young adult

YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

So, better late than never, right? Here, finally is the hand-out from my YALC ‘Develop Your Writing Voice’ workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who was there on the day and made the chaos so much fun! (Disclaimer: ‘cover’ image of the YALC authors by Rowan Spray.)

Developing a unique writing voice is not about trying to be different. It’s about recognising how you’re already different and unique, then harnessing that.

That was the core message of the workshop: it’s at the heart of discovering and developing your voice as a writer.

But what is voice? There’s no accepted definition, partly because it’s a somewhat woolly concept, but also because it’s so hard to pin down in theory – it’s much easier to identify aspects of a specific writer’s voice in practice. But that’s not how to discover your own.

Voice is partly about the things that make a piece of writing something only you could produce. But it’s also about the things that stay the same from one piece (or book) to another.

Cris Freese, in Writer’s Digest, says that voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.”

When planning the workshop, I asked what people on Twitter thought I should cover. KM Lockwood suggested I should also discuss what voice *isn’t*, which is a really good way to go about firming up the whole concept.

Voice isn’t about book-specific stuff, current trends, or aping another writer. It’s the writer behind the text.

At the start of creative writing courses, some students think that being ‘unique’ means doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing. But that’s not unique: that’s just contradictory.

Doing the opposite means you’re thinking inside a box someone else has built. Build your own box – and remember that it doesn’t have to be square.

And remember that just because developing your voice is about tapping into your own uniqueness, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It isn’t something you’ve either ‘got’ or ‘lack’. Some people are naturals at tapping into their voice. Other people need to make more of a conscious effort. But training yourself to tap in more efficiently is always going to be good.

You can’t control your level of innate talent, only the amount of work you put into developing it.

So where do you start? With technique. When everything else in your creative toolbox lets you down, technique will help you get back on track. It’s like spells and runes: the method rather than the magic, but no less vital for it.

PD James says “Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

I start with aesthetics. It’s a fancy but useful word that can be used to mean a person’s ‘understanding of beauty’. But beauty in the sense of Art, which can be hideous at one level but so powerful it is fascinating to the point of beauty.

So forget ‘prettiness’, what do you find beautiful? What is lovely to you in an emotional sense? Figuring this out will help you figure out what to put into your work… and what to leave out.

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EXCERISE: Find things that are beautiful and try to capture them in photos. Critique your work. Have you really captured what you intended in the picture? Can you capture it in a picture? How could you capture it in words? If you can’t, why not? What are you trying to say and why?

In the workshop I talked a bit about how my aesthetics play out in The Bone Dragon. I focused on the importance of subtext. What do I put in? Just enough for people to see what questions I’m trying to ask. Just enough to follow the story. What do I leave out? Anything that dictates the reader’s response at a moral or emotional level.

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Voice is not just about the sentence-level stuff or the type of words you use. It’s about all the choices you make as a writer. Most of all, it’s about drawing those choices together so that the small choices and the big choices all work together.

EXCERISE: Re-take a photo from the exercise above that didn’t come out right, thinking about why it wasn’t right – why it didn’t capture your aesthetic properly. Keep going until you’re happy. Why are you happy? Now try to take a photo of something else and see if you can get the perfect shot in fewer tries.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was ‘write the book only you can write’. This applies at multiple levels.

  1. Concept-level: What is the most original story I have only I could have thought of? What makes it too much like other peoples’ stories? What would make it even more ‘me’ than it already is?
  2. Plot-level: How do I tell this story so it’s as ‘me-as-can-be’?
  3. Sentence-level: What would I notice if I were there, in the story? What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? What are the characters doing? How do they treat each other? How can I capture all this in a ‘me’ sort of way?

EXCERISE: Which picture would you choose to write from? Why? What does that say about your aesthetic?

 

magnolia tree and gate                gate and magnolia petals

Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Any starting writer starts out with other people’s voices. But as quickly as you can start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

In other words, read and write as much as possible, but do it thinking about your reading and writing aesthetics. The goal is to refine not just your understanding of your aesthetic, but your ability to capture it in words or images.

But it’s much easier to capture once you know what you’re chasing … and what you’re chasing is you. The truest, purest form of what is already unique and different in you and how you see the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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My writing process meme

Big, big thanks to Jade Ngengi for tagging me for the MEME: you can read her post from last week here.

 

What am I working on?

New Book (aka HoW) is a YA literary contemporary novel as opposed to a psychological thriller, though I will be returning to that territory in future books… along with historical fiction and fantasy.

New Book goes into partial-manuscript submission today, so I’m really hoping it finds a happy home to provide some security as I finish it. In any case, potential disasters aside, I’m hoping to have a full manuscript in May or June. Which means I need to get my skates on!

To be fair, I’m feeling fairly calm about the rest of the draft. The start of the book was slow and dreadful, as it so often is for me – and I was fully expecting this to be more so than normal for various Reasons, not least how long this book has been in the works. I started working on the first incarnation of this story when I was 13. You’ll be relieved to hear that it’s changed substantially since then. I’ve written several novel-length versions over the years, but I decided to set these aside and start from scratch. I know so much more now as writer. I think I can finally tell this story as it should be told.

It’ll be weird to have a definitive version, but I’m looking forward to having it out of my head after all this time. I wonder what will creep into the void it will leave?

As for the book itself, it’s set in Cambridge and focuses on the University. Cambridge is one of my favourite places on earth. I did my first two degrees there and also worked as a researcher in a super-exciting, though short-lived, cutting-edge multi-disciplinary department.

Cambridge is beautiful in the way that all the best fairytales are: full of wonder, magic, and cruelty. It’s for everyone to visit, but as a place to live – and especially to study – it really is not for everyone. Even if you had the chance, you might not be willing to give up what you have to in order to obtain what Cambridge can give you. Most of us don’t know we’re making a trade until it’s done – and afterwards it isn’t possible to imagine going back and choosing otherwise. But ultimately Cambridge is the place where I first fell in love and where I finally had the scope to be who I was.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is such a hard question. I guess part of the answer is that I almost always write across genre boundaries. This is becoming progressively more common – and is something that YA is brilliant at accommodating, so a great category for me to publish in – but it’s still far from the norm.

I don’t do this on purpose. For a start, it makes books harder to market and what author wants that? It just seems to be how my brain works. I’m interested in how things intersect and interact at all levels, from the characters to the themes, and that spills over into the way my work tends to blur genre boundaries.

As an academic, one of my areas of interest in Literature is the intersection of fact and fiction. But I also have degrees in Psychology and Education, plus years of professional experience working as a consultant in the theatre and human rights fields, so diversity of interests is one of my ‘hallmarks’ as a person. The world is too big and amazing to stick to just one thing, even in a single book. The whole point of imagination is not to be stuck with the mundane limits of the real world: why would I want to bottle myself into just one category of daydreaming for my books?

The other part of the answer is that a lot of my work reflects my interest in human rights and the ethical issues attendant in writing fiction. I believe that difficult subjects can (and often should) be rendered in harrowing terms, but I’m doubtful that they ever need be graphic, especially if the subject matter concerns sexual violence and exploitation.

I also think we need to be very careful, as writers, to do our homework properly when we write about ‘real’ events in real locations that are happening at the present time. This is a great subject for fiction, but if you’re going to tackle it you first need to be prepared to do what it takes to know what you’re talking about. Part of this is ensuring that you don’t inadvertently do harm.

For instance, I think that writers who write about torture should be wary of lending weight to common misconceptions, especially the popular but inaccurate belief that torture produces reliable information that, under some circumstances, can mean that torture is ‘the lesser of two evils’. The research shows that information obtained under torture is often inaccurate and unreliable to the point where it may do more harm than good in a crisis. If we tell our readers (implicitly or otherwise) that we’re reflecting reality, then we should do it accurately, especially when this gives us opportunities to do good as opposed to harm: if we choose to write about torture happening in a real life context at the present time, we should also take an ethical stance in showing that not only should we not torture because it’s a terrible evil but because it is often purposeless and counter-productive. I’ve written about this at length over on Oh, The Books! in relation to Wein’s Code Name Verity, which I think does a really good job in this regard.

There are lots of other related ways that I think writers should take care. After all, taking care doesn’t mean being limited. But if you’re going to write about real events in real places happening in the here and now, there’s no excuse for not knowing the facts before you decide if you want to follow them or go where your imagination takes you.

 

Why do I write what I do?

See above! I suppose the extended answer is that I try to write about the worries and dreams that fill my head but that I don’t see reflected in the pages of existing books. I don’t try to be unique – this is almost always disastrous: the source of unmitigatedly awful and arrogant work. Instead, I try to recognise how I am already unique. For instance, the unusual combination of my areas interest and professional expertise mean certain common narratives jump out at me as suspect.

In The Bone Dragon, I challenge the idea that it is always a psychologically-healthy thing for victims of violent crimes to speak in detail about their experiences. Evie does give a report to the police, but she chooses never to discuss her past in the same level of detail with her friends, parents, teachers or even counsellors. For many people, ‘speaking out’ is extremely helpful and I’m not trying to dissuade people from doing it when they think they will benefit. But some people, like Evie, recognise that they don’t need or want to do this: it’s not helpful to them to ‘talk it out’ by rehashing all the horrid details. Making a report to the police is harrowing but Evie chooses to do it because she recognises that she has a responsibility to try to protect others. But, this responsibility fulfilled, she makes the choices that best protects her and her recovery. And, for Evie, that is to remain silent about the things she will never be able to face if they’re put into words.

Some things should never be said. Not out loud in clear, simple words. You talk around them. You leave gaps and blanks. You use other words and talk in curves and arcs for the worst things because you need to keep them like mist. Words are dangerous. Like a spell, if you name the mist, call out all of the words that describe it sharp and clear, you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands. Better that it stays like water, slipping between yours fingers.

At the moment we’re surrounded by calls for victims to ‘speak out’, not just to the police but in general. While it is very important that victims do speak the police, we should be honest about how traumatic this is for the vast majority of people. We should be saying ‘Do it even though it’s going to be hard and awful: you’ll feel wretched afterwards, but you’ll also feel like you were strong enough to do the right thing.’ We should also tell people to  ‘Speak out if you want to: but take a moment to think about it first. There should be no pressure to share anything with anyone but the police unless you think it’s going to help you.’

That’s the truth of the situation, or at least my understanding of it. But that is NOT the current popular narrative. The Bone Dragon isn’t about ‘correcting’ the current view. But it is about putting a more nuanced, complex version of the truth out there. When I see lies or part-truths in popular narratives (and by narratives I’m not just talking about fiction), I want to do my part in challenging them – but not by jumping up and down and saying ‘Wrong! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong!’ (well, sometimes I feel like this but I try not to do it as it never gets anyone anywhere). Instead I try to say ‘Here’s the complex question behind this thing you’re currently being told is a simple statement of fact: now go away and figure out your own answer.’


How does my writing process work?

I’m a planner. If I don’t have almost every detail of a book planned out in advance, I don’t know it well enough to write it properly. I like being able to focus on language, not just at the sentence-level but at a structural level: it’s hard to do that when you’re also figuring out the plot as you go. Planning means I can focus on making the plot more interesting at a micro-level during writing, ‘opening the gap’ as Robert McKee calls it, by trying to weave little surprises into each scene: the thing that drives to the heart of a character or a relationship by being a ‘truer’ version of what the reader is expecting.

As I mentioned above, the start of a book is often grinding and slow. Well, the first page is usually lovely fun then I go back the next day and tear my hair out over it. Then follows about 15,000 words that are pure grind. I write and rewrite, and edit and re-edit my first few pages at least once a day. And then suddenly the language-structure of the book starts to take shape: I have enough material to know how to tell the story on the page. After that, if I can’t write more than 2500-3000 words per day, even on a not-so-good one, then something is wrong with the plan I’ve made. Assuming everything’s going OK, after the halfway mark, things speed up even further and I can expect to write at least 3000-4500 words a day. During the last quarter of the book I usually write over 4500 words per day, sometimes as many as 8-9000.

Of course, like most writers, I can’t write all day every day: not only does other work intrude (aka ‘paying the bills on time’) but so does life. I have yet to discover a magical creature willing to do my laundry or shopping or general household stuff and junk. And then there’s the little matter of all the people I love who I want to talk to and email and visit. Otherwise I would hole up in my attic study and not emerge for about a month. I did that as a teenager when I was learning how to write full-length novels: after about 25 days I’d emerge even more crazy than normal but with a book. Maybe not a publishable book, but a book all the same. And that was a great place to start. It gave me the practice needed to build up my stamina for the effort of trying to write 300 pages that aren’t just halfway decent but, hopefully, worth publishing.

 

Tag Lauren James, fellow member of Claire’s Coven (i.e. represented by the brilliant Claire Wilson of the RCW Literary Agency).

Lauren James is a Physics and Chemistry student and YA writer. She writes about romance and time travel and reads everything she can get her hands on. Her novel The Red Earth Rolls is being published by Walker in 2015. She blogs at http://southfarthing.tumblr.com.

 

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Why is moral ambiguity important in YA fiction?

As I discussed in my last post (‘A novel is not a fable’), novels don’t have to have an explicit moral message or an ending that contains an implicit one. Instead, they can ask moral questions or pose moral dilemmas, both for characters and for readers.

But how about in YA fiction? Do writers and publishers have an ethical responsibility to make sure that stories marketed to under 18s can’t be read as containing negative moral messages? For instance, is it OK for a YA book to tell a story in which wickedness is apparently rewarded, or does this risk leading teens ‘morally astray’? Irrespective of whether an ending is happy or sad, is it a requirement that the ‘good’ triumph or at least don’t lose out? Often arguments in favour of narrowing what’s permissible in YA fiction focus on the need to ‘protect’ young people. But does ‘protecting’ YA readers mean that we have to dictate to them on moral issues?

I believe books offer important opportunities to experiment with moral issues: safe within the confines of a fictional world we can watch moral dilemmas play out without having to face any real-life consequences. Books allow teenagers to try out different versions of themselves, gaining a vicarious emotional experience of how it feels to make different types of choices. Books that leave the interpretation of the moral questions at stake up to the reader allow teenagers the chance to decide what is right and wrong for themselves.

All people – children and adults – spend a lot of time trying to make sense of issues of right and wrong. We receive moral messages all the time, and many of them are in direct conflict. Even tiny children make judgements about right and wrong. These may be based on a minimal understanding of the world, let alone the facts, but we all have to work with what’s available to us.

In pedagogic terms I’m a big believer in Piaget’s idea that when you tell children something you prevent them from discovering their own truth. Similarly, if you tell people didactically what’s wrong and right, you prevent them from figuring it out for themselves. Of course we need input from our friends, family, colleagues and wider society to figure things out – to decide which views we agree with and which we don’t – but there’s a big difference between saying ‘I think this’ and ‘You must think this’. And isn’t that what’s happening when people insist that YA and children’s fiction must show a vision of the world that is ‘right’, at least as far as the ending goes?

This seems very dangerous to me because it assumes that there are moral absolutes even about complex issues and surely any thinking person recognises that sometimes the best we can do is pursue the ‘least bad’ option. That’s precisely where fiction comes in. Where better to play with your morals than in your imagination, through other lives, where there’s no danger to you or to the world around you? Where better to examine the consequences of making the ‘wrong’ choices? Isn’t it better to face what we don’t want in fiction so we’re not tempted to put it into practice? Because that, to me, seems the true danger of well-meaning attempts to ‘protect’ young adults from getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to moral issues.

Young adults experiment. They experiment with their hair, and their clothes, and their music, and their behaviour with different people, and their sense of self, and their career options, and the things they might want to do/be later in life… And part of that is experimenting with right and wrong. What young person has never said ‘Well, is it really that bad? I’m pretty good: maybe I should see what the other side of the coin is like?’ and then gone done something silly and irresponsible – and maybe fun but maybe dangerous.

I’m not saying YA should, in effect, be a series of warnings to teens: a sort of ‘don’t do this or look what might happen!’ approach. That’s just as dangerous as only giving YA readers ‘good’ examples to follow. Young adults – indeed, people – need both. They need to see people making the ‘wrong’ choices and people living up to their better selves: people taking the obvious path, right or wrong, and people forging a path of their own. People need variety in fiction to make life more interesting. And part of that variety should revolve around moral issues.

I’m not suggesting that books should try to send immoral messages: all I’m saying is that books shouldn’t always been seen as having to have a moral message at all. It’s OK for the ‘wrong’ thing to happen, even at the end of a book. In fact, sometimes this is an incredibly powerful way to demonstrate to readers that something is wrong without telling them so.

I love books that make me do a lot of the work: books that make me talk to them, defending my favourite characters, yelling at those who’re making bad decisions, ranting at the kettle in reading-breaks about all the things in the book that ring true as regards real life… If instead of telling the reader what to feel, you create the circumstances where the reader will simply react emotionally, then the emotion will come from inside the reader and will be the truer and stronger for it. Similarly, if you encourage a reader to feel injustice, rather than telling them something isn’t right, then they’ll also summon their own outrage: they’ll believe from the heart that the thing in question is unjust because they’ve reached that conclusion themselves. When a writer puts moral questions and dilemmas before readers and then refuses to dictate the answers, readers can discover their own truth as regards the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. The process of doing this makes for a far deeper engagement with those issues and a much greater chance that the reader will keep thinking not just about the book but about what the book says about the world around us.

I often think it’s easier to learn from bad writing than from good. With bad writing, it’s a pretty simple matter to pick out what’s wrong, what mistakes you don’t want to make in your own work, how you think things could be done better. With great writing it’s hard to separate all the things that make it great: it’s hard to see how you can use a fantastic book to improve your own writing without just mimicking it. The same is true, in a way, for moral issues. When the ‘right’ thing happens at the end of a book, it’s very satisfying, but easily forgotten. When the ‘wrong’ thing happens, it can be a real blow for a reader. How many times have I agonised over what should have happened in a book? But that’s the point. Those stories stick with us because they push us to decide for ourselves not just how a book should have ended but why. And those are the lessons – ones we teach ourselves – that follow us into our real life choices about good and bad, right and wrong.

This is why teenagers, in particular, need books that don’t necessarily have a moral message: ones that are morally ambiguous, others that ask questions rather than answering them, and still others where the ‘wrong’ thing happens, leaving readers to right those wrongs in their own imaginations and, in so doing, clarify their own moral principles. If we dictate what is right and wrong to YA readers, we take away their opportunities for exploring and experimenting with these issues for themselves. Fiction is a safe place to do that. Of course, if you leave people to make up their own minds, they might see a morally ambiguous ending as containing a dubious moral message… but that doesn’t mean these readers will decide that message is right, let alone act on it. Do we really think young adults can’t – and, indeed, don’t – make their own decisions anyway?

I think we should worry less about ‘protecting’ young readers from potentially making moral ‘mistakes’ as regards how they interpret different stories and more about how these concerns might be preventing writers and publishers from publishing books that afford readers important opportunities to explore their understanding of right and wrong.

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.

 

 

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

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.

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.