Sunday, 27 May 2012

A British heatwave

It's rare that a British person can start a blog with these words, but wow, is it hot. I think we must have swapped weather with Australia. The sun is blazing, there's no wind, and I'm getting absolutely no work done.  

I spent most of this week on the college quad, pretending to write an essay, reading King Lear and working on The Bone Season. I've decided to make a few structural changes to the ending. I've knocked out a few superfluous bits (mostly involving my character being in the bath/pondering the meaning of life/generally not doing anything useful) and started to replace them with scenes that actually move the plot along.  

I'd planned for the editing process to happen via a page-by-page agenda, but it's been quite piecemeal recently. My brain and the heat really don't get along too well. 

I've been asked a couple of questions by readers, which I shall answer now: 

Was it hard for you to start writing your novel?

I started The Bone Season a little while after finishing Aurora, my unpublished first novel. Because I'd had the experience of writing a large novel previously, it wasn't too hard to start again. It was actually very refreshing and exciting to have a clean page in front of me. I had some doubts as to whether I could really produce another 120 000+ words, but once I got started I forgot about the page count. I just wrote and wrote until I reached the end.   

The main difficulty in getting started was that I chose to write The Bone Season in first person. Initially this was quite a difficult endeavour, as I hadn't written in first person before and it was hard to find a good 'voice' for my narrator. There's a very fine line between a narrator who is too strong, to an unbelievable extent, and one who is too weak to bear the weight of the story. I tried a few different beginnings until I found one I liked, and developed my narrator's voice as I went on. I found the writing flowed easily once I'd found the right voice. 

What sort of fiction books do you read?   

My absolute favourite book is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. I was given a copy by one of my English teachers before I left for university. It's a beautiful, chilling novel in which women have been stripped of all their rights and liberties, leaving them with only one function: to breed. I remember finishing it for the first time and being left with a sense of real emptiness, and true appreciation for my life. It is a novel that changed my whole perspective on the world, and encouraged me to read (and eventually write) dystopian fiction. You can hear more about why I love The Handmaid's Tale here, in my recent interview with the Cherwell.   

When I was younger I read a huge range of books. Reading was all I really did. I grew up on The Faraway Tree, The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. I also used to read the 'My Story' historical novels. My favourite of the series was Anne Boleyn and Me: The Diary of Elinor Valjean, London, 1525-1536. I think it was these books that sparked my interest in history, particularly that of the Tudors. I owned most of the series. They're wonderful, accessible books for children to read. 

I enjoy most genres of fiction, mainly those with some degree of magic or the supernatural. If they don't have the fantasy element, they're usually [a] mysteries or [b] dystopian. I'm a great fan of Isaac Asimov; I bought The Complete Robot when I was about fourteen, loved every page of it. I've also read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I remember when I first started to read A Study in Scarlet and literally couldn't put it down, I was so gripped by it. I've always loved the character of Holmes, especially his recent incarnation in Sherlock (played by the very lovely Benedict Cumberbatch). I have a love-hate relationship with crime novels, but Conan Doyle will always be one of my most beloved authors. 

I haven't had much time to read for pleasure since going to uni, but I recently started The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I'm only six chapters in, but I'm in awe of Ms Miller's delicate, sensory descriptions. It's a shame that Orange are discontinuing their sponsorship of the prize, as it brings some truly talented female writers to public attention. 

Finally, I should mention my favourite genre: dystopian or speculative fiction. If you're not sure what a dystopia is, you can take a look at an article I wrote on dystopian cinema. There's something about this genre that's very special to me. Having been asked many times why I enjoy a good dystopia so much, I still can't quite pin it down. I think it's primarily because a repressive environment forces a character to his or her limits, whether physical or emotional. I find that characters are more fun to write in extreme situations. The Handmaid's Tale is my top favourite of the genre, but I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Orwell's classic dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four and the more modern Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I also recently finished A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, which encouraged me to play around with language a little in The Bone Season. If anyone can recommend any dystopian literature, please do I'd love to take a look. 

Anyway, back to editing for the evening. Possibly with a nice cup of tea. Do ask more questions if your interest is tickled. 

Samantha

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Royal Charter

And so the editing continues, slowly. He who shakes the spear keeps snatching my attention. I'm currently reading Othello and The Winter's Tale.  

Yesterday was the Royal Charter Event at my college. It's been sixty years since the Queen visited St Anne's and transformed it into a full college of the university. 

Oxford is split into thirty-nine colleges, each of which has its own governing body and funding. St Anne's College is a fairly little-known establishment, located in north Oxford (or Mordor, as I like to call it). Sometimes tour bus announcers will sail right past our modest cluster of buildings without mentioning them, possibly because we have no "dreaming spires". We do, however, have a vibrant student population. 

St Anne's was established in 1879 as a place where young women could be educated at Oxford. Back then it was known as the Society of Oxford Home-Students. I had a chat with some alumni at lunch, most of whom attended the college during the forties and sixties. One lady told me that when she was a student, many lectures  mainly for the sciences  were labelled "for men only". On one occasion, she said, only women turned up to a lecture. The lecturer walked into the room, said "I see there is no-one to whom I can lecture", and walked right back out again! Despite all that, St Anne's was established as a women's-only college in 1952. Since then it's become co-ed; it's now one of the biggest colleges in the university, with the second-largest library. Very good for me.   

I'm very proud to be a member of St Anne's. Even if it doesn't have the rich history of many of the other colleges here, it has fought long and hard to be where it is now.

Back to The Bone Season. I've done about four pages of edits. Last night I was making a few tweaks to the introduction of Jaxon Hall, my narrator's employer. Jaxon has been with me since the beginning; he was one of the 'core characters' that lasted from the start of The Bone Season to the end. He was never renamed, cut or added: he was always just there. I had so much fun adding the intro scene, my 'early night' idea went straight out of the window. In retrospect it was a slightly overambitious plan, considering my current workload. I think I hit the pillow at about 3:30AM, riddled with caffeine. Still, it was worth it. Jaxon is an enormously fun character to write. Possibly my favourite character in the series.  

I've spotted people betting on a possible love triangle between Paige, Jaxon and Warden, as the name 'Jaxon Hall' apparently has a bit of a bad boy vibe. No comment on the exact relationships in the novel, but I've never been too hot on love triangles.

I'll leave you with a recording of me on Sunrise, floating in front of the London Eye. And no, I'll admit it: my elaborate wavy hair in the last interview was not my natural hairstyle.

Samantha



Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Taking up the scissors

"The work was like peeling an onion. The outer skin came off with difficulty [...] but in no time you'd be down to its innards, tears streaming from your eyes as more and more beautiful reductions became possible."

Edward Blishen 
Thanks to Mac for bringing this quote to my attention!


Today was the beginning of The Bone Season's official makeover. I caught the X90 to London and had a quick coffee in Seven Dials before heading over to Bloomsbury to hear Alexandra and Alexa's thoughts on how to go about editing the novel. I also forgot my umbrella.

I'd like this blog to be helpful to writers, so I'll give you the lowdown on the editorial process as I learn about it. The purpose of an editor is to pick up on inconsistencies, help the author hone their style and generally make the story more readable. Most authors will do some sort of self-edit before they send their work to an agent or publisher, as small errors can send a manuscript straight to the slush pile. There are some really fantastic books to guide your self-edit: my personal favourite is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, both very experienced editors. It includes some helpful exercises and tips, and is also a very light-hearted read. But don't get too involved in your self-edit. You'll end up in a sort of editorial limbo. This happened to me when I was writing Aurora. I edited the manuscript so much that I ended up editing the love out of it. It sounds corny, but you really can edit something too much. I would strongly advise you not to spend more than a few weeks on your edit, depending on the density of your manuscript. When the editing process starts to get boring or tedious, just stop. If the fundamental idea of your story is good, small errors won't matter too much in the long run. 

That brings me to editors in the publishing house. Typically there will be an editor-in-chief and his or her team. One or more of them will read the manuscript carefully and make comments on it. The comments could be on small things, like grammar and syntax, or on larger elements of your work
a particular character's development, perhaps, or the atmosphere of the story in general. Editing the novel is a collaborative process: you work closely with the editor(s) to make the necessary changes. Today, for example, I met Alexandra and Alexa for sandwiches and coffee in the office, then we had a really long chat about things I could do to make The Bone Season better. Sometimes they just needed me to clarify something. Sometimes it was dodgy grammar (I'd used the word "gotten", for example, which is an Americanism) and sometimes a cliché had wriggled in.    

The editors will often have different opinions, and you may not always agree with them. Alexandra, for example, is very fond of the closing line of the book. Alexa likes it, too, but she thinks it's a bit too abrupt. In this case, we need to spend a bit more time thinking about it. I might try and experiment with a few different ways of ending the novel, and we'll see which one we like best. It's your novel, so you're perfectly within your rights to disagree with an editorial suggestion, but be open to them. The editors are very experienced and they know what works and what doesn't 
that's their job. If they're as passionate about the novel as you are (which they should be, or you've gone with the wrong publishers), they'll be eager to hear what you have to say.     

I've currently got about six pages of notes from Alexandra and Alexa, which I'm going to be working with for the next month. They've asked me to describe the world of Scion in a bit more detail, which I'm really excited about.

In other news, I'm on Australian TV again on Thursday night. This time it's Sunrise Channel 7, which apparently has the highest ratings in Oz for a morning show. I'm on air at 8:10AM on Friday morning Australian time. I wish I could say I was completely confident after Channel 10, but I looked a bit like this when I was told: 



 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Late-night live

I had my first TV interview with Channel 10's Breakfast show yesterday. Channel 10 is based in Australia, so I had to go down to the Pacific Television Center in London at 23:10 08:10 over there in order to do a live broadcast. I had a mic on my collar and an earpiece to hear the presenters. I was a tad nervous but the staff at PacTV really put me at ease, and by the time I went on air I was  hopefully  fairly composed! Having dragged myself out of bed at 06:00, I was also too tired to be nervous. You can see the interview here if you live in Oz.

I'm starting an initial edit of The Bone Season with Bloomsbury on Tuesday afternoon. I've been going over the manuscript making red marks, so it currently looks more like one of my old Maths papers than a novel *shudder*. I'm very excited to have the expert eyes of Alexandra Pringle and Alexa von Hirschberg on it.

A couple of people have said via Twitter that they'd like to ask me some questions about writing. I don't give out my email address online, but I can answer any questions via this blog. If you wish to remain anonymous, don't worry: I won't publish the comment or reveal who asked the question. 

Samantha

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Tying loose ends

What a crazy week! I've barely been keeping up with my work. Yesterday was the StART Festival, a day-long celebration of St Anne's College talent to kick off Arts Week, which I've been planning for a few months. I was a bit nervous at first, but it all ran smoothly. We raised about £30 for English PEN, a charity that supports the freedom to read and write.  

I woke up this morning after a very busy day at college and went out to grab a coffee
and a copy of The Sunday Times. The only time I've ever been in a paper that I recall was in the local Gazette when I was about six years old. It was for a daffodil-planting initiative, and a group of us were standing by a big cardboard trowel. I remember one of the boys had to dress up as a giant bulb. Needless to say he wasn't happy. But I'm thrilled and very overwhelmed today to be in a national paper. Seeing the names of my characters in print was amazing, and it's incredibly exciting to see so much early interest in The Bone Season.  

I'd just like to clarify one or two things: first of all, my advance from Bloomsbury was not seven figures. It's a six-figure sum for three books, starting with The Bone Season, but the team are committed to doing all seven. Very few debut novels receive seven-figure advances! 

There has also been some misunderstanding about my mum, Amanda. This has stemmed from my interview with the Sunday Times, in which I said that Mum restricted my writing hours because she was concerned about my health. Several news sites have since said that she tried to crush my dreams, that she was relieved by my rejections, and that if she'd had her way, The Bone Season would never have been written. On the other hand, it's also been suggested that Mum's anti-novel sentiment was a bit of a publicity stunt, and that no mother would ever complain about her daughter writing or studying. 

Me with Mum.
At the time I was writing Aurora, I was doing my GCSEs and later my A-Levels. Mum was naturally very concerned that I was spending all my time writing and no time studying. My writing hours, as I mentioned in my previous blog, were also impacting my health: I was exhausted, grumpy and generally unwell most of the time, probably from lack of Vitamin D! Mum wanted me to have a solid Plan B if my writing didn't work out, so she encouraged me to concentrate on my studies and write after I'd finished my exams. She also encouraged a healthy balance getting some fresh air. At the time I resented her rules I was obsessed with my dream and it felt as if she didn't understand. Now I look back on it, however, I understand completely how worried she must have been. I quietly took her advice on board when I was writing The Bone Season, making sure I took regular breaks when I was writing, and I think the book is a lot better for it. Mum is incredibly proud of me and is always there for me when I need her. I couldn't ask for a more supportive parent. 

Another slight misunderstanding – I came across one comment saying that it looked like I must have 'known someone' to get a publishing deal. I want to make it clear that this was absolutely not the case. I know how tough it is to get an agent and how much it must hurt aspiring writers to read something like that, but it's just not true. As I said in my April blog post, I was given my agent's email address by a friend my stepfather had bumped into. He passed it on with the intention that the agent should give me some critique on my first novel, Aurora. But here's the thing: David didn't want the manuscript. He was very kind and encouraged me to keep trying, but Aurora just wasn't a great book. He would never take on a client because someone knew someone else. The only real advantage I had, knowing someone who knew David, was that he read it faster than he would if it had been at the bottom of the slush pile. Agents don't work through nepotism. They have to be fully committed to a book before they will represent it. David represented The Bone Season, my second attempt, because he believed in it. Perhaps some deals have been struck based on friendship, but no good agent is going to represent a book they don't want to represent.  

Finally, I'm stunned to see that I've been dubbed "the new J. K. Rowling". I've been seeing articles all day that have been throwing that phrase all over the place. The question "Is she the new J. K. Rowling?" has been popping up on Twitter feed, along with some concerned comments about how much pressure I must be under. To be honest, I'm terrified. Like most people of my age, I'm a huge fan of Ms Rowling I grew up with Harry Potter and I think she's a wonderful writer. I used to try and read the HP books in one day when they came out (I managed with all but The Order of the Phoenix). It's scary to have been cast in her image when nobody outside the publishing industry has actually read The Bone Season. I know many authors have been called "the next J. K. Rowling" it seems inevitable nowadays but it's really nerve-racking to be viewed in such close quarters with her. Just to clarify, [a] this comparison came from The Sunday Times, not from Bloomsbury; and [b] the comparison refers to the similarity between my deal and JK Rowling's (seven books with Bloomsbury), not to the content of the book. Nobody at the Times had seen the book, so there's no way they could have made that kind of claim.

A few people have pointed out that seven books is rather a lot to write, and that I'm at the risk of the narrative of becoming bloated, or too long. I'd like to reassure you that Bloomsbury put me under no pressure to write seven books. The story is partly based at Seven Dials, and there were always seven stories in my head. With time and careful planning, I believe I can make the series work. But no pressure or anything...

Before I head to bed, I'd like to say sincerely, particularly to Harry Potter fans, that I am a different kind of author to Ms Rowling and The Bone Season is a different kind of book to Harry Potter. I hope very much that you will read and enjoy The Bone Season in its own right when it comes out next year.    

Samantha