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Thursday, 26 November 2015


Hello, Dear Readers! Today's post is based on a question by quite a new blog reader, Cecelia, who writes all the way from Italy (ooh!). Her question was prompted by last week's guest posts about diversity and responsibility. This is unedited except a little in places for length:
Technically speaking, I'm the "standard" (?) and even privileged Italian girl. White, middle-class, good education, straight, from a little city near Milan... Ok, I'm a practicing Catholic and it's becoming less and less common, but still. 

Then I had the idea to wrote a Alternate History Urban fantasy set in NY, "Iraq" and "Istanbul", an AH where the last two are still the Sumerian kingdom and the Roman Empire, who never fell. Most of the friends, the "partner at job as close as a sister" and the love interest of the heroine are PoC characters, because USA are still the USA and the other country were not whitewashed just because history went different. 

I'm doing a ton of historical research for getting the cultures right but I'm still uncomfortable. What about real world readers? Will they perceive as offensive the changes in their history or the literally deletion of their countries? Turkey or Iraq were never born, Native Americans never lost all of their land, and I don't want to hurt someone. It's like I told them "If only magic like this existed, your people would never suffered as they have in our world" or "I didn't want to preserve your home in my work" and sometimes seems cruel. 

I'm falling in love with the alternative history and the characters I've created, yes, and the more I study, the more I like the cultures of the real-world Natives, Mesopotamian or romani people, but... I don't know what to do :(

And last (I've almost finished, worry not :P ), the thing I fear the most: supporting chart and love interest are PoC in most of the stories set in that AU, yes, but the main heroines/heroes are all white. I've checked: bar one bisexual sumerian man and a ancient Greece gay man, every single protagonist is a white, cis, and christian girl.

Is it acceptable or is a more subtle tokenism/racism? Every character has at least one reason to be as she is, that is for contrast to her beloved, her supernatural partner who's a devil (and doesn't like religious people as much as we are supposed to hate and fight them) or because she's the descendant of an ancient noble Italian family. 
Thanks for your question, Cecilia - it's a thorny one. Well, actually, it's a couple of thorny questions, and this post might run a little long in consequence, but I'll try to be as clear and helpful as I can.

So your first issue really breaks down to the question of whether some real world readers may find your re-imagined alternate history world offensive. And the answer to that question is: yes.

But this is not because there's anything wrong with imagining a world where the American continent was not as violently/completely colonised by white Christian settlers and the Native American people were never slaughtered and oppressed, or where the Roman and Sumerian Empires never fell and therefore national borders and identities are drawn differently. The reason some people will find your ideas offensive is because some people always find any idea offensive.

Now, sometimes it's because the idea itself is inherently a racist (like the book where innocent 'pearl' skinned white people are oppressed by evil and bestial 'coal' black people in a Dystopian future, to use a real example) or sexist or homophobic or ableist one. And in that case, when people - especially people from the affected groups - point out that flaw in the idea you need to be willing to listen and accept that you've missed something and either scrap your idea or re-work it drastically.

However, most of the time when people are offended by an idea it's because of the execution - which is a much more subtle and subjective area of criticism. Recently I've seen a single book lauded as beautifully diverse, Feminist and important by one critic while another reviewer called it misogynistic, racist and puerile. Each of those people obviously has a valid opinion - and each was able to back that up with examples from the text! - but it's likely that neither of them was entirely right or wrong. This is the beauty of books. Every new reader examines the story the author put on the page from within their own unique perspective, which is shaped by a lifetime of lived experiences, their culture, their beliefs, by other books they've read and loved or hated, films they've seen recently and over the years, and by their own personality (not to mention their level of reading comprehension).

So: constructing fantasy worlds or alternate histories where the status quo is entirely different from our own universe is part of a grand tradition in speculative fiction. There's nothing inherently offensive about it and you are not the first person to imagine a modern human world which looks entirely different because some elements of history developed differently.

If you're doing tons of research into what life for First Nations people was like before their land was invaded, and imagining a 21st Century version from that perspective, and doing the same for the Roman and Sumerian Empires, and you care about getting the details right, presenting something dimensional and nuanced, then you are on a good path. Some people will not like what you've written, because that is the nature of writing (and every other creative field where people react to your work subjectively) but it is unlikely to be because the premise of your work is inherently offensive.


Part two of your question, in which you reveal that - despite writing about modern day versions of the Roman and Sumerian Empires, and an alternate version of modern Native American culture - all or a majority of your main characters are white Christian girls... that raises a serious red flag in terms of the execution of your idea.

Here's the thing. No one is saying that you, as a white Italian Christian girl, are required to write about people different to you. Plenty of writers (usually white males) make an excellent living from writing books about the inner turmoil of characters exactly like them - who live in the same world as them, do work in the same fields as them, and could pretty much pass for them in a police line-up.

I personally think that writing about not just one but several characters who are very similar to each other in their key traits (as well as being the same as you), is likely to make for a book or series of books where readers find it hard to tell the voices of the characters apart - where things seem a bit samey, even when that wasn't your intention. I also think that a book or series of books where the vast majority of major characters reflect the completely unrealistic dominance of straight, white, cis, and either Christian or lapsed-Christian characters on TV, film, books, print and film advertising and mainstream media in general is a real failure in your imagination. And I know you have a powerful imagination - a passionate, enthusiastic imagination - or you wouldn't have come up with this sprawling and potentially amazing alternate history world in the first place.

But you don't have some kind of duty to write main characters who reflect reality. I can't make you, and I wouldn't if I could. In fact, no one has a duty to write anything that they don't want to. Clearly falling back on these kinds of characters is making you feel more comfortable in the world you've created on some level, which would be fine... if you were writing about your neighbourhood, your city, your comfort zone.

The problem is that you're setting yourself up for everything that you clearly fear - the derision and hurt and anger of people of colour, people from the different cultures that you're utilising - because your Comfort Zone characters are being shoe-horned into this immensely diverse, Uncomfortable setting where they feel, frankly, out of place.

This is a world which has huge potential to provide characters from a massive range of ethnicities and religions and backgrounds, a world that naturally offers up all kinds of fascinating and unique roles for characters precisely BECAUSE of the diversity of ethnicities, religions and backgrounds that would be at play. You've got a bisexual Sumerian guy in there, and a gay Greek guy - just a small sample of the vast array of realistic and fascinating people that are available to you as the writer to play with.

But somehow despite that, practically the only characters to whom you chose to give top billing are straight, white Christian girls.

This is hurtful to many readers (basically all the ones who aren't white, straight and Christian) because what you're indirectly suggesting is that the stories of all those other kinds of people inhabiting your alternate history world are not important. Not worthy. Not good enough. They can't be good enough or why would you chose to make the majority of your protagonists so determinedly of a single type? It can only be because people who are different don't have anything worthwhile to add.

Let me ask you a question, Cecelia. Why do you write? Really think about the answer.

I think it's because you have that amazing imagination I praised above, isn't it? Your brain spins alien horizons out of tiny fragments of inspiration. You hunger to explore different worlds, to pull apart the realities we all take for granted and see what makes them tick. You long to march down that enticing path of What If and follow it right to its most interesting and unexpected end in fantasy universes and parallel worlds.

But you have to realise - that's no good by itself. You can't imagine these exciting, radically different worlds... and then populate them with the same old characters that automatically popped into your head. The same old characters that always pop into everyone's head. The same old characters you and everyone else always sees everywhere already. If you do that, you're literally only doing half the job that a writer should do. You're keeping your imagination on a leash.

What is the point of writing if not to thrill and scare and stretch yourself? Not just in the world-building but in the emotions and experiences and beliefs and hopes and fears and dreams of these people that you conjure into being and share with the reader?

It's far too easy to visualise your new world through the eyes of old characters. Characters you agree with on everything that's important, characters whom you already understand completely because you built them around their similarities to yourself. But if you do this, you're not having to work to develop or empathise with these characters on the page. You're not having to interpret new experiences in a new world to a reader in a way that will excite and transform them and make them see our world and themselves in a new way. These mirror-image characters won't teach your readers anything that they - and you - don't already take for granted.

This is what makes the difference between writing something which is beautiful and inclusive and diverse... and appropriating other people's cultures and then, yes, sticking a few token characters in there as support for your decidedly un-diverse, non-inclusive main cast.

If you're going to utilise diverse cultures and ethnicities to make your alternate history world rich and fascinating and diverse but only tell the story of white Christian people within that world, then no matter how much research you put into those other cultures, you're effectively using them as a sort of crispy bacon topping on the standard white-person salad of your story. And that... it's really not OK, honey. That is something that MOST people will find offensive. Because it is.

You need to turn that powerful imagination of yours onto your characters and really examine them without making excuses for yourself or trying to explain away your choices, my lovely. I know it feels as if your characters 'just come to you' the way they are. I know you didn't make any kind of a conscious decision to have them all be straight white Christian girls. That you never intended to exclude the viewpoints and stories of people of other religions, ethnicities, sexualities etc. But you did both of those things anyway and that's all readers are going to see in the end.

It sounds harsh, I know. But there's hope there, because although you say that each character has at least one reason to be a straight white Christian girl, you have obviously twigged - albeit reluctantly - to the fact that there's more than one very good reason for at least a few of these people to be something else entirely. So why not make them something else?

You can do it if you want. It's up to you.

Look at it like this. One girl is white and Christian and straight because that way she's a contrast to her beloved. But why? Why does there need to be a contrast? Characters - people - aren't matching vases. They don't need to contrast in their skin colours and religions in order to look nice as a set on the mantle piece. If there does need to be a contrast - a clash of cultures - why must one of the cultures represented be white and Christian? We've already seen white Christians clash with every other religion and ethnicity in the world. Why not try something different for once? If the beloved person is an actual demon, wouldn't - say - a black Atheist heroine be just as much of a culture clash, requiring both the lovers to do just as much work to reassess their beliefs and each other?

Another girl is white and Christian because she's the descendant of a noble Italian family. But again, why? Why does having been descended from Italians who were noble/rich mean that only white Christians have married into or had children with that family ever? Especially in the last hundred years or so! Do you need this person to be white and Christian because that's a part of their immense privilege as a child of a noble family? Fair enough... but then you need to engage with that in the story, and show how this person's struggles and challenges are different than those of people within your story world who *aren't* white, straight, and very well off.

If you feel that you need to anchor yourself in your story by having a character who shares certain traits (traits that are part of how you define yourself) in there, then I think there's certainly room for that. But if more than one character is a mirror image of you, then you're weakening your work on several levels.

Ultimately, every single thing you put on the page is a choice. When readers pick up your work, all those choices will be laid bare before them and they will take away a message from them, whether that's one you intended to offer up or not. And you must take responsibility for that.

So make good choices. Be brave enough to admit when you've fallen back on safe, familiar characters without thinking it through, and be brave enough to fix those mistakes. Then your work will not only be stronger, more vibrant and more realistic, but if you're called on to defend your choices? You can do so with a clear conscience and a sense of pride in what you decided to put on the page.

I hope this is helpful to you, Cecelia. If anyone else has any writing or reading related questions, on this topic or any other, feel free to leave them in the comments. Read you next week, my muffins!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Hello, lovely readers! Nothing much to report today, except for some links to some writing I did for American blogs to coincide with the release of DARKNESS HIDDEN over there (in shiny crimson hardback, no less).

The first is an interview with Adventures in YA Publishing in which I take the opportunity to talk about taking responsibility for what you put on the page.

The second is a guest post that I was kindly invited to do by DiversityinYA, on the topic of Judging People By Their Covers.

Something of a theme going on there, I think you'll agree!

And an insight from a writer who has *finally* managed to get her hands on a much-searched-for copy of Chinese Fairytales and Fantasies by Moss Roberts: you can learn more about a culture by reading its fairytales than all its histories, biographies and reference books put together.

Next week: maybe another recipe? Let me know if there's anything else you'd like me to post on, cuties!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers - and Happy Thursday to all!

Today I've got a selection of random things to share. I hope you'll like some or all of them, so let's get started.

1) I could do without the large and annoying caption (and whatever you do, don't read the comments) but this little girl is amazing. Two separate people sent the video to me saying she reminded them very much of Mio, and since this is just how I imagined Mio fighting, it made my day.

2) Stuff for USian Dear Readers! The US edition of Darkness Hidden is officially available in hardback and ebook over there as of now, so if you've been patiently waiting for this moment - go forth! Also, my US publisher (Candlewick Press) have recommended 'Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind' - my Akira prequel story in the Things I'll Never Say anthology - for a James Tiptree Jr Award! This doesn't mean I'm actually in the running, that's up to the judges, but nevertheless, I'm thrilled. This award is about making people question their assumptions about gender and sexuality through fiction and I am 100% up for that.

3) The American School Library Journal are compiling a list of the 100 best Young Adult novels ever - and they're doing it based on a popular vote that anyone can take part in. Now, I don't know about you, but whenever a list of this type comes out I generally find myself torn between being amused, exasperated and infuriated because a good half of the books on it aren't YA or children's novels at all. They're classics written for adults that some people seem to think count as YA because... well, just because, you know, the leads are sort of youngish... and anyway kids should read them! Look, I love Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights as much as the next person, and read most of them as a teen, BUT THEY ARE NOT YOUNG ADULT NOVELS JUST BECAUSE THE MAIN CHARACTERS AREN'T MARRIED YET DAMMIT. *Pants* Anyway, I headed right over there and voted for a raft of my favourite YA novels - and I hope you'll consider taking five minutes to do the same. If you happened to pop Shadows on the Moon (still my favourite of my own novels) into your list of faves that'd be brilliant too, but of course you don't have to! Just vote anyway.

4) Lately I've been making an effort to learn to cook lots of new (healthy) recipes and have been so impressed by my own efforts that I've been tweeting progress reports and pictures. By popular demand, I've decided to share one of those recipes here. I picked a nice simple one that's good for beginners but delicious enough for confident cooks. This recipe is actually all mine, so I hope everyone likes it! It's very healthy and has about two of your five a day in it. 

Healthy and Delicious Frittata

I make enough for two with this, so I can have leftovers the next day. If you only want one meal, half the amount of ingredients. If you want to feed four, double them. Simplez!


Five large free range eggs
A splash of milk
A pinch of salt, a pinch of black pepper, and a teaspoon of dried oregano
1/2 of a red onion, thinly sliced
1 small bag of baby spinach leaves, washed
200g of boiled new potatoes, cut into 3cm cubes
200g of boiled sweet potatoes, cut into slightly larger chunks
A handful of crumbled feta cheese - about half of a small mug
A handful of sweet cherry tomatoes (Tomkin, Aromatic, Sunblush, whatever you like) cut into halves
A low fat cooking spray, or if you're not watching your weight, a teaspoon of butter and a tiny glug of oil to stop the butter burning in the pan
Optional: six to twelve thin slices of Chorizo.

First of all, cut up and boil your sweet and new potatoes. It should take about 20mins for the new potatoes - but only eight to ten for the sweet ones, so get the new ones in the pan first and then add the sweet ones later. When they're all cooked enough to slide off a knife or a fork when you stick it into them, but are still firm enough to hold their form, drain them and pop them aside in the pan, to keep warm.

Next, spray or butter/oil your frying pan and pop it on a medium high height. Wait until you can feel the heat of the pan when you hold your palm a few inches above the cooking surface, and then toss in the onions. You want to cook these until they're starting to go lovely and translucent and soft. It doesn't matter if they go a little brown but if they're starting to catch on the bottom of the pan before they look about done, tip in a little water - not too much! - it'll stop them burning and also generate some steam, which helps them cook faster.

When the onions are nearly done, empty in the baby spinach leaves. It's going to look like loads too much spinach - you'll think 'What have I done?!?' but don't worry. Another tiny glug of water into the pan and a few moments of stirring the leaves around and by the time the water has evaporated and the pan is dry again the leaves will have wilted down to about a quarter of their previous mass. When the leaves look shiny, dark and soft, all folded in on themselves, they're ready.

If you're quick at cracking and mixing eggs you can leave the pan for a second to do the next part. If you need a little more time or your hob is very hot, just take the pan off the heat for a moment. It's sensible at this point to make sure that the onions and spinach are evenly distributed around the pan because the eggs are going on top soon.

Crack your five eggs into a bowl, add the splash of milk, and the seasonings, and then whisk it all together until the mixture looks an even yellow colour. Then pour the eggs into the frying pan, and follow immediately with the sweet and new potatoes. Give them a nudge around so that they're evenly distributed across the pan as well. Then sprinkle the feta cheese all across the surface of the frittata (not putting a big chunk the section of the pan you've earmarked for yourself, because trust me, you won't end up getting that part and then you'll be sad. Fairness pays, kids!).

Leave the pan on the heat for a few minutes, watching it. When your frittata looks like this:

Eg. it's still a little gloopy and jelly-like on top, but a quick shake of the pan shows that the bottom has solidified, throw the cut up tomatoes on the top and then put the frittata under the grill (if your grill is slow to warm up, maybe put it on a few moments beforehand so it has time to warm up).

It should take four or five moments for the top of the frittata to solidify under the grill. Some people like to leave theirs under the grill until it goes really sizzly and brown on top, but if you do this chances are that the frittata will be solid in the middle. I like mine a little bit softer in the centre, more like scrambled eggs, so I take it out more quickly. This is just personal taste - do what pleases you.

Using a large spatula, cut the frittata in two and serve yourself and whoever is eating with you (or else fold the second half in two and put it in a Tupperware for tomorrow, which is what I do).


Sometimes, if I'm in the mood for something a bit meatier, I'll pop five or six thin slices of Chorizo in the oven and let them crisp up while I'm cooking the frittata, then put them on top of it once it's cooked. The Chorizo is super crunchy and salty and goes brilliantly with the cheese and eggs, but watch out - depending on how hot your oven is they really only need a few minutes, and one minute too long in the oven and you end up with charcoal, so don't get distracted!

Let me know if you try this and how it turned out. I might post more recipes in the future, since lots of lovely Tweeps keep asking me to - register your protests in the comments if it's not your thing.

Have a great weekend, duckies. I'll read you next week :)

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


Hello, Dear Readers! All is well here in Zolah-Land - and I hope the same is true for all of you.

Last week I finished the first three chapters of my Mulan retelling (otherwise known as #codenamedth) polished them up and sent them off to my agent. I'm hoping to hear what she thinks of them some time this week - cross your fingers! - but in celebration, and because I'm falling deeply in love with Mulan and their fantasy world and just want to talk and think about them all the time, I decided to share a snippet from those first chapters with you today before I move onto today's other business.

Here we go (as always, the following will be subject to change or even deletion in the actual book, so enjoy it now!):

It is my clearest childhood memory. Mother and Father bursting into my bedroom in the darkness. The screams of the servants in the corridor beyond. How my mother’s hands trembled as she drew me back against her, seeking to shield my small body with her own, heavily pregnant one. The quicksilver flash of moonlight, blindingly bright, on my father’s sword as he drew it.

We might all have been slaughtered then, for nothing more than pettiness and spite. But Hsaio’s assassins had made a mistake. They thought they would be attacking a cripple and his undefended family. They had not reckoned with the effects of my Mother’s excellent care, and Hua Zhou’s own iron will. He might be unable to run, but he could stand and walk. And when a man fought as my Father did, what need was there to run?

His enemies seemed almost to fling themselves onto his blade, eager to meet their death at his hands. Though my Mother tried to press my face into her shoulder and cover my eyes, I watched it all. He slew five men that night, single-handedly. Their blood was black in the half-light.

But one slipped past him.

Xu Guo Liang, my father’s elderly servant, flung himself into the assassin’s path, clutching a cook’s knife that he must hastily have snatched from the kitchen. The frail old man was no match for the young, ruthless killer. I heard the servant’s wet, dying gasp, and saw his knife fall, unbloodied, to the wooden floor. The assassin leaped carelessly over his crumpled body. My Mother screamed and my Father wrenched his sword from the fifth assassin’s chest and whirled – and faltered, his bad leg going out from under him.

Everything up to that moment is as clear to me as the slow, serene drift of clouds moving over still water. But what happened next, I barely remember. I can only believe it happened because my Father gravely described it to me over and over, so that I could understand what I had done, and accept it. My Mother always refused to speak of it.

I, the seven year old daughter of the house, with arms as small and thin as twigs, who had never even seen a weapon before, let alone held one, ripped free of my mother’s desperate grasp and seized the knife from the floor. The assassin stooped over my mother, his own blade black, dripping in his hand...

I stabbed him.

You might question how my tiny hands had the strength – how I even knew where to aim the blade – but somehow I managed to drive the knife into the assassin’s gut hard enough to wrench it from my fingers and send him flailing back, with a howl of surprise and fury, into range of my Father’s sword.

It only took a single stoke of that great blade to dispatch him. Panting, disbelieving, Father staggered to his feet and turned to stare at me.

“Don’t you dare go near my Mother!” I shrilled, standing there with blood on my hands – shaking not with fear, but with fury. “I hope it hurts, you coward!” 

*   *   *

What do you think, my muffins? Let me know in the comments! I'd really like to hear what people think not only of this piece of writing but the whole concept of the story - a fantasy version of Imperial China and a trans* protagonist - and I'm especially interested in anything that Chinese or trans* Dear Readers would like to share. I've had a couple of humbling, profound conversations with some exceptional youngsters about this book - one young man gave me such brilliant insight into gender-fluidity that it took a weight off my mind about how I wanted to portray Mulan - and I'm always open to more inspiration. Getting this book right, making it as good as it can be, really, really matters to me.

In other news, I sadly had to give up my idea of doing a Faux-NaNo throughout November, because Wonder Editor got in touch to let me know that she hopes to get the second round of edits on Barefoot on the Wind back to me early this month. I know I'll need to drop everything and focus on that when they arrive, so I'm just sticking to my previous slow-and-steady writing schedule until then. One day I'm going to make NaNo happen for me, dammit!

Now onto the other major reason for today's blog: I want your opinion on what YA book I should work on next after Mulan.

You might ask why I'm even wondering about that when Mulan isn't even half drafted yet, but this is the way my mind works. I always like to know where my energy's going to be directed in the long term, or else I start to worry that I'm going to run out of ideas and end up blankly staring at an empty page. For a long time I've had several contracts with my publisher lined up ahead of me and so I had a really strong idea of what books I would be working on and in what order. That's not the case right now - I don't even have a contract for Mulan. And of course my publisher will have the final word on what they want to contract me to write if and when I do get a new contract/s. But I'd like your input too.

Here are the half-cooked ideas which are swimming around in the warm stew of my brain juice right now:

1) Winterthorne. The most developed of my ideas right now, this book has three chapters and a detailed synopsis. I also shared a snippet of it with you in this post. It's a timeslip novel with the narrative divided between two protagonists - a rich, privileged girl leading a circumscribed life under her family's thumb in the glamorous 1920's, and a penniless, rudderless young woman stuck in care in the modern day. This book was inspired by the lush, romantic works of novelists like Diana Gabaldon, Mary Stewart and Kate Mosse. But because the setting is partly contemporary and timeslip is out of fashion in YA right now, it's a bit of a hard sell to my publisher. Here's the Pinterest board.

2) The Griffin Book. That's not the real title - I'm still mulling that over - but it sums up the major thing the story is about, which is a high fantasy world where society is shared between humans and a race of super intelligent, super magical griffin-like creatures (huge and winged, with the heads of eagles and the bodies of cats) who live in peace with each other. The setting is inspired by diverse cultures like ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, Persia, and Byzantium, and the story's centre is the passionate, platonic romance between an asexual young woman and a glorious griffin whom she rescues, and who wants to show her the skies (and save the world and stuff). Here's the Pinterest board.

3) Another fairytale or myth retelling. This is the sketchiest option of all - I haven't even decided which fairytale or myth it would be or where it would be set or anything. I've got a variety of things in mind - for instance The Little Mermaid, the story of Medusa, a myth from the Welsh Mabinogion - but I don't know how I'd develop them. I don't have a Pinterest board for this option. I'm really just seeing if my readers would be happy for me to do three fairytale or myth retellings in a row (Barefoot on the Wind, Mulan and then another) or if you'd rather I space these out a bit more and write different things in between.

Here's the poll - feel free to chime in here or in the comments with any other ideas :)

Which project should I work on next?

The Griffin Book
Another fairytale or myth retelling
Please Specify:
fun quizzes

Read you later, pumpkins! 

Monday, 26 October 2015


Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Monday to you all, and thanks for joining me for today's post! What is our theme this fine morning, you might ask?

One Song to Rule them all, One Song to find them
One Song to bring them all and in the darkness bind them... 

OK, that sounds... a tiny bit sinister, but I promise it's not. What am I on about, you wonder? Well, the other day I was listening wistfully to my #BaBBook playlist (because it's probably the loveliest playlist I've ever made and I sort of miss it) and I tweeted a link to a particular track saying 'If you want to know what my Beauty & the Beast retelling feels like as a song, this is it.'

Then it occurred to me that actually, there's a song like that on the playlist for every book I've ever written, going right back to my very first YA novel that didn't even get published. One Song (if you will) that just summed up the atmosphere, the central character's struggle, the soul and feel of the thing for me. 

Sometimes I got this wrong in my initial playlist and then got stuck and had to re-think because that key track acts as a sort of story linchpin for me, drawing all the other songs, other moods, other characters in towards that unnameable, ineffable thing that I was trying to get at with this particular story.

This struck me as kind of cool. And once I'd realised that, I thought maybe it would be interesting for Dear Readers to able to listen to these One Songs and compare them? So I decided to do a post about it, and here we are.

First up is the One Song for BLOOD MAGIC, which was the very first YA novel I ever completed. I sent this to every single children's book publisher in the UK, and two in Australia, and was rejected by all of them - but it was this book which caught the attention of my first first editor when it landed on the slushpile of my current publisher Walker Books, and launched me on my publishing journey. So it served a very useful purpose in the end.

It was a high fantasy novel about a young noblewoman with a magical ability so terrifying that it would have led to her instant execution if she was found out (which of course, she eventually was). She ended up saving her country and her King's life with that talent, but the story had a bittersweet ending, with her and her lover spared their lives as a result of the King's gratitude, but at the cost of being banished from their beloved home country. Along the way the heroine - Rialenthe, Countess of Kefari (*snorfle*) - lost her father and her best friend. Really, it was quite dark and I think the One Song definitely reflects that! It's Elysium from the Gladiator soundtrack by Hans Zimmer:

The next book is my first published one THE SWAN KINGDOM, which was a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale 'The Wild Swans'. The song is called Cumulus by Imogen Heap, but I always identified it so strong with my heroine's character and her journey through the story from tentative, unsure, and afraid, to strong, beautiful and confident, that in my head the song will always be called 'Alexandra'. There's so much in this song that links to the way I feel about the book, and when I listen to it I imagine clouds passing over the sun, ripples moving across the surface of deep green water, and tall rushes singing in the wind.

Next up is DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES - the book where I took the 'lost heir' or 'lost prince' trope and tried to turn it on its head by having the lost conquering royal hero who must reclaim their throne and bring balance to the Kingdom be a biracial girl with facial disfigurement and an awesome, disabled husband. I used a lot of the Gladiator soundtrack for this as well, but when I think back to writing it, the song I know I listened to the most, and which summed up the epic, tense, high fantasy vibe I really wanted was The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance:

I wrote all the fight scenes to that - I probably listened to it over a hundred times just writing the final confrontation between the heroine, Zahira and the antagonist alone. Incidentally, the singer, Lisa Gerrard, is the same one you hear singing on the track Elysium above.

My third book, SHADOWS ON THE MOON, is a Cinderella retelling set in a fairytale version of Feudal Japan, where the heroine witnesses her family murdered and discovers she has a talent for concealing herself with illusions when this talent is all that saves her own life. After the shocking discovery of whom was responsible for the attack that killed her father and adopted sister, she becomes ruthlessly fixated upon revenge and decides to try to win the Prince's favour in order to use his political power to destroy her enemy.

This book actually had two really significant linchpin pieces - I think because it's so long and took so long to write. The way the heroine exchanges identities throughout the book probably has something to do with it, too. I thought long and hard about which song to include, but eventually decided to go with the first one, because I think the second is more about the mask that the main character is wearing (playing the part of a beautiful courtesan named Yue) in the final part of the book than the person she really is inside (a frightened, bereaved young woman named Suzume). So you get The Meadow from the Twilight: New Moon score by Andre Desplat. It sums up Suzume's desperate search for a place to belong, an identity that feels like it's hers, a family that's worth of her. Weirdly this isn't on the soundtrack that's on Spotify - I had to link to YouTube instead:

The next one makes my dilemma over the One Song for Shadows look like cake, though. It's FROSTFIRE, the companion novel to Daughter of the Flames, another epic high fantasy, this time about a young woman named Frost who lives under a curse of berserker rage that can be triggered at any time and which has ruined her life. In her search for a cure she gets tangled up in the conflict left over after the events of the previous book, and comes to love two men whose lives hang in the balance of that battle.

Now, when I first began writing this book, Frost was a boy. Love interest #1 (Luca) was a girl, and the third person in their triangle was a boy called Arian. But then I realised Frost had tricked me. I knew Frost was a tall, very physically strong person with daddy issues who wielded their father's axe, so I assumed boy, but actually the character was a girl. But I didn't see why Luca should have to change. So I wrote a lesbian high fantasy. But that version just didn't work for my editor - not because of the sexuality of the protagonists, but because in my eagerness to get my first queer love story right I'd focused on that romance to the exclusion of everything else and the voice, pacing, plot, other characters... basically nothing else really worked. So I ended up making Luca a male character, threw out the entire first draft and started again from scratch (I still think of this book as a queer love story, btw, since my head canon is that Arian is bisexual).

Throughout this whole process of changing genders and writing new books with the same title and character names, I went through many, many, maaaaany tracks which I thought might be this novel's One Song. But I didn't find it until midway through writing that final, definitive version. You can imagine my relief! It's The Gravel Road from the score for The Village by James Newton Howard:

This song still makes me tear up a little - it speaks so poignantly about Frost's longing and loneliness, her romantic, loving heart. Plus, there's a certain series of notes within the piece (near the middle) that sounds like the distant call of a lone wolf to me, and that's a very important image in the book.

Now onto the NAME OF THE BLADE trilogy! This is my very first trilogy and also my very first urban fantasy story. It's set in contemporary Britain and is the story of a British-born Japanese teenager who 'borrows' a priceless ancestral katana (a Japanese longsword) from her family's attic and unwittingly unleashes the Gods and monsters of mythical Japan onto the streets of modern day London. The book has an all PoC cast and includes genderfluid and gay characters, plus unexpectedly badass parents, smexy fox spirits and all kinds of chaotic shenanigans.

For a while I was a bit stumped by how to pick a One Song for the trilogy, since each of the three books had a different playlist and a different One Song. And this post is already long enough! But then I whapped myself on the forehead for being so dense, because there's always been a single One Song that I've returned to again and again that just sums up everything I love about the trilogy, everything that makes it special to me - the fast pace, the Japanese influence, the modernity - and everything that makes the heroine Mio (who hangs onto her sense of humour grimly by her fingernails to the very end) a unique character. Long time blog readers have heard it before - it's Paprika from the Paprika score by Susumu Hirasawa (again, not available except on YouTube - whydo you hate me Spotify?):

Finally, it's the One Song that started it all, the track that sums up the essence of BAREFOOT ON THE WIND, my most recent fairytale retelling and the companion novel to Shadows, set in the same Japanese influenced fairytale world of Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni. 

This song sums up everything about my heroine, Hana. She's quiet and pragmatic, and just gets on with things - but underneath the matter-of-fact exterior there's such a painfully deep well of feelings which she's desperate to find a way to express. The narrative of the story and the deepening, changing relationships between her and the other central characters builds up inexorably towards a confrontation between Hana, a perfectly ordinary village girl who has only common sense, kindness, and determination on her side, and the monstrous magical forces aligned against her. This One Song really captures that sense of running out of control towards something that may be miraculous or fearful. It's Experience by Ludovico Einaudi and I love it:

I hope this has been as interesting for you to read and listen to as it was for me to write, Dear Readers! What a fun trip down memory lane. Read you later, honeys!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


Happy Tuesday, lovely muffins! Welcome back!

Today I bring you a new page for the blog - on which all the Name of the Blade 'deleted scenes' (really bonus content specially written for the FRAIL HUMAN HEART blog tour) are now gathered together. Before you flick over there, just be aware that each scene is 100% spoilers. If you've read the whole trilogy or don't mind spoilers - proceed. Otherwise flee, flee, while you have the chance! Failure to heed this warning may result in wailing, gnashing of teeth and annoyed comments on this blog (but you will get a big fat zero of sympathy from me, so better not bother).

In other news, if you, like me, are constantly on the look out for cool geek-chic clothing, you might want to know about a great site I recently discovered, called Society6. I've only ordered T-shirts from them so far, but I've been delighted with the quality, selection and shipping speed of my orders. Society6's prices (including the cost of shipping) are reasonable, working out - once converted from dollars to pounds - at a bit less than fourteen pounds a shirt, which is the same or less than a lot of the far less interesting T-shirts you normally see in UK shops.

What's more, they have great unisex v-neck tops (I'm so sick of wafer thin, skin-tight 'girls' t-shirts, or boys ones that have such a tiny neck I can barely fit my hair through it) which are made of thick, snuggly soft brushed cotton.

Here's a selection of what I've bought recently (don't judge my spending spree - they gave me free shipping and a money off coupon, OK?):


And every purchase you make pays directly to the artist who designed the shirt! The site aren't paying me for this endorsement, by the way - I'm just overjoyed to finally find an outlet that carries the type of T-shirt I can happily and comfortably lounge about in all day, writing, without feeling like a slob. Now I can throw away all the thin crappy ones that have pointless love hearts or diamante butterflies on (OK, fine, I'll donate them to charity, happy?).

I've just broken 10,000 words on my Mulan retelling and am starting to find my protagonist's distinctive and - I think - compelling voice. I'm moving slowly on this book, moving tentatively around the edges of my fictional world while I continue to research Tang Dynasty China feverishly. I'll know when I've done 'enough' research when I've absorbed so much detail that I feel comfortable letting go of all my reference books and just inventing things in my fictional, fantasy version of China without checking.

I'm also moving slowly because, honestly, I hate writing beginnings. I'm hoping that by setting myself a target of between 600 and 1000 words a day instead of expecting myself to produce huge chunks at the outset, I can progress the story in a worthwhile way but avoid my all too common problem of having to chuck out the first 3-9 chapters later on when I revise.

It's going so well at the moment that I'm thinking of doing a sort of... Faux-NaNoWriMo this year. Not real NaNo of course. I've already started the book, which disqualifies me. Also, as long-time blog readers know, every time (every. single. time) that I declare I'm going to do NaNo this year, something awful happens to me. Flu. Prolapsed disc. Food poisoning. Family drama. No more of that! My NaNo will be informal and less ambitious - I'll just up my word target to 1000 words or more a day, six days a week, and try to significantly bump my overall word count by the end of the month.

Anyone who wants to join in with Faux-NaNo is very welcome to post their progress in the comments on my checking in posts - which I'll probably put up once a week.

What's going on in your lives - writing or otherwise - cookies? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to you all. Before I move onto the main topic of today's post I just need to say a huge thank you to writer pals Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery, and to all the lovely writers (old friends and new) who were at the #UKYAX on Saturday. I think I can honestly say it was the most relaxed, happy book event I've ever been to. If any of you were there, Dear Readers, I hope you had as wonderful a time as I did. If not - try to make it next time! I certainly will :)

With thanks Kendra Leighton and Chelley Toy for the pics!

And now... My review of Life & Death by Stephenie Meyer (henceforth referred to as Smeyer in the grand old Zoë-Trope tradition) which is, in case you've been peacefully snoozing in a woodland grotto for the past week, a genderbent retelling of her internationally bestselling YA vampire novel Twilight. (Guys, you have no idea how hard I had to look to find a link that wasn't spoilery! I'm not going to spoil anyone with this review if I can help it, by the way - there will be spoilers, but they'll be hidden under a cut at the end so you can avoid).

Yes, that's right. Smeyer went ahead and did a genderbent AU of her own novel to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the book's publication. When I heard this I actually had to check the date because I thought it couldn't possibly be serious - it had to be April Fool's, right? But no. It was really true! And then I couldn't decide if I thought it was the worst train-wreck-you-can't-look-away-from idea ever or the best thing I'd heard since Taylor Swift released 'Wildest Dreams' on single. What? Just... I mean... WHAT?!?

Longtime blog readers know that in the past I have taken issue with Twilight (although that was before everyone else started making a career out of slamming it, by which point it seemed a little mean-spirited) and have on occasion chosen to use it to illustrate dos and don'ts of writing. So why would I be interested in buying my very own copy of a book in which the author had presumably simply pressed 'Find' and 'Replace' on the names and had the whole thing rebound for a quick anniversary cash-grab? Well, two reasons, muffins:

1) I genuinely enjoyed Smeyer's later novel The Host, and thought it showed a marked improvement in her ability as both a craftsperson and storyteller. I believed (rightly as it turned out) that she wouldn't be able to resist meddling in more than a superficial way with this new version of her story, and I wanted to see if she could substantially improve it.

2) I love fanfic! Some of my favourite fanfic is Twilight AUs where people change one significant detail about the story and make it awesome. If I'm willing to read it on A03, I should be willing to read the author's own take, right?

So here's the book's deal. Bella has become Beau (short for Beaufort, ikr) and Edward is now Edythe (ha ha ha. Ahem. No, apparently there was at least one real live person called Edythe during the period that Edward would have been alive, so... we just have to go with it. And thanks for that link, Sally!).

But Smeyer has done more than this. She has also changed the gender of almost every other character in the book, including all the vampires except one, a couple of minor non-speaking roles, and Bella - sorry, Beaufort's - parents, Renee and Charlie (and Phil). She states this is because she finds it tough to believe an unemployed father would have been given custody of a baby back in the 80s when Beau was born, and... eh, maybe she's right. What this change makes clear, though, is how dominated by male characters (major, minor and incidental) the story was previously. Life and Death feels stuffed full of women instead, which just shows how easily we forget that women are actually 52% of the planet's population.

Now, in Smeyer's interviews about this book, and in her author's note, she says that she decided to bend the genders (by the way, I'm using 'bend' rather than 'swap' to describe this because I think it better acknowledges that there are, in fact, more than two genders in the world) of her characters because she was sick of seeing people talk about Bella as a damsel in distress. She felt the character only got flak for being obsessed with love/sparkly vampires as a result of being a girl. I think she wanted to show that these choices in characterisation were nothing to do with Bella's gender and everything to do with being a human playing in a world of monsters and magic.

Did she succeed in this? Not really, to be honest. Not necessarily because she's wrong in her point about how we respond to male versus female characters, though. More on that anon. I think Smeyer's mistake is she fell into that trap herself - she even acknowledges it (albeit without apparently realising she's done so). She states straight out in her author's note that Beau's personality 'developed' differently than Bella's. Her opinion on this is that Beau is merely less angry than Bella, doesn't carry a chip on his shoulder like his female counterpart, and is 'more OCD'.

But Smeyer is wrong. Bella never came across as particularly angry or OCD (not loving the casual flinging about of this mental illness, btw, but we'll give benefit of the doubt and assume she really does mean her character has a very mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder, rather than that she's using the term to be cute). Bella never came across as having a chip on her shoulder. She never came across as much of ANYTHING, really.

Bella is a personality void in the story. A list of traits which the other characters respond to as if they were real, but which are never truly demonstrated to us, the readers, in a way that makes her feel alive.

And that is the main difference between Life and Death and Twilight. Because Beau? Actually has a personality.

Yes, the story makes it clear that he possesses the same rather generic list of traits which are all we really know about Bella - the clumsiness, the social awkwardness/shyness, the reserve, the apparent ingrained need to cook and clean, the liking for classic literature - but either because of a natural increase in Smeyer's skill or because she sympathises with male characters more (Edward was always her writer's pet, after all) Beau manages to seem like an actual person on the page.

Despite moaning about looking after his mother, whining about the move to Forks, failing to connect with Charlie, and mocking/snarking about his classmates in exactly the same way (sometimes in almost identical words) to Bella, Beau is immediately vastly more sympathetic as a character. At first I felt that this was my own internal misogyny (yes, we all have it) telling me that a boy in the position of caring for his mother since childhood, and forced out of his home by her all-consuming love for her new husband, was more interesting and worthy of respect than a girl in a similar position.

And perhaps that is partly true. But what is also true is that Smeyer's other changes, large and small, mean that Beau seems like a real, awkward teen, dealing awkwardly with being put in an awkward position. He seems to have some degree of inner life. He doesn't express himself with the same stilted formality that Bella does, doesn't seem to have his life on pause waiting for someone to come along and give it meaning. He demonstrates traits within the action of the story instead of relying on his narration to inform us of them. We can see that while he's shy and awkward, he's also an incredibly laid back type. He doesn't worry much about the future. He has a sense of humour that isn't limited to making deprecating cracks at his classmates. He's aware of his own faults but seems to have at least some sense of self and even self-esteem. Maybe this was how Smeyer always saw Bella. But at the time of writing Twilight she didn't have the skill to show us any of it. Now she does.

Something else Smeyer gets right in L&D is to immediately make explicit the fact that Charlie chose to leave Beau with Renee not because he believed it was best for Beau, but because he knew 'Renee needed him'. Charlie gets a lot of sympathy in Twilight because of Bella's apparent indifference to him. He's cast in many people's eyes as a perfect, loving father with an ungrateful, cold off-spring. Reading in this new version that Charlie prioritised the well-being of his scatty ex-wife over that of his small child, and that Beau consequently was balancing Renee's chequebook and doing her laundry as soon as he could add up and reach the buttons on the washing machine - and that Charlie knew this and approved! - makes Beau's lack of interest in his dad, and his abrupt, overwhelming attachment not only to Edythe (protective, caring Edythe) but to her helicopter family seem much more logical.

When Beau meets Edythe not only is his reaction to her much more immediately romantic - and less filled with terror and hurt - it is also intensely physical. Bella is obsessed with Edward mostly, it seems, because he was mean to her, and then saved her life and was mean to her again. When the realisation comes that she's in love with him it seems to come out of nowhere. But Beau is unequivocally obsessed with Edythe from the start because he finds her hot and sexy and gorgeous and just can't believe she might look sideways at a normal guy like him, and it's clear that he knows it's not sensible or healthy - but he still wants her any way he can get her.

Because of this vital, profound difference between Bella and Beau - not in their genders but in their characters - it's much more difficult to compare Twilight and Life & Death than it might first appear. Having a central character, a first person narrator, who is sympathetic to some extent (although his blithering on about Edith's perfection is as boring as ever) makes a massive difference in the overall quality of the book.

Onto the other vampires of the Cullen clan! Dr Carlisle Cullen becomes Dr Carine Cullen - a Grace Kelly/Marilyn Monroe look-alike, but even more beautiful (pfft). The maternal, beautiful Esme becomes gentle stay-at-home husband Earnest, whose looks aren't really mentioned. Rosalie becomes Royal, dubbed 'the golden quarterback and homecoming king' by Beau, and possessor of a surprising man-bun. Emmett is Eleanor, a terrifyingly aggressive foil for Royal. Jasper is Jessamine, feline and spooky. Alice is Archie, and somehow becomes far less extreme, far warmer, less shrill (I hate to use that word for any female character, but come on) and more interesting in the process.

It's really telling to me how, in attempting to preserve the pre-bend traits of the younger vampires in their new genders, Smeyer instantly makes them more interesting. When all the female vampires suddenly become animalistic, intimidating and not-to-be-messed with, and the male ones are mostly described in terms of their hair and beauty it makes you realise how strongly gender-essentialist the book was in the first place. But Smeyer does some rapid work on the backstories of some characters here too, because apparently it wouldn't do to give a male character a history of having survived sexual assault, or a female one a past as a (terrible amateur) vampire hunter. Would it? *Raises eyebrow*

As for Edythe - she initially seems the least interesting of the bunch, although Smeyer goes to a lot of effort to switch up the descriptions of her to make it clear that she's super feminine. Her hair is strikingly 'metallic', leading me to believe it's more bright coppery-red than that famously ambiguous 'bronze' ascribed to Edward. She's tiny, but as graceful as a dancer (a description previously reserved for Alice). Her hands are described as 'little' and her eyes are 'long', although she does have 'surprisingly muscular' forearms (natch). Beau towers over her. It almost seems fitting for such a fairy-like creature to sparkle in the sunlight.

As the book progresses onward, however, Edythe also emerges as a distinct character from Edward. Freed of the need to act the Bryonic, tortured hero, Edythe keeps her (audible to Beau, anyway) self-loathing and self-castigation to a minimum, exhibits some interest in Beau as a person rather than as the vessel for floral-scented tastyblood (with thanks to Cleolinda) and an impenetrable mind, appears to have a rudimentary sense of humour herself, and offers convincing emotional vulnerability that actually makes the sudden, desperate connection between the two feel somewhat realistic.

OK, she's the definition of a manic pixie dream girl, and OK, she indulges in the same sort of weirdo stalker behaviour as her male counterpart. But she actually seems sorry, which is more then Edward ever does. What's more, her inhumanity, her alienness, are so much better established that it feels much easier to accept that she cannot be expected to conform to human behavioural norms. Beau's easy and unquestioning acceptance feels more like a reinforcement of his irrational crush rather than a death-wish.

Less wholesomely, Beau's repeated and loving descriptions of the hollows under Edythe's cheeks, her 'sharp' shoulder-blades, 'thin' arms, the 'fragile' 'twigs' of her collarbone, her 'vulnerable' slenderness and the fact that he can count her ribs makes it clear that part of Edythe's beauty is severe emaciation (presumably from having been half dead of Spanish 'flu when Carine transformed her). Beau not only notices this thinness; he clearly desires it desperately. It's a facet of her appeal. Something deeply whiggy is coming out of the author's subconscious there and I think these parts should have been edited responsibly before the book was published.

Another interesting thing that swims to light in this new version is how truly odd and out of place it appears when everyone in Beau's life, including Charlie, seems fixated on getting him paired off with a girl and attending the dance. I honestly can't remember if this plot point was hammered home with such verve in the original book. Maybe it's not. Or maybe we're all just much more used to seeing girls pressured to fall in love and focus on romance and defining themselves by relationships (preferably with boys). All I know is that by the time Beau finally confesses his and Edythe's relationship to his father, I was starting to think that Charlie was caught up in some kind of mortal panic that his son might be gay. Leave the kid alone!

More messed-up stuff comes in the form of Charlie *not* bothering to sabotage Beau's truck when he thinks his son is going to sneak off, as he does with Bella's in the same situation. Apparently only girl children need their autonomy physically restricted, kids! I also remain baffled by how a vampire who has been eavesdropping on both humans and vampires thinking about and having sex for nearly a hundred years, apparently manages to know absolutely nothing about it - a fact of the story that sadly remains unchanged.

Cool stuff comes from the new Volturi, who have a different line-up and a totally awesome history that took me by surprise. If only Smeyer had used this version in the original books and allowed them to be multidimensional people instead of pantomime villains! Also, there's less pointed victim-blaming from Edythe for Beau. I wonder why...

And now: spoilers!

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