Monday, 28 February 2011


Hi guys! Monday again, and I hope you're all having a sterling day, or at least one that you can live through.

First today, of all I want to remind everyone about The Iron Witch giveaway. If you haven't entered yet, get your butt in gear and clickety on this link RIGHT NOW. I pick the winner on Wednesday, so there isn't much time left.

In other news, I'm still deep in the grip of my FrostFire rewrite here. As a result, today I'm going to do a little round-up for you of writing links that I personally find useful.

1) FIVE WRITING MANTRAS THAT BEAR REPEATING. Inspiring words from SF author James Maxey.

2) ON INSPIRATION. Useful common-sense advice from bestselling YA fantasy author Cassandra Clare.

3) WHEN THE WRITING ISN'T WORKING. Comfort and help from YA fantasy author Jackie Kessler.

4) FIVE THINGS THAT DEFINE MY WRITING. A thoughtful post from me about the themes I like to explore.

5) CHARACTER PRIORITIES AND JET PROPULSION. Some solid points from Dystopian YA author Veronica Roth.

With any luck, you'll get as much excitement and interest out of these as I did.

Before I go, I want to put something to you all. I've been blogging since June last year, and a lot of my early posts were basically seen by me and about four others. And some of those were good posts that I'm proud of. So I'm considering re-posting some of those early articles now, to allow new readers or sporadic readers who've missed posts, to see them without having to trawl forwards through the blog archive to do it. How does everyone feel about that? Even if you did read the posts the first time around, would you find it interesting to get a chance to re-read?

Well, that's all from me today. See you Wednesday, when I'll be picking one lucky winner for The Iron Witch!

Friday, 25 February 2011


Hi everyone, and happy Friday! My re-write on FF is starting to heat-up and it's getting where I don't really want to stop writing at all, so today's post will be short, but hopefully sweet.

The topic of writing roadblocks was inspired by regular commentor Megha, who asked me a couple of separate questions in various comments, which I've smushed together to make this:

"Do you ever feel that your plot is too... big? Too much? I'm scared of starting my novel. It has been planned and plotted properly, and now I'm too scared to start. It's not writers' block, I know. And I know that all the writers go through this. My planning's done. There's nothing LEFT to plan about. I need to start, but I can't."

This is a writing roadblock.

Megha is right - this does happen to most writers at some time or other, for various reasons. In my case I'm usually scared the story is too SMALL, rather than too big. I worry that not enough happens, that I haven't made the right choices to stretch my characters, that I'll just run out of stuff to write after 30,000 words. I worry that it's all flawed because I've missed some huge, vital conflict that would have made everything worthwhile. Hence this Post-It stuck in the first page of my FF notebook:

But being scared that the story is too big, that it's too ambitious, that you won't do it justice, that it'll be too long...those are crippling fears too (I know, 'cos that's The Scary Place I've posted about here, and which I usually enter at around the 50% mark of my manuscript).

These roadblocks are hard to break through specifically because they don't come from the logical part of your brain. They're not based on anything you can put your finger on. They just appear out of nowhere, causing a nebulous sense of dread that makes us feel we'd do anything, even scrub the bathroom clean with a toothbrush, to avoid actually writing.

This isn't about writer's block in the sense that I think writer's block normally has one of several concrete causes (which you can read about here). This is basically about your own fears, your conscious and unconscious worries about writing, getting all snarled up and taking all the fun out of everything. And there's only one cure. One way to kick that writing roadblock to the curb.

If you've read many of my writing posts before, you probably know what I'm going to say next.

The one way to destroy a writing roadblock is to write.

It will NOT go away on its own. You won't wake up one day and find it's miraculously evaporated. You may wake up on many mornings thinking 'This is the day! Today I will write!' and then find yourself making excuses, procrastinating and pottering until it's midnight and you need to get to bed, but that's obviously not very useful. You will never be able to escape the sense of horrible forboding until you punch through it and actually write. And the longer you leave it? The harder it gets.

I know it's horrible! Believe me, I know! But taking charge is the only way.


  • Put the plans/notes/story outlines/folders of maps you've made for this story away.   
At this point you're using these as an excuse to avoid writing. They've become part of the problem. Put them at the bottom of the draw. You are forbidden to look until you actually NEED to check a fact or remind yourself of something. 
  • Leave your normal writing place. 
If you've been sat in the same room in the same chair, or lying on your bed, or sat at your desk, every day, stewing over his for hours at a time, your brain has now incorporated the location into your sense of dread. Go somewhere else. Somewhere you would never normally associate with writing. A new coffee shop. A corner in the library. A friend's house, if they can be trusted to leave you alone. I find trains very good for this, personally. Anyway, chose a place and go there. 
  • Set yourself a time and stick to it. 
Tell yourself that you will start writing at precisely whatever-o'clock and that you will write for a certain, set amount of time. Make it manageable. It's no good saying you'll get up at 6:00am and write for three hours. You'll fail and feel even worse. Give yourself a reasonable start time, and a reasonable writing period. Half an hour is a good stretch to start. 
  • Remind yourself that you're just scribbling. 
You're just writing to fill up the blank page at this point. It doesn't have to be great. It doesn't even have to be good. I find it useful to use a pencil and paper when doing this, because it looks messy and smudgy and reminds you that it's just scribbling, not actual writing. But if you normally write with pen and paper, maybe you'd want to switch to a laptop, so long as you're okay taking it with you to wherever you've chosen to write.

You don't have to start at the beginning of your story. You can plunge straight into that awesome scene from the middle that's been teasing you. You can write a long, rambling speech from that noisy character who keeps muttering in the back of your head. Whatever you want to write and which seems fun. Don't set yourself a word or page target either. You just need to scribble for the required time.  

That's all. 

As soon as you've started writing again, as soon as you've defied the dread and the worry and the stressing-out and put pen to paper for fun again, you remember why you actually wanted to do this writing lark to start with.

Don't go too fast - don't put pressure on yourself when you start to feel better. But don't let yourself off the hook either. Keep doing your half-hour scribbling sessions until you get to the point where you're starting to over-run, to not want to stop. Then stretch yourself with forty minutes. Maybe think, 'Today, I'm going to use my forty minutes to play around with opening lines. Opening paragraphs for the first chapter. Hmmm...'

Then one day you'll find you've written for two hours straight and that you've got a first chapter staring at you.

Writing roadblock? Dust.

Right - time for me to get back to my precious. Hope this was helpful everyone - and have a great weekend!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Hello, dear readers, and Happy Wednesday to you! Today I've got such a special treat that I'm bouncing up and down slightly as I write this (I apologise for any resulting typos).

I had been aware of the buzz surrounding The Iron Witch for some time before it came out, mostly as a result of the beautiful and evocative cover, but also because I had heard intriguing things about the storyline featuring a strong heroine and a scrumptious hero. I went out and snagged a copy on the day of publication and I loved it, finding it a beautifully written and unique YA treatment of ancient British folklore skillfully woven with more modern myths of Alchemy.

In a strange coincidence (or was it?) Karen was one of the very first people that I 'spoke' to when I signed up for Twitter, and I soon learned that under her smiley, innocent exterior there lurked a fiendish alter-ego, known to her friends as Kaz.

So what could I do, dear readers, but try and pin this elusive writer person down for your entertainment? Luckily Kaz agreed to find the time in her currently rather hectic schedule to do a mini-interview on The Zoë-Trope, and I think her answers are extremely illuminating, although I'm pretty sure she toned down her eeeevil for the sake of our delicate sensibilities (but it's there, guys. The eeeeevil is there).

Me: Hi Kaz, and welcome to my blog! Anything you'd like to say before we start?

Kaz: First of all, thank you very much for inviting me over to chat! :) 

Me: You are very welcome. We're honoured to have you. And now - let the interrogation begin!  

Question One: When writing The Iron Witch, who or what was the core of the story for you, the element you loved the most or which was most important?

Kaz: That’s such a great first question. I’d say that the core of the story, which only really came out as I was writing, is the question: ‘How far would you go to protect someone you love?’ That’s the question that Donna Underwood, my main character, has to answer for herself, and I wanted to get across to the reader the terrible decision that she has to make – will she betray the secret Order of alchemists she’s been brought up with, to save her best friend’s life? I think this is a big part of why I love the cover so much: the dilemma is clear to see, showing a girl torn by the decision she has to make.

Question Two: You are British, but your debut novel is set in Ironbridge, an American town. What was the reason for this, and did it present any specific challenges to write?

Kaz: I never even thought about setting The Iron Witch in the UK. That sounds strange, considering it’s where I was born and has been my home all my life, but I’ve always loved the US and it makes sense for me to write stories set there. I’m particularly fond of New England—specifically Boston—so I created my own city, Ironbridge, and set it in Massachusetts. It’s a combination of everything I love about Boston and London; Ironbridge Common is a badly disguised Boston Common. ;)

There were challenges, because I had to Americanise (Americanize!) all my spellings and make sure to pick US words over their British equivalents. But I have American and Canadian critique partners, so that helped a lot. Also, I love TV shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars and The Vampire Diaries, and I think that way of speaking is just embedded in my brain somewhere.

Question Three: What is your writing process like? (ie. Do you type straight onto a laptop or use pen and paper? Where do you normally work? Are you a planner or a pantser?)

Kaz: I work best in cafés. I know that’s a total cliché, but it’s true – I’m currently typing my answers to these questions while sitting in one of my favourite writing haunts. There’s something about the bustle of life and people around me that sort of helps me to focus. When I’m researching, planning and brainstorming I write in Moleskine notebooks. (Though, when I say “planning,” I don’t mean strict outlining.) Writing a first draft is usually done on my trusty Alphasmart. It’s perfect because it ensures I can’t go online while writing, and you can only see a few lines of text at a time – which stops you from editing too much as you go along. I then download the day’s writing onto my laptop and run through it quickly to fix formatting and typos, then don’t touch it again until the whole draft is done and I’m onto revisions. Revisions have to be done on the laptop, and that’s where I struggle most – I much prefer blasting out first drafts. Rewrites and edits take me aaages.

Question Four: Can you tell us something - any tiny little detail - about The Iron Witch sequel?

Kaz: In The Wood Queen you will find out what really happened to Donna in the Ironwood, back when she was seven years old. You’ll also meet some alchemists from the other Orders – specifically the Order of the Crow (which is based in London) – when they all travel to Ironbridge for Donna’s trial.

Question Five: If you had to pick a song to listen to right now, what would it be?

Kaz: Oooh… I would listen to ‘You’ll Be Mine’ by The Pierces. I absolutely love it, and keep playing it over and over. It’s very magical and speaks of folklore and fairytales – the video is pretty awesome, too.

Ach, weren't those amazing answers! And just to make today's blog post even more special, I'm going to give away my copy of The Iron Witch (so that's a UK paperback, obviously) to one lucky reader! I will also include various bits of Shadows on the Moon swag, just to make it more interesting.

That's right, folks, the awesome is unstoppable today.

The giveaway is open to everyone in the whole world. To enter you need to Tweet a link to this blog post, share it on Facebook or in some way spread the word - it doesn't matter how, but please pop a link into the comments.

If you decide to link to the blog in more than one place, make sure you put each link you provide in a SEPARATE COMMENT on this post, or my random-number-generator-fu may go awry. But you don't have to. One link each is fine. The competition is open until next Wednesday.

Go forth and natter, my lovelies!

See you all on Friday, when hopefully I'll be posting about Writing Roadblocks...

Monday, 21 February 2011



What if you knew exactly when you would die?

Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.

When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden's genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.

But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden's eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limted time she has left.


If I had to use one word to describe Lauren DeStefano's debut novel it would be: Troubling.

WITHER is not a thrill-packed adventure story filled with explosions. Ninety percent of the story takes place in one location, and involves a mere handful of characters. We only glimpse the outside world in snatches. And yet for all that, this is story which gets under your skin and quietly itches away there, causing you to lie awake at night thinking about it long after it is finished.

This story takes the common writing adage 'start with the action' to heart, as the first page finds us locked in a dark, enclosed space with sixteen year old main character Rhine and dozens of other girls. The dark space is the back of a lorry. Rhine does not know who the other girls are or where they are being taken. The girls do not talk to one another, or cry to comfort the ones that cry or are sick. They merely huddle on the floor of the truck, lost in the darkness and their own private nightmares. And so we learn the first, and perhaps most telling lesson of WITHER: that there is no automatic solidarity in suffering. That misery and fear do not make the soul stronger. In life or death situations the strong tend to their own survival and the weak tend to die.

If this sounds bleak? It is. My God, it is. I admit that I found the first few chapters of the story difficult to get through, despite the lyrical, flowing quality of the prose. The sense of forboding, of suffocating menace under the glossy surface of the world that Rhine is forced into is palpable. I found myself WILLING the bad stuff to happen, just to get it over with so I could relax. But Ms DeStefano is a cunning writer, and she does not allow this. As a result, I know, had I been reading a physical ARC (rather than an eGalley, courtesy of NetGalley) that I would probably have been tempted to skip forward a dozen pages to try and ease the unbearable tension.

What ultimately makes the story readable - and allowed me to enjoy it despite the ever-present undercurrent of bleakness - is the strength of Rhine's voice. She is a wonderful narator, and Ms DeStefana uses her unique, clear-eyed POV to guide us through the intricacies of the WITHER world with skillfully woven flashbacks, dreams and fantasies. Rhine is in no way a 'feisty' heroine. What she is, is a strong young woman with a great deal of determination and a bone-deep ability to hold a grudge.

One of the things I admired greatly about this book is the way it takes us from speechless, gasping horror at the terrible events of the Dystopia we see to a strange state of almost-acceptance - and then back again. Rhine herself battles constantly against complacency, the very human desire to accept even the most screaming madness and normalise one's own situation. Every time that Rhine smiles and laughs in her new world, we do too - only to jerk back, appalled, when we are reminded that everything about Rhine's life is wrong, wrong, wrong. The story of Cecily, a beautifully drawn secondary character, is a telling clue to the story's second big message: That those who are suffering the most from systems of oppression will often be the ones fighting most fiercely to preserve them. They don't WANT to escape.

Speaking of secondary characters - I think WITHER's are perhaps its greatest strength. From the smallest speaking parts like the loud-mouthed but kind-natured cook to capricious, dying Rose, from tragic Jenna to willfully blind Linden, the secondary cast here are minutely developed and lovingly depicted, creating the sense of a real world even though, as mentioned earlier, the world we see is actually very, very small.

Something else that stood out for me was the writer's handling of a device which would seem by definition incredibly depressing - a world in which men die at twenty-five and women at twenty - and instead used the ticking clock of the character's lifespan to create a sense of freedom, of the joy and beauty of life, of the importance of being true to yourself and taking chances, even when everyone around you is intent on keeping you in a cage (very nicely referenced in the image on the cover, by the way) for your own good.

Despite all the things that I liked about it, for me, WITHER ends a little abruptly, leaving many plot threads dangling loose, and many hints unresolved. It is the first of a trilogy, and as such I'd obviously expect to find myself with questions, but because I cannot judge how Ms DeStefano will handle these it's impossible for me to give this book a full five stars. I just don't know how the story is going to play out.

But it's this very sense of unpredictability which will ensure that I am scrabbling to get my hands on the next book in THE CHEMICAL GARDEN Trilogy the very moment it becomes available.

I want and *need* to know how Rhine's short life will end. And I believe that other readers will too.

Friday, 18 February 2011


Welcome to the 67th Road Trip Wednesday!

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing - or reading - related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This Week's Topic:
Yes, I know it's not Wednesday. But I'd already written a post on Wednesday before the YA Highway topic came out and I realised that it was such an interesting one. So, never to be left out, I decided to do Roadtrip Wednesday on a Friday instead.
Shut up.
Okay, then: how did I pick my titles?
Well, I've got to admit that titles aren't really my forte. I struggle with them. A lot. And hardly any of my books make it through even the first draft without being re-titled several times. I find it infuriating and distracting to use a title that doesn't feel *right*, and I worry away at the problem like a coyote worries at a paw caught in a trap.
The Swan Kingdom was originally titled Wild Swans after the fairytale that inspired it. But although I liked this title and felt it fitted, there was already a very famous book with that same title. Once the book was accepted for publication my editor and I came up with many title possibilities. 
For a little while the book was called A Shadow of Swans, but marketing vetoed that. For a while I favoured The Cunning Woman, but my then agent hated it. My American editor suggested Red Fox, White Swan. Eventually my editor sent me a postcard just saying 'The Swan's Kingdom?' And I sent a note back saying 'The Swan Kingdom?' and that was it. I have to admit that I'm still not entirely comfortable with it, but I've never get come up with anything better so... *Shrugs* 
Daughter of the flames was originally called Signs of Fire. And it had that title for a long time in my head before I actually started writing. However, as soon as I got stuck into the story it started to feel vaguely wrong. I'm not sure why. I still think it's an okay title. It just didn't fit. 
So I held a brainstorming session with my writing group. At the end of which, I felt utterly bewildered because NO ONE had come up with a suggestion that fitted. I had dozens of scribbled suggestions in my notebook and was trying to make sense of them when, suddenly, the words 'Daughter', 'Of' and 'Flames' leapt out at me. I added a 'the' to improve the rhythm, and, since my publisher loved it, we were set.

Shadows on the Moon was a tricky book to title. I knew that I wanted the word 'moon' or 'shadow' in the title because both were important metaphors and images in the story. Until about halfway through the first draft the manuscript was called Fair as the Moon (which is a Biblical quote) but although I liked the title, it didn't really feel right to use a Biblical quote for a story set in a faerytale Feudal Japan. And it felt a little too...pretty. A little too NICE. I wanted something that hinted at the darkness in the story.

Friends suggested The Shadow Weaver, but Google told me this was a character from a cartoon. Shadow Spinner was already a book title. For a little while the book was called The Moon Mask, but again, it didn't feel ominous enough. Frankly, I was stumped.
But luckily my subconscious was hard at work. Having decided to make my heroine's father a poet in the story, and the heroine herself a musician, I decided that I would write all my own poetry and songs for the book. One night I was scribbling away, trying to come up with a haiku that would encompass some of the story's themes about love and transformation, when this appeared on the page:

Love comes like stormclouds
Fleeing from the wind, and casts
Shadows on the moon
Instantly I knew I had found my title. And of all my book titles, Shadows on the Moon is probably the one I love most, because it's a phrase that is an integral part of the story and which sums up the book's most important themes perfectly. I also think that it subtly hints at the setting of the story.
So what about you guys? What titles have you used, and how did you come up with them?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Oh, the little voices! They whisper to me, my precious. They whisper in my heeeead...

 Freaked out yet?

Well, don't be. You have these little voices too. The difference is that I am *aware* of mine. And the reason I am aware, is because I'm a writer.

What, what, WHAT? Am I saying that all writers suffer from auditory hallucinations and/or are dangerously unstable? Am I saying that EVERYONE hears voices? Stop the crazy!

No, no, my precious. The crazy goes on. This post was inspired by a comment from Isabel, who asked in the comments if anyone else finds themselves mentally 'narrating' their life. That is, as you move through your ordinary day, somewhere in your head there's a constant voice-over of your hair-brushing or your walk to school or your biology lesson, as if it were a scene in a book that you were writing. You find yourself picking out the details that you would chose to describe, the ones you would change, pondering if 'pale gold' is a better phrase than 'honey coloured' for sunlight, considering what scene should follow, etc.

For some of us this voiceover is a constant thing that we are always aware of. For others, it's something that you notice occasionally and are slightly worried by. I'm sure there are also people who never experience this and who are, as they read this blog, edging away from their computer screen and checking the doors and windows just in case a deranged Zolah comes bursting in with an axe.

Let me explain. You know that question? The dreaded question that writers get asked the most out of all the questions in the universe? That one. Where do you get your ideas?


It's true. The narrating voice that tries to turn your Monday morning bowl of cereal into an exciting scene of cornflake versus Cheerio suspense, that ponders how to describe your P.E. teacher in a way that would make her seem like a possibility for an undercover supervillain, that observes every detail of your daily walk home and speculates on what would happen if the house behind the wall was haunted, or if you suddenly heard someone crying for help behind that tree - that is the WRITER'S VOICE. Or the artist's voice, the actor's voice, the sculptor's voice, the achitect's voice. It's where all the ideas come from.

The thing is, this constant voice-over can be...disturbing. Let's face it, it's not pleasant when in the middle of being horribly sick, you hear it whispering 'Wow, you should be making notes on this, you'll never remember the exact texture of that vomit'. It's worrying, when trying to comfort a friend, that a tiny part of you is thinking 'The way she's crying without making a sound is really moving. I should use that'. It can be horribly upsetting when you yourself are in the midst of terrible grief, to realise that there's a tiny part of you which is standing off to the side memorising it all in case of future need.

The little voice is not an emotional thing. It's DETACHED. It's like a flash-drive plugged into your brain, recording everything without being touched by any of it. It's so detached from you and your emotions that it can even seem a bit alien, like someone else talking in your brain. Because, after all, you would never be so callous as to make mental notes on the way that your sister's face flushes up when she cries, just on the off-change you wanted to write a crying scene. Right?

Here's the thing, though. Humans only use a tiny part of their brain capacity. The part that they do use is a constant, flashing lightshow of sensations and impulses. The average brain is processing millions of information fragments every second of the day. Your grey matter is listening, smelling, feeling, tasting, reacting. It's keeping your heart pumping, doing your homework, carrying on a conversation with your friend, listening to the TV, eating this omelette, wondering if the dog needs a bath. All at once!

If you don't train yourself to make use of any added pieces of brain capacity you can (even in the form of a Voice in the Head) how on earth will you ever manage to notice any story ideas floating past in the middle of all the information that is flying at you every moment you are conscious? You won't, is the answer.

The ideas will be there. They're everywhere. Ideas are like dust motes. You can't breathe without stirring millions up. But most people are so busy getting on with their lives that they don't notice them. THEY DON'T EVEN SEE THE IDEAS THERE. That's why Where do you get your ideas? is the most popular question writers get asked. Non-writers think ideas are rare, precious, fragile. They're not. It's the ability to actually *see* the ideas that is rare and precious and fragile.

Everyone's born with it. Few keep it into adulthood. Entirely well-meaning people, like your parents and relatives, will try to crush it. Many teachers crush it all day long with one hand tied behind their backs. Friends who want you to fit in will crush it under the weight of their expectations. None of these people realise what they're doing, of course! Most would be horrified at the thought. It's just that they want you to focus, concentrate, act normal, stop day-dreaming, pay attention, get outside and play in the sun, stop telling, you've probably heard them all.

So here it is. If you want to be a writer, if you want to be able to see the ideas drifting past you, if you'd rather not be 'normal' thanks very much? Hang onto the little voice in your head with both hands, and your fingernails. And your teeth if necessary. Pay attention to it. Feed it by opening your eyes to the world around you. It will repay you a thousandfold.

If not? Resign yourself to asking other people where they get their ideas from, and seeing the look of resigned boredom in their eyes as they struggle to explain.

How many of you hear that little narrating voice? And who's willing to admit to it??

Monday, 14 February 2011


Hi all! I hope everyone had a good Monday, or at least a better Monday than me, since I spent the whole day with a wet flannel over my face trying to convince myself that popping one of my eyes out with a spoon would not ease the splitting headache that was driving me slowly and quietly insane.

Yeah. Ouch.

Anyway, I've had a few reader emails in the past few days so I thought I'd answer the questions here, as is my custom. First email comes from a young person whose name I *think* is Sevin, although the email came from a different name? Sorry about this, Sevin, if I've gotten it wrong.

"Do you ever think you have the best idea that will never fail, and that it will finally be the one that you follow through with, but it ends up, well...  Failing?  Like....  You never get around to completing it?  Because that happens way to often with me."

This post sort of already answers this, but the short answer is Yes. And also that This Is A Really Common Problem. Lots and lots of people start stories and can't finish them. I was starting stories with what I thought were amazing ideas from the age of about eight, but I only managed to finish one when I was sixteen, and didn't manage it again until I was about twenty. To help break this Never Ending Story Habit, you need to:
  1. Make sure that the idea you've got is really well thought through, and can sustain a full book.
  2. Give yourself achievable goals, like writing a page a day, or two pages three times a week or whatever works, and sticking to it. 
  3. Push forward, pushing through the boring bits and the blocks and the days when you want to give up, until you reach THE END. Because you can't fix a book you haven't written yet. 
The next question came from twelve year old Megan, who asked:

"I keep having these great ideas for characters or plots for books, but then I forget them before I have time to write them down, because they always come at really random times, like in the middle of a maths test or in the car or something. Do you think that there's anything I can do to maximise my chances of getting it written down? I love writing stories, but I never seem to be able to draw them out, and they end up being quite short. Is there anything I can do about that either?"

Two questions in one! The second question I have, by a stunning coincidence, already answered above! And the first is answered here:

Basically, get a notebook. And if you can't have a notebook in your maths test, scribble some notes on a piece of scrap paper, or the back of your hand, or whatever. Just write it down. Make time. Or you will forget - that's just the human brain. But don't worry too much about those ideas that slip away. There are always more ideas. Trust me. Always. And sometimes the ones that run away come back later and that's when you know they're really special.

Final email came from Linda Lau, and reads:

"...can you tell me how you got the swan kingdom idea and the flame of the daughter? do you think you can recommend any books to read? did you write any other books beside the swan kingdom and the daughter of flame?"
Which puzzles me a bit because the email came through my website and all the information to answer these questions is already there. *Shrugs* Assuming that you didn't have the time to read those pages, Linda, or maybe you found the website difficult to understand, I'll put the links to the The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames pages here, and the Books I Love page too, as well as the Shadows on the Moon page. Hopefully that helps!
Right, that's it from me today - except to say that in the midst of my lying in a darkened room groaning and dreaming about goblins drilling spikes into my head, I think I may have had a genius idea about FF. Or rather, I realised a mistake I may have made, and if I change it, everything might get better. I'll figure it out tomorrow; wish me luck. 
Right now I'm going to moisten this flannel again and turn off the computer and the lights. *Whimper*

Friday, 11 February 2011


Happy Friday everyone. You may remember that a while back I was lucky enough to win an ARC of DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth from her blog. On Wednesday I read the book, and today I sat down to try and review it.


One choice can transform you.

In sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior’s world, society is divided into five factions – Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent) – each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue, in the attempt to form a “perfect society.” At the age of sixteen, teens must choose the faction to which they will devote their lives.

On her Choosing Day, Beatrice renames herself Tris, rejects her family’s group, and chooses another faction. After surviving a brutal initiation, Tris finds romance with a super-hot boy, but also discovers unrest and growing conflict in their seemingly “perfect society.” To survive and save those they love, they must use their strengths to uncover the truths about their identities, their families, and the order of their society itself.


Upfront confession - I don't generally like Dystopian novels much. Or rather, I haven't liked a lot of the recent crop of Dystopian novels much. I've found most them of them a little samey in their focus on societies where people are not free to love or make personal choices as to prospective life partners, and the resulting forbidden romances (especially since our CURRENT society often forbids people from loving who they chose, and many people don't find it odd at all). However, having visited Veronica Roth's blog I was cautiously excited about DIVERGENT, as it seemed to promise something really different, a book that made an effort to examine themes of personal choice a bit more deeply. I entered a competition on the author's blog for an ARC and somehow, won.

I am so, so glad that I did. DIVERGENT is an incredibly strong debut. No, that's not doing it justice. It is an incredibly strong *novel*, full stop. I found it ridiculously compelling, and read it in one sitting in just under four hours. Frankly, short of applying strong glue to the cover I can't see how the author could have made this book any more unputdownable.

I think the brilliance of the novel lies in three things. First, the author's ability to create truly well rounded and textured characters. Second, her intense sensory writing. Third, her absolute ruthlessness in testing both of the above to their limits.

It's been a long while since I read a book with such a strong cast of real characters; by which I mean, people that I believed in, people that seemed completely realistic even amidst their warped Dystopian world. People who *remained* human and sympathetic even when they made mistakes, did terrible things - or acted with shining selflessness and bravery. Ms Roth's main character Tris is a perfect mixture of flaws and strengths, moral ambiguity and idealism, bravery and self-preservation. I felt I could always rely on her to do the right thing, not in terms of good and bad, but in terms of what a character with her traits and in her situation WOULD do. I've read so many books lately where the narrators might as well be signposted as BAMFs with neon flashing lights and yet seemed to have no true strength, no inner resources. Smart mouths, switchblades and leather pants do not a kick-ass heroine make. Tris is a kick-ass heroine precisely because she doesn't need to act tough. She just IS. I loved that about her. I loved it so much that if I ever meet the author in real life I am going to snuggle her, even if she tries to get away from me (sorry, Ms Roth!).

Here we have friends and family members who have their own inner lives and agendas, enemies that are frail and flawed, and a love interest WHO APPEARS TO BE A REAL BOY AND NOT A SPARKLY MARBLE CUPCAKE ADONIS! I didn't swoon over Four for a second. I fell in love with him, quietly and deeply, just as Tris did.

When twinned with the author's gift for creating a tangible physical experience for the reader (I felt what Triss felt, smelled what she smelled, shivered when she did, pricked my ears when she did) this would already have put this novel head-and-shoulders above the competition. But Veronica Roth also has another ace up her sleeve, which is that she puts her characters (and by extension, us) through the wringer both physically and emotionally. I could literally feel Tris's character being stretched to its limits. There were moments in this book where I wanted to curl into fetal position because the experience of reading it was *brutal*. But not in a torture-porn way, which is a fine line, and one that I hate to see crossed, especially in YA.

So DIVERGENT is a thrilling, action packed read, with spare and beautiful writing and wonderful characters. It is also a profound examination of human nature. Ms Roth's book dwells deftly on the costs of bravey and self-sacrifice, on the difference between strength and cruelty, on the dangers of both prejudice and idealism. Hyper picky witch-writer that I am, I wouldn't change a thing about it. It's rare that concept and execution come together as perfectly as they do in this novel. I'm thrilled that I got to read it early and I have all my fingers and toes crossed that this book gets both the critical and commercial success that it rightfully deserves.

A keeper, and one that I know I will re-read many times in years to come. Highly recommended.

NOTE: Due to the attentions of a troll and his spambot, I've been forced to turn on word verification for comments. Sorry, all. I hope you can bear with it.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Hello, dear readers - Wednesday is upon us again and it's time for another round of reader questions.

The first question this week actually came to me through Twitter. Rather strangely, it came from the person who supervises the Twitter account of High Speed trains in Kent - they followed me for about three hours, asked me this and then stopped following me immediately after. But whatever. They asked. I answer. u write for your own escapism into fantasy or is it solely for the benefit of your readers? 

Neither. I think that you're confusing the act of 'fantasizing' (or daydreaming), which many people do for escapism, with the publishing genre of fantasy. The publishing genre of fantasy, which comprises a vast and varied field of novels and stories, including some of the most challenging and successful fiction ever written, is not escapist by default or by definition. As a writer it is not easier or more escapist to write fantasy than any other genre, nor does it require lesser dedication to the writing craft or the publishing business. I write fantasy because I love it, and luckily I have garnered an audience of people who like the way I write and are willing to read my books. I'm grateful to these readers, but I don't write for their benefit - I write for my own.

(You might have guessed that this question annoyed me just eeeeever so slightly).

The next question comes from long-time blog readers Isabel and Steph Su as a result of the discussion in the comments after the WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD post. Due to all the holes that years of copy-edits have caused in my brain, I can't actually find Steph Su's comment to quote here, so I'm just posting Isabel's:

I make up my worlds, so how can I include, say, an Asian person in my story if Asia doesn't exist in my book? I'm Brazilian-American, and I'd love to be more open in my stories, but I wonder how I might depict it. I think I'd like my readers to sometimes just imagine the characters the way they want to, instead of me always saying 'this is how my character is depicted' and expecting them to go along with that. 

The problem here is that many writers (living, as they do, in the real world, where we like to slap labels on people as soon as we meet them) think, consciously or unconsciously that you need to make characters in a fictional fantasy world somehow analogous to races in the real world. But you don't. You're making up your own lands with their own complex histories of evolution and migration. People's physical and racial characteristics might - in fact, probably should - have developed very differently than those on earth.

For example, in N.K. Jemision's THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, the dominant white race have wildly curly hair while the dark-skinned people have straight hair - very different than on earth. A lot of people also assumed that because N.K. is black her main character must be too. But actually on her blog she said that the main character probably most closely resembles someone from earth's ancient Mayan race, a race that no longer truly exists in our reality.

People are always much more individual than just a block of characteristics with a label on them like WHITE or BLACK or ASIAN. In a world that you've created, a world where everyone's skin is some shade of brown, what would 'black' even mean? In a world where there is no Asia, but 90% of people have smooth, silky dark hair, golden skin and epicanthic folds, these characteristics are just 'normal'. So have fun describing your characters! Love your characters for who they are and luxuriate in their smooth, golden brown, dark pockmocked, milky pale, scarred skin. Rejoice in their dark, round, pale, slanting, eyes. Give them frizzy golden hair, and straight black hair, and freckles and big noses and snub noses and beaky noses, and give them delicate arched brows or straight prominent ones. Don't force yourself to put a label on them like we do in this world. Just let them be who they are.

Now, Isabel also brought up quite an interesting topic in a different comment trail, with regard to her progress on her current story. She said:

Oh yes, wish me luck on Chapter Three. It's giving me grief. Chapter Two went really well, but now I have to write this scene that for some reason is really difficult for me. It's very frustrating. We writers always have that chapter that just doesn't seem to work out. I hope this is it and that my next few chapters are going to be a lot easier going. 

I responded (in an off-the-cuff sort of way) that the chapter that was giving her difficulty would probably end up being the best one in the book. Isabel, in the way of desperate, blocked writers everywhere, seized on this and asked me to explain in some useful way - and I realised that although I've discussed this idea a lot with my writer's group, I've not brought it up on the blog before.

So, just in case it's useful, here's my theory on why scenes that flow easily from your pen, as if you had the Muse of Inspiration sitting on your shoulder, often end up reading less well, and needing much more re-writing, than scenes which feel like chipping each word from stone with a blunt spoon.

It's because you think about the stone-chipping scenes more. You yourself are struggling to figure out what's going on, how to express it. You're outside of the magnetic pull of the story's power. You're not living the scene inside your character's head where everything is rushing past in a blur of sensory detail and overwhelming emotion. You're sweating and struggling and trying to somehow make it all make sense - which puts you much, much closer to the position of the reader, who comes into each scene blind, hoping that you, the writer, will show them how it all makes sense.

Those scenes that simply write themselves, that pour out onto the page in a blinding light of joyous knowing, come from a place in your head that is so deeply sunk in the story's world and the character's viewpoint that you take everything for granted. The setting feels real and tangible to you, so you barely bother to describe it. The character's motivation seems completely obvious, so you plough ahead without any time consuming, blocky explanations. The action unfolds in your head with utter, crystalline clarity, so you barely mention what is actually going on. These scenes then quite often seem incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't actually LIVE in your head. And what's worse is that because everytime you re-read these scenes that sense of inspiration lights up again, very often you will be unable to see that the scene is incomprehensible.

I know this from bitter experience. One of the things that I learned (painfully!) from forcing myself to read less than positive reviews of my books on places like Amazon and Goodreads is that a large number of readers found the ending of The Swan Kingdom abrupt and baffling. Many of them stated that they felt as if I'd just run out of ideas and couldn't figure out how to end the book. At first I was stunned to see this because nothing - nothing - could have been further from the truth. The ending was the first scene that I ever came up with for the story. Every word I wrote, every plot event, every bit of character development, had been leading to that ending all along! How could it seem 'cobbled on', as people said?

Because of the way I wrote it. In one sitting, straight through, in a fuzzy-headed blur of inspiration. I was so overjoyed to finally reach the end of the story - this scene I'd been looking forward to nearly a year - that I felt as if the words blasted their way out of me. I had no concern for helping the reader to understand what was happening, or making the way that previous story events had lead to this ending really clear. It all seemed so blindingly obvious and RIGHT to me. And as a result, when my editor gently suggested that the scene felt a bit 'slim', I had no idea what he meant. We revised the manuscript twice, and each time I re-read the scene, I felt pleased with it, so I just added a few extra paragraphs to bulk it out and thought I was done (and unfortunately my editor at the time allowed me to get away with this).

What those negative reviews helped me to understand was that I had failed the reader in the way I ended TSK. My own inspiration blinded me. I didn't write that ending the way it should have been written, the way that would have allowed everyone who read it to see that it was the right, the perfect ending.

Conversely, other scenes in TSK and in DotF, scenes that I hated writing and which made me want to bang my head against the wall, turned out to be surprisingly good when I came to revise them weeks or months later. I even get reader letters and emails sometimes mentioning these scenes, which I feared were dead, dull and uninspired, as favourites. When working on Shadows on the Moon I found that my current editor often ripped my 'inspiration' scenes to shreds, forcing me to re-write them almost from scratch, whereas those chipped-from-rock scenes usually survived almost intact.

I'm not saying that writing in a red-hot blaze of inspiration is always bad. And I'm not saying that you should be thankful for feeling blocked and frustrated and struggling with a scene. I'm just saying that sometimes when despair is gripping you the hardest you're actually doing your best work. And all writers need to keep in mind that even scenes that 'wrote themselves' may need extensive re-writing.

Hope that was useful! Any more questions can be popped into comments or emailed to me through my profile. See you on Friday.

Monday, 7 February 2011


That's right - meebling. I said it, and I meant it. What does it mean? Well if you don't know, I can't tell you!


Fine. It just means I have nothing interesting to share today, all right?

A new week has begun. I've spent my weekend productively, feverishly writing a new Plot Shape for FF, which I sent my my editor this morning. Until I've heard back from her, there's nothing else I can really do. I'm far too restless to begin any of the wonderful books in my To Be Read pile (even the ARC of Divergent that I won, which is full of enticing Post-Its from the author that promise all kinds of insights into the story). I'm far too restless to do anything useful. I'm far too restless to write an interesting blog post.

And so...I meeble.

Look, a kitten!

*Runs away*

P.S. Isabel, I think you asked me a question in the comments the other day, which I promised to answer - but I can't find the comment now. Can you remember what topic you wanted me to blog on?

P.P.S. I think someone else asked me a question too. It may have been Steph Su? If you can remember, please comment or drop me a line.

P.P.P.S. Anyone else have any topics they'd like me to blog on? Let me know.


Friday, 4 February 2011


With thanks to Jason Walker for the title, which is a line from his song 'Down'.

This past week I learned something with regard to my writing. And I've been going backwards and forwards about how and if to post about it. In the end I decided that I needed to say something because I've been teasing you all for quite a long while with the details of FF (the book that I handed in to my editor earlier this month). The reason I kept quiet on specifics was that I knew one of the elements of the story was controversial and I wanted to make sure I'd done a good job and that it would go ahead before I told you all about it.

Sometimes, as a writer, you HAVE to write something. It doesn't matter how scary or hard it is. A character, a story, a scene comes to you and maybe it shocks the Hell out of you, but it must be written. It takes you over. When you hand that book in, you are ready to defend to the death the thing you've written, no matter what anyone says, because you know that character, that story, that scene, cannot be anything else. But surprisingly often those parts won't raise an eyebrow from anyone. Not because they're not shocking or controversial, but because your passion and conviction have made those elements indispensible to the book. This was the case with several parts of Shadows on the Moon (as anyone who's read one of the ARCs will probably realise).

But sometimes you will go through a slightly different process. Remember my post on Diversity a week ago? Well, I've been thinking really hard about the implications of my privilege for quite a long while, and this lead me to make a decision in writing FF not because of passion, not because I couldn't write the story any other way, not because that was the way the story was - but because I wanted to make a point.

This isn't always a bad thing. The inspiration for the multiracial world and differing religions in Daughter of the Flames came about in such a way. But in this case, my thinking caused me to take my characters and push them into actions which frequently felt slightly off to me. It caused me to take my story, which had always been meant to unfold a certain way, and change it radically. And there were definitely brief, shining moments when I was sure that it was all working together perfectly, and I think this allowed me to fool myself that my decision was right.

Editors, however, cannot be fooled by stuff like that. My editor read my story and she came back to tell me, as kindly and nicely as she could (because she is very kind and nice) that it just didn't work. Because you see, that's the way it is when you've let yourself be blinded by Big Ideas. It often takes someone else to come along and point out that you've blundered.

I set out to do something that I believed - and still believe - to be important. And I failed.

It really, really hurts to admit that. I'm always talking about taking risks, but something I hardly ever mention - something that people who encourage you to push yourself, test your talent, challenge your limits, hardly ever talk about - is that as a result YOU WILL FAIL sometimes. There are going to be occasions when you make the wrong choice or just don't have the skills yet to fulfil your ambitions. Your reach exceeds your grasp.

One of the hardest parts? Deep down in that murky, intuitive place where unpleasant truths lurk, I knew. I'm pretty sure I knew all along that it wasn't right. I'm cross with myself for ignoring that and just HOPING, somehow, that I could pull it off. That's a lesson learned. Pay attention to your gut.

And in case you're wondering what I failed at, it was writing a convincing romance between two girls. That was what I wanted to do in FF. A high fantasy gay romance.

The thing is, the book didn't want to be a high fantasy gay romance. It didn't start out that way, and I never had any blinding inspiration or subtle realisation that it should be. The characters I pushed together didn't want to be in love, I don't think. It might sound silly to talk that way, as if the characters and story have some sort of independent will of their own, but for me it really DOES feel that way. And when I force my characters and story to do things they don't want to, the results are never good, even when I'm forcing them with the very best of intentions.

I still want to write that book. I still think that book needs to be written. But I think my failure here shows that good intentions cannot take the place of passion when it comes to writing stories. If you let your desire to make a point lead you astray from serving the story and characters you have in front of you RIGHT NOW in the best and most truthful way you can, failure is inevitable.

So now the quest is to save my characters from what I've done to them. Save the story that originally presented itself to my mind from the awkward changes I forced on it. Make FF the book it probably always should have been, and hope that people like it anyway, even if it's not illuminated by the flaring brilliance of Good Intentions and Big Ideas (or, not the same good intentions and big ideas I had before).

The lesson I really wanted you guys to take from this? Maybe it's that, look - I made a big mistake. Four books into my career, as a grown-up. I made a big mistake. I failed. But the sky didn't fall.

I felt like it had for a few hours there, but it didn't.

So...take comfort from that. Take comfort from knowing that you will make mistakes and you will survive them. Get up, dust yourself off, and fix it.

And if you can't take comfort from that, then take it from this article by award-winning author Nicola Morgan, which really helped me to put things in perspective when I read it yesterday morning.

Have a great weekend, peeps. I'll be here, with my edit letter - illuminated by the flaring brilliance of knowing that this time, I'm going to get this book RIGHT.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing - or reading - related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

We'd love for you to participate! 

I think I've actually managed to find out the REAL question for this week's Road Trip Wednesday in time this week - one of the advantages of Twitter. And the topic is:

It's Groundhog Day! Pretend you're Bill Murray in the 1993 movie-- what book would you read over & over forever?

Frankly, the idea of never being allowed to read a new book again would probably make me spend the first few hundred endless repeating days curled up in a corner crying (shut up, I love new books, okay?).

But following that, presuming I could chose just one book, I would spend some serious time in contemplation. As long-time blog readers know, I am a champion of re-reading. I re-read pretty much every book that I liked. So it's tough for me to isolate just one re-readable book. Should I pick a really loooong one? I probably shouldn't pick one that makes me cry every time, right? Argh, choices, choices!

After much thought, my shortlist goes like this:
  1. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. I've already re-read this book about twenty times, I think. Although it is a story full of suffering, tragedy and darkness, it is also about the power of love, faith and redemption, and I can't express how deep down HAPPY it makes me. Problem: I practically already know it by heart.
  2. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Again, I must have read this book twenty or more times. It is a riddle within a puzzle within an enigma, and people's theories on the plot and characters are endless. It still makes me think deeply each time I read it, and it still makes me laugh. A good choice. Problem: it's so short!
  3. NightWatch by Terry Pratchett. I've re-read this book a lot less times than the ones above, because it is a HARD read. It's multilayered, twisty and in many places, downright grim. It's also funny, as is PTerry's trademark, but the humour is black, black, black. I love and admire this book in every way. Problem: Blubbing. Every. Single. Time.
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. What can I say? It's one of the best books ever written. It's moving. It's funny. It's impeccably written. It's reasonably long. It features probably the most memorable characters ever written. Problem: Um...there isn't one.
So there you have it. If I had to read one book over and over for the rest of my life, it would be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. But don't blame me if I start wearing bonnets and addressing people as 'Sir' and 'Ma'am', after a bit...Still, if I'm stuck in the same day, they'll never get around to putting me in the psychiatric ward, right?

Darcy and Elizabeth FTW! And the the way, if you've not yet read one of more of the books on the shortlist, I urge you to run to your local library or bookshop and do so at once! After all, YOU'RE not stuck in Groundhog (Book)Day.
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