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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

WEDNESDAY FIVE

Hello, Dear Readers! Congratulations on making it to Wednesday despite this dull and dreary excuse for summer weather that we're having. Today I bring you a random sampling of the shenanigans which are consuming my attention currently. And just to round the whole thing up, we'll call it:

WEDNESDAY FIVE!

Thing the First:

Direct your attention to the right of this post. What's that? No, your eyes do not deceive you. The blog is only four followers away from those purple streaks I've been promising. It barely seems like an eyeblink since I was shaking in my shoes over singing the blues to celebrate 200 followers, and now we're as near as dammit to 300. Meanwhile, there have been many helpful and thoughtful comments on whether I should cut all my hair off or not, which have left me...undecided. So I'll get back to you on that one.

Thing the Second:

Shadows on the Moon has topped 1000 adds on Goodreads. I know, right?! And FrostFire has just appeared there too, so if you feel like adding it to your To Read shelf, go right ahead.

Thing the Third: 

Oooh, we're into exciting territory here. The American hardback of Shadows on the Moon is now available for pre-order on The Book Depository and Amazon! There's no cover as yet - it's not finalised, and Candlewick like to keep their artwork under wraps until a bit closer to the release date anyway. But it's there! You can see it, you can order it, it's really, really REAL. 

Thing the Fourth:

OMG! There's going to be an audiobook of Shadows on the Moon, released simultaneously with the US hardback in April next year. It will be available on CD or as an MP3 download, produced by Brilliance Audio, who are a really wonderful company with an excellent reputation. I've never had an audiobook made of any of my books before and I'm so stoked to hear what the story sounds like in someone else's voice.

Thing the Fifth:

Slightly less exciting for you guys, but very exciting for me, this one. In September I'm going away on holiday for the first time in about four years. I'll be staying in a log cabin in the Lake District and I will have NO INTERNET ACCESS. Scary but necessary if I'm to do anything different from my normal day-to-day activities while I'm away. This means the blog will be on hiatus for one week, from the 10th of September to the 17th. But never fear, we'll be back to a normal posting schedule the following week.

So - what's your Wednesday Five?


Monday, 29 August 2011

BIG SECRET PROJECT PLAYLIST

Hello, my lovelies! Today I am filled with the desperate urge to talk to you all about Big Secret Project. In fact, I am so full of beans that resisting the desire to spill them is causing me to feel a teeeensy bit nauseous. But, as you all know very well, I'm not able to talk to you about Big Secret Project right now in any meaningful way (although I promise I will as soon as I can!) and so instead, I decided that I would share with you my playlist for the part that I am working on right now.

This might tell you all kinds of interesting things about the story...or it might not. Heh heh. Being annoyingly cryptic is the next best thing to spilling the beans.

On with the playlist!










A bit different from previous playlists, I know! What sort of idea does this give you about Big Secret Project? Feel free to guess/speculate in the comments :)

Friday, 26 August 2011

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD #2

Happy Friday, Dear Readers! Today, I bring you a follow-up to last week's post on diversity in fantasy.

First of all, I urge you to read these very interesting posts - the first one about about the movie business, and how film students, even film students who were not male, not able-bodied and not white found themselves caught up in responding to headshots of potential actors a certain way. Then there's this response, which isolates the fact that when you try to point out other people's unconscious prejudice, you're often accused of prejudice yourself.

As both these posts point out, the warped view of the world we're all presented with near-constantly by the media mixed with human instinct to 'type' other people according to difference means that none of us - NONE OF US - is free of unconscious prejudice. Imma say that again. NONE OF US. I'd put sparklers around that if I could. This is important.

I freely admit that I'm not free of prejudice. That's not a big admission to make because NONE OF US are. What matters is to be aware of this fact, and willing, when you have a response to something, to examine it and be honest about where that response comes from.

Let me elaborate. What is the usual reaction among your friends and family if you hint that something they have said or assumed may spring from prejudice? Any suggestion that they are not perfectly liberal, prejudice free, shiny-bright and unbiased? I bet it's defensiveness and anger. 'I'm not a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobe!' they cry, their brains filled with images of Neo-Nazis, evil, sweaty monsters, and vile, chuckling villains. 'How can you SAY that about me?' They don't listen to what you've actually said. They only react to in order to repudiate it.

Anger and defensiveness are a really good warning sign - because people only get angry and defensive when they have something to defend. That 'something' is their own image of themselves, the comfy assumptions that allow them to walk through the world feeling content with who they are. They know they're a good person, not a hateful, chuckling Neo-Nazi. Therefore they cannot be a racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic.

Except that they probably are.

I am. Every prejudice that those angry, defensive people have? I have too. They lurk there in the back of my mind, pretending that they're 'instinct' or 'common-sense' or 'realism' when actually, they are just bigotry.

That doesn't make me a horrible, hateful, chuckling Neo-Nazi. It just makes me not perfect. That's all. A work in progress. A person who is willing to be honest with themselves and the world.

And in admitting that, I become a far more able to recognise and reject prejudice than I ever was when I was striding through the world in my insulated bubble of I'm-A-Good-Person ignorance, refusing to admit that my actions could *possibly* be influenced by evolutionary imperatives to reject those who are different, and centuries of religious and secular bigotry, and a mass media who refuse to represent the world as it really is.

The moment you let go of that image of yourself as a perfect, shiny-bright Good Person who couldn't possibly harbour prejudice, is the moment you will begin truly working AGAINST prejudice. Honesty is the key. Honesty is the thing that allows you to confront your own ingrained assumptions about other people and then put them aside so that you can act, as much as possible, as if you were NOT prejudiced.

Try it. Go ahead. It doesn't hurt, I promise. Take a deep breath, and then say, out loud: "I am not perfect. I am flawed. I have ingrained prejudices. I will do my best to recognise and overcome them."

Doesn't it feel like a weight off your chest? To admit to yourself that you don't have to be perfect, that it's OKAY to have nasty, knee-jerk reactions to things, sometimes, so long as you're willing to make sure no one else suffers as a result?

Now that we've gone there, I link you to this post, which was prompted by the original Wake Up and Smell the Real World post, and which in turn prompted THIS post.

And the reason that response post is crucial? Is that as a creative person who tries to embrace diversity and who writes about a lot of characters who have experiences and come from backgrounds nothing like mine, I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to write characters or create plots or situations that rub people up the wrong way. Some of those reactions will come from people who've put up with bigotry all their lives and who are just godammned sick of tripping over everyone else's privilege. And they're unlikely to give a flying pamplemoose about my ongoing project to kick bigotry in the behind. They're just going to say 'YOU SUCK' and walk away.

And that's OK. That's really the whole point of this post. It's not anyone else's job to educate me, or give me a pat on the head for trying really hard.

The correct response to having someone notice the fact that, despite my endeavors, I'm still flawed and unconsciously prejudiced, is NOT to flee back into the I'm-A-Good-Person bubble, claim that the ones telling me I suck are horrible, nasty, ungrateful and prejudiced themselves, and say sulkily: 'Fine! I'll just write about straight, white, able-bodied people from now on and THEN YOU'LL BE SORRY!.

Nor is it to curl into a ball on the floor, weeping, and bash my head repeatedly on the tiles chanting: "I am a terrible, horrible, no-good bigot who should be flayed UNTIL SHE IS SORRY!"

It's to listen to what other people have said, acknowledge that those reactions to my work are valid and true and real, and then decide if I can learn from them. Don't get me wrong. It is hard. But it's necessary. Because, I'm coming to realise, it's not enough for writers (or actors or artists or politicians or firemen or teachers or dog-walkers or CEOs) to write the change that they want to see in the world.

We have to BE the change we want to see in the world, and keep on being it, even knowing that we'll never be perfect - only better than we were before.

OK, I've been rambling on for a while here, so let's sum up. In order to fight prejudice in our day to day lives, we must:
  1. Step out of the I-Am-A-Good-Person bubble and admit that we are imperfect and flawed and prejudiced, like the rest of the world
  2. Be honest with ourselves when we say or do something as a result of prejudice
  3. Accept that fighting against prejudice is our own responsibility and our own choice and that no one owes us gratitude or enlightenment as a result
  4. Allow other people to tell us when we mess up without dismissing what they feel or fleeing back into the IAAGP bubble again, or trying to drink bleach because we STILL aren't perfect
  5. Rinse. Repeat.
 Does this make sense? I hope so. Honestly, you guys are better than a therapist! Let me know what you think in the comments.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

FROSTFIRE TEASER

Hello, Dear Readers! Congratulations on making it to Wednesday. As a reward, I bring you an enticing snippet of FrostFire, which regular readers will know is the companion novel to Daughter of the Flames, and which is sheduled to come out from Walker Books in the UK in July next year.

Related to this - I'll probably be setting up a FrostFire page here and on my website soon, so if you've got any thoughts on the information you'd like to see there, tell me in the comments and I'll do my best to provide it.

In the meantime...let me know what you think of this teaser!

I went in low, swinging at the Gourdin’s leg. Moving fast for such a bulky man, he brought his right axe down, catching my axe-blade on his pick. His other axe flicked up to catch Arian’s sword in exactly the same way. The rebel twisted and pulled his axes expertly. I staggered forward a step, fighting to hang onto my weapon.

Arian let go of his sword and leapt away. The sudden release of tension made the rebel lurch, off-balance. I wrenched at my larger axe. Metal screamed, and the weapon went flying from the Gourdin’s hand. I bared my teeth in a grin of triumph. One axe down, one to go.

Arian reached under his jerkin and pulled out his weighted baton as the Gourdin took his remaining axe in both hands and aimed a side blow at my gut. I got my weapon down just in time, deflecting the blade with the iron langet.

Arian surged into the fray and drove the end of his baton into the rebel’s stomach. The man went white and stumbled back, almost bouncing off the wooden frame of the doorway .

Trusting Arian to guard me, I took an underhand swing at the rebel fighter’s legs that forced him to twist sideways. He struck at my back – Arian blocked the move with the baton, losing a chunk of wood in the process. I danced back and then edged forward, trying to find a space to cut at the man again. As he angled away, clearly believing me and my axe to be the greatest threat, Arian dived in beneath me and smashed his baton into the man’s knees.

The rebel bellowed as his legs buckled and he crashed to the ground. At the same moment, I jabbed the iron-bound head of my axe into his temple. There was a crunch as the metal met the rebel’s skull, and he slumped to the floor, lying half in and half out of the doorway.

Arian got to his feet and retrieved his sword. Together we jumped over the giant’s legs, landing in a large, echoing space, full of shadows.

The room was oddly shaped, with many sides, and was mainly taken by with roughly made wooden furniture – long tables and stools. It looked for all the world like the Hill Guard’s mess tent. I had braced myself for more enemy soldiers, but the room was empty.

“They left only one man to defend the doorway? That’s crazy.”

“They didn’t believe attackers would get this far,” Arian said, his gaze searching the room. “The inbred belief that they were invincible was the reason the Sedorne lost the war. Come on, we need to keep moving.”

We searched the room cautiously, backs to the wall, until we found a doorway. There was no door in it – a rail above indicated a curtain had once hung there, but no more. Arian eased through the gap, still plastered to one wall. I took the other side. The corridor was wide, with a towering ceiling that disappeared into darkness. The only light was from thin window slits high up. I still couldn’t hear any movement, no voices or footsteps. It was eerie.

Arian was running one hand over the wall. Then he ducked down and seemed to be touching the floor.

“What are you doing?”

“There are embrasures here for lamps, but they’re empty. And I can feel dust on the floors. I think this part is disused,” he said.

“That makes no sense. It’s directly off the main room,” I said, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck lift. “Can I have your baton? There’s no space for an axe here.”

“Take the knife instead,” he said, handing it to me hilt-first. “You’re more used to an edged weapon.”

We moved forward, weapons ready. I expected to see light at any moment, but instead the place grew darker. It was like venturing into a cave. I was thankful that at least there was no slime or bats. Yet.

“This place is massive,” I whispered as we came to a circular chamber with four more empty doorways leading off it. Even lowered, my voice echoed off the walls.

“We’re going to have to risk a light,” Arian said. “I’ve got a candle in my belt pouch. Hold this.”

He pushed the baton into my free hand, and, after some muttered swearing and scraping noises, a light flickered to life. Then he took the baton back and let some of the molten wax drip onto the end before sticking the candle to it. Now the baton served as a candleholder as well as a weapon. He held the light up high, but the tiny flame didn’t offer much illumination – just enough to keep us from stumbling over our own feet.

“Maybe we should go back and try another exit from the main room?” I suggested.

There was a muffled cry from one of the corridors and without another word we both rushed forward.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A QUESTION OF PUBLISHING

Hi everyone - I hope you all had a great weekend! I've been having a wonderful reading binge and actually managed to make a dent in one of my TBR piles, so I'm happy about that, even if the pile will probably magically double in size now just to spite me. Or maybe grow teeth or something...

Today I'm going to tackle a couple of reader questions on the theme of publishing. The first question comes from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous and says:
"i searched the internet and looked at thing all over the place that claimed the would send work to a publisher and all that but asked for money. And then my mom said how if i sent my stories over the web that they could be claimed as anyone's work and so i got worried how do you find a publisher? And once you do that do you need an entire story ready to be printed or can you have just a chapter or even just an outline?"
Whoo! You're starting right at the ground floor here - back where I was when I first decided I wanted to be a writer those many long years ago. That means my answer needs to cover a lot of ground, and it won't be possible for me to go into as much depth on various issues as I'd like. So first of all I recommend that you get hold of a copy of the most recent Writer's and Artist's Yearbook. This book is updated every year and it is filled with detailed and informative articles which tell you how to go about making a submission to a publisher and how the process works. Any questions that you have left after reading my answer can be found in the W&AY.

I'm going to tackle the last part of your question first, because that's the bit which shows a basic and all-too-common mistake about the way in which publishing works. You're asking how to find a publisher BEFORE you've got a manuscript to offer them, as if they were a plumber or something, that you can look up and have on standby for when you need them.

That's not how it works. You've gotten confused here between PRINTING and PUBLISHING. A printer will take any old stack of pages that you offer them, charge you some money, and turn it into a bound booklet or even something that looks like a book you might find in your local bookshop. And then you'll have a box in your living room filled with five or ten or one hundred copies of something that looks like a book. That is not being published. That is getting something you have written bound up.

This is how getting published works, Anon. You write a book. It needs to be a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Then you need to revise and rewrite it and make it as good as it can be. Then, and only then, you go looking for a publisher - because before that point you literally have nothing to offer a publisher. And then, if you have written something that's really good, the publisher will pay YOU to publish your book - and that process will involve helping you to revise and rewrite it even more, then designing a cover, then printing up thousands of copies of the book and making sure they arrive in bookshops all over the country or even the world. And they will NEVER NEVER NEVER charge you a penny for this. In fact, they will pay YOU for the privilege. 

You and the publisher will split the profits on every copy of the book that is sold. The publisher gets a much higher cut of the profits than you, because printing and distributing copies of the book costs thousands of pounds. But - repeat after me! - they will NEVER NEVER NEVER ask you to pay them any money.

However, these days most writers do not approach a publisher directly. That's because, before the publisher will take your book and do all those things I mentioned, they will negotiate a legally binding contract with you, which sets all the details in stone. And, like all businesses, they will try to get the best terms for themselves they can, which means that (at a very basic level) they will try to get you to accept the lowest percentage of profits possible. Also, as you've pointed out, you don't really know anything about publishing, or which editors might like your book. And if you send a manuscript straight to a publisher, they will put it right to the bottom of their pile of books to be read because it comes from someone they've never heard of before.

This is why most writers, rather than looking for a publisher themselves, will attempt to find a literary agent. A literary agent is someone who makes their living by spotting talented writers and signing them up. They will sometimes help you to edit your manuscript to make it as good as it can be. They will then use their extremely detailed knowledge of publishing houses and editors to decide who out of the entire publishing industry might love your book and want to publish it. And when they send your story out, the publisher will see that it comes from a professional agent and put it much closer to the top of their pile of books to read. Then, if a publisher does decide they want to publish your book, the agent will negotiate the best contract for you that is possible, trying to get you the best terms and the highest percentage of profits. For doing this, they will take between ten and fifteen percent of the money you earn on any contracts that they negotiate on your behalf.

Other than that ten to fifteen percent, which the agent will deduct from your earnings before sending the rest of the money to you? Good agents will NEVER NEVER NEVER ask you for any money. And you can find the addresses of pretty much all the agents in your country in The Writer's & Artist's Yearbook.

And finally, no one is going to want to steal your work or claim it for their own. For more information on why you don't need to worry about that, check out my Tips page here.

Let's review.
  1. Write a book. Rewrite and revise it until it's as good as it can be
  2. Get The Writer's & Artist's Yearbook. Read from cover to cover.
  3. Try to find an agent, using the address and following the rules in the W&AY.
  4. NEVER NEVER *NEVER* PAY ANYONE ANY MONEY.
Okay? Okay. Good luck!

Next question! This comes from Aimen, and asks:
"Is it possible to send a manuscript to a publishing house based in a different country? If so, does this actually hinder the publishing/editing/revising process in any way or make it harder to communicate with your editor/agent? Or do agents only ever take up authors in the country which they themselves live? I know that its probably not that hard considering that, well, I'm sitting in a really tiny island in the middle of nowhere and writing an email to a writer in England xD, but what is the general view? Or does that depend on the publisher? If there is no difficulty and it is possible to send it elsewhere, like the US - is it advisable or does that merely complicate the publishing process further?"
Excellent question. I'm not an expert on this because, as you've already pointed out, I do live in a country which is a major publishing hub. But authors from different countries get published in the UK all the time, and the same is true of the US. One of the biggest sources of income for most writers/publishers is the sale of 'foreign rights' - that is, licensing publishers in other countries to produce translated editions of books. And, as you've also already pointed out, it's laughably easy to communicate with people in other countries now.

My advice to you is to approach agents first, rather than publishers. Agents mostly now accept email submissions (publishers often still insist on a hard copy, where they will accept unsolicited manuscripts at all) which not only cuts down on your postage costs, but hopefully reduces the waiting time for an answer. When an agent looks at a manuscript they will assess how good it is, what work might be needed on it, where it could fit into the market, how professional you seem and if they think they could work with you. The fact that you live in another country may or may not affect their feelings, but that's going to be personal preference - and for every agent who wants to work with people in their own country, I'm sure there are five more who don't care if the book is great.

I'll let you in on a secret. I've never met my agent. She lives and works in Wales, and I live and work in the far North of the UK. But that's never stopped us from having a fantastic working relationship, or stopped my agent from doing a brilliant job of looking after my interests. And my agent also has a great relationship with my publisher, even though THEY'RE located in London. The truth is that it's all going to come down to the quality of the story you've written, and how you present yourself.

Good luck to you as well, Aimen.

I hope that's been helpful to everyone! If there are any more questions about writing or publishing, pop them in the comments or email me through my website, and I'll do my best to answer next week.

See you on Wednesday!

Friday, 19 August 2011

RETROFRIDAY - WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD

Hi everyone! It's been a strange week over here in Zolah-land. I've spent most of it curled up under a blanket, groaning, and hoping that my brain wouldn't start dripping out of my nose. But some exciting stuff has also happened, and I'm hoping to be able to talk to you about that soon (eeep!). In the meantime, it's RETROFRIDAY again! And, despite a bit of trepidation over the way my last opinion piece Exploded Teh Internetz, I've decided to dredge up (and slightly update) one of my favourite rants:

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE REAL WORLD


This post started out one way, and ended up becoming something else. I sat down with the intention of writing a How To article on the topic of world building, with the bullet points and all that. But as I sketched out my process for coming up with a textured and diverse fantasy world, I began thinking about a discussion I've been having with some writing friends lately, and some really interesting blog posts that I've recently seen from other writers, and instead, it turned into an essay.

So first, I need to make a confession. I'm white, though from a mixed race family. And I can pass as straight, although I'm actually not (which is kind of a complex issue, and not the topic of this post, so I'll move on). And I can usually pass as able bodied - the chronic health conditions which I suffer from are not visible and during 'good' periods I come very close to normal health. I'm also cis, which means that my biological sex and gender expression match up to ideals of 'femininity' as accepted by the modern Western world. Therefore, I have what is called privilege. This term encompasses a lot, but for the purposes of this essay it means that when I turn on the TV, go to see a film or pick up a book, the overwhelming number of characters depicted, the overwhelming number of stories told, will be of people 'like me'.

For much of my early life, I unconsciously felt that those people were the majority of the world, and that those stories were somehow universal, archetypal, the default.

They are not.

When I slowly began to become aware of this, at first I didn't know what to do about it. It was easy for me to argue that I simply didn't have the experience required to write about people who weren't like me. I'd never walked down the street and seen automatic caution or fear or disgust in someone's eyes just because of how I was born. I'd never experienced racial abuse, had to defend my right to love whoever I wanted, or come up against the assumption that I was a brave little soul or a freak of nature. When I walk down the street people look at me and see an inoffensive white girl and let me be.

I've seen this argument a lot, from writers. That they don't have the experience, that they'll get it wrong, that they don't want to offend anyone - and so it's better if they just write about characters like themselves. And I've seen writers who have made that arduous effort to include the odd gay or non-white or not-able bodied character talk about how difficult it is to correctly portray someone who is not like them. And I've seen other writers say that they feel they're being pressured to make 'all their characters' non-white or non-straight or non-able bodied, or you know, not just like them, and it makes them feel restricted and uncomfortable, like their choices are being taken away.


But here's the thing. White people are not the majority of the world. Totally 100% heterosexual people who fit perfectly within modern Western gender binaries are not the majority of the world. Able bodied people are not the majority of the world. We just think they are because the vast majority of the time, people who are NOT white, and straight, and cis, and able bodied, only show up in the media in token roles. Look, we included a sassy gay boy who can give the heroine advice on clothes (but will never get a meaningful relationship of his own)! Aren't we tolerant? Look! We included a sassy black/Chinese/Indian best friend to give the heroine advice on being true to herself (who may get a relationship but it will only be with someone of the same ethnic group)! Aren't we racially aware! Look, we included a sassy boy in a wheelchair to give the heroine advice on understanding what is important in life (who won't even get to express an interest in a life of his own because after all people in wheelchairs are just there to prove a point)! Aren't we broadminded!

No. I'm afraid you aren't.

Currently, the media is showing a horribly skewed picture of the real world. Fiction writers, with our limitless power to reinvent the world, to hold a mirror up to it or subvert it, are showing a horribly skewed picture of the world. If you are not white, if you are not straight, if you are not physically perfect (and to some extent, if you are one of the slightly more than 50% of the population who is female) you know how it feels to wonder why no one wants to write about people LIKE YOU for a freaking change.

Why isn't everyone - even the straight white (male) people - bored with straight white (male) characters yet?

The more I force my mind to open, the stranger it seems to me. Straight, cis, white, able bodied people are such a small minority in the real world that when you're attempting to create any kind of a realistic fantasy world it's quite *un*realistic to keep putting characters with those traits in the majority of the major roles. Why would you limit yourself that way?

I mean, that's not to say that writers with blonde hair can never write blonde heroines. It's not to say that straight, cis, white, able bodied people don't deserve to be in books and films, ever. But...come on. With such a startling variety of skin colours, races, ethnicities, cultures, physical traits, sexual and gender identities and preferences available for writers to extrapolate from, I think it's sad that so many writers do unconsciously chose to write books which only feature main characters 'just like them', or even 'just like' all those homogenous white, straight, cis, able bodied people on TV. If nothing else, it's boring.

When I wrote a guest post for another blog which briefly touched on this issue, the response in comments really shocked me (that was before the Mary-Sue thing. After that, I'm not sure I can be shocked anymore).

Some people were defensive, saying that their all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts '...just come to me! I don't decide on their race/sexual orientation/physical status! My character are who they ARE!'

Bull. Sorry, but it's bull. You have nothing to do with how your characters turn out? They just magically appear to you, fully formed? Let me tell you what is magically and mysteriously presenting these all-white, all-straight, all-able-bodied casts to you: your own unexamined prejudice.

I'll let you in on a secret. Those TV-ready casts of white, straight, cis, able-bodied characters 'just present themselves' to me quite often as well. But when it happens, I stop, remember that I'm the author and I'm in charge of the stories I write, and make a decision that it's not good enough. And I go searching for characters who deflect a more realistic and diverse picture of the world.

Other commenters on the post took a 'Pshaw! What do YOU know about it, white girl?' stance. It's harder to argue with that one because I'm very aware that I'm making all these statements from a position of privilege. But at the same time, I'm one of the people who is writing works of fiction and putting stories out into the world, changing it - or shoring up its existing systems and structures of prejudice - even if I don't mean to. So don't I have a responsibility to speak out on this subject? Doesn't everyone, really?

Even though it might sound strange, when we're creating fantasy worlds I think it's vital to look at the real world first. The REAL world. Overcoming our own unconscious assumptions and prejudices is an ongoing process for all of us - not just the white, straight, able-bodied ones - and no one is going to get it right first time or probably all the time, even if they're truly making an effort. But the first step to changing the world of fiction so that it reflects everyone instead of just a tiny, privileged portion, is to think about it and realise that things DO need to change.

What do you guys think?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

TO CHOP, OR NOT TO CHOP?

Hi, everyone. Today's post comes to you with the sponsorship of Bleugh, God of Making People's Eyeballs Fall Out, who has been gleefully tormenting me since Tuesday. I've managed to keep my peepers in my skull thus far, but it was touch and go a few times.

But don't worry! Despite the imminent expiration of my eyeballs I still bring you a profound and deeply important post today. A post which may one day be looked back upon as a landmark in the history of the Western world. A post which could change the course of life as we know it.

Guys, I need you to tell me if you think I should cut my hair.

You may remember that back in April I cut my nearly waist-length hair to a much shorter (but still quite long!) layered cut with a fring (bangs, for the USians). So I went from this:

To this:


Now, my hair is very fast-growing, which means it's already a couple of inches longer than that again, but you get the idea. So I need to know if you think I should go from THAT (more or less) to this:

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Clearly, I am not referring to transforming into a golden-skinned, perfectly groomed Goddess, but merely to being a person with a shoulder-length bob.

ETA: There has bee much useful discussion in the comments. To that end, I offer a new option, thusly:

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The proper short bob. This was how I wore my hair for a very long time, and I do have nostalgic feelings about how easy it was to wash/dry, although it did mean styling every day since you can't get away with scraping it up if you're having a greasy/frizzy/general bad hair day.

I'm going to put a poll in the sidebar, so please let me know what you think. To chop, or not to chop? That is the question...

Monday, 15 August 2011

A QUESTION OF CHARACTER

Happy Monday, Dear Readers! I hope you all had a great weekend.

You'll be (vaguely) interested to know that my achievements this weekend included completing and posting back the U.S. copyedits for Shadows on the Moon (woooh!) and also breaking the 43,000 word mark on Big Secret Project (waaah!). Hopefully I should be able to share some more details of Big Secret Project with you within the next few months. I said hopefully. Cross your fingers!

After last week's blog extravaganza over on The Book Memoirs, today we're back to our regularly scheduled programming - which means answering some reader questions! The first questioner has chosen to remain anonymous, and says:
"I’m having boy trouble in my ms. The love interest is a supernatural creature who is helping my main character save the world. But the thing is...I don’t “feel” him. I know what he looks like but am worried he’s just a 1 dimensional character and I’m really struggling to put meat on him, which is making me worry a lot obviously. He is both cursed and blessed with various gifts but I’m thinking he’s just a bit meh. Too nice perhaps, too pouty...I don’t know. How do I rough him up, dirty him up, to make him attractive and a viable love interest for my main character?"
Strip it back a bit. You're telling me all about his outer attibutes here (Note: there was a more detailed description in the email, which I've redacted for confidentiality's sake), like who he is by birth, how he looks, his position, his talents. Clearly you've put a lot of thought into that, and that's great. But who is he inside?

That's what is really important. In order to 'feel' him, you need to dig into his soul and get to know him. Then I think the problem will solve itself. So, how to do that? Based on what you've told me about him, I think this might help.
1) Why is he helping the heroine in the first place?
What is his investment in trying to save mortals? Presumably there's some danger involved - why is he willing to risk it? Is he rebelling against something, trying to make amends for something, just doing it to impress a pretty girl? The reasons will be revealing.
2) What internal conflicts is he facing due to his decision to help the heroine?
He's a supernatural creature and the heroine is not. I'm guessing that supernaturals in your world don't generally go around offering a helping hand to humans just out of the goodness of their hearts, and unless your character has no family or friends within his own community (which, again, would be revealing) there must be some resistance from people he cares about to what he's doing. Is he betraying anyone, or putting his own life or someone else that he cares about in danger? How much does that matter to him?
3) What is his backstory?
What drives him to make these decisions, and take these risks? What has been the moment of supreme fear or anger or joy in his life so far, and how do the events of your story stack up against that? Has he been through so much in his past that nothing scares or moves him anymore, or is he really freaked out about what he's doing/risking?
4) How does he feel about the heroine?
He probably finds her attractive, but how does he really FEEL about her? What does he like about her? Dislike? And WHY? Is he scared of his feelings, or does he accept them easily? Does he conceal them from others, or even himself? How do these feelings interact with everything else he's been through in his life?
At the moment I think you're maybe focusing too much on what the heroine sees of him, or feels and thinks about him. Don't get me wrong - that's important, because (I'm guessing), that's the viewpoint you're telling the story from.

But the heroine is only seeing him from the outside. As the author, you need to see him from the inside, even if the reader and the POV character never do. In order to make him real to the reader, he needs to be real to you. Look at him as a person in his own right, not simply as a foil for the heroine. Look at the heroine and the world and his actions from HIS point of view.

Sometimes I find it really useful to let a non-viewpoint character ramble in my head a bit so that they have a chance to express their own internal monologue. The hero's viewpoint may never make it directly to the pages of your ms, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have one. Sit him down in your head and ask him to tell these events in his own words. What events would he start with. What would he have to say about the heroine? How would he describe himself? What are his justifications for his actions? Does he big himself up or play his role down?

Just free-write it, like a long, meandering dialogue. Hopefully soon you'll start to know and understand him not as Main Love Interest #1 but as a person - a complex, maybe conflicted individual with his own hopes and fears and dreams.

Onto the next question, which is from Aimen:
"I have this sort of pathological fear of my main characters. I'm afraid that all of them will turn out to be mean, unlikable b*stards who are unsympathetic and selfish and will eventually become tiring... I'd love to have any tips you can give on characterization and when a misunderstood character becomes so annoying that it is impossible to sympathize with him. I suppose that it also depends on readers somewhat but even if a character is ridiculously immature or in denial, what sort of becomes his redeeming quality? Or is that a question I have to answer?"
On the surface this question seems completely different to the first one - but in fact, you're having the exact same problem as Anonymous, Aimen. The exact same one.

You're looking at your characters from the outside, from the point of view of the reader, and worrying about what they will see. But you're the writer! You shouldn't ever be afraid of your main characters or feel that they're unsympathetic - because you can get inside them and see exactly who they are deep down. You can understand exactly what fears and insecurities and good intentions and fantasies dive them to act the way they do.

I think you should follow the advice I've given the first questioner. Stop worrying about what readers will see right now, because what is important is what YOU see. Ask yourself about the *inside* of the character - what is most important to them, what they fear most, what they love most, what they will fight to escape or protect. Trace their actions in your plot back to events in their past that have shaped them. Write a summary of the events of the story from their point of view, or get them to describe themselves, or another character. Get to really know them.

I think when you've done this you'll find that instead of a bunch of people who make you feel uneasy and worried and whom you feel are probably going to turn out to be b*stards, you'll end up with a group that you care about deeply and understand very well. And when you write them, that understanding and compassion will translate onto the page in such a way that readers will grow to care about them too, even if sometimes their actions are off-putting at times.

One other note (for both questioners!): I find readers have a lot of patience for characters who initially seem abrasive or unlikeable so long as they evolve throughout the story. That doesn't necessarily mean they need to undergo a startling transformation and become a whole new person, but the reader needs to see different aspects of them and watch their relationships with others develop. If they're evolving, that means they're a real person. If they stay completely static, that means they're cardboard.

More questions on writing, reading or publishing? Feel free to drop them in the comments or send me an email through my website. See you on Wednesday :)

Friday, 12 August 2011

ZOË MARRIOTT WEEK: Day #5

Hello all - happy Friday! It's the final day of Me Week over at The Book Memoirs and today is when I answer all the questions from readers which have been flooding in (OK, maybe trickling in) throughout the week.

And if that wasn't enough, there's a THIRD INTERNATIONAL giveaway, this time of a copy of Daughter of the Flames! You've also still got time to enter the giveaways for Shadows on the Moon and The Swan Kingdom so get over there and do it if you haven't already.

A massive thank you to Kate and Elle for organising such a smashing week of wonderfulness in my name. I never thought I'd have my very own theme week anywhere. But all good things must come to an end, and so next week we will return to our regularly scheduled programming here on the blog.

If you'd like a Reader Question post next week, feel free to drop your writing and reading and publishing related queries in the comments, or send me an email through my website.

Have a great weekend, all - see you on Monday :)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

ZOË MARRIOTT WEEK: Day #4

What are you doing over here, Dear Readers? If you'd forgotten, it's Me Week on The Book Memoirs, and that means you've still got time to enter the INTERNATIONAL giveaway to win Shadows on the Moon and delightful swag, plus another day to enter questions for the Q&A.

Today's entry is a new review of The Swan Kingdom and some fascinating facts about fairytales - along with yet another INTERNATIONAL giveaway of a copy of the book, a signed bookplate and other swag.

Hasten thee hither!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

ZOË MARRIOTT WEEK: Day #3

Happy Wednesday, Dear Readers!

We're back for Day #3 of Me Week and over on the Book Memoirs there's a guest post by me on my absolute favourite comfort reads. Go and check it out - you might easily find a new favourite!

And, since I don't think any inhabitants of the world can have enough comfort right now, especially those of us living through the UK riots, here's a video I made about the tiny, everyday things that bring me joy in my life. Let me know what your ordinary miracles are in the comments.


See you tomorrow!

ZOË MARRIOTT WEEK: Day #2

Hello, Dear Readers!

I'm back again to direct you to the second day of Me Week at the Book Memoirs, where you will find a dicussion about Shadows on the Moon which is possibly the most in-depth and academic review that any book of mine has ever received, and an INTERNATIONAL giveaway for a copy of the book and associated extra special swag. 

GO GO GO!

Monday, 8 August 2011

ZOË MARRIOTT WEEK: Day #1

Wow that title took some effort. I spent ten minutes trying to come up with some other way of putting it and then another ten convincing myself that it was OK to name a blog post after myself. Which, considering this whole blog is named after me, makes no sense whatsoever. I don't even know.

Anyway - hello everyone! Hope you managed to get through the weekend with the minimum of suffering and trauma. Today is the first day of...you know... ME Week over on The Book Memoirs and they're kicking off with an in depth look at the production of the Shadows on the Moon book trailer, and the chance to enter questions for a Q & A which I'll be doing at the end of the week.

This Q & A is different from the Reader Question posts that I normally do because you get to ask me ANYTHING - my favourite colour, my opinion on Harry Potter, my solutions to the debt crisis, the name of the first boy ever kissed: WHATEVER YOU WANT! And I will do my best to answer.

So head over there now.

Before I go, I feel that I need to acknowledge the fannish devotion of Daughter of the Flames reader Kayla, who got in touch with me on Twitter to tell me that she loved the book so much, she had made art featuring the main characters Sorin and Zira. And here it is:


So happy! *Wipes away tear*

Oh! And just when you thought I was finished, it turns out I'm not. Check out Sarah Rees Brennan and Holly Black's takes on the Mary-Sue issue. They each have very different and yet equally interesting and wonderful things to say.

More tomorrow!

Friday, 5 August 2011

RETROFRIDAY - TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS #3

Hi everyone! This week I feel that we all (but especially me!) deserve a special pat on the back for surviving to Friday. Go ahead - you know you'll feel better.

*Pauses for Patting*

It's been a challenging week. Monday's Mary-Sue post caused an explosive response, which started out awesome and positive but swiftly degenerated into a lot of people leaving comments and sending me emails telling me to do anatomically impossible things with myself and/or die. Some of those comments attacked other authors that I had mentioned in the post, a consequence I hadn't considered, and which made me feel (irrationally) guilty for bringing them into the line of fire. I've never had this many people even read a post that I'd written before, let alone reply, so it's all been a tad overwhelming.

As of now I won't be reading or replying to anymore emails on this topic from email addresses I don't know. I'm not even going to open them. And I can't keep up with the comment trail anymore either - it's eating my brain. Thanks to everyone who left interesting, thoughtful comments, whether you agreed with me or not. You may carry on with the discussion yourselves if you want to, with my best wishes.

Moving swiftly on, regular Dear Readers will know that I've been following the YA Rebels for ages, and simply love their vlogs. So when I found out that the Rebels were putting together a new line up and were holding open auditions for three spots, of course, I made a vlog and uploaded it. Here it is:


A reminder to that next week is...well, ME Week over on The Book Memoirs. I'll be linking you over to their blog every day next week and I hope that you'll click through to reward Kate and Elle for their hard work in putting everything together. They're going to be collecting questions from readers throughout the week and I'll be answering as many as I can on Friday, and there will also be giveaways, so it's well worth checking it out.

And now, onto today's real topic, which is:

TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS PART #3

Hello, my lovelies. It is now time to launch into the third part of the Turning Ideas into Plots workshop.

You have your basic diagram, like so:

 


(For more information on what this means, flick back to Part #2). 

You have enough solid story events now fixed in your head to be able to fill in two or three of the points on the diagram, which means you're on your way. You have, effectively, the skeleton of a plot. Possibly when people ask what you're writing about, you can give them a brief summary which touches on those main plot points, and they go 'Wow, sounds interesting'.

But you still don't have a STORY. Because the story is like the flesh, the blood, the muscles and skin that cover and fill the gaps between the bones. Without the story, the plot is useless.

This where that commonly held saying comes from that ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is key. The execution of the story, the way you put those muscles together, the texture of the skin, is what turns your story either into a beautiful, vibrant, living creature - or a hulking, mouth-breathing Frankenstein's Monster.

To illustrate this, let's take a story that we all know well. Cinderella.

It's fairly easy for anyone to pick out how the main points of Cinderella's story fit onto the plot diagram I showed you. Hence:

However, each of the sides of the diamond shape now need to be filled in with events which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on. If you and I were to both start out with that basic plot diagram above we would probably come up with radically different ways to get our heroine from point one two point two (hence what I was saying about execution being key) involving not only different events but different tones in our writing and character motivations. That's why this diagram is useful on it's own, even if you don't want to fill in anymore details - because it gives you that structure, that framework, within which to let your ideas develop.

However, the way I normally work this out is to try and fill in the first side of the diamond in as much detail as possible before I start writing. Then I put in whatever details I can think of on the other sides. Like so:


 
Because although I'm an outliner, and although I like to know in detail what I'm aiming for, how to actually write those events, what the character feels about them...that I like to make up as I go along. And usually I find that by the time in my first draft I've reached point two (Character Action) I've grown to know the world, story and characters well enough to be able to go on ahead and fill in the next side with a few more details too. The story teaches me about it as I go on. By the time I hit the halfway point I've got something that looks like this:


This is a story now, not just a plot. It includes scenes not just of action but reaction. It shows you what events I (as the author of this particular Cinderella retelling) think are significant enough to dramatise (lots of emphasis on the magic), how I'm going to handle the romance (love at first sight), the emotional significance of events (Cinderella calls to the spirit of her dead mother before the fairy appears - could it really BE the ghost of her mother?) and it makes you ask questions, rather than just being a bare list of events.

The way you chose to write these events - in a grim, gothic style, or a funny irreverent one, or a poetic lyrical one - will be the skin of your story. The outer appearance that people will probably react to first and with the most conviction, just as humans react to the colour and form of other people's outer shell in real life. But without the plot skeleton and the muscle, flesh and blood of the story underneath, the skin is worthless. All the bits of the story's anatomy need to be working together.

So, this is how *I* turn ideas into plots, and then a plot into a story. I hope it's been useful. Remember that the important thing - the only really important thing - is to work the way that helps you most and makes you feel most comfortable. Use a circle instead of a diamond. Don't draw at all, if you don't want to! There is no such thing as a 'right way' and anyone who says there is? Is talking like the B*tSh*t Crazy Lady (remember her?).

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

CLICHE KILLER PART TWO: The Revengening

Hello, Dear Readers - congrats on making it to Wednesday! As most of you know, I don't schedule posts in advance, so in the wake of the huuuge response to Monday's post (did NOT see that coming) I found myself grappling with performance anxiety and, as a result, a bit stumped as to what I should post about today. Like many scared authors who are stumped for ideas, I turned to Twitter. Thank you to everyone who lobbed an idea at the black hole that was my brain! There were some great suggestions but the one that I decided to go with was that I revisit my previous Cliche Killer post. Here goes.

As we know from my earlier ramblings, a cliche can be a phrase or a description which was originally so striking and so useful that everyone wanted to use it. And everyone did, and it passed into common parlance and from there into this weird, Zombie-Word-Graveyard where, while the phrase is tossed around like glitter at a beauty pageant, the words within it have become meaningless.

I've already gone into detail about the 'stripping back' process of turning a cliched phrase into something with real meaning. But what we didn't discuss was the tricky issue of the cliches hidden deeper in your work. Because cliches aren't just bland, meaningless phrases that disconnect the reader from the brilliance and emotional intensity of your ideas. Cliches can also get between you and your ideas.

Let's say you have this idea that's been nagging at you to be written. Like all ideas, it's a bit random and bitty, and there are a lot of gaps that you need to fill in. You know that you want to write a book about... let's say... a girl who takes over running her grandfather's antique store for an afternoon, and who finds an unusual object there which calls to her. Maybe as she's looking at it, trying to work out what it is, some mysterious guys break in and try to take it. The heroine runs, taking the object with her. She bumps into this boy she knows from school and he gets caught up in it too. They need to find out what the object is and why these dudes want it, but when they go to the girl's grandfather's flat, the place is ransacked and he's missing. Adventures ensue.

Awesome! What a great set-up! Conflict and mystery and budding romance! Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Oh-ho-ho, how wrong you are, Dear Readers.

As soon as I said 'grandfather' and 'antique shop' you saw an elderly, balding guy in a cardigan and a dusty, dark old store, didn't you? It's OK, you can admit it. There's nothing wrong with a doddery old grandpa and a dusty old shop, after all. You could start there.

But what about the object? When I said artefact your brain probably went a few places. Indiana Jones. Lara Croft. The Mummy. You're seeing something ancient, with untapped powers or a ghost or a curse attached.

And the mysterious dudes who break into the shop? Well, they're all middle-aged white guys in black, wearing dark glasses, yeah?

That boy the heroine bumps into is obviously a handsome action-hero in waiting. He'll protect her, and of course they'll fall in love!

On it goes. There's nothing there which isn't an echo of something everyone has seen before. Our interesting idea just withered and DIED under the suffocating weight of cliches.

All our lives we're bombarded with certain images, certain ideas, certain characters and certain situations. TV programmes, adverts, books, the stories in magazines, films, music videos...you just can't escape The One True Vision of the world that mainstream media is flooding your brain with 27-7 (this links into various other posts I've made BTW - extra points if you can tell me which ones!). If you don't clear a little space in your head where your story can breathe and find its own One True Vision, you'll just end up recycling those again and again too.

Look again at the images we automatically slotted into the gaps of that idea and you can see that they were all made under the influence of the One True Vision. They didn't actually come from you - from the unique depths of your soul. They came from OUTSIDE. And because of that, anyone could have come up with that take on the story. If you want to avoid cliches, instead of taking ideas from outside, go inside. Fill in those gaps with something that really interests YOU. Something that makes you laugh or tear up or go wide-eyed or just grin. Something that expresses the unique person you are.

Start with character.

Grandpa

Toss out the doddery old guy and his cardigan. You know in real life grandpas are people, and that means they're as diverse as any other human beings. So approach grandpa as a character, not a cliche.

What if he's a fit, frisky ladies man who wears loud Hawaiian shirts and likes to do a little soft-shoe shuffle? What if his shop sells collectable movie posters, 50's and 60's kitsch and novelty items?

Another take: what if grandad is a giant uber-geek. A silver surfer and gamer, with millions of online friends. What if his store sells replica weapons, StarWars and StarTrek memorabilia, movie props and vintage computer games?

Suddenly the whole set-up comes to life. What we have here is character - not cliche. And from that character, a unique and interesting setting grows. Already things are looking up.

The Object? 

Well, it really could be ANYTHING now, right? The possibilities are endless. And as soon as you start trying to figure out why a bunch of people would be after a mint condition Luke Skywalker figurine you find you have a rather unique plot on your hands.

Mysterious Dudes

Again, start with character. Why are they after the object? Who are they? What are their thoughts and feelings? What if they're not white, black-suited dudes at all - but a gang of good-looking teenage Asian martial artists. Or a trio of middle-aged women with snaky hair and long fingernails. Or silent people dressed as stormtroopers. What motivates them and just how far will they go?

The Boy

Maybe he's a geek too, someone who swallows a LOT and blushes whenever she looks at him. Someone her grandpa knows but she's never really looked at before. Does he know something about all this? Perhaps the heroine grabs him and won't let go until he spills the beans, and in the process she finds that he's really cool. Or maybe he's not a he - maybe it's a girl. The perky cheerleader of North Indian descent who the heroine has a secret crush on.

But hang on... isn't it a bit coincidental for the heroine to bump into this person in the first place? If we're going to go back to character here, let's ask WHY they were hanging around just waiting for her to come charging out of that shop. What did they want? What were they planning to do with their day before the heroine's adventure swallowed them?

Maybe the person the heroine bumps into isn't a potential love interest after all. He or she strings the heroine along for a little bit, pretending to help, but eventually it turns out they're a bad guy who's after the object too. Maybe the freaky dudes who broke into the shop are trying to protect the object. Maybe they're trying to protect the HEROINE. All H*ll is going to break lose when THAT comes out.

Or maybe both sides are after something completely different.

And the heroine? 

In the cliched version of the story, the heroine is a bit of a nonentity. She's squashed out by all the guys. I'm going to take a wild guess that she's insecure about her appearance, hates Maths but likes English, and is just longing for a boy to come along and make her feel whole.

No way, baby. She's the viewpoint character. She should be an interesting person too! And the person she is ought to have a huge impact on the story.

She's a wannabe catwalk model working in grandpa's store to save up the airfare so that she can get to the auditions for Next Top Model - and her extensive knowledge of couture fashion is what pinpoints the identity of the person who is really after her.

Or a mathematical genius and borderline autistic girl who can see all the angles and save that extra special Luke Skywalker figurine from the forces of chaos and darkness all by herself, thanks very much!

Let's be honest here - the idea of a desperate chase motivated by a mysterious object isn't that original. But you can MAKE it original with your choices about how to tell the story. Because guess what? Harry Potter isn't a very original idea either. What made the books into the huge success they are is the choices the writer made: they way she framed and unfolded the tale, the ways she developed those characters. No one but J K Rowling could have created Harry Potter's world the way she did.

When I first listed the details of that antique shop/mysterious object story idea it seemed as if there was just one way that things could play out. We're all conditioned to go for what's obvious first time around. The trick is to stop and take a step back - take away the shadow of all those hackneyed, typical, over-used images, characters, settings and plots. Leave yourself and your idea room to grow, to reach for the sun. Then you will produce the story that *only* you can write. Which is the only story that most of us want to write, after all.

Plotting workshop on Friday, guys! See you then.

Monday, 1 August 2011

YOU CAN STUFF YOUR MARY-SUE WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE

Good morning, Dear Readers, and happy Monday. Today, at the urging of some of my lovely Twitter friends and followers, I intend to tackle a controversial topic. You can probably guess what it is from the post title, but if not...well, here's where we wade into the Mary-Sue Morass. It's a deep one. You might want to bring a snack. And a spare pair of socks.

If you regularly read book (or film or TV or other media - but most especially book) reviews of any kind, whether in magazines or on Amazon and Goodreads or on book review blogs, you will more than likely (more than likely) have come across the term Mary-Sue. If you don't already know what the term means, you might have tried to work out the meaning using the context in which the term was used. But, because hardly any of the people throwing this term around themselves understand what it means, you'll have a tough time of it. Even if you've read a hundred reviews talking about Mary-Sue characters, you probably still don't know for sure, although you'll have gotten the idea that Mary-Sue = bad news. Bad character. Bad writing. BAD WRITER, NO COOKIE!

When I read reviews, I see the term Mary-Sue used to mean:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who kicks too much butt
3) A female character who gets her way too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

Do you see, Dear Readers, how many of these aspects of the commonly used term Mary-Sue are...umm...just a teeny bit contradictory? How can Mary-Sue mean 'a female character who is too perfect' when it is also used to mean a female character who is 'annoying or obnoxious'? How can it mean that a character has 'too many flaws' and also 'no flaws'? How can these people have anything in common? It's all so confusing!

Except that it isn't.

Take another look at the list of complaints against so-called Mary-Sues and you will see one thing all of them have in common.

'A female character.'

What many (though not all!) of the people merrily throwing this phrase around actually mean when they say 'Mary-Sue' is: 'Female character I don't like'.

That's it. That's all.

So why don't they just say 'I didn't like the female character' and explain why? I mean, there's no problem with a reviewer not liking a female character, is there? Everyone is entitled to like or dislike a character according to their own lights. A character that one person loves may seem utterly vile to another reader, and that is a wonderful thing we should all be very happy about as individuals. How did this strange, contradictory, badly defined term come into such common use in the first place? Clearly it doesn't mean what people think it means - so why not just honestly lay out the reasons you didn't like the female character, the same way you would any other character (by which we mean, a male one) instead of throwing the term Mary-Sue like a mud-pie?

Maybe it's because the reviewers in question, the reviewers who keep saying 'Mary-Sue' as if it was all that needed to be said, don't want to have to explain the reasons why a particular character didn't work for them. Maybe it's because their reasons for finding these female characters just too obnoxious, unrealistic, stupid, passive, badass or talented are just as contradictory and badly defined as the term itself. Maybe it's because the reason they don't like the female characters isn't that they're just too...anything. Except just too...female.

For the record, at this point let's see if we can't dig out the actual meaning of the term Mary-Sue. Because it did have a useful definition once, before it was co-opted and turned into a two-word mud-pie to diminish female characters. And that definition was this:

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional." 

The term was made up by people writing StarTrek fanfiction, to describe the author-insert characters (often given names like Mary Sue) who would show up in pieces of fanfiction as a new ensign or science officer and immediately prove to be the best looking, most intelligent, spunkiest, wittiest and most perfect StarFleet officer ever recruited. All the other characters would immediately realise this and hail Ensign Mary-Sue as a genius. If they did not, they were very obviously motivated by spite and jealousy, since Mary-Sue was so clearly perfect (and modest! And humble! And unaware of how beautiful she was!) that no one who wasn't wicked could do anything but embrace her.

She would not only miraculously solve every problem that the Enterprise faced and make instant friends of all the crew, but all the significant male (and maybe female) characters would fall in love with her. Usually Mary-Sue would bravely die at the end of the piece of fanfiction, because the established characters and setting would have become so warped around her utter perfection by then that if she had lived she would have gotten married to either James T Kirk or Spock (or both) and become Captain of the ship, and no one would ever have had to have any adventures again.

In short, Mary-Sue is a wish fulfilment fantasy. And I'm not saying characters like this don't exist. I'm not even saying they are *bad*. In fact, an example of a Mary-Sue in a well-known novel is the character Bella Swan in Twilight (I'm sorry Twilight lovers, but it's really true! I'm not dissing Bella, I'm just stating a fact about the kind of character she is).

Bella moves to a new town and immediately finds that everyone there wants to be her friend (except for two female characters who are mind-cripplingly obviously jealous) despite the fact that she is not interested in any of them. Bella has no flaws apart from being adorably klutzy. She is convinced that she is plain, and wears no make-up, but everyone reacts to her as if she was ravishingly beautiful. She captures the interest and then the undying love of the main male character despite the fact that he nearly has to turn his whole character inside out to make it happen. She also gets the love of the secondary male character. And all the other boys her age start fighting over her too, even though she's got no interest in any of them either. Bella undergoes no character growth or development within the story because she is already perfect when the story begins. And, as has often been pointed out, the detailed description of Bella is a perfect description of the author, Stephenie Meyer.

So this is what a Mary-Sue is:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story

Believe me, when you come across one, you will know.

And yet I see the term Mary-Sue applied to characters who bear no resemblance to this definition at all. I see it applied to such diverse people as Hermione Grainger from Harry Potter, Mae from The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Clary from the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Alanna from The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce, and Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore. These guys, honestly, couldn't be much more different from each other. The only thing they have in common is that they're all girls.

I recently read a book that I loved. In the course of the book the heroine underwent immense physical and mental and emotional ordeals. She was by turns denigrated and treated with disgust, and excessively sheltered and lied to. She was kidnapped, dragged across rough terrain, attacked, threatened, lost people that she loved, was betrayed by people she had trusted, and had almost unbearable burdens thrust onto her shoulders. She evolved - inch by painful inch - from a very smart, yet extremely insecure and self-centred person, to one who was compassionate and empathetic and able to use her intelligence for the good of others. She changed from a passive and largely physically inactive person to one who was physically strong and active. She worked and scrabbled and fought and whined and cried for every bit of progress she made. She lost everything she loved and wanted and pulled herself up and made a new life for herself, bittersweet though it was. And I thought: How wonderful!

And then I saw a review calling this character - this amazing, flawed, revolting, inspiring, broken, beautiful, ugly character - a Mary-Sue. Dear Readers, my head nearly exploded.

I'm sick of it, Dear Readers. I'm sick of seeing people condemn any female character with a significant role in a book as a Mary-Sue. I'm sick of people talking about how the female characters were too perfect or not perfect enough, too passive or too badass, too talented or too useless, when what they really mean - but don't even KNOW they mean - is that the characters were too much in possession of lady parts.

So now I turn away from my wonderful blog readers, who are lovely, kind, sweet people who would never make my head explode, and I turn to you, the reviewers. Not all the reviewers. Just the ones who are making my head throb dangerously and causing the silvery lights to float in front of my eyes.

I beg, I implore, I get down on bended knee and grovel: next time you're about to use the term Mary-Sue, stop and look at my little checklist above. And if the character you are about to describe does not hit all the points on the checklist? DON'T.

And if you're going to ask how on earth you're supposed to know, without photos of the author, if the character is partly based on them? You've just proved my point. YOU CAN'T. Therefore, you shouldn't be using the term Mary-Sue, because you are making a claim about the character/author relationship which you cannot substantiate. Simple as that.

Instead of slapping 'Mary-Sue' in your review and leaving it at that, make a list of four or five traits or decisions or actions that you think were bad, or unrealistic, or obnoxious, about the character. Perhaps you should discuss those points, and why they bothered you, in the review instead.

But before you do, take a moment to imagine that the character you are thinking about was a boy or a man. And don't say 'Well, that's different' or 'But I just can't see a girl behaving this way' or 'It's not about their gender!' or any other excuse. Look at your list again, really look at it. See if, suddenly, magically, all those traits, decisions or actions don't seem bad, unrealistic or obnoxious anymore but like perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable traits or decisions or actions...for a boy.

By attempting this exercise, you might come to realise that you (like every other human being ever born on this planet, except maybe Jesus) have an unconscious prejudice, an unexamined blind spot. And it doesn't mean you are A Sexist Pig, or A Bad Person, or that I Don't Like You. It means you're human. And humans, oh glory, humans can change.

If you can change enough to realise how damaging and unfair the term Mary-Sue is when used indiscriminately and incorrectly to denigrate female characters, you might start to notice some of the damaging and unfair assumptions which are generally made about ACTUAL FEMALES in this messed up sexist world of ours. You might change enough to start dealing with that and make this world a better place in the process. I believe you can. I believe in you.

But only if you shove the term Mary-Sue into a deep dark closet somewhere and leave it there except for very, very special occasions.

Note: I'm well aware that there's a male variant of the Mary-Sue, called a Gary-Stu. When was the last time you saw that term used as a method of dismissing a male character who was clearly nothing of the kind? Yeah. That's what I thought.

Note the 2nd (05/08/2011): I have been receiving a lot of emails about this post, and many of them asked me to do anatomically impossible things with myself and/or die. As a result, I'm sorry to say I won't be opening any more emails with regard to the Mary-Sue issue from email addresses that I don't recognise. And while I'll continue to read all the comments left here, and I'm very happy for you guys to air your opinions and carry on the discussion, I honestly can't keep up with the comments anymore without the whole thing eating my brain. Thanks to everyone who has posted a civil comment here, whether you agreed with me or not! 

NOTE the 3rd: Here's my follow-up to this post, which came together after seeing many other authors react to this issue made me see the whole discussion in a new light.
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