Wednesday, 17 May 2017

HONESTY IS A DANGEROUS POLICY

Hello, my lovelies! Happy Wednesday to all. New post today, hosted on the Author Allsorts - it's a long and perhaps rather controversial one, on the topic of online honesty and how it can go wrong. I think it's quite important, and I'm hoping it will spark discussion, so please do click over there and check it out.

In Other Stuff: the secret it out! I'm going to be at YALC this year! I'm so excited - I haven't attended since the first winter pop-up event in 2014, and some of my absolute favourite writers (and some of my absolute favourite people) are going to be there this year. I don't know yet which day or days I'll be attending, or what events I'll be part of, but tickets are available now, so get in there if you can. Whoot!

Finally, here's a lovely thing I found on Twitter - an award to help support unpublished writers to finish their debut novel. It's a really good amount and as far as I can tell there's no entry fee. This year's award doesn't open for another six months, but that is GOOD, because it gives you time to pick out your very favourite idea or else come up with one, write the 20-30,000 word sample they're asking for, and then polish, polish, polish that baby until it shines like a gem. The actual entry window is quite narrow, so to have the best chance you'd want to be ready well before October, not panicking at the last minute. Bookmark it and keep it in mind, Dear Readers.

WAIT! Don't close the tab! Click through to Author Allsorts first and check out my real post for today. Talk to me in the comments there and share your experiences if you feel comfy doing so.

Read you later, muffins.

Friday, 12 May 2017

FIVE THINGS ON A FRIDAY

Hello and happy Friday, muffins! Did you have a good week? If not, at least we're nearly at the weekend, and I hope that's better. Today I'm bringing you a random list of five things that are on my mind this Friday, and I hope you will enjoy them.

Personally this week I had a list of things as long as my arm to get done - including my tax return, eugh - but none of it happened, because Super Agent turns out to be a super speed reader as well, and was undaunted by the prospect of ploughing through 123k of first draft. It only took a week!

So Number One of my Friday Five: an update about the WIP. Super Agent and I had a loooong chat about the manuscript on Monday, and despite the detailed disaster scenarios I'd constructed in my head ("I'm sorry, but I've realised that you are aren't suited to being a writer after all. I'm going to have to ban you from writing ever again and banish you to outer darkness...") she DID really like it, and all the issues she raised were totally fixable. Super Agent also turns out to be super good at editorial stuff - who knew? We've never really worked together on a manuscript like this before because all my books, even the trilogy, had contracts before I wrote them. As usual, I finished our conversation suffused with a sense of well-being and optimism. I've been feverishly cutting and then putting new bits in all week long. I finished the first round of revisions (there might well be more) yesterday and sent the book off again, around 5k shorter. Fingers crossed my agent thinks I've managed to improve it.

Number Two: Mostly for USian Dear Readers this one. For the whole month of May The Swan Kingdom is on sale in ebook for under $2. You can get it on Kindle, Nook, and from Apple among other places. So if you've been wanting to read it, or just add a digital version to your ereader, now is the time my lovelies!

Number Three: This brilliant, incredibly detailed and *important* piece from an anonymous, impassioned reader about the problem with recent Mulan retellings that divorce the story from its cultural roots. I was moved and shaken by this. My version isn't a straight retelling but more a fantasy inspired by Mulan, and I know that it won't be judged perfect - nothing ever is. But reading through that article I was able to feel that, at the least, I had thoroughly considered all the points the writer brought up before I ever started writing. I'm so glad I found this. I just wish I could get in contact with the writer to thank them - but I also want to think Justina Ireland (YA writer extraordinare) for opening up her Not A Blog for these anonymous reviews, which is a really brave thing.

Number Four: I wanted to drag this post back out from archives in response to the above - my opinion on the difference between diversity and cultural appropriation and why this is so important.

Number Five: There's going to be a long, rather personal, and possibly controversial post from me over on Author Allsorts on Wednesday. It's about some not-so-nice things that have been happening in my life and how those have affected me over the past year. I'd love it if my account of those experiences could spur others to share theirs, so we can have a discussion about it and maybe all feel less alone. I'll do a link back post here on Wednesday to remind you, but I wanted to mention it here too because it's very meaningful to me.

SURPRISE NUMBER SIX: Ha ha! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! I'm so excited about the Wonder Woman movie that I could pretty much burst into song at any old moment, and I can't believe how little media coverage there's been. My tickets are BOOKED. Book yours too! This film looks awesome and we all need to support it and show Hollywood that *good quality* action films with nuanced and well-realised female heroes (not fighting sex toys!) are a great investment. Here's the trailer. Watch it. AND GET EXCITED.

Friday, 5 May 2017

RETROFRIDAY: A QUESTION OF LAUGHTER

Hello, and Happy Friday, Dear Readers! In an effort to make up for my month-long neglect of the blog, I've unearthed what I think is a rather cool post from the archives and dragged it (kicking, screaming and possibly making threats) into the light once more, in the hopes that some of you may have missed it the first time around, or might enjoy re-reading it.

If anyone has any other writing questions, or you're one of the people who sent me questions but haven't had an answer yet (mea culpa!) please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll try to respond next week. For today:

RETROFRIDAY: A QUESTION OF LAUGHTER

Today I'm going to tackle a question from the comments, left by Dear Reader Rebecca, which reads as follows:

After reading about Jack in The Night Itself, I was reminded about a problem I am having in my book. Like Jack, I have a character who is a bit of a joker. The problem I am experiencing is making my character funny in a way that seems natural. He always says funny comments at the most inappropriate times, and the characters in the book find him funny, but I don't know if readers will find him funny. Did you experience this when you were writing Jack? I want my character to be the one that makes the future seem a little brighter, even under the direst circumstances, but I don't think I am executing it as well as I hoped.
I wish I had a really amazing answer for this - it's a great question. The problem is that it's kind of... unanswerable? Because humour is one of the most quirky and individual traits we have. What makes one person laugh until they cry makes another person cringe or simply say 'I don't get it'.

For example, the most celebrated comedian of recent times, Ricky Gervaise, fills me not with the urge to chortle but the urge to hit him in the head with a bag of wet cement whenever he shows up on TV. And 'Get Smart', a film starring Steve Carell, which tanked at the cinema and was roundly condemned as unfunny by everyone, tickles my funny bone so hard that I have a DVD which I take around to my parents place to cheer my dad up whenever he's ill (seriously, I've watched it about twenty times now).

And that's not the only problem. Sometimes even if you do succeed in making a character generally funny - that is, funny to the largest possible section of your potential audience - that can still work against you. Unless you're writing 'a funny book', a book which has the sole aim of making readers laugh, you have to be really careful that the humour you use works *with* the rest of the book. That it's adding to the other effects that you were trying to create, helping to characterise your people, adding to your atmosphere, moving your plot forward. 

When I was writing Jack (and, indeed, Mio) I really wanted her to have a real teen voice, to sound like someone you could overhear sitting behind you on the bus any day of the week. So I burrowed down into my memories of being a teen and linked those up with the memories of all the young adults I've been privileged to meet over my years of doing school visits and book-signings and library bookclubs, and I chose a certain tone for her.

That tone was one of a really clever, sensitive young woman who sees a lot more than people realise she does, and who responds to most of it with a joking, insouciant tone which hides how deeply she cares. She acts tough and like she takes nothing seriously, but underneath she's a big softy.

However, when my editor came to read The Night Itself (and indeed, Darkness Hidden, the next book) she didn't really see that big-hearted, bright teen. The facade which I'd written for Jack was too good. Her defense-mechanism humour was so effective that it stopped the reader seeing who she really was.

My editor said she laughed out loud constantly at Jack's jokes. That's good right? Well, not always. As a result of all these moments of humour, she was constantly being thrown out of moments of tension or sympathy or even fear because Jack (or Mio) made some light-hearted quip. Jack came across like she just wasn't scared of the terrifying events that were going on around her, like she thought she was invulnerable. And if Jack wasn't scared, why should the readers be scared for her? Why should they empathise?

The big re-write that I did on The Night Itself ended up being mostly a process of scaling back the humour in the story. Not just Jack, but Mio, needed to be shown to the reader as more than brave, wise-cracking teens. Their vulnerabilities, their fears and insecurities, their uncertainty about the situation and themselves, all needed to be painted in with just as much care as I had used on their one-liners. And sometimes that meant cutting a really killer line that made me laugh out loud, and my editor laugh out loud, every time that we read it.

I fought for a lot of those lines. Like you, I wanted to use humour to undercut moments of high tension and stop the story and characters from getting too pompous. I wanted to contrast light-hearted moments of my young adult characters just acting the way that young adults do with moments where they're confronted with challenges that most adults couldn't face, and take them on, teeth gritted.

But if you've worked incredibly hard to build up a chilling, frightening, or exciting scene where the reader is on the edge of their seat, not knowing what will happen next or if someone might get hurt or even die, and then you have a character throw a quip in there that makes the reader unexpectedly laugh, a lot of the time not only have you *defused* the story tension that you worked so hard to build, but you might also have made it that much harder for the reader to empathise with your character.

There are moments when even the most hardened joker is going to choke on their own feelings and come up empty, and you need to be able to show that - because that's the moment when the reader will fall in love with your character and all their glorious vulnerability. That's the moment when the reader will see the complex, nuanced character that YOU, the writer know and love.

Basically, it's a balancing act, and there's no easy way to ensure you don't fall off.

My advice to you is this. The only person you can be absolutely sure of making laugh is yourself. So go for it 100%. Make this character as funny as you want them to me, for you. Don't hold back for fear of offending anyone else or getting it wrong.

Then, when you've finished, you're going to hand your manuscript over to others. Beta readers or critique partners or a trusted friend - or maybe even an editor or an agent. And those people are going to say 'Hang on, this joke right here... it kind of ruins this tension you were building up and now I find I'm not scared anymore' or 'I actually had a real feeling of sympathy for their situation then, but then the character joked about it and I got annoyed...'.

When this happens you must be prepared to go back into the manuscript with a ruthless pen and pare the humour right down so that it shines through only at moments when it really improves your story, increases empathy between the reader and the character, or undercuts a moment that needs to be undercut. The end result may be a story that causes less belly-laughs in the reader, although I think you'll be surprised at how quite a small amount of humour can go a very long way. But it should ALSO be a story that touches the reader more, moves them more, and leaves them with a sense that they got to know the characters well, instead of just glancing off the surface of their humourous defense mechanisms.

I hope this is helpful, Rebecca!

Monday, 1 May 2017

HELLO MAY!

Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! I am so sorry for the complete radio silence throughout the entire month of April. There's one big reason for that silence. Very big. 123,000 words long in fact.

That's right! The WIP is finally 'finished!'

Celebration writer-stylee
I had promised to send the complete manuscript to Super Agent before the beginning of May, but I really needed to put my foot all the way down and block out everything else in order to get it done by that deadline. Hence no blogging.

After I finished the first (actually third, but officially first) draft of the book, I printed it out and tried to ignore it for about a fortnight. I do this for everything that I write, if I can. Then once I've gotten that crucial bit of distance, it usually takes me about a week to ten days to work through and mark up a manuscript and then another week to ten days to actually make the changes to the book. This story took double that time to mark-up and nearly that again to get the changes input. I put that down not only to the length - which was 133k before the edit, longer than Shadows on the Moon, up until now my longest draft ever - but also the density of research involved.

I have never done this much research for a book before in my entire life. No, not even Shadows on the Moon. I might have to open up my own little secondhand bookshop in order to dispose of all the reference books just so that I can see the walls of my study again.

This makes editing a fine balancing act.

Which bits of research honestly need to be woven into the book to give the reader crucial information? Which parts are vital to make the story cohesive and believable? Have you managed to impart this information in a subtle and interesting fashion or does it need to worked on some more - broken down further or conveyed less directly. Which bits of research probably ought to be there to create mood, atmosphere or immediacy, but can really be cut down a lot, moved, or rejigged? Which bits needed to be there for you, the writer, to work through certain elements of character or plot development, but can safely be excised now that the draft is complete? Which bits probably never needed to be there but you worked them in anyway because they were cool or you wanted to make the best of that super boring book you forced yourself to read cover to cover which really only had one interesting thing in it...?

Do any of these alterations leave weird gaps or obvious joins in your prose, or effect your story's pace?

Then there's parts of the manuscrupt where you suddenly panic because you realise you didn't give enough background or detail... but you can't find the notes/reference book/link that would help you to correctly convey that info, and you have to spend a day tearing your house/internet search history apart to try and find it so that you can add one delicate little line to the end of chapter nineteen, and a paragraph in chapter twenty-two, to ensure that the entire secondary subplot makes sense to someone other than you.

All that in addition to the usual prose, pacing, characterisation and plot stuff! It makes for a lot of work. It was fun, but still super intense.

And yes, you did see sarcastic quotation marks bookend the word 'finished' (I did it again, can't help it). This is because although I've written my first draft and revised it to the best of my ability, this is actually only the beginning of the process. I await Super Agent's judgement. Is it too long? (Probably). Too slow? (Probably). Too boring? (I really hope not!).

Depending on her feedback I could be revising it for months more - but there's no way for me to know at this point, since I basically have zero objectivity left after working on this monster for - er - over eighteen months now, on and off? Eeep.

This book doesn't have a contract yet. I really believe in it, and think it's not only a good story, but an important and timely one. But any crossed fingers or prayers to the book gods that you might feel like offering up would be super appreciated anyway.

In the meantime (while waiting for my agent's verdict and then waiting to see if any publishing houses feel like offering the book a home) I'll be doing work related to my Royal Literary Fellowship and, after the usual period of frantically tearing through my dusty TBR pile, probably noodling around on various other projects just for fun.

What are you up to, my lovelies? Let me know in the comments!

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