Wednesday, 29 September 2010


I think I may have mentioned that in July of 2011, Shadows on the Moon (my Cinderella re-telling set in Japan) will be released by Walker Books. Actually, it's safe to say that I may have mentioned it A LOT.

However, what I might not have mentioned quite so often is that at the same time, Walker Books will also be re-packaging and reissuing The Swan Kingdom, my very first book. I'm really ecstatic about this, because not only does it mean that Alexandra and her story will get a completely new chance to reach out to readers, but because it also means the book gets brand spanking new cover art.

Now, I LOVED my original UK paperback artwork, and a lot of people told me they loved it too. I mean, what's not to love?

I adore the striking colours - especially the midnight blue - and in real life it is sparkly. But when I compare it to the covers of YA books which are on the shelves now, following the Twilight Boom and the surge in photocovers, it looks a slightly 'young' for a book aimed at 12+. I've even seen, in my local library, a little sticker placed on the book to warn off readers under the age of 12, because it might be too scary for them, which argues that it was appealing to readers of 11 years old and younger.

On the other hand, I have to admit that when when I knew I was getting new artwork, I also felt a bit nervous, because...that first cover really does express the type of story TSK is so well. What if it all went wrong? What if they came up with something I really hated? I've been so lucky with covers so far.  Could this be where my luck ran out?

Thusly, when I recieved an email from my editor which had the words 'Swan Kingdom' and 'Cover' in the title, I had to take a few deep breaths before I opened it up. But I needn't have worried. Because what I found was this:

Will you think less of me if I admit that I did a little happy dance when I saw this? It takes all the things I loved about the original cover - the sense of magic, the organic forms, the nature imagery and most of all that luscious blue, and it turns them into something grown up and sophisticated. And what's more: SWANS!

Just as with the first cover, I know for 100% certain that if I saw that on a book in the shop, I would pick it up and read the back (which is half the battle). I'm so pleased! What do you guys think?

In other news, I've also now seen the cover for Shadows on the Moon - and I will be posting that on Friday for you. Stand by!

Monday, 27 September 2010


Today I'm going to answer some questions from lovely readers. I originally intended to make a vlog about these, but I find that tends to take up a whole day, from the filming, re-filming, filming it AGAIN, cutting, adding sound effects and all the rest. Which normally I don't mind, but I'm getting close to the climactic bits of FrostFire now, and I'd rather spend a day working on that.

So, without further ado, I shall address the question sent to me by Natalie (who said some very nice things about me and my books too - cheers, Natalie!). She asked:

"How do you manage to create such life-like, relatable characters?" 

Well, I actually did a whole post about that here, but the short answer is really that you have to get to know them. You ask yourself questions about them, what they want, what they look like, who they are, and prepare yourself to get unexpected answers. And then you write about them and you let them go their own way as much as you can without it turning your fantasy novel into a comic 1930's caperchase film about bunnies on the run.

I think most writers have an eerie feeling that they don't so much invent characters as discover them, that these people all already exist fully formed somewhere and its our job to find out who they are, rather than telling them that. And I think it helps to love them all - including the complete stinkers - because that way you want to do them justice, and give them their chance to show that, in their own heads, they're all heros. Even the villains.

The next email is from Delaney (I have no idea if you're a boy or a girl, Delaney, but it's a very cool name nonetheless) who says:

I've been wanting to begin a book for a while now. I actually wrote part of a book and then gave up on it because I lost all interest and my writing style changed drastically. Now that I'm no longer writing anything, I miss writing. I miss the haunting thoughts of what I wrote and my characters not letting me sleep. Now, I have an idea, but I don't know how to start it. I keep thinking it isn't good enough. And then, I start having all of these thoughts like "oh I'm such a terrible writer, mind as well give up now" and "no, that's just stupid, don't write something like that!". Help me! Please! I don't know what to do.

Well, this is an unexpectedly easy question to answer, because what you're describing here is the EXACT SAME THING I GO THROUGH EVERY SINGLE TIME I START A NEW BOOK. You are not alone. I read about some authors who love starting new books and are full of enthusiasm and vim and vigour and just can't wait to get those first chapters down on paper. I do not understand these people. Beginnings are hard. You don't know your characters yet, or exactly what's going to happen. You haven't made important choices about the tone of your story, or the way the setting might effect things. You probably don't even know enough about the story yet to do any research. Usually by the time I've figured out all the stuff that *don't know* the idea just sort of seems to shrivel up into a tiny, withered dead thing and I can't imagine ever getting enough life out of it to make a book.

But do not despair! The answer is this: Give yourself permission to suck, and suck *epically*. Because you will. Or rather, your first few chapters will. It doesn't matter, because somewhere between chapters two and four, a switch will flip in your head and you'll suddenly realise (or remember) why you wanted to write this story in the first place. The characters will come to life, the world will seem cool and full of interesting details again, all sorts of compelling twists will start pouring into your head and you'll be desperate to get on and figure out what happens next.

Mind you, this won't be the last time you hear the voices that say 'This is a terrible story!' and 'You're a terrible writer!' and 'GIVE UP NOW!' because they'll be back everytime you hit a tough scene, or you write something that doesn't seem quite right but you don't know why. They'll definitely be back when you re-read your first completed draft and realise you need to throw out the first five chapters. But that, too, is part of being a writer. Every single writer, from the ones that love beginnings to the ones, like me, that love middles, to the ones that get gleeful over the endings, hear those voices all the time. In fact, EVERYONE does.

Yep. Your dentist. Your best friend. Your mum. That guy walking by the window right now. The annoying gym teacher. The pilot in that aeroplane passing by overhead? He or she is hearing them too. The secret to being a success at whatever you do is to accept that and do what you want anyway.

Delaney, you also asked if books these days need to have romance in them to be successful. This one's tough because I, personally, love romance in my books (the ones I read and the ones I write). But if you're not comfy writing it, don't, and then see if it works. I have many favourite books and stories that don't have any romance in them, and if those authors can manage it I'm sure you can. Finally, you wanted some advice on plotting. Well, I'm a plotting freak, and you can find my articles on that here, here and here, but if you don't like outlines and prefer to write by the seat of your pants, then that's what you should do. You're the only one that can figure out what works for you.

Okay folks - that's all for today, but if anyone else has any writing/reading/author related questions, email me or toss them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer!

Friday, 24 September 2010


Hello, hello! I've had a fairly exciting couple of weeks, which I've kept quiet about so far because everything has been in flux. But it looks like things have settled down again now (into a new and better pattern) so I'll spill.

Firstly, last Thursday I went down to London (a fairly long and gruelling trip for me, as I live in the distant misty North) and talked up Shadows on the Moon and the reissue of The Swan Kingdom at the Walker Books sales conference. An author only gets the chance to do this once very few years (last time for me was 2006) and it's important because it's your chance to try and generate 'buzz', to get the sales reps and marketing people and the company in general excited about your book so that they can go out to booksellers and places like the Bologna Book Fair and really sell you with conviction. I took special presents for everyone, talked about where I hope my work fits into the current YA market, and compared myself to Cassandra Clare and Suzanne Collins. No one ever accused me of thinking small.

However, while I was preparing for this trip to London something rather less fun happened, which was that I came to a parting of the ways with my former agent. It was sad, because we'd be working together since 2005, but I think it was inevitable. So the following Monday I was in London again, visiting one of my wish-list agents, who (unbelievably) was interested in representing my work. I had a couple of phone conversations with another wish-list agent who, again (unbelievably) turned out to be interested in me. I then faced a heart-rending decision over which one to chose.

In the past I have read the blogs or journals of authors who have taken care to arrange things so that they have three or four agent offers on the table before they make up their mind. I can only conclude that these writers have some sort of special Anti-Guilt Gene that I lack. I was in this amazing position of having two wonderful, top-notch agents waiting to hear from me, but instead of being excited or thrilled I felt terrible, because picking one meant rejecting the other. Eventually I made the decision,, I hope I never have to do this again.

Well, actually I'm SURE I won't, because my new agent is fabulous. She is Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Childrens Literary Agency, who represents the UK interests of such authors as Cassandra Clare (see what I did there?), Holly Black and Libbra Bray, and UK authors Frances Hardinge, Dominic Barker and Cat Clarke. I'm so happy and relieved to feel that I'm in a really safe pair of hands, I could nearly melt.

Finally, I was intending to answer some reader emails on YouTube, but I've run out of time today and frankly I want a nap. So instead I'm posting a little teaser trailer I made for FrostFire, just to concentrate my own mind about it, which I thought you might all like.

How has everyone else's week been?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


Hello, my lovelies. It is now time to launch into the third part of the Turning Ideas into Plots workshop.

You have your basic diagram, like so:


(For more information on what this means, flick back to yesterday). 

You have enough solid story events now fixed in your head to be able to fill in two or three of the points on the diagram, which means you're on your way. You have, effectively, the skeleton of a plot. Possibly when people ask what you're writing about, you can give them a brief summing up which touches on those main plot points, and they go 'Wow, sounds interesting'.

But you still don't have a STORY. Because the story is like the flesh, the blood, the muscles and skin that cover and fill the gaps between the bones. Without the story, the plot is useless.

This where that commonly held saying comes from that ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is key. The execution of the story, the way you put those muscles together, the texture of the skin, is what turns your story either into a beautiful, vibrant, living creature - or a hulking, mouth-breathing Frankenstein's Monster.

To illustrate this, let's take a story that we all know well. Cinderella.

It's fairly easy for anyone to pick out how the main points of Cinderella's story fit onto the plot diagram I showed you. Hence:

However, each of the sides of the diamond shape now need to be filled in with events which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on. If you and I were to both start out with that basic plot diagram above we would probably come up with radically different ways to get our heroine from point one two point two (hence what I was saying about execution being key) involving not only different events but different tones in our writing and character motivations. That's why this diagram is useful on it's own, even if you don't want to fill in anymore details - because it gives you that structure, that framework, within which to let your ideas develop.

However, the way I normally work this out is to try and fill in the first side of the diamond in as much detail as possible before I start writing. Then I put in whatever details I can think of on the other sides. Like so:

Because although I'm an outliner, and although I like to know in detail what I'm aiming for, how to actually write those events, what the character feels about them...that I like to make up as I go along. And usually I find that by the time in my first draft I've reached point two (Character Action) I've grown to know the world, story and characters well enough to be able to go on ahead and fill in the next side with a few more details too. The story teaches me about it as I go on. By the time I hit the halfway point I've got something that looks like this:

This is a story now, not just a plot. It includes scenes not just of action but reaction. It shows you what events I (as the author of this particular Cinderella retelling) think are significant enough to dramatise (lots of emphasis on the magic) how I'm going to handle the romance (love at first sight) ideas about the of emotional significance of events (Cinderella calls to the spirit of her death mother before the fairy appears - could it really BE the ghost of her mother?) and it makes you ask questions, rather than just being a bare list of events.

The way you chose to write these events - in a grim, gothic style, or a funny irreverent one, or a poetic lyrical one - will be the skin of your story. The outer appearance that people will probably react to first and with the most conviction, just as humans react to the colour and form of other people's outer shell in real life. But without the plot skeleton and the muscle, flesh and blood of the story underneath, the skin is worthless. All the bits of the story's anatomy need to be working together.

So, this is how *I* turn ideas into plots, and then a plot into a story. I hope it's been useful. Remember that the important thing - the only really important thing - is to work the way that helps you and makes you feel comfortable. Use a circle instead of a diamond. Don't draw at all, if you don't want to! There is no such thing as a 'right way' and anyone who says there is? Is talking like the B*tSh*t Crazy Lady (remember her?).

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Hello, dear readers! I'm very sorry for not posting on Monday like normal. I spent the whole day in London and didn't get back until quite late, after which I zonked out completely. So I bring you my Monday post on a Tuesday instead, and hope you don't mind too much: Part Two of my plotting workshop, which I hope will be useful to everyone (like me) who ever had an amazing idea - and no clue what to do with it.

So you've had this idea. Chances are the idea is incomplete and actually has a few separate pieces to it. Mostly my ideas come with a vague sense of how it all starts, a couple of really strong, hit-me-in-the-head scenes that probably fit somewhere in the middle, and then a vague sense of how it ends. Your ideas might come with the beginning perfectly formed and no end, or a perfect end and no middle scenes. But whatever, you have to try and figure out how to fit these events together into a plot. How to bridge the gaps between them in a way that makes sense, that is entertaining to read, that is worth writing.

Some authors recommend making character or story collages, where you get yourself a huge pile of magazines and cut out any images - of people or locations or phrases - that 'sing' to you, as being something to do with your idea. You stick them all to a big sheet of paper and somehow seeing everything like that acts like a giant magnet for other ideas to start zipping out of your brain and attaching themselves to the original idea.

Some writers like to use index cards or bullet points to list everything that they know about characters, setting, story, mood. They find that as they write these down, more and more details materialise in their heads, until their bullet point list is twice as long, or their stack of cards twice as thick as they expected.

I think the really important thing at this point is to PIN THOSE SUCKERS DOWN. Otherwise tiny details can sometimes slither away from you and it's really hard to get them back. What's more, the very act of writing down your ideas makes them feel more concrete and get-at-able.

So, now you have a whole bunch of ideas, loosely linked. Great. The thing is, this scatter of ideas doesn't actually make a story. A plot for a book needs to be more than a series of events that happen one after another. There needs to be a shape, rising tension, rising stakes. The story needs to move through events of physical and emotional and mental significance (if it's going to be a really good book, I mean). Sometimes when you've pinned all your ideas down you still won't feel you have enough stuff to make a story. Other times it all looks like way too much.

This is where diagrams come in. Tada!

A disclaimer here: this is the way *I* think of plots. You might like a square, or a circle, or a list, or a corkboard covered in post-its. But fitting my puzzle pieces into this shape works for me. You might find that although following this exact method does not fit for you, trying it shows you the way you DO like to work. Anyway, let me 'splain.

  1. FIRST PLOT EVENT: This is pretty self-evident. It's the event that kicks off the story. It might not be the first thing the reader sees, though. Sometimes a story starts off by showing the character's normal world, leading up to a dramatic or significant event, as in the Lord of the Rings. But this event is what actually begins the story itself.
  2. CHARACTER TAKES ACTION TO CHANGE COURSE OF PLOT: A little more tricky, this one. Usually, after the first major story event the character will react with shock, fear, disbelief. They might refuse to react to what's happened, struggle desperately to get away from the new character or place that is threatening their world, try to get back their sense of normalcy. However at some point most characters that are strong enough to be a main character will get a grip and attempt to take control of their situation. Sometimes it backfires, sometimes it works but triggers further events. In any case, this is the moment when the character first begins to truly affect the plot and it's usually an important moment in the story.
  3. MAJOR DISASTER OR SETBACK: The events or backfire triggered by the interaction of the main character/s choices now reach a critical point. Things might seem to be going right - but at the moment when success seems assured, disaster strikes and changes the course of the story again. Often the reader will have seen this setback coming all along. Sometimes even the characters can see it. But they're powerless to prevent it.
  4. THE PLATEAU OF AWFULNESS: I read this term in a writing book and it's stuck with me. This is when, in the midst of the fallout from the great disaster, something even worse (and often contrasting to the main disaster) happens. Think back to the events at the end of The Matrix, where half the team have been slaughtered by a traitor and Neo is stuck in the Matrix fighting (and losing) against Mr Smith. Then the alarm on the ship goes off - a killer 'squid' is approaching. It starts ripping the ship apart and the only way the crew can save themselves is to set off the EMP. But if they do that, Neo will die. Things just cannot get any worse. The attack of the killer machine contrasts with the main disaster - Neo's fight - because while Neo is a blur of action, fighting for his life, the crew are forced into inaction, waiting, waiting, for Neo to get out of Matrix and unable to fight for their own lives. The stakes now reach their highest point. All or nothing. The character is propelled forward to the final events of the story.
  5. LAST PLOT EVENT: Hang on a minute, you say! There are only FOUR points on that diamond! How can there be five points on your list? Well, the last plot event is where everything comes full circle. It's where you fulfil the promises that you made to the reader at the beginning and the story comes to a natural close. Just like with the last plot event, this might not be the actual last scene, but it's the last point in the story where events are still in flux. Further chapters may tie up lose ends, but shouldn't significantly alter what has occurred in the last plot event.
Not all stories are going to fit into this exact pattern, but it's a good place to start. See if the events you have in your head fit these definitions in any sense. If not, how could the scenes you see lead to or lead from such events? Open your mind to the most interesting ways that things out play out. If you can fill in three or four of the points on the're well on your way to having a complete story.

Stay tuned to this bat channel for the next installment of our exciting (well, kinda) plotting workshop, when we will discuss Cinderella and there will be more diagrams (yay!).

Friday, 17 September 2010


All right my lovelies, I've had a look at my previous post about plots, and it occurred to me that, while it might be interesting to a writer who's already completed a few stories or books (like me) who needs some advice about a fine-tuning technique for pacing and structure (like me), it probably wouldn't be terribly helpful to someone who's still trying to work out what a plot actually IS. So, for those of you who are not me, and were actually hoping for something useful? I apologise.

When I really started thinking about how much I used to stress out about not doing things 'properly' or 'the right way', and how I used to get stuck in the middles of stories with no idea where to go next, a cold sweat broke out on my brow and I decided it might take more than one post to cover this. So here we go: Part One.

In this post I'm going to look at putting plots together from the point of view of one of those young writers who often emails to ask me the immortal and much groaned over question: Where do you get your ideas?

Because the standard response to that one is that ideas are easy to come by, and it's execution that counts. But what I think those writers are really asking, a lot of the time, is actually more like: How do you turn an idea into a story? How do you know what happens next? How do you fill a whole book up with all that STUFF? 

I get it. Really.

Most writers that I've talked to or read articles by say that when they *get* a story idea, it's usually actually the result of two or more little idea fragments spinning around in their head frantically until they all collide and POOF! Suddenly there's a story there. Only it's not a complete story. This is what I need to get across to you guys. With some notable exceptions, stories, characters, plots, settings - none of it appears in the brain fully formed. You might get some sort of inking of how things kick off, or maybe one or two vital scenes from the middle, or a faint impression of how it should end. Or all of them. Or just a vivid image of a certain character or place.

It's vital to realise at this point that those impressions? Aren't set in stone. They're giving you hints about what you want your story to be ABOUT, hints on the themes or particular twists you want to explore. The fact that you clearly see a fearless heroine fighting a Samurai in the middle of a bleak orange desert could mean that you want to write about an *ss kicking girl's adventures, or that you want to write about the desert, or a lonely Samurai who wanders across the world, or that you're interested in having a romance where the couple fights each other with swords for fun. The important thing could be the tiny snatch of dialogue you get where they taunt each other about bad technique, or the colour of the sand, or the general bleak tone of the thing. OR NONE OF THE ABOVE.

This is your brain opening doors and showing you possibilities. Glimpses of what could be. They're telling you your characters *could* be these kinds of people, or your world might be like this. They're inviting you to think long and hard, make choices, sink into the mind of the people whose story you need to tell, to immerse yourself in their world. They're inviting you to walk through as many of those doors as you like, have a curious wander around, then either move in or walk away and close the door behind you.

So you have an idea for a beginning, a couple of middle parts and an end that have nothing to do with each other and you have no idea how to get from one to another? That's fine. It's way too early to panic and give up. It might be that you'll be working things out as you go along, just writing until you hit one of those key scenes. Or it might be that you never actually write any of those middle scenes because by the time you get to the middle you realise an event like that simply couldn't happen in the world you've created, or that your character just wouldn't act that way. The same with endings. You could be like J K Rowling and write the final scene seven books in advance and stick to it (yikes) or you could be like me and aim for that final scene as a guide but usually end up realising the actual events are all wrong, and it's just one or two things, like a character's feelings, or the location or mood that you need. Or you might be like Leah Clifford and have no IDEA how it's going to end (she's a better man than I am, Gunga Din).

This point, where you have the compelling image and some odd bits and pieces of a story is usually the point where beginning writers plunge in and start writing, carried away with the desire to see What Happens Next. If that works for you, fine. But a lot of the emails I get seem to come from young people who've had this AWESOME IDEA OMG and started writing right away and then got lost after a few chapters and now they don't know if this means the idea was just wrong to begin with and they should give up, or what.

So, in the next post, we're going to look at a couple of ways to work out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, including revisiting that diamond-shaped diagram that I showed you before. Stand by for that. And if anyone has any more specific ideas about plotting, toss them in the comments and I'll try to work them in.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


After my big fat emotional post on Monday and your fantastic response, I decided you blog readers deserve a reward. Since I'm running low on chocolate brownies and sparkly puppies, I thought I'd provide an All New, exclusive, never-been-seen-before snippet of Shadows on the Moon. Follow the cut to read it.

I hope you enjoy this teaser! Let me know your thoughts, everyone.

Monday, 13 September 2010


And just in case the blog title didn't clue you in to what I'm talking about today, here's a lolarious poster.

Okay, so on Friday I was reading the Road Trip posts on YA Highway when I came across this section:

Hannah Moskowitz wrote a thought-provoking post: "Has the internet community changed YA?" Amy Lukavits responded directly with some arguments for both sides. Natalie Whipple and Ally Carter posted on similar topics, both saying you can worry about the online YA community all you want, but in the end, it's the book that matters.
And I realised that this is exactly the stuff that turns me into the B*tSh*t Crazy Lady. Exactly. This. Stuff.

When I submitted The Swan Kingdom to Walker Books they didn't really know what to do with it. But they liked it, and I had all these convincing arguments about how the popularity of Harry Potter, Meg Cabot and Dr Who was paving the way for fantasy aimed at girls and where my book fitted into the market. I talked to them passionately and at length and I think my knowledge of and love for writing really came through because, after some re-writes, they decided to publish it. And did not sink without trace.

I remember promising myself that if I just managed to sell 5,000 copies, I would never ask for anything again, and I can safely say that it surpassed that number long ago. I mean, don't run away with the idea that The Swan Kingdom was a bestseller. Or even a big seller. It wasn't. It sold unexpectedly well, got some good reviews, and my publisher was happy about it. So was I.

Then Daughter of the Flames came out. We sold that to Walker before The Swan Kingdom was even in copy-edits, so it was the same story. And it did okay. Not as well as The Swan Kingdom, but all right. It was a modest success. Again, the publisher was happy with it. So was I.

And then came The Dark Ages. We shall not speak of them in depth. Suffice it to say that during this period of about eighteen months, many not-nice things happened in my life. My house was flooded. My editor turned down my third book. Family members became ill. *I* became ill. And while I kept writing through this, it was to very little effect. I didn't finish anything, and every time that I nearly did, my agent or my publisher didn't like it.

During this period I discovered Teh Interwebz. I don't mean this was the first time I ever surfed the net - I mean it's the first time I was ever captivated by it. And what captivated me was not internet shopping or YouTube, but the corner of the net devoted to YA writing. It was like a whole other world for me, a world where YA writers weren't working all alone in their tiny boxroom in their damp, building-site houses, with a permanent cough (I was later diagnosed as asthmatic) and going days without speaking to anyone but their dog or people who had phoned their work to shout and verbally abuse them. A world where YA writers were slap in the middle of a community that seemed full of kindred spirits and dear friends. I watched their vlogs, I read their reviews on Goodreads, I laughed at their funny blog stories about the time they all rented a castle and got chased by a cow. I told myself that I found their success inspiring and that they helped me to keep positive and keep working.

But that wasn't the whole story.

I didn't want to feel envious of this group of people, but the simple fact was that they all had things I wanted desperately for myself. Not just their success, but their LIVES. So different from mine. So full and rich and FUN. Book tours and writing retreats, twitters, mutual book blurbs, blogs where a dozen people answered each tiny post as if it really mattered. I looked at my life and found it sadly wanting in comparison. I was working a full-time office job where I was miserable and squeezing writing into every other gap there was. I didn't know a single other YA writer well enough to call them a friend and what was more I had no way to change that.

I couldn't go to the conventions where these guys all met and hung out, or share tour dates with them. I live in the UK. They live in the US. Besides, their circle was already formed - they knew each other through writing fanfic or being critique partners or because they shared agents. They didn't know me from Adam. The occasional 'LOL' reply to my comment on one of their blogs didn't mean that they knew me or cared about me.

I began to feel like my entire writing career was, basically, pointless. I began looking at The Swan Kingdom and Daughter of the Flames and thinking 'Why did I even bother? No one likes them. No one's ever heard of me. I wrote high fantasy when I should have written urban fantasy/paranormal romance and I didn't promote enough or connect with the right people and I flushed my chance down the toilet. My life is exactly the same now as it would have been if both those books had never been written. I'm the scum at the bottom of the writing barrel. I ought to just. Give. Up'.

See? B*tsh*t Crazy Lady.

Because...what the HELL? Since when does who I know, or whether or not famous-name-writer follows my blog, or if I got to go to BigDealBookExpo have anything to do with the value of my work? Thankfully, at the point where I really felt the lowest, the lightbulb went on. I realised I had gotten totally caught up in this imaginary fantasy world I wanted to be part of and forgotten the important thing - the most important thing in the world - which is:

I'm a writer.

That's what I am, what I've always been, and what I will be until I die. I love stories. I love books. I love crafting imaginary worlds and living within them, I love bringing characters to life and laughing and crying with them. I love words. I love the spaces between words. I love commas and semicolons and fullstops and even the occasional exclamation mark. Exposition, description, dialogue, action; I adore them. And NOTHING and NO ONE can ever take that love, that passion, away from me...except me.

I think the reason this snuck up on me so easily was that I never WANTED to 'fit in' before. I was determinedly, stubbornly, proudly the odd one out at school. Even when I was picked on and bullied at every turn, I continued to be me, refusing to wear the fashionable clothes, talk the 'in' talk or act like one of the popular kids in any way. I carried on reading books in public, putting my hand up in class and getting A's no matter what anyone did to me. That aloneness, that knowledge of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to act got me through a lot of hard times, but it was based on the fact that those people who tried to make me miserable at school weren't worth imitating or fitting in with, and I knew it. But the authors I admire are admirable and worthy of my respect, and it turns out that I'm vulnerable to that in just the same way that some kids at my school were vulnerable to wanting to be popular.

It's so silly. No doubt that group of writers all have their sorrows and troubles and periods of insecurity and depression too. Being part of them wouldn't fix that about me. And yearning to be something I wasn't and can't ever be - a bestselling American urban fantasy author who goes on fabulous adventures with other trendy American urban fantasy authors - was making me hurt myself and, more significantly, my writing. And my writing is the Number One Thing in my life that I should always protect and nuture and make time for, because so long that as I do that, I will be happy.

Guys...if any of you are freaking out right now about how you don't fit into Whatever Group, about how your whole life/your writing/your hobby is pointless or how you should do/be something else than what you are...stop it. Okay? You are so much more special and strong and wonderful than you realise, and even if no one else in the world knows that I DO.

I might never have met you. I might never meet you. But I know that you are wonderful and you don't need to change in any way that doesn't make you happy. So the next time YOU feel the B*tSh*t Crazy Lady taking you over? Remember that. Preserve and protect the special thing that makes you who you are, no matter what. And be happy.

Friday, 10 September 2010


I saw a vlog by a writing hero of mine called Jackson Pearce a little while ago. In it, she pondered the question:

If my books hit the bigtime and I became one of those NYT Bestselling authors....what would I do?

This, I'm sure you'll agree, is an intriguing subject. I mean, yeah, in my case it's about as likely to happen as getting struck my lightning. Five times. On a Tuesday. While wearing yellow. But still, it's fun to imagine, right? So here is my illustrated list of the Five Things I Would Do If I Hit The Bigtime.

Get a tattoo. The phoenix has always been a special symbol to me - so much so that when the US hardcover of Daughter of the Flames came out, and it had a phoenix on that back, I actually cried. I would love to get a beautiful tattoo like the one above. The problem is, I live in a small town, and I've seen some famously dodgy and messed up tattoos. I'd want to make sure I had it done by a real artist. And if I hit the bigtime, I could definitely afford the time (and the cash) to do that. Yay!

Build one of these houses. They are bespoke designed for you so you can chose exactly how many rooms you want, the size of them and their layout. They cost around 40% less than a similar brickbuilt property, and are made from hand-carved, sustainably resourced oak. But more important than all that LOOK HOW PRETTY! *Snuggles catalogue*

Send a massive bunch of flowers to my ex-boss for making me redundant. Even though I was completely devastated at the time, and was filled with anxiety about my future, clearly it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I would also send a card, and the card would say 'Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!' Not mature perhaps, but very satisfying.

Give a massive cheque to some of these guys. They do amazing work with no funding from the government in most cases, and are usually staffed only by volunteers. I salute you, Sirs.

Buy my entire Amazon wishlist and THEN READ IT. Oh, if only... The ironic thing about being a writer is that the reason you decide you want to write in the first place is because you love, love, love reading and books. Yet the more committed and disciplined you are about your work, the less time you seem to have for reading. Not just because of writing itself, but because of the business of being a writer - talking to agents and editors, answering business and fan emails, visiting schools and libraries, going to bookshops to talk up your new release and try to arrange signings. Writing blogs sucks up reading time too. A couple of weeks living in a luxury hotel with room service and the internet firmly turned off would work wonders on most writer's frazzled nerves, and reduce their TBR pile to zero.

And that is my Top Five. Although there's a few other things I'd do first, like throw a massive party for all my friends to thank them for being awesome, buy my mum and dad a house and put my dad into a private health scheme so that he could have treatment at home. But there were no cool pictures for those.

So, fellow writers...what is your Bigtime Five list?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


So, further to my post the other day, where I revealed how very much I suck at creating non-standalone stories, I spent much of Tuesday making an extremely detailed, colour-coded and highlighted 'Plot Shape' for FrostFire. Because I now know that I HAVE to fit all the story's events into one book (which I would very much like to complete in less than 100,000 words), it became imperative to compress the story where I could and cut anything that didn't seem completely necessary.

My Plot Shape sounds extremely pretty, and you would like to see what it looks like? Well, your wish is my command:

You may notice that it's not at all like the diamond-shaped plot diagram I showed you before. That's because I use those diamond diagrams to ensure there's an even distribution of events in my story, to make sure the action and emotional content peak at regular intervals, to keep track of story time, seasons and character ages.

A Plot Shape is the way I work out, at the basic level, what should be happening, in what order, and what events can be cut or combined. I made this using MS OneNote, which I find exceedingly useful, since it lets me put arrows in and move notes about when I change my mind.

Luckily I have my lovely editor's suggestions to go on in this endeavor. She won't be sending me her detailed notes for another couple of weeks, but she did pinpoint a few areas that immediately made me go 'Uh-oh - busted'. Those are the areas I've tried to think about with my new Plot Shape.

One of the things my editor noticed was some hand-waving. 'Er...Hand-waving?' You ask. 'What is that?' Let me 'splain. This is where something - a character's actions, their level of knowledge, or their choices - don't quite make sense in terms of what has gone before. But you, as the writer, need them to do, think or decide a certain something for the sake of your plot. So you 'hand-wave' over the awkward place, trying to distract the reader with some lovely description, or an explosion, or by pretending that the thing that's just happened isn't important. A good editor will catch you at it nearly everytime, but it never stops you from trying!

Another thing my editor put her finger on was an unnecessary journey my character was supposed to take in the middle of the story. Thinking about this as I was walking my dog this morning, I realised that all my main characters seem to go on a journey somewhere in the story, during which time they have a transformation mentally or emotionally. For Alexa in The Swan Kingdom, she goes off into the forest and learns to become confident and self-reliant. For Zira in Daughter of the Flames, she takes her people to Mesgao and struggles with her new identity and the challenges of leadership. Suzume also has a journey in Shadows on the Moon, during which she reaches her lowest ebb emotionally. All those journeys were vital.

But it seems to have become a bit of a habit for me, because there was really no need for Frost, the main character of FrostFire, to go anywhere - and yet I sent her off anyway. I didn't see it until my editor pointed it out. What's more, writing in this journey was going to take a lot of words, so cutting it ought to be really helpful in keeping the book to a reasonable length.

Finally, my editor put her foot down about the fanservice in this story. I really wanted to include Sorin and Zira from Daughter of the Flames as secondary characters in FrostFire. So I kind of shoe-horned them in; that was part of the reason for the unnecessary journey. I think I knew deep down that it all felt a little self-conscious - in fact, one of my very first blog posts was about how I had actually forgotten about Sorin and forgotten to include his scene, leading to me having to delete a day's work. That should have been a sign to me that Zira and Sorin needed to go. Much as I'm sure fans of Daughter of the Flames would have loved to see them again, it's not worth messing the book up to do it. I'm hoping readers will enjoy this story and these characters enough not to hold it against me. And the minute I cut those scenes from my Story Shape I found myself looking at a much leaner and more intense story, where there was room for more development of the characters who really matter - the ones whose stories have yet to be told.

Unfortunately, having worked myself up to plunge right into this work, I spent the whole of today locked in mortal combat with my new printer, which refuses to be part of my wireless network no matter how nicely I talk to it, how carefully I follow the instructions, or how hard I bang my head against the wall. *Le Sigh*

But tomorrow. TOMORROW. Yes, tomorrow, I shall begin...

Monday, 6 September 2010


How it feels in my heart right now...

Ah, how foolish we are, both mice and men...

Loyal blog readers may remember my Superspecialawesome Plan about how I was going to turn the sequel to Daughter of the Flames (tentatively titled FrostFire) into two books and make it all the Sacred Flame Trilogy or something like that?

Superspecialawesome Plan = fail. My lovely, lovely editor emailed me today to tell me (in the kindest possible way, with lots of praise to cushion the blow) that the first book of this proposed two book series just doesn't work on its own. She said it felt like everything was underdeveloped, that I was holding all the good stuff back for the second book. Which is fair enough: I was.

There are some authors who just naturally seem to think in trilogies and series, who can take one story and split it into multiple volumes effortlessly, creating in each book a satisfying plot-arc and developing their characters just enough, yet leaving further questions to be answered in the next installment.

I am not one of them.

In fact, I am in awe of those guys. How do they do it? Everytime I try, the whole thing goes wrong. It seems I am Standalone Only.


So, the final, absolutely-MUST-deliver-by-this-date deadline on this book is the end of December, leaving me fifteen weeks (I can't count the first week of October, I'm doing day-long school workshops the whole week and the following monday too) to revise the first half of the manuscript according to my editor's suggestions, write the second half, put them together, put the ms away to mature for at least a week, and then revise them as a whole.

My schedule until Christmas looks a tad cramped.

I'm sure I'll live. Absolutely. Ha ha. Ha.


I just have to keep reminding myself: no matter what, it's better than my old job.

Anyway, this is all just a symptom of something I often tell readers who email me asking me How To Write A Book. Which is: No one knows. Seriously, you never figure it out. Most of the time you don't even know how to write the book you're writing, let alone the one coming next. You make it up as you go along, God help you.

For those of you who were looking for more constructive advice, I refer you to Patricia C Wrede. She always says it all better anyway.

Friday, 3 September 2010


Today, by popular request, I'm going to show you the stages I go through to get to know a character. I - like many writers - sometimes have this weird feeling that all my characters actually already exist out there in some alternate dimension, and that I'm not so much inventing them as, through the process of writing about them, gradually tuning in my aerial until I can see/hear clearly who they already are. And if anyone here is secretly thinking 'Is this the B*tsh*t Crazy Lady thing she was on about before?' - I'm aware that not all writers feel this way. Just take whatever you find useful from my process (and also, Ursula Le Guin and Robin McKinley agree with me, so nyer!).

The problem with the gradual tuning method is that you often get nearly halfway through your book before you really feel that you're inside the character's skin. That can lead to stress early on - getting blocked because things don't feel right but you're not sure why, writing a lot of words that later have to be deleted because you realise your character would never do that. So it's best to try and get to know your imaginary people as well as you can before you actually start writing.

I don't make character collages - writing High Fantasy, I find it difficult to gather images that seem right - but I do like to sketch my characters. And I enjoy filling my notebooks with clippings and cuttings of images that evoke their thoughts or who they are inside. Anything you can do to make yourself feel close to a character is good. Below is my own checklist.

1. What are they like physically, and how does this affect them?

I've seen character surveys on the internet where they basically expect you to list every freckle on a character's back, and some people find it useful to be specific about this. I don't go that far myself, but I do like to have a think about the way a character is percieved by others and by themselves. Often physical details will be the first thing you describe to your reader about a character, so you need to be aware of:
  • How a reader will react to the traits you pick. I've learned that red hair and green eyes will make many readers brand your character a Mary-Sue automatically, no matter how flawed and complex they are. Bear this sort of knee-jerk reaction in mind.
  • How do other characters within the story react to those traits. For example, if they are very attractive, are other people kinder to them because of it, or have they often encountered jealousy? If they have a disability, how have they adapted to this, and how do they feel about it - not just on the surface, but deep inside?
  • How these traits will effect the development of the character into the person they are. If the character has encountered special treatment due to their beauty, does this make them big-headed about it, or so ashamed that they play down their appearance? If they have suffered abuse or neglect due to a disfigurement or unusual appearance has that made them bitter about it, or defiant, or do they suffer it all with grace?
Quite often your first thoughts about a character's physicality will unconsciously lead you to create a cast of characters who are very like you, or who resemble the characters you have read about and seen on TV and in films. Many writers never question this, which is why, especially in Fantasy and SF, the majority of characters are white, subscribe to traditional gender roles, and don't suffer with any significant disability or disfigurement. When you realise this, you might feel tempted to add token characters, like a fiesty black or gay 'best friend', whose background and experiences don't really impact the story of the main character that much. But if you open your mind to the stories of people from different ethnicities, cultures and life experiences than you, and you'll write richer, truer and more interesting stories.

2. Who are they?

At the basic level these are usually the second details that will come out about a character:
  • Name. Again, be aware of reader reactions - people will instinctively feel differently about an Augustus than they do about a Billy, or even a Jenny vs a Genevieve. Nicknames, or the refusal to accept nicknames, are a good way to show how a person reacts to their own name. I personally own many baby-name books, and use Behind the Name,because I like to pick names according to their meanings. In The Swan Kingdom, everyone's names have hidden meanings - for example, Branwen is the name of a doomed queen in Welsh mythology.
  • Age. This one is self explanatory, I think! For children's and YA you need to make sure that at least the main character is a child or young person, just because publishers will give you a hard time otherwise.
  • Occupation. What they do for a living or with most of their time. The eighteen year old character who left school at thirteen to work at a garage is a different person than the eighteen year old who is doing a degree at a prestigious university is different to the eighteen year old who never went to school at all and herds camels for his father in the desert. I love to incorporate the unique skills and strengths brought about by a character's occupation into their story, and give them a chance to shine.
But of course, who they are is more than these details. Are they impulsive or cautious? Loud or quiet? Vibrant and well-liked or introverted and a little lonely? Kind? Sadistic? Misunderstood? These details aren't as easily established in a book, even once you yourself are sure who the character is. Characters display these traits through their actions and dialogue. You can establish who a character is with a big splashy display on their first appearance, but this can also work against you - if they make a big impression of being a jerk you'll need to work overtime to change readers (as well as the other characters) minds.

People don't always act according to their natural inclinations. A kind, loving girl could become hardened and ruthless in her quest for revenge - but she will still chose to go about that quest in a different way than a naturally sadistic person. A naturally quiet person may force themselves to act outgoing to hide their vulnerabilities. Again, over the course of a book, it's your job to show readers who the character REALLY is, not just who they seem to be.

3. What do they want?

This is where we start getting down to the real crux of a character, the stuff that will affect the course of the story the most. Your first instinct here might be to state what they want materially. For example, in The Swan Kingdom, you might say 'Alexandra wants her brothers back and to save her Kingdom from her stepmother'. But that's only the most obvious answer, and if you stick to that, you will find it hard to get to know your character really well.

Ask yourself:
WHY does my character want this, this particular thing, more than anything else? Why is Alexandra so desperate to find and save her brothers, even if it means horrible pain and sacrifice? That's an easy question - because she loves them and misses them. But why is she so determined to save a Kingdom that was never really hers, even if it means facing her most deadly enemy? Why doesn't she, like the heroine in the original fairytale, leave her past and her father's land behind and dedicate herself only to freeing her brothers? There are a million possibilities as to what desires and instincts might drive your character to make the choices they do, to have the priorities they do. Go deeper. Figure out what drives your character at the core.

For Alexandra, WHO SHE IS - her deep loyalty to her family and her sense of responsibility - drive her on her quest. But underlying those traits is a deeper need: a need to get back what was taken from her. What Alexandra wants more than anything is to go home again. Alexandra wants this enough that she is willing to risk anything to accomplish it, despite her general lack of confidence and the fact that she isn't sure she can ever defeat the evil Zella.

Find out what your character truly wants, deep down, more than anything, and you're well on the way to knowing them.

4. How do they go about getting what they want?
This intersects with all the traits and characteristics you've already laid down - but it takes them further.

Remember, we're talking about what the characters want deep down at the well of their soul. Now, for some people, they might go about getting a takeaway chicken sandwich in exactly the same way as they go about getting their heart's desire. For others though, when faced with achieving or losing something important, they sometimes start to act in ways which go against their normal behaviour and even against their own best interests. A person who has always seemed easy-going and even a little weak might display an unexpected backbone of steel when faced with losing someone they love. This could be great - or the new stubbornness could endanger their beloved. A cool, calm and collected person could completely go to pieces when she thinks she might be publically humilated. This could cause the character threatening her to rejoice - or feel unexpected pity. Thus, the course of the story would be changed.

Both these reactions would be linked not only to the character's deepest desire - WHAT THEY WANT - but also to their surface traits - WHAT ARE THEY LIKE PHYSICALLY - and their life experiences, instincts, and deepest characteristics - WHO THEY ARE.

How a character goes about getting what they deeply and desperately desire tells the reader - and you - everything about them. If you know that your character is a person with no confidence, who is normally crippled by self-doubt and fear, who is young and not physically very strong but who does have excellent healing skills and wildcraft, and that they will do anything to get home again, working towards that goal with utter dedication and disregard for their own suddenly know everything you need to know to tell their story. Plot becomes character, the events of your story revealing new layers to the character with each twist and turn of the story.

And that is how I go about building characters. I ask myself:

  1. What are they like physically?
  2. Who are they?
  3. What do they want?
  4. How do they go about getting it?
At the end of that process I still may not know everything is there is know about the character. For example, lately I realised that a character of mind was a complete neat freak - but this didn't come out of the blue. It came from knowing about how his physical appearance affected his childhood, which formed who he is, what he wants and how he goes about getting it. It's amazing how often 'inspiration' is exactly the same thing as 'working really hard'!

How do you guys go about building characters?

Thursday, 2 September 2010


And the competition is CLOSED.

Thank you to everyone who entered! You all spread the word so well - you guys rock.

Now for the news you're all waiting for - the name of the winner. I used a random number generator based on the number of entries recieved and it picked (drumroll please)...

Cass (Words on Paper)

Congratulations, Cass! Email me with your address as soon as you can. The quicker I get your address, the quicker you get your prize, which includes the aforementioned copy of Clockwork Angel and random other surprises from my writing cave.

And then I felt guilty because I only gave away one prize. So I used the random generator again and this time it picked...

Alex Mullarkey

I don't have a copy of Clockwork Angel for you, but I will send you your choice of either a signed copy of Daughter of the Flames, or a signed copy of The Swan Kingdom, and some bookplates. Again, email me ASAP to give me your address so I can send this stuff out to you.

OK folks - back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I'm just going to admit it straight up - I have no idea what to blog about today. I am drifting about my house like the lost wraith of an abandoned milkmaid (I don't know why a milkmaid, okay? shut up), making weebling noises under my breath and sighing long, melancholy sighs.


Turns out that despite my good intentions, it's not so easy to get to work on Book Two of your two book series if you have no idea whether it will ACTUALLY BE Book Two of a two book series, or if it might turn out to only be the second part of the book you thought you just finished. Confused yet? I am. Mrrghh.

So anyway, I decided to put the second book/part of FrostFire aside for a bit. I don't want to spend weeks working on a brilliant opening to a new book if it's all going to get deleted because there is no new book. But that means I have nothing to do. And I...don't do so well with the forced inactivity, kids. It turns me into the b*tsh*t crazy lady. If you thought I was the b*tsh*t crazy lady before? Yeah, no. That was me being normal.

I read seven books over the weekend, and now there's nothing left on my TBR pile that I really want to dive into. Celebrity MasterChef being finished, there's nothing on TV that I want to see (MasterChef rules, all right? Shut up). I did make an effort to be productive. I printed out an unfinished manuscript I was working on a few years ago, before Shadows on the Moon. Anyone who used to check the writing journal on my website (a short-lived and ill-fated idea on my part) may recall that I was working on a book I fondly referred to as the giant killer clockwork praying mantis death robot book. It's cool, and I think I'm definitely going to finish it, but there's nearly 70,000 words of it and I can already see that it needs a LOT of work. Is it wise to plunge into this when FrostFire isn't finished yet? Probably not.

I've been for two long walks in the countryside, but I do that every day anyway. I baked, and now I'm going to have to palm several pounds of baked goods off on family and friends. I did some sketching, but I'm really out of practise and it's not fun if everything turns out kind of looking like a donkey, especially if you were trying to draw one of your own characters (it can happen to any artist, all right? Shut up). Much more of the sighing and the weebling and my dog is going to run away, folks. The cats are already hiding under the bed.

I may be waiting another week or two or three before I get any feedback on FrostFire. I CANNOT WAIT THAT LONG doing nothing without losing it and going completely nuts. And like I said, if you thought I was nuts before? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Give me suggestions. What should I do to take my mind off the writing that I want to do but can't? What books should I read that I haven't already (most of my recent reads are on my GoodReads page)? What hobby should I try out? What film or TV show, anime, manga, funny singing yak clip on YouTube should I check out? Or, failing that, what blog post topic would you like me to write on?

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