Sunday, 24 February 2013

Dystopian YA endings: too dark, or not dark enough?

by Teri Terry
on special leave from the Writing Cave
"...genre is just a flavouring. It's not the whole meal. Don't get confused by the scenery."  Terry Practchett, 2001 Carnegie speech

When I'd barely begun writing Slated, I kept getting asked: what is it about? What genre box to we put it in? I struggled to answer this when the story was still forming, but would usually say something about it being a future society where criminal young people have their memories stolen. What I frequently heard back was this: that is dystopian.

So...what does 'dystopian' mean? Back then I'll admit I only had a faint idea. I felt I knew what a utopia was: an imagined perfect society. A dystopia was somehow the opposite, defined by the absence of perfection. Since that time I've read many dystopian novels and recently finished a research MA on dystopian YA fiction, so you might think I've got a grasp of what it is meant to be, and how the Slated trilogy fits (or doesn't) in the dystopian box.

What comes next? For many weeks now I've been hiding away in the Writing Cave*, working hard on the third and final instalment of the Slated trilogy (the second, Fractured, is out soon: April in the UK/Australia; September US/Canada).
     *Writing Cave: a lonely place containing one badly dressed author under threat of deadlines, half drunk cold cups of tea, and empty chocolate wrappers. Often in desperate need of dusting.
Confession time: Should I admit that over half way through the first draft that not only have I not named book 3, I also haven't entirely decided how it is going to end? (please don't alarm my publishers by telling them this!). 

As a writer I like to not know everything about what is going to happen as I write. This is the excitement of writing: waiting for the characters to demand what happens next in ways that surprise. It is also the terror...
Has spending too much time on the academic side of things thrown down a gauntlet for the ending of the Slated trilogy?
Before the YA craze, dystopian novels had a specific function. They are set in a future society where things are going horribly wrong; somebody, our hero, fights against the system, but ultimately, tragically fails. The whole point is that of a lesson, a call to action: change the world now, or this may happen. 

The YA crowd of novels are different: endings are often hopeful, ambiguous rather than miserable, or even happy. Literary critics don't like the departures, say the way they end means they aren't really 'dystopian'. And at the same time there are those that argue the entire genre of YA dystopians are too dark, too depressing.

Having had my head under these academic arguments for too long (way WAY too long...!) it is easy to see the end of my trilogy as something that either comes out on one side of this, or the other.

But getting back to the quote from Terry Practchett: genre boxes can serve useful functions. They help booksellers and librarians know where books fit on their shelves; they help readers make reading choices. But I need to remind myself as a writer that they aren't the whole meal.
Ultimately it is all about this book, this story, and where all the characters yammering away in my head want to go. And the story always wins for me.
Terry Practchett's full Carnegie speech can be found here. I'm really excited that we're both up for the Rotherham Book Award: fingers crossed he is there! Though I may be embarrassingly fangirling if he is.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Dark, Disturbing and Addictive - Tanya Byrne reveals her writing process for Heart-Shaped Bruise

By Claire Merle

Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne breaks the rules, drawing us into a psychologically compelling story where the protagonist is the villain. As an author, I am as intrigued by Tanya Byrne's writing process as her disturbed narrator Emily Koll. Today, I have the huge pleasure of welcoming Tanya to Demention to answer some probing questions about how Emily Koll emerged, how the voice and shape of the story took form, and how Tanya managed to create such empathy for a character that is essentially 'unlikeable'. 

Hi Tanya, thank you so much for joining us here on Demention. How would you describe Heart-shaped Bruise in just a few words to someone who hasn’t heard of it before? 

Heart-Shaped Bruise is the story of Emily Koll, Archway young offenders institution's most notorious inmate. Last year, the psychiatric unit is closed and Emily's journal is found on top of one of the wardrobes. In it, Emily explains why she did what she did and why she isn't sorry at all.

I read in an interview that you originally wrote the book from Juliet’s point of view, a teenager going into Witness Protection, and that Emily Koll wasn’t introduced as a character until you were working on a second draft. Once you took the leap and began rewriting the story from Emily’s perspective, how well did you know her as a character already? How much did the story change once she was telling it? Were there any big surprises?

I don't know where Emily came from. I wish I had a romantic anecdote about a dream or a girl on the bus, but all I can say is that one moment she was there, and there she wasn't. She's the one character in Heart-Shaped Bruise that I didn't question or fret over, she just was. I knew her take on events would be riveting, but I'd written a whole novel from Juliet's point of view and was reluctant to throw away all of those words, so in the second draft I alternated their POVs. I got about 40k in and realised that it was Emily's chapters I looked forward to writing the most, she made me laugh and scared me a little. Writing villains are so much fun because you can push them so much further and I really pushed Emily. I knew that I had to start again but the thought of doing all of that work again was unbearable. A friend convinced me not to, saying that no one would read a book from the villain's point of view, especially a debut. But I'm a contrary so-and-so, so as soon as she said that, I started again, determined to prove her wrong. I hope I have. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. I finished Emily's draft in three months and it was an utter joy to write. I knew then that I'd made the right decision.

Using a diary format is a very effective way of unfolding the story, and also preparing the reader to accept what Emily does. How did you come about this decision and how conscious was it?

I had to use a diary format, because the whole point of the book is Emily setting the record straight. I considered doing this in a series of newspaper articles and police interviews, but they wouldn't be as honest, as vulnerable. As Emily says in her first entry, she leaves pieces of herself all over London. She tells her psychiatrist, Doctor Gilyard, some things, her friends at Archway some things. She scratches things into walls, writes on the back of receipts, but the journal is the only place she keeps everything.

At what stage in the writing process did you decide to set a Heart-Shaped Bruise in a young offenders’ institution and how did this alter the tone and feel of the book? Was it a decision you felt immediately comfortable with or an idea you played around with before committing?

I knew I wanted to tell the story backwards, so it had to be set at Archway. If it started the day she was released, or during her trial, or even the day she finds out who her father really is, it would have been a completely different book. Any of those stories would have been compelling, but there's was something about Archway, about the inmates and the routine and the claustrophobia, that was a thrill to write after writing Juliet's point of view, which was much more 'normal' and included going to college and being at home and snogging her boyfriend.

I actually grew up in a little side street off Archway Road between Highgate and Archway. (Sorry had to slip that in – small world and all that!) I was curious, why Archway and why invent a fictional young offenders’ institution rather that one that already exists?

I hope it feels authentic! When my mother first moved to this country, she used to work around there - as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital - and my brother is an Arsenal fan, so when picking a location, it seemed obvious. There aren't many female young offenders institutions and I wanted to avoid comparisons with an existing one, so I made one up, which gave me much more freedom.

You have an unreliable narrator who has done bad things and technically isn’t that likable. But you manage to create great empathy with her and a sense that she is carried along by a tide she cannot really control. Can you give us any clues as to how you managed that?

Thank you! I guess I just tried to make her human. Actually, not make her human, rather show her to be human, which is. I think the most unsettling thing about Heart-Shaped Bruise is that you wonder, with the right people around her and enough support, if Emily would have done any of the things she did. That was the question I was trying to ask with this book, if we're all a couple of bad decisions away from doing similar.

The reader is drawn through the story by a strange compulsion to know what it is, exactly, that Emily has done to get her locked up in the psychiatric ward of a young offenders’ institution. When you wrote your first draft from Emily’s perspective did you know what she’d done and how the story would end?

Absolutely. It's the same story, but in Juliet's draft I told the story forwards and in Emily's, I tell it backwards. I think that's common for most writers; we know how a story begins and ends, it's just that annoying bit in the middle!

Do you have a favourite line or scene from Heart-shaped Bruise and if so, can you share it with us?

My favourite chapter, and the one I read out at events, if my emotions will allow it, is the scene where Emily burns Juliet's photo. It's such a despicable thing to do, and Emily knows it. She knows that's the point of no return and it broke my heart to write.

Thank you so much Tanya for joining us. For all of you out there searching for a book with a powerful voice, intriguing narrator and an addictive, provocative read, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy!


They say I'm evil. The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who shake their heads on the six o’clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me. And everyone believes it. Including you. But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. 

Who I could have been.

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time. 

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.

Monday, 4 February 2013

I like Billy Joel – A Review of Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner - Reviewed by Julienne Durber

I like Billy Joel.  There, I've said it.  The music of the multi award winning, rock and roll hall of fame member who wrote such popular tunes as Uptown Girl, Piano Man and Just The Way You Are makes me happy.

A piano, man
So what?  Some of you are undoubtedly thinking.  He's all right.
Really?  Billy Joel?  Others may be sniggering behind your hands.
What has this got to do with Maggot Moon?  Many more may be shouting.

As you can see, I'm a long-haired guy who's quite fond of purple.  When I'm not writing I sing and play guitar in a rock band.  My iTunes is crammed with Muse, Metallica, The Killers, System of a Down, Kaiser Chiefs … you get the idea.  Piano-based rock and roll pop from the 70s and early 80s should be something I hate.  But it's not.  I like it, and that's that.

Now when a friend whose opinion I respect greatly in all matters literary told me I should definitely read Maggot Moon, I bought it straight away without even looking at it (we were standing near a book stall at the time), shoved it into my rucksack and went on with my day.

A week later I pulled it out and read the jacket notes, wondering what it was actually about.  First off is a quote from the wonderful Meg Rosoff
'Dazzling, chilling, breathtaking.  A perfect book.'
High praise indeed, but what's it about?
Hector and Standish are friends.
Nice.  I like odd names.  I own one myself.
It then goes on, and this is where the alarm bells started to ring.
… live together in Zone Seven … the Motherland can keep them … under surveillance … moon landing …
And finishes with
A powerfully original and moving story.
We'll see …

Without giving anything away, the main aspect of the setting and a key element of the plot are concepts that I've seen explored before … a lot.  The BBC have produced plays about the events that Gardner is hinting lead to the dominance of the Motherland.  Sci-fi comic stories and time travel shorts have mused on what would have happened if … And I even remember a sketch on the Two Ronnies show in the 70s that featured a similar set up.  There are documentaries and websites aplenty loaded with evidence and conspiracy theories that back up real life claims – seen it, done it, poo-pooed it.  On paper, I shouldn't have found anything engaging or exciting in this book.

But I absolutely love it!  Like Mr Joel, it makes me happy (sad, excited, dismayed).  In Sally Gardner's hands, the voice of Standish and his view of the events and situations lifts the whole story to such soaring heights that I don't mind that I've seen these concepts before.  In fact I barely even noticed them.  Dramatic, emotion packed moments are handled so deftly and originally that they make me want to rethink my own writing.

Julian Crouch's stark illustrations that run throughout the book add a whole extra dimension of beautifully sinister grubbiness.

I have a section on one of my bookshelves for things I will read over and over.  There aren't may books in it but Maggot Moon is now one of them.

So I'm not going to tell you anything more about Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, I'm just going to say you should definitely read it.  That's what my friend did for me, and I'd like to pass on the favour.

Ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ah … ahhhh … uptown girl ;)

Images from Maggot Moon and