Sunday, 24 March 2013


Just a short one this week, guys, sorry – I'm snowed under with final proof tweaks and forcing my brain into study mode. Less than two months to go until Finals. *quakes* Once my degree is done I can finally get back to writing...

In Bone Season news, Alexa and I are painfully close to finishing the proofed manuscript: the version of the book that you'll be able to buy in shops, sans typos, with extra embellishments and changes. I've also started working with my Swedish and Hebrew translators. I'm really excited about both of these, as I had various Swedish and semitic influences when I wrote The Bone Season (most notably the Hebrew word "Rephaim"). The word that's given both of them difficulty so far is mime-lord. It's been really interesting to compare linguistic differences and try and create new words that will convey similar meanings to readers outside the Anglosphere. We're also contending with the double meaning in the title, which can only realistically be conveyed in English and one other language, French. My German publishers, meanwhile, have come up with a whole new title for the first book, although they'll be retaining the English series title of The Bone Season alongside it.  

Finally, if you have any questions for a YA editor, do drop me a line – I've organised another Q&A. See you next week!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The mysteries of YA

Before I start my blog this week  I met Neil Gaiman! Turns out his children's books are published by Bloomsbury, and there he was at a meeting. The BBC Radio 4 production of Neverwhere started yesterday, and it's awesome. And it has Benedict Cumberbatch and Natalie Dormer in it. And Neil signed my copy of the book.

I will stop fangirling and move onto the blog now. Please welcome Kirsty Mclachlan, DGA's film, TV, YA and children's agent!

Q&A: Literary Agent – YA

Kirsty McLachlan is a literary agent at David Godwin Associates (DGA). Her list includes adult fiction and non-fiction writers and children and YA authors. Her children and YA authors include Alex Campbell, Clémentine Beauvais, Lucy Inglis, Julian Sedgwick, Marcus Sedgwick and Rhian Tracey.  Kirsty also represents film and TV rights for the DGA agency.

How did you become a literary agent? 

I’ve worked in agencies for over twenty years now. I began straight from university through an advert in the Bookseller for an assistant at the Abner Stein Agency. I worked there for 8 years and learnt a huge amount from Abner, before moving to DGA Ltd. to represent the film and TV rights for the agency, and to build my own list.

What makes a query jump out in a saturated market like YA?

For me it’s totally instinctive, there should be just something about the writing that ‘fizzes’. I’m not looking for a trend or a subject matter. I love being told stories, tell me a good story and I’ll sit up and listen. Titles are important – ensure your title really works, and then the pitch must be strong – but it’s the writing that counts. I know within a page or so if I’m going to love something.

What's the hottest trend in YA fiction right now? 

I ignore trends – if they are hot now and on the shelves, you’ve missed the boat. Be aware of the market but don’t try and copy it. In my submissions, I’m getting a lot of trilogies and series submitted still, fantasy novels, dystopian novels, dark fairy tales and books about angels.  Write the book you want to write.

How far is too far with darker themes and adult content?

Never include dark themes or adult stuff, if there is no purpose. There has to be a purpose and a point to your themes and more than that, you need to have something to say about it. That said, I really don’t have a problem with it if it is woven into your narrative brilliantly. YA books should always push boundaries but don’t use content simply to shock, say something with it.

Would you ever respond to a query with advice or a review? 

I tend to avoid giving an author a full review – it can be taken the wrong way over email and anyway, it’s only my opinion. But I do sometimes – if I think the writing is good but just not for me – suggest other agents they should approach.

Do you consider the author's age before you offer representation? 

No. I sold Jade Ngengi’s book to Chicken House last year and she was fifteen (sixteen now). It’s the writing that is important and that I feel I can work with the author.

Why do you think YA books have skyrocketed in sales over the past decade? Do you expect it to continue?

There was an obvious gap between children’s books and adult books which was filled by YA books. But I do think it links into social media and the ability of readers to ‘talk’ to each other – so word of mouth becomes viral. Booksellers have become much cannier at speaking direct to the reader and embracing social media. Of course, there is also the shift of adult readers buying YA books as well – and younger readers (10 plus) who are reading above their age group. I don’t think sales will continue in the same way but there is an established audience now, so this is still a fantastic age range to write for.

Are there ever times when it's okay to query an unfinished MS? 

Most agents would say finish your book first – and I tend to agree. There are many times when a book is finished and the author will go back and make quite major structural revisions. However, last week I made a two book deal for a YA writer I took on, on the basis of 40 pages. The publisher also made the offer before seeing the full manuscript. So it does happen.

Is word count, too high or too low, ever a deal breaker, even if the story and writing are both great?

My heart sinks if a book is too long but if the writing is good, I will always make exceptions. Similarly, for short novels – if the writing is powerful, sparse and written in the way that every word counts, I will make exceptions. Agents like authors, like to break rules, break moulds.

Thanks so much for Kirsty for taking the time to answer these in detail! I think that last piece of advice is crucial: agents love to break rules. Don't just go with the crowd and follow trends. Write something unique. Let me know if there's anyone else you'd like me to interview from the publishing industry, or if you have any requests for upcoming blog posts.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Scrivener's palsy

Writer ailments

Anonymous asked me to talk about Repetitive Strain Injury this week, so as usual I'm using it as a prompt to expand on a wider topic: writer ailments. 

Writers, alas, are notoriously unwell people. It seems to be a side-effect of the art. A recent book by John Ross, Orwell's Cough: Diagnosing the Medical Maladies & Last Gasps of the Great Writers (cheerful stuff), is dedicated to studying the various conditions from which our literary ancestors suffered. I'm not going to talk about mental illness today, because it's such a vast topic that it merits its own entry. Instead I'm going to shed some light on some of the physical conditions writers suffer when they push their bodies too far, and how those conditions work. Why does coffee wake us up, and why do we get addicted to it? 

I've suffered, or suffer from, most of these conditions. I had them particularly badly when I was working on Aurora, when I was working for up to fifteen hours a day and generally turned myself into a wreck of a human being. I tried to be better behaved with The Bone Season, but I still get the odd problem. Remember, I'm not a GP, and this entry will only give a rough overview of each condition. If you think you might have any of these, do get it checked out with a medical professional.   


Back pain 

Back pain comes in many forms, and produces many degrees of pain, but it's always unpleasant. It's often caused by bad posture. Writers can be hunched over computers or manuscripts for hours or even days at a time, which does your back no favours. 

Ideally, you should be sitting at your desk with the top of the screen at eye level, your back straight, elbows close to your body, shoulders relaxed, feet resting flat on the ground (or on a footrest). The screen should be roughly an arm's length from your eyes. This all sounds like a lot to remember, but you'll naturally develop good posture if you set up your workspace properly.    

Make sure your workspace is equipped with an adjustable chair that supports your back. If it doesn't, you can buy a separate orthopaedic back cushion. I use the Houston High-Back Leather-faced Executive Chair and the Fellowes Portable Lumbar Support, both from Staples. You might have to shell out for a decent office chair, but it's better than suffering in silence on a cheap one, and it will last you a long time. It's an investment. There are also heated back supports available if you want to be really decadent. Scroll down to RSI to learn more about proper wrist posture. 

William Alexander
Literary sufferers: Most writers will have experienced back pain in one form or another, but here's some examples of literary back woes. Roald Dahl had back pain for which he had to undergo surgery. William Alexander, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Goblin Secrets, has to write standing up due to a spinal defect. He works at an espresso bar in a coffee shop in Minneapolis, which he calls his "steampunk desk" – it's made of copper pipe, antique glass doorknobs and tooled stainless steel. He said to me that "sitting is bad for everyone! Just extra bad for me." Take heed. Another writer unable to sit down, though not due to a spinal injury, was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote standing up after a leg injury gained during the war. Thanks to my Twitter followers DWD Johnson and Kirstin Corcoran for letting me know about these! 

Caffeine addiction 

Like ink, wine and the sweat of our labour, coffee is one of the fuels that keep us writers going. Legend erroneously tells that when drunk monk Dom Pérignon first tasted champagne, he cried "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" That's pretty much what happened to me when I took my first sip of coffee. Suddenly I could get through hours and hours of writing without face-planting the keyboard halfway through a scene. Writing and coffee go hand in hand. Not all of us work well by day, and we need something to keep us bright and breezy as we work towards our dreaded deadlines.

So why does caffeine wake us up? Turns out it's a bit of a trickster: it fools the body into thinking it's a neurotransmitter called adenosine. Adenosine causes drowsiness by binding to receptors in the brain, which slows down nerve activity. Caffeine resembles adenosine and binds to adenosine receptors, but unlike adenosine, it doesn't slow down nerve activity - instead, it speeds everything up. Because the caffeine is taking up all the nerve receptors, the effects of adenosine are blocked, and you don't get drowsy. It increases neuron firing, confusing the pituary gland, which think there's an emergency and starts to pump out adrenaline. It also messes around with dopamine, the neurotransmitter that activates pleasure in the brain. 

The three big effects of caffeine – blocking drowsiness, stimulating adrenaline and making you feel goodgive your body and mind a short-term boost. French writer Balzac compared it to "sparks shoot(ing) up to the brain". It's easy to see why we keep drinking it. But if you drag yourself out of bed without a cup of joe, chances are you're becoming dependent on it. It puts your body into a state of emergency, making you irritable and twitchy, and if drunk at the wrong time, it can cause a ruthless cycle of insomnia. 

When you make coffee, keep in mind that the half-life of caffeine in the body is about six hours. If possible, only drink it in the morning. 

Honoré de Balzac
Literary sufferers: You may think you have a coffee problem, but Honoré de Balzac would beg to differ. An obsessive worker, Balzac would drink up to fifty cups of thick black coffee a day to fuel his hours of writing. If he couldn't wait for his brew, he'd chew a handful of coffee beans. He suffered from some major health problems, including sky-high blood pressure, stomach pains and hypertrophy in the left venticle of his heart. He died at 51. Check out his essay, 'The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee'. Max Wallis, author of Modern Love (shortlisted for the 2012 Polari First Book Prize), told me that as a student he would get through three bicafetières per day, only sleeping between 3 and 6am. Jonathan Swift and John van Druten were also quoted on their love for caffeine. (Van Druten said "I think if I were a woman I'd wear coffee as a perfume".)

Eye strain

Properly called asthenopia, eye strain comes from staring at something up close for a long, long time – in a writer's case, that's usually a manuscript. It's caused by the ciliary muscle at the front of the eyeball, which contracts when you're relying heavily on your eyes to complete a task. This causes your eye to become irritated. You might get blurred or double vision, red or dry eyes, or a headache. Eye strain doesn't generally cause lasting damage to your eyes, but it causes an annoying, dull pain and can inhibit concentration. 

The best way to avoid eye strain is by giving yourself regular breaks from the computer screen and focusing on a distant object. I try to take a break from writing at least once an hour and go for a walk, or look out of the window. Eye drops help, too. Make sure you work in a well-lit room. If you wear glasses, you can pay a small amount of money to get an anti-reflective coating on the lenses (suggested by Mohsin). This helps reduce glare and allows you to work for longer without straining your ciliary muscle. Lenses with this coating will have a slight blue-green tint to the light reflections on their surface.

A great piece of software, recommended by virtuefiction, is f.lux. I just downloaded it and it's brilliant. The light emitted by your computer screen is designed to resemble sunlight, which is great in the day but at night, the harsh, bluish glow can strain your eyes and keep you awake, as your body thinks it's still daytime. If you get f.lux and give it access to your location, it detects the time of day and after sunset, it will give the screen a warm, orangey tone, like indoor lights. 

Literary sufferers: I haven't found any specifics for eye strain – I think we can safely assume that most writers have had it – but there are lots of cases of eye problems among the literati: Aldous Huxley (visited the therapist William Horatio Bates after an attack of keratitis and later wrote the book The Art of Seeing detailing his experiences), Emily Dickinson (suffered from an unknown eye affliction – possibly uveitis – that caused sensitivity to light, beginning in autumn 1863, for which she received treatment from Boston opthalmologist Henry Willard Williams) and James Joyce (plagued by eye problems throughout his life, including uveitis, glaucoma, cataracts and conjunctivitis) among them.   


Migraines are my blessing and my curse. I really ought to thank them, because they gave me the idea for clairvoyants to be identifiable by their aura in The Bone Season. I first started getting them in 2009, during my A-Levels. The first time I had one, I staggered to the optician and begged them to stop me going blind. As it turned out, I was experiencing a sensation called scintillating scotoma, which is basically a big, glimmering, multicoloured obstruction in your vision. (The picture in the left is an artist's impression of a scintillating scotoma by Tama Blough.) Scotoma can manifest in a variety of different ways – partial loss of vision, for example – but for me, it's like a kaleidoscopic firework show bursting in the front of my eye. I drew heavily on my experiences with migraine to invent the visual aspects of The Bone Season, including aura and the spirit sight. So thanks, migraines. 

Migraine comes from the Greek word ἡμικρανία, roughly translated as "half-skull", referring to the tendency of migraine to affect only one side of the head. It
's thought to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, specifically low levels of serotonin. When serotonin levels drop, the blood vessels in the brain spasm and contract. This is the phase of migraine that causes aura in some migraineurs. This contraction is followed by sudden enlargement of the blood vessels, which causes the pain. There are also various environmental, dietary, physical and emotional factors that can trigger a migraine. Bright lights often get me. When I get a migraine, it feels like the front of my skull is several sizes two small. You might also experience a sensitivity to light, nausea and vomiting. 

There are a number of treatments for migraine. I take a drug called sumatriptan, which stimulates the production of serotonin. You can either take the pills when the migraine starts, like I do, or take pills regularly to prevent migraines coming. I often find myself getting one when I write. I always know when it's coming, because I'll be working on a chapter and suddenly won't be able to see whole sentences – letters will suddenly go missing, sucked into the little blind spot that will grow into a scotoma.
Miguel de Cervantes

Literary sufferers: Creative types are apparently more likely to get migraines. Literary migraineurs of the past include Emily Dickinson (sometimes assumed from her 1863 poem 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'), Miguel de Cervantes, Virginia WoolfRudyard Kipling ("One half of my head, from the top of my skull to the cleft of my jaw, hammers, bangs, sizzles and swears"), Lewis Carroll and Charles Darwin (he called migraine his "hereditary weakness", and was unable to attend his father's funeral because of it). 

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Often linked to writing, RSI does what it says on the tin. It's a musculoskeletal condition caused by repetitive tasks like typing, lifting, or using a phone keypad – tasks which involve you overusing certain muscles and tendons. I get bouts of RSI when I work on a manuscript for hours at a time over the course of several weeks. 

RSI is easy to prevent. You'll feel it coming: stiffness in your fingers, sore wrists, painful muscles and joints in your arms. Part of prevention is ensuring you have good posture when you write. Ideally, your wrists should not be bent in order for your fingers to reach the keys. You can buy a wrist rest, usually soft or filled with gel, to keep them in a neutral position. This is placed in front of the keyboard. I use the Fellowes Crystal Keyboard Wrist Rest from Staples.  

The most important thing to do is to take regular breaks. Still, if you write a lot, especially to tight deadlines, it's worth buying yourself a little anti-RSI kit. Be sure to include wrist braces for when your wrists get painful. I use the cheap 'n' cheerful Elastoplast Sport adjustable supports from Boots, but there are lots of different kinds, each providing different levels of support. Another handy remedy is cod liver oil. It's often used to ease the joint pain associated with arthritis, but it can also help with RSI. You can take it in liquid form, but it tastes as rank as it sounds. I use the Seven Seas brand and take it as a capsule, one every day. Just don't bite the capsules, no matter how much like bottled sunlight they look. You can also try soaking your hands in Radox and warm water. 

Related conditions

Two conditions thought to have similar causes to RSI are focal dystonia and carpal tunnel syndrome. FD, also called writer's cramp, can lead to loss of fine motor control in the hands, curled or stretched fingers, and a myriad of other symptoms that can interfere with writing. Treatment will vary, depending on what caused it. 
CTS is caused by pressure on the median nerve, which gives feeling to the side of your hand your thumb is on. This can cause numbness, tingling and pain in the affected hand and wrist. 
Albert Schweitzer

Literary sufferers: Franco-German philosopher, theologian and organist Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer is thought to have suffered from focal hand dystonia, though he was never formally diagnosed. He used special pens to combat the condition. The cramps in his arm were triggered by handwriting, meaning he struggled to form coherent letters – but it didn't affect his famous organ-playing.

Do you suffer from an ailment related to writing? How do you cope with it? Has it helped or inspired you in any way, like my migraines?

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Interview with an agent

Like Interview With a Vampire, but more literary.

My interview with designer David Mann seemed to go down well with you guys, so I thought I'd make it a tradition and do a series of short interviews with members of the publishing industry, to be put up on my blog every few weeks. This week I'm pleased to welcome my agent, David Godwin, to the proverbial floor. You submitted your questions via Twitter and in the comments section, and like a literary angel, David is here to answer them. David's so cool, he even listens to the weird music I recommend.   

Q&A: Literary Agent – Adult

David Godwin is a London-based literary agent. He and his wife Heather set up David Godwin Associates (DGA) in 1995. DGA represents a varied list of international writers, including novelists, poets, biographers, historians and journalists. He has been credited with discovering some of India's best writers, including Arundhati Roy. David represents adult novels, but DGA also has a YA and children's agent, Kirsty. 

How did you become a literary agent? 

I was a publisher at Cape, but it was time for a change. There was new management and they wanted to have their own person in charge, so I decided to become an agent. At the time there was no other publisher as good as Cape, so it was time for something new.

Describe your typical day at the office.

I usually see two or three people a day. First I check my emails and phone, then possibly see an author at 11 to discuss what they might be doing next or looking at proposed covers of their new book. Lunch is usually spent with a publisher to monitor what is going on and to discuss new projects. Back to meetings at 3 with a visiting foreign publisher, then home at 6 to start reading.

What do you look for in a writer?

A distinctive voice, above all.

How does the agent-author relationship work if the author is from another country? Does it ever create problems? 

I have authors in India, but we talk on the phone a lot, so there are no real problems on my end. 

Any advice for submitting an MS? 

Submissions need to be specific, not general  "Dear David", not "Dear Agent". Writers should show knowledge of the current client list and make sure the submission is appropriate to me. Always be truthful – deception and trying to be too clever will not work. 

How close to completion does a manuscript have to be before you take it on? 

I have taken on books with only a hundred pages to go on, but they have to be very special to do that.

Any slushpile stories you're willing to share? Any strange submissions that made you raise an eyebrow?

We have taken on slushpile books and we always take them seriously. Heather – my wife – discovered both Bill Bryson and Roddy Doyle on the slush whilst reading for Heinemann in the 80s. Funny stories: men sending in pictures of themselves naked with blank paper over their private bits (easily removed).

How do you narrow down the slushpile? 

We have to be quick, as we have so many submissions. We only read a few pages of what's submitted, so make sure your first 10 pages are of the highest standard.

Is there any "good time" to send a query? 

Never a perfect time.

Beyond the effectiveness of the query letter and a good story, is there anything else that might persuade you to represent a writer?

Not really. The writing is what matters. 

Any query trends recently that you're getting tired of? 

None in particular, but trends are never good, as we tend to do distinctive voices and projects  the more different, the better.

What do you want to know in a synopsis?  

Synopses should be clear, well-written and interesting. If that can’t be good then the book is unlikely to be. Don’t pretend to know more than you do!

What should an author look for in their agent, apart from reputation and track record? 

Commitment and passion are always more important than reputation. Make sure you meet a potential agent in person before you sign with them, preferably in their office. You should expect transparency from your agent, and speed when there is money around. Don’t let them sit on it!

Thanks to David for taking the time to answer these! I'm pleased to say that Kirsty has also agreed to do an interview with me, so if you have any YA-specific questions, pop them in the comments section. Kirsty's interview will be up in two weeks. I've also requested an interview with Anna Watkins at DGA, who handles foreign rights and translations. If there are any other people in the publishing industry you'd be interested in hearing from, let me know and I'll try and wrangle an interview.