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The Bone Dragon gets full review in the Guardian!

Many, many updates to the blog coming soon but just because I can’t bear to wait…

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/19/bone-dragon-alexia-casale-review

Such a wonderful review from Linda Buckley-Archer.

And coming on the heels of the terrific, thoughtful review by the lovely CJ Busby: http://awfullybigreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-bone-dragon-by-alexia-casale.html

So energised to write now. Can’t wait for tomorrow when I get to dive into Chapter 2 on Book 3!

Want to know more? I’ll be at Bookstock tonight (http://www.northlondonreadinggroup.co.uk/bookstock.php) – a few tickets left if you’re interested.

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Autumn leaves

NaNoWriMo?

Recently, one of my students asked about whether she should give NaNoWriMo a go. My answer: yes.

There was, however, a significant ‘but’. My take on NaNoWriMo is that anyone who is interested should give it a go but, in doing so, it’s best to focus on enjoying yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re producing something that will be publishable. Just produce as much as you can. Practice your craft.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I have written several full-length drafts in a month. It is doable. Whether it’s a good idea will depend on the writer and on the project in question. But for anyone at the start of a career, it’s a great idea for one key reason: it involves producing lots of material. 

I am always amazed when people ask me to explain what I’m talking about when I refer to the many, many ‘practice novels’ I wrote (and those I started but abandoned) from the age of 10 through my teens. I’ve wanted to write since before I can remember, but I always figured that if a pianist wouldn’t play a piece all the way through for the very first time at her big concert, then why should a person trying to become a novelist think that their first attempt at producing a book would result in anything publishable? It works out for some people… But not for most.

In any case, even if you do have the natural talent needed to pull it off, developing your skill and craft through practice and hard work is only going to improve what you can achieve through instinct. As I tell my students, don’t worry about whether you’re talented. There’s nothing you can do it about it. Focus on what you can change: your mastery of technique and craft.

When I teach writing, I try to show my students that the very best way to learn is to via an apprenticeship approach. 

  • Write.
  • Get feedback.
  • Use the feedback to write something better.
  • Get new feedback…

Practice doesn’t just apply to sports and music. It should apply to writing too. So even if what you produce during NaNoWriMo is rubbish, don’t think of it as wasted time. Think about it as practice.

Just don’t expect one novel to be enough practice. It may seem like an awful lot of work, but is it? If you were a musician, would the number of hours you put into the book have been enough to make you a professional?

Writing is so subjective that you can’t expect practice to make you perfect. But it will make you better.

I wrote over a 1 million words worth of practice projects before I tried to write my first novel for publication. Why?

  • Because I’m a obsessive workaholic, over-achiever. Maybe I’ve got talent, maybe not. Nothing I can do about it. But I can – and do – choose to be a hard worker. 
  • Because I figured writing a publishable novel would be hard enough without also having to learn the technical skills needed to write something of that length.

Just writing a coherent story that spans 300 pages is a huge task. Do you really want to have to master the basics of that while also trying to write amazing prose, create a compelling plot with a solid build to an intense climax, and also figure out how to develop your characters? Well, maybe you do and fair enough, but I certainly didn’t. I wanted to know how to write a functional narrative and decent, functional prose before I worried about creating anything good enough to be published.

Practice will be you a decent writer. Graft and talent will make you a good writer. All of that and a bit of luck will make you a published writer.

You can’t control luck, just as you can’t control talent. So work on what you can control: how hard you work.

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?

TBD draft cover

The Bone Dragon to be published 4 April 2013

Just confirmed with Faber that the publication date for The Bone Dragon has just been moved up to 4 April 2013! So excited… and now not quite so long to wait!

Pre-order now from Amazon, Waterstones and WHSmith. Currently on offer at Amazon and Waterstones, so grab a hardback for a fantastic price while you can!

BTW, book is actually 300 pages, not 240 – shortly to be updated on the relevant sites – so it is a full length novel!

pak choi and mushroom chow mein

Pak Choi and Mushroom Chow Mein

In a somewhat frantic bid to live up to my nomination for The Versatile Blogger award, here is a post on… er… food. Everyone eats, right?

I know I promised a post on wedding cakes and that is coming, but it’s not quite ready yet so here’s my take on Pak Choi and Mushroom Chow Mein in my vague (“It’s about this much,” she says, tipping some cinnamon into her hand, glaring at it and then adding it to the tagine with a pinch… er, make that two… for luck) style of cooking.

Soak 4-5 cakes of rice noodles for 20+ minutes in salted, boiling water soft enough to eat then set aside. (Tip: use a big bowl and make sure that the noodles don’t expand out of the water, otherwise they won’t soften properly. Top up the water level as necessary.)

meal and ingredients

Very finely chop a 1-2 inch cube of peeled ginger root (if you really like ginger, go for a 2 inch cube, but probably a 1-1.5 inch cube will do it for most people) with 4-6 spring onions and 3 large cloves of garlic. If you like things spicy, add 1-2 finely chopped chillies and 1/3 of a stalk of fresh lemon grass. For a mildly spicy version, use 1 large mild red chilli and ¼ of a stalk of lemon grass.

Heat 2 tsp toasted sesame oil in a wok until a tiny piece of ginger tossed in immediately starts to sizzle. Throw the ginger, garlic and spring onions in (and the chilli and lemon grass if you’re using any). Stir until the ginger is nicely golden (about 2-4 minutes). Season with pepper (ideally, ground Szchuan pepper).

Add 250g washed button mushrooms (no need to chop unless they’re quite big) and 150g chopped shitake mushrooms (a small-ish dice is fine). Add 3-4 tsp rice wine (or medium dry sherry at a pinch) and 3 tsp light soy. Stir for 2-4 minutes until the button mushrooms are starting to soften.

Drain the noodles fairly thoroughly but don’t obsess. Heat a second wok with 1-2 tsp toasted sesame oil. Once it’s nice and hot (test it with a piece of noodle), throw in the noodles and quickly pan fry for 2-3 minutes only, adding 3 tsp light soy about half way through. Stir about every 10-15 seconds to ensure the noodles don’t stick. (Tip: if you don’t mind the calories, double up on the sesame oil.)

Back to the veggie wok. Throw in 3-4 pak choi chopped into large-ish pieces (tip: they need to fit in your mouth comfortably unless you enjoy choking.). Cook for 2-4 minutes until the pak choi is al dente (still has a little crunch but isn’t raw anymore).

Serve the noodles. Chuck the veg on top and taste. Add soy to whatever degree of saltiness you enjoy.

General tip: if you’re not worried about the salt content of your meals, use dark soy. Start with about half the quantities above and then go from there. Remember, it’s easy to add more: taking it out, not so much.

There you have it. A tasty (and, incidentally, low-cal), all natural meal. No nasty bottled or packaged sauces. Not too much salt. Very little fat. Tons of flavour.

Will feed about 3.