Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Dear Sceptics...

Writing is a real job. Really. I know this may come as a shock to you - and I'm very sorry if I've somehow shattered your view of the world - but writing is a real job. And I don't just mean journalism and writing articles for Important Publications. I mean writing fiction. That unholy of unholies. Novels. I see you shuddering already.

But it's true. It's a real job. See these definitions of the word job

a piece of work, especially a specific task done as part of the routine of one's occupation or for an agreed price: She gave him the job of mowing the lawn.
a post of employment; full-time or part-time position: She was seeking a job as an editor.
No doubt you will have noted the words employment, occupation and price there. As strange as this may sound, being a writer actually fulfills the above criteria. I write books. People will hopefully read those books. It's a job. Honest. 

Perhaps you thought a Real Job meant having a secure, stable and certain job. Now I will admit such a job is tempting (though if you can find me any secure, stable and certain jobs in this warm and cuddly economic climate, I'll eat my boot). I like security, stability and certainty. I watch my husband's bank account in awe, marvelling at how, like clockwork, he gets money once a month. Like magic! One of these clockwork magic jobs would be nice, I'm sure.

But on the other hand, I'm happy with writing. Which is a real job, by the way. And here's why:

1. I get to work in my pyjamas. Or in a cocktail dress. Or naked. Or while lying in bed! Imagine that

2. I get to be six years old again and make up stories - only this time no one dares accuse me of being a dreadful little liar

3. I get to drink wine/liqueur/neat vodka while I'm working and people call it artistic, not irresponsible - and no one's going to sack me for doing it either

4. I get to hang out on Twitter and Facebook and this blog and still claim I'm working

5. Did I mention I get to make up stories?

6. And, because this always comes up, yes, I do actually get paid to make up those stories too. Which means I have a real job. And you have to admit it's kind of a cool one too.

So, you know. I work. Like a - gasp - real person. So please don't ever ask me when I'm going to get a real job again. Because I might have to punch you on the nose. Sorry in advance.


Friday, 24 June 2011

Reader Request: Books! Books!

When reader Louise emailed me ages ago with a request for book recommendations, I wanted to hug her. A post about books? Yes, please!

Louise wrote the following

I've only recently started reading some YA - Twilight and Meg Cabot's stuff to name a couple - and I'm amazed by how much I love it! I was wondering if you could please write a blog post recommending some of your favourite books/authors in that genre?

And so, for Louise, here we go. I haven't named as many as I'd have liked to here, just some of my recent and older favourites. And I didn't put it synopses or summaries here because I thought that would make for a very long post, so I've linked each book to its Amazon page where you can find the blurbs.

Tabitha Suzuma, Forbidden
Eoin Colfer,
Artemis Fowl and sequels (these is more MG than YA, but they're fun!)
Meg Rosoff,
How I Live Now
Maggie Stiefvater,
Suzanne Collins,
The Hunger Games and sequels
Lucy Christopher,
Anything by Eva Ibbotson! (though I'm not sure they're typical YA, really)
Francesca Lia Block,
Mary E. Pearson,
The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Veronica Roth, Divergent
Maryrose Wood,
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series (again, MG not YA, but so funny!)
Keris Stainton,
Della Says: OMG

What would you recommend? Have you read anything lately that you absolutely loved?

Note: huge apologies to everyone who may be stopping by because of Elizabeth Mueller's blogfest! I just didn't have the time to join in like I wanted to!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011


Shhh. Don't make any sudden movements. My laptop might turn off again!

Yes, it's still misbehaving - though it has managed to stay on for a whole two hours today, and I'm trying not to push my luck - so this post will be short and sweet. I'm turning it over to you. What makes a character special to you? What works? 

Pick a favourite character - or one of many - and tell me why you think they're amazing.

My choice-
Which was hard. I have so many. I was going to go with Sherlock Holmes, but everyone knows all about him, so I'm going with Anna from Eva Ibbotson's The Secret Countess. She's an impoverished Russian countess who flees her home during the Revolution and goes to England. To support her family, she finds a job as a maid at the country home of an English lord/war hero and of course, she starts to fall in love with him - amidst a whole lot of obstacles and other shenanigans.

Anna is fabulous. She's sweet and brave and stubborn and hilarious. The book is funny and heartbreaking and sweet all that the same time and Anna is just about the reason for all of that. She's incredibly selfless (in a good way) and everything she says is funny and her love story with Rupert is fantastic.

Best moment: That dance. If you've read the book you'll know what I mean. If you haven't, well, go do it because it's such a lovely book!

And now it's your turn. Who's your pick?

Friday, 17 June 2011

Big Fat Computer #Fail

My laptop, which is very much on its last legs, has been especially difficult today. To the point where it won't stay on for more than five minutes without overheating and turning off. That's meant I've managed to get very little work done - gah - and I can't write up a proper blog post - double gah. I'm writing this on my phone.

So today's Reader Request will be delayed, I'm afraid. Now I'm off to break something. Probably the laptop.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

There's something about The Boy

Or man, as the case may be. I realize this post might largely be to the tastes of my female readers, but it's something I thought worth writing about. The male protagonist/hero/love interest is such a key part of most novels. In fact, I don't know about you, but sometimes I'll read - and reread - a book just because I love The Boy (or man) so much.

Maybe we like to step into the shoes of the female narrator/protagonist and imagine he's in love with us. It's all part of the escapism of reading. Or maybe we think he reminds us of someone we fancy/love in real life. Whatever the reason, whatever the genre, I've found that The Boy can have the power to make or break a story.

So how do you create a swoon-worthy love interest type?

Make him devoted. He can be the witty, charming, sweet, sarcastic, rude, ambiguous, openly loving, any of those things. But as long as we know, deep down, that he would pretty much do anything for our heroine, we're hooked. There's something irresistible about someone who sticks by no matter what. 

But don't make him a doormat. Unfortunately, you can take this too far. He can become a whining, snivelling, 'yes darling of course I will' type and then you just want to smack him (and her, for letting him carry on like this). I'm going to mention Edward from the Twilight series here. His devotion to Bella is touching. But there was something immensely annoying about his behaviour in Eclipse: notably the way he was willing to stand by and let her snog the Other Boy right in front of him just because. Devotion can go too far. It can make a character look pathetic.  

Make him amazing in some way. Is he a really powerful warlock/vampire/werewolf/businessman? Does he have super-strength or speed? Is he just really smart? Make him almost unsurpassed in some way. It's attractive. 

But for the love of Heathcliff, make him flawed too. Perfect characters are a pet peeve of mine. I hate them. I think an awful lot of other people hate them too. No one likes a character who can do anything, achieve everything, be totally awesome and never have to deal with a single consequence or ever suffer a moment of true conflict. Flawed characters are incredible. We understand their flaws because we're flawed too. These flaws can be huge things that the character can't get past or they can be small niggles, realistic things that crop up now and then. We can love these characters because they're not alarmingly, intimidatingly, irritatingly perfect. 

Make him a little bit of a bad boy. This one is completely take-it-or-leave-it. But ladies, let's face it. We're drawn to the slightly dangerous, wise-cracking types in fiction, aren't we?  

But he'd better have a heart of gold under all that badass-ness. Because in the end, we want our heroines to end up with the nice guy. The one who deserves her. (Unless we hate her, in which case we just want someone to strangle her, but that's a whole other problem.) It also satisfies us because we're in her shoes. We want to end up with the nice guy too.

Well, there you have it. I've searched my bookshelf, unearthed beloved male characters, analyzed them to death, and boiled it all down to the above. When you create your bestselling love interest and fangirls the world over are tattooing his name to their bosoms, you know who to thank!

What draws you to a fictional man? Who are your favourite love interests? And to the male readers: don't be afraid to chip in with your take on the female side too - I'm intrigued to know what kinds of female characters hook you?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

On Being Googleable

Or, more specifically, an Online Presence. Because as it turns out this Online Presence is important to authors. Readers like to Google things these days. Agents like to Google things. Editors like to Google things. And they all want to be able to find you. They want to be able to see whether or not you're taking this writing lark seriously. They want to see whether you're funny, entertaining, interesting, informative, clever, likely-to-be-fun-to-work-with, sounds-like-you'd-write-a-great-book-okay-I'll-buy-it.

I've had a blog and Twitter for over a year now, but while both do have a 'work' angle, I've mostly used them so far to have fun and talk to other people. Making it all about Work just won't cut it for me - or anyone, I imagine. If it's all about Work, it gets stale. Fast.

But, in the interest of building and growing that Online Presence, I've started putting together other little pieces to make a bigger Online Presence Picture. I've finally designed some business cards. I've got a website in the works. I'm trying to get some cool shiny Author Photos done.

And I now have an official Facebook page. Yay! And now that I have it, I bite my fingernails in anxiety and think 'what if no one Likes me'? It's kind of like a low-key equivalent of going to a book signing and thinking 'oh my God I'm going to be sitting here like some pathetic stalker and no one will turn up to get a book signed!' 

(Not that I've done this. But I know people who have and it sounds painful.) 

So do pop over. Or click on that 'Like' button in the blog's sidebar. I'll give you cookies.

And I'd love to hear your take on this. Do you think this Online Presence thing is important? What networking and social tools do you use?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Reader Request: YA

I feel like a post about my genre is way overdue - and here's the perfect opportunity to talk about it! Back when I first asked for requests from blog readers, Jim Murdoch asked me the following

I’ve read a few YA novels recently and I’ve been struck by how diverse they are. One was basically an Enid Blyton Famous Five style mystery with mobile phones and, at the other end, we have a book that includes man committing suicide by banging his head against a wall and a cow being set on fire with a flamethrower. How do you balance keeping things simple, in terms of, say, language usage and at the same time not talking down to the kids? With Mills and Boon they used to, as far as I’m aware, provide a guide as to what was acceptable in the novels they would print; does something similar exist when it comes to YA books?

And to answer that last question, Jim, yes and no.

Yes, I suppose there are 'guidelines' about young adult fiction. These do exist. But I've also found that almost every one of the 'rules' on this list can be broken. Personally, I don't try to stick to any formula, pattern or rulebook. I know what feels authentic and/or right for my characters.

And I think this holds true across the board. As Jim points out, YA is so diverse. It can be completely, squeaky clean (the first Twilight book, for example, has some tingly and bloody moments but no swearing, drinking, drugs, sex or graphic violence). Or it can be filled with profanity and sex and violence all manner of debauched things (The Hunger Games is often noted for its violence). I think the key here is your audience. If the book is obviously being marketed for the younger YA bracket - 12 years old and not much older - a horribly violent, sexy, raunchy read will not go down particularly well. But there are few limits on what you can and can't write for the upper YA crowd. 

A couple of things that I used to fret about:

It's no secret that children's and teen books tend to be shorter than full-length adult fiction. But I've seen this rule broken a thousand times (Harry Potter, anyone?) so as long as you know you've edited and edited and cut out anything unnecessary and all those words are essential, it's not worth worrying about it. If your word count is under 40,000 or pushing 150,000+, agents and editors might balk at your query. But ultimately if your story and hook is engaging enough, I think people will request and/or read it anyway.

Note: some publishers might have specific word count guidelines/limits for submissions.

Graphic erotica is not going to fly. But that's just common sense. Would it feel right for a teen protagonist anyway? But you can have characters who have sex. Honestly. You can describe it (tastefully) or imply it but sidestep any long-winded descriptions (the nookie scene in Shiver is a particularly great example of making what's happening clear without going into it unnecessarily).

As for swearing, A TORRENT OF LIGHT has a lot of 'bloody's and a few 'shit's and one instance of a certain four-letter word beginning with F. I remember worrying a lot about that one when I first wrote it. It slipped out because it felt so natural. And later, when I tried to 'make it cleaner', it felt wrong. Like I was cutting out my much-loved character's tongue. So I've kept it and no harm done.

So what all this boils down to is: write what feels right for your story and your characters and worry about the 'grown up stuff' if your agent/editor suggests you do.

But then this begs another questions. If YA can be so diverse, if you can break all the rules, what is YA? What sets it apart from adult/children's fiction?

For a start, YA protagonists/main characters/narrators tend to be teens. Thirteen to eighteen, though often even thirteen is too young. But I don't think this is the most important thing at all. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is narrated by a fourteen-year-old but it isn't young adult fiction.

To me, what defines YA fiction is the feel of the story. The best YA novels out there are the ones people of all ages read, not just the teens. This is because of that feel, that sense we get when we read the book. Apart from very early childhood, your teen years tend to be a time of firsts. First dances, first kisses, first loves, first times. Everything you feel tends to be more acute, more dramatic, more life-changing, no matter how small or insignificant. This makes for great story potential. It also transforms the way the book feels.

No matter how bleak or dark a book is, YA is ultimately about growing up but still holding on to some innocence and good. It's about hope. Everything is still possible.

That's what sets it apart. That's what defines it.

What do you think? Do you read the genre? What defines it for you?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

What's in a Name?

I've probably talked about naming characters before. If I have, it would have been a long time ago so I'm doing it again. Character names are important. To me. Maybe to you. I've spent days trying to come up with the right name for a character because I've needed it to 'feel right'. I need the name to feel like him/her. And sometimes I've had a character come to me fully formed, name and all.

As a reader, I notice names. I laugh at some. I love others. I think 'what was this author thinking?' about a few, which is probably naughty of me, but hey. I can't help it. For instance, I've noticed that a lot of YA heroines seem to be called Grace. Shiver, Entangled, Fallen Grace, these are just a few. I have no less than five novels on my bookshelf right now with a Grace. 

(This is also my sister-in-law's name, so when I recently changed my YA protagonist's name and Grace suggested Grace, the first thing I said was 'ohmyGod do you have any idea how many people are already called Grace, Grace?')

So how to name a character? I don't know. I don't think there are rules and there are certainly exceptions to every 'guideline'. But there are certain things you can avoid/lean toward. Here's my take-

Silly is OK
Here's where the 'Naming Your Character' not-quite-a-rulebook differs from the 'Naming Your Baby' rulebook. You'd never want to name your child something other people will laugh at (Fifi Trixiebell? Really?). But sometimes you want your readers to giggle a little at a character's name. So silly is okay.

Avoid long, difficult names
To give you an example, I'll use my own (lest I use something else and offend someone!). Sangu is short for Sangamitra. There. I've admitted it. My personal albatross.

Now Sangamitra, alas, will just not fly. It's four syllables long. It's unfamiliar. Sure, it's memorable, assuming you can actually commit all ten-bloody-letters to memory in the first place. But try to imagine writing a scene in which another character cries desperately to your protagonist: NO, SANGAMITRA, DON'T. SANGA - DAMN YOU, WHY DON'T YOU HAVE A NAME I CAN SHOUT QUICKER? Imagine that translated to the big screen. Eeek.

I'm sure there are plenty of long, unfamiliar names out there. I'm sure they're even lovely, popular character names. But it's hit and miss. And when you want your characters to trip instantly to your readers' thoughts, you don't want a name they'll stumble over.

Avoid anything too literary
I don't mean names like Dashwood and Bennet and Lizzie and Juliet. These are popular names. Dashwood is probably pushing it, though, because it's uncommon in the real world today and it definitely suggests Jane Austen to anyone who hears it. Other names to avoid: Sherlock. Shakespeare. You don't want to choose something so instantly recognizable. If you happen to have a clever character named Sherlock, even if you claim it's meant to be homage/a parody/a modern retelling, people might think you're trying too hard. 

Another concern: your readers will certainly remember the name, but when they think of 'Sherlock', your character's not going to be the one that pops straight into their heads. Better not to wither away in Holmes's shadow.

Please, no puns
Unless you're writing an out-and-out farce/comedy/parody/who knows what, for the love of mercy steer clear of Eggen Mermalayde, Justin Case and Ben Dover. Please.

And in the end, try to remember it's not everything
Honestly. No matter what I or anyone else says, names are not everything. Your character is. Who she is. What he's like. Whether readers love or love to hate him. Those things matter more.

On the advice of my agent and editor, I recently changed my narrator and protagonist's name from Echo to Eva. At first I thought this would mean the end of the world as I knew it. Disaster. Apocalypse. How could she still be the same without the same name?

Turns out, she is the same. Sure, I miss Echo sometimes, but I love the name Eva (that's pronounced E-va, by the way, not A-va. I'm downright Nazi-ish on that point.) Maybe she's so firmly imprinted in my head that nothing could change her now. Or maybe I got lucky. But it did help me realize that names are not the beginning and end of a character.

Writers, how do you name your characters? Are names important to you? And those of you who aren't writers, what about you? As a reader, does a name matter? What are the funniest/weirdest/best names you've come across?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

I'm Back!

To hell with a fancy title - I'M BACK! This is terribly exciting for me. I've sorely missed the blogosphere. Without the blogosphere, working at home has reduced me to a hunched-up, crawling, muttering shell of my old self.

Okay, not quite. But you get the idea. 

It's been a very busy couple of months. Work's been most of it: lots of writing, lots of revisions, lots of annoying 'tasks' like sorting out my new visa, etc etc, but there's been a lot of other stuff too that I won't talk about just yet (don't worry, no bad news!). Things are still crazy here but the craziness has let up slightly and I've seized the opportunity to return.

And not just return! Return - with questions! What have I missed? How are you, fair readers? And I am also returning with structure

That's right. I'm going to try Structuring My Blog. I don't mean that to be as boring as it sounds. I'm just going to try posting on specific days of the week so that readers know - more or less - when to expect me. I don't know if this will work for me, but I thought it worth trying.

So I will be posting on 

Tuesdays - with news, ramblings and/or something random
Wednesdays - with a character-themed post (yay!), like this one or this one
and Fridays - with a Reader Request, until I run out (which doesn't seem likely in the near future as a ton more requests came in while I've been away)

If something mind-bogglingly amazing strikes me, I might drop in on other days of the week too.

And now, before I bid you farewell, I feel that I should offer some writerly wisdom. Well, here it is: I am pointing you to William Shakespeare's 10 Rules O' Writing at author Declan Burke's blog. It made me laugh. A lot. So go forth, intrepid friends, and enjoy some lolz.