Tuesday, 28 May 2019


(Originally posted on this blog in April 2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off and reposted for your reading pleasure)


Hey you! Yes, you – the fourteen year old with the nail scissors! Put those down and pay attention. I’ve got something to say to you, something you need to hear. Listen up.

You’re in a pretty awful place right now. You’re in a place not many people get low enough to experience in their lives, and even fewer climb out of. This is probably the worst you’ve ever felt about yourself, and you’re thinking: can I go on like this for another day? Do I even want to try? Maybe there’s only one way out...

No, don’t try and brush me off. I’m not going to be fooled by that big goofy grin or your hyperactive chatter. I know the truth. Those half-healed cuts and scratches on your arms and legs? The ‘accidental’ ones that you lie about so well that no one ever questions you?

Yeah. I still have those scars, kiddo. So let’s not play games.

Today, on the way home from school, a group of about ten boys, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen, cornered you. They pushed you up against the wall of a building. They ripped your clothes, groped you, laughed in your face, and spat on you. That was the worst part, somehow. That they spat in your face, on your hair, everywhere. They taunted you while they did it. When you finally, finally, finally managed to get away and get home, you scrubbed yourself until your skin bled, washed your hair until handfuls started coming out. But no matter what you did, you couldn’t get clean. You feel like you’ll never be clean again.

You won't even bother telling anyone about this. Not your parents, sister, teachers. Because you've tried before - you've tried so many times - and it never makes anything better. None of them are surprised anymore, horrified anymore, interested anymore. They'll just ask 'What did you do? Why were you there? Didn't you have any friends to protect you?' and by the time they've finished asking questions you, too, will have started to wonder if it was all your own fault. 

And you and I both know that this isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

Every day since you were eleven, you’ve gotten up, eaten breakfast, left your house, and walked into a nightmare.

You’ve been kicked, pinched, punched, tripped, pushed down stairs, stabbed in the back of your hand, had ink poured down your back, and on one memorable occasion, had eight separate pieces of chewing gum stuck in your hair. You’ve been shunned. Screamed at. Tortured in every way that a person can be, short of hot pokers and bamboo shoots under the nails.

You’ve watched every person you ever called a friend scatter because just being close to you was too dangerous.

You’ve seen teachers who pounce on improperly fastened school uniforms or kids holding hands in the corridor brush off your suffering by telling you to ‘Stop making a fuss' or 'just ignore it’. You’ve lived through punishments on the occasions when you dared to fight back.

You’ve heard your own parents ask each other, when they thought you couldn’t hear: ‘Why does this keep happening? What is she doing wrong? What is wrong with her?’

That’s the question I’m here to answer for you, fourteen-year-old Zolah. Just what the Hell is wrong with you?


Not a single, solitary fucking thing.

Shut up. Don’t start arguing with me. Don’t start crying. You’ve never let them see you cry, and now is not the time to start.

This isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this. There’s nothing missing inside you, no essential flaw, no reason at all why 50% of the kids at your school take pleasure in tormenting you, or why none of the adults in your life seem to be able to help you.


There’s some stuff right with you, though. Some stuff you’ve never realised because you’re too miserably depressed, lonely and self-loathing to realise it. Let me spell it out.

You’re brave. You’re incredibly, stunningly, wonderfully brave. You don’t know this. In fact, you think you’re a coward, that if you were just brave enough you could get people to leave you alone. But the truth is that the courage it takes to keep walking into that school, day after day, to keep putting your hand up in class, to keep studying and doing your homework, to keep reading your books and talking exactly how you want to talk? Is possibly the greatest courage in the world. I’m awed by that courage. One day you’re going to be awed by it too.

You’re also compassionate. Don’t ask me why that matters. I know it’s not a virtue anyone gives a crap about in your life right now, but one day your kindness is going to make you real friends. Friends who will do anything for you, friends who’ll stick with you no matter what, who would never abandon you and take cover. Friends who’ll make your life worth living.

And you’re clever – and it’s not anything to be ashamed of. You sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better if you were like everyone else, if you thought books were stupid, if you didn’t want to learn. But you’re dead wrong. Your intelligence is a gift, an amazing gift. Stop cursing it.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to lie. Things aren’t going to look up straight away. In fact, you’ve got some bad stuff to come. Really bad. But you are going to survive it. And in the not-too-distant future, good things are going to start happening, things which will make up for everything you’ve gone through so far. I promise. YOU will make those things happen. The very traits the other kids hate about you, the bravery, compassion and intelligence that they try to beat out of you, will allow you to follow and find your dreams.

So put those scissors down, okay? You don’t have to punish yourself. You don’t have to keep hurting yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re going to put the scissors down, Zolah. And someday - not any day soon, but someday - you’re going to be all right.

**This is a guest post that was written for the wonderful site Dear Teen Me. Check it out to read hilarious and inspiring letters from authors all over the world to their teen selves**

Monday, 20 May 2019


(Originally posted August 2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

Today I intend to tackle a controversial topic. You can probably guess what it is from the post title, but if not...well, here's where we wade into the Mary-Sue Morass. It's a deep one. You might want to bring a snack. And a spare pair of socks.

If you regularly read book (or film or TV or other media - but most especially book) reviews of any kind, whether in magazines or on Amazon and Goodreads or on book review blogs, you will more than likely (moooore than likely) have come across the term Mary-Sue. And if you didn't already know what the term meant, you might have tried to work it out using the context in which the term was used. But, because hardly any of the people throwing this term around themselves understand what it means, you'll have a tough time of it.

In fact, even if you've read a hundred reviews talking about Mary-Sue characters, you probably still don't know for sure, although you'll have gotten the idea that Mary-Sue = bad news. Bad character. Bad writing. BAD WRITER, NO COOKIE!

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who is too badass
3) A female character who gets her way/a male love interest too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

Do you see, Dear Readers, how many of these aspects of the commonly used term Mary-Sue are...umm...just a teeny bit contradictory? How can Mary-Sue mean 'a female character who is too perfect' when it is also used to mean a female character who is 'annoying or obnoxious'? How can it mean that a character has 'too many flaws' and also 'no flaws'? How can these people have anything in common? It's all so confusing!

Except that it isn't.

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

'A female character.'

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say 'Mary-Sue' is: 'Female character I don't like'.

That's it. That's all.

So why don't they just say 'I didn't like the female character' and explain why? I mean, there's no problem with a reviewer not liking a female character, is there? Everyone is entitled to like or dislike a character according to their own lights. A character that one person loves may seem utterly vile to another reader, and that is a wonderful thing we should all be very happy about as individuals.

How did this strange, contradictory, badly defined term come into such common use in the first place? Clearly it doesn't mean what people think it means - so why not just honestly lay out the reasons you didn't like the female character, the same way you would any other character (by which we mean, a male one) instead of throwing the term Mary-Sue like a mud-pie?

Maybe it's because the reviewers in question, the reviewers who keep saying 'Mary-Sue' as if it was all that needed to be said, don't want to have to explain the reasons why a particular character didn't work for them. Maybe it's because their reasons for finding these female characters just too obnoxious, unrealistic, stupid, passive, badass or talented are as contradictory and badly defined as the term itself. Maybe it's because the reason they don't like the female characters isn't that they're just too...anything. Except just too...female.

For the record, at this point let's see if we can't dig out the actual meaning of the term Mary-Sue. Because it did have a useful definition once, before it was co-opted and turned into a two-word mud-pie to diminish female characters. And that definition was this:

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional."

The term was made up by people writing StarTrek fanfiction, to describe the author-insert characters (often given names like Ensign Mary Sue) who would show up in pieces of fanfiction as a new ensign or science officer and immediately prove to be the best looking, most intelligent, spunkiest, wittiest and most perfect StarFleet officer ever recruited. All the other characters would immediately realise this and hail Ensign Mary Sue as a genius. If they did not, they were obviously motivated by spite and jealousy, since Mary Sue was so clearly perfect (and modest! And humble! And unaware of how beautiful she was!) that no one who wasn't wicked could do anything but embrace her.

She would not only miraculously solve every problem that the Enterprise faced and make instant friends of all the crew, but all the significant male (and maybe female) characters would fall in love with her. Usually Ensign Mary Sue would bravely die at the end of the piece of fanfiction, because the established characters and setting would have become so warped around her utter perfection by then that if she had lived she would have gotten married to either James T Kirk or Spock (or both) and become Captain of the ship, and no one would ever have had to have any adventures again.

In short, Mary-Sue is a wish fulfilment fantasy.

I'm not saying characters like this don't exist. I'd argue they're not even necessarily *bad*. In fact, an example of a Mary-Sue in a well-known novel is the character Bella Swan in Twilight (I'm sorry Twilight lovers, I'm not dissing Bella, I'm just stating a fact about the kind of character she is).

Bella moves to a new town and immediately finds that everyone there wants to be her friend (except for two female characters who are mind-cripplingly obviously jealous) despite the fact that she is not interested in any of them. Bella has no flaws apart from being adorably klutzy. She is convinced that she is plain, and wears no make-up, but everyone reacts to her as if she was ravishingly beautiful. She captures the interest and then the undying love of the main male character despite the fact that he nearly has to turn his whole character inside out to make it happen. She also gets the love of the secondary male character. And all the other boys her age start fighting over her too, even though she's got no interest in any of them either. Bella undergoes no character growth or development within the story because she is already perfect when the story begins. And, as has often been pointed out, the detailed description of Bella is a perfect description of the author, Stephenie Meyer.

So this is what a Mary-Sue is:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story

Believe me, when you come across one, you will know.

And yet I see the term Mary-Sue applied to characters who bear no resemblance to this definition at all. I see it applied to such diverse people as Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Mae from The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Clary from the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Alanna from The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, and Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. These guys, honestly, couldn't be much more different from each other. The only thing they all have in common? Is that they're all girls.

Not a Mary Sue!
I recently read a book that I loved. In the course of the book the heroine underwent immense physical and mental and emotional ordeals. She was by turns denigrated and treated with contempt, and excessively sheltered, patronised, and lied to. She was kidnapped, dragged across rough terrain, attacked, threatened, lost people that she loved, was betrayed by people she had trusted, and had almost unbearable burdens thrust onto her shoulders. She evolved - inch by painful inch - from a very smart, yet extremely insecure and self-centred person, to one who was compassionate and empathetic and able to use her intelligence for the good of others. She changed from a passive and largely physically inactive person to one who was physically strong and active. She worked and scrabbled and fought and whined and cried for every bit of progress she made. She lost everything she loved and wanted and pulled herself up and made a new life for herself, bittersweet though it was.

And I thought: How wonderful!

And then I saw a review calling this character - this amazing, flawed, revolting, inspiring, broken, beautiful, ugly character - a Mary-Sue. Dear Readers, my head nearly exploded.

Definitely not a Mary Sue!
I'm sick of it, Dear Readers. I'm sick of seeing people condemn any female character with a significant role in a book as a Mary-Sue. I'm sick of people talking about how the female characters were too perfect or not perfect enough, too passive or too badass, too talented or too useless, when what they really mean - but don't even KNOW they mean - is that the characters were too much in possession of lady parts.

So now I turn away from my wonderful blog readers, who are lovely, kind, sweet people who would never make my head explode, and I turn to you, the reviewers. Not all the reviewers. Just the ones who are making my head throb dangerously and causing the silvery lights to float in front of my eyes.

I beg, I implore, I get down on bended knee and grovel: next time you're about to use the term Mary-Sue, stop and look at my little checklist above. And if the character you are about to describe does not hit all the points on the checklist? DON'T.

And if you're going to ask how on earth you're supposed to know, without photos of the author, if the character is partly based on them? You've just proved my point. YOU CAN'T. Therefore, you shouldn't be using the term Mary-Sue. Because in doing so, you are making a claim about the character/author relationship which you cannot substantiate. Simple as that.

Absolutely, positively not a Mary Sue!
Instead of slapping 'Mary-Sue' in your review and leaving it at that, make a list of four or five traits or decisions or actions that you think were bad, or unrealistic, or obnoxious, about the character. Perhaps you should discuss those points, and why they bothered you, in the review instead.

But before you do, take a moment to imagine that the character you are thinking about was a boy or a man. And don't say 'Well, that's different' or 'But I just can't see a girl behaving this way' or 'It's not about their gender!' or any other excuse. Look at your list again, really look at it. See if, suddenly, magically, all those traits, decisions or actions don't seem bad, unrealistic or obnoxious anymore but like perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable traits or decisions or actions...for a boy.

By attempting this exercise, you might come to realise that you (like every other human being ever born on this planet, except maybe Jesus and the Dalai Lama) have an unconscious prejudice, an unexamined blind spot. And it doesn't mean you are A Sexist Pig, or A Bad Person, or that I Don't Like You. It means you're human. And humans, oh glory, humans can change.

If you can change enough to realise how damaging and unfair the term Mary-Sue is when used indiscriminately and incorrectly to denigrate female characters, you might start to notice some of the damaging and unfair assumptions which are generally made about ACTUAL FEMALES in this messed up sexist world of ours. You might change enough to start dealing with that and make this world a better place in the process. I believe you can. I believe in you.

But only if you shove the term Mary-Sue into a deep dark closet somewhere and leave it there except for very, very special occasions.

Note: I'm well aware that there's a male variant of the Mary-Sue, called a Gary-Stu. When was the last time you saw that term used as a method of dismissing a male character who was clearly nothing of the kind? Or even to dismiss one who clearly WAS a Gary-Stu like, oh I don't know... Batman? Yeah. That's what I thought.

Saturday, 11 May 2019


(Originally posted November 2012, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

Hello, Dear Readers! It's time for another one of my opinionated posts about writing. Half of the credit for this one goes to the inimitable and lovely Holly of my online writer's group, with whom I was recently grousing on this topic. Hi Holls!

So, what were we grousing about? The fact that both of us (reading on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, no less) had lately picked up stacks of books which had fantastic central premises, which were well paced, pretty well written, full of exciting incidents and maybe even had some initially interesting characters but which - despite all this! - somehow in the end left us feeling... unsatisfied. Cheated. Unmoved. Convinced, somehow, that the whole exercise of turning pages - despite the exciting incidents and great premises and decent writing - had been a waste of time.

After we'd been talking in detail for a while about the various books which had disappointed us this way and trying to figure out just what was WRONG with them, one of us suddenly put our finger on it. The problem was character development. Or, rather, a strong lack of it.

Now, you might think this would be an obvious problem for two writers to notice and figure out. But what we realised was that the lack of character development in these books was masked by the fact that the main character's life was often left totally transformed by the end of the story. All kinds of seismic shifts in their abilities, their home environments, their romantic lives and their understanding of the world. It seemed crazy to say that these characters weren't changing. But they weren't.
In all these books, the hero or heroine saw massive changes in their situation by the end of the story, but they very rarely experienced any shift or development in their character. They were always essentially the same person by the finale of the story, no matter what they had been through. And the finale normally consisted of this person getting what they had wanted all along - without ever having reassessed those desires, made a significant sacrifice to fulfil them, or even question why they desired what they did in the first place.

In fact, it was like the authors had gotten confused on the difference between plot and character.

In my head, I could just imagine these writers proudly saying: 'Look at my character's amazing arc! She goes from a lonely teenager with no idea of her true heritage to a superpowered elf with a hot elvish boyfriend and lots of elvish friends!' Or maybe: 'My character develops from a cold and solitary existence as a lab rat in a secret government facility to a free person and a member of a warm, happy family!' I found many reviews which talked about the plot and the character development in this way, as if they were interchangeable.

But those descriptions above do not touch on any character's arc at all. Nor do they count as character development. They describe plots. And when a plot is serving double duty - trying to be a character arc too - the events (no matter how well paced, well written and exciting) of a story will feel essentially empty. It doesn't matter if the stakes are as small as a girl longing for a date to the prom, or as epic as The End of the World. If the change in the character's situation isn't significant enough to change *them* in any way, then how could the book feel satisfying, let alone leave the reader feeling changed?

These books would turn the POV character's whole world upside down. They might kill off a dear friend or family member right before their eyes, remove them from the only family or environment they'd ever known, or reveal that they had a secret heritage they never knew about. They would pit the main character or characters against life-threatening danger, maybe force them to develop frightening new abilities, offer them the chance to fall passionately in love. I should have been gasping, crying, thrilling.

Yet none of those events, no matter how outwardly shocking or traumatic or wonderful, ever really moved me. They were just that. Events happening to a person. The narrative skimmed over the surface, failing to explore or even acknowledge the profound emotional effects that should have been the point of those story events in the first place. It was as if the writers thought that these Big Important Events by themselves were enough to involve my heart. But the End of the (story) World and everyone in it means absolutely nothing to me if the writer cannot show me what this means to the POV character/s.

In the best books, characterisation and plot are so entwined, so integral to each other and to the events of the book, that they do almost feel like the same thing. But they have fundamentally different functions within a narrative, and trying to create a decent story without one or the other is like trying to have spectacles without frames, frames without the lenses.

Even if you do turn your plain, lonely teen into a superpowered elf and give her a hot boyfriend and an elvish family, you still need to make sure that her established traits, beliefs, insecurities and priorities are challenged, strengthened, destroyed or resolved by the end of the book. We need to see that everything she has been through has affected her meaningfully.

Remember that you're a writer, not the wish-granting fairy from Cinderella. Don't just look at your plot as a series of events that get your hero or heroine to their desired outcome. Not even a series of awesomecoolsauce events. Look at them as ways to push and challenge your character, to expose her deepest traits and develop her personality. Readers long to see the main character become the person they could or should be, not just get the stuff they want.

Your main character doesn't need to evolve into into an entirely new being by the end of the story. In fact, it's better if she doesn't. Changes that happen to the character throughout need to grow naturally from who they are at the start - their core qualities - and the particular pressures that the story and the plot events put on them. The last thing you want is to have the character do a complete u-turn and become someone unrecognisable. That's not satisfying either.

So maybe your elvish heroine started the story as a selfish and insecure girl who was callous to others because she was afraid people would see how vulnerable she was - and in order to get the family and the love she always wanted, she first had to realise that she must treat others well, and be willing to risk giving love, with no guarantee it would be returned?

Maybe she was frightened and timid, a girl who refused to take risks - and she had to find the seeds of courage inside herself, even risk losing the ones she hoped would love her, before she was worthy of them?

Or maybe she was filled with self-loathing, yearning for affection but still convinced she didn't deserve it - and had to learn to value and care for herself first, before she could finally find a place among people who would value and care for her the same way?

Those are CHARACTER arcs. See how they differ from the plot ones? They're about learning, changing, growing, not about getting stuff.

You need to ensure you're putting time and thought into your character's development even if you're writing the first volume of a trilogy or series. In fact, it's even more vital, because if I think you're holding stuff back from me in book one I'm probably not going to bother to go and buy book two. I need to feel that you've got a character arc in your mind as well as a plot one.

An easy way to figure out if you've achieved worthwhile character development is to give your main character or characters a choice. A pivot-point, somewhere near the end of the story. Arrange events so that things could go either way - disaster or triumph - and make the whole thing hinge on a moment of choice for the character. If they act the way they would have at the beginning of the story? Disaster. Even if they act the way that they would have midway through the story. They need to have grown and developed enough that you feel they could reasonably go in the other direction. Then you and the reader will be able to see that they have become who they were meant to be, and that they deserve their happy ending (if you've been nice enough to give them one!).

A great example of this is Katniss' decision at the end of The Hunger Games. At the beginning of the book Katniss' one priority is to win, to survive the Games by any means necessary, because she believes that Prim needs her - and because she doesn't believe in anything other than that. By the end of the book, she is willing to swallow poisonous berries along with with Peeta rather than sacrifice her soul by trying to kill him, and let the Capitol win. She has changed significantly because of the events of the story - but we still see the qualities of bravery, strength and self-sacrifice that Katniss had at the beginning of the book, too. Those traits have just been strengthened and honed by her ordeal.

In Closing: plot is about going places, doing things and getting stuff - changes in situation. Characterisation is about changing, growing and learning stuff - changes in the character's core. Make sure you have both these things running side by side, and you will make Zolah a very happy reader.

I hope this makes sense to you, my lovelies. Any questions? Pop them in the comments.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019


Hello, Dear Readers - happy Tuesday to all. A short and sweet post today, just a piece of poetry that I've been fiddling with on and off, and decided to release into the wild before I overwork it:


The wild iris embraces you
Though he would not.
And the wind that sings
In the dawn-grey bullrushes
And the rising heron,
Speak your name.

He may forget,
But you are shrouded
By reflections of the sun.
And Dragonflies soar,
From the ivory cage
Which imprisoned your faithful heart.

As your face fades
In his memory,
Do not fear.
For the green river remembers
The green girl.
The water knows where you are.

Read you later, lovelies! x

Saturday, 4 May 2019


Hello, and happy Sunday, Dear Readers. I thought that some of you might not have seen this Q&A on the World Book Day website, which is a shame because the questions are particularly thoughtful. So here it is, reproduced in its entirety. I hope you enjoy it.

World Book Day: April 2019

1.     Your beautifully rich new book, The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, is a fantastical adventure about courage, love and gender identity. Can you tell us a bit more about where the inspiration for it came from? 

Thank you! The initial spark that gave the story life arrived around five years ago, when I was watching Disney’s Mulan with my young nieces. I hadn’t seen the film since I was a child myself and when the song ‘Reflection’ started I felt a chill of realisation sneak down my spine. I suddenly saw it as a song about the experience of a trans or non-binary person, and felt that Mulan was crying out for someone to see who they were inside – a person who did not identify with the narrow role given to them by society, or the gender label imposed on them at birth - and begging for the ability to let that identity breathe. But that never actually happens in the film, which left me unsatisfied and cross, and immediately made me want to write my own version. At the same time, taking on such a legendary story seemed like a huge challenge, and I was a bit intimidated.
I went onto social media and began asking if anyone else felt this was a story that needed to be written. Secretly I was hoping that someone might say ‘No!’ Instead, on Tumblr and Twitter, I was met with an avalanche of readers and writers, young and old, who told me ‘Yes!’. The response was overwhelming. So then I had no choice but to roll up my sleeves and get started.
2.     Zhilan, the main character who has a gift for illusionary magic, is an incredibly courageous and determined person. What are the three qualities that you most admire about them? 

Firstly, their moral courage. I don’t mean physical courage, but spiritual bravery. Zhi – which is the name the main character chooses – has an instinctive grasp of what is truly right, of the essence of good and evil, no matter how much the mores of their particular society may contradict them and tell them certain things are wrong or shameful or incorrect. Of course they’re human, so they sometimes falter or doubt, but ultimately they always take the right path, and that kind of courage is immensely rare and precious.
Secondly, their kindness. Zhi lives in a harsh world where it is easier and safer to be distant, or callous, even cruel. But Zhi is deeply kind, and helps others wherever they can, even when it causes them difficulty, pain or inconvenience.
Finally, I admire Zhi’s resourcefulness! Faced with difficult situations, I think most of us tend to panic and list all the things we think are impossible, focusing on what we can’t do. Zhi looks at what they have, what they need, and what they can do, and then makes things happen. They’re like the McGyver of the story!
3.     Your story is set in an imaginary place called The Land of Dragons/ Red Empire that is reminiscent of historical China. How did you research this setting to ensure that your depiction was respectful and accomplished? 

Reading. Lots and lots of reading. I’m an immersive researcher – I act as if I know nothing of value going in, and my assumptions about what I need to learn will therefore be worthless. So I try to read everything I can get my hands on, cover to cover, to give myself a strong background, before I actually begin to pick and chose details to focus on. I spend nearly a year doing very little actual writing, just reading books about Chinese history, natural history, philosophy, culture, food, wildlife, music… I tried to get my hands on works in translation where I could, so that I was reading Chinese people’s perspective on their own culture. I watched lots of historical films from China and several TV serials recommended by a Chinese friend. I listened to a lot of music and read poetry. I looked into multiple different versions of the Mulan story, from the original ballad to the Chinese opera to the recent feature film. The story is deeply informed by everything I learned, and I’m very grateful that I had time to do this. Huge thanks to Arts Council England for their Grant for the Arts, which gave me the space and resources to do the kind of research the story needed.
I also put out a call to readers who were Chinese or of Chinese heritage on my blog and social media to ask them what they would like to see in a book like this, what would bring them joy and what they would prefer not to see ever again. I was lucky enough that several people were willing to offer me that kind of insight, and that had a strong impact on the book, too.
4.     Your book explores gender identity andhas characters with a variety of sexual orientations. Why is it important for books to have diverse characters and for young people to have LGBTQ+ fiction to read? 

Because diversity is reality. I’m stunned by the amount of grown-ups I come into contact with who seem constantly baffled by or resentful of the fact that the world isn’t full of people just like them. That loads of different kinds of people exist, and take up space, and to go about their own day to day lives in a way that isn’t the ‘normal’ represented by mass media – that is to say, a ‘normal’ where 99% of people are straight, white, cis, able-bodied etc. And this – the simple reality of the real world - makes these grown-ups so frightened and angry that they act as if people who are different to them merely existing is some kind of attack on them and their lives. They strike out, and they cause hurt and suffering to others who’ve never harmed them at all, and then call it a victory for ‘common sense’ or ‘family values’ or ‘decency’ when really it’s only a victory for fear and spite.
All children, whether they’re LGBTQA+ or not, need to see diverse portrayals in the media they consume. They need to learn that empathy is not only for people just like them, but for all humanity – that all perspectives have value, that all stories are valid and important.
On a very personal note, growing up I read zero portrayals of people like me – asexual aromantics – in the books I loved. I had no idea that anyone else like me even existed. The closest thing I ever saw to that were characters who heartlessly or spinelessly ‘rejected’ love and were either miserable or villainous. As a result, I struggled so hard to feel the things that other people seemed to feel, and make central to my life the things that the whole of society taught me were vital and important. It didn’t work. It wasn’t me. It caused me a great deal of unhappiness, and it was not until my late twenties that I had a label for myself and was able to begin the ongoing process of accepting who I am. I pray passionatelythat others don’t have to go through this, but I know they probably are, even as I type these words. As a writer, the only thing I can do to help is to try to write the most diverse books I can, and hope they find their way into the hands of the young people who desperately need to read them.
5.     When civil war breaks out, Zhilan takes their disabled father’s place to save them from the battlefield. Without giving any spoilers, in what ways is this a positive character-building experience for them? 

I think being thrown into a new world – even one that is so frightening and at times cruel and unfair – gives Zhi the chance to understand their own strength. Their own potential, and their gifts, and how truly special they are when they stop holding back and simply do what feels right to them. They’ve been loved and valued by their family, certainly - but only if they conformed to what their family believed they should be, and walked within the confines of a very narrow role. Going out into the world allows Zhi to see that while the life they led before had beauty and safety – and yes, value - they also have so many other things to offer, which they would never even have discovered within themselves, let alone been allowed to use, if they hadn’t been forced to by change and danger.
6.     A point that stood out for me is how fairy-tales can also be used to pigeon-hole people and take away their independence, such as Zhilan being compared to Dou Xianniang. Is the place of idealised stories in society something that you specifically wanted to explore? 

Very much so. Perhaps not so much with fairytales these days, since a lot of very talented writers have done a wonderful job of reclaiming those and putting diverse, Feminist spins on them. But for women, and for marginalised people in society, there’s often such a dearth of depictions that we become hemmed in by One Story (as author Chimamanda Ngozi puts it). We’re told there’s one way to be A Good Woman, that we must behave a certain way and conform to certain traits or else we’re bad and wrong. For instance, for a long time girls were told: “To be good is to be nice. Smile. Care for animals and small children. Take pride in looking a certain way so that others find pleasure in looking at you – but do not show off, or be bossy or attention-seeking. Give others a chance to talk before you. Make way. Make room.”
And then we were given the Strong Female Character, who was loud and often angry, and apparently didn’t care how she looked, and instead of making room for people, shot them with arrows or stabbed them with swords. Suddenly the people who’d been struggling to fulfil that first stereotype of Goodness were told - "You’re wrong! You’re passive! You’re boring and shallow! You’re not A Strong Female! This is what it means to be A Good Woman now!"
But then there was a backlash against the Strong Female too. She was unrealistic, she was aggressive, she was a Mary-Sue. She was being sexist against men!
The problem isn’t in the idea of kindness and gentleness, of course, or of standing up for yourself and being angry and loud. It was that society was, and is, still telling people what to be. Trying to write the stories for them and force them to follow along. We need to empower people to inhabit their own stories, and give them the confidence to be unique, fully realised individuals, and not penalise them for failing to conform.
7.     At the heart of your book is a warm message about being true to yourself and fighting for what you believe in. What do you hope readers take away from the book? 

I think Zhi says it right at the beginning of the story: no one is what they seem, not even ourselves. I want readers to learn to know themselves. To face who they are, honestly and with respect – to love themselves despite what they may see as weaknesses, and to embrace the best parts of who they are. Don’t take yourself, or others, for granted. None of us really know what we’re capable of. We all have the capacity to be much stronger, braver, more beautiful and more compassionate than we can imagine. But we also have the capacity to be selfish, cruel, oblivious and ungenerous. Life is a process of learning about the world, about ourselves and other people that we meet. We should all be prepared to undergo that journey of learning with joy, and an open heart. 

And finally, as part of our Share A Story campaign, we celebrate the magic of sharing stories. For readers who would like to read another story like The Hand, The Eye & The Heart, do you have any favourites to share?  

I heartily recommend Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – an extraordinary, beautifully written diverse fantasy set in an Asian-inspired world – although this is an adult novel and therefore has some warnings for sensitive content. In books specifically for young adults, I love Megan Whalen Turner’s on-going The Thief series. This is set in a world inspired by ancient Greece and is tragic and hilarious and very much deals with the topic of multiple identities and ways of perceiving people.

I’m a big fan of short stories, and Leigh Bardugo’s dark fairytale anthology The Language of Thorns and Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times are favourites of mine.

Updated to add: I'm also currently reading Descendent of the Crane by Joan He, and absolutely loving it.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019


Hello and happy Thursday, Dear Readers. I hope life is showing you all the joy and success that you deserve.

I've been struggling to come to terms with the Twitter-storm triggered by The Hand, the Eye & the Heart's release, and my mental health has continued to be not-so-great. Which - because nature just loves to keep on giving! - has a knock on effect on some of my chronic health conditions, becoming a bit of a vicious circle. In addition to this, my mum has recently been seriously ill again, something which we thought would no longer be an issue after she had her operation at the beginning of the year. So I'm... stressed, in a word.

But I want to say how much I appreciate every single message, comment, DM and email of love and support that I've received from readers and fellow writers. I've read all of them, some multiple times, even when I haven't managed to reply. Your kindness has meant the world to me.

And now there's a lovely chance to say thank you to some of you in person, which I can FINALLY talk about! YALC is coming up and I will be there, Dear Readers, on Friday the 27th! I'll be doing the panel 10 Things I Love About YA Retellings, and the other panelists are *amazing*.

If I ever win the lotto, I swear I will replace this author photo, which is approx 300 yrs old
Look at that. Renee Ahdieh! Kiran Millwood-Hargrave! And Sharon Dogar! I'm so excited and honoured to have been invited as part of this line-up. Slightly concerned I may swoon/fangirl all over all of them, but still excited and honoured. I'll try my very best to be cool ha ha ha ha ha. Ahem.

Please do come along and say hello if you can, my lovelies. Even though the panel itself will be an amazing experience, 90% of my reasons for attending YALC at any time, and especially this year, are to have a rare chance to connect with you in real life. You could not be more important to me, so if you can make it? Rest assured that your presence will absolutely make my day.

Sending love and gratitude to you all. xx

Sunday, 21 April 2019


(Originally posted 5/06/2011, now retrieved from the archive, gently dusted off, and re-posted for your reading pleasure)

When I woke up this morning to find my Twitter feed being eaten alive by references to an article in the Wall Street Journal about YA literature, my first reaction was confusion, because that article came out ages ago. Didn't it? Oh, no - this was a NEW article from the WSJ, ANOTHER article belittling my genre and chosen medium as an artist. Did a YA author kick the editor of the WSJ in the ankle on the train recently or something? These guys just don't seem to like us. But then, thinking about it, no one really seems to like us, do they?

Pretty much every other day YA writers have to put up with another condescending article in which the entire field of young adult and children's writing is compressed down to the sparkly vampire elements so that the journalist can smirk. Or a comment from some lauded adult literary writer who thinks anyone who bothers writing for people under the age of eighteen is mentally defective. Or an article like this one, that bemoans the debauched, depraved tone of YA literature and compares it unfavourably to the books of the writer's own childhood.

The first thing most of these articles do is to point out how new YA is. And they're right. Young Adult only got its own shelf in the library or bookshop sometime in the late eighties or early nineties. Before that, there was just children's and adult's. And not long before that, there was adult, all on its own, and children read the Bible and classics and that was it. A lot of people seem to wish for a return to this state of affairs - or, at least, that's how it seems to those of us who keep finding ourselves under attack for daring to see young adults as a worthy audience with high intelligence, enquiring minds, and their own particular experiences and concerns, who deserve books specifically written for them.

In the minds of these article-writers, new = bad. Just as, apparently, truthful, intense, dark books which explore the real world young adults share with the rest of us = bad. The YA haters, whatever their stated concerns, always seem to be looking back, longing for some past Golden Age of Innocence, when books for younger readers were bright and cheerful and happy and uncomplicated. A hazy, non-specific 1950's lite period, when kids were respectful to their elders, no one had to lock their doors, child abuse was unheard of. When children never cried alone, or hurt themselves or others. When, presumably, young people themselves were bright, cheerful, happy and uncomplicated.

Here's a little newsflash for you. That time never actually existed.

It is a product of the adult imagination. Nothing more than convenient fantasy. Weak and feeble nostalgia. And kids know it.

The world has never been 100% cheery and happy and uncomplicated. Tragically, kids have always been abused. They have always suffered in silence, hurt themselves and others. Children have always, always, always partaken of the pain and agony of humanity, as well as its joy and brightness. They have always had to live with the same darkness, the same wars, the same nightmares as adults do. In fact, they've normally caught the worst of it. Take a look at childhood and infant mortality rates in any third world country if you don't believe me. Actually, take a look at child poverty statistics for the U.S. right now. Still feeling nice and cozy there on your moral high ground?

One of the most heart-breaking parts of Meghan Cox Gurdon's article is the way that she dismisses Scars, a novel by Cheryl Rainfield. Ms Cox Gurdon thinks the subject of the book - a girl who cuts to help herself cope with years of systematic abuse by her father - 'normalises' self-harm. That the topics it covers are 'lurid'. She criticises the cover with it's photograph of a 'horribly scarred forearm'. Apparently all this stuff is just too 'depraved' for teens.

Does Ms Cox Gurdon realise that Cheryl Rainfield herself was ritually and sytematically tortured by her parents as a child? That the forearm she dismisses as horrible actually belongs to Cheryl? Here, the author uses her own experiences to write a book that reaches back to her childhood self, reaches out to the thousands of other children who are going through what she went through, and tells them 'You can survive this. Don't lose hope.' Scars is an artistic act of the highest courage possible and one I admire more than I can say.

But Ms Cox Gurdon, like others of her kind, does not care about the children whose lives might be saved by this book. Or the thousands of other children who, through reading such a book, will gain understanding, empathy and compassion for the survivors of abuse and become better, more rounded individuals. She wants to pretend that bad things don't happen to anyone real - especially kids - that 'normal' people don't find this stuff relevent, that no one she knows or cares about could be damaged and hurting like the character in Scars.

Let me now address the YA haters directly - for my own satisfaction, but also in hopes of getting through some seriously thick skulls:

The reason you feel free to attack YA this way is because you think it's a soft target. You think it's valueless. You think no one takes it seriously. You think the YA field is a fleeting flash in the pan, getting undeserved attention and success. You think if you sit in judgement in your safe little corner, it'll all go away and proper literature (that's the stuff you like) will eventually take its place.

Unfortunately for you, this attitude betrays you. It makes clear your true feelings about young adults, the very people for whom you profess to have such concern.

You think young adults are valueless. You don't take them seriously. You dismiss their feelings and experiences as fleeting and shallow. You think if you just din your own personal values and beliefs into young adult heads hard enough, you'll be able to drown out their questions, their inconvenient new ideas, their worrying complexity, and produce a Mini-You, an adult in teenage clothing.


YA is too dark for you? Too bleak? Too sad, and challenging and REAL? You think we should all collude in some kind of mass hallucination in which we pretend bad things never happen, and kids exist in a perpetual state of rosy-cheeked glee and laughter? Well, I'll tell you what. You build yourself a nice spaceship, find a new planet and create that ideal, shiny world. Invite your family and friends. I'm sure it'll be just swell. So long as everyone represses their real feelings forever, of course.

But the rest of us are live HERE. Including those of humanity who are too young and vulnerable to have voices of their own. They look to the writers of YA fiction to speak to them, to speak the truth. To write books that are brave enough to touch them in their isolation and loneliness.

In spite of you, and everything you do to tell young adults that they don't get a say, that their experiences are lesser, that if they just ignore the pain it will go away, that none of it matters and in years to come they will look back and laugh? They will grow into the people they should be. They will grow into new writers and artists, trail-blazers, kicking the status quo in the teeth and telling things like they are.

Young adult literature is new. It's raw and brash and brazen. It's trashy, silly, funny and beautiful. It's stomach-churing, harrowing and dark. It's subtle, complex, transformative and brave.

It's ART, for God's sake. What do you expect?

And when young adults dive into it, they will find all these horrors and wonders - and they will find themselves.

If you don't like it? Your spaceship awaits. Bon voyage!

Friday, 19 April 2019


(Originally posted on this blog 26/08/2011, now retrieved from the archives, carefully dusted off, and reposted for your reading pleasure)

Hey everyone! This is a follow-up to last week's post Wake Up and Smell the Real World, where I'm going to try and clarify a few things that were discussed in the comment thread.

First of all, I urge you to read these very interesting posts - the first one about about the movie business, and how film students, even film students who were not male, not able-bodied and not white found themselves caught up in responding to headshots of potential actors a certain way. Then there's this response, which isolates the fact that when you try to point out other people's unconscious prejudice, you're often accused of prejudice yourself.

As both these posts point out, the warped view of the world we're all presented with near-constantly by the media mixed with human instinct to 'type' other people according to difference means that none of us - NONE OF US - is free of unconscious prejudice. Imma say that again. NONE OF US. I'd put sparklers around that if I could. This is important.

I freely admit that I'm not free of prejudice. That's not a big admission to make because NONE OF US are. What matters is to be aware of this fact, and willing, when you have a response to something, to examine it and be honest about where that response comes from.

Let me elaborate. What is the usual reaction among your friends and family if you hint that something they have said or assumed may spring from prejudice? Any suggestion that they are not perfectly liberal, prejudice free, shiny-bright and unbiased? I bet it's defensiveness and anger. 'I'm not a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobe!' they cry, their brains filled with images of Neo-Nazis, evil, sweaty monsters, and vile, chuckling villains. 'How can you SAY that about me?' They don't listen to what you've actually said. They only react to in order to repudiate it.

Anger and defensiveness are a really good warning sign - because people only get angry and defensive when they have something to defend. That 'something' is their own image of themselves, the comfy assumptions that allow them to walk through the world feeling content with who they are. They know they're a good person, not a hateful, chuckling Neo-Nazi. Therefore they cannot be a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic.

Except that they probably are.

I am. Every prejudice that those angry, defensive people have? I have too. They lurk there in the back of my mind, pretending that they're 'instinct' or 'common-sense' or 'realism' when actually, they are just bigotry.

That doesn't make me a horrible, hateful, chuckling Neo-Nazi. It just makes me not perfect. That's all. A work in progress. A person who is willing to be honest with themselves and the world.

And in admitting that, I become a far more able to recognise and reject prejudice than I ever was when I was striding through the world in my insulated bubble of I'm-A-Good-Person ignorance, refusing to admit that my actions could *possibly* be influenced by evolutionary imperatives to reject those who are different, and centuries of religious and secular bigotry, and a mass media who refuse to represent the world as it really is.

The moment you let go of that image of yourself as a perfect, shiny-bright Good Person who couldn't possibly harbour prejudice, is the moment you will begin truly working AGAINST prejudice. Honesty is the key. Honesty is the thing that allows you to confront your own ingrained assumptions about other people and then put them aside so that you can act, as much as possible, as if you were NOT prejudiced.

Try it. Go ahead. It doesn't hurt, I promise. Take a deep breath, and then say, out loud: "I am not perfect. I am flawed. I have ingrained prejudices. I will do my best to recognise and overcome them."

Doesn't it feel like a weight off your chest? To admit to yourself that you don't have to be perfect, that it's OKAY to have nasty, knee-jerk reactions to things, sometimes, so long as you're willing to make sure no one else suffers as a result?

Now that we've gone there, I link you to this post, which was prompted by the original Wake Up and Smell the Real World post, and which in turn prompted THIS post.

And the reason that response post is crucial? Is that as a creative person who tries to embrace diversity and who writes about a lot of characters who have experiences and come from backgrounds nothing like mine, I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to write characters or create plots or situations that rub people up the wrong way. Some of those reactions will come from people who've put up with bigotry all their lives and who are just godammned sick of tripping over everyone else's privilege. And they're unlikely to give a flying pamplemoose about my ongoing project to kick bigotry in the behind. They're just going to say 'YOU SUCK' and walk away.

And that's OK. That's really the whole point of this post. It's not anyone else's job to educate me, or give me a pat on the head for trying really hard.

The correct response to having someone notice the fact that, despite my endeavors, I'm still flawed and unconsciously prejudiced, is NOT to flee back into the I'm-A-Good-Person bubble, claim that the ones telling me I suck are horrible, nasty, ungrateful and prejudiced themselves, and say sulkily: 'Fine! I'll just write about white people from now on and THEN YOU'LL BE SORRY!.

Nor is it to curl into a ball on the floor, weeping, and bash my head repeatedly on the tiles chanting: "I am a terrible, horrible, no-good bigot who should be flayed UNTIL SHE IS SORRY!"

It's to learn - and to keep going. Don't get me wrong. It is hard. But it's necessary. Because, I'm coming to realise, it's not enough for writers (or actors or artists or politicians or firemen or teachers or dog-walkers or CEOs) to write the change that they want to see in the world.

We have to BE the change we want to see in the world, and keep on being it, even knowing that we'll never be perfect - only better than we were before.

OK, I've been rambling on for a while here, so let's sum up. In order to fight prejudice in our day to day lives, we must:
  1. Step out of the I-Am-A-Good-Person bubble and admit that we are imperfect and flawed and prejudiced, like the rest of the world
  2. Be honest with ourselves when we say or do something as a result of prejudice
  3. Accept that fighting against prejudice is our own responsibility and our own choice and that no one owes us gratitude or any particular recognition for it
  4. Allow other people to tell us when we mess up without dismissing what they feel or fleeing back into the IAAGP bubble again, or trying to drink bleach because we STILL aren't perfect
  5. Rinse. Repeat.

Thursday, 18 April 2019


WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD: DIVERSITY IN FANTASY (Originally posted here 26/1/2011, now unearthed from the archive and carefully dusted off for your reading pleasure)

This post started out one way, and ended up becoming something else. I sat down with the intention of writing a How To article on the topic of world building, with the bullet points and all that. But as I sketched out my process for coming up with a textured and diverse fantasy world, I began thinking about a discussion I've been having with some writing friends lately, and some really interesting blog posts that I've recently seen from other writers, and instead, it turned into an essay.

So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. And I can pass as straight, although I'm actually not (which is kind of a complex issue, and not the topic of this post, so I'll move on). And I can usually pass as able bodied - the chronic health conditions from which I suffer are not visible and during 'good' periods I come very close to normal health. I'm not neuro-typical, but again, most of the time I can pass. I'm also cis, which means that my biological sex and gender expression match up to ideals of 'femininity' as accepted by the modern Western world. Therefore, I have what is called privilege (not as much as others, because even though I can pass as straight and able-bodied and neurotypical, I'm not, but again - another topic for another post).

The term 'privilege' encompasses a lot, but for the purposes of this essay it means that when I turn on the TV, go to see a film or pick up a book, the overwhelming number of characters depicted, the overwhelming number of stories told, will be about people who look 'like me'.

For much of my early life, I unconsciously felt that those people were the majority of the world, and that those stories were somehow universal, archetypal, the default.

They are not.

When I slowly began to become aware of this, at first I didn't know what to do about it. It was easy for me to argue that I simply didn't have the experience required to write about people who weren't like me. I'd never walked down the street and seen automatic caution or fear or disgust in someone's eyes just because of how I was born. I'd never experienced racial abuse - although members of my family had, it's just not the same. I'd never had to defend my right to to hold hands with someone I loved, or come up against the assumption that I was a brave little soul or a freak of nature from a complete stranger. My private life, of course, with friends, co-workers, acquaintances and family members, was a different matter. But in essence, when I walk down the street people look at me and see an inoffensive white girl and, unless they are vile misogynist street harassers (with whom I have had my fair share of run ins) let me be.

I've seen this argument a lot, from writers. That they don't have the experience, that they'll get it wrong, that they don't want to offend anyone - and so it's better if they just write about characters like themselves. And I've seen writers who have made that arduous effort to include the odd gay or non-white or not-able bodied character talk about how difficult it is to correctly portray someone who is not like them. And I've seen other writers say that they feel they're being pressured to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them, and it makes them feel restricted and uncomfortable, like their choices are being taken away.

But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. 100% heterosexual people who fit perfectly within modern Western gender binaries are not the majority of the world. Able bodied people are not the majority of the world. We - and I include people like me, who don't actually fit into many of those categories - just think they are because the vast majority of the time, people who are NOT white, and straight, and cis, and able bodied, only show up in the media in token roles. Look, we included a sassy gay boy who can give the heroine advice on clothes (but will never get a meaningful relationship of his own)! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself (who may get a relationship but it will only be with someone of the same ethnic group)! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a sassy boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life (who won't even get to express an interest in a life of his own because after all people in wheelchairs are just there to prove a point)! Aren't we broadminded!

No. I'm afraid you aren't.

Currently, the media is showing a horribly skewed picture of the real world. Fiction writers, with our limitless power to reinvent the world, to hold a mirror up to it or subvert it, are showing a horribly skewed picture of the world. If you are not white, if you are not straight, if you are not physically perfect (and to some extent, if you are one of the slightly more than 50% of the population who is female) you know how it feels to wonder why no one wants to write about people LIKE YOU for a freaking change. Write stories that are unique to your unique experiences and which treat the characters involved like fully developed, complex and evolving people, not just props for the white, straight, able-bodied lead actor/character to lean on.

Why isn't everyone - even the straight white (male) people - bored with straight white (male) characters yet?

The more I force my mind to open, the stranger it seems to me. Straight, cis, white, able bodied people are such a small minority in the real world that when you're attempting to create any kind of a realistic fantasy world it's quite *un*realistic to keep putting characters with those traits in the majority of the major roles. Why would you limit yourself that way?

I mean, that's not to say that writers with blonde hair can never write blonde heroines. It's not to say that straight, cis, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films, ever. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, races, ethnicities, cultures, physical traits, sexual and gender identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write books which only feature main characters 'just like them', or even 'just like' all those homogenous white, straight, cis, able bodied people on TV. If nothing else, it's boring.

When I wrote a guest post for another blog which briefly touched on this issue, the response in comments really shocked me (that was before the Mary-Sue thing. After that, I'm not sure I can be shocked anymore).

Some people were defensive, saying that their all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts '...just come to me! I don't decide on their race/sexual orientation/physical status! My character are who they ARE!'

Bull. Sorry, but it's bull. You have nothing to do with how your characters turn out? They just magically appear to you, fully formed? Let me tell you what is magically and mysteriously presenting these all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts to you: your own unexamined prejudice.

I'll let you in on a secret. Those TV-ready casts of white, straight, cis, able-bodied characters 'just present themselves' to me quite often as well. But when it happens, I stop, remember that I'm the author and I'm in charge of the stories I write, and make a decision that it's not good enough. And I go searching for characters who deflect a more realistic and diverse picture of the world.

Other commenters on the post took a 'Pshaw! What do YOU know about it, white girl?' stance. It's harder to argue with that one because I'm very aware that I'm making all these statements from a position of privilege. But at the same time, I'm one of the people who is writing works of fiction and putting stories out into the world, changing it - or shoring up its existing systems and structures of prejudice - even if I don't mean to. So don't I have a responsibility to speak out on this subject? Doesn't everyone, really?

Even though it might sound strange, when we're creating fantasy worlds I think it's vital to look at the real world first. The REAL real world. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us - not just the white, straight, able-bodied ones - and no one is going to get it right first time or probably all the time, even if they're truly making an effort. But the first step to changing the world of fiction so that it reflects everyone instead of just a tiny, privileged portion, is to think about it and realise that things DO need to change.

Thursday, 11 April 2019


Hello and happy Thursday, Dear Readers! It's time to announce the winners of last week's The Hand, the Eye & the Heart Book Birthday Giveaway!

Since we ran this thing through Rafflecopter, I used their random winner function to pick out the lucky entries that will each receive a signed copy of the book, as well as a post card and a signed bookplate. The winners are on display on the competition widget below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Is that you? CONGRATULATIONS! Email me here and let me know how you'd like me to personalise your book and bookplate AND where to send your prize!

Out of these random winners I used random number generator to select the Grand Prize winner, who will also receive this gorgeous, custom-made, hand-carved jade phoenix pendant.

I'm very happy to announce that the Grand Prize Winner is: Barker and Jones Staff!

Get in touch as soon as you can, guys - I can see that some of you live in far-off climes and your prize is going to have a real journey to reach you, so the quicker I know your details the better.

Apologies for the short post here, everyone. Release week was pretty hectic - including that wonderful panel with so many amazing authors at Waterstone's Piccadilly - and I've been constantly unwell the whole time, so I'm quite frankly knackered at this point and just want to curl up quietly under a blanket and read and sip cautiously on ginger and lemon tea. Luckily it's Easter half term so I have a couple of weeks off to recover as well as a pile of new books to read. I intend to be a good adult and listen to my body for once.

Here's a picture of me signing books at the MARVELOUS Gay's the Word bookshop on Tuesday to make up for it:

And there's a bunch more exciting news which I should hopefully be able to share with you soon-ish, so keep your eyes peeled. Read you later, my lovelies!

Thursday, 4 April 2019


HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY DEAR READERS! *Sets off party poppers* *Blows a kazoo* *Flings confetti*

After nearly FOUR YEARS of planning, researching, writing, revising, after nearly two years of working with my publisher and with various wonderful sensitivity readers, and after 10 days of blogtour magic, THE HAND, THE EYE & THE HEART's release day is finally here! The book should now be available to buy from the real life or virtual shelves of your preferred bookshop or vendor and can also be requested from your library. PLEASE DO WHICHEVER ONE OF THESE THINGS YOU CAN AFFORD OR FIND TIME FOR, DEAR READERS. Above all, please do not illegally download this, even though it might be easy and tempting to do so. Support your local starving writers if you want them to keep on writing! And also support their pets, who need to eat too!


Long-time Dear Readers know that this book has had what is commonly referred to as 'a journey' to get published. More information in the personal costs of writing this book can be found here, but today - as I'm looking at the amazing, heartfelt and joyous responses to my weirdo, chunky, queer af little book baby, it all becomes completely worth it. Look at this from Tuesday night:

Number one! *Flings some more confetti* Of course, it's not there anymore, so if anyone felt like nipping across and buying a copy for themselves or as a wonderful gift for a family member or a friend...


Massive thank yous to Arts Council England, the Royal Literary Fund and my agent for believing and investing in this story, to Walker Books for bringing it to the world, and to Fox Benwell, Jay Hulme and Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling for helping to make it as good as my measley artistic powers would allow. My THE HAND, THE EYE & THE HEART themed Q&A for World Book Day, which has many thoughtful questions about this book, identity, representation and diversity (and my rambling answers) is now up.

Other news! The Queens of Fantasy panel and signing at Piccadilly Waterstones on the 8th of April is SOLD OUT. Don't say I didn't warn you tickets were going fast! I really, *really* hope to see a lot of you guys there - it will be a combined birthday AND book launch treat! - but if you couldn't make it, don't worry, just remember that there's also Cymera in Edinburgh on the 8th of June. Hopefully I'll soon be able to talk about some other upcoming, exciting events...

Now, just in case you missed any, here's a round up of blog tour stops which have taken place since my last update:

Andrew at PewterWolf's fantastic book-themed playlist (you know I am all about that book-playlist life). I love, love, LOVE the fact that Imogen Heap is on here. I'm such a massive fan, and this track in particular is *perfect* for one of my favourite parts of the book which is incredibly dark and intense.

Cora at Tea Party Princess dates The Hand, the Eye & The Heart in exactly the loving yet respectful way that any book mum would hope for. 

Maddie Browse did a gorgeous calligraphy spread of one of my personal favourite quotes from the story (so glad other people found it meaningful too).

Jemima Osborne did a freaky fabulous make-up look inspired by the book and which must have taken a *lot* of work. Respect.

Rosie Freckles finished the tour of in fine style for a book filled with poetry by composing a stunning poem of her own in tribute to many of the important themes and moments in the story.

Here's the whole book tour line-up if you want to go back to the beginning or ensure you haven't missed any. RT and share these fine people's work, muffins - book bloggers, especially our very own #UKYA book blogers, don't get nearly enough love.

And to ensure that they get a bit MORE love, and also to spread that love to as many of you as possible, I'm going to hold a massive giveaway, because that's how we roll!

I have five signed copies of this gorgeous book to give away to a Dear Reader. Each one will be personalised for you, and will arrive complete with signed bookplates for you to put in any other books by me that you currently own or may own in the future, book-themed postcards, and other swag. ONE special prize will also include this:

This is a hand-carved jade pendant which I've commissioned from a Chinese artist, and it shows twin phoenixes - symbols of female strength and power, which are key themes in THE HAND, THE EYE & THE HEART.

The giveaway is open INTERNATIONALLY and will run for one week (which is the max time &#5@ing Rafflecopter will allow, sorry!) from today. In order to enter you just need to RT this post on Twitter or share it on Facebook or any other social media site, or RT or share any of the entries on the blog tour (but please don't put a link in the comments on other people's blogs, it's kind of rude).

You can get more entries by sharing and RTing more posts! Just paste the links of your RTs or shares into the giveaway below. Simplez!

Much love, and thank you again for all of your support for this book, my precious muffins!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, 29 March 2019


Hello and happy Friday, my lovelies! I hope your week's been delightful so far, and if not, that you're prepared to pamper yourself over the weekend to make up for it. Today (as the title suggests) is a round-up of all the wonderful blog activity on THE HAND, THE EYE & THE HEART's marvellous tour so far. Frankly, I've just been blown away by this, so let's dive right in.

Monday's post was a musical tribute to the book by Alex at The Paperback Piano which is just unspeakably beautiful.

Tuesday's stop was gorgeous Dear Reader Hannah, founder of Luna's Little Library, who engaged in a fairly awe-inspiring chapter by chapter breakdown of her reactions to the book - sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes spoilery (you have been warned!)

On Wednesday Laura Patricia Rose contributed a fashion spread of just the loveliest outfit (that I would definitely wear) inspired by the book. Bird belt inspired by Bingbing: 10/10. 

Thursday we were blessed with Charlotte from Wonderfully Bookish Blog's beautiful, atmospheric and spoiler free image/mood board which is a very interesting insight for me, personally, into the visual impressions a reader might glean from my writing.

And we're closing the week out with Kirsty's endearingly nerdy yet gorgeous Anagrammatical Shenanigans (that's the only term I feel is fitting).


The blog tour continues right up until release day, so I will be rounding up again next Thursday as part of my release day post. I urge you not to wait that long to check these fantastic posts out, though - I'll be sharing and RTing during the week and I'd love it if you did the same to build excitement and buzz, not only about the book's publication but also our fantastic #UKYA blogging community.

And as if that wasn't enough excitement, my lovely publisher Walker Books are currently running a super exciting giveaway on Twitter - you can win not only a copy of the book but also a stunning Chinese calligraphy brushpainting set. UK Dear Readers can win by following them here:

If you're not in the UK then you should definitely be checking back here on release date for a post about the book's journey and also a new, international giveaway which maaaaaay be of interest...

I've been getting messages on Facebook and Goodreads asking me if I'll be doing any signings for this book, so even though I've been banging on about this non-stop I feel it behooves me to remind everyone again that I'll be in London the week the book's release - on the 8th of April, right after my birthday! - to chat about the book (and other awesome books) with a raft of awesome, award-winning and bestselling authors at Waterstone's Piccadilly. We will also sign copies! AS MANY COPIES AS YOU WANT. Book tickets now so as to avoid the sad, frowning grey unicorn of disappointment!

Finally, perhaps it is time for another NEW and EXCLUSIVE SNIPPET of my precious book baby? Don't mind if I do, muffins! Read below the cut:

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