Thursday, 20 July 2017


Hello, Dear Readers! Happy Thursday to all - I hope your week so far has been great, but if not, only two days to go before the sweet, unhealthy-coping-method oblivion of hiding under the covers all weekend. Hang in there!

Before I deal with today's main business, I have some sad(ish?) news to share. My publisher have just confirmed my very first novel, The Swan Kingdom, is now officially out of print in the UK. I wrote this book when I was twenty-one and it was published when I was twenty-four. At the time I didn't even realise how lucky I was for that to happen, or how lucky I was to recieve such an amazing critical and award response, but looking back with hindsight I'm astonished my quirky little fairytale retelling did so well. The book earned out its advance nearly immediately and stayed in print for almost ten years, which is no mean achievement for a debut novel from an unknown. So while this development is, of course, bittersweet, I'm still very proud.

You can currently buy the book as a paperback in the US or as an e-book in the UK, but I don't know how long that will be the case, so if you wanted a copy then now is probably the time to get your hands on one. I might buy a couple of secondhand copies for myself, since all my author copies have long been given away and I'd hate to be left with no trace at all of the novel that changed my life so much. 

OK, now that's over with - onto the snippet! Though Goodreads, Twitter and the blog, you guys have let me know that the new WIP you're most interested in seeing more of right now is the Little Mermaid retelling. Which is cool, because that's the one I'm actually working on this week. This is the opening part and a bit different than anything I've written before. Let me know what you think in the comments or wherever, my lovelies! Snippet under the cut.

Thursday, 13 July 2017


Helloooo ducky darlings! Happy Thursday to all. I know it's been a while since I blogged so here are some updates on what's been happening at Chez Zolah.

First up, my Mulan inspired fantasy is now officially on submission to Walker Books, where they're waiting for my usual editor to come back from maternity leave at the end of the month so they can start discussing it and making decisions on whether they want to publish it. Any crossed fingers, held thumbs, prayers to the writing gods or sacrifices of chocolate, crockery or goats would be entirely welcome and appreciated.

Obviously I'll update you as soon as I know something and get the OK to share it. This will probably be a lot sooner if it's a 'no' and we take the book out on general submission. If that happens it'll be the first time I've gone on general sub with an agent (last time, which was in 2004, I was sending my manuscripts directly into publisher's slushpiles) and it will be a fairly nerve-wracking, yet also exciting, process. Eep.

In WIP news, I'm working on two new proposals (that means sample chapters and detailed synopses) both of which I've mentioned in passing here on the blog before. Both are YA. The first is a 1920's timeslip story. The second is a retelling of the Little Mermaid which centres a queer relationship. And I love BOTH of them to bits, so dedicating all my nerves and anxiety to getting these new stories kicked off is is helping with the wait on Mulan quite a bit. Let me know in the comments below which you like the sound of more, and I'll post a snippet next week.

Next! YALC is swiftly approaching and I believe that tickets are still available. The event schedule is now up, so you can not only see when I will be there, but also all the vast swathes of other, far more famous and awesome authors (if I don't get the chance to see Laini Taylor speak at least once I may choke myself on my own fountain pen). IT IS VERY EXCITING. I hope I'll get to see lots of Dear Readers there and sign their books, give them swag, and generally adore them for being the discerning and wonderful people they are. That means you, cutie. Yes, you!

Finally, I recently read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, which are adult works of speculative fiction by Becky Chambers. Thanks for the recommendation on these, Emma Pass!

I enjoyed the first one a lot, and although I was strongly aware of the parallels between it and a certain cult SF TV series I shall not name (*cough*Firefly*cough*) that didn't lessen my enjoyment because I could see the author turning all the tropes over and messing with them in a really aware, diverse and interesting way. The second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, though, really blew me away. It went off in a quirky and unexpected direction that I just loved. I can't wait for the next book in this loosely connected series to come out (each book stands alone, with a few characters in common) and I heartily pass the recommendation to read them onto you, Dear Readers.

That's all for today - just remember to let me know which of my WIPs floats your boat in the comments if you'd like a sneak peek next week. xx

Monday, 12 June 2017


Hello and happy Monday, Dear Readers! Today's post is part of PewterWolf's Disney Villains Takeover. There've already been a bunch of smashing posts from other writers and bloggers on the topic, so click through and check those out.

When Andrew proposed this topic to me, I started thinking a lot about the way that Disney films have evolved in recent years. These changes have generally been for the awesome, giving us more well-rounded, active heroines - like Tangled's Rapunzel, Brave's Merida, Frozen's Anna - heroes with a sense of humour and something other than their royal title going for them - Flynn/Eugene, Kristoff - and some fantastic subversion of tired old tropes, like love-at-first-sight and true love's kiss, or the idea of fighting over the Princess's hand. We've even had some heroines who were so strong and inspiring in their own right that they didn't need no man, and ended their stories liberated and happy about it - Merida and Elsa.

What we haven't really had recently is... any great new villains?

Think about the classic Disney villains you grew up with: The Lion King's Scar, The Little Mermaid's Ursula or Beauty & the Beast's Gaston. Think about how much you loved and hated those guys, how you'd happily sing along with their big theme song and maybe even felt just as strongly about them as you did about the hero. I know all the words to 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' to this day even though that film came out when I was around seven. And my nieces, born decades later? THEY know all the lyrics, too.

Maaan, that's a good villain song.

These guys were not particularly nuanced, let's be real. They weren't meant to be. They were evil. They stood for darkness, and they were often drawn in a way that made it clear the filmmakers intended us to find them unattractive (Ursula's tentacles and rounded figure, Scar's comparative skinniness, darker mane and his facial disfigurement) which would be problematic if we didn't actually find them super amazing and cool instead - seriously, give me Ursula's tentacle dress over Ariel's shell-bra any day.

They were there to offer a direct contrast with the main character's cuteness and innocence - and for the most part they owned their own wickedness and offered no apologies for that.

Even Gaston, heralded as the specimen of physical perfection, and lauded and loved by everyone in his village, is drawn and characterised in such a way that no one for a single instant thinks he's anything like sympathetic. His hairy chest, stinky, holey socks and arrogant brow turn us off, and his song makes it clear his soul is as shrivelled and rotten as a Cox's Pippin that's been hidden under the bananas at the bottom of the fruit bowl for a month.

So no, villains like this were never, ever intended to make us root for them.

But somehow... we liked them anyway.

Each of them embodies something, some character or person who might almost be real.

Scar stands for men who do not fit with the macho stereotypes of our culture, who despite having excellent qualities of their own, are pushed aside, ignored and under-estimated because they are not physically dominating. But despite Scar's intelligence, he's still not able to see through the hypermasculine ideals that tell him he's unworthy. He's not strong enough to reject their paradigm. So instead of walking away and finding something that would make him happy outside of those ideals, he fights, lies and kills in an attempt to gain the 'Prize' which his society has taught him all real men must seek.

Ursula stands for women who are condemned by our patriarchal society for being 'bossy' - powerful and ambitious - and don't conform to ideals of unthreatening, conventionally attractive 'prettiness'. She too, despite immense gifts of her own, struggles throughout the whole film to gain an ultimately empty prize -  a power that will signal she is equal to the King who has rejected and exiled her. Why does she want to be his equal? Why not see him for the blustering bully he is, and use her magical talents to build her own world, her own community? She can't. She craves his recognition, even if she must kill him to get it.

And Gaston is that guy, the one we aaaall love to hate. He presents himself as a Nice Guy who any girl ought to be glad to get - and any girl who isn't grateful for his attentions must be stupid, a b*tch, insane. He embodies toxic masculinity at its height. Despite immense physical strength and skill, he really has no redeeming personal qualities, and honestly believes his most repulsive actions are right and justified because no one has ever, ever questioned him or told him 'no'.

We'd hate to be stuck in an elevator with these guys, but they light up the screen. We enjoy them. Each one gets their own song, their moment to dominate the story. When they sing, whatever the apparent topic, it's actually all about THEM. There's no doubt that each of them is the hero of their own narrative. They aren't nice people. They aren't subtle, or sympathetic. But they are interesting and well realised. Like an extreme version of a real person you might cross the street to avoid in the real world.

In recent Disney movies, though, the increased time spent on characterising the heroes and heroines and developing them into fully rounded, interesting protagonists seems to have had a sad impact on the quality of our villains. In fact, as strong characters in their own right, they seem almost to have disappeared.

Why no love for villains, Disney? I mean, I get that after the success of the live-action Malificent film and the popularity of Evil Queen Regina in the TV series Once Upon a Time you maybe wanted villains to evolve. That you wanted something more nuanced and potentially sympathetic, rather than the operatic cackling of yonder years. Maybe you took that 'A villain is a hero who outlived his story' thing to heart. But... that's not what you've achieved. Instead of giving us more human and real villains, you've mostly cut the heart right out of your antagonists.

Take Mother Gothel. What is her terrifying super power? Passive aggression. Despite interesting character design that suggests she might once have been the heroine of her own story, she never actually gets to tell us anything about herself. She's defined as a stereotype of a toxic mother figure who refuses to let her children grow up or leave - and that's interesting. But instead of letting the talent of the actor voicing her shine out in some massive ballard of selfish justification we get 'Mother Knows Best', a song which is all about Rapunzel. It tells us nothing about Mother Gothel that we don't already know. In an otherwise fantastic film it feels hollow and disappointing.

Brave offers up a mythic story of a prince who craved power so much, he transformed himself into an immortal monster and destroyed his own family and kingdom. I love Brave, and I love the way that myths, ballads and folklore are woven throughout the narrative as a warning to Merida and her mother. But there's no catchy villain song. You might argue that Merida doesn't get to sing either, but actually there are songs in the soundtrack - great songs, like Learn Me Right and Touch the Sky - which are clearly positioned to stand in for the heroine actually breaking into song herself. Because of the way the film is written, there's honestly no way that can happen for the villain. He's barely a villain, really. He's a BEAR. Not even a talking bear. Just a big scary bear.

Frozen's Hans is the one who gets to me most, though. There's a lot of praise for this film for the way that it subverts Disney tropes and pokes fun at them, and don't get me wrong, I do love it for that. But because Hans is a bait-and-switch villain, unmasked only at the very end, we never get to know him  as a villain at all. He reveals his villainy to us and is dead about three minutes later. His justification, while easily understandible (younger son seeks power through lying and deceit, hello baby Scar!) is never fully realised because, again: WE DON'T GET A SONG. He only gets to sing a love song with Anna at the beginning of the film. It's a great, sinister joke in retrospect, but it doesn't count as characterisation when he was just singing exactly what Anna wanted to hear.

Why not give us Hans cackling operatically as he reveals the emotional torture of always being overlooked in favour of his older brothers, despite knowing he's by far the cleverest of them all? Why not give us a great, unforgettable villain moment? The story could have spared three minutes for that, even if it came at an unconventional place in the narrative.

Instead, Elsa and Anna's victory over him seems all too easy because we've barely had time to accept his character reversal. We never have time to truly know and hate him. Instead of making him seem more significant as an antagonist, someone we desperately want to see thrown down, this hasty change wipes away all the previous characterisation and makes him into a practical nonentity. An EVIL nonentity, but a nonentity all the same.

I haven't seen Moana yet, but I'm told (no spoilers!) that it might suffer from similar problems in terms of its resolution and antagonist. So it seems this problem is ongoing.

Disney, how are little boys and girls going to dress up in curtains and tin-foil crowns and sing the songs of villains with bloodthirsty relish the way that my nieces sing Poor Unfortunate Souls... if you don't give us any villain songs or even any decent villains anymore? Up your game. Bring back the classic Disney villain, before we forget how much fun it can be to see our heroes go up against a truly loathesome opponent.

Who is your favourite Disney villain, and why? Let me know in the comments! :) Read you later, guys.

Monday, 29 May 2017


Hello, lovely readers! I hope you had a great week and weekend despite the lack of a blog from me. Said lack of blog was due to my being in Londonium for two days - and said trip to London (in the middle of our first mini-heatwave of the year) was due to BAREFOOT ON THE WIND being up for the Hillingdon Book of the Year awards.

After a morning working with the brilliant, clever and just all-around *awesome* kids who'd voted for my book, we came up with a presentation about why they thought BAREFOOT should win, including a dramatic rendition of a scene from the book complete with talking trees, a bow-wielding 'Hana', and the most adorable tiger in all the world. 


Sadly we lost out on the best presentation award to Nicole Burstein's 'Wonder Squad' (very well deserved, Nicole - and it was lovely to meet you!). But I'm delighted to say that despite this, BAREFOOT ON THE WIND won the day after all!

Yep, that's me - with the Mayor, no less! It's the first reader-voted award I've received - other things like the Sasakawa Prize and the USBBY Outstanding International award, although I'm very proud of them, were voted on by panels of adults in offices far away. So this means a huge amount to me. Thank you, Hillingdon! Especially the lovely teachers and librarians who looked after me, and the gorgeous and talented young ladies of the Tiger Team. RAAWWRRR!

In other news, I'm quoted this week in the Guardian, in an article about cultural appropriation and whether it should stop writers from creating characters outside of their own experience. I'd just like to make it clear, though, that I wasn't - er - addressing admonishments to Antony Horowitz, or anything. I've never met him, and my remarks were intended to be general! Eeep.

Finally, a reminder of a couple of other events coming up. Firstly, I'm going to be doing a panel event at Bradford Lit Fest again this year (thanks for inviting me back, guys) with some absolute legends. Tickets are still for sale and you can find out all about it here.

AND, if that wasn't enough, I'm going to be at YALC this year! I'm not allowed to share details of my event just yet, but I can say that I'll be there on Saturday and that I'm very excited about my panel. You can book tickets here, so get on that if you'd like to attend.

Have a great week, Dear Readers! Don't get sunburned - or drowned, when our brief burst of nice weather inevitably ends in tears...

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


Hello, my lovelies! Happy Wednesday to all. New post today, hosted on the Author Allsorts - it's a long and perhaps rather controversial one, on the topic of online honesty and how it can go wrong. I think it's quite important, and I'm hoping it will spark discussion, so please do click over there and check it out.

In Other Stuff: the secret it out! I'm going to be at YALC this year! I'm so excited - I haven't attended since the first winter pop-up event in 2014, and some of my absolute favourite writers (and some of my absolute favourite people) are going to be there this year. I don't know yet which day or days I'll be attending, or what events I'll be part of, but tickets are available now, so get in there if you can. Whoot!

Finally, here's a lovely thing I found on Twitter - an award to help support unpublished writers to finish their debut novel. It's a really good amount and as far as I can tell there's no entry fee. This year's award doesn't open for another six months, but that is GOOD, because it gives you time to pick out your very favourite idea or else come up with one, write the 20-30,000 word sample they're asking for, and then polish, polish, polish that baby until it shines like a gem. The actual entry window is quite narrow, so to have the best chance you'd want to be ready well before October, not panicking at the last minute. Bookmark it and keep it in mind, Dear Readers.

WAIT! Don't close the tab! Click through to Author Allsorts first and check out my real post for today. Talk to me in the comments there and share your experiences if you feel comfy doing so.

Read you later, muffins.

Friday, 12 May 2017


Hello and happy Friday, muffins! Did you have a good week? If not, at least we're nearly at the weekend, and I hope that's better. Today I'm bringing you a random list of five things that are on my mind this Friday, and I hope you will enjoy them.

Personally this week I had a list of things as long as my arm to get done - including my tax return, eugh - but none of it happened, because Super Agent turns out to be a super speed reader as well, and was undaunted by the prospect of ploughing through 123k of first draft. It only took a week!

So Number One of my Friday Five: an update about the WIP. Super Agent and I had a loooong chat about the manuscript on Monday, and despite the detailed disaster scenarios I'd constructed in my head ("I'm sorry, but I've realised that you are aren't suited to being a writer after all. I'm going to have to ban you from writing ever again and banish you to outer darkness...") she DID really like it, and all the issues she raised were totally fixable. Super Agent also turns out to be super good at editorial stuff - who knew? We've never really worked together on a manuscript like this before because all my books, even the trilogy, had contracts before I wrote them. As usual, I finished our conversation suffused with a sense of well-being and optimism. I've been feverishly cutting and then putting new bits in all week long. I finished the first round of revisions (there might well be more) yesterday and sent the book off again, around 5k shorter. Fingers crossed my agent thinks I've managed to improve it.

Number Two: Mostly for USian Dear Readers this one. For the whole month of May The Swan Kingdom is on sale in ebook for under $2. You can get it on Kindle, Nook, and from Apple among other places. So if you've been wanting to read it, or just add a digital version to your ereader, now is the time my lovelies!

Number Three: This brilliant, incredibly detailed and *important* piece from an anonymous, impassioned reader about the problem with recent Mulan retellings that divorce the story from its cultural roots. I was moved and shaken by this. My version isn't a straight retelling but more a fantasy inspired by Mulan, and I know that it won't be judged perfect - nothing ever is. But reading through that article I was able to feel that, at the least, I had thoroughly considered all the points the writer brought up before I ever started writing. I'm so glad I found this. I just wish I could get in contact with the writer to thank them - but I also want to think Justina Ireland (YA writer extraordinare) for opening up her Not A Blog for these anonymous reviews, which is a really brave thing.

Number Four: I wanted to drag this post back out from archives in response to the above - my opinion on the difference between diversity and cultural appropriation and why this is so important.

Number Five: There's going to be a long, rather personal, and possibly controversial post from me over on Author Allsorts on Wednesday. It's about some not-so-nice things that have been happening in my life and how those have affected me over the past year. I'd love it if my account of those experiences could spur others to share theirs, so we can have a discussion about it and maybe all feel less alone. I'll do a link back post here on Wednesday to remind you, but I wanted to mention it here too because it's very meaningful to me.

SURPRISE NUMBER SIX: Ha ha! Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! I'm so excited about the Wonder Woman movie that I could pretty much burst into song at any old moment, and I can't believe how little media coverage there's been. My tickets are BOOKED. Book yours too! This film looks awesome and we all need to support it and show Hollywood that *good quality* action films with nuanced and well-realised female heroes (not fighting sex toys!) are a great investment. Here's the trailer. Watch it. AND GET EXCITED.

Friday, 5 May 2017


Hello, and Happy Friday, Dear Readers! In an effort to make up for my month-long neglect of the blog, I've unearthed what I think is a rather cool post from the archives and dragged it (kicking, screaming and possibly making threats) into the light once more, in the hopes that some of you may have missed it the first time around, or might enjoy re-reading it.

If anyone has any other writing questions, or you're one of the people who sent me questions but haven't had an answer yet (mea culpa!) please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll try to respond next week. For today:


Today I'm going to tackle a question from the comments, left by Dear Reader Rebecca, which reads as follows:

After reading about Jack in The Night Itself, I was reminded about a problem I am having in my book. Like Jack, I have a character who is a bit of a joker. The problem I am experiencing is making my character funny in a way that seems natural. He always says funny comments at the most inappropriate times, and the characters in the book find him funny, but I don't know if readers will find him funny. Did you experience this when you were writing Jack? I want my character to be the one that makes the future seem a little brighter, even under the direst circumstances, but I don't think I am executing it as well as I hoped.
I wish I had a really amazing answer for this - it's a great question. The problem is that it's kind of... unanswerable? Because humour is one of the most quirky and individual traits we have. What makes one person laugh until they cry makes another person cringe or simply say 'I don't get it'.

For example, the most celebrated comedian of recent times, Ricky Gervaise, fills me not with the urge to chortle but the urge to hit him in the head with a bag of wet cement whenever he shows up on TV. And 'Get Smart', a film starring Steve Carell, which tanked at the cinema and was roundly condemned as unfunny by everyone, tickles my funny bone so hard that I have a DVD which I take around to my parents place to cheer my dad up whenever he's ill (seriously, I've watched it about twenty times now).

And that's not the only problem. Sometimes even if you do succeed in making a character generally funny - that is, funny to the largest possible section of your potential audience - that can still work against you. Unless you're writing 'a funny book', a book which has the sole aim of making readers laugh, you have to be really careful that the humour you use works *with* the rest of the book. That it's adding to the other effects that you were trying to create, helping to characterise your people, adding to your atmosphere, moving your plot forward. 

When I was writing Jack (and, indeed, Mio) I really wanted her to have a real teen voice, to sound like someone you could overhear sitting behind you on the bus any day of the week. So I burrowed down into my memories of being a teen and linked those up with the memories of all the young adults I've been privileged to meet over my years of doing school visits and book-signings and library bookclubs, and I chose a certain tone for her.

That tone was one of a really clever, sensitive young woman who sees a lot more than people realise she does, and who responds to most of it with a joking, insouciant tone which hides how deeply she cares. She acts tough and like she takes nothing seriously, but underneath she's a big softy.

However, when my editor came to read The Night Itself (and indeed, Darkness Hidden, the next book) she didn't really see that big-hearted, bright teen. The facade which I'd written for Jack was too good. Her defense-mechanism humour was so effective that it stopped the reader seeing who she really was.

My editor said she laughed out loud constantly at Jack's jokes. That's good right? Well, not always. As a result of all these moments of humour, she was constantly being thrown out of moments of tension or sympathy or even fear because Jack (or Mio) made some light-hearted quip. Jack came across like she just wasn't scared of the terrifying events that were going on around her, like she thought she was invulnerable. And if Jack wasn't scared, why should the readers be scared for her? Why should they empathise?

The big re-write that I did on The Night Itself ended up being mostly a process of scaling back the humour in the story. Not just Jack, but Mio, needed to be shown to the reader as more than brave, wise-cracking teens. Their vulnerabilities, their fears and insecurities, their uncertainty about the situation and themselves, all needed to be painted in with just as much care as I had used on their one-liners. And sometimes that meant cutting a really killer line that made me laugh out loud, and my editor laugh out loud, every time that we read it.

I fought for a lot of those lines. Like you, I wanted to use humour to undercut moments of high tension and stop the story and characters from getting too pompous. I wanted to contrast light-hearted moments of my young adult characters just acting the way that young adults do with moments where they're confronted with challenges that most adults couldn't face, and take them on, teeth gritted.

But if you've worked incredibly hard to build up a chilling, frightening, or exciting scene where the reader is on the edge of their seat, not knowing what will happen next or if someone might get hurt or even die, and then you have a character throw a quip in there that makes the reader unexpectedly laugh, a lot of the time not only have you *defused* the story tension that you worked so hard to build, but you might also have made it that much harder for the reader to empathise with your character.

There are moments when even the most hardened joker is going to choke on their own feelings and come up empty, and you need to be able to show that - because that's the moment when the reader will fall in love with your character and all their glorious vulnerability. That's the moment when the reader will see the complex, nuanced character that YOU, the writer know and love.

Basically, it's a balancing act, and there's no easy way to ensure you don't fall off.

My advice to you is this. The only person you can be absolutely sure of making laugh is yourself. So go for it 100%. Make this character as funny as you want them to me, for you. Don't hold back for fear of offending anyone else or getting it wrong.

Then, when you've finished, you're going to hand your manuscript over to others. Beta readers or critique partners or a trusted friend - or maybe even an editor or an agent. And those people are going to say 'Hang on, this joke right here... it kind of ruins this tension you were building up and now I find I'm not scared anymore' or 'I actually had a real feeling of sympathy for their situation then, but then the character joked about it and I got annoyed...'.

When this happens you must be prepared to go back into the manuscript with a ruthless pen and pare the humour right down so that it shines through only at moments when it really improves your story, increases empathy between the reader and the character, or undercuts a moment that needs to be undercut. The end result may be a story that causes less belly-laughs in the reader, although I think you'll be surprised at how quite a small amount of humour can go a very long way. But it should ALSO be a story that touches the reader more, moves them more, and leaves them with a sense that they got to know the characters well, instead of just glancing off the surface of their humourous defense mechanisms.

I hope this is helpful, Rebecca!
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