Monday, 28 February 2011

You Tell Me

Yes! It's time! Reader-driven blog posts!

It's been several months since I asked my blog readers what you wanted to read. And I thought that, as things are quite busy here and finding inspiration for interesting blog posts has become downright difficult, that I'd combine the two. And voila! A You-Tell-Me moment! 

For the next ten weeks (or more, if it catches on), at least once a week, I will post something a reader wants. These posts will be titled 'Reader Request: [insert topic here]'.

Any and all suggestions are welcome; it's up to you. What would you like me to post or talk about?

Throw suggestions into the comments, or send them along in an email. I'll post my favourite suggestions - I'd love to post them all, but I think there are some things I might not have anything to say about!

(Note: you can suggest more than one topic/request more than one thing! This will go on for the next ten weeks at least, so if you think of new suggestions/ideas, send them over anytime)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Top 10 Fictional Relationships

Considering I frequently ramble on about how important to me characters and character relationships in books, movies, writing, etc are, I thought I might put together a list of my favourite fictional relationships of all time. And, of course, invite you to do the same - you can even make your own lists in the comments/your blogs if it takes your fancy!

Well, I say 'favourite fictional relationships of all time', but whenever I make these lists, I always forget something or someone I love. So let's call it my Top 10 Fictional Relationships That I Can Think of Right Now.

And so, in no particular order, my Top Ten...

1. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories/novels

2. Harry and Hermione, from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series

3. Emma and Mr. Knightley, from Jane Austen's Emma 
*I should probably add here that I've never actually read Emma - I don't particularly like Jane Austen. But for some reason, I love the adaptations of her novels, so when I talk about this relationship I mean the one portrayed on the film and TV adaptations

4. Phedre and Joscelin, from Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels

5. Henry and Clare, from Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife

6. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, from the original Star Wars trilogy
*Luke as an individual character doesn't do much for me, I must admit. But I love his relationship with Vader - especially watching the latter's complete that fallen-from-grace-but-ultimately-redeemed arc

7. Cristina Yang and Owen Hunt, from Grey's Anatomy

8. The Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler, from Doctor Who
*also the Human Doctor and Rose, though I'm not listing this separately as the Tenth Doctor and the Human Doctor are pretty much the same person - and both are a little bit swoon-worthy (thank you, David Tennant!)

9. Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, from Harry Potter

10. Anna and Rupert, from Eva Ibbotson's The Secret Countess
(which, by the way, is amazing and should be read by everyone in the whole world)

And that's my list. This post would turn into an absolute monster if I tried to explain just why each of those relationships appeals to me so much, but if you're interested I do have individual posts about Harry/Hermione, Holmes/Watson, Henry/Clare and Emma/Mr. Knightley

So whose relationships would be on your list? They don't have to be romantic - any kind of fictional relationship counts!

Monday, 21 February 2011


So what do you do?

Erm, I'm a writer.

Oh how lovely! Do you work for a newspaper?

No, I write novels.

For a living? Oh you poor dear. Haven't you been able to find a real job?


Friday, 18 February 2011

The bored list

I don't know if you ever made one, but when I was younger - twelve, thirteen - I used to make 'bored' lists all the time. Growing up in a city where the electricity went out often and you had to rely on non-electrical means of entertaining yourself on long afternoons (no TV, no computer, no CD player), I had to have a handy list ready to consult every time I was bored.

I unearthed one of my old lists the other day, and was rather surprised to see what was on it.

1. Write stories just for fun.
2. Go for a walk.
3. Call Amina and chat*
4. Look through memory box**
5. Play a game with Sid***

*Amina was my best friend at school. But really, you could substitute #3 with 'Call a friend and chat'. 

**My memory box was a box of old things I'd collected over time: photos, birthday cards, old stories I'd written that now made me laugh, notes passed in class, a poem my father wrote for my four-year-old self, a 'secret admirer' Valentine's card my aunt sent me to make us giggle, and so on.

***Sid is my younger brother. But when he wasn't home, or didn't want to play a game, I easily substituted that with 'play a game by myself'.

The amazing thing about that list is that everything on it is good for you. When you're feeling cooped up and brain-dead from too much work, a walk can be an amazing thing. When you're stressed, play a game, giggle, be silly. Call a friend and have a chat, catching up can be so much fun, especially if you're having a lonely day. Look through the old things you've collected, or old photos of good days, and remember wonderful things you thought you'd forgotten. Do something just for fun, and not because it's work or because you have to.

Apparently I was much wiser as a thirteen-year-old, because these are things I don't do often enough. And I should.

What would be on your 'bored' list?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Ah, St Valentine

If you think about it, few 'holidays' are as controversial as Valentine's Day. After all, you don't see many people calling Christmas 'cheesy' or getting seriously worked up over the pros and cons of Diwali? My own mother thinks Valentine's Day is incredibly cheesy, while my husband has no problem using the opportunity to be romantic and do something special. Vastly different viewpoints there.

In fact, growing up in India, you heard a lot of unusual things about Valentine's Day. So, here, your Valentine's Fact of the Year:

There was a story going around when I was younger, about members of a very right-wing group who were so opposed to the moral degradation Valentine's Day obviously represents that they went around beating up couples who were caught hugging, kissing or - heaven forbid - holding hands in public.

The cool thing about it, though, was that apparently one year a group of volunteers banded together and actually went around protecting the couples on Valentine's Day. Like, you know. Beating up the bullies.

I enjoy that part of the story very much.

Romance in fiction can be just as controversial, as any member of the Edward/Bella/Jacob Twilight love battle will tell you. And I think it can get people so worked up simply because it matters so much to us. I don't know about you, but relationships in fiction, when done well, fascinate me. Any kind of relationship, it doesn't necessarily have to be romantic (though I do have a special soft spot for those!)

So I try to remember that every time I write. Character relationships matter. Without them, a story feels flat and hollow.

And as a final note on the theme of love, romance and relationships, here are a few wedding photos - at last!

 That's us, unable to keep straight faces as we sign the register. So much for great solemnity on the occasion!

After the ceremony. My smile looks a little manic, but it's probably because I'd been smiling non-stop for photos for the last half hour.

That's me with my bridesmaids. You probably can't tell from this photo, but literally seconds before the camera clicked, we were all squealing because Lindsey (the blonde one) had just stepped on an enormous earthworm.

And that was my wedding. Well, more or less. I don't think Blogger would cope with all the photos.

How did you spend your Valentine's Days? 

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Magic Project

Some of us don't love what we do, but are doing it to pay the bills or for any number of other reasons. And some of us do love what we do, whether that's writing for a living or making a career out of a love of fashion, or running a bookshop because we love reading. And I'll bet the former group envy the hell out of the latter.

But if you're one of the latter, you probably know that loving what you do isn't always enough. Sometimes your job is just plain hard work. Stressful. Anxiety-ridden. Causes you to doubt yourself and start to question whether or not the sun does rise in the east.

There are some days when - no matter how much I love to write and no matter how lucky I feel that I will be published after working towards it for years - I feel drained. Exhausted.

Days when, believe it or not, I hate it. I hate writing because it's such hard work and it's so stressful and it's so uncertain. The questions drive me crazy. Will I be able to do a good enough job with my revisions? Will I disappoint everyone who's taken a chance on me? Will I drive myself - and my husband - into financial ruin because my job's not one of those well-paid, certain, steady things? Will my book sell?

Yeah, I hate those questions. I hate the days when the questions clutter my head up, because on those days I hate what I do.

Then there's the business side of things. Like it or not, if you're making a career out of something you love, you have to deal with business. Figures. Accounts. Taxes. And none of that is fun unless you're a mathematical whiz with a passion for accounts, in which case I'd like very much to kill you because you're so bloody lucky.

So even if you love what you do, sometimes it's pure work. And it's easy to forget how much you love it.

Which is why you need the Magic Project.

With the Magic Project, you can do whatever you want. You can write a book in a wildly different genre with swear words and lots of graphic and gratuitous sex. You can design a dress that only a stripper would be caught dead in. You can close your bookshop for a day and curl up in bed with books you love to read, not the ones you've got to read to decide whether or not you want to buy and stock them.

You can do whatever you want. Because it's the project you work on when the Work becomes too much for you.

I received my edit letter for WOVEN (that title will probably change, by the way) last week and have since been working on revisions. And the pressure scares the heck out of me. The stress. It's so much fun, it's so exciting, but it's also work. And those sneaky self-doubting questions won't leave me alone.

But I have a Magic Project. It's a YA dystopian I'd love to make something serious out of, but right now it's just for me. My agent knows it exists but hasn't seen a word of it, Steve's read chapters but never pressures me to write any more (much as he'd like to - he hates having to wait for the next bit!), and I do what I want with it. When revisions stress me out beyond a certain point, I stop and fiddle with the Magic Project and it instantly relaxes me. When the questions get too loud in my head, I write a few paragraphs of Magic Project - or even just think about the characters and what they might do next - and I feel better.

I think everyone needs this. A project that's totally, completely pressure-free (at least until you show it to your agent!). Something you can do just for fun, something that has no figures or accounting or fear attached to it.

Something that reminds you just why you love this thing you're doing so much.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Unlikeable Characters

I'm writing about this because, to me, characters are the heart and soul of stories. I can't write a novel if I don't love the characters I'm working with, if they don't feel real. Most of the time, the things I write are driven by my characters' instincts and actions; the plot I'm working around can take a detour.

Similarly, when I'm reading, the things I remember most about novels I love are the characters. The Time Traveler's Wife, one of my favourite books in the whole world, is firmly imprinted in my head. Not because of its plotting, or ingenious timeline, or clever devices, but simply because of Henry and Clare, the protagonists, and their amazing, difficult love story.

So what happens to a book if a key character, a central figure, is simply unlikeable? 

(It's worth noting here that I don't mean villains, antagonists. Characters who are supposed to be despicable don't necessarily count, though even here there's a difference between loving a character while hating them as a person (all good villains are loved as characters, even if they're awful people), and simply detesting the character because he or she has been lazily executed or poorly drawn. Caricatured, one-dimensional villains are often unlikeable because they're simply not interesting. 

Or because they're so cheesy you just cringe. I'm looking at you, every Power Ranger villain ever written.)

So back to the question of unlikeability.

This is a sticky one. How does a writer work out whether or not they're writing bad characters? How does a reader sit back and say 'yep, this book is full of unlikeable characters' when other people might tell you how amazing they are? Reading, writing and characters are so subjective, it's almost impossible to put your finger on what, inherently, makes characters unlikeable - and how, as a writer, to avoid it.

These things turn me off instantly:

1. Selfish characters. A certain amount of selfishness doesn't bother me. Especially not if the character realizes they've been selfish and starts to grow and evolve into something better. But when a character is consistently self-absorbed and selfish and refuses to see this or change, that drives me crazy. For me, it's not about a character I'm supposed to dislike. It just feels like the author's done a shoddy job making me like this person.

Example: I recently read a book in which the heroine, a dying teenager, is completely irresponsible, selfish and downright inconsiderate of everyone else's feelings: it's as if she feels entitled to everything because she's been unlucky enough to have cancer. The last 30 pages of the novel were amazing; the rest just made me grit my teeth and think 'stop being such a selfish ****, I honestly don't care that you're dying!'

Which, you know. Isn't what you should be feeling about your heroine/narrator.

2. Stupid characters. I've mentioned this before, but I will again. It's not about characters who are handicapped, or silly, or not very intelligent; it's characters who are mind-numbingly stupid. I.e. Page Ten: Character Two tells Stupid Main Character not to do something and tells him why doing that something would be very, very bad (and it's an excellent reason, by the way). Page Twelve: Stupid Main Character does the thing he was told not to.


(Note: in most circumstances, this wouldn't actually be an unlikeable character. Just an annoying and painfully frustrating one. But it might be enough to turn you off reading the rest of the book, as it has done for me in the past, so I thought it worth mentioning.)

3. Perfect characters. You know the ones I mean. The ones whose virtues are constantly being pointed to: 'Richard is so kind', 'Richard only wants what's best for the people', 'Richard is handsome', 'Richard makes me laugh', 'Richard never puts a foot wrong'. And even when Richard makes a colossal mistake because he's actually a bit of a dolt, it turns out well, so Richard's still a brilliant hero. 

These are characters you just want to smack in the face. It's impossible to admire them, because virtues mean nothing if there aren't any flaws to contrast them with. It's impossible to sympathize with them, because we, the readers, aren't perfect. It's downright hard to like them.

These are just three qualities I've found in characters I don't like, but it's not always easy to put it into words. There are characters I simply can't stand, but couldn't really tell you why. They're simply unlikeable.

How do you measure unlikeability in a character? Is it an instinct that tips you off? Or is there a concrete quality that consistently irks you? 

And do these characters put you off reading a book entirely?