Thursday, 31 January 2013


Happy Thursday, Dear Readers! RetroThursday, in fact, as I select and herd a mature post from its comfy resting place in the archives and force it to assume its game face again. Today's post shall be:

I realised over the weekend - much to my embarrassment, although not to my surprise - that I promised to do you a post about editing/working with editors last week, and then forgot all about it. Frankly, sometimes I'm amazed that I can tie my own shoelaces. But anyway, here that long-awaited post is, and if anyone has any questions about this or would like any points clarified or gone into in more detail, bring it up in the comments.

In my leisurely roaming of the writing-centric parts of the interwebz, I've noticed a lot of general assumptions and misconceptions about editing - that is, the work that writers do with the professional editors employed by their publisher. Often I see people talking as if its an editor's job merely to fix typos and spelling mistakes (and that this means the writer shouldn't bother about those things) or bemoaning this widespread idea that 'real editing' is dying out because of the heartless paper-pushers in charge of publishers (and this can be proved by all the typos in published books).

Both of those ideas are, in my experience, dead wrong.

I can't claim to be a huge expert on this topic. I'm a relative newbie compared to many authors, and all my books have been published by one publisher (and their international sister companies). But over the course of five YA books (one of which never ended up being published) I've worked with three different editors (two at my UK publisher, one with the US one) and at least four copy-editors, so maybe I do have a bit of insight about the editor/author relationship that could be useful.

First: Fixing grammar, spelling mistakes and typos is only one very small aspect of a huge array of responsibilities that fall under an editor's job description - those things are primarily the author's job. Editors act as a safety net to catch the mistakes which everyone, no matter how careful, makes from time to time. Land in that safety net too often though, and the people in the circus will rightly wonder why exactly you climbed up there on the high-wire in the first place if you didn't know how to do the walk. Any writer who thinks they don't need to worry about those things themselves is operating under a tragic misapprehension.

Second: Editing is not dead. Neither is it a 'lost art'. Editors are not a dying breed; they're not even feeling off-colour, as far as I can tell. All the editors I've worked with have been fiercely intelligent, intimidatingly well-read and PASSIONATE about making the books they've acquired the very, very best they can be. These guys are hardcore; without them, half the books on your shelves would not be on your shelves at all, and the other half would be much the worse. Blaming the editor for a handful of typos which were most likely introduced during typesetting is like blaming the head engineer of a ship for a handful of lose bolts rattling around in the hull of a giant ship. Yes, the rattling is annoying. However, if the head engineer weren't around the ship would probably have sunk by now.

So, bearing that stuff in mind, how does working with an

Generally, once you've managed to get your foot in the door with a publisher, the editing process breaks down into a few distinct steps. Reading author blogs, you can get the impression that these stages of editing are somehow set in stone, but I've found that it changes not only from editor to editor but from book to book. It's an organic thing. The steps I've listed below can blend into each other, be repeated multiple times, or sometimes be skipped altogether.

There's even rumour of a wondrous thing known as a 'clean' manuscript. This is a draft so perfect, so beautifully formed, so effulgent with divine beauty, that on being submitted by the author it needs no editorial work whatsoever before going off to the printers. Please note - If I ever manage to produce such a thing, you'll probably want to find a sharp implement (a shovel or a woodaxe perhaps) and remove my head immediately, as it will be a sign that I've been taken over by a malevolent alien intelligence and am plotting the end of human civilisation as we know it. *Shudder*

Basically what I'm saying is that this is just a guide, rather than a set of commandments.


Structural edit/edit letter: Mention edit letters to published authors and you get one of two reactions. Either they groan and hold their head in their hands, or they bounce up and down with feverish excitement. The first reaction probably means they've just received an edit letter. The second kind are still waiting for it to arrive.

The structural edit is the first stage of getting a book ready for publication. It's all about the big picture - characterisation, plot, pacing, setting. The things that hold the book together and make it what it is. This is the stage where an editor may request big changes, such as transforming your main character from an elf to a vampire, killing off the erstwhile heroine in chapter four with a poison dart, or moving the whole story from Medieval Florence to the purple rainforests of Gundi'iip Prime in the Taurus Nebula. It addresses issues the editor has with the book as a whole and offers suggestions on how to fix them. The edit letter pretty much tells you what the editor thought of the book (from 'I love it! Let's talk about a few issues...' to 'I'm so sorry, but in its current form...') which is why writers tend to get very excited and scared about them.

The edit letter I received (via email) for Shadows on the Moon mentioned that my editor felt two important characters were a little vague - they didn't come fully into focus throughout the book and their motivations were unclear. She also felt that the middle section of the book was too long and contained too many secondary/minor characters, and that the ending was too abrupt and left a major plot thread inadequately resolved. We eventually cut nearly 30,000 words from my first draft.

If that makes you gulp? Brace yourself. With FrostFire, I never got a formal edit letter. My editor felt that it would be best for us to have a phone conversation about the book and the extensive changes that would be required. We talked for over an hour, going over all the issues that prevented the story and characters from working, and tossing possible solutions at each other.

At the end of that conversation I went away and produced a new, detailed synopsis for what I called FrostFire #2 - an entirely different version of the book in which the plot was turned inside out and most of the characters swapped sex. This served as a kind of backwards edit letter. My editor read it, and came back to me with detailed notes. I amended the synopsis accordingly. She read the outline again and approved it, and then I revamped the book based on that. FrostFire #2 was around 15,000 words longer than the original version in its final draft.

Subsequent structural work: After you've done your first run at any major changes and re-writing, you send the manuscript back to the editor. She may love the changes you've made and be happy to accept the book as 'delivered' at this stage. Or she might feel that you've not gone far enough to address the issues she brought up in the edit letter. Or she might now have new concerns caused by the changes you made.

The book can go back and forth between the editor and the writer several times at this stage. With Shadows on the Moon, I think we did about four or five structural passes (one of which included notes from my US editor). I tried to beef up and clarify the motivations of some characters, but in the process I made their actions seem contradictory in some places, so I needed to dig deeper into them and make the reader understand why they acted as they did. I cut some characters from the middle portion of the book and compressed it, but it still felt overly long and crowded. I extended the ending, but one plot element still felt unresolved.

We worked on those issues until each one was fixed. Every pass that we did moved us closer to that Eureka moment when all the elements of the story clicked together and worked - but it took at least six months for that to happen.

With FrostFire, after I finished rewriting the (radically different version of the) story and sent it in, my editor loved it and we moved straight onto the next stage with no further structural work.

Line editing: This is probably my favourite part of the editing process. This is where love of language really comes into play, as the editor and author work together to make sure that every line of the book expresses the author's ideas in the best possible way. We want to make sure that the words on the page are acting as the reader's gateway into the world of the story, rather than a barrier.

Normally at this point, the writer will receive a copy of their manuscript (either as an computer document or printed out) which has been 'marked up'. That is, the editor has taken out their red pen and gone through the whole thing, literally line by line, noting problems with sentence construction, clumsy wording, repeated words, grammar, places where the author's meaning is unclear, where drafting has left inconsistencies in the fabric of the prose or where ideas could be better presented.

Because my first draft of Shadows on the Moon was exceptionally long for a YA novel - 130,000 words - we did a huge amount of trimming during this stage. My editor would take two or three pages of lovingly researched descriptions of clothing or food or nature, or two or more seperate scenes that served a similar purpose, and suggest changes that snipped away extraneous words, clauses, sentences and paragraphs, reducing three pages of description to half a page, or compressing two or three scenes down into one. She also made sure that in my efforts to create a convincing fantasy world and weave authentic details into the story I didn't lose track of the important themes I'd introduced early on.

In FrostFire (probably because the book had already undergone a massive overhaul) the line editing was far more focused on polishing the prose and hunting down and murdering any sections where all the cutting, pasting and re-writing I'd done had caused jerky transitions or repetitions, or where characterisation or plot didn't track quite smoothly.

Copy editing: This is where, quite often, someone else will get involved in your work on the book. At my publisher they have dedicated copy editors who provide a fresh pair of eyes to double check everything in the manuscript, since by this point both the editor and the writer will have read it many times (in fact, it's normally at this point that I become convinced the book is utter dreck and start begging my editor to reassure me that they're not just publishing it out of pity). I'm told some publishers contract this stuff out to freelancers, which I think is a shame, as there's enormous potential to develop a friendship with your copy editor. One of mine used to make little pictures in the margins, which always made me smile.

If you thought that your editor was tough, be prepared for your copy-editor to bring tears to your eyes. Every little tic in your writing (words or phrases that you've taken a liking to and reused several times, the tendency to start sentences with But or And, incorrect use of semi colons, overly long sentences, overly short sentence fragments, repetition) is going to be mercilessly highlighted. Every mistake you made (changing a minor character's eyes from brown to hazel without realising it, making the moon gibbous in chapter two when it was cresent in chapter one, having the heroine scratch her head without first showing her letting go of the war-axe she was holding five pages ago) will be noticed.

No matter how much work you've put in up until this point - in fact, sometimes because of all the work you've done - this stage will usually drench the manuscript in red. By the mid-point, you will feel like a talentless, careless, moronic hack. You will swear that if you ever have to meet your copy editor, you will grovel at her feet for having forced her to wade through this awful soup of errors, although secretly you will be tempted to tip itching powder into her underwear for pointing out every single flaw your book has.

But sometimes copy editing can yield delightful surprises. During the US copy-edit of Shadows on the Moon, it turned out that the copy-editing manager at Candlewick Press was a haiku scholar and a Japanophile. So along with Americanising the spelling and grammar, we ended up re-writing most of the haiku in the book to reflect a more traditionally Japanese aesthetic, which made the whole process unexpectedly fun.

Pass pages/proof reading: This is the final stage of editing before the book goes off to be printed, and sometimes it sort of blends into the previous one, depending on how long the preceeding steps have dragged on. Basically, this when you get a massive envelope in the post which contains the typeset/formatted manuscript or pass pages. For the first time, you see your book laid out as an actual book, with chapter headings, section pages, page numbers and the correct font. This is when you will see the internal design and any extras that the designers have decided to surprise you with, like artwork or a special font for your chapter headers. Usually it arrives on very large pieces of paper which show two pages on each side.

This is your very last chance to make changes to the book - to catch any typos or errors that have been introduced at any point along the way, or which have been caused by the typesetting (or even, perhaps, overly enthusiastic copy editing). It's very much NOT the time to make radical changes to anything, since cutting a paragraph on page one of a chapter is going to have a knock-on effect on the typesetting of every other page in that chapter and cost the publisher money. But you should still mark anything that you notice, and approve or stet (that is, withhold approval of) any changes which have been made since the last time you saw the manuscript.

Seeing the pass pages for Shadows on the Moon actually made me tear up a little bit, as I realised the book had been decorated beautifully throughout with the same sakura that illustrated the cover, and that the final product really would be gorgeous. I remember reading a certain line in an early chapter about the low, wavering moan of the wind as it swept over the deck of a ship, and just being struck by it in exactly the same way that I would have been if I was reading anyone else's work. This sort of thing is what makes pass pages special.

And anyone who has seen the sublime swirling frost designs on the inside of FrostFire can probably imagine my reaction to that :)

Okay guys, this post is already mega long so I'm going to stop here for now. I think we'll come back to this topic on Wednesday, and I'll talk about how writers tend to feel during editing, how you work out disagreements with your editor, and how you ensure your book is the best it can be.

Monday, 28 January 2013


Hello, hello, hello - and Happy Monday, my duckies! I'm posting a day early because I have a question that I need your help to answer.

Over the weekend I had a really intriguing discussion on Twitter, which involved several respected blogger-friends and Lovely Lass of Walker Books. That debate prompted me to write this post, because I would like YOU to make a key decision about the way Books #2 and #3 of THE NAME OF THE BLADE should play out.

Here's the issue. When writing a trilogy or series in which the books do not stand alone - effectively a single story broken down into multiple volumes - obviously the second and third (and fourth and fifth and however many) volumes are going to come with a lot of backstory attached. Events that happened in previous books will be directly relevant to what is happening in the book NOW, to who characters are NOW, and how you, the reader, should feel about all that NOW.

The more books in a series, the more backstory the reader needs to remember - or a new reader needs to figure out for themselves - every time a new book comes out. Sometimes it's honestly impossible to understand or appreciate anything that's going on in the book you're reading unless you know/remember/can work out at least the basics of what came before.

Traditionally, writers have two ways to deal with this.

Method One involves the writer cunningly weaving lots of threads of information about previous events throughout the first chapters of each new book in the series, and hoping that the reader can pick up on these and stitch them together well enough to grasp the significance of current events.  

The Upside of this method is that this weaving usually comes in the form of a short period of reintroduction to a story world and its characters, which can feel very comforting to a returning reader who is keen to immerse themselves in this series again. If done skillfully the writer gives you just enough time to take a deep, happy breath as your attachment to the characters reasserts itself, before punching you in the gut.  

The Downside to this method is that it necessarily slows down the first few chapters because there's no way to move on until you're confident you've flashbacked or reminisced enough to give the reader context for what is going to happen next. Many readers hate this method for that very reason. If you have an excellent memory for what happened in the last book/s, re-read them recently, or are simply the kind of reader who can whizz along happily without much context, these Getting To Know You chapters feel very much like a waste of your time. And for readers who've read many, many other books since they picked up the last volume in your series, these hints and reminders *still* might not be enough to get them up to speed on all the intricacies of your plot and characters.

Method Two is to assume that everyone who picks up your book has read the previous volumes and can remember them just fine, and to launch into the action of the new story with little or no explanation or context, assuming that the force of your narrative will drag any confused readers along until they figure out what is happening and why they should care.

The Upside of this method is that it requires no extra effort from the writer, and no delay in getting back to the action. You literally act as if your series is a single volume and continue writing as if there was no break. There is no slow, Getting To Know You period, no flashbacking or reminiscing, and your story gets a rip-roaring start.  

The Downside is that for a very large chunk of readers - those who've not read the last book/s of your series for a year or more, and may have read dozens of other books in the months since, readers who do not have the time or desire to re-read all the other books in the series, or who read lots of series and might easily get details mixed up - it is now almost impossible to follow anything that's going on. Your sucker-punch plot twist and the emotions and reactions of your characters mean nothing to them. They can't *remember* why this should shock them or make them laugh or cry. Maybe after several chapters it will start to come back to them, but by that time they'll often either have given up or have had half the book ruined for them.

So far I've been attempting to follow Method One, but I've been very aware that no matter how carefully I wove my flashbacks and reminders into the story, there are always going to be readers who will either find my opening horribly boring or simply bewildering. As I started work on Book #3 of the trilogy my eyes started to cross with the amount of information that I felt I needed to impart in a natural way to the reader, without completely bringing the action to a standstill.

What is the alternative? Well, as the lovely Vivienne of Serendipity Reviews suggested:
Lovely YA publishers, please can we have a summary of previous books in a series at the beginning of a book?
Lovely Lass asked if this would be like a 'Previously in [Series Name]' page - a sort of bare bones plot summary to refresh everyone's memory on the vital points - rather than an infodump plonked into the actual narrative of the book. Lynsey from Narratively Speaking chimed in: 
YES! A page summary would be great!... Often I don't read sequels quick enough as I feel I have to re-read first book to remember. This is the bane of my life as a blogger and reader of series. It slows me down :(
Later on Laini Taylor, author of the beloved, bestselling Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, was asking the exact same question in her twitter feed: 
Curious, readers: who would prefer a blatant "previously" summary page at beginning of a sequel to author weaving reminders into the text?
Lovely Lass and a couple of other bloggers suggested that maybe these plot summaries could go into a press release, which is a good idea, but... I don't see/read that many press releases. Nor do most average readers, I think. And even if you're a blogger who DOES see and read them, do you really want to keep one to hand the whole time you're reading a book so you can keep referring back to it?

Most readers probably don't tear through as many books and series as my blogging friends do, but even I, an amateur voracious reader and very, very occasional reviewer, will often find myself wishing for a quick precis of books #1 and #2 when I come to pick up book #3. It's probably been a couple of years since I read the first one, at least a year if not more since I read the last one, and I might have read a hundred books since then. I have a pretty good memory for written text, but it still normally takes me a couple of chapters to gel with the series universe and characters again, and that's if the writer is sticking to Method One. With Method Two, I'm just as likely to get exasperated and put the book aside, telling myself I'll re-read the others when I have time, and then NEVER pick any of them up again.

Frankly, Vivienne and Lynsey's comments made me blink a little because... why couldn't *we* do that? If it was what a substantial number of readers wanted? Just put a single page at the front of the book with title 'In Books One and Two of THE NAME OF THE BLADE...', offer up the most relevant details so the reader could say 'Oh yes! Now I remember!' and then move on? There's normally only a week's gap between episodes of a TV programme, but many still ofter a catch-up opening practically every episode. What was stopping us from following that example? If readers didn't want to catch-up that way they could always skip it - and it would most likely free me up to write a much stronger and more fast paced opening to each book.

That's what I think. But you guys are the readers - the ones I'm aiming to please. And this is why I'm going to ask you to tell me what you think, both in the poll I'm posting here and in the comments. Based on what you say, I can go to my editor with this idea and possibly re-write the openings of the last two books of THE NAME OF THE BLADE to make it easier for you to re-immerse yourself in the universe I've created.

The poll will be open until the 10th of February. Later that week I'm having an editorial discussion with Wonder Editor, so make sure you give me something to talk to her about before then! Thanks in advance for your time and your opinions. Each and every one of them counts :)


Thursday, 24 January 2013


Hello, Dear Readers! Today I'm answering a question from blog commentor Cherie, who says:
" biggest issue is THE NOTEBOOK. I quite like the chapter [I've written]. I had fun writing it and I was excited to write the next one. But there are a couple of mistakes I know I've made and My Brain was not letting me write any more in case I made more mistakes, because it feels like I'm doing a disservice to the notebook. Like, the notebook doesn't deserve to have mistakes in it. The notebook's worth is detracted because of the mistakes. The notebook has been rendered not good enough and now I feel I can't write in it.

Naturally, I turned to the ever-useful Microsoft Word. I wrote another couple of chapters and then realised that typing the stories instead of writing them took all of the fun out of it and made me not want to write any more. And I'm also notorious for deleting files on a whim - anything I had written went straight to the recycle bin after I glanced it over and saw a sentence that didn't quite go well, along with an all-consuming dread that I failed as a writer etc. I've tried writing on scraps of paper, on the back of receipts, with pens running out of ink or in pencil so it already looked messy, but it hasn't worked. I then tried writing but not looking it over afterwards, but that was doomed to work just as much as giving an incredibly inquisitive 5-year-old a box and then telling them not to open it."
Cherie, you've really twisted yourself up into a Gordian Knot over this, haven't you? There you were, just writing away - no big deal - having fun, liking what you were doing... and the next thing you know you literally can't write a word anywhere - not even on the back of a receipt - because fear and doubt and insecurity have got you wrapped up so tightly that they've strangled all your creativity.

First of all, I'm going to recommend that you read a post I made for someone else, which is called Take A Deep Breath. All the advice therein applies to you too.

Now for some specific recommendations based on the specific details you've given me. Just to make it clear for all the people out there to whom this advice would be like arsenic candy covered in broken glass - I'm not saying the following advice is going to be helpful for everyone. No. I know some writers hate longhand, or need to self-edit as they go, or both. Or other variations! That's fine. There is no One True Way. This advice is for Cherie and the writers like her. Move along there.

I understand your notebook problem, my duckie. Sometimes I have treated my notebooks with a bit too much reverence too. I had some really beautiful notebooks - expensive notebooks - which had been sitting on my shelves gathering dust for years because I didn't want to mess them up with my scribblings and crossings out and crumpled Post-Its. I felt as if those notebooks deserved better. They deserved something special. Some magical story that would be WORTHY of them.

You know what I worked out? All notebooks deserve one thing and that is TO BE USED. The point of your notebook's existence is for someone to write in it, whether the writing is grocery lists or the next great novel. That's all your notebook wants or deserves. Your notebook might as well have been put through a rinse cycle in the washing machine, or set on fire, or never made at all, if the only thing it ever does its whole life is to sit on a shelf or in a drawer somewhere being ignored. 

However, if this is a bit too much for you to accept right now, then switch strategies. I'm going to recommend that you stop trying to write in a notebook - or on the back of old scraps of paper - and get one of these.

Narrow or wide ruled, doesn't matter. As cheap as you like. Your supermarket probably makes them for less than a pound. It's not a notebook or even a notepad. It's just a block of lined paper, and the paper pulls loose very easily. Each time you finish filling up one side of a page you pull it loose from the block and put it aside, face down, so that you can't see what you've just written.

I'm going to advise that you switch from pens to pencils. Everything looks less formal and finished written in pencil. Get some cheap mechanical pencils if you can. They're good because they weigh nothing, don't need sharpening, and come with an eraser on the end.

And you know how you said that expecting yourself not to go back and re-read what you've written was like giving a present to a five year old and asking them not to open it? Well, Cherie, you're not a five year old. You need to develop the ability not to look at what you have written if doing so is going to paralyse you. There's nothing wrong with writers self-editing if that's natural and helpful to them; but clearly it is anything but for you. Clearly catching a glimpse at unedited pages like that is hurting you. So stop it.

Put those pages aside and leave them alone, and get on with writing a *new* page and moving your story forward. I know you can do it, and if you want to ever finish this story you're writing that is what you will have to do. 

Why am I recommending these specific things? Because I've been just where you are, Cherie. When I was writing Shadows on the Moon I got stuck after about three chapters and I stayed stuck for over SIX MONTHS. This happened because one day, on a whim, I went back and started re-reading at the beginning of the Word Doc. where I had been typing up my notes. Doing so sent me into a death spiral because those first three chapters? They were AWFUL. Terrible. No good. Sucktastic to the max.

I'm not exaggerating here.

Like you, after being confronted with my own mistakes I was paralysed with the feeling that I was unworthy of my story, that everything I wrote was flawed, that it was pointless even to try to go on because this book would never be finished and even if it was it would be utter dreck, an unfixable black hole that would never resemble anything worthwhile. But guess what?

I was wrong. Eventually I snapped out of it and I finished that book. I edited it. I revised it. I edited it a bunch more times with my editor and then a copy-editor and then my U.S. editor and copy-editor, and the book went out there into the world and became something I am incredibly proud of. Some people have loved it. Others have hated it. I don't care, because I know it's the best work I could do.

The way I broke free was to put aside my fancy expensive notebook and my special writing pens and to scribble all over loose sheets of paper which I set in a messy pile and occassionally shuffled into place and shoved into a cardboard folder, WITHOUT LOOKING.

Maybe once or twice a week, I'd open the folder and get out the pages I'd written that week and type them up. As I did I'd find hundreds of mistakes and be plagued by insecurity and hopelessness all over again, just like you are. But here's the thing: Typing these mistake-riddled notes up gave me the chance to CHANGE them. To improve and make them better. I caught dozens of mistakes and ripped those little suckers out of there and knew that what ended up in my Word Doc. was so much better than it had been before.

This method didn't magically cure my fear, just as it won't magically cure yours. But it freed me up enough to get me putting words down on the page again, and that is the number one most important thing for a writer to do. That's all. That's it.

It doesn't matter if those words suck like a force ten hurricane. In fact, they OUGHT to suck. For every perfect phrase or line or paragraph you come up with, most likely you will need to write five or ten that are utter, utter cr*p. That is OK. It's OK! You can fix it. I promise. You can fix anything! Writing IS re-writing. It's part of the process and everyone, every genuis writer that you've ever looked up to, had to go through it. Because you can fix anything - really anything - except a blank page.

Let's review. 

STEP ONE: Put Down The Notebook Of Doom. Replace it with a cheap refill pad and some pencils. Know that when you scribble using these, you are simply aiming to write notes for your first draft - notes which will be re-written and revised many times in the future - not some mythical, flawless, perfect novel.

STEP TWO: Stop Tormenting Yourself. Put the pages aside when you've scribbled on them and don't look. No excuses. Just pull up those big girl panties, turn the page face down and keep writing.

STEP THREE: Reconcile Yourself To Revision. Once a week or whenever is convenient, type your scribbles from the loose pages into a Word Doc. and edit them, knowing all the while that this is merely one of the first steps in a long process of drafting and that you will re-write and revise this manuscript many more times before it is ready to be shared with the world.

STEP FOUR: Keep Going. Repeat Steps One to Three until the book is finished.

If I can manage this, honey, I know that you can. Good luck!

Friday, 18 January 2013


Happy Tuesday, Dear Readers!

YA book covers are endlessly fascinating to me - I never miss Cuddlebuggery's Hot New Titles Roundup, and when I see the words 'Cover Reveal' in a tweet I leap upon that link like a cat pounces on a catnip treat.

Part of the fascination is knowing just how much work goes into the creation of a piece of cover artwork and how it can easily go horribly wrong instead of wonderfully right. I think a lot of people share this interest with me, so today I'm going to try to take you through the process of creating a cover - specifically the wonderful cover of the first book in The Name of the Blade Trilogy: The Night Itself.

Before I start - many thanks must go to Lovely Lass and Delightful Designer of Walker Books (aka Hannah and Maria) for predicting that I would want to write this post and getting hold of loads of interesting material for it without my even having to ask. Extra special thanks to Maria for putting up with - and even replying to - such adorable craziness as me emailing at eleven at night, efferverscent with excitement over an idea that had come to me while watching someone construct a gingerbread Big Ben on The Great British Bakeoff (don't ask). Thank you also to Andrew Archer, the artist who created the cover, for giving permission for me to publish these images here.

The Name of the Blade (or The Katana Trilogy, as it was called then) sold to Walker Books in 2011. Not very long after that I started giving my editor hints about the sort of cover art that I hoped the books would have. Though I think, to be fair, that she did *ask* me if I had any images or ideas that I would like passed onto the designer. And I did. Yes. I definitely, definitely DID.

I hasten to add that I'm fully aware that I'm not a designer or an artist, I don't have the necessary skills, and am the last person in the world who can be objective. In the past my editor has asked, on behalf of the designer, for reference photographs or descriptions of the characters, and I'm very happy to provide those, and feedback if I'm asked for it. Other than that, I stay quiet. I am sensible. I am A Good Author.

But a) this trilogy is my beloved doll-baby-unicorn-princess-snuggle-bunny in a way I don't think any other project has ever been in my whole life and b) getting a contract from my publisher for a trilogy in a new genre was a HUGE deal for me and masses of work for Wonder Editor and Super Agent, and I felt as if my whole career as a writer was now riding on the way everything turned out with this one. So I was a tad over-invested.

The conversation that I had with my editor about these covers was intense. I felt very strongly that the new trilogy, being urban fantasy, should have a really distinct look that would distinguish it from my other books, which are high fantasy. I probably repeated the words 'modern', 'edgy', and 'different' about twelve times each. I sent my my editor the link to the Pinterest Board which I had set up for the trilogy, a Pinboard which at last count contained three-hundred-odd pins. Here is a selection of images:

Months later I went to London to do a signing event and my editor came along, bringing Delightful Designer with her. They showed me an initial cover concept for what The Night Itself and Book #2 of the trilogy might look like. It was very rough and ready and had been made using stock images.

Delightful Designer explained the concept to me. It seemed to her that throughout the story the heroine of the book was engulfted by strange forces beyond her control - such as the power of the katana - and was constantly struggling to understand and fight free of these. DD wanted to depict this struggle on the cover. One of the mock-up covers DD showed me centred on an illustration and the other a photographic image, but both of them utilised telling details from the story, bold colours, and innovative graphic design. It was modern, it was edgy and it was different. I loved it.

Wonder Editor and Delightful Designer both warned me not to get too attached, as this was early days and the design might still go in another direction. I was incredibly excited anyway.

Not long after this Delightful Designer contacted me to say that she was briefing an illustrator and asked if I could give her a detailed description of Mio, the central character of the trilogy. This is the description I gave her:
...a small heart-shaped face, a straight little nose, and pale-ish skin. Her eyes are large and chocolate brown, with quite fine brows. She has a precision cut, slightly inverted chin-lenth bob. Her hair is straight and shiny and black.
I also sent a bunch of reference photos:

This is just a small selection! I'm sure poor DD wished she had never asked by the time I was finished. The point I was trying to get across with these was that Mio was very young, was cute and harmless looking, and had short hair. These issues were important to me because they were important in the story. Later DD emailed me again to tell me that she had been visiting museums to look at Japanese reference materials. She wondered if I had any images of the traditional Japanese creatures depicted in the story. Again, I sent a bunch, but I won't include them here because there are spoilers.

(It was some time after this that I sent my notorious late night gingerbread Big Ben email. We shall not speak of it).

Then DD went to the illustrator - Andrew Archer, who says on his website that he is inspired by Edo Era artwork - and briefed him. These are some of the sketches that he came up with initially in response to DD's ideas and the reference materials and descriptions:

I really love Mio's expression in the first one! You can see how the central design is already there, and several details from these pieces (including that awed, vulnerable expression on Mio's face) have remained the same right to the end of the process. You can also see that the artist was developing two slightly different takes on DD's idea.

The next thing that I was asked to give feedback on was a pair of fully coloured pieces of art, each of which explored one of the different takes on the cover concept further.

In both versions Mio is represented with a place holder image, which is just there to show the different options of her face in profile or looking out at the viewer.

These images feature something new which wasn't on the sketches - an authentic Japanese-style rendering of a Nekomata (a cat-demon). I was a bit torn about this. One part of me thought that having the central villain of the piece right there was overwhelmingly cool, especially as the illustration could have sprung straight from the pages of a book of Japan's myths and legends. Another part of me thought, hang on - this is one of the most evil, terrible monsters I've ever written about. Its freakiness should be confined to the insides of the book, not creeping people out on the cover!

The other thing that these versions have in common (I think) is a sense of a bit too much going on. We've got a monster, a heroine, lots and lots of swirly bits, and a brush-painted font which (although really lovely) is also curvy and swirly, plus the London skyline in one version (which I take full responsibility for - I was really keen to show off the book's setting).

Despite these issues I still adored the direction that the art was going in, and especially liked the black and pink colour version, as well as Mio's face in profile. I gave that feedback, along several more reference images for Mio's face. Over the next several days. Ahem. Poor Delightful Designer and Wonder Editor...

Anyway! A little while later I was sent another sketch:

Mio's face popped out at me immediately. It was HER. And it was reminiscent of Alphonse Mucha's famous paintings:

I have a framed poster of the middle painting - Cowslip - on my bedroom wall.
Mucha was a prominent artist within the Art Nouveau movement, which is known to have been largely inspired by the naturalistic art of Japan. Mucha often painted ladies in profile, giving them powerful, mysterious expressions - and in these paintings the women normally represented something larger, such as the power of an element of nature. I have many Mucha prints in my house, so I was thrilled.

In addition to the Mucha-influenced profile of my heroine, the font in the new sketch was clean and minimal, with an Art Deco look. While I was sad to say goodbye to the brush-painted font, I loved the sharp, almost blade-like edges to the letters. Somehow these styles from the beginning of the Twentieth Century had magically combined to create a really *modern* effect.

Another detail that really pleased me: the graphic elements strangling Mio. They are clearly inspired by both historical and contemporary Japanese depictions of demons, serpants and monsters. LOVE.

And then finally, this arrived:

Frankly, the more I've looked at this, the more I've fallen in love with it. It's everything that I hoped for when I was trying to laser the words 'edgy', 'modern' and 'different' onto poor Wonder Editor's brain with the power of my mind, and it establishes The Night Itself as a book that is completely different from anything I've written before.

I think what makes this design so special for me is a combination of detailing - things like the way the black bands of energy snake across the vivid pink block of the spine, the tiny katana above the title, and the accurate depiction of the tsukamaki (silk wrappings on the katana's hilt) on the back cover - and that enigmatic, vulnerable look on Mio's face. She's so like I imagined, and yet I can't quite work out myself if she's awed, scared, happy, detemined or sad. Ambiguity = one of my favourite things.

This cover = my favourite thing in the world ever at the moment. And this is how it was made :)

For more insight into how cover art is designed, check out Ruth Warburton's wonderful post, which showcases the process that lead to the lovely trilogy look for her Witch In Winter series.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Happy - nay, joyful, nay, DELIGHTFUL - Thursday to you all!

Yes, I know that right now precisely none of you are reading this, as you are all scrolling heedlessly down the page to get a load of the long-promised, much-teased, oh-so-pretty cover art of The Night Itself (due from Walker Books in the UK on the 4th of July THIS YEAR).

But hopefully some of you will eventually come back. So allow me to burble on, OK? I've been looking forward to this cover reveal for *so long* that it's started to feel like some mythical event which I would never actually get to experience. I need to bask.

Lovely Lass (whom those of you with fabulous taste and a Twitter account can follow at @AitchLove), when arranging for me to have the final, final, final version of the cover with the correct cover copy and the right kind of file type to post here, also sent me a bunch of other, fascinating stuff, like sketches that the very talented artist Andrew Archer made along the way, and early cover mockups from the brilliant cover designer Maria. Lovely Lass knew that the process of developing a cover is of great interest to many - including me - and that I would very much like to do a huge and detailed post about it (because she is Lovely Lass and therefore by definition awesome + infinity).

But as I sat down to write that post, with its many pictures and detailed accounting of how the cover designer and artist came up with this gorgeous concept for my book, I realised that no one is going to care about that today. You were all just going to do what you've already done and zip right past everything I wrote and all those images. So I decided to wait and do a separate post with all that stuff next week, when hopefully you will actually read and appreciate it.

And with that out of the way, I now present to you...


I am told that this will be printed using a pantone, which my Google-fu has informed me is a special kind of printing ink which has more pigment shades than usual, meaning that the colours will be ultra-vivid, and practically glow on the page.


The full jacket artwork reveals that the strange forces coiling around the heroine are, in fact, the mysterious energies of the katana itself! Look, look, there's the grip with the silk wrappings and everything! Plus PINK SPINE and there is my TRILOGY TITLE and that is the coolest font EVER zoh my God!


The cover copy reads as follows:
When fifteen year old Mio steals the katana - her grandfather's priceless sword - she just wants to liven up a fancy dress costume. But the katana is more than some dusty heirloom, and her actions unleash an ancient evil onto the streets of modern-day London. Mio is soon stalked by the terrors of mythical Japan, and it is only the appearance of a mysterious warrior that saves her life. If Mio cannot learn to control the sword's legendary powers she will lose not only her own life... but the love of a lifetime.
Well? What do you all think? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


Hello, everyone! Today's post comes to you via Diana Peterfreund's latest blog. I defy anyone who has EVER written a story with a heroine to resist the procrastinatory delights of the Heroine Generator game. YOU CAN'T DO IT. Copyedits? Deadlines? Pffft. LOOK AT THE ADORABLE SELECTION OF ACCESSORIES!!!11eleventy.


So I used the website to generate art for each of my heroines. Guys, this is possibly the most fun I've ever *had* picking out clothes. It's insane. Anyway, I present to you... My heroines!

Alexandra of The Swan Kingdom! Note her fancy dress with lacy bits, which has been patched up due to living in the forest with all those cute little animals, plus the rolled up sleeves to allow her to forage for food. I think her hair was probably a bit wilder than this, but I didn't want to end up with her looking like Merida from BRAVE.

Zira from Daughter of the Flames! Again, hair is a bit tidy - plus they wouldn't let me scar up her face. BUT BUT! Doesn't she look like she could kick your butt so comfortably in this outfit? I *want* this outfit. Yeeees.
Suzume of Shadows on the Moon - or rather Yue, in her fancy incarnation. She's all dressed up for an important do and looking forward to it about as much as I look forward to extensive dental treatment, as you can tell from her expression. Poor Yue! This outfit isn't the slightest bit historically accurate, or even accurate to the book, but it sure was fun to play with.
Frost! The heroine of FrostFire. She's in her mountain travelling get-up, here. She's a bit clean and tidy (this is a recurring theme for me, isn't it? I do torture my poor creations rather a lot) but I think her wary expression is spot on.
My final piece of artwork - Mio, heroine of The Night Itself and the best of The Name of the Blade trilogy. Isn't she CUTE? You'd never realise that she's hiding a deadly weapon somewhere on her person, would you? I totally have a crush on my girl after working on this. I can also tell that her best friend Jack helped her pick out everything she's wearing here, because black and purple are Jack's favourite colours. I wish Jack was my best friend, too...
And now, I bid you farewell, although I'm pretty sure that you're all already rushing off to generate your own artwork anyway. In the meantime I'll go back to my copyedits. In about five minutes, once I've finished this last piece of heroine art...

Thursday, 10 January 2013


Hi everyone! Congratulations on surviving to Thursday (if you have. If not, and you're some form of undead/revenant/restless spirit/zombie - congratulations on clinging to the mortal world! I have it on good authority that both my brain and my immortal soul are gristly and tough. Move along there. Shoo!).

A few weeks ago I was asking on Twitter if anyone had ideas for blog topics and someone - whose name I have since most stupidly forgotten, many apologies - said:
"I would love to hear you talk some time about how you make the magic in your books feel real." 
Which struck me, after my initial 'Oh, that would be cool' reaction, as a surprisingly difficult question to answer, really. And therefore, probably something I should think/talk about a bit more. So I shall, momentarily (after saying that I'm certain other people made excellent blog topic suggestions to me on Twitter AND in comments.... and I have managed to lose track of or misplace all of them. Maybe some form of undead creature has snacked on my brain after all? Anyone who wants to throw their question or suggestion at me again, I promise to be more careful this time!).

So: magic. All my books have it, in some form or another, to some extent. In two of my books - Daughter of the Flames and FrostFire - any unearthly stuff is confined to the divine power of certain Gods, who speak to, heal, and influence the human characters. In one - The Swan Kingdom - there's a kind of ambient nature magic which is naturally present in the land and all growing things, and some people have the ability to draw on in order to heal and harm. And in Shadows on the Moon there's strong illusion magic which can transform the physical appearance of things, and which for certain people might develop into the talent to transform and even create matter itself.

Each of these kinds of magic is distinct, so each of them called on different descriptive techniques, which I'll talk about in a bit. But at the base level, when you're talking about magic you are talking about something which doesn't exist (as far as I've experienced, though my fingers are still crossed) here in the real world. Which leaves you with both a blessing AND problem as a writer. A completely blank slate.

If I want to describe the sensations of being submerged up to the waist in icy water, I'm on firm ground because everyone knows, at the very least, what cold water feels like. Their memories will fill in the gaps in my descriptions with *empathy*, which is a writer's gold dust. The same goes for emotions. Show readers that a character is angry or in pain; they draw on their memories of anger and pain, imagine themselves in that position and fill in those gaps. Even if I describe something like falling in love - which some of my readers may never have done yet, themselves - there's enough handy shorthand about how this feels for the reader to draw on memories of other kinds of love and emotion and put themselves there in the character's heart.

Okay, yes, this does mean that in describing real life things, sometimes you're automatically going to be putting cliches in your first draft. But when you come back to these moments later on you can pare down the descriptions, cut away the cliches to reveal the essential parts of the experience of the character, find unique new ways to depict these familiar (or oft described) sensations.

When attempting to invoke a sense of magic of whatever kind, you're unable to draw on real world experiences. You can't create a brilliant description of magic by finding by some unique new way to talk about the essential experience of it, or by paring back the cliches or by triggering a reader's memory. You're starting from zero. This means that, on the one hand, you can't exactly be *wrong* in your descriptions. On the other hand, if you don't get it *right* then the magic becomes unconvincing in a way that no description of a real life experience possibly can be. Botched descriptions of magic are usually cringeworthy and laughable.

There's a writer whom I read religiously and love - except that whenever her characters cast spells, they cast them in rhyme. These rhyming spells are so ridiculously bad, and more, so utterly *pointless*, that whenever I turn a page and see one I actually have to shut the book for a minute and make 'YUCK' noises just to be able to go on reading. There is no reason why the spells should have to rhyme - at least, none that any of the characters ever explain. Speaking the spells out loud is just supposed to 'clarify their will'; poetry seems superfluous to that. And in order to make them rhyme, the author has committed some of the worst crimes against meter and scansion I think I've ever seen (and I once judged a poetry competition for five year olds).

Having the characters spout lines like:

'Now you feel the fear most dire,
As you face my righteous fire!'

In the middle of tense, high stakes situations robs the magic of any sense of reality or importance. Witch or not, I can't think of a single person who wouldn't feel a complete berk having to face off against a demon with lines like that.

Do not be like this author. 

You have to anchor the reality of your magic in the story absolutely. You have to make it seem concrete and solid and real - as real as the character's sword or their dinner or their own right hand.

But at the same time it's essential that you still leave the same kinds of gaps you would with a real life description - give the reader room to develop that instinctive sense of empathy with the experience you're trying to create. Let them fill in those gaps with other, real, experiences they've had, so they feel they know and understand the magic you've described personally.

To me, those gaps are especially vital because magic is impossible. Which might sound a bit backward. If something isn't real then don't you need to describe it in much more detail to make it seem concrete? But think again. Magic - if it existed - would be something springing purely from the human mind, the human soul, the human heart. It might be considered an art. It might be considered a science. But in either case it would be intangible and unquantifiable, something that human beings would each interpret (often wildly differently) through the unique filter of their own personalities, talents and instincts. I suppose the closest thing to it that we Mundies have would be spirituality, and see the tangle that people get into trying to quantify that!

Just as over describing a real life experience on the page robs it of magic, so over describing magic robs it of reality. Allowing the space for a reader to feel instinctively how the magic in your story works prevents you from creating what I call 'Light Switch Magic'. That is, enchantment which feels dull, mundane and as routine as flicking on the light switch.

Much as I love the Harry Potter books, the wand-flicking and spell-reciting there kind of gave me the pip. Some people in the books were praised for being particularly 'strong' witches or wizards - but if reciting a certain spell a certain way and flicking your wand properly always results in the same outcome, then surely it doesn't matter how 'strong' you are? It's like baking a cake. Follow the instructions, step by step, and enjoy the results. Recite, flick, someone levitates or turns into a frog. Does being a stronger wizard mean they levitate better or turn into a better frog? Why? Surely under this system, Hermione, with her brain like an encyclopedia, ought to have been the greatest witch of all time, ever, because she had All The Spells memorised.

Of course, J.K. saved her books from the deadly dullness of Light Switch Magic by showing all the silly, whimsical, deadly and forbidden consequences of the ways individual witches and wizards *used* their spells. Flying cars, Remembralls, the cruciatus curse, polyjuice potion. Brilliant. Anyone who's ever ridden in a car has probably imagined being able to punch a button and fly over the traffic. Anyone who's ever played dress up can imagine how it might feel to try steal someone else's appearance.

The Harry Potter books were so well rooted in an ordinary person's every day life and experiences, and the way her magic manifested so beautifully rooted in each individual character's strengths, quirks and worldview, that you didn't really need empathy to get the sense that it was all real. But most us can't pull that off.

When I was working on The Swan Kingdom, I struggled a bit with how to depict the heroine's magic. For Alexandra the magic of her land and the way she used it were utterly natural. Almost like breathing, she sometimes didn't realise she was using it at all. The magic sprang from both outside and within her. She herself was only capable of 'small magics' but she was also overwhelmingly aware of the vast power of the land and growing things around her. As a result there ended up being a lot of mixed metaphors in there. One minute calling up her powers felt like burning her hands. The next time her magic knocked her over, like an untrained animal responding to her voice. I felt I was on the right track with all the nature imagery, but the 'enaid' (the land magic) just ended up feeling rather vague. Not rooted.

Then during revisions my editor remarked how much he liked one of the passages in the book where I had used a water metaphor to describe the heroine's sense of the enaid surging up and engulfing her. This was a Eureka! moment for me. The magic I was describing was wild and dangerous but at the same time beautiful and absolutely vital to the land and people. Sometimes it came in a trickle, sometimes in a vast flood. It was part of nature - just like water is, in all its many forms. And everyone knows what water feels and looks like. Water was the perfect metaphor to use because it would trigger instinctive and strong sensory memories in the reader.

I went back through the manuscript with a completely new understanding of the way the enaid worked. Every instance of enchantment in the story needed to display the unique sensory qualities of this magic; how it would feel to work with, how it would move, how it would respond to being called up and manipulated. It was a time-consuming process - not just because magic was everywhere in the book, but because this new understanding of the way the enaid worked meant lots of other things in the story needed to be tweaked and changed.

By the end of the revision these consistent, strongly sensory metaphors and descriptions of the enaid really did make it feel like something completely real, like a wilful and powerful force with a mind of its own, like a kind of rushing river flowing through the story. Hopefully like something that a reader could reach out and feel for themselves if they just concentrated hard enough...

But I tried really hard not to over-describe. Not to create a 'magic system' (I hate that term - systems are for sewage, not magic) within which everything could be classified and categorised, and neatly filed under M. If magic is wild and powerful and intangible then some things about it must be grasped instinctively rather than explained away - or it won't feel like magic at all. It's not science. It's not maths. It's not baking a cake. As the wonderful fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin says: 
"Magic is the motile force of God, or gods. It’s the breath of the earth, the non-meat by-product of existence, that thing that happens when a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it. Magic is the mysteries, into which not everyone is so lucky, or unlucky, as to be initiated. It can be affected by belief, the whims of the unseen, harsh language. And it is not. Supposed. To make. Sense."
That's where the gaps come in.

Of course, many writers and readers disagree with me here. I've definitely seen reviews which stated that readers were disappointed with how little the magic in my books was 'explained' or 'gone into' or 'explored'. And many writers produce books where the magic does work like clockwork - like an electric switch. If that works for them, fine.

But for me, the keys to making magic seem magical in fiction are 1) linking the feeling of using magic to real sensory or emotional experiences, and 2) leaving enough to the imagination that readers get to fill in the gaps with something that feels instinctively right and real and magical to them.

I might do another post on this, guys - it feels like there's more to go into. Let me know what you think :)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


Hello, my lovelies! Tuesday has rolled around again and it seems like a good time to drag a mature post (wailing, dragging its heels, and begging for mercy) out of the dark depths of the archive and into the light. For RetroTuesday I present to you...


As we know from my earlier ramblings, a cliche can be a phrase or a description which was originally so striking and so useful that everyone wanted to use it. And everyone did, and it passed into common parlance and from there into this weird, Zombie-Word-Graveyard where, while the phrase is tossed around like glitter at a beauty pageant, the words within it have become meaningless.

I've already gone into detail about the 'stripping back' process of turning a cliched phrase into something with real meaning. But what we didn't discuss was the tricky issue of the cliches hidden deeper in your work. Because cliches aren't just bland, meaningless phrases that disconnect the reader from the brilliance and emotional intensity of your ideas. Cliches can also get between you and your ideas.

Let's say you have this idea that's been nagging at you to be written. Like all ideas, it's a bit random and bitty, and there are a lot of gaps that you need to fill in. You know that you want to write a book about... let's say... a girl who takes over running her grandfather's antique store for an afternoon, and who finds an unusual object there which calls to her. Maybe as she's looking at it, trying to work out what it is, some mysterious guys break in and try to take it. The heroine runs, taking the object with her. She bumps into this boy she knows from school and he gets caught up in it too. They need to find out what the object is and why these dudes want it, but when they go to the girl's grandfather's flat, the place is ransacked and he's missing. Adventures ensue.

Awesome! What a great set-up! Conflict and mystery and budding romance! Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Oh-ho-ho, how wrong you are, Dear Readers.

As soon as I said 'grandfather' and 'antique shop' you saw an elderly, balding guy in a cardigan and a dusty, dark old store, didn't you? It's OK, you can admit it. There's nothing wrong with a doddery old grandpa and a dusty old shop, after all. You could start there.

But what about the object? When I said artefact your brain probably went a few places. Indiana Jones. Lara Croft. The Mummy. You're seeing something ancient, with untapped powers or a ghost or a curse attached.

And the mysterious dudes who break into the shop? Well, they're all middle-aged white guys in black, wearing dark glasses, yeah?

That boy the heroine bumps into is obviously a handsome action-hero in waiting. He'll protect her, and of course they'll fall in love!

On it goes. There's nothing there which isn't an echo of something everyone has seen before. Our interesting idea just withered and DIED under the suffocating weight of cliches.

All our lives we're bombarded with certain images, certain ideas, certain characters and certain situations. TV programmes, adverts, books, the stories in magazines, films, music just can't escape The One True Vision of the world that mainstream media is flooding your brain with 27-7 (this links into various other posts I've made BTW - extra points if you can tell me which ones!). If you don't clear a little space in your head where your story can breathe and find its own One True Vision, you'll just end up recycling those again and again too.

Look again at the images we automatically slotted into the gaps of that idea and you can see that they were all made under the influence of the One True Vision. They didn't actually come from you - from the unique depths of your soul. They came from OUTSIDE. And because of that, anyone could have come up with that take on the story. If you want to avoid cliches, instead of taking ideas from outside, go inside. Fill in those gaps with something that really interests YOU. Something that makes you laugh or tear up or go wide-eyed or just grin. Something that expresses the unique person you are.

Start with character.


Toss out the doddery old guy and his cardigan. You know in real life grandpas are people, and that means they're as diverse as any other human beings. So approach grandpa as a character, not a cliche.

What if he's a fit, frisky ladies man who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and likes to do a little soft-shoe shuffle? What if his shop sells collectable movie posters, 50's and 60's kitsch and novelty items?

Another take: what if grandad is a giant uber-geek. A silver surfer and gamer, with millions of online friends. What if his store sells replica weapons, StarWars and StarTrek memorabilia, movie props and vintage computer games?

Suddenly the whole set-up comes to life. What we have here is character - not cliche. And from that character, a unique and interesting setting grows. Already things are looking up.

The Object? 

Well, it really could be ANYTHING now, right? The possibilities are endless. And as soon as you start trying to figure out why a bunch of people would be after a mint condition Luke Skywalker figurine you find you have a rather unique plot on your hands.

Mysterious Dudes

Again, start with character. Why are they after the object? Who are they? What are their thoughts and feelings? What if they're not white, black-suited dudes at all - but a gang of good-looking teenage Asian martial artists. Or a trio of middle-aged women with snaky hair and long fingernails. Or silent people dressed as stormtroopers. What motivates them and just how far will they go?

The Boy

Maybe he's a geek too, someone who swallows a LOT and blushes whenever she looks at him. Someone her grandpa knows but she's never really looked at before. Does he know something about all this? Perhaps the heroine grabs him and won't let go until he spills the beans, and in the process she finds that he's really cool. Or maybe he's not a he - maybe it's a girl. The perky cheerleader of North Indian descent who the heroine has a secret crush on.

But hang on... isn't it a bit coincidental for the heroine to bump into this person in the first place? If we're going to go back to character here, let's ask WHY they were hanging around just waiting for her to come charging out of that shop. What did they want? What were they planning to do with their day before the heroine's adventure swallowed them?

Maybe the person the heroine bumps into isn't a potential love interest after all. He or she strings the heroine along for a little bit, pretending to help, but eventually it turns out they're a bad guy who's after the object too. Maybe the freaky dudes who broke into the shop are trying to protect the object. Maybe they're trying to protect the HEROINE. All H*ll is going to break lose when THAT comes out.

Or maybe both sides are after something completely different.

And the heroine? 

In the cliched version of the story, the heroine is a bit of a nonentity. She's squashed out by all the guys. I'm going to take a wild guess that she's insecure about her appearance, hates Maths but likes English, and is just longing for a boy to come along and make her feel whole.

No way, baby. She's the viewpoint character. She should be an interesting person too! And the person she is ought to have a huge impact on the story.

She's a wannabe catwalk model working in grandpa's store to save up the airfare so that she can get to the auditions for Next Top Model - and her extensive knowledge of couture fashion is what pinpoints the identity of the person who is really after her.

Or a mathematical genius and borderline autistic girl who can see all the angles and save that extra special Luke Skywalker figurine from the forces of chaos and darkness all by herself, thanks very much!

Let's be honest here - the idea of a desperate chase motivated by a mysterious object isn't that original. But you can MAKE it original with your choices about how to tell the story. Because guess what? Harry Potter isn't a very original idea either. What made the books into the huge success they are is the choices the writer made: they way she framed and unfolded the tale, the ways she developed those characters. No one but J K Rowling could have created Harry Potter's world the way she did.

When I first listed the details of that antique shop/mysterious object story idea it seemed as if there was just one way that things could play out. We're all conditioned to go for what's obvious first time around. The trick is to stop and take a step back - take away the shadow of all those hackneyed, typical, over-used images, characters, settings and plots. Leave yourself and your idea room to grow, to reach for the sun.

Then you will produce the story that *only* you can write. Which is the only story that most of us want to write, after all.

Thursday, 3 January 2013


Happy Thursday, Dear Readers!

Today I bring you a review of a very interesting little book that I read recently - SISTER ASSASSIN (titled MIND GAMES in the U.S.) by bestselling author Kiersten White.

The Blurb:

She never chose her deadly gift but now she’s forced to use it. How far would you go to protect the only family you have left?

Annie is beset by fleeting strange visions and a guilty conscience. Blind and orphaned, she struggles to care for her feisty younger sister Fia, but things look up when both sisters are offered a place at Kessler School for Exceptional Girls.

Born with flawless intuition, Fia immediately knows that something’s wrong, but bites her tongue… until it’s too late. For Fia is the perfect weapon to carry out criminal plans and there are those at Kessler who will do anything to ensure her co-operation.

With Annie trapped in Kessler’s sinister clutches, instincts keep Fia from killing an innocent guy and everything unravels. Is manipulative James the key to the sisters’ freedom or an even darker prison? And how can Fia atone for the blood on her hands

The Review:

This book took me completely by surprise. I'd started the first book of the author's bestselling trilogy (PARANORMALCY) with a lot of excitement, but some quality in the writing simply didn't gel for me, and I ended up skimming through most of it and then skipping to the end. I've never picked up any of the others.

However, having read Ms. White's stories on her blog about how this book ripped itself out of her in just nine days, I was intrigued. The blurb mentioned that this was a 'stunning departure' for the writer - her PARANORMALCY trilogy is, judging by the first book, extremely light and cutesy in tone, like a sort of junior-Buffy, with some of the humour but not much darkness - and you guys know I love it when an author tries something really different. Plus, both editions of the book have great covers:

UK Cover: is that Christina Ricci, or is it just me?

U.S. Cover: pretty colours!
So when the UK edition popped up on NetGalley I requested it and started it straight away. I read the whole thing through in a matter of about three hours. It's not a long book, but the main reason for the speed is the absolutely gripping narrative voice of Fia, a psychically gifted young woman who has been held captive, abused, and used as an operative of assassination and espionage since she was literally a child. Fia is messed up. Not in a cute, teenage, emo-angsty sort of way, but in a she-might-just-snap-and-kill-herself-or-you-at-any-moment sort of way. And as the author unwinds the story of how Fia came to be in this position, you are hit right in the heart by everything she's been through, and come to deeply empathise with her.

Fia's sections in this book (she shares POV duties with her older sister Annie, who I'll get to later) are written in a broken present-tense which reads almost like stream of consciousness at times, and which very cleverly introduces you to the frantic, agonised place that is Fia's head. The book starts in the present - the moment when Fia does snap, but in the sense of being unable to follow her murderous orders any longer - and then utlises a non-linear structure of extended flashbacks which jump from Fia's childhood to various horrific episodes from her growing up years.

Fia is a strong personality, a smart and resourceful child who has a perfect intuition. In any situation she will not only know exactly what action she and every other person present should take in order to serve her best interest, she will also have a sense of the consequences of every other action they could take, both short and long term. This is completely natural to her, a sort of 'knowing' that flashes sensory warnings in her brain a little like synesthesia. Unfortunately, convincing others - like her older sister, Annie - to take her 'feelings' seriously is pretty hard for a kid. This means Fia is constantly forced into situations where everything inside her is screaming NO, and yet she has no choice but to go along with other people's (flawed) choices.

This would be tough enough for any kid. But, left to herself, Fia would clearly have grown up into a responsible and highly successful adult - one of those golden girls who somehow land on their feet in every situation and end up owning half the free world. Sadly for Fia, after her parents are killed in a car crash, one of Annie's decisions places both of them in the Kessler School for Gifted Girls. And it all goes downhill from there, as Kessler are less a school and more a boot camp for psychics, where they are trained to suppress their consciences, follow orders, and accept the 'perks' of using their powers to ruin other people's lives for Kessler's gain.

Kessler are initially after Annie's ability. Annie is blind - although there's no medical reason for this - but she is a seer, tormented by splintered visions of possible futures. Her prediction of her parent's deaths lead to an article in a newspaper which drew Kessler's attention. Annie - struggling in her local school, which doesn't have the budget to provide her with the advanced learning aids she wants - and under the indifferent guardianship of the girls aunt, falls under the spell of the Kessler representative who promises her that if she becomes a boarding student at the school she will have every high-tech gadget and every possible assistance to overcome her disability.

Fia knows instinctively that trusting Kessler is the absolute worst thing Annie can do. She begs her sister not to go - and when the representative realises just how and why she is reacting this way, Kessler's attention snaps onto her, and they offer her a place alongside her sister. Annie, determined to leave the custody of her aunt, and the school that she doesn't feel is helping her, not only ignores Fia's warnings but also persuades Fia to accept the place and come with her.

And this is the start of Fia's nightmare. Within a very short time the little girl is being beaten bloody, slashed up with knives, electrocuted - all to test and strengthen her unique ability. With the constant training in every possible martial art and method of killing the fragile child becomes an almost unstoppable killer - in any fight she knows exactly where to move, how to duck, block, slash, run or turn in order to preserve her own life. The fight scenes were heart-wrenching and eerie to read; watching a little girl shatter emotionally even as she's forced to hurt others. It's not that Fia can't get hurt herself. She does, repeatedly. But if she wants you dead - needs you dead - it's basically impossible for her not to kill you. That is her terrible gift.

Kessler soon decide that Annie's talents are mediocre - but at first they carefully shield her from this knowledge because they realise that as long as they hold her in their facility, Fia will be forced not only to stay and to follow their orders, but also to resist her talent's call to destroy them all.

So far, so fantastic. This set-up is vaguely reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones' HEXWOOD, and I loved it. But something kept me from fully embracing this book and dubbing it a new favourite. And that something was Annie herself.

I can see why Annie was given POV duties here. The narrative isn't quite shared 50/50, but Annie's sections are weighty because they're written in a much clearer and more straightforward style, provide subtle yet much needed exposition which stitches the flashbacks into a cohesive whole, and offer insight into Fia from the outside. They offer a break from the distinctive, frenetic pace of Fia's mind.

What they also do, unfortunately, is to distance us from Fia's world and her story just a little too much. While Fia is fracturing, killing, dying, Annie is sitting in her very comfortable home, drinking herbal tea, and worrying. Throwing tantrums at other people who she believes (rightly!) don't care about her sister. Worrying some more. She's the classic princess, trapped in the tower, waiting for rescue to come. Even at the very end of the story when everything is swirling through Fia's brain like an insane kaleidoscope and everything was changing, Annie's sections remained static and dull. What's more, for me Annie was also extremely unlikeable.

Nine out of ten people may disagree with me here, as Annie was clearly written to be sympathetic. She's sweeter and kinder and saner than Fia, wracked with guilt over everything that Fia has gone through and desperate to help her sister in some way. But... she doesn't. Ever. In fact, everything Annie does seems to make Fia's life worse. Annie's refusal to listen to Fia in the beginning when Fia warns her about Kessler, and the emotional blackmail that forced Fia to go to the school too, came from a strange sense of privilege within the narrative. Poor Annie can't help it. Annie's soft and weak. Annie's blind. She needs to be looked after - even if that means her younger sister has to beat someone to death with a chair and then have a nervous breakdown.

For a very long time Annie remained wilfully ignorant of the extreme abuse being heaped on her sister. Fia was limping around covered in stab wounds and bruises and electrical burns, barely talking, never attending lessons other than ones in killing, hardly eating, but Annie's POV asks us to believe that Annie just didn't know. Because she couldn't *see* Fia - and Fia didn't come out and tell her.

I don't care if Annie couldn't physically see that Fia was being tortured; not noticing that your sister has gone from a strong, clever, funny little girl to suicidal zombie-creature who spends her days fighting for her life while longing for death is a bit of a stretch. Annie says she knew her sister wasn't happy but was so caught up in her own academic advancements that she didn't understand how deep that unhappiness went. But - as I'm sure the husbands, children, girlfriends and co-workers of the thousands of blind people who live full, active lives all over the world today could attest - being blind doesn't magically make it impossible to tell the difference between a sulky kid who isn't fitting in at boarding school and a child who has been abused to the point where her sanity has fractured.

This disconnect between what the narrative clearly wants us to feel about poor, sad, blind Annie who just can't help herself or anyone else, and what I actually felt - that if Annie had a single fibre of backbone she would have thrown herself out of the nearest window and set Fia free - made it tough to like the book as much as I would have otherwise, because Annie was always there, meebling and moaning and failing to do anything. I could understand why Fia didn't march into the nearest Police Station and tell all. But Annie was allowed to go shopping with 'friends' from inside Kessler. Why didn't she stop in the middle of a department store and scream until someone called the authorities and they took her away? Even if they hadn't believed her, that brief window might have been enough for Fia to escape. It seemed as if Annie's blindness was the excuse - a sort of unacknowledged, nebulous sense that someone with a disability can't be expected to actually be active or useful. That was very problematic for me.

Despite this issue, however, I did like SISTER ASSASSIN a lot. It was a surprising, daring and unexpected book that offered me one of the most compelling characters I've met in years - Fia - and which didn't shy away from the darkest implications of the story events it had set up. The book ends with a quite satisfying resolution, but there are a lot of loose ends still whipping about and plenty of exciting places that Ms. White could take Fia and her new partner in crime (not telling! Spoilers!) in the next volume, which the author's website says will be out next year (2014). Unlike with the author's earlier books I will be pouncing on it eagerly the moment it hits shelves.

If you see SISTER ASSASSIN in your local bookshop, give it a try.
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