: “very unpredictable and v edgy. U don’t which way she’ll jump.”

The Bone Dragon selected as one of the top YA reads in May for Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books Blog

Emma Carroll (author Frost Hollow Hall): “I couldn’t wait to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Right from the first page, I knew I was reading something special. The first person narrative powers along, making you feel Evie’s every twinge. Yet don’t be fooled- this is not a straightforward redemption narrative. Evie’s viewpoint is dangerous, often warped by the trauma she’s experienced. At times it’s difficult to trust her; there were moments in this book where I felt genuinely scared for the other characters. The language is poetic, yet for me the most moving parts were where Evie battled to articulate the complexity of what she felt. Oh, and I LOVED the final pages. A very memorable book.”

GoodReads (various), including Karina: “Strange and beautiful and fierce and dark, this is a wonderful twist on the coming of age narrative. Just brilliant – go read it!”

Amazon (various), including Lysistrata [mini SPOILER ALERT]: “This is an astonishing book, life-enhancing and beautifully written, ostensibly for Young Adults but with the power to enchant and move older adults as well. … The nature of the horrors Evie has been through are never spelled out but their consequences are. … It is totally original and does not follow the trend for vampires or dystopias. It is much more frightening. It shows the raw emotional power of a very angry young woman who is right to be angry with a world which has colluded in mistreating her. There is a spectacular and satisfying ending … The psychological depth of the book will intrigue adults; younger readers can revel in the fantasy of owning a Dragon.”

and bookmoviefantatic: “Never judge a book by its cover or title. This is good book but a sad story of a teenager thats suffers horrific abuse.”

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon goes on tour! A whole range of posts, interviews and even the first 15 pages, hosted by amazing bookbloggers, magazines and book organisations. Thank you so much for giving me these wonderful opportunities to connect with people to talk about books and witing!

 On May 13th, Jo Stapley interviewed me on Once Upon a Bookcase

On May 14, I discussed whether characters should be consistent with BookBabblers. BookBabblers also reviewed the book here

On May 15, Laura at Sisterspooky hosted me talking about how photography helps me to write. She also reviewed the book here

On May 16, INIS interviewed me about The Bone Dragon, how many script-consultant work influences my writing, and about what I’m working on now. Betty Maguire also reviewed the book here

On May 17, Jenny from Wondrous Reads made the first 15 pages available to read for free: a nice alternative to Amazon’s ‘Look inside feature’, especially for talking to independent bookshops about the novel! Read it here

On Monday 20, Meg from The Book Addicted Girl hosted me discussing whether themes such as abuse and violence are ‘too mature’ for the YA audience. Look out for Meg’s review too, coming soon. 

On Tuesday 21, Julie and Lanna from Bloggers [Heart] Books hosted a writing-advice post on when to get feedback: ‘I don’t want your opinion yet!’ 

On Wednesday 22, Vivienne from Serendipity Reviews let me join in the fun of discussing books I loved as a teenager as part of her ‘YA from my Youth’ series. Do check out the other fab posts in the series too! 

On Thursday 23, BookTrust hosted me discussing how I think difficult themes like abuse and violence are best handled when dealing with a YA audience. There’s also a review here

Thank you so much to all the wonderful book people who hosted the stops along the tour. Thanks also for all the lovely reviews! It’s been so much fun working with you all. Hope to do it again soon!

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon book cover

Publication Day! Thank you to all the wonderful reviewers…

Today, I am officially a published author. I was expecting it might have sunk in by now, but a year on I’m still astonished from day to day to realise (a) I have an amazing agent, (b) I have a wonderful publisher, and (c) I’m being published. Am published as of today. It’s really quite nice that it won’t sink in because the realisation that it’s not just the latest in a string of daydreams is a lovely surprise each and every day.

And there have been all sorts of lovely surprises, not least that I’ll be speaking at the Hay Festival later this month along with Sally Gardner and Nick Lake. You can find more details about our ‘Happily Ever After?’ event here if you think you might be interested in coming along.

And then there’s the thing I’ve been longing for and dreading… finding out what people think of the book. Thank you so much to everyone who’s bought the book, read it, ordered it, included it in posts and cover reveals, and generally started getting the buzz going.

Luna’s Little Library was my first ever reader to comment. I literally jumped around for a little while being over the moon that my first reader liked the book. She’s also written an absolutely lovely review. Literally the sort of review I’ve dreamed about.

The first review to come out though was actually Annabelle Hammond’s detailed and thoughtful look at the book. It’s been amazing to hear that people are reading my book, but it’s the most wonderful compliment when people take the time not only to review but to review at length.

Katie from Storytellers, Inc.’s wonderful, insightful review picks up on so many of the things that I hoped readers would find in the book. Was so touched by the discussion of how I’ve handled the darker themes in the book: Katie review captures exactly what I was trying to do.

Laura from Sisterspooky’s review made my day by tackling many of the mistaken assumptions readers might make about the book if they only glanced at the blurb. It’s such a great thing for a writer to see reviews that address market forces so that readers can get a true sense of what a book is about.

Finally, INIS magazine have my first trade press review! So exciting to have one out before the official publication date. Now to cross fingers that there are more to come.

I know that everyone gets bad reviews. It’s part of the territory. But it’s so lovely to start with nice ones. Let the bad ones wait as long as possible!

It’s a strange and wonderful thing to read reviews of your work and especially to see the time and care people have put into thinking and writing about your book. I’ve been astonished with how many things these reviews have picked up on that really mattered to me as a writer. I wasn’t sure how much of what I see as the heart of the story would translate to readers. It’s a powerful thing to be told that it has translated: that readers are seeing what I see in the story… or at least partially. Seeing readers’ alternative interpretations of their work drives some writers mad, but mostly I’m curious. The book may be my creation but any reading of it belongs to that reader. I love that about the writing-reading process: there’s a point at which it’s collaboratively creatively, albeit it at a distance.

Thank you so much to the wonderful reviewers who have made my publication week so amazing. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the care with which you’ve treated my work.

Frosted fir branch

Waiting

The final proofs are done (though there might be one last read-through). The review copies are being printed (I think). Next week the cover will be finalised. But right now there’s not a lot going on that I’m involved with. Since the start of December, I’ve been wading through the quiet pre-publication post-end-of-editing strange and trying not to gnash my teeth. It’s all about waiting, torn between impatience, excitement and terror… And, while I’ve never been very good at patient or waiting, I can do excitement and terror like a star so am spending much of time revved up to no purpose.

Soon we’ll have the cover reveal and I’ll get to see what people think. Soon there will be sample material available… and maybe some early reviews or at least informal feedback on the reception of the ARCs (advance review copies or bound proofs, as Faber tends to call them). Soon I’ll be having a meeting to plan the promotions and publicity work and after that there will be dates in the diary about events and activities and all sorts of things…

But right now it’s all very quiet. It’s less than 4 months now till TBD is published and it feels very strange not to be rushing about like a headless chicken trying to help the book find an audience… but I see the reasoning about how important timing is. Apparently things need to happen 6-8 weeks in advance tops because otherwise there’s such a lot of time between getting people’s attention and the book actually being available to them that it’s largely wasted effort. After all, I’m a debut author. No one knows if they’ll like my work yet so drawing out any anticipation that can be raised is unlikely to be productive. I see that… but it’s so strange for everything to have gone quiet.

I may soon wish for a little bit of the quiet back though, so I’m trying not to wish it away. After all, there are two other books to fill it with…

For now… Happy New Year!

dragon symbols

Beyond the proofs

Somehow, we’ve ended up here, in October and my work on The Bone Dragon is nearly done.

The second proofs are being prepared. The big new thing is the addition of a special scene-divider symbol in place of the basic *. My wonderful project editor, Lucie, said she’d come up with several to discuss and I asked if – pretty, pretty, please – a dragon could be one of the options. The Wonderful Lucie sent me these.

dragon symbols

dragon symbol

I can’t wait to see the new proofs with all the dragons in them!

At this stage, it should just be a matter of checking through to be absolutely sure that no weird computer glitches have introduced errors since the last proof… and to double-check-squared that there aren’t any little mistakes. No other corrections are permitted. Which is a relief. I am ready to move on. I’ve done all I want creatively with The Bone Dragon. It’s time for a new project.

… Actually, it’s proven time for several. I’m re-writing several ‘old’ manuscripts and I’ve also started something completely fresh. But more about that in a separate post.

For now, I need to sit tight until the second proofs arrive and then check them as quickly as possible because after that… copies for early review will be printed. I was equal parts excited and terrified about this but all of a sudden I can’t wait for people to read my wicked little book. Whatever anyone else thinks or says, I’m happy with it. It’s even better than the book in my head – the first time I’ve ever felt that with a manuscript. It’s exactly what I wanted to write.

And of course I want people to love it, but I’ll be OK if they don’t so long as they’re not nasty about it. If someone points out legitimate flaws, then I’ll learn from that. If they just don’t like something, then fair enough. But if someone doesn’t judge the book on its own terms, I’ll find that really hard – mostly because reviews aren’t a conversation. They’re rhetorical statements: authors aren’t expected to reply.

So what do I mean by ‘judge the book on its own terms’… It’s easier to explain with reference to non-fiction. When you submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal, all identifying info is removed from the article and then it’s sent out to three or more specialists in the area to see what they think. They write a review to say whether the journal should publish the article. As a journal editor, I know all too well how often reviewers disagree – and disagree dramatically. But the thing I found hardest as an author wasn’t rejections based on flaws in my work, but the one review where the ‘specialist’ basically said ‘You like orange and I think green is better’. I was writing about dyslexia. It’s a tricky field as no one agrees on what dyslexia is. I was using one of the ‘industry standard’ definitions… But it wasn’t the one the reviewer preferred. The reviewer believed that dyslexia is a reading disability – I don’t agree. I believe dyslexia results in reading disabilities, but I see those as a consequence of more basic, cognitive processing differences.  Uta Frith has done some fantastic work about rhythm, sequencing and insensitivity to the frequency of vowel sounds as the root of phonological deficits.

Anyway, my research supported my views about what dyslexia is. Unfortunately, the reviewer wasn’t interested in the substance of my work. Instead of pulling apart my methods, results and conclusions to show how I was wrong and he was right, he used the review to criticise my approach to studying dyslexia – even though my approach was more inline with the bulk of the literature than his. I am still furious about the review because I didn’t feel like the reviewer judged the article on its own merits.

And that’s the one thing I’m really worried about review-wise with The Bone Dragon. But there’s one big difference between that experience and this. The article was rejected on the balance of that review. All the other reviews had suggested the article be accepted with corrections or revised and resubmitted (for further review). All the other reviewers made legitimate criticisms about the article, which I then corrected when I submitted elsewhere. Unfortunately, by the time that happened the research was in danger of getting out of date so I chose to submit it (now in the form of two linked articles) to my university’s online journal (read article 1 here and article 2 here). A lot of participants had given up their time to the research: I had to get the findings published, even if it wasn’t in my ideal choice of journal. The big plus side was that my work supported the launch of a new open access journal. I’m a big believer in open access publishing for academic work, though I do concede that finding sufficient funding is a real challenge: the EHRR, the journal I edited, was also open access, so it was nice to support that movement as an author.

The point here is that, even if I do get what I feel is an unfair review, I’ll be able to hold on to the fact that it’s a review of a published book. My published book.

And maybe they’ll be good. I love my wicked little book… And I now have an agent and publisher who love it too, so maybe – just maybe – other people will love it too.

But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Fingers crossed! Wish me luck.

multi-coloured plant leaves and shoots

Copy-editing 101 for Authors

Just realised I gave a lot of detail about the copy-editing process, but not much about the big picture. So…

Copy-editing means slightly different things to different people. However, as a rule, it includes both proof-reading (checking for grammar and punctuation errors, logical inconsistencies and awkward/ambiguous phrasing) and formatting using a house style (i.e. a document specifying how different things should be formatted and how ambiguous grammar issues should be dealt with) or an established style (e.g. Harvard referencing, AMA, etc.).

Most publishers have their own house style, which will be broadly in line with one of the major styles of formatting, especially as regards referencing (if this applies).

So, Faber prefers ‘Sonny Rawlins’s pen’ rather than ‘Sonny Rawlins’ pen.’ Also, Faber would prefer ‘it twitched and twisted as if she was trying to be funny’ rather than the traditional rendering of the conditional subjunctive ‘it twitched and twisted as if she were trying to be funny’ (I have a strong preference for the latter so we went with that in the end). Some of the hyphen issues I mentioned before may also be partly house style issues, though it looks to me that it’s a strict adherence to the Oxford English Dictionary rules (the industry standard) for the most part.

Basically, the copy-editor smoothes and tidies in terms of grammar, punctuation, formatting AND content. It’s a pretty tall order.

The tricky bit is how much a copy-editor should comment on content. While I do the odd little bit of copy-editing (if a client asks me to format a reference list or make sure an article is broadly inline with a journal’s house style), most of my work involves more in-depth editing… So it’s expected that I’ll delve into the content quite a bit. But, to be fair, I find it hard not to anyway.

My take on editing of any sort is that if you tell clients and students everything you think could change, then they can examine the possibilities… all the possibilities. All the ways things could be different. Of course, they’ll accept some changes and reject others, but they’ll have had the opportunity to double-check more of the decisions that went into the writing of their work. And I think that’s always a good thing. A comment challenges the way you’ve done something. It makes you think again about whether it is the best way. And why it’s the best way. And that may help you improve other elements of the book or article or whatever the document is.

One of the things that really impressed me about Eleanor was what a light touch she had with her copy-editing. She picked up a lot of little things… but she was very respectful of the book and seemed to have a strong sense of my aesthetic and when I’d make an unusual choice that was entirely intentional. Punctuation is a good thing to look at here because there are rules, but they’re not as rigid as people sometimes think, especially in fiction. For instance, in fiction, it’s fair enough to have sentence fragments.

Amy’s voice. Soft and warm, like the blankets, like the bed.

Amy, not Fiona.

A sigh. My own. The air is hot and sharp with the smell of chemicals.

This could be punctuated in various ways. There are things that can’t and won’t work – though students often think that in fiction you can break all the rules of punctuation, rather than just bending some of them – but there are also plenty of acceptable options.

Before the copy-editing process started, I was worried that my copy-editor would want to change some of these things to other, acceptable options… But Eleanor didn’t touch anything that fell into this category. And I really appreciated that.

Ideally, the copy-editing process should involve dialogue between the copy-editor and author, plenty of compromise and some negotiation. If there’s a rule about something, and there isn’t an acceptable alternative, then don’t fight a change to uphold the rule. If the copy-editor thinks you haven’t been clear, maybe you really haven’t. But just occasionally there will be something you don’t agree on that you think is important, and then you just have to say ‘Please can we keep it as is.’ If you’ve not been difficult, and if there isn’t a true error at stake, it shouldn’t be a problem.

On the whole, though, I’d assume that most comments merit a change, even if it’s not exactly what the copy-editor is suggesting. Maybe she has spotted an error, but the correction just doesn’t sound right to you. So correct the error in a different way. But do correct it.

And there you go. My take on ‘Copy-editing 101 for Authors’.

How about you? Have your experiences been similar or have you had the bad luck to have a heavy-handed copy-editor?

butterfly and lavender

Everyone should have a project editor

When is it? Ah… I see. It’s the very last day of July. And the universe (via Faber) has brought me a present for the new month: my very own project editor.  (Well, not brought in an I-now-own-this sort of way, but I have a project editor none the less.)

Everyone should have one. They’re wonderful. They organise things. Many, many things.

I have been especially lucky with my project editor, Lucie, who – [fast forwards a few weeks] – has arranged for the amazing Eleanor to copy-edit my book brilliantly and very, very quickly.

So, we’re… er… mid August? Yes, something like that. Somewhere in the second half of August and not only do I have a project editor and copy editor, I have a copy-edited manuscript.

Eleanor has cowed Microsoft Word into submission and made the formatting behave throughout the entire document. I am suitably impressed by this feat alone. But there’s more.

She’s also sorted out my hyphens. I didn’t realise how bad I was at hyphens. I swear it wasn’t quite this bad not so long ago. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps this is one of the things I ‘lost’ when I had the latest rib taken out. Every anaesthetic I lose a few very precise things from my memory (the time before it was Latin flower names and things to do with architecture). It’s not that I forget these things, they’re just gone: no memory trace whatsoever. Anyway, I don’t know quite whether to hope I ‘lost’ my hyphens or whether I was just rubbish at them all along. Perhaps I’ll compromise with myself and just say ‘it’s one of those things that’s hard to spot in your own work’. That seems like a happier way of putting it.

Eleanor has also found a horrid number of sentences with repeated words. I’m generally so good at spotting these when I edit for other people… how can I have missed quite so many in my own work? On the bright side, Eleanor has spotted them so I can now sort them out before quite so many people see.

Hm… typo… typo… Wow, how did I miss that one?

Interesting: a three page allergy to the definite article. (What was going on there? Perhaps I don’t want to know… moving along, moving along…)

Ah… I see how that might sound a little odd to other people. But I hear it like that. Maybe it’s some dyslexic-ness in terms of the weird way I perceive language rhythms, but that’s how that sentence sounds to me. Even if it is a little dyslexic-weird, maybe non-dyslexic people will find it interesting anyway. After all, that’s how I hear it: that’s part of my voice. And I am careful not to go overboard with my weird way of hearing things. The majority of sentences need to appeal to a wide array of readers: a writer should only keep the odd one that exactly represents the stranger bits of her inner voice. But this sentence is *me*. This represents exactly how I hear things. This one I get to keep.

An awkward sentence. Yes, it most definitely is. All change, please!

In or into… Should theoretically be in, but into is acceptable and I like how it conveys motion, whereas ‘in’ is static.

Tenses, tenses… Some tricky ones here. A recounted story that includes a note about a general personality characteristic of someone still alive. Should that be in the same tense as the rest of the story-within-the-book, or does it go in the tense of the main narrative because the character is still alive and still likes flowers? As for some of the others… the book deals a lot with the fact that the past and present aren’t always that separate… For me, that needs to bleed into the grammar. But making sure that the grammar serves the story and doesn’t confuse when there’s a slip in time, and so in tense, is not easy.

This bit of reported speech doesn’t repeat the original bit of dialogue… Nope. But it *is* intentionally different. The change in the reported version is quite telling. At least I hope it is.

With my Uncle Ben or with my uncle Ben? I’m a traditionalist. The former it is because the latter, for me, would require a comma before ‘Ben’ and I don’t like it like that.

What else? Oh… a flaw in the time line. A great big one.  I *knew* something wasn’t quite right there. Fixed. With surprisingly few changes.

A nice little bit of logical inconsistency. Possibly it’s not good for the soul. Let’s see if we can’t make that make sense.

Oh, and a nice dash of ambiguity…

And a nice little lack of clarity… Where are we in this scene? Oh, yes. There we are…

Hm… is this bit of dialogue forced? I think it won’t be if I just push a little harder here, make it clear to the reader that there’s meant to be some awkwardness by making it even more awkward. Yes, I think that works. And I love the characterisation of the bit-character now that I’ve brought all that awkwardness into the light.

Oh dear. People are spilling things left, right and centre. Or rather I’ve spilled lots of spillings into a single page. I’d better start cleaning up.

And now the manuscript is looking so clean and tidy! Hyphens all neatly in place. Repetitions scrubbed away… But there’s one change I just can’t even consider. It’s to one of my favourite lines in the whole book. And I *do* see how other people might find the phrasing a bit odd, but I love it. It  says exactly what I mean about something quite hard to describe. Sometimes it’s good to be able to say  ‘I am the author. I outrank you!’ Actually, I don’t say anything at all beyond ‘Please could I keep it!’ because I don’t have to… (and because I don’t know if Eleanor is familiar with The Producers, so don’t want to risk offending her if she doesn’t recognise this as a quotation.)

Every author is bound to find there are one or two changes that they just don’t want to make. The key is to know when something that might not work for all readers is important enough to you to assert your rights over. Think about it as having a handful of ‘free passes’ – a handful of times you can just say ‘no’, even when you acknowledge the merit of your editor/publisher’s comment. Often the comment is right in the broader sense of what will work best for the largest number of readers… But it’s still your book. If there are a few little things you love, and you haven’t been difficult about taking editorial advice, then no one will have a problem with it.

So what was my much-loved lined?

As soon as she says it, we both realise how unexpected the words are: oddly tender, wistful, as if she is lonely for kindness.

What do you think? Do you like it or are you with Eleanor, who would have preferred ‘hungry for kindness’?

butterfly on lavender

Are we there yet?

Where were we? I’m having real trouble keeping track of when now is and when it should be. I seem to keep ending up somewhere in the middle. But I suppose that’s better than believing we’re in September (and late September at that), as everyone else seems to think (and I thought I was having bad when-am-I? issues).

Anyway, today is a day in July. Um… Early July. Say the 4th of July, because that’s meant to be a good day for Americans (and part Americans presumably get a pretty good day too). Anyway, it’s the 4th or the 5th or the early-something-th of July and I’ve got a lovely email waiting in my in-box…

Rebecca has reviewed the revised manuscript and… she likes it! She’s happy with the changes!

I scan frantically through her notes to see how much there is still to do…

Change a few words here and there, mainly where words are repeated within the same sentence or in neighbouring ones. I never have any trouble spotting these when I’m editing for other people, but I can NEVER see my own work clearly in this regard.

Hm… here’s a line of dialogue to change. Oh, and one other. This I can cope with! If only it’s just this level of stuff that’s left now…

What’s this? Something to clarify. This I can do! (In about 10 minutes, what’s more.)

Ooooops. Typo!

Ah… The answer to one of my questions… To footnote or not to footnote: that was, indeed, the question…. And now it is answered. (Not to footnote – use your Author’s Note at the end.)

A word that doesn’t work in this line of dialogue.  Another in that. Fair enough.

This new line in the revised manuscript needs some further work: not clear enough. Hm… How can I say it better?

Ah, a nice little slip of logic there: people are seeing things with their  eyes closed. Which would be fine if this were a fantasy novel, but not quite so great in a psychological thriller… Probably they need their eyes open for this.

Oh, and here is a nice little bit of unattributed dialogue. Now who does it belong to? Probably worth specifying since I hate it when other writers aren’t clear (one of my little quibbles with Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall – curious minds want to know, so authors should beware of withholding).

To italicise or not to italicise this one word? Who cares? Whatever way Rebecca likes it is fine with me: she’s the one who has enough distance from the book to see these little things clearly. It’s not like dropping the italics on this single word is going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s enjoyment of the book.

Excellent! My character has just skipped out in the middle of the school day for no apparent reason. Or at least that’s the unintended implication. Better make it clear that the chat with the headmistress happens right at the end of the day so she can poddle off afterwards without it being strange that no storm ensues.

Lands instead of alights? I really like alights. Please, please can I keep it?

The American in me is fighting to get out. Run for cover! Garbage invasion! Where’s some good British rubbish when you need it?

Look out! The Inner American is taking charge. Beware the frightful parking lot! Save our car parks!

Ah… This is interesting. A three word phrase that might just give the game away two pages too early. It gets so hard to tell after a while from the ‘inside’ of the book. This is exactly why brilliant editors are needed to tell you (as the writer) how to strike the right balance in terms of giving readers enough information… but not too much.

And there we have it… A few hours worth of work and the book will be done… I hope. Cross fingers!

(BTW, I know the photo has nothing to do with the post but I just really like it… It’s a happy post. It’s a happy sort of a photo. Will that do as a connection?)

So that was my experience of second-stage revisions with my publisher… Is it about par for the course, beyond Rebecca being especially lovely and brilliant? Any horror stories out there?

Peacock butterfly

A critical year: market factors and manuscripts

So, picking right up where I left off, the biggest change my publisher wanted to see in the manuscript concerned my protagonist’s age. The suggestion: to make Evie 14 instead of 13 pushing 14. My reaction: no problem.

Rebecca’s reasoning was that, given the themes of the book and the way it’s written, it’s most likely to appeal to the YA and adult markets. Making Evie 14 as opposed to 13 pushes the book more firmly into the YA market rather than the Children’s market – where it wouldn’t belong at all – as, at 14 going on 15, Evie herself falls broadly into the YA category. Rebecca felt that this little change – an age increase of somewhere between 6 and 12 months for my protagonist – would make a big impact on how easy to the book would be to market. I completely agree with her rationale.

But sometimes market factors push a book in a direction that the author doesn’t want to go. Deciding what to do then is a real conundrum. Thankfully, I didn’t have any such reservations about changing Evie’s age. For me, it was a purely technical issue and didn’t alter anything important about the story. My reasoning went like this…

At age 14, Evie is starting her two-year GCSE courses, but she isn’t facing any major life events like doing her GCSE exams or A-Levels… She is still well over a year away from 16, the age of sexual consent in the UK. She’s three years from 17, the age at which one can learn to drive. She’s four years away form 18, the age of majority: the age at which she will legally become an adult. It’s important to the story that Evie isn’t about to face any of these major changes. She’s still firmly a ‘child’ in the legal sense and she isn’t facing any of the usual big issues and decisions of the mid to late teenage years. All the decisions and problems Evie has to deal with are unique to her: none of her peers are coping with the same things.

In terms of Evie’s individual situation, she starts the book in hospital after thorasic surgery and so misses the start of the new school year. If this were her GCSE exam year, that would have major implications… but ones I’m not interested in dealing with in The Bone Dragon. So making her 15 would have put a stumbling block in her path that would have changed the plot and shifted the nature of the conflict in ways I didn’t want, so I would have been very leery of making her two years older. But missing a few weeks at the start of Year 10 doesn’t represent a major issue. While catching up is a bit of a challenge, it isn’t one that takes over the whole book. And that’s important because I want the challenges Evie deals with to fall outside the realm of any of the things her peers are facing.

The change of age did necessitate a few other changes, but they were ones I was perfectly comfortable with. As Rebecca quite rightly pointed out, 14 and 15 year olds are generally fairly interested in dating and kissing (at the very least): more so than the 13 year olds in the original manuscript. They are also more prone (at least according to stereotypes) to rebellion against authority figures and moodiness.

I’m actually a big fan of stereotypes and cliches. I think they’re very powerful things that writers are foolish not to use. The key here is to actively use them, not just to use them by accident – which amounts to being used by them.

Anyway, bringing in those ‘teenage years’ cliches actually opened up opportunities to develop Evie’s character and show how she is unusual, even when she is, for instance, having a fit of the sullens.

So, changes made, the manuscript went back to Faber and I crossed my fingers that they’d like it – not only because I wanted them to be happy with it (as I was, and so didn’t really want to make many further changes), but also because I wanted them to feel I was a good person to work with: someone who appreciated quality feedback and had the craft to know how to revise a manuscript effectively.