Sunday, 28 October 2012

Can you write right?

It's Sunday. That means it's Week 4 of term. There's only 11 days left until my 21st birthday. And only 296 days until The Bone Season! We're finally in the 200s.  

I've spent the week writing an essay on the influence of daguerreotypes on Emily Dickinson, which appealed to the gramophone-obsessed vintage lover in me. I've also been hard at work at what I hope will be the very last round of edits. I'm still working on a few suggestions from Imaginarium. It's taken a bit longer than I expected, as I've been juggling two essays a week alongside it, but I think I can do it tonight. I think. (As usual, I say that with great optimism)  

This week I'm going to be talking about Creative Writing as a field of study. But first, a few updates on The Bone Season.    


Thank you so much to all of you for your kind comments on last week's Big News. I'm so excited to have been able to share it with you at last!  

The next Big News will most likely be the cover reveal. Bloomsbury USA and UK have finally agreed on one global design, which they showed me last week. At first I was shocked by the changes they'd made – the colour palette is now very different – but after looking at it for a few hours, I've decided I love it even more than the first design. It's perfect. I hope you like it as much as I do! 

I'm happy to report that I've almost finished the edits. Melissa asked if this round has been primarily structural, or whether it's been mainly changing small words. It's definitely been structural. I've made some changes to the ending again – endings are always tricky – and made more of the relationship between the main characters, creating a slightly different tone. If I finish tonight I'll be thrilled.

On to this week's topic, prompted by Zac. I'm going to chat about writing being taught as a professional subject, and whether it's worth taking a course.   


Creative writing 

Other than your current studies, have you studied a writing course and what are your views on them? (

This is the classic nature-nurture question. Creative Writing was first introduced to the UK in 1970, as a Master's degree at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Clearly there were writers before 1970 who received no professional instruction – but as the market grows more competitive, do modern writers benefit from it? 

I've never taken a professional class in CW. Most are very expensive, competitive and often time-consuming, and as a student I simply wasn't able to afford it. I was considering taking an MSt in Creative Writing before I got the Bloomsbury deal, as they'd just introduced the course to Oxford and I was interested in staying on for grad study, but it was mainly because I was lacking confidence after Aurora was rejected. I needed someone to tell me that my writing was good, or publishable. I wanted an experienced eye to pick out my mistakes. In the end I realised it was the awkward perspective and underdeveloped characters that had affected Aurora, not my style. 

In my first year at uni I wrote a short essay on the study of English Literature. I was curious about why we are 'taught' to read, but not to write. It seemed to me that more emphasis was placed on the critical side of English than the creative. There's quite a lot of academic snobbery around Creative Writing, and confusion about whether it's a craft or a discipline, like geography or maths. You can certainly be taught the basics of making sentences flow: syntax, punctuation, that sort of thing. But that's just writing. This is creative writing.  

I see writing as a subjective craft. It is absolutely unique to each person and each reader. Some people think Ulysses is a classic; others can't make sense of it. The written word is personal in a way that fact-based disciplines are not. There is no right or wrong answer. But couldn't we say the same thing about art or dance, both of which are taught at GCSE and A-Level? If we can teach someone to paint or sing, why can't we teach them to write?   

Kazuo Ishiguro
In an interesting 2007 article, Professor Russell Celyn Jones, director of Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, says his field of study "is the more engaging way to impart to students what literature is: a living subject. Writers know what it is like to live inside the novel; academics know what it's like to live outside it". I can't speak from the perspective of someone who's studied CW, but as an English Literature student and a writer, I can see his logic. English Literature approaches a text from outside; it encourages scholars to look in, to criticise, but not to create. Writers, conversely, are at the heart of literature. They construct the words that academics analyse. The rivalry between the creative and critical faculties has splintered the study of English.

I think writing courses work for some and not for others. Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan are both creative writing graduates from the UEA course, which has had a great success rate for published alumni. Academic courses will most likely help you avert basic mistakes, and will encourage you to experiment with multiple styles and perspectives. Being introduced to the wider world of writing will mean you're well-informed when you choose what you want to write. Short stories? Novels? Second-person? Unreliable narrator? You can also choose to specialise in poetry or prose, which is useful if you know you want to be a novelist. 

UEA claims that their programmes are "best seen as an opportunity to explore and develop literary intentions in relation to the wider social and literary context, to work under the pressure of deadlines, and to share the experience of writing with colleagues in a critical and creative atmosphere". I agree that this would be the best environment for a course: exploratory, friendly and structured to deadlines, with equal emphasis on writing and subjective feedback. I say feedback, not instruction. No teacher should say "no, you shouldn't write like that", but they might suggest doing something differently. Discussion reaps constructive criticism, and if you're comfortable sharing your ideas with other people, you might find feedback invaluable. I popped into a local writing group for a few sessions when I was still working on Aurora, and the exercises they gave were always thought-provoking. The group's organiser would encourage us to experiment with unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives and so on. You might find, in doing these exercises, that you find a style you want to develop. 

Be wary of courses that tell you 'how to write', especially if they charge you excessively for the privilege. Everyone has a style, and in my opinion that can't be taught  it has to be discovered and developed by the writer. Professor Celyn Jones believes "students want to be taught by writers with proven creative integrity in an aggressive market", but what counts to one person as "creative integrity" might be sheer luck to another. 

Writing is an art, and like all art, it's based on experience rather than fact. That's the beauty of our subject: every eye brings a fresh perspective. If you do choose to take a course, listen to what other people have to say – they might just inspire you to look at your work from a different angle – but always trust your gut, and never let anyone force you to write what they want. If there was one correct way to tell stories, all books would be written by machines.    

Have any of you taken Creative Writing? How did you find it? 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Film rights optioned!

Who have they been optioned by, you ask? 

Film and TV rights for The Bone Season and its sequels have been optioned by Andy Serkis' company, The Imaginarium Studios


Sorry for the very long delay in announcing the news. Needless to say I'm over the moon. Now I get to talk about film rights and book-to-film, which I hope you guys will find just as interesting as the manuscript-to-book process!

First I'll tell you a bit about the company. The Imaginarium Studios was started by independent producer Jonathan Cavendish and Andy Serkis in 2011. Both Jonathan and Andy have many years of experience in the film industry. Jonathan notably produced Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the Bridget Jones films and Croupier, along with many others. I'm sure Andy needs no introduction, even if you don't always 'see' him on the screen – he played Gollum in all three Lord of the Rings films (reprising his role in the upcoming Hobbit trilogy), King Kong in the 2005 remake, Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He's also appeared without his "digital makeup" in a host of films, including Inkheart, Stormbreaker and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. His interest in motion capture is what got Imaginarium started. The idea was to create a UK-based hub for motion capture projects in Europe. They use the latest motion tracking technology from Vicon.

The Financial Times released an article on Andy and Jonathan's up-and-coming projects this morning. I really am thrilled. Imaginarium is a cutting-edge studio and I trust the team completely with The Bone Season. The new set of edits I'm doing were prompted by Imaginarium's writers, who met Bloomsbury with some new suggestions. Filmmakers are forensic about plot, and they came up with some really good editorial points  not so the book will suit a film (they initially went through it from a reader's perspective, not as filmmakers), but so the plot becomes clearer to the reader. To me it showed they cared about the whole world of The Bone Season, not just the visual aspect. They read it four times before producing notes on it.

I'll answer a few questions off the top of my head.

  • How did it happen?

    I was first approached for rights very early on, right after the acquisition of the book was announced. Rights may sell pre- or post-publication. I'm not sure if it works the same in all cases, so I'll just tell you what I've experienced so far. When the author is approached for rights, it may be with or without a studio. Imaginarium is an independent production company
    . They'll develop The Bone Season in the UK – great for me, as I live very near its base in London – and then take it to studios and see if they're interested in distributing and financing it. Andy and Jonathan will both be producers on The Bone Season.   

  • Does this mean it will all be done with mo-cap?

    No, but it does mean it will look very good when it's used. There are several characters in The Bone Season who will need to be digitally animated or enhanced in some way, including one of the main characters, Warden. Andy is pretty much Hollywood's go-to guy for mo-cap, so my not-quite-human characters couldn't be in better hands. He and Jonathan showed me some of the projects Imaginarium are working on at the moment, including the new adaptation of Animal Farmand they really do look fantastic. They have a committed team of animators, some of whom are transfers from the Weta Workshop, which provided animation for The Lord of the Rings.   

  • Do you get any rights?

    Yes! Hallelujah. Signing with Imaginarium has ensured that I have consultation rights over what happens in the film. This was what sold it for me. Many film companies simply buy the rights and then do as they please with the book (see Authors Who hated the Movie Versions of their Books). Fortunately for me, Jonathan and Andy said from the beginning that they wanted me to be involved in production. I was hugely relieved to be offered these rights. I don't intend to force myself on all aspects of the film – I think a film should be a fresh artistic take on a work, not just a reproduction of what the author has written – but it's great that it's a collaboration, not just a selling-off.
    I'm making up a visual portfolio for Andy at the moment, so he gets an idea of how I envision Scion. Good thing I'm doing a paper in Film Studies this year! 

I met Andy in person last week and he's such a nice guy. And loves The Bone Season. Considering he's spent years working in Tolkien's world, it's an honour to have him look at my world and see something worth making a film out of. I was also excited to see that Jonathan had produced Bridget Jones 
 the author of the books, Helen Fielding, went to the college I currently attend (and also studied English). It's fate! 

I couldn't be happier with my decision to go with Imaginarium, and I really can't wait to start working with them. Please do ask questions if you'd like to know more  I'll let you know developments as I hear them. Film is often a very long and slow process, so there won't be news about it as often as there will be about the book, but there is tonnes of exciting stuff to come. 

All previous Q's will be answered next week. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Online news


Some great news: there's now an official website for The Bone Season, set up by the lovely Amanda Shipp at Bloomsbury. Head over to to sign up for all the latest updates. 

There's also an official Facebook page and an official Twitter

Only three days until the Big News. See you on Saturday!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Foreign rights and planning

The Bone Season has sold in Czech

Foreign territories roundup so far: Brazil - Czech Republic - France - Germany - Greece - Netherlands - Sweden - Taiwan

Apologies for not updating for a while. I'm back in London temporarily after being back at uni for a few days. We've decided to do one more edit of The Bone Season after a third party *coughmoreonthatlatercough* looked through the manuscript and made a few suggestions. It's amazing what a pair of fresh eyes can do for a manuscript. I'll be working on the new edits alongside my Finalist workload, which is already insane. This week I have to read the longest novel in the English language, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. How many words is it, you ask? Over 900,000. No joke. Later editions apparently reached over a million words. I should really be reading it now, so I'll make this a short one!

The Bone Season at Frankfurt Book Fair
I have a massive piece of news, but I'm having to bite my tongue for another few days. It's not the cover design, but it is just as huge. I've been told I can talk about it on 20th October, so keep your eyes peeled in nine days' time.

My mini-topic this week is planning, with questions from PGW. I think planning is one of the most subjective elements of writing a novel, so don't necessarily do what I do. Do what works for you. Some writers make incredibly detailed plans for their novels and stick to them; some go with the flow; some don't plan at all. Some novels require more planning than others: fantasy, sci-fi, anything like that they all require you to introduce a new world to the reader, or at least show them the world through a different kind of glass. What I do strongly recommend is that you at least start to write something down when you have an idea, or you'll end up agonising over the planning for months without writing a word. You might find that once the words start flowing, so I will ideas. So here's a bit about how I approach planning.


1. What form does your planning take, and how detailed are your plans?

Quite a lot of my planning is in my head, stashed on the right side of my brain, but I've recently started writing them down and making mind maps to help me get to grips with how things come together. My world-building plans are very detailed. The world of The Bone Season is fairly complex, with a lot of history and multiple layers, and I have to make sure I've thought out all aspects of it in order to put it across well to readers. My editors have been great on this, as they've often challenged things I've written to make sure I've thought it through as fully as possible. Plot plans are a bit more skeletal. I know my beginning, middle and end and take it from there. Once I've got a first draft, I go back and rework it several times so the scenes fit together smoothly.     

2. Do you only start writing once you know exactly where you're going, beat for beat, or is there any element of making it up as you go along?

Definitely an element of making it up as I go along (though not on major plot points, which are always planned). There's been a few times when I've been writing The Bone Season 2 and just gone *ZING!* and had a new idea for a character or situation. I don't like to stick to a rigid structure, i.e. "In Chapter 1, this happens. In Chapter 2, this happens". I think it takes a lot of the excitement out of writing. So long as I have my main plot points in mind, I let the writing take me where it wants to go. I can always go back and smooth out the rough edges during the editing stage.   

3. Has your planning process changed since writing the first instalment of The Bone Season?

Interesting question. I think it has, but only a tiny bit. Since having editors I've realised I need to think every point through as thoroughly as possible. My world-building plans have certainly become more extensive. Before I was just holding the various worlds of The Bone Season in my head, but I sometimes tended to assume that the reader knew as much as I did, so I wasn't explaining things as much as I should have been.Which is good in some ways – I certainly don't like having everything spoon-fed to me when I read – but I also have to make sure there's enough detail there for the world to be comprehensible. 

Questions welcome as always. Look out for more news soon!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Getting an agent

PGW has asked me to chat about agents this week, and I'm really glad to have the opportunity to do so. Getting an agent is the first stepping stone to getting published, so it's a pretty damn important topic.

My experience of finally getting an agent was not totally normal. I sent The Bone Season to just one agent and he signed me up within a few days. I was lucky, and I've never taken that luck for granted. I did, however, experience the whole process with Aurora. Writing to agents, getting rejected, trying again, getting a sparkle of interest but then losing it – I know how it feels.

The world of agents can be terrifying, especially to a new writer. I've been there, guys. Trying to get an agent on your side can be a frustrating, hair-pulling, heart-crushing process. Like banging on a door that will never open.You have to send an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) if you want your MS returned, which means double postage, and the first three chapters can make for a reasonably heavy package. So you're throwing cash at agents, giving them a glimpse of your work, and they're turning you down. It's shit. I can't think of any other word to describe how miserable it can make you feel.

So here's hoping I can help you out. There are a few sections to this blog post; do skip as appropriate.

  • What is an agent?
  • Rejection and waiting
  • The query letter
  • Sample query letter
  • What to do
  • What not to do

What is an agent?

A literary agent is someone who provides services to an author, most notably in representing their work to publishing houses and film/stage producers. They also protect an author's rights when their work goes to the publishing stage and beyond.

The agent takes his or her payment as commission – 15% is standard. So don't approach an agent and ask if they take credit cards.

Most publishing houses will not look at your work without a referral from an agent.

Rejection and waiting

There are a number of different responses you might receive from an agent. This guide is great in working out how to deal with each one. Most rejections are the standard rejection, which normally reads something like "Thank you for submitting your work. Unfortunately it's not right for our lists at this time", or similar. Basically "thanks, but no thanks". It's a polite response, but it still hurts like hell when you've poured years of your life into this novel. You might respond with anger, or even hatred towards the agent. You might think they're being hard-hearted or snobbish, or that you deserved a more personalised response to your manuscript. Agents would love to give that response – they just don't have the time.

When I first got rejections for Aurora, some people suggested persistence – the kind of persistence that involves sleeping outside the agent's office until you get a positive response. Don't do this. Agents do not appreciate being approached in person if they've rejected you. Only go to their office in person if they ask you to see them. You'll come across as intrusive and will not enamour them to your cause. There was a nasty incident recently when agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg was attacked by a rejected author. This was her comment on it:

"It's hard to be rejected – just as it's hard for agents to be rejected by publishers on the books we've acquired."

Agents are human, too. They didn't reject your manuscript to be nasty. They run a business and they have to keep it going. They also have to feel true passion for your book, or they won't be able to support you. Remember, they have to sell this book on your behalf, sometimes in more than one territory. You need your agent to be pretty damn obsessed with your work. That's why some agents will say "no" even if they liked your manuscript. They have to love it, not just like it.

I can't speak for all of them, but my agent, David, is a great guy. He's supportive, welcoming and works extremely hard for his clients. His agency, DGA, receives several manuscripts every day. That's a big stack by the end of the week. Inevitably they go on the dreaded slush pile, a kind of limbo for the humble manuscript. I was on slush pile duty a few times during my internship, although I never made decisions by myself about whether to accept or reject – most agencies will have a staff member assigned as their "reader", who will go through every query when they get a moment. Different agencies work at different rates, but the average agent will be flooded with queries and may not have enough staff to get through them. That's why the waiting time can be 6 weeks or more.

Of course, you guys know this. You've read it everywhere and you appreciate that agents are busy, but you still want an answer. So how do you make them want to read more?

The query letter

All agents require you to write a query letter, usually accompanied by 1-3 chapters of your manuscript, when you approach them. Some agents accept email queries; others want a hard copy. Play by their rules and you're one step closer to being in their good books.

At David's agency I read several queries, but one really stuck in my mind. The author offered me a packet of digestive biscuits if I'd take a look at his manuscript. I was intrigued and read it. It was a hilarious book. It wasn't David's cup of tea, so I had to let the author down, but I let him know how much I'd loved it. He thanked me for reading and emailed me a few days later to update me on the MS. He ended up getting invited to the US by an agency there, so here's hoping he did well.

Quirky queries don't always work. Depends what you call "quirky". Some queries were downright creepy – I'll never forget the Cambridge student who included an A4 picture of his face as his query letter. Don't try to stand out by writing from a character's perspective or writing in Pig Latin or terza rima. It's usually best to play it safe. I just discovered a Tumblr called SlushPile Hell, which shows some of the more creepy methods of querying that you should absolutely, definitely avoid.

Sample query letter

I didn't actually write a letter to David for The Bone Season – I just emailed him with the manuscript and asked if he'd mind checking it out. That was because I already knew him and the need for formality was gone. I do, however, have my old query letter for Aurora. This might seem a bit useless, as I never got an agent for Aurora, but I did get some positive responses (i.e. "yes, I'd like to see a bit more"). So here's the skeleton of a half-decent query.

Dear [agent's title and surname],

My name is [name]. I'm a [profession] from [place] and currently work for [company].

For the last [number of years] I've been working on a [genre] novel called [title]. It follows [protagonist], [something about the protagonist], as she [something the character does]. The novel is set in [year/time period] and is [word count] long.

I attach the first three chapters and a short synopsis for your consideration.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]

It's short, polite, and gives the necessary info about the book. VoilĂ . Do include any interesting, relevant information about how you came to write it.

What to do

1. Do read the submission guidelines. They might be different for each agent. Some agents want email submissions, some don't take sci-fi or fantasy. Don't start your email by saying "I know you don't take romance novels, but you'll change your mind about mine".

2. Do be confident. Not arrogant. Confident. Don't lick the agent's boots in your query, or sound depressed because of previous queries (i.e. don't start by saying "You'll probably hate this" or "It's not very good"). Don't sound obsessed. Don't blow your own trumpet. Go for CCC: Calm, Confident and Courteous. It will do wonders.

3. Do give information about the book – but not too much. Don't go on. State the title, the word count, the genre, and give a short synopsis. Most agents will ask you to include a page-long synopsis as an attachment, in any case.

4. Do give information about yourself – but again, not too much. Your occupation, how you came to write the book, and where you live should suffice. It shouldn't take up more than 1-2 sentences.

5. Do be unique. Don't, for example, say "I know Stephenie Meyer's books are really popular so I've written a book about a girl falling in love with a vampire". You can use an author as a comparison point, but it should be phrased more like "I hope this will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer". Books do get published because they fit a popular genre – tonnes of vampire romances have appeared since Twilight – but saying that you wrote it because of that isn't likely to thrill an agent. If you are writing within a popular genre, make it clear why it differs from other books.

6. Do be polite. Don't use the agent's first name – you're not their friend and it's not professional. On the flip side, don't just say "Dear Agent" or "Dear Sir/Madam". Use their title and surname.

What not to do

1. Don't submit more than one piece of work at a time. Remember, agents are short on time. Just submit your magnum opus.

2. Don't act like you're God's gift to literature. You'll come across as arrogant and demanding. The agent will assume you need an ego check and is unlikely to want to work with you. The same applies to comparing your work to literary giants like Shakespeare and James Joyce.

3. Don't do a standard "one size fits all" query letter. All agents are different. Just including their name shows you've made an effort. Try and show some knowledge of the agent's client list and suggest why your work might be a good fit.

4. Don't be defensive. Agents are not going to steal your work, and most will raise their heckles if you assume they will. You don't need to apply for copyright at this stage. Under the terms of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, you have automatic copyright over your work. So don't panic!

5. Don't ask the agent to give you advice. That's a job for manuscript appraisal services or a hired editor, not the agent. Also, don't ask them what you should write. It's tempting to discover what the market wants, but you can do that yourself – just check out the bookshelves.

6. Don't get angry. Ever. It won't help.

7. Don't query before you're finished. Books have occasionally been bought on the strength of the first few chapters, but it's rare. If the agent asks to see your full MS and it's not complete, they're not going to be happy.

Agents and publishers take huge risks on behalf of authors. A vast number of books make a loss, but they still get published because their publisher – and their agent – thought their story deserved to be heard. They do it for passion as well as profit. They're not all smug, money-grubbing, literary hygiene machines. They've chosen to work with books because they love books. You just have to make them love yours.

A final note: it is hard to get an agent, and sometimes it's just about luck. You might have written a fantastic book, but the agent can't see any way to market it – or maybe you're just querying the wrong agents. Keep sending. Never stop trying. And do not give up at the first hurdle.