Isn’t it all a bit rapey: Sansa Stark and the Line in the Sand

got_wallpaper__sansa__season_three_by_mcnealy-d5ujhgiTwenty-odd years ago, my mother performed a great service to the world of women (not to be confused with the great service to the world she performed forty-odd years ago).  While serving on a panel entitled Women in Fantasy & Science Fiction (I’m guessing at the title by the way), she picked a fight with George R.R. Martin.  Yeah.  THE G.R.R.M.  The topic was whether or not women can be warriors in speculative fiction.  Mr Martin argued that they could not, citing all the usual evidence: women are physically inferior by nature, biology, blah-blah-blah.  To this my mother said one word: FICTION.

This word was followed by several more but that was the gist of her retort.  What is the point of speculative fiction if not to speculate?  Why not envision a world where women can exist on equal level with men?  Unicorns, elves, magic, dragons—but not gender equality?

‘Ridiculous,’ snorted my mother to G.R.R.M.  ‘Ludicrous and short-sighted,’ she added.

I like to think my mother is the reason for Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth and Maege Mormont.  But there is a wider issue at stake here.  What is the purpose of fiction—particularly speculative fiction?  Should writers of fantasy and science fiction present a world that is recognisable to readers through the haze of magic, time, technology and space?  Or do we have a responsibility—indeed a mission—to remake the world as it could or should be?

And what do we do about rape?

This may seem like a sudden change of topic, but bear with me.  As a feminist fan of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the accompanying Game of Thrones television series, I tread a narrow rope bridge covered in slippery moss and sloppy bird shit stretching over an abyss.  He created some amazing female characters who are “strong” but also flawed in the same ways the male characters are.  These women struggle to pick a path through the moral morass (or in some cases blaze a destructive trail though it) just as the men do.  Some are victims of circumstance, some agents of their own destruction, some heroic—most are all three.  That is the beauty of Martin’s world and why we are all so in love with it.  The characters try and try again, fail and fail again but do their best to thrive and survive (though, of course, “thriving and surviving” means different things to different characters).

But isn’t it all a bit “rapey”? 

I love it when people use that word.  As if the actual noun and verb of it can’t be confronted, it has to be adjectived.  Rapey.  Rape-like.  Not actual rape, you understand, just a bit rape-ish.  Because of the truth of it is too much.  Too much truth.

This morning I read that The Mary Sue, feminist fan website of all things wonderful in the world of speculative arts and sciences, has decided to withdraw its support and promotion of Game of Thrones in light of a scene featured in the most recent episode Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.  A US Senator has called it quits, even Rolling Stone is raising an eyebrow.  Another woman was raped on television.  I watched the episode from over the edge of my quilt.  It was quite possibly the most upsetting thing I’ve seen on the series so far—which is an achievement.

Another woman was raped on television.  Enough.  The Mary Sue and Senator McCaskill have had enough.  I get it.  I really do.  I would never presume to draw someone else’s line in the sand.

One argument fans of the show have made is that the scene is not in the books.  Benioff and Weiss did it again the same way they did with Daenerys’s wedding night and Jaime and Cersei’s graveside reunion.  I totally agree with the complaints about Dany and Drogo, Jaime and Cersei.  Those moments on screen, so profoundly different from the books, really angered and upset me.  Last night upset me too, but not for the same reason.

Last night’s scene between Ramsay and his bride actually is in the books, it’s only the bride that is different.  What happened to Sansa Stark should have happened to Jeyne Poole who is masquerading against her will as Arya Stark.  The two scenes play out very similarly—almost exactly, but with one crucial change: Sansa for Jeyne/Arya.  Does it make a difference that it happened to a major character we love—a high-born character rather than a low-born one we’re not particularly attached to?  Hell yeah.  It’s far more painful.  I was sad for Jeyne in the books; I was devastated for Sansa on the tellly.  Benioff and Weiss upped the dramatic ante in a huge way.

Another woman was raped on television.  “Rape is not a necessary plot device,” argues The Mary Sue.  True.  Rape as entertainment should not be tolerated.  True.  But I defy anyone to describe last night’s scene as “entertaining.”  It was horrendous.  I have seen rape and sexual violence handled disrespectfully and in a way which makes light of, dismisses or fetishizes the experience.  When that happens, I am one of the first to scream out in protest.   And it does seem to happen quite a lot in fiction as it does in life.  But does this mean that rape and sexual violence have no place in literature, film or television?  Should we not attempt to represent it at all?  Where should we draw the squiggly, blurry grey line?

What do we do about rape?

This brings me back to my initial question on the purpose of speculative fiction.  I could just as easily throw this open and ask: what is the purpose of art itself, but I want to zoom in on speculative art because, to me, fantasy and science fiction are in a unique position to reflect or remake the world.  The best speculative art is a balancing act and the best artists mirror back to us truths about the familiar world around us in a way which shows those truths in a new light while also leading us down, or at least pointing the way toward, a different road.  Justice, suffering, identity, pluralism, equality, tyranny—speculative art explores these themes in tragic, comic, thought-provoking, life –affirming and world-changing ways.

Rape is a reality in our world. One in three women will experience sexual violence at some point in her life.  Not fictional characters, real women and real violence and real rape.  For many years, I worked as a rape crisis counsellor, educator and consciousness raiser.  Rape is not some amorphous concept to me, I’ve been on the front lines and seen the casualties.  For all its faults, Thrones strives to depict a truthful and brutally honest medieval-inspired fictional world which includes violence of all types.  If the intention is truth, truth cannot be ignored.  To ignore rape would be a disservice to those who have lived it.

But there are ways to creatively, sensitively tell the truth about sexual violence, include it in your narrative without perpetuating rape culture and misogyny and without glamour or titillation.  As a feminist and creative artist, I think last night got it right in an emotionally gut wrenching way.  The camera showed very little of Ramsay but focused first on Sansa, pulling us into her experience.  Then, rather than stay with her which could have been gratuitous, it pulled back to close in on Theon’s reaction as a way to mirror and model our own response.  It worked on me.  I was right there with him: frozen in tear-streaked horror as a girl I’d seen grow up was violated.

Was it awful to witness?  You bet.  Was it unnecessary and excessive?  Not if the writers want to stay true to the world they have created and to the vicious monster that is Ramsay.  Sansa knew what was coming.  None of us, the loyal watchers of the show, thought for one second that Mr Bolton was going to be as respectfully kind as Tyrion.  The writers practically held our hands as we all walked up those stairs together.  Could they have stopped the scene after Ramsay’s line about not lying to one another?  Possibly.  But this show has never before shied away from its own brutality.  Why would it start now?

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, a very darkly funny title when you think of it (too soon?), was a deal-breaker for many feminist fans.  I totally understand why, but I do not agree.  I find the casual, background images of violence against women on the show far more upsetting.  The tavern scene in Two Swords: while The Hound threatens to eat all the chicken, the poor tavern keeper’s daughter is having a very unpleasant time of it.  Oathkeeper: the Night Watch mutineers are putting Craster’s wife-daughters through the mill while Karl drinks wine from Mormont’s skull.  I find those casual, background incidents far more insidious than Sansa’s wedding night.

If you’re going to tackle sexual violence in a story, tackle it up front and honestly.  Images of sexual violence in art are upsetting and should always be upsetting, but I don’t believe they should be eliminated.  Silence is the cloak which hides the truth of what so many real women experience.  Do we black it out or do we depict rape with respectful honesty from the victim’s point of view?

Do I think Benioff and Weiss are guilty of gratuitous sex and violence?  Totally.  But last night I think they hit the right note for me, even if that note was discordant and horrific.  Does it turn me off enough for me to tune out?  No.  Because only half the mission has been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?  Tell the truth and tear the veil off the ugly secrets of humanity.  There is violence, suffering and horror.  Any fairytale can tell you that.  But once the truth is revealed, a good speculative artist should show us another way.  Give us dragons, needles, oaths to keep and beautiful wedding nights under the stars— as Dany and Drogo were in the books and should have been in the show.  This is more true to G.R.R. Martin’s novels.

I hold out hope Benioff and Weiss will not leave us to wallow in the mud.  I also hold out hope that Drogon will swing by Bravos to collect Arya and the two of them will make winter bleed fire all over the Boltons.  Here’s hoping.


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

images (1)

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.

She is Not for You: Sex Positive YA

I have many reasons for becoming a Young Adult Fantasy writer.  1) I love to write (duh).  2) I always have and still do mostly read fantasy novels (11-18 readership).  3) I find teenagers vastly interesting both individually and collectively (but not in a perverse way, let’s be clear).

imagesI also suspect I have a bit of an axe to grind.  An axe forged by Phillip Pullman, sharpened by Stephenie Meyer and then, more recently, sharpened again by Miley Cyrus.  Or, more accurately, sharpened by public response to Stephenie Meyer and Miley Cyrus and by my friend and fellow writer Janine Ashbless’ recent blog post about the film Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  (Younger readers be aware Ms Ashbless is a writer of erotica and that her blog is aimed at adult readers, but following this link should take you just to the blog post in question which contains nothing too “adult” in content.)

Phillip Pullman is one of my favourite young adult writers.  His Dark Materials is thought-provoking, heartbreaking and full of pathos with an honestly-presented hero and heroine who, as a reader,  I’d kill or die for at the heart of it.  Plus, Pullman deserves props for making marzipan sexy.  Honesty about the sex lives and desires of young women is a bit of a theme for Pullman which he explores not only through Lyra and Will but also through his Sally Lockhart character and Jenny in The Butterfly Tattoo/The White Mercedes.  Pullman’s women, as we feminists like to say, have agency.  They accept and celebrate their desire for sex and love.

But is this attitude appropriate really, for young readers?  Should YA authors be presenting sex positive characters and themes in our books?  Yes it is and yes we should.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

Besides being an author, I am also a teacher.  In many direct and indirect ways, I encounter attitudes toward teen sex on a regular basis.  Empowering young women to have the confidence to say no and take control of their bodies is, and should be, a priority in schools, in homes and in clinics.  Because, as a wise person once told me, young women will never feel the power to truly say no and mean it if they cannot also lay claim to saying yes and mean it.

And mean it.

That means admitting girls desire, want, fancy boys, get horny and feel the urge to act on it.  That means giving our girls role models in fiction who experience sex as an expression of their own love and passion and not merely as objects of someone else’s.  Their own bodies, their own desires and their own experiences which they can initiate, negotiate and celebrate.

Young readers of both sexes cannot get enough of this message and Pullman is far from the only YA author preaching a sex positive message for young people.  Stephenie Meyer has come under massive criticism for her representation of Bella Swan as a role model for young women.  It bugs me to no end that, living with her adult father, Bella acts the housewife.  However, no one can say that Bella does not know who and what she wants.  She fights fang and claw to get it.  In deference to conventional morality, Bella and Edward marry first but they have pretty explicit, glorious sex which she initiates, negotiates and celebrates.

As Ms Ashbless points out in her blog post, Clary Fray similarly pursues a physical and emotional relationship with Jace in The Mortal Instruments.  I have mixed feelings about the books for other reasons, but in terms of giving a positive message to young women about sexual desire, I can’t fault Cassandra Clare for the role model she gives her readers.

Respecting the sexuality of young women and teaching them to respect their own sexuality is crucial for the physical and psychological development of both sexes.  A girl who learns that she exists only to fulfill the desires of men and not herself grows up accepting a rape model of relationships.  A boy who grows up with the idea that men are the initiators of sex and that girls and women need to be persuaded or convinced to have sex will likely grow up a rapist.  And it colours our entire attitude about women about men and about sex.

Equus-Pictures-daniel-radcliffe-85023_350_506The recent trend toward depicting the sexual fantasies of young women in fiction and the extreme backlash which has accompanied it shows just how much we need sex positive YA heroines.  How many blogs, reviews and memes have  crucified the Twilight series?  The sheer volume and vehemence of the criticism reeks of misogyny, which is ironic when so much of the criticism claims to be feminist in nature.

Compare this to the outrage over Miley Cyrus’s sexy song and dance routine on the MTV Video Music Awards 2013.  People are incensed about her performance.  Little Hannah Montana twerking her perky butt all over the place and pleasuring herself with a giant foam finger.  Shocking!  Yet when Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe got his wand out on stage for Equus, he was widely praised for bravely challenging his child actor image (and for his rock-hard sexy abs).  And no one turned ex-Disney poster boy Justin Timberlake into a pariah for ripping off Janet Jackson’s top.

These out-dated double-standards belong in the bottom drawer with the knee-high argyle socks.

I hope that YA heroines continue to be the agents of their own desires.  I hope YA writers continue to publish books which explore the fantasies of young women.  And when I come across young men who scowl at “that sodding twinkly vampire bollocks”, I simply remind them: “these books are not meant for you.  These are the fictional fantasies of young women, and if you’re smart you’ll learn something from them, mate.”

Investigating Teen Angst and the Success Criteria for a YA Fictional Hunk

Today marked the final morning of lessons for another school year.  While many teachers let their students play games or put on a DVD , I interrogated my classes in the name of literary research.  The theme: what questions do you regularly ask yourself?

According to the gathering of experts at this past weekend’s Harrogate Crime Writer’s Festival, a good book should start with an interesting question to explore.  This, apparently, is the first step in creating a novel.  My previous creative strategy was to think up some really cool characters, get readers to care about them, then hurl endless mud pies of trauma in their faces to see what happens.  But questions sound like the basis of something more substantial.  I can work with questions.

merenoWhat kind of questions though?  I mean, I know the sorts of questions I obsessed about when I was a teenager but that was almost thirty years ago.  Do today’s teenagers think about the same sorts of things?  Turns out, they do.

Where do I fit into the world?  What’s going to happen to me?  Who should I look like?  Am I good enough?  What do others think of me?  How do I measure up to other people?  Am I liked?  What do I have to do to get where I want to be in life?  Do all good things have to end?  Why don’t I just go kill myself?  Will I ever find anyone to like me?  Should I really do this thing that so and so wants me to do?  Will they like me if I don’t?  What right do these people have to tell me what to do anyway?  Does all this crap really mean anything?   

I found it rather comforting to learn that teenagers have not changed significantly since the eighties.  In fact, I suspect they have remained fairly consistent since their invention in the mid-twentieth century.  I found it less comforting when I learned that thirteen-year-old girls still feel the need to “act dumb” to entice boys.  Grim.

These same thirteen-year-old girls had very definite ideas about the kind of boy their stupidity should attract.  While there are no real surprises on this list, I did learn a new term or two.  Again, as an adult writer of YA fiction I found it interesting to realise that teens never change.

Success Criteria for a Fictional YA Romantic Hero

(as decided by the girls of 8H1D1)

1) Tall.  Tall?  Apparently yes.  This was unanimous.  Thirteen-year-old girls in the 21st century still like to “feel protected”.  So, you still got some work to do there, Buffy.

2) Funny.  That’s better.  This was also unanimous and is backed up by Caitlin Moran who firmly believes that “if, after fifty years of sitcoms on television, you have not learned at least a few good jokes then you are fairly useless as a bloke.”

frankie-cocozza-feat bw copy3) Nice hair.  Naturally I asked them to qualify what they meant by “nice hair”.  Very short, neat hair is not acceptable.  It should be wavy, a bit long and slightly floppy.  But only if that suits the boy.  These girls then proceeded to point out three boys in their class with long hair who were not suitable.

4) A bit naughty.  Smartly uniformed boys who never get told off in lessons, always turn in homework and open doors for their mums are absolutely off the menu.   One young lady described her dream boy as “rough and ready”.  Aside from the amount of time these boys spend standing outside the Head Teacher’s Office, a drool worthy hottie should push the boundaries of school uniform: black jeans instead of trousers, tie worn off to the side, blazer always bundled into a bag.

tumblr_m7jh31lsy51rzrh78o1_5005) Cheekbones.  This surprised me, as it seems like such a subtle detail of appearance for teenage girls to focus on.  They were in universal agreement however.  A nicely sculpted pair of cheekbones is essential.

6) Not too hairy.  This is a bit of a wasted criteria element because, as I pointed out to them, there is little danger of too much hairy on a teenage boy.

7) A good “V-line”.  A what?  Apparently the “V-Line” is a side-effect of a well-formed six-pack.  The handy visual aid to the right shows in vivid detail what the v-line points to.  Who knew thirteen-year-old girls were so saucy?


So now, thanks to my Breaktime Lads and the Ladies of 8H1D1 I have questions to consider for my latest novel and a blueprint for Lewis Breeze, my fanciable anti-hero.  In terms of Floretta Deliverance Hughes, I am left with three interesting questions to explore.  What happens when a girl who believes she’d be better off dead accidentally succeeds then returns to haunt the world she hated?  Another character Rosie Lightowler, knows exactly where life is taking her, but what happens when tragic circumstances force her to completely re-think her place in the world?  For Lewis Breeze, a boy who has made not giving a toss his entire persona, can he find meaning and purpose to his life?

All of these characters, in different ways, will ask: “Why don’t I just kill myself?”  Ultimately this question is about finding something to live for–someone or something to live for and fight for and die for.  Maybe the real question then is: “What would you die for?”  Or possibly even: “How do you know you’ve found something worth living for?”

Les Peeps Mortes C’est Ooglie

33c9f33218a6cab6054375fb76129a80My friend Jo has a ghost living in her house.  This is a well known fact amongst our circle of friends.  In the wee hours of weekend hijinks, we have been known to assemble at Jo’s house for a spot of spectral provocation.  “Here ghosty, ghosty, ghosty…come out, come out wherever you are.”

I say “we” but I really mean “they”.  I have never and will never set foot in Jo’s house ever. Like never.  Because ghosts give me the major ooglies.  Just the idea of them completely terrifies me. They don’t even have to do anything.  By all accounts, Jo’s deceased housemate is utterly benign.  It doesn’t matter.  Ghosts creep me out.

This fact has sunk in with further clarity recently as I have been I watching French television drama The Returned on ITV.  Seemingly harmless ghosts just wander back to their homes as if nothing had happened causing emotional upheaval and confusion in slow moving, beautifully French cinematic style.  I spent the entire hour clutching my pillow for comfort.  Predictably, the most terrifying of these spectres is the doe-eyed little boy who says nothing.

Aha.  Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is their silence?  They just stand there staring at you all dimly lit and shadowy saying nothing.  I’m sure there is deep wiring in our ancestral DNA which links fight or flight with being silently stared at.  It’s predatory and it’s giving me goosebumps just writing about it.

the_ghost_of_jennet_humfrye_by_hernandez_henson-d5o5p6qOne of the most frightening ghost stories is Woman in Black.  If you have only seen the recent film and are now thinking I am a spineless wimp, get yourself to a theatre or a library.  The stage play and the novella it is based on are far more haunting.  Jennet Humfrye is a truly frightening ghost, and she never says or does a thing (other than waving her arms about once or twice and causing children to die).  She was a tortured soul in life whose death was a cruel olive on top of her liver ice cream sundae of an existence.

Hmm.  Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is the way in which they embody the life left behind?  Someone who lived their life in physical or emotion pain will leave an echo of this when they die.  Ripples in time, as Doctor Who says.  A ghost is unlikely to leave pleasant ripples in their time puddle.  In the case of Jennet Humfrye, she wants to pass around her horrific ripples by splashing about spectacularly and soaking everyone around her with as much pain as she possibly can.

Even if they aren’t silent, ghosts are just wrong.  They are dead and they don’t belong here.  They come in uninvited and uknown.  You can’t quite make them out so you’re not sure who or what they are.  Or if you do know who they are but you know they shouldn’t be there.  It’s like running into your teacher out of school when you aren’t expecting it, only ten times worse.  Ghosts are spectacularly out of place.

1178718_les-revenants-capturesIn The Returned, the ghostly main character of the first episode is a young girl who has no idea she is dead.  Her parents struggle to cope with the concept of a daughter they buried five years ago taking a bath as if nothing had happened.  The girl in question only becomes aware that something is wrong at the end of the episode when she comes face to face with her twin sister who is now five years older and no longer her living reflection.  The world has moved out without her and she has no place in it any longer.

The good old Ghost Who Doesn’t Know It’s a Ghost trope (Sixth Sense, The Others, all six seasons of Lost—sort of) plays beautifully into the uncertainty surrounding the discernible dead.  When I was a kid, around ten years old, I purchased A Question of Time by Dina Anastasio from Scholastic Books.  For some reason my mother got her hands on the book first.  Once she had read it she declared it too scary.  Mom hid the book and I was not allowed to read it.  Of course I found it and read it secretly in the dead of night.  Kids, listen to your mothers.  That book is quite possibly the reason why I find ghosts terrifying.  That and the ten or so other ghost stories I read as a child.

I suspect I might be an emotional masochist or psychological adrenaline junkie.  No roller coasters or bungees for me, but I will endlessly read, watch and even write ghost stories.   As long as I have my teddy close by.

Love’s Labour’s Art

A few years ago, I unofficially mentored a small group of my performing arts students who formed a band—a quite good band calling themselves Captain Backfire.

‘Get some good promotional photos,’ I suggested.  They were good looking lads.  ‘Business cards.’  They already had a website.  ‘A memorable tagline that will summarise what you’re about.’  Funk the Blues—because they were a blues-funk fusion band.

‘When and where is your next gig,’ I asked.

They answered.

‘How much you getting paid for that?’

‘Erm…’ they mumbled.

‘WHAT!’ I bellowed.

‘But there’s a cover charge at the door,’ protested the lead singer.

‘And who gets that?’


‘How many people do you think will come to that pub to see your band?’

‘Hundred,’ they underestimated.

‘What’s the cover charge?’


‘How much is a pint?’

‘Three pound.’

‘How much you reckon your “hundred fans” will drink?’


‘Do the math.’  They did the math.  ‘Your work is making the pub that much money and you will see none of it.’

‘But we’re having fun,’ argued the lead guitarist.

I don’t doubt you are, dear lead guitarist, but that is not the point. You are offering a service and you should be paid for it.  Can the pub landlord play guitar?  No.  He can’t fix his own plumbing either, so he pays a professional.  Even if that plumber really enjoys fixing drains, you still pay her.  You always pay the plumber.  You pay the piper too…and the drummer and the singer and the guitarist.   It’s bad enough our little performing arts department has to fight flute and spotlight to be recognised as a proper subject area without our leading stars disrespecting what they do as well!

I like to think their ears still ring from that little tirade of mine.  It was delivered with a high-level of technical projection.  I am after-all a drama teacher.  Incidentally, two members of the now defunct Captain Backfire play together in an even better band called Hunting Bears (music available for download, check out the website for gigs near you).

I delivered a similar lecture to our school’s art teacher with whom I frequently car-share.  He had agreed to take photographs for the restaurant where his daughter worked.  When I asked how much they were paying him he shrugged.  I nearly drove off the A1 in my indignation.

Recently Yorkshire-based writer and God of Well-Chosen Words (that is my title for him not a self-proclaimed moniker) Matt Haig gave his own lecture in a blog post entitled: “The Writer and Money.”  In the post, Mr. Haig vents about writer’s who write for money.  The heart of the argument, though I encourage you to read his post in full, is that writing and money do not mix.  His main irritation seems to come from writers who write just to make money and to debunk the assumption that writing is a “winning lottery ticket”, a phrase I recall him using in a previous, gloriously vocabularied tirade.

Writing – good writing – comes from a deep place. It comes from somewhere far inside us. It is a passion, and the etymological root of passion is to suffer. We head into the dark and mine our minds for jewels we never knew were there. Money belongs to the opposite space. It belongs to the material world, the world of surfaces, the unpoetic world of brash that surrounds us.” 

I told you he was the God of Well-Chosen Words.  And several other writers had some well-chosen words for him—many of them unduly harsh.  The harshest comments, I am sorry to say, were from my fellow Americans.  The Passive Voice blog posted select quotations from the original blog.  I was slightly amused/horrified by the lengthy debate over “dressing gowns” but mostly I was disgusted by the amount of vitriol inspired by Matt Haig’s perceived attack on taking money for art.

For me, making money from my art is not about finding a winning lottery ticket or becoming the next JK Rowling.  I’m not that naïve.  As someone with a theatre background, I know that for every Kate Winslet, there are hundreds of equally talented actresses who work union rates and are glad to get it.  That is the nature of the profession and I make it my business to demystify the glamour of acting for any student serious about pursuing a performance career.  My university professor Judy Hart told our graduate acting class (probably every acting class she teaches): “If there is any other job—ANY other job—you could do and be happy, then do it, but if this is what you have to do then go into with your eyes open and your head screwed on straight.”  Those might not have been her exact words but the sentiment is accurate.

Art is work!  For some it might be a hobby or a necessary creative outlet for coping with stress, but for most of the artists I know it is a trade.  If you’re a cake decorator and someone you aren’t related to or under threat of blackmail from requires a cake, you except them to pay you for it.  For ingredients, time and most of all expertise.  You pay lawyers, mechanics, doctors because you cannot do what they do.  Not everyone can make a sculpture or play an instrument or write a poem.  They might be able to shape clay, warble in the shower or put words on paper but that is like calling yourself a pilot because you found the UP button.

Earning money from my art is about respecting the work of all artists.  We cannot escape the fact that we live and work in a capitalist society.  Financial earnings don’t just symbolise the worth of our work, they are a material indication of how highly our work is esteemed.  How can I, a creative artist and teacher of the arts, disrespect art by not acknowledging that it is a job people get paid to do.