Thursday, 29 November 2012

RETROTHURSDAY: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Hello and Happy Thursday, my lovelies. Welcome to Retro-Thursday, when I retrieve an older post from my archives in the hope that you may enjoy re-reading it, or may even have missed it the first time around. Given the way that cover trends have shifted over the twelve months since I wrote this, I thought it would be particularly interesting.

Retro-Thursday: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Lately I've been thinking about the discussion that's 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 (because 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.

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 smoothed the rough edges of our 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.

Why is that, do you think?

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?

They're very disturbing indeed.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING

Hello and Happy Tuesday my lovelies! Today I'm taking part in a meme (I know, right?! It might actually be my first, unless Roadtrip Wednesday counts) called The Next Big Thing, whereby writers tag each other to answer certain questions about whatever their newest project is - and then tag still more writers to take part.

I was tagged by the absolutely delightful Erin Bow, who talks about her Next Big Thing, Sorrow's Knot (which sounds so luciously creepy and beautiful I can't even stand it) right here.

I, in my turn, am tagging lovely writer friends R.J Anderson (author of KNIFE, SWIFT, ULTRAVIOLET and the upcoming QUICKSILVER) and Elizabeth May (the lady whose beautiful photograph and face are on the cover of FrostFire) whose first book THE FALCONER is coming out next year. These guys will be posting their own Next Big Things either this or next week, so check their blogs out.

NOTE: I would have tagged more writers for this if I could, but practically everyone I approached had either *already* taken part or *couldn't* take part for excellent reasons. As it is, R.J. has actually already been tagged by Erin in the same post that tagged me. We decided to let it slide, since I was about to break down and cry all over Twitter. 

What’s the working title for your book?

The fact that I can finally talk about this now makes me so happy and giggly. Yay! It's The Name of the Blade trilogy, and Book One is titled The Night Itself. 

A short synopsis?

When Mio steals the katana – her family's priceless sword – she only wants to liven up her fancy-dress costume. But the katana is more than some dusty heirloom, and her actions unleash an ancient and unspeakable evil. Soon the monsters of mythical Japan are stalking the streets of 21st century London, searching for her and the sword. Only the appearance of a mysterious warrior boy, Shinobu, saves Mio from death. Now Mio knows that if she cannot learn to control the katana's legendary powers, she will lose not only her own life ... but the love of a lifetime.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

The first spark of the idea was a gift from a friend who is in my writer's group. She posted the Robert Graves poem 'The Bedpost' to our online forum as part of a discussion we were all having. Now, the poem is about this legendary hero and warrior who is enchanted by an evil witch, and ends up trapped in a post of wood - the bedpost of a young girl's bed, in fact. His only chance to break the spell and gain his freedom is to whisper stories to the young woman and get her to fall in love with him. But she's only interested in bloodthirsty tales of battle and adventure, and so he remains trapped in the post.

Straight away I felt that someone needed to take this story on and give it a more satisfactory ending! But I thought that if my hero was going to be trapped in an inanimate object, it ought to be something a bit more interesting - and mobile - than a post of wood. Since he was a warrior, my brain immediately leapt to the idea of a shield or an axe or - a sword. A Japanese sword! And my hero would be a hero from ancient Japan, which would give me a chance to utilise all the wonderful mythology and folklore which I had read about during my research for Shadows on the Moon, but which I never used in that book.

I knew that with so much magic and so many mythical creatures flying about, I would need a realistic setting and a very down to earth, ordinary main character in order to keep the story feeling grounded and real, and the fantastical elements feeling strange and scary. And at that point my brain just seemed to explode with all these ideas and I began to realise that there was more story here than I could possibly tell in a single book, and that for the first time I was actually looking at a series. 

What genre does your book fall under?

It is dark urban fantasy for young adults. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The actress who looks most like my idea of Mio Yamato, my heroine, is Horikita Maki. She's a Japanese actress who is more or less unknown here in the west:


For Shinobu, I would pick the actor Kaneshiro Takeshi, who is slightly better known internationally, having starred in The House of Flying Daggers and The Warlords:


Truth to tell, Kaneshiro-san is too old to play the role of teenage Shinobu now, but in my head, that is the face I see when I think of my character.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children's Literary Agency, and the book will be commercially published in the UK by Walker Books in July of 2013. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

An astonishingly short time, for me - just under six months. That's the fastest I've ever written anything. The universe made me pay that time back in other ways, though! The first draft of the second book (which I've just finished and turned in) took over a year. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The books that most immediately spring to mind are The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Just like The Mortal Instruments, The Name of the Blade is urban fantasy with a really strong sense of setting (in TMI it's New York, in TNotB it's London). In both series there's a large cast of diverse characters, and a focus on fast paced adventure and thrill-ride fight scenes. I've also done my best to create a central love story which is as achingly romantic as the relationship of Jace and Clary in TMI, although Mio and Shinobu's connection can best be described as... unique. *Evil laughter* 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've already talked about the initial inspiration, which came from several different places. But I think the underlying motivation came from the books I was reading at the time. I had just finished a draft of FrostFire - it had taken me nearly sixteen months to get it to a publishable state, including masses of re-writes with my editor - and it had turned out to be the most dark and emotional of my high fantasy novels. Frankly, I needed a break. Some friends of mine - again, from my writer's group! - took me on a mega-book-buying spree. It was insane; they just kept shoving books at me and I just kept buying them. I had a job fitting all the bags on the train, let alone carrying them home from the station. Inevitably I ended up with lots and lots of urban fantasy simply because that was one of the most common things on the shelves of the bookshop. I'd read the plenty of urban fantasy fiction before that, but suddenly I had a massive collection of the most recent, cutting edge YA stuff right in my hands.

So I started reading. And some of this urban fantasy was just brilliant. It made my heart race and my brain light up and my soul sing. I loved it. But equally some of it was DIRE. So bad that I couldn't believe that anyone, let alone experienced publishing professionals, had thought this was worth the paper it was printed on. Now, as most writers will tell you, that point - the point where you're diving into a genre and you're starting to see all the patterns and all the tropes and all the cliches and all the overused ideas and under-exploited potential, where you've read the best of the best and the worst of the worst - that's the liminal space where your own imagination starts to light up. You start to ask yourself 'How would *I* have dealt with that plotline?' or think 'I would love to do my own take on a situation like that!' and finally 'Why hasn't anyone written THAT in a book yet? It would be brilliant!'

All those questions lie fallow in the back of your brain, just waiting for the right story to come along and bring them to life. So I was basically inspired to write an urban fantasy by reading urban fantasy. Which is often the way, I think.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

Well, if anyone else is as burned out as I am on books dealing with western mythos - angels and demons, werewolves and vampires, fairies, elves, mermaids, witches oh my! - but still wants breathless fight scenes, epic adventure and swoony romance, I think they will be interested in The Night Itself. And as a bonus, this will be my first published story where I get to exercise my sense of humour on the page - which I've enjoyed more than I can say - so if my blog or my Twitter have ever made anyone laugh, chances are these books will too (and possibly cry a bit as well, but who knows?).  *More evil laughter*

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

NEW TRILOGY TITLE REVEALED!

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! My week's hiatus is over, my manuscript is marked-up and ready to be hacked into - and I have an exciting announcement for you, in case you hadn't guessed :)

You may remember a little while ago I told you that my new urban fantasy trilogy (details here), which will start coming out next year, was going to need a different series title than it's original one, The Katana Trilogy. This is because someone out there has already copyrighted (or possibly trademarked - it's a bit confusing) the word 'Katana' and this makes it hard for a publisher to go ahead with books under that name.

At first I was anxious and disappointed not to get to keep the orignal title. As soon as I realised that the story would need to be told over three books, I knew I wanted to call the series The Katana Trilogy. Katana is the Japanese name for a traditional longsword, and one of those magical words that brings to mind all kinds of beautiful imagery, even for people who aren't aware exactly what it means. I also thought that, what with it being short and simple, it would be easy to remember.

After my editor broke this news to me I spent the whole day coming up with new possible titles that ranged from OK to meh to downright nuts. But late that night I was unloading my tale of woe to friends in my writer's group, and someone made a suggestion which, while it didn't quite work, did spark off another possible title in my head. And this one I *loved*. It tied into a motif that was important in all three books individually, and also to one of the central mysteries of the whole trilogy.

I can now safely say that it is one of my favourite titles ever.

I was actually going to wait a while longer to announce the new title for the trilogy, because I wanted to combine it with the reveal for the cover artwork of the first book, The Night Itself. But we're still working on the cover, and the Amazon listing to pre-order The Night Itself has just appeared with the trilogy title on it! I thought I'd better spill the beans before some bright-spark noticed, amended the Goodreads page or something, and stole my thunder.

THIS is the new title for my very first urban fantasy trilogy (hi, those of you who scrolled straight down through all that waffling to get to the title). We're calling it: 

**THE NAME OF THE BLADE**


This is the Amazon listing for The Name of the Blade, Book One: The Night Itself.

The release for the book is shown as the 4th of July, which is the first time I've seen a solid date for publication, so that's exciting too.

What do you all think? Do you like the new title? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

BLOG HIATUS #2

Hello, my lovelies! Happy Thursday to you all!

You can probably guess from the not-very-imaginative post title what I'm talking to you about today. No fear! Just as last time, I'm not going away for long, and not for any scary reasons.

As my two week holiday from work draws toward its close, I'm getting incredibly revved up to dive into the re-reading, revision and polishing of As Yet Unnamed Trilogy Book #2. More than anything, I'd love to lock myself into my Writing Cave with a stock of Cup Ramen and chocolate and just tear through the editing process. But since my real life responsibilities can't be put aside that easily, I'm forced to look around for other stuff that I could cut out to make a bit of extra room for writing - and the blog clearly fits that definition. Much as I love you, Dear Readers, I'm fairly sure that you can manage to get along without me for a short while.

The blog hiatus will last for one week, and I will be back on Tuesday the 19th of November. If anyone would like to take the chance to leave questions on writing, reading & publishing in the comment thread here for me to answer when I get back, I'd love that.

In the meantime, take care of yourselves!
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