Thursday, 27 September 2012


Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome back. Lately I've read several really interesting books that I enjoyed a lot, so I decided to make an effort to actually review them instead of just giving them star ratings on Goodreads. Today's book is a fantastic high fantasy by a well-respected novelist whose work I've somehow never read before.


The Synopsis:   

In a desert world of sandstorms and sand-wolves, a teen girl must defy the gods to save her tribe in this mystical, atmospheric tale from the author of Drink, Slay, Love.

Liyana has trained her entire life to be the vessel of a goddess. The goddess will inhabit Liyana’s body and use magic to bring rain to the desert. But Liyana’s goddess never comes. Abandoned by her angry tribe, Liyana expects to die in the desert. Until a boy walks out of the dust in search of her.

Korbyn is a god inside his vessel, and a trickster god at that. He tells Liyana that five other gods are missing, and they set off across the desert in search of the other vessels. For the desert tribes cannot survive without the magic of their gods. But the journey is dangerous, even with a god’s help. And not everyone is willing to believe the trickster god’s tale.

Get a load of that! And perfectly representative, too!
The Review:

I shouldn't think it's a surprise that, having seen the cover and read the synopsis of this book, I was excited and intrigued. It's a non-European inspired setting and it deals with gods and faith and has what sounds like a strong heroine; all very much my bag. Plus, it all reminded me a little bit of one of my absolute favourite YA fantasies, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, which also has a desert setting and depicts the interference of god into human lives.

However, that level of interest also made me feel a tiny bit wary because it would be so easy for this book to let me down. I hesitated over buying the ebook for a few days, then finally bit the bullet and downloaded it to take with me on my journey last Friday.

I did not regret it. From the very first line this story caught me up and refused to let my attention go. Get a load of this:
On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family's tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father's goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.
Right?! Who could put the book down after THAT?

Sarah Beth Durst's world-building is a thing of wonder - beautifully subtle, with almost no noticeable exposition, but a sense of immersiveness that makes her setting just shine off the pages. The mention of glass dragons and sand wolves might make you think you were going to get something quite whimsical and surreal; in fact, that's not the case at all. The unnamed desert land within which almost all of the story takes place actually has a very gritty, real quality. 

Through the main character Liyana's intense, sensory experiences of life in her beloved desert, and through the stories that Liyana trades with and is told by others throughout the book, we get a rich sense of a living, breathing environment - of the beauty and terror of shifting sands, endless skies and isolated oases - and of a textured, evolving culture that is clearly influenced by many of the cultures of this world, but in a really interested and respectful way.

Speaking of Liyana? Well, I'd read a couple of reviews that stated Liyana was hard to empathise with or that she was - you know - that word. The one that ends in Mary and finishes with Sue? Grghgh. Fools! Fools! Liyana is precisely the kind of heroine that I love to read about, and which YA fantasy needs more of! She is a person, not a stereotype! She is flawed, yet awesome! I loved her!

The protagonist of the novel is truly strong, not just because she is a sensible, capable young woman with hard won survival skills and a badass knife made out of the scale of a glass dragon. Liyana has the kind of high moral bravery that motivates women here in the real world to achieve astonishing everyday feats and make humbling sacrifices in order to keep their families safe and fed. But in the midst of her sense of duty and purpose - and her quest, which is literally a matter of life and death for her people - Liyana is also always willing to listen, to learn, and to reassess the facts as needed. I loved her subtle, dry sense of humour and her unwillingly soft heart that causes her to care even for her enemies. 

After being abandoned by her family and her tribe, Liyana is torn by conflicting emotions. Soon everything that she knows about her Gods and her own purpose in life is turned upside down, and she's facing truly fearful dilemmas, choices that will affect not only her own life but the lives of everyone and everything she cares about. While her turmoil is sensitively portrayed, the book never strays into over-emotionalism (wish I knew how to get that balance right) and it was a real treat to read about a young woman who both felt things deeply and was also able to override her emotions and act ruthlessly when necessary.

Without spoiling too much (the synopsis there is carefully devoid of details) I will say that Vessel provided me with one of the few romantic storylines I've read lately which actually eluded labels or predictability. I don't think predictability is always a bad thing, by the way, but it was really intriguing to be faced with a situation in which I not only couldn't *guess* how things were going to end up, but also couldn't make up my mind how I *wanted* them to end up. I was surprised and delighted by the ending.

I was also really satisfied by the way that the plot developed. The book was well paced - no long stretches of boredom, or even any places where my attention wavered for a page or two. And it may have been a result of reading an ebook, which made it impossible to really judge just where I was in the story, but I loved the fact that just when I thought we'd gotten to the end and the quest was complete, it turned out that nothing was as simple as that, and everything Liyana (and I!) had assumed was going to unfold at that point... didn't. That's not an easy trick to pull off!

VESSEL is one of the most interesting and well-written YA high fantasies that I've read the ages. I recommend it to anyone who likes the books of Rae Carson, Tamora Pierce, or, in fact, me :)

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! Happy Tuesday. As you can see by the fact that you're reading this, I did survive my author visit on Friday (even though my travel jinx was in full affect and resulted in more train shenanigans). Thanks for the warm welcome, young women of Sheffield High School! It was great to meet you.

Now onto today's post which hopefully doesn't read like a rant - because it's actually the result of a lovely and interesting discussion between me and the writer R.J. Anderson (author of ULTRAVIOLET, KNIFE, REBEL and other wonderful books which I heartily recommend). R. J. takes 50% of the credit for this post - basically it's a series of emails we exchanged which I then edited together and typed up (and R.J. edited again. We're writers, what can I say?).

The topic of this discussion: Insta-love.

Yep, I can already hear the chorus of retching noises, frustrated screams and face-palming.

What is this fearsome thing? It's a trope that's become pretty common in YA (especially in paranormal and fantasy novels), in which a couple meet and almost at once fall deeply, irrevocably and passionately in love, quite often without knowing much about each other at all. Usually the main component of this love seems to be either an extreme physical attraction which causes the POV character to ramble on endlessly about how hot the object of his/her affection is, or else some kind of irresistible force of destiny written into both their DNA which means the pair are now mated for life (whether they like it or not). Its major feature is that the POV character is convinced that what he or she feels is no mere attraction, liking or lust. It can only be love. Capital letter Love. TWU WUV. The most extreme example of insta-love is probably the 'imprinting' in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight

Now, a great author can do a lot with love at first sight. It's a classic plot device, and the results of this kind of headlong plunge into emotion (requited or otherwise) can be moving or hilarious or tragic or all three. It doesn't have to be done badly or unrealistically, by any means.
But a lot of novels seem to use this concept as... shall we say, a shortcut. Creating two characters who are destined to be in love, and who feel an instantaneous, unbreakable bond of devotion the moment their eyes meet, relieves the author of the need to do the heavy lifting. They no longer have to actually show how this particular pair of individuals fall in love, and the ways in which they fit with each other and work together, because they've already explained to the reader that this couple are Meant To Be. Which means you get a bit of talk about dizziness and shock and irresistible forces and BOOM! Two attractive near-strangers are vowing to die for each other within a chapter and macking like crazy within two. 

So yes, this trope can be pretty annoying. In fact, I think we've all seen quite enough of the lazy version of love at first sight. There aren't too many readers, writers or reviewers who'd admit to liking this plot device anymore.

But the tide of insta-love stories seems to have swept another, equally baffling phenomenon along with it: a growing tendency among readers and reviewers to apply the term 'insta-love' to romances which... well... aren't.

Romances where the couple don't fall in love at first sight. Romances where the couple hate each other at first, or are friends first, or have a spark of attraction and then gradually get to like each other more and more, and trade furtive glances and quick touches for half a book before either of them even asks the other one out. Romances which aren't insta by any reasonable definition.

You wouldn't think it would be so easy to get these two kinds of fictional relationships mixed up. The the sketchily justified passion at first sight and the spark of attraction that takes a while to develop are pretty different. But apparently, just as everyone and their cousin Betsy hates insta-love, everyone and their cousin Betsy has a different definition of insta-love, too.

When R.J. and I were discussing this we each brought up several books that we, as fans of repressed, slow-burning romance, adored... and then later saw labeled by other readers and reviewers as insta-love. Both of us were clear on all the ways in which each of these books avoided insta-love and it puzzled us exceedingly to see them called that. However, rather than mentioning any other authors' books or names, I thought the fairest thing would be to use myself as an example.

I've seen a few reviewers say that they thought Daughter of the Flames was an insta-love story. On the strong likelihood that you've never read this book, I'll tell you that I deliberately wrote the story in order to use one of my favourite plot devices, which is that of an arranged marriage or marriage of convenience. (Which is also one of my favorite tropes, specifically because it forces the author to do the very opposite of insta-love -- RJA) When I wrote it I was clear in my own head that the couple, although initially attracted to each other, don't really fall in love until late in the story. And even then the heroine isn't aware of her own feelings until pretty much the end. 

Well, I mean, that's my interpretation of events. And of course other interpretations are just as valid as mine. (No they aren't, because I've read DotF and you're right. :) -- RJA)  But it's always baffled me to see this story called insta-love because it doesn't fit the definition. Or, at least, the definition which I assumed we were all working from. The two characters don't instantly fall in love at first sight. They meet, they're attracted, and they go their separate ways. Later circumstances and desperation bring them back together and they team up, but there are no declarations of love, no obsession with each other, or with saving each other, or with each other's looks.

But clearly, as far as some readers are concerned, there *is* a definition of insta-love which fits there. There's another one which fits with a whole slew of other books that don't seem to have much 'insta' in the romance either.

So I don't know what reviewers mean by insta-love anymore. If I see a book criticised for having insta-love in it, my immediate reaction is to assume that there's a cheap and rather unnecessary romance jammed in there, something unrealistic and tawdry which reflects badly on the author and their attempt to jump on the YA romance bandwagon (yes, I'm snobby and judgmental - Zolah). But then I have to stop and remind myself that this might not be what the reviewer is actually saying at all! It's highly possible that what they really meant was that there's an entirely different kind of romance in there which simply did not work for them for whatever reason.

It's pretty obvious that every reader has a different idea of what constitutes romance - that what we look for in a romance, and the things we find attractive or sexy or romantic are highly individual. For some, scenes will not read as sexy or romantic unless it's spelled out; unless there is actual, unequivocal sexy touching or kissing involved, or the POV characters are confessing their romantic and sexy feelings. So even scenes where two characters share significant personal information or physical contact don't necessarily count to those readers as romantic, because the characters haven't declared their mutual love or kissed yet. Meanwhile, others (RJ and I, for example!) are fanning themselves and groping for the smelling salts.

So one person's insta-love is another person's slow-burn romance, and one person's swoon is another person's yawn. All part of life's rich tapestry.

The problem is that when readers say 'insta-love', it makes the whole thing sound like a cheap, tacked-on, superficial romance, when it's entirely possible that it's just a romance that failed for them for whatever reasons romances fail for them. And how can anyone work out why that is, if all they get in the review is a phrase which, by now, is starting to feel extremely dodgy and inexact?
The more R.J. and I talked about this, the more we started to feel as if 'insta-love' was never a very useful term in discussing YA novels anyway. After all, the main reason people sneer about insta-love romances, or books which utilise love at first sight, is that they're supposed to be unrealistic and convenient. But are they?

In real life people meeting and feeling a kind of 'spark' of instant attraction is all too common. It used to happen to me (Zolah) everytime I was put into a new class at school, and very inconvenient I found it, especially when within a few weeks I'd nearly always had it forcibly born in on me that the object of my young passion was a right little berk. Even as an adult you're not immune. Sometimes this spark of attraction is mutual, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn't. But that's the way people generally react to each other when they first meet: they assess each other for attractiveness. Even where people have been platonic friends for ten years before they ever kiss, they'll usually admit that they fancied each other like crazy for about thirty minutes when they first met, before they ended up being mates instead.

Then there's this idea that it's too convenient for young people who've only known each other for a week, two weeks, a month (whatever) to confess true love. But I (Zolah again!) can't remember many occasions when I had a relationship as a teen when I wasn't saying 'I love you' after a couple of weeks or even less. Sitcoms and films might depict this confession as a moment of immense, life-changing significance and imply that people should only say 'I love you' after dating for a year, sleeping together, and possibly moving in together, but real people, especially young ones, don't hold to that standard at all. Why should characters in books?

It occurs to us that what some readers may be complaining about with the 'insta' label is the pacing of the romance. It's not that they necessarily believe the characters fell instantly in love or rushed into love at the beginning of the story, but rather that at first the romance was extremely subtle and moved at a very slow pace - slow enough that the reader didn't realize it was a romance. Then all of a sudden it seemed to speed up and things became intense and serious. Which - again - actually does happen in real life (including for R.J and her husband!). So here you have what *we* would call a slow-burning romance... but because the reader hasn't picked up on the developing relationship earlier on, it seems to come almost out of nowhere. And it gets an insta-love label even though it doesn't really fit that definition of an instant romance.

If a romance seems unrealistic or too convenient, then that could be about a failure in the writing, or something in the individual taste of the reader, or a mixture of both. But it doesn't necessarily make it 'insta-love'. And the current level of hatred for anything that might be called insta-love doesn't mean that love at first sight as a story device is worthless, or that no one should ever use it again.

What we decided between us, in the end, is that while we should all feel free to critique romances and examine why they work or don't work for us in reviews - and call out the ones that do feel cheap and unnecessary to the heart of the story - the phrase insta-love is now so widely used to cover such a huge variety of different kinds of romances (even ones which aren't instant at all) that it's become kind of like that infamous term Mary-Sue.  

A term that hides more about your opinion than it actually reveals.

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Hello and Happy Thursday!

I'm feeling a little tense today because tomorrow I'm off to Sheffield Highschool, where I'll be doing an event with about a hundred young ladies. For some reason school visits make me more nervous than any other kind of event, even the swishy posh ones where I'm supposed to act like a grown-up. My writing group think maybe it's because I get flashbacks to my own fairly horrific school-age experiences. I wonder if it's because these guys - young people - are my actual audience and the ones I'm dedicated to reaching and pleasing. In either case, I have the collywobbles. Wish me luck, Dear Readers!

In the meantime, I have some news to share - and you can probably guess what it is from the not-terribly-subtle post title. FrostFire has sold its first foreign right, to the German market. Which is exciting not only because, you know - my book in another language, a new interpretation of the cover art - but also because the German publisher is Carlsen Verlag.

That's... Carlsen Verlag, German publisher of Kristin Cashore, Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfield, Leigh Bardugo, Stephenie Meyer and a certain J.K. Rowling.

*Pause while Zolah muffles her squeeing in a pillow*

Ahem. And apparently they're intending to ramp up the focus on their selection of translated titles from Autumn 2013, and were looking for a special lead title to launch the new programme. Guess what that title is?

*More muffled squeeing*

So FrostFire gets to be the lead translated title from this amazing publisher in Autumn next year. I'm thrilled, and can't wait to see how the German version looks. Yay, Germany!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


Hello, hello, hello my lovelies! Blog hiatus is over - I hope YOU all had a lovely week? - and sadly I didn't get much work done at all, for various tedious reasons with which I have no intention of boring you.

However, what I did get done was the first draft of this blog post, because, Dear Readers, last week I read an interview with the writer Jay Kristoff - author of the novel STORMDANCER - and had a very strong reaction to it. And as you know, when Zolah has a strong reaction to something, she likes to rant about it here. I've actually been holding myself back from posting this for several days because I wanted to give myself time to cool down and look at the issue rationally (ha ha. Yeah. Well, I tried).

Unless you've been living under a rock, I'm sure you've seen some of the buzz for this novel. It's a huge book. Everyone is talking about it. Now I am going to talk about it too, but not in the way that the majority of other people are, unfortunately.

First off I should say I haven't read the book. Nope. Not a single word of it. But I was hugely excited when the synopsis hit the internet, just like everyone else:
Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
When I saw the covers, that just shot my excitement up to a whole new level:

They look SO GOOD, right? I even put the US one (that's the illustrated one) on my board for The Trilogy on Pinterest! And then it all went horribly wrong because I read this.

Just in case you don't want to click away or the interview disappears for whatever reason, I'll reprint the part that I'm concerned with - the part that made me stop like someone had smacked me right in the face with a cast-iron skillet here:
Why did you locate your novel and upcoming series in Japan?

I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies. I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…

How much research did you have to do with regards to authenticity? 

Less than people seem to think. It’s kinda odd – I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.

Before I go on, I want to say that this blog article isn't an attack on Mr Kristoff. As I said earlier, I haven't read his book. He could have been misquoted, misinterpreted or simply being funny rather than serious in this interview. I don't know him in any way at all, let alone personally. I'm not writing this to hurt him or his book sales - and in fact, from the amount of advance buzz his book is getting, I'm sure that it's going to be a huge success regardless of what little-midlist-me might think.

However, by answering these questions in this way, he has made it impossible for me to ever read STORMDANCER and that, quite frankly, p*sses me off. Why do these remarks affect me this way? Because they raise issues of diversity - that wonderful thing that I love to see, which I attempt to write, which I want to encourage with every fibre of my being - and cultural appropriation, which is not, in any way, shape or form, OK.

What's the difference? Well, I talk diversity here and here but basically when you write diversely you attempt to include strong, realistic portrayals of many different kinds of people, most especially those who are traditionally excluded, marginalised, silenced or stereotyped by the mainstream media of the West (which, as we know, really only likes to see white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered people, and particularly men, in juicy roles). This often means writing about other religions, other ethnicities, and other cultures than your own. The whole point of attempting to be a diverse writer would be to write about those cultures with respect, attempting to show them as fully realised, complex and valid.

Cultural appropriation on the other hand, is where a privileged author uses the trappings of another culture as an 'exotic' background and its people as a quaint novelty, mere window dressing for some story he wants to tell, without having any respect for or interest in that culture, or in representing it truthfully and accurately.

Diversity is a way of unfolding our awareness of the world, of exploring our differences and acknowleging that all of humanity has a story. Diversity is about expanding your mind. It's about learning.

Cultural appropriation is about reinforcing stereotypes because they give you a quick and easy way to add colour or excitement to your story. Cultural appropriation is about being so unconsciously certain that your way of life is the only real or important or valid one that it doesn't occur to you that you might not be perfectly qualified to use an entirely different culture as a backdrop for your story without doing any real research about it. It's about putting assumptions, stereotypes and inaccurate information on the page and actually being proud of it because you think the mere fact that you stooped to visit another culture with your writing ought to be an honour for that culture. And if you misrepresented something, no one who matters (ie. no one from your culture) will either notice or care.

Diversity is casting a character in a film with a black or Asian or Indian or Native American actor just because they're a bloody good actor and there's no reason the character should be white.

Cultural appropriation is casting a white person in a role that should be filled by a black, Asian, Indian or Native American actor and then saying that it's OK because the make-up department put bronzer and a wig on them.

I'm a fantasy writer. I know full-well that sometimes the setting must serve the story. Shadows on the Moon is set in Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni rather than the real, historical Japan because I knew I couldn't tell the story that I wanted to tell in any version of real Japan. But that didn't stop me from exploring Japanese culture to the fullest of my ability, even if two thirds of the stuff I found out never made it into the book at all. That didn't stop me from attempting to show all the aspects of Japanese culture that borrowed as much respect within my story as possible. That didn't stop me from being *interested* in the culture from which I was taking inspiration.

I didn't do a perfect job. I made mistakes. Some have already been pointed out to me and possibly in the wake of this post people will turn up and tell me about even more. Messing up is part of attempting to do that scary diverse writing thing and I've accepted that, and the butt-kickings that may deservedly bruise my behind as a result. The point is I CARED. I tried. I did my best.

Setting your book in a culture you know very little about, then proudly telling the world that your only research was random anime and manga you'd seen over the years, Wikipedia, and some guy you know (who, from the sound of it, isn't even actually Japanese)? That doesn't display interest, or caring, or respect for that culture, does it? It's so breathtakingly wrong that I'mkind of shocked, in this day and age, that anyone could speak like that without pausing halfway through and realising: I sound like a complete *sshat.

Fantasy is shamefully guilty of a European focus, it's true. But if your answer to this is to base your book's fictional country on a different culture in which you have less interest than a kid doing a book report for school? That doesn't mean you've broken through the shameful focus on Europe. It means you've just randomly used someone else's culture to try and make yourself look somehow better, more broadminded, more liberal, than all those Europe-focused writers without actually BEING better than them. It means you've just added to the already extensive history of exoticised, novelty-value portrayals of non-Western cultures. Which is an *sshat move, man.

It also leads to problems like you thinking that 'sama' in Japanese is the exact same thing as the word 'Sir' in English and using it accordingly. Which, as anyone who has any kind of interest in Japan would know, is a complete misunderstanding not only of that word, but of the usage of the honourific system of address. As does believing that 'hai!' is the same as 'yes!' (hint: it's not, and it makes your characters sound very odd indeed if they're constantly using it that way). Also, if you're going to have the word 'Japan' right there on your front over it might be a good idea not to use Pandas (native to China - an entirely different country, even if it's filled with more of those Asian people!) as a feature of the wildlife in your story. These are just three of the problems which other people have noticed in the book, and which even an elementary level of research would have eliminated. I mean, I'd expect anyone who'd read a couple of volumes of manga to have picked those issues up.

What's even more baffling is that there's apparently a glossary explaining, among other things, the correct meaning and usage of both these words at the back of the book, so someone at the publisher did do the research and did know all this - but either it wasn't thought worthwhile to edit the book to make it more credible, or the writer refused to consider that the way he wrote it in the first draft wasn't fine.

In case anyone needs this confirming? As Westerners, whatever we think we know, or what - God help us - 'everyone knows' about any culture other than our own? Is not a good enough basis on which to build a respectful portrait of that culture. Nor is a passing interest in films produced by that culture, or having known a girl from that culture once, or having read a book about it in school. The West has spent its entire history marginalising, exoticising, exploiting, silencing and generally stomping all over every culture that wasn't its own and that means we've only seen the bowdlerised Western version of anything that isn't the West. Intuition doesn't cut it. The idea that 'we're all the same deep inside!' doesn't cut it. It's just not good enough.

Show some respect and do your frakking research.

No, you still won't get it perfect, most probably. But at least you won't have treated other people's cultures as if they were crispy bacon flavoured topping you sprinkle on your salad to make all the green leafy bits look a bit more appealing.

In order to back up my outrage over this issue, let's have some posts from other people who tackle  cultural appropriation with far more eloquence than I could hope to. First, let's have this stingingly brilliant post from Wistfully Linda in which she talks about Green Eyed Asian Love Interests.

And now a review from Cyna on You Kill Me - warning, adult language on this one! But also a really detailed examination of the various problems in the text, including the ones mentioned above and mmmmmaaaaany others.

Finally, this well-reasoned post from author Ellen Oh, who talks about The Importance of Proper Research.

In closing, Dear Readers: diversity is a very good thing and I hope you will strive to achieve it in your lives and your writing. Keep at it. But remember that diversity always comes from a place of humble respect and willingness to learn. If you find yourself writing about people and cultures who are entirely different from you and yours - about whose unique experiences you actually know nothing, remember! - with the smug attitude that Wikipedia has all the information you could possibly need? You're writing like an *sshat.

You are not *sshats, my loves. You are better than that. We all should be.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


Hello, my darling Dear Readers! I come to you today to announce (as the blog title suggests) that there will be a short blog hiatus starting next Tuesday and lasting for one week. I'll be back as normal the Tuesday after, the 18th of September.

Before anyone panics - everything is fine! Nothing catastrophic has happened. It's just that my parents are going on holiday next week, to a place that has its own a dialysis unit which will be looking after my dad while they're away. And that means I get a week off too (yay!). Since my The Night Itself edits came back to me this past weekend, this seems like a really opportune time to get as much work done, both on the edit and on book #2 of the trilogy as well. I actually meant to tell you guys about this on Tuesday but I forgot. My bad.

However, I might have some interesting news for you tomorrow. I literally can't tell you a thing about it at this stage because nothing has been confirmed and no details have been given. If I GET any details and am allowed to share, I'll do a post about it on Friday. If not, you'll know because there will be no post.

Goodness, that was cryptic. I'm like a ninja. A blinky, blonde NINJA.

In any case, have a great weekend everyone!

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!
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