market factors

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Why impatience is a GOOD thing

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?

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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.

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Revisions, Revisions…

My wonderful publishing editor, Rebecca Lee, started working with me on revising the manuscript before we’d even signed the contract. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, apparently: a deal is a deal, but contracts take a while to negotiate and no one wants to wait around dotting Ts on the legal stuff rather than the book itself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at this stage and awaited the return of my manuscript in terror of what The Red Pen of Doom might have in store for me…

Actually, as with Claire’s comments, I was delighted with my feedback. And, again, the key factor was that no one was trying to change the book, only to improve it: to help me achieve what I was driving towards anyway.

For instance, I already had a sneaking suspicion that one of the smaller elements wasn’t coming across clearly but I wasn’t entirely sure what readers might find most perplexing. Rebecca knew exactly what I needed to do: clarify the geography of Evie’s home. That wasn’t a problem – I haven’t drawn a floor-plan of the house, but I could if someone asked me to. So bringing that knowledge out – the odd phrase here and there – was a simple fix to a thorny problem.

Another key issue related to language… I come from a family that’s part British, part Italian and part American. Critically, for the book, although Evie is English some of the phrases she used in the draft manuscript turned out to be American. Who knew? Well, I didn’t, but Rebecca did… and I was very happy to be able to ditch my accidental Americanisms in favour of phrases that were in character for Evie.

I’d already done my best to avoid mentioning brands and also current ‘big hit’ movies etc. as these things can date a book very quickly, so Rebecca was pleased on that front.

A trickier issue was one of vocabulary. Given that the book is going to be marketed as YA/cross-over, Rebecca wanted me to consider whether some of the words I used (she picked out the key examples) were too complex. I considered very carefully in each case and spent time poring over my thesaurus to see if there were other words that worked as well in the relevant contexts. Sometimes there were, in which case I changed the original word: why use a long word when a short one will do just as well? Well, lots of academics (and some writers) spend their whole careers doing just that (and not an awful lot else), but I don’t see the point. Complexity should be saved for the things that really are complex, rather than wasted on those that can, in skilled hands, be simple.

However, in some cases I’d chosen a word because of its nuances and associations… When that was the case, I didn’t change the manuscript. I may not believe in making things complicated when they don’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of ‘dumbing down’. If someone doesn’t know a word, they can look it up – and that’s no bad thing to be encouraging for YA readers or, indeed, adult readers who might like an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. I wrote The Bone Dragon for all people over a certain age – not specifically for the YA category – so I didn’t want to make changes to the book that I felt would render it less appealing to adult readers… or, indeed, YA readers looking for something a little more challenging.

As it turned out, there were about 10 words that Rebecca felt would be challenging for the YA market: that seemed to be a really good number of ‘difficult’ words to leave in. So I did.

… More on market factors and their influence on the manuscript in my next post.

If you’re reading and have experience of editors or agents giving you market advice about how to change your manuscript, I’d be really interested to hear about it. Did you feel the advice was helpful? Did you feel it conflicted with your creative aims?