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.