Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Author in America

What a week! I just got back from my trip to New York and Kansas City. Here's what this very jetlagged author got up to in the States.  

If you live anywhere near the bookshops I mention in this post – all indie – do stop and pay a visit. They all sound brilliant and the booksellers attending Winter Institute 8 were incredible: knowledgable, creative, and passionate about what they do. The US independent bookshop scene still has a strong heartbeat – let's keep it pumping!   

Tuesday 19 February 

View from the Flatiron Building

I got up at 5.30 to catch a 7.00 coach from Oxford to Heathrow. After our flight was delayed for a few hours, Alexandra and I flew out to New York's JFK airport and got a cab to our hotel in Soho, NYC. Too tired to do anything but sleep, I curled up in bed and did just that.

Wednesday 20 February 

Wednesday was a busy day. After breakfast, Alexandra and I headed to the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, where Bloomsbury USA is currently based, to meet the team. Among them were my wonderful US editor, Rachel Mannheimer; George Gibson, publishing director; Cristina Gilbert, executive director of marketing and publicity; Laura Keefe, marketing director; Marie Coolman, senior director of publicity; and Nancy Miller, editor-in-chief. George, Cristina, Laura and Nancy would be my travelling companions at the Winter Institute later in the week. Needless to say they were all very welcoming and made me feel completely at home in the Flatiron office. 

First on the agenda was a lunch to introduce me to US book reviewers, organised by Marie. I was a bit shy at first, but I had a great time and some really interesting discussions, including a long chat with Laura Miller from Salon. After lunch, I met up with my Massachusettsan friend Laura (so many Lauras) for coffee. After being kicked out of a crowded Starbucks ('You can't sit on the floor here, guys'), we made a valiant attempt to find Soho – battling through the worst Atlantic wind imaginable, so bad I couldn't feel my fingers – but ended up in Times Square, almost on the other end of Manhattan. (We're great at navigating.) After a much-needed coffee at Pret, Laura caught the last bus back to Amherst. I was forced to give up on finding my way to Soho and hailed a cab to get me back to Fifth Avenue, vowing to buy a map before taking another bite out of the Big Apple. 

Alexandra, Rachel and I spent the evening with Bloomsbury editor Anton Mueller, his friend Michael Ripp, and the English author Patrick McGrath. After lots of book-related chat, we headed back to the hotel. 

Thursday 21 February

After a traditional New York bagel breakfast, I went to the Flatiron Building early to do a short video about The Bone Season and my writing process. Preview here. After a quick lunch, I met up with my very old friend Joëlle for coffee and a catch-up in Chelsea. By amazing coincidence we were in the US at exactly the same time: me for writing, Joëlle for photography.  

I can has book?
After spending the rest of the day in the hotel reading, I headed back to Flatiron, because I'd forgotten to buy a map and no way in hell was I going to try and navigate NYC by myself again. Nancy, Alexandra and I braved the New York subway and went for dinner at George's apartment. George's cat Anna, the sentinel of his home, is very protective of her copy of The Bone Season

Friday 22 February 

Last day in NYC! I signed out of the hotel and spent the morning meeting the Macmillan sales team at the Flatiron Building. Macmillan distributes Bloomsbury's books in the US, and it was great to meet the team that will be selling The Bone Season later this year. After lunch, it was time to head to the airport. Alexandra stayed behind in NYC, while I went ahead with Laura and Cristina to Newark Airport, where we boarded a tiny United plane to Kansas City, Missouri. Following a severe blizzard, the city was blanketed in beautiful knee-deep snow. We took a cab to the Sheraton Hotel, which is attached to the Crown Center, where the Winter Institute would take place, via a long glass skyway called the Link. After getting ourselves settled in, we went for dinner. I'd forgotten my ID and was thus refused my glass of sweet wine. In the UK the drinking age is 18, so I didn't even think to bring my driving licence. Ah well.

Saturday 23 February

Good morning Kansas.
I woke up early to a gorgeous Kansas City sunrise. Later in the morning I met the celebrated American author Gail Godwin, whose beautiful book Flora was the other Bloomsbury pick for Wi8. John Irving calls her the modern-day George Eliot, and I think she richly deserves the title. Gail is wonderful: warm, friendly and, of course, a prestigiously talented writer. She'd read The Bone Season and knew it back-to-front.  

After an early breakfast with Lori Fazio (R. J. Julia Booksellers, CT), Nancy, Gail and I decided to have some lunch and hit the mall, so we called a cab from the hotel. As we drove up the street, the cab was abruptly rear-ended by a Ford Explorer, which smashed us straight into a snow bank. The noise was incredible. When you see collisions in movies you never think how loud it is for the people inside the car, but my God, was that a loud crash. Being the only passenger in the car wearing a seatbelt, I managed to avoid a concussion, but both Nancy and Gail hit their heads. A woman came staggering out of the Ford and started frantically asking if we were okay, interspersed with curses. She insisted she looked but 'just didn't see' us in our bright yellow cab. We managed to get out (after a minute of me wailing 'we have to get out of the car right now!', thinking they might both explode, Michael Bay style) and into a nearby store, in which the staff seemed utterly unfazed by our accident – their response to 'we've been in a car crash' was 'oh, right, okay'. You have to applaud their poise. Outside, the cab company supervisors and police were called. After waiting for the police report, which included a subpoena – the officer assured me that I wouldn't be summoned back from the UK to witness – we made our way to the ER. Nancy had a minor concussion and Gail received a long lecture on the functioning of "old brains" – more, she said, than she really wanted to know.

I wasn't in pain, so I wasn't too keen on waiting hours in the ER, but the Bloomsbury staff insisted I get a check-up. I was sent to a room and asked to wait for a doctor. It wasn't until I sat down that I realised I was in pain: the muscles in my neck started to spasm, and I could hardly lift my head. After waiting a long time to be seen, I was diagnosed with whiplash and given a muscle relaxant called Flexiril, along with a strong painkiller. Fortunately I avoided a neck brace. George, Cristina and I reached the booksellers' dinner about half an hour late, but we made it for the main course. Among the attendees were Margot Sage-El (Watchung Booksellers, NJ), Anne Holman (The King's English, UT) and Ed Conklin (Chaucer's Books, CA – best name ever for a bookshop). Midway through a lovely conversation with Sheryl Cotleur (Copperfield's Books, CA), the muscle relaxant kicked in and I felt myself melt. Every muscle in my body turned to butter, I slurred my words and my eyelids felt like barbells. I was quickly spirited away in a cab, back to the hotel, where I was fast asleep as soon as I hit the pillow.

Sunday 24 February

Snow daze.
When I woke up, the muscle relaxant had worn off and boy, could I feel that whiplash: my neck was rigid and most of my left shoulder was painful. Still, I was determined to get up and meet more booksellers. It was also the day of the biggest event of Wi8: the author reception.

I made it to breakfast with some more indie booksellers, many of them from the South. I have a weird fascination with southern accents – possibly a side-effect of watching True Blood – so I was content to just sit and listen to a lot of the conversations. The attendees were Richard Howorth (Square Books, MS), Karen Hayes (Parnassus Books, TN), Daniel Goldin (Boswell Book Company, WI), Suzanna Hermans (Oblong Books, NY) and Sara Goddin (Quail Ridge Books, NC). At lunchtime, Laura, Cristina and I ventured out to find some true Kansas City cuisine. En route, we observed that Kansas City has very few people on the streets; it's definitely not a walking city like NYC and London. If a zombie apocalypse hit it, you probably wouldn't notice a thing. I was humming Keep the Streets Empty for Me while I walked. Still, the barbecue place was bustling, and no wonder: the food was divine. After trekking back to the hotel through the snow, I spent the rest of the day resting in bed with ibuprofen and a pile of ARCs. One of those I finished was She Rises by Kate Worsley, a naval adventure set in 1740 – one of the best books I've read in a long time. Kate is one of my fellow Bloomsbury debutantes and she's a fantastic writer: her prose is rich, lively and colourful, and the story has a brilliant and unexpected twist.

Gail and I with our galleys.
The author's reception took place in a beautiful ballroom, decked with chandeliers. Tables were arranged around the edges of the room, where authors sat with their books and booksellers could go and get one signed. I sat next to Gail with a big pile of shiny US galleys. When the first bookseller came to get a signed one, I was so excited I practically jumped out of my seat to greet them, whiplashing myself even further. (Note to self: try not to nod too much with whiplash. It hurts.) Gail had a lot of booksellers coming up to tell her how much they admired her work, which was lovely. I was very happy to meet Kenny Coble from King's Books, WA, who was undoubtedly the most supportive and enthusiastic bookseller I met at Wi8 – he was evangelising about The Bone Season for most of the night, so I had lots more booksellers coming up to get galleys ("So I just spoke to Kenny, and he said your book is awesome"). Kenny, you rock. Thank you!
Me with the awesome Kenny.
After the reception, I was off to the last dinner of Wi8. I had a wonderful evening talking to a big group of booksellers, including Heather Duncan (Tattered Cover, CO) and Mindy Ostrow (The River's End Bookstore, NY). (And I finally got the glass of wine I'd been chasing since arriving in the US.) During the meal I discovered whipped butter, yet another fascinating foodstuff of the States. I mistook it for whipped cream but was convinced by Heather to put it on the bread, and hey presto, it tasted like manna. After the meal, I said goodbye to George and went with Cristina and Laura to catch the last of the Oscars.  

Monday 25 February

Up at 3am. Laura, Cristina and I head to the airport at 4, and I fly to Chicago to await a transfer flight to London. When I get back to Oxford, I sleep. A lot. 

So there you have it: an author's adventure in America. Sorry for the delay, guys – jetlag is a killer. Now go shop at indie bookstores!

A big thank you to all the staff at Bloomsbury for hosting me and organising such a wonderful trip.

Next week I'll be posting a short interview with my agent, David Godwin, who will be answering the questions you submitted earlier this month.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The proof in print


Next week's the week! I'm finally off to New York to meet the Bloomsbury USA team, followed by Kansas City for the ABA Winter Institute. I haven't been to the States since I stayed with my friends in Massachusetts in 2010, and I was only in New York for a day last time I went, so I'm really looking forward to hitting the Big Apple. I'm also a bit nervous, because I have to talk about The Bone Season and make it sound exciting enough to get booksellers interested in my little debut novel. (Not so little, actually. Ended up being quite a fat book.) Fortunately I now have my proofs to show them. Uncorrected proofs are pretty much the final product, with the correct font, chapter titles and layout, but they might contain typos and generally need a bit of tweaking. In my case, I used my proof to read the book carefully and smooth out the punctuation a little – I'm prone to short sentences on the screen, as they appeal to my tidy side, but I'm making them longer in the finished product. There were also some continuity issues in the final chapter that needed addressing: I rewrote the last chapter so many times, a couple of mistakes from older drafts had wriggled in. 

I discovered yesterday that if there are too many amendments made to the proofs, authors have to pay to help cover the cost of typesetting. Fortunately I didn't have any massive changes to make.   

All this talk of proofs brings me to the very first Bone Season competition! You could win an uncorrected proof of The Bone Season, typos and all. Just follow The Bone Season on Twitter and RT the competition tweet. I've even signed it for you. 

I'll be posting again when I return from the States on Monday 25 February. While I'm away, I've got a question for you: what would you ask if a literary agent, if you could? My lovely agent David Godwin has agreed to do a Q&A, similar to the one I did with David Mann after the cover release. (There are an abundance of Davids in the publishing industry.) His clients include Aravind Adiga, Simon Armitage, Pippa Middleton, Ben Rice and Arundhati Roy. Send me your questions and I'll forward them to him. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Intention and response


Age appropriate

Mohsin asked me to write about age ranges this week. This can be a big concern for both aspiring  and published writers. Many agents will only represent novels that fall into certain age brackets; some won't represent YA, some will only represent YA. It can be difficult to establish who your book is aimed at. Agents generally expect you to indicate whether the book is for children, teenagers or adults, and you need to have some idea of it. 

When I wrote The Bone Season, I didn't really aim it at a particular age group. I wrote in the initial query to my agent that it was a YA novel (specifically aimed at the upper end of YA, i.e. 17-18), as I wasn't sure Paige was quite old enough for it to be classified as adult, although she was really too old to be a YA heroine. When it reached Bloomsbury, however, it was generally agreed that adult was the most appropriate category. Many of the characters are considerably older than Paige, and I wanted to be able to play with adult themes in the rest of the series. I was afforded the freedom to write what I wanted without having to tone anything down or cut anything out. At no point was I told that a scene was inappropriate for my target audience. 

Deciding on your target audience is one of the most important aspects of the writing process, but it can be difficult to make a choice without limiting yourself. Target audience has become a genre in itself; a 'YA novel' tends to have similar themes and characters no matter what the genre. Let's look at a few different categories.     

Children: From 0-8, roughly. These books will be very simple, getting progressively more complex as the child grows older. Often they'll be clearly labelled to indicate which age group they're aimed at. At this stage, age is possibly the most important factor in how a child reads: their brains may not be developed enough to read books beyond a certain level of difficulty.    

Middle Grade (MG): This kind of book should be suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 12. MG novels tend to be between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. These books generally don't contain violence or sex (although there might be bloodless violence, e.g. punching and kicking), but they may start to broach on topics that might trouble young children: parents divorcing, arguments with friends, bullying, identity, school troubles and death. Jacqueline Wilson's books are a great example of MG. I remember reading The Suitcase Kid when I was eight, after my parents divorced, and really identifying with the main character's experiences. 

Teen: Aimed at young people between 12 and about 15, where the category begins to blur with Young Adult. I see this as a bridge genre, linking childhood with the big changes of young adulthood. These books are unlikely to include a lot of swearing or sexual content, but there may be kissing, moderate violence and mild swear words (e.g. Harry Potter uses 'bloody'). 

Young Adult (YA): Since the Twilight saga, YA has boomed into a big, big market. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18, but YA novels tend to focus on the latter end of this age range, from 16 to 18. These books will usually feature a protagonist of this age group, with themes including sexuality, drugs, family troubles, love, early sexual experiences and peer pressure. Interestingly, around 55% of YA fiction books are purchased by readers over the age of 18. This is one of the reasons why YA is such a successful genre.

New Adult (NA): Also known as post-adolescent literature, New Adult is an emerging genre with multiple definitions. It was first proposed by St Martin's Press in 2009 to acknowledge the changes that come between childhood and adulthood, so it's very new on the literary scene  so new that most bookshops don't yet recognise it as a category. NA books may contain stronger violence, sex and profanity than YA books (some say it's just YA with sex), or simply focus on the challenges that come in your late teens and early twenties. What unites NA books is the age of the protagonist, usually 18 to 25. They may be attending college rather than high school, or starting their first job. There's some debate about whether or not NA will become a legitimate genre, or whether it's simply a passing trend following the success of several self-published NA novels (e.g. Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire). You can find out more about the genre at NA Alley

Adult: Suitable for, you guessed it, adults. Basically anyone of 20-30 and above. Adult novels may have a more sophisticated or 'literary' prose style and / or deal with different themes to YA and NA novels, e.g. divorce, marriage, work and other things that we young-ish adults don't have to deal with just yet. Adult novels have no real limits in terms of how much explicit sex, bad language and gore they can include, as readers are assumed to be psychologically equipped to cope with it. Genre provides a useful indicator for adults as to the content of the books they read – if they don't like gore, they can stay away from crime; if they don't like sex, they can stay away from erotica. 

So how do you know which category your book falls into? Word count isn't always a helpful way to measure. As I said, I originally wrote The Bone Season with a YA audience in mind; it's technically NA, as Paige is 19 years old, but being marketed by Bloomsbury's Adult Fiction division (NA still isn't recognised as a genre by most publishing houses). It's over 130,000 words long, so it's definitely too big for MG, but that's about the only thing word count can help us with  you only have to look at the Harry Potter novels to see that novels within one genre and storyline can have a wide variety of word counts. 

Many books for young people have crossover appeal, meaning they may attract readers from more than one category. All readers have different maturity levels; it's impossible to generalise how readers of the same age will respond to a book, making it difficult to put fiction into rigid age categories (which goes back to my post on The boxing of books). Yet as writers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our books keep as much as possible within the limits of appropriacy for each age range. Of course, publishing houses will tell you which category your book will fall into, and how to make it suitable for that category, but the last thing you want to do is write a novel for one age group and then have to edit out a lot of what happens. 

One thing to look out for, when you start writing, is SPV: Sex, Profanity and Violence. How explicit is your book? Would you be comfortable with a child reading it? Use your common sense when you think about your audience. Even if you don't have a child of your own, think about how people of certain ages might respond to your book's content.  

In 2008, American author John Green released a video, I Am Not a Pornographer, on this very topic. His book Looking for Alaska contains a short oral sex scene, during which the narrator, Miles, has his first orgasm. Miles is seventeen, so Looking for Alaska is in YA territory. Parents at a school in New York were asked to sign a permission slip for their children to study the book, but some parents – not necessarily those whose children were in that year – had a problem with the book being taught at all, on the grounds that it was 'pornographic'. Green pointed out that the scene is in no way titillatingand that it was intended to be read as 'awkward, un-fun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic'. He also argues that most teenagers are critically equipped to study these kinds of scenes, and that people often underestimate their ability to distinguish fiction from reality. Varian Johnson wrote an article in response to the controversy, pointing out that Green uses the emotional emptiness of the sex to highlight the next scene, in which there is no physical intimacy, but instead a deep emotional connection. Green summarised his intentions for the scene as follows:  

The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails [...] Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.   

So the author's intentions have been misread by the parents. Intention and response often become entangled, causing misunderstanding (see What I wrote & what you read by Claire King). This is a particularly big concern when you're writing for young people, and when your book is given a label. Parents trust those labels. When they buy a book for small children, they trust that there will be no mention of sex, drugs or violence  but when you start writing for teens and above, the lines begin to blur. Every reader is different. Some teens are more mature than others. What you have to remember, as the writer, is that your book is not one book: it is many books, with many facets and meanings, because each reader has his or her own vision of it. It's a similar process to translation – in a way, your book speaks to each and every person in a different language. Personally, I agree with John Green: it's okay to include a certain degree of mature content in YA and NA literature, but the way you present it is absolutely critical. It's all about how as well as what.

The same applies to adult novels. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. While millions of readers love the book and consider it harmless, some say it normalises domestic abuse and even paedophilia. Did EL James intend to normalise those things? I highly doubt it. Here's what she said in response to the domestic abuse allegations:  

Nothing freaks me out more than people who say this is about domestic abuse. Bringing up my book in this context trivializes the issues, doing women who actually go through it a huge disservice. It also demonizes loads of women who enjoy this lifestyle, and ignores the many, many women who tell me they’ve found the books sexually empowering.

So James clearly didn't intend to write a book that trivialises domestic violence, but survivors of domestic abuse did read it that way  one women's charity was so outraged that they called for the book to be burned. James's words spoke to them in a very different language than the one she thought she was speaking.  

What people tend to worry about in literature is the message it will give to young readers, who are considered by some to be impressionable and still formulating an idea of their morals. Parents claimed Looking for Alaska would cause 'immoral thoughts' in children. We can't know exactly what they meant by this, but I'll assume they were implying that young people might read Looking for Alaska and want to try oral sex. There seems to be a pervading concern that some young readers might be tempted to imitate what they see in a book. Let's say you write about a girl whose every move is controlled by her boyfriend, or vice versa. A teenager – or, indeed, an adult  might read that book, and because that relationship is presented as an ideal, and because it's popular with other readers, might just start to think that kind of relationship is normal  even desirable. Young men and women might then be encouraged to seek out that kind of relationship and that kind of partner, putting them in an unhealthy or even dangerous situation.  

Like any art form, literature is subjective. The same words can be read in millions of ways, just as paintings can be seen in many lights. I've said before that I lean towards to the Death of the Author theory, which was suggested in an essay by Roland Barthes in 1967. The theory suggests that the intentions of the writer are unrelated to the book, which should be viewed as an enclosed object. Barthes says:

[L]iterature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

What he's saying is that there is no agency in a book. The author arranges the words and puts them out there, but from then on out, the book has no single identity. No single opinion on the book, even that of the writer, should be considered right or wrong. This can certainly be frustrating for writers – I'm sure it will be frustrating for me when readers see something in The Bone Season that I don't personally agree with  but if a reviewer sees something in a book, whether good or bad, then they have every right to voice it. Misinterpretation of the author's intentions doesn't invalidate a reader's opinion; it simply provides a different reading of the book. When you publish your book, you accept that. Of course, the book is still 'yours' in that you created it, and I believe authors should have a right to state their intentions for the book if they choose – but like a parent, you don't have sole ownership over your child. That child will be loved, liked and disliked by different people. That's life. That's literature. And at the end of the day, that's why we love it. You can be wrong in maths and science, but you're always right in art.          

So let me round this off by bringing the discussion back to age ranges. We've established that a book is a subjective object, and that everyone will react differently to it, no matter what their age 
 but we still have to be cautious when we write, and do our utmost to give the best messages we can. (Of course, that depends on our personal opinion of what's good and bad. I wouldn't baulk at writing about premarital sex, but other people would have moral objections to doing the same.) If you get stuck on what's considered suitable for each age group, one guideline would be the British Board of Film Classification or a similar film certificate system. Look at the guidelines for Parental Guidance (PG) films. The website says that 'a PG film should not disturb a child aged around eight or over'. Note that all-important word should. The BBFC can't guarantee that a PG film won't upset certain children over the age of eight, but they've made a reasonable assumption, based on the opinions of their board, that the average eight year-old won't be troubled by it. Books don't have these certificates  we can't stop people buying them in the same way we can stop a six year-old seeing Dawn of the Dead at the cinema  but we can use our common sense, and handle our subjects with as much care as we can.

What do you think about age ranges? How do you judge appropriacy when you write?  

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Naming a book

Thank you all so much for your positive response to the cover and the excerpts! The punctuation in the EW excerpt still needs smoothing out a little, but I'm so glad you enjoyed them. Big round of applause for Mr Mann.  

The more I think about books, the more the process of writing one seems like raising a child. You keep it in the comfort of your own home, nurture and guide it to the best of your ability, and send it out into the world. You also have to give your book a name, which will be today's focus. 

Naming a book is always hard work. The title has to establish what the book is about without being too obvious. It has to be clear, concise and attention-grabbing, and it has to look good on the jacket. Trying to squeeze all of this into one title is no easy task. 

I came up with two different titles for the book before The Bone Season, none of which I particularly liked. The working title was Third Eye Blind, which I abandoned after realising [a] it sounds a bit like a spy film and [b] it's the name of an American alternative rock band. Then it was Flux for a while, named after a substance used in the book – but when I took a peek at Google, I found out there was a sci-fi film called Æon Flux. So Flux was off the cards (and, in retrospect, really didn't suit the book). It was also briefly titled Luna Moth, when I was first trying to develop a story after Aurora, but that didn't quite suit the final, fully recognised manuscript. The title page on the WIP remained empty for a long time. And then, one day, I suddenly just got it.  


I woke up one morning determined to tackle the issue of The Title. I was starting to get myself into a sweat over the darn thing, so I sat there for hours, twiddling my pen, getting more and more annoyed with myself. I went through the manuscript and started to pick out important words that could be used. I also noted down the word season, with reference to a period of change. I'd already found the word bone as part of my research into Victorian slang, and it also featured in the MS as part of the clairvoyant underworld. After toying with my list of possibles for a while, I put bone and season next to each other – and, eureka, I'd done it. THAT was my book's title. It also gave me the perfect name for a very important something that happens in the story: the Bone Season itself. I also see it as Paige's 'season'. Seasons are inevitable; you can't stop them changing. Paige has little choice over her fate in the book, and must do her best to adapt to harsh conditions, just as we have to adapt between summer and winter. Fortunately, Bloomsbury didn't ask me to change the title. 

It's difficult to advise you guys on how to give your book a name, as it ought to suit the book's content. What I'd suggest is playing Title Scrabble with yourself. Go through your WIP and think of the major symbols, themes, characters and occurrences. Write down words that suit the tone. Think of what kind of title you want. Check the titles of books in similar genres and decide whether you want to mimic them or deliberately subvert them. To help you out, I've picked out a selection of successful books and explored how they came to have their titles, and the ways in which those titles link to the stories. 

  • I, Robot (1950) – This is probably my favourite book title. I like its confessional tone and the assignment of a personal pronoun to a machine, which is appropriate to the various interactions between mechanical men and their human creators. Interestingly, Asimov wanted to name the collection Mind and Iron, but the publishers insisted on naming it after Eando Binder's short story, which had been a great influence on Asimov. My book is now the more famous,' Asimov said, 'but Otto's was there first.' Don't think publishers would get away with doing that nowadays! 

  • Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) – The cedar tree is an important symbol throughout the book. One hollowed cedar provides a meeting place for two young people of different cultures to come together; cedars are also mentioned sporadically throughout the narrative. The snow refers to a snowstorm that grips the fictional island where it's set during the trial that forms the centrepiece of the book.

  • A Game of Thrones (1996) – This links the novel clearly to its genre, indicating medieval fantasy or historical fiction. The playful connotations of game and the serious weight of throne work well with the political and sexual intrigue of the narrative. GRRM keeps this up throughout the series; we see dragons, swords and kings as well as thrones. It's also linked to quote from one of the characters: 'When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.' 

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) Quest title. To me, this title establishes the book as primarily aimed at children, particularly boys, and gives a subtle sense of genre. It gives the name of the main character and the obstacle or issue with which he or she will be dealing, i.e. their quest. This means it falls into a similar category to Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2005), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and James and the Giant Peach (1961). HP's title was changed in the USA to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, as it was thought by the publisher that American children wouldn't pick up a book containing the word 'philosopher' in the title. JK Rowling later said she regretted allowing this to happen, but felt she wasn't in a position to change it.  

  • Twilight (2005) – Single-word titles are common in YA, possibly based on the popularity of this book. They may give some sense of the main character, usually a quality, or establish a particular atmosphere. All the Twilight books draw on sky phenomena: a new moon, an eclipse, dawn. The book ends with Bella and Edward observing the twilight over Forks: 'Twilight, again. Another ending. No matter how perfect the day is, it always has to end.' The original title of the book was Forks, named after the town in Washington where Bella meets Edward. Meyer's agent advised her to change it, and they brainstormed ideas. Twilight was on a list of 'words with atmosphere' that Meyer liked.

  • The Hunger Games (2008) – What-does-it-mean. Does what it says on the tin: makes you grab the book to find out what the title means. The Hunger Games is a mysterious, attention-grabbing title that doesn't make sense until you read the blurb, although you can make some reasonable assumptions. Hunger with games indicates sadism; it blurs the lines between pleasure and death, which suits the storyline. As far as I can tell, Suzanne Collins has never explained how she came up with this particular title for her reality TV show, but it was probably to do with the Roman metaphor of panem et circenses, or 'bread and circuses', referring to superficial appeasement.    

  • Wolf Hall (2009) – This one is really interesting. I initially thought it was a setting title, indicating an important place in the story (e.g. The Castle of Otranto and Mansfield Park), but although it's named after the seat of the Seymour family at Wulfhall, none of the action actually takes place there. The title apparently alludes to the phrase Homo homini lupis, meaning 'man is wolf to man', while acknowledging Wulfhall as a place of historical significance.   

  • The Song of Achilles (2012) – This is what I call an inheritance title, i.e. a title that borrows or adapts a phrase from another work. It's taken from the beginning of Homer's Iliad, which translates roughly to 'Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles'. The title suggests classical influence, strengthened by the breastplate on the cover (The Song of Achilles is a retelling of this story). Achilles is a well-known literary figure, so the title is likely to grab the attention of anyone interested in Greek mythology. I also feel it expresses love and admiration, rather like a serenade. This is appropriate to the perspective of the narrator, Patroclus, who falls deeply in love with Achilles and spends much of the novel singing his praises. 

Really hope that's helped a bit, but remember, it's your book  only you can give it the right name. What are your favourite book titles, and why?

Friday, 1 February 2013

My book is not naked

Yesterday was a big day for The Bone Season. There are now less than 200 days until publication. More importantly, I'm very proud to present the jacket design! Sorry for the delay – Entertainment Weekly had the exclusive, so I wasn't allowed to blog about it until the 1st, but here it is, in all its glory. Just to confirm, this is the cover for the UK,USA and Australia – it may be different for other territories. 

If you're wondering why there are twelve numbers there (and two sixes), it's because it's based on this design (see right). That's one of the faces from the sundial pillar at Seven Dials, specifically the pillar facing Monmouth Street, where I first got the inspiration to write The Bone Season.   

I'm already hearing lots of opinions on the cover; I'm so intrigued by what people think of it. It's definitely unusual in that it doesn't, in my opinion, commit to any particular genre or audience. Bloomsbury's teams in London, NYC and Sydney worked very hard to find a design they all liked. I didn't want it to have pictures of the characters on the front, as I don't like assigning a particular look for them – I want readers to be able to imagine them as they please. The design is based on three symbols that run through the story. The anchor is the symbol of Scion. As for the flower, you'll have to wait and see. Oddly, the thing I like most about it is the font. It's called Pilgrim. I love the strange mix of sans-serif and serif.

I was also thrilled to receive my first proof pages for The Bone Season yesterday. They're pages that have been properly typeset, i.e. put into the right font and had chapter titles added, that get sent to the author to do final checks for typos and so on. I nearly cried when I saw them. The pages look beautiful.

If you head on over to the Facebook page, you'll be able to see a new excerpt from Chapter 1 by clicking the 'exclusive content' tab. It's my favourite excerpt out of the two that have been released, as it gives a lot more context than the EW excerpt. You'll get a much better idea of what Scion's all about.    

I also did an interview with the lovely book blogger Lisa Lueddecke if you're interested in finding out a bit more about the book.  

Designing covers is a big job. You have to work out what fits the story, what grabs the attention of readers, and what the authors themselves will like. After all, most of us judge a book by its cover. To give you some idea of what a designer does, I've done a little interview with the brains behind the cover of The Bone Season. Send him some love on Twitter if you liked the cover – it's his hard work.   

Q&A: Art Director

David Mann is Art Director at Bloomsbury, where he's worked since 2006. He's designed a lot of covers in his time, including the cover for The Bone Season (which makes him one of my favourite people on Earth) and has also worked for Penguin and Simon & Schuster. David was kind enough to answer a few questions for me as part of what I hope will be a series of interviews with publishing-type people. Thanks for being here, David! Over to the Mann himself.  

When did you decide you wanted to be a designer? 

I always wanted to be in the Visual Arts. I started as a window dresser which was just enormous fun, and while doing this I started helping out with retail graphics which I found more in line with my skills – which led me into applying to a Graphic Design course at Art College.

How did you come to work for Bloomsbury? 

I’d recently moved to Penguin from Simon & Schuster. Within a year of working at Penguin though, I’d heard (publishing is a very small world!) that the Art Director position at Bloomsbury had come up. Bloomsbury publish some of my very favourite authors including Margaret Atwood and Edmund White, and Bloomsbury have a reputation for fantastic cover design... so I got in touch, and was extremely fortunate to be offered the role. Thank you Alexandra Pringle!

Tell us about your average day at work. 

It’s usually a combination of working with the rest of the team on their projects, designing new and developing existing covers when approved, art-working, and interactions with the Editorial, Sales, Marketing and Production departments. Also, always planning ahead to my weekly cover meeting, where we present several options for each title.

What are the best and worst aspects of designing a cover? 

I would say that the best aspect is when an author really loves the design! It’s a huge responsibility to produce a visual to a writer’s work, that is so personal and has been a huge part of their lives for sometimes many years. The only downside I can think of is when a design you have your heart set on is rejected – the ones that got away! But, fortunately this doesn’t happen often and the end result can often be more successful.

Who else is involved in the process? 

All our covers go to a weekly cover meeting, where the Editorial, Sales, Marketing and Publicity teams choose from a selection of approaches, or discuss developments. The author will then have approval. Editorial will then supply copy and circulate through the teams for sign off. The designer will then artwork the cover – the technical bit, producing files separating finishes such as foils, embossing and spot gloss and then it is over to the Production department.

What software or equipment is used in book design? 

Usually Photoshop for the initial design, and then Indesign when the cover is approved and goes to layout (when copy/author photograph etc is supplied). My Assistant Art Director and Senior Designers are amazing illustrators too, and they will sometimes start a job with sketches.

What’s your favourite cover you’ve designed, and why? 

Favourite covers are usually the ones where I love the book to bits... Recently – The Bone Season, Maggie and Me, The Song of Achilles and The Misogynist. And Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns when I joined Bloomsbury will always be special to me.

What’s your favourite cover you haven’t designed, and why? 

One at the moment that is a work of sheer genius is Penguin’s paperback edition of 1984, designed by the ever brilliant David Pearson.

Favourite book of all time? 

Argh – hard to choose one... If I can break the rules and have a top five in fiction, they would be The Handmaid’s Tale, The Magic Toyshop, Hotel Du Lac, 1984 and The Song of Achilles.

Any advice for budding designers? 

Go for it! I would suggest that anyone trying to get into Publishing produces lots of self-initiated book cover projects for their folio, to show what they can do. There is a lot of competition as cover design is ‘what I call’ the Holy Grail for many designers.

Thanks again for all your support, everyone. Readers are brilliant! 

What did you think of the cover and the excerpts? What's your favourite cover on a book? Let me know in the comments section.