Monday 31 August 2015

Guest Post: ER Murray on Wildcats, Talking Rats & Reincarnated People – Building Believable Characters

I'm really looking forward to reading ER Murray's The Book of Learning, a fantasy adventure published by The Mercier Press which starts off the Nine Lives trilogy. After talking to her on Twitter, she suggested writing about building believable characters for my blog - I was thrilled by the suggestion, and love the post!

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Although The Book of Learning is an action-packed fantasy adventure, the heart of the story focuses on the emotional journey of twelve-year-old Ebony Smart. When her grandpa dies, Ebony is sent to Dublin to live with an aunt she didn’t know existed, with only her pet rat, Winston, for company. Aunt Ruby informs Ebony that she is part of the Order of Nine Lives - a special tribe of people who reincarnate. She claims Ebony has one week to break a terrible curse or else die – and if she fails, the future of the Order of Nine Lives, and her family, is at risk. Immediately believable, right?

Erm…hardly! So how do you create fictional and otherworldly characters that are realistic, grabbing the reader’s attention so they want to come on a journey with you? The way I see it, there are three golden rules:

1)      Your reader must be able to feel emotion towards each character (this can be positive or negative).
2)      Your reader must be able to identify with some aspects of each character.
3)      Your characters must behave consistently – they should change and grow, but in a way that is true to their personal world view.
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
I think that’s the best advice I’ve heard on creating characters. If you delved into the lives and family history of most people, you’d find weird stories, skeletons in the closest, and shocking or unbelievable events – as the saying goes, fact is often stranger than fiction. So when you write fantasy and fantastical characters, you can make anything believable so long as the characters show realistic personality traits, believable emotions, and react in a way that suits their individuality.
My characters appear before the storyline when I write my books, and I always write a ‘draft zero’ in exactly one month, letting the characters lead me. It gives me the clay that I need to sculpt my story. I don’t plot or plan character bios like some writers do, and I don’t plot or plan my stories until the second draft – I write organically in the early stages, and then add the details later.
When people find out you’re a writer, they always want to know if you base your characters on real people. They ask if you’ve got revenge on someone by writing them into a book. Friends and family often want to know whether they feature as a character. As people we’re curious about people – fictional or real. And seeing as books play out differently in every reader’s mind, in every reader’s imagination, I believe people in books are particularly intriguing.
Personally, I find that influences come in many guises; your own experiences, your friends and family and colleagues, characters in books and films, songs, random events you’ve witnessed, conversations overheard, philosophical ideas… the possibilities are endless. But when you take all these influences – often without realising or intending to – and meld them into a character, that character then takes on a real personality of its own.
Here’s a bit of background into some of my characters - where they came from and how they evolved…
Ebony Smart – Having grown up in the South West of Ireland (where I live now), Ebony has to quickly adapt to city life in Dublin (where I used to live), with a completely new family that’s full of crazy ideas about being reincarnated. I needed Ebony to be a smart and quick-witted girl, who was feisty but also adaptable. I’ve experienced plenty of change and I’m extremely determined, so I put quite a lot of myself into the character of Ebony. Then, for the crazy stuff, I researched some great characters, including Lydia from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Jo March from Little Women, and I watched lots of Manga cartoons like Spirited Away, Origin and Princess Mononoke. 
Winston – I wanted Ebony to have an animal that would be her friend, her one constant when she moves to her new surroundings - and a pet rat fit the bill perfectly. When I was a teenager, lots of my friends had rats as pets (some still do), and it always strikes me how smart and wily these creatures are. Contrary to popular belief, rats are actually very clean and affectionate when they’re not living in sewers. Researching Winston was easy – a few memories, a trip to the pet shop, and some YouTube clips. As for the talking bit – all animals communicate in their own way. I just had to find a way for Ebony to be able to understand him.
Grandpa Tobias – As Ebony’s guardian, I wanted Grandpa Tobias to be gentler on Ebony (like doting grandparents often are), but with the sprightly spirit of e.g. Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I didn’t have any grandparents growing up, but a lot of the Grandpa character is based on my own father. My father was 20 years older than my mother, so more of a grandpa age when I met him. I didn’t know him very well at all, and he died a few years after we got in contact, but he was my introduction to countryside living and it made a huge impression. Rather than a true portrayal, this is what I imagined my father to be like when I was small.
Zach Stone – This character emerged from nowhere, and I couldn’t find another character like him for inspiration. So instead, I followed the advice of friend and author, Isabel Abedi: I chose an actor (Ezra Miller) who could play him. Then I watched some YouTube clips to see how the actor moved, how he reacted to things, the faces he pulled. This really helped to give Zach colour and personality. 
This is just a brief insight into some of the characters in The Book of Learning and how they developed. All authors write differently, but I hope this post has given you an idea of how my own characters become people rather than caricatures.

What about you? As a writer, where do you get inspiration for your characters? And as a reader, which characters have stayed with you and why?
Fab post! Thanks, Elizabeth - I can't wait to read the book! In addition to the awesome post, we have photos of Elizabeth's dog Franklyn. Because like me, she knows my audience well!

For more from Elizabeth and Franklyn, check her out on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Authors on My Auto-Buy List

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

Leigh Bardugo - How do you follow up one of the best YA epic fantasy series of recent years? By writing a heist story set in the same universe, OBVIOUSLY. I read Bardugo's Six Of Crows in two sittings, finishing between 5 am and 8:30 am this morning (it's a long book) - it really is THAT good. I won't say much as it's not out yet but I can't wait for people to meet The Dregs!

Susie Day
- I ADORE Susie Day's MG quartet the Pea's Book series, and spin-off The Secrets of Sam and Sam is just as good. However prior to writing them she also wrote some really brilliant YA books (I've JUST forgiven her for The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones, which completely destroyed me several years ago) which you shouldn't miss!

Patricia Elliott - Elliott's French Revolution-set adventure duology the Pimpernelles books, her Victorian Gothic thriller The Devil in the Corner, and recent MG mystery House of Eyes, set in London in 1909, all capture the places portrayed brilliantly. They also all have superb plots and excellent characters.

Helen Eve - I think Eve's first novel Stella is something of an acquired taste - I quite liked it first time I read it but it wasn't until rereading six months later, after I couldn't stop thinking about it, that I fell completely in love with it. She brings to life a wonderfully exaggerated version of school and ties into Great Expectations with great skill. Prequel Siena is arguably an even better book - I'm hoping there'll be a third to come!

Natasha Farrant - The Things We Did For Love is still one of the best YA novels I've ever read, a heartbreaking World War II story, but Farrant's more recent Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby are also wonderful - excellent stories about a lovely family.

Louise O'Neill - I've now had my heart torn into several pieces and trampled on by both Louise O'Neill's books, stunning dystopian debut Only Ever Yours and upcoming contemporay Asking For It, which I read in a little over an hour this morning as I knew if I put it down I wouldn't be able to pick it up again. It's an emotionally draining read but one that mature teens and adults shouldn't miss.

Non Pratt - My favourite UKYA contemporary of last year was Trouble; Remix is a strong contender for my favourite of this year so far. Non captures British teens, particularly their dialogue, possibly better than anyone else currently writing.

Katherine Rundell
- Rundell's debut The Girl Savage wasn't altogether to my liking but showed promise; however her second book Rooftoppers is arguably the ONE book of the decade I think is most likely to be looked at as a classic in years to come, and third novel The Wolf Wilder is probably the best book I've read all year. Her writing is beautiful and her characters are amazing.

Keris Stainton - Keris started off writing YA like Jessie Hearts NYC and Della Says OMG, moved to a slightly younger audience with the wonderful Reel Friends series - which I'd describe as YA/MG crossover - and upcoming Counting Stars is aimed at the upper end of YA (to the point where when I bought a copy at YALC, Hot Key warned me of sexytimes - they weren't wrong!) She's also written NA under a pen name. Whatever she's writing, she's consistently entertaining and you know you're guaranteed a fun read!

Robin Stevens - I absolutely love Robin's Wells & Wong mystery series! I am SURE that if/when she turns her hand to something else she will be equally awesome, but I hope there's a lot more historical mysteries to come from her. (I DID like the suggestion a while back that she could maybe have Daisy and Hazel's daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters in future series, so perhaps she'll end up doing sci-fi!)

Note: I was sticking to people I've read more than one book by - Mel Salisbury, Lauren E James, Abi Elphinstone, Eleanor Wood, Mike Revell, Moira Fowley-Doyle, Irfan Master, Becky Albertalli, Sarah Benwell and Lisa Williamson are just a handful of the people whose debuts are so fabulous that I'll gladly buy everything else they release!

Who's on your auto-buy list?

Thursday 13 August 2015

Guest Post: Dark, Dark Summer by Carla Spradbery

Thrilled to have my first author guest post on this site for a while, as Carla Spradbery talks us through just why summer can be sinister!

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream….

What do you think of when someone mentions the summer? Maybe your mind turns to sunshine, ice creams and lazy holidays abroad. Personally, the horror writer in me isn’t really content with these fluffy ideals. Not when there are far more sinister ideas to turn to.

How can summer be sinister, I hear you ask? Let me explain.

Our traditional view of horror usually revolves around the long, dark nights, but in the summer we don’t worry about such things as ghosts and ghouls. The sunlight banishes the monsters from our minds back to the ungodly netherworlds in which they reside. And so we begin to relax, content in the knowledge that the light of the long summer evenings will protect us from the bogeyman. But that’s the magic of summer horror… With our defences down, we become prey for a very different kind of beast.

The maniac killer, the monster who hunts simply for the sake of hunting.

Think about it. How many North American horror movies are set in the summer? And what do they all have in common? Many typical teen slashers are set in idillic surrounds, with camp fires and log cabins, or long days at the beach. Not to mention the bikini clad girls and tanned, muscle-bound guys. Combined with lowered inhibitions, exposed skin, illicitly obtained alcohol and the inevitable storm clouds of pheromones, we know that sex is in the air and, in teen slashers, sex almost equals death. So what better place for our antagonist to go on the hunt to satisfy his blood lust than a remote location, with endless hiding places and a plethora of victims preoccupied with satisfying their own urges? Classic horror flick Friday the 13th is a great example of how the teen summer dream can very quickly be turned on its head with the introduction of a homicidal maniac. In an American summer camp, there is little adult supervision and with the long, light evenings, it’s all too easy to let one’s guard down.

In Stephen King’s novel IT, we see a group of kids, ‘The Losers’, whose summer stretches out endlessly before them. They spend their time in The Barrens, a small tract of land heavily covered in trees and plant life, and even build an underground clubhouse there. But are they safe? Well, given that this is a King novel, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Like the teens in Friday the 13th, our protagonists are being stalked by a terrifying hunter - Pennywise the Clown, a monster that feeds on fear. Like the victims in Friday the 13th, our protagonists in ‘IT’ are vulnerable, spending their time away from parental supervision. Again, it’s the vulnerability that makes the summer a perfect setting for this horror story.

Finally let us head to the beach, simply because I can’t end this piece on summer horror without mentioning Jaws. While our summer camp teens in Friday the 13th may have been a little less wary than they could have been, there’s very little to be said against the innocents whose plans for a quiet day at the beach ended with them ripped to pieces, inside the belly of a monster Great White. A hunter that has no typical victim. You could be blonde, brunette, male, female, black or white… To this monster, we all taste the same.

In the autumn and winter, when the nights are long and dark, we are on our guard. We can avoid the graveyards and the shadows where the vampires and werewolves may be hiding and we might think to check under the bed before turning out the light.
But in the summer? We don’t think about such things.
And that is what makes us such easy targets…

Happy holidays!

Credit to Seamus Allen (@shamjaz) for ideas and movie references.

Carla is the author of The 100 Society, which was a great read, and The Memory Hit, which is high on my TBR pile and I'm really looking forward to reading - I've heard many wonderful things about it! Both are published by Hodder Children's Books.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Book Review: Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

Falcio del Mond and his companions Kest and Brasti used to be Greatcoats; travelling Magister's upholding King's Law. Then they stood and watched as their King was killed by the Dukes who took control of the kingdom, and their company of 144 supposedly brave men and women are scattered throughout the land and reviled as traitors. The three are working as hired security while hoping to fulfil their last promise to the King, until one of their clients is killed and they're framed for his murder. Running for their lives, they're caught in a conspiracy which could have dark consequences for the entire land.

I was completely drawn into this from the very first chapter, which nails an outstanding mix of excitement and humour - it's a book which never takes itself all that seriously, reading as a swashbuckling fantasy with boastful leads who know they're better fighters than nearly anyone they can come up against. That same mix of thrilling action with a fairly light touch is sustained for most of the book, with just a few moments later on which see the plot take a darker turn, and it's a refreshingly fun read. It's also set in a very interesting world - magic exists, but it plays a major role in rather few scenes; this is definitely low fantasy with political intrigue - just WHAT are the evil dukes planning? - being the most important part of the setting.

I'll be completely honest and say that I could have lived without the fridging of the hero's wife, who we learn in a flashback (thankfully, not an explicit one) was raped and killed. But there is SO MUCH good stuff here! The friendship, loyalty and bickering between the three central Greatcoats is fantastic to read, Falcio has an amazing voice, and de Castell's fight scenes are staggeringly exciting. There are also numerous superb twists which left me constantly guessing what would happen next - and also what HAD happened in the past; there's a really strong use of flashbacks to show the history of the Greatcoats from Falcio first hearing about them, to he and the King restarting them, to the terrible night which saw them stand aside and let their king be killed.

I'm intrigued to see where things go in book two, which I note is substantially longer. On the one hand, this felt really refreshing as a fantasy novel weighing in at around 350 pages is fairly rare in my experience. On the other hand, so many threads come together at the end of this one - particularly some very promising character development for several female characters - and we get such a brilliant set-up for the next book that I'll trust de Castell to keep my attention just as glued to his writing in that book as I was in this!

Hugely recommended, perfect for fans of Scott Lynch's wonderful Locke Lamora series - but also a great entry point for people who haven't read too much fantasy and are looking to dip a toe into the genre.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Criticism, Reviews and Diversity

First blog post for some time, and there's a fair chance this will get super-rambly. I basically have a LOT of thoughts about reviews, criticism, appropriate ways to express ourselves, and other things.

(Also, thanks to everyone who's provided feedback on this!)

Okay, this has been triggered off by a few things, most recently a tweet of mine sent after seeing someone tag an author in a three-star review using language like 'disappointed' about their book.

For me, drawing an author's attention to your negative thoughts about their book is rude, and I really wish people would stop doing it. (I appreciate most reviewers don't!) But one of the responses to a conversation that sprang from that tweet was "Oh, I don't know why people review books they don't like", and I really wanted to respond to that but didn't have the energy to do so at the time.

I think negative and critical reviews (as long as they're not just attacks, and as long as they keep personal comments about the author out of it) are a GOOD thing. Firstly, they make it a lot easier to find books I'll want to read, especially as the problems one person has with a book don't necessarily mean that I'll be put off. (For example, I've dived on books after seeing them getting criticised for 'not being very exciting' and 'too much time spent with people talking' as I LOVE great dialogue and some of my favourite books are mainly character-driven rather than plot-driven.)

But sometimes reviews point out something really problematic about the book. If that's the case, I still don't think you should be tagging the author in, but I think the reviews themselves are massively useful for readers to help them make up their own mind.
Uppermost in my mind when all this came up, because of a post on SCBWI magazine site Words & Pictures last week by Candy Gourlay, was the Kathleen Hale/Blythe Harris hatchet job over at the Guardian. In that post, Candy described Blythe as Hale's 'hater'. I contacted the person in charge of the Words & Pictures Twitter account after reading this, pointing them to Alex Hurst's excellent thoughts on the subject, and in fairness to them they tweeted about Alex's post - but the site still contains the line "Kathleen Hale describes becoming so obsessed with her hater to the point of confrontation."

For me, there's a MASSIVE issue in conflating 'someone who has an issue with your book' with 'hater' in the way Hale did, and in which people have continued to do since then. I lost a huge amount of respect for several authors who, when pointed to Alex's post, basically said "Oh well, I'm sure they were both at fault." The fact that it's still being mentioned getting on for a year later, and Hale's account is being linked to uncritically, makes me realise just how easy it is for an author with a big platform to label someone a 'hater'.

This is particularly upsetting me for two reasons. First, the Hale thing brought back really bad memories for me of two people who complained via e-mail about one of my reviews nearly two years ago. One of the ladies was the author of the book I'd reviewed, which I'd been quite critical of (but in a fair way, I believe - it certainly wasn't anywhere near as snarky as I'd been at other times, and I don't think I particularly crossed any lines even in my snarkiest other reviews!) The other was her sister-in-law. Both of these people were married to members of the House of Lords, and, therefore, were people I saw as quite powerful. Thankfully, they contented themselves with low-level sniping about the review. The owner of the site where I posted the review responded briefly, and I kept out of it in public, letting off steam to a few trusted confidantes in private. I have issues with anxiety which - due to events outside of the book world - were particularly bad at the time and it was one of the main things that led to me deciding to review only books I could say really positive things about. (This makes me even more sympathetic to authors who have to deal with negative reviews, etc, tweeted at them, by the way!)

Second, I was asked, alongside my friend Wei Ming Kam (who blogs at Rare Medium Well Done), to run a workshop about reviewing diversity in literature at YA Shot, the upcoming Uxbridge event being run by wonderful author Alexia Casale. I originally said yes but I'm starting to second-guess myself as to whether it's a good idea. We are including a "WARNING: controversy and uncomfortable truths ahead!" in the description of the workshop, but how truthful can we get? Both of us feel quite strongly about some books which are pretty beloved by many bloggers and authors. If we challenge what we feel are problematic representations of diversity, will we get called out?

I would like to think that people would give us the benefit of the doubt and believe that we're trying to stand up for what we believe in - but will we just get labelled 'haters' by the same ignorant people who fell hook, line, and sinker, for Kathleen Hale's article?

It's fairly common knowledge that I think the YA community is amazing - literally 95% of the friends I've made since moving to London 2 years ago are people I've met through bookish Twitter, and my social life completely revolves around book events and theatre trips/coffee/drinks with people I initially met at book events.

But given how much I love it, and adding in that as an adult white male I'm significantly less likely to face abuse that a person of colour, a woman, or a teen would (all my experiences on Twitter tell me this!), then it's not a great sign that I'm seriously struggling with whether to post this.

I'm going to have to, though. Partly because I've just rewatched Lucy the Reader's superb 'Be The Change You Want To See' video, in which she talks about a new direction for her Booktube channel, and it's excellent advice. I REALLY feel that we should be able to discuss issues and, if I'm letting myself be silenced by anxiety, I don't see how I can honestly advise others to do so.

Also, many of the American authors I'm following have been hurt and shocked by the success - in terms of positive reviews and award nominations - of a World War II romance which sees a Jewish woman fall in love with a Nazi concentration camp commandant, before converting to Christianity. Without having read the book, I can't see how this CAN be unproblematic, and if the success of a book like that doesn't SCREAM that we need critical reviews, I don't know what does. (Also, to bring us back full circle to the start, although I know at least one person has written privately to the author of that book about it, I've seen barely anyone try to involve her in the discussion on Twitter - because HOWEVER problematic a book is, it's STILL rude to do so.)

(For more about said book, I'll direct you to Katherine Locke and Sarah Wendell as both are significantly more coherent on it than I could be, and signal-boosting seems like the way to go here.)

What do others think? Is there a place for criticism? Can we have discussions about it? Do we feel that it's okay to talk about why some representations are bad/hurtful? I would love to think that we ARE able to talk about problems - I really hope that we can.