Friday, 10 December 2010

guillermo del toro and chuck hogan - the strain

Horror is not normally my genre of choice. As I huddled under the bedcovers in gibbering terror, perversely compelled to keep turning the pages of Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain, I remembered why.

This is a petrifying book, packed with body horror, gruesome murders and general extreme creepiness. It also works superbly as a thriller; it’s tautly-written and the pages flick past at an impressive speed. There is some supreme badassery here, including UV light bombs and vampires getting decapitated with swords, and some great set-pieces like the dead plane at the beginning of the book or the eclipse in the middle.

The one aspect that disappointed me was, and I apologise for yet again banging the same old drum, the gender roles. All the badasses are male. All the main characters are male. All the characters present at the climax are male. There are only two female characters; one is a damsel distress who is kidnapped and later fridged, and the other was ordered by the men to stay at home and look after the children during the climax. I rolled my eyes pretty hard at that point, especially since that second female character was supposed to be the protagonist’s colleague and equal, her training every bit the match of his. But she’s a girl, so she stays sidelined.

If you can overlook the gender aspect, The Strain is a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read which is still giving me the creeps a month later. You may experience sleep deprivation and/or uncontrollable sobbing, is all I’m saying.

Verdict = 4 out of 5 stars. I'll definitely be picking up the sequel.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

pc and kristen cast - marked

Oh dear. I cracked open PC and Kristen Cast’s Marked hoping that House of Night would be another gem a la Richelle Mead or Rachel Caine. I ended the book feeling not just disappointed but bitter, and I feel the need to share my bitterness with the world.

Marked repeats all the worst flaws of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna series without the strength of character that makes Alanna (mostly) sympathetic. Like Alanna, the protagonist Zoey Redbird is designated by the author as special, and that point is hammered home so hard and so often I ended up with a slight concussion. A mere sampling of the ways in which we’re told Zoey is special:
  • She has a special tattoo. By the end of the book her tattoo is even specialer.
  • She has special magic powers.
  • She has a special unique bloodlust.
  • She has a special mentor who had a special vision of her.
  • She herself has special visions.
  • Everyone constantly reassures her that she's wonderful.
  • Goddesses literally intervene in person to tell her how amazing she is.
  • She has a special cat, which I assume was ripped directly from Tamora Pierce.
  • She has a special ability to just somehow know the right thing to do by instinct. (This is a trope I absolutely hate with a burning passion. If your character has no actual reason to make the next plot step, rethink your plot. Don’t just lazily give her special intuition.)
  • She’s being lined up to become the next high priestess, except super special because of her amazingly special magic powers.
That’s a truckload of special trinkets the author hands to her. What does Zoey actually do to deserve this universal admiration from the gods on down? Well, her world-shakingly epic achievement is ... wait for it ... she defeats some school bullies.

Yup. That’s the scale of the plot here -- gossip, backstabbing and dresses.

A key problem is the lack of an external antagonist posing a real threat to the protagonist and her comfortable world. In Richelle Mead’s excellent Vampire Academy series, protagonist Rose Hathaway has a driving purpose in life: to protect her charge Lissa Dragomir by fighting the evil Strigoi. That’s why Rose gets up in the morning. That’s why she fights, why she struggles, why she sacrifices. That threat, which cases a progressively longer shadow across the series, puts everything into perspective. Schoolgirl bitching is a minor irritant when your best friend could be murdered and your world crushed at any moment.

By contrast, Zoey has nothing to worry about. Her world contains no threat greater than another girl stealing the boy she’s crushing on, no purpose greater than earning queen-bee status among her classmates. The protagonist is innocent to the point of childishness; her worldview divides people into into slutty evil bitches and perfect beautiful people. (As you can probably imagine, this immaturity sits a little oddly with the dubiously-consensual public blowjobs -- it comes across slightly like an eight-year-old set loose on the set of a porn film.)

And that’s why this novel feels small and shallow to me. All the epic specialness and personal visits from goddesses are wasted on high-school bullies and slut-shaming.

Zoey Redbird needs to grow up.

Verdict = 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


It’s the most glorious month of the year again! And I’ve been making preparations. Write-ins have been scheduled. Chocolate has been stockpiled. My spreadsheet is filling out. As our reading week (a week’s holiday) falls conveniently in November, I’ll be taking ten days off to do nothing but write. I’ve found that I need to build momentum in the first days of Nanowrimo to carry me through the rest, so as soon as the clock hits midnight tonight, I’ll open up my shiny new Word document and start writing.

This year I’m taking a second crack at my YA urban fantasy DREAD MACHINE. I’m aiming to kill this scarily huge project in 100k max. If I’m especially good, I might even beat last year’s total. I hope the tiramisu of victory is in my future!

Are you doing Nanowrimo this year? How have you been preparing?

lauren kate - fallen

I picked up this novel despite (or perhaps because of) the strong suspicion that I wouldn’t be able to stand it, so I admit the bitter taste in my mouth right now is self-inflicted. But its stunning cover seduced me, and I wanted to test out my local digital lending library, so I took a deep breath and dove in.

First, the good. There’s a prevailing feeling of darkness thanks to the reform school the protagonist Luce attends, which I think is the first reform school I’ve ever seen in YA. I was pleased by Luce’s surprisingly complex relationship with her parents, who condemned her to reform school as a last resort after she possibly murdered someone in a fire; they love her and fear her and want to protect her all at once, and I’m glad that the protagonist sees their flaws and loves them nonetheless. I only wish that the other character relationships were as intriguing. Most of the writing is merely serviceable, but at times it touched on the beautiful. One line I particularly liked:

She spotted a lone dandelion, and it crossed her mind that a younger Luce would have pounced on it and then made a wish and blown. But this Luce’s wishes felt too heavy for something so light.

I did a little victory dance when, after 200 pages of the designated love interest Daniel showing nothing but contempt for her, Luce finally stands up for herself. She points out that far from being as stupid as he apparently thinks, she’s extremely academic. Full scholarship. 4.0 GPA. She speaks several languages. She does the Sunday crossword! And she’s going to be a psychiatrist! Immediately my love for Luce started to bloom like a previously stunted flower.

Unfortunately, as with the rest of the book, this flare of promise subsides into disappointment. The supposedly academic Luce never uses any of the skills she claims to have. Everything she learns is served up to her on a silver platter by a nosy friend. If she were as smart as all that, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t get into a strange car to go to an unknown place to meet her violent soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, without telling anyone where she’s going. The evilness of the evil characters is written in letters big enough to be visible from space, but somehow genius Luce misses it. People keep saying how special Luce is -- “Believe me. You have no idea how many strong and impossible things you are capable of” -- but it’s never actually backed up in the text.

I think the key failing here is that the author never gives her an opportunity to shine. The narrative is so in love with perfect beautiful Daniel and his beautiful perfection that Luce is an afterthought. She’s just a window through which the reader is invited to ogle those rippling muscles. In the entire book Luce is given nothing to do, so she accomplishes nothing -- her only action in the climax, and I use the word action loosely, is to lie on an altar while the antagonist attempts to sacrifice her, only to be saved at the last moment (of course) by the designated love interest.

It’s a shame, because this book could have been redeemed. I feel like I got a brief glimpse of the Luce who could have been -- a heroine who stormed through this book, kicking ass and taking names, using every bit of that intelligence -- but then the moment died.

Verdict = 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

back from the dead

Since my last post, I turned in my final-year research project, scraped through my final exams, graduated from university, scored a place at University College London to study MA Publishing, narrowly missed out on a scholarship, found a house in London, got a summer job and applied for a terrifyingly huge bank loan to afford all this, read a lot, wrote a lot, and somehow survived.

How about you? :)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

theme song

Frivolous post today. I often play music while I’m writing, but the aim is for the music to fade into the background, so I’ve never really thought of any one song as a theme song. The one exception is Within Temptation’s “Hand of Sorrow”. From the moment I first heard this, way back when IRONBANE was still coming together, I knew this was the perfect song for protagonist Anjen, the war she fought and the things she did to win.

Please forgive me for the sorrow
For leaving you in fear
For the dreams we had to silence
That's all they'll ever be
Still I'll be the hand that serves you
Though you'll not see that it is me

So many dreams were broken and so much was sacrificed
Was it worth the ones we loved and had to leave behind
So many years have past, who are the noble and the wise?
Will all our sins be justified?

Monday, 26 April 2010

power and adulthood in YA fiction

As I outline my new YA project, I’ve been thinking about adults and adulthood.

Generally speaking, YA characters in real-world settings are part of a web of power relationships. They’re children, so they have parents. They’re students, so they have teachers. If disaster strikes they can have people to turn to. Even if everyone abandons them, society provides a safety net; they can go to the police, and in the long term social services will (or should) place them with a new family.

Other settings might have no police, no social services, no schools, no responsible adults at all. A teenage character can be abandoned in much more profound ways, with literally nobody looking out for them. That character would have to take care of everything themselves -- like an adult. I’m thinking here of something like The Hunger Games. Although technically she has a surviving parent, Katniss has taken on the role of parent and provider for her family, and when she goes into the arena, she’s utterly alone. Nobody is coming to help her.

But the vast majority of YA novels I can think of place the characters in a world of responsible adults and mentor characters. Is that because a teenage character in an adult role is in fact in a meaningful way an adult? Do YA readers enjoy and sympathise with characters in positions of adult responsibility? If a teenage character is 100% independent and in no way looked after by an adult, is the story still YA?

I’ve been pestering the wonderful Teens Writing for Teens for their views because of my new YA project. I’m still thrashing out the details of my mostly-depopulated setting, but I’m pretty sure that everything the teenage characters used to rely on has gone byebye. No parents. No teachers. No police. No safety net. This is way beyond the classic Harry Potter situation in which there are loving adults, but the adults can’t or won’t always help, forcing the YA character to face their demons alone -- there are literally no supportive adults in this setting, period. One character is looking for a mythical adult figure who’ll save them all, but she eventually realises that this figure is just a myth, and if she wants any saving done she'll have to do it herself.

In this borderline post-apocalyptic setting, the YA characters themselves are having to (re)build aspects of their former society -- redistributing food, policing the streets, etc. I see this as a Battlestar Galactica-esque struggle to reclaim some kind of normality, starting with basic governmental functions, as a last-ditch attempt to avoid sliding into Lord of the Flies territory. (I admit constitutional rights and separation of powers are not obviously YA issues, but they’re fascinating, I swear!)

All this is absolutely fascinating to me and I think would make a fun YA novel, but I still haven’t read enough YA to feel truly confident in my genre knowledge. The difficulty I’m having in naming similar YA titles worries me. All good ideas have already been done; if something is uncommon or even unique in a genre, that’s probably because it’s a terrible idea.

What do you think? Is age what defines a YA character, or is it the social role of a young adult? Would strong characterisation and a compelling plot (hypothetically speaking, as I still have a lot to learn in that respect) be enough to sell you on this concept?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

beautiful imperfection

I hated making revisions to THE INFERNAL FAMILY. Every mistake I found was another sign that I was a bad writer. If I was any good at this I would have written a better draft in the first place.

Now that I’m revising IRONBANE, I find I’m mellowing out. If I’m making changes, it’s not because I should have done better the first time around. It just means I’ve learned something: I see now what I couldn’t see then. Mistakes are just opportunities.

(Sparked by the realisation that when your two antagonists have one plot role, one master plan and one compelling motivation-providing backstory between them, you probably only have one antagonist.)

What about you? How do you feel during revisions?

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Halfway through revising IRONBANE. The last few chapters have been hard work. I had to restructure a 30,000-word sequence around my new antagonist, reshuffling half a dozen chapters and cutting about a third of the wordcount. But my critique partner Dystophil has given her unofficial seal of approval, so I’m happy. :)

Friday, 16 April 2010

weekend adventures in YA urban fantasy, plus rachel caine - glass houses

Spent the weekend hunting through bookshops in Weymouth for YA urban fantasies with strong heroines. I barely escaped with my sanity, because every single YA urban fantasy seems to have the exact same cover. Black. Pale cover model. Gothic text in vivid colour. Examples: Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series; PC and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series; Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires series. It was like browsing a shelf of identical octuplets. Maybe it’s done with mirrors, and there’s only one real book cover -- the iconic apple cover of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight -- and its millions of reflections.

Anyway, once I fought off the identical octuplets, I looked at two books, Aprilynne Pike’s Wings and Rachel Caine’s Glass Houses. One I put down, one I bought.

I gave Aprilynne Pike’s Wings ten pages to hook me. Like every YA urban fantasy ever written, it opens with the protagonist meeting a hot guy in biology class. What is it about biology class? I assume this and the identical scene in Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush are deliberate homages to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, but even so, it’s such an unimaginative way to introduce a character. Nobody ever seems to meet during a burglary, or whitewater rafting, or anything outside a classroom.

But the biology class wasn’t a deal-breaker. The deal-breaker was that I learned plenty about the protagonist’s physical appearance (so supermodel-stunning that everybody is jealous) and nothing about the protagonist’s personality (um ... she’s a vegan). Classic blank page heroine. No thank you.

Then I flicked through Rachel Caine’s Glass Houses, the first in her Morganville Vampires series, and 16-year-old heroine Claire Danvers won my heart instantly. She’s smart, brave and vulnerable, describing herself as “small” and “average”, struggling to deal with the scary new world of college. Unlike Stephenie Meyer’s Bella Swan, whose only ambition is to marry Edward and have his little vampiric babies, Claire dreams of Yale, Caltech, MIT. Her textbooks love her when nobody in her cut-throat dorm does. She values studying so much she’s willing to brave vampires and murderous cheerleaders just to get to class. Heck yes, I bought that.

Glass Houses is a fast-paced and fun read. The real strength of this book is the characterisation. The four inhabitants of the titular Glass House are so close they’re practically a Nakama, and each of them is beautifully drawn. (For bonus points, Claire’s friendship with kickass goth Eve aces the Bechdel test). I want to move in there, but since I can’t, I’ll be picking up the next.

Verdict = 4 out of 5 stars. Glass Houses is enjoyable with an adorable heroine and an unexpectedly shocking ending.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

rob thurman - nightlife

This week I’ve been reading the first book in Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros urban fantasy series, Nightlife. While I found it an overall enjoyable read, I also have mixed feelings, not least about the gender roles. I recommended it to my friend and fellow gritty urban fantasy fan Dystophil, but not without reservations.

I picked up this book because I have a good track record with urban fantasies about two brothers pursued by the forces of evil: I love the TV show Supernatural, and I’m a huge fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA debut The Demon’s Lexicon. On that front, Nightlife did not disappoint. The two Leandros brothers are well-drawn and sympathetic; much as in The Demon’s Lexicon, a younger brother for whom evil is in the blood is saved by his older brother’s redemptive love, a trope I adore. The world is dark, there’s plenty of violence and the dialogue is amusingly snarky.

Unfortunately, the author has a serious case of overwriting. No good line goes uncluttered. Dialogue tags drip with adverbs and adjectives. At times I wanted to take a red pen to the novel. The novel could lose a good 10,000 words and come out leaner and tighter.

About two-thirds of the way through comes a story decision that dropped my jaw: the protagonist Cal is taken over mind and body by a third party. For nearly the entire rest of the novel, including the climax, Cal is just completely gone. Not only does he not make an appearance onscreen, in a metaphysical sense he doesn’t even exist! He doesn’t reappear until the resolution. I can’t understand what the author was thinking here. What kind of protagonist is entirely absent during the climax of the novel? I’m coming to think that maybe the first-person viewpoint is a ruse, and older brother Niko is the real protagonist. Niko is present while Cal is absent. Niko is suffering while Cal is not. Niko makes the decisions while Cal doesn’t even exist. Cal isn’t even there when Niko heroically saves the world. I found that extremely disappointing.

And then there are the gender roles. Yikes.

All the main characters are male. 95% of the screentime is devoted to male characters. All the important relationships are between male characters. Everybody present at the climax is male. Everybody present in the resolution is male. The book’s primary relationship is between two brothers, but that’s neither cause nor excuse for the complete exclusion of female characters. Look at The Demon’s Lexicon: there’s kickass Mae Crawford, demon-summoning dancer Sin and Goblin Market matriarch Morris, and that’s not even mentioning the protagonist’s crazy mother.

But most worryingly, the only female characters featured in Nightlife are all either virgins or whores, and the whores are made to suffer.
  • Georgina, the virgin, is the personification of innocence. She’s “truth and faith ... hope and warmth ... Everything about George was gentle”. Despite being only two years younger than Cal, she’s treated as being much younger. (Disturbingly, Cal’s romantic interest sees it as her role to “be a child for [him]”.) Not gruesomely killed.
  • Meredith, the whore, is heavily sexualised. She wears revealing outfits, her breasts get enough screentime that they should have their own credit in the ending sequence, and her flirtation is both a manipulation technique and a nuisance the male characters have to tolerate. She’s presented as artificial -- hair dye, plastic surgery, breast augmentation. Gruesomely killed.
  • Sophia is a literal whore, as in Cal’s father paid her to have sex with him. She’s also physically and emotionally abusive, a liar, thief and drunk, who extorts money from her own sons. Gruesomely killed.
  • Promise, the whore, marries old men for their money and then they die shortly afterward. Cal thinks of her as the “human version of a succubus”, before he discovers that she isn’t actually human at all. She’s a vampire who takes supplements to avoid having to drain blood. (Pity there isn’t a supplement she can take to avoid having to drain money.) Gruesomely k -- sorry, that was a reflex: Promise is the only sexually active female character who is not gruesomely killed.
I think I need to repeat that with more emphasis. Every sexually active female character but one is gruesomely killed.

Verdict = 3 out of 5 stars. Like fast food, Nightlife is tasty. Enjoy it, and don’t look too closely at what went into it.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

hush hush, the designated love interest and gender relations in YA

NB: Potentially triggering discussion of why one character is a rapist.

This week I read Aja’s LJ post Bad Romance (or, YA & Rape Culture). Aja argues that Becca Fitzpatrick’s debut YA paranormal romance Hush, Hush “repeatedly and systematically reinforces rape culture”: the protagonist is “both a victim of rape culture and a perpetuation of it”. I scored a copy of Hush, Hush to see if it was as bad as Aja said.

It’s worse.

First the good. Hush, Hush is a fast read. The dialogue zings. I liked the protagonist much more than I thought I would, and her best friend was tons of fun. And the cover is breathtaking. I could stare at that image all day.

Isn’t that gorgeous?

It’s a shame the designated love interest is a creepy sexual predator.

In a cast full of stalkers, designated love interest Patch is absolutely the worst. His his ideal woman is “vulnerable”. He zeroes in on Nora because he can intimidate her. Patch enjoys threatening her. That’s why he keeps asking her if he scares him - because he gets a thrill out of it. He puts his hands all over her, he invades her personal space, he makes unwanted sexual comments, he leers at her, he follows her around, he isolates her, he scares her. That is not sexual tension but sexual threat - the threat of rape. When Patch corners her alone in a deserted tunnel, Nora explicitly wonders if he's going to rape her. While Patch may not physically rape her, his actions constitute psychological (invading her thoughts) and metaphorical (entering her mind, taking over her body, and physically restraining her from calling the authorities so they can protect her) rapes. He is a continual threat to Nora’s independence, self-respect and even survival.

In one particularly horrifying scene, Nora is stranded with Patch with no cell phone and no way of calling for help. Over her repeated objections, Patch forces her to spend the night with him in a motel room with a single bed. He tells her to strip and get in the shower. Then he pins her down on the bed, straddles her and warns her that nobody will come help her if she screams.

Ladies and gentleman, behold the hero of this paranormal romance.

Nobody worthy of Nora’s love would ever, ever, ever do this. A worthy person would respect her wishes. A worthy person would recognise that she feels threatened and help her to feel safe. A worthy person would support her, encourage her, empower her. Patch is the diametric opposite of that person.

When I talked to the twifties about this novel, the wonderful Becca Cooper commented:

“Now that everyone's talking about it I'm sitting here going, "Hey, yah, how did I miss that?" And I think it's because I read the book with the understanding that Patch was the love interest and I was pretty sure he and Nora got together at the end. Therefore, when Patch did these creepy things I sort of dismissed it/tried to justify it/assumed he had good motivations, and so on.”

Patch gets away with it because he is the designated love interest.

I use this term “designated love interest” to try to express how very artificial the supposed romance is. Nora isn’t drawn to Patch because of his humour, warmth or respect for her: he has none. Nor because they have fun together: they don’t. Nor because he empowers her to become a fuller, better person: he doesn’t. In fact, she finds him so repulsive she spends nearly the entire book rejecting and fleeing him. (If someone forced me into a motel room, told me he wanted to kill me, shoved me up against a wall and put his hands round my throat, I’d reject him too.)

Patch has two things going for him. One, he’s physically attractive. Two, the author designated him as the story’s official love interest. You can tell that not because of anything he does, but because he’s on the front cover, and in the back cover copy, and is an attractive yet brooding boy the protagonist meets in class.

That’s it. Those are the only two reasons Nora has to like him. Those are the only two reasons the reader has to like him. However appalling his behaviour, a love interest (by definition) must be a likeable character, and the protagonist must love him (and have good reasons for loving him), and he must deserve the reader’s sympathy. Patch must be all these things, otherwise he wouldn’t be the love interest ... right?

The lesson Hush, Hush teaches is this. Whatever a boy does to you is out of love. He scares you because he likes you that way. He ignores your wishes because he wants to spend time with you. He invades your personal space because he wants you. So if you find yourself pinned down on a bed, trapped and helpless, just remember that he’s doing this to you because he loves you.

I know YA paranormal romance in general has a problem with gender roles. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is notorious for this - it’s the archetypal example, the model that Hush, Hush follows closely. Aja suggests other offenders: Claudia Gray’s Evernight, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, Nina Malkin’s Swoon. My friend Hope commented that “it sounds as though YA might be going through the same need to reject rape-as-love dynamic that the romance world went through about fifteen years ago”. But before YA can reject the bad-boy archetype that gave us Patch and Edward, the romantic hero whose obsessive, dangerous love is expressed through threatening and controlling and overriding the heroine, it first needs to recognise that archetype for what it is: Aja’s “perpetuation of rape culture”.

I’d like to finish up by recommending two YA novels whose handling of love, sex and gender put Hush, Hush to shame.
  1. In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, the protagonist Katsa lives in a male-dominated world in which the easiest way of escaping the control of one man is often to take shelter in the protection of another. Katsa rejects that with a vengeance. Katsa challenges the many contexts in which men have power over her: direct feudal hierarchy, offers to protect her, telepathic understanding of her thoughts and feelings, marriage proposals. Unusually for a YA heroine, Katsa explicitly prizes her own autonomy and independence. Her love interest is sweet and warm: he respects and loves Katsa's strength of character. He allows and encourages Katsa to be a strong, independent woman.
  2. In Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon, the character of Nick Ryves is a deconstruction of the classic YA supernatural bad boy. He's scary and dangerous and smoking hot. He possesses many forms of power - physical, sexual, magical. He's the Edward, the Patch, of this story. The twist? Nick is the protagonist of the story, not the designated love interest who dominates a weak heroine. And when we're in his viewpoint, we see how much of a freaking psychopath he is. We see his callousness, his violence, his total lack of empathy. Frankly, he's Chaotic Evil. We see clearly that the YA bad-boy stereotype of Hush, Hush is incapable of real love for another person, only dangerous, controlling obsession. (And the girl who is initially attracted to Nick for his bad-boyness comes to realise that he's a psychopath and kicks his ass to the kerb.) In a way, I perceive The Demon’s Lexicon as a critique of the YA paranormal romance subgenre, and I love it all the more for that.
Further reading: Choco, “Why YA Romance Needs to Change”.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

leaping into the shark tank

Today I had an attack of boldness and decided to submit a first chapter to a writing forum I belong to. (No, not that forum. Early drafts require gentle critique.) Confusingly, I have two contradictory feelings about this:
  1. I am an unparalleled genius whose latest masterpiece will send readers into ecstasy.
  2. I am a hack. Readers will laugh. Tomatoes may be thrown.
I suspect the truth, as always, will be somewhere in the middle.

Friday, 26 February 2010


Frustration is producing nothing worth showing to a professional in seven years.

Fear is not knowing if I ever will.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

black moment fail

How can you tell when you’re an idiot? You make the same mistake twice.

During the first draft of my urban fantasy THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I nearly blew the third act by copping out. Failing to make things bad enough for my protagonist. Then I stumbled over the concept of the black moment, the lowest possible point at which all seems lost, and had a little epiphany. I ended up writing some of my favourite and most violent scenes -- a rampage of vengeful destruction that carved up most of the cast.

Guess what I did to IRONBANE? Yep. Blew the black moment.

In fairness, there is a black moment. The antagonists come together to cause a huge cascading series of disasters, which the protagonist has to fix alone thanks to what she did to her devoted companion. She comes up with a plan, but it’s horrific even by her standards. She’s terrified of what the antagonists will do to her, what she’ll have to do to her friends, what she’s becoming. There’s supposed to be a real danger of not being able to go through with it.

At this point, I apparently decided that we needed a flashback to a much scarier situation in which she successfully overcame her fear. Thus murdering any tension and burying it in a shallow grave. I mean, this black moment is bad, but at least it’s not that bad, right? If she faced that, she can face this.

Yeah, I’m a structure genius all right.

Happily, I think I can fix this. But I’m thinking carefully about how I can avoid black moment fail in the future, and I’m coming up with some rules of thumb. The black moment is only black enough (for my taste) if:
  1. The protagonist is totally alone. Everyone they relied on must be dead, alienated or gone in some way. It should seem like the protagonist may never regain those close friendships.
  2. The protagonist should be facing certain death.
  3. The protagonist has to doubt themselves. You can be a hero in the face of certain death, but during a real black moment the protagonist can’t be a hero -- they can’t be proud of themselves at this moment. They have to be afraid, ashamed, despairing.
  4. The black moment should be the worst the protagonist can remember. Period. If the protagonist has been in worse situations, the black moment isn’t black enough.
Maybe if I consult these rules when planning my next novel, I can avoid ruining the third black moment in a row.

What do you think, team? Is the black moment important to you? Do you structure black moments into your novel? Do you stumble across them by accident? Can you improve on my rules of thumb?

seven years

Lately I’ve been thinking about my history as a writer. Past novels, past writing groups, past critique partners. What kicked me off was a comment on last week’s teaser from my old friend John Zeleznik, better known to me as Ebenstone.
"Your writing has gotten so good. This was beautiful and so well written. I'm blown away!"
I’ve been lucky enough to stay in touch with many of my old writing friends. I’m still swapping chapters with Dystophil the way we did three years ago. But Ebenstone is hands down the oldest writing friend I’m still in touch with. How old? I joined our then writing group in late 2002, when I’d just turned fourteen. So -- seven years and counting.

In those seven years, I wrote:
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from Tamora Pierce.
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from Robert Jordan.
  • Some embarrassingly terrible stuff ripped off from George RR Martin.
  • Three hundred pages of world-building for a projected multiple-book series I had to tear up.
  • Fanfiction in several fandoms.
  • My first novel, an epic fantasy I have since thankfully lost.
  • My second novel, a monster novel I have unfortunately not lost, because it is saved on my writing LJ.
  • My third novel, an urban fantasy I often wished I’d lost.
  • My fourth novel, an epic fantasy I love too much to lose.
Objectively I think, and Dystophil often tells me, that my writing has improved a metric truckload since the early days. But only Ebenstone knows the truth.

So I’m glad to hear that I’ve learned something in those seven years. :)

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

teaser tuesday leaves a rose for the dead

Second last scene in IRONBANE. Anjen has now picked up a new title: Kingkiller.


It rained during the funeral. Black carriages rattled through Summerholt under a sky the colour of iron. Crowds threw leaves and flowers under the wheels and braved spatters of mud.

Anjen watched from the crowd, jostled by elbows, the rain wet on her cheeks. The dead man’s kin rode up front in the place of honour. She ought to be up there; she was his true family, his right hand, the only one who would never have betrayed him. But she had to trudge through the mud and the rain to get even a glimpse of the man she’d loved.

It took her a glare and some sharp elbow work to squeeze into the back of the cathedral. There wasn’t room to breathe; she forced down the memory of fingers digging into her throat. She could barely hear the church father above the crowd. He spoke at length about the evil Kingkiller and her crimes, assured everyone that the Summer King had died a hero, and wrapped up by painting a picture of the dead man Anjen couldn’t recognise. The real picture was beyond a crowd of mourners to appreciate. They hadn’t fought with him. They couldn’t know him.

Afterward Anjen queued for hours to see the grave. It was nothing, just a patch of freshly-turned earth, guarded by grim-faced Summerholt troops. She could have told them not to bother. If even a spark of him had survived he would never have lain so still; he would have clawed his way out fighting before now.

The white rose in her hands seemed such a small thing. She’d given him a kingdom; she would have given him the world. She crushed the stupid rose in a sudden savage gesture and flung the petals away. They scattered across the bare earth like snow.

A hundred times she’d killed for him. What she’d failed to do was die for him. Once again, the only thing she could do for him was butcher people.

She was going to have to kill the Winter Queen. Again. And then destroy the body so that nobody else could ever resurrect her again.

A better person wouldn’t have a clue how to do that. But she was the master of doing horrifying things nobody else would even consider, and she had a plan.

The last white petals fell through her fingers and tumbled to the earth.


Other teasers: Dystophil, firedrake, Amna ...

Monday, 15 February 2010

burn notice

“Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.”
- from Burn Notice 1x01, “Pilot”

I’m crazy about Burn Notice. Apart from the smart storytelling, sympathetic characterisation and all-around kickassery, I love its mastery of sneakiness. Cover stories. Frame jobs. Double-crosses. Most spy protagonists spend the whole series shooting at people: Michael Westen prefers to persuade his enemies to shoot each other. It’s good television, and it’s great fuel for a writer’s imagination. Thanks to Burn Notice, I think I’ve finally figured out how a character earns the bad guys’ trust.

He’s going to need a cheap disposable phone, half a pound of plasticine, coloured wires ... and some duct tape. :D

Thursday, 11 February 2010


Fellow AbsoluteWrite member Kirsten Rice, better known to me as Madison, has been asking me some fascinating questions this week as part of her interview series. We discussed YA, the One-Pass Method and world-building advice for the terminally lazy, and apparently I was suffering from a little zombie obsession at the time. (A baby zombie featured in a recent IRONBANE teaser.) And if that wasn't tempting enough, my twiftie friends Bailey, Emilia and Amna (my ninja apprentice) are enlivening the comments section. Intrigued? You can find my crazy-person ramblings here. Thanks, Madison! :)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

teaser tuesday is a bad guy

Today’s Teaser Tuesday is a scene from IRONBANE, in which Anjen demonstrates her amazing ability to turn everyone around her into bad guys.

(Context: Anjen is leading a train of refugees out of the marches one step ahead of the Winterfolk. In every village Anjen recruits whoever she can, seizes all the supplies and abandons anyone who won't come with her to die. Not everyone is enthralled with her tactics.)


Anjen needed a quiet place to plan, so she headed to a deserted fire on the outskirts of camp, a red gleam of embers. The warmth soaked into her bones; she could have cried for joy. She sketched a map in the dirt with the tip of her stick. Here lay the village, here the high ground, this slope was so thickly wooded as to be impassable ...

Footsteps crunched in the snow behind her. She’d thought she was alone here. She started to turn.

A branch smashed across her skull. Lights burst inside her head. She collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Her fingers twitched in the dirt. Embers glowed brilliant red in front of her; the pain in her head was so huge she couldn’t seem to focus on anything else.

Someone dragged her up by the back of her coat. Her knee locked when she tried to stand, she yelped and fell back. The stranger picked up her stick. Anjen clutched at a log but the frosted bark slid slippery under her fingers and she couldn’t haul herself upright.

The stick cracked down. Her fingers broke. Pain jolted through her; she strangled off a scream. She snatched her hand back, fingers throbbing, and the slightest move made the broken bones grind. Fuck.

The tip of the stick lifted her chin. She shrank, kicked herself for shrinking, made herself look up the length of the stick. For an instant she knew, heart-skittering breath-stopping certainty, that it was --

Kellen towered over her, red hair wild, face white and gaunt. “Remember me?”

Having her bones broken encouraged her to think back. Night. Snow. Panic. A sword point bursting out of a man’s belly, a woman who screamed when she saw Summer’s disfigured face, trinkets shattering on the frozen ground.

“You robbed us and left us to die. You remember that, right? Taking all our weapons, our iron and salt, abandoning us?” Kellen slashed down. The stick caught her upflung arm instead of her skull; something cracked, numbness shot up the bone. “You led the Winterfolk to us,” Kellen spat, and hit her again. Stupidly, Anjen tried to defend herself with the same arm. The stick hurt worse the second time: she gritted her teeth and couldn’t quite lock the cry in her throat, tears stinging her eyes, pain red and shocking. “You led the Winterfolk straight to us. They were looking for you. They killed everyone, they killed my -- I could have saved her, I could have defended her, if you hadn’t robbed us and left us to die.”

Couldn’t get up, her knee was shot. Couldn’t fight back. On the edge of camp, with all her men making as merry as they could, nobody would hear. Kellen was just going to break every bone in her body. Nothing she could do but take it. “Screw you,” Anjen croaked.

Kellen braced the stick across her throat and leaned.

The words strangled off in her throat. Anjen panicked. She choked and struggled and Kellen leaned harder, watching her face and enjoying this. She scrabbled in the dirt, clawed herself halfway up with her good fingers digging into a tree, fell back. Her foot kicked a scatter of fiery embers everywhere. “My daughter was seven,” Kellen murmured, methodically choking her. “Just seven. They killed her. Because of you.”

Everything was a red blur.

Distantly she heard the sounds of footsteps and voices. She tried to warn them, tell them to run, but it just came out a broken sound in her throat.

It was Summer, saying “Absolutely, I’m easy,” in that lazy, warm voice he used to talk to girls. The girl laughed. She sounded happy. “Whatever you want. I’m not -- ah, fuck.”

The pressure ripped away. Anjen choked and found she could breathe, drew in a rush of sweet air through her burning throat. Her fingers hurt, her wrist hurt, her ribs felt dented from being knelt on. She coughed and sputtered and just lay there panting for a while letting the world slide back into focus.

Kellen lay in the dirt, mouth bleeding, sword point at her throat. Summer pinned her with one foot. “Anjen,” Summer said through his teeth, never taking his eyes off his captive. “Anjen, say something, tell me you’re --“

Kellen spat out blood. “Hope I’ve killed her.”

His jaw clenched and his hands tightened on the hilt. Surely he of all people wouldn’t hurt an unarmed woman, a prisoner, not Summer with his ridiculous urge to be as good as his heroic father. “M’ fine,” Anjen croaked, trying to soothe him. Her throat was on fire. She swallowed, and regretted it.

“I know hurting prisoners isn’t very heroic.” Summer spoke in a low even voice that was not at all reassuring. He leaned on the sword. The point bit in. Kellen froze; blood leaked into the hollow of her throat. “And I don’t care any more. Understand? I’d throw all that away. If you so much as look at her, I will rip out your spine.”

Kellen swallowed against the tip of the blade, eyes wide, and didn’t look at her.


Friday, 5 February 2010

third draft, this time with 100% more snarkiness

Lately I’ve needed some time away from my urban fantasy THE INFERNAL FAMILY, so I’ve been focusing on revisions to IRONBANE. I feel like I need more time to prepare for the second most dramatic change in my urban fantasy’s history: adding a new point of view character.

Currently the story is shaped by the fact that the only viewpoint character is a trigger-happy borderline psychopath whose preferred method of communication is violence. Most of the other characters don’t trust him, so he’s excluded from key plot developments. Plus he’s not human and that limits who he can interact with. So I’m planning to supplement his story with a truckload of new scenes from the viewpoint of his smarter, sneakier, snarkier human partner. This is going to be a metric ton of work, but I hope it will solve a lot of problems:
  • I always dreamed of having the protagonist’s partner infiltrate the bad guys using his evil devious mind. That wasn’t possible when the only viewpoint character was excluded. Now I can try that.
  • My bad guys will have some much-needed screen time. I can show more hunters with names and faces and motivations. I can suggest what they’re doing when they’re offscreen. I can make things a little more complicated. I’m also going to add a new antagonist.
  • A whole ton of plot I always imagined was happening offscreen never got onscreen due to viewpoint limitations. One late-stage revelation will no longer be at all surprising, but apparently it wasn’t surprising anyway -- one beta reader called it 40,000 words in advance!
  • I’m looking forward to showing that the protagonist is as mystifying to his partner as the partner is to the protagonist. Neither has a clue what the other is thinking.
  • The partner is clued-up in several key places where the protagonist is clueless. For example, the protagonist doesn't know the true story behind how everyone first met.
  • I also want the two viewpoint characters to interfere with each other. The partner is prone to carefully-laid plans. The protagonist is prone to sudden explosive violence. The two should not mix.
  • The second half of the novel is derailed by romance stuff. I’m hoping to add more plot.
  • The novel has always been short -- the beta version is under 70,000 words. I'd feel more comfortable around 90,000 words.
The reason I’m thinking about this right now when I should be working on IRONBANE? I finally figured out something going on behind the scenes that the protagonist doesn’t know about, and it’s awesome.

Still not ready to resume working on THE INFERNAL FAMILY, but I’m getting there.

days six to nine of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

The revision train has hit a wall. Two walls, in fact. Firstly, the backstory has gaping holes and secondly, there is a giant 4000-word derailment in the middle of my battle sequence which requires major plot rewiring.

I’m actually kind of relieved. When everything was running smoothly I was imagining all sorts of ninja stealth disasters lying in wait for me. These are completely fixable.

Still madly in love with this kickass novel.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

teaser tuesday rises from the dead

This week’s teaser is another early scene from IRONBANE. Last week Anjen rescued a child, who survived long enough for new friend and fan of thematic naming Summer to dub her Winter, then died and resurrected as a zombie.

(Here be violence against children, zombie and human.)


They faced the dead child across a canvas of snow spattered with footsteps. Anjen clutched Summer’s arm, heart hammering against her ribs, fear and horror rising in her throat. He drew God’s threefold sign in a reflexive ward against evil.

“If you panic I will strangle you.” Frankly she could have done some panicking herself.

Summer said “Is this,” cleared his throat and had a second go at casualness. “Is rising from the dead a marcher tradition?”

“Must have forgotten to mention it.”

The child shambled toward them, tiny and intent. Please God, not this again. Anjen lifted a shaking hand and -- of course her throat was bare, he’d stolen the damn talisman. And she’d given her iron knife to him. And she’d run out of salt fighting the White Hunt. “Iron.” It was a croak. She swallowed. “The knife.”


“Cut it up. So we can burn it.”

“You want me to kill her?”

“It’s already dead!”

The child stumbled and fell. Snow hissed beneath it; steam curled up from under the edges of its body. It twitched and curled in the snow, like a puppet whose strings had tangled.

“Bollocks to your marcher customs,” Summer growled, took two quick steps toward it and bent to pick it up.

A hand shot out. Blackened fingers dug into the snow like a five-legged spider.

Anjen started: “What in God’s sweet name are you --“

It erupted out of the snow.

It crashed into him. He staggered. It locked one tiny arm around his neck, unhinged its jaw and bit into his throat; his yelp strangled off. Summer dug his fingers under its face and clawed it away. The child clung to him, spattering blood, the rune hissing in the ruin of its stomach. Summer tried to peel it off him, cursing and shaking, feet sliding in the snow, the child a squirming, bloody demon in his hands.

Anjen slapped her pockets, remembered she had no weapons and snarled “Iron, you fool!” He pried Winter off him and threw it away. It hit the ground and skidded, bones cracking. Frost feathered outward from the point of impact. “Iron,” Anjen shouted again. The child peeled itself off the ground in a sinuous slither.

“I don’t kill children,” Summer said through his teeth.

“It’s just wearing her skin!”

“I don’t care why, I’m not doing it!”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Anjen snarled, stalked the two steps to her house and kicked the door open. She leaned in and reached above the door. Cold metal met her fingertips. She curled one hand round the hilt and drew the iron sword, the marcher’s friend, the last defence against evil.

It felt heavy in her unskilled hand. Sunlight glanced off its never-used shine. She remembered covering bloody hands with hers as together they drove a sword through -- No. She was never going back there.

The child fell back from the iron blade. Anjen levelled the point on its face. She’d killed more things of winter than she could even remember, she could add one more.

Summer yelped “What are you doing?” and stepped between them. Winter peeped around him, twinkling frostily.

“My job.” Cold stung her hot face. She could do this. This was what she was for.

The ironwar child had been born too early, a tiny thing Anjen could hold in her cupped hands. It had cried and cried, and she’d cradled it against the warmth of her body, taken up her knife and --

“Are you insane?” Summer demanded. “Do you have a secret thing for killing children? Because I’d like to suggest that we not butcher her in the street!”

“You idiot.” Her voice shook -- even the point of her sword shook, which was stupid. She tightened her grip. “It’ll kill and keep killing, and everyone who dies will rise again, unless we cut it down with iron. Get out of my way.”

Summer crossed his arms, colour high in his cheekbones. “Let me think. No.

Move,” Anjen snarled, and he took the tip of her sword delicately between two fingers and pushed it down. For some stupid reason it completely undid her: she couldn’t seem to think past his serious face.

She didn’t want to do this, God, she didn’t. Maybe he was right, maybe there was another way.

Summer held her eyes. “We’ll find some way to save her, I promise. We can --“

Winter pulled the iron knife from his belt.

Its fingers melted to the hilt. It shrieked. Steam hissed. When that knife flashed out in a searing arc Summer caught its arm, hooked its legs out from under it and dumped it in the snow with a crunch. It snarled at him, the rune hissing and spitting, ice melting and God it could have killed him.

Nobody else would do it. It always happened this way.

Anjen drove the iron sword through the child’s heart.

Sword point hit frozen ground in an impact that jarred her to the elbow. Winter thrashed and screamed and spattered blood that burned, and finally went still.

Anjen took a steadying breath and for a second the air tasted of smoke and blood, of the failed rune in the choking confines of her house. Her hands were shaking. Summer looked at her as if she were the inhuman thing, the one in need of killing. Maybe she was.

She wrenched the sword free and wiped the blade with a handful of snow. She’d nicked it. If this kept up it’d be as battered as she was.

“Congratulations,” Summer said bitterly behind her. “Good work. Still time to kill more children before lunch.”

She was going to punch him in the face.


Other teasers: Dystophil, firedrake, Mad Hatter, pixydust ...

Monday, 1 February 2010

day five of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

Several chapters later, I’ve figured out why I’m not finding any huge mistakes: I wrote a badass novel. For serious. I want to write a list of all the things I love in the story so far, but (a) it would spoil the surprise for future betas and (b) the list would be ridiculously long.

Two things I noticed today:
  1. Printing double-spaced and single-sided was a mistake. There’s tons of white space at the top and bottom of each page, around the margins, between paragraphs, at the end of chapters. Next time I’ll kill fewer trees.
  2. My notebook is lopsided. I have a stack of world-building notes, mainly for consistency; a good few plot notes, to ensure continuity and plot logic and proper payoffs; a handful of backstory notes, for key scenes I ought to work into the novel somewhere; and absolutely zero characterisation notes. Puzzling. Perhaps when I’m scribbling notes all over the printouts I’m not remembering to write up big-picture characterisation issues in my notebook.
Tomorrow my protagonist gets crippled and her partner gets his pretty face ruined. It’s time for the act one climax battle! :D

Sunday, 31 January 2010

day four of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

The secret purpose of these daily reports is to make me feel guilty about lack of progress. I was planning to pack it in and go to bed at midnight, with one pathetic chapter under my belt, but then I realised I would have to confess my failure. Again. So I got back to work.

Once again, I’m feeling a little wary. I’m just not finding that many problems. Places to tighten, absolutely. Continuity errors, often. Stuff I mentioned once and never again, sometimes. (I’m enjoying rediscovering elements I planned to make much more of but forgot.) But I’m currently editing the seventh chapter, and I still haven’t had to rip out this novel’s entire skeleton and wire in a new one. The dialogue is spiky, the conflict is tense, my protagonist is snarky and frequently horrifying, backstory is arriving bit by bit -- the Winter Queen just got her first mention. It’s mostly fine. And that in itself is bizarre.

By the time I got to this stage with THE INFERNAL FAMILY, I’d already done a spectacularly huge rethink -- characters, setting, genre, antagonist, entire species -- twice. I bled. I cried. I tore my hair out. Most of the novel was scrapped and rewritten from scratch.

I can’t shake the suspicion that by hunting piddling little continuity errors I’m rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. There must be an iceberg lurking under the surface. I can’t imagine a revision voyage without one.

Keeping the lifejacket at hand.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

day two of holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

Today I ran out of procrastination options and cracked on with editing my first chapter. It’s been both scary and fun.

It’s surprisingly satisfying to edit on paper. Unlike editing onscreen, where however hard you work nothing seems to change, this way I can see my own writing spidering all over the page: crossed-out words and scribbled notes. I like that.

On the other hand, I fear that I’m misapplying the One-Pass Method. Holly Lisle’s introduction led me to think that the purpose is to slash chapters at a time, drastically change plotlines, strike out entire characters, etc. But I’m finding myself primarily cutting excess wordcount. I’ve taken about 10% out of my first chapter just by cutting words and clauses. That’s disconcerting, because I think of myself as a short writer: I broke the long writing habit after my 220k monster novel and both my recent novels came in around 80k. Apparently I still have fat to lose.

I’m glad I found that out, but I’m also kind of scared that I’m not finding major game-changing big-picture problems. Am I going too easy? Are there problems I’m not seeing?

It’s possible that this first chapter is just totally awesome, since my other critique group liked it. I might be so traumatised by editing THE INFERNAL FAMILY that I won’t be satisfied until I’m bleeding from the eyes and ripping out key elements of the story.

I could be learning to write cleaner first drafts. I like that idea.

publish or perish

Most of my friends are much smarter and better-informed than I am, mainly thanks to from AbsoluteWrite, but on the off-chance that anyone is looking for publishing information, I'm now moderating a publication usergroup over at the Young Writers' Society.

When I started hanging out at the Young Writers' Society I realised that a lot of members were both desperate to get published and scarily clueless about publication. So I've been sharing basic information (and links to better sources) on topics such as how to tell good agents and publishers from bad, how to target the right agents, the basics of submitting to agents, query letter theory, etc. Now I'm starting in on the fascinating and sometimes counter-intuitive stuff: for example, I'm hoping to post soon about why publishers and agents who say they're "seeking new writers" are generally bad news.

I've been lucky to have helpful and informative friends, and I'd like to pay that good luck forward. :)

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

holly lisle’s one-pass revision method

As you might have guessed from the teasers, the first draft of my epic fantasy IRONBANE is banging on the inside of its drawer screaming to be revised. I’m still traumatised from revising THE INFERNAL FAMILY, so this time I thought I’d do something a little different: Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision Method.

I've always loved the concept of the One-Pass Revision Method. The discovery stage is particularly helpful -- you have to establish in only a handful of words key aspects of the story, such as the theme, one-line summary, protagonist's character arc, etc. Every time I start a novel I use these tricks to keep my first draft focused. Also, my friend Amy Bai used the One-Pass Revision Method for her brilliant fantasy novel SONG. I'm secretly hoping that my IRONBANE will be a tiny bit as awesome as SONG by the time I'm done.

So I've assembled:
  1. Three coloured pens.
  2. One fresh notebook, now adorned with pretty stickers, because I am secretly a three-year-old.
  3. My printed first draft, a monstrous stack of paper that cannot possibly be only 85k.
The discovery section doesn’t hold too many fears for me, since I've already written a one-line summary, a one-paragraph summary and a query long before now, so I’m just going to note down some key ideas, themes and storylines and move straight into the hacking and slashing.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

teaser tuesday is doomed

For today's Teaser Tuesday I wanted to post a fondly-remembered scene from THE INFERNAL FAMILY, only to realise upon rereading it that it was not good at all. Happily, one of my novels always comes through for me. So here's a scene from the first chapter of my epic fantasy IRONBANE. It's the first teaser to feature my favourite character Summer -- in the other teasers Anjen is carrying the sword she gave him as a memento of him.

NB: Iron and salt and symbols of God are the traditional weapons against supernatural evil.


Something flitted through the woods. Anjen looked around wildly, caught it, lost it. The child burrowed into her coat; her arms were burning, she shifted her burden. Summer wiped his bloody hand on his coat and took a less slippery grip on the iron knife. Ahead she glimpsed daylight and open space.

“Hear that?” Summer brightened. “Horses! People! That’s good, right?”

She stopped in her tracks. Then she caught it too: hoofbeats like distant thunder.

Pale shades slipped through the woods. Moving toward them. Fast. She felt their advance in a wash of bitter cold.

Panic dug its icy claws into her. She cleared her throat; her voice was abnormally calm. “It’s the White Hunt. The Winterfolk.”

“Is that bad?” said Summer, blissfully oblivious.

God she was an idiot. She should have snatched the child and run the instant she recognised the white arrow. “You’re faster. Take the child and run. If you cross all seven chains of stones you’ll be safe. Go to the church father, he’ll --“



“I said no, and please stop making plans, they’re terrible. I have a better idea.” He turned her firmly by the shoulders. “Run.”

The shove got her moving. She hitched up her skirts one-handed and ran. Branches clawed at her with bony fingers, ice and snow skidded underfoot. Thunder rose all around them as the pale horses charged them down, sweeping a killing frost ahead of them, and the riders’ laughter hissed in the air.

They broke into open air. Frosted grass crunched underfoot like glass. Her arms were on fire, the little girl squirming. Ahead icy roofs glittered under the sun.

A lone hunter swept in from the left to cut them off.

Both of them skidded to a halt. Anjen went for the salt with her free hand.

The pale horse picked a leisurely path through the snow, placing each hoof with care. Sunlight danced on its icy coat. The rider shone translucent. She felt the murderous cold contract like a fist; pain and thunder and ice sang in her bones.

She put her back against Summer’s. He was shivering even harder than she was. Should have stayed in his summerlands.

“I always thought a valiant last stand sounded fun.” Summer’s voice was sharp with strain.

Her laugh broke down into coughing, lungs burning, air frozen. “Didn’t you say you were too pretty to die?”

“I’m prepared to make a heroic sacrifice. There could be songs. Possibly even legends.”

The hunter leaned down from its horse, blinding bright in the sun, and reached out -- delicate frost feathered its fingers.

Anjen stayed frozen. The little one yelped and grabbed a tiny handful of Anjen’s coat.

“This is definitely the worst plan you have ever --”

“Get ready,” Anjen said through her teeth.

Pale fingers brushed the child’s pale skin.

Anjen threw salt in the hunter’s face. It jerked back with a hiss and its face started to melt. Water ran down its armour in glittering lines. She shoved the child at Summer -- he caught her, a reflex movement -- “Now run, idiot!” -- and advanced on the hunter, snarling, throwing salt after salt.

Its hiss rose to a shriek as she drove it back. The ice horse reared above her; the sun set every edge on fire, it burned as if lit from within. She snatched up an arm. One hoof carved a line of white fire across her forearm -- an instant earlier it would have been her face. Numbing cold leapt up her arm. The horse hit her with its shoulder, her foot slipped and she crashed to the snow. Impact slammed the breath from her lungs. Thunder reverberated through the iron-hard ground. She rolled over, gasping and clawing in the snow, fingers frozen, and threw another shower of salt upward at the horse. Most of it fell back on her. Both horse and rider were melting fast. She spat snow and salt and scrabbled for something, anything to --

Its hoof smashed down an inch from her skull and the melted leg snapped like an icicle. It lurched. Its other leg snapped. The ice horse fell on its face.

Anjen levered herself upright, clutching her bag of salt, hand wrapped round the talisman at her throat. The ring burned; she felt its heat even through her glove.

The hunter slid down from horseback and drew its sword, a long sliver of ice. It staggered toward her dragging a melted leg. Its half a face turned to follow her.

Anjen tried to douse it with salt. The last crystals rattled sadly in the bottom of the bag.



Other teasers: ChristaCarol, Karla, LynKay, Firedrake, Dystophil, JustLaurie, sunna, KBridges, WritingDemons, Kristin Briana, M Austin, Bryn Greenwood, paranormalchick, Mad Hatter ... and more as I read.

Monday, 25 January 2010


Several years ago, in what I can only assume was a bored moment, I named an archer character Anguy.

I should probably change the name when I revise IRONBANE. ;)

Friday, 22 January 2010

the challenge

Between November 05 and August 06, I wrote my apocalyptically terrible 220k second novel. (I was seventeen. Don’t judge me.) It was fun to write but a total trainwreck: redundancy problems and my inability to handle multiple viewpoints contributed to the ridiculous wordcount. I made a half-hearted attempt at revising it and then gave up. It was the last novel I ever wrote without an outline, and the last with multiple viewpoints. I didn’t complete another novel until March 09.

Now I’m going to rewrite it. From scratch. Without looking at the previous draft. Here’s what I’m planning to do:
  • Aim for a wordcount of under 100k. I don’t have a length problem any more, and my last two novels both ended up around 80k, so I’m expecting this to be easy.
  • Finish the outline. Then actually follow it. Outlines love me and want to be my friend.
  • Tweak the setting.
  • Keep characters and factions to a minimum. I have a redundancy problem, and the best fix is not to introduce unnecessary stuff in the first place.
  • Switch the cast to all female. (Dystophil could have stopped this madness, but instead she encouraged me. Apparently there will have to be lots of girl-on-girl action.)
My new baby is called GLORY HUNTERS, and it’s full of attractive and terrifyingly unscrupulous women - one of whom has a master plan.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

revenge of teaser tuesday

Today I've taken off my jade-coloured glasses and turned the volume on the you-suck soundtrack down far enough to find at least one teaser-quality scene.

This week's teaser is from my YA urban fantasy DREAD MACHINE, opening line: "Every time I started at a new school I made myself a new person." It stars my favourite pathological liar, who will eventually be called Fox. This novel is my first attempt at first person and my first attempt at YA, so please feel free to critique.

Secondary character Daniel is (a) nice, (b) cute and (c) normal, which makes him both attractive and forbidden, like a stolen cookie. Om nom nom. :D


When I saw the smiley face painted on our red door I knew someone was going to get hurt.

Seeing it burned my throat like a gulp of tequila. I stopped so fast Daniel bumped into me.

The face on the door winked at me in a scrawl of cheerful yellow. The Smiling Woman was here. In my house. With my mother.

Terraced houses towered on either side. A street market coiled round us, a big colourful dragon covering movement and drowning sound. People shoved past me; any of them could be hers. Some old man picked up his cat and scuttled back into his house. My heart banged against my ribs and for a crazy moment I wanted to bolt too -- under a stall or something, anywhere tight enough to hide.

But the red door smiled at me. Mum was inside.

I stamped on a rising bubble of panic, tore my eyes off the smiley face and turned into a random stall, hitching my bag higher to hide my face. Racks of dolls stared back at me. My sleeve caught on an amulet of thorns hanging from the roof; when I tried to pull free I dragged a chain of them sideways, jangling chimes and tangling feathers. I fumbled with them one-handed.

“Here.” Daniel reached past me to untangle me, fingers warm and gentle. Poor stupid Daniel still thought everything was fine, I was some normal girl he could be sweet to, like anything good ever came of talking to me. Shouldn’t have let him hang around.

A stallkeeper glowered at us from behind a wall of blank doll faces. Obviously we were thieves, what else would school kids be doing around here. Screw him.

I shoved Daniel into the nearest wall. “Hey,” Daniel yelped, and then cut off when I leaned right into him -- so close our eyelashes tangled, his heart a skitter beneath my palm, breath hitching in his throat.

“Daniel,” I said in his ear. “Do something for me.”

“Er,” Daniel squeaked. “Okay. Sure?”

“Go home. Back to school. Wherever. You’ve walked me home, so -- we’re done here. Right?” I smoothed his shirt front and adjusted his tie, which seemed to rivet his attention. “Catch you tomorrow.” If I survived breaking into my own house and trying to kill the Smiling Woman.

“Right,” Daniel murmured back, hypnotised.

Score one for being a girl.


Other teasers: Jy'lenn, WritingDemons, Firedrake

Monday, 18 January 2010

ego defence, or: where can I get me a case of special snowflake syndrome?

Via the wonderful Beth Bernobich, I’ve been thinking about Ann Leckie’s idea of the ego defence. She suggests that the writer’s typical defensive reaction to criticism -- what I think of as special snowflake syndrome, the assertion that your work is perfect and the critic is wrong or mean or stupid to say otherwise -- is an ego defence. Interestingly, while I think of special snowflake syndrome as exclusively negative, Ann Leckie calls this ego defence useful:

you don't want to succumb to despair right off the bat. You want to keep plugging away, and getting better [...] and sometimes the only way to do that and keep your sanity is to not have an entirely accurate view of the quality of your work ...

I find this fascinating, because I don’t have an ego defence as I understand it: all I have is the you-suck soundtrack, and it’s playing particularly loudly at the moment. It’s tricky to write anything when some Tuesdays you can’t come up with a single scene worth reading across the entire spectrum of your several novels. Not one. (That stings.)

Special snowflakes are armoured in the conviction that they’re awesome. They don’t have criticism written on the inside of their skull in letters of fire. They can write easily, because everything they write will of course be genius.

Must be nice.

I’d quite like to be a little more of a snowflake. My ego could use defences.

Friday, 8 January 2010

the psychology of bullying scenes, or: hug a bully today

Someone behind Alanna grabbed her. She spun. A tall, gangling boy of nearly fourteen looked her over, a sneer on his thick mouth. He had cold blue eyes and sandy-blond hair that flopped over his forehead.

"I wonder what this is." His crooked teeth made him spit his s's. Alanna wiped a drop of saliva from her cheek. "Probably some back-country boy who thinks he's a noble."

- from Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure, first book in the Song of the Lioness Quartet
Bullies. They’re everywhere. They insult Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond, they gang up on George RR Martin’s Jon Snow, they appear in at least half the works posted on the Young Writers’ Society. Whenever I read a bullying scene, I get a surge of indignation. Not for the victims -- for the bullies.

Victims are protagonists, they get names, faces and personalities, the reader is intended to sympathise with them. Bullies are stock characters imported straight from the Department of Manufactured Conflict: cardboard cut-outs, often unnamed, rarely characterised. Victims are lone heroes; bullies are cowards, so they hunt in packs. Victims get snappy comebacks; bullies whine and sneer. (Note how the bully in the Tamora Pierce scene is described as ugly. Remember, kids: ugliness = evil!) If victims don’t triumph now, winning over spectators in the process, they’ll get public and humiliating revenge later. Bullies remain despicable characters throughout the narrative, despised by the readers, the author and the other characters, unless the victim wins even them over with their awesomeness.

Poor bullies, they never win.

The classic lone victim vs multiple bullies scenario has power because it taps into a ton of underlying assumptions, myths and values:
  • We admire the loner. Loners are powerful as individuals; only weak people and cowards, like bullies, have to co-operate.
  • Bullies invariably provoke the conflict. They attack out of the blue, without provocation. This taps into the classic victim complex, the feeling of being unjustly treated. Real-world conflicts are much more nuanced; the victim in a bullying scene, and by extension the reader, doesn’t need to feel any guilt or reservations about their part in a conflict, because they’re clearly in the right.
  • We see standing up against others as courageous. I wonder if this reflects a hostility to authority. Do bullies represent a tyrannical force the everyman hero has to resist?
  • Faceless, nameless, characterless bullies are easy to read. They’re bad. They’re not like us. We can hate them without any reservations. Well-drawn bullies with genuine motivations for their actions are more challenging because they’re more like us. Could we be bullies? If we were in their situation, what would we do?
  • Bullying justifies the victim’s retaliation. Under normal circumstances you can’t punch somebody who annoys you, but retaliatory violence by the victim against the bully is seen as fair, even where the violence seems disproportionate. I recently critiqued a story in which the protagonist permanently crippled a bully, ripping out his magic while he begged for mercy. The author and all the characters seemed to think that maiming is a justified response to bullying.
  • Readers of the fantasy novels I’m talking about tend to be bookish people and/or geeks who were bullied for real as children. There’s a reason Snacky’s Law is so commonly invoked -- the same reason I noted so many bullying scenes posted on the Young Writers' Society forums. Bullying scenes are a way to safely re-enact the trauma of being bullied, with ourselves as sympathetic victims, leading to our retaliation against the bullies and our ultimate triumph. Fantasy ranter Limyaael, whose awesomeness I can only hope to emulate, complained in her “Author’s Darling” rant:
I often feel faintly sick when, reading through a fantasy story, I realize that the author is ... taunting the bullies who tormented her in high school. She doesn't want to actually talk to these people, or perhaps they're in the past, dead or out of contact, and she can't. So she takes the chance to create a character who's her, put her through the same situation, and say, "Nah-nah-nah-boo-boo!"
So I can see why writers resort to bullying scenes. It’s a cheap and easy way of building reader sympathy, and your typical reader is disposed to like and sympathise with victims of bullying. But I hate the lack of motivation. Why do bullies never have a legitimate reason to bully the protagonist? Forget legitimate, any reason would be a plus. Has the protagonist never done anything, accidentally or deliberately, or been thought to do something, that might make the bully want to get their own back? Does the protagonist always have to be 100% squeaky-clean and the bully 100% randomly malicious to ensure reader sympathy falls into its proper place? (God forbid that the reader should ever rethink who deserves their sympathy.)

In the George RR Martin example I mentioned above, teenage viewpoint character Jon Snow is the bastard son of a noble, despised by commoners and nobles alike. Thanks to his privileged upbringing in his father’s castle, Jon is an excellent swordsman and mercilessly thrashes his opponents in training, humiliating them to the point that four of them ambush him in an armoury to get their own back. Jon is working through the justified retaliation part of the bullying cliche when -- I love Martin so much -- somebody actually calls Jon out on his behaviour: Jon is using his privilege to unfairly and unnecessarily humiliate his peers, and if he keeps harbouring a raging victim complex, none of them are ever going to learn to work together. And it will be entirely his fault.

I was so thrilled I nearly cried.

Another example of effective bullying: the pilot episode of the TV series Merlin. The pilot episode features teenage Merlin interfering to protect a servant from a bullying lord. Merlin is promptly thrown in jail, then in the stocks. What saves this scene? The bully is Arthur freaking Pendragon. The hero is a bully. Arthur is handsome, snarky, ridiculously heroic -- and a self-centred ass. I love Arthur, and I love that they had the nerve to make their hero bully someone in his opening scene.

Suggestions for writing bullying scenes?
  1. The purpose should not be to glorify the protagonist. Nor to make him look good in comparison to the evil bully.
  2. Bullies need a good reason to bully. Stereotypically evil motivations like “He’s just jealous of the protagonist” aren’t good enough.
  3. It is not open season on bullies. If someone makes insulting comments about the protagonist’s mother, the protagonist cannot legitimately chainsaw him to death.
  4. It’s okay for the protagonist not to be squeaky-clean all the time.
  5. Do not resort to making your victims beautiful and your bullies ugly as a cheap shorthand for good and evil. I swear, if I read another bullying scene in which the bully’s ugliness is lovingly described (like that Tamora Pierce scene) as a symbol of their nastiness, I will hunt someone down.
  6. Therapy for the writer =/= effective fiction for the reader.
  7. Don’t despise your own characters. It always shows.
(I enjoyed playing a little with bullying in THE INFERNAL FAMILY. My protagonist is continually harassed by his partner slash love interest, who thinks he’s a violent psychopath and kind of dumb as well -- all of which is absolutely true.)

What do you think? Have you noticed trends in bullying scenes in books or unpublished work? Can you improve on my analysis or my suggestions?

Further reading: Limyaael, “Breathing life into bullies”.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

revision blues

"You’re a poser. You talk the talk but you can’t walk the walk. Thinking isn’t writing, editing isn’t writing, only writing is writing. If you’re not making 1000+ words a day you’re not even trying. You get so little work done it’s embarrassing. A real writer would be finished already: you'll still be messing around this time next year. How are you ever going to be a professional? Nobody wants to work with losers like you. Why do you even call yourself a writer?"

Welcome back, revision blues. :(

revenge of the prologue rant

I hate prologues. Out of the hundreds (perhaps more) of prologues I've read, I only remember two of them fondly: Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie are the authors who stole my heart. The vast, vast majority of them suffer from some or all of the following problems:
  • Are used as an excuse for appalling infodumps. Huge quantities of information are crammed in with very little attempt to craft an actual story.
  • Depict a long-ago historical event the author wrongly thinks we need to see up-front to understand the story.
  • Feature a generic evil overlord being generically evil. He burns villages, he tortures people, he kicks the dog. Yawn.
  • Attempt to be ominous yet unspecific by using painfully cliched language of foreboding: "Something terrible is coming." / "Yes, and a hero must rise to deal with it, but I fear he will succumb to the madness in his soul." (I don't understand why people ever bother with ominous vagueness when it's so obvious they're referring to the protagonist.)
  • Show the special events of the special protagonist's special birth. Apart from the cliche, this supports the tired idea that everything special about a person is inherited from their equally special daddy. Alas, poor meritocracy, we knew ye well.
  • Are completely unnecessary.
  • Try to persuade us to get emotionally invested in the characters, even though we all know that prologue characters won't recur - whether they die at the end or are historical characters or aren't important at all except for the special baby.
  • Don't even bother trying to persuade us that there's something here worth investing in emotionally.
  • Tell us things that don't become relevant for another 80,000 words, by which time we've forgotten what happened.
  • Are obvious ripoffs of other stories.
  • At the end, rip the reader out of that scene and dump them into chapter one, frequently with absolutely zero continuity of time, place, plot or character. (I complained about this in my review of the pilot of TV series Sanctuary.)
If I could write the One Law to Rule them All, I'd probably rule that:
  1. Prologues cannot contain more than 50 words of exposition at a time. Period.
  2. Special protagonist's special birth prologues are banned.
  3. Generic evil overlord prologues are banned.
  4. Prophecies? Totally banned.
  5. Ominous vaguery is not interesting.
  6. Readers need some continuity. The prologue and first chapter should be obviously linked: the same characters, or the same setting, or the same subjects, etc.
  7. At least one named character with an actual personality must feature.
  8. Thinking, feeling, angsting, expositing, world-building, reflecting on backstory and navel-gazing of all types must be balanced with dialogue, action and character interaction.
Nearly all prologues I've read have been disastrous.

But when I reread the prologue of Best Served Cold, I remember how enormously I love it. :)

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

is she really 40?

When I first posted a teaser for my epic fantasy IRONBANE, describing the protagonist as a “forty-something war criminal with a walking stick and a master plan”, the scarily gifted Angie asked in the comments: “Is she really 40?”

Hell yes, she’s forty. And crippled. And a drunk and a murderer and a figure of terror.

Epic fantasy loves its Rand al’Thors: its heroic, good-looking young men with big swords, bigger magic and mysterious royal heritage. IRONBANE has one of those, and he’s pretty to look at. But that short, dumpy woman who can’t walk without a stick? That’s Ironbane, the Queenkiller, the victor of the War of the Two Terrors. She’s snarky. She’s ruthless. She’s notorious for conquering half the setting and killing the Winter Queen and getting exiled in disgrace. Her idea of a cover story is to impersonate her dead nemesis.

And she doesn’t want redemption.

I’m crazy in love. :)

teaser tuesday strikes back

Another teaser from my epic fantasy IRONBANE. Anjen is masquerading as the back-from-the-dead Winter Queen; Robben is a smitten friend and follower.


Anjen was brooding on the walls when gentle hands drew her coat more tightly around her; Anjen nearly fell off the wall. Of course it was Robben, a warm presence at her elbow. “Mistress Anjen?”

The sword bumped against her leg every time she moved. She couldn’t understand how Summer put up with it, it was a huge clumsy thing. “Yes?”

“You’re not afraid.” He made it a question at first, then forced a smile. “Burned God, of course you’re not. What would ever scare you?”

She couldn’t understand him sometimes. Did she look like she had ice instead of blood, like she was some inhuman thing that felt no fear, like she was the bloody Winter Queen?

She reached into the warmth trapped inside her coat and pulled out her bottle. Robben made a disapproving face. She ignored him and drank deep; the liquid coursed hot and fierce down her throat, lighting a trail of fire down into her belly. There. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

Of course he wanted her to be the Winter Queen. That was what he needed from her: coldness in the face of danger. She couldn’t allow him to see her hands shaking on the bottle. Probably shouldn’t let him see her drinking at all.

She aimed the bottle at him. “You know why we could never, ever be together?”

Robben flinched. A dark part of her liked that.

“Because you’re weak.” Anjen spaced each word out deliberately. “You jump at every shadow, and you thin everyone must be scared like you.” She drank again. It gave her such a rush, like she could bring anyone down. “But you know who isn’t and has never been scared?” She leaned in until the sword hilt dug painfully into her hip, holding his eyes. “Me. I’m the goddamn Winter Queen. I kill everyone who crosses me, I invade countries, I come back from the dead. So don’t you think that you can taint me with your fear, that you can crack this mask, because it’s not a fucking mask. It’s real. I’m real. And I’m not afraid.”

Robben looked painfully small.


“I’m going to win this.” Anjen made it a promise. “It won’t be pretty. But I will. Not. Lose. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Robben said in a tiny voice. “Your Majesty.”

That had a sweet sound to it. Like she was something greater and more terrible than just a woman getting old. “Get back to your post.”