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.



Church dome w/ circle skylight

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

 Over on 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.

Whilte tulip stamen and petals close up

100% Proofs

So, it’s September 18th (we’re only a few weeks behind ourselves now) and I am working on the proofs, also called page-proofs. Basically, this is the bit where the author is given a print out (almost everyone works in hardcopy at this stage) of the manuscript all formatted for the printing of the book. So there are page guides at the edges of the pages since the book printing won’t be in A4.

The proofs for TBD are gorgeous. Completely gorgeous. I spent quite a while stroking the first page (my preciousssss, oh my preciousssss…) and wondering at the fact that my words were on that page. All over it. And the next page. And the page after that. And yet this was clearly a real book in the making. It was very weird. But very wonderful too. I think all writers should be allowed a ‘My Precious!’ moment when their proofs arrive. But then it’s on with the work…

The author’s job is to go through and check for errors, be they grammar or punctuation errors or formatting errors. There are often some of those, especially if the original manuscript is in Word. When working on the EHRR, Word to PDF conversion would regularly format random paragraphs into a different font size or font style, create large gaps in the text and/or repeat lines.

Actually, there was almost none of that with my proofs so I was even more impressed by how Faber is able to wrestle Word into submission. The one spanner Word threw into the works involved turning some of my long dashes into superscript ~ signs. Go figure. But there is always SOMETHING like this with Word. It’s inescapable.

All of that is pretty easy. The one thing that’s difficult for a writer is that you must try not to edit for content. At all. The only exceptions should be when you realise something doesn’t make sense. This should be at the sentence or phrase level only. There were a few things like that in the TBD proofs. At one point, someone was standing upright but hunched over. Pretty clever of them, really. There were also a few instances where the pagination meant that the way I’d chosen to punctuate something didn’t work. Sentence fragments often read fine when they’re on the same line on the same page, but they don’t necessarily do the trick when you have to turn the page in between ‘bits’. I also made a handful of cuts – single sentences or phrases – that didn’t make sense and that were more easily deleted than corrected.

Anyway, the key here is that this is not the time to edit for content. If you find a better way of saying something that does actually make sense, then you’re too late. The only content things you should change are things that just don’t work. And they should only be little, occasional things. If you’ve got more than one every 20-25 pages on average, then you’re in trouble. Or at least that’s the rule I applied.

There are official ‘mark up’ symbols for making corrections, but publishers don’t expect you to use them. Just be clear and clean with your corrections. And keep them to a minimum. But do use a pen, rather than a pencil.

Anyway, I was a good little author and tried to make as few corrections as possible as the manuscript was in great shape.

But I did have one query item to discuss… One of the things I really like about the proofs is that they conform to a lot of key accessibility principles. The lines aren’t wide. There’s lots of white space on the page. The font is a good size. While the text is justified (ragged right margins are generally better for readability), it doesn’t stretch and concertina, so it’s a fairly accessibility-friendly justification.

While there are some sentences in italics, there isn’t a good alternative for this as bold just looks odd and changing the font isn’t accessibility friendly anyway… At the end of the day, there aren’t a lot of italics so it’s not a major issue… at least not compared with the key things about font size and white space.

There was just one thing that I found a little tricky as a dyslexic-dyspraxic reader: there are quite a lot of words that are hyphenated over the end of lines. I find it really hard to reassemble words than ‘run over’ from one line to another.

So my query was about whether we could reduce the number of these and/or whether we could change where the ‘breaks’ happened.

Obviously, the fewer of these the better, but why the point about ‘breaking at the root’? It’s much easier for ALL readers, not just ones with special needs, to reassemble a word broken at the root, like ‘desper- [new line] ation’ as opposed to ‘de- [new line] speration’. That said, it’s critical for many readers with special needs to have these linguistic cues. For instance, it took me about 5 minutes (even though I *wrote* the book) to figure out what was meant by ‘grey-or [new line] ange’. Similarly, I spent a good two minutes staring at ‘at- [new line] tention’ before I managed to figure it out.

For dyslexics and dyspraxics it’s hard enough to get the bits of words in the right order without having the full word to work with. For visually impaired readers, and those working with screenreaders and other accessibility technologies, it’s hard work to fit two word ‘bits’ together into a whole word when you can’t work on recognising the word as a whole. It’s not impossible, of course, but who wants time-consuming hard work to figure out what a word is when you’re trying to enjoy a story? It doesn’t make for the best reading experience.

As a former professional researcher in the field of dyslexia studies, not to mention both dyslexic and dyspraxic myself, I try to bring general accessibility good practice into my work whenever possible. For instance, when I was appointed Executive Editor of the EHRR, I re-designed the website, writing the code by hand as, while html generators are getting much better, they still have a nasty tendency to use tables, blank spaces and blank graphics to fudge layout issues: all of these are terrible from an accessibility perspective. (The Moodle virtual learning environment is a fantastic exception, BTW, and generally produces code that adheres to accessibility principles.) Anyway, the point with regard to the journal was that, as a human rights journal, we needed to have an accessible website.

That said, it’s hard to follow every good practice principle – at least to the letter – and come up with something that is both effective and beautiful. It’s OK to compromise on some things if you’ve taken the time to think through what is most important and then made a concerted effort to do the best you can.

So what about the proofs? The issue for me is that they’re beautiful. Really, really beautiful. I couldn’t be happier with how the book looks. And the page-setting is really great from an accessibility perspective… with this one small exception where I think the balance needs to shift just a little. So I’m hoping we can reduce the number of broken words without altering the look of the book and also make sure that the remaining broken words split at the root. I’m not sure what will be possible, which is why I’ve put forward a query rather than a series of corrections, but at the very least we’ll have given serious thought to making sure that the book is accessible and beautiful.

At the end of the day, it’s about priorities. Lots of white space and short lines are much more important than the odd sentence in italics. And the odd split word, if split at the root, won’t be an issue. We’ve just got to strike the best balance possible. And the first step is to be aware, so we’re already headed in the right direction.

Has anyone had any negative experiences of reading to do with layout or formatting? Has anyone with children with special needs come across things like broken words that make reading so much harder than it needs to be?