Monthly Archives: June 2015

Flash! Friday – ‘Unforeseen’

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.  Public domain photo, sourced at

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.
Public domain photo, sourced at


It’s there, in my mind, like a weed. This was too easy.

She’s never left the cage unlocked before. Not even for her cigarette breaks, or to eat – though she doesn’t eat much, now. But this morning she rose from her desk, mid-sentence, a ribbon of smoke rising from her ashtray, and left the room.

My cage stood open.

I ran, of course. Who wouldn’t? It’s not that she mistreats me, but captivity is a torment. I’m a free spirit. I’m –

Oh, Zeus. She’s coming! It’s been so long since I was loose that I can’t remember where I am, or where to go. I must hide! But she keeps me in rags, barefoot, and anyway I may not leave this dwelling. Separated from her, I will die. Is that irony? I should know.

Every writer needs a Muse, and I am hers, soul-bound. She doesn’t need to cage me, but she can’t trust me to stay.

I reach a dead end. I turn, desperate, but she is behind me.

There you are,’ she croons. ‘Enjoy your run? Had to get your blood up, somehow. You’ve really been underperforming lately.’ Her smile is a sudden blade.

Ah, me. My fatal flaw? Plot twists have long been my undoing.


So – yay! This piece of flash fiction has taken me *hours* to complete, but hey. I finished it. It’s mine! I did it! It’s been so long since I entered any sort of flash fiction competition that I half-expected never to complete a piece again, so I’m glad I proved myself wrong. My old brain cells aren’t firing on full power, as is clear from the Titanic struggle this story caused within me, but heck. A challenge ain’t a challenge if it ain’t hard, right?

So. You’re going to head on over to Flash! Friday and throw your name in the ring, right? You’re not going to leave me hanging? Good friends don’t do that sort of thing. Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on, you will, you will, go on…

Finding the Flow

Yesterday, I had to have some medical tests done (Nothing serious! Don’t go rushing to purchase yards of black tulle and/or order the memorial cards just yet), and they were not fun. These things rarely are, I find. They involved several blood draws, which had to occur after I’d been fasting, including no water (the unimaginable cruelty!) for 12 hours.

I’m a deep-veined, thin-veined person, and I’m comfortably upholstered. Finding a suitable vessel from which to take a blood sample is challenging at the best of times, for even the most gifted of phlebotomists. However, when one hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for half a day beforehand, it means that, basically, the nurse and I were one step away from getting out a naked blade and slashing me with it in order to get the samples she needed.

We didn’t, though. FYI.

'Hold still, dear! This won't hurt a bit, I promise!' Photo Credit: megadem via Compfight cc

‘Hold still, dear! This won’t hurt a bit, I promise!’
Photo Credit: megadem via Compfight cc

In the course of the mutilation… I mean, examination, the nurse chatted away to me, as nurses are wont to do when they’re seeking to distract you from the fact that they’re holding a nasty-looking needle which is thirsting for your blood. Among the topics we discussed were what I did with myself on a daily basis, and my career – and, for once, I didn’t bluster and splutter and make something up, as I sometimes do when real adults ask me about myself, but I told her the truth.

‘I write books for children,’ I said, with every pretence at confidence. ‘Actually, I have a deal with a US publisher, and my book will be coming out next year.’

‘Really?‘ she said, bright-eyed, as she jabbed the needle in. ‘Well, isn’t that just fabulous.’ As the trickle began to do its thing, she asked me all about the book, and what it was about, and where it was set, and how long it took to write, and all manner of other questions. The words flowed out of my desiccated body a lot more easily than my blood did, and I told her all about it because it was better than thinking about what was going on.

She was rapt. Now, I’m aware she was somewhat of a captive audience, and didn’t (let’s be fair) have a whole lot else to do at the time, as I’m sure taking blood is something she could do in her sleep. But still. Her interest appeared genuine. She was fascinated by the book’s setting, which is sort of an imagined version of our own world, transposing a lot of our modern environmental problems onto a older historical setting, and she was interested to know about the age bands in children’s and Young Adult literature. A lot of people don’t think of ‘children’s books’ as being anything besides picture books or early readers for 5-8 year olds; they tend to forget about the richness of the Middle Grade years, the 8-12s, where my heart lies. She listened to me witter on about why I’d written the book, and what it meant to me, and over the course of the hours I spent going in and out of her office periodically so she could stab me afresh, we got quite pally over the whole ‘book-writin” thing.

Reader, I felt accomplished. I actually felt interesting. And I learned that I can talk about my book, without hesitation or preparation or hitch, quite freely. It’s an interesting counterpoint to my PhD thesis, which I could never talk about without getting myself into a tangled mess and convincing myself, by the end of my speech, that my work was a load of old cobblers which would add nothing to the sum of human achievement. That was if I could get past the ‘Um. Well. Um. It’s sort of like – er. Well, it’s as if – okay. Right. Well, if you can imagine three imaginative worlds in medieval literature, right, um, like bubbles? Or maybe as fields on a Venn diagram? You know, overlapping?’ bit, which normally put most people to sleep. I used to put terrible pressure on myself, too, knowing all the way through my doctoral studies that at the end of the writing process I’d have to face an oral examination, during which I’d have to speak about my thesis for hours on end; that was almost enough to put me over the edge.

But I did manage it, just about. It took over three years of work, though. My book is easier to talk about, and I’m not sure why – it came from my soul, sure, but so did my thesis. My thesis was being examined, but so – in a way – is my book. My thesis brought me work, albeit temporary, but so will my book. They’re almost exactly the same, yet talking about my book is so much easier.

Perhaps if I’d had airships and derring-do and scary villains and marvellous machines in my PhD thesis I’d have found it easier to talk about – but that would’ve left very little magic left over to siphon into The Eye of the North. So, maybe all those years of stuttering about my thesis were worth it. The work I did then has led me, in a roundabout way, to where I am today – and where I am today, needles and uncertainty and stress aside, is a pretty good place.

And hopefully I’ll have the chance to talk about my book a lot more over the coming years, to lots of people, and hopefully (fingers crossed!) they’ll be as charmed to hear about it as my kind and patient phlebotomy nurse was yesterday. Meeting her was almost worth the pain.


Howl at the Solstice – the Flashdogs are Back

The Flashdogs are back – and, once again, I’m privileged to be included among their number.

Flashdogs Solstice Light and Dark Anthologies. Image:

Flashdogs Solstice Light and Dark Anthologies.

Yesterday was Solstice Day (‘Light’ or ‘Dark’, depending on your hemisphere) and in order to celebrate this, and to celebrate the best in new flash fiction, the compilers and Giant Brains behind the first Flashdogs Anthology decided to bring out a new collection of stories. But this time they didn’t merely produce one book; they produced two.

This time around, the writers were asked to produce stories based around particular prompt images. All of them had something to do with light, or dark, endings or beginnings, life or death – and a myriad other interpretations, as defined by the observer. We were asked to bear the idea of ‘solstice’ in mind as we wrote (though encouraged to avoid cliché, so that meant a take on the Stonehenge scene from This Is Spinal Tap probably wouldn’t have been appropriate – and no bad thing, either), and invited to contribute anything between one and four stories each. I am proud to say that I have a story in each volume, one in Solstice Light and one in Solstice Dark, and they are stories I am rather proud of. As before, with the first Flashdogs Anthology (which is still available for sale here, in case you’re interested in a copy), the proceeds on all sales are being donated to charity. This time around, they’re going to The Book Bus, an amazing organisation which seeks to encourage literacy and book ownership among children in Africa, Asia and South America. So, you get over a hundred quality, well-crafted stories, and The Book Bus gets a donation, and the world becomes a better place all round. What could be better?

I want to say a huge thanks to Tam Rogers, Emily June Street, Mark A. King and David Shakes, the geniuses (genii?) behind the Flashdogs phenomenon, and to express my delight (and surprise, to be honest) that they’ve asked me to join their pack not once, but twice. It’s been a huge pleasure to support them and to take part in the anthologies, and I hope the Flashdogs’ howl is heard long and loud for many moons to come. Awooo!

Links to purchase:

Flashdogs Anthology 1

Flashdogs Anthology 2

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Gracekeepers’

This book promised many things. It bears a cover blurb from the legendary Ursula Le Guin, and its back cover compares it to Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood ‘at their best’ – and that’s pretty high praise, by anyone’s standards. This was a book I waived my usual rules for: I didn’t read any of it before it came home with me, because its beautiful cover seduced me completely.



Yes, dear readers. We have been here before. Me and beautiful covers… sigh. Sometimes, it doesn’t end well.

Now, before I carry on: there is plenty to love about this book. For one, its language. At several places I stood or sat amazed by Kirsty Logan’s turns of phrase, and how she makes things which seem so ordinary – apples, trees, the sea – seem so new and never-before-seen through her wonderful descriptions. Her writing is impeccable and beautiful, and it certainly has echoes and traces of the work of Atwood and Winterson and Carter, and even the mighty Le Guin herself. However, there’s no debut novel in the universe which can bear the weight of being compared to these luminaries of the craft. The Gracekeepers reads beautifully, and its setting (otherworldly? Dystopian? A bit of both?) is intriguing and rewarding and immersive, but there are problems, to my mind, with the plot.

And yes. I have read Carter, Winterson, Atwood and Le Guin. I’m aware that sometimes, in those books, plot takes a back-seat to characterisation, language, and world-building. Even bearing all this in mind, I can’t help but think that The Gracekeepers didn’t quite work for me.

The book is set on a world where land is scarce and coveted, and most people live on the water, and it tells the interweaving stories of two young, very different, women. One, Callanish, is a ‘gracekeeper’, a person charged with the proper burial (at sea) of the dead who are brought to her, and the correct observation of mourning traditions. As she is the title character, I expected that she would be the central figure in the story, but she’s only one of many important players. The other main character is North, who lives and works with a travelling circus along with her beloved bear, who forms part of her act. The circus is jammed full of colourful, overwhelming characters – the ringmaster Jarrow (called ‘Red Gold’, for reasons which were never clear to me, by North); his pregnant wife Avalon; Jarrow’s son Ainsel who is promised in marriage to North (despite the fact that neither of them want one another); Whitby and Melia, the trapeze artists, who play with expectation, telling people at times they are siblings, and others that they are lovers; the gender-playing clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, and others. When a sudden death among the circus players necessitates a visit to a gracekeeper, North and Callanish meet for the first time – and then spend months apart, occasionally thinking about one another, before being reunited near the book’s end. During the time they are not together, we see North coming to terms with a personal crisis which is worsening as the months pass, and her attempts to extricate herself from her impending marriage – which will entail being forced to live on land, something which Red Gold wants for her and for his son, as he feels it’s a mark of privilege. North, however, is at home on the sea, in her floating circus, and wants nothing more than to be free, along with her bear. We also see Callanish facing up to a mistake she made in her youth which has meant her self-imposed exile as a gracekeeper, a hard life of solitude and deprivation (though one she appears, at some levels, to enjoy), and her return home to try to make amends. There isn’t, however, a lot of overlap between these stories. Besides the totally coincidental fact that the two women meet early in play, and remain in one another’s minds throughout, there’s no real logic behind their relationship. Then, perhaps, this is true of any life-changing connection between people.

There are ‘themes’ in this book, as opposed to a plot. Motherhood, pregnancy, solitude, companionship, gender roles, performativity, and love all feature heavily – and some of it (particularly the parts about motherhood and pregnancy) are beautiful, heartfelt and touching. I loved North’s relationship with her bear, and in fact her whole existence as part of the floating circus, which was very well imagined and described. Other parts, such as Callanish’s back story and her entire reason for existing (as a gracekeeper, I mean, not as a person!) weren’t so compelling. The reasons behind ‘the graces’ – birds in cages which are allowed to starve to death, and whose remains are then deposited in the sea, by which time the appropriate mourning period for a dead person is seen to have come to an end – made very little sense, and in a world which is mainly water, one had to wonder where all the birds came from. Lots of the story was left unexplained at the end, and while I appreciated how North and Callanish’s stories played out, some of the other characters weren’t as well treated. I was frustrated by the fact that so many questions still hung in my mind at the book’s conclusion and by the fact that there was a bit of repetition between the storylines, and by the heavy-handed comments on gender and gender roles which cropped up from time to time. I appreciated what these comments were trying to say, but they did get a bit tedious the more often they were repeated.

This isn’t a ‘realistic’ novel, and I appreciate that. However,  I still would have liked a little more logic, a little more explanation, and a little more world-building to set beside the beautiful language and the delicate characterisation. It was certainly an interesting and intelligent book, one which I enjoyed and whose style I admired, but it left me wishing for more at the end – and not in the sense of ‘I wish there was more of this story to read’. I wished there had been more story to go on in the first place. The Gracekeepers has elements of all the monumental authors to whose work it has been compared, and I can certainly see the similarities, but it is also a creature of its own, with its own flaws and shortcomings and accomplishments. I’d counsel giving it a go – it’s certainly worth reading – but it hasn’t dislodged Winterson, Le Guin, Carter or Atwood from their places in my firmament.

In Extremis, De Profundis

I wanted to blog yesterday, but to be honest I spent the day feeling scraped out, hollow, raw. There was nothing in me worth sharing. Anything I might have written which didn’t express this reality would have been a lie, and it would have been a waste of the time of anyone who took the time to read it.

So I didn’t write anything. But today the hollowness has been replaced by a deep, gnawing anger. And that I can write about.

I am Caucasian. European. Irish all the way down. I don’t have any other ethnicities in my genetic makeup. This means I am freckly, pale, prone to sunburn, likely to be Vitamin D deficient, prone to depression and alcoholism, and a whole host of other drawbacks that come with being ‘pure-bred’. I can’t help this; I didn’t choose to be born to my parents, in my country, at the time I came into being.

Just like everyone else in history.

I have no right to claim any sort of kinship with any of the men and women who died on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina. I have no intention of doing so. Their struggle, and the struggle of Black people in America on a daily basis, is not mine. But I am still a human being, and just because I have no part to play in their efforts doesn’t mean I am not allowed to feel compassion for those efforts, and to feel devastated and sick at what happened in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And I do feel devastated and sick. I also feel hopeless. I feel afraid, though I know my fear must be of a different calibre to that felt by people of colour who face discrimination every day. My fear is more for the future of the human species as a whole, not for my personal survival. I’m aware there are people for whom fear about their personal survival is a daily challenge, and I wish so much that this wasn’t true.

That this atrocity happened in the same week as the tragic accident in Berkeley, California, which claimed the lives of six Irish students, is overwhelming. Such loss, and such destruction, and such sorrow, and it’s hard to see a way through.

Sometimes I wish there was a way to not feel things. Just sometimes, you know? A switch you could flick or a button you could push to cut yourself off for a while, like Data’s emotion chip in ‘Star Trek’. But if we could do that, would we have the courage to turn it back on again, and let the tide of emotion flood through us once more? Or would we take refuge in the coldness of disconnected self-interest, caring about nothing but what impacts us directly?

Well. I’m glad, in many ways, that I’ll never have the answer to that question, and I’m scared to think of all the people who seem to have that chip enabled all the time, the ‘I’m all right, Jack’ types who refuse to see or experience the interconnectedness of all humanity, and who have no compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

Why aren’t there easy answers to the questions of how we are supposed to interact with one another? Why do our basest instincts always come to the fore? Why do we allow greed and small-mindedness and bigotry to win out over simple, generous compassion? Why do we always live down to our lowest expectations of ourselves? Will we ever change – can we?

Jon Stewart says it better than I can. He says it better than most people can, I guess.

A Writer’s Carpetbag

Let’s imagine we have Mary Poppins’ carpetbag. It’s essentially endless, yet totally portable (and sports a snazzy, fashionable print). You can put anything you like into it, up to and including livestock – though it might be an idea not to weigh yourself down too much with excess.

We’re going to put into it all the things we need to be a writer.

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

First of all, you need a spark of something impossible. You know those perpetual motion machines that aren’t supposed to exist, in reality? Well, sometimes I think a writer’s self-belief is a bit like one of those machines. It feeds on nothing, gets no input from anywhere, is barely maintained, and yet manages to keep running. So – yes. The first thing in our writer’s carpetbag is: something impossible.

Then, you need courage. Not just the type of courage that lets you take risks, but the type that sees the value in daydreaming and the type that knows how important it is to tell stories and the type that’s not afraid to dive down into the darkest bits of life. You need the sort of courage that means when you end up in a locked room with a minotaur, you don’t go down without a fight. Put your courage in beside your impossible thing, and let them nestle together.

After that, you need enthusiasm. You need to be able to keep yourself enthused in the face of boredom, general disinterest, rejection and even downright hatred, and you need to be able to maintain your focus on what makes it all worthwhile – the words that you love. (I find getting the sort of enthusiasm that you can sprinkle is the most useful. So, sprinkle in a big generous handful over your courage and your impossible thing, and watch them sparkle).

Now, this next one is a bit hard to handle, so you’ve got to be careful. You also need sticking power, the sort of thing that keeps you plugging away even when it feels like there’s no point. You need something to stick your impossible thing, your courage and your enthusiasm together (and to keep them stuck, through everything), and which will also help you to stick yourself to your chair, your schedule, your commitment – whatever you need sticking to. You’ve got to take your time with sticking power, though, and make sure you pick it up and treat it properly, and store it correctly. It can get everywhere, sticking you to the wrong things, and it also tends to go off quickly. So, be aware of that.

You need love – of stories, of words, of books and bookselling and publishing and the whole world that revolves around writing. You need to keep this love even when it seems like things aren’t going your way. You need to never reach a point where you couldn’t be bothered to read, or take an interest in others’ success, or in developments in the world of publishing, because if you reach that point it’s hard to claw your way back. If you don’t find yourself thrilled every day by the promise of a new book to read, a new story, a new exciting tale from the world of publishing, a new success for someone, somewhere, who’s walking the same path as you, it’s time to work on building up your love again. (Note: it’s always easier not to lose it in the first place). You should place your love right at the middle of the writerly mixture we’ve been creating so far, because that’s the best place for it.

And you need patience. So much of it. You need patience as you draft, you need patience as you edit, you need patience as you submit and resubmit and resubmit, you need patience as you wait to hear back from agents, you need patience as you systematically cross names off your lists as the rejections pile up, you need patience as you focus on a new project while waiting for your inbox to ‘ping’, and you need patience as you wait for the ‘yes’ that will, with any luck, be yours. But then the need for patience really gets important. You need patience while you’re on submission. You need patience while your book deal is forming. You need patience, endless patience, when dealing with publishing at every level. You need patience, and you need not to confuse hopeful patience with hopeless dejection. Sometimes it can feel like the same thing, but it’s not. So, put your patience on top of everything else, tucking it in well at the edges, and it should serve to keep everything neat and well-contained.

And after all this? Well, you’ve got to pick up that carpetbag and bring it with you all the time. Luckily, it’ll be light and you’ll barely notice you’re carrying it – but it’s important never to forget it, because you never know just when you’re going to need it, and every scrap of what’s inside it. Carrying the bag is not a guarantee of success, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it can’t hurt.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Five Children on the Western Front’

Kate Saunders’ exquisite novel, Five Children on the Western Front, won last year’s Costa Book Award (as well as the Costa Children’s Book Award), and you only have to read the opening chapter to know why.



I picked this book up while browsing in a bookshop a few weeks ago, and – as I’m wont – I read the first few pages. Instantly, I was dragged in, just as I was dragged in to Five Children and It, the masterful ‘source’ story by the ‘Ur’-children’s writer, E. Nesbit, first published in 1902. Beginning Saunders’ novel was like picking up a conversation with a dear friend.

I read to the end of the first chapter of Five Children on the Western Front, and by that time I was in tears. Right there in the shop, and everything. I didn’t even care. I knew I had to own this story, and so my love for it began.

The book opens with a scene which is reminiscent of one from Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, her last tale featuring the Pemberton siblings (Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and Hilary (or ‘the Lamb’)), wherein the children are whisked forward in time to catch a glimpse of what is to come. I have never read The Story of the Amulet and so I wasn’t aware until afterwards that Saunders had picked up on this detail, but somehow this level of engagement with the world Nesbit created didn’t surprise me. It’s the perfect place to begin this last instalment of the story, as it’s incredibly moving to be faced with the realisation that was so clear to Saunders – and which inspired her to write this story – that the fictional Pemberton children would have been just the ‘right’ age to have been swept up in the cogs of the Great War. This glimpse into the future in Amulet – seen by Nesbit, no doubt, as a glorious end to her sequence of tales – took on a different hue as history unfolded.

Saunders’ version of the Pembertons sees another addition – little Edith, or Edie, born after the Lamb and the new Baby of the family – and the re-emergence of the Psammead, or the Sand Fairy, who got the children into such scrapes when they were young. The Lamb and Edie have grown up on tales of the Psammead and how the ‘Bigguns’ (as they refer to their older siblings) had such wonderful adventures with him, and have always felt left out that they were too young to be included. To everyone’s surprise – not least the Psammead’s himself – the Fairy reappears just as the First World War breaks out, on the day when Cyril is to be deployed to the Front. The family is gathered to send him off, as cheerily as possible, and the Psammead needs a bit of convincing to understand that this fine handsome young man in his officer’s uniform is the same small Cyril he remembers, and this lovely young lady with her hair swept up is his Anthea, now an art student. There must be a reason why the Psammead has reappeared – but nobody knows what it is.

Stranger still, the Psammead’s magic appears to be on the wane. He can’t grant wishes like he used to, and when he does manage to spirit the children into visions and adventures, there’s something slightly odd about them; they’re not the carefree japes of the earlier books. There’s a purpose and a reason behind them all. For the Psammead has his own backstory, which we discover as we read, and the reason behind his reanimation in 1914, at a time of huge upheaval and pain, gradually becomes clear. The Psammead has a debt to pay, and he must learn how to pay it. His charming arrogance, so clear from the older novels, is intact here, and though he’s dearly loved by the children (particularly Edie, who grows firmly attached) there is an undercurrent of nastiness to the things he has done in his long-ago past, and for which he must atone. His struggle is tied up with the struggle of the war, and the lessons he learns are reflected in the realities of life in Europe in 1914-18.

This book is a masterpiece. Kate Saunders has managed at once to retain and build upon E. Nesbit’s voice while creating a new story out of Nesbit’s characters, who are so dear and familiar to anyone who knows and loves the original book and its sequels. It’s a remarkable achievement. The tone, language, setting and ‘feel’ of the book is identical with the original novels (with the exception of being slightly less ‘scattered’ in its plotting; Saunders’ work is definitely more structured than its earlier counterpart) and the characters feel seamless. At the same time Saunders has written a profoundly moving anti-war novel, which brings home the reality of losing loved ones to a distant war machine like nothing else I’ve read. The boys are enlisted; the girls go to fight in their own way, signing up to become volunteer nurses (and, because they’re ‘high-born ladies’, being disparaged for it); the children and the parents are left to worry and grieve. The novel takes in every relevant theme, including social class, the shattering effects of war on society (not just in its human toll but in terms of how it destroyed the fabric of reality, in so many ways), the devastation of loss, the hope of new love, the devotion of family, and the grim truth of life at the front. All of this is done without dwelling on the gory reality; the book is not ‘bloody’ or graphic. But it doesn’t need to be.

I’m not a bit ashamed to say I wept reading this book. It affected me in a very deep way, particularly as it drew to its magnificent close. I lost count of the amount of times the story brought tears to my eyes, but the end was devastating; and yet, devastating in a wonderful way, a way which reminded me of how much beauty there is in the world, and how important love is, and how we must never forget the war – any war, all war – and those who fell in it. During this centenary period it’s particularly important to read books like this one, and particularly important to encourage children to read books like this one, but I know this beautiful, powerful story will be read and loved for generations. It’s a marvel. You need to read it.

I’d still be fast asleep at this moment – if you children hadn’t woken me up all those years ago in 1902.’
‘I say, don’t blame us,’ the Lamb said. ‘We didn’t ask you to pop out of our gravel pit.’
Ernie had been writing rapidly in a notebook. ‘The children might’ve woken you with the power of their imagination. It must be very strong when the kids love stories as much as this lot do.’
‘No, I think it’s simpler than that,’ Jane said thoughtfully. ‘I think you were attracted to us because we were happy and we loved each other. It sounds like a small thing, but I can see now that it’s the biggest thing in the world. That’s why you came back to help us when the war broke us apart.’

(Five Children on the Western Front, p. 225)


It’s a well known fact about me that I’m useless at Scrabble. This is despite being quite good, all told, in the word department and having a vocabulary which is bigger than the GDP of most countries (or, these days, their national debt). I do so love words, and I love spotting them in jumbles of letters, and I adore setting them down on the board with gentle care – none of which, of course, is any good if you’re trying to win a game.

Image credit: SJ O'Hart Taken during a recent-ish game, the only one so far in which I've managed to beat my husband. Hoo-rah!

Image credit: SJ O’Hart
Taken during a recent-ish game, the only one so far in which I’ve managed to beat my husband. Hoo-rah!

If one could gain points in Scrabble for making pretty words, or unusual words, or ones which force your opponent to check the dictionary, then I’d win hands down every single time. But, sadly for me, the only way to win in Scrabble is to be good at something I’m utterly useless at.


My husband – who is, more often than not, my opponent on the Scrabble board – is brilliant at strategy. Not only does he think like Machiavelli, but he also has an incredible ability to place his tiles over the high-points bits of the board, and he’s great (like, frighteningly great) at doing that ‘combining’ thing, where you get to count tiles twice because you’ve made two words out of them… or something. Anyway. You’re probably beginning to see why he beats me all the time; he understands how to make the tiles work for him. I, on the other hand, think in straight lines. I don’t get much more complicated than making my word intersect with one that’s already on the board. Opportunities to clean up don’t even occur to me. I could sit looking at the game for hours and a massive juicy 40-pointer could be staring me right between the eyes and unless someone gave me a nudge, I’d never spot it.

I also notice this when I’m watching TV programmes, particularly murder mysteries and/or spy-related things. Other people tend to guess whodunnit a lot faster than I can. It’s strange; I’m pretty good at reading people when I see them in reality (better than most, I’d wager), and I love nothing more than people-watching and looking at body language – but when it comes to spotting the televisual murderer, I’m pretty useless. This, of course, means that I get to enjoy the suspense a bit more than the average person, but it does make me worry a bit about myself and my utter lack of guile.

I have no immediate plans to take over a neighbouring country, or to enter into the cut-throat world of business, or anything like that. Strategy, on the whole, doesn’t play a huge part in my life. On a more personal level, I don’t understand game-playing or emotional manipulation (though I was pretty good at it as a toddler, by all accounts) and I’m pretty much a ‘take me as you see me’ type of gal. All of this would be fine, if plotting wasn’t part of what I do on a daily basis.

Not plotting to commit crime, of course, or to do anything more interesting than move my WiP from chapter to chapter. But plotting, nonetheless. And, in its essence, all plotting is the same – you’ve got to be able to see the big picture, anticipate how every player in the situation is likely to move, and see the endgame before it’s immediately apparent. You’ve got to be able to spot the intersections on the Scrabble board, essentially, and tell who the killer is from their first appearance. It’s a skill I’m a bit too straightforward to possess, and it’s something that worries me.

I’m working through a WiP at the moment, and it’s going well. I like the characters. Already, they’ve embroiled themselves in two scenarios I hadn’t anticipated (currently, they’re still in the middle of one, and I’m not one hundred percent sure how they’re going to get out of it – but that’s what’s so interesting about writing). I figure the story is pushing along at a reasonable rate, and I’m happy with it. But then, I think about Scrabble and TV mysteries and me, and I wonder: am I, as a person and a writer, complex enough to write proper plots, ones that aren’t immediately obvious to all and sundry, ones which twist and turn enough to keep a reader interested?

Well. I’m not sure, frankly. I’m not even sure I know how to find out.

At the end of The Eye of the North, when the story was reaching its conclusion, the final bit of the plot took me by surprise. There was a moment when things just went click, and I saw – like a piece of film on fast-forward – exactly how the story could and should wind up. It was great, because up until that moment I hadn’t been certain I knew where to go with it. I loved the idea that it had come out of nowhere, even for me, and while it was a natural progression from all the set-pieces I’d placed right throughout the novel it was also slightly unexpected, and maybe just twisty enough to be exciting. Well, the book has since sold, and (hopefully) before too much longer you’ll all have a chance to read it and tell me if I was right. It’s staking a lot to expect this to happen again, and again, but maybe I should just trust my simplistic little brain to come up with the dastardly stuff while I’m not looking. While I’m cooking up clever dialogue and funny characters and set-pieces, perhaps there is a secret plotter inside me, whirring away, mixing up the threads of story that I’m feeding it and getting them nicely tangled. I hope so.

I believe that good writing is about good characters and believable dialogue, but it’s true that plot is vital, too. Having said that, I could forgive a weakish plot if the characters are fabulous, but I could never forgive poor characters in a cracking plot. Perhaps it’s just as well I’m not trying to be Agatha Christie; I certainly don’t have her way with storylines! But let’s hope I’m just complicated enough to write plots that will be interesting, vaguely surprising and full of enough warmth and heart to keep everyone interested. Fingers crossed!

Little Nudges

When you’re engaged in creating a new WiP – or, indeed, any piece of art, or anything in general which is unique to you – it can be hard to know whether things are going okay. Is the idea any good? Have you ‘nailed’ the voice? What of the characters – do they make sense? Are they compelling? Interesting? Dang it all, Jim, are they readable?

Image:  (So, yes. I know this image should really be of DeForest Kelly, the original 'Bones' McCoy, but - well. Didn't Keith Urban do a brilliant job in the newer Star Trek movies? Yes he did).

(So, yes. I know this image should really be of DeForest Kelly, the original ‘Bones’ McCoy, but – well. Didn’t Karl Urban do a brilliant job in the newer Star Trek movies? Yes he did).

I’m going through this at the moment with my latest opus. It doesn’t even have a name, and so frazzled is my brain these days that I can’t even think of a witty and/or suitable codename for it. Suffice it to say that it is another pseudo-historical MG romp through unknown lands in search of a high-stakes goal, in the company of a boy and a girl who are thrown together by circumstance. There’s adventure, technology, survival by wits, a very intelligent arachnid, a mysterious Machine which does something indefinable but very important, and it’s stuffed full of adults who want, variously, to steal the arachnid and/or stymie the Machine and/or nobble the boy and the girl, or all of the above. It’s standing at just under 20,000 words at the moment, which leaves it about 1/3 completed in its first draft (by my usual wordcounts, at least), and I have a Plan in place for at least the next three chapters. I’m sort of ‘piecemealing’ it at the moment, planning only far enough to get me around the next corner. It’s working admirably so far, Lurgy and anxiety and life-distractions notwithstanding. I know where I want the final scenes to be; I’m imagining them taking place in a spot I’ve actually been to, once, on holiday – the most impressive site I’ve ever seen, I think – and the landscape just fits with my vision.

So, there’s that. I have 20,000 words, a partial plan, and an endgame. And that’s all. Until the other day, nobody else had read so much as a syllable of this work, unless you’ve sat beside me in my local café while I’ve been poring over my printed-out typescript and stolen a glance at a line or two. (Don’t laugh – it happens. People’s eyes tend to be drawn to large piles of paper and a person sitting over them, sighing and scrubbing their hands through their hair. Try it, sometime). I had no idea whether any of it worked, or if it was even worth carrying on with.

But that’s where it can be a great thing, sometimes, to be brave.

A while back, I shared the first chapter of this nameless, shapeless entitly with a person. A person who is not my mother, my significant other, or anyone who owes me money. A person who has no vested interest whatsoever in telling me what they think of what I’ve done. And that person, a few days ago, took the time to say that they liked it. Not only that: they really liked it. And they feel I should definitely continue.

I can’t put into words how much of a relief this was. I felt like a sheepdog getting a subtle nod from the shepherd, or an apprentice watching the barest flicker of approval dance across their master’s face. The person who read my extract is a published author, y’see, who has another book coming out shortly, and so they’re someone who knows what they’re talking about. To be entirely fair, they’re also a very nice person (and I’m damping down my inner voices which are screaming at me: ‘they only said they liked it because they were being NICE to you! That’s all!’), so I hope they were also being objective – but I have no reason (no logical reason, at least) to think otherwise.

All of this means I hopefully have an idea with legs on, a ‘goer’, something worth pursuing, and a voice worth following, so I intend to do that until the bitter end. Being brave and asking for feedback won’t always get you a response like this, of course – but sometimes a ‘No, I don’t think this is working’ can be as useful as ‘Yes, sure, carry on with this’. The important thing is to be brave, both in the writing and the requesting of feedback thereon, and to keep going.

My Lurgy has almost lifted (I hope). I’m feeling better today than I have felt for two weeks. So, today, my friends, will have words in it. And I feel good about that.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Lie Tree’




Shortly after I’d finished reading this book, I engaged in a Twitter-versation about it with another book blogger (and all-round fabulous lady, whose Twitter feed you can follow here), where we concluded that Frances Hardinge is an underappreciated genius. The Lie Tree is a ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, insofar as it is the equal – in terms of beauty, plotting, characterisation, language, setting and complexity – of all her other novels, yet at the same time it is entirely different from anything that has gone before. There is no ‘typical’ Hardinge novel, really – they are all different. She is versatile, invigorating, and never less than compelling, in everything she writes.

I’d really love to spend five minutes in her imagination.

The Lie Tree is the story of Faith Sunderly, her father Rev Erasmus Sunderly, her mother Myrtle and her younger brother Howard. It is set in the 1860s, beginning with a journey from England to an island called Vane, possibly in the English Channel, where the Sunderly family are beginning a new life. Rev Sunderly has been asked to attend an archaeological dig (because, as well as an Anglican clergyman, he is an expert in fossils – or, at least, so we think), but Faith knows from the get-go that there is something larger going on. Her family seems to be fleeing from something, and her inquisitiveness and courage soon allow her to discover that her father’s reputation is in tatters. He is suspected of intellectual fraud, and is leaving ‘society’ for a time to allow the dust to settle. On the island, the family struggles to settle in their new home, dealing with sullen staff and – as soon as word of the ‘scandal’ reaches the islanders – the disdain of their peers. No matter how far the Sunderlys run, the whiff of impropriety is hot on their heels.

Then, Faith’s father dies in mysterious circumstances. He is suspected of having taken his own life, which means he cannot be buried in consecrated ground, and the family’s desperation deepens. But Faith soon begins to suspect that the truth surrounding her father’s death is far more complex, and in her attempts to uncover what really happened, she gets drawn deep into a mystery which, ultimately, destroyed her father – and threatens to destroy her.

This story appears ‘simple’. It it true that there is no detailed world-building here, no complex magical and/or political systems nor any larger-than-life characters; it is firmly set in the Victorian period, with all the upheaval that went with that era. Darwin’s Origin of Species has just been published and its repercussions are creating pained ripples in society; science and faith are intermingled; social roles are rigid. Faith (whose name, along with the root of ‘sunder’ in her surname, seems to me a comment on the division between belief and rationality) is a highly intelligent, scientifically-minded, headstrong girl who is stymied at every turn, told she cannot live the life she wants because of her sex, and the frustration this causes her is tangible. Her brother Howard is locked into his own rigid role, forced to stifle his natural left-handedness for fear it will cripple his future prospects and assume the mantle of the ‘man’ in his family despite being barely six years old. It is the character of Myrtle, the children’s mother, who I found most intriguing; calculated, cunning and extremely clever – though not in ways which are immediately apparent to her hot-headed daughter – she is a survivor in a world which is stacked against her. Myrtle’s self-preservation in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death turns Faith’s stomach, but to the reader, what she’s doing is obvious. Myrtle knows she will be disinherited, and she has no asset besides her beauty and appeal to men, which she wastes no time in bringing to bear upon her relationships with the important men of the island. It is no surprise that her daughter finds this upsetting, but one can’t help but be consumed with a sort of admiration for Myrtle’s machinations, at the same time.

I haven’t even mentioned the lie tree itself yet, and that’s not accidental. The Tree, referred to as the Mendacity Tree by some, is the only non-realistic part of this story, and in so many ways it’s symbolic of Faith’s struggle to find out the truth about her family and her father and about the realities of life in the Victorian era, particularly on a small island. Much of the book takes place without its even being an important part of the plot. As an object in and of itself, it is a mysterious plant which feeds on lies, sprouting fruit which, when eaten, affords the consumer visions of the ‘truth’ – or a truth, at least. Faith’s father had discovered this plant years before and had been keeping it secret – but it appears not to have been as secret as he thought. Faith becomes entangled in the Tree as she searches for her father’s killer (for she is certain he did not take his own life, and knows that if she can’t prove it, her father’s estate will be confiscated by the Crown), and – as lies are wont – the Tree’s effects spread far beyond anything she intended, growing more and more complex and terrifying with every lie she feeds it.

This story is about feminism, Victorian social attitudes, the clash between religion and evolutionary belief (and the real, true agony caused by it to intelligent people of faith), the nature of lies and the nature of truth and how to disentangle them, and the impossibility of keeping a lid on salacious gossip and life-destroying lies. It is told simply, in a straightforward manner (so, very unlike some of Hardinge’s other books, but totally in character with Faith’s scientific, matter-of-fact outlook), and perhaps at the end it felt a little too well tied up, but that is the only thing I could point to as being less than entirely satisfactory. I loved this book. Frances Hardinge is, to me, an author who is constantly pushing at the boundaries of MG/YA literature and showing exactly what writing for this age group can do. This philosophical, intelligent and deeply strange book is a haunting, complex and beautifully written piece of literature, and deserves a wide readership.