Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guest Blog - James Lovegrove - Writing For Barrington Stoke: The Complexity Of Simplicity

Many thanks to James who has taken out time from his schedule to talk to us about writing for Barrington Stoke and to tell us more about his Five Lords fo Pain sequence with them.


Barrington Stoke has been publishing books for reluctant readers and young people with reading difficulties since 1997. Based in Edinburgh, the company has scooped up countless awards in its 13 years of existence and has managed to attract work from some of the top children's authors in the country, as well as some of the top writers of adult fiction. And me.

My first book for Barrington Stoke was Wings. They approached me in 2000 asking if I would adapt my short story of the same name into a book for them. I, being a freelancer, and therefore one who never knowingly turns down an offer of work, said yes. Little did I realise this would be the start of an ongoing and deeply satisfying publishing relationship.

They provided me with a style sheet listing difficult grammatical constructions, tricky names and the like. Basically, the aim is to make the prose as straightforward and readable as possible, avoiding convoluted sentence structure and confusing phrasing. Certain words are very hard to read for those with dyslexia or other reading problems, so should be steered clear of if at all possible.

Following these "rules" was tricky at first but I got the hang of it soon enough. It challenged me to step back from my usual logorrhea and fanciness and strip my prose down to its bare essence. And my writing, I found, improved because of it.

After Wings I adapted another short story, "The House Of Lazarus", and then, for my third Barrington Stoke title, I created something out of whole cloth. This was Ant God, a tale of two boys, one normal, one strange, and of a Lovecraftian horror lurking at the periphery of perception. Another three books followed, all written to order -- Cold Keep, Kill Swap and Free Runner -- all of them fast-paced adventures, short-story length but structured as mini-novels, with chapter breaks and cliffhangers. In addition, I contributed to Barrington Stoke's adult line, with a tale of zombie soldiers called Dead Brigade. All of the books have sold well, and I continue to get royalties from them, as well as a decent return from library borrowings, which is the icing on the cake.

Barrington Stoke books are printed on off-white paper, to reduce the glare between text and background that can jar with certain readers and interfere with their reading. They're typeset in a special font whose serifs prevent the accidental "flipping" of letters such as "b" and "d".

The company's unique and inimitable attribute, however, is that the process doesn't end with the initial drafting of the story. That's only the beginning. The manuscript is then sent to a group of "consulting editors", schoolkids of the right reading age, who critique both the style and content of the text, underline bits they can't easily follow, and flag up references they don't understand. It's peer review of the highest quality, and it can be frank bordering sometimes on brutal. One author has described it as "being done over by Barrington Stoke". Teachers are also involved here, offering their own experienced insights and commentary.

The final step sees the manuscript coming back to the author, who then goes through it with a fine tooth comb with one of the company's language editors. In my case, I've worked on every one of my books with Barrington Stoke's very charming and wry founder Patience Thomson. She lives up to her given name, in that she's prepared to sit on the phone with me for anything up to three hours, helping me recast sentences and tease out new ways of saying what I'm trying to say in my prose without compromising style and rhythm or over-simplification. It's exhausting, often aggravating, but, although I'd never admit this to anyone, I love it.

Back in 2008 Barrington Stoke came to me wanting to know if I'd do a five-book series for them. I didn't even hesitate. Would I? Try and stop me! The editor, Kate Paice, said she wanted something either with zombies in it or ninjas. Without thinking, I said, "How about zombie ninjas?" She said, "Great," and I then had to dream up an idea into which I could fit undead martial-arts assassins. I managed to, and the result is The 5 Lords Of Pain.

I can't describe how much fun it was to write this five-book sequence featuring kung fu, mysticism, demons, possible apocalypse, and a smart-mouthed 15-year-old protagonist. It took me barely six weeks to complete and was a blast from beginning to end. I cribbed a bit off Frank Miller's Daredevil comics of the 1980s, and also off just about every martial arts movie I've ever seen, but for all that the series is, I believe, unlike anything else out there on the market. Barrington Stoke are promoting it with a website [], postcards, posters, point-of-sale displays, and lots of other good wholesome stuff not necessarily beginning with the letter P. Plus, the books have awesome covers by Daniel Atanasov.

They're coming out at two-monthly intervals all this year. If you know anyone, particularly a young boy, who isn't into books and finds reading a chore, give them Book 1 in the series, The Lord Of The Mountain. Get them hooked. They'll thank you for it.


Lauren said...

This is a really fascinating guest post. It's so interesting to hear about the process of writing books where you have to think so hard about economy of prose and avoiding certain words as *well* as all the regular choices a writer is making.

Liz said...

Hi Lauren - I completely agree. It genuinely does make you think about other books you've read and if you're a writer, the type of lanuage you use etc. Very interesting.

Luisa at Chicklish said...

This is fascinating. Thank you very much for it!