Monday, 30 December 2013

SHADOWS ON THE MOON SEQUEL SHORT

Hello, my lovelies! I hope everyone had a marvellous Christmas and that you're all gearing up for a fantastic new year, too. I have a little seasonal gift for you, which I hope you will enjoy.

People are always asking me if I'll ever write a sequel to Shadows on the Moon, and I'm always saying 'If I write a sequel, I have to make my babies suffer! I don't want to make my babies suffer!' But it turns out that short stories are a kind of exception to that rule. You can nip quickly into and out of your characters lives, just to check up on how they are. Which is what I did when Walker Books asked me to write something to promote the iTunes and Kindle sale that's going on right now - offering Shadows on the Moon for just 99p until the 6th of January.

You can read the short story, which I called 'The Rainy Season', for free, on the Ink-Slingers blog here, and get a taste of what life is like for Akira and Suzume in their new home in Athazie. And if you've been meaning to pick up a copy of Shadows on the Moon, now would be a great time to do so from Kindle or the iBookstore.

Read you later, chickadees.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A QUESTION OF DISTANCE

Hello, my lovelies - happy Tuesday to all.

On Sunday I finished my copyedits of Darkness Hidden (Book #2 of The Name of the Blade) and so I spent yesterday wandering around in a strange daze where I felt guiltily as if I had far too much time and ought to be doing something important with it instead of lounging about like a lazy layabout. This resulted in the following list of activities:

  • writing a short story, 
  • replacing the catflap (with my sister's help) which was destroyed by some kind of unidentified charging creature in the middle of the night, 
  • walking to local Post Office to post letters, 
  • making grocery lists for last-minute Christmas shopping, 
  • making recipe lists for Christmas baking, 
  • getting my self-employed accounts book up to date.

And then realising that actually I hadn't stopped the whole day. So I napped. For an hour. And then watched 'Escape to the Country'. It was all rather surreal, really. I was saying on Twitter that after a burst of really feverish activity, where you're cramming as much work as possible into each day and jamming all the other necessary things in around the edges (like cooking and housework and feeding the dog), your time goes all stretchy, like a jumper that you've tugged and pulled at and carried potatoes and maybe the odd puppy in. When you take the potatoes and puppy out of there, it doesn't fit right anymore. It takes a while, and maybe a spin-cycle or two, for the fabric to shrink back to its correct size.

Also on Twitter, long-time Dear Reader Alex asked me: 
What is your advice (if you don't mind) for setting out to edit a NaNo novel aka a mess of a first draft? (or any first draft)
Which is one of those questions where there's so much advice, just a huge volume of advice, that could possibly helpful, but I can only give you *my* take on it, which is highly individual. So you should take this with the proverbial pinch of salt and just adapt it to what seems best for you.

The first advice I would hand to anyone who took part in NaNo, and has therefore produced a huge volume of words in a very short period of time is - get some distance. Really, this is universal advice for anyone who's just finished any draft, but it especially applies to NaNo. At the point where you finish a first draft you have been practically living in your story world for days or weeks, completely immersed in the characters and emotions and images that exist beyond the words.

That means the words themselves - ie., what readers will be responding to when they pick up your book - have ceased to have much meaning to you. You're in the headstory. You know what you felt and thought and what you meant to express, but don't know what is actually on the page. And it's no good trying to read it and find out because the second you put yourself in that position, there you are, back in the headstory, inundated by feelings and not actually seeing the words. At this stage you're pretty much the last person in the world who has the ability to judge what you've actually written down.

The only cure for this is distance.

You need to put the manuscript aside for as long as you can possibly accomodate in your schedule. When I've been working on a book for a year, I put it aside for two or three weeks. If you've been working on a NaNo story you probably want to put the draft aside for even longer than that, because you've been working much more intensely.

During this period, you need to detach yourself from your headstory as much as possible. If you have any brilliant revision ideas, quickly jot them down, but resist the desire to spend all this time thinking dreamily about your manuscript and wanting to get back to it. Do other stuff. You can work on other stories if you want, but I recommend recharging by taking a break and enjoying other people's creativity - take the chance to catch up on all the books you've been ignoring, see some new films, re-watch some favourite DVDs or DVD boxsets, and, while you're at it, spend some time with friends, family, your dog... whatever makes you happy and present in the now.

Some writers recommend sending the book to critique partners or beta-readers at this point. I've never had a critique partner or beta-reader, and so my methods are geared toward working to improve a book solo. But even if you *do* have people that you like to read your work and give you feedback, I do think probably now is not the time to send your work to them. Because it's a mess. They're going to be reacting to those words on the page, remember, which are nothing like what is in your head at this point. You need to get the pagestory a bit closer to the headstory first, so that your CPs or BRs can focus on helping you to make the book as good as it can be, rather than spending all their time attempting to figure out what the heck any of this is about and forcing you to explain 'what you really meant'.

What I do at the end of my period of trying to get distance is to get the mauscript (which I normally print out, in a different font and format than the one I've been looking at in my Word doc., right after I've typed 'The End', ) and re-read it as quickly as possible. Quickness is essential because you don't want to give yourself the chance to get sucked back into your headstory again. No. What you're reading here is the WORDS. The actual words on the page. Try to forget what you intended and felt and what you imagined as you were writing all this. And prepare yourself for it to be a thoroughly depressing experience.

I mark up every problem I see on the pages with a red pen. That's everything, from spelling and typos to 'WHO IS THIS CHARACTER?!' and 'Scene sucks. Chuck and re-write from scratch' and 'Need much greater sense of menace through chapters 1-12'. Sometimes I fill the blank backs of the pages with new versions of the areas that need work, or notes.

Once I've gone through the whole thing, and have battled and overcome my profound sense that the book is the worst thing anyone has ever written in the English language, I go back to my computer and rip that manuscript to shreds, imputting all the changes from my red notes on the printed ms and any others that I think of while I'm at it.

Now - at this point I am generally on my third or forth draft of the ms, because I write in longhand, then revise when I type up, and normally revise the previous day's work again before starting each day's longhand writing. So I'm confident enough to send the book off to my editor and agent. But if you don't go in for all that mallarkey, then you're now most probably on your SECOND draft, which means it's way too early to be submitting to editors or sending to agents.

But this is the time when those beta-readers and critique partners are handy. Hopefully the story you were actually wanting to tell readers (not the one you told yourself in your head) is a bit more evident at this point and so your helpers will be able to see what you were trying to attempt and can offer you advice that will allow you to pinpoint where you failed and allow you fix it. But if you, like me, work alone? There's nothing for it at second draft stage than to put the book aside again for a few more weeks to get that precious distance back in place. And then you need to go through the whole 'ripping the manuscript to shreds' thing again.

For me, the minimum amount of drafts any book ought to go through before I share it with publishing professionals is four. The first draft is the crappy messy incoherent pile of words that basically just gives you an idea what you *don't* want to do (this is what ends up scribbled in my notebook). The second draft is where you try to see what actually you *wrote* and pull it to pieces to get at what you *meant* (this is where I type up my scribbles and often radically change them in the process). The third draft is where, having gotten closer to putting what you actually meant on the page, you can focus on the craft of writing itself and polish the book to bring everything into focus (this is where I revise my typed up manuscript each morning). The fourth draft is where you get your distance again, then go over the whole thing looking for any issues, big or small (this is where I print my ms, leave it alone for several weeks, and then cover it with red ink).

Some writers work differently, and send their very first drafts to their editors or agents. Other writers do ten drafts before risking professional feedback. In either case, if there are still places in the ms that make you squirm a bit and think 'Oh, that'll do'? They won't do. You need to revise again.

And that's my advice! I hope it's marginally helpful.

See you (most probably) next week, my lovelies.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

SOME BOOK REVIEWS

Hello, oh luverly readers. I've just realised that this is actually my 500th post on the blog! If I'd figured that out any earlier than eight o'clock last night I'd probably have tried to organise something a bit different and special, but perhaps this is more appropriate really: today, I bring you the fruits of my procrastination - ie. a bunch of reviews of things that I read while I should actually have been writing.

If the universe was fair, of course, these books would all have sucked in order to punish me for my lazy, procrastinatory ways. But instead, several of them are amazeballs of a really high order, and I thought I'd talk to you about them.

First up was Lips Touch: Three Times written by Laini Taylor and illustrated by Jim di Bartolo.

U.S. Hardcover

U.K. Hardcover
I was *so* thrilled that this came out here in the UK finally that I snapped it up for my Kobo and ordered a hardcover copy too. And then another hardcover copy for my sister, for Christmas, because I know she'll love it nearly as much as I do. This isn't a novel, but a collection of two short stories and a longer novella, and that format really allows Laini Taylor's extraordinary imagination the freedom to spread its wings. She creates three complete, fully realised fantasy worlds and populates them with vivid, complex and not-always likeable characters who each become simply unforgettable by the end of their stories. The gorgeous illustrations are icing on the cake - although I was sad that they were in black and white, rather than colour (the preview on the Kindle version of the book does show them in colour, and I believe they were coloured in the U.S. hardback too - why so stingy UK publisher?!).

Laini Taylor's writing is intoxicatingly good. It's so good that it's not possible to describe it, really, without sounding gushy and overblown - you want to throw superlatives in there like 'romantic', 'lush' and 'beautiful' but you're still not getting at just what it is that makes this story collection so special. The atmosphere it creates is utterly magical, and every time I had to put it down I felt as if I was still walking around with half my soul existing in a parallel dimension of wicked goblins, tragic curses and howling wolves. I had the sense that every line of Ms. Taylor's prose I absorbed was teaching me something, whether it's how to contrast whimsy and terror, or how to use contemporary language to understate horror, or how to let lyricism off the leash without losing control of it. My favourite of these stories is the final one, the longest, and I hope and pray that the writer may one day return to that world; although in fact any of the settings, any of the characters utilised here, could easily support a full length book. If you only buy one new book before the end of this year, make Lips Touch the one.

Second came The Name on Your Wrist by Helen Hiorns (this will be out on the 2nd of January 2014).



I was sent a link to an eGalley widget to this book, saw that it was about soulmates, and downloaded it assuming that it would be a nice, sweet story about forever teenage love. I probably *wouldn't* have downloaded it if I'd realised that it's nothing of the sort - that, in fact, it's one of the bleakest and most uncompromising Dystopian novels I've ever come across - but that would have been my loss. I'm glad I read it, even if it did leave me wanting to curl up under a blankie with a cup of hot chocolate and have a good cry.

This is a really remarkable debut from a very talented writer. I've never come across a PoV character quite like this, or a narrative voice that struck me in quite the same way. The writer walks a razor-edge between prose that truly does read like the self-obsessed, angsty journal rantings of an emotionally broken teenage girl, and prose which has the emotional clarity and power required to carry a full-length book. The main character, Corin, is one of the least immediately 'likeable' and therefore perhaps *most* realistic female characters I've read in ages, calling up definite echoes of Cat Clarke's unforgettable Grace in her debut Entangled. She's strong and yet feeble, angry yet vulnerable, and she's got everything and everyone all figured out right from the start, while simultaneously managing to be wrong about all the most important things.

I love the ideas in this book. It creates a Dystopian future which rather than seeming outlandish and shocking feels shockingly plausible to the point of being bland. A future in which people in power  really do seek to keep everyone safe - by making them comfortable, appealing to their laziness and desire to fit in, and making all their choices for them. Each plot and subplot is there to challenge our idealisation of romantic love as the only love that really matters, presenting a world where everyone has a soulmate, where everyone knows the name of the true love whom they will eventually find - and it's a complete nightmare.

This book's only real weakness is its ending. There's a brilliant twist, but sadly the way it's unveiled and the main character's reaction to it rather works against the messages that we've absorbed from the story up to that point. It needed further unpacking and resolving to make it as strong as it should have been. But regardless, I really admired the author of this book for making so many daring choices, and for managing to surprise me. Recommended.

Finally, Chime, by Franny Billingsley.

U.S. Hardcover

U.K. Paperback
I must be the last person in the whole world to read this, but I'll go ahead and throw my two cents in anyway. Again, I fell in love with the snarky, bleak, broken voice of our narrator, Briony - it was clear from pretty much the first page that she was an utterly unreliable narrator, but equally clear that *she* didn't know this. I love both her, and the cast of characters around her, some of whom revealed hidden depths by the end of the book - others of whom simply became more who they had seemed to be at the beginning, which I thought was a nice touch. In real life, after all, some people really ARE just exactly what you think they are when you first meet them.

One of the great strengths of the book, aside from that marvellous Briony voice, is the setting of the Swampsea, which felt completely real to me as someone who lives on the edge of a boggy saltmarsh. I also loved the richly textured, tattered backdrop of myths and fairystories and legends - many of which, of course, turn out to be frighteningly real. At times the town setting felt a bit threadbare in comparison, with scenes that could/should have been colourful and lively, such as Briony's fight in the town square ending up feeling a bit 'talking heads'. I wonder, actually, if that was a conscious choice on the part of the author, making the magical swamp feel much more real by comparison.

However, once again I felt that the ending of the novel let it down. Without giving away spoilers, a certain character abruptly acts in a way that completely changes our understanding of who he is - and then proceeds to blame it on Briony (who is far too ready to take the blame, as we've seen throughout the entire book). This scenario feels entirely familiar to someone who's read about rape culture, as does the fact that this male character's pain over what he's done is treated as far more important than the heroine's pain at he's done to her. He's instantly forgiven so that the story can have a conventionally happy ending. All this left me feeling betrayed and bruised on the heroine's behalf. I think I can understand why that scene was there and what the writer intended - to shed a light of human frailty on a character who might otherwise have seemed too good to be true - but the method used and the pat wrap-up just didn't work for me, and nearly ruined an otherwise brilliant story.

I think I'd still recommend this, but with a trigger warning that there are problematic elements.

So! What have you guys been reading lately? Give me your recommendations in the comments, my muffins.
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