The Opposite of Popular

The online home of alleged author Victoria Leybourne

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2016 Week Forty-Five: *flailing*

If you thought I’d be relaxing this week after sending my manuscript to my editor a week ago, you have no idea how my brain works. That’s okay: neither do I.

Anyway, it turns out that what I do after finishing – or at least reaching a built-in pause in – a big project is… everything. This week I’ve had a huge ridiculous burst of productivity, of the type that I could have used a week or two ago when I was, like, face-down on my sofa trying to coax myself into at least turning the computer on. Here are some things I have done:

Discovered felting

I impulse-bought a kit in Hobbycraft and made this little dude.

a felt polar bear with a knitted scarf

Quick question: WHY DID NONE OF YOU TELL ME THERE’S A CRAFT BASED SOLELY ON REPEATEDLY STABBING THINGS?? I can channel my rage into something cute! …Wait, never mind, I think I get it.

Redesigned the cover for Venetian Masks, again

Okay, look, I had to remake it, because I needed a design that included a spine and back cover, and all I made last time was the front cover. But I will admit to getting carried away:

a water colour mask on a background of a watercolour painting of a galaxy, with gold text

the galaxy continues over the spine and back cover, where there is also a gold swirl above the blurb

I’m pleased with it, though I’m sure I’ll fuss over it some more before publication! (And replace the Lorem Ipsum blurb with actual words, of course!)

More website stuff

I told you guys a couple of weeks ago that I bought At the same time, I also bought – basically because I get a ton of hits from people searching “opposite of popular”, since this site is, and I wanted to see if that would work for something I’d actually like to get search results for! The site has an “Under Construction” page covering it at the moment, while I work on it, but here’s a little preview:

screenshot showing the layout of my new website - the header says

I’ve learned a lot about WordPress and GIMP this week.

Plus, I also wrote this epic blog post about the new Beauty and the Beast trailer and this one about Wattpad futures. And, you know, went to work. It’s amazing how much the aspiring writer can get done if writing is removed from the equation.



2016 Week Twenty-Eight: The Naughty Princess

It’s been very hot this week and when it’s hot my brain tends to overheat and turn to sludge so I thought we’d have a look at something from my bookshelf.

a book with a plain green cover: the naughty princess by anthony armstrong

I found The Naughty Princess by Anthony Armstrong at a book fair when I was a teenager and paid 75p for it, which was a bit of a steal because it’s one of the best books ever. First published in 1945, it’s a collection of almost Wodehousian humorous re-interpretations of fairytales, so it falls pretty squarely at the cross-section of two of my interests.

The illustrations are by A K Macdonald and they’re quite lovely:

an illustration of a woman in a long white dress sitting beneath an archway overlooking a garden. Caption: “She was not really bad-looking, her father decided – an understatement which, if openly expressed, would have resulted in challenges from at least half a dozen young knights.”

a fairy appears to some men wearing feathered hats and tights. Caption: “'Well boys, what can I do for you? Ask for anything! Old fairy custom and all that...!'”

But the real star here is the writing. The stories are funny both in terms of the beautifully cynical way Armstrong has looked at fairytales and in the style of his prose. In the first story, ‘The Pack of Pieces’, King Plimsoll of Waterline decides he has to marry off his daughter because she and her ladies-in-waiting keep hogging the bathroom in the mornings. He goes to discuss this with his Acting Vizier (the actual Vizier has been turned into a monkey puzzle tree and “even the Queen was forced to agree that in Affairs of State something more was required of a Vizier than a reputed ability to puzzle over-enterprising monkeys) and discovers him dictating to his “extremely pretty young stenographer”:

[He] was giving his mind to it so thoroughly that he had her sitting on his knee so as to miss nothing that fell from his lips.

He rose instantly in the presence of Royalty and the damsel a few seconds later gave a low curtsey – finding herself, indeed, in the best position for it in that she had been abruptly spilled on the floor.

“Really, Malan!” began the King mildly, for he was pretty easy-going as far as his very valuable Acting Vizier was concerned. “Must you start that sort of thing so early?”

“It is never too early for a loyal Vizier to start work,” countered Malan, swiftly, “and as Your Majesty observed, I was dictating a confidential letter which I did not want overheard.”

“Oh, I see… Well, let that business drop for a moment. I want to ask you something privately.”

The dropped business got up from the floor and retired with another but better-planned curtsey to her own office.


I laugh at “dropped business” every time.

Of course, I have to give a mention to Armstrong’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast which appears here as ‘Presents for Princesses’. A king heads off on a journey and promises to get each of his three daughters a present. One asks for a husband, one for some underwear and the youngest (and most calculating) only for a rose and her father’s safe return , though she rather suspects he’ll pick her up some jewellery too. The king manages to get hold of a prince who’s been turned into a frog (he travels in a “Royal-Box-With-Holes-In-The-Lid”) and the underwear (though there’s some confusion over that and it transpires he’d asked for “braziers”) but the rose proves a bit tricky – until they happen to stumble on a beautiful garden full of them, of course.

a rose and a necklace. Caption: "the second gift: a rose"

The garden’s owner, naturally, turns out to be a strange and ugly creature, but unlike the Beasts of old he’s prepared to hand over the rose in return for being allowed to come with the king and watch him present it. On arrival, he proposes and, to everyone’s surprise is accepted:

For the previous evening [the princess] had found in an old history book the story of an ancestor of hers, a certain Great-great-aunt Beauty and her husband King Beast, and she guessed what no one else had, that Chunk was only a Prince in disguise who would resume his original handsome shape as soon as a Princess married him.

The frog turns into a prince, the sister who wanted the underwear is so keen to show it off that she attracts a prince (or several) of her own, and there’s a triple wedding.

Indeed, the only snag at the wedding was that nothing happened to Chunk. Fania had been too clever for once, for Chunk wasn’t suffering from a spell. He’d been like that from birth and nothing, it seemed, could be done. People continued to avoid him, and for once he couldn’t complain that even his best friends wouldn’t tell him why. A man’s best friend if his wife, and he was always hearing about it.

This book should be better-known! Although it’s not particularly rare, I don’t think, and there seem to be copies of it on Amazon UK and AbeBooks if anyone’s interested. I’m very glad that I stumbled across it and haven’t managed to lose it in any subsequent moves.

Well, that’s all from me for this week. I think I’ll go and melt quietly in a corner somewhere.


2016 Week Twenty Four: Resurrection of the Author

I’ll be honest with you, guys, I’ve been stressing out again this week – amazingly, not about writing! That’s actually going pretty well. I’m piecing together bits of various drafts of Faustina/Venetian Masks and, aside from the 2000-word scene I wrote from scratch the other day and then cut almost immediately (WHY) it’s coming together pretty well at the moment. I think. What’s stressing me out is boring adult stuff, the kind that’s so dull it’s not worth blogging about. So I’m going to treat (!) you to some more of my ramblings about writing instead.

Those of you who have been sensible enough to avoid getting Literature degrees might not be aware of the concept of the “Death of the Author”. Wikipedia calls it “a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes” and I see no reason to contradict it. That link will give you a more intelligent summary but basically what the essay argues is that texts (books, stories, poems etc) should be interpreted based only on what you, the reader, see in them, not on anything you might know or assume about the author.

For example, if you read The Chronicles of Narnia with an eye on the fact that C S Lewis was a Christian, you might interpret a lot of elements of it through a Christian lens: Aslan’s death and resurrection representing those of Jesus and so on. Or, if you think about the fact that Shakespeare (and his sources) were writing about Richard III under the regime Richard lost to, it might shed a particular light on Richard being presented as a villain. Those things are the context Barthes wants critics to ignore, in favour of concentrating on the text itself.

It’s okay, you can all stop taking notes now!

Over the last few years, I’ve been making an effort to forget about stuff like this and remember how to just read a book for fun like a normal person. But I still find “death of the author”, in particular, very interesting. I just think about it in terms of regular reading. That is, how much should what I know about an author and their intentions – i.e. what they think their work means – affect how I read their work?

There are a few sides to this. Firstly, there’s what you might know about an author as a person. For instance, if you knew an author had been convicted of violent murder, it might be difficult to enjoy their cosy, tea-and-cake-with-the-vicar mystery series. Or, a less alarming example: I always feel like I can’t be objective about anything someone close to me writes (even in my own head – obviously actually giving feedback is a whole potential minefield of its own!) because I’m not reading it in the same way I would read a book or story I came across randomly, I’m reading it as “something X has written”. Even without consciously meaning to, I’m looking for pieces of that person in the writing, thinking about how much it sounds like the way they talk, or doesn’t, or any characters or situations I recognise. I’m being nosy, basically. I know how much of me ends up in my writing and how much people could find out about me from it if they knew what they were looking for. To put it the way I would in an essay: I interpret the text within the frame of the person, not as an independent entity.

It’s the same reason I used to be very, very secretive about my writing around people I know, while blasting it all over the internet in the hope of feedback from strangers. I suppose I think I’m still a little evasive about it, compared to other writers-in-training that I’ve come across. I do tell people I write, but only a few people know what or where to find it. I want to know how it reads if you know nothing or next to nothing about me, because I’m making the assumption that when (haha) I’m a popular and widely-read author, the vast majority of readers won’t know me.

Of course, it won’t have escaped the eagle-eyed amongst you that you’re reading this on my blog, where you can both learn more about me and access my writing. And that’s what’s changing – authors aren’t the distant figures they used to be. Even a couple of decades ago, the most you were likely to find out about an author was that they lived in the South of France with a husband, two kids and a Jack Russell, as described on the dust jacket. But now, along with other creators like musicians and film stars, authors are increasingly expected to be available to their audience online.

What that means is that the internet is changing reading in much the same way that it’s changing writing. A book is no longer just what’s between two cardboard covers. The best example of this must be Harry Potter. JK Rowling famously releases new details about her wizarding world all the time, starting with answers to fan questions and building up into the extended universe stuff on Pottermore. These revelations range from details about the characters themselves (Dumbledore’s gay) to background information about the world, but they’re all things you wouldn’t know from reading the books themselves. Where once you would have had to fill in those details yourself, if you wanted them, now you can get them straight from the horse’s mouth.

I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing, necessarily. I think there are things about it that are either good or bad depending on your point of view. I imagine that, for every Harry Potter fan who’s thrilled to learn something new about their favourite series, there’s always another one who’s disappointed to be “wrong” about something. (I actually used to ship Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall!)

But are they wrong? The “death of the author” argument is that, once an author releases their work into the wild, it’s up to the reader to interpret it. They can’t influence you – either directly, by saying “this means that”, or indirectly, just by having existed as a person with beliefs during a time period. I’ve always liked the idea that it’s actually the reader who does half the work, bringing their unique values and experiences to the text in order to create a reading of it that’s unique to them. So, while the geeky fangirl in me wants to keep picking up these little breadcrumbs of information that authors drop, I wonder what it means for reading. The pushy fellow fan who keeps telling you that your understanding of the text is wrong is out of line, even if they happen to be the author. Anything they needed you to understand should have been clear in the text already – anything open to interpretation is open to interpretation by anyone.

I can think of one really good reason why authorial will shouldn’t be absolute, and her name is EL James. I’ve seen passages from 50 Shades compared directly with definitions of rape and pamphlets about abuse and come out looking pretty gross. I read it as a story about a terrible relationship between a naïve young woman and a manipulative monster. Other people – including EL James – see it as a passionate love story. And that’s okay, at least on a “relationship between the text and the individual reader” level (I think a lot of harm has been done by the way it’s marketed, but other people have covered that way better than I could). The problem is that James’ sense of ownership over the text, of a right to control the way others interpret it, is so strong that she feels justified in attacking rape survivors who question her about it. No one really expects her to apologise profusely and donate her vast and growing fortune to a domestic violence charity, but quietly accepting the right of the reader to interpret the text based on what’s in it and their own worldview, without reference to the author’s intentions, is also an option.

This picture of a fort built out of donated copies of 50 Shades in a charity shop is only tangentially related but I am very fond of it. source

This picture of a fort built out of donated copies of 50 Shades in a charity shop is only tangentially related but I am very fond of it. source

Of course, Rowling and James (whom I would not lump together in many contexts!) can get away with doing pretty much whatever they want. Down at the shallower end of the popularity pool, authors who can’t let go are harming themselves as much as readers by responding angrily to reviews of their work. Sometimes they just bash the reviewers, but often they’re “correcting” misinterpretations. I’m not here to tell other people how to live (although, you know, I strongly suggest not doing that) but again, this sort of thing seems to miss what’s beautiful about reading as a medium: the opportunity to bend a story around yourself as a reader, even if you find things in it you don’t like while doing so. (You can all remind me of this when I’m devastated by a negative review of Venetian Masks, I guess!)

This is a difficult post to conclude. I’m not really trying to argue anything, I just have a lot of opinions about writing and these are some of them! But what about you? Do you think the internet is changing the way we read? Does an author have the right to tell readers how to read their work? I’d love to know what you think!


Beauty and the Beast Retellings – Novelisations

I think I’ve had a page like this on every website I’ve had since my early teens (which is possibly more websites than you’d think, and certainly more than I really remember), so it was only a matter of time.

I love retellings of Beauty and the Beast. I guess on one level I know that I’m just reading (and writing) the same story over and over again, but there’s more to it than that. Putting a new spin on a fairytale is a really unique challenge: you have to find something fresh in the story, something that’s all you, while keeping all the elements that people will expect. Of course, I love reading original stories too, but I get just as much – and often more – enjoyment out of seeing someone reinterpret an old one.

Especially when it’s this old one.

Here’s my collection of novelisations. I’ll add some information and my own thoughts below. If you’re a Beauty and the Beast or fairytale fan too, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these or any others you’ve read! (If you’re not a BatB or fairytale fan, you will probably find this post unbearably geeky. Sorry-not-sorry!)

a photo of my copies of the books below

I might amend this post as I read new books and re-read old ones! Also, if you like Beauty and the Beast retellings, I’d love for you to check out Faustina, the one I’m working on at the moment.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

This is the first Beauty and the Beast novelisation I ever read. I vividly remember seeing it in a bookshop when I was 12 or 13 and in the first passionate throes of my BatB fandom. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would have written a whole novel about it (how little I knew!) and I went into full “shut up and take my money” mode. This copy is much-read and well-loved – if it doesn’t look it, it’s because for several years it was my precioussss.

Beauty is probably the “purest” retelling I’ve read, by which I mean that it very much maintains the feel of the Beaumont version of the fairytale, without adding or changing many aspects. The only exception I can think of is that Beauty’s sisters are nice, which is a change I really like – I feel like it would detract from the drama if Beauty’s sojourn in the castle could be seen as just a nice holiday from having to do everyone’s chores. As the title suggests, it’s really the story of Beauty, of which the Beast is only a part. Each scene in Beauty’s life is really richly drawn and it’s easy to get completely absorbed in the writing and become very attached to Beauty and her family. It’s told from Beauty’s point of view so the Beast remains a little distant and mysterious, perhaps more than you’d expect from the hero of a romance novel, but I think that’s part of his charm in this case. You’re left guessing about him alongside Beauty.

Robin McKinley wrote a second version of Beauty and the Beast called Rose Daughter. Unfortunately, I seem to have parted ways with my copy. As I recall (prompted, it has to be said, by Wikipedia), that made more of the rose from the original. Beauty has a special talent for gardening, and her revival of the Beast’s dying roses is linked to her saving and falling in love with him. I guess I’ll have to re-read it and update this post when I get a chance.

Belle by Cameron Dokey

One thing that turns up repeatedly in BatB retellings, despite not being in the original, is the idea of “Beauty” having a special skill that she can use to help break the curse. I like this idea a lot, partly because it takes some of the pressure off of “true love” to cure everything, which is an element of BatB that I’ve become pretty uncomfortable with. It can also give the character a bit more substance and add some depth to the curse, depending on how it’s used, and it’s something for the characters to focus on besides angst and marriage proposals.

In Belle, Belle’s skill is woodcarving. There’s a special branch, from the “Heartwood Tree” that, if carved properly, will reveal the face of one’s true love. This artefact replaces the rose in the role of “something for Beauty’s father to steal”. It’s a really sweet idea (and has a great and very fairytale backstory that I won’t spoil) and a nice twist. Other than that, Belle stays almost as close to the original as Beauty does, and also makes the sisters sympathetic. I wonder if that’s almost unavoidable, if the writer wants to keep the sisters at all, because otherwise the first third of the book would read like Cinderella. (That’s a particular problem if you’re also planning to do a Cinderella adaptation, which a swift Google shows me Dokey has.)

Overall, it’s a good read, with interesting ideas, good character development of Belle and some sweet scenes between the leads. If I have a complaint, it’s that I’d like to have had the romance drawn out a little more, so that there was more of it to enjoy, but I’d still recommend giving it a try!

The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey

I’m going to come right out and say it: this is my favourite. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the best (I might give that to Heart’s Blood, below) but I re-read it more than any of the others and it delights me every time.

It’s set in San Francisco in 1905. I don’t know much about US History so I couldn’t tell you how accurate it is, but the setting feels very well-drawn. The Beast is Jason, a rail-baron-slash-wizard who is better at rail baroning than wizarding and has got himself stuck as a half-wolf, half-man. Beauty is Rose, whose superpower special Beauty skill is reading  – specifically, reading in various other languages, so that she can help Jason decipher some of the spellbooks that he thinks might help him out of his predicament. They start off by using a speaking tube but eventually meet face to hairy face and there’s angst and conflict and it’s great. The system of magic in this universe is interesting – I think this is part of a series set in the same universe, but I’ve never got round to reading the others – and is the focus of a good secondary plot.

I feel I should mention that there are problems with this book. Probably the biggest is the villain. He gets a lot of “screen” time considering that his impact on the plot is minimal (Beauty and the Beast doesn’t really need a villain) and he spends it being unrelentingly evil for no particular reason, except perhaps to expose some of the seedier elements of the setting. I would never say that romance writers shouldn’t explore dark themes but some of these scenes are very jarring against the fluffy romance and, since they barely influence the story, they seem pretty gratuitous. I actually skip all of that character’s scenes when re-reading and the book almost makes perfect sense without them.

Having said all that, I think the hallmark of a good book is that you think about it long after you’ve finished reading it, and I’m always being reminded about this one. I can see some of the scenes in my imagination so vividly and I know I can rely on it to distract me from real life if I want it to. In a way, I guess it’s reassuring to me, as a developing writer, that a reader can find flaws in a book and still love it.

Mercedes Lackey is another twofer, having also written Beauty and the Werewolf. I own that too, but now that I come to write about it I realise I can’t remember much about it, so I guess that’s another one to re-read! I do love The Fairy Godmother, though, which is another story from the same series. The overall premise of the series is that there is a force called the “Tradition” that forces people into story patterns, e.g. a girl with a wicked stepmother into marrying a prince. It’s a clever idea but I suppose Beauty and the Werewolf just didn’t grab me like The Fire Rose did. I’ll definitely give it another chance soon, though.

Beastly by Alex Flinn

I would have been hysterical with excitement over this if it had come out a few years earlier. As it was, I approached it with suspicion – and was pleasantly surprised. Set in a modern US high school, this is the story of Kyle:  a vain, popular teenager who gets turned into a Beast. (As opposed to just getting a lot of tattoos and scars like he does in the movie.) It does what it says on the tin, to be honest – it’s a sweet teen romance with characteristic BatB angst. I particularly like that Flinn really uses the differences thrown up by the modern setting, like having Kyle experiment with online dating. I also like that he roams the streets of New York at night – that alleviates some of the claustrophobia of having the characters trapped in one place.

One issue with this book: Kyle has a tutor, a geeky blind guy called Will. I probably didn’t think too much about that the first time I read it but, since I now have a boyfriend who is a geeky blind guy, I’m kind of attuned to the details of Will’s portrayal. On the whole, it’s pretty good – I mean, he’s basically there to teach Kyle something about inner beauty and on a fairly flimsy justification (Kyle’s dad is famous and doesn’t want people to find out what’s happened to his son, but the first thing Kyle does is to describe himself to Will who, in any case, has signed a non-disclosure agreement, which anyone could have done) – but he’s got a personality beyond “blind guy” and sets Kyle straight on some misconceptions. And any uncorrected misconceptions can perhaps be blamed on the fact that it’s told in Kyle’s voice. The problem is that (SPOILER AHEAD) Kyle makes a deal with the witch who cursed him that if he breaks the spell, Will will get his sight back. Obviously he does, and then there’s a page at the end where Will is all “Oh, hey, I can see.” Which is a bit… cheap, I think. Like, without it, Will would still have come out of the story much richer and with the warm fuzzy feeling of having helped a teenage Beast get a girlfriend. But it reads as though the author thought no one could possibly have a happy ending if they were still blind so she just tacked that on. (I’m not saying that’s what she actually thought, because of course I don’t know, but that’s how it reads to me.)

I didn’t mean to labour that point quite as much as I did but, as with my warning about The Fire Rose, I would have felt weird about leaving it out. To complete the criticism sandwich, though, I really like the fact that it’s written entirely in Kyle’s voice. It’s an unusual choice to write a romance solely from the hero’s perspective, especially with Beauty and the Beast, since the character starts out wildly unlikeable. Kyle’s evolution throughout the story is really well done, and I like that he still seems a little self-absorbed at the end. We’re in his thoughts, after all, and it would be unrealistic for him to change beyond recognition.

I’ve thought of another retelling from the Beast’s perspective, actually: Beast by Donna-Jo Napoli. Another one I seem to have mislaid somewhere along the way and should get hold of again.

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

As I said above, I think this is the best retelling of Beauty and the Beast I’ve ever read. It’s also probably the longest, and it’s worth every page. Heart’s Blood is the story of Caitrin, a Beauty whose special skill is scribing. Amazingly enough, that’s just what Anluan, a mysterious chieftain who lives at the top of a haunted tor, is in need of: someone to organise and transcribe notes made by an ancestor of his who practised dark magic and brought a terrible curse down on his fortress and the surrounding area. The part of the rose is played by heart’s blood, a rare and expensive plant that’s used to make a particular ink.

That setup is superficially similar to The Fire Rose, but this is a much deeper story. There’s a magic-related subplot in The Fire Rose but it’s definitely supplementary to the romance. In Heart’s Blood, the curse is much more complicated than usual, taking in numerous ghosts who are characters in themselves, a Norman invasion, local politics and lengthy flashbacks. The curse is the story, making the love story more incidental. That said, the romance is still both sweet and powerful and you absolutely root for them as a couple. There’s just a lot more to it than that.


Boy, this ended up loooooong. I’m going to post it now, because I spend far too long writing blog posts and then losing confidence in them, but I hope to come back and edit and add to it in the future. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think of these retellings, or if there are any others I should check out!

a giant lizard reading a book


Ebooks might be changing writing and I’m okay with that

a giant lizard reading a book

Pro tip: the correct stock photo choice is always the one that inexplicably contains some kind of giant lizard.

I don’t know what all the cool kids were doing as teenagers in the noughties but I was pretty much just hanging out on For those of you who had friends and went outdoors as adolescents, fanfiction is what it sounds like: stories written by fans, based on characters and settings from their favourite books, movies and so on. Fanfiction is often posted one “chapter” at a time and therefore written quite episodically. I put “chapter” in quotes because the most popular stories tended not to have the kind of chapters you’d recognise from books. Through trial and error I found that around 1500-2000 words was the optimum chapter length to get people to come back for the next one and, more importantly, to leave complimentary comments – the sweet, sweet nectar that my teenage soul fed upon. And each of those 1500-2000 word chapters had to contain an interesting plot development and a reason to come back next time.

Writing that down, it sounds exhausting. Not a lot of novels change the scene every 2000 words – novelists tend to linger dreamily over things like scene-setting and appropriate pacing. But it was actually a lot of fun. Whenever I felt like writing, I would re-read my last chapter, pick up where I left off, write until I got bored (luckily, usually around the right word count) and then post it.

As a reader, too, I loved having stories broken down into those bitesized chunks. Absurdly short chapters were irritating to keep clicking through but unusually long ones quickly exceeded my attention span. Curiously, if I liked the look of a story that was already finished, I would happily sit and read the whole thing in one go, but I still couldn’t concentrate on a chapter that was too long.

I’m telling you all this because an author on a forum I frequent – the excellent Daniel R Marvello – recently posted a link to an article by in the Guardian: Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write. Very short summary: ebooks have caused people to read less attentively and therefore to write more simply. I would throw fanfiction and other forms of online writing (blog posts, Buzzfeed) into that mix too.

Actually, fanfiction has influenced the world of publishing pretty directly. Fifty Shades of Grey started life as a Twilight fanfic and hasn’t changed much. Anna Todd’s One Direction fanfiction After has attracted high-profile book and movie deals. There are other examples but these are possibly the biggest.

I don’t know if there really has been a quantifiable change in writing styles. I’m not sure how you’d go about proving it, although I dimly recall an activity we did with newspapers at school that involved counting words per sentence and showed that The Sun had a reading age of seven (although rather more topless women than a seven-year-old is likely to be interested in). But if it is true, I’m okay with it.

As a reader, I’m inattentive. I like to have the scene set for me but I skip big, dense paragraphs of description. I like creative use of language and expanding my vocabulary but I don’t want to be stumbling over the sesquipedalian (!) every few sentences. “Good” writing is important to me, but I don’t think good has to mean “fancy”. I have a degree in Literature and now I don’t want reading to feel like hard work anymore. And that feeling is magnified when I read an ebook. I can lose a whole day curled up with a paperback, enjoying the lulls in a story as much as the climaxes, but my expectations of anything I read on a screen are the same as they always were of fanfiction: grab my attention, and keep grabbing it, because otherwise it will wander off.

As a writer, I generally live by the Elmore Leonard quote “I leave out the parts that people skip”. If you were to compare the current draft of Faustina to one of my fanfiction stories, I’d like to think that you’d find it a bit less choppy and more richly (if briefly) described, but still pretty skimmable. One of my many, many worries about this novel is that it won’t be “booky” enough – I learned to write by writing fanfiction and I feel like that has influenced my writing. But, if this is really the way the tide is turning, perhaps that’s a good thing.

In terms of the bigger picture, I imagine that serious literary types are wringing their hands over the death of writing as an art. Indeed, the Guardian article links to one (note: that article is well over 3000 words long and hell yes I skimmed it). I’m not going to try and tackle that on an intellectual level, because I’m writing this at 1AM and I don’t really want to, but what I will say is that writing is evolving all the time. We don’t write like Chaucer any more, or Shakespeare, or Dickens. They were of their time, as everyone is. They’re still perfectly readable today (Chaucer might be a bad example) but they’re best understood in context. Today’s context is connectedness and distractions and shareable content and I don’t see what’s wrong with that influencing the way we write. More importantly, one of the great things about the indie marketplace is that you can write whatever and however you want and people can decide whether or not to read it. As long as there are writers and readers who favour denser, more literary writing, it won’t go anywhere. And if that style of writing ever does fade away, that’s okay too. It’ll be in good company.

me in a dinosaur mask. or maybe it's a dragon.


I’m writing a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in Venice.

Screw it. Today I’m going to tell you about Faustina.

Faustina is the novel I’m working on. I’ve been saying all along that I probably won’t call it Faustina when I publish it, but I’ve been calling it that for a long time now and I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to get another title to stick. Especially now that I’ve designed and become attached to this cover.

The cover for Faustina: a woman wearing a gold Venetian mask and a coy smile.

Faustina is a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in 18th Century Venice, against the backdrop of Carnevale, because masks and historical costumes are pretty and also I went to Venice last year and saw a lot of masks and then became a dinosaur.

me in a dinosaur mask. or maybe it's a dragon.

NB: there are no dinosaurs in this story. Please believe me when I say that I would have shoehorned one in if I possibly could. Actually, looking that this picture again, I think that might be a dragon and now I’m questioning everything.

I’ve been writing retellings of Beauty and the Beast for over ten years now. (Beauty and the Beast was an obsession for me throughout my teen years. I could probably dissect that in another post.) I keep meaning to stop, but I think I’ve become that guy in Amelie who paints a new copy of the same painting every year because he can’t get it quite right.

I really want this to be the time I get it right, which is probably the problem.

The heroine is Faustina Casanova, younger sister of Giacomo Casanova, who is famous for having sex with everyone. I read Giacomo’s Wikipedia page and was really fascinated by some of the crap that he got away with, like hiding spikes in Bibles to escape from prison and pretending to be magic. (It’s okay, wiki-haters, I also bought his big-ass book.) I really wanted to write a heroine who was essentially a con-artist, falling into one scrape after another in the pursuit of an easy life and always coming out on top, but only just.

That reminded me of maybe the second or third retelling I started writing back in my teens, where the Beauty character was a thief whose father sent her into the mysterious, magical castle to steal something. I’ve always liked that as a twist, although I never finished that story, because it gives the Beast something to push back against. What I mean is, in Beauty and the Beast, Beauty dislikes the Beast because he’s scary-looking and keeping her prisoner, but the Beast just adores Beauty from the beginning. I used to eat that Beast-angst up with a spoon back when I thought the height of romance was having someone who was so desperate for you to love them that they would just stop eating and wait for death if you left them (this actually happens in the fairytale) but now that one-sidedness feels both deeply problematic and also kind of dull. But giving the Beast just as much reason to be mad at Beauty as she has to be mad at him, THEN trapping them in a castle together… that appeals to me.

Anyway, that’s how Faustina, the Beauty, came to be. Giacomo Casanova loses a lot of money in a game of cards to a reclusive, mask-wearing figure, and sends his criminally-minded sister to get it back. Throw in a curse that may or may not exist, some arguments and some kissing, and you’ve got what I’ve been tearing my hair out over for the last year.

I think, if I weren’t writing this, I would want to read it. Hopefully some other people will, too.

I actually started this post because I wanted to post an excerpt from the book but this has been way too much of a build-up for that so I’m just going to close with this picture of a cat I watched from the window of my Venice hotel room. (Update: there’s an excerpt here!)

a cat in venice

On the internet, a cat is worth a thousand words.

PS: If Faustina sounds like something you would enjoy reading, here are some things you could do:

  1. Comment and tell me. You might stop a tiny piece of my soul from dying!

  2. Subscribe to and/or revisit my blog to see future excerpts! (Warning: you will also see posts about things like buying an absurd number of candles or revisiting my childhood diaries.) The subscribe box is in the sidebar to your right.

  3. Join my mailing list. I don’t spam (in fact, so far I have sent precisely 0 emails, so I can say that with utmost confidence) but I will let you know when I’m close to publishing the book.


Things I Wrote When I Was A Kid – Part One: “Precious Memories”

I’m not going to tell you how long I’ve spent playing The Sims 3 over the last couple of weeks, mostly because that would involve calculating it and thereby finding out myself. I am prepared, however, to admit that the run-up to Christmas is not my most productive time of year. I get excited about Christmas about a month too early and, by early-to-mid December, I’m overwhelmed with present-related panic and desperate for the whole thing to be over. There’s also the thought of a nice shiny New Year dangling just out of reach, and if I start being a productive and energetic member of society now, what will my New Year’s resolutions be? I’m not lazy, I’m just thinking ahead!

This is my unnecessarily long-winded way of saying that I couldn’t think of anything to blog about. Even the Fictional Experiences post was one I wrote a while ago and then abandoned in a fit of apathy. In the absence of new material, therefore, I have decided to unearth for your delectation some of my older works. Much older.

I’ve been writing journals on and off forever and, while my motivation in the early years remains unclear, as a teenager I was definitely writing under the assumption that the carefully-recorded minutiae of my daily life would one day prove to be a fantastic resource for an incredibly insightful novel about what it’s like to be 13 and not have any real problems. Sadly, it has dawned on me in recent years that the world may not be ready for a work of such unmitigated genius, so I’m cashing in this treasure in blog form instead.

You know how some people who’ve been blogging for ages recycle old posts now and then? This is like that, only cringier.

So, here it is. Diary number one.

A pink hardcover book with "Precious Memories" written in the centre of the cover. There are dark pink shadows were decorations used to be an one pink plastic jewel is still stuck to it.

I think it came in a box with some ribbon and plastic jewels and the idea was to decorate it yourself. I probably enjoyed that, because plastic jewels were pretty much what got me up in the morning in those days. Obviously most of the decorations have flaked off over the years but that one jewel is really hanging in there. It used to have a padlock and I seem to remember taking the security of the keys very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they got lost and I had to resort to opening the lock by just squeezing it a bit.

Between you and me, Internet, I’m not convinced that the contents of this volume will deliver on that “Precious Memories” promise, but let’s take a look inside.

Wow. I had no idea what a budding super-spy I was back in the day. Not only was I busting my way through locks intended to protect secret information, I was also communicating in code. Grown-up super-spies probably don’t write out the code key next to the secret message, though.

The alphabet is written in a circle with corresponding numbers. The whole thing has been half-scribbled out.

Unfortunately, I can’t share the secret message with you because a) then I’d have to kill you and b) it’s “I hate [names of girls I was at primary school with]”. Because… if I didn’t write it down I’d forget that I hated them? Or something?

Instead, let’s take a moment to enjoy what is evidence either of an immense respect for the manufacturers of cheap toy padlocks or alarming disdain for the intelligence of my fellow humans:

Ten-year-old me's best joined-up handwriting reads "if found (and opened, which I doubt) please return to...

I’ve written “2000-2001” inside the cover but, for reasons that will become clear shortly, I’m guessing this first entry is from 1996, which would make me 5 years old. Note the annotations from ten-year-old me, who decided my diary should have a name and went through the rest of the diary changing every instance of “Dear Diary” to “Dear Trixie”.

Dear (Diary) Trixie, I went to the summer fair I had lots of fun. My mum held a (stool) stall. It was loveley. The end. (squiggle)

I was still going back and correcting old diary entries when I was 13-14, suggesting I have always feared the judgement of my future self. Given that I’m now laughing at myself on the Internet, I suppose that’s fair.

Anyway, I’m glad ten-year-old me didn’t try too hard with the crossing-out. It would have been a terrible shame to lose this gem:

see caption

“Dear Diary, I get a copy of animal action evrey two months (or dailey if you profer).”

Me: trying to sound clever by using words I clearly don’t understand since 1996. (Animal Action is the RSPCA’s magazine for kids, and it’s nice to see that it’s still around.)

Here’s a sad one from 1997 (which is how I’ve managed to date these early entries):

31st August. Dear (Diary) Trixie, Princess Diana died last night in a car crash. I cried and cried and cried.

I didn’t know much about Diana except that she was a princess and everyone said she was nice, and a lifetime of Disney films had failed to prepare me for the possibility of a princess dying. I remember watching the news sitting next to my mum on the sofa, and then burying my teary little face behind her back.

The poignancy of this entry is damaged a little by the perfect ridiculousness of the one that follows:

September 26th I've just been to a disco it was hatful the music was far, far too loud and the man played spice girls twice. Yuck! Yuck! Yuck! Also it was just when I had had a lovley week at school!

Sometimes I tell people what an abjectly uncool geeklady I am and they assume that I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Sometimes I think I am. Then I remember that I was once a six-year-old who felt that a “hatful” school disco had put a serious crimp in an otherwise great week of learning.

Also, I forgot how much I hated the Spice Girls. I’m pretty sure it was purely because of how much everyone else seemed to love them. Apparently I was hating mainstream things for being mainstream before it was mainstream to hate mainstream things for being mainstream. Mainstream doesn’t look like a word any more.

Anyway, I’m now pretty neutral about the Spice Girls. No strong feelings one way or the other.

Next time: ten-year-old me hates going on holiday, reads the fourth Harry Potter book and discovers sparkly scented gel pens.

If anyone else has a diary like this, I’d love to see it! Please post a few choice excerpts in the comments or trackback to this post or something so I can have a read!