News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.

 

Linguistic Rivalry

In the part of my brain devoted to languages, French and English dwell in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers.

linguistic1Well, technically French should be the only uncontested ruler, since it’s my native language…

linguistic2… but my native “academic tongue” is English, and though I don’t write perfectly in English, writing academically in French is actually much more difficult for me – the first article I wrote in French received the following reviewer’s comment:

“There are a few problems with the language, due to the fact that the author is clearly not a native French speaker”.

 

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But then my English isn’t super strong when it comes to understanding song lyrics. And I can’t baby-talk very well in English. Anyway, French and English occasionally bicker, but they’re generally pretty reliable, and switching between the two stopped being difficult a long time ago.

In another antechamber of the language bit of my brain, however, dwell another two little linguistic daemons who are not quite so disciplined.

Meet Russian and Spanish.

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These days, Spanish is happy and having loads of fun, whereas Russian is, to tell you the truth, annoyed and gloomy (and not just because of national stereotypes).

Russian, you see, has been living for almost a dozen years in the Antechamber of the Languages I Have a Basic Knowledge Of. At the beginning, it was living there with English, but English quickly upgraded to the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At, before moving to the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers along with French.

Russian was cool with that, because I’d started to learn English two years before, so English had a big head start, and also English is a ridiculously simple language to get pretty good at, compared with Russian.

But after a few years, Russian started to realise it wasn’t progressing towards the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At. We had an awkward chat:

Russian: What’s going on? You’ve been learning me for years and all you seem to be able to do is hold a basic conversation, carefully avoiding using weird aspects and not bothering too much about declensions.
Me: Well, you’re a difficult language and I don’t really have any time to learn all the crazy aspects and declensions. But one day I’ll pick you up again.

A few years later, we had another awkward conversation.

Russian: Hey, where’s English now? Is it still in the Antechamber of Languages You’re Good At?
Me: Um, well, English has done pretty well for itself and has sort of upgraded to the uncontested rulers chamber. But one day, I’ll work on you, Russian, and you’ll move one antechamber up.

Except I didn’t. Instead, one day, I decided (half on a whim) to pick up Spanish.

Spanish: Hola ¿qué tal?

Russian: Who the hell is this.

At the beginning, Russian imposed its rule. Once, during a Spanish lesson, the teacher said something to me that I didn’t get, and I automatically replied “Я не понимаю” (“I don’t understand”).

Russian was ecstatic. Best joke ever. That’ll teach her to bring this foreigner into my antechamber, Russian said.

So for a while I would say ‘ia’ instead of ‘yo’ (for ‘I’), ‘da’ instead of ‘sí’, etc. I also kept getting some words mixed up because they sounded vaguely similar; the words ‘vez’ in Spanish and ‘raz’ (раз) (‘a time’) were particularly difficult.

But after some time, it became desperately clear to Russian that Spanish was catching up, and then winning.

Now whenever I try to make up a sentence in Russian, such as ‘I’m reading a book’, this is what happens:

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Me: No, no, move aside, Spanish – come on, Russian, I’m asking you!
Russian: Oh, you care about me now, do you? I don’t know where those words are. I’m busy.
Me: come on, make an effort!

Russian: How about those words instead?
linguistic5Me: I don’t need those! I need read and book.
Russian: How about this whole sentence? linguistic6Me: … No! That doesn’t mean ‘I’m reading a book’, it means ‘Attention, the doors are closing’. It’s a sentence you heard in the St Petersburg metro in 2002. Why did you even bother remembering that sentence?

Russian: *shrugs*

Finally, grumpily, and only if the words are on top of the pile, Russian hands me what I need. (But it doesn’t happen very often. Russian is very sulky.)

linguistic10
Me: OK, so now, how do you conjugate and declense those?
Russian: Sorry, I’m going to bed now.

Sometimes Russian is a bit more active and revivified, for instance if I’ve been exposed to a lot of Russian recently. But then Spanish gets angsty because it thinks I’m leaving it alone, so it slyly barges in at the most unexpected moments, replacing prepositions or innocuous little words with Spanish ones. ‘But’, for instance, which, for reasons unknown, I always want to say as ‘pero’ when I try to speak Russian.

When I do, I hear echoes of Spanish’s gleeful JAJAJAJAJAJJAJAJAJJAJAJA (which is hahaha in Spanish) because it’s such a great joke right.

Though I’m no linguist, my guess is that only in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers can languages cohabit fairly peacefully. All the other languages are Darwinistically condemned to a ruthless war, finishing each other’s sentences, layering over each other’s words, and being generally mean and petty about who gets used more and why.

It’s quite an exhausting battle. Maybe I’m atypical, but my experience seems to contradict the oft-repeated mantra that you get ‘better at learning languages’ if you already know a few. I haven’t seen much of that kind of politeness in my own cerebral antechambers.Sometimes, it’s true, English and French help me understand Spanish a bit better, but only on a lexical level, because some words are closer to English and some to French.linguistic7So yeah, poor Russian is very gloomy these days. Well, at least, to cheer itself up, it can still go for a nice little stroll across an even darker part of the linguistic corner: the silent, eerie, scary, Cemetary of Completely Dead Languages.
linguistic8RIP, Hours and hours and hours of repeating rosa, rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa.

Getting published: France vs UK

This is a variation on the obligatory ‘How I Got Published’ post. Just like every honeymooner in Thailand must recount the two weeks in tedious detail to seemingly interested friends actually entertaining murderous thoughts, it is absolutely necessary for the Debut Author to explain in blog form, at some point before Book One comes out, how they went from manuscript to agent to publisher. In my case, this post is long overdue, so here it is.

But I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer a little comparison of the publishing systems in France and in the UK, since I’ve been published in France for three years, and that the two systems are interestingly different. I don’t claim that my experience is entirely representative (but whose is?), so take this with a pinch of salt (or with a pair of pincers, as the French would have it).

FRANCE: Alone in the jungle

In France, I started sending stuff to publishers when I was nine years old, because I was already joyously self-confident and deluded. I got dozens of adorable rejection letters. You get really nice rejection letters when you’re a kid; it’s when you turn 14 or so that the standard rejection letters start coming in. Anyway, I continued sending story after story after story for eleven years.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise George-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to shoe-sized.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise Georges-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to clog-sized.

Then something funny happened. When I was 20 I was interning for a French publisher over the summer, and I was beginning to know their list by heart. So I thought I’d tailor one or two little stories to their editorial line. I wrote two, sent them to the publisher under a pseudonym, and was therefore there when they opened them, discussed them, and accepted them. It all happened in the office, in front of me.

It’s only when they started going, ‘Oh, it would have been good to have her phone number, she hasn’t written it anywhere’ (I’d made up a pseudonymous hotmail account, though!) that I said, ‘Well, guess what! you can talk to her LIVE!’ and it was all very theatrical and amusing. That’s how my first two books got published, and then the third one was published with the same publisher as well but a year later.

P1040152My first three: Samiha et les fantômes, Les petites filles top-modèles, La plume de Marie

But see, in France the issue is that there aren’t any literary agents, at least not for unpublished writers. It’s not the way it works. Authors have to fend for themselves. They have to send manuscripts to publishers (they all accept unsollicited manuscripts, of course), and they have to negotiate their own contracts. This makes them much more vulnerable than in the UK.

Authors in France are rarely tied to a specific publishing house; many publish lots of different books with lots of different publishers, sometimes at the same time, because they have to make money and that, well, being published in France isn’t exactly the most comfortable position financially. Ok, I’ll be honest, it sucks. You’re paid very little, unless you’re remarkably famous, or remarkably good at negotiating. Volume is thus key if you want to make a living out of writing – or you can do lots of school visits, which are well-paid.

Since I don’t want to make a living out of my writing and don’t write very much in French (1 to 2 books a year, which is nothing compared to my French writerly friends), this isn’t my main preoccupation. Personally, my biggest problem is that in France, even when you’re already well-published, you can rarely guarantee that what you’re working on now will ever get published. You have to go through the whole process every time: writing a full manuscript, editing it thoroughly, sending it to publishers.

Of course, you might want to send it in priority to people who’ve already published you, as you have their personal email addresses and it might get read more quickly – but most of the time they’ll just be like, ‘No’. Rarely do editors say to you, ‘Let me read the first three chapters and I’ll tell you if it’s worth keeping writing’. Even more rarely will they give you a contract and a deadline just on the basis of that. So it’s extremely precarious (and discouraging). You pile up manuscripts that never find a publisher.

couv pouilleuseAnd when, conversely, you’re in the happy/ terrifying situation when more than one publisher wants your book, as happened with my latest YA novel La pouilleuse, well, you have to make a decision on your own. It’s tough, because you have very little actual knowledge of what the different publishers may do to your book.

So you weigh prestige against edginess, enthusiasm against advance money, and finally you make a completely uninformed, rushed decision. Not that I’m unhappy with my chosen publisher, mind you – I’m hopefully about to publish another 2 books with them next year. But in no way can I claim that my choice was either rational or business-like.

As a result an author’s relationship to publishers is always ambiguous, and a bit unhealthy. These are people you’re wrestled with, battled with. You’ve asked them for more money, for more author copies, for more consideration. They’ve rejected your stuff, sometimes harshly. They might reject what you’re writing now. They’re also more prone to things like emotional blackmail, voluntarily or not. You’re very dependent on them. It’s not a comfortable position for people like me, who aren’t particularly good at separating professional and private discussions and who’d rather not get paid at all than have to talk about money – especially when you feel like you’re begging for an extra 50€.

UK: On the passenger’s seat

In the UK, getting published is a completely different story. Of course there are ways to bypass agents and submit directly to publishers, but for me, that was a huge no-no. I knew, from my experience in France, that I didn’t have the guts or the patience or the knowledge to deal directly with publishers. So when I finished my first novel in English in 2010, I immediately looked for an agent.

It was a YA novel called Hominidae, and the day I sent the first 3 chapters and synopsis to Kirsty McLachlan at David Godwin Associates (I’d only sent it to 3 agencies, I think), she asked me for the full manuscript. A few days later I talked to her on the phone; we discussed ways of modifying it, I did the editing, we met up in London and she offered representation. It was extremely painless and fast.

Not like the year that followed. Because Hominidae never got sold. That was heartbreaking. When you get an agent you think you’ve done the hardest bit, and that now it’s going to sell – but when you get letter after letter after letter from publishers saying that ‘although they loved this and that, the full thing didn’t work for this or that reason’, that’s pretty awful. Especially as you keep thinking, gosh, my lovely agent’s going to drop me. She didn’t, thankfully.

Sleuth on SkatesIn the summer of 2011 I had another idea and wrote the first Sesame book, which at the time was called Sesame Seade Is Not A Swan and is now called Sleuth on Skates. Kirsty liked it, and dropped Hominidae (which wasn’t going anywhere) and started shopping Sesame. And then, interestingly, the same thing happened with Sesame that had happened with La pouilleuse: namely 3 publishers wanted it. And it was fascinating to see how differently it went.

Firstly, in France I had about two hours to make a decision, and had to make phone calls to French publishers on my own. I had virtually no useful information to decide and no one to consult. Here, Kirsty set up the process of decision and auction for Sesame to last over several days. I went down to London and we visited all three publishers together. They gave me sesame seed chocolates and sesame snaps. We talked for over an hour every time about potential illustrators, further books in the series, modifications to the manuscript, etc. They were selling themselves too – that’s what struck me the most. They were telling me what they would be bringing to the book concretely, not just saying that they liked it.

sesamesnapsThen they made their offers and the amazing, cool-headed Kirsty dealt with all that, which meant I didn’t even have to utter the words ‘advance money’ or ‘royalties’. Although it was still eminently stressful, it was a hundred times better than being alone in making that decision. I was on the passenger’s seat: I gave my opinion and expressed preferences but Kirsty was the one who was doing all the hard work.

I know that this account might make some UK authors cringe. They’ll say that even though we have agents, we have to be proactive and shrewd and take charge, that I’ve fallen into a trap and am just being lulled into a false sense of security. I agree, of course, to an extent – but believe me, when you’ve been through the jungle of the French system, you appreciate the comfort, albeit illusory.

This comfort extends to relationships with editors, too – I can talk to them and be friendly with them and plan things, knowing that whenever we start talking about money and the details of a contract Kirsty will be there. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be short-changed. The author-editor relationship, as a result, is über-professional, less tainted with ambiguous friendliness-eneminess.

Well well well, as usual I have written a blog post the size of my PhD thesis (which I’m almost done with, by the way!). I hope it’s a little bit instructive even by just reading the sentences in bold. Oh dear, I haven’t even shown what I wanted to show, i.e. pictures of my author copies of Sleuth on Skates which have just arrived in my pigeon hole!

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There are flaps with ducks doing manic things, courtesy of Sarah Horne

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There’s a map of Christ’s College, in which Sesame lives for parent-related reasons…

P1050379And here’s the pile!

Coming out May 2nd. Fun, busy times. Crazy crazy busy. But I promise you, random reader, that I’ll try to update this blog more regularly. You might not care; but then maybe you do.

Clem x

What’s the word? – Writing fiction in your second language

Editing my first manuscript in English is an amazingly different experience to editing my books in French. English isn’t my mother tongue: I started learning it, like most French kids, at school, when I was 10 years old. That means I’ll never be truly bilingual. I’m lucky enough zat I don’t have zis kind of Frrench âccent, but native English-speakers can easily tell that I’m ‘from somewhere else’.

When I first arrived in Cambridge at 17 years old, I already wrote fiction in French, but I never thought I’d ever write in English. Those were days when I merrily got ‘pass out’ and ‘pass away’ mixed up (try it: great way to freak out all your friends). But then I started writing essays, reading more widely in English, and eventually felt like trying out writing fiction in English for a change. That’s when I realised that writing in a different language makes you a different person.

English and French couldn’t be more different. French is structured, rigorous, elegant, poised, inflexible – you can build endless sentences, attaching words together with cohorts of that and which and whose and whom. The subtleties of the syntax and conjugation can turn sentences into grandiose, intricately patterned works of linguistic architecture. Many words retain the length, fibrousness and complexity of their Latin ancestors. Writing in French forces you to be a rational, logical, methodical person. All the fun, the beauty and the craziness have to be grafted onto that grid of grammatical rigour.

English is the complete opposite. It’s a language of noises, lights, colours, smells, full of wacky alliterations and tiny words, completely anarchic, almost free from conjugation, blissfully unaware of its own grammar. You turn nouns into verbs and adjectives into first names, you let them trip over themselves, you throw commas and hyphens in to help them hold on to each other. It’s a flying trapeze act – unpredictable, colourful, and just choreographed enough that things don’t go crashing into the audience too much. Writing in English forces you to be a zany juggler with an ear for music.

So I’m not just writing different stories, I’m also writing different versions of myself into those stories. And of course I’m more in control when I write in French – but then I find out more when I write in English. For example, I discovered, thanks to my editor, that my English is riddled with Americanisms – but because I probably owe them mostly to one of my best friends who’s American, it makes them a special part of my developing identity as an English speaker. The mistakes and clumsiness of my English all have a story to tell beyond the story I’m trying to tell.

And just as I know there will never be a satisfactory French equivalent for ‘glistening’, and that there will never be a satisfactory English equivalent for ‘démesure’, I know that my ‘I’ will never be quite the same as my ‘je’.

Clem