Sunday, 17 May 2015

The good fight

Writing action scenes is difficult. They ought to be the most exciting part of a novel, with pulse-pounding danger and high stakes, but it's easy for them to become repetitive, dry descriptions of who's where and how many times they've been punched in the gut. 

The scrimmage – a fight between over twenty voyant combatants, including Paige, with an excited audience watching and reacting – was one the toughest scenes to write in The Mime Order. I agonised over every sentence. I knew the scene would go on for quite a while, as would the ensuing one-on-one fight between Paige and another character, and that they would both have serious emotional and physical repercussions. It was important not only for the reader to remain interested and want to read on, but for them to be on the edge of their seat, too.  

 
So, from experience, here are some things to bear in mind when you write an action scene, particularly physical fights:

[1] The personal pronoun. “I kicked, I punched, I screamed in pain” – all of these are perfectly good phrases, but when they’re clustered together, one after the other, it makes for a clunky, plodding experience for the reader. Try to think of different ways to describe what’s happening. “I screamed” could be replaced with “a scream escaped me”, for example. Also applies to “he”, “she” or “you” if you’re writing in third or second-person.

[2] Injuries. Unless your character is superhuman, you’re going to need to keep track of the injuries they sustain, consider the long and short-term effects those injuries will have on their health, and find out how long they’ll need to heal. This is harder than it sounds when you’re trying to get on with the plot, only to remember that your character is badly hurt and may not be as energetic as usual. A fractured leg might seem a small thing to toss into an action scene, but your character is going to be recuperating for at least six weeks, if not more. Deep bruises will ache. Cuts will sting. Open wounds will need to be stitched and disinfected. 

Tyrion Lannister's facial scar
[3] Scars. Not all wounds heal perfectly. If your character regularly gets into dangerous situations, they’re likely to have a few scars – and they might be somewhere visible, like the face. (Yes, the face.) We tend to shy away from obvious scars in fiction, especially on female characters, who are expected to be beautiful. Try to shake that mindset. If you have a male character who’s battle-scarred, but still desirable, ask yourself why a woman can’t also carry signs of her past fights. Characters are also very unlikely to walk away from an action scene looking like they've just stepped out of the hair salon: they'll be dirty, tired, and possibly bloody.

[4] Movement. In a combat situation, your character is going to be focused on their body, and on their opponent’s. A single misstep could result in a grave injury; exhaustion could be fatal. Consider the placement of their feet, the way their limbs are moving, their sweat, their body temperature, their heartbeat, their aching muscles, the throbbing of fresh injuries. 

[5] Imagery. Action is often brutal and bleak, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a fight aesthetically pleasing. Many forms of combat are quite beautiful to watch, especially when the combatants are very skilled. A dry description of who’s punching who isn’t going to hold your readers’ attention for long. Paint a vivid picture of the scene. Think of it as a theatre production: colours, lights, the stage, the props. Describe the sounds, the sights, the smells and tastes of the scene. You don’t have to go overboard – just help the reader picture it. 

[6] Dialogue. If your characters are hammering each other, chances are that emotions are running high, and that words will be exchanged. Reading dense paragraphs of action might be fine for some readers, but it might be an idea to break it up a little with some dialogue, both for a change of pace and to give insight into what the characters are thinking, and how they feel about each other.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

YALC

The news it out! I am tremendously excited to be attending the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) this year alongside Carrie Hope Fletcher, Cassandra Clare, James Dawson, Darren Shan, Sally Green, Amy Alward and tonnes of other amazing authors. I'm also going to be live-tweeting some of the events I'm not participating in. It sounds like it’s going to be a spectacular few days, so do grab a ticket if you're free that weekend.

YALC was founded by Malorie Blackman. This year it will take place between 17 and 19 July alongside London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) at the Olympia, London. 

Read more

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Translation and news

Good morning!

As you may already be aware, I sometimes do interviews with people from the publishing industry on this blog; I’ve previously interviewed a cover designer, two literary agents, and an audiobook narrator. (You can read them here.) Next, I’ll be interviewing one of my lovely translators, Janet, and asking her about her career. If you have any questions about translation – what’s fun or challenging about it, what the process involves, how long it takes, anything at all – then let me know by commenting on this post by 20th April, and I'll pass them on to Janet. 

In book news, I'm just tidying up Book 3 before I send it to my editor, Alexa, for her first notes at the end of the month. I'm also working on a mini-project; researching Book 4; preparing to judge the BBC Young Writers' Award; sketching out an idea for a new, unrelated novel, and starting to look into renting my first apartment. Phew!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Spring Giveaway

Hello!

So I ran a giveaway on Twitter last month to celebrate the publication of On the Merits of Unnaturalness, but I've become a little uncertain about the randomiser I was using to choose winners. After the same person came up three times in a row – which I appreciate could, technically, be random – I kept clicking, only to discover that the same small group of people were being chosen every time. This clearly isn't fair, so while I'm investigating with the randomiser people, I've decided to redo the giveaway here, with two extra mini-prizes (!!), in a shorter amount of time. This also means that people who don't have a Twitter account, or whose Twitter account is private, can participate, so much fairer all round. Sorry for the inconvenience if you took part the first time, but until I've sorted out this potential issue with the randomiser, I think Rafflecopter works best.

Important: If you would like to win the first prize, On the Merits of Unnaturalness, leave a comment on this blog post to tell me what kind of voyant you think you might be. So I can check if you've done this, make sure you use the same name in your comment as you do when you enter. Please note that I moderate blog comments to prevent spam, so don't worry if yours doesn't appear below the post immediately.



Terms and Conditions 

If you win any of the first three prizes, you agree to have it personalised with a name. This is an international giveaway. I handle all postage myself, but I can't take responsibility if any prizes are lost in the post. Prizes are sent by second-class post.

This giveaway finishes on 21 April 2015. 



Prizes

 1. A signed and personalised limited-edition print copy of On the Merits of Unnaturalness, the notorious first pamphlet by Jaxon Hall. Comes with a signed postcard.

2. A signed and personalised UK paperback of The Bone Season. Comes with a signed postcard.

3. A signed and personalised US hardback of The Mime Order. Comes with a signed postcard.

4. A signed and personalised postcard, with the invitation to the scrimmage (from The Mime Order) printed on the front.

5. Two signed and personalised bookplates to put in your own copies of the books.



Enter


 
 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Limbo

This was originally posted on my Tumblr, in response to a question here



"Oh my God, we've been boxed!"

Age-based categorisation of a books is a topic I find fascinating. From the beginning, there was never any question that The Bone Season would be an Adult book. When my agent was sending it out to publishers, he sent it to the Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury’s Adult division. She was the one who first loved the book and made a passionate offer on it; it was never considered, to my knowledge, for Bloomsbury’s YA and Kids’ division. I’ve spoken about why I think it was the best choice here. However, other opinions differed. I’m published as YA in the vast majority of territories not covered by Bloomsbury, and I’ve seen my books on various YA lists and shelves on Goodreads and other websites.

Personally, I don’t mind how you categorise the books. I am very proud to be a member of either the YA or Adult book communities, and to have people of all ages reading my novels. I seriously doubt that there are many readers out there who strictly adhere to one or the other. So many articles disparaging YA imply that people who read it, especially adults, are reading below their level and are thus missing out on the rich variety of Adult books, which is bullshit for two reasons: [a] reading YA doesn’t mean you only read YA, and [b] quality within YA ranges as much as it does in Adult. There are well-written, challenging, diverse and exciting YA books, and there are terrible Adult books, and vice versa. Age-based marketing should never, ever be used as a measure of quality. 

For the whole of my career so far, I have existed in a strange limbo between Adult and Young Adult. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed this fluidity. I don’t like to say who I do and don’t think should read my books. I like that people of many ages feel perfectly comfortable reading them. I’ve met people in their seventies who’ve loved it, and people in their early teens, and every age between. The one label I didn’t want to give The Bone Season was Children’s or Kids’, as I genuinely don’t believe it would be appropriate to call my books “children’s books”. This isn’t because I have anything against children’s books at all, but because I don’t see how my work fits into that category. There’s swearing, sex and violence, which I have no intention of toning down, and most of the characters are adults. But apart from that, I don’t aim for a particular age demographic.

Sometimes, limbo can feel a little lonely. Books tend to be split crudely into “YA” and “Adult” or “genre” and “literary”. Awards, prizes, literary festivals, and other industry events are often based around these categories. I don’t fit clearly into the YA or Adult category, so I sometimes feel as if I’m not a fully-fledged member of either community; as if I’m too YA for Adult and too Adult for YA. I was invited to speak about YA on the radio late last year, for example, and I saw someone who was baffled by the fact that myself and the other speaker had been invited over “actual YA authors”. I’m not criticising this person at all – it’s true, and there are many YA authors who deserve a lot more coverage – but I admit, it bruised a little, seeing it said so bluntly. It made me realise that I wasn’t considered by some to be a real part of the community. I’m not a YA author in the UK, but I am one in Spain and Italy and various other countries. I love being invited to YA conventions and events, but because I’m not a YA author in the Anglosphere, I sometimes miss out. Meanwhile, in more Adult environments, saying I write dystopian fantasy fiction about clairvoyants in the future occasionally earns me a blank look. Fortunately, the lines between YA and Adult are becoming more and more vague, and many readers and writers glide between both.

I don’t think anybody really knows how to define YA, or distinguish it from Adult. I’ve seen reviews of my books that say the content is YA, but the pace is Adult. I’ve seen reviews saying they’re clearly Adult. I’ve seen reviews criticising Bloomsbury for the Adult categorisation. 

What are the real markers of YA? I found the pace idea particularly interesting. Do YA books have to be very fast, loaded with action? (In which case, aren’t Dan Brown’s books YA?) Do they have to place more emphasis on story than character development? (Are we saying here that YA characters are universally flat and stagnant?) Is the marker of YA simply that the books are about teenagers? (If so, why are John Green’s books sometimes classified as Adult?) Is it to do with some subjective view of the quality of the writing? Does the writing have to be simplistic or economic to be YA, while Adult books are lyrical and use richly descriptive language? (Isn’t Laini Taylor’s work Adult, then, and George Orwell is YA?)

Or is it to do with who buys the books? Does YA have to be bought by young adults? (Yet a recent statistic suggests that 80% of YA books in America are bought by adults.)

So clearly there is no consensus among readers, but age-based categorisation of books is still upheld by both the publishing industry and booksellers. And you can understand the logic behind it, as they need some way to market them. Arguably, genre is one way they can do this, and they do – but then, some books don’t fit into one clear genre. either. I also feel that genre-based categorisation could make aspiring writers feel as if they have to write within the confines of a genre to ensure there’s a place for their book on the shelves – which, in turn, could discourage experimentation. We don’t want to create a world where books are locked into a faction system, or where people feel guilty for enjoying stories that are supposedly too young for them. There has to be room for the Divergent books that tick multiple boxes – the ones that break that system – or they’ll fall between the cracks. And I believe most books are Divergent; that very few books in the world can be easily defined by a label, or an age range.

Age-based categorisation isn’t great, and it’s terribly subjective, but I doubt it’s going away any time soon. Think of it as a guideline, nothing more. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t read. Don’t think you can’t write books that appeal to both adults and teenagers. Basically, we should all do what we can to avoid limiting readership for any book.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Creativity and work

A few days ago on Twitter, I spotted an ask to Carrie Hope Fletcher, who plays Éponine Thénardier in the West End’s production of Les Misérables. The asker was wondering why she described her job as “work”, as having a career in the West End is a dream, and the word “drags it down”.
First of all, I saw Carrie in Les Mis the other day – and bloody hell, that is work. It’s amazing work. Although the word is associated with toil and difficulty, it also means “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something”. And that is exactly what they do in the West End. Not only do the performers sing their hearts out, but they also pour physical and emotional effort into their acting, run and climb their way around the stage, and play multiple roles in each performance. I can’t imagine how exhausted they must be after doing that twice in one day. It’s clear that they all love what they’re doing, but I now have even more respect for how much Carrie does on top of it, like her videos and writing. 
I didn’t want to criticise the asker specifically, and I’m really straying away from their original point with this ramble – but I suspect this mindset is part of the larger reason why people in the creative industry, especially if they’re freelancers, find it so difficult to get paid a decent wage for their work. Even though we all love the theatre, paintings, comics, music and books, and we’d be devastated if they disappeared, it’s always seen as strange if any creative job is actually described as “work”, or people who do them ask to be paid fairly for their time. 
The results of this mindset can be seen everywhere. Non-professional artists who do commissions charge well under the industry standard, presumably because people don’t consider their time worthy of decent payment, and because they should be enjoying it. (See this chart for the huge disparity.) One of my best friends is an artist, and I remember how long it took for her to be confident in charging more than about $5 for hours, days, or even weeks of work. She thought that, because she was self-taught and had no qualifications in what she was passionate about, she was unworthy of asking for asking for anything more. Most likely, she preferred the idea of a tiny payment to putting off the commissioner with what she saw as a daunting sum of money. 
Authors are often expected to do appearances at literary festivals and school visits for free, because we should do it for love of literature and learning. We are criticised for getting angry about piracy, because we should be grateful that people want to read our books, and that we got published in the first place when many people don’t. And we should do anything else for free, too, because it’s great exposure. No doubt the same applies to musicians without a massive record deal. And we do it, because we love our jobs so much, and we feel so lucky to have them, and we do want to make ourselves available whenever we can – but we also need to pay the bills.  
Meanwhile, in the UK, the arts and humanities have suffered terribly in recent years. I doubt many politicians have said out loud that they think the arts have no real value – except, of course, for Eric Pickles, who memorably called Tristram Hunt a “luvvie” for being concerned about the decline of culture in the country. Meanwhile, reading charity Booktrust has lost its Northern Irish funding for Bookstart – a programme which provides free “start up” packs of books for babies and children – and Soho, a district with a long and proud history of supporting upcoming actors and musicians (and the LGBTQ community), is facing the closure of several venues on flimsy grounds. This assault has been so obvious that a campaign, Save Soho, has been kicked off to preserve the area’s character, and has rightfully been supported by some big names from the industry. No doubt this same government wants creative people to keep up the jolly good work, old chaps, because they enjoy the industry’s success, but they’ll be damned if they support the places that encourage young creatives, especially if they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. The same government also wonders why the literacy rate in the UK is lagging behind other countries in the developed world, while merrily closing libraries and making cuts to the arts and Special Educational Needs (SEN) under the banner of austerity.  
My point, in illustrating all of these things, is to highlight the deep contradiction in the way we think about the creative industry and the people who work in it. We love authors, but although we pay other people who are involved in a literary festival, we don’t always think they’re worth the money, despite the fact that without them, there would be no festival. (It does seem this is slowly starting to change.) We love the theatre, but the performers aren’t “working”. We love art, but don’t value it enough to always believe the artist should be paid fairly for their time. We’re making draconian cuts to the arts and humanities in the UK, despite the fact that in 2014, the creative industry – arguably the result of people being able to learn about, and practise, arts and humanities – was found to generate an astonishing £8 million per hour for the country. Per hour.
So do we value art or not? If so, we need to start showing it in our language and our attitudes towards it. Creativity is a form of work – perhaps the perfect response to the definition “exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something” – and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. We can love what we do and think it’s worth something. All creativity produces something, whether it’s a play, a painting, or a novel. All creativity accomplishes something, whether it’s catharsis for the creator or a deep emotional response in the spectator. So yes, creatives: call it work, your work, and be damned proud of yourself. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Depression Umbrella

If there’s one thing we need to bear in mind – particularly the media – it’s that ‘depression’ is not a byword for any form of mental illness. Depression is not anorexia. Bipolar disorder is not OCD. Paranoid schizophrenia is not GAD.  A person can have both illnesses at once, but they’re not the same thing.

Mental illnesses produce different symptoms, are treated in different ways, and have different causes – yet they all seem to fall under the umbrella of ‘depression’. It would be considered absurd and disrespectful to conflate physical illnesses in this way. You wouldn’t use ‘tuberculosis’ to describe hepatitis or cancer, for example. Tuberculosis, hepatitis and cancer all affect the body, but they’re not the same disease.

We have this strange societal notion that illness of the mind is simplistic. Which is bizarre, as the mind is too complex to fathom itself. In the year 2015, we should all be making the effort to speak in the same language about mental illness as we do about physical illness. If we don’t, stigma will thrive, sufferers won’t seek help for fear of being branded insane, and diagnoses will be slow or non-existent. So remember, always use words responsibly – they’re the most powerful tools for change in our possession.