Saturday, 21 December 2013

2013: My year in 13 books

Greetings, festive friends! I've had a busy month. In fact, I have had the sort of month that made me want to crawl under a rock and put up a sign saying I NEED TO JUST LIE HERE FOR A WHILE AND BREATHE.

But now I am on holiday (yes! A holiday! For two whole weeks!) and I am rediscovering the concept of leisure, which is apparently a thing that some people get. I just got into the spirit of it by reading the whole of Holly Black's Curse Workers trilogy in 72 hours, and it turns out that leisure is great.

In case you want to keep up to date with my internet activities, I have:

- written a Dear Santa letter for Space on the Bookshelf about why I think there should be a Diana Wynne Jones book in every child's stocking this Christmas.

been hanging out at Author Allsorts again, most recently talking about my top tip for a big edit.

And now, to the main blog. It's the end of the year, which is traditionally the Time of Listmaking. And of course, because my entire life is about books (really, it is, if someone stopped me and asked me to sum up my life in one single word I would just shout "BOOKS!"), here is my year as expressed in 13 of them. I've linked to my reviews of them, where that applies - and I've also given myself a bit of leeway on exactly when I read them. If it was sort of kind of around that month, it counts.


This was a Christmas present that I read at the very beginning of January, and it got my year's reading off to a start just as magical as my year itself. Dark, gorgeous and headily wonderful, this book was the perfect beginning to an amazing year.


I was lucky enough to review this for The Bookbag when it first came out in paperback, and I've been yelling about it ever since. I like that this is February's book - February is the month of love, after all, and this book makes you fundamentally question everything about the reality of adult relationships. (Don't worry, this has nothing to do with my own life.)


Again, I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of The Shining Girls from The Bookbag. I admit, I was upset by it - it's so brutal - but it's also utterly brilliant. Seriously not for the faint of heart, but if you can cope with its horrors you'll find it incredibly thought-provoking and well written.


I read this in my first months at Orion, and it just blew my mind. It isn't just a wonderful story, it's a wonderful concept - a narrative linked to found photos, which inform the text and are printed alongside it. It makes you constantly wonder if what you're reading is real, and the pictures themselves give you chills. It's such a well-published book, and though I love this book as a reader, I love it even more with my editorial hat on.


Another book that takes expectations and jumps up and down all over them. It's a middle-grade novel. It's about someone dying of cancer. It's heavily illustrated. Its pictures are the scariest thing about it. And it's fantastic. A Monster Calls completely transcends genres and reading levels. It isn't for children, it's for humans. It's a sad fact that a lot of people stil insist on being very foolish about the quality and importance of children's fiction, and this year my three-word response has become A Monster Calls. I win.


The Leviathan trilogy - Scott Westerfeld

When I read Leviathan in June, it had been a long time since I'd been really excited about a trilogy. Then I finished Leviathan, and ran to the nearest bookshop after work to buy Behemoth. Literally. I ran. It's a steampunk adventure set during an alternate universe World War One, and it made my summer.


I've read a lot of fairy tale adaptations, but this one has to be head and shoulders the best I've ever come across. It felt totally fresh and completely real, and it proved to me that there really are endless places to go with any one concept, no matter how overdone it might seem to be. The kind of book that just makes me excited about fiction.


I went on holiday in August, so I've picked two of the best books from my holiday reading. If Tender Morsels made me excited about reading, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Jack Glass made me excited about being a writer. They're both focused around a past murder - essentially, they're both crime novels - but they both do stunningly unique things with the genre. They're beautifully written, they're creepy and weird and smart and wonderful (and very, very different - Castle is a sort of domestic Gothic, while Jack Glass is Agatha Christie in Space), and if my books end up being even a tiny bit as interesting as these two, I will be very very pleased.


This might just be my book of the year. It reminded me so strongly of my own teenage self, it's so engagingly written and it deals so lightly with such deep issues. And it's a bloody amazing love story. I can't sing Rainbow Rowell's praises highly enough.


I was just gleeful about discovering this book, an Austen tribute that's not just a rehash. It's incredibly well written, it's extremely clever and it's a big, bold romance that's full of plot. I'd been reading a lot of children's and YA fiction when I picked Longbourn up, and this got me back into adult books again.


 This book just about broke my heart. I've read so very many books about World War Two, but this managed to jolt me right out of my general World War Two overexposure apathy. It's wonderful - and coincidentally, I got to meet Elizabeth Wein herself in November, which was pretty amazing.


Another book that's as beautifully published as it is written and illustrated. We got a copy into the office, and we all crowded around it greedily, murmuring "silver foil! Purple edges! A TINY WEE BOOK IN THE BACK!" It's just touchable. It's also very very funny - and you all know how great Chris Riddell's illustrations are. What this book reminds me is that a) children's books are brilliant and b) children's publishing is brilliant. And I'm so very lucky to be a part of that.

So, those are my 13 picks. What are yours? What have you been raving about this year? What were your unmissable reads of 2013?

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Thanksgiving post: thank you, 2013

The beautiful SCBWI launch party cake
Last weekend I went to the SCBWI conference in Winchester. I met (and re-met) a lot of amazing authors and illustrators, and fell in love all over again with children’s literature and the people involved in creating it. The great thing about SCBWI (and here’s my unashamed plug for it – it’s a wonderful support network and anyone interested in children’s books should join it) is that its membership is open to both published and aspiring authors, and so there’s an amazing mix of people at every stage of the writing journey. And talking to all of those different people reminded me of two things that seem particularly relevant today.

The first is how much can change in a very short space of time. Last year I wasn’t at the SCBWI conference. I wasn’t even a member. I was sitting on my couch, jealously reading the tweets from Winchester and feeling light-years away from that world. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that this year I’d not only go, but go as a soon-to-be-published author.

I am so lucky – I am so so lucky that I spend quite a lot of time these days walking around in a state of intense, surreal wonder at what has happened to me – but what being at the conference really brought home to me is that the dream I’m living isn’t just mine. It belongs to every single one of the conference attendees, and for some of them that dream feels just as far away as it did for me a year ago.

I’ve had a lot of good news to post on the blog this year, and I have an astronomical amount to be thankful for today. But part of why this feels so wonderful is that it’s such a contrast to where I was a year ago.

Last autumn – and this is hard to write about, but I feel that it’s important that I do – I was lost. I was applying for a lot of jobs, and being rejected from every one. To distract myself from the relentless soul-sucking process, I began to query the manuscript of Murder Most Unladylike with agents – and again, I was rejected, a lot. In retrospect, this was not the smartest plan, because it made me really start to question my writing ability. I saw those rejections as proof that I just wasn’t good enough. I distinctly remember one particular phone call I made to my mother, in which I stood in the middle of that wobbly bridge outside the Tate Modern and shouted, “MY ENTIRE LIFE IS A LIE! MY WRITING IS AWFUL! I WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING! I MIGHT AS WELL JUST GIVE UP AND BECOME A VAGRANT!”

I was not in a good place. By the time December rolled around, I felt profoundly that I had failed. My boyfriend drove us to my parents’ house for Christmas (he had a really hard time getting me in the car, actually, because I kept trying to persuade him to let me get on a train and spend Christmas in a Travelodge in York. No, I don’t understand it either), and when he parked I sat in the car for an hour, refusing to get out, because I was so deeply ashamed of myself.

In fact, I had not failed in the slightest. I just hadn’t succeeded yet. Because what I didn’t know (obviously), was this: at that moment, at literally the lowest point of my adult life, my future was right there in front of me. Nineteen days after my weird sit-in protest in the car, Gemma Cooper (the woman who is now my wonderful agent) sent me an email to say that she loved my book and she wanted to meet me. And that book, the one that I was pretty close to giving up on is, er, about to be published in May.

What I want to say to other writers is this: publishing is a game with crazily bad odds. Writing is a tough dream to have. But that’s true for everyone. Everyone goes through the same rejections, and low times, and self-doubt. I’m realising now that published authors have everything in common with that person scribbling alone in their room and dreaming of getting their books read by someone who isn’t their mother or their dog. They’re just a few steps further along the same road.

Here, have some cranberry sauce!
If you don’t have an agent yet, or if you’ve been on submission for approximately 23,345,210 years without a bite from publishers, please don’t give up. You never know what might be just around the corner. If I had decided to chuck it all in that day in December 2012, this year would never have happened. You just never know when your work is going to pay off. For me, it was this year. For a lot of the SCWBI conference attendees I met, it’s still in the future. But it will happen.

I have had the most wonderful year. I can’t say it enough. But part of why it's so special is because of what came before it. What I've learnt is that you never know when you're about to be happy.

Have a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Authors for Philippines appeal

By now you've almost certainly heard what's happening in the Philippines. It's desperately awful, and hard not to feel that all efforts to help are just going to be fractions of what's needed.

But we can raise money so that the aid workers out there have the resources they need to save and improve lives - and if you want to help out with a donation and you happen to love books, there's an absolutely brilliant charity auction that started today.

Authors for Philippines is offering an incredible range of one-off bookish goodies from a huge list of totally amazing authors and editors. Every bid you make (and please make lots!) will mean more money for the Red Cross's Typhoon Haiyan appeal - you get to do a great thing, and you'll get some fantastic rewards in exchange.

As you've probably heard, Murder Most Unladylike won't be out until May 2014. But I am offering one very special advance proof copy of the book, signed to whoever you want and personalised in any way you'd like (I will draw and write any message that is not actually obscene or libellous, although I do warn you that I am very bad at art).

If you enjoy this blog, and if you're looking forward to Murder Most Unladylike, please bid. And if you aren't, just bid on someone else's bookish offer. There are critiques from editors, school visits, signed Neil Gaiman books and one-off Alex Smith illustrations, editorial advice from authors, tickets to launch parties ...

This is an incredibly worthy cause, and I think it's important for us to do anything we can, no matter how small, to help out. So, what are you waiting for? Start your bidding now!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Learning from NaNoWriMo: a Survivor's Guide

It's November again, which means that it is three years to the month since Daisy and Hazel began their adventures on the very first page of my very first draft of the book that would one day become Murder Most Unladylike.

Yes, Murder Most Unladylike started life as a NaNoWriMo novel. NaNoWriMo, for those who haven't heard of it before, is a project that aims to get aspiring authors/nutcases to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. To achieve your target, you must write 1,667 words each day, every day, without fail, even if your dog just threw up right in front of you and you have pneumonia and you've worked a 12-hour shift . . .

Basically, NaNoWriMo is self-inflicted literary torture, but people are supposed to do it FOR FUN.

I've written before about my very mixed emotions regarding the use and worth of NaNo. The idea of it is wonderful, and it truly works for many people. A lot of very good and very beloved novels began as NaNo projects, and I'd be a big liar if I didn't acknowledge its role in my own book's creation.

NaNoWriMo class of 2005
But I'd also be untruthful if I pretended that the word document I ended up with on the 30th of November 2011 in any way resembles the book that will be available for purchase come May 2014. After NaNoWriMo finished I couldn't even bear to look at what I'd written for about four months. I picked it up next in March and proceeded to completely re-write the entire manuscript. Then I put it down for another year (while I did my MA), then I did another complete re-write, then I submitted to agents and then (I am seriously not exaggerating any of this) I knocked 25,000 words off the manuscript I had submitted at my new agent's suggestion.

So, did NaNoWriMo help me write a book? Yes. Did it help me write a good book? Er, no. And that's (at least partly) because NaNo's most basic flaw is that it values sheer quantity of words produced over quality. Writing at speed can produce amazing results, but what it usually produces is a pile of utter pants that needs to be mercilessly reworked before it is ready to show to other human beings.

My NaNo draft of Murder Most Unladylike (and I can't stress this enough) was HORRIBLE. It was AWFUL. I knew about Daisy, and Hazel, and I knew who the murderer was (I wrote their name down on the first page of my notebook and then felt proud because I had Created A Plot), but I had no idea how my detectives were going to end up solving the mystery, or even what the mystery actually was. Basically, I had no understanding of the world I was creating or the story I was telling - which, when I look back on this now, makes me feel a bit wobbly.

Last week I went to a Holly Black event where someone asked a question about writers' block. Writers' block, Holly replied, shouldn't be seen as a problem in itself. What it is is a symptom, and so instead of behaving like you have been struck down by the black spot and there is nothing to be done but despair (she didn't say this, I'm paraphrasing), you should use your feeling of writers' block to diagnose the deeper plot issues you're having.

NaNoWriMo class of 2011
I love this attitude! I think it's incredibly true. I can't ever write a scene if I haven't seen it very clearly in my head first. I also need to know who the characters in the scene are, why they're there and what they're saying to each other, and I can't know that if I don't know the story I'm telling. For me, writers' block is a big red flag that says YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE DOING, GO AWAY AND COME BACK WHEN YOU ARE MORE PREPARED. And, for me, a project like NaNo doesn't allow this kind of breathing-space, or warn its participants that such a breathing-space is necessary.

But, see, I don't know if I'd have discovered that if I hadn't had full and shocking experience of what happens when I don't know my story. I learned that I do need structure, and I do need to plan (and then I discovered colour-coded plotting on huge spreadsheets,but that's another story). So in a way, NaNo's big problem gave me a very big revelation that I've been using ever since.

NaNo also gave me a big wake-up call about output. Those 1,667 words a day taught me that writing a sentence doesn't need to take twenty minutes. It can take that long, and sometimes it needs to, and that's OK, but the way I pre-plan scenes (I watch them in my head, like puppet-shows, several times over) means that when I come to actually write I am capable of turning out 1,000 words in an hour without breaking a sweat. Actually, if I try, I can do a lot better than that. I recently finished work on the first draft of something totally non-Daisy and Hazel related, and I think I must have written the last 10,000 words in about five inspired hours one afternoon. Afterwards my brain felt like someone had cleaned it out with a stick, and I am absolutely sure that those 10,000 words will need an enormous edit, but again that's OK, because re-writing is the part of the writing process that I really love. And that's another thing that I've learned about myself since my first NaNo effort.

These days I mostly write my books during my morning commute, which at the moment is 50 minutes on the train. I sit down, I open my laptop, and then I gather all my NaNo knowhow and sprint-write for 45 minutes flat. And that's my wordcount done for the day! I've learned how to leap into to my world and my scene and just go with it, and that's an extremely valuable writing lesson that doing NaNo has taught me. You can edit later, and you ALWAYS ALWAYS SHOULD. Please. Seriously. You need to. But if you don't get those words out, there will be nothing to edit, and then you'll really be in trouble.

So what I think I'm saying is this: all writing exercises are incredibly valuable, even if what you get out of them initially feels more negative than positive. Projects like NaNoWriMo can help you kickstart yourself as a writer, and I'd advise all aspiring novelists to have a go. I'd even advise you to stick at it all the way to the end of the month, even if you're hating it and not making wordcount. But what I wouldn't advise is for you to do it again, if you gave it a real go and still discovered that it doesn't work for you. Writing isn't school (thank goodness) - there's no 'correct' way to make a book. Try everything, and then ignore what doesn't work (no matter how popular it is) and just do what feels fun and right for you. Because, seriously, the only writing advice that will actually help you is this:

KEEP WRITING THE BOOK UNTIL IT IS FINISHED. And then go back to the beginning and write it again.

Happy November.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE announcement - Hazel and Daisy are going to America!

As you might have heard, it's been a pretty good year for me so far. And things just got even BETTER.

From the Publishers Marketplace announcement:

 Kristin Ostby at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers has pre-empted North American rights for Robin Stevens’s debut, MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE: A Wells and Wong Mystery, set in 1930s England and pitched as a middle-grade Agatha Christie, featuring Hazel Wong and her best friend Daisy Wells, who find a body in their boarding school and set about investigating the murder. Publication is scheduled for spring 2015. Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency brokered the deal.

Yes, Daisy and Hazel are coming to America! The lovely people at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers will be publishing MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE in Spring 2015, and its two sequels in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Words just can't express how delighted I am to not only have an American publisher, but one as incredible as S&S. I'm so excited to be working with the S&S team and Kristin, and I can already tell that they're going to do a amazing job of bringing Daisy and Hazel to a bookstore near you (if you happen to live in the USA).

I'll bring you more news when I have it, but for now, while everything's still sinking in - hooray.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Putting My Editorial Hat On: So, What Do I DO All Day?

I talk a lot on this blog about my author-life. Unsurprisingly! This is my writing blog. But, as some of you know, I lead a double existence. I have infiltrated the world of publishing, and I spend my days working as an editorial graduate trainee (which is sort of like an editorial assistant, but less so) for Orion Children's Books.

Apparently, this sort of thing is quite common. In fact, next month, as part of the SCBWI's Professionals series, I am joining the exceptionally talented Non Pratt and Phil Earle, two other authors who have secret publisher identities (or publishers who have secret writer identities, depending on how you want to look at it), on a panel about what it's like to see both sides of the industry. You should come! It'll be great.

This has made me think about my day job. Specifically: what do I DO all day? Whenever people ask me, I go a bit blank. I know I'm busy. When I think about my working day, I have a strong impression of busy-ness. But how, exactly, do I spend my time? What do I do before I come home, put on my mask and cape and write crime?

Well, it goes a bit like this ...

1. I Help Make Books

(Before we start, I've got to explain that what follows is just a very simplified norm. All of our books are different, and most don't happen exactly like this. Also, I've slightly fudged the order these steps go in, so that it's slightly less confusing. That said, onwards!)

Imagine that the editorial department have just bought a new book. Also imagine, for the sake of this post, that this book is the first in a new illustrated series for 7-9 year olds. (I also do a lot of work on YA books for our Indigo list, as well as our Early Readers for younger kids, and Asterix, which we have the licence to publish in the UK, but just go with me here.)

Now, there's a whole process to go through before an editor can buy a book. But this isn't something that I get involved with. As an editorial graduate trainee, I'll read new submissions as they come in from agents (more on this later), but I don't have the power to commission a book and I'm not involved in the buying process. I also don't help to negotiate terms when an offer is made - again, this is between the commissioning editor and the author's agent. The first time I'll come into contact with a new acquisition is once we've already bought it. I might help enter the terms of the agreed contract onto our system, or check the contract once it comes back from our legal department. I also help the editor fill out initial information forms for our sales, marketing and publicity teams, so they know what kind of thing they're going to be selling.

So we've got a new book! And now the real work begins. The editor will work with the author to reshape the book's story and characters, sometimes quite drastically. Again, though, this isn't something that I'm really involved in. I am not an editor, and so I absolutely do not structurally edit our books. The editor may ask me to read a draft, and give my comments on parts I think might not be working, but the final decision on what to go back to the author with will always be theirs. What I'm doing, while this is going on, is ... admin. I'll send out copies of the finalised contract to the author's agent for signing. As soon as the editor is happy with the state of the manuscript, I'll work to get the author's advance payment signed off. And so on! A lot of my job, you may not be surprised to discover, involves photocopying and/or scanning.

Once the book's text has been finalised, I may be asked to copyedit or proofread the manuscript. This still doesn't mean that I have the power to change anything major. A copyeditor looks for continuity errors (if Portia has green eyes on page 4 and red eyes on page 20, for example), factual errors (if the capital of England is Paris), missing words (like a sentence that reads 'I've got a lovely bunch of.') or missing punctuation (like a sentence that reads 'please dont say that she said sadly'). Proofreading is similar, but generally without the continuity or fact checking element - essentially, as a proofreader you're hoping that the copyeditor who went before you has already spotted these things, leaving you to catch tiny errors like dropped quotation marks and full stops.

OK, so we've got a great manuscript. Now we need some illustrations. The editor will usually have a very clear idea of the way they want these illustrations to look. Sometimes they'll already have an illustrator in mind, but sometimes I'll be asked to go and do some research. Then I take my suggestions to the editor, and they make the final decision about who to offer the gig to. Once an illustrator's been chosen, the editor may also ask me to help draft the artwork brief - to work out how many illustrations we want, of what size, and exactly what we want the illustrator to draw. Once the illustrator has submitted a first round of rough illustrations, I'll be asked to check that they've met the brief, and that what they've drawn matches what's described in the text (for example, if Mrs Tiggywinkle is a hedgehog in the text but a pig in the illustrations, we have a problem). The editor and the author will then have a look too, give their suggestions, and we'll go back to the artist with corrections. When we get final drawings, I'll check them one more time, as will the editor and author, and then the editor will sign off on them. And I'll have another invoice to process!

What we need now is a cover. Sometimes the illustrator will do the cover as well, although it's usually done by our art department. However it happens, though, it's the editor's job to come up with a cover design brief for the artist to use, and this is something else that I get to help with. Sometimes they'll come up with an idea and ask me to draft the brief, sometimes they'll ask me to research covers or cover directions. As always, the final decision isn't up to me - but often I get to make suggestions, and that's pretty cool.

Now we need to create the cover copy - the blurb on the back that tells readers what the book's about. I'm often asked to draft copy for editors, and it's one of my favourite parts of my job. I also help to draft copy for the in-house information forms we use for meetings and the out-of-house information that can be seen on Amazon and is sent to booksellers ... basically, I spend a lot of time helping the editors to fill in forms. Thank goodness I like to write.

Meanwhile, the manuscript and illustrations have been sent up to our production team to be turned into a book-shaped thing. We're sent the PDF back for checking (sometimes I'll help send this out to the author for final edits, although it's the editor who'll be in charge of noting down and adding in any corrections the author requests), and then once we've been through three rounds of checks, the files are sent away to the printers' to be turned into an actual book. When the finished book comes in, I'll send out copies to the author and their agent, and the illustrator and their agent.

And then the whole process starts again!

2. I Help Make Ebooks

So, that's the physical side of publishing. But I also work on the digital side of things. Interestingly, the children's ebook market is still very small - mainly because most kids don't have Kindles or iPads, and also because until recently colour ebooks tended to look ... not great. But now the technology's really beginning to be able to do what we need it to, and more and more kids are getting e-readers, and so I suspect that in the next few years things are going to really start to take off.

Anyway, ebooks. We are lucky in that we have an excellent digital team who (along with out-of-house designers) do the difficult work of actually creating the files. The first time I come across them is when I'm sent an ebook to check. I go through the book, making sure that the images and words are all there, that it looks good and handles well (this is actually really important - we're constantly using new programmes, in new ways, to create our ebooks, and so it's quite usual to come across an odd little glitch that hasn't happened before).

I love being involved with the ebook process, because everyone's working right at the edge of what's possible, constantly pushing to make things better, and that's amazing to be a part of. It proves to me that publishing really is keeping up with change in a very positive way, and I'm proud to be helping that happen. We've just been working on the ebook for Marcus Sedgwick's She Is Not Invisible, to make sure that its text-to-speech function makes it fully accessible to blind and partially sighted users. In fact, all of our ebooks are now being created with the text-to-speech function - which means that we're suddenly able to make our books available to a group of people that we could never have reached before, unless we decided to publish a separate braille edition. I think that's just brilliant.

3. I Help Find Books

I mentioned the submissions process before. Actually, I could (and probably will, one day) write an entire blog post about submissions - after all, I now have intimate personal knowledge of from both sides. I have been on submission, and I also come in to work every day to an inbox stuffed with other people's. Which is slightly bizarre!

When people imagine what editorial work is, they assume that we all just sit around all day reading books. When I hear this, I laugh a silent and bitter laugh, because I am the most junior person in our department, and I therefore have the least responsibility and the least work, and I still can only dream of a world where I would have time to read all the submissions we get in during the normal 9:30-5:30 working day. Editorial staff don't read submissions all day. We read submissions all evening, and all weekend, and all commute. When authors wonder why it's taking so long for an editor to get to their submitted book, it's because of this. We read as fast as we can, and the editors look at everything that is submitted, but editors are not super-beings, and so sometimes it has to take a long time.

Just to clarify, I don't get to make the final call on anything that comes in to the department. It's part of my job to take a look at submissions and feed back to the editors about them. They will then look at the manuscript themselves, and they make the final decision on whether or not they want to make an offer. Often, for various reasons, the submissions that come in just aren't right for our list. But sometimes there's something that totally clicks, and that's the greatest buzz feeling in the world. It's this heart-beating, panicky, acquisitive excitement that's a bit like an inanimate version of falling in love.

Of course, because I'm so junior, once I've found something it's all totally out of my hands. The most I can do is tell the editors how I feel, and then wait to see what they do. Will they agree with me? Will they decide they want it? If they want it, will we get it? I've heard an editor I know describing the process as a bit like gambling, and I think that's an amazing analogy. Publishing might seem kind of calm and staid, but there are moments where it's definitely a high-stakes business.


So, that's my job! Of course, I also do a lot of other things - essentially, I am there to help the editors in any way they need, from getting cakes and coffee for author meetings, to scanning in a book, to filling in submissions information, to researching a potential author ... and so on! I never know exactly what each day is going to look like, and I love that element of uncertainty. Publishing is a wonderful industry to be part of, and (from what I've seen of it so far) it just gets more interesting the more senior you get. I get to work with a lot of awesome people, and I know that I'm very lucky!

One final word: I love being part of an editorial team, but I hope I've made it as clear as can be that I'm extremely junior, and there are still a lot of things I don't know. So if I've made an error in this post, that's my personal mistake and I take full responsibility for it.

Oh, and if you want to find out more ... come along to the SCBWI panel on the 5th of November!

Monday, 23 September 2013

A historical murder: The Chocolate Box Poisoner

I do love research. It's almost indecently fun. My theory is that history is just the world's longest and most fascinating story, filled with endless tiny offshoots, each amazing enough to blow your mind.

Last week's post was all about arsenic, which (as I've said) is my chosen method of death for the victim of Daisy and Hazel's second murder investigation. I told you about why the Victorians knew not to eat green cake, and also (in the comments) about green ball gowns that gave off waves of poisonous dust as their wearers spun in the middle of a dance. And I didn't even have to make either of those things up!

This week, though, I'm not going to talk about arsenic at all. I'm going to tell you about a case that I came across while writing my MA dissertation (which was all about the influence Victorian murders had on 1930s crime novels - I'm only a little bit obsessed), a crime spree that's so unbelievable that it has to be real. The murder weapon was strychnine, not arsenic, but the ideas behind it - that something delicious might be completely deadly, and that a seemingly respectable person might actually be completely nuts - are absolutely what I want to draw on for my own tea-time murder.

So, here's a story that happens to be true.
An oddly 30s image of Christiana

In 1869, in Brighton, a woman called Christiana Edmunds fell in love with a Doctor Beard. Now, Doctor Beard was married, but that didn't stop Christiana (or Doctor Beard). But then, in the summer of 1870, Doctor Beard decided to break things off, and Christiana did not take this news so well. She decided that the person to blame was the doctor's wife, Mrs Beard, and furthermore that a lot of her problems would be solved if Mrs Beard were no more. So she went out and bought a box of chocolates.

She also went to see a dentist she knew called Isaac Garrett. She told him that she needed some strychnine to poison cats (to us this seems a bit much, but to the Victorians, who believed firmly that all domestic issues could be solved by liberal applications of deadly poison, this would have seemed completely ordinary), and Garrett sold it to her. Then she went to visit Mrs Beard, and she gave her the box of chocolates.

The next day, Mrs Beard felt extremely ill. Later, she would say that she suspected she'd been poisoned, but she didn't speak out at the time. Weird, right? Not in the 19th century. This is something that comes up again and again in Victorian poisoning cases, and it's fascinating: often, the victims couldn't be sure that they were victims. Poison was everywhere, but it wasn't usually very concentrated - poisoners really had to stuff their victim to the gills to be sure they'd die, and conversely the victim tended not to know whether they'd ingested poison by mistake or had been given it on purpose.

These ones are safe! (Credit: Klaus Hopfner)
So far, so normal (or at least normal for a Victorian attempted murder). But what Christiana did next was plain crazy. She began going into Maynard's, a local chocolate shop, and buying boxes of chocolate creams. Some of them she sent out in anonymous parcels -  to Mrs Beard, to many other society families in Brighton, and even to herself. And some of them she returned to the chocolate shop.

Now, here's another point in this story that doesn't make automatic sense to us today. If a customer returned a box of chocolates in 2013 they would go straight into the bin. This is because of health and safety. People are very rude about health and safety, presumably because they have never stopped to really think about the alternatives. Let me tell you this: if you want to make yourself feel very, very thankful about the time and place you live in, all you need to do is read a book like The Arsenic Century. In the 19th century, there were no real regulations on the contents of food and drink, or on what was safe to sell. Vendors would store cake next to rat poison. They'd put boxes of tea next to boxes of sheep dip. They'd lace wine with arsenic to make it look glossy. They'd mix plaster of Paris into sweets - except sometimes they got it wrong and added arsenic instead of plaster. And they'd take anything back from customers and just bung it onto the shelves, ready to be re-sold. Are you thankful for health and safety now? Because you should be.

So Christiana's strychnine-doctored chocolates were sold on to other customers, and people started to get sick. Something was clearly going on - but, as I explained above, it was very difficult to be sure that the poisonings were intentional, or even if they were taking place at all. Germs weren't well understood, and hygiene was just absent, so there were a lot of reasons why a person might get sick to their stomach. Actually, arsenic poisoning was often mistaken for cholera, a massively common 19th century disease.

And then a child died.

I haven't told you the worst thing about Christiana's campaign yet, but here it is: to divert suspicion away from herself, she paid little boys to go into Maynard's for her, buy boxes of chocolate creams and then return them after she'd doctored them. Some accounts I've read have her actually handing out poisoned sweeties in the street, like one of The Witches, but I'm guessing that that's an exaggeration. Regardless, though, she put kids in a situation where they had access to strychnine-laced chocolates, and it's difficult to argue that that's not just willfully evil.

Christiana at her trial
The kid who died, Sidney Barker, wasn't actually one of her helpers - he was a four-year-old from a neighbouring town, and his parents had brought him to Brighton for a day trip. They went to Maynard's, they bought a box of chocolates, and Sidney died a few hours later. It was at his inquest that Mrs Beard finally spoke out - and at that point the game was essentially up. Christiana argued that she'd been sent poisoned chocolates too, and blamed the owner of Maynard's for the poisonings (she'd even been sending anonymous letters blaming him to the local police station - the woman was nothing if not thorough), but it was pretty clear that she was the person to blame. Her trial at the Old Bailey, for Sidney's murder and Mrs Beard's attempted murder, took place in 1872, and she was quite quickly found guilty.

Christiana was sentenced to the death penalty, but this was commuted to life in Broadmoor mental asylum because she was so clearly insane. She died there, in 1907 - and that was the end of that.

Now, as a storyteller, I think this is amazing. The idea of being killed by the nation's favourite comfort food is just so perfect (and by 'perfect' I mean 'utterly twisted'). Then there's the image (true or not) of Christiana stalking around Brighton, handing out poisoned sweets to urchins like a fairy tale witch.

As a crime geek, though, I find it just as interesting - but for slightly different reasons. It's apparently quite unknown - today Christiana has no name recognition at all, and the murder barely features in most texts about Victorian crime. It seems to have hardly made a mark on the national consciousness at the time, and it didn't become part of popular culture like the Rugeley Poisoner or the murder at Road Hill House. (If you're interested in these cases, by the way, or if you think sensational murder reportage began with the Sun, I'd recommend reading The Invention of Murder by the excellent Judith Flanders).

BUT (and here's my dissertation thesis), it WAS famous with one particular group of writers - the Detection Club of the 1930s. Agatha Christie and her friends were all OBSESSED with Christiana Edmunds, and loads of Christie's books (Partners in Crime, A Murder is Announced, Sad Cypress, I could keep going) make really obvious use of the crime. People are always being sent poisoned boxes of sweets in Christie novels, and one of her favourite methods of victim dispatch is ... poison in comfort food. And then there's The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Agatha's BFF Anthony Berkeley, which features a character who's clearly Christie talking about Christiana Edmunds and her poisoning campaign.

So this is a murder that, by proxy, is extremely famous - except that no one's ever heard of it. Isn't that interesting?

Anyway - what you should gather from this is that I'm happily working away, creating enormous character and timing spreadsheets and generally getting ready to officially put fingers to keyboard on Book 2. Although you could argue that this post is a bit of educational procrastination on my part.

Oh well. At least I enjoyed it.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Autumn update: on Allsorts, copyedits, research and my first ever author panel!

Happy September all!

First, some nice author news. The lovely people at Author Allsorts have invited me to join their team (gang? crew?), and so I am now officially An Allsort. Watson even features on their mascot page!

This means that from now on I will also be popping up over on their blog from time to time. Look out for me there!

And, if you want to see me in the actual flesh, you CAN: on November 5th, I will be doing my very first panel, for the SCBWI, as part of their Professional Series. I will be talking with the amazing Non Pratt (by coincidence also an Allsort) and various other excellent people about what it's like to be publishers by day and writers by night (spoiler: quite exhausting but entirely wonderful).

So come along! I will be imparting many words of wisdom (such as: I still can't spell 'submissions' even though they make up about half of my job, and, er - more will come to me in time) and we can all go to the pub afterwards in celebration.

Now, book stuff!

For those of you following the progress of Murder Most Unladylike as it gallops towards bookhood, an exciting update: my last round of edits turns out to have been my last. The plot holes are filled, the timetable clashes have been resolved and the manuscript has been officially handed over to the copy editor.

This is marvelous, and terrible, and terrifying, because it means that the book is essentially done. I can't turn to people any more and say, "Don't worry, it's going to get MUCH better before you read it!" and I don't get to just keep tinkering about with it endlessly.

This is a bit hard to get my head around, because what I've discovered during the all the revisions I've done on this book is how much I LOVE editing. First drafts, for me, are things that have to happen so I can get to the good bit. I know how to make them go more easily (planning), and why they drag when they do (because I haven't planned), but a first draft for me always feels - thin. The characters don't seem as rich as they are in my head, there are sub-plots that I have to leave hanging and the whole world just isn't down on the page yet. But at the editing stage I can take my plodding first draft and start to really play with it.

More and more, I'm seeing the books I write as patterns. They aren't things, rocks that fall out of the sky into my head, they're lots of little strands that I can mix up and weave together any way I want. I can do anything with my story, and that's what the editing process is all about. You take your ideas, and the ideas of your readers, or your agent, or your editor, and spin them together into a newer, better version of your first draft. To me, it feels a bit like advanced-level magic. ABRACADABRA! Now your characters are on a boat! SHAZAM! Now they're speaking French! CRASH! Now they're all women! BANG! Now you've introduced a giant talking ocelot into the middle of a formal dinner party! BOOM! Now everyone's dead!

Rest assured, there are no talking ocelots in Murder Most Unladylike. But it's nice to know that there could be, if I decided that I wanted to. Or at least, there could have been before that final edit. The end of the editing process is the moment when a writer finally has to relinquish control of their pet world, and that's a weird feeling. I can't play with my story any more. I have to hand it over to the copy editor, and then the proofreader, and finally to you. And I miss it!

Which is why I've started to think about writing Book 2.

Yes, I'm back in Hazel and Daisy's world already. I have a title (not that I'm telling you lot what it is yet) and, more importantly, I have a murder weapon. This time around I shall be bumping off my luckless victim with arsenic, and that means that I am currently doing a lot of slightly disturbing research into poisons. So, if you've noticed my Goodreads lately (as one friend did, and messaged me in alarm), be not afraid - I'm just preparing to kill fictional people again.

In the process, I'm learning many fascinating things. For example, I've finally understood, after YEARS of confusion, exactly why you're not supposed to eat green cake in Peter Pan. 

It's because, in the 19th century, bright green (also known as Scheele's green) was made by using ARSENIC. It was put into everything - household goods, toys, clothes and food - because it looked so pretty. But, by the time J. M. Barrie was writing, the public had caught on to its potentially lethal side effects. They had learnt that green things were dangerous, and so they would have instinctively understood why you should never eat green cake - because it was very likely crammed with arsenic. And that's why the Lost Boys get told not to eat green cake. Because it's POISONOUS.

Isn't that interesting? I do love research. My favourite book at the moment is The Arsenic Century by James C. Whorton - basically, it's an amazingly detailed and very interesting guide to everything about arsenic in the 19th century. I'm about half way through, and I have no idea how any Victorian managed to actually stay alive. Arsenic was literally everywhere (and I mean literally ... literally. You could not MOVE without running into some). Look out for an upcoming geeky blogpost about historical poisonings - but for now, I'm going back to my reading. I've got a new book to write!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Goodreads News and US vs. UK covers, Holiday Edition

Hello again! I am back from my holidays in America with several updates.

First, on the excellent recommendation of Nina Douglas, I have joined Goodreads. I now have a Goodreads author page, which links to this blog and has lots of info about myself and Murder Most Unladylike. You can friend me, follow me or mark the book as 'to read'. As you wish!

Henceforth, also, the reviews portion of this blog will take place over on Goodreads. You can now track what I'm reading on my page, and have a look at the books I've already rated.

Isn't that cool? I don't even need to tell you about all the books I read over my holidays - although I do want to specially mention The Brides of Rollrock Island, The Thirteenth Tale, When You Reach Me, Jack Glass and We Have Always Lived in the Castle because they were all (very differently) WONDERFUL.


I have also been in many bookshops. Working in publishing has clearly made my book nerdliness reach new levels. I'm noticing cover design and branding so much more than I ever have before, and about half of the photos I took in San Francisco were of US editions of books I'm familiar with in the UK. Because book covers are very interesting! This made me think about the UK vs. US covers game, and that made me want to do a blog of my own about it.

Therefore I am now pleased to present you with the redbreastedbird holiday version of US vs. UK covers. My photos of the US covers are on the left (or above), UK covers for comparison on the right (or below). Thanks to City Lights Books and Green Apple Books, excellent establishments both, for providing the material for all of these photos.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is a book that I read on holiday (and struggled with, actually - half of me thought that it was an extremely clever and thoughtful look at the nastiness of teacher/student sexual abuse, and the other half was just too horrified by how much detail it went into). I had the cover on the right ("Oh I see," said my boyfriend, poker-faced. "It's a book about men's shirts"), which I have to admire. Imagine getting that approved all the way to the shop floor! The US cover I think is great for very different reasons. From far away it looks like writing on a blackboard - but when you touch it, you realise that it isn't just flocked, it's essentially a carpet. It has this gross furry texture that you can't stop touching because you can't believe it's real - essentially, the US cover is the book in physical form.

Winner: UK.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  

Another pleasing US cover! I think the UK cover is too busy, and I dislike those random snowflakes. The US cover just looks sophisticated and really beautiful, while still managing to convey what the book's about.

Winner: US.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen

I love the background colour and font of the US cover, but I think it looks like it's being marketed to a younger audience than the UK book. It looks cutesey, sort of Pink-Panther-esque, whereas the UK cover seems more dangerous and adult. It's also a much cleaner design, and I like that.

Winner: UK.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 I like the US typeface, and the fact that it's got the World Tree on it, but I am in LOVE with Gaiman's UK covers. They're so dark and gorgeous. Why is the wing there? Who knows. But in terms of design and desirability, I think that the UK cover has the US cover beat.

Winner: UK.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

I love this book. LOVE it. I own the UK edition, which actually I really like - there's some subtle genderbending going on in the woman's outfit, and I think it's an intriguing image of her - but I have to admit that the US cover is a lot more successful at conveying what's going on in the book. Foxes awkwardly turning into humans, struggling into male and female clothes that don't fit them. It's neat and attractive and very weird, absolutely like the book itself.

Winner: US.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Quite apart from the odd fact that the left US Sisters brother looks like Eddie Redmayne, the US cover does not compare well to its UK counterpart. The UK cover is so inventive, so iconic and so vibrant ... and then the US version is a dull sepia identicover that could be 50 other books about the Wild West. Snore.

Winner: UK, by a mile.

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani


Another really, really clear winner. The UK edition is Weidenfeld and Nicholson (aka my adult counterparts at work), so I guess I might be biased - but really, it's hard not to be impressed with it. It's gorgeously vivid, with colours that sing together, and next to it the US cover just looks like a pale imitation.

Winner: UK, again by a mile.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The US cover, at the top, almost looks computer-generated. The drawing is very rounded and cute and (oddly, for a book with the word 'One' in the title) features Ivan with another animal. The UK cover, below, still looks appealing, but Ivan looks bigger, more like an adult gorilla - and crucially, he's alone in the spotlight. And I like the blue better than the dark green.

Winner: UK.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Another book that I have been vocal about loving recently. The UK cover is Orion (work connection again!) and I think it works - it's very bold and fun - but the US cover is just so charming, simple and sweet that it's hard not to give it the edge. I love the way the ampersand has been made from Eleanor and Park's connecting headphones and I love the drawing of their heads.

Winner: US.

I generally find myself preferring UK covers of books, but I love the floppy way US paperbacks feel to hold. Basically, I like books. Hey, maybe I should be a writer or work in publishing or something. Crazy thought.