February 7, 2014

§¥<@¶!ñ& in YA fiction

Filed under: bloggery,things I read on the internet — Tags: — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 7:24 pm

I was absolutely sure I’d written about this before but the closest I seem to have come is a post on Banned Books Week. That time, in a metatextual sort of moment, I got a comment from someone saying “great post but I can’t link to it because you used the f-word”. So, prompted by this article in the Telegraph, here’s some new thoughts on swearing.

Firstly, I’m going to note that personally really dislike the term “potty-mouthed” which I find more viscerally unappealing than many more pleasantly evocative profanities. There’s something very juvenile about the term, associating swearing with the sort of term you’d use to rebuke a toddler. “Foul-mouthed” would annoy me less and even better would have been a title that referred to the more neutral “swearing”.

So, on to the subject matter, Martin Chilton thinks the swearing in When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan is “overwhelming… and troubling”. Chilton describes Conaghan as “a Dublin-based teacher” which may well be true but in his production of this book Conaghan is a writer – was the use of the word teacher intended to indicate that the author has an educational duty not to include swear words in his fiction? I’d imagine teachers know better than most people what words are current on the playground.

Having said “swearing in Young Adult fiction is a controversial and complex issue” I felt Chilton didn’t really engage with that issue at all. Let’s be clear, the vast majority of children’s and YA fiction have nothing that even approaches a swearword. I will have to dig out the list of replacements for swear words in my most recent book but they included instances of “bloody”, “arse” and “hell”. These are not the high ticket items in the world of profanity but every one of them was queried by the publishing company who, as always, use the argument that you won’t sell to book clubs or to the US if you have swear words in your novel.

Some authors are allowed to swear. (If you’re one of them, please comment!) Melvin Burgess is one of them. And if you are a gritty realist author writing about urban youth then if your book gets published you’ll probably be allowed to swear in it. But for the vast majority of authors, swearing is off the table. Chilton’s right that Bloomsbury’s decision to keep swearing an integral part of When Mr Dog Bites is a “marketing gimmick” – but marketing, rights and sales will have discussed this very thoroughly with editorial before positioning the book as one of the few in which swearing is permitted.

Any debate about swearing in YA needs to take account of the fact that there are comparatively few books in the market which include swearing, even though this forms a part of British teen argot. We need to avoid a suggestion that swearing automatically equals a bad book and the lack of it a good book.

You shouldn’t view the language as separate from the theme or setting of the book. JK Rowling used a rather dated private schoolboy slang in her bestselling Harry Potter series, which worked because of the quasi 19th century setting of much of the wizarding world and because it had its own internal consistency. Although the use of the word “git” did become somewhat monotonous.

Chilton admits that “sanitised fiction is not the answer”, that there are many fine YA titles without swearing and recommends Anne Cassidy’s latest work which I haven’t read yet but is a sequel to Looking for JJ which I have read and would recommend. But he disrecommends When Mr Dog Bites and, aside from the swearing, in approximately a thousand words of text doesn’t explain why – apart from the fact it has a lot of swearing. Which, by the way, the article also has – and the Telegraph have slapped a “frequent use of strong language” notice on it.

Chilton says age banding is subject on which “authors, publishers and librarians have not been able to agree” and proposes a parental advisory certificate system instead. But he doesn’t give any detail on controversies of 2008 when age banding was first proposed for children’s fiction and librarians and authors including Philip Pullman came out together as against the plan. Two years ago GP Taylor suggested that parental advisories might be needed and that YA fiction had gone too far in its exploration of darker themes but Patrick Ness and Charlie Higson strongly disagreed in a debate that spread from BBC breakfast news to Twitter.

Swearing, dark themes, explicit content and illegal activities all need to be seen within the context of the text. One publishing company gradually removed first the use of drugs by teenagers, then underage smoking, then finally underage drinking from a scene in one of my books. Given that the scene in question was a party that got out of control and for which the attendees were punished, removal of these elements created knock-on effects for the rest of the narrative. Not that I’m saying all use of these elements in a work of fiction should be moralistic and result in punishment for those involved. But given that teen readers don’t inhabit a physical world in which they can or should be shielded from the realities of 21st century life, it’s important that some fiction is available to them that reflects the world in which we live.

As a sheltered eleven-year-old it was a shock for me to arrive in a large and alarming secondary school in which my contemporaries used language and expressions which even now as an adult I would not feel comfortable repeating. As an avid reader, more realism in my YA fiction would have helped me bridge that gap. As a new minted university student I embraced some swear words and rejected others. Now as a late 30s professional I try to avoid profanity with mixed success (especially when cycling!).

But as an author, I would like to be able to include swearing in my contemporary fiction and let my readers decide themselves what they think. At present gatekeepers like bookshop and book club buyers and the unpopularity of swearing in the US (and by extension commissioning editors who must consider this market) all mean that it’s rare to find YA fiction that includes any profanity. If parents really feel they need to introduce gatekeepers into the process then I recommend reading the (increasingly dwindling) reviews of YA in the press or – better yet – read the books themselves and then use any contentious issue to start a discussion. You don’t need to read everything your child or teenager reads – but books aren’t objects smuggled in and out of the house unless you’ve created a climate of censorship and distrust.

And it doesn’t take a book to start a discussion – although they are great jumping off points for one. If you have a teen, try asking them how much the kids at their school swear and what they think of it. Does it make them uncomfortable or envy the bravery or insouciance of those that do? Do they think it makes a difference if you are using swearing as punctuation among your friendship group or letting rip in anger to someone who’s dissed you? Would they swear to you? Perhaps you belong to a household that swears broadly and freely and these questions seem amazingly out of touch…

But, while you’re at it, please also ask them if they think swearing in books is stronger content than zombies eating your face or the sexual dalliances of vampires?

(I’d like to hear from any YA authors who use swearing in their books and what they use so if you care about such things please note that could be explicit content and reference to adult themes in the comments to this post.)

February 4, 2014

Designing your own book covers

Filed under: self publishing,things I read on the internet — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 1:00 pm

Self-designed front cover for Roundabout

Self-designed front cover for Roundabout

Publishers Weekly has a post on How to Design an Indie Book Cover. Ron Pramschufer, owner of author consulting service Self Publishing Inc, recommends hiring a professional designer and that you should pay no more than a couple of hundred pounds.

Ron’s point about the value of professional expertise shouldn’t be under-estimated. Producing your own self-published book requires a wide set of skills and you may simply not have any design expertise.

But one of the big issues of self-publishing is Return On Investment (ROI). When you don’t know what the likely returns are a few hundred pounds on design may be more than you feel able to invest in design. So for those who are doing it themselves: here’s my advice about how to do that.

Copyright free images

There is a vast bank of free images available on the internet. You can search for these via the creative commons portal. Or you can search by going to google image search and clicking on the “search tools” tab and then “usage rights” which allows you to search by the various categories of copyright.

You can use these search functions to find strong images that relate to the themes of your book. Always click through to the high resolution version of the image and check what the creator has said explicitly about use. It’s also courteous to let an artist or photographer know how they have used the image how.

Image placement and bleed

You need a cover image that will fill the exact space on the front of a print-on-demand or kindle book. When designing your cover there are templates you can download for standard sizes of books. You need an image that is high resolution (at the very least 300dpi) and so will reproduce well in print. You also need to place that image on your cover template so that it has space and more to fit. The ideal image will overlap the edges of your template a bit – this is called “bleed”. If your image isn’t large enough for the front cover some indie authors fill up the empty space with a border or a black section (particularly common in space covers on SF books). Avoid doing this. It looks as though you couldn’t find a big enough image and people will be able to tell – especially in series fiction if some books have a full page front cover and others have a smaller one.

Self-designed cover for Waking Dream

Self-designed cover for Waking Dream

Fonts and placement of title and author name text

If you visit the Amazon website and look at Kindle books online, you’ll find a lot of self created book covers. The science fiction and fantasy section is full of them. I can always tell the self published books straight away and one reason is the fonts. You don’t have to be a designer to memorise and keep to a few simple rules about fonting and the placement of the title and author text on your book cover.

  • Use rulers to place the text, all professional graphics programmes have them. Give yourself adequate margins and centre the text between them. If you’re not centering the text take extra care to place it somewhere that makes sense visually.
  • Sans serif fonts are more typical for book covers. If you have a reason to use a decorated font or one with serifs avoid Times New Roman which looks amateurish. Also, avoid popular sans serif font Comic Sans which also looks amateur.
  • Provide a good colour contrast. The ideal is black text on a white background. If your text overlaps the image then you need to place it in a colour-consistent area so it can be read easily. If you’re using black text on a part white and park grey background half of it will not show up well.
  • Don’t use the word “by”, professional books just have the title and author
  • Keep series looking the same, keep the series over title, the individual book title and the author name in the same place throughout the series

General comments

It’s hard for me to say every aspect that makes a cover look amateur although I have a good hit rate of identifying them. If you’d like some savage critique of your own cover design feel free to post a link in the comments but be advised that I don’t soft peddle my opinions! I’m still working on my own designs and I seek feedback myself. For any professional work you need to be able to take criticism especially in any element that could make you look amateur.

January 22, 2014

A ripping yarn

Filed under: bloggery — Tags: — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:14 pm

Work in progress

I have been writing but right now I really want some good voice recognition software so I can use my hands to knit.

Yes, I drank the kool-aid and now I am gradually transforming into a knitter. I was seduced by the awesomeness of hand knitted socks gifted to me by friends Becky, Liz and Jo – all of whom knit. And then by the idea of creating my own head circles (like a hat without being joined up). So now in the evenings I knit while watching TV. PS: I also need more recommendations for good TV shows – although you should be warned that everything I like gets cancelled.

The funny thing is that my friends have been knitting for several years now and for ages they would ask if I wanted to learn and I’d say “You know, I just can’t find in me any desire to knit”. Then all of a sudden the desire was there and now I am gradually learning how to knit things.

Head circle

So far I have made two head circles (one red, one purplish) and one pair of socks. Already I have grand plans for *different* kinds of socks and knitting with *beads* – and crocheting a peacock feather.

I have even spent time photographing my own yarn and logging it on Ravelry (a website for knitters). Liz says I can’t really be a knitter if I only knit two kinds of things so I have plans to branch out into leg warmers (a cross between a sock and a head circle) and my friend Sara-without-an-h has knit some beautiful gloves which she says are easy to make.

So my transformation is probably already beyond the point of no return. Eventually I will be entirely made of wool.

January 7, 2014

Playing games…

Filed under: bloggery — Tags: , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 6:25 pm

The wizard Shattershard (Rhiannon) and her demon hunter ally in DiabloIII

When I was about 12 I always used to win games of Cluedo because of the copious notes I took about not just the cards I’d seen but the guesses I’d made about who else had shown what cards to whom. No one else did this (at least no one I played with) but it seemed to me the obvious way to play and win the game. And, more importantly perhaps, I enjoyed it.

In my adult life I’ve played a number of games: board games, card games, roleplaying games, computer and video games. I’ve played games with big rue books and games with almost no rules at all, games with a single way to play them and games with lots of different roles. I’ve even designed my own games and played them with other people. Overall, I like rulesets, and levels of advancement and different roles or ways to play so I can choose the one that suits me the best.

In 2012 I posted a list of my then current top ten favourite computer games. It’s not changed much since then but I’ve since enjoyed Endless Space and Tropico4. My copy of the Sims has so many mods and add-ons and content it’s become very crashy. But what I’ve been playing the most recently is Diablo3. And that’s what this post is really about because the people who make Diablo don’t like the way I play it.

Diablo3 is a fantasy dungeon crawl. You play one of 5 characters: a wizard, a demon hunter, a barbarian warrior, a monk or a witch doctor. As this character you progress through a storyline involving killing different kinds of monsters with the highest level of antagonists gigantic demon lords. Killing monsters gets you loot which mostly comes in the form of weapons or armour of different types and strengths and with specials.

This has been the case with Diablo since the franchise first began and one of my very favourite part of the game was getting cool looking armour and weapons that did awesome stuff. The very hieghest level of stuff is “set items” with a matching set of awesome names which give you more and more special bonuses the closet you get to a matching set. These are very very rare. In earlier DiabloI you might eventually find about half of a set and in DiabloII you could trade with other players for items. But DiabloIII – the version I’m playing – introduced an auction house where you could bid with virtual gold (acquired in game) for various items. In this way I have managed to acquire dazzling hoards of cool items and equip some of my character with awesome “legendary” set items.

But this March the people who make Diablo (Blizzard Entertainment) are turning off the auction house and although they have promised a whole new way of collecting loot which is supposed to be better than ever, I fear I will not be able to collect set items so well ever again. Which makes me sad because this is one of my favourite bits of the game and it’s being taken away.

And the other game I’m most interested in playing right now is Grand Theft Auto 5 which is also having a problem right now with the way people are paying it online not being at all what the creators (Rockstar Games) wanted – again the debate is around the collection of loot. Money is the basis of everything in GTA online and some players dislike the current payoff system for in game accomplishments so much they’re exploiting a glitch to donate virtual millions to strangers, which is throwing the game into chaos.

All this loot my Diablo armour, the GTA money, the furnishings of the Sims is virtual – although the companies would like to encourage you to spend real money on in game loot as well.Perhaps that’s really the problem. One of the things I most enjoy is the acquisition of in-game stuff and increasingly games are putting a real price on that. Perhaps I should find a communist game where stuff acquisition is not such a major part of the enjoyment.

December 9, 2013

Advice for authors: Naming Characters

Filed under: Advice for writers,Bad Blood,Ghost of a Chance,VOID,Waking Dream — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:18 pm

Some advice for naming characters…

Be aware of history, ethnicity and culture
The names you chose should be appropriate for the time and place of your book. Look up names of that time period, culture or background online and choose popular names for boys and girls.
If you are writing fantasy look at names for that mythos. For example elves often take Celtic names, dwarves tend to have Germanic names. You could follow this pattern – or choose to intentionally defy it.
Science fiction names could be evolutions of current names or the result of a far future society.
Don’t harvest other “ethnic” or “exotic” names without considering the character who will wear the name.

Don’t choose names that all belong with the same letter
In my VOID trilogy there are characters named Raven and Rachel and Revenge and Robin. Others are named Allie, Alaric and Avalon. Don’t make this mistake. Choose names around and about the alphabet so readers won’t be confused and your pages won’t be full of capital letters so it looks as though the novel is an episode of Sesame Street brought to you by the letters R and A.

Make the names meaningful and/or mysterious
You can search for names online by meaning. Use that to pick a name with resonance and meaning for that character’s role in the plot.

In Waking Dream my primary characters are Poppy who explains her own name as not meaning the red poppy but the white opium poppy of drugged dreams; Bethany whose father is dead and whose name means “House of Affliction” and Rivalaun, a Celtic name for a slightly fey character.

In Ghost of a Chance the ghostly protagonist with a quest to find her own murderer is named Evangeline. In Bad Blood the characters are Roley/Roland, Katherine “Kat” and Catriona “Cat”, and john who also has a secret name.

November 20, 2013

Waking Dream reissue cover

Filed under: covers,Waking Dream — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 4:13 pm

What do you think of the new cover design for Waking Dream? I think it will work well for eBook but what about physical copies?

November 18, 2013

Roundabout – print on demand and eBook edition

Filed under: covers,eBooks,print-on-demand — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:56 pm

As part of my continued plan to bring my back list back into print, I’ve been working on the eBook edition and print-on-demand editions of Roundabout.

Here’s the draft cover:

And here it is again as the full front and back cover as it will appear wrapped around the book:

This one is actually a fairly easy one. I plan to post about the evolution of the Little Witches cover and about the many works in progress of the Rights of Passage series covers. Nonetheless, although I’m confident about this one it’s not to late to send constructive criticism.

November 15, 2013

Rhiannon reads… Pratchett, Fforde and Thackeray

Filed under: Rhiannon reads... — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 12:08 pm

Some mini reviews of books I’ve read recently.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett
I’m not sure how I came to miss this one because usually I read the Discworld books as they come out in paperback. I really enjoyed Going Postal in which Moist von Lipwig was introduced but this book wasn’t as strong. The villains weren’t anything like as frightening as some of the others who have stalked the streets of Ankh Morpork and, although I stayed engaged with the book, when I’d finished I didn’t feel that it had ever genuinely excited me. Pratchett has had a lot of stellar successes so I’ll keep on reading the Discworld books as long as he keeps churning them out but this wasn’t one of my favourites.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) Jasper Fforde
I finally got around to reading this, although I’ve had it for a while. I wanted to read it because I’m writing my own meta recursive book about books right now. But although I should have liked this – somehow I didn’t. I couldn’t get into the plot when I felt literally (!) anything could happen. I didn’t understand some of the metaphysicals and I thought the author didn’t either. I felt bored by the super villain because I was certain he would be overcome inevitably and the romantic interest just dreeped about doing very little so it was inexplicable to my why the heroine found him so desirable. In lots of places the narrative seemed to drag. I don’t know why this didn’t click for me when on paper it should have been a sure fire win. I still have two more books in this series so maybe I’ll come back to it. But not any time soon, I fear.

The Rose and the Ring William Makepeace Thackeray
A re-read, although the last time was in my teens. It’s free from the Kindle store although you miss out on the funny illustrations reading it this way. It’s a witty, light-hearted book with some great character sketches. Definitely recommended.

November 6, 2013

And the winners are…

Filed under: competition — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 3:49 pm

Thanks to those who entered the competitions.

The winner of the costume competition is Emily the Tiger.

The winner of the spelling competition is Harriet White with “Spell to Fly”
Will I Fly
If I jump up high?
Two people could try
Carefully flying on my
Horrid old broom which would lie
Everywhere possible
So Fly, Fly, if I jump high.

By Harriet White aged 8

There were no entries for the pumpkin competition.

Congratulations Emily and Harriet! Send me your addresses and who you want your book signed to and I will send you your copies of the print edition of Little Witches.

October 31, 2013

Halloween blog party: Little Witches launch

Filed under: book release,competition,Little Witches,special offer — Tags: — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 7:00 am

Welcome to my Halloween blog party! Come in… have a seat… don’t mind the cobwebs – they’re just for decoration, would you like some pumpkin pie? Or a glass of pumpkin-spiced punch? It’s all virtual but tasty, I promise! That black cat crossing your path is Shadow. Her costume is the cat burglar from Little Witches – convincing, right? I’m dressed as an Autumn Witch.

Today the Little Witches officially launch and just for Halloween there’s a 70% discount on the brand new eBook. That’s £1.53 from Amazon UK or $2.99 from Amazon US. For that price you get five stories about Dulcie and Verity, their friends and their adventures. There’s also cover artwork drawn by Dom and some smashing pumpkins by Sara.

Check out the Little Witches book page for more about the book.

The Little Witches have been celebrating Halloween by trick-or-treating around the internet and visiting various book world blogs and websites to say hello.

  • They arrived early at the home of the Book Witch and got a generous review, but they’ll be back again today for an author profile piece.
  • They moseyed down the internet to Girls Heart Books where they met Jo Cotteril and and added another lavish review to their loot bags.
  • Loot bags bulging, they knocked on the door of Serendipity reviews and found KM Lockwood answering the door, she praised their self reliance while handing over another book review.
  • Next on the trick-or-treat trip was Nicola Morgan’s blog showing off in a piece about being my first self-published book.
  • Finally they arrived at Mary Hoffman’s blog where they were greeted with open arms because Mary is, of course, my mother – and has a warm welcome for all little witches and their friends.
  • Update: The Witches caught Frances Hardinge on her way out the door, black coat flapping, black hat clamped to her head, but she wished us a Happy Halloween as she went flying away.

Now they’re back here for their own Halloween party!

Keep the pumpkin punch flowing, there’ll be more Halloween fun throughout the day and night on this blog post. Competitions will be announced soon!.

Update 10.30 Let the games begin: The first visitors are here – Mary brought delicious pumpkin soup and I will share my share of Sara’s pumpkin toaster pockets. Shadow is ensconced on my lap and shows not signs of moving ever. It must be time for the first competition.

This is the costume contest. To enter post a photo or a link to one in the comments. All ages eligible but the photo must be of yourself (not just harvested from the web) and you must be dressed as a witch, a ghost or a cat. Grown-ups, you can post on behalf of your little witches, ghostlings and kittens.

The prize is a physical copy of Little witches Bewitched. The proof arrived yesterday, you can see it in the photo of me at the top of this post and on the updated Little Witches book page (where you can also see me dressed as BatGirl), and today I am offering 3 copies as prizes. You’ll have to wait a little bit for the prize because they won’t be available until early December. But I will sign them to the winner – or to the person of their choice if they want to give the book away as a present.

The contest is open until 2 November, All Souls Day, (or Bexy’s Birthday as we call it in my family) to give you time to post pictures from Halloween parties on Saturday. But you can get posting now and any pictures from previous years are eligible as long as you’re the one in them. So get posting, people. Let’s see those Halloween costumes.

Update 12.30: Halloween Reads Welcome to all the new arrivals. The next contest will be coming later this afternoon. Meanwhile, who’s following #Halloweenreads on twitter? On my Halloween bookshelves are:

  • A picture book for people who love black cats Slinky Malinky by Lynley Dodd
  • A set of fairy stories retold and illustrated by Jan Piénkowski
  • Before Harry Potter went to Hogwarts there was Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches and Mildred, The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
  • At about 8 years old I fell in love with Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson
  • For older readers there’s the sinister Witch Child by Celia Rees
  • How about Fire and Hemlock? One of Diana Wynne Jones’ best works.

What are your favourite Halloween reads?

Update 15.00 Spelling Contest: It’s now Hallowafternoon and time for the second contest. I’m beginning to think I should have had a recipe contest and asked people to send me their entries for judging. Too late now, unfortunately.

The second contest is the SPELLING CONTEST, no – not that sort of spelling. To win this contest post a spell in poem form.

This contest has a 2 November deadline as well (All Bexes Day) so you have time to create your composition. It has to be your own work – although grown ups can post on behalf of children.

Here’s one of the spells from Little Witches Bewitched. Dulcie and Verity and their friends are bored so they decide to go back in time and visit a famous playwright. With a few rhyming words, they’re on their way:

“Here’s an easy spell to rhyme,
A simple thing we need to fix.
We want to go back in time
To the year one six oh six.
So this is the spell I cast
For us to meet Shakespeare
Going back into the past
To somewhere that he’s near!”

18.00 Pumpkin contest Welcome to the new arrivals at the blog party. It’s now dark outside in Oxford and time for trick-or-treaters to trickle down the road. As I was writing this a female devil and a male Scream arrived and I distributed congratulations and celebrations. In a minute I’m going to make banana milkshakes (versions with rum for grownups) that’s not very Halloweeny, I know. But delicious, none-the-less. Next year I’ll try and have a pumpkin cocktail.

This contest is for the best pumpkin carving. The prize is a print copy of Little Witches Bewitched (please note it won’t be sent until early December) signed to you or the person of your choice.

The rules are similar to the other contests. The pumpkin must be your own work – although grown-ups can post on behalf of children. It doesn’t have to be new this year but the contest will stay open until 2 November 2013 to give you time to carve out a new one.

Don’t forget the costume contest and spell contest are still open and there’s everything to play for. Keep on partying, Halloweeners. The night’s still young. Enjoy Tim Curry singing the Halloween song. What’s your favourite Halloween music?

Update 1 November 2013 All good things must come to an end and this is the end of the blog party. But the competitions are still open until midnight on 2 November 2013 so don’t forget to enter.

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