I really loved the audiobook recording process. It felt like a mashup of my former day-job, which I still love (TV producer/director) and my current day-job (author – yay!).

So in between the four daily recording sessions of the GILDED CAGE audiobook, reader Avita Jay and producer Leo Whetter kindly let me ask them some questions about how they approach their job! Here are a few highlights…

VJ: Avita, how do you approach a book?

AJ: I don’t read it like I would normally. I make little notes: this character will be stuffy; this character will be snide. audiobook3Little things that will help me as I’m recording it, to know what defines each character, what energy they have. I don’t start of straight away labelling the characters. I get a couple of chapters out of the way then I have a handle on what the world of the book is, and what each of the characters is meant to signify. And then you can start making decisions to give someone a certain kind of voice. Often you get two-thirds of the way through the book and you find out they’ve got an accent, or a quality that hasn’t yet been expressed, so you sometimes go back and change them.

VJ: Leo, what’s the role of the producer in all this?

LW: Something very similar to the reader [ie. narrator], though I’m not making any of those judgement decisions. I tend not to meet the reader until the morning of the recording. So there are some things you have to do on the fly, and trust the reader. You’re basically second-guessing everything, looking out for any pitfalls, looking at any pronunciations. audiobook4 The first day it was great having you in, Vic, because with Fantasy books it’s often difficult if you have no idea how things are pronounced.  A whole new world is created.

VJ: What was your response to GILDED CAGE?

AJ: Having lots of characters is great, really fun, but especially having characters where they’ve got different distinctive voices, with reasons to have different, distinctive voices is really nice. If you have loads of people living in the same village, who’ve never left, who have the same voices, you’d have to find all sorts of ways to distinguish between them. But with Gilded Cage there are two clear, distinct worlds. And all the characters are distinct as well, they have their defining characteristics, which makes it easier.

VJ: Any challenges?

AJ: One character has a Geordie accent, which threw me slightly, but when that happens you just listen to YouTube, samples of that accent, and swot up. There have definitely been some voices in this that I haven’t done before. Such as the dog-man. He’s a unique voice. I’ve never had to call on that part of my vocal register.

VJ: Leo, when do you make the decision to hit the intercom button and talk to the reader?

LW: Sometimes the stress might be slightly off. Sometimes there’s a question about who actually says a thing. Sometimes you can just eke a tiny bit more meaning out of a sentence. And a lot of it is reassurance, as well – just letting people know that their reading is good and they should carry on.

VJ: What happens after today, now that we’ve finished?

LW: I’ve marked up the script as we go through. That goes to an editor, who has been editing the past two days already. The editor then masters them, and there’s a finished audio. It comes back here, and normally it’ll be proofed pretty quickly – checking against the text, making sure there are no missed edits, making sure there are no pronunciation errors or inconsistencies. With a book, inconsistencies can be a real issue.

GILDED CAGE was recorded for Macmillan Digital Audio and Penguin Random House Audio Publishing at Strathmore Publishing in the heart of London, and the same recording will be used worldwide. You can pre-order it now: US or UK.

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Oft-repeated advice to writers is: Write the book you want to read. The only drawback is that as its creator, you’ll never truly be able to be its reader. The book won’t build a world out of nothing in your head. You had to build the world already, before you could write the book.

But there’s one experience that comes close. And that’s hearing the audiobook of your novel. GILDED CAGE’s audiobook has been recorded over the past three days, and I was lucky enough to make it along for two of them.

It was a magical experience, that sometimes sent the hairs along the back of my neck prickling up! So how does it all happen?

The studio work of audiobooks is done between two people: the voice artist, behind the microphone, and – separated by a foot of soundproofing – the producer behind the console. audiobook1And often, there’s a sofa at the back of the recording suite on which an author can park herself!

I’m used to this set-up from my former day-job in TV, when the presenter will go into the VO booth to record their voice-over, while the producer is at the console and the exec is on the sofa. (I found I rather liked the sofa-eye-view…)

The person who really matters, though, is the one behind the microphone. And for GILDED CAGE I was thrilled that we’d secured Avita Jay, the actor I wanted. Avita combines audiobook narration with work in theatre, film and TV, and I’ve heard her read several of Robin Hobb’s novels. I knew she had the vocal range that could carry her through the diverse cast of GILDED CAGE, from 10-year-old Mancunian Daisy, to 49-year-old aristocrat Winterbourne Zelston, the first black Chancellor of Great Britain, to the ruined voice of ex-soldier Dog, unable to rasp out more than a few words.

For my three protagonists, would she capture Silyen’s sinister airiness, Abi’s intelligence and determination, and Luke’s maturation across the book’s arc, from suburban teenager to a principled young man man forced to grow up too soon?

She did. Triumphantly so.

Each day was four sessions of around 75 minutes, recording two chapters per session. We discussed pronunciations in advance – names and places (Kye-neston, Ga-var). Producer Leo Whetter had a couple of handy apps for any uncertainties (is ‘leonine’ lee-o-nine or lay-o-nine?). I stood happily corrected on the pronunciation of one monstrous character’s name: Lady Hypatia. (I’d always called her High-patty-ah, when it should be Hip-a-tee-ah.)

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And very occasionally, I’d have a ‘directorial’ note – that a character should sound angrier, or less tremulous, or that one particular word should be given emphasis. But mostly, for seven glorious hours, I sat on the sofa and took it all in. Thanks to Avita’s incredible talent and Leo’s care, I allowed myself simply to enjoy my book not as its writer, or editor, or cheerleader, but as its listener. It felt like a most wonderful reward for all my hard work, and I really hope that some of you choose to experience GILDED CAGE the same way!

Avita and Leo kindly let me interview them about what they do, and I’ll soon put up Part 2 with some of their thoughts – there are so many more ways of working in publishing than only as authors, editors, or agents.

GILDED CAGE was recorded for Macmillan Digital Audio and Penguin Random House Audio Publishing at Strathmore Publishing in the heart of London, and the same recording will be used worldwide. You can pre-order it now: US or UK.

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Time and creativity are more precious than money. So hoping that people buy your book is one thing (did you know you can pre-order GILDED CAGE, heh). But hoping that someone might feel inspired by your characters and world to give up their time and use their talent to create art feels a much bigger ask.

Yet I’ve been lucky enough recently to see not only preliminary sketches for what promises to be an amazing painting of Silyen (more on that in another post), but to have these two FanartCover1_Stefbeautiful covers designed by the talented Stef Saw. I was so blown away that I wanted to know more about the designer and the ideas behind them, so I asked Stef a few questions.

Q: Tell me a bit more about yourself

A: I’m born and raised in Malaysia. I’m a university English major, and freelance graphic designing. I love reading anything Fantasy – it’s hands down the best genre ever! And I write, too. Right now I’m focusing on editing my high Fantasy novel HALL OF GAMES before I query it. 

Q: How did you get into cover designing, and would you like to make it your career?

A: I got FanartCover2_Stefinto cover designing through an online writing website called Wattpad. I make them for anyone who commissions me. My forté is fantasy-themed artwork, especially dark and epic ones. My greatest accomplishment was when bestselling author Donna Grant asked me to design some banners for her! I would LOVE to work in publishing one day. It’s my ultimate goal as a graphic designer.

Q: Tell me about your creative process

A: It’s important for the cover to tell the story from a single glance. Sometimes I design more than three covers for a single story, just to see which one correspond the most. I’m inspired by anything: other covers, magazines, paintings … there’s no end to where inspiration can come from! For designing, I use Photoshop cs6, Adobe Illustrator cs6, Blender and my trusty Wacom Intuos Pro tablet. 

Q: So how did you come up with these two gorgeous covers!

A: I went for two different approaches: an object-based cover, and a vector-based cover. For the one with the key, I drew on my reading of an early draft. People are forced by the government to slave for 10 years, so I used a key to represent their desire for freedom – not to mention that keys and gates are fundamental to the world-building. The cogs and gears represent the arduous work endured by the people doing their slavedays.  For the second one, the title, GILDED CAGE, says it all. A cage, no matter how beautiful, is still a cage. The raven represents a dark secret and an inner desire to be set free. I didn’t add more details, as I thought a simple cover would do the trick! 

I was thrilled by Stef’s gorgeous covers! And I look forward to sharing more incredible fanart with you, as talented people out there create it.

If you’d like to reach out to Stef, she has a portfolio and a DeviantArt page, you can find her on Twitter – or go read her writing. Stef, you rock – thank you!

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There’s little more thrilling – and terrifying – than knowing that your book is finally (finally!) out there in the world, in readers’ hands.

And because these first ‘advance reading copies’ (or AREs, as they’re also known in the US) of GILDED CAGE have been going out in July and August, some of them are being taken on holiday! Like these two copies….

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Here’s the UK edition (with a special proof cover, rather than the final one), visiting Italy in the hands of the lovely Kari Rhiannon.

It’s in Limone sul Garda – that’s Monte Baldo on the other side of the lake! It also joined me in Venice for the day, but the logistics of trying to take a good book photo among all those tourists proved a challenge too much! GILDED CAGE, [Leigh Bardugo’s] Six of Crows, and a good local prosecco for €2 a flute was a match made in heaven. I’ve got 50 pages of GILDED CAGE left and I am absolutely terrified of how it could end.

And here’s the US edition out and about with Lianne Oelke (author of next year’s fabulous House of Orange, from IMG_3112 Clarion Books), with whom it had an unexpected adventure.  “I took GILDED CAGE on an epic hike, resulting in a baptism in the sub-alpine waters of British Columbia. Still readable…

As a lover of both swimming and Italy, I couldn’t be happier seeing my books enjoy themselves in places I wish I could be myself!

So if you or someone you know has an ARC of GILDED CAGE that’s going on an adventure, put a pic on Twitter or Instagram, hashtag it #gildedcage or tag me @DrVictoriaJames, and let me see what my ARCs are up to now they’ve been released into the wild!

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So in the summer of 2014 I had an 88,000-word first draft. And I was pretty pleased with it! But nobody in the history of everything has subbed an untouched first draft, right? So here’s what I did next, to get me to the point of querying – a journey that took eight months.

i. I put Draft #1 in a drawer* for two months. You need distance to give you a critical perspective on your manuscript. Plus, having written it in every spare minute, I had a massive life backlog to clear: job, friends and family, paperwork, etc. I needed to work through all that before I’d have a clear head to write with.

ii. Two months later, in September 2014, I went on holiday. It was a long sea voyage by mailboat, and I was finally in the mood to approach my manuscript as a reader rather than as its writer. When I re-read it, I was relieved to find I enjoyed it! I felt intuitively that this storyIMG_6559 would be worth putting more work into, in a way that I’d sensed Novel #1 was not. I began tidying it up and making light revisions. Voila, Draft #2!

iii. For the next step, I had a trick up my sleeve. The amazing UK writing community sometimes holds online auctions to raise money for disaster relief. Donated lots include everything from signed books to swanky lunch-dates with publishers. During one of these auctions, I had bid on a manuscript critique from a junior editor at fabulous UK publisher Canongate. I’d intended it to be for the 100k Viking novel, but Draft #2 was now my passion project. I sent it off to the editor, and waited.

OTHER OPTIONS: If I’d not had this opportunity, I would have hired a professional editor. I’d always recommend this and it need not be expensive, though the best editors are worth every penny. If you don’t have the financial resources there are other alternatives: feedback from a strong critique partner, or finding an experienced mentor through #pitchwars, the WoMentoring project, or similar.

iv. The edits came back several months later, in the form of a letter. (These are what we call ‘developmental edits’, about broad points of plot and characterisation, not ‘line edits’, which are about language and details.) The letter was thorough, insightful and fabulously encouraging. But I read it and thought ‘I’m not sure I agree with every suggestion – so what do I do next?’ It can be difficult, the first time you allow other people’s opinions to have an impact on your writing. But it’s something you’ll need to get used to if you really want to be published. There’s a reason why the people that buy manuscripts for publishing houses are called ‘editors’!

v. So I let it sink in for a month. I allowed the editor’s suggestions to mesh with my vision of the book. At the end of that process, I could see how many of them would improve my story. Edits aren’t about another person telling you what to do to your book, and you simply obeying. It’s about being open to possibilities and suggestions. You have to believe that every edit you implement will make the story stronger. If you don’t – don’t do it!

vi. Those rewrites took about three months, and produced Draft #3. I was pretty darn happy with it. But was it good enough to query? There was only one way to find out: let a real, live agent see the manuscript.Author20HQ20seminar20360x190 By now, it was March 2015. Every year in April, London Book Fair hits town, and recently they’ve laid on more events for authors. In 2015, these included an Agent 1-2-1. You had to submit a synopsis and brief pitch to the organisers. Three days later, I heard back: I’d been selected to meet an agent, and needed to send in the first chapter of my book. I was thrilled! The agent I was meeting was from a solid agency and I liked his profile. Would he like my book?

OTHER OPTIONS: You don’t need to attend a global book fair! Agent 1-2-1s are now a common part of book festivals, or courses run by the likes of Writers&Artists. Alternatively, use Twitter to try snagging an agent’s attention in #pitmad or keeping an eye out for #MSWL manuscript wish-list. Think of this process as testing the waters: finding out more about how agents work and what they’re looking for. It may also clarify any uncertainties you have – eg. is your book YA or adult. It’s not always a good idea to target your dream agent with your very first query, in case your pitch package isn’t quite ready.

vii. After turning up ridiculously early, and wiping sweaty hands down my dress far too many times to be hygienic, I sat down for my 1-2-1. And it was delightful. The agent didn’t toss me any hard questions – he looked rather exhausted, having come off the back of several days of LBF madness. We spoke a little about my inspiration, and the full arc of the story (your manuscript had to be complete to apply). At the end of the meeting he asked me to send me the whole thing. I did a little airpunch and happy-dance. As one does.

Check back soon for the next part, Getting an agent and a deal.

* This is an entirely metaphysical drawer. I mean ‘I didn’t click the icon on my desktop.’

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