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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Zodiac Posts: CAPRICORN [2]

#WeNeedDiverseBooks b/c I rarely saw my older family in KidLit & then often as figures of fun...

I was surprised when reading through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on twitter that while sexuality, gender and race were prominent issues, no one mentioned the need for older characters in KidLit to be more three-dimensional, or for there to be more books where the child protagonist is raised by their grandparents or elders. I'm not the best at fitting my thoughts into 140 characters, so when I tried to find out why this was, people thought I was accusing the campaign of being ageist. Only one person who read my original tweet Interested in views on in fiction - didn't seem to cover too many older characters or portrayal of older ppl? recommended a Children's book that featured elders in a positive and respectful light. [I'd thought the "in KidLit" was implied by the use of the hashtag! Oops!]

So, here's another blog post inspired by the "maturity" aspect of life and literature, represented by Capricorn... because pretty pictures. And the challenge of doing twelve  different blog topics inspired by zodiac personality traits. 

So, after I had managed to clear up the embarrassing misconception that I was accusing an excellent campaign of being ageist, I managed to engage in some interesting conversations with people. It turns out, I'm not the only one who has noticed the absence of elders or a positive model of maturity or growing old in KidLit, and it intrigued me that while one person instantly understood what I meant, there were three or four others who misconstrued my question. Admittedly, my question was badly phrased. #HowBritishOfMe [!]

Are we blind to an aging population, and do we think that children are just too young to notice the old? 

The Guardian reported in October 2011 that the UK was one of the worst countries in the EU for ageism, with the belief that old age starts at 59, and that "youth" ends at 35. In Greece, old age was thought to begin at 68, and youth ended at 52. 

Daniel Boffey wrote, " the statistics show that, while there is admiration for the elderly, more people pity than envy those they regard as old, suggesting a perception that age brings weakness and unhappiness."

When so many children in less advantaged areas - the very children for whom literacy and education is so vitally important, and the very children who are the least likely to engage with either - are being brought up by grandparents, often single grandparents, or who have more contact with their grandparents than with their parents who are working and unable to look after their children without using their own aging parents for help with childcare, it's important that they too see models of family they can relate to.

When society is telling children to prize their youth (and innate within youth, the toxic concept of subjective beauty) more highly than anything else, including their own individualism and self-worth, then is it a wonder they have no respect for the elderly? Funnily enough, aging is an international issue, too. 

So what do we all have to look forward to, once we pass the end of youth? After all, when you get old, you lose the looks that you spent so much time perfecting as a child and young adult. The elders in society somehow don't feel the need to dress up and impress complete strangers in the street with the latest fashion trends. They talk a lot about their past, and try to impart out-of-date wisdom when everyone knows you can just google that shit. Which you're not going to, because you have facebook, and what's happened TODAY is far more important than ANYTHING ELSE EVER. 

Is this really what children and teens think, though, or is this view itself a stereotype of younger attitudes? According to GrandparentsPlus, 4 in 5 teens say that grandparents are the most important people outside their immediate family. 

Across the country, it is estimated that 200,000 grandparents and other family members are raising children who cannot live with their parents. This may be because of parental illness or disability, drug or alcohol misuse, imprisonment, bereavement or relationship breakdown. These kinship carers ensure that children stay within their families, providing the essential care, love and support they need. However, the carers themselves can often feel isolated and stigmatised, ignored by government policy and practice.
The Grandparents Plus Support Network brings together grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and other kinship carers to give them a voice, to share experiences, to find solutions and to tell government, children’s services, the NHS, drug and alcohol agencies and others what needs to change.

So why aren't they being championed in KidLit and YA as often as they could or should be? Where are these families, and where are the voices telling these stories? Why am I not telling this story? This story is my story, and yet I write about "norms" and two-parent families more often than any other type. I'm not even telling my story. I guess that for me, that's a personal thing that is quite private and often painful to expose to the critical eye of a reader who doesn't see the story I've written through the same filters as I do. Perhaps it's a protective instinct, of whom or of what I'm not entirely sure, and perhaps I'm afraid of what I might write if I did start writing. I don't know. It's not something I've ever really considered before. 

And yet... 

And yet, perhaps the antidote to a lack of self-worth among the younger generation and the lack of respect towards the older generation, not to mention the unnatural pressure put on children to look perfect and "respect their youth" by becoming over-sexualized from a disturbingly young age, is to encourage them to see getting old in a positive light. Just because you lose your firm skin and toned muscles when you age does not mean you automatically lose your value to society or your innate worth as a human being. It does not mean you stop contributing to your community and the lives of others, and growing old is not something to be afraid of. Even growing old as a single person is not the terrifying, lonely prospect we are all told it is. I know a number of fulfilled, happy, full-life-living over 70s, all of whom never married. They are the lucky ones, with a number of friends, active interests, and maintain various degrees of independence. 

Miss Marple, fictional detective created by Agatha Christie, was my childhood hero: older single/unmarried women solve murders, and then go home and have tea with friends! 

I also know older people who have been completely ignored, cold-shouldered and abandoned in their old age, living secluded, lonely lives because no one takes the time to knock on their door and find out if they would like some company and a cuppa once in a while. AgeUK figures show that a staggering one million older people go a month or more without seeing or speaking to anyone

Loneliness is a massive issue for people in later life in the UK. Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and 1 in 10 people aged 65 or over say they are always or often feel lonely – that’s just over a million people.
Shockingly, half of all older people consider the television their main form of company. -

In the UK, we live with an aging population whom no one seems to know what to do with - and I would suggest that tackling attitudes towards older people should begin by normalizing them and the variety and diversity of their lifestyles, with KidLit as a key vehicle for this positive portrayal.

So if children are reading books where it's funny that granny lost something and can't remember where she left it, or is always doing "hilarious" things like putting a goldfish in the kettle (read: has dementia), or infuriates Mum and Dad by mishearing everything they say, then the image you end up with is that getting old is a process that happens to other people, and when it does, should be laughed about. Old people are annoying, smelly, and forgetful. They are often deaf. They are often completely absent altogether. 

I've read books like this, and, as a girl brought up by her grandparents and great-grandmother, it was upsetting. I also find it a bit worrying that I can think of very few contemporary TV shows that positively portray older characters, whether those shows are aimed at children or not. With a few CBBC exceptions, though! 

I'm not the only one to have noticed this: here's a fantastic blog post from Lindsay McDivitt on Positive Images of Aging in KidLit, with an excellent list of points for writers about crafting older characters and how to (and not to) use vocabulary and illustrations. 

Debbie Reese has also recently blogged about the positive portrayal of elders in Obijwe culture as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the inclusion of Native American literature. She reviewed Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema, and it's exactly the kind of thing #WeNeedDiverseBooks is about. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Zodiac Posts: CAPRICORN [1]

Being Down-to-Earth: Realistic Character Development Over Time

I've decided to start with Capricorn, because the ideas for topics that I came up with for this general sign resonated with me after watching Season 3 of a TV show last night. My life is really very exciting. Clearly. Now, I know I've blogged on this topic before, but I think there's more to say. 

Showing the development of characters over a long period of time is a challenge, because if you were to keep a journal for two or three years, especially in your early to mid twenties, you would barely recognize the person who began writing their innermost thoughts all that time ago. If you begin with characters on the cusp of adulthood, or going through adolescence, as with YA novels, or with characters just emerging into the "adult" world and finding their feet, as in NA novels, the changes wrought in them by time and circumstance and the natural process of aging - which has psychological effects as well as physical ones - is something subliminal and subtle that even the character themselves is unaware of.  No one wakes up in the morning and feels twenty-one. Your concept of who you are is constantly in flux and completely relative to what is going on around you, and you do a great deal of your "growing-up" between the ages of 18-25, typically. Some people are 20 going on 50; others are 20 but still mentally stuck at 17 - but not in every area of their thinking and acting

On the other hand, there are some things that do permeate your subconscious from a young age, and even when you're not so young, and they do inadvertently have an enormous impact on how you are as a person. They can invade your thinking and your behaviour so completely that you're not even aware That Thing You Do is a subconscious response to That Thing That Happened When I Was, Like, Five. It's not even that obvious - it's a combination of things which inform and consolidate our ideas of the world, not a singular event (unless that event had a massive psychological impact). What is going to happen when Protagonist A's concept of normality collides with someone else's, who reacts to things in a different way, because of their not-so-dysfunctional upbringing? 

So imagine, Protagonist A has a dysfunctional family (as most protagonists do). The day-to-day atmosphere of that family is something which has an on-going impact on Protagonist A. You (as the creator and controller of Protagonist A) have decided that they are naturally quite shy and introverted, as a consequence of being bullied at High School and being ignored or used by Mum and Dad as a weapon against one another, as they go through a messy divorce. Protagonist A has never had a long-term relationship, though they have had a few before which didn't end very well. Protagonist A goes away to college, and meets Love Interest, but is being stalked at the same time by Crazy Obsessive Ex. 

Fine. It's straying into Mr Perfect Meets Miss Virgin territory here, but you've got a few issues to add a bit of a grittier edge, and you're trying to reflect a real situation. 

We have all of the angst and drama and the catalyst for general shenanigans, depending on the tone and style of your story, and ultimately, Protagonist A Grows Up and Finds Love and Lives Happily Ev- hang on. 

Supposing you were to fast forward the clock. What bits of their past has Protagonist A overcome now they are in a loving relationship with Love Interest? What have they brought with them? Which of their parents are they turning into as a result of absorbing mannerisms and attitudes and so on from a young age? Do they notice? How does their childhood come out in their actions as an adult, bearing in mind that, according to your back story for Protagonist A, they have had few positive examples of adulthood, few (if any) positive examples of a couple being A Couple, and few positive examples of parenthood? 

In what ways does Protagonist A do a better job, spurred on by Not Wanting To Turn Into Mum And Dad, and in what ways are they just kidding themselves? 

How do Love Interest and Potential Children respond, not really knowing the details of Protagonist A's background? It's a very different thing to seeing someone's parents and thinking, "Well, that explains a lot", and actually living through the experience of being in that family unit every day of your life for eighteen solid years. Now, obviously, it's not all bad. 


Honest. But there's no chance your character in a sequel novel is going to have it all together. Zero. Chance. 

The way they are in their late twenties or early thirties with kids is not going to be the same as the last time the readers (or you!) saw them. You need to take into account the fact that, as a person, your character has altered, and try to make those changes realistic in light of their back story, the first novel, and what you know has happened between the end of the first novel and the start of the second one. 

You need to strike a balance between the character being essentially the same, as in the same character the readers fell in love with in Novel 1, but also having changed in particular - and believable - ways.

This is the biggest challenge, and one I'm trying and perhaps failing to fully strike a balance with in my series. 

In my case, dealing with children and all the events that have torn his world apart and sewn it back together has affected Kristof quite significantly. He has mellowed a lot, and picked up traits from his wife Elsa, and is showing a bit more restraint as the weight of real political power and military campaigns and general courtly backstabbing takes its toll. He has also had to accommodate the needs of his four children, all of whom are individuals with their own personalities which will disrupt the original family dynamic as they grow up and push against their boundaries. Kristof had a very difficult and cold relationship with his own father, and is struggling not to be as harsh with his own children. He is willing to allow them to make their own mistakes and to rebel, but that is not because he's a "good father" - it's because he's a good manipulator, and, even though he loves his children, he wants to make best use of them as marital alliance assets, and also make best use of their powers. He's not going to flip out every time his children disobey him - he knows he's already on thin ice with his oldest daughter, Jola, as it is. She witnessed him doing terrible things to people over the years, including his abusive treatment of Gisa, his ward, and that has already driven a wedge between them. The fact that she is queen now is more of a reason for him to rein himself in, which was never his strong point. His explosive temper will break through the veneer eventually, and it will be pretty bad when that happens.

All of this character deconstruction has been an absolute nightmare - and I'm not sure I've got it quite right. That's a job for the editing, when I get around to finishing the first draft!

... Which leads me to my little rant about BBC series Robin Hood, whose character development is all over the place. [SPOILERS, PEOPLE. SPOILERS.]

It's a lot easier to maintain consistency when you're the only one in charge of the character. When several writers are in the pool for scripting the season, the danger is that in one episode or another they will pick on their interpretation and ideas for the character, and then use it to further their plot in ways that act to the detriment of that character. It's the classic conundrum of "how do I get from A to B in this episode so that C can happen next week?" 

It's easy to switch "episode" to "chapter" for all you plotters (and pantsers!) out there, although plotters may have the advantage in that their narrative and character arcs are neatly laid down, leaving less room for tangents. 

Now, I really liked the whole thing with Marian. [SPOILING HAS COMMENCED!!] I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow account of that. But what got me was the way Guy devolved in Season 3 - in particular the episode where he briefly gets to be sheriff - and doesn't learn anything at all. There's a blip in that Season where he is almost reduced to a predictable cartoon villain, whose actions are formulaic and flat. He is just doing the same thing, over and over and over. The surprising moments of depth in his character come out of seemingly nowhere, and you can't really see that developing naturally. It's all a bit abrupt - and Richard Armitage, kudos to that man, pulls it off in such a way that you don't really care that the writing isn't all that great. 

The other thing that really annoyed me was the complete lack of reference to Sheriff Vesey's sister after she fell in the pit of snakes. DON'T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THAT PIT OF SNAKES. #MedievalistProblems

The relationship between the Sheriff and his sister is explored briefly, and then there's a moving death scene which Keith Allen plays brilliantly... and then... nothing. The sister and her tragic early demise are NEVER MENTIONED again. Ever. And all that potential character development for the Sheriff is completely lost, and the sister is a completely wasted character. 

I'm not sure what that's about. 

I'm sure I could think of more examples - not just in that show, but in other shows (and books - including my own work, on occasions) where the plot is literally lost completely and a character's development gets stunted, flattened out into a temporary (if you're lucky) 2D version of themselves, or just afflicted by a case of Random Identity Crisis where they just forget key parts of their personalities in order to do something to move the plot forward. 

It mildly annoys me when other people do it. When I catch myself doing it, it fills me with white-hot rage. [<< one of my overused phrases - note to self - stop it!]

I will strive to do better. 

Anyone else find the same problems with character development over longer spans of time? Comment and let me know! 

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Zodiac Posts [Part 1]

After the blog-hop post, I've decided to do a series of posts around some kind of concept or theme - - I thought of doing the Zodiac... not sure why, just 'cos. I thought it was just another one of my whims, but the more I thought about it, the more fun I thought I could have. I had the idea of each Zodiac sign representing an aspect of writing, or a genre, or a trope... something along those lines. I'm not taking the Signs that seriously - I've just borrowed the personality traits of the Signs according to one site for convenience, and am not myself a believer in astrology, but I'm also happy to look generally at astrological influences in fiction writing and that sort of thing!

I'm up for this challenge... I was wondering if anyone has any other suggestions for posts on the following themes. I've thought up two per Sign... they may change, and I'm also open to other suggestions.

The people born under the Zodiac Sign Aries are curious, energetic and enthusiastic individuals, who want to initiate and make things happen rather than being mere spectators. The need for excitement push them into new territories and makes them extremely action-oriented.
 > Writing action and dynamic scenes
> Drama and the dramatic event: how do you write that pivotal moment?

Known for being reliable, practical, ambitious and sensual, the people born under the Zodiac Sign Taurus have an eye for beauty. They tend to be good with finances, and hence, make efficient financial managers. However, like everyone else, a Taurus also has both positive and negative traits.
> Making a living from writing: is that a practical dream? 
> How do you handle rejection and keep on trekking?

All Signs have dark sides as well as the bright sides, and the Gemini is no exception. People born under the Zodiac Sign Gemini have some distinct positive and negative traits. For example, they are clever and intellectual but they can also be tense and restless. To understand a Gemini it is essential to understand his/ her traits.
> The Twins: a trope in fiction 
> Doppelgangers: representations and tales

The Cancer-born are quite complex individuals, but fundamentally, they are conservative and home-loving people. They love to be in familiar surroundings and nurture their relationships.
> Writing about familiar surroundings: finding magic and inspiration where you live 
> Writing who you know: confessions of a writer (or two!)

Warm, action-oriented and driven by the desire to be loved and admired, the Leo have an air royalty about them. They love to be in the limelight, which is why many of them make a career in the performing arts.
> Writing royals: best depictions of royalty in fiction? 
> Writing royalty: who makes the top 10 best authors of all time?

Quiet undemonstrative and introvert, the Virgo are the waters that run deep. Wise, witty and well spoken, the Virgo have a good understanding of human nature and can effectively help people solve their problems.
> Deconstructing human nature: conveying personality through dialogue 
> Literary Fiction: what is it?

Kind, gentle and lovers of beauty, harmony and peace, the Libra-born are attractive people. However, in their bid to please everyone, they can rarely say no to anyone, and as a result, end up stretching themselves.
> The Scales of Justice: why should characters find redemption, and should your antagonists ever 'get away with it'? 
> Regaining equilibrium: how do you resolve conflict in your plots?

Mysterious and strong willed, the Scorpio-born easily grab the limelight as they have what it takes to accomplish their goals. Besides, they possess a magnetic charm that not many can ignore.
> Romantic heroes and brooding bad boys - how (not) to write them 
> Secondary characters who steal the show - good, bad, or really annoying?

The Sagittarius enjoy travelling and exploring what life has to offer. Adventurous that they are, the Sagittarius are always willing to take risks and keep the excitement levels in their lives alive.(see: 
> Travel writing in fiction: when you can't write 'what you know' 
> The Quest Novel: what makes a good one?

Capricorn is the Sign of stability, calmness and maturity. People born under this Sign are sensitive, sensible and secure in their own space. They not take mindless decisions but at the same time they will take well-calculated risks to get what they want.
> Writing family sagas - how do your characters cope with the passing of time? 
> Ageism in fiction and fictionalizing ageism

The Aquarius-born are strong and attractive individuals, who can think abstract and at the same time be practical as well. Their willingness and capacity to accept people as who they are make them sought-after company.
> #WeNeedDiverseBooks - how important is diversity in fiction?
> How can fiction help/hinder perceptions of people groups and individuals?

These are generous and emotional souls. Quite popular in their social circles for being a genuine friend to everyone, a Pisces-born values human relations the most and puts the people he loves above everything else.
> Spotlight on LitWorld - helping people through the power of literacy
>  Serious Fiction: Changing Lives through the Power of the Story

I may be adding ideas to these - and I'll be getting guest bloggers in on this too! Looking forward to interviews, features, general ramblings, and other cool stuff. 

Anything you want me to add, let me know! 


Friday, 2 May 2014

A Blog Hop

Before we go any further, and I unveil my plans for the next blog post series - which I am ambitiously naming THE ZODIAC POSTS - I've been handed something fun to blog about.

Charlotte Ashley, writer, bookseller, collector and historian has tagged me in a blog hop! Basically, this means that I get to answer four questions that she has set me, and then I will tag three others and set them questions. Fun times!

Without further ado, here are my four questions and rambling responses:

1) How different is the current (or final) draft of your novel from the original? What changed and why?

DONWIGHT is quite different to THE BOOK OF FATE, because although I really might put Fate and Nicodemus back in as the prologue/frame, I realised that the story itself was too clunky in terms of its mechanics. You don't need two frames for the narrative, for example - you had Fate, then the Faerie Kings - and I thought that given the need to market the book, it really needs to be saleable which means, not so niche and more accessible in terms of narrative style. Not only that, but I felt the novel length was too long in the original form. There are things that don't need to be n there until later, and characters who should be given more page time (like Fyn and Bard). I have NEVER liked Tristan and Lars as characters, because, when set against the stronger, well-rounded characters, both of them seem two-dimensional. So I set out to fix that, and ended up re-writing the plot to accommodate my character changes. Tristan has had to go completely, and that means I have more room to explore other characters who had more dramatic potential and an even more interesting backstory (which is more relevant to the plot). I've also shifted the emphasis on the main shadowy antagonist... whose identity has changed to tie up some rather interesting threads in the Faustine family history I never addressed in the original version.

2) If you could pick one book you'd like to see your book shelved next to, what would it be and why?

Oh my... well... any, to be honest. I'd be happy to see it on any shelf. Maybe Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose - that would be really cool. It would make me feel like it's a thinking fantasy. ;)

3) If you could write anywhere you wanted to, where would you go? What would your writing space look like? 

It would have... um... coffee... an unlimited supply of coffee. And all my books in one easy place. Also a window and sun. I'm easily pleased.

4) Your novel sells, becomes a best seller and you now have ten million dollars. The first thing you buy is...

Mosquito nets and pharmaceutical investment in lesser researched (read: not as lucrative) diseases, like leprosy, which affect a vast number of people in the Third World. Because the sufferers of these diseases are dirt poor and can't afford the drugs they need which would quickly cure them, the drug companies don't produce them or really research them, and it's largely up to medical charities and foreign aid to fill the gap. Malaria, spread by mosquitoes, is also easily treatable, and yet mosquitoes kill over 725,000 people a year compared to "dangerous" animals like sharks, who kill 10 people a year. If anyone missed it, Bill Gates declared a Mosquito Awareness week to raise awareness. I'd love to also invest in literacy programmes and access to education. Lots of money would go to LitWorld, for example, and their Stand Up For Girls programme in particular, which is awesome. If you want to contribute to this, you can donate directly, or buy a copy of the Library of Dreams anthology - all profits of the anthology go to that programme. 

For myself? I don't know... mew. A new cooker would be nice. ;)

Who's next?? I'm tagging some pretty interesting people to continue this blog hop -

Maya Starling, an NA fantasy author whose work (and dragons) I love, and who is currently looking for representation...

Robert Thier, historian and historical fiction writer, whose medieval adventure The Robber Knight is available in English, but who also writes in his native German...

...and finally,
Alex Rosa, the talented romance author of Emotionally Compromised.