Tuesday, 28 May 2019

ARCHIVE TREASURE: DEAR TEEN ME

(Originally posted on this blog in April 2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off and reposted for your reading pleasure)

***WARNING! ADULT LANGUAGE BELOW!***

Hey you! Yes, you – the fourteen year old with the nail scissors! Put those down and pay attention. I’ve got something to say to you, something you need to hear. Listen up.

You’re in a pretty awful place right now. You’re in a place not many people get low enough to experience in their lives, and even fewer climb out of. This is probably the worst you’ve ever felt about yourself, and you’re thinking: can I go on like this for another day? Do I even want to try? Maybe there’s only one way out...

No, don’t try and brush me off. I’m not going to be fooled by that big goofy grin or your hyperactive chatter. I know the truth. Those half-healed cuts and scratches on your arms and legs? The ‘accidental’ ones that you lie about so well that no one ever questions you?

Yeah. I still have those scars, kiddo. So let’s not play games.

Today, on the way home from school, a group of about ten boys, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen, cornered you. They pushed you up against the wall of a building. They ripped your clothes, groped you, laughed in your face, and spat on you. That was the worst part, somehow. That they spat in your face, on your hair, everywhere. They taunted you while they did it. When you finally, finally, finally managed to get away and get home, you scrubbed yourself until your skin bled, washed your hair until handfuls started coming out. But no matter what you did, you couldn’t get clean. You feel like you’ll never be clean again.

You won't even bother telling anyone about this. Not your parents, sister, teachers. Because you've tried before - you've tried so many times - and it never makes anything better. None of them are surprised anymore, horrified anymore, interested anymore. They'll just ask 'What did you do? Why were you there? Didn't you have any friends to protect you?' and by the time they've finished asking questions you, too, will have started to wonder if it was all your own fault. 

And you and I both know that this isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

Every day since you were eleven, you’ve gotten up, eaten breakfast, left your house, and walked into a nightmare.

You’ve been kicked, pinched, punched, tripped, pushed down stairs, stabbed in the back of your hand, had ink poured down your back, and on one memorable occasion, had eight separate pieces of chewing gum stuck in your hair. You’ve been shunned. Screamed at. Tortured in every way that a person can be, short of hot pokers and bamboo shoots under the nails.

You’ve watched every person you ever called a friend scatter because just being close to you was too dangerous.

You’ve seen teachers who pounce on improperly fastened school uniforms or kids holding hands in the corridor brush off your suffering by telling you to ‘Stop making a fuss' or 'just ignore it’. You’ve lived through punishments on the occasions when you dared to fight back.

You’ve heard your own parents ask each other, when they thought you couldn’t hear: ‘Why does this keep happening? What is she doing wrong? What is wrong with her?’

That’s the question I’m here to answer for you, fourteen-year-old Zolah. Just what the Hell is wrong with you?

Nothing.

Not a single, solitary fucking thing.

Shut up. Don’t start arguing with me. Don’t start crying. You’ve never let them see you cry, and now is not the time to start.

This isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this. There’s nothing missing inside you, no essential flaw, no reason at all why 50% of the kids at your school take pleasure in tormenting you, or why none of the adults in your life seem to be able to help you.

THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.

There’s some stuff right with you, though. Some stuff you’ve never realised because you’re too miserably depressed, lonely and self-loathing to realise it. Let me spell it out.

You’re brave. You’re incredibly, stunningly, wonderfully brave. You don’t know this. In fact, you think you’re a coward, that if you were just brave enough you could get people to leave you alone. But the truth is that the courage it takes to keep walking into that school, day after day, to keep putting your hand up in class, to keep studying and doing your homework, to keep reading your books and talking exactly how you want to talk? Is possibly the greatest courage in the world. I’m awed by that courage. One day you’re going to be awed by it too.

You’re also compassionate. Don’t ask me why that matters. I know it’s not a virtue anyone gives a crap about in your life right now, but one day your kindness is going to make you real friends. Friends who will do anything for you, friends who’ll stick with you no matter what, who would never abandon you and take cover. Friends who’ll make your life worth living.

And you’re clever – and it’s not anything to be ashamed of. You sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better if you were like everyone else, if you thought books were stupid, if you didn’t want to learn. But you’re dead wrong. Your intelligence is a gift, an amazing gift. Stop cursing it.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to lie. Things aren’t going to look up straight away. In fact, you’ve got some bad stuff to come. Really bad. But you are going to survive it. And in the not-too-distant future, good things are going to start happening, things which will make up for everything you’ve gone through so far. I promise. YOU will make those things happen. The very traits the other kids hate about you, the bravery, compassion and intelligence that they try to beat out of you, will allow you to follow and find your dreams.

So put those scissors down, okay? You don’t have to punish yourself. You don’t have to keep hurting yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re going to put the scissors down, Zolah. And someday - not any day soon, but someday - you’re going to be all right.

**This is a guest post that was written for the wonderful site Dear Teen Me. Check it out to read hilarious and inspiring letters from authors all over the world to their teen selves**

Monday, 20 May 2019

ARCHIVE TREASURE: YOU CAN STUFF YOUR MARY-SUE WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE

(Originally posted August 2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

Today I intend to tackle a controversial topic. You can probably guess what it is from the post title, but if not...well, here's where we wade into the Mary-Sue Morass. It's a deep one. You might want to bring a snack. And a spare pair of socks.

If you regularly read book (or film or TV or other media - but most especially book) reviews of any kind, whether in magazines or on Amazon and Goodreads or on book review blogs, you will more than likely (moooore than likely) have come across the term Mary-Sue. And if you didn't already know what the term meant, you might have tried to work it out using the context in which the term was used. But, because hardly any of the people throwing this term around themselves understand what it means, you'll have a tough time of it.

In fact, even if you've read a hundred reviews talking about Mary-Sue characters, you probably still don't know for sure, although you'll have gotten the idea that Mary-Sue = bad news. Bad character. Bad writing. BAD WRITER, NO COOKIE!

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who is too badass
3) A female character who gets her way/a male love interest too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

Do you see, Dear Readers, how many of these aspects of the commonly used term Mary-Sue are...umm...just a teeny bit contradictory? How can Mary-Sue mean 'a female character who is too perfect' when it is also used to mean a female character who is 'annoying or obnoxious'? How can it mean that a character has 'too many flaws' and also 'no flaws'? How can these people have anything in common? It's all so confusing!

Except that it isn't.

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

'A female character.'

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say 'Mary-Sue' is: 'Female character I don't like'.

That's it. That's all.

So why don't they just say 'I didn't like the female character' and explain why? I mean, there's no problem with a reviewer not liking a female character, is there? Everyone is entitled to like or dislike a character according to their own lights. A character that one person loves may seem utterly vile to another reader, and that is a wonderful thing we should all be very happy about as individuals.

How did this strange, contradictory, badly defined term come into such common use in the first place? Clearly it doesn't mean what people think it means - so why not just honestly lay out the reasons you didn't like the female character, the same way you would any other character (by which we mean, a male one) instead of throwing the term Mary-Sue like a mud-pie?

Maybe it's because the reviewers in question, the reviewers who keep saying 'Mary-Sue' as if it was all that needed to be said, don't want to have to explain the reasons why a particular character didn't work for them. Maybe it's because their reasons for finding these female characters just too obnoxious, unrealistic, stupid, passive, badass or talented are as contradictory and badly defined as the term itself. Maybe it's because the reason they don't like the female characters isn't that they're just too...anything. Except just too...female.

For the record, at this point let's see if we can't dig out the actual meaning of the term Mary-Sue. Because it did have a useful definition once, before it was co-opted and turned into a two-word mud-pie to diminish female characters. And that definition was this:

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional."

The term was made up by people writing StarTrek fanfiction, to describe the author-insert characters (often given names like Ensign Mary Sue) who would show up in pieces of fanfiction as a new ensign or science officer and immediately prove to be the best looking, most intelligent, spunkiest, wittiest and most perfect StarFleet officer ever recruited. All the other characters would immediately realise this and hail Ensign Mary Sue as a genius. If they did not, they were obviously motivated by spite and jealousy, since Mary Sue was so clearly perfect (and modest! And humble! And unaware of how beautiful she was!) that no one who wasn't wicked could do anything but embrace her.

She would not only miraculously solve every problem that the Enterprise faced and make instant friends of all the crew, but all the significant male (and maybe female) characters would fall in love with her. Usually Ensign Mary Sue would bravely die at the end of the piece of fanfiction, because the established characters and setting would have become so warped around her utter perfection by then that if she had lived she would have gotten married to either James T Kirk or Spock (or both) and become Captain of the ship, and no one would ever have had to have any adventures again.

In short, Mary-Sue is a wish fulfilment fantasy.

I'm not saying characters like this don't exist. I'd argue they're not even necessarily *bad*. In fact, an example of a Mary-Sue in a well-known novel is the character Bella Swan in Twilight (I'm sorry Twilight lovers, I'm not dissing Bella, I'm just stating a fact about the kind of character she is).

Bella moves to a new town and immediately finds that everyone there wants to be her friend (except for two female characters who are mind-cripplingly obviously jealous) despite the fact that she is not interested in any of them. Bella has no flaws apart from being adorably klutzy. She is convinced that she is plain, and wears no make-up, but everyone reacts to her as if she was ravishingly beautiful. She captures the interest and then the undying love of the main male character despite the fact that he nearly has to turn his whole character inside out to make it happen. She also gets the love of the secondary male character. And all the other boys her age start fighting over her too, even though she's got no interest in any of them either. Bella undergoes no character growth or development within the story because she is already perfect when the story begins. And, as has often been pointed out, the detailed description of Bella is a perfect description of the author, Stephenie Meyer.

So this is what a Mary-Sue is:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story

Believe me, when you come across one, you will know.

And yet I see the term Mary-Sue applied to characters who bear no resemblance to this definition at all. I see it applied to such diverse people as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Mae from The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Clary from the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Alanna from The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, and Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. These guys, honestly, couldn't be much more different from each other. The only thing they all have in common? Is that they're all girls.

Not a Mary Sue!
I recently read a book that I loved. In the course of the book the heroine underwent immense physical and mental and emotional ordeals. She was by turns denigrated and treated with contempt, and excessively sheltered, patronised, and lied to. She was kidnapped, dragged across rough terrain, attacked, threatened, lost people that she loved, was betrayed by people she had trusted, and had almost unbearable burdens thrust onto her shoulders. She evolved - inch by painful inch - from a very smart, yet extremely insecure and self-centred person, to one who was compassionate and empathetic and able to use her intelligence for the good of others. She changed from a passive and largely physically inactive person to one who was physically strong and active. She worked and scrabbled and fought and whined and cried for every bit of progress she made. She lost everything she loved and wanted and pulled herself up and made a new life for herself, bittersweet though it was.

And I thought: How wonderful!

And then I saw a review calling this character - this amazing, flawed, revolting, inspiring, broken, beautiful, ugly character - a Mary-Sue. Dear Readers, my head nearly exploded.

Definitely not a Mary Sue!
I'm sick of it, Dear Readers. I'm sick of seeing people condemn any female character with a significant role in a book as a Mary-Sue. I'm sick of people talking about how the female characters were too perfect or not perfect enough, too passive or too badass, too talented or too useless, when what they really mean - but don't even KNOW they mean - is that the characters were too much in possession of lady parts.

So now I turn away from my wonderful blog readers, who are lovely, kind, sweet people who would never make my head explode, and I turn to you, the reviewers. Not all the reviewers. Just the ones who are making my head throb dangerously and causing the silvery lights to float in front of my eyes.

I beg, I implore, I get down on bended knee and grovel: next time you're about to use the term Mary-Sue, stop and look at my little checklist above. And if the character you are about to describe does not hit all the points on the checklist? DON'T.

And if you're going to ask how on earth you're supposed to know, without photos of the author, if the character is partly based on them? You've just proved my point. YOU CAN'T. Therefore, you shouldn't be using the term Mary-Sue. Because in doing so, you are making a claim about the character/author relationship which you cannot substantiate. Simple as that.

Absolutely, positively not a Mary Sue!
Instead of slapping 'Mary-Sue' in your review and leaving it at that, make a list of four or five traits or decisions or actions that you think were bad, or unrealistic, or obnoxious, about the character. Perhaps you should discuss those points, and why they bothered you, in the review instead.

But before you do, take a moment to imagine that the character you are thinking about was a boy or a man. And don't say 'Well, that's different' or 'But I just can't see a girl behaving this way' or 'It's not about their gender!' or any other excuse. Look at your list again, really look at it. See if, suddenly, magically, all those traits, decisions or actions don't seem bad, unrealistic or obnoxious anymore but like perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable traits or decisions or actions...for a boy.

By attempting this exercise, you might come to realise that you (like every other human being ever born on this planet, except maybe Jesus and the Dalai Lama) have an unconscious prejudice, an unexamined blind spot. And it doesn't mean you are A Sexist Pig, or A Bad Person, or that I Don't Like You. It means you're human. And humans, oh glory, humans can change.

If you can change enough to realise how damaging and unfair the term Mary-Sue is when used indiscriminately and incorrectly to denigrate female characters, you might start to notice some of the damaging and unfair assumptions which are generally made about ACTUAL FEMALES in this messed up sexist world of ours. You might change enough to start dealing with that and make this world a better place in the process. I believe you can. I believe in you.

But only if you shove the term Mary-Sue into a deep dark closet somewhere and leave it there except for very, very special occasions.

Note: I'm well aware that there's a male variant of the Mary-Sue, called a Gary-Stu. When was the last time you saw that term used as a method of dismissing a male character who was clearly nothing of the kind? Or even to dismiss one who clearly WAS a Gary-Stu like, oh I don't know... Batman? Yeah. That's what I thought.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

ARCHIVE TREASURE: DO NOT MISTAKE PLOT FOR CHARACTERISATION

(Originally posted November 2012, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

Hello, Dear Readers! It's time for another one of my opinionated posts about writing. Half of the credit for this one goes to the inimitable and lovely Holly of my online writer's group, with whom I was recently grousing on this topic. Hi Holls!

So, what were we grousing about? The fact that both of us (reading on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, no less) had lately picked up stacks of books which had fantastic central premises, which were well paced, pretty well written, full of exciting incidents and maybe even had some initially interesting characters but which - despite all this! - somehow in the end left us feeling... unsatisfied. Cheated. Unmoved. Convinced, somehow, that the whole exercise of turning pages - despite the exciting incidents and great premises and decent writing - had been a waste of time.

After we'd been talking in detail for a while about the various books which had disappointed us this way and trying to figure out just what was WRONG with them, one of us suddenly put our finger on it. The problem was character development. Or, rather, a strong lack of it.

Now, you might think this would be an obvious problem for two writers to notice and figure out. But what we realised was that the lack of character development in these books was masked by the fact that the main character's life was often left totally transformed by the end of the story. All kinds of seismic shifts in their abilities, their home environments, their romantic lives and their understanding of the world. It seemed crazy to say that these characters weren't changing. But they weren't.
 
In all these books, the hero or heroine saw massive changes in their situation by the end of the story, but they very rarely experienced any shift or development in their character. They were always essentially the same person by the finale of the story, no matter what they had been through. And the finale normally consisted of this person getting what they had wanted all along - without ever having reassessed those desires, made a significant sacrifice to fulfil them, or even question why they desired what they did in the first place.

In fact, it was like the authors had gotten confused on the difference between plot and character.

In my head, I could just imagine these writers proudly saying: 'Look at my character's amazing arc! She goes from a lonely teenager with no idea of her true heritage to a superpowered elf with a hot elvish boyfriend and lots of elvish friends!' Or maybe: 'My character develops from a cold and solitary existence as a lab rat in a secret government facility to a free person and a member of a warm, happy family!' I found many reviews which talked about the plot and the character development in this way, as if they were interchangeable.

But those descriptions above do not touch on any character's arc at all. Nor do they count as character development. They describe plots. And when a plot is serving double duty - trying to be a character arc too - the events (no matter how well paced, well written and exciting) of a story will feel essentially empty. It doesn't matter if the stakes are as small as a girl longing for a date to the prom, or as epic as The End of the World. If the change in the character's situation isn't significant enough to change *them* in any way, then how could the book feel satisfying, let alone leave the reader feeling changed?

These books would turn the POV character's whole world upside down. They might kill off a dear friend or family member right before their eyes, remove them from the only family or environment they'd ever known, or reveal that they had a secret heritage they never knew about. They would pit the main character or characters against life-threatening danger, maybe force them to develop frightening new abilities, offer them the chance to fall passionately in love. I should have been gasping, crying, thrilling.

Yet none of those events, no matter how outwardly shocking or traumatic or wonderful, ever really moved me. They were just that. Events happening to a person. The narrative skimmed over the surface, failing to explore or even acknowledge the profound emotional effects that should have been the point of those story events in the first place. It was as if the writers thought that these Big Important Events by themselves were enough to involve my heart. But the End of the (story) World and everyone in it means absolutely nothing to me if the writer cannot show me what this means to the POV character/s.

In the best books, characterisation and plot are so entwined, so integral to each other and to the events of the book, that they do almost feel like the same thing. But they have fundamentally different functions within a narrative, and trying to create a decent story without one or the other is like trying to have spectacles without frames, frames without the lenses.

Even if you do turn your plain, lonely teen into a superpowered elf and give her a hot boyfriend and an elvish family, you still need to make sure that her established traits, beliefs, insecurities and priorities are challenged, strengthened, destroyed or resolved by the end of the book. We need to see that everything she has been through has affected her meaningfully.

Remember that you're a writer, not the wish-granting fairy from Cinderella. Don't just look at your plot as a series of events that get your hero or heroine to their desired outcome. Not even a series of awesomecoolsauce events. Look at them as ways to push and challenge your character, to expose her deepest traits and develop her personality. Readers long to see the main character become the person they could or should be, not just get the stuff they want.

Your main character doesn't need to evolve into into an entirely new being by the end of the story. In fact, it's better if she doesn't. Changes that happen to the character throughout need to grow naturally from who they are at the start - their core qualities - and the particular pressures that the story and the plot events put on them. The last thing you want is to have the character do a complete u-turn and become someone unrecognisable. That's not satisfying either.

So maybe your elvish heroine started the story as a selfish and insecure girl who was callous to others because she was afraid people would see how vulnerable she was - and in order to get the family and the love she always wanted, she first had to realise that she must treat others well, and be willing to risk giving love, with no guarantee it would be returned?

Maybe she was frightened and timid, a girl who refused to take risks - and she had to find the seeds of courage inside herself, even risk losing the ones she hoped would love her, before she was worthy of them?

Or maybe she was filled with self-loathing, yearning for affection but still convinced she didn't deserve it - and had to learn to value and care for herself first, before she could finally find a place among people who would value and care for her the same way?

Those are CHARACTER arcs. See how they differ from the plot ones? They're about learning, changing, growing, not about getting stuff.

You need to ensure you're putting time and thought into your character's development even if you're writing the first volume of a trilogy or series. In fact, it's even more vital, because if I think you're holding stuff back from me in book one I'm probably not going to bother to go and buy book two. I need to feel that you've got a character arc in your mind as well as a plot one.

An easy way to figure out if you've achieved worthwhile character development is to give your main character or characters a choice. A pivot-point, somewhere near the end of the story. Arrange events so that things could go either way - disaster or triumph - and make the whole thing hinge on a moment of choice for the character. If they act the way they would have at the beginning of the story? Disaster. Even if they act the way that they would have midway through the story. They need to have grown and developed enough that you feel they could reasonably go in the other direction. Then you and the reader will be able to see that they have become who they were meant to be, and that they deserve their happy ending (if you've been nice enough to give them one!).

A great example of this is Katniss' decision at the end of The Hunger Games. At the beginning of the book Katniss' one priority is to win, to survive the Games by any means necessary, because she believes that Prim needs her - and because she doesn't believe in anything other than that. By the end of the book, she is willing to swallow poisonous berries along with with Peeta rather than sacrifice her soul by trying to kill him, and let the Capitol win. She has changed significantly because of the events of the story - but we still see the qualities of bravery, strength and self-sacrifice that Katniss had at the beginning of the book, too. Those traits have just been strengthened and honed by her ordeal.

In Closing: plot is about going places, doing things and getting stuff - changes in situation. Characterisation is about changing, growing and learning stuff - changes in the character's core. Make sure you have both these things running side by side, and you will make Zolah a very happy reader.

I hope this makes sense to you, my lovelies. Any questions? Pop them in the comments.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

TUESDAY POETRY

Hello, Dear Readers - happy Tuesday to all. A short and sweet post today, just a piece of poetry that I've been fiddling with on and off, and decided to release into the wild before I overwork it:

THE GREEN GIRL

Ophelia;
The wild iris embraces you
Though he would not.
And the wind that sings
In the dawn-grey bullrushes
And the rising heron,
Speak your name.


Ophelia;
He may forget,
But you are shrouded
By reflections of the sun.
And Dragonflies soar,
From the ivory cage
Which imprisoned your faithful heart.

Ophelia;
As your face fades
In his memory,
Do not fear.
For the green river remembers
The green girl.
The water knows where you are.

Read you later, lovelies! x

Saturday, 4 May 2019

WORLD BOOK DAY Q&A

Hello, and happy Sunday, Dear Readers. I thought that some of you might not have seen this Q&A on the World Book Day website, which is a shame because the questions are particularly thoughtful. So here it is, reproduced in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it.

World Book Day: April 2019

1.     Your beautifully rich new book, The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, is a fantastical adventure about courage, love and gender identity. Can you tell us a bit more about where the inspiration for it came from? 

Thank you! The initial spark that gave the story life arrived around five years ago, when I was watching Disney’s Mulan with my young nieces. I hadn’t seen the film since I was a child myself and when the song ‘Reflection’ started I felt a chill of realisation sneak down my spine. I suddenly saw it as a song about the experience of a trans or non-binary person, and felt that Mulan was crying out for someone to see who they were inside – a person who did not identify with the narrow role given to them by society, or the gender label imposed on them at birth - and begging for the ability to let that identity breathe. But that never actually happens in the film, which left me unsatisfied and cross, and immediately made me want to write my own version. At the same time, taking on such a legendary story seemed like a huge challenge, and I was a bit intimidated.
I went onto social media and began asking if anyone else felt this was a story that needed to be written. Secretly I was hoping that someone might say ‘No!’ Instead, on Tumblr and Twitter, I was met with an avalanche of readers and writers, young and old, who told me ‘Yes!’. The response was overwhelming. So then I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and get started.
2.     Zhilan, the main character who has a gift for illusionary magic, is an incredibly courageous and determined person. What are the three qualities that you most admire about them? 

Firstly, their moral courage. I don’t mean physical courage, but spiritual bravery. Zhi – which is the name the main character chooses – has an instinctive grasp of what is truly right, of the essence of good and evil, no matter how much the mores of their particular society may contradict them and tell them certain things are wrong or shameful or incorrect. Of course they’re human, so they sometimes falter or doubt, but ultimately they always take the right path, and that kind of courage is immensely rare and precious.
Secondly, their kindness. Zhi lives in a harsh world where it is easier and safer to be distant, or callous, even cruel. But Zhi is deeply kind, and helps others wherever they can, even when it causes them difficulty, pain or inconvenience.
Finally, I admire Zhi’s resourcefulness! Faced with difficult situations, I think most of us tend to panic and list all the things we think are impossible, focusing on what we can’t do. Zhi looks at what they have, what they need, and what they can do, and then makes things happen. They’re like the McGyver of the story!
3.     Your story is set in an imaginary place called The Land of Dragons/ Red Empire that is reminiscent of historical China. How did you research this setting to ensure that your depiction was respectful and accomplished? 

Reading. Lots and lots of reading. I’m an immersive researcher – I act as if I know nothing of value going in, and my assumptions about what I need to learn will therefore be worthless. So I try to read everything I can get my hands on, cover to cover, to give myself a strong background, before I actually begin to pick and chose details to focus on. I spend nearly a year doing very little actual writing, just reading books about Chinese history, natural history, philosophy, culture, food, wildlife, music… I tried to get my hands on works in translation where I could, so that I was reading Chinese people’s perspective on their own culture. I watched lots of historical films from China and several TV serials recommended by a Chinese friend. I listened to a lot of music and read poetry. I looked into multiple different versions of the Mulan story, from the original ballad to the Chinese opera to the recent feature film. The story is deeply informed by everything I learned, and I’m very grateful that I had time to do this. Huge thanks to Arts Council England for their Grant for the Arts, which gave me the space and resources to do the kind of research the story needed.
I also put out a call to readers who were Chinese or of Chinese heritage on my blog and social media to ask them what they would like to see in a book like this, what would bring them joy and what they would prefer not to see ever again. I was lucky enough that several people were willing to offer me that kind of insight, and that had a strong impact on the book, too.
4.     Your book explores gender identity andhas characters with a variety of sexual orientations. Why is it important for books to have diverse characters and for young people to have LGBTQ+ fiction to read? 

Because diversity is reality. I’m stunned by the amount of grown-ups I come into contact with who seem constantly baffled by or resentful of the fact that the world isn’t full of people just like them. That loads of different kinds of people exist, and take up space, and to go about their own day to day lives in a way that isn’t the ‘normal’ represented by mass media – that is to say, a ‘normal’ where 99% of people are straight, white, cis, able-bodied etc. And this – the simple reality of the real world - makes these grown-ups so frightened and angry that they act as if people who are different to them merely existing is some kind of attack on them and their lives. They strike out, and they cause hurt and suffering to others who’ve never harmed them at all, and then call it a victory for ‘common sense’ or ‘family values’ or ‘decency’ when really it’s only a victory for fear and spite.
All children, whether they’re LGBTQA+ or not, need to see diverse portrayals in the media they consume. They need to learn that empathy is not only for people just like them, but for all humanity – that all perspectives have value, that all stories are valid and important.
On a very personal note, growing up I read zero portrayals of people like me – asexual aromantics – in the books I loved. I had no idea that anyone else like me even existed. The closest thing I ever saw to that were characters who heartlessly or spinelessly ‘rejected’ love and were either miserable or villainous. As a result, I struggled so hard to feel the things that other people seemed to feel, and make central to my life the things that the whole of society taught me were vital and important. It didn’t work. It wasn’t me. It caused me a great deal of unhappiness, and it was not until my late twenties that I had a label for myself and was able to begin the ongoing process of accepting who I am. I pray passionatelythat others don’t have to go through this, but I know they probably are, even as I type these words. As a writer, the only thing I can do to help is to try to write the most diverse books I can, and hope they find their way into the hands of the young people who desperately need to read them.
5.     When civil war breaks out, Zhilan takes their disabled father’s place to save them from the battlefield. Without giving any spoilers, in what ways is this a positive character-building experience for them? 

I think being thrown into a new world – even one that is so frightening and at times cruel and unfair – gives Zhi the chance to understand their own strength. Their own potential, and their gifts, and how truly special they are when they stop holding back and simply do what feels right to them. They’ve been loved and valued by their family, certainly - but only if they conformed to what their family believed they should be, and walked within the confines of a very narrow role. Going out into the world allows Zhi to see that while the life they led before had beauty and safety – and yes, value - they also have so many other things to offer, which they would never even have discovered within themselves, let alone been allowed to use, if they hadn’t been forced to by change and danger.
6.     A point that stood out for me is how fairy-tales can also be used to pigeon-hole people and take away their independence, such as Zhilan being compared to Dou Xianniang. Is the place of idealised stories in society something that you specifically wanted to explore? 

Very much so. Perhaps not so much with fairytales these days, since a lot of very talented writers have done a wonderful job of reclaiming those and putting diverse, Feminist spins on them. But for women, and for marginalised people in society, there’s often such a dearth of depictions that we become hemmed in by One Story (as author Chimamanda Ngozi puts it). We’re told there’s one way to be A Good Woman, that we must behave a certain way and conform to certain traits or else we’re bad and wrong. For instance, for a long time girls were told: “To be good is to be nice. Smile. Care for animals and small children. Take pride in looking a certain way so that others find pleasure in looking at you – but do not show off, or be bossy or attention-seeking. Give others a chance to talk before you. Make way. Make room.”
And then we were given the Strong Female Character, who was loud and often angry, and apparently didn’t care how she looked, and instead of making room for people, shot them with arrows or stabbed them with swords. Suddenly the people who’d been struggling to fulfil that first stereotype of Goodness were told - "You’re wrong! You’re passive! You’re boring and shallow! You’re not A Strong Female! This is what it means to be A Good Woman now!"
But then there was a backlash against the Strong Female too. She was unrealistic, she was aggressive, she was a Mary-Sue. She was being sexist against men!
The problem isn’t in the idea of kindness and gentleness, of course, or of standing up for yourself and being angry and loud. It was that society was, and is, still telling people what to be. Trying to write the stories for them and force them to follow along. We need to empower people to inhabit their own stories, and give them the confidence to be unique, fully realised individuals, and not penalise them for failing to conform.
7.     At the heart of your book is a warm message about being true to yourself and fighting for what you believe in. What do you hope readers take away from the book? 

I think Zhi says it right at the beginning of the story: no one is what they seem, not even ourselves. I want readers to learn to know themselves. To face who they are, honestly and with respect – to love themselves despite what they may see as weaknesses, and to embrace the best parts of who they are. Don’t take yourself, or others, for granted. None of us really know what we’re capable of. We all have the capacity to be much stronger, braver, more beautiful and more compassionate than we can imagine. But we also have the capacity to be selfish, cruel, oblivious and ungenerous. Life is a process of learning about the world, about ourselves and other people that we meet. We should all be prepared to undergo that journey of learning with joy, and an open heart. 

And finally, as part of our Share A Story campaign, we celebrate the magic of sharing stories. For readers who would like to read another story like The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, do you have any favourites to share?  

I heartily recommend Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – an extraordinary, beautifully written diverse fantasy set in an Asian-inspired world – although this is an adult novel and therefore has some warnings for sensitive content. In books specifically for young adults, I love Megan Whalen Turner’s on-going The Thief series. This is set in a world inspired by ancient Greece and is tragic and hilarious and very much deals with the topic of multiple identities and ways of perceiving people.

I’m a big fan of short stories, and Leigh Bardugo’s dark fairytale anthology The Language of Thorns and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times are favourites of mine.

Updated to add: I'm also currently reading Descendent of the Crane by Joan He, and absolutely loving it.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

YALC 2019 ANNOUNCEMENT

Hello and happy Thursday, Dear Readers. I hope life is showing you all the joy and success that you deserve.

I've been struggling to come to terms with the Twitter-storm triggered by The Hand, the Eye & the Heart's release, and my mental health has continued to be not-so-great. Which - because nature just loves to keep on giving! - has a knock on effect on some of my chronic health conditions, becoming a bit of a vicious circle. In addition to this, my mum has recently been seriously ill again, something which we thought would no longer be an issue after she had her operation at the beginning of the year. So I'm... stressed, in a word.

But I want to say how much I appreciate every single message, comment, DM and email of love and support that I've received from readers and fellow writers. I've read all of them, some multiple times, even when I haven't managed to reply. Your kindness has meant the world to me.

And now there's a lovely chance to say thank you to some of you in person, which I can FINALLY talk about! YALC is coming up and I will be there, Dear Readers, on Friday the 27th! I'll be doing the panel 10 Things I Love About YA Retellings, and the other panelists are *amazing*.

If I ever win the lotto, I swear I will replace this author photo, which is approx 300 yrs old
Look at that. Renee Ahdieh! Kiran Millwood-Hargrave! And Sharon Dogar! I'm so excited and honoured to have been invited as part of this line-up. Slightly concerned I may swoon/fangirl all over all of them, but still excited and honoured. I'll try my very best to be cool ha ha ha ha ha. Ahem.

Please do come along and say hello if you can, my lovelies. Even though the panel itself will be an amazing experience, 90% of my reasons for attending YALC at any time, and especially this year, are to have a rare chance to connect with you in real life. You could not be more important to me, so if you can make it? Rest assured that your presence will absolutely make my day.

Sending love and gratitude to you all. xx

Sunday, 21 April 2019

ARCHIVE TREASURE: IS YA FICTION TOO DARK?

(Originally posted 5/06/2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

When I woke up this morning to find my Twitter feed being eaten alive by references to an article in the Wall Street Journal about YA literature, my first reaction was confusion, because that article came out ages ago. Didn't it? Oh, no - this was a NEW article from the WSJ, ANOTHER article belittling my genre and chosen medium as an artist. Did a YA author kick the editor of the WSJ in the ankle on the train recently or something? These guys just don't seem to like us. But then, thinking about it, no one really seems to like us, do they?

Pretty much every other day YA writers have to put up with another condescending article in which the entire field of young adult and children's writing is compressed down to the sparkly vampire elements so that the journalist can smirk. Or a comment from some lauded adult literary writer who thinks anyone who bothers writing for people under the age of eighteen is mentally defective. Or an article like this one, that bemoans the debauched, depraved tone of YA literature and compares it unfavourably to the books of the writer's own childhood.

The first thing most of these articles do is to point out how new YA is. And they're right. Young Adult only got its own shelf in the library or bookshop sometime in the late eighties or early nineties. Before that, there was just children's and adult's. And not long before that, there was adult, all on its own, and children read the Bible and classics and that was it. A lot of people seem to wish for a return to this state of affairs - or, at least, that's how it seems to those of us who keep finding ourselves under attack for daring to see young adults as a worthy audience with high intelligence, enquiring minds, and their own particular experiences and concerns, who deserve books specifically written for them.

In the minds of these article-writers, new = bad. Just as, apparently, truthful, intense, dark books which explore the real world young adults share with the rest of us = bad. The YA haters, whatever their stated concerns, always seem to be looking back, longing for some past Golden Age of Innocence, when books for younger readers were bright and cheerful and happy and uncomplicated. A hazy, non-specific 1950's lite period, when kids were respectful to their elders, no one had to lock their doors, child abuse was unheard of. When children never cried alone, or hurt themselves or others. When, presumably, young people themselves were bright, cheerful, happy and uncomplicated.

Here's a little newsflash for you. That time never actually existed.

It is a product of the adult imagination. Nothing more than convenient fantasy. Weak and feeble nostalgia. And kids know it.

The world has never been 100% cheery and happy and uncomplicated. Tragically, kids have always been abused. They have always suffered in silence, hurt themselves and others. Children have always, always, always partaken of the pain and agony of humanity, as well as its joy and brightness. They have always had to live with the same darkness, the same wars, the same nightmares as adults do. In fact, they've normally caught the worst of it. Take a look at childhood and infant mortality rates in any third world country if you don't believe me. Actually, take a look at child poverty statistics for the U.S. right now. Still feeling nice and cozy there on your moral high ground?

One of the most heart-breaking parts of Meghan Cox Gurdon's article is the way that she dismisses Scars, a novel by Cheryl Rainfield. Ms Cox Gurdon thinks the subject of the book - a girl who cuts to help herself cope with years of systematic abuse by her father - 'normalises' self-harm. That the topics it covers are 'lurid'. She criticises the cover with it's photograph of a 'horribly scarred forearm'. Apparently all this stuff is just too 'depraved' for teens.

Does Ms Cox Gurdon realise that Cheryl Rainfield herself was ritually and sytematically tortured by her parents as a child? That the forearm she dismisses as horrible actually belongs to Cheryl? Here, the author uses her own experiences to write a book that reaches back to her childhood self, reaches out to the thousands of other children who are going through what she went through, and tells them 'You can survive this. Don't lose hope.' Scars is an artistic act of the highest courage possible and one I admire more than I can say.

But Ms Cox Gurdon, like others of her kind, does not care about the children whose lives might be saved by this book. Or the thousands of other children who, through reading such a book, will gain understanding, empathy and compassion for the survivors of abuse and become better, more rounded individuals. She wants to pretend that bad things don't happen to anyone real - especially kids - that 'normal' people don't find this stuff relevent, that no one she knows or cares about could be damaged and hurting like the character in Scars.

Let me now address the YA haters directly - for my own satisfaction, but also in hopes of getting through some seriously thick skulls:

The reason you feel free to attack YA this way is because you think it's a soft target. You think it's valueless. You think no one takes it seriously. You think the YA field is a fleeting flash in the pan, getting undeserved attention and success. You think if you sit in judgement in your safe little corner, it'll all go away and proper literature (that's the stuff you like) will eventually take its place.

Unfortunately for you, this attitude betrays you. It makes clear your true feelings about young adults, the very people for whom you profess to have such concern.

You think young adults are valueless. You don't take them seriously. You dismiss their feelings and experiences as fleeting and shallow. You think if you just din your own personal values and beliefs into young adult heads hard enough, you'll be able to drown out their questions, their inconvenient new ideas, their worrying complexity, and produce a Mini-You, an adult in teenage clothing.

Nope.

YA is too dark for you? Too bleak? Too sad, and challenging and REAL? You think we should all collude in some kind of mass hallucination in which we pretend bad things never happen, and kids exist in a perpetual state of rosy-cheeked glee and laughter? Well, I'll tell you what. You build yourself a nice spaceship, find a new planet and create that ideal, shiny world. Invite your family and friends. I'm sure it'll be just swell. So long as everyone represses their real feelings forever, of course.

But the rest of us are live HERE. Including those of humanity who are too young and vulnerable to have voices of their own. They look to the writers of YA fiction to speak to them, to speak the truth. To write books that are brave enough to touch them in their isolation and loneliness.

In spite of you, and everything you do to tell young adults that they don't get a say, that their experiences are lesser, that if they just ignore the pain it will go away, that none of it matters and in years to come they will look back and laugh? They will grow into the people they should be. They will grow into new writers and artists, trail-blazers, kicking the status quo in the teeth and telling things like they are.

Young adult literature is new. It's raw and brash and brazen. It's trashy, silly, funny and beautiful. It's stomach-churing, harrowing and dark. It's subtle, complex, transformative and brave.

It's ART, for God's sake. What do you expect?

And when young adults dive into it, they will find all these horrors and wonders - and they will find themselves.

If you don't like it? Your spaceship awaits. Bon voyage!
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