Sunday, 31 January 2016


Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome to Retro-Tuesday - the first one in a long time! - a Zoë-Trope tradition in which I raid the blog's archives to find a nicely matured yet still juicy post that I think some of you may have missed the first time around, or may enjoy reading again, and drag it kicking and struggling back into the spotlight.

And the post we're revisiting today? Is a popular one from back in 2012:


You're all well aware by now that the plethora of so-called 'rules' about writing which are splashed all over the internet drive me up the wall. They're almost always misapplied and misunderstood, and even the ones that started out as common sense now generally cause more harm than good. One of the most common rules I see - and the one that probably annoys me most - is Show Don't Tell. Mainly because it's flat out wrong. You cannot write *any* story, even the most action-packed, fast-paced story, without telling. You'd end up with a book that was a million words long and incredibly boring. A lot of stuff in almost every story does not NEED to be told.

The advice should be: Show Where Appropriate And Tell Where Appropriate. But that isn't nearly as snappy, and what's more, makes it clear exactly what the problem with the SDT mantra is: it's not always so easy to know just when you should show and when you should tell.

Figuring out when to show and when to tell (and how to distinguish between the two) is a big part of improving the quality of your writing. But there's no easy way to do it. The fact is that every writer choses to show or tell different parts of their story depending on what's important to them. What's more, their methods of showing and telling differ vastly. These choices make up a part of your individual style as writer.

Writer A might chose to show action with detailed, loving scenes, but tell most of their characters dialogue through short summaries of the information exchanged. Writer B might show a lot of their characters interactions with beautiful, naturalistic dialogue, and skip the action, merely telling us what happened in a quick paragraph and moving on.

Or, more subtly, this second writer might WANT to skip the action, but realise that doing so with a piece of pure telling would rob the story of a dramatic pay-off that it required. So the writer might make an effort to show at least part of the big fight - but they wouldn't make it the centre-piece of their plot. This writer would always come up with stories in which the pivotal character moments and choices came during arguments, conversations and other pieces of dialogue.

Fans of this writer's books would be the type that are into reading about relationships rather than fights, and therefore if an editor were to come along and convince that writer into suddenly 'showing' the action scenes in much more depth and detail, and making the action a bigger part of the story, they would actually be doing a disservice to those readers - and the story that the author originally wanted to tell.

The fact remains though, that there are some things which must be shown. Too many characters fall utterly flat because the writer seems to be incapable of showing the reader who they are. It's no good telling us (or having the character tell us, if the novel is first person POV) that the main character is a kind, quiet and studious person if, throughout the entire story, they never think about anyone but themselves, never display any hesitance to talk or get involved, and never so much as think about picking up a book.

I don't mean that you can't take characters and plunge them into situations which put them out of their depth, challenge them, and force them to develop new skills. In fact, that's just what you *should* do (see last week's post!). But you need to show - in their unique reactions to the various trials they endure - that they possess the traits you've chosen for them. You can TELL us that someone is kind and quiet all you like - you can have them tell us that, and all the other characters around them repeating it - but if their actions don't SHOW that? Then they AREN'T.

It's bad enough if this character whom you've told us is so kind actually shows us behaviour which indicates they're self-obsessed, judgmental and catty. But at least then they have a personality of some kind. What is even worse is where a character displays no real personality traits at all, other than always somehow acting in exactly the way that the plot requires them to act in order for it to keep proceeding.

When this sort of disconnect between telling and showing happens, at best it starts to feel like the writer doesn't know their character (or that the character doesn't know themselves). At worst? The character fails to feel like a person at all. They die on the page, and the illusion of life and reality which it is the writer's job to foster dies too. We're left with black marks on a page - which is all a story is, after all, if it can't awaken the reader's imagination.

I'm going to give you an example of what telling in characterisation looks like and how you can fix it with some fairly simple showing. And to do this I'm going to use Twilight. Why? Well, firstly because this is one of those books where there's a really obvious disconnect between what the character tells us about herself (and what the other people in the story say about her) and her actual actions and traits as shown in the story. But also because I can't really figure out how to show you this without using a real example, and Stephenie Meyer cannot possibly be harmed or upset by my using her book as an example of bad writing like some other authors (who are even more guilty of this) might be.

So. Bella Swan. We're told that she cares about her dad a lot but finds it hard to express this, as does he. This is important in terms of characterisation because late in the story Bella is forced to deliberately hurt her father in order to protect him - to finally express herself to him, but in a really cruel and deceptive way - and that moment means nothing if Bella and Charlie don't care deeply for each other.

You can see Smeyer trying to set up the unspoken but deeply felt relationship developing between Bella and her dad via short bursts of telling in Twilight (because she reserves almost all her showing for Edward) but it doesn't really work because we never get to see it. Thus that moment when Bella hurts Charlie, which should be a heart-wrenching, real life consequence of Bella's willingness to sacrifice herself for her fairytale romance with Edward, does fall flat. Which is a shame; it would only have needed one or two good pieces of showing to fix this.

Here's an example of Bella telling us about her and her dad's interactions: 
Charlie seemed suspicious when he came home and smelled the green peppers. I couldn't blame him - the closest edible Mexican food was probably in Southern California. But he was a cop, even if just a small-town cop, so he was brave enough to take the first bite. He seemed to like it. It was fun to watch as he slowly began trusting me in the kitchen.
There's nothing wrong with this piece of writing per se, but it doesn't achieve what it's really supposed to, which is to give us a concrete feeling for these two quiet yet profoundly emotional people who are tentatively connecting as a father and daughter. Unfortunately, Bella never really comes across as a quiet, profoundly emotional person in the story - overdramatic and ineffectual come closer to the mark. Again, that's because of the disconnect between what the author tells us and what she shows us.

But what if we were to show this scene instead? It would end up a lot longer than this neat paragraph (and take us away from the constant refrain of EDWARDEDWARDEDWARD in Bella's brain) but it might go some way toward giving the reader a sense that Charlie and Bella, and their relationship, actually *are* what Smeyer TELLS us they are. It would make Bella's actions in deliberately hurting Charlie truly painful for the reader, it would give us an understanding of just how perilous her decision to pursue Edward is, how strong her love for him must be. Hell, it might even allow us to like Bella a bit more.

So how do we do that?

Let's look at what that paragraph is TELLING:

1) Bella's cooking and Charlie is suspicious.

2) Charlie tries the food.

3) Bella's pleased and amused that Charlie is gradually coming to trust her in the kitchen.

Now, what I think Smeyer was attempting to SHOW us here, was:

1) Charlie doesn't know Bella very well yet, which is pretty sad for a father and daughter. He doesn't trust her to be able to cook something unfamiliar to him, especially since her mother is apparently an awful cook. But despite this, we can assume that Charlie sits down in the kitchen and lets Bella serve him.

2) Bella gives Charlie the food. Charlie, who is a brave man (Note: lay off small town cops, Smeyer! They have to deal with plenty of traumatic stuff, trust me) and who probably doesn't want to hurt Bella's feelings, especially since they're just developing a relationship, tries the food.

3) Charlie likes the food, or at least makes sure to give Bella the impression that he does, which is sweet of him because he's not a demonstrative man or one who is good at expressing himself. Bella is happy with his approval and the fact that he has actually shown it (her mother, who seems like a pretty negligent parent, probably forgot to show Bella this kind of appreciation).

How do we make all that stuff explicit and accessible to the reader? How do we SHOW it instead of telling it? It's actually quite simple. Here's an alternate, showing version of that paragraph which I knocked up in about ten minutes (apologies for cliches and obvious mistakes).
"Hey, Bells." Charlie stopped dead as he came into the kitchen through the back door. He sniffed the air warily. "You're cooking again. Ah...what exactly is that?"

I turned away to hide my smile at his suspicious look. "Green peppers." 

I heard a faint sigh, and my smile got wider as I busied myself plating up the food. Behind me, my dad was taking off his coat, putting his gun in the drawer, and then pulling out a chair at the place I'd set for him at the kitchen table.

"Are you hungry?"I asked, glancing at him over my shoulder. 

He made a helpless shrugging motion. "Sure."

It was hard to keep a straight face as I added some extra to his plate and carried it over. I went back to the counter to make my own plate, keeping on eye on Charlie as I did. He stared down at his plate for a moment, brows wrinkling, then glanced at me. I met his eyes steadily, and he sighed again, slumping in his seat a little as he reached for the fork. He cut a generous piece of enchilada, closed his eyes, and stuffed it in.

About three seconds later his eyes popped open again. He chewed thoughtfully. "This is... this is actually pretty good."

I carried my food to the table and sat down opposite him, not hiding my smile anymore. "It's one of my favourites. I thought you'd like it."

Charlie was digging in now, ploughing through his full plate. He really was hungry. "It's great, Bells! You're a much better cook than...ah... "

"Thanks," I said, rushing to fill the gap when his voice trailed off. "I've been cooking since I was about five."

He flashed a sudden brilliant grin at me, suddenly looking years younger. "I guess it's hard to order takeout when you're five."

"Oh, I tried," I muttered. 

Charlie laughed, a low, muted chuckle that sounded a little rusty with disuse. "Well, you can cook for me anytime."
I could feel my cheeks going tomato red, and I ducked my head to stare at my glass of water.
Oh God, I'm so moved by this it actually brought tears to my eyes. Charlie! Bella! You sweet, crazy kids! JUST HUG! *Weeps*.


Yeah, you can see that the showing is... long. Much longer than Smeyer's original paragraph of telling. But it accomplishes SO MUCH MORE. Instead of a few bland lines that impart information but no emotion, we now have something which gives us a moment of real connection between these two and highlights how very similar they are, and how much they could grow to love and rely on each other. Charlie is adorable and Bella's not only displayed an actual (if somewhat dry and restrained) sense of humour, but also empathy toward's Charlie's feelings for her mum, and pleasure with Charlie's consideration for her. These things aren't my inventions - they're all implied in the text, but because we don't SEE them in Smeyer's version, they don't have any impact.

If something like this scene - and there are a dozen places where it could have happened, and a dozen different ways it could have been written - had actually been in the book, wouldn't we have liked Bella ten times more, and felt so much more invested in Charlie and Bella's emerging father/daughter relationship? Even if it only happened *once*!?

This is why Show Don't Tell has become such a writing mantra. And even though this advice is now widely overused and misunderstood, in some cases it still holds true. Telling may take one paragraph and showing one page - but that one page of showing may work hard enough that you can cut out a dozen paragraphs of telling throughout. So bear showing in mind, not just for big fat action scenes, but when you're trying to demonstrate relationships and characters.

If there's anything you truly need your readers to FEEL? Show it. 

Monday, 25 January 2016


Hi, Dear Readers - and happy Tuesday to you all. At least, I hope it's a happy Tuesday for you guys. Personally I'm reeling from some not-very-nice news right now, so I extend my deepest sympathies to anyone else having a bad week. Don't worry, it's not anything fatal - and maybe I'll find a way to talk about it in the weeks to come - but for the moment, I'm going to skip any attempts at cheery banter, and just offer up the fruits of my labour instead: the promised Epic Character Quiz, which contains all ten of the main characters from all my published books.

Now, I tend to think of and refer to certain characters *other* than the viewpoint characters and their love interests as main characters, too, such as Akira from Shadows on the Moon and Arian in FrostFire. But those guys are not in the quiz. Not through lack of love on my part. Just because by the time I'd written the detailed character profiles for half my viewpoint and love interest characters, I'd already started to lose the will to live, and so it seemed wisest to accept my limitations and keep things simple. I had NO IDEA how much work went into these things, kids. It's exhausting.

There's such a wide variety of people in my books that I hope this might be interesting even for people who haven't read of them, so feel free to share on Facebook or whatever. Enjoy it, my lovelies.

THE EPIC QUIZ: Which of my Characters are You?

Ever wondered what kind of hero you'd make if you found yourself within the pages of your favourite YA novel? Well, now you can answer a variety of cunning and insightful questions to find out! Which main character from my books do you most resemble, and why? Featuring the main characters from all my published novels.


You are sensitive, compassionate, and overwhelmingly empathetic. You take comfort and strength from being close to nature - you love animals and green places. Although life is not always kind to someone as open and intensely nurturing as you, you still try to help others whenever and however you can: making the world a better place is as natural to you as breathing.

Unfortunately you have a tendency to listen to the bad things people say about you and forget the good, and be hard on yourself in all the wrong ways. At times you might believe that your kindness makes you weak, that all you're good for is taking care of and supporting other people, that you're not capable of great things in your own right. Don't let fear hold you back from reaching your full potential - you will never know how strong and brave you are unless you are willing to take a chance now and again.

Strengths: natural healing ability and connection to nature - birds literally sing everytime you are near
Weaknesses: fear and insecurity
Weapon of choice: being so lovable you force people to behave well. Also, magic.
Big Secret: You can talk to animals


You are ambitious, focused and goal orientated - you love animals and wild places, and have a soft spot for people in distress. Once you set your mind on a task no one will ever convince you to divert from it, and you'd carve your own heart out rather than break a promise. This single-mindedness can be a strength, but on other occasions it might lead you to take seemingly crazy risks or be a little oblivious to danger or other people's well-founded concerns.

Knowing what you want is a good thing - just don't ignore everything else in your quest to achieve it. You're good at a lot of things. Don't take that for granted. Enjoy life and make room for new ideas and new people as well. Everyone will be happier for it.

Strengths: determination and devotion to people and ideals
Weaknesses: pigheadedness and insensitivity
Weapon of choice: a pack of highly trained hunting dogs
Big Secret: You cry over puppies, don't even deny it


You are charismatic, resourceful and courageous. Where you lead, other people can't help but follow - you believe so passionately in what is right that you almost glow with it, and that is a powerful thing. But with great power comes great responsibility, and although being a leader comes naturally to you, you don't always love it, especially when it comes with making tough decisions which don't actually fit in with that same powerful sense of right and wrong. Don't let others pile too much on your shoulders - they might think that you're strong enough to carry anything, and you might think it's your job, but remember: you're human. And you are not to blame for the results of choices that were forced on you, or which you didn't even make.

Take the people that you trust into your confidence. Let them see your worry, your doubts, and your tiredness. They won't respect you any less, and you won't be letting them down. They will only love you more, and you never know, they might even be able to help.

Strengths: natural leadership and badassery
Weaknesses: overdeveloped sense of responsibility
Weapon of choice: a double-edged broadsword
Big Secret: Beautiful music moves you to tears


You are mature, thoughtful and ambitious - but your plans are always tempered with a strong sense of morality and caution. You think three steps ahead of everyone else and sometimes your mental processes are a complete mystery, even to those closest to you. You've suffered some great losses in your life, and it has left you with a determination to look out for others, to organise and care for them, and prevent them from having to endure the same things you have. But sometimes in your efforts to keep things safely under control you hide your feelings a bit too well, and come across as cynical, manipulative, or even desperate for power.

Nevertheless, those that know you also know that anyone in need can rely on you to offer not only genuine help but true kindness, and that your intentions are always good. You don't have to be ashamed of your driven personality, but also don't be afraid to allow your vulnerabilities and humanity to shine through as well.

Strengths: cunning and sharp intelligence
Weaknesses: finding it difficult to open up emotionally
Weapon of choice: words, but a razor-sharp blade hidden a cane works too
Big Secret: you melt the second anyone plays with your hair


You are sensitive, romantic and optimistic. You love books and learning, but you're equally at home outdoors. You occasionally give the impression of being a large, naive puppy who heedlessly gallops around trying to make friends with everyone whether they like it or not, and it's true that you always seek the best in people and situations, and have a pure and natural joy in life - but you're also highly intelligent, with a quality of piercing insight that allows you to see through the illusions and lies others cloak themselves in, when you pay attention. Your optimism springs not from ignorance, but from a choice to seek out happiness in whatever way you can.

Remember, though, that not everyone can be the same as you. Your task in life isn't to wipe out other people's scars or to convert them to your way of seeing things. Value other people's caution, shrewdness and wisdom instead of dismissing them, and instead of trying to heal their scars, except that their pain makes them who they are and learn to see the beauty in their darkness. By doing so, you may teach them to do the same, which will make them love you all the more.

Strengths: endless faith in others which helps them be the best they can be
Weaknesses: obliviousness
Weapon of choice: you're equally at home holding a pen or a longbow
Big Secret: you write love poetry, and you're actually really good at it


You are passionate, creative and strong-willed - the kind of unforgettable personality whose magnetism will change all those around you in one way or another. The problem with being such a striking and fascinating person, though, is that many will react to you as an object that they seek either to possess or destroy through jealousy. At times it might seem that the world is filled with random cruelty, or even that something about you provokes it. You may have internalised this message more than you realise, and have begun to believe you deserve to be unhappy.

Let go of the past. Don't let other people's jealousy, cruelty or hardness mar your faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, or lure you away from the unique and brilliant creative path you instinctively seek. You are not to blame for other people's actions, and you don't owe anyone anything. Be yourself. Yourself is good enough for the world and for the people who know and value you for who you truly are.

Strengths: a chameleon-like ability to adapt to almost any situation
Weaknesses: sometimes you lose yourself in trying to be what others want you to be
Weapon of choice: illusions, clever words, and shadows. Also, magic.
Big Secret: love poems reduce your knees to jelly


Book: FrostFire

You are idealistic, courageous and a born leader - just being around you brings out the best in others, and people naturally seek to bask in your sunny presence. You would fling yourself head first into a fire to help anyone, even a stranger or someone you had reason to dislike - but usually your efforts to inspire and help others are far more rational than that, informed by a shrewd tactical mind and natural observation which makes your idealism all the more beautiful. You have the power to change minds, hearts, and lives, just by being you.

Which such an extreme personality as yours, though, there may be times when those close to you feel as if they're dealing less with an equal and more someone sitting on pedestal above them. Listen when people try to tell you about their feelings, instead of instantly attempting to reassure them or dismiss or persuade them away from their doubts. Sometimes, much as you don't want to admit it, their doubts may have merit - you're smart enough to realise that, and to offer real help. Make yourself into the welcoming pair of arms that you can be, instead of a wall that lesser people bounce off.

Strengths: bravery and badassery
Weaknesses: you think you can make the whole world agree with you. You can't.
Weapon of Choice: if it has a pointy bit, you can fight with it
Big Secret: You get scared too, even if no one sees it


Book: FrostFire

You are compassionate, empathetic and forceful, especially during a crisis, when you will be rock steady, doing whatever needs to be done, even while your insides are turning to jelly. You've been through hard times, and it's made you wary and even cynical about others sometimes, but it's never made you cold. Though you maintain a stolid exterior, it doesn't take much - nothing more than a simple and sincere offer of friendship - to expose the true sweetness of your nature.

You sometimes act as if you're waiting for something, perhaps some form of external validation, to truly relax and start to live your life to the full. But the only form of recognition that really matters is your own. You have to realise that no matter what has happened in the past, life is yours for the taking now, and that there are people around you who deserve your full trust and love. Stop making excuses for yourself (and people in your history who may have treated you badly), decide what is really important to you, and just go for it. The results will surprise and delight you.

Strengths: an absolute rock of strength during hard times
Weaknesses: struggling to believe anyone wants you around when hard times are over
Weapon of Choice: A double-headed war-axe
Big Secret: You're a berserk fighter, and anyone who gets you riled is going DOWN


You are brave, quick-thinking and resourceful, with a strong sense of responsibility for other people and deep-seated qualities of leadership and decisiveness. But sometimes you can also be careless - even reckless - especially with your own safety, and you tend to be manipulative when you think it's for a good cause, because you're just so sure that you're right... even when you're not.

You suffer with a slight inferiority complex, even though everyone around you can see how truly special and great you are. Don't beat yourself up too much about your mistakes. Others are right to put their faith in you, but ultimately you are not responsible for the well-being of the whole world.

Strengths: bravery and badassery
Weaknesses: recklessness and a tendency to think you're a lone-wolf (you're not)
Weapon of choice: single edged blade
Big Secret: you might be... a teeny tiny bit... immortal? Maybe.


You are noble-minded, sensitive and romantic, and your best quality is your instinctive protectiveness towards anyone you care for, or who seems vulnerable and in need of help. This can lead you to great acts of kindness or courage that disdain your own well-being - but it might also cause you to act in ways which hurt the very people you seek to protect, because you forget that others have the right to make their own choices, even if those choices might endanger them or your relationships with them.

Learn to talk to others about your fears and let them make their own decisions, and you will develop stronger relationships that can survive your occasional lapses into defensiveness. You do not have to fight to deserve people's love: you already have it.

Strengths: protectiveness and badassery
Weaknesses: defensiveness and tendency to excessive guilt
Weapon of choice: twin single-edged blades
Big Secret: You know more than you're telling. A lot more

What your dream holiday be like?

A long stay in an isolated cabin in lush green forests, by yourself - or with your nearest and dearest only
In a castle high on a mountain with views for miles around, with your chosen family gathered close by
With a friend or two, in a bustling city surrounded by new things to do and new people to meet
In a large group of friends - doesn't matter where so long as you're together!
On a beautiful, peaceful beach, by yourself or with family only

Which ability would feel the most natural for you?

To be able to heal almost any illness or injury to others
A natural genius for hand-to-hand, armed combat, and general badassery
The ability to convince others to follow you, and to lead them brilliantly
A unique analytical mind, which allows you to get out of any kind of trouble
Powerful illusion magic, so that you could never be caught or held by others

What kind of bird would you be?

A silent yet powerful swan
A swift and savage falcon
A golden voiced skylark
A cunning magpie
A lonely wandering seagull

What is your worst nightmare?

Watching someone be hurt without being able to help
Disappointing and letting people you care for down
You're invisible and no one can see, hear, or remember you
You're late to class, there's a test - whoops, you're naked!
The monsters are coming, and your legs don't work

The enemy is attacking right now - what is your job?

Setting up an emergency medical bay for the injured
Standing your ground to hold them off as long as possible
Getting the injured and civilians to safety
Leading a small force around the back in a daring counter-attack
Assessing the situation, organising everything. and giving the orders

If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Soft, freshly baked bread with seeds and nuts, glazed with honey, and as much butter as you want
Spicy meat curry with rice, chutney and flatbreads
A classic roast dinner with gravy, vegetables, yorkshire pudding
Delicate seafood with vegetables, rice and lashings of soy sauce
Cake, cake, cake, cake...

How do you feel about your family?

Get on brilliantly with mum, fight like cats and dogs with dad
Get on wonderfully with dad, fight like cats and dogs with mum
Love and respect both parents equally
Ack, forget about my parents - my siblings drive me insane!
Forget my parents, let me tell you about my amazing siblings...

The one thing that, no matter what, you could never do without

Your pet/s
Your boyfriend/girlfriend
Your family

You're going to get to visit a fantasy world - what kind of world do you chose?

A traditional European fairytale with magic, princesses and shapeshifters
An African-influenced world of crowns, castles, warring kingdoms and meddling Gods
A modern city filled with hidden magic, doorways to other dimensions, and monsters good and bad
A Northern Indian-influenced world of icy mountains, wild wolf-magic and haunting song
A fairytale version of Japan, filled with half-forgotten enchantments, where beauty and terror entwine

What do you fight for?

Your family
Your country
Your people
Your boy/girlfriend
What is right

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


Happy Wednesday, Dear Readers! I've got something special to share today - a personality quiz that I wrote for the Tales of Yesterday blog, run by the lovely Michelle.

Nip over here and you can answer a series of questions to find out which of the characters from The Name of the Blade trilogy you most resemble.

The quiz was Chelle's idea, because we'd been hoping to collaborate on a post for a while but wanted to do something different. Frankly, I think she's a genius. I had such fun writing it and I think it's turned out quite shockingly accurate; I'd forgotten how much I loved those things back when I used to fill them out in girls magazines as a teenager.

This has inspired me to try to put together a much longer and more comprehensive quiz involving the main characters from all my books - I hope to be able to post it next week, and then I might make it a permanent addition to the blog and my website. Because it's supercool, let's be real.

If there are any favourite secondary characters you'd like me to try to include, let me know in the comments, kidlets.

Now for some News (yes, it deserves the capital letter) regarding Barefoot on the Wind - otherwise known as #BaBBook - the Beauty & the Beast retelling set in the Moonlit Lands, which is coming out this year.

When readers have asked about it, I've been saying that the book would be available in the Summer, in June or July - because that's when my books have been coming out every year for a while now, since Shadows on the Moon was published. But Wonder Editor has recently let me know that because of various factors they've decided it would be best to push the release date back a little bit - just to the beginning of September. The extra couple of months will hopefully give everyone time to really get behind the book, and also give the designer and illustrator more time to work on a truly sumptuous cover and design. There's also a lovely surprise which will be coming later in the year, but I don't have clearance to talk about that yet. Just know: it's exciting.

And more news! Things I'll Never Say: Stories about Our Secret Selves, the book which contains 'Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind', the Shadows on the Moon prequel story featuring a young Akira has been selected for the CCBC Choices List for 2016! I had no idea it was even on the longlist, so to get to the final selection alongside such luminaries as Erin Bow, Libba Bray, Patrick Ness and Rainbow Rowell is pretty phenomenal. Yay!

In Other Stuff, here's a quick progress update: a synopsis and sample chapters for the Mulan - codename DtH - story have been sent off to Walker Books and are with Wonder Editor. I'm crossing my fingers feverishly in the hope that now they can see what I'm trying to achieve and how it will work out, they will love it as much as Super Agent and I do. Your thoughts, prayers and sacrifices of chocolate chip muffins to the Writing Gods would all be extremely welcome.

To keep myself busy, I've been working on a synopsis for another book (a fairytale retelling which I'm really excited about, codenamed TSM - here's the Pinterest board) and fiddling with turning a book proposal for a YA book which Walker books aren't interested in, into an adult book. Yes, gasp, shock. I'm basically doing it as an experiment, and because I can't quite bear to give up on the story - we'll see what comes of it.

Read you later, my lovelies!

Friday, 15 January 2016


Hello, lovely readers! Happy Friday to all! I'm hoping to have some important announcements to share with you very soon, but for the moment I must keep schtum. Therefore: cake!



Yes, that cake. Oh, baby.

Today's post is brought to you by my desire to share this new recipe that I actually came up with myself by smushing a couple of other recipes together and then taking some things out and adding other stuff in (adult life achievement level: unlocked). I have named my creation Spiced Caramel Apple Cake and it's got a texture a bit like a sticky toffee pudding, but the top is covered in delicious apple caramel like a tart tatin. It's delicious and super, super easy to make and you can eat it hot or cold. The hardest bit is turning it out of the pan onto a plate afterwards (get help for that, if you can).

Ingredients for the cake mixture:

150g golden caster sugar
200 plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 eggs
200 mls of buttermilk
75 mls of sunflower or other flavourless oil

Ingredients for the caramel:

150g soft brown sugar
50g butter
2 large Bramley apples OR 1 large apple and three tablespoons of apple sauce
A sprinkle of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger - or mixed spice if that's what you have 


Crushed up pistachios or chopped pecans
Thick double cream or warm custard

This will generously serve eight people if they're all pretty hungry, or offer a decent portion to up to twelve. Sadly I can't say how long it would keep for; the last time I made it, the whole thing was demolished in less than two days!

OK, first up assemble your supplies, then pre-heat your oven to 180. Don't bother pre-heating if it's a fan, obviously - you'll just need to set it to 160 right before the cake's ready to go in instead.

Get yourself a large, non-stick pan that's oven safe and put the brown sugar and butter in together, along with the spices (about a teaspoon of them in total when mixed together) and the apple sauce if you're using that, and cook on a medium heat until the caramel is a lovely dark brown. Don't stop before it looks nice and dark, but obviously whip it off the heat sharpish the second you smell burning!

While the sugar is doing its thing, take your apples and peel and core them, then cut them into slices about the thickness of your little finger. Make sure you don't leave any of the core in there if you missed it - it will harden up and be nasty. Ditto bits of skin. Once the caramel is done, arrange the apple slices in the pan - taking care not to burn yourself on the red-hot syrup, of course. You can arrange them in a nice pattern if you're feeling brave, but just try to distribute them evenly and neatly if you can.

Put this to one side to cool down and make the cake batter next. You'll need a nice big mixing bowl and a mixing jug for this.

Put all the dry ingredients (sugar, flour, rising agents and salt) into the bowl. Then get your jug and measure the 200mls of buttermilk and 75mls of oil into it. Break the eggs into the liquids and beat them until they're nicely mixed. If it starts to look a bit bitty and like scrambled eggs, worry not - just add a tablespoon of the dry ingredients and gently mix a bit more to make it smooth. Then add the wet ingredients to the mixing bowl and stir everything until it's a well incorporated, pale golden mixture.

If you've made a nice pattern with your apple slices in the caramel pan, add the batter to the pan carefully, a spoonful at a time, and gently massage it into place over them. If you don't care about patterns, just dollop the stuff in until the apples and caramel are totally covered.

Put the pan into the hot oven (preferably in the middle) and bake it for 25-30 minutes until the centre of the cake is solid and it's turned quite a dark golden brown. Don't be alarmed by that dark colour: it's the crust, which the cake needs to keep its shape because it's very soft and moist.

Allow the pan to cool for about ten minutes. My tip is to wet a kitchen towel (not kitchen roll, but an actual towel!) and place the pan on that, and then drape a clean, wet dish cloth over the pan handle to help them cool down quickly and make the pan safer to handle. Once you can touch the handle, get a nice big serving plate or cake stand, place it on TOP of the pan, and then turn the pan and plate over so that the cake emerges with the caramel and apple on top. I warned you this bit was tricky - my advice is to get a friend or relative (someone who is invested in your well-being and also in the cake) to stand by and help you if your arm locks up or you panic.

If you've got the caramel dark and thick enough then the cake should emerge as a glistening, sticky delight, ringed with bronze apples, looking preeettttty sexy and smelling even better. You'll want to dive right in. But wait! First add a handful of crushed or chopped nuts to the top (pistachios are the prettiest, but pecans are nom nom) and then dollop some cream or custard on too. The result:


Yes, that siren-like call you hear whispering your name is indeed this cake, calling you. I urge you to give this a go. Bring it to the table whole and your friends will make impressed oooh and aaah noises. One taste, and they'll be forever convinced you're a secret baking genius. They will have no idea how simple it all was!

Well done, you.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016


Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! I hope everyone had a decent festive/midwinter experience and a pleasant new year? Today's post is in answer to a reader question, but before I get started I want to share links for a couple of guest posts that I did over the Christmas period in case you're interested in checking those out.

Firstly, my regular gig on Author Allsorts, in which I talk about books you absolutely should read to get into the seasonal wintery spirit (it's still winter, so these are still good recommendations!).

Second, my 5-4-3-2-1 post over on the lovely Jim's Teens on Moon Lane blog. This is a great, unique interview format and I really enjoyed doing it.

Now onto the question from Kai, which was received via my website. An apology to Kai is due here - I addressed you by the wrong name in my hasty email reply to you, and I'm very sorry to have done that. I hope you'll forgive me.

Kai asks:

" you need a creative writing degree or English literature degree to write stories well? I mean I love story writing because its a great hobby to have but I want to improve my writing obviously so I don't have to cringe as much when I read over my notes.
The problem is I don't know how much it would help. I mean the cost of degrees have gone up again and I tend to think just practice is the best way to improve anyone's story writing but now I'm just not so sure. So um if you're not too busy can you answer the question whether its necessary or not to need a creative writing or English literature degree to be able to write stories that you don't cringe at."
Kai, I firmly believe that education is a wonderful thing, a mind-altering, world-broadening thing. One of my big regrets in life is that I didn't pursue higher education. I was held back from doing so - despite promising exam results at GCSE - because I had no idea of the possibilities that it could offer up for me.

You see, I come from a very poor, working-class background in one of the most deprived areas in Great Britain. My parents grew up after the second world war, but in many ways their early lives were still practically Victorian. As kids, they lived in two-up-two-down houses where ten children slept crammed into two beds in one room, where there was no indoor plumbing (the toilet was in an outhouse in the back yard, and the family bathed in a tin hip bath in front of a coal fire in the living room) and it was quite normal for kids to go to school with no shoes.

The boys went on the trawler boats when they grew up - or later, into the fish factories - and the women worked in the factories too, until they got married. My dad was considered to be very posh because he became a type-writer service engineer, and then a photocopier engineer and office manager. No one in my immediate family had ever gone to university. Only one person had even gone to college and I don't think she finished.

Given all this, it's not entirely surprising that while my parents were proud of my results at school, they were clueless as to what to do about them. They had no expectations for me at all. And perhaps it's not surprising that my school didn't have any particular expectations, either. 'Clever' girls like me (ones who tested well and didn't act up too much) were told in school that we had two options open to us to 'make something of ourselves'. We could either skip uni and fix our hopes on finding work in an office (as a receptionist, a filing clerk, a secretary, maybe a PA if we were lucky) or we could go to university and become a teacher or a nurse.

That was it. Those were the options, the only set of possible futures which was presented to me. Now, you might wonder why I didn't think for myself, do research, find out about other possibilities. But it never occurred to me that I could, let alone that I should. This was in the years before the internet was widely available (by the age of sixteen I'd been on the internet a grand total of once, and that was to check out this wondrous new thing called a 'chatroom' with a bunch of classmates under a teacher's strict supervision) and before most homes had a computer anyway, so the only way I could access information about how university and the wider world worked was through my teachers and the occasional visits of a school career advisor. And that's what they told me: receptionist/secretary or teacher/nurse. This was the best I could possibly hope for.

Once, my drama teacher asked me what I intended to do after leaving school. I told him, rather resignedly, that I'd probably be a teacher. He stared at me, sighed, and then said: 'What a waste'. Then he walked off. Presumably that was his idea of encouragement? But since I had no idea what else I could be or why it would be a waste - he was a teacher wasn't he? And I knew my parents would probably die of pride if I became a teacher, since it was a 'profession' and a highly respectable job - it fell rather short.

Honestly, I wasn't all that thrilled at the idea myself. My family was convinced that I wouldn't be eligible for any educational grants or financial help (looking back I'm fairly sure I would have been, but again - no easy way to check, and no one offering any advice or encouragement on how to find out) and the thought of trudging off to the glamour of Hull university (the closest and therefore cheapest option) in order to spend a chunk of years training to do a job I didn't really want to do, and ending up with a heap of debt at the end of it, did not exactly set my heart afire, you know?

If only someone had told me that I could set my sights higher than that! If only someone had told me I might be able to go to a university somewhere amazing, that there were options for financial assistance, that I could look for a place in any one of hundreds of possible careers! That I could train to be a graphic designer, or an actor, or an archival librarian, or an archeologist, an academic professor focusing on the Classics, or a public relations manager for a charity! If only someone had explained that heading to university was about more than choosing a single door to a single, dreary future and then plodding wearily forwards without looking left or right...

But you do know all that, Kai. You have these options open to you. It's a joyous thing.

So am I saying that the answer to your question is 'Yes, you should go to university in order to become a good writer'?


There are certainly careers for which a university degree in the correct subject is an absolute must. If you want to become an engineer, a designer, a teacher, a medical professional, a physicist... you are going to need a university education. But being a writer is not one of those careers.

You absolutely do not need to have a degree - in an English related subject, or in any subject at all - to write well. And no one expects it, either, despite the rise of courses which specialise in creative or even children's/YA writing. I can say with absolute honesty that no publishing professional - editor, publisher, agent, writer - has ever asked me about my educational background except as a matter of idle interest. Which is a good thing, because eventually I decided to skip university, and became first a dental nurse and then a civil servant, two jobs which widened my world immensely by way of forcing me to deal firmly, competently and compassionately with every possible kind of person in every kind of difficult situation imaginable. 

A lot of writers have degrees in English or journalism, yes - but even more have degrees in history, chemistry or Medieval paper-binding techniques; still more have no degree at all. I know two people whose theses focused on children's literature. One's a teacher and the other is in public relations.

There are many people out there with advanced degrees who can't write worth a jot even on a basic, technical level. I would know. The number of high level managers - with degrees proudly framed on their office walls - in the civil service who couldn't compose the simplest coherent sentence for an important inter-office memo was staggering (and embarrassing) for all involved. I used to print these emails out, correct their spelling, grammar and punctuation in red, and leave them lying around in the break room for my over-worked, bullied colleagues to laugh at. People only get out of university what they're willing to work for - and if all they want is a shiny piece of paperwork which will allow them to slither into a plush executive job and then coast for life... that's what they end up with.

It's a narrow, sad kind of way to make use of the opportunities life gives you, though.

Anyway, if you decide that it's worthwhile for you to undertake that financial burden and dedicate years of your life to getting a degree, Kai - and it's a big decision, so it's good to consider it carefully - then you should make that decision for the right reasons and with realistic expectations of what a university education can offer you.

Do it because there's a subject you're fascinated with and simply must learn more about. Because you want to broaden your mind and horizons with the experience. Because you want to live in and explore a different place than the one where you grew up. Because you want to meet fascinating new people. Because you have specific goals for your life - perhaps a career that you can pursue alongside writing - which a degree will help you to achieve.

Do not go to university because you think getting a degree will teach you how to be a writer. It won't.

Only you can teach yourself how to be a writer, and clearly you already have a pretty good leg up on that process. You know that re-reading what you've written with a critical eye (yes, that's the bit that makes you cringe) and practicing are vital. So are reading widely and enthusiastically. And so is experiencing life itself, whether that life includes a stint at uni or not.

If you do chose English based subjects at uni, it's possible that might be a really good experience for you. If you get a passionate, engaged teacher or professor who mentors young writers well, they could offer a lot of encouragement and support. Or, it could suck the joy right out of reading and writing for you (which was my experience when studying for GCSE English and when taking a creative writing course at night afterwards) and be no use at all. There's no way of knowing in advance - which is why you should only study English related subjects if you're passionate about them quite aside from your hope of being a writer one day.

No matter what else you do, keep teaching yourself to write, and don't rely on anyone else to get you through that process. You might write your first publishable manuscript at twenty, or thirty, or forty. In the meantime, take advantage of whatever opportunities seem the best fit for you, and live your life fully and well. And if possible, pick a job that you can enjoy and believe in, which will adequately support you unless and until your writing does (whether that job requires a degree or not). That way you'll always be a winner.

I hope this is helpful, Kai! Any other questions about this or any other writing or reading related topic can be left in the comments. Next week I'm sharing my recipe for spiced caramel apple cake - look forward to it :)

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