Friday 9 May 2014

Writing Historical Fiction for Dyslexic Readers

by Caroline Lawrence

The Roman poet Virgil
In 2013 I was approached by Barrington Stoke, a publisher who specialises in fiction for dyslexic readers. They ask established writers to write books in their particular field of expertise for dyslexic and reluctant readers.  I was excited when they asked if I would be willing to write a book of around ten thousand words specifically geared to teenage boys.

I immediately thought of the Aeneid, one of my favourite works of Classical literature. Nobody does gory battle scenes better than Virgil. One of the best stand-alone stories from the Aeneid, with plenty of gore, is the story of the doomed night raid by Nisus and Euryalus. It’s visceral, exciting and almost cinematic (like much of Virgil) in its descriptions.

I wanted a killer first paragraph to hook reluctant teen readers. Inspired by the classic openings of two films, Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty, I opened my story with a narrator telling what it feels like to die.

I was young when they killed me. Just a teenager.

They say death on the battlefield wins you true glory.

They say when someone stabs you it doesn’t hurt.

They say it feels like a fist punching you. 

That you hardly even notice it in the excitement of the battle.
They are wrong.
You do notice when someone plunges a sword into your body. 
It doesn’t feel like a fist punching you. It feels like a heavy, iron, double-edged sword. The blade pierces your skin, parts your muscles, scrapes your bones and pops your organs.
It burns cold. Freezes hot. Then makes you want to puke.
It does not feel glorious.
It hurts like Hades.
Which is where I am bound.

When you write for Barrington Stoke there are two stages of editing. The first edit is for the story itself – structure, continuity and comprehensibility. The second edit aims to weed out words and phrases that might trip up dyslexic readers. Ruth, my main editor, warned me to avoid participle phrases and complicated sentences from the beginning as these would almost certainly be cut. I tried to keep the syntax as simple as possible and the vocabulary, too. As fans of Hemingway and Robert B. Parker know, you can tell a good story with simple words.

I had just finished the first draft of The Night Raid when I went to a boys’ prep school called Summer Fields in Oxford to do a week as writer in residence. This was my target audience: boys 8-12 years old. I didn’t have time to read long passages during my workshops, but I gave the manuscript to Sophie Palmer, one of the English teachers there. The great thing about Sophie is that she herself is dyslexic and knows all the problems other dyslexic readers might have. Sophie read the first couple of chapters to the boys in her class and they came back with some great comments. My favourite was one boy’s criticism, that it seemed too much like a movie!

Sophie also gave me a checklist of things boys like:
1. a hero they can relate to
2. adventure – straight into action
3. all goes wrong – failure – then all goes right
4. setting the scene
5. creating a sense of foreboding
6. when the reader knows something the main character doesn’t
7. twists and turns
8. a good title and front cover
9. humour
10. quick pace

I took on board some of her suggestions, especially those which entailed changing words the boys didn’t understand. 

I also showed an early draft to Llewelyn Morgan, a respected professor of Classics at Oxford and an expert in Virgil. He gave me the thumbs up and so did his son Tom, "aged 10 and a harsh critic".

Writing a version of Virgil with such strict constraints was strangely satisfying. I found my prose tauter and tighter. I found I could write historical fiction without using exotic words. Under my editor’s encouragement, I changed column to pillar, slaughtered to butchered and rations to food.

Unfamiliar words were simplified or explained. Callus became hard patches of skin. Palisade became spiked walls. Eternity became all time

The specialist-dyslexic editor, Mairi, also made some basic changes, like replacing adjectives with action verbs. Nodded happily became nodded and smiled. I said quickly became My next words came fast. And muttered sourly became muttered sour words, which I much prefer.
I don’t think my retelling has lost anything because of these constraints. In fact I think my writing has become clearer and more accessible. With the fabulous cover Barrington Stoke have produced I have an excellent chance of catching the attention of normally reluctant readers, especially teenage boys. If this target audience finds their interest sparked by a simply-told glimpse into Virgil’s great masterpiece then it will have been well worth the effort.

The Night Raid
, Caroline Lawrence's first book for Barrington Stoke, was launched on Monday 12 May at Summer Fields School in Oxford. You can read a sneak peek HERE. And you can see her Twelve Tips When Writing for Dyslexic Readers on Barrington Stoke's Blog


DLM said...

This is absolutely fascinating; I've linked this post at my own blog, and am particularly struck by these editors' work. Is there any chance you might ever interview them? I'd love to hear more about this particular type of work.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I will be writing another post, Ten Tips When Writing For Dyslexic Readers, for the Barrington Stoke Blog on 21 May 2014. Keep an eye out for it!

Stroppy Author said...

Barrington Stoke are indeed great to work with - so thorough and professional. I'll look out for this one, Caroline!

Becca McCallum said...

I love this post! This is fascinating to read - and I really like the sound of the book. It's particularly interesting where you examine the words that you changed - I think we can get so used to the 'shorthand' of certain words that we forget it might actually be more vivid to just say what we mean...

Sue Purkiss said...

How interesting! And as you say, a great cover.

Mary Hoffman said...

I've just done this too! Angel of Venice, set in the Battle of Lepanto, comes out in August. Barrington Stoke are the bees' knees. Good luck with yours, Caroline!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Mary! I hope your Barrington Stoke does brilliantly, too!

Joan said...

I agree with Becca, every change you mention leads to more vivid expression. I particularly like "My next words came fast". I would rather read those words than the lifeless "I said quickly". And "spiked walls" hits us harder than "palisade". Very interesting article.

Sue Bursztynski said...

This is a fascinating look at the process of making a specialised book - thanks, Caroline! I'd love to try it myself, but I quite understand their policy of turning to big name writers - it implies the books are being taken seriously by the publishers.

I have forwarded this link to our literacy co-ordinator - we have a dyslexic boy at our school and we were aware of this series, but knowing how the process works enhances it.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Here's a nice summary of what I learned: 12 Tips When Writing for Dyslexic Readers