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The Bone Dragon shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize

Read it all about it!





So thrilled and honoured to be on this amazing shortlist. Happy paperback publication day to me indeed! 🙂

yellow tulips

The ‘I don’t want to miss’ Game

About a month ago, I was talking to a friend who’s having a really tough time with depression. When we got on to the subject of suicidal thoughts and how to manage them, I told her about the ‘I don’t want to miss’ game. But it was only later that I realised she’d seemed really struck by it… and this got me to thinking that maybe it would be useful for other people too.

Now, I’m sure lots of people who’ve struggled with mental illness and/or chronic pain will find that they already have their own version of the ‘I don’t want to miss’ game, but for those who don’t, here is a 5-minute lesson on how to play.

The thing about suicide is that while it can sometimes seem like the only way the pain (physical or mental, or both) will end – and you really, really want to miss out on all of that – you have to keep asking yourself ‘Do I really want to miss out on everything else?’ Because that’s what will happen if you die. It can be hard to remember that there’s anything worth pushing on for if things are bad enough, but that’s exactly when to stop what you’re doing for 5 minutes and play the ‘I don’t want to miss’ game.

Start small. Start with something that you’ll miss if you die that will – or at least could – happen before the day is out. I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of White Collar. I don’t want to miss watching that anime DVD I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I don’t want to miss never eating a Swiss roll/cornetto again. Food is a really good place to start. If there isn’t any tomorrow, then why worry about eating something that’s bad for you and has almost no nutritional value? So go ahead: think big and disgustingly-bad-for-you. What food/drink would it be a pity not to have just once more? Now, make a plan about getting yourself this one thing from your little ‘I don’t want to miss’ list.

But don’t act just yet. You’ve got some more thinking to do first.

Now, turn your thoughts ahead to the rest of the week. What would you miss if you died today? I don’t want to miss seeing my best-friend and cousin again. I don’t want to miss the theatre trip on Saturday. I don’t want to miss my weekly book-group meeting. I don’t want to miss X book or Y film that’s out later this week. I don’t want to die never having stopped in that little shop/park I pass every day and never have time for.

Get planning again. If you don’t already have your ‘I don’t want to miss’ scheduled for this week, then decide which day this week you’ll organise it, even if you have to schedule ahead for the thing itself.

Think ahead a little more. I don’t want to be an absence at my friend’s wedding. I don’t want to miss A’s birthday, B’s anniversary. I don’t want to miss watching that box-set I’ve been saving. I don’t want to miss re-reading all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books. If you’re going to die anyway, what’s to stop you from quitting your job and just doing all these things? Couldn’t you put relief from pain off just long enough to enjoy these things first?

Now, before you start dialling your boss, there’s one more bit of thinking you need to do.

Look ahead still further. After those weeks or months you’re going to give yourself, what are you still definitely going to miss? I don’t want to miss seeing what my goddaughter is like when she’s a teenager. I don’t want to miss taking her out for a good meal when she’s a starving uni student. I don’t want to miss all the scattered days seeing my favourite people in the world: the days when my friends need something and I can give it. I want to be there for that. I don’t want to miss it. Neither do you.

Now, look: you’ve just thought yourself part of a lifetime into the future when 5 minutes ago when anything past ‘an hour from now’ seemed impossible. Even if getting through the next hour still seems unbearable, can you really bear to miss all these things you’ve just listed for yourself? Can you really bear to throw away all those ‘I don’t want to miss’es? Not to mention all the ‘I don’t want to miss’es that your friends and family might have that involve you.

Right, you’re nearly there now. This is where you have a good cry about how sucky life is right at this moment and how you just can’t bear it for another minute, let alone a lifetime. Get good and snotty. Make some ugly noises. Go all blotchy in the face. That’s it.

Now wipe your nose and go get yourself something from the very first set of ‘I don’t want to miss’es you thought up. If you’ve been doing too much comfort-eating, make it something that isn’t food/drink. If you’ve not been doing enough eating, try and make sure that it is. But give yourself just a little bit of something you don’t want to miss to remind yourself that some small good stuff is within reach. And that
there’s more just a little bit further on.

If it’s a really terrible day, put another ‘I don’t want to miss’ at the end of it as a reward before you go to bed. But remember that you don’t get more than two ‘I don’t want to miss’es in a day. Save some for tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that. Sometimes even the smallest things on your list are enough to claw yourself through a day for. Drag yourself along from one ‘I don’t want to miss’ to another until you’re ready to lift up your head and look ahead to the bigger things that mean you have to stick around for longer.

It doesn’t matter how you get there. You just have to keep reminding yourself that sure, if you die you won’t suffer any more (depending on what you believe about an afterlife), but you’ll also miss absolutely everything else. Are you really sure there isn’t just one little ‘I don’t want to miss’ that can get you through the day to the bigger thing tomorrow and the best things of all in the future: seeing how the lives of the people you love play out and what your part in them will be.

And if you don’t have anyone to think ahead to, then make tomorrow’s ‘I don’t want to miss’ a plan to find someone to care about. There’s no shortage of lonely people in the world. Go and be an ‘I don’t want to miss’ for one of them until they become one for you.

So, there you are: the ‘I don’t want to miss’ game. It really is as simple as it sounds. And it really is best treated as a game rather than a ‘strategy for avoiding suicidal ideation’. Don’t try to avoid thinking about suicide when things are too tough: it’s like when someone tells you not to think about pink elephants. I say go ahead: think about it. Just make sure that you think about it thoroughly… because that means playing some sort of ‘I don’t want to miss’ game. By the time you’re through, it’ll stop seeming like a solution rather than just a way of cutting free of pain because you’re tired and desperate and need it to stop at any price. Because do you really mean the ‘any price’ bit? Isn’t there just one ‘I don’t want to miss’ you want to wait for first? And, oh look, it’s Friday and that show is on TV tonight and, oh, it’s just 12 hours till your best friend comes over and…

Even a tiny glimmer of something good – of ‘I don’t want to miss’ – might make things just tolerable enough to move ahead… That’s all you need for now. Just one little ‘I don’t want to miss’ and then another… and then the everything of a lifetime you haven’t missed because you managed to hold on.

BTW, it never hurts to be clear on all the good stuff – big and small – that’s up ahead, so don’t be afraid to play the ‘I don’t want to miss’ game even if you’re just a bit down. It works for little miseries as well as big ones, whether they’re psychological or physical.

It’s one of my most important techniques for dealing with chronic pain and has been a huge long-term help in keeping my use of painkillers to a surprisingly low level. On that note, and for the record, I’ve got all my ‘I don’t want to miss’ answers carefully catalogued and am fully planning to be immortal because there’s no way I’m getting through all the books ‘I don’t want to miss’ in just one lifetime. So, I’m good. Even on a bad day.

old brick bridge seen from below

Poetry by Chloe Armstrong

At an impromptu event for the Northern Children’s Book Festival in November, a lovely thing happened: after the formal Q&A bit, when I was sitting smiling nervously around at everyone and hoping someone there would want to talk to me, Chloe Armstrong came over and asked me if I’d listen to one of her poems. The moment she’d finished, I asked if I could read the other one I could see lurking behind the top print-out. Afterwards, I kept thinking about Chloe’s poems and how impressed I’d been by the way she’d talked about the inspiration behind them, what she’d been trying to do in each, and also by how clearly a very interesting, unique ‘voice’ came through.

The concept of a ‘writer’s voice’ is a funny one. It’s almost impossible to pin down what it means, so everyone defines it in different ways. Despite all this confusion, you know it when you hear it: when you’re reading and all of a sudden you can literally hear someone speaking from inside the words on the page. There’s a lot of really bad poetry out there – and tons of poetry I think is bad because I just don’t understand why it’s not just a bunch of words strung together in a vaguely pretty, it-sort-of-sounds-like-it-could-be-deep-and-wise way.

Chloe’s poems have what’s missing from so much of the poetry – published and unpublished – that I read and despair over: a natural voice that has something to say.

I do hope you like Chloe’s poems as much as I do. If you do, please take a moment or two to comment below to encourage Chloe to keep writing so we can all see more of her work soon.

First, a tiny bit of introduction. The first poems is inspired by ancient Egyptian death rituals and the second by the myths surrounding the constellations. Chloe explained it all extremely briefly and incredibly clearly to me. Below are my fumbling attempts to recap the most important points.

The poems below are (C) Copyright Chloe Armstrong 2013.

A quick intro to ‘Dear Thoth’: Thoth is an Egyptian God involved in judging the dead. Anubis or Osiris – chief God of Death at different times in history – weighs the hearts of the dead: if they weigh more than a feather (Thoth judges how the scales hang), they get given to demon Ammit to be eaten. The Fields of Iaru are the equivalent of paradise/the Elysian Fields.

Dear Thoth,

Please tell Osiris
I didn’t put the condom on Mrs. Green’s chair in Biology.
I didn’t eat my nephew’s Thornton’s Easter egg last night.
I certainly didn’t cheat at French bingo.

Oh Thoth please
Don’t tell I love Justin Beiber
Don’t tell I still watch Tweenies on Cbeebies
Don’t tell I crossed the road without looking
Don’t tell I stole my Mum’s ha tarts and blamed it on my brother.
Don’t tell I stole a mars bar from the corner shop.

And Thoth, by the way,
Anubis doesn’t need to know I dyed my hair pink.

Dear darling Thoth,
My heart would be as light as a feather
If only you would swear to never speak about the time
I maxed out my Mum’s credit card
Buying new lives on Candy Crush Saga.

I could sleep gracefully in the Fields of Hetep.
I could rest quietly in the Fields of Iaru.
If you balance the scales and protect my heart
from the snapping jaws of Ammit.

eternally yours

BFF Chloe

A quick intro to ‘Secrets of the Stars’: Lyra is the eagle/vulture – a very small constellation. Cassiopeia is both a constellation and a supernova remnant within the constellation; in Persian mythology Cassopeia was a queen who had a crescent-moon-tipped staff. Orion is famous as ‘The Hunter’. Draco, the dragon, was a Titan killed by Minerva and then turned into a constellation that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides (the garden of the Hera, Queen of the Greek Gods). Cygnus is the swan. Cetus is a sea-monster/whale. Grus is the crane. Ursa Major is the Great Bear (of which the Plough/Big Dipper forms a part).

Secrets of the Stars

Lyra is the eyes of the night.
A constellation.

Cassiopeia is a child of the moon,
Clinging to the celestial North Pole.

Orion knows where you live.
Where the countryside begins and where it ends.
How snowmen hokey cokey in sheep dreams.

Draco knew where the secret treasure was
until Captain Cook discovered Australia.

Cygnus has been wished away
By a lazy cat sleeping in a barn.

Cetus travels the ocean as a misty reflection
On the back of a blue whale.

Grus likes being chased by chickens
across the night sky.

Ursa Major really is aeroplane traffic.

PS: Chloe’s 14. Yes, really. I cannot wait to read what she’s writing when she’s 18!

PPS: Big thanks to Chloe for letting me share her poems with everyone.

Authors for the Philippines logo

Win a consultation on your new theatre musical

I’m offering a consultation on a new musical to the winner bidder on this Authors for the Philippines auction: http://authorsforphilippines.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/262-pitch-a-new-theatre-musical-to-alexia-casale/#comments

The perfect Christmas/holiday/birthday gift for the budding composers and lyricists in your life… Or for a school music/theatre department or club. Further details in the auction listing. Feel free to post queries here or there and I’ll answer as soon as I can.

Good luck to the bidders! Please RT/share with anyone who might be interested.

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…


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.

mountains and alpine meadows

World Building: Starting in the right place

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, but Hot Key’s question today on Twitter pushed me to get on with writing about it, not least because I’m determined to start blogging more regularly again.

What Hot Key wanted to know was how you build a world. It’s not something I’ve done in The Bone Dragon or in MoB (i.e. Book 2). But it is something I’m doing in several of my upcoming novels so it’s been on my mind a lot.

It’s so easy, when you think about building a world, to start with place. That’s what a world is, at base, after all. Isn’t your first image, when you think the word ‘world’, a planet or a map or something of that sort?

It’s a lot of fun to let your imagination conjure up mountains, deserts and seas… vast cities and picturesque villages. What a lovely afternoon you can spend peopling them with fantastic creatures from myth and fairytale or just from your own mind.

But none of this is going to help you write a really good book. A good book starts with a good story. And story is not place. The setting may be hugely important, but usually because it’s almost a character in its own right.

And there’s your answer about where to start: character.

Build your world about the characters you’re going to write about. What sort of world explains who they are? What sort of world will challenge them in interesting and exciting ways, giving you your plot?

Are you doing it again? Are you thinking of your world as a place that will challenge your characters? Do you really want to write a book about people climbing mountains or surviving in the desert? That’s not much of a plot, is it?

Remember, your world is a character.

‘But how does that help?’ you ask. And the answer is… it helps when you remember that it’s only one character. One among many.

There’s the real key: the true place to start. Your world is how all the characters fit together. How does wealth work? How does your setting influence that? How does gender (or the equivalent) work? What are the axes of inequality? What gives people power? What are the social and inter-personal rules? What are the values and beliefs, traditions and norms that underpin these rules?

Those things will grow out of and through ‘place’ – the physical world of your story – but the most important elements of any world-as-story are the people and the structures that dictate how they relate to each other.

Whatever they do, characters are always acting in accordance with the rules or against them: even when characters break the rules, the rules are still there. Which means that whatever characters do, they’re making a socially meaningful decision. They’re inviting consequences and… Hey, presto! We have conflict and tension, risks and rewards, goals and desires, obstacles and aids… We have all the ingredients for a great plot. A great story.

Some of the rules you need to work out to build your world will be relationship rules and some will be social rules… But there are always rules between people: big ones and small ones. Ones for whole societies and sub-rules even within families.

That is the true world you need to build: the world that grows out of who your characters are and the story you want to tell about how they relate to each other.

So don’t start with a map. Start with characters and build your world outwards from them. Don’t ignore your setting, just treat it as one of those characters. But only one of them. Otherwise you’ll end up with a setting to graft a story on, not a setting that is an integral part of your story.

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.