Wednesday, 31 August 2011

CHILDREN'S WRITING - HELP FOR YOU

I'm delighted to bring you some advice on children's writing from two experts, Sarah Stewart and Cat Clarke, who have combined to form a specialist consultancy for writers of children's and Young Adult fiction, The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse offers editorial guidance and manuscript appraisal for both published and unpublished writers.

A little about Sarah and Cat
Sarah was Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children’s Books, where she worked with high-profile authors such as the bestselling Maggie Stiefvater, Karen McCombie and Dan Freedman. Previously, Sarah spent ten years as a journalist and magazine editor, writing for a wide range of publications, from The Guardian to Mizz magazine. She is the author of The Girls’ Annual 2010 (Michael O’Mara books).

Cat is the author of YA novel Entangled (Quercus, 2011). She was Senior Commissioning Editor for Non Fiction at Scholastic Children’s Books, working on Terry Deary’s bestselling Horrible Histories and developing and commissioning several new series including My True Story. Previously, she spent five years at Usborne Publishing, writing and editing books for 4 – 10 year-olds.

I grabbed hold of them and asked them some questions.

NM: What are the three most common problems you find in MSS that are sent to you?
Often, new writers haven’t considered the age group or audience for their book. In one sense that’s fine – ideally, we should all just write naturally and tell the story we want to tell – but when writing for young people, there’s always a danger of being either too sophisticated or too babyish. Knowing what 7-year-olds read as opposed to 12-year-olds, for example, is crucial.
Also, we often see simple mistakes in continuity, or typos in the first pages of a manuscript. We don’t mind a bit if you forget whether Mrs Cheese is wearing a red or a yellow dress … but agents will find mistakes like this tiresome, and you want a potential agent to enjoy your manuscript without distractions.
Thirdly, pacing. Sometimes we find stories with sluggish starts, or stories that launch in without us getting to know anything about our protagonists. It can be tricky to find the balance between setting the scene, and pulling the reader into the action.
NM: What areas of the children's market do you think have the greatest opportunities as the moment?
Young Adult is still incredibly strong, but interestingly, there has been a bit of a gap for some time now in fiction for very young children. Several key brands/series have the 5-7 market well-tapped, but there may well be space for new voices there. 
[NM adds: quite a lot I'd like to add here! It's worth stressing that only some areas of YA are strong - in other areas many authors are being dropped despite award and critical success, because teenagers may love deep, stand-alone novels of a somewhat literary bent but they don't buy enough and therefore publishers are cutting back. Sales are also too low for us to survive. I know this...
Another major gap in the market, much spoken of by serious reviewers and experts, is quality fiction for 9-11s, who are often voracious readers. Many publishers are looking for fresh new voices here, writers who can tell powerful and unusual stories. Many people also feel that there's too much jokey stuff - though it does well commercially - and that an over-looked and much harder area is rich, stunning young fiction without the slapstick.]
NM: What sort of things make writing for children so much harder than people might think?
Writing for kids is storytelling in its purest form – there’s no sacrificing narrative for style. Children won’t hang about. If you bore them, they’re off (and quite right too). Of course, style is still important, but the story has to be central at all times.
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children is the easy option - often assuming that at some point you'll surely 'graduate' and start writing books for adults. They couldn't be more wrong. The best kids’ writers make it look so easy, but it’s not!

You have to know and respect your audience, and avoid talking down to them. Often we see manuscripts with plots and characters that are quite complex, yet the story is written in an rather simplistic 'bedtime story' sort of tone. The voice needs to match the age group you're writing for. And remember ... a good bedtime story doesn't necessarily make a good novel!
[NM adds: Agree with all that. And creating a strong voice is harder when that voice has to be authentic as a child's-view voice and yet be written by an adult. There's a kind of ventriloquist's skill. We are telling the story through a child, not trying to sound as though it's by a child. Time-scales are different, too - children's stories generally can't take place over many years. There are ways round this, of course, but it's important to keep the focus on one period of time - say a year at most.]  
Can you suggest some exemplary books or authors of various sorts (over a range of ages and genres), which you'd recommend aspiring writers for young people should read?
Absolutely; we love this question! Perhaps look at old classics like Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War or Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and then ping forward into contemporary anarchy with Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books. Jeremy Strong’s books are cracking examples of humour that works for both boys and girls, and for a glimpse into how to do fast-paced dystopian YA, go for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
[NM adds: a great start. For other genres/ages perhaps readers can add their own suggestions? So, blog-readers, what are your suggestions for historical, sci-fi, issue-based, thriller, contemporary psychological, and all the many different age groups? For example, I'd say you can't write decent YA if you're not aware of the power of some of these: Meg Rosoff, Kevin Brooks, Malorie Blackman, Julie Bertagna, Marcus Sedgwick. You might even like to try mine! Fleshmarket and my Highwayman books for historical, Sleepwalking for dystopian, Passionflower Massacre for contemporary psychological, Deathwatch for contemporary thriller, Mondays are Red for magical realism, Chicken Friend for 9-11 friend/issue-based.]
Apart from finding out what's wrong with this MS, what else do writers learn from having an expert eye cast over their work?
It’s so, so hard to be objective about your work – in fact, it’s impossible! As writers as well as editors, we know how difficult it is. And friends and family can be very kind, which is lovely but not always constructive. We can offer honest feedback, delivered in a way that won’t hurt your feelings (promise. We know what it’s like to have hurt feelings). And we’re very good at spotting things like which dress Mrs Cheese should be wearing, and asking you to fix things like pacing! Often these things crop up in other creative writing you’re doing, so it can be very useful to be aware of them in a more general sense.
If you'd like help with your children's writing from Sarah and Cat's consultancy:
We can be found at lighthouseliterary.co.uk, and we love it when people say hello on Twitter @thelighthouseuk. Or email us directly on lighthouseliterary@gmail.com.

As you know, I run a consultancy, too - Pen2Publication - but I'm not taking on any more clients just now. So, hurtle over to Cat and Sarah for good advice!

Do ask them some questions in the comments below! And please add to the list of recommended books or authors for children's and YA fiction.

Monday, 29 August 2011

BAD FICTION

You probably saw this announcement of the winner of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing. The winner - and note that this is for deliberate bad writing! - was American academic, Sue Fondrie, for this very short but very awful sentence:
"Cheryl's mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories."
It illustrates two things. (Well, two for starters.)

First, one of the most common problems I see in the work of aspiring writers is over-writing, and particularly the horrible use of similes. And wow, is this a horrible simile! Similes should only be used when needed. Similes must enrich; they must give a sense of, "AH! Now I can picture that. Now I can feel it in my heart." If something is clear and obvious and familiar already, it doesn't need a simile to enhance it.

Good similes hit us in the heart. Bad ones grip us somewhere nearer the bowels.

What does a good simile look like? There's an example I use and I apologise to the writer in one of my workshops who wrote this, because I can't remember who it was and therefore can't credit her. If she sees this, I hope she will tell me!

She was describing a funeral procession going up a hillside in Sicily (I think) and she used the image of "a black centipede against the white hillside". It's perfect - apt, necessary, enriching. She doesn't need to say "crawling" or "winding" because we already know those things about centipedes. And that's the point about writing: every word you use brings more than simply that word to your reader's mind. The word brings with it a whole cohort of attached and unavoidable meanings.

And that is the second point: the writer's magic weapon. Every time we use a word, the reader or listener pictures it, and pictures it along with a load of aspects of that word or image. (I'm going to blog further about that magic writing weapon soon.) This is an incredibly important point to remember: every word you use has more power than you think, and that power is one you must control. Bad similes are examples of very poor weapon control by the writer.

So, let's go over that awful simile and you'll see why understanding points 1 and 2 will show you exactly why it's so wrong.
  • "mind turned like the vanes" - how does this help? Can you picture a mind turning like vanes? Do you not already know what it feels like when thoughts come fast? So, neither necessary nor apt.
  • "wind-powered turbine" - so, now we have a wind-turbine in our mind, and it is so not helping. Neither necessary nor apt.
  • "chopping her ... thoughts into bloody pieces" - why bloody? How does it help the image to have thoughts becoming physical things that can be chopped? Are we any closer to the desired meaning?
  • "her sparrow-like thoughts" - with sparrows in our minds we're now thinking of aspects of sparrows: small, brown, chirping, common, bird. 
  • "bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile" - and the sparrows in our mind are now chopped into bloody pieces. We are further from the desired meaning than ever. And feeling sick. Besides, while you can have a pile of chopped birds, you can't really have a growing pile of thoughts.
  • "of forgotten memories" - why? Why is her pile of "forgotten memories" growing during this small moment of wind-turbine-like thinking? Are they immediately forgotten as soon as they hit the pile? How? Why? WTF is going on?
In short, far from being closer to understanding (which is the whole point of a simile), we are completely confused, as our brains struggle to process the chopped birds and blood all over the hillside where the wind-turbine sits.

But I am very glad that Sue Sondrie wrote this simile because I can now use it: when I do workshops, I'm always looking for examples of bad similes (and other horrors) and I find them very difficult to invent. So, please help me! Can you give me examples (with permission to use them) of poor similes? Not necessarily outrageous ones, but just "not very good" ones, ones that miss the point and don't help.

Bad writing is not as easy as it looks. Congratulations to Sue Fondrie!

Monday, 22 August 2011

WHIPPED INTO SHAPE: Synopsis Special

Whipped into Shape is a series in which a reader of Write to be Published comments or asks a question about something in the book, perhaps asking for further information or sharing their own take on a topic. And then I add answers as appropriate and readers add comments. Today's contribution comes from Joy Spicer, who writes a rather nice looking blog about art, riding and family.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

TWEET RIGHT IS HERE! YES, NOW!

It's here! Where? There! Where?

HERE!

Last Tuesday I announced that I would announce the publication date of Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter very soon. (I couldn't say when, because I didn't know when it would actually be up there on Amazon.) When I realised that it was up there, looking good, it became the worst secret in the world over the weekend, when people discovered that it was available. I asked them how and it turned out that already if you went on Amazon and search for books to help with Twitter, Tweet Right was coming up. It was No 22 in general non-fiction books, and that was before I'd told anyone it was there!

Anyway, I reckon that at £2.74 (on Kindle) it's a bargain for people who want to know how to navigate Twitter and retain their sanity. The price for other devices will vary a little depending on where you buy it. (It will be available soon in ibookstore and elsewhere, for all devices. Currently Kindle only.)

Remember that you do NOT need a Kindle to read a Kindle book. Just download the free software from Amazon and you can read it on your computer, phone or ipad.

I have three things for you to celebrate publication and to thank you for your patience.

THING NUMBER ONE
#TweetRightComp - with 1st prize of a signed copy of any of my books plus a crabbit bag, and three runner-up prizes of crabbit bags, this competition starts NOW and ends Tuesday Aug 23rd at midday (UK time) with the winners being announced during the party that evening. (See below.)

Your task, should you choose to accept, is this:
In a single tweet (with no cheating by using twitlonger - grrr) and including the hashtag #TweetRightComp, sum up your feelings about or impressions of Twitter. Or how would you describe it to someone who has never tried it?

Enter as many times as you like, as long as your entry is different each time (and different by more than a word or two). I say this only because you'll bore the pants off us if you keep repeating the same point.

Valid entries will be put through Random Generator, to find winners.

THING NUMBER TWO
#TwitterAngels - not heard of them? That's because we've just invented them. Becky had the idea of matching newbies up with someone who would "buddy" them during their first steps on Twitter, and I chhose the #TwitterAngels name.

And? And here's what to do. If you are already on Twitter and know your way around, add your name to a comment below, saying you'd like to BE a TwitterAngel. If you would like to use a TwitterAngel, add a comment saying you'd like to HAVE a TwitterAngel. Then, match up with each other! It's up to you. When possible, Angels should try to use the #TwitterAngels hashtag on Twitter, just so that more people hear about it. Later on, if people want an explanation of #TwitterAngels after this post has drifted off the page, you'll see it on the Tweet Right page at the top of the blog. There's no time limit to this scheme.

THING NUMBER THREE
#TweetRightParty
You are all invited! Next Tuesday, Aug 23rd, on Twitter, 6.30pm (UK time) till late. By that time, you will have read Tweet Right - :)) - so you'll know how to use hashtags and how to create the #TweetRightParty column so you can have fun with everyone else even if you don't already follow them. (The party will be a great way to find new people to follow and follow you.) Lots of my Twitter friends will be there to help you. And I'll announce the #TweetrightComp winners.

And, if you don't know what to do, ask your TwitterAngel :)

Do please buy the book. And if you know anyone thinking about joining Twitter or who has tried but not got into it, or who wonders why anyone should bother, do send them towards the book. It has already had a terrific response, with even seasoned Tweeters saying they've learnt things.

Tweet right - there's no other way.

Monday, 15 August 2011

TO SELF-PUBLISH OR NOT TO SELF-PUBLISH?

A blog reader, Magnus, emailed me, saying:
"After reading your posts on why self/vanity publishing can be a bad idea, I would love to read your thoughts about when s-p can be the right thing to do. Back in 2009 you blogged very briefly about suitable styles of book for s-p (and also what the s-p author should pay for) but it would be interesting to hear a little more detail, particularly if the situation has changed in recent years. And does self-publishing an ebook only (no paper book) make a difference?"
OK, let me say two things before I answer any of that:
  1. I am not against self-publishing.
  2. I am not against self-publishing.
And some more:
  1. I am going to be self-publishing some things myself very soon. Like, tomorrow.
  2. I am not against self-publishing.
I say that to stave off the angry people who usually appear on a blog as soon as any published writer dares suggest that self-publishing is not the answer to all the world's ills. It isn't the answer to the world's ills, ok? Or even to publishing's ills. The answer to publishing's ills is good books, properly edited, properly priced, honestly reviewed, fully appreciated.

Yes, the situation has changed in recent years. And is changing all the time. I've moved my position on it, too, because anyone who doesn't move position when the world changes will fall over. Self-publishing is becoming easier; there have been some notable successes; many successful published writers are turning to it, sometimes because they are fed up to the back teeth of being treated by publishers as if expendable and as if they can live on air, sometimes because they can see a way to earn more by doing it themselves, and sometimes just for the sheer freedom of it.

Anyway, to Magnus's questions.

A. Does self-publishing an ebook only (no paper book) make a difference?
Yes, because there is very little cost to you and so you have less to lose. I would be reluctant to recommend s-publishing in print unless you have a whole range of skills and knowledge that most of us don't. You will come up against problems with reluctant bookshops, distribution, warehousing, delivery, print quality etc. You may consider a POD service to support your ebook for things such as launches and to offer an option to customers, but otherwise the economics do not at this stage stack up nearly as well as for ebook only.

However, I recommend Catherine Ryan Howard's seminal book, Self-Printed, for how to do both.

B. What should the s-p author pay for?
I recommend that you maintain complete control by buying in separate bits of expertise, not signing up to a package. I have heard horrible stories of people thinking they were paying for marketing and exposure and getting SFA.

Here are the things you should pay for but in each case I recommend that you hire each expert yourself:
  1. Editing and proofreading. Never ever ever rely on software, or on an ordinary reader. There is so much more to it. But it's not always necessary to pay a lot of money, although I believe experts should be paid properly for their work. It can sometimes be done collaboratively if you know the right people - get yourself on Twitter and meet the right people!
  2. Cover design. See Catherine's book for advice and warnings. (I am using and fully recommend Andrew Brown of Designforwriters.)
  3. Marketing help - OK, you might be able to manage without this. In fact, if you're active on Twitter/blogging etc, you can almost certainly manage without for an ebook. In fact, forget that this is on the list. (But only if you know what you're doing and have the right connections. And are prepared to spend time doing it.)
Layout and typesetting (for print) and formatting and conversion (for ebooks) are also expert skills but if you're doing an ebook only, it's simplified by the fact that ebooks have to be simple. Follow the instructions in Catherine's book. But be careful: she's very bossy, even bossier than I am! I am frightened of her :) Also, her instructions work well for Kindle, which is the easy bit, but Smashwords (allowing you access to the other e-readers) seems way more complicated.)
 
NOTE: As a post script to that, let me tell you what I did. I had intended to format and convert the documents to ebooks myself. I established (by means of a sneaky secret trial during which I published part of Tweet Right and didn't tell anyone!) that I could do the Kindle version perfectly. However, at short notice I decided to call in an expert because a) I didn't want to take the risk of it not being perfect when I did the whole book and I knew she/he could do it better, quicker, more reliably b) I wanted my book to be available on all devices, not just Kindle, and I knew that this was harder and more time-consuming c) I want to publish quite a lot of ebooks, very professionally, and no way did I want to format them all and d) I'm a wuss. I will be blogging about this later and I will then tell you who my ace formatter was.

If you are printing your book, you will have some extra costs, I'm afraid. I can't even face going into them. Put it this way: I will be publishing as ebooks only.

C. When can s-p be the right thing to do? What questions should you ask yourself?
  1. When the author has a following and a platform. Ideally, you need an established blog, Twitter and Facebook presence by the time your book comes out. Do you know how to go about this? (By "FB presence" I mean more than the usual FB personal page; I mean an author or product page, with followers.)
  2. When the book has been rejected or is likely to be rejected not on the basis of its not being good enough but on the basis of: length (usually, as in too short); mixed genre; too small a market for a publisher to profit from; poetry, short story collections. But be very careful how you interpret rejections - you need objectivity. Can you be realistic about its quality? Will you take the necessary steps towards expert editing?
  3. When the author has a memoir that would be interesting to a selected group of people but not more widely. People far too often think their lives are fascinating to everyone. They are usually less fascinating than you'd think. S-p, though, can work well enough for this, as can any niche non-fiction. Are you realistic about your goals for this book?
  4. If the book is sci-fi or fantasy - because these genres have enormous fanbases who spend a lot of time online and a lot of time reading. Still need an editor, though.
  5. If the type of book lends itself to the e-reading experience. Do your intended readers use Kindle, for example? If not, then you'll reduce your market. Also, books with lots of pictures will be very difficult to produce as ebooks - Kindle is at present in black and white, for example. Pictures and diagrams are tricky to format for ebooks.
  6. When the author has huge energy, understanding of using social media, and readiness to work very very hard at promotion. Increasingly, this is the case for ordinary publishing, too, but in s-p you're on your own.
  7. When the author has a good understanding of publishing, knows what it is that publishers do well and badly, and believes that he can do as well or, preferably, better.
  8. When the previously unpublished author has managed to get over the feeling that being taken on by a publisher has kudos. Personally, I believe it has. I believe that one of the affirming things about being published by a publisher is that they believed in your book enough to put money behind it. But, if you don't feel that strongly, that's fine. Success in s-p will bring its own kudos, but you do have some mental barriers to cross, in your readers' minds, too. This will change only when good s-pubbers focus on quality and stop getting so ansgty, working together with all good, open-minded writers.
  9. When a previously published author decides to do it himself. We already have readers, profile, and objective (as far as possible) evidence that we can write and therefore that our book is likely to be good enough. It just means we have a headstart, often a very substantial one.
  10. Only when your book has been properly edited. And copy-edited. And proofread. By people who know what they are doing.
There are, of course, no guarantees. There never are. More s-p books will sink without trace but at least you know you tried. And you were in control. I'd rather blame myself for failure than blame a publisher. I'd rather try than always wonder whether I could have succeeded.

An important thing for all writers to realise is this: readers buy fewer books than we'd like. (Some surveys say that UK readers buy as few as 6-10 books per year) and there's vast competition. We must try to achieve some degree of objectivity about our prospects and that only comes through knowledge. Again, plug into Twitter and get meeting people with knowledge!

Here are some questions for you. There are many more questions to ask but these are core. And please adapt them to your particular book and circumstances.

If trade publishing is not a choice for you (as per the criteria above), ask yourself:
  1. Have I the time, energy and expertise to run this as a business, on my own?
  2. What are my goals and definitions of success? How realistic are they and how much will I mind if they fail? 
  3. Can I be patient and do this properly? In other words, how much do I care about my book and its readers?
  4. What will buying in expertise cost me? Can I afford it or can I learn the skills myself? Am I prepared to set myself high standards of production, to make the reading experience good for the reader?
If trade publishing is a choice for you but you are considering s-p, ask yourself:
  1. Does the likely extra income from self-publishing outweigh the prospect of seeing my physical book in actual shops and any feeling of kudos from publishing? (Bearing in mind that there is also kudos in successful self-publishing now.)
  2. Can I acquire or buy the skills I'll need to do this well?
  3. Again, have I the time, energy and expertise to run this as a business, on my own?
Magnus, I hope that answers your questions!

I do think that knowledge is power in this game. So, get all the knowledge you can. Don't just believe what you want to believe. Be critical, too.

Everyone - please do add your comments. There's so much more I could have said and maybe some things you disagree with. I know there are lots of s-pubbers out there and you are most welcome to come and add your experiences.
_________________
PS You know I said I was publishing a book tomorrow? Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It is a complete secret and NO ONE must know. It's not called Tweet Right or anything like that. And it is obviously not available for anyone to buy. Anywhere. Not even here.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

PITCH PITCH 3

Three brave writers have offered their pitches to you for comment and constructive criticism. What do you think of them? And if you'd like to put your own pitch forward for the same purpose, please see the Over To You page above for details. It's a very, very good way to hone your hook before submitting to agents or publishers!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

TWEET RIGHT COMETH!

And about time, too, I hear you say! Well, I was going to publish it in September but the nagging demand has been increasing so I thought, why wait? It's nearly ready, I'm nearly ready, the Edinburgh Book Festival is nearly starting. The designer - Andrew Brown of Design for Writers, @abaloo on Twitter - has finished the wonderful cover. I've ordered promotional cards and dreamed up activities and a COMPETITION.

Plus, I get more and more annoyed by twittish things spoken about Twitter by those who don't know what they're talking about, mainly because a) they aren't on it and b) they only know what they read in the Telegraph. (*rolls eyes and yawns*)

Also, I had a flick through a sample of Grace Dent's book, How To Leave Twitter. I thought it was going to be about how to leave Twitter (well, duh) but soon realised it wasn't. It was a just a way of illustrating the obvious truth that, if you hang out with really irritating people on Twitter, you will end up having a really irritating time. Which is exactly like real life: hang out with tossers, and you won't be happy. It also seems to me not unlikely that if you spend your time on Twitter being obsessed with following celebrities you may end up wanting to stick needles in your eyes. Anyway, just in case readers of her book think everyone behaves like an idiot on Twitter (not that she does, by the way, despite the implications of the book's blurb), I thought I'd better get my guide for nice sensible people out asap.

"When? WHEN?" I hear you cry.

Soon. Soon. Very, very soon. No, really. I hearby announce that Tweet Right will be available (on Kindle first - or, of course, on the free Kindle app for ipad, pc, laptop, Mac or iphone - followed shortly by all other ebook devices) ... soon. It will leap out at you when you least expect it. That's my plan. It's an exercise in reverse-marketing: DON'T TELL THEM, PIKE.

How will you know when it's available? Because I will tell you. Here and on Twitter. And if you bump into me in the Edinburgh Book Festival or on the streets of Edinburgh in the next three weeks, I will tell you. And there will be a party with games and a competition and sparkly wine and all sorts of goodness.

And you will ALL be invited!

And here's a clue: today is designated #TweetRightTuesday. Because special Tweetrighty things will happen on Tuesdays. Why? Because I say so.

Meanwhile, I have a Tweet Right taster sample for you here.

Meanwhile, meanwhile during: do tell anyone who wants help getting the hang of Twitter that help cometh. And there will also be angels - #TwitterAngels. All will be revealed!

Monday, 8 August 2011

JULIE BERTAGNA INTERVIEW

It's my huge pleasure to welcome a friend and fellow Scottish YA writer, the lovely and talented Julie Bertagna. Julie's latest novel, Aurora, is the final part of the trilogy which began with Exodus, published to great acclaim in 2002. With nine years between then and now, there can be little Julie doesn't know about the enormous task involved in writing a trilogy. And she's generous enough to share!

First, a little about Julie: she has established a reputation as an author of powerful, original and award-winning fiction for young people. EXODUS, described by the Guardian as 'a miracle of a novel' was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year and won the Lancashire Children's Book of the Year Award. Julie's books are sold in many countries around the world and have been shortlisted for a number of major awards. The Ice Cream Machine was adapted for TV. Julie was born in Ayrshire, and has been a teacher and a feature writer for major Scottish newspapers. She lives in Glasgow with her family and speaks in schools, libraries and at book festivals across the UK.
NM: Take us back to when you first came up with the idea and suggested it to your publisher. Did you envisage it as a trilogy?
JB: Exodus began as a short story for an anthology of futuristic tales by Tony Bradman. So I had a solid idea in print to present to my publishers - which helped, as I’d originally presented them with a completely different, contemporary idea! But this idea was stronger. (I also changed publishers mid-book but that’s another story.) At the time, I was told that ‘no one is writing YA sci-fi so though we love it, we’re not sure how it’ll be received and we must steer clear of any hint of sci-fi on the cover as reviewers hate that. Plus, you’ve set it in Glasgow so it probably won’t travel.’ Or words to that effect. So I had no idea how it would go and was contracted to write another couple of books, though I was eager to write a sequel. Of course, as soon as Exodus got on shortlists and sold well and foreign sales came through, I was asked for a sequel. And that’s where the hard work started because there had been a gap, and the book wasn’t plotted as a trilogy. So I came back to it cold. I had to re-imagine myself back in that complex world again, remember it all, re-discover my characters - plus the arguments and events concerning climate change were everywhere now so I kept being ‘invaded’ by the real world as I wrote. But I deeply wanted to write more. It was a huge challenge, yet exhilarating to imagine all the possibilities of an epic story on a changed Earth of the future - I wanted to find out what happened next.
NM: Can you say a little about the difficulties and hurdles you faced with an unforeseen sequel to Exodus? Harder or easier than you thought when you began?
JB: The easiest book of a trilogy is surely the first one - especially if, like me, you didn’t know you were writing a trilogy when you set out! In the first book, you are free to take your story wherever you like. The middle book is perhaps the hardest as it’s the transition - now you have to create the big arc that links the books AND sustain the momentum that will power the third and final book. And carry with you readers that might not have read the first book without boring the ones who have. Plus, within the over-reaching story arc of a trilogy, you have to create the story arcs of each individual book, along with all the interconnecting threads of plot lines and individual fates. Truthfully, if I’d known that it was going to be a trilogy, there are parts of Exodus that I would have written slightly differently. There would have been a few things that I might have ‘planted’. On the other hand, I wasn’t constrained and the story was free to fly in ways that it might not have if I’d had a plan from the outset.
I do thrive on ‘organic’ planning - a rough map of the possible journey ahead and a faith that the layers and details, all the interconnecting threads, will emerge in the writing. I plan as I write. That can be scary, risky writing but it’s how my imagination fires up best. Characters did literally pop up and announce the part they intended to play in events as I wrote - I just wish they’d let me know a bit earlier and I wouldn’t have had so many problems to solve. But that’s the nature of writing - it’s a problem-solving exercise and the biggest challenge in a trilogy is to keep the forward momentum while balancing a lot of spinning plates!
NM: Although people of many ages read and love the books, what do you see as the core readership? Who is your "Ideal Reader" (Stephen King's term for the person, real or not, whom you feel you are speaking to.)
JB: Readers are all different so how is it possible to know who an “Ideal Reader” is and what they want? Even amongst readers who love your books there are huge disagreements. ‘Pleeease let Mara and Fox be together at the end!’ begs one, while another warns me that if I DARE write a trite, cut-and-dried Hollywood ending they will ‘never ever ever’ forgive me. So what I do is pretend that I’m writing for my younger self and my gang of friends. [Julie, that sounds remarkably like an Ideal Reader...:) People: this is what I mean when I talk about thinking of your reader. And good writers often don't even know they're doing it!] Fashions and tastes change - and it’s necessary to have an awareness of the current market, though just as important to find an original twist - but imaginations, hearts and souls don’t. I don’t abide by ‘write what you know’ - I write to find out what I don’t know - but I try to write for someone I know: someone a bit like my younger self, living in today’s world. [Again, a good way of thinking of the Ideal Reader idea.] That works for me.
NM: Tell us about your own connection with the underlying theme - climate change and flooding? Are you actually pessimistic or optimistic about it?
JB: I still keep hoping, for the sake of my daughter’s generation and their children, that the ‘deniers’ are right or that predictions are exaggerated. But I’m afraid the evidence that’s stacking up is very scary in the long-term. Strangely, what inspired me was my own characters. Their stories crystallised a truth for me: that humans are the most selfish and destructive animal on the planet - but also the most ingenious. Our creative impulses and survival instincts are stronger than our destructive ones. In my books, there is a global empire of ‘dystopian’ sky cities that have abandoned the world’s flood refugees - yet the towers of these giant cities are wonders of green bio-architecture.
We have to invent new ways to live on this planet - and isn’t that what human beings have always done? There is an idea that we have to make the impulse toward sustainable technologies grip the global imagination just as the ‘space race’ of the sixties did - make that something that every nation on Earth will want to reach for in the way that we once wanted to reach for the stars. Ultimately, it might be ‘do or die’ for the human race but we have the imaginations and the creativity to do it - and a burst of new industries might just save the world economy too.
NM: What is it about foxes??! You have a crucial fox in the trilogy; Tim Bowler has a fox watching his latest novel; so do I (work in progress). Tell us about your fox. What do foxes bring to our stories?
JB: Foxes are fantastic characters, smart tricksters, mysterious and charismatic, sneaky and dangerous. There’s a tradition of fictional foxes going back to Reynard the Fox in the Middle Ages - and no doubt much earlier in oral tales. The night I began writing about ‘my’ Fox, all I had was the sense of a mysterious presence that was tracking Mara - then I looked out of my window and jumped. A pair of eyes gleamed at me through the darkness. A fox. The fox that, no matter what I did to keep it out, still found a way into my garden to raid the bins. Later, me and Mr Fox would fall out big-time when he tried to eat my rabbit, but that night he gave me my inspiration for Fox, the love of Mara’s life, who manages to sneak into places he has no business being - and ultimately it’s the smart, dangerous, charismatic trickster in Fox that finds a way to change a broken world.
Julie, thanks so much for those great answers! I know you've only just finished a very tiring publicity round, so I hope it wasn't too arduous to come and be interviewed here. I'll pour you a coffee in the Yurt next week!

Questions and comments, anyone?

See Julie talk about Aurora at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this SUNDAY Aug 14th. Hurry - book now! Julie is lovely and I promise that you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

THE MIND-BLOWERY OF FLORENCE AND GILES

I don't review books. In the past, I have done so for the Guardian and a few other places, but I don't on this blog. Until today. This is different. Or - and you'll soon see why I say this - it has differented me quite. 

If my language seems somewhat unusual in this post, there is a reason.

Last week a book mind-blew me and it necessaries me to speak about it. I have not yet recovered and I am not intentioned to do so. The book is Florence and Giles by John Harding and it is to blame for the fact that I went into a meeting with a publisher without preparation, so distracted was I, so mind-altered. Mind you, I created a few sales instead. One to my agent and one spontaneoused to a random person on a train. And two excited tweets spiked sales on Amazon.


The story magicked me with its mind-trickery, heart-stopped me with its unreliable-witnessing. It originals along at a rattling pace, although I wanted to linger on every sentence to remember its whimsery. 

Let me talk about this language-witchery first, before telling you the aboutness of the story. The language is the extraordinary first-person voice of twelve-year-old Florence, a girl who has secretly taught herself to read after being expressly ever-forbidden to do so by her unmet guardian uncle. When she speaks to anyone, she does so in a normal voice, but the language she spell-weaves for us is one in which every speech part infinitely flexibles. So, instead of saying, "She said something which was obvious", Florence would say, "She obvioused." We hear her no-ideaing and franticking, or that something perfect-sensed her or that someone family-resemblanced someone else. Whereas you might hold something gingerly, Florence gingerlies it. You might have a hiding-place for candles you have stolen; Florence has a hidery for her purloinery of candles. You might take no heed of something; Florence unheeds it. You might say that it was impossible to steal something, but for Florence it impossibled her to steal it.

When she moves a book in the forbdidden library, it releases a "sneezery of dust". How beautiful an image is that?

Everything, absolutely everything, twisted as it is, perfect-senses. The reader does not have to work hard at all.

The effect is also astonishingly economical. It Chineses the words, fashioning a complex concept into one symbol. A Taiwanese friend of mine once pointed to daisies on a lawn and said, without preamble or verbery, "Snow in summer." Everything necessary was expressed in that new phrase; it wasn't just words put together: it was all the meaning and a whole load more than just those words. It perfected. It exquisited. It enoughed. That's what Florence does. Each time, her words breath-catch me quite. (And I apologise if I haven't justiced it here - I'm a beginner at Florencespeak.)

Set in 1891, the story explicitly references Edgar Allen Poe, The Turn of the Screw and (not explicitly but obviously) Jane Eyre. But what strongs it more than the sum of all of them is Florence. She is the unreliable witness to top all unreliable witnesses. Her unreliability is both her undoing and her saving. Some kind of genius she is, very damaged, her heart smashed by unmotheredness and then repaired crookedly as though a frightened child has gathered up the pieces of broken china and hastily stuck them together, higgledied them so that it is oddly strong and yet ugly. She is supremely resilient and brave –  for she has instincted the enormity of the risk of failure. Her icy heart and pschopathy are redeemed by her protective, desperate, maternal love for her brother, which is also both her undoing and her saving. It is a love that will anything. 

Anything.

It unboundaries her.

Florence is a girl I love and fear, want to wrap in maternal arms and yet lock up for ever, counsel and yet constrain. She has wooed me with her fake innocenting. I dread on her behalf the moment when, wisdomed by age, she understands the truth of what she thought she was telling us. I still don't know how much she knew, so much pokery does she play with her words, so murky is her soul.

Florence is twelve years old. Her half-brother, Giles, is nine. They are both orphaned, Florence unmothered during her own birth (and her eyes tear when she finds a picture of her mother, in a desperately moving scene given bathos by her use of the word "drippery"), and then both children unparented in a boating accident when Giles was a baby. It is not the main boating accident of the story but it's certainly one that the reader must remember and unravel with guessery. The children live a strange existence in the Gothic, crumbling, vast Blithe House, cared for by servants and a house-keeper, and then governesses - two, or perhaps only one, who knows? - with their lives distantly ruled by the absent uncle, whose absence and coldness the reader also wonders about.

Florence's madness perhaps begins when she decides that the second governess is the ghost of the first one, who “tragicked” in a boating accident with only Florence present. Florence guilties about this because she had wished the woman dead, and indeed the death conveniences remarkably, being on the very day on which Miss Whitaker had "unlibraried" her, meaning that Florence's elaborately – and Florence does do elaborate – secret library trips would have ended if Miss W had had a chance to tell. After four months in which Florence and Giles halcyon and feral their summer away, the replacement, Miss Taylor, arrives and Florence is convinced that Miss T is an evil spirit who can read her guilt precisely and who has come to take Giles away from her.

The story then becomes Florence's daily and increasingly terrifying battle to protect her brother from the clutchery of the devil. And when you're dealing with the devil, there are no limits to what you are allowed to do. You are unlimited. You are perhaps even dutied to go further than otherwise.

I'm not going to spoil the ending or even the middle because I am desperate for you to read this book. But I will say two things: first, Florence is both terribly right and terribly wrong. Second, all the clues to everything you need are in the book. Everything jigsaws into place. You know enormously more than Florence, even though you see everything through her eyes.

I mentioned some of the influences on this book but there's another book which I pretty much guarantee John Harding hasn't read but which Buddhaed in my mind throughout: The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, a book I reviewed for the Guardian. There are madness, parental loss, adolescence, literature, psychosis and unreliable narratory; both are set in America in settings without external influence, are Gothic, violent, macabre, playing with the supernatural. Even the flashes of humour are similar, delivered in each case through the biting intelligence of young uber-literate girls.
(From my Guardian review): "The Moth Diaries delves deeper into the neuroses and psyche of female adolescence than anything I've read. It is dark and dangerous, gothic, brutally revealing, regularly shocking and perfectly controlled. We know from the preface that the main character has 'borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis'. We know she recovers. That foreknowledge never weakens the story's grip.
“Set in 1960s America, it is the diary of an unnamed 16-year-old, who has been sent to a girls' boarding school after her father's suicide. Forget jolly hockey-sticks - this is no Malory Towers. It's a night-time world of obsession, passion, blood - and death. Every girl wallows in parental abandonment, clinging to friendships with a Sapphic intensity; food is friend and foe, to be gorged or rejected; life must be lived dangerously, with the need to risk death with self-starvation, drugs, suicide attempts, or crawling along gutters 100 feet up. Death does visit Brangwyn Hall several times. Is it bad luck, or is it caused by creepy Ernessa, the object of the diarist's jealous spite? Is Ernessa a vampire, or is this the melodramatic imagination of a psychotic and grieving girl? Does she really see Ernessa sucking blood from Lucy, or was she hallucinating? And is Lucy's increasing weakness simply caused by anorexia?”
I've often said that The Moth Diaries is my favourite book of all time.

Until now. Florence has place-taken it quite.
________________________________
Are you intrigued? Well, good news: I’m going to meet John Harding later this month during the Edinburgh Book Festival. I’ll be interviewing him – a podcast if possible, possibly even with video. Please come back for that. I want to know about the language, how it came, how he worked it; I want to know a lot. I want to know about his own childhood, too. But meanwhile, for goodness’s sake: BUY THE DAMN BOOK and share my altered neural networks, otherwise this book will continue to crazy me alone! And the ebook is stupid cheap. There is quite simply no reason not to buy it. And if you love it, join me in singing it.

DO go and see John Harding and Michelle Paver at the Edinburgh International Book Festival NEXT WEEK - Weds 17th August. Details and booking here.

Some links: 

John Harding talking about the book.

John reading the beginning.


John's website and blog.

The Times review.

Monday, 1 August 2011

THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND AND ALL OUR STORIES

This is not about books, but it is about stories. Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the gala opening dinner for the gloriously renovated National Museum of Scotland. My husband and I have a small connection to this enormous, ambitious project and to see the reality of the plans and pictures that we've been looking at for so long was breathtakingly wonderful.

None of my pictures will do it justice but that's ok: you will just have to come and see it yourselves! By the way, those who have been to the NMS in the past will recognise this as the revamped main hall. But this is no longer the entrance hall. The entrance hall is awesome in a very different way and I don't have a pic of it, I'm afraid. I blame the fact that I had a glass of champagne in my hand at the time and didn't want to put it down.