On worlds and slush piles
I think I could just finish the first edit today. Two more chapters to go. My back is killing me, I definitely need to see a doctor about the RSI in my hands, and I need Vitamin D. I must have finished off about 400 cups of coffee in the last month.
My mum, who has barely seen me except for dinner, has observed that when I do emerge from my room, I talk non-stop and laugh like a drain. I put this down to lack of social interaction, being embroiled in the world of Paige Mahoney from dusk till dawn. There's also a massive pile of books I need to read before I go back to uni in October. Despite these things, I'm still having a huge amount of fun, and I'm not allowing myself to become as exhausted as I did with Aurora. I think I'll even be disappointed when this first lot of edits is finished, though very excited for the Bloomsbury team to read the new version.
There are also only two weeks left until the move. I've thrown out eight recycling bags of stuff I've hoarded over the years. I found some of my original notebooks for novel planning, and I discovered a whole novel about dragons I wrote when I was about twelve. It was called Inferno – an apt, if unimaginative title. But onward to questions!
- What is Seven Dials?
My favourite place in London. It's a road junction in Covent Garden, where seven roads meet. I did my internship there, at the agency that now represents me, and it's the place that inspired me to write The Bone Season.
- Can you tell us about back story? Did you write back stories for your characters?
This is a great question. I think the important thing with back stories is making sure you don't throw your character's entire life story out there in the first few sentences of the book.
Unless you want your character to be enigmatic, or completely uninterested in their own life, it's important to know what has happened to your character (especially your protagonist or narrator) up until the story starts. You don't have to know every minute detail of their existence, but have some main events that might have shaped their personality. Did something happen to him/her that made them develop a phobia of water? That's great, but don't tell us straight away. Wait until he or she encounters water, and then bring it up. Make it as relevant as possible to the plot. You can use devices like flashback to tell the story, but again, make sure they're relevant. Don't just have the narrator flash back to when they were five years old and knocked over their Lego castle and cried for hours over the ruins. If you do, make sure the Lego castle memory is relevant to the plot.
I don't think you need to know the back story for each and every character. I have at least a rough idea of what happened to most of my characters, but you don't have to sit there and slave away over a detailed character plan for characters that barely appear. I know Paige's back story very well; I know the important things about Warden's life; I know one key event that will twist Jaxon's entire personality (I use these three characters because theirs are the only names I can release). At present, that's all I need to know. So my one rule for back stories would be "need-to-know basis only".
- Can you explain the process of world building?
World building can be an incredibly complicated, or fairly easy process. It depends on the kind of world you're trying to build. If you're writing a high fantasy novel – which I have never attempted – your world will need to be very detailed, because it's completely unlike our world. I'm no expert in this, but I'd assume you need to familiarise your reader quite quickly so they understand the key rules of the world. In urban and 'low' fantasy (which are two of the categories that The Bone Season can be squeezed into), it's a little different.
During the editing process, my editors told me that they wanted to hear more about the linked but very different worlds that Paige encounters: Scion-occupied London and Oxford. I'm quite an economic writer and I don't like bogging myself down with description, so originally I just threw Paige out there in media res and thought the reader could just work things out for themselves. I don't like stating things outright. Alexandra and Alexa, however, wanted to hear more about the laws and limits of both worlds, so I extended the first chapter to explain Paige's life in Scion a little. I ended up having a huge amount of fun with it, creating my own currency, slang, technology and criminal network. Then I had even more fun when I moved onto creating the world of Oxford, though a lot of that involved trying to steer clear of Philip Pullman's depiction of the city in His Dark Materials. Difficult, as I've never read any of his books, but I hope I succeeded (while basing my knowledge solely on their Wikipedia pages).
I think it's hard to build the entire world before you start writing. Test a chapter out. Throw your protagonist into some kind of world and see what happens. I've changed Scion London several times during the editing process – I only created the currency yesterday. Lay the foundations and keep adding blocks.
- You mentioned being on slush pile duty. I'd love to know if you found
that to be a learning experience for your own writing or somewhat
The great thing about slush pile duty was seeing how many interesting novels are out there (although at the time this was a bit disheartening, as I was an unpublished writer and I couldn't see how I'd ever get published with so many manuscripts in circulation). The guy who submitted a photo of his face as a covering letter was definitely traumatic, but most of them were great fun to read.
I read one fantastically traumatic 'lad-lit' novel. The author caught my attention immediately by emailing the office and offering me a packet of digestive biscuits if I'd read his MS. I was happy to accept. It was a hilarious, ghastly, wonderful novel about a young man who has the worst day ever. The author had a great proclivity for putting his poor narrator in awkward sexual situations, and describing them in lurid detail. (Since reading the MS I have never been able to eat mayonnaise again.) David said he wasn't able to represent it, but I sent an email strongly encouraging the author to look elsewhere. He emailed me a few days later to say the novel had been picked up in the States. I was so thrilled, as he had so much talent. I'm sure he went on to do very well over the pond.
I also remember two manuscripts that really touched me. One was from a young woman who reminded me of myself when I wrote Aurora. She'd written a beautiful little romance novel, and the first chapter was incredibly well-written. I left my internship before I could reply to her, but having thought about it for a long time, I think an agent might be wary of taking on someone so young (though I would have strongly disagreed when I was fifteen). You have to do a lot of promotion you publish, and as the girl was still at school, it would have been an awful lot of pressure on her. There was also an MS from a gentleman who'd written a very long novel about farming. His covering letter was world-weary. He said he was astonished that the publishing world was so harsh, and that one thing writing the novel had made him realise was how impossible it is for new authors to be published. I went home that day feeling downright miserable, knowing exactly how he felt, after so many rejections for Aurora.