WOW Festival 2015: Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games & Rape

It’s International Women’s Day, and the final day of WOW – the Women of the World Festival, now in its fifth year at London’s Southbank Centre. I was there yesterday as one of the panellists for Hollywood, Sci-Fi, Computer Games and Rape, to talk about the use of sexual violence and ‘fridging’ – the rape, murder or abuse of a female character to provide motivation for a male protagonist – in fictional narratives. The others were Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck College; Laurel Sills, co-editor of HOLDFAST magazine; David Moore from Abaddon Books; and our chairperson was Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

It was an intense and in-depth discussion, before a standing-room-only audience in the Festival Village. Here’s what we – and they – had to say.



On the importance of editing

I’ve not been around online much recently. I’m a bit embarrassed that this is my first new post in a month, although I do have a number of very good reasons. There were a few days of being unwell; quite a few more of job-hunting and soul-searching (resulting in the Big Life Decision to not take the excellent position I was being offered, in order to dedicate the next several months to writing the concluding volume of the ®Evolution trilogy – cue lots of deep breaths and sleepless nights); the kerfuffle of transferring from one friend’s flat to another’s, due to builders being in; and the search for my own flat, which to my immense relief and satisfaction was finally concluded last week (hello Victoria Park!). But the thing that has demanded the biggest chunk of my time and attention over the past four weeks has been editing.

Although my second book, Binary, is out in just over two months, a dearth of available copy editors meant that I only got the manuscript back for my review and any final changes at the beginning of the year. (It’s also a big part of why my editor – who, by the way, has the additional responsibility of the entire publishing enterprise that is Jo Fletcher Books – works seven days a week, bringing her considerable skills to bear in order to plug that gap.) Even after the ministrations of the copy editor, followed by two weeks of my own scrutiny (I hasten to add that about half of this was spent on polishing the story, not just the copy), Jo and I went down to the wire a week later, correcting commas and paragraph breaks, tweaking tenses and phrases.

The book that was sent off a scant few hours later to be typeset is much the better for it, which makes the apparent shrinkage in editing as a profession, along with the value placed upon it, so dispiriting. And I don’t just mean copy editing. The ability to look at a text with a critical eye, appreciating its good qualities but also identifying any implausibilities in its plot, inconsistencies in its characterisation and flaws in its prose,  is crucial to the quality of the finished work and happens long before the copy edit. Whether what emerges from that structural review are minor modifications to said plot, characters and prose, or a major edit involving significant changes to the way the narrative is organised and constructed, it is unimaginable that, from first draft to published volume, there are no improvements to be made. Although, sadly, that is what too many authors, and indeed their publishers, seem to think.

I recently picked up a novel that I’ve been dying to read, by an author who I already knew from their online media presence (which is much more disciplined and consistent than mine) and convention appearances to be intelligent, articulate, interesting, and a builder of complex worlds and layered, intricate plots. The book should have been right up my proverbial street – and I made it about 80 pages in before giving up (I’d have chucked it across the room at 40 had I been less enthusiastic about the author). I could see that the worldbuilding and twisty plotting had been meticulously thought through, but the plausibility of the characters and quality of the prose veered wildly from one scene to another, indeed at times from one paragraph to another. It was clunky. It was awkward. The story was clearly there, but it read like the first draft that you dump willy-nilly onto the page in your haste to pin your ideas down before you lose them.

It read like it hadn’t been edited.

Now I have no idea what this particular author’s creative process is like, nor do I judge it; there is no single right way of doing things. I tend to do a lot of editing as I write, which is supposed to be a no-no, but it works for me. And I start each day’s work by reviewing and editing what I did the day before – which usually results in the loss of around 10% of the previous day’s words, further tightens and polishes the prose, helps me pick up on any plot or character problems I might be writing my way into, and gets my head back into the place and the mood of the piece.

Then the whole thing, from opening sentence to final paragraph, gets reviewed and edited by me at least – at least – once before it gets shown to anyone else.

I bite my nails for a few weeks (or if I get the timing right, go on holiday); then I take the initial feedback from editor, agent and beta readers, and work through the manuscript, soup to nuts, again. The result goes back to the structural editor, who reads it a second time and identifies anything that still doesn’t quite click. If there were major problems at that point the script would come straight back to me (this has never yet happened, I’m glad to say). Otherwise it goes on to the copy editor, while I get a note about anything the structural editor recommends I take another look at when I’m going through the copy edit (this is what one of the two weeks I mentioned at the beginning were spent on). The copy edit itself is mostly concerned with correcting punctuation and grammar, suggesting better words and phrases (and in my case, because I lived in the States for many years and Americanisms still sometimes slip through, replacing them with the British equivalent), and pointing out any inconsistencies within the book (and between books, if it’s a series).

Are you counting? That’s at least five editorial passes so far. And there is still one final chance to make minor edits, at the page proof stage. This is the typeset manuscript, the pages as they will look when bound between the covers and placed on the shelves at your friendly local bookseller. You do not want to have many – or, preferably, any – changes at this stage, but the point is you can.

There is no single right way of doing things, and not everyone will be as obsessive about this as me (or indeed my editor). But every book that finds its way into print with an indie or imprint or small press or major publisher will have been read by someone besides the author. That person will most likely have ‘editor’ somewhere in their title. And if a book that ends up printed and on sale still reads like an unedited first draft, what, I ask myself, is that person doing?

Why are they not doing better by their authors? Are the authors ignoring them? Or are the titular editors ignoring what that role requires of them?

(I’m not going to quote any passages or otherwise identify this particular book, but I will say that my experience of it was by no means unique; it was merely the most recent. If anyone’s scratching their head, wondering exactly what I mean by ‘quality of prose’ and wishing for examples of transformative editing, go read this post by utterly fantastic fantasy author Hal Duncan. The target of Hal’s essay is the shibboleth about the wrongness of adjectives, which he dismantles with characteristic élan. The point for mine is that he starts with this incredibly florid sentence:

“Stepping out into the bright sunshine amidst the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her.”

– which would get the book thrown not just across the room, but out of the window if I happened upon it – and ends with this:

“Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead.”

– which is decriptive and emotive and lyrical, and might actually make you want to know what happens next.)

I don’t doubt there will be readers of this post whose reactions will be something along the lines of: But isn’t it up to the author to be able to write well? That’s what talent is about, surely. And yes, it is. But not even the most talented among us can do our best work in a vacuum. We need feedback. We need criticism. We need people who are themselves talented at unpicking the threads of narrative, and are willing to say to us: This is good, but it could be better. Here’s where it fails. Here’s where you can fix it.

And, even when the content is as good as it can be, we need people who can wrangle copy. We need to acknowledge the importance of how that well-structured story, with its believable characters and elegant, punchy prose is presented to the reader. I recently read another novel, the third in a very successful series; and I could tell that the copy editor had been changed, or gone AWOL, or fallen asleep on the job, somewhere between books two and three. The author’s plotting, characterisation and prose were as enjoyable as ever, but it was full of what I could only assume were uncorrected typos: what was clearly intended to be two sentences separated by a comma instead of a full stop, full stops where there should have been commas, ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, quotation marks opened but not closed … you get the idea. The quality of the story was high; the quality of the text was – not the lowest I’ve seen, but definitely mediocre. If it had been the first book in the series, it might well have prevented me ever picking up the second.

This stuff matters. None of us who write fiction want our readers popped unceremoniously out of their immersion in the worlds we construct. None of us who read it want our own suspension of disbelief to be punctured – whether by a misspelled word, a continuity error, an implausible plot twist or a badly turned phrase. Speaking as a reader, I want more than just a good story – I want it so well told that it beckons me back for a second visit, and a third and a fourth. As a writer I want to tell my stories that well.

So this is more than just a rant: it’s a call for readers and writers to take a good hard look at what we consider to be an acceptable level of quality in professionally published literature. Talent and imagination are essential, of course, but we need to value more than just creativity. We need to value craft. We need to ask for, and accept, criticism. We need to appreciate technique. We need to remember that making art is not an artless enterprise, and that carelessness is not rewarded. We need to honour the gatekeepers who make us better at what we do, and to demand of them that they keep on doing it.

We need to be willing to edit. And be edited.


P.S. While I’ve been writing this post the Binary page proofs have come in. Guess what I’m going to be doing this week?

Ten books that have touched me

A different kind of list this time: yesterday I spotted a Kate Keen* post about a Facebook meme which asks you to name ten books that have touched you. I usually avoid those things like the plague, because I can never narrow my influences down to ten or five or twelve or whatever the chosen magic number is. But this specification is an interesting one; it implies a book that generated a strong emotional reaction when you read it, which is not the same thing as being the most loved, most challenging, or most influential (although they may be that too). It’s asking not about the books that made you think, but the books that made you feel.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are ten (actually eleven) that did it for me. Numbers 1-4 are from my childhood and adolescence; the others got me as a grown-up.

1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

I suspect this is going to top many, many lists. It’s the immersion, which makes the reader care deeply about what’s at stake; and the sense of fellowship with the characters that begins at the very beginning of Fellowship. My mother gave it to me when I was nine, and what it did to my head and my heart is, I am quite certain, the reason I’m a writer today.

2. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Has there ever been a bright, bookish, slightly odd and outsider little girl anywhere in the world who didn’t identify with Jane? She made me cross, she made me cry, she made me believe that things would get better. And that if they didn’t you could bloody well make them better. Or move on.

3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe / Roots – Alex Haley

I should be able to choose between these two, but I can’t. I read them both when I was around 10-13 years old** and they made the reality of what slavery had actually meant accessible to me in a way no history lesson ever did, before or since. They made me sick to my stomach, they gave me nightmares, and I’m glad of it. If we could build that level of revulsion into the mind of every kid, we’d clear ourselves of violence and bigotry in a generation.

4. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Well overdue for a reread, this one, but I still remember the emotional highs and lows of reading it for the first time. Dickens doesn’t just tell us about social inequality and the class system here, he makes us feel every vile moment of it. Through it all runs a complex web of love, friendship, family and sacrifice. Overwrought and melodramatic at times, but completely captivating.

5. Black Man – Richard Morgan

What?! I hear you say. An ultra-violent grimdark tech-noir thriller? Yes, absolutely. This is a novel about what it is to live within the constraints of an altered physicality and psychology; to never know if the things you want, the things you do, and the things you fear are really you, or what’s been done to you. It’s about damaged people who know they’re damaged trying endlessly to negotiate that line. And it makes us live through the death of a character we’ve come to admire and respect. Gut-wrenching.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Anger, horror, anger, contempt, anger, sorrow, anger, fear, anger. Did I mention anger? Atwood’s current MaddAddam trilogy is intellectually engaging and artistically accomplished, but it doesn’t do anything for me on an emotional level. Handmaid left me so furious I couldn’t speak.

7. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I avoided this for years – unappealing cover, unappealing title – until I discovered that it was, actually, about time travel. I thought I wasn’t particularly enjoying it until about two thirds of the way through – kept feeling like I should chuck it in and not read any more – until the moment I found myself in floods of tears. And then I couldn’t stop reading, and could barely stop crying. That was when I understood the source of my reluctance: it drags you into the emotional lives of the characters whether you like it or not, into the heart of their incredible, doomed, love story, and makes you live it with them. Gorgeous and heartbreaking.

8. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

I wrote about Lolita last year; less a review of the novel than of my reaction to it. It’s another book that will break your heart, for completely different reasons. The narrator’s capacity for self-deception, for reframing the horrific and focusing on the banal, has the effect of completely dehumanising the young girl he claims to love. What’s shocking is how seductively he does it.

9. The Book of Night Women – Marlon James

James’s second novel left me profoundly shaken. It’s the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation, told in the colloquial language of the enslaved; unlike Beecher Stowe and Haley, told from the inside. The litany of atrocities suffered from birth to death, the way their lives brutalised both the abusers and the abused, what it took to endure and what it cost to survive, are simply part and parcel of the existence of people who feel as real and visceral as any people you know. It’s a stunningly good book that should be widely known and read, but I warn you now – it will hurt you.

10. The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I read Sarah’s beautifully written, achingly sad novella a couple of weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind – but I think it would have made this list anyway. The account of a woman’s vigil at the bedside of her dying father, it’s about family and love and loss, what brings people together and what tears them apart. It’s about facing the inconceivable. Anyone who has lost a loved one will feel how true it is – it took me back to the death of my own mother seven and a half years ago. And yet, strangely, it doesn’t leave you devastated. It ends with a sense of renewal and wonder; a hint at the possibility of magic.

And that is my list. Over to you – what’s on yours?


* Kate is on Twitter as @ladymoonray

** Because those were the halcyon days before the invention of YA fiction, and the rise of the corollary notion that because there is now a category deemed ‘appropriate’ for young readers, other books must perforce be ‘not appropriate’ – but that’s a rant for another time. (And is not, by the way, a criticism of YA books or writers, many of which/whom are wonderful; what I have a problem with is the creation of a barrier to other books.)

Riding the come-down

After a year of angst and anguish, painfully slow progress, wrong turns and backtracks and the startling discovery that yes, the second book really IS harder to write than the first, I’ve finally done it. Binary is complete.

Back on 9th May I said I thought it would take another couple of weeks; as so often with this book I was both right and wrong. I got to the end and typed ‘The End’ last Wednesday, neatly inside my estimate, but it took another 4 days of morning-to-midnight work to fill in missing bits of text and fix errors, incoherences and inconsistencies. The obvious ones, anyway. I’ve no doubt that editor and assistant editor, agent and alpha readers will catch lots of things I missed. And thank goodness for that, because at this point I know I’m far too close to it to be able to see it clearly. It’s only been done for a day and a half, and I am swinging like a pendulum between sunny confidence that it’s a flawless book full of fabulous characters and a fantastic plot — and a dreary conviction that my reach has far exceeded my grasp, that the mysteries I’ve constructed are so intricate they will make sense to no one but me.

Here’s a prediction you can lay money on: I’m going to be wrong on both counts. With any luck I’ll be very wrong on the second, and only a little wrong on the first.

I can say that because when I finished Gemsigns a year and a half ago and sent it off to the loose group of friends, family and acquaintances that I dubbed the ®Evolution Readers, I felt pretty much exactly like this. I was mentally exhausted, emotionally drained, and I honestly didn’t know whether I’d written a good book or 100,000+ words of gibberish.

Turned out it was, fundamentally, a good book. And after about a month of not looking at it, I was able to read through with a clear head and see that; and with the comments of those alpha readers to hand, fix the inevitable outcrops of error and poor prose. So I am comforted by that memory, and confident that the experience will be repeated.

In the meantime Gemsigns is making its way in the world — to as wonderful a reception as any debut author could hope or dream of (see the Reviews link above) — and will be formally launched in the USA next May as part of the Jo Fletcher plan for world domination. I have a sorely neglected house and garden to attend to, and next week I’m off to Jamaica, to visit family and friends I haven’t seen for eighteen months, sun myself and swim and hopefully decompress a bit. There’ll be promotional events there too, including a local launch, reading and discussion at Bookophilia, Kingston’s premiere bookstore. And I have the third book of the ®Evolution to think about, to plan and to write.

But not just yet. The pendulum needs to stop swinging first.

FantasyCon here I come

I’m off to FantasyCon in Brighton on Friday morning. My first ever genre convention, and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. I never felt moved to go to them as a reader; I never really understood how my enjoyment of fantastic fiction was going to be increased by propping up the bar next to a costumed stormtrooper. Or an orc. One of the interesting things about becoming a writer, though, is that you find yourself having a different, and often more democratic, perspective on things. Could I, in my wildest dreams, dare to hope that one day I might go to a convention where fans dress up as characters I created? It’s very, very, very unlikely – I’ve got a better chance of being hit by lightning in this unseasonably stormy September weather – but all of a sudden it seems less a questionable eccentricity and more like the ultimate accolade.

Plus there are the educational and community aspects. I don’t feel like I’ve really found my feet yet – this whole first-book-about-to-be-published, struggling-through-the-second-book, is a weird experience. It’s so different to my former life. It seems to be going well, but how can you tell? What do you compare it to? I don’t know anybody else who does this for a living. I don’t even know if I do it for a living, or if it’s just a strange, fortuitous little bubble of time, in which I get to live my fantasy life of being a writer for a few months, maybe a year or two, before the money runs out and the books don’t sell well and I have to go back to having a proper, full-time job. Back in the real world.

So roll on FantasyCon. There’ll be pundits and publishers, bloggers and fans. But I’m particularly looking forward to meeting other writers – both published and aspiring, those who can do it for a living and those who do it purely for love. With any luck I’ll get some tips and tricks for dealing with the ups and downs, the disappointments and reversals (and – who knows? – maybe even the successes) to come. I want to know if I’m the only one finding their second novel problematic and intimidating in a way the first one never was. If I’m alone in swinging from the elation of a perfect paragraph at noon to the despair of garbled dialogue at midnight. In short, I’m hoping for the reassurance, the camaraderie, of like minds.

And maybe even an orc or two.

GEMSIGNS cover reveal!

A few weeks ago I reported with much excitement on the cover meeting I’d had with Jo Fletcher Books. As I said then, the concept they came up with managed both to fit the brief perfectly and to be not at all what I expected, to reflect the story while giving nothing away. I was stunned and delighted and I couldn’t wait to share it with you. And now … I can.

The first book of the ®Evolution

Gemsigns will be published April 2013


Creating smart characters

I’ve been procrastinating this morning by browsing writing questions on Quora. Someone wanted tips for creating a character who is smarter than they are, and I was struck that most of the answers seemed to assume this must be a very difficult thing to do. Suggestions ranged from role-playing; to the Arthur Conan Doyle method (have a character of normal intelligence, i.e. Dr. Watson, describe the character of greater intelligence, i.e. Sherlock Holmes); to making the character confusing and incomprehensible; to not even attempting the task.

Now I write a lot of very smart characters, some of whom are definitely smarter than me, and I don’t find it that hard at all. You don’t need to make every line they speak or every action they take redolent of their greater intellect, unless you are actively trying to present their cleverness as the only interesting thing about them and the only reason they are in your story. Instead give them a quirk, some character trait that suggests quick thinking or the kind of specific intelligence you want to convey.

For instance: I’ve created a character who likes wordplay and aphorisms. He tends to drop them into conversation, either to amuse the friend he’s speaking to or stump someone who’s annoying him. The rest of his conversation is intelligent in an unintimidating way, but just four or five of these zingers scattered throughout the novel is enough to give the impression of a really big brain at work. Another possibility would be a prodigious memory, someone who remembers the details of things they read or saw long ago. Or you could give your character a facility with numbers – have them add things up in their head before the person with the calculator or cash register can give them the total, for example.

How you do it will depend on the type of story you’re telling and the purpose of the character in it, but think about the things that make you form an impression of someone’s intelligence in real life. It will rarely be because they suddenly start spouting the laws of particle physics or deduce what you had for breakfast from the stain on your tie. It’ll be the way in which they speak, what they do for a living, the esoteric subjects they seem to know a lot about, how insightful they are. Utilise those kinds of naturalistic cues in your writing and it will be easier to make your character’s intelligence believable.

BINARY extract: Supper therapy

It pleased her greatly that he had learnt to enjoy food, instead of treating it as no more than a tedious refuelling that took him away from his tablet and screens. They had formed an instinctive, unspoken rota back in the beginning of the Squats, making sure he had a tasty meal and company to eat it with every day if they could; prying him gently offline and into the more visceral interactions of meat and bread and touch and speech. She had watched him change over those lunches and suppers, bit by infinitesimal bit, could almost map each new word or glimmer of expression that he gained against a taste or texture that gave him pause, and fired a new, old pattern into the altered web of his brain. Some deeply buried instinct for humanity had stirred with every bite.

(Postscript: I can’t post proper extracts from Binary, not until Gemsigns is out, but no harm in the odd un-spoilered paragraph here and there. I’m quite pleased with this one.)

Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

The hidden code of character names

I’ve been thinking a lot about names recently, as anyone who read my recent post about the tribulations of trying to name this blog will know. It reminded me of an online conversation I participated in some months ago, about examples of books in which character names provided powerful subliminal messages about the world and events of the story, and indeed about the characters themselves.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel at the time, and in the earlier planning stages had been struck by how much easier it was to write my core characters once I’d figured out what their names were. I seemed, suddenly, to know them better and to have a more profound understanding of their significance to the story and each other. Their names have meaning; they are part of the DNA, the hidden code that underpins the structure and themes of the story.

Going through this process myself made me think about other books I’ve loved wherein names have provided a subtle, subconscious signal about who and what the characters are. Two of my favourite examples, which I contributed to that online conversation I mentioned, are The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs.

As I read and reread The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, I was struck by how Tolkien constructed names that ‘fit’ each of the races in his story, managing somehow to encapsulate the entire cultural identity of a character in their name. They are internally consistent in terms of the syntax and structure of language for that people, and are instantly evocative. The Hobbits are small, straightforward, simple country folk given to hearty jokes and earthy pursuits, and their names reflect that – Bilbo, Frodo, Merry, Pippin, Sam. The Elves, with their grandeur, magic and ancient heritage tend to have long, lyrical names – Elrond, Galadriel, Legolas, Arwen Undomiel. The Men (humans) are somewhere in between, and their names tend to reflect their degree of nobility, which in the mythology of the book is indicated by how “close” they are to elf-culture; so Aragorn, noblest of all, could be an elf-name, while Boromir, Faramir and Denethor are almost elf-like but starting to have harder consonants. The names of the people of Rohan – Eomer, Eowyn and Theoden being the most famous – repeat the ‘eo’ syllable and so have that sense of family identity, helping to reinforce that while also ‘noble’ humans, they are something of an offshoot. The pattern holds true for the other subgroups of Men, the Dwarves, the Orcs and so on.

The Silence of the Lambs is a bit more obvious, but no less effective for that. I’ve always thought that the names of the two main characters tell you everything you need to know about who they are and what they mean to the story. ‘Hannibal Lecter’ combines a legendary king who was almost superhuman in his ambition, daring and appetite for violence with a surname that sounds like ‘lectern’ or ‘lecture’ – intellectual, dry, a bit pedantic. ‘Clarice Starling’ evokes clarity, innocence, and a vision of something wild and yet vulnerable. It combines a sense of integrity with a sense of striving – taking to the air, reaching for the stars – just like the character.

How about you? Has anyone out there struggled to find just the right name for a character, something that would quietly capture their essence without being too obviously symbolic? Do you have any really good (or bad) examples to share from published books? I’d love to hear from you.

  • I love stories.
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