Adequate Drain

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n7This story is a definite departure from my usual: not set in Yorkshire, first person and real damn short. Shortest story I’ve ever written. As always, feedback is welcome!

I freaking hate locker rooms.  But where else am I supposed to go?  There’s an abattoir in Farmer City.  But I can’t, like, bike twenty miles to Famer City.  And what would I say: “hey, nice slaughter house—mind if I use it?”  Unlikely.

An adequate drain is crucial and this is the best place I could think of.  Call it lack of imagination.  Maybe I crave familiarity.  Maybe I like to punish myself.  Who am I kidding?  I so like to punish myself.

The school is dark and quiet after hours.  Creepy.  It shouldn’t be really.  Not to me.  What’ve I got to be scared of?  Bet we’re hard-wired to find silent darkness unsettling.  Evolution and crap.  Survival of the scaredest.  See, I pay attention in Bio.

Anyway.  Time’s wasting.  I look around.

“You’re alone, stupid.”

Force of habit.  Girls strip off while covering up.  Hide behind towels, sweaters, locker doors trying not to notice each other.  Like we can help noticing.  Comparing.  I don’t compare well.  Yet.

I peel my clothes off.  I’m sweating so bad everything sticks.  I take the picture, the bottle, and Michelangelo to the shower stall.  No cubicles obviously.  Health and safety!  God forbid teenage girls get privacy.  But boy howdy I got drainage.  I’m all about adequate drainage.

The girl in the picture looks like a bitch.  But there’s no mirror in the showers.  Obviously.  So picture bitch is my point of reference.  Every sculptor needs a model, right?  I set the bottle down, blue tack picture bitch to the chipped tile surround of the shower stall and pick up Michelangelo.  My tool.  My muse.  Or am I his?

My art teacher once said Michelangelo, started with a big, shapeless slab of marble.  Bit by bit he chipped away the excess until tadah: David.  Really, that’s all I’m trying to do.  Make me a David.  Be like Michelangelo.   I should have a wristband: “WWMD?”

I first wanted to use Mom’s fabric scissors.  Number of times I’ve watched her cut patterns to make something new.  Thick concentric lines on wispy thin paper indicating different sizes.  That’s what I’m doing really.  Cutting a new pattern.  Resizing.  Mom would totally kill me if I used her sewing scissors for this.  I’m not fabric.

I take up the knife/chisel I call Michelangelo and look down at the marbled slab of me.  Yesterday was legs.  Night before that belly and butt.  Tonight’s all about arms.

I don’t think anyone’s noticed yet.  But that’s the point.  I could do this all at once.  Get it over with.  If only!  Dramatic, overnight change wouldn’t go unnoticed.  Mom would notice.  She would freak.  Freak at her daughter the freak.

So I play the long game.  Small changes.  Piece at a time.

Right arm first.  Like painting your nails.  You’re meant to start by using your off-hand.  No idea why.  I make a fist and shake, letting the flab settle.  Man that’s gross.

Not for long.

I look at picture bitch.  Perfectly shaped arms flop in a lazy cross over her blonde head.  I angle the carving knife at my elbow and work down.

Michelangelo might be my muse but when I’m working I can’t think of myself as a sculptor.  I pretend I’m shaving.  Because that’s what it is really.  Shaving off pieces of me.  Can’t say it doesn’t hurt like hell though.  Cause it does.  But not for long.

By the time the knife carves out the curve of my armpit I’m already healing.  Severed halves of upper-arm puppy fat wriggle and struggle to reunite.  My flesh meets in desperate wrinkles like plastic wrap that just has to cling to itself.  But there is less of it now.  Less flesh.  Less fat.  Less clinging to me.

Lots of blood though.  Hence the need for drainage.  Hey!  I used the word “hence” in a sentence.  Thanks English teacher!  I have to sit down though.  Just til the throbbing stops which doesn’t take long.  I heal fast.  Obviously.

Meanwhile: bottle time.  I unscrew the safety cap on the acid.  Beside the enormous drain hole of the shower stall lies the triangular chunk of my discarded, disconnected flesh.  I half expect it to flop like a fish out of water.  But it doesn’t.  It just lies there.  I dribble acid carefully over the ex-piece of my arm which hisses then bubbles.  The acid gobbles up my tasty arm fat before trickling down the drain.


I wonder, not for the first time, if somewhere in the bowels of Greenup County is a sewage monster made of my cast-off flesh.  As quickly as I heal it would not surprise me.  What if it comes looking for me someday?  A great, white whale of sewage waste.  Moby Dick seeking Ahab.  I really don’t want to be Ahab. We read it in lit class.  It doesn’t end well for him.

Throbbing subsides and I work my left arm now.  It’s not like ear piercing: do one and it hurts so freaking bad you can’t face the second.  This is more like: one down so what’s the diff?  I’m used to it and I try to see the bigger picture.  Or should I say the smaller picture?

Smaller picture of myself.  Concentric circles of me.  Cutting out my pattern.  Paring me down.  Piece at a time.

But I will heal.  I heal fast.  Freak-sician freaking heal thyself.





Great YA Couples

images (2)With The Fault in Our Stars about to fall on cinemas across the world, fans of the beloved novel are queueing up and Kleenex is cleaning up.  I haven’t decided if I can or should go yet.  At first, I was worried because I love this book so much and couldn’t bear another Golden Compass horror.  But even John Green has blessed the film and praised its stars.  Now my hesitation is more about preserving my mental health than my sense of literary integrity.  I still have not fully recovered from Les Miserables.

The film has also generated a fair amount of discussion on great YA fictional couples.  Who are the great YA fictional couples?  What makes them so memorable for us?  How do they manage to stir our hearts and other parts so thoroughly?  I like a good love story as much as anyone and probably far more than some.  Love makes for rich motivation and objective in a story.  Romance gets the reader on your protagonist’s side.  For young adult readers, it can also have a profound impact on developing their understanding of emotion, sexuality and their sense of self.

Previously in this blog, I have expressed emphatically the need for sex-positive heroines in YA fiction.  I made vague reference to a few characters whom I believe embody those qualities in a way which nurtures young readers.  Now I want to explore which couples have made a real impact on me as a keen reader of YA fiction.  Some of these characters I discovered when I was, shall we say, a part of the target audience and some have come to me as an adult fan of YA/Cross-over books.  My favourite twelve YA fiction couples.



1)      Will & Lyra from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. 

If you have not read this trilogy run don’t walk to your nearest book store now because it’s a life-changer.  The relationship between Will and Lyra builds slowly, beautifully over the course of two books.  When they eventually get together it’s sweet, tender joyful, awkward, sexy.  And if you want tragic agony forget Romeo and Juliet or Hazel and Augustus—these two take the prize.


2)      Hazel & Augustus from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

 Eighteen-year-old me would have flatly refused to read this book.  I would never have picked up Twilight either.  My adolescent logic would have gone something like this: Everyone is reading it, Everyone is talking about, Everyone has probably just seen the film and not even touched the book, Everyone is a lying poseur ergo I will not read it.  Eighteen-year-old me would have missed out because teen me didn’t always realise that some things are popular for a reason.  This is popular for a reason.  Yes, it is heart-breaking and I sobbed many times—which is embarrassing if you’re listening to an audiobook whilst shopping in Sainsburys.  But it’s also funny and honest and so very smart.  Run don’t walk.


3)      Harry & Cho from The Order of the Phoenix by JK (1)

What?  Harry & Cho?  Not Ron & Hermione?  Not Harry & Ginny?  Nope.  Harry & Cho.  Not because I think they are such a great couple but because I have seldom read a more honest portrayal of first love.  Harry crushes on Cho from afar for three books, cursing Cedric for getting there first.  Then HURRAH Cedric dies and Cho is single.  The course of their relationship is unflinchingly truthful.  Once Harry gets Cho he really isn’t sure what to do with her.  She has her idea of what a Couple should be and Harry, who clearly has not read the Teen Romance Handbook, is delightfully clueless. From their first damp kiss under the mistletoe to their cringe-worthy first date in Madame Puddifoot’s Tea Shop to their break-up that was not so much a break-up as a fade-out.  Totally, hilariously honest.  Ron & Lavender are a close second.


4)      Colin & Maggie from The Unicorn Creed by Elizabeth Scarborough

Not strictly speaking a YA novel, but I read it when I was thirteen and again at sixteen and eighteen and twenty-five.  Definitely one of my favourite fantasy novels with one of my favourite couples at the heart of it.  What do I love about Colin & Maggie?  I love that they are friends first.  I love that Colin starts off with traditional ideas of feminine beauty which Maggie challenges.  I love that Maggie wins.  I love their love scene—both of them are ill, unwashed, imprisoned.  What better way to kill time and keep warm in an ice dungeon?


5)      Tiffany & Preston from I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Prachett

Tiffany Aching is one of my top five YA heroines.  She is someone who is quite thoroughly ordinary, but shapes her life, her world and herself into something extraordinary.  For three books, readers think Tiffany is destined for the baron’s son Roland—and they make an interesting couple.  But Preston is just perfect: funny, far too clever and brave.  My favourite human traits in one package.  I love that Preston chases Tiffany.  I love that it takes her ages to get it.  I love the last line of the book.


tumblr_lpzrq6KGE31qadd37o1_4006)      Eponine, Marius & Cosette from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

Love triangles are a classic trope of YA fiction: Edward-Bella-Jacob; Jace-Clary-Simon; Peeta-Katniss-Gale.  You can keep them because Eponine-Marius-Cosette beats all.  Again, not a YA target novel but I remember Les Miz from stage and page at the age of seventeen.  Eponine: first inhabitant of The Friend Zone.  Oh how I identified with her.  On My Own was my go-to shower song.  Who am I kidding?  It still is.  And, unlike Jacob, Simon or Gale she goes all the way for the one she loves.

7)      Clary & Jace from The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare

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Don’t judge me…ok, go ahead and judge me…but I liked this couple most when I thought they were brother and sister.  It made their romance far more dangerous and naturally far sexier.  Forbidden love doesn’t get much more forbidden.  As a couple, I like the fact that things start off damsel in distress-knight swoops in to save the day but evolve into something far more equitable as their relationship grows.  He saves her, she saves him, he kidnaps her, she plunges an angelic sword through his chest then they save the world together.  Epic stuff.  I also like the way sex is honestly and various presented throughout this series.  Clare shows us sex used for power, for control, for comfort, for fun, even as something holy and redemptive.


8)      Michael & Lina from The Twelve Dancing Princess adapted by Andrew Lang.

Sometimes only a bit of storybook romance will do.  I have read various adaptations of this Grimm fairytale but Andrew Lang’s is my favourite—possibly because it was read to me so many times as a child.  I love that Lina and her sisters take joy into their own hands—sneaking off night after night for clandestine dates with handsome, captive princes.  I mean, how sexy is that?  And the classic princess-pauper class divide is here with Michael a mere gardener whose magic flowers win the princess’s heart.  Meanwhile, Lina risks everything because she does not want Michael to become just another love slave of the magic cave.  Beautiful stuff.


9)      Eilonwy & Taran from The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

One of my most beloved books from childhood and one which I think has the most to offer young readers.  The quest for identity is central to YA fiction.  Why am I here?  Who am I?  Where do I come from?  How do I live my life?  What am I supposed to do with myself?  When can I start to do that?  These questions live in the hearts of all young people and it is the job of YA authors to help them make sense of the questions and the answers.  Orphaned at birth, as far as he knows, Taran struggles throughout five books to figure out who he is.  At first, he seeks only to learn who his parents are.  When he meets Eilonwy his search becomes far more important as he yearns to discover that he is someone worthy of her.  For her part, Eilonwy could have cut his efforts short sometime in book three but then neither of them would have been able to make the choices they do in the end. Oddly, I remember the fourth book Taran Wanderer being my least favourite as a child.  Re-reading them as an adult, I found it the most profound and interesting of the series.


10)  Marco & Celia from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’m still in the throes of passion for this book which I read for the first time last month.  Visually stunning, emotionally wrecking and so damn romantic it hurts.  As a couple, Marco and Celia are one of those die for you, kill for you, burn down the world just to roll around in  your ashes kind of forever loves.  Poetry, wine and flowers might be acceptable tokens for some lovers, but these two give each other funky clocks, magical ice gardens and pull down the stars—literally.  Sigh.


11)  Jo & Laurie from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I might be alone in this, but does anyone else want to dig up Louisa’s grave, shake her bones a bit and say: SERIOUSLY?  I love this book.  Little Women means a lot to me.  But SERIOUSLY?  Laurie winds up with Amy?  A-MY?  And Jo marries some old German dude?  For REAL, Louisa?  No way.  OK, I agree that Jo should not have taken Laurie’s proposal right away.  She needed to grow up.  He needed to grow up.  But once they both matured they would have been great together.  I don’t buy it.  I don’t like it.  Let’s re-animate Louisa’s corpse with some Voodoo mojo and make her sort it out.  Who’s with me?


12)  nou_0711_seph_call_243x317Sephy and Callum from Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

This is another run don’t walk sort of book.  I think it should be required reading for the planet.  Sephy and Callum make my list because their love story is so damn messy.  There is passion, friendship, affection but also ugly prejudice, uncertainty, violence, betrayal, cruelty.  Their defining love scene is not just awkward it is uncomfortable in many ways.  But ultimately it is a love story.  The complexity of it makes it all the more memorable and real.


I apologise for the hetero-bias of this list.  I wracked by brain trying to come up with queer couples that have impacted my reading and came up with nothing.  Willow and Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which isn’t a book) or possibly Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings but their additions seemed lame and forced.  My mother always says I read the wrong stuff.  Now taking suggestions for Queer Romance books.


A Magpie With No Shame: Unpicking Creative Process

thieving-magpieMy Deputy Head Teacher would be dead proud of me for using the term “unpick”.  I think it’s her favourite word.  Ever.  “Let’s unpick this.”  A catch-phrase deserving of a t-shirt.  And as I sit here waiting for my agent to read and respond to the first draft of my second novel, I feel a real urge to unpick.

One of the first questions creative people are asked, when they produce something worth commenting on, is “where/how/why did you come up with that?”  The answer can be complex.  Sometimes I’m not really sure where/how/why I came up with that.  Sometimes I look at the words on the page and genuinely question if they are mine because I really don’t remember writing that bit.  Where/how/why did my creative process spit that up?

I vaguely remember at University reading Charles Bukowski (someone forced me to do it) and I think he likened his writing process to having a really good poo.  Either that, or he said something different and I said: “no it’s like having a really good poo.”  My recollections of the nineties are a bit hazy but I’m pretty sure whatever I said was genius.

One thing I do know about my creative process is that I am a magpie with no shame.  Someone dangles a bright, shiny idea and I grab it.  I often joke with my students, who worry hugely about someone stealing their ideas, that you should definitely steal each other’s ideas.  “Take ‘em,” I say.  “Make ‘em yours.  I myself have not had an original thought since 1985.”  Then I have to explain carefully about plagarism.

Law suits aside, I am a big fan of the magpie creative process.  In fact, I’m going to call it that: The Magpie Creative Process. If I ever get to name my own company or anything, it’s going to be Magpie.  Magpie Records.  Magpie Publishing.  Magpie Pictures.  Magpie Inc.  Or possibly even Magpie Ink.  It could be a publishing company, magazine and tattoo parlour.

So what is The Magpie Creative Process?  Is it safe?  How does it work?  Can I do it?  Can I use the name Magpie Ink?  The answer to all these questions is “Yes.”  Except, of course, for the last one.  Magpie Ink is mine.  Hands off, you thieving bastards.

The first rule of Magpie is definitely talk about Magpie.  I use ideas from the world around me all the time: people’s lives, people’s looks, people’s names.  Most are so heavily masked in make-believe that even the person I magpied (yes, it’s a verb now) would probably not recognise themselves.  But occasionally the resemblances have been so obvious that I felt permission should be granted first.  Truman Becket, a character in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs, is the name of my friend’s son.  With a name like that how could it not end up in a plot?  I explained to her that I wanted to name my villain after him.  She said: “fine, as long as he doesn’t murder puppies in the book.”  No dead puppies.  Check.

One of my former students appears in both my books (Oliver Ford in A Circle of Lost Sisters and Seb Streeter in Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs) in a slightly diluted form.  He asked to die horribly if I used him.  I’m afraid I have not granted that particular request.  Yet.  (mwahaha)

My insistence on asking permission is less a legal issue than one of courtesy.  In real life Truman Becket is a cherubic five-year-old living in America.  My Becket is a mentally unstable nine-hundred-year-old Yorkshire monk.  Name and eye-colour is all they share.  No chance of libel or lawsuit really.  But she’s a friend.  It’s an unusual name.  Magpie values courtesy.

My next rule of Magpie is start with what’s close.  Or who’s close.  Some writers write what they know, I tend to write what other people know but do it in a way which makes them quite pleased I used their idea rather than really annoyed that I magpied their brain.

For both of my novels, my family started me off.  Lost Sisters was inspired by my daughter Freya’s obsession with wolves.  After I finished Lost Sisters, my husband Paul suggested I leave the werewolves for a while and try a ghost story.  In the manner of one blindly throwing a dart, I asked Freya: “How long has my ghost been dead?”  She replied instantly: “A hundred and thirty years.”  Right, late Victorian.  I can do that.

After rolling ideas around in my head for a few weeks, I shared them with yet more family.  I find it helps to get them drunk first.  My brother-in-law Rob came up with the name Burly-the-Wath because he bicycles past a town called Wath and he thought it was cool because it sounds a bit like Wrath.  (Like I said, get them drunk first.)  My father-in-law Mike deserves credit for creating most of the Truman Becket-Tom Street myth, though he claims he remembers none of it even after I showed him the notes I scribbled while he was talking.  Others I have magpied include my other brother-in-law who runs a forest burial trust, the librarian at my school who shared photographs of the nineteenth century library where she once worked and the dearly departed, never forgotten lady who gave me my first job at a bookstore and wore so many bracelets on her arms it was difficult to hear her if she gestured emphatically while speaking.

Never be afraid to ask questions.  This is a rule for life really, but it’s also at the core of Magpie.  Talk to people.  Tell them about an idea you have and listen to what they say.  Then use it.  Or not.  Magpies can reject that which is shiny if it doesn’t suit the nest.

Magpies are Green.  Not green in colour but Green environmentally.  Magpies Reduce, Reuse and (above all) Recycle.  The idea of a Norn-like magical trio of women connected to a school was one I originally had for Lost Sisters.  In every school three people always seem to know everything that goes on: the secretary, the librarian and the caretaker.  I loved the idea of making these three people the legendary all-seeing sisters.  But it didn’t quite fit the story.  That nest didn’t need them.  Rather than reject the idea, I re-used it for Dead Maiden’s where secretary, librarian and caretaker became Crone, Mother and Maiden of my witch coven.  Magpies know there’s always another nest.

Pride is for eagles, not for Magpies.  I know writers who never show their work to anyone.  Possibly this is out of fear.  I have shown my writing to people hundreds of times and each time felt like part of me was going to die.  I can’t watch but I can’t look away.  It’s a terrifying train wreck.  But I do it because other people make me a better writer.  At first I needed the reassurance that I was not wasting my time.  That I had something to say.  Now I want specifics.  Do you care about the characters?  Does the story make sense?  Are you scared?  Did you cry?  Do you believe that relationship?

The first thing I say to Beta Readers is: “I am not precious about my work and I am not too proud to accept criticism.”  To their credit, my youngest Beta Readers, who are also my students, rise happily to this challenge.  In fact, they’re bloody lucky I have a thick skin and can’t put them in detention on the grounds of harsh feedback.  Irritatingly, they can also be inconsistent.  Too much description.  Not enough description.  Love the action.  Too much action.  Needs a vampire.  Don’t you dare add vampires.

When presented with many sparkly things, clever magpies select only the right ones for the nest they’re building and saves the rest for another day.

Be your own Magpie.  Picking and choosing from my own life is probably my greatest resource as a writer.  This is not news.  Every writer does this.  It’s instinct.  Like swallowing your food after chewing.  Only, after writers chew through the events of our lives, we write it down.  Then we swallow.

When my husband said “ghost story” I remembered something that haunted my childhood.  In a town very near the one I grew up in was a high school surrounded by cornfields.  Across the road from the school was a graveyard.  A graveyard!  As if schools aren’t terrifying enough.  How could anyone concentrate in class when, at any moment, the dead could rise up across the road and invade the cafeteria?

As soon as I knew I wanted to write a ghost story, I thought of that school.  The history of St Beckets sprang up from the idea of a school across from a churchyard.

Patient magpies watch attentively, listen alertly and wait for the right moment to dive.  All artists are professional watchers.  Actors, painters, musicians, dancers, writers—we all watch.  We’re watching you right now.  Everyday.  It’s what we do.  And if we’re not watching we’re listening.  To every word you say.  To the way you say it.  To the look on your face.  We watch.  We Listen.  We take.  And we’re pretty darn shameless about it.

Magpies adapt.  By now you are probably sitting there thinking: “Aw, hell!  You’re not very clever or creative.  You just takes magpieother people’s stuff and makes it you own.  You’re no better than Shakespeare!”  Well, allow me to retort: umm…yeah, kinda.

I freely confess to being a shameless magpie with my creative process.  My mind swoops and soars overhead looking for glittery people, sparkly moments, shining images.  I listen out for golden words and silvery phrases.  I take what I need to build my nest.

But theft is not the magpie’s gift.  It is adaptation.  Magpies don’t dive into Tiffany’s and peck out something precious and valued.  We take things others leave behind.  Beautiful, horrible, painful, delightful, funny things which lie unnoticed or unused or deemed too inappropriate for public consumption.  We shamelessly take them and shape them into a world of our own.  We make magic from left-overs.

Making magic from left-overs.  That should be the catch phrase of Magpie Ink.  Deserves a t-shirt.