Thursday, 28 February 2013


Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing - or reading - related question that begs to be answered.

In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

We'd love for you to participate! Just answer the prompt on your own blog and leave a link - or, if you prefer, you can include your answer in the comments.

This Week's Topic: What's the best book you've read in February?

(Via YA Highway)

Hello and happy Thursday, Dear Readers! As you can see, I am taking part - belatedly - in YA Highway's RTW. Do nip over there and look at the links in the comments. I'm sure there are a lot of interesting books to be discovered.

I don't have a new book to talk about this month. Since I'm still hard at work on The Name of the Blade I don't have the interest or energy to seek out new things to read - instead I'm re-reading old favourites, as is my usual custom. But luckily the reason that old favourites are old favourites in the first place is that I love them and think they're wonderful.

So! The best book I read in February was:

The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

What's it about? Caspar, Gwinny and Johnny's widowed mother has just married the Ogre - an irritable, beetle-browed giant of a man who has installed them all in his tall, thin, cold house with his two horrible children from his first marriage, Malcolm and Douglas. The three children are appalled, and it's all they can do to survive day to day when they're confronted with their step-family's cruelty and nastiness at every turn. But when the Ogre tries to bribe Johnny into good behaviour with a new chemistry set, many things rapidly change - and many other things are revealed to be entirely different than they first appeared.

This book is one of DWJ's less well known works. One of her earliest. It is aimed at slightly younger readers than, say Fire and Hemlock or The Merlin Conspiracy. And it's pretty short. The first time I read this (rather later than I read most of her other books, because I was put off by the title) I thought it was one of the funniest things I'd ever read, by any author.

As the years have gone by and I've read this again and again, I've come to realise that it is so. Much. More. Than simply funny - even though it still is one of the funniest things I've ever read, by any author. It is simply a perfect example of how to write middle grade fiction. As a fellow writer, the craftsmanship in this little book just staggers me. Every part is polished until it shines like the individual facets of a jewel. When I read it now there's this little voice in the back of my head crying out:

"Oh, oh, oh... that was so clever. Oh! That too! The perfection of this bit! Just look at that! HOW DID SHE DO IT?"

There's an unusually large cast of characters in this one, but each of them is fully and hilariously characterised, and what's more their relationships with each other develop in such a charmingly natural way that each time I read it I'm staggered anew. The magical shenanigans are really just a medium for DWJ to unfold this complex, still-forming web of family interactions. If you haven't read this? Please do. It might be the best book you read this month too.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


Hello, Dear Readers! A short post today (especially in comparison to my normal lengthy ramblings). But it has three things in it, so it still totally counts. Shut up, yes it does. Do you want a post today or not? OK then.

Firstly an explanation for the short post. I've been rather under the weather lately. But, as we all know, Denial is not just a river in Egypt: it is my firm policy when I want to put on my imaginary princess crown and pretend that I live in a magic kingdom where my thoughts and feelings actually have some concrete affect on reality. So despite being - looking back on it - quite frighteningly ill for a couple of days last week, I insisted on working anyway, including in the evenings and all though this weekend. As a result, I got some pretty decent work done. IN YOUR FACE FLAWED HUMAN PHYSIOLOGY! But sadly, doing this has resulted in a very strong desire to curl into a ball and sleep any time when I'm not actually knee deep in these edits. Including right now. I practically have matchsticks propping my eyelids open typing this. True story.

Anyhoo, this means I am not feeling full of my usual thinky thoughts that seem worth sharing. Hence the short post. Thursday's post might be short too, depending on if my energy levels have passed through Great Sloth and started to approach Slug.

Next! An update on the Machiavellian Labyrinth that is edits on The Name of the Blade Book #2. It's not getting any easier the longer it takes, let me tell you. I do not think I have EVER revised anything this slowly. EVER. Not even when I was a complete beginner teaching myself how to edit with the help of How To Write Books For Dummies. I've been at work on these edits since the 14th of March and I am *still* only on page 43. Of 201! And that's despite the aforementioned working in evenings and on weekends.

I had a phone conversation with Super Agent yesterday, during which she said lots of kind, soothing, encouraging things to me. At one point I told her (at least, I think I did - there was a lot of babbling on my part) that writing a middle book in a trilogy calls on completely different aspects of the writing craft than writing any other kind of book. The things you've written in the first book are immutable because it's finished. But everything in the final book that you've barely started on is in a constant state of flux as you work things out in your head. So the middle book occupies a unique middle ground. Half fixed and finished. Half changing and evolving. And the half that's fixed and finished is all mixed in and jumbled up with the half that's changing and evolving and it's not always easy to tell those two apart, or pry them apart if you need to.

Anyhoo, that's where I am. Not quite a quarter of the way through this first round of revisions and with a strong feeling that several more rounds of revisions will be required before it, too, is finished. And Book #3 is sitting in the back of my brain sullenly, occasionally muttering or throwing a tantrum if it feels it's been ignored too long. By the time I get to it, most likely it will have buttoned its lip and be refusing to talk to me at all. I really, really hope that all the stars will align to allow me to run another InCreWriMa this year. I'm going to need all the help I can get.

Now to the third thing! At one point this weekend I got stuck with the edits for an hour or so, but I didn't want to try to do something else because I was too dozy and tired. So I got out the matchsticks, propped my eyelids open, and updated the ALL ABOUT WRITING page. Hopefully all the writing advice that deserves the name is now on there, if somewhat haphazardly arranged. If I've missed out something that you're particularly fond of, just let me know in the comments and I'll see about including it.

Anyhoo (sensing a theme here?) that's my three things. And because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, here's a fourth. Aha!

(With thanks to Roccie!)
 See you on Thursday, chums.

Thursday, 21 February 2013


Dear Characters of The Name of the Blade,

Hi! How are you all doing? Ha ha - do you see what I did there? Asking how you're doing when of course I know because I'm the one that put you all in that position in the first place!

Ahem. Er. Sorry about that.

Anyway, yes, it's me, your author - the big, blinky lady you occasionally notice looming in the sky above you. Yes, the one with the scary look in her eyes and pens in her hair. Yes, and occasionally pen on her face too. But please don't be alarmed! I'm just here to let you know about some - ah - some changes.

Remember that other nice lady who periodically comes along and scrawls red notes all over the margins of your adventures? It's her job to make sure that your triumphs (and tragedies, let's not forget about those) are as clear - as effective and exciting - as possible. She helps to make sure you have enough to do, all evenly spaced out, without long boring chunks or bits that feel rushed and under-developed, and she's concerned about showcasing all your characters at their best and making sure that you grow. She really does have all your best interests at heart. And she and I have had a couple of long chats recently. About you.

So... here's the thing. I wrote a new first chapter for you. You guys don't know about it because I wrote it in a new document rather than amending the master draft. I wasn't keeping secrets! I just didn't want to subject you to all that upheaval and confusion until I was sure that I had got that new first chapter right. It's... it's a very different first chapter. It starts at a completely different place than the one you have now, and it leads into a somewhat different first half for the book you're living in.

Well, the Red Pen Lady (we call her Wonder Editor up here, but I appreciate that you have a different point of view) has read this new first chapter and she likes it. Which is great! It means that I'll be putting that new chapter in place in the master draft today, though, so prepare yourselves for some minor side-effects. The usual sort of thing - dizziness, light-headedness, a bit of confusion. Wherever you are, just sit down until it passes.

When this new beginning is in place, of course you're going to notice that things look a bit different. You, yourselves, will be a tiny bit different. Now, I don't want you to panic when you see that! I promise that I know what I'm doing. Or - well, Red Pen Lady does anyway. So try not to stress out about it too much.

I'm not going to lie. This isn't the end of the process. I'll be making changes - some fairly subtle, others that are more major - throughout the whole manuscript. Some scenes will be cut, others trimmed down. Some scenes will be extended. Many of them will turn out differently than they did before. Some of you will find yourselves saying things you might not have done, or doing things you might not have done before. Some of you may... cease to be. It will all be done as painlessly as possible.

Just follow this new flow of action where it goes, act as your instincts tell you to, and everything will be fine. All of this is intended to help you shine, to help your story shine. And, as always, I am ready and willing to listen to your input and to alter and amend according to what you tell me.

So if you respond to any of this by freezing up and refusing to speak to me, and then I get it all wrong? You will really have NO ONE BUT YOURSELVES TO BLAME.


OK, I think that's everything! Have a lovely day, everyone! Well, as much as you can, with the [spoilers] and the [spoilers] and the [spoilers] right in the [spoilers] [spoilers]. But it could all be much worse. You could be living in a Cassandra Clare novel. She'd do far worse things to you than I can. So bear that in mind.

Much Love,
Zolah xx

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


Hi everyone! As Tuesday rolls around again I am moved to meditate upon an important fact, a fact which has slowly been born in upon me over many months. The fact is this: trilogies bite.

You guys know how much I love The Name of the Blade. It's my sugar-coated-unicorn-angel-baby and I adore it. But writing it is KILLING ME. My constant refrain now to everyone I speak to, from Wonder Editor and Super Agent, to my friends in my writing group, to my mother, is, 'If I ever say I'm going to write a trilogy again? Please slap me upside the head/lock me away for my own safety/kill me and end my suffering'.

I sort of think about the story told throughout The Name of the Blade as one big book. Yes, each individual book that you, the reader, will pick up, needs to have a distinct atmosphere and each one needs its own arc - in plot and characterisation - and each one needs a sense of emotional resolution at the end. I know this. But because it's very tightly plotted and the whole thing takes place over one week of storytime (a challenge I set myself because I intended this book to be truly different from my high fantasy, which often takes place over *years* of storytime, and I wanted to see if I could tell a breathless thriller a bit like John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps) it always just felt like one grand story to me.

As a result of this, I had kidded myself that writing it wouldn't be all that different from writing, say, Shadows on the Moon, which is over 100,000 words long and has three distinct acts, each of which has its own atmosphere and character arc. I ought to be able to replicate the same thing on a slightly larger scale, right?

No. No, no, no.

It is not the same thing. It is not in any way the same thing. This is what I have painfully discovered. For me, a trilogy of books is fundamentally - essentially - different from one book, no matter if that book has a three part structure. I mean, I had no choice about this story being a trilogy, and I realised that almost straight away. It's not like I could have done anything differently even if I had known it was going to kick my *ss. But my own initial sense of chirpy optimism - which, let me tell you, constantly rears its head in all the synopses and plot diagrams and notes I made back at the beginning of planning this thing - is so annoying to me now that the urge to build a time machine for the sole purpose of travelling back to 2010 and giving myself a right telling off is kind of overwhelming.

Although what I'd actually do with a time machine would be to go forward to 2015 when the whole trilogy will be out, buy the books and bring them back so that I can copy them in the present, therefore cunningly bypassing all the suckiness of writing a trilogy. Speak not to me of paranoxes! I prefer the quantum inevitability theory of time travel!

I have put far too much thought into this.

Anyway. I had this idea that writing a trilogy would be just like writing one really long book, OK? And the thing about me is that I'm the sort of writer who hates writing beginnings. I find them really, really hard going because much as I know all the facts about the characters and the world, I haven't really gotten inside them and learned them properly yet. I can only do that by doing the writing. So it's basically a process of slogging through all the actions that I've already decided the characters will take without any real input from them, hating every minute of it, and hoping and praying for the moment when the characters suddenly spark to life and begin pulling their weight.

This is why, generally, writing the first third of a book takes about half (or even more!) of the time that I spend writing a book in total. And I think this is also why, generally, I spend the vast majority of editing and rewriting and revising time - both on my own and in conjunction with my editor - on the beginnings. Knowing that doesn't help much with the slogging, either.

So, with my one-book theory, I thought that once I had written the beginning of The Name of the Blade - that is, The Night Itself - I would be on the homeward straight, coasting downhill all the way. And writing The Night Itself was a pretty darn joyous experience, even when we came to edit it and those edits turned out to be slightly more extensive than originally planned. That surely meant books #2 and #3 would be even more joyous and delightful, right?

No. No, no, no.

Guess what? Turns out that the beginning of a second book in a trilogy? Is TWICE AS HARD to write as the beginning of a normal book. I mean, dude, I didn't even know that was possible. (And what this says about how the final book will go, I don't even want to contemplate, and if anyone chimes in about it with the obvious conclusion in the comments I will come after them like a berserker baboon because I AM IN DENIAL OK do not take my denial away from me it is all that is keeping me AFLOAT right now).

Maybe the reason for this is that, if you've done it right, the events of the first book should have profoundly affected all the characters and changed their world? They're almost new people, who have new perspectives and goals and new knowledge and new ways of interacting with each other and their world. But there's just enough of a sense that you *should* know who they are, that it makes it all more difficult because you *expect* them to act a certain way and then they do something they never would have done in the first book. Or, worse, they don't react at all, and it's back to slog, slog, slog...

But the middle also seems to take a different sort of effort than a normal middle. Even the ending, the blissful part, is more difficult and sort of sideways than with a standalone.

I spent most of the weekend (that I didn't spend working on a new beginning for book #2 of the trilogy, because once again my beginning basically stinks) working on this factsheet thing. I filled in, in chronological order, all the facts about in-world-mythology and backstory that the characters (and readers) learn in The Night Itself. And then I filled in, in chronological order, all the facts about in-world-mythology and backstory that the characters (and readers) need to learn in the final, as-yet-unwritten book. And then I tried to figure out what that meant for this middle book. And eventually I ended up with something which I hope will help me.

And today I finished the new first chapter of bk #2. So I feel like have made a start on the start. But trilogies still bite, and I'm still recruiting volunteers to smack me, lock me up or assassinate me if I ever suggest writing one again.

What? You thought there would be some kind of a point to this post?

No. No, no. no.

*Unhinged laughter*

Thursday, 14 February 2013


Hello, delightful duckies! On this Thursday I bring you a RetroPost - the second part of my piece on all the intricacies of working with an editor (see Part I here). Which is appropriate and timely because I had a mega-editorial meeting with my editor yesterday in which we talked about Book #2 of The Name of the Blade. We met for lunch - and then just stayed in the restaurant making notes and mentally re-writing things for four hours, freaking out the waiting staff by talking about [spoilers] and death and monsters. IT WAS AWESOME.

Less awesome was the inevitable effect of my travel jinx. Some of you may remember that wonderful author Diana Wynne Jones, who I talked about a little here, was famously affected with a travel jinx. You might wonder if I am exaggerating my difficulties a bit, perhaps in tribute? Well, judge for yourself:

This is what happened to the railway line that I was supposed to be travelling on to get to my meeting. This is a landslip, apparently. Looks like an angry hibernating dragon tried to escape from under the line to me, but what do I know? So I couldn't get on the train that I was scheduled to go on. But apparently trains were running from another town about an hour's drive away. So I gave in and asked my dad to give me a lift there. So far, so good. In your face, travel jinx!

Ha ha. Yeah, no. When it was time to go home I got on the train. And the train got as far as Sheffield before being delayed because, apparently, the driver had disappeared. The Tannoy stated that they were trying to find a replacement driver, but had 'no timescale'. So we waited. And waited. Finally another announcement that THIS train was cancelled, but that another service was now on platform 3B waiting. Please go there.

So I did. But it turned out this was some kind of unnatural train. There were no lights on inside it, the engine was off, the seats were a frightening and grungy green, and there was no sign of a driver there either, or any other passengers. I'm fairly sure that it was some kind of highly adapted demon that lured travellers in, in order to slowly digest them via those damp green seats. It had even fooled the station authorities.

I very quickly got off again and went in search of a station official. He told me there was ANOTHER service on a different platform. I trotted off across the slushy platform, trying not to aquaplane into anyone. And waited. And waited. After about fifteen minutes it was announced that this service was delayed too, which, by that point, I had already figured out.

Finally (just when I was starting to worry about frostbite in the extremeties) someone howled 'Doncaster! Anyone here for Doncaster?' Doncaster is the town about an hour's drive away from where I live. That was close enough for me! I set off in another direction as part of tide of desperate travellers, all of us skidding, sliding and banging into each other in the snow. By some strange stroke of luck I actually managed to get a seat. It was in the Quiet Coach, where you're not supposed to use your mobile phone, but by this point I didn't care and perhaps my demeanor telegraphed this as no one challenged me when I phoned my father to please, please come and collect me from the station.

He did, bless him. Our drive home through a snow blizzard on pitch black motorways with other drivers skidding all over the roads around around us was certainly invigorating! But when we finally got to my hometown we stopped and I bought us fish and chips to celebrate our survival, and we ate them in the car. So it might all have been worse.

And that is the story of my travel jinx.

A couple of links before we go on to the post! Firstly, this piece on Sex and Girls in YA, which is really good, and despite the writer's modesty, has definitely given me some food for thought.

The other link is to this cover reveal for Across A Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund. I love this so much, and have already tried to pre-order it through The Book Depo (it wouldn't let me, darn it). It's a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernell, guys. This is one of the stories that I was brought up with and which I love with an unholy passion. It even had an influence on Shadows on the Moon. Cannot. Wait.

Now (at last) onward to today's post!

RetroThursday: HOW EDITING WORKS, Part II

Last time I talked about how editing generally falls into a few distinct stages, with each part of the process relating to the improvement of an aspect of the manuscript (major structural edits = big picture issues, line edits = prose, copy edits = everything else, pass pages = final polishing/error catching).

What I'd like to discuss today is the way that authors react to edits, and how you can manage that reaction to help ensure a good working relationship with your editor, not to mention getting the best possible result for your book. Because that's what you need to always, always bear in mind when you're editing. This process isn't about you as a writer, or your feelings or your ego. It's about what is best for the book you've created, and how to make the characters and story shine.

Generally I find that my reaction to the comments my editor makes in her editorial letter and line edit falls into three distinct categories:

The Blinding Epiphany: Saint Paul on a pogo-stick how did I miss this? Argh, this is so embarrassing! But of course she's right - and now that she's put her finger on it I can see just where I went wrong and what to do to sort it out! *Rolls up sleeves*

Guilty Avoidance: Oh hell, she noticed. I was so hoping it was a minor issue and no one would pick up on it. But I have no idea how to fix it! That's why I sort of handwaved around it in the first place! Maybe I can get away with ignoring this? Or fudge some stuff around it to make it work? *Hides under duvet*

Frustrated Anger: What? WHAT? Just...what??? That makes no sense! There's no problem there! I can't change that - I won't change that - it's fine as it is! Having to mess around with this bit would ruin EVERYTHING! If she hates the damn book so much why are they publishing it in the first place? *Kicks wall*

What do all these reactions have in common? They're knee-jerk and not entirely reasonable. If you act on any of them right away you will regret it. Dive straight into the manuscript to 'fix' an issue by slapping on the first idea you have like a sticking plaster, and you may mess things up worse than they were. Try to fudge an issue so that you won't have to deal with it, and you definitely will mess things up. And writing an angry email or making an angry phonecall to your editor to tell them how very wrong they are and ask why they're publishing the book in the first place if they hate it so much is such a d*ck move that I shouldn't even have to explain why you'll regret it.

The best - probably the only - way to deal with each of these is time.

When I get an edit letter or my line edits, I read through them once, carefully but quickly. And then I walk away. Literally. No matter what my reaction is, how eager I am to get to work or how much I want to curl into the fetal position and commence with soft, pained moans, I force myself to get my dog, put on some waterproof boots and go for a nice long tramp through the fields. Rain or shine, sun or snow, I walk. I'll let everything I've just read marinade in my brain as stomp and mutter, throw biscuits for my dog, and occasionally wave my hands around emphatically. When I finally get home an hour later, shivering or sweating or sodden wet, I will generally feel much calmer and more rational.

But having had my therapeutic stomp, do I THEN dive straight into the manuscript or writing a snotty letter? No, no, and no, Dear Readers. I leave it at least another day before I look at the letter or notes again. I know some authors who leave it a week. You have to give your brain enough time to get over any initial knee-jerk reaction that you had so that when you read those notes or that letter a second time, you see what the editor actually wrote, rather than what your offended ego or eager-to-please nature is telling you is there.

Trust me. When you return and look at your editor's words twenty-four hours (or more) later, you will be stunned to find that somehow they've changed. They're not calling you a talentless hack after all. They're not saying the book is terrible. And many of the quick fixes that sprang into your head on the first read will now feel a bit hasty, as if they rather missed the point. Whatever your initial reaction was, you will be profoundly glad you waited before you acted on it.

I'm not saying that walking away from the edits will make it easy to deal with them when you come back. It won't, necessarily. When we worked on Shadows on the Moon my editor had a problem with the way a certain plot thread was resolved. She felt that it was unsatisfying for the reader, and in the back of my head I agreed with her. But unfortunately I was completely stumped as to how to weave that thread back in without tangling up five others that were vital to the end of the story. And what was more, leaving that part of the plot like that had been in my original plans, from when I very first started the story, and my stubborn back-brain was convinced that it should work like that, dammit.

I avoided and fudged around the issue every way that I knew how, but my editor (thank heavens!) didn't let it go. Every time she came back to me she prodded me about it more and more insistently. In response, I got more and more frustrated because I thought she should be able to see how impossible it was to do anything about it and just accept that this was the best I could do.  

But of course, it wasn't impossible.

Nothing is impossible. A book is words on a page. If you change the words the right way, you can fix anything. And so, on one of my bad-tempered stomping walks by the river, I got a glimmer of an idea. I worked it out as I tramped, and went over it again and again in my head, checking for problems and flaws, and realised that it was the perfect way to fix things. Yes, it would mean doing away with a few things that I liked, but the result would be worth it. I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. I got home, scribbled it all down, and within a few days I'd sorted out the issue which had been holding the edit in limbo for weeks.

This was a defining moment for me as a writer. It made me realise that I had the ability to fix pretty much any mess I'd made, given the time and space to work it out, and the confidence to accept that sometimes things needed to be changed. I had to let myself believe that needing to change things, even things I'd planned from the beginning, even things that my editor had spotted rather than me, didn't reflect on the book or on my skills, or mean that I was admitting I was a talentless hack.

The object of the edit is to get things right. This grace period, this time spent working on a book with a dedicated, passionate professional editor who won't let you get away with fudging, is a judgement free space. It's a blessing. A gift. A chance to go back and fix your mistakes - a rare thing in life. How to fix them might not always be obvious or simple or easy, but it's always possible, so long as you believe it's possible.

Looking back, I'm so glad that I had this revelation working on Shadows. If I hadn't, I don't think I would have had the determination and confidence to deal with the work that I needed to do on FrostFire. In fact, I know I wouldn't. So that's something else to bear in mind: when you work with your editor on making a book the best it can be, you're also learning. You're learning craftsmanship, and confidence, and you're learning how to make the next book even better.

However, from time to time you'll get a note from your editor which you actually disagree with. Not a note that makes you guilty or frustrated or angry but a note that, on reflection, you truly believe just isn't right. You can't do what they're asking you to do. Not because it would be difficult or mean admitting you'd made a mistake, but simply because it would be wrong for these characters or this book.

When this happens, you'll find that the relationship you've built up with your editor to this point pays dividends. If you've always been polite and professional, and if you've always been willing to admit that changes need to be made and work through them (even if it took a while!) then when you come back to your editor here with a problem, they'll be more than willing to listen to what you have to say and you'll be able to work out why there's an issue.

For example, while I was working on The Swan Kingdom with my U.S. editor, she gave me a note in which she said she felt a certain confrontation in the middle section of the book should be radically changed to play out a different way. At first I felt devastated; it was the first time that I flat out 100% knew I couldn't make a requested change. I just couldn't do it. What was more, the fact that the editor had asked for that change made me feel as if the book as a whole couldn't be working, because if it had been, the editor would have seen that changing the outcome of that confrontation would completely go against every bit of characterisation up to that point.

Heart in my throat, I politely emailed my U.S. editor and explained that I couldn't do what she'd asked me to do, and why. I braced myself, not sure what the reaction would be. I'd heard so many things about awkward authors who thought their words were golden, and I didn't want to be like that, so the minute I sent the email I wanted to call it back, but no matter how I looked at it, I just knew I couldn't change the story that way.

The editor got back to me within an hour - with an apology. She completely saw my point and she realised the note had been wrong. It was fine, and I should ignore it and keep working. Oh, the relief!

I've since learned that this is normally how true disagreements play out between writers and editors. Sometimes you go backwards and forwards about things, and sometimes the author changes their mind and sometimes the editor does, but you can nearly always work it out. As a writer, if you've demonstrated the willingness to work hard to produce the best possible end result, and if you've got the courage to argue your case both intelligently and with passion, you will get a lot of respect from your editor when it comes to the changes you're willing to make.

Sometimes these disagreements are an opportunity to improve things in unexpected ways. Going back to Shadows on the Moon, after the initial edit letter, it was clear from my editor's comments that she and I perceived a particular character in very different ways. She pushed me to make changes to his behaviour to make him more vivid and understandable to the reader. But I felt that this would change him so profoundly that he wouldn't work at all. We debated it over the course of several emails and through a couple of edits. Being forced to defend this character's actions and choices against my editor's extremely perceptive and insightful comments brought him into such sharp focus for me that although I didn't make the changes my editor wanted, I did make several other changes to the way I showed the reader who this person was - and my editor loved them.

It wasn't that she necessarily wanted me to change the character to fit her vision. She had just seen that there was something missing in the way he was characterised, and in prodding me about it, she allowed me to fix it in a way that worked for the story.

Again, I've gone mega long here, so I'll finish by saying this. Editing can be fun. It can also be stressful. And frustrating. Even a little painful. And that's just within one page! But I honestly would not want to be published if I had to share my work in its unedited state. Working with an editor is a chance to learn wonderful things about the craft of writing in general and your own strengths and weaknesses in particular. Having a great editor allows you to take risks, try out crazy stuff that might not work because you know you've got someone in your corner who will lay it on the line for you and tell you if you messed up and how.

It not only makes for vastly improved books. It produces vastly improved writers.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Hello, my duckies! Welcome to Tuesday and a lovely piece of news from Poland.

Remember that beautiful translated edition of Shadows on the Moon that I went on and on about last year? It came from Egmont Polska and it's still one of my favourite things, like, ever. I was told that the acquiring editor there in Poland really loved the book, and if the steady trickle of nice reviews (in Polish) that I've been getting through Google Alerts is anything to go by the readers liked it a lot too.

However, I was a bit surprised last week to get a Google Alert for my name from Poland which didn't seem to be linked to Shadows on the Moon at all. In fact, I noticed the word Aleksandra in the text, which seemed awfully close to Alexandra - the name of the protagonist of The Swan Kingdom (my first book, a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale of 'The Wild Swans').

When I used the Google Translate feature, nothing was really made clear: it was a blurb for The Swan Kingdom looking back at me, and what seemed to be a release date for later this year. In Polish? But there was no Polish translation of the book! Confused, I emailed my editor, who had no idea what was going on either, but who promised to find out.

Well, it turned out that there was, in fact, a negotiation going on between the rights departments of Egmont Polska and Walker Books. The Polish publisher were so enthusiastic about the book that they had slightly jumped the gun and put the blurb up - but that was OK, because within a couple of days a lovely lady at Walker was able to confirm that the deal had been finalised. So, soon - in March, if one website I've seen is to be believed, although I'm not sure how solid that is! - there will be a Polish translation of my very first book! It seems the discerning Polish readers really love fairytale retellings. Perhaps as much as I love them right now? No, no, not possible :)

The Polish version of the story will be called The Kingdom of Swans. And even better, there's already a lovely cover which is online at Polish e-tailers and which I shall now share with you (I didn't mention that earlier because I knew you'd scroll past my story, ha ha!).

Here it is:

Looks spooky, doesn't it? I like these unusual muted colours a lot - and the girl's steadfast, determined expression is very Alexandra too. I hope I'll end up with a couple of copies of this on my shelf in due course.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Hello, hello, hello my lovelies! Welcome to Thursday.

On Friday last week I received a rather nice parcel from Lovely Lass at Walker Books - three copies of HIDDEN AMONG US by Katy Moran, which is a wonderful fantasy novel with scary faeries and beautiful writing that I'll be making a big song and dance about on the blog in March.

I'll be giving these books away to three lucky readers then. But in the meantime I had to find somewhere to put them, because as pretty as they looked on my coffee table, anything which is left there for more than a day ends up covered in animal hair, dust and probably some coffee-splashes too, just for good measure.

So I headed up to my study, copies of HIDDEN AMONG US in hand, to try and find somewhere safe to stow them until I'm ready to send them out. And as I was searching for any free space in my titchy-tiny little Writer's Cave, which is already crammed so full of books that my shelves appear to be smiling (literally. They curve downwards under the weight. It freaks me out a bit) I noticed something that I hadn't noticed - or, probably, just hadn't stopped to appreciate - before.

It was this:

All the editions of every book that I've written
I'm not sure if I can really articulate the impact it had on me in that fully occupied, everyday, slightly harried, 'Argh, I have no space ANYWHERE, where can these possibly go, oooh I forgot I had that manga - no, concentrate, there must be a gap somewhere!' sort of moment.

That shelf is my life's work so far. That shelf is everything lasting that I have achieved and which will hopefully outlast me. That shelf is the embodiment of a dream that I had when I was a little girl curled up in the bottom bunk-bed reading Enid Blyton under the covers and which I clung to stubbornly through every reasonable objection and unreasonable obstacle that the world flung at me. That shelf is a defiance of every person who ever tried to scoff at my passion as unrealistic and everyone who ever tried to beat or taunt or mock or ignore the weirdness out of me.

And I thought:

'I'm OK with that. If I was to die, right now, just drop dead here in this room... I would be happy with that.'

Which was a strange and perhaps even morbid sort of thought to have. And which I immediately realised was factually wrong because, seriously, I need to write the final book of THE NAME OF THE BLADE. I'd be bummed if I kicked off from the mortal realm and left my trilogy unfinished. And I've promised everyone that Beauty-and-the-Beast-in-the-Moonlit-Lands story too. And I'd also like to write the one with the dragon shapeshifter and the science fiction one...

And in the meantime, there are a lot of books still to read. A lot of music still to listen to. A lot of recipes still to try out. A lot of places - new and familiar - that I would like to visit. And a whole bunch more people I'd like to meet. Maybe one day I'll even move into a nicer house and get another dog. In fact there all kinds of things still left for me to do, and which I'm really looking forward to doing. 

But it wasn't a bad thought to have. In fact I think it was good to realise this important fact about myself: that right now, and for every moment of every day that I get up and walk through the world, from now until I Lindy Hop into the next world (whatever it is), I will be living as a person who has achieved what they set out to do. I have fulfilled the purpose I was born for. I have created and shared the art that I was uniquely fitted to create, by virtue of being exactly who I am and no one else. And, in however small a way, the world is now and forever a different place because I existed.

I wish there was a way to send a picture of this one shelf in my Writing Cave back in time to all the past Zolahs who cried and despaired and wondered and worked so hard and just didn't KNOW if any of it would ever turn out to have had a point. Because it did. And as much as I know there are so many other things I want to do and have and see and which will challenge and scare and exhilarate me in the years still to come, in that moment I felt something very special, which there is currently no word for in the English language.

If you'd like to get close, you can listen to this. It's long, but stick around. It's worth it:

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Happy Tuesday, Dear Readers! I hope your weekend and Monday were good, because today I have something to confess.

Here goes. There is a love story in THE NAME OF THE BLADE TRILOGY.  There is a love story in THE NIGHT ITSELF.

So far, so not-very-surprising. What kind of a confession is this, you ask yourselves?

Patience, my muffins; there is more. For the romance I depict in this trilogy is a kind which is often disrespected and dismissed. This love is a love that few will approve. Many find its very existence shameful. Even the kindest, most open-minded of you, especially the ones who like to review books and are therefore immersed in popular reviewing language, are going to take ONE LOOK at this love story and - in your shock and disgust - put a certain label on it.

You will call it insta-love.

Quelle Surprise! Quelle Horreur!

Guess what else? I did it on purpose.

While you're still reeling from that one, here's another confession. I'm known (where I'm known at all) for my loathing of the term Mary-Sue. It is a term which is infinitely worthy of my loathing for many fine reasons. But over the last couple of years I have grown to hate the term 'insta-love' even more.

Accusations of insta-love are the last thing any author wants. It makes you cringe instinctively. The very term is dismissive and insulting. To have a relationship in a book labelled as insta-love implies all kind of nasty cr*p - not just about the quality of your book but also you, as a writer. It implies that you're using cheap and dirty tricks, that you have resorted to stereotypes, that your characters are ciphers with no real connection to each other. If you've written insta-love you're either a talentless hack who only put a romance in there to pander to commercial demand, or a talentless hack who can't write a 'proper' love story.

Bad author. No cookie. No cookie for you or your cr*ppy insta-love book.

And you know what? I really effing hate that. Maybe I'm just a cranky, contrary madam, but the moment that people start coming out in droves to condemn anything - any literary device that resides in my toolbox as a writer, any narrative choice that a storyteller ought to have the right to select if they feel it works for their story - and saying how terrible, awful, no good and downright WRONG it is? That is the moment that I fling up my skirts, click my heels together and gleefully cackle:


Established wisdom condemns lengthy descriptions? I'll describe the *ss off this book. No epilogues, says the writing forum guru? Have one and a prologue too! Dream sequences are bad juju! Guess I'll make them a main feature of my story, thanks very much! If you tell me I can't have that writer's tool it 'cos it's naughty and unfashionable and bad for me and my book? Even if I never had any desire to use it before, I will literally come up with a story idea specifically to allow me to write that very thing. All the tools in my writer's toolbox are mine to select or reject and if you attempt to smack my hand when I reach for one of them I will BITE YOUR FINGERS OFF.

Ahem. Well, I admitted to cranky, and contrary, right? What did you expect?

I've talked about insta-love on this blog before, with the very able co-conspirator R.J. Anderson. However, the main focus of that piece was the way that many instances of unconventional or slow-burning love were being *mis-labelled* insta-love because readers weren't picking up on the subtle cues throughout the earlier parts of the book that Ze Romance, She Is In Ze Air!

My point today - and really, in the way I developed the relationships in THE NAME OF THE BLADE (yes, 's' - brownie points for noticing! I'm not just talking about one) - is that insta-love isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

I mean, the term iself certainly is, what with the aforementioned sneering dismissiveness and all that. In fact, I'd like to take the phrase insta-love by the hand, gently lead it out the back door, and kindly - even tenderly - blow it to smithereens with a sawn-off shotgun. Which is to say that, personally, I prefer to use: love at first sight. 

See how, straight away, that makes such a huge difference? The words 'love at first sight' simply describe the literary device in question without implying a value judgement.

This is the thing. You and I and everyone else has the right to feel whatever way we like about whatever tropes we like or don't. We all have the bullet-proof kinks and, on the other hand, the hot-button tropes that make us want to chuck a book straight across the room the moment they rear their heads.

However, in critiquing books which contain these hot-button tropes I have to bear in mind that if my dislike of the entire book boils down to 'The writer chose THIS TROPE, this PARTICULAR TROPE which I DON'T LIKE, why, why, OH GOD I HATE THE TROPE SO MUCH', then I'm not actually judging the book based on how good it was, how well it executed the goals it set out to achieve. I'm only judging it based on how well it specifically met my specific needs, and I'm treating any way in which it did not do so as a failure.

Its kind of like going me going into a Chinese restaurant, picking up the menu, and crying, 'Why is there rice on this menu? And noodles? I don't like rice and noodles! Where is the pizza? I wanted pepperoni or maybe a stuffed crust!' After realising no garlic bread is forthcoming, I grudgingly eat some noodles and rice, muttering and grumbling, and finally storm out convinced that this is a terrible restaurant because they have nothing edible on their menu, and what is wrong with THEM with their disgusting unnatural RICE and NOODLES, ughgh!

It's possible the food the restaurant offered me was great quality and delicious. It's also possible that it was awful. But because I have an indelible enmity against rice and noodles, I am completely incapable of judging the quality of any rice and nooldes, let alone the rice and noodles I ate there. When I complain that I didn't like them, it is not a value judgement of how good those specific noodles and rice were, it is a rejection of all rice and noodles, ever, everywhere. And it assumes that every other right thinking person has the same deep-seated - possibly pathological - hatred of noodles and rice that plague me.

(Psst, I really love rice and noodles, please don't take them from me Food Gods! Also pizza. Don't take that either!)

This is what the term 'insta-love' does. It assumes that this development - love at first sight - is a bad thing regardless of the context or the characters involved. It assumes that regardless of how well it's done, love at first sight is a lapse in the author's skill and judgement, or a lapse in their integrity. It assumes that the last thing any author would ever deliberately do was set out to write a romance which others would recognise as love at first sight - regardless of whether the author did in fact set out to write love at first sight because they happen to like that trope or simply wanted to explore its implications.

How on earth did this literary device - formerly a perfectly respectable if somewhat challenging storytelling choice, used by such luminaries as Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer and Hugo - become the ugly red-headed stepchild of YA in general and paranormal romances or urban fantasies in particular? How did 'love at first sight', a neutral descriptive term, become 'insta-love' with all its implications of 'just add water!'?

The general idea is that love at first sight has been horribly overused in YA fiction, so we're all sick of it. But when I actually came to examine my reads over the last few years, even if I *just* think about the paranormal romance, I really can't think of all that many 'imprinting' type romances. I can think of a bunch with passive heroines who let jerky heroes walk all over them, sure - and that's problematic. But it's not the same thing. And I can think of a lot of books that had reviews *saying* they were insta-love and scorning them appropriately, but often when I read them I found myself thinking (as mentioned in the blog with R.J. Anderson) "Huh. Clearly we have different definitions of what 'insta-love' means, because for me this reads as a classic enemies-to-lovers/slow-burn/friends-to-lovers/fill-the-blank-here type romance."

I don't read All The Books. So it's entirely possibly I'm wrong here. Maybe there ARE scads of books where the hero and heroine fall in love at first sight and instantly declare their feelings and spend the whole book in unwavering devotion to each other without ever finding out anymore about each other than mutual hotness. But just because those authors did a bad job of using love at first sight, does that mean love at first sight itself should be forever exiled to a desert island to fight for its life against feral adverbs and raging advectives? Seems a tad unfair.

So then maybe the problem isn't over-USE of this device, but over-popularity and exposure. Maybe it's all Twilight's fault! Only... no. I'm not going to blame Twilight. You may gasp - but the story of Bella and Edward isn't a story of love at first sight in any way that seems reasonable to define it.

Yes, there's a chapter called 'First Sight' in the first book. But Bella's first sight of Edward only tells her that he's whoa-hawt-hubba-hubba-touseled-bronze-hair-mmmm-gimme-some. Her next sight of him (which is when he's, you know, trying awfully hard not to snap her neck and eat her in the biology lab) confuses, frightens and insults her.

In fact the romance between these two is a fairly clear-cut slow-burning type, progressing through initial hostility and misunderstandings to eventual blissful acceptance. I think people call it insta-love because Smeyer, bless her heart, cocks the execution of this up rather badly and so Edward comes off, alternately, as a threatening psycho, and a smug, arrogant jerk, and Bella appears as a relentlessly negative null-character, which makes their mutual attachment seem completely inexplicable. Yes: it's less than brilliant writing. No: it's not love at first sight.

And most people ALSO agree that the baby vampire-teenage werewolf imprinting romance is gross and doesn't count as love either, so that can't be the source, surely?

I'm just going to throw my hands up here and say Heck If I Know. But what I do know is that love at first sight is getting maligned left right and centre. Even when you write a completely different kind of romance people will often signal their disapproval of it by calling it insta-love, because that's just about the nastiest thing anyone can think of to say about any kind of fictional relationship (borderline abusive stalking? A-OK. Insta-love? NO WAY).

So I wanted to try to take 'insta-love' and strip some of those unfair implications away. I wanted to show that the device of love at first sight itself is neutral, neither good nor evil, although it can of course be used for either.

It will be up to readers to say if I've succeeded or failed; whether they personally can learn to love this trope, or at least the way I've chosen to relate it. But whenever I see insta-love used as a pejorative, I shall mentally replace the phrase with 'love at first sight' and feel much better about it.

Because that's what I set out to write. On purpose. And there's nothing wrong with it.

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