Sunday, 29 May 2011

BIG SECRET PROJECT TEASER #2

Hello! Monday again - and for those of you not in the UK, you're back at work or school. Commiserations. For the UK-ers, it's a Bank Holiday, which means we get the day off. Unfortunately most of the British Isles is cloaked in thick clouds and pouring rain right about now. Which means none of us is probably feeling all that cheerful.

What's that, you say? You really need something exciting to brighten your gloomy Monday up?

Something never before seen on the internet?

Something exclusive to this blog?

Well, maybe today is your lucky day after all! Because today I bring you a tiny teaser from Big Secret Project. I hope you like it - tell me what you think!

**********
“What’s that?” Kylar asked.
"Part of my costume,” I said.
"It’s her mega-ultra-samurai sword!” Jack said, doing jazz hands. “I can’t believe I forgot. It’s like, a thousand year old family heirloom.”
“A real samurai sword? Oh my God, I have to see this,” one of the other girls said. “Come on, get it out!”
“I...I can’t,” I stammered. The loose, relaxed feeling turned to anxiety as I saw the number of eyes fixed on me. “It’s dangerous.
“She’s right. If you want to see it you need to get back and give her some room,” Jack said bossily.
I know she thought she was being helpful, but honestly? I could have brained her with Shinobu just then. Everyone scrambled back and the next thing I knew there were twice as many people staring, all trying to figure out what was going on. Someone snapped on the overhead light, making us all blink.
Just flash them the sword and get it over with. What’s the big deal?
Sick, irrational panic churned in my stomach, but I forced myself to get up and pull Shinobu out of the shinai carrier. The light flashed over the brilliant shine of the black lacquer and the gold flowers on the saya. The music was too loud for me to hear an ooooh, but I could sense it.
A sneaking feeling of pride helped to soothe my uneasiness, and slowly I drew Shinobu from the sheath. Light flashed along the curve of the blade like the sharp white smile of the crescent moon.
“Holy crap,” someone said.
“You are so hot right now,” Kylar said, moving a little closer. “Angelina Jolie hot.”
Jack snorted. “Dude, that’s not a compliment.”
“Anyway,” a boy called Simon interrupted, “she looks more like that girl from that vampire film, you know the one who had the leather pants.”
“That was Angelina Jolie,” Kylar said, annoyed.
Sarah from my tutor group shook her head. “No, it wasn’t. He’s talking about the one who was in the lipstick adverts. She’s Bulgarian, I think.”
Okay, well, that was less dramatic than I’d been bracing myself for.
I slid Shinobu back into his saya and the saya back into the shinai carrier, then settled him onto his place on my shoulder again. By the time I looked up, everyone was so busy trying to work out the name of the girl from the lipstick ads that they all seemed to have forgotten Shinobu completely. I was relieved, and then irritated at myself for being relieved. Why was I being so freakish tonight?
I turned to Jack to suggest more drinks – and saw the shadow coming out of the wall.
A dark stain unfurled against the bright terracotta wallpaper, tendrils whipping from the centre and hardening into claws as it dragged itself through the bricks, into the room. I gagged on the stink of it, wet animal, greasy fur, something long dead and rotting.
The seething mass dilated like the pupil of an eye, spreading up onto the ceiling, clawing across the plaster, leaving black streaks wherever it touched. Thick, glistening globs of liquid, like half congealed blood, dripped down onto the people below, staining their hair and clothes and spreading across their skin. No one seemed to notice.
The thing twisted, and suddenly – horribly – I could see a face in the black. A face that could have been human, except for the eyes. Yellow, cat eyes, with vertical pupils.
The thing blinked slowly, searching. Its gaze fixed on me.
It surged across the ceiling towards me.
***********

P.S. Two very interesting links for you to check out.

First: I was interviewed by the lovely Clover at Fluttering Butterflies for her Awesome Women feature. How cool is that?

Also immensely cool - favourite writer Jaclyn Dolomore, author of Magic Under Glass, read and reviewed Shadows on the Moon! Whoot!

Friday, 27 May 2011

FRIDAY ROUND-UP

Hi everyone! Happy Friday, and congratulations on making it through the week this far. Since the last few posts have been, frankly, whoppers, let's go with something short and sweet today. A little status update for you.

The News: I've been speaking with my US editor, and she's told me that the Candlewick Press edition of Shadows on the Moon will hopefully be out in April 2012, which is actually really fast. Normally they wait a year after the UK release. So I'm delighted by that, and I hope you US readers are too. I've also had a sneak at some early cover artwork, and it's beautiful. I'm not allowed to say anymore about that, since it isn't final, but I'm really happy. Hardback editions are so fancy.

In Other News, I am hard at work on the Big Secret Project, and just about managing not to spill all the juicy details to anyone who'll listen. Just. But it's hhaaaarrrrd.

Yesterday I wrote the 101st page and broke thirty thousand words. That's a big milestone for me, as it means I am officially past The Beginning. I believe I have around another sixty thousand words to go, so that's two hundred more pages. My progress metre looks like this:


30242 / 90000 words. 34% done!

Dandy, ain't it?

Normally this is the point where I freak out and start getting stuck, but Big Secret Project is bucking the trend so far. I just love it so much - so, so much! - and I get so excited even thinking about it, that my enthusiasm is carrying me along so far.

Now that I've said this, of course, I'll probably get stuck for two months.

But no matter! Big Secret Project will prevail! And you may - MAY - get another tiny teaser to chew on next week. Stand by.

In Other Other News, we are approaching the one year anniversary of this blog. Which is a very exciting thing, since I had doubts, when I started, that I would manage to find something to blog about for one month. I'm planning unprecedented levels of awesomeness to coincide with this momentous occasion, and will reveal more when the time comes.

Finally, today I am drinking tea out of my lucky red mug, and wearing my lucky tiger t-shirt. I have also braided my hair. Let's hope these mystical preparations serve to leap me over the Middle Muddle and directly into Big Secret Project's good stuff. See you on the other side, kids!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

TAKE A DEEP BREATH...

Okay, so this post was inspired by Megha, a regular commentor who left a comment on Monday's trail which betrayed that she was feeling just a liiitle stressed. Why? Because she did not feel inspired. And not in the 'Oh, I have to wait for my Muse to pop in the window with scones and tea before I can write' way (in which case, we would be applying a butt-kicking) but in a freaked-out 'I have no ideas and I don't feel creative what's wrong with me arrrgh!' kinda way.

This provokes our deep sympathy, my beloveds. For writers, who usually have story ideas hitting them all day and every day until they can hardly keep up with them, to find yourself suddenly drying up and realising that you don't have anything to write about - and even worse, that you have no idea what you WANT to write about - is...well, frankly it is terrifying.

I've been there, guys. Back when I first decided I wanted to write YA fantasy I got so excited that I went through (and discarded) about six million ideas that I wanted to write - and suddenly THERE WERE NO MORE. It's like looking straight into a black, bottomless abyss and realising there's nothing there at all. Nothing to catch you, nothing to catch onto. You call down into it and there isn't even an echo. It's just empty. If you have nothing to write about, no ideas, no spark of inspiration...are you even a writer anymore? Cue self of sense collapsing, tearing out of hair and curling up into a tiny, whimpering ball.

This happens to all creative people in all fields sooner or later, I reckon. I think it's a product, sometimes, of trying too hard. It becomes so important to have a project on the go all the time that we rip through dozens of ideas, moving too quickly, discarding them because none of them were really ready and they feel immature and thin. Your brain suddenly gets sick of it and applies the brake. The subconscious Little Voice (which I talked about here) shuts up. And it turns out that it's pretty lonely in your head all alone without it.

The first thing to remember when this happens is - DON'T PANIC. No, okay, that's impossible. You're going to panic. But don't let the panic take over because I promise, take my oath, pinkie-swear, that this is not forever. The ideas are going to come back. You can't stop them coming back even if you want to. Your brain can only shut them out for so long. So what you need to do now is...

Take a deep breath.

Count to eight.

Now let it out.

And another.

Count to eight again. Breathe out.

One more. Deeeeep breath.

Count to eight. Let it out.

Right. Now that we're feeling a bit calmer, we need to take a bit of a leap.

Forget about ideas. Forget about books. Forget about writing stories. I know - Le Gasp, right? But I'm serious. Take a step back from being a writer for a little while, and you will be taking a step back from the crazy. I know it's easy to define yourself completely by your identity as a writer, but you're a person too, and you aren't going to die if you give your writing hand a rest for a bit.

Now, give yourself permission to do something else. Read a new book, or re-read an old favourite that you've been meaning to get to for a while. Sketch or paint. Take a few slow, wandering walks. Go shopping. Visit a museum or go on a trip with family or friends. Watch a great film or an awful, cheesy one that makes you snort with laughter. Listen to your favourite music - and spend an afternoon on YouTube or iTunes listening to new songs and finding new favourites. Do any or all of the things that you somehow never quite find the time to do normally because you're wanting to write. Do your homework, kids (education is a priceless thing)!

If you get any little flickers of ideas while you're watching that cheesy movie or looking at the wind moving through the trees, or hanging out with your friends? Very calmly pull out your notebook and make a note and leave it. Don't pounce on the idea and kill it before it's ready. On the other hand, if you feel a sudden, burning urge to write a song or a poem - go nuts! Spend all day doing that if you want, and have fun. I used to write about three poems a day when I was a teen, and I loved it (and I was pretty good at it too).

I guarantee that under this gentle, non-pressurised treatment in which you shower your brain with lots of new/rich images, and fun, and emotional stimuli and not freaking-the-heck-out, your imagination will bloom once again. That doesn't mean that the moment it does you should go back to what you were doing before, mind you. This is a warning from your brain. Chill. Stop focusing so much on results and enjoy the journey a little more. Let your ideas mature. Play around with new styles. I know I've talked about Neverending Stories, but it honestly doesn't matter if you mess with sixteen different stories at once and five of them are paranormal romance and six are high fantasy and two are contemporary and one is a murder mystery and the other four are dystopian - so long as you're having fun.

Eventually, an idea will come along that you love and adore and want to kiss and hug and make out with. Well, all right, maybe that's just me - but what I'm trying to say is that eventually The One True Idea will come along, and you'll know because you'll stop messing around and find yourself wanting to work only on that one story. Just like True Love, really. But this can't happen if you're stressing out, worrying, and making yourself miserable.

Writing is supposed to be fun, guys. Yes, it's hard work at times, and requires patience, perseverence, craftsmanship and dedication. But if it's not FUN, at the end of the day, you might as well go and become an accountant. Right?

I leave you with three things which I personally find very inspiring, in different ways.

Spooky Mysterious Castle by the Sea




Go forth, my lovelies...and breathe.

Monday, 23 May 2011

READER QUESTIONS

Hi everyone! Happy Monday to you all - I hope you had wonderful weekends. Today I'm tackling a couple of questions from readers again.

First of all is nineteen year old Ray, who contacted me via email. He's just about to finish his science fiction novel, and says:
"I'm scared. I'm scared that my book will just flop and not sell. Is that normal? I mean, I want at least a few copies to sell once I publish it. What do I do if they don't sell? Did you ever share this fear? Sorry if I'm being a nervous Nettie; it's just that I am. Nervous, that is."
Welcome to the club, Ray. Being a Nervous Nettie seems to be an inescapable part of being a writer. I seriously don't know a single one who doesn't struggle with obsessively worrying about some part of the process. And I think that's because the reason most of us are writers (especially science fiction and fantasy writers!) is that we are, to a greater or lesser degree, control freaks. Making the transition from avid reader to writer is all about control. We want to invent our own worlds and characters and become a kind of god over our own creations. Nothing wrong with that! It's natural, and what's more, FUN.

The problem is that once the writing is over and we send our book out into the world - the world where it will be judged by agents, editors, readers, critics - we are completely kissing goodbye to control. You can't influence the way anyone reacts to your work, or their emotions as they read it, in any way other than by writing the best book you have in you. Some people will love it, others will be indifferent, and some will hate it with a fiery passion. Worse, many people will misunderstand it, and attribute motives and ideas to you, the writer, based on that misunderstanding. It's enough to drive anyone right up the wall and out of the chimney.

The only way to survive with your stomach lining intact? Admit to yourself that there's nothing you can do about it. I'm serious. It's the only way.

What you're focusing on here, Ray, is the aspect of publishing that you have the LEAST control over. Yes, once you've gotten published you can promote your work, offer yourself to your publisher for events or arrange these yourself, get 'swag' items made up, do contests online, blog - but I think it's been proved fairly conclusively at this point that none of this really makes a difference. Writers who suck the marrow from their own bones to promote often enjoy only modest sales, and writers who do nothing at all find themselves shot to stardom through word-of-mouth. Fantastic books that deserve to be bestsellers sink without a trace, and badly written, derivative ones end up being translated into fifty languages and turned into smash hit movies.

There is nothing you can do about it.

So, in summary: Your worries are completely normal. But they are also the kind of worries which will only hurt you as a writer and a person, because obsessing over things outside your control is a leading cause of stress and unhappiness. Try to put these negative thoughts to the back of your mind and just write the best book you can, and cross your fingers. That's all any writer can really do.

Okay - onwards! The next question comes from Rebecca, via the comment trail. She says: 
"I really enjoy writing and developing my characters but I sometimes struggle with names for them. How do make up names for your characters?"
Honestly? I don't! I hardly ever make up names at all. I usually borrow names from the real world. I find that this helps me to avoid that typical fantasy tendency to create ridiculous, over-the-top words that drag the reader out of the story trying to figure out how to pronounce them.

Generally I make an internal decision on what sort of names I want for any particular country or race that I'm making up. For example, in Daughter of the Flames I decided that the names of the Rua people would come from India and Africa, and that the names of the Sedorne would come from Romania. This fit the massive cultural divide between the two invented peoples in my head. Then I went onto my favourite site Behind the Name, and I dragged out my books of New Age and International baby names, and I spent hours trawling through the Indian, African, and Romanian names, making lists in my notebook of the ones that I liked.

Sometimes names immediately 'chime' in my head and become associated with a character (like Deo and Mira or Robin and Hugh). Some names I pencil into my story outline in the belief that they're perfect, but as I get to know the character more I realise it doesn't work, or that the name would be better elsewhere. Rashna was originally called Kapilla, but that name really suited a certain minor character, so I swapped. The heroine of Shadows on the Moon was originally called Miyako, because that name had a certain meaning I liked, but it just didn't work for her, and so I went back to my lists of Japanese names and found the perfect one - Suzume.

And sometimes I'm forced to admit to myself that there is no name exactly right for the character, and so I play around with the real names I have until I find a variation which feels right - like Zira and Zahira. Those are not real Indian or African names, but they worked.

Sometimes a character will pop into my head fully formed with a name attached. I don't know where these guys come from and similarly their names might be made up or names which turn out to be real. Examples of this are Abheron in DotF (that name is completely made up) and Akira in Shadows on the Moon (Akira is a real Japanese name).

Sometimes I cannot find the right name for a character and it annoys me and annoys me and eventually I give up and give them a 'placeholder' name, something that will do for now, just to let me get on and write about them. Usually if I do this, the real name will make itself known to me somewhere in the middle of the story, like Gabriel from The Swan Kingdom - I sat bolt upright in bed one night and shouted 'GABRIEL!' and that was that. Sometimes, however, the real name never does make itself known, and then I'm forced to put up with the placeholder name.

I also like to play around with symbolism and hidden meanings in the names I give my characters wherever I can, and this is another reason I like to use real names, instead of making them up. Branwen is the name of the main character's mother in The Swan Kingdom - but it is also the name of a doomed, tragic queen in Welsh mythology. In Shadows on the Moon, the heroine transforms three times and each new transformation has a new name with a new meaning that symbolises who she has become. Sorin's name in Daughter of the Flames means 'sun' which is perfect for his character.

As you can probably tell from all this, Rebecca, finding names for characters is one of my favourite things! If you find it a challenge (and I have to admit that I do too, occasionally) try using real names, searching for ones with hidden meanings that will add depth to your world. Or, pick a placeholder name and feel free to change it as often as you want - this is what the 'Find' and 'Replace' functions in MS Word are for! Get yourself some baby name books, or bookmark Behind the Name, and look at these for inspiration. The right name is really just a page turn away!

I hope this has been useful. As always, if anyone has any more questions about writing or publishing, email me through my website or drop me a line in the comments and I will do my best to get back to you. See you on Wednesday!

Friday, 20 May 2011

RETROFRIDAY - NEVER ENDING STORIES

Hello all - and happy Friday! Today I bring you another oldie post dredged up from the perilous depths of the ZT archive, which I hope you'll find useful whether you're re-reading it, or seeing it for the first time. Without more ado:

NEVER ENDING STORIES

I had an email the other day from a young (extremely young) lady called Regan the other day. She's a very enthusiastic writer and reeled off a list of about six or seven story titles that she's working on, some of which were up to seventy-five pages long. She was mainly writing to me for advice on how to handle it when her family, teachers etc. dismiss her writing, so referred her to my TOP TIPS post and my website, where I talk about that a lot.

However, she made a throwaway comment which caused my Writer Senses (like spider senses, but with less webbing) to tingle. She said that before she could finish any of her stories she always ended up getting an idea for another one. Her stories weren't getting finished.

This is an issue which is close to my heart - and probably to the hearts of many reading this blog. For a lot of young and not-so-young writers, the problem of actually managing to complete a story/novel crops up again and again. If you want to learn more, read on. I warn you - this post is long. Very long. It may have developed its own gravitational field by now...

The thing is, it doesn't sound difficult to finish a story. In fact, you'd think it would be the most natural and easy thing in the world. You start it, then you do some noodley bits in the middle, then you write The End and you've finished. Yeah?

Nooooo.

For many years, whenever I told family and friends that I was starting a new novel their response would be a long-suffering sigh and mutters of 'If only you could FINISH one...' At first this didn't bother me much. Because, of course, the story that I'd just abandoned at three chapters was lame and pointless, but this new story, well, this was the perfect story, it was awesome and of course I was going to finish it, right? Oh, Young Zolah, how very wrong you were. Because three chapters into that awesome new story, somehow all the new and awesome had always drained out of it, and there would be MUCH better idea lurking in the back of your mind waiting to pounce.

I loved writing. I always have. I'm a writing geek. I play with words constantly, steal parts of overheard conversations, note down news headlines, and have new stories, characters and worlds constantly crowding into my head. Which is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it? Having so much love for writing should have made it easy for me to finish lots and lots of stories. But it didn't. By the time I'd hit my teens I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't even finish a three page story for an English class. That was okay at school, because I usually ended up writing twelve pages instead of three, and the teacher would be so impressed they'd overlook the lack of ending. I wasn't overlooking it, though. I'd started to get this creeping, icy sense of anxiety. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I couldn't finish stories.

Maybe I never would.

When I was sixteen I decided I wanted to write category romance (Mills and Boon for those of you in the UK, something like Harlequin Romance for those in the US). I was reading these non-stop at the time, mostly because they sold ten for a quid in the local charity shops, and were available by the thousand in the library. They were so plentiful that I could read about ten in a weekend and still have twenty left to keep me going throughout the week. No other genre in the publishing industry could keep up with me. I did some research. I found out that the ladies who wrote these books could make a really good living from it. I did some more research and wrote to the publisher for a set of their guidelines. This set out exactly how many words each book could have and what sort of storylines you could use. It was almost like an essay assignment at school. Armed with all my facts and figures, I set out to write one of these books.

AND I DID IT.

Somehow, the fact that I had been given a word target and a fairly narrow list of requirements, combined with my in-depth knowledge of the genre, made it possible for me, in between school and homework and TV and the rest, to bash out a 50,000 word romance novel in about four months.

You can probably imagine my triumph. I'd beaten the jinx. I'd proven I could really be a proper writer. I don't think my feet even touched the ground for about a week after typing The End.

On a roll (so I thought) I submitted the novel to Mills and Boon. And the inevitable happened. I was summarily rejected. Looking back, I can only thank the God of Writers for his unexpected kindness there, because that book STANK. At the time, though, it was a huge blow.

I carried on trying to get published with category romances for a couple more years, but my old problem had returned. I couldn't finish them. Instead I would write three chapters and a synopsis, send it to the romance publishing company, get rejected and move onto a new story.

Then when I was eighteen, through various coincidences, I found the genre which was to become my perfect home. YA Fantasy. Just like always, I began to read voraciously in my chosen field, digging out old favourites and discovering new ones, until I had, once again, become an expert in my genre. Once again, I did my research, found out what sort of word target I needed to aim at. Once again, I checked out submission guidelines on publisher's websites. Then the idea for Blood Magic came to me.

By this time I was working full-time in an office, but that didn't stop me *living* inside that story for months. I remember putting customers on hold for a minute so I could scribble ideas on odd bits of paper. I remember leaning on the concrete wall of the tea-room, jotting down dialogue while colleagues stared. And I can remember thinking: I WILL COMPLETE THIS BOOK. I loved it - the story, the characters, the fictional world - so much that I just had to. I had to find out how it finished!

I drew up a little chart of how many words I should write a day, and gave myself a target, about nine months away, for completion. Unlike with previous stories I didn't go back and revise previous chapters, because I was always too busy writing the next one, and as a result I smashed my target, completing the book six months early, because I just couldn't stop writing.

Although Blood Magic was never destined to be published, writing it was the best thing I ever did for my YA writing career. When I submitted it to (and was rejected by) Walker Books, I came into contact with the gentleman who was later to become my first editor. After the book was rejected he called me up to tell me how much he liked my 'voice' and to ask me to send him anything else I wrote. A year almost to the day after submitting Blood Magic, I sent him The Swan Kingdom. Within a couple of months I had a publishing contract - and an agent too.

So, what is the point of this rambling story? Well, let's have a look at the facts here. Just like many of you, I couldn't finish stories. Except that I COULD - with the right conditions. I proved that with my romance novel and later with Blood Magic (and the books that came after). So, what are the right conditions? How do you go about writing a story in such a way that you will be able to finish it? 

RESEARCH: Read widely in your chosen field! Glory in it! Devour everything you can get your hands on. Read books you love and books you hate. Re-read both kinds and learn from them. In short, become an expert. Because that way you will be filled with a sense of confidence that you know exactly where your book fits in - that your ideas are original and interesting, and worthy of their own book - and this confidence will propel you forward to complete it.
 
TARGETS: Decide how long you want your book to be (look at other books in your genre and look at publisher's guidelines if you can find them). Decide what date you want to complete it by and how many words you should write a day or a week. Be reasonable, but do stretch yourself. Remember, even if you only write 500 words a day - two typed pages - that would be 182500 words by the end of the year! Enough for two or three books! Then do everything you can to stick to those targets. You won't always be able to manage it. The original word target for Shadows on the Moon was 65,000 words and the original completion target was April 2009. Instead, the first draft was 130,000 words long and I didn't complete until October 2009. But having targets will give you a sense that you're working on something that can and will be finished one day.
 
PASSION: Don't write the first idea that pops into your head. Don't be distracted by every fleeting, glamorous image in your brain and launch into writing without really thinking your story through. Don't read someone else's book, get 'inspired' and end up writing fanfic disguised as original fiction, telling yourself no one will notice. You need to be in LOVE with your story. Cherish it, think about it deeply, live inside the characters and love or hate them. Give all your imagination to one idea and let it grow and mature within you. Let it become something so special and unique, filled with so many of your own deepest values and feelings, that no one else on the planet could write it but you. Then when you come to put it down on paper, nothing will be able to tempt you away, even when things get hard, because nothing in the whole world will be as exciting to you as the story you're working on RIGHT NOW.

MOMENTUM: Just write. Keep your eye on the target and keep pushing forward. Don't give into the temptation to keep going back and revising those first pages or chapters. Maybe they suck, but so what? You can fix anything in revision - once you've finished the book. You can't fix it right now. In fact, it's pointless trying to revise an unfinished story, and you know why - because you get caught in the death spiral of doubting yourself and the story and never finish it. So just think about that glorious, heart-rending, funny, sad, change-your-life forever ending that you're going to create. Believe in that ending. Reach for it. And somehow, before you know it, you really will be writing it.

      Wednesday, 18 May 2011

      WRITER'S KRYPTONITE

      Hi everyone - congratulations on making it through the week this far. It's been tough, but the worst is over now, right? We can totally survive until Friday. Totally. Right? Probably. Heh heh. Ahem.

      Why the patently false cheer, you ask? Weren't you all over the moon and full of optimism and energy just a few days ago? Weren't you about to start work on your beloved Big Secret Project? Shouldn't you be, like, HAPPY and stuff?

      Well, that was the plan, dear readers, honestly it was. But little did I realise that something insidious, inescapable and invidious (check your thesaurus) was lurking for me within the pages of Big Secret Project. Something called...a transition. Otherwise known as Writer's Kryptonite.


      *Gaspshockhorror*

      You see, I had already written the first three chapters of BSP for my agent at the beginning of this year, and, as authors are wont to do, I had paused just as a moment of high tension left the characters on a cliff-hanger. So when I revisited the book, I happily churned out the second part of this exciting action scene, and checked my synopsis only to find a section a little bit like this:

      "Something interesting happens. The police arrive and insist on taking the characters to the hospital to be checked out. After they have both seen a doctor, and have evaded the police's questions, the girls are about to head home when something even more interesting happens."

      (Warning - events have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty)

      Writers often pepper their outlines with lines like this. They pop out of our brains as easily as fungal spores pop out of mould, and it never occurs to us that they will cause us untold pain and suffering later on. It would never occur to ANYONE reading the outline, probably, that such a line would make a working author freeze in their tracks, and sit with their head in their hands, groaning, for days at a time.

      Just what is the problem? Well, everything between the first interesting event and the second interesting event is what we call a transition. A bridging scene, if you will. A section of writing in which nothing particularly important happens, no characters change or develop, nothing new is introduced into the story, and the plot does not move forward - but which nevertheless must be written in order to preserve narrative flow and a sense of consequences and reality within the story.

      This particular transition calls for the arrival of the police on the scene, their reactions, and then either a short section taking place in the back of a police car and another one in a hospital, or possibly a little time skip and then a longer section in the hospital. We need to see that one of the characters has a few minor injuries, and that the characters realise they can't tell anyone about the interesting events they've seen. Some other pieces of information need to be scattered here too, cunningly, so that readers can come to their own conclusions about the way stuff in the story is going to work.

      It doesn't sound hard, does it? But it is, dear readers, it really, truly is. Writing a transition scene like this is probably the hardest thing that I have to do. Transitions are like my kyptonite. I only have to catch a glimpse of one and I get weak and sick. I'm supposed to get my characters from A to B in a way which is brief, interesting, and which conveys the necessary information, and yet, nothing actually HAPPENS here. I have NO IDEA HOW. None. How in the world am I supposed to keep readers from throwing the book down in disgust and boredom when they come across these pages? How?

      The temptation is always to skip these little scenes. To simply jump forward in time within the story and start the next scene in the middle of the action - or to write straight from one exciting event to another. But it doesn't work. Trust me, I've tried it. What happens is:

      a) You end up with a series of short, choppy scenes which don't feel anchored in the story world and which distance the reader from the reality you're trying to create.

      OR:

      b) You avoid the first transition but find that there's an now inescapable need for one in the next scene because you HAVE to convey the information and the sense of time passing somehow. So you keep pushing forward trying to avoid THAT transition. But then you really need another one. Before you know what you've done, you have a dragging, lagging, soggy midsection in which plenty of stuff happens but none of it's the slightest bit interesting because it's all happening one thing after another with no sense of any of it actually linking together into a story, and pacing went out the window.

      Transitions, dude. They're a b***h.

      But wait! Before we all give up on writing forever because the mere thought of writing a bridging scene is enough to send us fleeing to a dark corner to rock and make strangled moaning noises - there IS a way to make transitions interesting and worthwhile! It's just really hard, that's all.

      Basically, you have to find what I call 'a way in'. That is, a way to approach the House of Transitions craftily, through a side door or a window, so that you can convince yourself and your characters and hopefully the readers that it's not actually a transition you're walking through here at all.

      Example? Well, let's say that in the above mentioned transition, we see the police cars screech to a halt and have our characters exchange apprehensive glances. Then we skip forward in time and join our main character in the waiting room of the hospital. She's been separated from her friend because the friend hit her head and needs some x-rays. The police are peppering the main character with questions about the interesting event which she can't answer because she knows that they'll think she's lying or insane. Let's make her feel a bit tense and frightened during this, especially since she's all alone. The way she reacts will be a good illustration of her character. And let's use the questions the police ask to make it clear what her friend has said, so that we know the friend is also denying all knowledge - that's an efficient way of getting that across to the reader.

      But the scene is still a bit bland, because it's too familiar and too uneventful. What if we dig a bit deeper into the main character? Let's say the last time that she was in the hospital was when a close family member that she loved a great deal passed away. Let's say that was a very traumatic event for her, and that remembering it also makes her remember a lot of other bits of information which the reader will need to know sooner or later too, about the character's family set-up. And what if the character glancing over these fragments of memory also hints intriguingly at future events in the story? Now we can not only have a scene which illustrates the main character's personality, but which illuminates her past and foreshadows her future too.

      Yes, this is still a transition scene. But now it's also a scene in which so many other things are going on that the reader can't help but be interested. The writer can't help but be interested!

      It's not always as straightforward as this. Sometimes the way in can be the realisation that the scene needs to take place on a frozen lake, with the characters sliding around and hanging onto each other and laughing the whole time, or that one of the characters is furious but trying to hide it, or that the transition you're writing now needs to mirror one that's coming up in another three chapter's time. Like I said, its tough. But it is worth it in the end. And the reason I know this?

      Because when my editor emailed me to tell me she had loved the new version of FF, she singled out two particularly powerful points in the story - and one of them was a transition scene which I HATED writing. I'd tried so hard to make that transition worthwhile that I came out the other side and turned it into a pivotal scene.

      That's basically like Superman laughing in kryponite's face, guys. Awesome, right?

      So what's your writing kryptonite, and how do you deal with it?

      Monday, 16 May 2011

      SAVING THE WORLD, ONE BOOK AT A TIME

      Hello and happy Monday, dear readers. Today, I need to address an excellent question which was put to me by faithful commentor Alex, who said:
      I've just been to a talk by the living legend that is Jane Goodall and afterwards I started to question the value of being a professional author, which I, like so many other people, aspire to. [...] How does being an author help the world? What's its value?
      This is a great question, but also a very tricky one to answer in an original way because so many other great authors have weighed in on the topic. I'm going to post this link here before I go any further, because I <3 this essay and it's great to have an excuse to direct you all do it:

      Write the Change you Want to See in the World by the ever-amazing Sarah Rees Brennan

      I believe that SRB is 100% right. Writers can make the world a more awesome place. We have the power to do that, and it's a heavy responsibility sometimes. There have been times (recent times!) when I've caught myself following the Path of Prejudice, entirely unconsciously, in my own writing, and had to stop and give myself a swift bitch-slap to re-align my work onto the Path of Awesome instead. And I talked about that in this post here:

      Wake Up and Smell the Real World by slightly-less-amazing but trying-hard Zolah

      But what's even scarier and more weighty than the impression writers can make on the world, perhaps, is the impression they can make on individuals. The right book at the right time can save a life. Literally. And a lifetime of right books can change the course of a life. I know that because that is what happened to my life. So I thought I would dig out this speech which I made to an audience of trainee teachers at the Write to Inspire Conference in 2007 (under the aegis of Nikki Gambles's Write Away organisation). Bear in mind that I had to read this aloud, so the format is slightly different than a normal blog-post!
      "As the theme of today’s conference is Hearts and Minds, I thought I’d talk about how books captured my heart and mind when I was young, and a few occasions when reading really made a difference to my own life and the way I grew up.

      When I was young, I was not a good reader. There was no particular reason for this, because I came from a family of book lovers, and I’d always been exposed to books. I liked being read to a lot. But reading to myself was something else. I thought of it as something by turns boring and scary: scary when teachers made you do it aloud, boring when you were trying to do it on your own.

      I still remember my father practically having to force me to stumble through a chapter of one of those early reading series books, which was about a girl called Wendy and her playhouse, and which struck me even at such a young age as mind-numbingly tedious. I knew I had to learn to read and write, just like I had to learn to tie my own shoelaces, but it never occurred to me that it was anything but a chore. No teacher would have picked me out as one of the brighter kids in class. There was nothing about me that hinted that one day I might become a writer, and make words my trade. In that way, I was probably exactly the same as countless children that you’ve met in your own classrooms.

      But one thing I did have going for me as a kid was a vivid and active imagination, and like most imaginative kids, I was very good at frightening myself.

      I used to be terrified of my bedroom at night. I'm not sure precisely why, but I wonder now if that room was haunted or something, though my sister telling me that wolves lived under my bed probably didn't help. My mum was aware that I was having terrible trouble getting to sleep, lying awake in the bedroom with the light on. She decided to gave me a book to read, so that if I couldn’t get to sleep, or woke up feeling frightened, I would have something to take my mind off my fears. The book was The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton.

      As I said, I wasn’t a very good reader at that point. It must have taken between a month and six weeks to read that one little book. But the sense of pride and achievement when I finished it is something I can still remember today. I tore down the stairs, waving this battered paperback, shouting “I’ve finished!”

      My mum said, “Well, I suppose you liked it then? We’ll have to get you the next one.” And I said, “There are more?”

      And that was it. I was a different little girl than the one who had first opened the book weeks before. I had realised - without realising how - that there was some kind of magic in books. I fell in love. I was a Reader.
      From that moment, I never went to bed without a book tucked under my arm – and my mum never had any problems getting me to go to bed either. What happened on the page was so real to me that it made my own fears and nightmares seem completely transparent. I carried on reading everything I could get my hands on. I became pretty good writer too, with a wide vocabulary and a good grasp of spelling and grammar.

      Those weren’t skills that I had been born with, or which had come naturally to me – just like many of the other kids who struggle with reading and writing in your classes. I had learned them because I wanted to, because they were important to me. The willpower and determination that a child can bring to learning is absolutely astonishing, if they’re learning things that they care about. I cared about reading. The Magic Faraway Tree had changed my mind.

      A few years later, my teacher Mr Denford chose to read his class a book called The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden. I don’t know if any of you have come across this book before, but it’s really an extraordinary piece of writing for children. I haven’t had the chance to read it for years, since it’s out of print, but I still remember every detail about it. It’s about a girl called Kezia – Kizzy for short – who is half gypsy, and who, after her gypsy grandmother dies, is forced into the care of strangers, some cruel, some well-meaning. In the course of the story, Kezia is subjected to terrible treatment by other children of her own age who are offended and frightened by her differences.

      I liked the story so much that I went home and asked if I could have my own copy, so that I could read it myself rather than listening to it at school. It turned out we had one in the house, and I read it several times, despite it being rather damp and very smelly.

      It was not long after that, that a new girl came into Mr Denford’s class. We’ll call her Jane.

      She was at a disadvantage first because she had what we all considered to be a screamingly funny surname, and next because she’d had meningitis as a baby which had effected her cognitive functions. She found it hard to speak sometimes, and her co-ordination was bad. The teachers all told us very carefully that we should be nice to Jane, which was practically the equivalent of stamping a target on her forehead.

      For the first few weeks most people restrained themselves from doing much more than excluding Jane from games, or sniggering about her name. But once she’d been around for a while the bullying got worse. One girl ‘accidentally’ pulled a chair out from under her. Another spilled paint all over her pictures. They’d pinch her or fluster her so that she’d stammer or say the wrong words.

      I’d never been one of the popular kids, or one of the leaders of the class. In fact I’d quite often been picked on myself. A small part of me was glad that the mean kids now had someone else to focus their meanness on, so they’d leave me alone. A small part of me even wanted to join in, to blend into the crowd, which would give me even more protection. 

      But a bigger part – the part that had been in tears reading The Diddakoi – realised that what was happening to Jane was exactly the same. And that it was wrong. And that being part of it would be a terrible thing.

      I still didn’t have the courage to get involved at first. I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what to do. Then one day I heard a group of girls whispering about a plan – a plan to catch Jane on her way home and ‘get her’. This was in the days before the school run, and we all walked home. Now, I’d been ‘gotten’ a time or two myself, and it was pretty awful. But I was a fast runner and my house was nearby. I’d always gotten away in the end. But Jane couldn’t run very well, and her house was not nearby. So I went to our teacher and told him what I had heard.

      There was a huge fuss, a lot of people got into trouble, and at the end Jane was more of a pariah than ever. So was I. And I’d love to say that us two ended up being fast friends forever – but we weren’t, because I don't think either of us was brave enough to team up with another person who was the focus of so much bullying. But faced with that decision again today, I’d probably do the same thing. Reading The Diddakoi made me the sort of person who can’t just stand by and watch other people be hurt. It changed my heart, for the better.

      These are examples of just two times when reading has changed my life. How is it that books can have such a huge impact on an ordinary child and transform them in such a way?

      A book isn’t like any other kind of media. It doesn’t provide music at key moments to tell you when you’re supposed to get tearful or an actor mugging to tell you to laugh.

      The images in your head come from you as much as from words on the page. When you’re enjoying a book your imagination races ahead of the words, creating an inner landscape which we people with our own actors, scenery and music.

      People sometimes assume that reading is a lonely act, which isolates us from other people. But at the very base of it, opening a book is an act of communication between reader and author. When you open a book, you place your mind and emotions at the service of someone else’s characters and ideas for however long it takes to finish the story.

      And that’s the vital point.

      What makes a person different to dog? Or a horse? Is it that we’ve developed language? Opposable thumbs? No! It’s that human beings know they’re mortal. They can imagine that one day, they will die.

      So it’s not just that imagination allows us to feel compassion, and empathy. It’s not just that without it, there will be no more stories to read. It’s that without imagination, there are no humans. Only clever apes with clever fingers.

      If there is such a thing as a soul, it might be housed in the heart or the mind, but its lifeblood flows from the human imagination. And when you teach a child to love books and stories – when you teach a child to read – you’re not just providing them with a life skill that will allow them to write essays or get a good job. You’re teaching them what it is to be human.

      That’s the most precious gift that any of us can receive. And for that, I thank you all, in advance."
      I hope this gives you something to consider, Alex! Thanks for inspiring today's post. See you all on Wednesday.

      Friday, 13 May 2011

      DISASTER/TRIUMPH

      Hi everyone! I'm sooo sorry for the delay in Friday's post - this was due to Blogger totally wiping out, with no warning. If anyone's been on Twitter today, you'll have seen the raft of infuriated comments about this. I'm very glad that I don't tend to draft posts in advance, because apparently many people have lost things that they had saved but not posted. A lot of bloggers lost comments too (this may have been what happened to you, Isabel, since this nonsense has been going on all week). Blogger is not popular right now.

      Luckily I didn't have an mega-long or important post planned for you this Friday. I really just wanted to give you all an update on my progress.

      Regular blog readers will remember that, back in February, I posted about attempting an ambitious and controversial storyline in my fourth book FrostFire...and failing. If you missed the original post, it's here: I Thought I Could Fly...So Why Did I Drown?

      Basically, my editor was forced to reject the book because it didn't work. And it wasn't just the controversial part. My editor - very kindly, but very firmly - pointed out that in my intense desire to write a gay high fantasy, I had left a lot of other things, like characterisation and plot, on the wayside. I was devastated - a lot more than I could let on, even in that sadsack, emo-toast post right there (yeah, I know). But I had a ray of hope. My editor did like a lot of things about the story, and she was willing to work with me on revisions. And by revisions, I mean, completely re-writing the book FROM SCRATCH.

      Based on my lovely editor's detailed comments, I wrote a new synopsis for the book encompassing major structural and character changes (including switching the genders of everyone in the story except the protagonist and one secondary character). My editor read the revised synopsis super-fast, and by late February I was armed with an even more detailed set of notes. I made the decision to change the POV of the story from third person to first, because I realised that although I had found a decent 'voice' for the story in third, I had never really gotten into my main character's head (this was a lesson to me, because before I hadn't realised that first person was so vital to me creating fully realised characters).

      Between then and the end of March I wrote around 60,000 new words, crafting an entirely new beginning and middle section. I then re-wrote the end of the story and blended it into the new material. By April I was revising and polishing. I finished up with a manuscript of just over 100,000 words, which was 20,000 longer than the original version. I literally had no idea of the worth of the new manuscript. On one hand, I felt, deep down, that my editor's notes were good, and I had done my best to squeeze every bit of value out of them. On the other, I had re-read and revised every page so often that the thought of looking at it again made me groan. I'd reached the stage where I couldn't even recognise trees anymore, let alone figure out what a forest should look like.

      I submitted FrostFire Mark Two to my editor in late April. And waited.

      I've never felt so uncertain about the reaction a book was going to get since I sent The Swan Kingdom to my first editor back in 2005. I spent half my time convinced that my editor would be forced to reject it again, and the other half that, if I was lucky, she might be willing to give me more time to work on it some more.

      What I didn't consider was that she might email me less than a month later (this Tuesday, in fact, in the afternoon) to tell me that she had picked the manuscript up the day before and read it practically non-stop, and that she loved it. LOVED it.

      If you want to know what pure relief feels like, this is the kind of situation you need to get yourself in. I've never felt anything like it. I actually came over a bit dizzy and thought I might be sick. Then I starjumped and airpunched my way around the house for about half an hour before having a quiet sit-down with a mug of tea and some biscuits (this is the glamorous writer's life, I tell you).

      And during that quiet sit-down, in the calm left behind by weeks of worry and hard work, I thought about FrostFire. I thought about that original draft, and about all the radical changes that came out in the second pass, and I realised that somehow, with my editor's help, I had now written the book I meant to write in the first place. Even though I'd gotten lost in trying to prove a point along the way, and messed up, and forgotten why I wanted to write this story, FrostFire Mark Two was the book it was meant to be. The terrifying, challenging, brilliant spark of story + character that originally flamed to life in my brain back in 2008 when I was working on the beginning of Shadows on the moon, had never really died. It had just banked its fire patiently and waited until the moment I was finally paying attention to burst forth again.

      That, my beloveds, is what they mean by triumph born from disaster.

      We'll be working on polishing and tightening FF up a bit more over the next couple of months, and hopefully FF will keep it's original publication slot in July of 2012. I'll be working on Big Secret Project too, to fill up the time - I'll tell you more about that when I can, but it might be a while.

      In the meantime...anyone fancy starjumping with me? One, two, THREE!

      Tuesday, 10 May 2011

      EVERY WRITER'S GOT 'EM...

      Rejection letters! While doing some spring cleaning last week, and getting rid of ten years worth of old Writer's and Artists's Yearbooks and Writer's Handbooks, I came across a wodge of my old rejection slips tucked into a volume from 2004.


      I found it a really strange experience looking through them again. I felt sadness, because I remembered how each one of these rejections devastated me at the time, and I wished that I could reach back in time to myself then and say 'Don't worry - it all turns out all right in the end'. I felt kind of squirmy because in hindsight I know that the book just wasn't good enough, and I can't believe how kind people were about it. What I don't really feel is the sense of triumph I always TOLD myself I would feel, as an unpublished writer, when I looked at these letters as a published writer at long last. It's kind of like looking back at having had a nasty accident involving a lot of broken bones. You're glad you got through it and that you're all healed up now, but it still makes you wince a bit remembering.

      This collection by no means represents the entirety of the rejections I got - I'm sure there's at least another couple of piles as big as this hidden in the back of my box files - but I thought I'd share these ones because they all relate to BLOOD MAGIC, which was the very first YA fantasy novel that I completed. So near, and yet - so far!


      I also found a copy - and this must be the only copy left in existence, since I don't even have an old floppy disc with this - of the query letter that I sent out at the time. It doesn't seem like a brilliant query letter in retrospect, but I had plenty of requests for the full manuscript, so I must have done something right with it!


      Some of the pile are form rejections, but I got a few personal comments, and I treasured these - even though, reading them now, I do wonder just HOW personal they were, and if all the form rejections looked like this!





      I hope this was interesting, and reassuring, especially for those of you who are thinking about publication. Remember - the title of this blog post is true. Every single writer has got some of these, and they aren't the end of the world. Like a broken finger, they bloody hurt at the time, but after a year or so all that's left is the memory of pain rather than the pain itself. And with any luck, it doesn't even leave a scar!

      Monday, 9 May 2011

      WHY FAIRYTALES ARE MAGIC

      (Note: This post was originally written as part of Fairytale Fortnight and posted on The Book Rat and Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing. I'm re-posting in full here in case anyone missed it the first time around. Enjoy!).

      Why are some writers drawn back to fairytales again and again, even when they also write original fantasies and books in other genres, like Shannon Hale (The Goose Girl, The Book of a Thousand Days, Rapunzel's Revenge)? Why do some writers love a particular fairytale so much that they retell it more than once from different perspectives, like Robin McKinley (Beauty, The Rose Daughter, Sunshine)? Why are writers able to pull a fairytale to pieces, take the bits they like, discard the rest, put everything back in an entirely different order, and still call it a retelling, like Jackson Pearce (Sisters Red, Sweetly)?

      It's because fairytales are more than just the stereotypical trappings that first spring to mind when we think about them. More than the carriages and ball-gowns, the beautiful princesses, handsome woodcutters and wicked stepmothers. More than just spells, enchanted castles, fairy godmothers and happily ever after.

      Fairytales have a magical quality that is entirely separate from the magic that goes on within them. They have been passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, for hundreds of years. Like a stone staircase burnished and worn by the passage of a thousand feet, fairytales offer us a familiar path which we instinctively follow - and yet, unlike stone steps, they may take us to a different destination every time we travel them. Each successive generation has retold these stories in their own way, often pulling and warping them out of all recognition. A modern-day girl who reads the original story of Sleeping Beauty (which you can find in Italo Calvino and George Martin's Italian Folktales) would be shocked, disgusted and disbelieving to realise exactly what Prince Charming did to the sleeping princess (I know I was!).

      But instead of wiping that sickening story from our oral traditions and our imagination as our societal mores and our moral standards have changed, we have brought it with us, retelling it again and again until it has become a story symbolising the strength of true love and patience and the triumph of good over evil. We can't leave fairytales behind us. Something within them is stronger than the outer trappings. Something - some universal truth - always goes on.

      When I was a little girl my big sister and I fought like cats in a sack, and barely a day went by without our house being shaken by screams and complaints. One day when I was seven or eight, our mother sent us both out of the house with instructions to go to the library - TOGETHER! - and for heaven’s sake, STOP ARGUING. In tense silence, we walked the short distance to the shabby little building and went in. My sister abandoned me to browse the adult shelves. I poked around in the children’s section, and then, without much hope, looked in the Cancelled Box (where the librarians put books for sale). There I discovered a very special book. It was a large, hardback picture book, a bit peeling and worn on the outside, titled The Wild Swans. Within, children played in a fairytale castle. A wicked enchantress cast a spell. Horses tossed their manes, leopards and hawks hunted across the pages. A little girl became a beautiful woman, and wandered through a deep dark forest.

      It was magic.

      I would have done anything to have that book for my own – but I didn’t have any money with me or any pocket money saved up and I knew that by the time I came back, the book would be gone. It was too magical for the Cancelled Box. On the point of tears, I was about to put The Wild Swans back, when it was plucked away by a familiar hand. “I’ll buy you that,” my sister said coolly. I still don't know if she realises how, in that moment of casual kindness, she completely changed my life.

      Seventeen years later, my version of the fairytale The Wild Swans was published under the title The Swan Kingdom. In my own mind, I acknowledge that very little from that beloved picture book actually made it into The Swan Kingdom unaltered. But I've read reviews which claim the story follows the original fairytale too closely and therefore lacks originality and suspense. I've also read reviews that say The Swan Kingdom is nothing like the original fairytale and that the changes I made destroy the story! The lesson I learned from these contradictory review is this: the universal truth within a fairytale is different for each person who reads it.

      When I wrote The Swan Kingdom I kept all the elements which I felt were truly important to the
      original story. I kept the quiet, valiant strength of the little sister, the idea of the brothers turned into swans, the painful task required to free them. I kept the idea that the heroine would be persecuted for actions which some people felt were 'witchcraft'. I kept the wicked stepmother, and I kept the handsome prince from a different kingdom with whom the heroine falls in love. Those formed the skeleton of the fairytale within my mind. But for others, my important points are not important at all. They’ve found different points of reference within the story, different ways of navigating through the landscape of fairytales. The fairytale is different for them. In their heads, it was already retold before I ever came along.

      In July my second fairytale retelling will be published, and this time I've made life even more difficult for myself by picking a very well known story - that of Cinderella. The book is set in my magical version of Japan, and it's this which has most people excited about it. But the real heart of the story is the universal truth which I saw behind the trappings of the Disney Cinderella we've all grown up with. The truth that no girl, no real, human girl with a beating heart, could possibly be as spineless, as obedient, as perfect, as Cinderella pretends to be. Her perfection must be hiding something. Passion. Hatred. Intelligence. Fear. And a desperate desire for revenge.


      I know that many people will be recoil from reading about a Cinderella who isn't beautiful, who isn't the slightest bit sweet or perfect, and who couldn't care less about putting on a pretty dress and dancing with the prince. Maybe people will be shocked to read about a Cinderella who lies, steals, cheats and fights her way to revenge for the wrongs done to her. A Cinderella who is broken and scarred - by her own hand. But I hope that others will see their own reality and their own universal truth reflected in my Cinderella's choices, and that in telling the story as I see it, I will allow her story to become part of the greater, timeless fairytale which mothers have been telling their daughters since before my grandmother’s grandmother was born.

      That’s why writers can’t leave fairytales alone. Because fairytales ARE magic. Their magic is that of timelessness, of immortality. And by retelling them, we mere humans get a taste of immortality too.

      Saturday, 7 May 2011

      CITY OF FALLEN ANGELS BLOGHUNT


      Heh heh. Yeah baby - we're going on a bloghunt.

      First question. Have you read City of Fallen Angels yet? If YES, visit OPTION A. If NO, scroll down to OPTION B.

      *
      *
      *
      *

      OPTION A. 

      I KNOW, RIGHT?! Hopping Moses on a Pogostick WHAT WAS THAT? *Clutches head, takes deep breaths. Aaanyway - you want to get your hands on the letter, right? You know - THE LETTER.



      The one that Jace writes to Clary in City of Glass. The heartbreaking, emotional letter where he pours out his soul to the one true love he believes he can never be with. The letter we never actually get to read in the book. I mean, I know *I* do.

      So, watcha gotta do to get it? Well, it's really unbelievably simple. Here goes:

      Six questions.

      Six blogs.

      One chance for fans in the UK and Ireland to get their hands on the letter that Jace writes to Clary in City of Glass before he leaves on a life-threatening mission.

      Each question is on a different blog, and the answers lie in City of Fallen Angels, the latest in Cassandra Clare’s bestselling The Mortal Instruments series.

      Once you’ve answered all the questions, put the first letter of each answer together to create a word. Email that word to Undercover Reads, and Walker Books will send you a beautiful print of Jace’s letter, complete with the Morgenstern Seal.

      The second question is…

      1. What is the name of Simon’s Shadowhunter girlfriend?
      Got the answer? Question 3 will be unveiled on The Overflowing Library, Sunday 8th May…

      If you’ve missed question 1, start the hunt at The Crooked Shelf



      OPTION B. 

      Go get it. Now. If you didn't read the first three books yet? Please do, because they are so fantastic. I'm swept away by Cassandra Clare's ability to create these astonishing plots that are just non-stop action and twists and surprises and whipping the rug out from under your feet. But at the same time her characters (human and more than human) are so flawed, funny and interesting, and they change and develop and you love them and hate them. I just wish I could write books like this. *Sigh*

      Okay - go have a great weekend everyone!

      Thursday, 5 May 2011

      COME BACK TOMORROW!


      Hi everyone - and happy Friday! I know you'd normally be in for a post today, but for a very special reason my end of week post is being delayed until tomorrow. Tune in on Saturday to find out why!

      Tuesday, 3 May 2011

      FINAL FAIRYTALE MADNESS

      Hi everyone! After Monday's serious post with so many ALL CAPS, today I thought it was time for some fluffy fairytale fun.

      *Pauses while blog readers heave sigh of relief*

      For a start, the Shadows on the Moon and The Swan Kingdom Giveaway is still on at The Book Rat and Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing. Enter at one or both of these blogs if you want the chance to win signed and personalised copies of these (you do want them, right? Right?). Ashley and Misty's Fairytale Fortnight feature just came to a close and guys, if you like fairytales? You must go over there and check out the amazing reviews, guest posts and giveways they've been running. I'll probably be posting the guest post I did for them here one day next week, but they interviewed and got guest posts from waaaay cooler people than me.

      One of the really fun things that they organised was a Communal Bedtime story, where they got a bunch of bloggers and authors to all read a section of a fairytale, then cut all the bits together. It was a lot of fun, and there are some unexpected people taking part - so rather than say anymore, I'll just post the video here. Enjoy!



      And now I'm off back to work on Big Secret Project. See you all on Monday!

      Monday, 2 May 2011

      WHO GETS A HAPPILY EVER AFTER?

      Hi Guys - happy Monday. I hope you've all read some cool books over the long weekend (if you were in the UK) or at least got some sun.

      Today's post is a toughie for me. I've got a bug and I'm feeling a bit gubbins. Frankly, I was planning on posting a video for you, calling the job done, and curling up on the sofa with a jug of orange juice and a comfort book. But then something happened, and I felt that I couldn't let today go by without discussing it. So if this post is even more incoherant and rambling than normal, I beg your pardon. Just bear with me, because I need to get this out or burst.

      Over the weekend I got a Google Alert to tell me that an early review of Shadows on the Moon had appeared on a blog. I checked it out and the review was generally positive and had lots of nice things to say about the book, but despite this it caused me to nearly fall off the sofa in utter shock - and horror - at two things the reviewer said.

      I'm not going to name the blog or provide a link. For a start, I don't want to cause a dogpile. More importantly, I know that the reviewer has the absolute right to think and say whatever she wants. In many ways, her opinion on my book is none of my business. I have no problem with her at all, and I don't take issue with her review.

      My horror had its origin in the sudden sinking sensation that the points the blogger raised were going to come up again. And again. And yet again. We live in a prejudiced world full of unfair assumptions and privilege, and when I wrote Shadows on the Moon I didn't think about any of that. I just wrote what I wanted and needed to write. My horror came from the realisation that we live in a world where people can still make statements which I feel betray a terrible lack of understanding for those different from them, without any apparent consciousness of the fact. If these points are going to end up being common in the discussion of the book - and I feel worried that they will - then I really want to make a definitive statement about them now.

      The first - and probably the most shocking - thing that that made me draw back from this review was the language used to describe Otieno, the male main character in the story. Otieno is a member of a diplomatic party visiting the heroine's country from a foreign land. He's highly educated, softly spoken, funny and intelligent. He is emotionally articulate, polite, loves music and is an accomplished archer. The reviewer acknowledged much of this. Yet they still used to the terms 'exotic and savage' to describe him.

      Why?

      I bet you've already guessed. Otieno is black.

      I think any regular reader of the blog will know how I feel about writing books that reflect the beautiful diversity of the real world, especially in fantasy (if not, go here, you'll soon get it). Shadows on the Moon is set in a faerytale version of Japan, so the vast majority of the characters are what we in the Western world would describe as 'Asian' or 'Oriental' in appearance. I created Otieno and his family to provide a contrast to this mono-ethnic world. I also created them to provide a contrast to the heroine Suzume's repressed, rigid, emotionally barren life. Otieno is, in many ways, the heroine's moral compass within the story.

      Otieno is not savage. Animals are savage. He is not exotic. Fruits are exotic. Before assuming that he must be one of the above just because his skin is darker than that of the other characters? Realise that you are using 'othering' language which isolates and alienates people just because they are different than you. This is not okay.

      *Deep breaths, deep breaths*

      Okay, now I've gotten that out of my system, we come to the second point which disturbed me, which was the attitude to mental illness.

      The blogger very rightly picked up on the fact that Suzume suffers with depression throughout most of the book, and her ways of dealing with this are often self-destructive. No one who had been through the ordeal the heroine had by the age of fourteen could escape without suffering deep emotional trauma. Especially not if they had any vestiges of control wrenched out of their hands and were then forced to repress all their emotions about what had happened. I think it's also clear that Suzume's mother had very depressive tendencies and passed these onto her daughter (just as my mother passed depressive tendencies onto me, and her mother passed them to her). To be fair, the reviewer had no problem with this.

      What she did have a problem with was that Suzume was not cured of this depression by the end of the book. The blogger said she found it hard to believe in Suzume's future happiness because her depression was not fully 'addressed'. She wanted to know that Suzume would 'prevail' over her self destructive behaviour.

      Look. This...I don't even know how to express how wrong this is. But it is sadly representative of a very strong underlying assumption made by many neurotypical people, which is that mental illness of any kind is a fatal flaw, a stain, a horrible shadow on the life of the afflicted person. That it must surely be impossible for anyone to live a normal life if they're, you know, a bit cuckoo, and that in order for a fictional character to complete their story arc, they must throw off their mental illness and take their place among the normal people.

      No. PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

      There is no cure for depression - not even in this day and age. Sometimes it goes away on its own, and sometimes you suffer with it periodically for your whole life. Sometimes it's as mild as feeling sad and low and sometimes it's as extreme as feeling that you want to kill yourself. And guess what? Millions of people live with it. I do. That doesn't mean we can't be happy, or that we need to be in limbo until we somehow figure out a way to escape from our mental illness.

      And here's another kicker: people who self harm also deserve happy endings. They can HAVE a happy ending even if, now and again, they may revert to self-harming again during times of stress.

      How can these issues be addressed? How can a character prevail over their depression and their tendency to self harm? Well, they can take control of their own life as much as possible. They can isolate the things that trigger depression and work on that. They can make the decision to try to resist the desire to revert to self-destructive behaviours. It's not a dramatic-flash-of-light-chorus-of-angels kind of thing. It's an ongoing process, and it's hard. This is what Suzume decides to do at the end of Shadows on the Moon. Because there is no super-special-awesome-sparkly cure for mental illness or self-harm. And the young adults who are going through similar trials in their own lives KNOW THIS.

      How much of a cop-out would it have been for me to show my character shrugging off her trauma and suffering like an old cloak and skipping away with unalloyed, undamaged happiness at the end of all she had been through?

      Just what message would that have given to anyone reading the book who has a mental illness? 'Get over it or you'll never get a happily ever after?'

      You know what? Imma say it again:

      PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES DESERVE HAPPILY EVER AFTERS.

      So do people with scars and disabilities (which is why Zira and Sorin don't get magically healed at the end of Daughter of the Flames)! So do all kinds of people who are not perfect, normal, typical and beautiful. So do people who have made mistakes, done awful things, and hope one day to redeem themselves. So do people who are lost and lonely or isolated or 'othered' by the society where they dwell.

      These are the people that Shadows on the Moon was written for. And to them I offer a big virtual hug, and a virtual cookie, and the assurance that there are people out there who do understand. You are not alone.
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