Category Archives: Writing

The stories we tell

J.K. Rowling is currently coming under a certain amount of fire for appropriation of Native American/ First People myths and traditions in a new story. This also allows the Scottish Nationalists who don’t like her because she doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland to get the boot in, so that’s a slightly depressing synergy.

Anyway, it made me think, which is probably what the better critiques were meant to do; it also made my blood pressure rise, which is automatically what happens when I read ANGRY things, no matter who is saying them.

So. First: it’s crap to be misrepresented.

It’s especially crap if it comes on top of hundreds of years of damaging misrepresentation that has justified appalling repression, even if the person misrepresenting you had nothing to do with the oppression and is, it could be argued, yet another casualty in the war that is being fought over the ways in which you are represented.

Angry? Yeah. Oppression and misunderstanding does that to people, especially when the target of ire is someone important. My kids’ school still has a ‘Red Indian’ week (or did until last year when a mother who’d grown up in Canada explained the error of their ways). We are not super-advanced in our understanding of Native American history here. This debate will (possibly) help us to find out more.

As Outlander appears everywhere just now, representing all those tartan-wearing, claymore-wielding hairy highlanders who are also my ancestors, I feel marginally equipped to have an opinion. I’ll spare you the details of my upbringing, but let’s say it’s just as well I never had a boyfriend whose surname was Campbell, and I mean that in a serious, bitter n twisted kind of way, not in a ho-ho-ho isn’t this entertaining some people still pay attention to historical conflicts kind of way. We have a history here. It’s full of blood and betrayal and people dying for really stupid reasons a long way from home because of some abstract concept of kingship, and people thrown off the land to make way for sheep because of some abstract concept of progress, and people murdered by being rolled down the high street in barrels of nails because of… yeah, well, I don’t know. Fear? Bigotry? The idea that only some people own the truth?

We do, all of us, have stories that give us meaning and place us in history. The Massacre of Glencoe (for example) is one of my stories — I was told it over and over again growing up — and it’s part of what makes me me, and I feel strange and a little sick when I find it in a historical romance or a thriller or whatever, because the way I learned it, it didn’t feel like trivial entertainment.

But some people use it that way, and I can live with that.

Partly, I can live with that because it doesn’t have any real impact on how people view me now. And Scotland got messed up but these things are relative, and there is no comparison to what has happened — what is happening — elsewhere. Partly, because I’ve worked with other people’s stories and I know that however important they are to us, they don’t have to be real — the stories we have need to be useful, that’s all.

In the 90s I was a starry-eyed postgraduate in Moscow finding out about archives, kasha, the music of Nick Cave, cockroaches, beautiful boys who smiled at me across the reading room, held my coat for me and then told me they were neo-nazis (didn’t see that one coming), and various other excitements that all seemed shiny and precious and strange. I found out about vodka and ex-pat merchant bankers and swimming in the Volga and all sorts of other things as well. But mostly, because that’s what my research was, I found out what the Soviet State had done to the Russian Orthodox Church.

And no one wanted to know.

As with many of these things, the picture of what the archives said happened — the careful, bureaucratic record of appalling oppression, of churches closed and priests murdered — was not the picture people knew to be true.

There were only three churches left in the whole of Yaroslavl’ oblast’ [<– I can’t remember if that’s true. My notes are elsewhere!]

No. There were no churches at all. The Soviets closed them all.


There were none.

Didn’t matter what the archives said, didn’t matter what the priests I interviewed remembered. The story that worked — the story that helped some people reassemble their world in the 1990s — was one of absolute oppression, none of the greys and the compromises and the oppression of weak-on-weak that what we traditionally think of as ‘history’ suggested was true (let’s not get into a discussion of ‘true’).

And that’s OK, because we all need to have the stories that make it possible to live our lives. They don’t need to be true, or verifiable or written down; they just need to be useful.

I don’t know where that leaves me with the JK Rowling fuss. Sympathetic, I think, to both sides.




Initiation ceremonies

And now for something completely different.

I’m working on a new ms — draft at 25,000 words (which for me is about 2/3rds of the way through a first draft — I’ll add description and explanation and additional character interactions in subsequent passes) and I need a kind of initiation trial.

So I was reading about ways in which different peoples mark adulthood for their kids and one which jumped out (although it jumped rather confusingly because the sources seem to say different things) was the Spartan Krypteia.

Leonidas I Sparta

Certain boys —  who had performed so well at their training that they clearly had leadership potential — would be sent out into the countryside to kill helots, subjugated peoples the Spartans used as agricultural slaves.  The boys were instructed to target strong, fit men especially. presumably to reduce the likelihood of rebellion (which was an ongoing concern — there were a lot more helots than Spartans).

What a terrible thing to do to children (and subjugated populations).

What a brilliant background for a story.

It’s no use for the one I’m writing at the moment, however, so on with the research…

777 Writers’ Game

I was tagged by Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau series (Tickety Boo Press) and the dark YA, Inish Carraig.

I had to take a work in progress, go to a page ending in 7 and show 7 lines, and then I have to tag 7 others to do so.

I picked something I’ve just started (there are only about 10 pages so far) and it doesn’t have a name yet…

“What happened to Sveta?”

He makes a clicking noise with the gun. “Get your jeans down.”

I shove the jeans down my hips and watch him place the needle.

“Most people like to look away.”

“Uh huh.” I want to see where the tracker goes, since I might end up trying to cut it out and there’s no point making more of a mess than I need to.

Hurts. Like Hell.

And I’ll tag… Susan Boulton, Sam Primeau, Scott Maryat, Michael Colton, Ray McCarthy, Ursa (whose real name I don’t know!), and Sarah David.

Forgive me ;)

Writing Group

I love my writing group (I hate them too, frequently, but that passes). It took me a while when I started writing to find people I trusted and who trusted me, and whose opinions I understood.

I tried the website critters, which was a great opportunity and I got some brilliant crits from it, but which was also very patchy. I got some awful, truly destructive manglings as well from people who hated everything about my stories (they probably hated everyone’s stories, but it felt personal at the time).

I posted a lot for critique on SFF Chronicles, and I still do sometimes. I know many of the people who critique on there, and their thoughts are always useful, but once more than four or five people have commented on a piece of writing, things start to blur in my head.

So my writing group. There are all sorts of advantages to a close group of people who regularly critique each other’s work. I know what I must listen to, and what I can disregard because it’s a personal preference (and they know that about me). Because we’re all at about the same stage, writing-wise, I learn a lot from the critiques I write for them as well as what they write for me.

And they don’t let me get away with things. They don’t nod and tell me something works if it doesn’t.

Which is annoying sometimes because it’s always nicer to be praised for one’s astounding brilliance than to be told that the chapters you’ve been sweating over just don’t do what you wanted. Sometimes I go away and kick the wall, and maybe I snarl a bit too.

But the whole point of a writing group is to tell you if things don’t work. And I am lucky — very, very lucky — that my amazing group do just that.

Thank you, guys.

My lovely writing group consists of Kerry Buchanan, John Brady, Suzanne Jackson and Jo Zebedee, whose wickedly dark and horribly funny YA SF, Inish Carraig, about aliens in Belfast came out this week.

Oh my. What a difference a ms (or two) make(s)…

Well, well. It appears that when I wrote my first, greatest story, I was not writing as well as I could have been. To be polite.

It’s as if I decide a character feels a particular emotion in a scene and I say so, but then I keep saying the character has that emotion, just in case the reader missed it the first (seven) times.

Help me. It hurts.

Other things are wrong too. Harder to identify things, but it feels as if the writing wanders, as if everyone is emoting everywhere all the time (and these are different emotions, not just the ones I mention twenty-four times on one page), and (whisper it) I don’t like the character as much as I did.

I worked on this manuscript for A THOUSAND YEARS (give or take), and I rewrote it approximately thirty times, and it was critted all over the place, and I even paid a developmental editor (not Teresa) to edit it.

And it’s still bad.

My conclusion (and, yes, there is one! Who’d have guessed?) is that in the two years since I abandoned querying this ms and decided to work on other things, writing other manuscripts has taught me so much more about writing than editing and re-editing the same thing in a constant loop.

It makes a difference to write something new from scratch. It makes a difference to see the world through the eyes of a different character.

Really, though, I am so grateful I can see these flaws. I’m sure there are lots I can’t see, because I haven’t yet reached that level, but I must have learned something in the last two years, and re-reading this manuscript makes that quite obvious. Yey!


What Next?

This blog post is supposed to hold me to my plan. If I write it out and make it (semi-)public, then I should stick to it.


I’ve just finished a wip. Soon, I’ll submit to to my lovely agent. Now I need to decide what to work on next.

I have a number of things in progress, and they’re all quite fun and I could work on them (except that One We Don’t Mention, which was the unfortunate result of a Nanowrimo and demonstrated for me quite clearly that writing 50,000 words in a month is a good way for me to write total gibberish).

I’m reminding myself of that character in Old Hat, New Hat going, “too big, too small, too crooked, too tall”, only I’m going, “too depressing, too dystopian, too messed up in terms of love affair…”

So I wondered about the first ms I wrote.

Not quite the first, obviously. That one depended heavily on the word “suddenly” and on the narrator turning into a cat. The first one I wrote (and finished) when I was over the age of eight.

It was a lovely invented world full of evil magicians and smoke and revolution and confusion and a handsome, tortured hero and… but, you know, it was my learning book. I started writing it about (cough) seven years ago, and I think my writing is stronger now. Quite a lot stronger.

Instead of faffing with it and trying to edit, I’m going to make a chapter plan and rewrite from scratch. What could possibly go wrong…?

Right. I said it here. Now I have to do it.


AggressiveBoy_032613-617x416Ah, first coffee of the day, how I have missed you. Let us never part again.

I have been reading up on aggression in boys for my shiny and exciting new WIP. It’s not as obvious as you’d think. There’s lots (and lots) of YA about nastiness and aggression in girls — especially the difference between the cheer-leading types and lesser mortals, and I really love that stuff. Recently, I read The Replacement, and enjoyed it very much — creepy fairy tale monsters etc. — but one thing I really enjoyed was the way the mc lusted after the ditsy prom queen type girl even though she was completely evil. Similarly, yesterday we went to see Justin and the Knights of Valour and again the boy’s initial love interest was beautiful but shallow and awful.

[Tangent: are there any Jane Bennet/ Dorothea Brooke girls around in YA? Beautiful girls who are also good and nice? Or maybe it’s the being obsessed by it that turns you evil? Dorothea was never remotely concerned about the way she looked — was she? — and there’s no description of Jane fussing endlessly over bonnets — that’s left to Lydia, who’s the Austen equivalent of the evil cheerleader. So, it’s a classic pattern(*). But then in chick-lit, so called, being obsessed by shoes is not a bad thing. Now I’m confused. Tangent ends.]

So, to return to the point (at last), it’s much harder to find stuff about boy aggression than about girl aggression. Possibly this is because boy aggression tends to be more straightforward and physical (=involves beating people up)? There’s the bit from Anna Dressed in Blood where the bad guy from school beats Cas up and tries to get him murdered by a ghost but I was hoping for something more low level. There’s the bit in Finnikin of the Rock where Finnikin and Lucian fight because that’s what they do — but they’re basically friends and I was hoping for something a bit more negative… So I’ve been trying to research. EXCEPT, everything I’ve found is advice to parents for dealing with aggression in their sons (with the occasional bit of comfort that boys are supposed to be physical and just because they’re playing super-heroes/ war doesn’t mean they’re actually being aggressive so much as acting through scenarios, and the very occasional rant about the evils of gun control in the comments of blog posts about toy guns). Sigh.

Is there an in-between somewhere in the space between playful shoving (which boys seem to do all the time judging from (a) my observation of six-year-olds, (b) looking out of coffee shop windows when the secondary school kids are out for lunch) and big proper fights with punching and blood?

So how does a boy who doesn’t like another boy behave?



(*) Though it does seem to put girls who are interested in hats in a bit of an unenviable position.

Ten romantic heroes

Where’s the line between arrogant stranger and abusive nutcase? A fair number of books I’ve read recently have been leaning a little far to the abusive nutcase (yes, Patch, I’m looking at you — you scared me), and I’m trying to identify the line to draw. I like romantic heroes who aren’t all sweetness and light. Actually, I can’t think of a single “nice” romantic hero who really made me go “oooh!” (and I do, in fact, go “oooh!” when I truly love a romantic hero).

So my top 10 romantic heroes. Possibly in ascending order of niceness (but let’s not hold me to that). And in case you’re wondering, Heathcliff is nowhere on this list. He’s a barking lunatic well beyond Patch, and I’ve never understood why anyone would like him.

10. Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre).  Oh, Mr Rochester, you are fabulous in your allure, you cross-dressing, manipulative bigamist. And yet, despite all your questionable activities, you really love Jane, and I really see why. There’s no alarming stalking her down corridors and no emotional blackmail (well, not much).Plus Jane is more than capable of JANE EYRE 2006 3 235telling you where to stick your dishonest wedding ring. So what if her principles mean she narrowly avoids dying on a moor and even more narrowly escapes the significantly worse fate of marrying a pompous wuss like St John? (Plus, you’re lovely in The Eyre Affair).

9. Rath Roiben Rye (Tithe). Murderous, tortured (handsome). At least you’re forced to it. And vulnerable. Why is that so sexy? (and while I’m in the area, a little mention to Ravus from Valiant, who deserves to be further up the list, with the nice guys. Except his spell hurts Val. So maybe he’s okay down here).Wentworth 1995

8. Captain Wentworth (Persuasion). Truly, Captain, you are an arrogant git at the start, and you say many things that poor Anne should not have to hear. But for all that, you are honestly devastated that the woman you loved rejected you, and you appear to distinct advantage compared to the alternatives, especially the awful William Eliot, but also the drippy Benwick. Also, the letter you wrote made me weak at the knees, and I’ll forgive a lot for that kind of eloquence.

7. John Thornton (North and South). Honest, hard-working and only slightly prejudiced, Mr Thornton’s one of my favourite heroes. You could never imagine him trying to murder the girl he fancies, and if it takes the risk of penury to rid him of some of his arrogance,  you can probably understand why.

6. Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice). Handsome, arrogant and rich. Well, aren’t you a catch. But at least you’re above dishonesty and scary sneakiness. I like you because I’m not afraid for Lizzie. She’s smart enough to rejeColin-Firth-as-Mr-Darcy-mr-darcy-683456_1024_576ct a proposal when it’s an insult — and there’s no messing around, either. If you were interested in Jane, it would be a catastrophe, but luckily you’re braver than that. Your transformation when it comes demonstrates that beneath the thoughtless snobbery, you were always trustworthy and noble and… goodness, now you’re worthy even of Lizzie.

So, Mr Darcy, you must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

5. Alan Ryves (The Demon’s Surrender). Alan, Alan. You’re a lying murderer, who would put anyone second to your brother. You’ve run away and tried to leave him, you’ve doubted yourself, and you’ve never loved a girl enough to stop lying. You’re broken and vulnerable and lovely. I did not see you coming as the romantic hero of the third book in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy but it is by far my favourite, and that’s because of you.

4. Valek (Poison Study). I can’t help it. I was hopelessly in love with you from the start. Leader of assassins, poisoner and manipulator of the doomed. I have no idea why, but I like Michael in Nikita as well. You’re not a very nice man, but then Yelena’s not very nice, either. I’m afraid you deserve each other.

3.5 (Yes, all right, I forgot him when I was writing the list) Corlath (The Blue Sword). You deserve to go next to Valek, because you’re a kidnapping, honour-impeaching bully (well, maybe not a bully, or not always). And yet, like him, you’re wonderful. Actually, you’re a lot nicer than Valek and an excellent example of good-man-in-bad-situation, which puts paid to my theory that (slightly) mean men are more attractive. So I think I’ll suggest that guys who do or say nothing wrong are not as interesting as those who do (I’m looking at you, Mr Knightly, and most especially you, drip of drips, Edward Ferrars).

3. Thomas Lynn (Fire and Hemlock). Well, let me see. You find a young girl, try to train her to depend on you, and willingly endanger her in your attempt to escape your ex-wife (who, admittedly, intends to have you murdered). And yet, yet… you’re basically a decent person, you never lay a finger on her, and all it takes to warn you off is a talking to from her grandma. You allow her to leave you, which means you’re facing death. Yes, I love you, but I’m not sure I should.

2. Severn (Cast in Shadow, and the rest of the Chronicles of Elantris). You’ve done awful things. Yet you’re honourable and loyal, honest and — most of all – sensible. Plus, you truly love Kaylin. You’re not a crazy stalker boy, you have too much sense and self-respect.

1. Mordion (Hexwood). You’re honourable, courageous, honest and kind. You’re also a mass-murderer, but didn’t want to be so I’ll let you off. A bit.


Revisions and revisions and revisions

I’ve just finished the latest round of revisions to my great work and sent them off to my lovely agent, Jes. Now the nail biting commences (what with the whole round of entering Cupid’s literary challenge and submitting to agents, I actually have no nails left, but let’s pretend).

I love revising, which is — I know — kind of perverted, but I find it very hard to control myself when I revise and not write a totally new story.

And now this round of revisions is in, I would really like to start work on a new story. A properly new one.

So. Fingernails.

Celtic Connections — Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Here’s the second of my Celtic Connections — John Brady, another of my fabulous critique partners. John writes science fiction and urban fantasy, and lives in the Republic of Ireland.

I’ve been there (it rained).

Irish legend, Bull, and a little inspiration

Stereotypes, eh? You’ve all seen him – the loveable Irish rogue with a twinkle in his eye. He’s charming and witty, has smouldering good looks and appears allergic to razors, yet he can never be relied upon to commit to a relationship, show up at his nephew’s baptism or change a toxic, smelly infant. I blame Sean Connery’s Darby O’Gill turn and, latterly, Colin Farrell.

Even Irish mythology has suffered from this process, often reduced to stage leprachauns – notoriously cantankerous, selfish characters who didn’t even offer their crocks of gold to bail out banks or continental oligarchs. Ocasionally you’ll find a fairy or banshee, but even these are recent additions.

Irish mythology goes back further, recorded legends dating to about the time of Christ. Tales of death, love, jealousy, death, magic, betrayal and more death abound, all served with local flavours which can alter the stories, the settings, or even the species of the protagonists.

Queen Maeve’s burial cairn on Knocknarea mountain, Strandhill, Sligo

The Tain Bó Cuailnge, for instance, is the Bhagavad Gita of Irish mythology. This epic pulls togetherdifferent stories to make a whole and comes in many versions – as myths tend to do – but all have a common core: the heroic defence of Ulster by a seventeen-year-old Cuchulainn; the invading hordes of Connacht, led by the avaricious Queen Maeve; and death. Lots and lots of death, from the warrior youths of Ulster, to Cuchalainn, to the himself, the brown bull Maeve launched an invasion to claim so she would have a bull to rival her husband’s.

Cuchalainn has an almost unique place in modern history – along with country music, he is loved by both traditions in Northern Ireland. He adorns murals in Nationalist and Unionist areas because of the archetypal heroism he embodies: a hero who defeated numerically superior foes, who reluctantly fought and killed his best friend, and who finally fell on the field of battle, only beaten by nasty magical weapons.

The Book of Leinster

It’s the sort of story which could inspire anyone, just like the legends of Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool if extraneous consonants aren’t your thing) and his descendants. The leader of the Fianna, a band of warriors, he fought fire-breathing fairies and warrior rivals. His grandson, Oisín, was one of the few mortals to visit Tír na nÓg, the land of the young, and returned three hundred years later (it didn’t end well). These are some of the legends found in ancient manuscripts such as the twelfth century Book of Leinster.

But mythology doesn’t need to be epic. It can be local and intimate too, passed down through generations in the oral tradition. I grew up near the “Split Rock,” a ten foot high ball of gneiss rock, bisected by a cleft wide enough to walk through. Was this the product of retreating glaciers and millennia of weathering? No – it was the result of an angry giant’s wrath, annoyed after he lost a rock throwing contest with the ubiquitous Fionn MacCumhaill. Fionn’s rock – unsplit – lies a couple of miles away on a rocky shore, which is proof that inspiration can be found anywhere.

Walk through it three times and it will trap you, the legend says

Just like my ancestors, you can grow your own legends from an isolated farmhouse, a shadowed grove, a pedestrian who catches your eye, or even a simple rock – look at it with an open mind, and ask:




And the possibilities will flow.