Wednesday, 9 September 2015



I just thought I'd give a quick update on the situation with Bone Season 3, as I've had a flood of questions as to when it will be coming out, when the cover will be released, etc. I’m due to get my newest batch of edits this week, and my editor should also be giving me some idea of what we’re doing about the title, which has to be changed from the one I chose originally. Once that’s been sorted, Bloomsbury should be closer to deciding on a time to announce the title and release date. After that, things should start moving a bit faster. 

On 13th September, Read the Bloody Book will be putting up a teaser for Book 3, written by yours truly, so keep an eye out for that as well.

I'm sorry for the wait – everything in publishing is carefully scheduled, and sometimes it can seem like it's all going quite slowly but things are happening, I promise...

Friday, 7 August 2015

Growing a world

I often get asked how to build fantasy worlds. When you start building a fantasy world, ask yourself questions about the world you’re building. Ask yourself why and how.

Let’s try this. I have just come up with a very simple concept for a fantasy world, a world where people are sorted into castes based on their hair colour and the brunettes are the best and the blondes are the worst and everyone else has a rank in-between. Now, I could write a novel based on this concept that doesn’t dig into the heart of the story – doesn’t explain anything, just slaps the world on the page and expects the reader to swallow it happily – but I know I’d find it hard to read, because I’d want to go deeper. So, as a writer, I must do my worldbuilding.

I’d want to know how this works. How is the caste system maintained? Do people dye their hair to move between ranks? Or is hair dye is forbidden to prevent that happening? What about the elderly? When their hair turns grey, are they treated as outcasts, or are they seen as having transcended the caste system and treated as god-like figures? Are people only allowed to marry people with the same hair colour, or do they deliberately try to marry “up” to increase their children’s chances of having a certain hair colour? Does it matter if the hair is curly or straight or wavy?

I’d also want to know why this happened, because on the surface, this is seems like an illogical way to run a society and it’s going to take some work for the author to convince me that it could work. Did the caste system originate from a king or queen or supermodel or other public figure having that hair colour and being idolised for it, and everyone trying to mimic them? (That happened in history, seriously. All the fashionable people wanted the same colour hair as Elizabeth I.) Is it far more sinister, part of a plot to create a master race who only have a certain hair colour? (That happened in history, too.) Or is it based on the culture of beauty pageants? Or something else? Look at how hair is treated in different cultures. Look at what hair, and hairstyles, have symbolised throughout history: beauty, marital status, power. Think George RR Martin’s Dothraki, who never cut their hair unless they’re defeated in combat. Think Samson and Delilah.

Depth is critical to authenticity. A reader won’t fully believe the story if they can see mile-wide holes in it, and fans of sci-fi and fantasy tend to have particularly keen eyes. Trust me, they’ll spot inconsistencies and things that don’t make a lick of sense.

What comes to you as a simple concept can blossom into something much bigger, and much richer. Just ask yourself questions. 

First posted on Tumblr

Friday, 26 June 2015

Words and symbols

The world of The Bone Season is full of symbols and words with more history than I sometimes let on in the books. Today, I thought I'd share a little background on some of them. You might even pick up on a few clues . . .


Æther [noun]: In Greek mythology, æther (αἰθήρ,
clear sky) was what gods breathed, as mortals breathed air. Aristotle considered it to be the fifth element, a substance that existed beyond the terrestrial sphere (also called quintessence). It moved in circles, rather than in a linear fashion, like the four terrestrial elements of earth, air, fire and water. In the world of The Bone Season, æther is a common name for the spirit world, which exists alongside the physical world. Warden describes how the Rephaim once lived purely on æther, but lost the ability after the Waning of the Veils. 

Buzzer [noun]: Comes from the Hebrew word zamzummim (זמזם), translating to ‘Buzzers’ or ‘people whose speech sounds like buzzing’. Linked to the Emim and Rephaim. 

Ectoplasm [noun]: In popular culture, ectoplasm refers to a gauze-like substance or energy given off by mediums. Spirits would drape themselves in this substance in order to interact with the living. In The Bone Season, it's a cold, viscous liquid that acts as Rephaite blood

Emite [plural Emim, properly Emites or Emims; proper singular Emma or Ema]: The Emites were a tribe of the Rephaim, mentioned in Deuteronomy. Their name, according to some sources, translates to the dreaded ones; the Hebrew word (אימה) means terror’ or horror. I found various plural and singular forms, but decided to stick to the same format I'd used for Rephaite and Rephaim in order to avoid confusion. 

Meatspace: [noun]: This term, unlike other words in the book, comes from cyberpunk and gaming. It refers to the real world, as opposed to the virtual world or cyberspace. In The Bone Season it's used a clairvoyant slang word for the physical world, rather than the Netherworld or spirit world (æther).

Mime-lord and mime-queen [noun]: The prefix mime is shorthand for mimic, and refers to the fact that most mime-lords and mime-queens don't always do their own work; instead, they trade in spirits to get the work done. The term was conceived by the first Underlord, Thomas Ebon Merritt, and was intended as a respectful term to humble voyants, who were forced to remember that they could only ever mimic the greatness of their spirit guides. Eliza, for example, literally mimics the work of dead artists like Pieter Claesz to earn her keep. Jaxon quotes Tom Merritt in On the Merits of Unnaturalness
I have raised you to Roles of great Importance, so you shall be called the Lords and Queens of these wretched Folk; yet see that I have humbled you anew with a prefix, mime. For though you are a Monarch, remember that you are only a Mimic. The Spirits of the Dead have granted us their Knowledge so that we may whore it on the Streets for Coin, sacrificing their Secrets for the sake of our continued Existence. You, the Unnatural, can only ever imitate their Greatness.

Numen [noun] [plural numina, slang numa]: Referring to objects that allow certain kinds of clairvoyant to connect to the æther. From the root of the word numinous. I was originally going to call them ‘touchstones or ‘numinous objects’, but the former didn't really seem right and the latter was too clumsy, so I looked int0 the etymology of numinous. Numen means something like ‘divine will’, but it's also used in a sociological and spiritual context to refer to magical potential or power in an object. The proper Latin plural is numina, but after saying it out loud a few times I thought the voyants would have eventually shortened it. I also loved the visual link with the Arabic word for the poppy anemone, meaning pieces of Nu'man (see poppy anemone).  

Rephaite [plural Rephaim]: A transliteration of a Hebrew word with nuanced meanings. Rephaim (רפאים) are beings that inhabit the netherworld, or She'ol. The word can refer to dead ancestors, shades, ghosts, or giants. In Deuteronomy, it specifically refers to a race of giants who once inhabited Canaan, who were descended from a union between the Nephilim and human women. Both Emim and Zamzummim appear to be alternative names for, or tribes of, the Rephaim.

Sheol: Properly rendered as She'ol. Comes from the Hebrew word sheol (שְׁאוֹל), which translates variously as pit, hell, grave, or abode of the dead. It suggests a state of separation from God. I decided to leave the apostrophe out of the English translation to distinguish the prison city of Sheol I from the true Netherworld, which is correctly rendered as She'ol in The Mime Order.


1. Amaranth 

The amaranth is a symbol I borrowed from John Milton's epic Paradise Lost (1667), although I first heard of it in the Nightwish song of the same name. The word comes from Greek, amarantos (ἀμάραντος), meaning unwithering or unfading. In The Bone Season, it refers to an undying Netherworld flower, the essence of which can be used to treat spiritual injuries and scars.

2. Poppy anemone 

Warden pretty much covers this in the book, but the poppy anemone (properly anemone coronaria, Arabic Shaqa'iq An-Nu'man (شقائق النعمان, pieces of Nu'man)) is a flower that bloomed after the death of Adonis at the tusks of a boar in Greek mythology. Because Aphrodite was so grieved by her lover's death, Adonis was eventually spared by Zeus, and he was able to live half his years in life, and half in death. The Arabic Nu'man is thought to refer to Tammuz, an ancient Sumerian pastoral god of fertility, sheep and vegetation, who was also known as Nea'man. The story of Tammuz and the goddess Inanna is thought to have inspired the Greek story of Adonis and Aphrodite that Warden tells to Paige. The Hebrew word for the flower, כלנית מצויה (Calanit metzouya), comes from the word for bride

3. Sundials

The sundials are a key fixture of the real-life Seven Dials, and become a symbol of Paige's life in the syndicate, which is why they have such a prominent place on the cover of The Bone Season. The sundial pillar has six, rather than seven faces, as the junction was originally meant to have six streets. The original pillar was torn down in 1773 and resurrected again in 1989. 

4. Anchor 

The anchor is Scion's symbol, representing a metaphorical anchor to order in a dangerous world of unnaturals. For the cover of the book, I wanted to keep the design very simple, black on white, without any embellishments, to avoid the usual connotation of an anchor with the sea and ships. While I was looking for inspiration from various kinds of image and script, I came across a Nigerian language called Nsibidi, an ancient system of symbols that pre-dates Egyptian hieroglyphics. Two of the glyphs had a distinctly anchor-like shape. (One also meant strength while the other meant fear, both appropriate for Scion.) One had a line across the bottom as well as the top, which made the shape look considerably less nautical. David Mann ended up using a similar line in the final Scion symbol, which is narrower than both glyphs and has different sized lines on the top and bottom of the anchor. In the books, however, the symbol has nothing to do with Nsibidi. (You can learn more about the system here.)

5. Aster

Aster, which Rephaim call the star-flower, has various uses in the world of The Bone Season, and comes in four colours: purple, white, pink and blue. In myth, the flowers grew from the tears of Astraea, the star-maiden, who was moved to tears of sadness when she saw that Earth had no stars of its own. It was considered by the Greeks to be a sacred flower.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Page by page

Good morning!

A few hours ago, I spoke on BBC Radio 4's Today Show about Amazon's new pay-per-page policy for certain self-published authors. The programme's interviews are bite-sized and author Kerry Wilkinson was also being interviewed, so I was only able to speak for a few minutes but I thought it was worth teasing out my thoughts a little more on here, as it's an interesting topic for both readers and authors.

Yesterday's headlines on Amazon's new payment method were easy to misread. The Guardian's message was ‘Pay-per-page: Amazon to align payment with how much customers read’, while the Telegraph's was ‘Amazon to pay authors only for pages read’. It gave the impression that this would apply to all self-published authors whose books are available on Kindle, and that those authors would have their royalties brutally cut if readers didn't get very far into the book. At first blush, it looked bad, and my first reaction was anger. The reality, however, proved to be slightly more complicated.

What's the fuss?

This new method of payment applies to Amazon's KDP Select programme, not to purchased books. KDP Select is opt-in or out, and allows self-published authors to earn a cut of the KDP Select Global Fund, an amount set by Amazon on a monthly basis. (For June 2015, it's $3 million.) This naturally puts a cap on author's earnings, as they can never earn more than the fund allows and are competing, within that fixed amount, with all the other authors on the programme. A reader can borrow the book as part of Kindle Unlimited, which allows for you guessed it unlimited reading of KU books in exchange for a subscription fee. Amazon used to start paying royalties on the borrowed book once a reader got to the 10% mark. 

However, the 10% ‘trigger’ was proving unfair on authors who wrote longer books. A reader perusing a short book reaches the trigger point much faster than one reading an 800-page tome. The result of this was a flood of very short reads as authors spread their writing over as many books as possible.

Amazon's answer: the new pay-per-page method, ‘in response to great feedback [they] received from authors who asked [them] to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read’. From the Start Reading Location (SRL), payment is made every time a reader turns a page during their first read. The precise meaning of pageis set by Amazon via the Kindle Edition Normalised Page Count (KENPC) to ensure that inflated fonts, wide line spacing and big margins won't fool the system. You also need to spend a particular amount of time on a page before it counts as read. (I won't linger on the surveillance point, as I think that's a slightly different issue.)

On the surface, it makes sense not to punish those who write longer books, and much of the controversy seems to have stemmed from misinformation and confusing headlines but questions remain.

Data and creativity

Amazon's new system has solved one problem, but it may yet spawn another. Instead of penalising long books, the system could penalise shorter reads assuming the amount paid per page is the same for any book, regardless of length. 

We all know that quantity doesn't equal quality, especially not in the book world. In the traditional publishing industry, books of all different sizes are sold at the same price. Case in point from my bookshelves:

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman (pb) – 640 pages – £8.99
  • The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (pb) – 512 pages – £7.99
  • Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (pb) – 177 pages – £7.99

No author is noticeably penalised or rewarded for the length of their book. However, in Amazon's case, this may now lead to authors writing significantly longer books in order to maximise profit. This means that Amazon's digital publishing could have an impact on the way authors write their books. TechCrunch summed it up beautifully: ‘the ecommerce behemoth is deploying economic levers to shape creative content in the interests of eBook selling’.

Some authors may see this as a perk of the digital publishing age. Assuming they can access to the data from their readers, they may find it useful to see where people are dropping out of the book, how much the average person is reading, and if they're making it to the end. They might want to learn from their readers' habits and apply the knowledge to their next book in short, to use the data to write better books

But now we're getting into murky territory. It is impossible to write a book that every reader will enjoy. Every book has at least one 1-star review. If you change your writing to suit one reader, it will inevitably disappoint another. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, close to 800 pages long, failed to keep many Kobo readers engaged all the way through; data showed that around 55% of readers did not finish it. Yet The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Does the data prove that Tartt needs to learn from her readers and write a better book next time, despite being awarded one of the highest literary honours in the United States? Should she take into account the pool of readers who didn't finish, rather than the 44% who did? Should she follow the numbers, or does she remain true to herself and write the books she wants to write, and that many people want to read? 

How do we define quality in our art, and is it something that anonymous data, harvested by a corporation, can ever quantify? 


The major controversy surrounding Amazon's announcement was the shadow it cast over the future of publishing. What if Amazon rolled out this method of royalty payment for all of its books, not just borrows? Does this set an ominous precedent for the publishing industry, already beset by the challenges of a digital world? 

I should start off by saying that I think it's extremely unlikely Amazon would alienate too many content creators but let's roll with it, in theory. Let's say that Amazon decides to pay authors only by the page, and that the reader could potentially never pay the full price for a whole book they've downloaded, or even get a refund for pages they haven't read.

If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, Kerry Wilkinson is quoted in the Telegraph, why should the writer be paid in full?Here is where I respectfully disagree.

On a sentimental note, I've read books that have taken a while to get into and ended up loving them. If I'd given up after six pages, I would never have experienced that. But, sentiment aside, you do have the right to give up on a book. If it isn't not holding your attention, you are free to stop, to move on, and never look back. I'm not going to argue that you somehow owe your time to me if you purchase my book. 

You have a right, as a paying customer, to do whatever you like with your purchase. You can walk out of a cinema if you're not enjoying a film; nobody is forcing you to invest your time in it. If you buy a piece of cake and take a bite out of it, only to discover you don't like the taste, you are welcome to throw it away. Nobody will force you to finish it. However, you can't hand it back to the baker and ask for a refund. Similarly, if you've paid for a ticket to a motivational speech, and by the end it hasn't motivated you, you can't expect the speaker to waive their fee for their time and expertise. Your opinion is subjective. You may have decided its value for yourself that was a horrible cake, not worth my money but that doesn't negate the cake's objective value. The cake represents the cost of its ingredients, the baker's salary, and so much more. The cake's value does not depend on what you, the customer, think of it. And no matter what you to with it, its creators have the right to be paid for it in full.

If there is something objectively wrong with your purchase if the cake has a fingernail in it, for example then yes, you have the right to a refund, and power to you. But there can be nothing objectively wrong with the written content of a book, or the visual content of a film, or the sound of a song. It is, as we've established, impossible to quantify the value of an author's writing. So the argument that the creator should not be paid the full price for a download, based on an individual's taste or what they do with the product, is weak. All art forms are subjective. You could argue that the very subjectivity of a book means that nobody can put a price on it but you might be forgetting its objective value. As a cake has ingredients and a baker, books have the people that put them together.

A book, no matter what your personal opinion, does have actual value. This is all too easily forgotten on a Kindle, where a book can be mentally reduced to little more than a Word document. It didn't cost them anything to make a digital copy, it's easy to say but that digital copy represents a body of work. Even if you ignore the cost of printing, the author has still invested time and effort into what appears on your screen. So has the editor, the commissioning editor, the cover designer, the copy-editor, the proofreader, the illustrator, the publicist, the literary agent, the marketing team, the person who formats it for your eReader literally hundreds of people can be involved in the creation and promotion of one book. A book, even in digital format, is the culmination of hours, weeks, months, even years, of actual, objective work. And everyone who works is entitled to be paid for it, no matter how much they love the work they're doing. (This bleeds into a much broader argument about the value of art in society, and the idea that art is somehow cheapened if the artist receives a fair wage.) All of that is what you're paying for when you download a book not just the content.

For now, this is all hypothetical. But in this digital age, we do have to work hard to maintain the value of what can be easily distributed for free online, as Taylor Swift showed when she stood up to Apple and asked for her fair pay. Music, film and books are three particularly vulnerable areas. If we allow each individual person to determine the value of art, its overall value and the price we're willing to pay for it will slowly decay, and with it, its creators.

In conclusion, I think Amazon could be nudging us towards a world where books are no longer considered whole, finished objects, the complete product of people's very real work. Where they are small, fragmented units of data, measured separately to determine value. Where books are just the parts, and not the sum of them: pages, percentages, bits and pieces to be cherry-picked. As Peter Maass said, we don't get to pay only for how much of a burger we eat.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Don't be afraid

There are no original ideas. All fiction is derivative.

Accept this now, and you will be a much happier writer.

I was speaking at Oxford once, along with two other authors, one of whom was my tutor. While I was talking about The Bone Season, a man put his hand up and said, “Well, that’s just The Chrysalids, isn’t it”?

I was aware of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, but I promise you, I have never read it. Before writing The Bone Season, I had never heard of it. The only Wyndham I have read is The Day of the Triffids. From what I can gather from Wikipedia, the similarity to my book is that it’s set in a future world where people with mutations – and telepaths – are branded “Blasphemies” and either killed or banished, similar to how my clairvoyants are treated cruelly for being “unnaturals”.

I was a bit stumped. I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry” came to mind; I felt as if I’d disappointed this man in some way. My stomach felt like it was full of snakes. Then my tutor wondered aloud if authors would write anything at all if they thought too much about what had come before them. Would we not be paralysed by fear, terrified that the idea has already been done? (Because it has. Trust me. Your idea’s been done.) Would anyone write anything?

If I had known about this book, should I not have written The Bone Season – even though there must be hundreds of stories out there about certain groups of people being persecuted?

I got an anonymous ask on Tumblr a few months ago, directing me to an upcoming YA book about a girl who can leave her body and briefly possess other people. (I won’t say the title, and I didn’t answer the ask, because I don’t think it’s fair to the book’s author.) The anon asked me if I’d heard of it, and if I wanted to tell my publisher so they could “do something” about it.

But I do not own the idea of astral projection, the ability to leave one’s body. It’s an ancient idea, one seen in a plethora of cultures and religions and in many different forms throughout history. I’m not the first person to use it, and I won’t be the last. This author, even if she had read every page of The Bone Season, even if she had actually taken inspiration from it, has every right to use it. So no, my publisher will not be “doing” anything about it, and I wish her all the best.

We are at a point in history where every story has been told, so we have to understand that all stories are derivative in some way. Should JK Rowling not have written Harry Potter and delighted generations because of The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, which was published in 1974 and follows a young witch at a school of magic? Should Suzanne Collins not have written The Hunger Games, a brutal commentary on the modern world, because of Battle Royale (1999) by Kōshun Takami, a story about two young people dumped on an island and forced to fight their classmates to the death for an authoritarian government?

You, as a writer, cannot be expected to have read and researched every story ever written. All you can do is combine ideas in the most interesting and unique ways you can. Remember, even if your idea has been done before (and remember, it has, probably multiple times), nobody can tell this story exactly like you can. You will bring your own fresh ideas, perspective and style to the age-old tales we tell. So just write.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Interview with a translator

Good morning! 

Today I'm delighted to welcome one of my fantastic translators, Janet Limonard, to A Book from the Beginning. Janet has translated both The Bone Season and The Mime Order into Dutch, and she's been kind enough to answer some of your questions from social media about translation, language, and her experience of translating my work. Thank you, Janet!


Janet Limonard translates books under that name or under the name of her late husband: Janet van der Lee. She has been a translator for more than twenty-five years. She started by translating all kinds of commercial text, and after a few years and a study at Maastricht University she started doing legal translations. After an intensive course at Utrecht University, she did some subtitling, but in the end, she decided she preferred written texts. Janet has been translating books from US English into Dutch since 2006. Some of the authors she has translated are Cathy Glass, Peter, Conradi, Alison Pearson, Monica Ali, Nick Hornby, Steven Johnson, Rory Stewart, William Sutcliffe, John Cleese and, of course, me!


What made you want to be a translator? 

I love books and languages. I had a fantastic English teacher in grammar school, and after that an intensive training course that lasted a year in languages, where French was taught by a French madame, German by a German Fräulein, Spanish by a Spanish señora and English by an English lady. This encouraged me even more to do something with languages.

How do you get into this line of work? 

I studied English for five years. After I graduated, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to extend my knowledge of the language, not my ability to teach young children something the most of them weren’t really interested in. During my English study, I had to make a translation of an English text into Dutch and vice versa every week. It really was a challenge to make a good translation in Dutch or English, but I loved it. There is where it all started.

Do you need any particular qualifications to become a translator? 

You don’t have to have an education to translate commercial texts or books. It’s a liberal profession, so everyone is free to say that he or she is a translator. But the people I work with have a college or university degree in the language in which they get the source text, since everyone translates in his/her mother tongue. And a lot of my colleagues also have a degree in some special field, like psychology, law, medicine, geology, mathematics… it could be anything.

What was the first book you translated? 

That was Million Dollar Baby by the American author F.X. O’Toole, a series of short stories about boxing. It was terribly difficult to translate, with a lot of American slang in it.

What’s your translation process? 

I read the hard copy of the book. In the meantime I’ve received a PDF from the publisher, which I use to translate from. I have two screens to work with: one small one for emails and a big screen on which the source text is displayed next to the target text, that comes into being when I’m writing.

When I’ve translated the entire book (I translate around 30,000 words a month), I start again at the beginning with correction, rewriting, revision, etc. After that, I send the manuscript to the publishing house, where an editor is going through the translation, with the source text next to it. The editor makes suggestions to improve the Dutch text. Then the manuscript comes back to me, I decide what suggestions from the editor I’m going to accept and then I’ll revise the text again. The next step is to send it back to the publishing house, where a corrector will have a final look at it, before it comes back to me again, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Finally it will go the a printing office to become a real book.

What is the hardest thing about translating from English to Dutch? Are there any recurring challenges?

I think the main difficulty is that the English is a very compact language. In Dutch you need more words to express the same things. And the English have ‘the gerund’, a grammatical form which is rarely used in Dutch.

What do you most enjoy about it? 

The great books I get to read and translate; the freedom to work on them whenever I like (within reason and with the deadline in mind); the independency; and the office next to my house, which gave me the opportunity to combine work and to raise my three kids.

Do you get worried about losing the essence or meaning of the words, and what can you do to prevent it?

I think I usually succeed in translating the essence of the line or paragraph or story. It hardly ever boils down to one word, as we, translators, try to convey the meaning of what the author wants to say.

How rough are you on language when it's untranslatable? Is it better to keep intent or language?

Sentences are hardly ever untranslatable. Very, very difficult at times, but not untranslatable. The language has to be correct, but intent is far more important, in my opinion. Jokes is a different story, especially jokes based on language. They sometimes are untranslatable, indeed, which means that the joke is lost.

How long does it take to translate a book, on average?

As I said, I translate about 30,000 words a month, including the first correction work on the translation. An average book amounts to approximately 110,000 words, though the latest book by Samantha Shannon I translated, had 155,000 words. In general, it takes about four months, from beginning to end.

Any advice for aspiring translators?

It’s a fantastic job, but it’s not easy to start as a literary translator. The publishing houses often have a select group of translators they like to work with, so it’s difficult to get started. You can contact them and ask if you can make a test translation, so that they can see that you’re really good at it. I know it’s easier to earn a living as a ‘commercial’ translator.


The Bone Season questions

What challenges did you face when translating The Bone Season and The Mime Order?

The very special, imaginative world Samantha is writing about was very difficult to imagine in the beginning. And, of course, the slang of 18th century London she uses in her books. Sometimes I really did everything to find the meaning of a word, but then it turned out she had made it up… though it was always based on some historical event or figure.

Why did you decide not to translate “Warden”, as some other translators did? 

As a rule, we try not to change names. In Samantha’s books, though, you have to change them sometimes, because they always have a meaning. The Dutch translation of ‘Warden’ (wachter) cannot be used as a name, so I had to keep the ‘Warden’, which doesn’t sound strange to us, although the meaning might not immediately be clear for everyone. But it will become clear when they read the book.

How did you tackle the slang used in the books?

Fortunately, translators have a lot of dictionaries. Apart from that, I found a few great sites on the Internet with English slang. A terminology list named British Slang – Lower Class and Underworld and the Dictionary of Victorian Slang, first published in 1909.

The Bone Season is a title with a double meaning. How did you convey this in Dutch? 

The publisher and I didn’t agree about the title at first. In the end, it’s the publisher who decides what it is going to be, so I had to make some adjustments in the text to make clear what was meant. I preferred to interpret ‘season’ as the verb ‘to harvest’. The Dutch publisher preferred ‘seizoen’, a noun to denote a specific period.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The good fight

Writing action scenes is difficult. They ought to be the most exciting part of a novel, with pulse-pounding danger and high stakes, but it's easy for them to become repetitive, dry descriptions of who's where and how many times they've been punched in the gut. 

The scrimmage – a fight between over twenty voyant combatants, including Paige, with an excited audience watching and reacting – was one the toughest scenes to write in The Mime Order. I agonised over every sentence. I knew the scene would go on for quite a while, as would the ensuing one-on-one fight between Paige and another character, and that they would both have serious emotional and physical repercussions. It was important not only for the reader to remain interested and want to read on, but for them to be on the edge of their seat, too.  

So, from experience, here are some things to bear in mind when you write an action scene, particularly physical fights:

[1] The personal pronoun. “I kicked, I punched, I screamed in pain” – all of these are perfectly good phrases, but when they’re clustered together, one after the other, it makes for a clunky, plodding experience for the reader. Try to think of different ways to describe what’s happening. “I screamed” could be replaced with “a scream escaped me”, for example. Also applies to “he”, “she” or “you” if you’re writing in third or second-person.

[2] Injuries. Unless your character is superhuman, you’re going to need to keep track of the injuries they sustain, consider the long and short-term effects those injuries will have on their health, and find out how long they’ll need to heal. This is harder than it sounds when you’re trying to get on with the plot, only to remember that your character is badly hurt and may not be as energetic as usual. A fractured leg might seem a small thing to toss into an action scene, but your character is going to be recuperating for at least six weeks, if not more. Deep bruises will ache. Cuts will sting. Open wounds will need to be stitched and disinfected. 

Tyrion Lannister's facial scar
[3] Scars. Not all wounds heal perfectly. If your character regularly gets into dangerous situations, they’re likely to have a few scars – and they might be somewhere visible, like the face. (Yes, the face.) We tend to shy away from obvious scars in fiction, especially on female characters, who are expected to be beautiful. Try to shake that mindset. If you have a male character who’s battle-scarred, but still desirable, ask yourself why a woman can’t also carry signs of her past fights. Characters are also very unlikely to walk away from an action scene looking like they've just stepped out of the hair salon: they'll be dirty, tired, and possibly bloody.

[4] Movement. In a combat situation, your character is going to be focused on their body, and on their opponent’s. A single misstep could result in a grave injury; exhaustion could be fatal. Consider the placement of their feet, the way their limbs are moving, their sweat, their body temperature, their heartbeat, their aching muscles, the throbbing of fresh injuries. 

[5] Imagery. Action is often brutal and bleak, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a fight aesthetically pleasing. Many forms of combat are quite beautiful to watch, especially when the combatants are very skilled. A dry description of who’s punching who isn’t going to hold your readers’ attention for long. Paint a vivid picture of the scene. Think of it as a theatre production: colours, lights, the stage, the props. Describe the sounds, the sights, the smells and tastes of the scene. You don’t have to go overboard – just help the reader picture it. 

[6] Dialogue. If your characters are hammering each other, chances are that emotions are running high, and that words will be exchanged. Reading dense paragraphs of action might be fine for some readers, but it might be an idea to break it up a little with some dialogue, both for a change of pace and to give insight into what the characters are thinking, and how they feel about each other.