publishing

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.

 

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Dawn shining around tree by woodland road

Is writing going to make you happy?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. All writers have problems with writing. No matter how sensible and practical we try to be about the process – no matter how hard we try to treat it just like any other job – creative work is different. Sometimes you sit down to write and you just can’t. It happens. But you haven’t been struck down by some terribly affliction. You’re not ‘blocked’. Or at least I’m not when this happens. I’m just stuck.

Writers get stuck all the time. Multiple times a day in my case. That’s what writing is. It’s about lurching from one thing that’s too hard/too confused/not working to a bit where ‘Yes! Life is wonderful and birds sings and the words coming pouring out’ and then suddenly it’s back to ‘Disaster! My life is over! My writing sucks! Why do I do this to myself?’

Creative Writing students often ask me questions about what they see as the glamour of being a writer: sipping alcohol and discoursing about one’s genius to an admiring cirle of would-be writers, being presented by grovelling artists with potential cover designs, being chased by reporters dying to hang on one’s every word… And perhaps one in a thousand writer’s has an experience like that. Success in sufficient quantities can bring grovelling and people desperate to hear you say hello (what a disincentive to doing well!), but I expect almost every writer on the planet has reasonably similar experiences when it comes to the act of writing: in short, that it’s infuriating one minute and bliss-and-joy the next. That when it’s flowing and working properly, all is right with the world… and then Life Is Over a the blink of an eye.

When students tell me they can’t wait to be respected authors and have everyone know their name, I ask them what aspect of the actual writing bit they love. Quite often they talk about praise. Now, praise isn’t a bad thing to want at all, but if that’s the bit you really love maybe writing isn’t a good career path. Maybe you will get showered with praise, but if you can’t enjoy the act of writing itself you may find you don’t ever finish enough work to sustain a career to keep the praise coming in.

Writing as a hobby means you don’t have to push through being stuck. Writing for a career means you do. All Day Long. If you hate that aspect of writing  and just want to skip to the praise the finish article may (or may not) garner, you could be setting yourself up for a miserable life. Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write – let alone that you’re not good at it – but perhaps you should think about about whether it’s the right career path for you. I try to explain this to my students at the outset but it often doesn’t sink in until they have to produce a long portfolio piece – a novella, a collection of poems, a full-length script. Some love the idea of having the finished thing but they just can’t stand the process.

And that’s fair enough. But it’s pretty important to be honest with yourself about it. If you don’t like the process of writing, is it going to fulfil you as a career? Is it going to make you happy?

You don’t have to be a career writer to write. But you may need to change your expectations if you don’t.

Getting an agent is often a long, hard slog. So is getting a publisher. And even both of these things are no guarantee of any degree of success… let alone that you’ll get published again. So it’s worth thinking really carefully about why you want to write. It may be that the chances of ever getting enough of the bits you love (or think you’ll love) about being a writer are too low to make all the misery worth it. And let’s face it, writing is miserable as well as wonderful. I think you have to love the infuriating process of writing to have any shot at being happy as a career writer. And if you’re not going to be happy most of the time – or perhaps all of it if you don’t get an agent/publisher or reach the dizzy heights of success you have your eyes set on – is it really a good idea?

Maybe you’ll enjoy writing more if you do it as a hobby and just see what happens. It doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘proper’ writer (whatever that is), it just means you’re being realistic about your best chances of leading a happy life.

Or maybe, on second thoughts, you would be happy just to be published, maybe, some day. Maybe you’re happy to face the doubts that it will ever happen and be content just to keep trying even if you don’t get there. Maybe you’re more ready than ever to keep on slogging when you get stuck instead of hurling yourself down on the sofa and telling your bestfriend that you’ve got writer’s block (though fair play if you want to hurl yourself down, demand comfort and decide to share a whole tub of icecream before you get back to work).

Set your eyes on a career as a writer if the act of writing is going to equate to a happy life for you. If the praise you might or might not receive if you ever get an agent/get published/get your book noticed is what you’re after, then go for it… but maybe go for it with a different career to keep you fulfilled in the meantime. A lot of my writing students who go on to have fulfilling careers and happy lives, come round to this idea. Some of those who don’t, find way to make a living and thrive on the pursuit of their writing dreams in whatever time they can put aside. But some chase those dreams while hating the process of writing. And they tend to be, and remain, pretty miserable. It always seems such a waste to me when they might well find the praise they’re after doing something else… and then discover a love for the process of writing that leads them to success in that too.

At the end of the day, if you don’t love writing even when it makes you miserable, maybe it’s time to think again about how devoted to your writing dreams you should be. Determination and perseverance are great things as a rule, but not when they’re just going to lead you to live a miserable life.

So one of the big things I try to teach my writing students is to figure out what sort of writing dreams are actually going to equate to happiness in their lives.

… Just some things I’ve been thinking about after speaking to several ‘old’ students and hearing what they’re doing now.

 

 

eyes above a cherry blossom branch

Photoshoot: a short guide on how to look evil

So, somewhere in among the edits, Rebecca emails me to ask for a photo.

I am one of those people who are just not photogenic. Or at least I hope that’s what the problem is: if I really look like I do in most photos I have MUCH bigger problems than not being photogenic.

Anyway, suffice it to say I don’t like being photographed much. Oh, I don’t mind a photo with a group of friends or at a family party or a big event – I don’t make a big deal out of it – but generally I don’t let people take photos of just me, by myself. So when Rebecca asked for something, even a photo taken by a friend on a reasonable camera, I didn’t have many options.

My favourite photos of myself are (a) the one with a cherry blossom branch in front of my face and my eyes peeking over the top (thank you, Lizzie!), (b) the one of me barely visible behind my exceptionally long (and beautiful) cat, (c) the one taken from a long, long way away of me in a meadow in the hills above Prague, and (d) a very low res one taken at a ball hosted by a big Cambridge tech company where I’m wearing a lovely strapless ballgown, only the photo is from the shoulders up so it looks like I might be wearing… less. And… well, that’s about it for photos of me that I like. I have one taken with a group of friends (so not perfect anyway) at the Clare Hall (Cambridge college) Summer Ball, and in this one you can see dress straps… but my eyes are mostly shut.

Mostly I look recently dead in photos. So it didn’t help that, when Rebecca asked for a publicity photo, I was recently out of the hospital (after having had the latest rib out) and completely morphinated… Just the look I wanted to go for.

Anyway, after much trawling around for local photographers, I finally found the fabulous Louisa Walsh at ArtbyLAW. Louisa was absolutely brilliant (and extremely kind) and, thanks to tea and music from Tom, and a fantastic job on the make-up from Jade, I made it through the shoot… and even had a few pictures where the morphination didn’t show too much.

For the most part, I focused on looking like I was thinking evil thoughts. This, I suspected, would stop me from looking vacant… and it would also fit the book. And just me in general.

For instance, when asked what objects I’d brought to give a sense of my personality in the photos, I produced my gorgeous carved slate notebook with the celtic knot on one cover and the dragon on the other…

‘Would you like a flower, too?’ Louisa asked.

‘No, thanks,’ I replied, smiling sunnily. ‘I brought a knife instead.’

So in several of the longshots there I am with my notebook… and my knife (it’s a very pretty knife, as you can see: one of my favourites).

I did think about bringing a rib in a pot, but I suspected that might be too morbid… especially given the evil glint in the eyes that decided my favourite headshot.

So how did I work on looking evil? Well, mostly I just thought about the book. There, there be sneakiness… and a Dragon (sort of)… And a little bit of evil for good measure.

headshot

Peacock butterfly

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.

old terracotta curved titles

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?

I’m on Amazon! The Bone Dragon now available to pre-order

The Bone Dragon is now available to pre-order on AmazonUK and WHSmith, though it should soon be available via a wide variety of retailers.

Do note that the cover design won’t be added for another month, give or take, as we’re currently consulting on the draft design. If you’re interested in commenting, the draft cover is available at http://thebonedragon.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/draft-cover-design-comments-welcome/ .

draft cover design for The Bone Dragon

Draft cover design: comments welcome!

The draft cover design for The Bone Dragon is now in!

The final version will be a bit different, but I’d love to hear what you think and hopefully pass some comments along to Faber to help us decide on the official cover.