Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Double Vision...by Phil Earle.

 One of the best YA books I've read in a long time is Being Billy, Phil Earle's story of an angry boy trapped in the care system, seemingly rejected by everyone. It's heart-rending, without ever being sentimental, and Phil pulls off the trick of  getting the reader to care desperately about Billy, while showing us how damaged and difficult he is.
One thing that interested me about Being Billy is that it's contremporary realism at its grittiest. As a writer of contemporary realism, I'm all too aware of how unfashionable it is at the moment (one day I will share with you the horror story of trying to get When I Was Joe published. Not yet. The scars are still raw). But of course, publishing is a business, and sales directors are right to make hard-headed business decisions about which books they think will turn a profit.
So how interesting, I thought, that Being Billy was written by the Sales Director of one of the UK's big publishers. Phil Earle works for Simon and Schuster, he knows the world of publishing inside out, and he's there in acquisitions meetings making decisions about what's in and what's out, all the time. What's he doing writing contemporary realism? Over to Phil....

Someone asked me the other week why I haven’t written a Paranormal Romance.
Why, when the vast majority of teen readers are desperate for tales of forbidden love between a girl and a vampire/werewolf/fallen angel/corpse* (*delete as appropriate), choose to write Being Billy -  a novel about an angry, abusive kid stuck in the care system.

Bloomin’ good question that, one that I should’ve had an answer for. After all, I’m only too aware of what is floating the YA boat at the moment, as I’m lucky enough to work in kids publishing.
Once I’d stopped kicking myself, I realised that the answer is actually a simple one, a response you hear authors give at many school events – write about what you know, write what you’re passionate about.

I love the YA genre, it’s what I read out of choice as well as write for, so I knew there was no chance of me sitting for six months on the bus, using my free hour of the day, telling a story that I had absolutely no interest in. It just wouldn’t happen. I’d end up playing ‘Angry Birds’ or heaven forbid, reading the ‘Evening Standard’ instead. How depressing would that be?

It does create an interesting dynamic for me though, as my job as sales director at Simon and Schuster demands me to think commercially so much of the time. There’s not always time for a lot of sentiment - I have to think to some extent, is there a market for this book? And if not, should we be publishing at all?

It was a stark realisation when I tried to imagine my own book coming to one of our acquisition meetings. Would I have been intrigued by the plot, or just have passed it off as something too worthy or niche? Would I have told the author to turn the kid into a vampire to tick the boxes that the current trend demands?
I know I wouldn’t, even if I thought it momentarily…after all, look at the number of YA novels that have gone on to be bestsellers or cult classics, despite being a ‘difficult’ sell.

Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ for example takes autism into the mainstream in a way that few people could, and what about Louis Sachar’s ‘Holes’?
Imagine the conversation in that acquisition meeting…..

‘What’s it about?’ asks the cynical Sales Director.

*Pause from editor*
‘Well, er, it’s about a kid who steals some sneakers and ends up digging holes in the desert as his punishment…’

‘Could he not get bitten by a radioactive snake or something…?’ sighs the Sales Director. ‘Or discover the jail is made up of vampires hungry for his blood?’

*Editor quickly scribbles resignation letter*

But that’s the great thing about the kids' book industry that I know, as there are enough passionate editors, sales folk or marketers who are prepared to see beyond the initial synopsis, to the thing that is really important in the telling of stories, and that is the voice it’s written in.

You can have a concept that no-one has ever dreamed of before, or a fast cash-in to a trend that is setting new records, but if the story is badly told, or without heart, the reader will see straight through it. And they won’t come back for more, no matter how nicely you ask them.

And that’s why I write the books I do, even if they aren’t in vogue. It’s because I feel compelled to.
It would be lovely if they sold well.
Well enough to allow me to spend more time writing and talking about them.
But truthful, passionate writing comes first – it has to, and I promise to remember that in our next acquisition meeting too.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Spitting at the Evil Eye

Sunny Angus..
Last week was an astoundingly good week for me. A week full of exciting news and slaps on the back. I’ve actually never had a week anything like it. So many good things happened that I’m wondering whether there’s anything in astrology – any other happy Pisceans out there?

It’s actually very difficult to know what to write about it, because I was brought up to be very aware that the Evil Eye, would trip up boasters and braggers. My grandmother would never praise or compliment any of us without a muttered ‘kenayna hara!’ a kind of Yiddish superinjuction against the Evil Eye, followed by a highly sylised ‘Pah! Pah! Pah!’ - her way of spitting in said eye. My mother does the same thing. And (silently) so do I. I'm not a very Yiddish person (extraordinary how three generations can reduce a language to a handful of words, and that those words are things like 'rag', 'mad religious person', and 'grudge relating to wedding invitations') but fear of the Evil Eye goes deep.

So – kenayna hara! – I am thrilled that When I Was Joe is on the shortlist for the Branford Boase award, especially because it's the one award which is shared between writer and editor. I am so happy to see Maurice’s contribution honoured in this way. He’s got a completely magic touch as an editor - able to guide a writer without ever telling her what to do. I've been extraordinarily lucky to work with him. I'm also delighted that my friend Candy Gourlay is on the shortlist too, for the superb Tall Story, which deserves to win every award going.

Four short-listed authors with the fab Angus organisers
And - Pah!Pah!Pah! – I was stunned and delighted that When I Was Joe won the Angus Book Award this week. The Angus Book Award was the first regional award to be chosen by teenager votes, and it is a shining example of what these awards can be. We four short-listed writers (the others were Nicola Morgan for Wasted, Paul Dowswell for Auslander and Robert Williams for Luke and Jon; all three books destined to become classics) were moved beyond words by the films made by pupils about our books; by the book reviews and alternative covers created, and by the way the Angus Book Award was obviously valued as something very special by the whole community. The whole event was fantastically well-organised, and we authors were cared for like kings. When the lovely lady who ran our hotel in Forfar gave me a hug goodbye, she summed up the special warmth of the occasion.

The award itself - modelled on a Pictish stone
Trying to write books for publication involves persistence and a thick skin. When lovely things happen, it goes a long way to heal the scars of rejection that inevitably come your way. I’ll probably never have another week like this one - I’ve been trying to just relax and enjoy it.

But of course, it never works quite like that. I’ve been worrying about my current work-in-progress – for which I wrote not one word last week - am I on target (no), is it any good (hmm), can I settle down and concentrate on it sometime (hope so)? I’ve been vaguely angsting about what comes next – can I even come up with more ideas? And as always I’ve been attempting to balance my writing life with the demands of family and other work. In fact (it's midnight) I must go and clean the kitchen.

This week won’t be full of awards and shortlists. It’ll be a week to immerse myself in the latest book, thinking about the characters, the way their stories weave together, the right words to choose. If it goes well, that’s the most exciting thing of all. Kenayna hara. Pah! Pah! Pah!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

More than just a cover

Ta -ra! Here is the cover for the German version of When I Was Joe. There's a new title too -  Mehr als nur ein Zeuge, which translates as 'More than just a Witness' In English that would be a bit of a mouthful, I'm sure it works well in German.
Loving the HUGE byline
It means that the spine picks out the word Zeuge -  witness, in a way I'd loved to have done in English. I thought and thought of possible titles for When I was Joe, but the most obvious - 'Witness' -  I ruled out because of the 1985 film with the same  name. Even though it was made years before my target audience was born, it's such a great film that I couldn't even consider using the same name.
In the end though, When I Was Joe has been a great title, partly because Joe is a popular name among teen boys and I suspect that loads of them get my book bought for them as a birthday or Christmas present. I mean you'd have to read it, wouldn't you?
It's a strange thing, seeing how a cover designer has interpreted one's book. It's the first time the book stops being a manuscript and starts being a real, three dimensional book. The cover artist creates something from your creation. If they get it right, it's like a first great review.
With the British version, I was keen that there shouldn't be a knife on the cover, for various reasons. I didn't want to glorify or cash in on the latest spate of knife murders, I didn;t want a cover that might distress victims or their relatives. I felt there had been quite a few recent knife image covers -  including Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed Me and  Patrick Ness's completely different The Knife of never Letting Go - both excellent books, and scary comparisons for a new author.
I felt it was a book as much about being a witness and identity, rather than  knife crime. I was keen that girl readers shouldn't be put off -  in fact I thought they'd like the book, so I wanted to attract them. 
Gorgeous boy
The team at Frances Lincoln, my publishers, were nice enough to ask me if I'd had any thoughts about a cover. 'Put a gorgeous boy in a hoodie on the cover' was my idea. The cover went through various changes, and ended up nothing like I'd first imagined (I had a vision that was more black and white and frankly emo), but I loved it. (My children however have never been sure about the boy on the cover. 'I'm sorry Mum, no one will ever buy your book' was their verdict) There is a knife there, but it's so subtly done that you hardly notice it.
Generally there's been a good response to the cover, so hah! to my kids. The blood puts off some people, true, but I did have one reader tell me that she'd never been into a bookshop before, but when she saw the cover of WIWJ, she had to buy it. 
With the German cover I had no input. I've been waiting to see what they come up with. And yes, there is a knife -  but the context is different, and so is the market. Most importantly, there are the eyes. They symbolise so much about the book -  the act of witnessing, which recurs again and again thoughtout the book. Their colour, which comes to stand for Ty's real identity. (I imagined, by the way, something more like a light olive green, rather than these emerald orbs, light olive being the exact colour of my eyes). And the feeling of being watched, judged, threatened, which is also an important theme. 
From far away the cover also looks like someone hiding -  it's only up close that you see that the eyes are reflected in a knife. 
Lia's Guide - girls only?
Covers reflect more than the book itself. They also place a book into a genre. When I Was Joe and Mehr als nur ein Zeuge look like thrillers -  does that mean that some people might be put off? I hardly ever read thrillers-  would I pick up my own book in a German bookshop? (umm, assuming I'm a 14-year-old German boy, which is a bit of a stretch, admittedly). My next book, Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery has a more chicklitty cover. Will the boys who've enjoyed When I Was Joe and Almost True be put off? Will that matter if new readers are attracted? Frankly I'm glad that these are questions for the publishers and not for me.
One of the disappointing things about owning a kindle - and I love my kindle -  is the lack of covers. Are book covers going the way of album covers? Will the art work involved be reduced to a simple avatar? I really hope not. Seeing your book turned into art is a very special thing.