Monday, 28 February 2011

MONDAY ROUND-UP

Hi guys! Monday again, and I hope you're all having a sterling day, or at least one that you can live through.

First today, of all I want to remind everyone about The Iron Witch giveaway. If you haven't entered yet, get your butt in gear and clickety on this link RIGHT NOW. I pick the winner on Wednesday, so there isn't much time left.

In other news, I'm still deep in the grip of my FrostFire rewrite here. As a result, today I'm going to do a little round-up for you of writing links that I personally find useful.

1) FIVE WRITING MANTRAS THAT BEAR REPEATING. Inspiring words from SF author James Maxey.

2) ON INSPIRATION. Useful common-sense advice from bestselling YA fantasy author Cassandra Clare.

3) WHEN THE WRITING ISN'T WORKING. Comfort and help from YA fantasy author Jackie Kessler.

4) FIVE THINGS THAT DEFINE MY WRITING. A thoughtful post from me about the themes I like to explore.

5) CHARACTER PRIORITIES AND JET PROPULSION. Some solid points from Dystopian YA author Veronica Roth.

With any luck, you'll get as much excitement and interest out of these as I did.

Before I go, I want to put something to you all. I've been blogging since June last year, and a lot of my early posts were basically seen by me and about four others. And some of those were good posts that I'm proud of. So I'm considering re-posting some of those early articles now, to allow new readers or sporadic readers who've missed posts, to see them without having to trawl forwards through the blog archive to do it. How does everyone feel about that? Even if you did read the posts the first time around, would you find it interesting to get a chance to re-read?

Well, that's all from me today. See you Wednesday, when I'll be picking one lucky winner for The Iron Witch!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

FABULOUS AUTHORS: KAREN MAHONEY

Hello, dear readers, and Happy Wednesday to you! Today I've got such a special treat that I'm bouncing up and down slightly as I write this (I apologise for any resulting typos).

I had been aware of the buzz surrounding The Iron Witch for some time before it came out, mostly as a result of the beautiful and evocative cover, but also because I had heard intriguing things about the storyline featuring a strong heroine and a scrumptious hero. I went out and snagged a copy on the day of publication and I loved it, finding it a beautifully written and unique YA treatment of ancient British folklore skillfully woven with more modern myths of Alchemy.

In a strange coincidence (or was it?) Karen was one of the very first people that I 'spoke' to when I signed up for Twitter, and I soon learned that under her smiley, innocent exterior there lurked a fiendish alter-ego, known to her friends as Kaz.

So what could I do, dear readers, but try and pin this elusive writer person down for your entertainment? Luckily Kaz agreed to find the time in her currently rather hectic schedule to do a mini-interview on The Zoë-Trope, and I think her answers are extremely illuminating, although I'm pretty sure she toned down her eeeevil for the sake of our delicate sensibilities (but it's there, guys. The eeeeevil is there).

Me: Hi Kaz, and welcome to my blog! Anything you'd like to say before we start?

Kaz: First of all, thank you very much for inviting me over to chat! :) 

Me: You are very welcome. We're honoured to have you. And now - let the interrogation begin!  

Question One: When writing The Iron Witch, who or what was the core of the story for you, the element you loved the most or which was most important?

Kaz: That’s such a great first question. I’d say that the core of the story, which only really came out as I was writing, is the question: ‘How far would you go to protect someone you love?’ That’s the question that Donna Underwood, my main character, has to answer for herself, and I wanted to get across to the reader the terrible decision that she has to make – will she betray the secret Order of alchemists she’s been brought up with, to save her best friend’s life? I think this is a big part of why I love the cover so much: the dilemma is clear to see, showing a girl torn by the decision she has to make.

Question Two: You are British, but your debut novel is set in Ironbridge, an American town. What was the reason for this, and did it present any specific challenges to write?

Kaz: I never even thought about setting The Iron Witch in the UK. That sounds strange, considering it’s where I was born and has been my home all my life, but I’ve always loved the US and it makes sense for me to write stories set there. I’m particularly fond of New England—specifically Boston—so I created my own city, Ironbridge, and set it in Massachusetts. It’s a combination of everything I love about Boston and London; Ironbridge Common is a badly disguised Boston Common. ;)

There were challenges, because I had to Americanise (Americanize!) all my spellings and make sure to pick US words over their British equivalents. But I have American and Canadian critique partners, so that helped a lot. Also, I love TV shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars and The Vampire Diaries, and I think that way of speaking is just embedded in my brain somewhere.

Question Three: What is your writing process like? (ie. Do you type straight onto a laptop or use pen and paper? Where do you normally work? Are you a planner or a pantser?)

Kaz: I work best in cafés. I know that’s a total cliché, but it’s true – I’m currently typing my answers to these questions while sitting in one of my favourite writing haunts. There’s something about the bustle of life and people around me that sort of helps me to focus. When I’m researching, planning and brainstorming I write in Moleskine notebooks. (Though, when I say “planning,” I don’t mean strict outlining.) Writing a first draft is usually done on my trusty Alphasmart. It’s perfect because it ensures I can’t go online while writing, and you can only see a few lines of text at a time – which stops you from editing too much as you go along. I then download the day’s writing onto my laptop and run through it quickly to fix formatting and typos, then don’t touch it again until the whole draft is done and I’m onto revisions. Revisions have to be done on the laptop, and that’s where I struggle most – I much prefer blasting out first drafts. Rewrites and edits take me aaages.

Question Four: Can you tell us something - any tiny little detail - about The Iron Witch sequel?

Kaz: In The Wood Queen you will find out what really happened to Donna in the Ironwood, back when she was seven years old. You’ll also meet some alchemists from the other Orders – specifically the Order of the Crow (which is based in London) – when they all travel to Ironbridge for Donna’s trial.

Question Five: If you had to pick a song to listen to right now, what would it be?

Kaz: Oooh… I would listen to ‘You’ll Be Mine’ by The Pierces. I absolutely love it, and keep playing it over and over. It’s very magical and speaks of folklore and fairytales – the video is pretty awesome, too.
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Ach, weren't those amazing answers! And just to make today's blog post even more special, I'm going to give away my copy of The Iron Witch (so that's a UK paperback, obviously) to one lucky reader! I will also include various bits of Shadows on the Moon swag, just to make it more interesting.

That's right, folks, the awesome is unstoppable today.

The giveaway is open to everyone in the whole world. To enter you need to Tweet a link to this blog post, share it on Facebook or in some way spread the word - it doesn't matter how, but please pop a link into the comments.

If you decide to link to the blog in more than one place, make sure you put each link you provide in a SEPARATE COMMENT on this post, or my random-number-generator-fu may go awry. But you don't have to. One link each is fine. The competition is open until next Wednesday.

Go forth and natter, my lovelies!

See you all on Friday, when hopefully I'll be posting about Writing Roadblocks...

Monday, 21 February 2011

WITHER BY LAUREN DESTEFANO

THE BLURB:

What if you knew exactly when you would die?

Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.

When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden's genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.

But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden's eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limted time she has left.


THE REVIEW:

If I had to use one word to describe Lauren DeStefano's debut novel it would be: Troubling.

WITHER is not a thrill-packed adventure story filled with explosions. Ninety percent of the story takes place in one location, and involves a mere handful of characters. We only glimpse the outside world in snatches. And yet for all that, this is story which gets under your skin and quietly itches away there, causing you to lie awake at night thinking about it long after it is finished.

This story takes the common writing adage 'start with the action' to heart, as the first page finds us locked in a dark, enclosed space with sixteen year old main character Rhine and dozens of other girls. The dark space is the back of a lorry. Rhine does not know who the other girls are or where they are being taken. The girls do not talk to one another, or cry to comfort the ones that cry or are sick. They merely huddle on the floor of the truck, lost in the darkness and their own private nightmares. And so we learn the first, and perhaps most telling lesson of WITHER: that there is no automatic solidarity in suffering. That misery and fear do not make the soul stronger. In life or death situations the strong tend to their own survival and the weak tend to die.

If this sounds bleak? It is. My God, it is. I admit that I found the first few chapters of the story difficult to get through, despite the lyrical, flowing quality of the prose. The sense of forboding, of suffocating menace under the glossy surface of the world that Rhine is forced into is palpable. I found myself WILLING the bad stuff to happen, just to get it over with so I could relax. But Ms DeStefano is a cunning writer, and she does not allow this. As a result, I know, had I been reading a physical ARC (rather than an eGalley, courtesy of NetGalley) that I would probably have been tempted to skip forward a dozen pages to try and ease the unbearable tension.

What ultimately makes the story readable - and allowed me to enjoy it despite the ever-present undercurrent of bleakness - is the strength of Rhine's voice. She is a wonderful narator, and Ms DeStefana uses her unique, clear-eyed POV to guide us through the intricacies of the WITHER world with skillfully woven flashbacks, dreams and fantasies. Rhine is in no way a 'feisty' heroine. What she is, is a strong young woman with a great deal of determination and a bone-deep ability to hold a grudge.

One of the things I admired greatly about this book is the way it takes us from speechless, gasping horror at the terrible events of the Dystopia we see to a strange state of almost-acceptance - and then back again. Rhine herself battles constantly against complacency, the very human desire to accept even the most screaming madness and normalise one's own situation. Every time that Rhine smiles and laughs in her new world, we do too - only to jerk back, appalled, when we are reminded that everything about Rhine's life is wrong, wrong, wrong. The story of Cecily, a beautifully drawn secondary character, is a telling clue to the story's second big message: That those who are suffering the most from systems of oppression will often be the ones fighting most fiercely to preserve them. They don't WANT to escape.

Speaking of secondary characters - I think WITHER's are perhaps its greatest strength. From the smallest speaking parts like the loud-mouthed but kind-natured cook to capricious, dying Rose, from tragic Jenna to willfully blind Linden, the secondary cast here are minutely developed and lovingly depicted, creating the sense of a real world even though, as mentioned earlier, the world we see is actually very, very small.

Something else that stood out for me was the writer's handling of a device which would seem by definition incredibly depressing - a world in which men die at twenty-five and women at twenty - and instead used the ticking clock of the character's lifespan to create a sense of freedom, of the joy and beauty of life, of the importance of being true to yourself and taking chances, even when everyone around you is intent on keeping you in a cage (very nicely referenced in the image on the cover, by the way) for your own good.

Despite all the things that I liked about it, for me, WITHER ends a little abruptly, leaving many plot threads dangling loose, and many hints unresolved. It is the first of a trilogy, and as such I'd obviously expect to find myself with questions, but because I cannot judge how Ms DeStefano will handle these it's impossible for me to give this book a full five stars. I just don't know how the story is going to play out.

But it's this very sense of unpredictability which will ensure that I am scrabbling to get my hands on the next book in THE CHEMICAL GARDEN Trilogy the very moment it becomes available.

I want and *need* to know how Rhine's short life will end. And I believe that other readers will too.

Friday, 11 February 2011

DIVERGENT BY VERONICA ROTH

Happy Friday everyone. You may remember that a while back I was lucky enough to win an ARC of DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth from her blog. On Wednesday I read the book, and today I sat down to try and review it.

THE BLURB:

One choice can transform you.

In sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior’s world, society is divided into five factions – Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent) – each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue, in the attempt to form a “perfect society.” At the age of sixteen, teens must choose the faction to which they will devote their lives.

On her Choosing Day, Beatrice renames herself Tris, rejects her family’s group, and chooses another faction. After surviving a brutal initiation, Tris finds romance with a super-hot boy, but also discovers unrest and growing conflict in their seemingly “perfect society.” To survive and save those they love, they must use their strengths to uncover the truths about their identities, their families, and the order of their society itself.

THE REVIEW:

Upfront confession - I don't generally like Dystopian novels much. Or rather, I haven't liked a lot of the recent crop of Dystopian novels much. I've found most them of them a little samey in their focus on societies where people are not free to love or make personal choices as to prospective life partners, and the resulting forbidden romances (especially since our CURRENT society often forbids people from loving who they chose, and many people don't find it odd at all). However, having visited Veronica Roth's blog I was cautiously excited about DIVERGENT, as it seemed to promise something really different, a book that made an effort to examine themes of personal choice a bit more deeply. I entered a competition on the author's blog for an ARC and somehow, won.

I am so, so glad that I did. DIVERGENT is an incredibly strong debut. No, that's not doing it justice. It is an incredibly strong *novel*, full stop. I found it ridiculously compelling, and read it in one sitting in just under four hours. Frankly, short of applying strong glue to the cover I can't see how the author could have made this book any more unputdownable.

I think the brilliance of the novel lies in three things. First, the author's ability to create truly well rounded and textured characters. Second, her intense sensory writing. Third, her absolute ruthlessness in testing both of the above to their limits.

It's been a long while since I read a book with such a strong cast of real characters; by which I mean, people that I believed in, people that seemed completely realistic even amidst their warped Dystopian world. People who *remained* human and sympathetic even when they made mistakes, did terrible things - or acted with shining selflessness and bravery. Ms Roth's main character Tris is a perfect mixture of flaws and strengths, moral ambiguity and idealism, bravery and self-preservation. I felt I could always rely on her to do the right thing, not in terms of good and bad, but in terms of what a character with her traits and in her situation WOULD do. I've read so many books lately where the narrators might as well be signposted as BAMFs with neon flashing lights and yet seemed to have no true strength, no inner resources. Smart mouths, switchblades and leather pants do not a kick-ass heroine make. Tris is a kick-ass heroine precisely because she doesn't need to act tough. She just IS. I loved that about her. I loved it so much that if I ever meet the author in real life I am going to snuggle her, even if she tries to get away from me (sorry, Ms Roth!).

Here we have friends and family members who have their own inner lives and agendas, enemies that are frail and flawed, and a love interest WHO APPEARS TO BE A REAL BOY AND NOT A SPARKLY MARBLE CUPCAKE ADONIS! I didn't swoon over Four for a second. I fell in love with him, quietly and deeply, just as Tris did.

When twinned with the author's gift for creating a tangible physical experience for the reader (I felt what Triss felt, smelled what she smelled, shivered when she did, pricked my ears when she did) this would already have put this novel head-and-shoulders above the competition. But Veronica Roth also has another ace up her sleeve, which is that she puts her characters (and by extension, us) through the wringer both physically and emotionally. I could literally feel Tris's character being stretched to its limits. There were moments in this book where I wanted to curl into fetal position because the experience of reading it was *brutal*. But not in a torture-porn way, which is a fine line, and one that I hate to see crossed, especially in YA.

So DIVERGENT is a thrilling, action packed read, with spare and beautiful writing and wonderful characters. It is also a profound examination of human nature. Ms Roth's book dwells deftly on the costs of bravey and self-sacrifice, on the difference between strength and cruelty, on the dangers of both prejudice and idealism. Hyper picky witch-writer that I am, I wouldn't change a thing about it. It's rare that concept and execution come together as perfectly as they do in this novel. I'm thrilled that I got to read it early and I have all my fingers and toes crossed that this book gets both the critical and commercial success that it rightfully deserves.

A keeper, and one that I know I will re-read many times in years to come. Highly recommended.


NOTE: Due to the attentions of a troll and his spambot, I've been forced to turn on word verification for comments. Sorry, all. I hope you can bear with it.

Monday, 7 February 2011

MONDAY MEEBLING

That's right - meebling. I said it, and I meant it. What does it mean? Well if you don't know, I can't tell you!

*Sigh*

Fine. It just means I have nothing interesting to share today, all right?

A new week has begun. I've spent my weekend productively, feverishly writing a new Plot Shape for FF, which I sent my my editor this morning. Until I've heard back from her, there's nothing else I can really do. I'm far too restless to begin any of the wonderful books in my To Be Read pile (even the ARC of Divergent that I won, which is full of enticing Post-Its from the author that promise all kinds of insights into the story). I'm far too restless to do anything useful. I'm far too restless to write an interesting blog post.

And so...I meeble.

Look, a kitten!

*Runs away*

P.S. Isabel, I think you asked me a question in the comments the other day, which I promised to answer - but I can't find the comment now. Can you remember what topic you wanted me to blog on?

P.P.S. I think someone else asked me a question too. It may have been Steph Su? If you can remember, please comment or drop me a line.

P.P.P.S. Anyone else have any topics they'd like me to blog on? Let me know.

P.P.P.P.S. STOP THE MADNESS!

Friday, 4 February 2011

I THOUGHT I COULD FLY...SO WHY DID I DROWN?

With thanks to Jason Walker for the title, which is a line from his song 'Down'.

This past week I learned something with regard to my writing. And I've been going backwards and forwards about how and if to post about it. In the end I decided that I needed to say something because I've been teasing you all for quite a long while with the details of FF (the book that I handed in to my editor earlier this month). The reason I kept quiet on specifics was that I knew one of the elements of the story was controversial and I wanted to make sure I'd done a good job and that it would go ahead before I told you all about it.

Sometimes, as a writer, you HAVE to write something. It doesn't matter how scary or hard it is. A character, a story, a scene comes to you and maybe it shocks the Hell out of you, but it must be written. It takes you over. When you hand that book in, you are ready to defend to the death the thing you've written, no matter what anyone says, because you know that character, that story, that scene, cannot be anything else. But surprisingly often those parts won't raise an eyebrow from anyone. Not because they're not shocking or controversial, but because your passion and conviction have made those elements indispensible to the book. This was the case with several parts of Shadows on the Moon (as anyone who's read one of the ARCs will probably realise).

But sometimes you will go through a slightly different process. Remember my post on Diversity a week ago? Well, I've been thinking really hard about the implications of my privilege for quite a long while, and this lead me to make a decision in writing FF not because of passion, not because I couldn't write the story any other way, not because that was the way the story was - but because I wanted to make a point.

This isn't always a bad thing. The inspiration for the multiracial world and differing religions in Daughter of the Flames came about in such a way. But in this case, my thinking caused me to take my characters and push them into actions which frequently felt slightly off to me. It caused me to take my story, which had always been meant to unfold a certain way, and change it radically. And there were definitely brief, shining moments when I was sure that it was all working together perfectly, and I think this allowed me to fool myself that my decision was right.

Editors, however, cannot be fooled by stuff like that. My editor read my story and she came back to tell me, as kindly and nicely as she could (because she is very kind and nice) that it just didn't work. Because you see, that's the way it is when you've let yourself be blinded by Big Ideas. It often takes someone else to come along and point out that you've blundered.

I set out to do something that I believed - and still believe - to be important. And I failed.

It really, really hurts to admit that. I'm always talking about taking risks, but something I hardly ever mention - something that people who encourage you to push yourself, test your talent, challenge your limits, hardly ever talk about - is that as a result YOU WILL FAIL sometimes. There are going to be occasions when you make the wrong choice or just don't have the skills yet to fulfil your ambitions. Your reach exceeds your grasp.

One of the hardest parts? Deep down in that murky, intuitive place where unpleasant truths lurk, I knew. I'm pretty sure I knew all along that it wasn't right. I'm cross with myself for ignoring that and just HOPING, somehow, that I could pull it off. That's a lesson learned. Pay attention to your gut.

And in case you're wondering what I failed at, it was writing a convincing romance between two girls. That was what I wanted to do in FF. A high fantasy gay romance.

The thing is, the book didn't want to be a high fantasy gay romance. It didn't start out that way, and I never had any blinding inspiration or subtle realisation that it should be. The characters I pushed together didn't want to be in love, I don't think. It might sound silly to talk that way, as if the characters and story have some sort of independent will of their own, but for me it really DOES feel that way. And when I force my characters and story to do things they don't want to, the results are never good, even when I'm forcing them with the very best of intentions.

I still want to write that book. I still think that book needs to be written. But I think my failure here shows that good intentions cannot take the place of passion when it comes to writing stories. If you let your desire to make a point lead you astray from serving the story and characters you have in front of you RIGHT NOW in the best and most truthful way you can, failure is inevitable.

So now the quest is to save my characters from what I've done to them. Save the story that originally presented itself to my mind from the awkward changes I forced on it. Make FF the book it probably always should have been, and hope that people like it anyway, even if it's not illuminated by the flaring brilliance of Good Intentions and Big Ideas (or, not the same good intentions and big ideas I had before).

The lesson I really wanted you guys to take from this? Maybe it's that, look - I made a big mistake. Four books into my career, as a grown-up. I made a big mistake. I failed. But the sky didn't fall.

I felt like it had for a few hours there, but it didn't.

So...take comfort from that. Take comfort from knowing that you will make mistakes and you will survive them. Get up, dust yourself off, and fix it.

And if you can't take comfort from that, then take it from this article by award-winning author Nicola Morgan, which really helped me to put things in perspective when I read it yesterday morning.

Have a great weekend, peeps. I'll be here, with my edit letter - illuminated by the flaring brilliance of knowing that this time, I'm going to get this book RIGHT.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

GROUNDHOG (BOOK)DAY

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing - or reading - related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

We'd love for you to participate! 


I think I've actually managed to find out the REAL question for this week's Road Trip Wednesday in time this week - one of the advantages of Twitter. And the topic is:

It's Groundhog Day! Pretend you're Bill Murray in the 1993 movie-- what book would you read over & over forever?

Frankly, the idea of never being allowed to read a new book again would probably make me spend the first few hundred endless repeating days curled up in a corner crying (shut up, I love new books, okay?).

But following that, presuming I could chose just one book, I would spend some serious time in contemplation. As long-time blog readers know, I am a champion of re-reading. I re-read pretty much every book that I liked. So it's tough for me to isolate just one re-readable book. Should I pick a really loooong one? I probably shouldn't pick one that makes me cry every time, right? Argh, choices, choices!

After much thought, my shortlist goes like this:
  1. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. I've already re-read this book about twenty times, I think. Although it is a story full of suffering, tragedy and darkness, it is also about the power of love, faith and redemption, and I can't express how deep down HAPPY it makes me. Problem: I practically already know it by heart.
  2. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Again, I must have read this book twenty or more times. It is a riddle within a puzzle within an enigma, and people's theories on the plot and characters are endless. It still makes me think deeply each time I read it, and it still makes me laugh. A good choice. Problem: it's so short!
  3. NightWatch by Terry Pratchett. I've re-read this book a lot less times than the ones above, because it is a HARD read. It's multilayered, twisty and in many places, downright grim. It's also funny, as is PTerry's trademark, but the humour is black, black, black. I love and admire this book in every way. Problem: Blubbing. Every. Single. Time.
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. What can I say? It's one of the best books ever written. It's moving. It's funny. It's impeccably written. It's reasonably long. It features probably the most memorable characters ever written. Problem: Um...there isn't one.
So there you have it. If I had to read one book over and over for the rest of my life, it would be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. But don't blame me if I start wearing bonnets and addressing people as 'Sir' and 'Ma'am', after a bit...Still, if I'm stuck in the same day, they'll never get around to putting me in the psychiatric ward, right?

Darcy and Elizabeth FTW! And the the way, if you've not yet read one of more of the books on the shortlist, I urge you to run to your local library or bookshop and do so at once! After all, YOU'RE not stuck in Groundhog (Book)Day.
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