Tuesday, 4 September 2012


Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday to all, and I hope you've had a lovely weekend, most especially those of you who are going back to school today, or will be in the next day or so. Hang in there, my peeps. I survived it: you can too.

Today I'm answering a question about The Swan Kingdom from a young writer who asks to be referred to by her FanFiction handle, The Imaginatrix. She says:
What made you decide to reduce the number of brothers involved to three? One of the things I loved about "The Wild Swans" was the number of brothers...
This is a really great question because it not only gives me the chance to offer you some information about my writing process, it also allows me to go back and dig into my own motivations, and quite often when I do that I discover stuff about the instinctive choices I've made that's very useful to me moving forward. *Airpunch*

So! The Imaginatrix is right. The number of siblings included in my version of 'The Wild Swans' is vastly reduced from either the eleven brothers you see in Hans Christian Andersen's tale or the seven that you sometimes see in other variations of it (for example, in the version where the brothers are ravens, rather than swans).

There were several factors included in this decision, although at the time it didn't really feel like a decision at all; it just felt like the only way things could or should be. It must have been one of the most basic things I 'knew' about The Swan Kingdom, before I even started work on it - that there would be four children in the doomed family rather than twelve or eight.

Why? Well firstly let's go back to 2004-2005 when I was planning and writing Wild Swans, as it was titled then. Harry Potter was at the zenith of its fame and success, so there was a real demand from publishers for exciting fiction aimed at 8-12 year olds, and as a result of the ever-expanding wordcount of JKR's books, those novels were starting to get a bit fatter even for regular, non-bestselling writers.

But I was writing YA, and at that point the category hadn't experienced any kind of similar boom. Twilight wasn't yet a sparkle in Smeyer's eye, and Suzanne Collins was still writing middle grade fiction herself. In fact, many publishers during this period saw YA novels from anyone other than established big names as problematic, a bit of a hard sell, and - having seen legendary YA author and personal icon Tamora Pierce dropped by UK Random House due to disappointing sales in GB - I was well aware of this. Debut YA novels didn't get any latitude in word count. They were generally expected to be somewhere in the region of 45,000 to 65,000 words long.

Now, a published author with a good relationship with their editor might be able to get around this a bit, but I was a complete newbie. I didn't have an agent and I didn't have any connections in the publishing industry. I knew that if I sent a query for a YA novel to any publisher, and mentioned a wordcount much over 65,000 words, I would just be asking to be rejected out of hand. So I was determined to bring the book in under that.

But at the same time, a huge part of my motivation in writing a re-telling of the fairytale was to thoroughly explore who these people really were. In fairytales you're told what people did and said, where they went, the great and terrible deeds they perform - but you're never told why. Why is the wicked stepmother so evil? Why is her husband the King so easily duped? Just who are these children, and how do they survive the suffering they go through in the story with their sanity intact? Where does the princess get her towering silent strength and determination to save her brothers? I wanted to take the fairytale stereotypes and turn them into PEOPLE. People with fully realised personalities and  complex motivations. If I couldn't do that then I didn't want to write the book at all.

You can immediately see the conflict here. In a book of 65,000 words or less how could I possibly fully characterise eleven brothers - as individuals - rather than a homogenous mass of Brother? How could I possibly make each of these young men a human with unique, memorable traits? Especially since the fairy tale has these boys losing their human form practically at the beginning? There was no way! I couldn't do it now, with four published books under my belt, and I certainly couldn't do it then. So the number had to be reduced in some way.

Now, throughout all the years of my childhood I had this poster on my bedroom wall:

It's a piece of art called The Children of Lir and it's inspired by a Celtic Myth of the same name - a story in which a wicked stepmother transforms the children of her husband (the god Lugh) into swans and dooms them to spend hundreds of years living on each of Ireland's great lakes. It's a ridiculously beautiful painting, as you can see, and it's also a very vivid, striking image - of three brothers and one sister.

During the early planning stages of writing The Swan Kingdom, when I was still working out the setting and how the world and its magic would work, I saw a documentary on the BBC about pre-historic, pre-Roman civilisations in the UK, and I found it fascinating. Not much is known about the indigenous British people who created Stonehenge and Avebury and all the other great Paleolithic monuments of Great Britain, or why their beliefs caused them to sink such massive amounts of time and effort into building these temples of stone, into recreating the natural landscape in such a way. And when we don't know much? We can *invent*.

Something clicked in my head. The Celtic myth of The Children of Lir, the pre-historic people of Britain and their possessive reverence for their land which caused them to attempt to reshape it permanently, lost Celtic and ancient British beliefs, cave paintings that showed man and animal spirits melting together, traditions of oral storytelling passed down through the matriarchal line... all these things seemed to fit perfectly into the story I wanted to tell. And that made it feel natural and right to use the family structure from that Celtic myth, the structure of one sister and three brothers.

Chosing to give my heroine Alexandra three brothers - David, Hugh and Robin - whom she knew as well as knew herself, whom she relied on and was incredibly close to, was, in my opinion, one of the best decisions that I made in writing the story. It meant that each of them got to be a distinct person, special to Alexandra - and special to me! - in their own way.

Reliable, quiet, intelligent David, quicksilver, charming, funny Hugh, studious, sweet, kind Robin... they're the big brothers I wish were mine (I don't have an older brother - just a younger one, who isn't anything like any of the boys in the story). And hopefully when Alex loses them in The Swan Kingdom the reader is able to fully understand her anguish and her desperation to get them back - not as a Fairytale Princess With A Quest but as a sister who has lost all the family she loved and can never mend her broken heart until she is reunited with the brothers she adores.

I hope that answers your question Imaginatrix! If anyone else has any questions about my books, or writing, or anything else for that matter, just pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them here in future posts. See you on Thursday, Dear Readers!


Megha said...

I love this! It was great to find out about why you made the decisions you did. I haven't actually read The Wild Swans, even with a book at home that has ALL OF ANDERSEN'S FAIRYTALES - I'm pathetic, I know, but I think it was better that there were three brothers that Alexandra actually cared about, rather than eleven who the readers wouldn't know about as well as we know the three brothers :)

Isabel said...

I love that you made sure that every single one of your characters was a real person, not just a part of the plot. That's such a flaw with so many fairytales!

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Thanks :) And you're not pathetic at all, just *busy*, which is a good thing, and not to be apologised for!

Isabel: Well, it's less a *flaw* in fairytales as a part of what they *are* - they give you archetypes, universal outlines, rather than trying to give you anything recognisably real. But creating people who are just plot points is certainly a flaw in a retelling, because that's the point of retellings, I think. To make a fairytale some like something real.

The_Book_Queen said...

Thank you for sharing this with us, Zoe! :) I love hearing more about what brought about the creation of a book, and I would never have thought to ask this myself, but I'm glad that someone did! :D

Also, I have to say you excelled at your goal--to make the fairytale recreations REAL. Thank you for that!


Zoë Marriott said...

TBQ: I'm just glad that it's interesting to others! I wish people would ask more questions like this, actually - what I said in the post is true, it gives me a chance to analyse my choices from an outside perspective. Thank you :)

Barker and Jones Staff said...

That's really cool, because of course Fionnula was the oldest of the Children of Lir so I never connected it to Swan Kingdom, but it's great that an Irish myth inspired you! {She said Irishly.}

I've never heard of Lir being conflated with Lugh Lamhfada either. The things you learn randomly!

Zoë Marriott said...

B&J Staff: Yep - I think the whole tone of the book really came from Celtic myths. Things like the idea of a repeating, themetic ballad, and a shapechanging sorceress, all seemed to fit really well. I'm not sure where the Lugh/Lir connection comes into it, whether I've done that in my head or read a version where that was the case... I'll check it out!

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