Friday, 30 December 2011

LOOKING BACK AT 2011

Heeellooo, Dear Readers! It looks like we've survived Christmas (hopefully - you're still alive, right?) and as we head into the New Year it seems only right to take a look back at everything that's happened over the last twelve months, reflect on events, see what went wrong and why, and be thankful for what went right.

Following the tradition I started last year, I used the Year In Status app on Facebook to take a look at what I've been talking about most in 2011, and it's not a surprise to see that what I've mostly been talking about is writing, writing and more writing. This year was my first full twelve months as a full-time writer. It's been unbelievably wonderful, and there have been a lot of challenges, many of them not the ones I'd have expected if you asked me this time last year.

2011 saw the release of my third book after a gap of over two years, and it was a relief and a joy to get my place in the nation's bookshops back again. That's the main landmark, and that's how I'll probably always think of 2011, the year of Shadows on the Moon. Highlights included getting a five star review from Books For Keeps, getting shortlisted for the St Helen's Book Award, and seeing the amazing book trailer for the first time.


But a lot of other stuff happened as well! Too much stuff to go back and list, really. So instead, I decided to go back and have a look at the list of not-quite-resolutions-but-something-like-them for 2011 and see what worked and what fell by the wayside.
  1. Write six days a week, using my notebook. Did I succeed here? For the most part, yes, I did. A lot of this year was taken up with reworking and revising and rewriting, but there were many weeks when I worked seven days, and many days when I worked twelve hours, scribbling away either on my laptop or in my notebook. In fact, this year it was a challenge to hold myself back from turning into a writing hermit, and force myself to take the time to get out and do other things now and then.
  2. Write two books in 2011. This was an ambitious one! And in a strange way, I did manage to achieve it - but not in the way I'd hoped. I spent several months completely revising FrostFire and turning it into an entirely new book than the one I'd written in 2010. Then I wrote The Night Itself, the first book of the Katana Trilogy. I'm proud that I managed to get both those things done, and I\m proud of the way both books turned out... I just wish that I'd managed to get FF right the first time.
  3. Carry on blogging three times a week, and try to vlog once a month. Well, I managed to do the blogging thing - apart from my one week holiday hiatus and the hiatus over Christmas, which I think were an OK compromise. It wasn't always easy! It's always been rewarding, though, and this year I've seen reader numbers surge, as well as getting fairly widespread attention for my posts on the Mary-Sue issue. But as for the vlogging...ha! That fell by the wayside early on, as I realised that each five minute video I made usually took at least one day to put together. I actually did apply to join the vlogging group The YA Rebels this year, which would have meant vlogging once a week. I didn't get in, and when I realised that instead of disappointed I felt relieved, I realised that I generally MUCH prefer writing my blog posts than talking them out loud!
  4. Do all I can to promote Shadows so that it gets into the right hands, gets the right reviews or award nominations, catches the imagination of the people who will enjoy it, and finds its place in the market. Well, I tried my best! At one point this year I felt as if I was almost drowning in reviews and interviews and guest blogs (and thanks so much to all my blogging pals who made it more pleasure than pain) and because the book came out in July I still haven't seen my first royalty statement encompassing this period, so I don't have a concrete idea of how it went. But I do know that the book went into reprint within a week or two of release, and every now and again people still send me pictures of it in their local bookshops, which is unbelievably thrilling. So it didn't vanish without a trace, as I'd half feared :)
All in all, it's been a tiring, exciting, happy, slightly scary sort of year. The kind of year that I wouldn't mind having again in 2012. So in my next post I'm going to make some new goals, bearing in mind all I've learned (and I've learned a lot!) in my first twelve months as a full-time writer.

What did you guys achieve in 2011?

    Tuesday, 27 December 2011

    CHECKING IN...

    Hello, Dear Readers. I hope you all had a marvellous Christmas and Boxing Day. Mine were surprisingly relaxing and happy. Today I'd vaguely planned one of a couple of posts, depending on my mood - one about dialogue tags, the other a run down of my Christmas loot. But today I've woken up to a blinding pain in one eye which signals that looking at my computer (or the TV, or any bright, blinky thing, including Christmas lights) for more than a few minutes is going to trigger a migraine. And I'd really...rather not. So I'll be back on Friday instead. Sorry guys. Use the time to read something awesome, 'kay?

    Tuesday, 20 December 2011

    DISTANT FUTURE TEASER

    Hello all! Did anyone notice the date today? It's the 21st! Only four more sleeps 'til Christmas! How did this happen? *Hugs self with mingled panic and excitement*

    In honour of the holiday season, I'm going to be taking a tiny hiatus here, and won't be posting on Friday this week or Monday next week. This is to ensure that the levels of nonsense on the blog remain low, because what with sorting out last minute presents, cooking Christmas dinner and various other baked treats, dealing with relatives (including my brother who only comes home once a year) AND the fact that I just got my edits back for The Night Itself, anything I post is highly unlikely to be thoughtful and good quality. What can I say? I'm good, but I'm not THAT good.

    So, as a special treat this Wednesday, I'm going to share a teaser from a book that you won't be seeing on shelves until 2015 (although I will be telling you more about it before then!). It's not one of the Katana Trilogy books. It's a standalone high fantasy, but it's set in Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni (or The Moonlit Lands), the setting I invented for Shadows on the Moon, and like Shadows on the Moon, it is inspired by a fairytale. This book is literally only a few pages and a synopsis at the moment - the literary equivalent of a twinkle in my eye, and that means the sample you're getting is even more subject to change or deletion than normal.

    Bearing that in mind... Follow the cut for teasing!

    Monday, 19 December 2011

    EARLY REVIEWS & AWARDS

    Hi everyone! Once again Monday has dragged its reluctant behind through the door and is slumped, grey and slightly hungover, on the couch of life. So what better way to cheer it up than by looking at some lovely things related to Shadows on the Moon?

    First up - Shadows on the Moon has been shortlisted for the St Helen's Book Award. My publisher let me know that a while ago, but at the time I was so caught up in talking about Katana with them that I forgot to pass the news onto you (bad blogger! No cookie!). There's no info online about the award, but apparently it's linked to the St Helen's school and library district which means it was most likely voted on by teachers, librarians and young people, making it very valuable in my eyes. Whoot!

    In addition to this, the lovely Cass of Words on Paper has given Shadows on the Moon her Faves of Twentyeleven Award for Most Original and Imaginative Book, as well as making it a runner-up in the Most Atmospheric and Vivid Setting category. I'm delighted - thank you, Cass!

    In early reviews of Shadows from US bloggers, we have:

    Sassyreads 4.5/5 Star Review

    Colorimetry 4 Star Review

    And in just-down-right-cool-stuff:

    This review of my books by author R.J. Anderson (who, if you remember, blurbed Shadows on the Moon and whose books I really LOVE).

    A lovely review of Shadows on the Moon by the very lovely Y. S. Lee (a fellow Walker Books and Candlewick Press author).

    I also found myself on this list of favourite books read in 2011 on the New York Public Library.

    Finally, for any readers who are over sixteen or eighteen (or the age of consent in your country! Seriously there's a lot of sex and swearing in this one, don't go there if you're not old enough!) and who have a liking for both historical novels and gay romances (as I do) a book recommendation: Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon, a bittersweet, absolutely beautifully written novella about the love between First World War fighter pilots. This made me cry over the weekend, and I shall be seeking out the author's other work post-haste.

    ETA: My terrible spelling. Shame. Shame on me to the tenth generation.

    Friday, 9 December 2011

    FRIDAY FIVE

    Hi everyone! Happy Friday. I hope you've all managed to get through the week without too much of a struggle. And if you did, please tell me how?

    Today I bring you a heaping postful of randomosity with a side of cool sauce. Enjoy!

    1) I got a cover flat of the FrostFire cover in the post yesterday, so now you can see how gorgeous the entire book really will be. The lettering is in shiny red foil just like on the cover of Shadows on the Moon. Icy fires and swirly bits? Wolf eyes? YES PLEASE.


    2) A big thank you to everyone who responded to Monday's somewhat controversial post about the Dead Girl cover trend. Many people disagreed with me, either that there was a problem or that the problem was what I thought it was - but the discussion stayed both civil and informative, and no one can ask for more than that.

    3) It looks like the U.S. hardcover version of Daughter of the Flames has gone or is going out of print (no one's informed me of this officially, but the publisher's website no longer lists it and it's not available to buy new anywhere anymore). Frankly, this is one of the most beautiful hardcovers I've ever seen, with copper foiling on the bindings to match the flaming phoenixes on the dustcover, so if anyone else is a book junkie and likes to collect them for their beauty - now is the time to snap up a copy.

    4) This picture, which is from my inspiration file for an upcoming project I've mentioned a few times. Love it!


    5) This album from the band Sleeping At Last. I'm ashamed to say that I'd never even heard of these guys until their song 'Turning Page' started turning up everywhere as a result of being on the latest Twilight soundtrack. But their music is just GORGEOUS. Lush and sweeping and romantic and playful. I adore it, and have been listening non-stop since I downloaded yesterday.

    6) Unexpected-extra-list-item-no-jutsu! Guys, do you have any suggestions for topics you'd like me to blog on in the future? Are there things you'd like to ask about? A particular kind of post that you really enjoy? Let me know! I can't promise that I'll be able to create a scintillating response to everything you ask for, but I'd love your input, and I'll do my best.

    Have a great weekend, my duckies!

    Wednesday, 7 December 2011

    THE ENAID

    Hi everyone! As Wednesday rolls around again (and after the seriousness of Monday's post) I'd like to share something fun and rather beautiful - this video made by long-time blog commentor Alex, which she calls The Enaid.

    The Enaid, for anyone who hasn't read the book, is the name of the magical earth energy or spirit of the land which features in my first novel The Swan Kingdom. In the video Alex uses quotes from The Swan Kingdom to highlight the loveliness of shots of one of her favourite places, which happens to remind me very much of the marsh/meadowlands where I live. Since the countryside surrounding my home was a partial inspiration for the book, I find what Alex has done here very effective.

    Enjoy!

    Monday, 5 December 2011

    BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

    Hi everyone! I hope you all had a good weekend. I, personally, celebrated the release of The Deathly Hallows Part Two by barricading myself in the house with several bags of Doritos and having a non-stop Harry Potter marathon. So I face Monday feeling emotionally drained and borderline dehydrated (salty snacks + constant weeping) but content.

    In the midst of this important business I did spare quite a lot of time to think about the discussion that's recently been going on in the YA community with regard to 'dead girl' covers.

    For anyone reading this who may have sexual assault triggers (or if you're under sixteen), it might be a good idea to either skip today's post or get someone else that you trust to read it first to make sure you'll be all right with it. I really want to talk about this, but I don't want to hurt or upset anyone. OK? *Virtual Hugs To All*

    Dead girl covers are the glamorous images of young women in sexy dresses (girls in trousers, or jeans, or a nice warm jumper, don't really have the same impact) sprawled out (on grass or flowers, in a river or the sea, sometimes floating on a cloud or in darkness) either with their eyes closed or staring vacantly in such a way that you can't work out whether they've just finished having sex, or just died, or both.

    There's been a low-level buzz about this for a while, but the real conversation about whether these images were OK started here, on Rachel Stark's rather wonderful blog (where she provides a whole raft of examples). It was taken up by reknowned literary agent Kristin Nelson, here.

    I was happy to see this debate taking place, because it's been something that my writing group (several of whom are YA writers) have been feeling queasy about for...years, actually. Supposedly these books are aimed at young women, but the way that the models are dressed and posed smacks strongly of something called The Male Gaze, which is where the cameraman or woman makes the assumption that all (important) viewers are heterosexual males and focuses on portraying what they shoot in a way that appeals strongly to a heterosexual male perspective.

    As a result, I feel as if these covers speak less about what young women are interested in, and more about what the world itself is interested in - ie, images of young women in which the women are passive and sexualised.

    You just don't see images of young men like this in the mainstream media, with barely any clothes on, airbrushed limbs carelessly sprawled across the ground, hair trailing gently around their faces, and a dreamy/dead look in their eyes. Images of men on covers (and in the general media) are much, much more likely to be active and even heroic. Boys or men will be found standing, leaping, climbing, holding weapons, reaching out. Their faces will be filled with emotion. If they aren't looking directly into camera their eyes will be focused on some distant goal that only they can see, with a look of stern concentration. For some strange reason, we don't really find a man attractive if he looks vacant or possibly dead.

    But having read and written a few mini-rants on the topic, my writing group and I moved onto other things. I don't have any dead girl covers as yet myself, and without really thinking about it I can state that there are few to none on my own shelves. Whether that's due to the content of books with these sorts of covers generally not appealing to me, or because I'm unconsciously avoiding books with covers that I find disturbing (and heck, why not?), I don't know. In either case, as worrying as I found this trend, I didn't feel that I had much to add to the conversation that was taking place about it.

    Then last week Rachel posted again, talking about how some commentors had defended the fascination with the glamorised, sexy corpses of young women by reminding us that this is a trope that stretches back a long, long way. Back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. It's a fairytale archetype, they said - the heroine undergoes a spiritual or even a physical death and arises changed and transformed.

    Rachel's response to this is great - she points out that just because the trend for beautiful corpses has been going on for a long time, even back to fairytale time, that doesn't mean it's healthy. It just means it's deep-seated.

    But seeing the current deluge of dead girl images related to sleeping princess fairytales made a lightbulb pop up above my head. I think what the people talking about this don't realise is that the sleeping heroines they brought into the discussion are rape victims.

    I can practically feel readers sucking in a horrified breath as I type this. I know that's not the common conception of these beloved, Disneyfied princesses. And I know that when parents read Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to their daughters before bedtime, they're imparting what they feel are beautiful stories of true love conquering all. After all, waking a princess from a terrible spell with 'true love's kiss' has become a trope in itself by now.

    Unfortunately, that is not what those stories were originally about. If you read the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White - the versions you find in Italo Calvino's Italian Fairytales, the versions which had not yet undergone the benign censoring hand of Grimm and Anderson and the Victorian Era, you find stories in which true love's kiss has nothing to do with the awakening of the poor, unconscious girl lying in the castle or in the crystal case.

    What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

    This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on. So why not go ahead and, as the original fairytale text puts it 'enjoy [your]self thoroughly'?

    Time may have prettified the fairytales, removed the sex and replaced it with a sweet kiss, but it says a lot about all of us that hundreds of years later we're still telling those stories to our daughters. As a folklore enthusiast I can list dozens of fairytales and folk stories which have completely disappeared off the radar and which no child today would recognise. But somehow the image of the sleeping princess - the dead girl - still endures.

    Recently there was a rape case in the U.S. where a young women who was out having fun got extremely drunk and called a taxi to take her home. She was unable to get out of the taxi on her own and the driver was worried about her, so he called the police and two officers came and took the girl out of the taxi and got her into her apartment. They then sexually assaulted her. When she woke up and realised what had happened, she reported it. But even though it was shown that the two police officers had lied about their whereabouts during the time they were in her apartment, and that they HAD both had sex with a girl who was so drunk that she was incapable of even getting out of a taxi on her own, they weren't convicted of anything. The jurors apparently believed that any girl who allowed herself to be incapacitated to that extent was 'asking for it'.

    When you've thought about that for a little bit, go look at those beautiful images of dead/unconscious girls in thin dresses, with their trailing hair, sprawled limbs and closed or empty eyes, again. Somehow they've stopped being a little disturbing now haven't they?

    Instead, they're downright nauseating.

    Wednesday, 30 November 2011

    BLURBS WONDERFUL BLURBS!

    Hello, my lovelies! Wednesday has rolled around again, and it has brought various bits of news about Shadows on the Moon in the US.

    The rather beautiful hardcover edition from the rather lovely Candlewick Press (still not allowed to share the cover - sorry!) will be coming out for definite on the 24th of April.

    I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but the text will be slightly different than the UK printing. That's because, by a nifty coincidink, the copy-editing manager at Candlewick Press is a ninja haiku scholar. OK, possibly not the ninja part (I mean, who knows? It's not like a ninja would tell me that she was a ninja. That's all part of being a ninja) but she IS a genuine expert on the fine art of haiku writing and she very kindly helped me to make some of the poetry in the book more faithful to the spirit of Japanese aesthetics. Not that I don't love the original versions, you understand. This just means that American fans get a special gift from me; a unique version of the haiku for their very own.

    I've just received a couple of the very first advanced reader copies, hot off the presses. I'd take pictures of these for you, except, again, not allowed to share the cover. The audiobook will be coming out at the same time in April next. No news on who's going to be reading that yet, but I'm still mega-excited. You can find the pre-order links for both here on Amazon. Which brings me to my happiest piece of news, which is that three absolutely WONDERFUL authors agreed to blurb the US edition of the book.

    Just in case anyone's in the dark as to what a blurb is - it's when a well-known and well-respected author 'recommends' another writer's work via a snappy sentence or two, which the publisher puts on the book or on promotional materials for the book. I've never had blurbs before, and I'm just. So. Excited!

    So these are the blurbs which will hopefully be on the Candlewick Press edition of Shadows on the Moon:

    Beautifully written, with diverse and fascinating characters, an intriguing plot, and a romance that will steal your heart. One of the most innovative fairy-tale retellings I've read in years.—R.J. Anderson, author of Spellhunter and Ultraviolet

    Shadows on the Moon weaves a spell as deft as any by its main character. Beautiful and cruel; a mesmerizing read with an intoxicating love story.—L.A. Weatherly, author of Angel Burn and Angel Fire

    The lyrical prose of Shadows on the Moon captures the essence of the fairy tale, while the love story will capture reader's hearts.—Jaclyn Dolomore, author of Magic Under Glass and Between the Sea and Sky

    Right? OhEmGee you guys. I can't believe such wonderful authors said such nice things about my book! I honestly can't thank them enough.

    In other news, I just saw Megamind and I haven't had this big a crush on a primary coloured character since Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles captured my heart when I was nine. *Sigh*

    Friday, 25 November 2011

    REVIEW: HALLOWED BY CYNTHIA HAND

    Hi everyone! Happy Friday to you all - and I hope you've had a good week. If not, I next week will be better. Positive Thinking No-Jutsu!

    First, a request: Liz and Megha submitted questions for me to answer (on worldbuilding and planning respectively) but now the TweetDeck page where I'd saved Liz's question is unavailable, and I can't find Megha's question in the comment trail. So if you guys would still like me to talk about this after waiting for so long (sorry!) then can you comment here or email me and ask me again, so that I know exactly what to answer? *Smooches*

    Onwards now, to a review of HALLOWED by Cynthia hand.

    US Hardcover
    THE BLURB:

    For months part-angel Clara Gardner trained to face the raging forest fire from her visions and rescue the alluring and mysterious Christian Prescott from the blaze. But nothing could prepare her for the fateful decisions she would be forced to make that day, or the startling revelation that her purpose—the task she was put on earth to accomplish—is not as straightforward as she thought. Now, torn between her increasingly complicated feelings for Christian and her love for her boyfriend, Tucker, Clara struggles to make sense of what she was supposed to do the day of the fire. And, as she is drawn further into the world of part angels and the growing conflict between White Wings and Black Wings, Clara learns of the terrifying new reality that she must face: Someone close to her will die in a matter of months. With her future uncertain, the only thing Clara knows for sure is that the fire was just the beginning.

    THE REVIEW:  

    I read the first book in Ms Hand's angel-lore based trilogy last October (you can see my review here) and I really, really liked it. I was surprised how much I liked it, since the set-up, on the face of it, seemed to be that basic paranormal romance staple of a new girl coming to town and then getting involved with two boys, and various supernatural shenanigans.

    The difference with UNEARTHLY was that the author had an unexpected knack for characterisation which immediately drew me into the story. With a cast of such endearing, human (even if not actually human) people on the pages, the outcome truly mattered to me. And once she'd drawn me in, the author set about creating a really convincing (and in places quite dark) mythology for her angels and angelbloods. I gave the book four stars because I felt it ended on an unsatisfying cliff-hanger, but I was desperate to get my hands on the next one.

    I'm very happy to say that HALLOWED lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I loved it. The problem is...I can't say all that much about it! Pretty much anything I tell you is going to be a huge spoiler. Let me borrow a phrase from Mark (of Mark Reads Harry Potter fame) and say: You are not prepared.

    Australian Edition - my favourite!
    This story carries on almost directly from the first one and the developments within are exciting and shocking and, despite being pretty much the opposite of what I expected, the book grabbed me by the heart and didn't let go.

    The author takes the hints of darkness she embedded in the previous installment and runs with them, creating a world for Clara which is much less certain and far more frightening. There's still the trademark humour which I enjoyed so much in the first story, but now there's a more bittersweet flavour to everything, because Clara, at the end of UNEARTHLY, chose to ignore her 'Purpose' (that is, the task that was set before her by way of celestial visions) and to save the 'wrong' person. She did it for all the right reasons. She did it for love. But in the wake of that choice, the world goes from black and white to shades of grey for Clara, and her mother and brother. Quite literally.

    When you read HALLOWED you're going to find that a lot of the things you were absolutely, positively certain of in the first book will dissolve. Certain facts you took for granted turn out to be major plot twists in disguise. Your suspicions will turn out to be cleverly planted red herrings (although I still have some ideas which I think will play out in the final book). Characters change, or come to see the world in such a transformed way that their motivations flip - or maybe it's your understanding of them that flips. I don't even know how to describe it, except to say that it rocked.

    If the first book made me tear up a few times, this one made me flat-out weep on at least two occasions. It's brutal. But it's also beautiful. I felt as if Ms Hand's confidence and skill were literally unfolding before my eyes here. All the promise that gleamed in UNEARTHLY burst into blazing life.

    UK paperback
    That's not to say, however, that this book was perfect. I felt certain plot threads and certain characters got short shrift (Jeffrey, for example - at the end of the book he seemed to just disappear, and this hardly had any impact on Clara's life and decisions, which seemed odd given how close they once were). And I also wonder...if the first book's message was about free will...what was the theme of this story? That fighting against destiny/fate/God's plan causes only suffering and pain? While I can see how that sort of of underlying assumption would be of comfort to a religious person who puts their faith in a higher power, I found it a little bit discomforting at times because I believe that we all have an absolute right to make our own choices and the responsibility to do so, rather than expecting anyone (or anything) else to guide us or fix our mistakes.

    Despite these niggling qualms, I can honestly say that HALLOWED is a moving, well-written, gorgeous follow-up to UNEARTHLY. As soon as it becomes available in hard copy, I'll be snapping up a copy for my own. Recommended.

    Wednesday, 23 November 2011

    OOPS!

    Hi you guys! Happy Wednesday. I didn't actually realise that it was Wednesday until five minutes ago. Whoops. Sorry about that.

    Today I fully intended to present you with a) a book review or b) a post answering some reader questions. But I haven't written either of them. I'm really very sorry!

    In the past few days I've gotten caught up in all kinds of fiddly little jobs (like making an all-new playlist for Katana Book Two) and going to see Breaking Dawn (OMG lolarious epic insanity - all the actors take it so seriously and act their little hearts out and I swear I actually teared up a couple of times. Also, I can't believe THAT was a 12 rated film. Yikes) and then having to research new computers because The Scalpel's shenanigans are scaring me and then trying to read some of these books I have for review and figuring out how to work AIM chat on Skype wwwaaaaah not enough hours in the day!

    I promise you that I would have written a great post for you anyway, if it weren't for the fact that I thought it was Tuesday. Before you ask how an actual adult grown-up person could not know what day of the week it is, just remember that I don't actually have to leave the house to work. I always know what DATE it is, because that shows up in the bottom right hand corner of my computer display, but the DAY is something I know because of my routine. And my routine has gotten messed up lately.

    Basically, as some of you may be aware, as well as being a writer, I'm also a carer for my father, who is disabled and has many chronic illnesses. Normally I regulate my schedule around when my mum is at work during the week, so that I can do things like help with his medication and get his meals ready when she isn't there. But this past week my mother has been struck down with a nasty virus and so she's been at home the whole time, and I've been looking after both of them. And without an office job of my own to go to, it's been very easy to literally not realise if it's a Sunday or a Thursday or whatever.

    So...that's the sad story of why there's no decent post today. Many apologies. I think I'm going to try and  do that reader question post (featuring Liz and Megha) on Friday and then next week I'll try to review Hallowed by Cynthia Hand (hint: liked it more than the first one).

    Read you later, Beloved Peeps. In the meantime:

    Monday, 21 November 2011

    REVIEW: SERAPHINA BY RACHEL HARTMAN

    No cover art for this book yet! Boo!
    The Blurb:

    “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty's anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

    Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen's Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

    In her exquisitely written fantasy debut, Rachel Hartman creates a rich, complex, and utterly original world.”

    The Review:

    As soon as I read the part that mentioned dragons taking on human form, I was sold on this book. I’ve come across this idea in a only few fantasies but it’s one of my so-called ‘bullet-proof kinks’ – that is, an idea I love so much that even if nothing else about the book interested or excited me, I’d still read it from beginning to end. I just want my dragon-in-human-skin fix (and yes, one day I will write a book with dragons in, it’s on the list).

    How lucky for me, then, that it turns out Rachel Hartman has a profoundly meaningful grasp of high fantasy language, description and dialogue, which made this book an absolute joy to read on prose level! That her characterisation is deft and beautifully subtle! And her main character – the eponymous Seraphina – was a fascinating, complex and unique creation who captured my heart with her resourcefulness and bravery!

    Dear Readers, I read this book in one sitting, and I loved it.

    First, however, a confession: at first the writing style did not quite gel for me. And I’m not sure why. It might be that after a chapter my brain snapped into the right mode and I was able to appreciate what the writer was doing and relax into the flow of things. Or it might be that the first chapter is a bit stiff (as first chapters often can be) and after that the writer herself relaxed, along with her prose. In either case, I recommend you persevere. By chapter two I was completely hooked.

    The slow burn love story between the heroine and...er...well, a certain endearingly honourable and inquisitive male member of the cast was really well done, show-casing instant attraction (which is not the same as Insta!Love, no matter what certain Goodreads reviewers seem to think) followed by a brilliant build up of meshing interests, ideals and understanding. It was pitched perfectly and I believed in it. I wasn’t driven to roll my eyes, mutter ‘Oh, come ON!’ or to wish that the plot would just ‘MOVE, damn it!’ instead of wasting time on pointless repetitions of how hot the love interest was. Instead I was always eager to return to this part of the story, and the assured way that the writer handled the bittersweet nature of the relationship without going all emo was extremely enjoyable.

    Going back to that bullet proof kink thing? I actually don’t think I read anything else in the description before I pressed the request button on NetGalley. If I had, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to find, on opening the eGalley, that Seraphina was so devoted to music. I’d have liked that characteristic regardless, but Ms Hartman’s descriptions of music and the way making it feels to a musician, the way that understanding it transforms people’s hearts, scored a direct hit. The passages relating to music were completely inspiring - in a book that was filled with magic, the music was one of the most magical things of all. THAT is an achievement.

    Ms Hartman also managed to do something else which makes the writerly geek in me grin happily, which is to take an inhuman race, in this case the dragons, and showcase them as exactly that – inhuman, a discrete and alien species – without a) making them seem like big scaly humans despite their long lives and differently wired brains or b) falling into that smug assumption that if dragons are really different then of course human ways must be better. I loved the logical, analytical dragons, from their incessant wind-vector calculations and their contempt for human small-talk and rituals, to their reluctant fascination with human art and, on occasion, their helpless addiction to human sensation.

    Seraphina is a cracking read, filled with three-dimensional people living in a three-dimensional world. It’s full of delightful surprises – humour, beautiful descriptions, unique ways of looking at the world – but it has a deep, rich undercurrent of genuinely moving reflections on family, and humanity, and choices, and lies and truth.

    Although it’s the first in a series, and the characters have definitely not completed their journey by the end of this book, the initial challenge faced by Seraphina has been well resolved and you’re left feeling, if not satisfied (Hell no, I want the next one yesterday) at least comforted that Goredd and its people are ready for the trials ahead, as long as they have Seraphina and Kiggs and Glisselda looking out for them.

    Seraphina comes out in May next year, highly recommended by yours truly.

    Friday, 18 November 2011

    FROSTFIRE COVER & SYNOPSIS REVEALED!

    Hello and Happy Friday, Dear Readers! Today it's my very great pleasure to finally unveil the cover and synopsis for FrostFire, the companion novel to Daughter of the Flames! FrostFire is due to come out in the UK from Walker Books in July of next year.

    First, what is the story about?:

    Frost is cursed - possessed by a wolf demon that brings death everywhere she goes. Desperate to find a cure, she flees her home, only to be captured by the Ruan Hill Guard. Trapped until she can prove she is not an enemy, Frost grows increasingly close to the Guard’s charismatic leader Luca and his second in command, the tortured Arian. Torn between two very different men, Frost fears that she may not be able to protect either of them ... from herself.

    FrostFire's characters were a first for me. They arrived in my head as a trio.

    I was haunted by the outline of three situations which would define the characters. The first was of a pair of injured, lost people, talking to each other in the cramped darkness of a tiny cave while a river flowed by outside, confiding secrets that might never emerge in the light of day. The second was of a golden person with stars in their eyes, standing in ripples of sunlight, reaching out to someone else and givng them a chance to change their life, and the sense of fearful exultation that second person would feel. And the final one...that was the most emotional, the most shocking of all. But I can't tell you about that one, as it would spoil the whole book :)

    I saw a sort of triangle of personalities, each of them vulnerable and broken in a different way, each of them extraordinary and heroic in a different way. I saw how the flaws and strengths of these individuals would both support and aggravate the others, causing them to love and hate one another in unique ways, and to change and grow and eventually - hopefully - heal.

    FrostFire deals with all the issues that I never had a chance to explore in DotF. Betrayal on a fundamental level, betrayal by someone that you love, how, in the middle of a war, bad guys and good guys sometimes merge into the same thing, how it feels to love someone who is utterly beyond your reach, and the way that people can transcend suffering and horror and become true heroes.

    So now that you've scrolled past all those boring paragraphs...here's the cover!


    And can I just say? O! M! G! I love it! Love, love, love it. Like, it's my favourite cover of mine EVER. It's right in ways that you can't even understand unless you've read the book. The colours! The flaring blue flames! The WOLF EYES! When my publisher asked me what Frost, the heroine, ought to look like, I sent them these reference pics of a Native American actress:

    And they found a model who could almost be her sister.

    And also? SWIRLS, baby! My own, my precious swirly bits! *Flails*

    Oh, and just in case that wasn't enough to send me into a blissed out author coma for a week? When FrostFire comes out next year Walker Books are also going to reissue Daughter of the Flames with a brand new cover? You wanna see it? Yes? Yes?


    Heeee! #NoRacefail covers that accurately depict and celebrate beautifully diverse heroines? Oh yeah. Walker Books is all over that. I love my publisher!

    P.S. Why yes, Dear Readers - that is the gorgeous Elizabeth May, writer and photographer extraordinaire, on the FF cover! Where can I find more of her haunting and lyrical photography you ask? Why, here!

    Wednesday, 16 November 2011

    RANDOM WEDNESDAY

    Hi everyone! Welcome to a random blogpost of randomness, in which I will share a few things that have made me smile this week, in the hopes that they might make YOU smile, too.

    First, this music video for the song A Thousand Years. Yes, it comes from the Breaking Dawn soundtrack and yes, the video does contain some clips from the film. And yes, you know I'm not really a fan of this whole Twilight thing. But this song is gorgeous and it works just as well for the lead characters of The Katana Trilogy (aka Big Secret Project) as for Bella and Edward. So I'm reclaiming it. As of now, it belongs to Shinobu and Mio.


    Next, this picture (courtesy of YA Highway) which goes a long way to explaining why I have turned out the way I am.


    How about this trailer for the new Snow White and the Huntsman film? I'll tell you the truth, this gives me shivers down the spine - it feels like it came right out of my imagination. Can anyone say 'Zella'? Can't wait to see this!

    And this picture, which I found on Pinterest and absolutely adore: I'll be using this as inspiration for Barefoot on the Wind (the Other Novel that I'm going to be working on, and which I'll tell you more about some other time):


    And finally, yesterday I realised that one of my absolute favourite musical artists, Two Steps From Hell, had released a new album and I'd somehow missed it! The thrill of this is almost impossible to describe. Nineteen new epic tracks! Love! Joy! Happiness! So here I offer you the first track from the album Archangel, which I can tell is going to be inspiring the heck out of me for many years to come.

    Monday, 14 November 2011

    FORGIVE ME...

    Hello, Dear Readers. Happy Monday - I hope you've had a great weekend.

    Over here in Zolahland I'm still mostly lying flat on my back and getting a teensy weensy bit sick and tired of it. Typing in this position is uncomfortable in the extreme, and so is trying to write with a pen and paper, which means that the book - Big Secret Project Book Two, aka The Katana Trilogy Book Two - which is practically BURNING inside me (ohmygodyouguysit'ssoawesomecoolandheartbreakingandbeautifulillluuurrrvvveit) is not getting written.

    And that makes me cranky, Dear Readers. Very cranky. Who'd have thought that a writer with a perfect excuse to do nothing but lie around procrastinating for days on end would feel so cross about it? Not me! Turns out I'm not ready for my silver procrastinating medal quite yet.

    Signs are that I'm probably on the mend now. I've made the decision to stop taking the powerful muscle relaxants that made me feel drunk and groggy all the time, so my back is hurting again, though it's not nearly the blinding agony that it was last Tuesday when it first happened. All the lying flat on my back does seem to be helping. I'm hopeful that I might be able to sit upright like a normal person within a week or so.

    However, I know that I promised the lovely Liz and the lovely Megha to do a post for them today tackling planning and worldbuilding, and this has been weighing on my mind. I just can't do it. Believe me, I'd like nothing more than to get at least *some* writing in, but I just can't stay in this position long enough to do it. In fact, it looks like all my posts for the next week at least will be short and sweet. It's so frustrating for me, and I know it must be for you.

    Please bear with me while I heal up, Dear Readers! I will try to keep to my normal posting schedule during all this, even if all I do is offer you a pretty picture or a YouTube video that I like. And forgive me for not writing the planning/world-building post that I promised. I will get to it, honestly, once I'm back on my feet!

    Friday, 11 November 2011

    A NANO CONFESSION

    Hi everyone - and Happy Friday!

    Today, I have a confession to make. A confession which will already be fairly obvious to anyone who's checked my NaNoWriMo profile and seen my current wordcount.

    I fell off the Nano wagon. *Sob*

    No, I'm not really that upset, to be honest. After the catalogue of woe I've endured the past week I feel lucky just to be alive. Getting stressed out over Nano would be a bit silly.

    As you know, I did try to push on despite the Nanovirus (with the pounding head, achy joints and sore throat) that struck me on November the first. In fact I did so well that I was ahead of target and gave myself Saturday off. But on Sunday I started to feel really ill again, and not the kind of illness that you can write through. I draw the line at taking a notebook into the toilet with me. Ew.

    Despite feeling like death warmed over until Tuesday evening, I was still prepared to press on with Nano, adding words to my daily target to try and catch up. I was determined to start bright and early on Wednesday morning, motivated by getting to announce my news about The Katana Trilogy (aka Big Secret Project).

    Then, as I was about to get into bed on Tuesday night, I crouched down to pat my dog, caught my foot in his bed, slipped, and felt an explosion of burning pain - like a red hot wire being ripped out of my spine and dragged down my leg. I couldn't sleep all night because of the pain in my back, which kept throbbing no matter how I arranged myself. I was on the phone to the doctor first thing the next morning. Those close to me know this is a last resort; I really hate going to the doctors. But I couldn't sit up, and was in pain even when I was walking. I was scared I'd done something really serious.

    Turned out I'd done something medium serious - a prolapsed disc, which is when one of the discs of soft, cushioning tissue between the bones of your vertebrae bulge out and press into the nerves of the spine in a not-good sort of way. Not permanent but definitely very painful until it subsides.

    Trying to sit upright in a normal position is agony. I'm typing this lying flat with my knees propped up by a pillow so that I can lean my laptop against them, and that's the position I'm more or less stuck in for a while. The only breaks are to eat (standing up) and take my dog for his walks. The pain is starting to ease off a little, although I'm not sure how much of that is actual progress and how much is due to the strong anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxant and painkilling drugs my doctor prescribed (these drugs make me feel a tiny bit drunk aaaaall the time, so please excuse any mistakes in this post based on that and the fact that it's hard to type in a horizontal position).

    Given all that, I was forced to accept that I'm going to have to give up on hitting any kind of meaningful Nano target this year. It's a little frustrating. I'm SO keen to work on the second book of the Katana Trilogy. Everytime I think about all the cool stuff I get to write I want to clap like a seal. But I can't risk making my back worse, because that's just going to add to the delays. So for the moment I'm mainly watching American TV programmes on iTunes (I <3 Castle) and napping, and daydreaming about the feel of a pen in my hand and a notebook on my knees (yes, it's sad, I know).

    Anyone who's been following this blog for a while will know that this is only the most recent in a serious of hilarious comedy pratfalls that I've been through (dislocating my toe while walking down the stairs was a good one) and might wonder if I have some heavy Karmic debt that I'm paying off or something. I can only wonder that myself, since I haven't managed to get through a year without some form of injury since I was about twelve. But never mind! My motto is that it could always be worse, so make the best of what you have.

    With that in mind, I hope everyone has a great weekend - and I'll read you on Monday when, barring mishaps, I'll hopefully be answering some reader questions about planning and world-building :)

    Wednesday, 9 November 2011

    BIG SECRET PROJECT DEAL ANNOUNCEMENT

    Yes, you read that right!

    At long last, after a YEAR of teasing you, and writing and revising furiously, and crossing my fingers, and long phonecalls with Super Agent and exciting emails with my editor... I can FINALLY tell you all about Big Secret Project.

    *Deep breaths, deep breaths*

    OK - first, some theme music. Well, I mean, clearly I'd love to provide a drumroll at this point, but not only is it hard to find one that lasts more than five seconds, but it would get really annoying after a minute (a bit like all this waffling I'm doing right now) so instead, the song which I've been listening to most throughout the writing of Big Secret Project:


    For the full experience, click now, wait for the music to play, and then scroll down to read.

    Right.

    What is all this fuss about?

    What is Big Secret Project?

    Read on!
    ****
    THE KATANA TRILOGY. A breathtaking new urban fantasy trilogy from the critically acclaimed, award winning author of The Swan Kingdom and Shadows on the Moon.

    When fifteen year old Mio Yamato furtively sneaks the katana - an ancestral Japanese sword - out of its hiding place in her parent's attic to help liven up her Christmas party costume, she has no idea of the darkness she is about to unleash on modern day London, or the family secrets that she is going to uncover.

    The paralysing paranoia that descends on her before she gets to her friend's party is her first clue. The vivid and terrifying visions that nearly get her killed are a pretty good warning too.

    The giant nine-tailed cat demon that comes after the sword and tries to rip her throat out? Overkill.

    Seconds away from becoming kitty-food, Mio accidentally releases Shinobu, a warrior boy who has been trapped within the sword for centuries. He saves her life and sends the demon running. But it's already too late. Mio has ruptured the veil between the mortal realm and the Underworld, and now the gods and monsters of ancient Japan stalk the streets of London, searching for her and the sword. 

    With the help of her best friend Jack, a fox spirit named Hikaru - and the devoted protection of the betwitchingly familiar Shinobu - Mio attempts to discover the true nature of the sword and its connection to the Yamato family. Because if she doesn't learn how to control the katana's incredible powers, she's in danger of being overwhelmed by them. And if she can't keep the sword safe from the terrible creatures who want it for their own, she'll lose not only her own life... but the love of a lifetime.

    The Night Itself, Book One of THE KATANA TRILOGY, is due for publication in summer 2013 from Walker Books, publishers of Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments Series and Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking Trilogy.
     Squeeee!

    Monday, 7 November 2011

    BOOK MEMOIRS INTERVIEW!

    Hello, Dear Readers - and Happy Monday! This weekend I realised that I had never posted the wonderful interview which Elle and Kate from The Book Memoirs did with me for their Writer's Workshop. I'm not even sure I posted a link, since I'd kind of forgotten about it (bad Zolah! No cookie!). 

    And so, I present it now, for your consideration. Some great questions here, which I've never been asked in quite this way before.

    Hej, Memoirites! Hvordan har du det? It feels appropriate to say hello and ask you how you are in Danish because today’s author is young-adult novelist Zoë Marriott! No, Zoë herself is not Danish but her wildly popular first book, The Swan Kingdom, is an ingenious retelling of the fairytale ‘The Wild Swans’ by Hans Christian Andersen… (See what I did there?) Zoë is also the author of the acclaimed fantasy novel Daughter of the Flames and the highly acclaimed Shadows on the Moon, currently available in a bookstore near you. We love Zo and we’re always delighted to have her on the site.

    Elle: Hi, Zoë! Thanks so much for agreeing to be here. In prepping for the interview, I spent some time working through your treasure trove of a website and all of your tips for aspiring writers. If you had to pick one single piece of all-important advice to give to budding novelists, what do you think it would be?

    Zoë: Thanks so much for inviting me, girls! Now, this first question… Oh, heck – where’s Yoda when you need him? The thing is, the One All-Important Piece of Advice probably changes from writer to writer, from day to day, even from minute to minute. It all depends where you are in your book, your life and your career. If I’m going for a one-size-fits-all type of thing I’ll probably plump for a reminder that the only difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the published one never gave up. So don’t ever give up. Persistence is three times as valuable as luck.

    Kate: As a big fan of fairy tales and folk stories, I’m curious: what made you decide to use an Andersen story as the backbone for your novel? Was this a conscious decision at the get-go, or an evolution as you worked through ideas?

    Zoë: I’ve always been fascinated by fairytales, and The Wild Swans was my favourite fairytale growing up. Looking back, I can see that what really captured my attention about the story – and all folkloric works – is the wide gaps left for the imagination within the narrative. Fairytales always tell you who did what and where, but somehow that essential WHY is never provided. Just why is the wicked stepmother so wicked? Why is the father or King always so willing to banish and forget his own children? How do the children themselves feel about it? What kind of courage does it take to go on when your fairytale world has fallen apart like this? I promised myself that I would explore these questions when I got older. And then I forgot about it. But when – several years later! – I realised that I wanted to write young adult novels, The Wild Swans immediately presented itself as a story that I needed to re-tell. It was as if it had been waiting patiently at the back of my mind all that time for me to grow up and notice it.

    Elle: I’ve noticed that in my search for information, I haven’t seen anything which speaks to your writing process. Do you story-board? Are there lots of pieces of paper stuck haphazardly on your walls or do you have nice, neat index cards full of plans?
    Zoë: Here’s where I bust out my camera! As you can see here, I’m a devotee of notebooks. Generally when I get a little spark of an idea I’ll pick out a notebook that seems right – I have nearly a hundred neatly stored in my Writing Cave – and I’ll start shoving Post-It notes into it with all my random thoughts. Later on, when the idea has matured or collided with another idea to make something that seems juicy enough for a book, I’ll get the notebook out again, pop a working title and a date in the front and start scribbling like mad – everything from fully formed scenes to one-line snatches of dialogue, to character sketches.

    I do almost all of my rough drafting with a pencil in a notebook, which means that about 75% of my notebook is full of messy stuff which bears no resemblance to anything in the finished book at all. I’ve tried typing directly into a computer but I find it adds a lot of hard work to the revising later on – things look so official once you’ve got them in a Word Doc., it’s much harder to be flexible, play with ideas, change your mind. When I feel like I’ve rooted the story firmly in my brain I start trying to write a synopsis to contain all the craziness. Oy vey, synopses! I’m terrible at them! Plotting is definitely my week spot. I’ve developed all kinds of elaborate graphs and diagrams to try and keep control of my plots (as you can see!).

    I’m not sure any of them really work – they’re more like a comfort blanket that I need in order to keep going when really I have no idea how things are going to fall out. For instance, after finishing the first draft of my current book I was forced to go back and change the gender OF EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER except two, and completely re-write it to make that work. I feel as if I’m a 50/50 mix between a planner and a pantser, and I hope one day to find a combination that works for me a bit more smoothly.

    Kate: As someone who’s fairly private with her own writing, I always wonder this about published authors: when do you share your writing with other people? Do you have a sounding board you bounce ideas off of from inception or do you wait until you have some or all of a first draft done?

    Zoë: Oh, you’re not alone, Kate! Lately I’ve been feeling like a bit of an anomaly in this regard, because Twitter and other writers blogs show me that everyone – but everyone! – seems to have teams of alpha readers, beta readers and critique partners. But I don’t. I never have. The only people who even get to glimpse what I’m working on before I’ve completed the first draft are my agent and editor – and when I say ‘first draft’ I actually mean ‘third or fourth draft that I call a first draft because I don’t want to admit how awful the actual first draft was’.

    When I was first writing this was because I couldn’t find any person in my real life who was a) interested enough to comb through a first draft on my behalf and b) capable of doing so in a meaningful or helpful way. Seriously, you can’t exactly ask your mother, can you? By the time I became aware of the huge online YA community and the critiquing boards on places like AW I found that I didn’t really want feedback from anyone who wasn’t going to be directly involved in getting the book published, because so often the comments I saw online were contradictory and unhelpful.

    But even though I don’t have any beta readers, I do belong to an informal writing group which was founded by an online friend of mine several years ago. We call ourselves The Furtive Scribblers and you’ll find them mentioned in the acknowledgments of everything I write. We have enormous, no-pressure fun, brain-storming, bouncing ideas, testing plots for holes, and pushing each other through writer’s block. I adore them, and without them my books would be HALF as good, if that.

    Elle: I’m really interested in your experience of planning a fantasy novel and the alternative rules of that world. For high-fantasy, everyone’s advice is to start with a map, urban-fantasy seems to carry the recommendation of working out the mythology first. What did you do first whilst plotting your brand of fantasy novel?

    Zoë: Panic, normally. As soon as I start to get an idea of what my fantasy world is going to be, I freak out and become convinced I JUST DON’T KNOW ENOUGH OMG. I wear out my library card, spend all my cash on reference works, documentaries and world music CDs and Google until my fingers bleed. Because my fantasy worlds so far have all had a historical basis (Daughter of the Flames was a mixture of India, Africa and Tibet, Shadows on the Moon is Japan and a sprinkling of China) it would have been all too easy to get things wrong.

    Which may sound crazy when I’m making up my own world – but if you’re creating a pre-industrial country with no mass production and you have your characters pull out a ‘tarp’ or carry water in a metal bucket, you’ve already messed up. If you’re going to create fairytale Japan you need to know about real Japan or instead of an homage you’ll create a stereotypical parody, and not only insult the real culture you’re using but embarrass yourself. I do not like to embarrass myself!

    Only when I’ve stuffed my brain to bursting point with every real life fact I can find do I feel as if I have the right to start messing around and actually making stuff up. This is the fun part. I used to draw incredibly detailed maps, but my publisher doesn’t like them and won’t actually put them in the book, so now I mostly sketch out relative areas so that I don’t get mixed up later on. I have a mental check list of vital facts I must know before I start work in earnest, like – what is the primary religion or religion of this country or countries? How strongly does this affect the day-to-day lives of the people? What does the general populace look like? What is the climate like, what are the major geographical features and natural hazards? What are is the wildlife like? The list goes on for quite a long while. But once I’ve filled those boxes I’ll give myself freedom to make other things up as I go along and as the plot or characters require. Some of my favourite bits of world building have come from impulse invention – like the facial tattoos in DotF.

    Kate: Do you have any writing “rituals”? Do you have to cut yourself off from the outside world? Do you start rereading what you last wrote? Is there anything that has to be done for the juices to get flowing?

    Zoë: I try not to let myself get into too many rituals, because I have an addictive personality and I feel as if I would just end up strangling myself. So, generally, I try to be in my Writing Cave by 9:00, I usually have a large mug of tea or coffee with me, and I generally try to re-read and revise what I wrote the day before, and then go onto new material. But if I blocked the doorway of the Writing Cave with three baskets of un-ironed laundry and I have to write downstairs instead? I try to be OK with that. If the dog rolled in something awful and needs a bath and I can’t start until 10:00? Golly, I really, really try to be OK with that. I think the only things I absolutely must have are my notebook/pencil and my iPod. Music is one thing I can’t do without. I mean, I can write without it, but I find it so hard to get started, it’s just easier to give in.

    Elle: You’ve mentioned in one of your Q&A answers on your website that the ending to The Swan Kingdom changed drastically halfway through as you got to know your characters. Do you tend to find you start a novel with a fully-formed character in mind, or do you often begin with a handful of details and surprise yourself as you go?

    Zoë: Actually, the ending itself stayed exactly the same. What changed was where the ending took place, how it took place, and all the characters involved!

    I always start with a character. Stories come to me through the filter of a character’s eyes. I get that little whispering voice in the back of my head, and their life begins to unreel itself before my eyes. And because of this I fool myself that I know who they are and what’s going to happen. But of course, I’m not actually receiving messages from an alternate reality – it’s all coming from the little Writer Plugin in my hindbrain. And so what seems to come to me as incontrovertible ‘fact’, like this character’s actions, or that character’s traits, are all negotiable.

    It’s only when I actually put the characters in the world, set them against each other and and let them get to work, that I truly start to understand them, and see how their histories, personalities, and conflicting desires, work together to create what I hope are fully realised people. And as soon as this starts, the story – what it means to them and what it means to me, and hence what actually happens – begins to warp and change.


    This is a good thing. Even if it does cause the occasional panic attack…

    Kate: At what point do you abandon an idea – be it for a plot twist, a character, or part of your fantasy world – as unworkable? Is there some threshold that lets you know “this won’t work”?

    Zoë: Nope. I’ve not yet figured out how to be well adjusted about this stuff. There’s things that I love, and things I don’t. The things I love stay no matter what, and the things I don’t go out the window in a constant stream. Then I send it to my editor and she cuts half the things I love, brings half the things I don’t love back from the flowerbed under the window, and tells me to make it work. And I groan and clutch my head, and try to sneak as many of the ‘love’ bits back in as I can, but it’s never as many as I wanted. If anyone else has any tips on how to handle this? I’d be extremely grateful!

    Elle: I’ve taken great pleasure in putting this question to everyone else but I especially can’t wait to see what you say! Writers are often asked who their biggest influences are but I would instead like to know which novels most influenced you as an individual and as writer, barring the most obvious answer (cough, cough)!

    Zoë: The Holy Trinity for me as a young person was – The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce, and Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith. If you’ve read these, you’ll sense a common theme – resourceful, brave, compassionate heroines, with bag-ass swords. These books taught me who I wanted to be and I like to think I’ve lived up to that, at least in a small way. Even though my sword is only a wooden one.

    When it comes to writers who influence me and my work as an adult, though – writers that I’m still striving to emulate, writers whose books have expanded my horizons and continue to make me a better writer myself – the picture changes a little. Suddenly I’m looking at a new top three:

    Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones, The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold and The Other Wind by Ursula Le Guin.

    These books have a lot less in common on the surface, but each of them has a core of… something, some indefinable thing, that I’m constantly trying to breach and understand. I’ve re-read each of these so many times you’d think I’d know them by heart. Instead, I find myself reading a new book each time. THAT is greatness. I bow down before them.

    Thanks again for having me Elle and Kate, and for coming up with such different, intriguing questions!

    Wednesday, 2 November 2011

    BLLLLEUUURRRGHHHHLLL...

    ...as I said to someone on Twitter. No, seriously. That was about the height of my wit at 7:30 this morning, and I'm afraid I've not moved on much since.

    Yesterday was the first day of Nano, and it brought with it just over 2,000 words of Big Secret Project Book Two (YAY!). It also brought with it a strange bug which has given me a fuzzy head, achy joints, an extremely sore throat, and this creeping red rash on my face and neck (BOOO!).

    And I need to try and hit my Nano target again today. Folding after just one day would be too pathetic for words. But since I'm still feeling like the grey slimy thing that one of my cats left on the doormat, those are about the only good words I'm going to be capable of, I think.

    See you on Friday - when hopefully I'll look and feel and WRITE less like a grey slimy thing and more like, you know, a person.

    *Waves feebly*

    *Totters away to wWriting Cave*

    Monday, 31 October 2011

    BIG SECRET PROJECT TEASER #4

    Hello, Dear Readers! I wish you Happy Monday - as it's a very happy Monday for me. The Scalpel is working again, and tomorrow NaNoWriMo starts and I can get to work on Big Secret Project Book Two. Yippee! I've got so many ideas I've been a little worried my brain might pop.

    And so it seems only fitting that I should post a Big Secret Project Book One teaser today. This will probably be the very last one, since I don't want to give all the plot away (it is a Secret Project still, after all). As always, when a book is not officially sold yet, this snippet is subject to change major or minor, or even deletion. So enjoy it while you can - and tell me what you think in the comments!

    Click the cut to read more.

    Friday, 28 October 2011

    GOOD NEWS BAD NEWS

    Hello all - I'd love to say 'Happy Friday' but it's more a mixed Friday, really. There is, as the title suggests, good news and bad news.

    The good news is that I finished my revision of Big Secret Project Book One late on Wednesday and sent it off to Super Agent. So...the die is cast, as Shakespeare would say. Now I just have to cross my fingers that she loves it as much as I do. And that I'll be able to share information with you about it soon because IT. IS. KILLING. MEEEEEE.

    Ahem.

    The bad news is that this morning I had a wee accident with The Scalpel, my laptop. And now it's not working at all. I'm typing this on my ancient back-up model and trying to figure out what I'm going to do about that, as the Scalpel is just under a year old and is *is* insured, but then again there's my no claims bonus...ach, boring adult stuff like that.

    Anyhow, thanks to everyone for their positive contributions to the Mary Sue discussion following Wednesday's post. I was dreading the comments a little bit, but so far it's all been polite and friendly, which is a relief.

    Now I leave you, to brood over my courageous laptop comrade, who has fallen in battle.

    Tuesday, 25 October 2011

    WHAT WOULD MARY SUE DO?

    Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Wednesday to you all. I've decided that it's finally time to follow up on my most-read post ever. I have girded my loins, donned my flack jacket, and cautiously boarded the train back to Crazy Town (carrying some sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, and a spare pair of socks, in case of emergency, as all travellers to Crazy Town should).

    Yes, Dear Readers. That's right.

    Today, we're going to talk about Mary Sue. Again.

    Many of you will be aware of the internet firestorm that descended on this blog after I made a post asking reviewers and critics to reconsider their use (and misuse) of the term Mary Sue - but if not, you can find the post, and read the extremely interesting comment trail, here.

    In the wake of that post and the response to it, several other authors weighed in on the discussion, with their particular takes on why seeing 'Mary Sue' scattered all over the place like an unwise fashion epidemic (neon leg warmers? Puffball skirts? Mullets?) made their souls die a little. I'm isolating here the responses that particularly struck a chord for me and made me look at this whole debate from a different perspective.

    Firstly we had the wonderful Sarah Rees Brennan (who-I-kind-of-want-to-marry-Omg) telling ladies that they are ALLOWED to be both flawed and awesome: in fact, flawsome.

    Next Holly Black (Saint-Paul-on-a-pogo-stick-HOLLY-BLACK!) very thoughtfully pointed out that a Mary Sue is only a Mary Sue in fanfic because she's stealing the narrative from the true leading characters. In original fiction, where she IS the leading character, she's just doing what a hero or heroine does.

    Then not long ago adult urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire (whose-October-Daye-books-are-literally-on-my-TBR-pile-right-now-holy-crap) made possibly the most telling post of all for me, wherein she teased out an aspect of the situation which I hadn't consciously analysed before: that reviewers are calling Mary Sue on any female character who is sufficiently heroic to actually carry her own story.

    When I wrote that original Mary Sue post, obviously I had no idea how much of a landmine I was stepping on in terms of anger and defensiveness from certain readers (which is why I eventually stopped responding to comments and emails on the topic). But at the same time, I also had no idea how much of a groundswell of support there would be from other authors, authors who'd been witnessing this phenomenon themselves and feeling just as disturbed by it as I was. I had no idea, basically, how bloody right I was.

    I rant a lot, about a lot of subjects, and I always believe in what I say. But as I saw the response to my Mary Sue post gaining momentum, as I saw more and more women writers admitting how sad and disheartened and hopeless this term made them feel, it began to dawn on me that this wasn't just me ranting about a pet peeve anymore. It wasn't just that Mary Sue was an inaccurate way to criticise female characters, that it was badly defined and contradictory and annoying.

    It was that the overuse of Mary Sue was damaging the quality of critical response to original fiction AND encouraging anti-woman sentiment hidden under a thin veneer of concern for Strong Female Characters.

    Mary Sue is a lot more important than she first appeared, Dear Readers. Not just in herself, but because she is symptomatic of a much wider problem: how women are treated and represented in our society.

    And how is that? Well, to sum it up, let's take a look at this lovely little poster (which I know you've all probably seen before) which puts a series of male comic book characters in the same pose that artists chose for Wonder Woman (with WW herself at the bottom for comparison):




    This has been doing the rounds on the internet for months, and we've all had a good laugh about it. Because that's what we socially aware Feminists DO when we're confronted with evidence of the over-sexualisation of women in the media. We laugh about it.

    The problem is that it's not really funny.

    If any male hero was really drawn posed like that on any page in any mainstream graphic novel, the words 'Ridiculous!' 'Inappropriate!', 'Demeaning!', 'Disgusting!' and most probably 'Gay!' (cringe) would get thrown at it so fast that you'd hear a wave of sonic booms. But female characters continue to be drawn this way. And female actors continue to be posed this way in films and on TV. And female models do the same pose in ads and on the catwalk.

    Why? Because its OK for women to look ridiculous and inappropriate, for them to be demeaned and disgusting (and most definitely gay, so long as they're happy to let hetero blokes watch them at it).

    In fact, it's more than OK. It's expected. It is REQUIRED. So much so that no one even sees it as demeaning or inappropriate or any of those other emotive words. They just see it as normal. *I* see it as normal. So what if I spend around a quarter of a film averting my eyes from lingering shots of a female actor's rear end, bust, legs and lips, and walk away without being able to remember the character's name? I probably don't even notice because That's Just How Films Are (this is called the Male Gaze and is a topic to be fully explored in another post, Dear Readers).

    Basically: Male heroes get to save the world. Female ones get to stand there and look sexy, dammit.

    Considering that we're constantly - but constantly - exposed to this worldview, is it any wonder that most of us have trouble clearing enough space in our heads to tackle female characters fairly?

    I don't believe all reviewers (especially the female ones!) want to see women characters over-sexualised and treated as nothing more than unthreatening eye candy. But what I do believe is that this bombardment of EmptySexyHotObject images has made it hard for us to see women AS ANYTHING ELSE.

    Which is why when female writers produce female characters with depth and agency, they get accused of wish fulfilment.

    There's an unconscious assumption that any female protagonist or any important female secondary character written by a woman must necessarily be an idealised author insert/wish fulfilment character. Otherwise no female character would get to tell her own story in her own voice, and have her experiences treated as interesting and worthwhile. That's the real flaw with the term Mary Sue and the way that reviewers are applying it to original fiction. Female characters are not parasites sucking away the limelight that rightfully belongs to their male counterparts. Women do deserve their own stories. Their own voices. Their experiences are interesting and worthwhile.

    Female protagonists are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own stories.

    And the more successful they become, the more female writers are being treated like cuckoos in the nest within their own industry.

    Look at this. And some of the comments in this (brilliant) post by Maureen Johnson. Examples of people stating that they want women to stop all this silly writing of theirs, and let men do the job instead. Examples of people stating, without irony, that women need to stop producing these girly books full of girl characters for girls to read because that is somehow stopping BOYS from reading! Let the men write manly books for men because...well, just because! Boys are important! Stuff girls! Who cares if THEY read or not? They're just there to look sexy, dammit!

    These are the attitudes and assumptions that all women, and all readers, are fighting against.

    I'm not saying that the misuse of the term Mary Sue is responsible for All The Sexism. But it is a really worrying symptom. It's an internet term, mostly used by internet savvy folks - and the Internet is the place where, for my money, a lot of the really smart booktalk happens. This is the place where readers find like-minded networks of friends, where a lot of promising young writers get nurtured. And where you find courageous, honest reviewers who really know the YA category - reviewers whose reviews we NEED because they are willing to put their heads above the parapet and call out misogyny and racism and homophobia and bad writing and abusive fictional boyfriends (all stuff that worries me too)!

    Let me make it clear that I love readers. I love reviewers. I love bloggers. I WANT you guys to keep doing your thing. I want to keep on reading reviews of my own work (positive and negative) which teach me useful lessons and help me to develop and improve as writer BECAUSE they are not written for my benefit. I want to be able to click on Amazon or Goodreads or Book Depo and see fifty different reviews of the books I'm thinking about buying from all different perspectives. If you think a character is badly written or developed or unrealistic? I 100% support your right to scream that from the rooftops.

    But the unconscious cuckoo-in-the-nest assumption betrayed by the use of Mary Sue as a term to denigrate female characters (and authors!) in original fiction is stealthily poisoning a lot of that healthy, necessary debate about YA books. It's harmful to the young readers we should be encouraging, the young reviewers we should be embracing, and the developing writers we should be supporting online.

    Why does it have to be this way, Dear Readers? What do you think?

    What would Mary Sue (by which I mean a complex, fully realised, awesome female character) do?

    (With thanks to the lovely writers who double-checked this post for me and stopped me from commiting pure Feminist Rage Smash. They know who they are!)

    Monday, 24 October 2011

    NaNoWriMo: FOR REAL

    Thanks to Kaz Mahoney for this logo!
    Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! As the dread, chilly fingers of Monday once again winkle us out from the over-stuffed, cloudy warmth of the weekend, I bring you some momentous news:

    I have signed up for NaNoWriMo!

    For those of you who have no idea why I'm typing out apparently random combinations of vowels and consonents, I'll clarify. That's National Novel Writing Month, where writers from all over the world join together in their attempt to write a novel (here defined as a work of fifty thousand words or more) in the month of November. Yes, that's right. 50k in 30 days. Yes, it does sound utterly impossible - we'll come back to that later. In the meantime, here's a link to the official NaNo website.

    My participation is provisional on me finishing revisions of Big Secret Project Book One before the end of this month (since the rules of NaNo state that you must work on something new) but I've got my fingers firmly crossed that I'll manage it. Actually, I'm really looking forward to it.

    I've never really had much interest in NaNo before. I've seen lots of writers talking about it, including one lovely member of my lovely writer's group, but since every year when it rolled around I was either in the middle of revising something, or writing something else - and I'm not the kind of writer who enjoys working on more than one project at once - I just didn't bother to enquire further. So if I DO manage to get my revisions done in time, this will be my first ever time participating in NaNoWriMo.

    Frankly, it's all Twitter's fault. And by Twitter, I mean writer-pal Cat Clarke and blogger-pal Vivienne DaCosta. They were all excited and enabling about it. They made it sound like huge fun instead of a hassle. Before I knew what I was doing, I was signing up.

    My NaNo project will be - no huge surprise here - Big Secret Project Book Two! Which is part of the reason I'm looking forward to it because, you see, 50k in 30 days is not as impossible as it sounds.

    Firstly, if you write 1666 words (that's about seven handwritten pages for me) per day every day, you'll succeed. Since I try to write about ten pages, or 2000 words per day, between five and six days of the week, and sometimes manage more, that's not out of the realms of sanity.

    Secondly, when I was writing Shadows on the Moon, and I took my customary two weeks off before starting the revision process, I got a wild hair and actually wrote 40,000 words off a Twilight spoof novel (yes, yes, I know it's been done - and no, no, you are NEVER going to see it). And that was while I was working thirty hours a week at my soul-destroying office job. So if I can write (on average) 2857 words per day while working in The Pit of Despond (and having my soul destroyed, let's not forget that) surely I can write 1666 per day as a full-time writer while my soul is pink-cheeked and rosy?

    And since the first draft of the first book of Big Secret Project is 73,000 words long - and I hope the second book will follow that pattern - 50k would be huge chunk of work done, leaving me lots of extra time for revising it and making it the best it can possibly be.

    Here is my brand spanking new NaNoWriMo profile. I shall be updating it with my word count throughout the month of November, if you're interested to see how I'm getting along.

    I also have reason to believe that I will be giving you more news about Big Secret Project some time in the near future - so keep your fingers crossed!
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