My favourite YA novels published in 2012...

1. Slated - Teri Terry

Everything you want in a YA dystopian-thriller: a brilliant premise executed perfectly, a loveable cast of characters, a heroine you route for from page one AND a completely believable sort-of-not-quite-almost-nearly-romance. This novel will hold a fond spot in my heart for a long time to come.

2. Rebel Heart - Moira Young

Moira Young can do no wrong in my eyes. This book sweeps you away into another world that's believable and compelling. A real page turner, packed with plot.

3. The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater

I can't praise this book enough. Maggie Stiefvater is an incredibly talented writer who has that rare gift of interspersing dry humour through even the most emotional scenes. The characters were excellent and each had their own arc that left you loving and routing for each of them in turn. The friendship between the Raven Boys was a real strength of the novel. Every detail in every scene was necessary; either developing a character or plot in some way (even when it initially didn't seem to be). This is the first Maggie Stiefvater novel I've read and I will definitely be reading more. Clever and completely absorbing.

4. Pandemonium - Lauren Oliver

It's not often that I like the second book in a trilogy more than the first. Lauren Oliver is such a skilled writer it was impossible for me not to adore this book. Cleverly structured, with the past and the present running concurrently, each chapter revealing another piece of Lena's puzzle. Saw the ending coming from a mile away but I didn't mind because everything else about the book was perfect!

5. Partials - Dan Wells

This is a fantastic book, though I feel the Young Adult label is a bit of a stretch. Other than starring teenage characters, the novel doesn't have that young adult "feel" to it, with a slightly slower pace and lengthier descriptions of scientific processes than you'd expect from your average YA sci-fi. That said, it was excellent. Vivid, exciting, complex and well explored. My main criticism is that info-dumping is quite heavy in the first chapter and there are several info dumpy conversations throughout, though the unique voices of the cast of characters more than make up for that. I'm also convinced that think the book would have been stronger if the last chapter didn't exist. Despite that, a brilliant book.

6. Between Shades of Grey - Ruta Sepetys

This is one of those books that I immediately recommended to everyone, regardless of whether they read young adult or not. I read the last chapter whilst walking home from the bus stop crying! One word: haunting.

7. Shift - Em Bailey

I can't say enough good things about this book! Usually I can see a twist coming from a mile away but this one totally shocked me. Olive was an excellent character with such a brilliant, authentic voice I was routing for her from page one. The book was structured cleverly; during the first half we follow Olive as she tries to uncover the truth about Miranda, then spend the second half helpless as Olive, herself, is brain-washed. Strong, concise writing with a thrilling a plot.

8. BZRK - Michael Grant

Wow. The creativity that went into this book was astounding. Such an original novel and totally spot on in terms of geekiness vs action. Michael Grant is the king of getting lots of ideas on the page in as few words as possible. So much happens in BZRK it's hard to believe it's a stand alone.

9. The Other Life - Susanne Winnacker

A neat, compact novel that gripped me from start to finish. Fast-paced with a surprisingly touching romance. 

10. Cinder - Marissa Myer

I love cyborgs. I don't love steampunk though, and I felt that all the cinderella aspects of the novel let it down. Weird, I know, since that's the whole reason most people pick it up, but it felt gimmicky and unnecessary and otherwise detracted from an awesome novel that was beautifully constructed.

NANOVER... And what I've learned.

Nanowrimo is officially Nanover. I "won" on Sunday 17th November, when the word count for my Nanonovel stood at 50100. I've loved every second of Nano. It's forced me to step outside my writer bubble and mingle with other writerly types and it's made me proud of what I do rather than faintly embarrassed. In short, Nanowrimo is Nanoawesome!

It's also taught my a lot. So here for you in a handy to digest numerical list are the Top Ten Things I've Learned From Nanowrimo:

1. I love statistics

I think I can attribute a significant amount of  my Nanosuccess to the stats page. I've always been an obsessive word counter, keeping records of words written and chapter lengths and total novel lengths, but I never knew how powerful the count down element could be. Waking up on Sunday morning knowing I had 7,000 words left to write was far more motivating for me than knowing I'd written 43,000. By the time I've reached 43,000 it's become abstract. 7,000, on the other hand, is a goal I know I can accomplish on a lazy Sunday. So, with this in mind, I've created a spreadsheet for my future projects that does essentially the same thing as the Nanostats page (albeit less attractively). I can set my writing goal and it automatically tells me what my daily word count needs to be, then draws a graph plotting my actual words against my word goals. If anyone wants a copy, let me know in the comments and I'll email you one! You need excel or Open Office to run it.

2. I take this seriously

I want to be an author. I want to be an author. I want to be an author. I want to be an author. I want every day to be like Nanowrimo. I want to have the time and energy to write 7,000 words a day every day for ever more. Thanks.

3. Writing makes me happy

I know this sounds silly, but I don't think I've ever been a happier writer than the time I've been a Nanowriter. This is the first ever first draft I've written where at no point have I become overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, because I've proven to myself that I can write lots of good quality, interesting words very quickly. And that makes me really, really, really happy. The glow I got after my 12,000 word weekend could not be rivalled by even the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

4. I fit in

Yup, I've found my clique. Being in a room with 50 plus other writers at the kick off party made me aware that writers are a kind of type, of course with a million shades of grey in between, but still a type nonetheless. Our common interest in locking ourselves away from the outside world to toil for hours over a project we'll probably be too shy to show anyone unites us in more ways than I was expecting!

5. First drafts can be easy

*gasp* I said it! EASY! I know writers are never meant to say that but I've never gotten so much writing done with such little mental anguish before and I hope that this is something I can replicate. You know I'd resigned myself to thinking that I just hated the drafting process and it was in revisions that I found enjoyment with writing. WRONG! I hated the drafting process because I wasn't getting excited enough about the drafts I was writing. Without the excitement I didn't have the motivation to do it. This post on Pretentious Title was a real eye-opener for me, making me realise that the reason I was struggling with first drafts was because the scenes weren't good enough. Before every scene of my Nanonovel I took a bit of time to work out what I wanted to write and how I wanted the scene to look and progress and then I stopped and thought, "is that cool enough?" I didn't write a word of the scene until I was so excited about what I'd come up with there was no way I couldn't!

6. What I want to write and what I'm good at writing are two different things

My Nanonovel is fantasy for the lower YA audience. I've written lower YA fantasy before (which was pretty much Harry Potter... :/) but I always try to write higher YA sci-fi because that's exactly what I love to read. It's a hard pill to swallow, but maybe I'm just better at writing fantasy for a slightly younger audience?

7. Caffeine makes me a ninja and I can use it sparingly

I don't drink caffeine as a general rule as it tends to make my CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) symptoms worse. Where many people (like my boyfriend) need a cup of coffee to get to baseline functioning, caffeine can be a weapon for me! Of course there's the caffeine come down to contend with, but if I have it on a Saturday, I'm back to normal functionality by work on Monday morning.

8. Shyness is a self-limiting belief

I use my shyness as a crutch to not do things I'm scared of. Nanowrimo meet ups and write-ins have forced me out of my comfort zone and into the big scary world where all the people are. If I can take steps to combat my shyness, I can do bloody anything!!!

9. Anything worth having sure enough's worth fighting for

Thanks Cheryl. Nano's been all about sacrifice. In the last 17 days I haven't swum, I've eaten rubbish, I've barely skimmed the surface of my to-read pile, and I've missed several episodes of the X Factor. Luckily for me, I don't have scales at home, but if I want to maintain this sort of feverish writing level, I'm going to have to fine-tune what sacrifices are worth making in the long run.

10. Silhouette

I've never been able to spell it. Can now. Thanks Nano.

Why Writing A Novel Is Like Making A Cup of Tea (a very English Extended Metaphor)

There's one phrase every aspiring author will come across time and time again: writers write. If you're anything like me, you'll misconstrue that seemingly simple statement and turn it into "writers write novels". Which, if you're still being like me, quickly leads to anguish and self berating; "I didn't write a single word of my novel this weekend! How dare I call myself a writer? I don't deserve to even let the word pass my lips!" But what people really mean when they say "writers write" is "writers practise writing". And, as any one who plays an instrument knows, there is a massive difference between practising and composing. My first stab at a novel was the equivalent of me mastering the scale of C, declaring my attempt to compose a symphony, and ending up with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. 

But wait. What's this got to do with tea? We're getting there. First, a basic explanation of how to make tea, since everyone's very particular about the process (and I've been told that in America it requires lemon slices and a fridge?) Here's how it's done: cup, tea bag, boiling water, some degree of squeezing / stirring / leaving to diffuse on own accord, milk. Sweeten with sugar and dunk chocolate HobNobs if so desired.

My beautifully constructed metaphor will focus on the whole squeezing / stirring /leaving to stand situation. No it doesn't matter which method is superior, its function is the same; the diffusion (if you want to get scientific) of the flavour molecules into the water particles (see - scientific). For clarities sake, this will be referred to from now on as "brewing". Brewing (planning, researching, world-building, character profiling) is what the tea (novel) needs to do before you add the milk (words), or sweeten with sugar (metaphors and similes and all that) and dunk in chocolate HobNobs (?) 

Now how I ended up with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star instead of a symphony was because I really wanted to write a novel and I knew that "writers write" and when I put two and two together I concluded that a novel could be written by writing (you can see how I got my wires crossed).Wrong, wrong, wrong. What hampered my early writing attempts was that I just didn't do enough brewing.And then when my tea tasted weak, I tried to fix it by pouring in more and more milk and then dumping in table-spoons of sugar. And when it still didn't taste right I dunked in a whole packet's worth of HobNobs and wondered why there was a pile of biscuit slush at the bottom of my tepid, white liquid. Really, that first cup of tea only resembled a cup of tea for the fact that it was in a mug (read: Word document... see, I've really thought about this).

Because the thing about writers is they write sometimes. The rest of the time they brew. Research. Develop characters. Build intricate worlds. Draw sketches of cyborgs. Found new religions. Persecute their follows. Cut-out pictures from magazines and assemble Frankenstein-style pop groups. Write their next hit single. Create! Explore! Get excited! BREW!

But wait, the metaphor doesn't end there (I told you it was extended)! It's all well and good brewing your tea but if you're using Tesco value bags (that taste like wood) then your novel will taste bad no matter how expertly you've brewed it.Your novel deserves the best ingredients: hand pick tea leaves (read: quality scenes), fresh, organic Jersey milk and blackstrap molasses! And if you don't experiment with different tea bags, you'll never know whether you're a Clipper fan or a PG Tips pyramid bag fan or even a Peppermint, Earl Grey, Camomile or Vanilla Rooibos fan. Loose leaf! De-caff! The list is literally endless. Experiment with tea bags before you settle on any one type. (If the analogy is lost on you at this point, the different flavoured tea represent other people's novels and the drinking of them represents, you know, reading). Some authors use the most flavoursome tea bags and brew them so expertly that they can add Sainsbury's Basic UHT milk and still get the perfect cup. I call this JK Rowling Breakfast Tea.

And if you can bare it for a little longer, we've reached the last part of the analogy. Which I'll kick off with an anecdote (lucky you). I made my first cup of tea when I was about seven. It was for my mum. I followed all the steps that I'd observed and proudly delivered it to her in bed. Whereby she took a sip and grimaced and said "did you remember to boil the kettle?" It clearly hadn't occurred to my seven-year-old self that there was a reason why the water came from the kettle rather than the kitchen tap (namely the making it hot part) so I'd only memorised the act of pouring the water from it. How does this relate to writing? Well having good intentions and being enthusiastic (and observing how other people do it) doesn't mean you yourself will be able to reproduce the same effect. You're always going to have to learn the basics. And you're also going to have to accept that it takes time to get to grips with them (when I visited my nine-year-old sister last week she proudly informed me she'd learned how to make tea, but included an adorable step whereby she decanted the milk into a measuring jug with a spout before re-pouring it into the tea because otherwise she'd spill it). Once you've got the basics you need to practise using them and refining them (in order to miss out the unnecessary measuring jug step).

This is where the "writers write" thing comes into it. But what should you be practising whilst your novel brews?

1. Short stories - Now I'm not personally a fan of short stories. I don't read them and therefore don't have much desire to write them. But they're great ways to practice constructing gripping beginnings, meaningful middles and satisfying endings. Writers can also more quickly get feedback on a short story, and there's always the chance to get them published in magazines which will add to your credentials when you're querying agents.

2. Flash fiction - Like the short story but on a tiny scale. Flash fiction is anywhere from about 250 words to a couple of thousand; a very manageable goal for most schedules.Flash fiction is an excellent way to generate ideas and teach you how to choose the minimum words for the maximum effect. It's also a great opportunity to try out different styles and voices, which you only need to maintain across a small section.
3. Opening chapters - This is my favourite thing to do, personally. I have tonnes of first chapters lying around. It's also a nice way to tell if a particular story grabs you, or whether you've brewed it long enough. The point where I  loose interest tends to correlate with a non-existent plot outline.
4. Re-writes books - This is something I also love to do; taking a book that already exists and adopting the author's style to a different scenario, or using the author's scenario but writing it in a different style. I like to use varied source material for this. In the past I've used the charming voice of Ugwu in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun to write the opening of a historical magical realism young adult, and have used the plot of Anne McCafferey's Chronicles of Pern, replacing the purple prose with short, sharp sentences. This is a great way of teaching yourself to pay attention to sentence and word choice.
5. Fan fiction - OK, cheesy, I know. But no one is going to force you to put it on the internet or self-publish it and it definitely doesn't have to be erotic. The fun with fan fiction is that the characters and world are already fully formed. Your task is to develop plausible plots and make sure the scene (and sentences and words within them) build on the characters and setting to make them recognisable (and consistent). It's great practise for character development as well. I recommend taking a character you'd associate with one setting / role (e.g. Dana Scully) and plopping them somewhere completely different (e.g. Sunnydale High), whilst keeping the setting and premise recognisable and having the character behave believably. Can you imagine how Scully would attempt to explain away all the bizarre happenings on the Hell Mouth whilst performing an autopsy on a vampire and declaring "I'm a Medical Doctor!"
6. Blog - It doesn't have to be fiction, you can practise your unique writer voice via non-fiction routes as well. I would throughouly reccomend reading Chuck Wendig's blog for an example of an author practising their voice through non-fiction. His blog posts are always hilarious and engaging, even when he's just writing recipes or talking about his dog.
7.Tweet - Twitter is all about getting the message out as effectively as you can and as a result, tweeting is great way of learning how to write effective dialogue. Again, the limited space you have forces you to select the best words. It's a great habit to get into because no one wants to read long rambling dialogue (unless it adds to characterisation).

That's a lot to take in, but the message I'm trying to convey is not to turn off your imagination in favour of writing writing writing.Enjoy creating.Practise your craft.But have fun at the same time.

A word of warning. There is such a thing as over-brewing... you know, when you get liver spots on the top of the water. I could go into how liver spots represent the writers psychological well-being but I think you'd agree that my extended metaphor's run out of steam (he he he)...

Until next time.

photo credit: Caro Wallis  via photopin cc

Time Management

Tonya Kuper over at YA Stands offered up some advice last week about time management. I though it might be interesting to see what time management strategies I use myself.

  1. Eliminating “dead” time:
I used to be part of a lift-share on my commute to work. Two hours a days, five days a week wasted. There's nothing quite like traffic jams and that gentle rocking motion to completely wipe out your creative energy. These days, I get a bus to work. Which means for one and a half hours a day, five days a week, I get to do “research” (research is what I call reading YA books ;)). If I don't read at any other point during the week, I don't have to feel guilty. 

The same applies for my lunch break. I used to work in the middle of the countryside and there was no where to go at lunch so the time would be spent chatting to co-workers and catching up on work-related tasks. Another big way to kill creativity. Now, I take myself away from the work environment, and though I only have a thirty minute break, I can use this time, at the very least, to think about my various writing projects. On a good day, I'll do some writing. On (most) other days, I'll just contemplate. The crucial element is that for thirty minutes in the middle of the day, I stop being an Administrator and become a Writer. I use this time to organise my thoughts and work out what I'm going to write when I get home.

  1. Using the weekends
Weekends are when I get to imagine myself as an actual author and conduct my day exactly how I would if I were doing this full time. I get a lot done on a Saturday and a Sunday. I also get to make up for all my short-fallings throughout the week. If I haven't hit a word count goal for my WIP or managed to revise a chapter of my MS, Saturday's the day I do it. Saturdays and Sundays are like being given 10 more week days all at once! They're also when I let myself do all the other stuff that isn't writing – agent research, goodreads, catching up on blogs, planning future novels, character profiles etc.

  1. Working less (aka having a job instead of a career)
I would love to earn a living as an editor or an agent, but editor or agent aren't jobs you can easily get. You have work hard and (usually) intern or (maybe) do an MA to even get your foot in the door. What I want more is to be an author. In other words: I have no time to intern or do an MA to help me get a "career". I have only time for a job. But what my job gives me that's far more important than career satisfaction (for the moment anyway) is the fact that I can leave it at the door. I don't think about it when I'm not there. I don't get the dreaded Sunday blues. I don't lie awake at night worrying about it. It doesn't make me so drained that all I want to do when I get home is watch TV (incidentally, I don't have a TV - another time management strategy). Add it together and I have so much more mental space to create.

Money is tight. But my motivation to be an author far out-ways my motivation for ... well ... anything else. And the longer I go not buying or wanting things, the easier it gets. That Salvi concert pedal harp can wait. There'll be plenty of time for driving when I'm old! A new ruck sack? But the last one has completely fallen to pieces yet! Right now, poor doesn't matter. Productive does.

  1. Working to my natural rhythm.
9pm, without fail, I get better at writing. I don't know why, but there's something about that time. I get more done from 9 - 10 pm than I ever can from, say 4 pm - 7 pm. Knowing that I will want to write at 9 and I will be better at writing at 9 and I will enjoying writing at 9 means that I can let myself be lax the rest of the time. It also means that I need to start at 8:40 because it always takes me twenty minutes to get into anything!

  1. Making Sacrifices
I'm lucky in that I'm an introvert. I find social interaction draining and need very little of it to get by. But prioritising my writing over friends, family and quality time with my boyfriend doesn't make me particularly happy. Unfortuntately, I have to. I have two families, six siblings, not to mention my "in-laws". I just don't have time to see everyone! And if I did, I'd be less happy, because I need to write! Sometimes, you have to put yourself first in life. You'll only become resentful if you prioritise other people's needs before your own. And anyway, that's what the "acknowledgements" page in your first published book is for!

Drawing inspiration from the bad

I know this isn’t a particularly noble post to be writing. Regarding someone else’s creative endeavours in a  negative way (when you yourself are aware of all the effort they must have put into it) is pretty low. That said, you can’t pick and choose where inspiration comes from, and I, unfortunately, am often inspired by reading something bad.

So in an attempt to glean back a slither of self-respect, here's what reading bad fiction has taught me:
  1. There’s a market for anything

    We all know the "guidelines" for writing fiction ... show, don't tell, active voice over passive voice, no head-hopping, no deus ex machina ... They’re helpful "tips", but when you read a book that’s broken every single one of them, you’re forced to accept that there is no right way for a book to be. Worried your Zo-Ro-Co (zombie romantic comedy) about a love-sick cow won't appeal to the masses? Don't be! Put your self-doubt monster to bed. No matter what you’re writing, someone out there wants to read it. Just stay true to yourself and write the book that you love.

  2. They must be doing something right

    I think a good book needs to have complex, action-filled plots, snappy writing, believable dialogue and 3D characters. Reading fiction that lacks what I view to be the basic and necessary components of a story forces me to consider what is good. More often than not, it's fantastical world building and a unique premise. I can certainly accept that my writing suffers from the dreaded “white room” syndrome. No coincidence that my current re-draft of Pearl is to give it a more visceral sense of place...

    3. I could do better ... couldn't I?

    The dreaded, "I could've done that"  is one of my pet hates. You hear it a lot in relation to modern art. "A toilet? Call that art?" The point, however, is that you didn't do it. They did. They thought of it. They put the effort into creating it. They pitched it and got it accepted. You didn't. 

    However, there's a big difference between dissing someone's work when you've never put any effort into achieving something similar and recognising that you are better at doing something than someone else. The second can be motivational. If you're striving to become an Olympic swimmer and in your practise you surpass the score of the lowest competitor, then you can congratulate yourself. You're achieving you goals. That's a good thing. But in the same way that there's more to being an Olympic swimmer then just being fast, there's also more to getting a  book published than writing one. Yes, you've recognised that the basics (swimming, or writing) are better than the competition, but what else did that person have to do to achieve their dream? What have they sacrificed? Are you willing to sacrifice stuff too? Did they write an amazing query? Did they do their agent homework thoroughly and keep querying despite hundreds of knock-backs? Did they hit a trend bang on time? There's more skill involved in success than just basic talent. Reading a bad book is proof of it!

    Until next time x


So September has only just started but I'm already thinking about NANOWRIMO. Every year it kind of sneaks up on me and I only ever really give a half-arsed stab at it. Not this year! This year I will be prepared. My current WIP (the one that just kind of fell into my head immediately after my Pearl high and was so different I just had to write it) is well under way. And according to my schedule will be completed and simmering at the back of my mind long before November rolls around. Which gives me plenty of time to choose from one of my other, more established, more developed plot ideas. But the problem is I'm kind of in love with them all.So how to choose?I've (crudely) boiled them down to the following descriptions (plot wise, not stylistically):a) The Hunger Games meets Pernb) Dolls House meets Divergentc) The Little Mermaid meets FringeYou see what I'm up against here?Still, at least I'm in a much better position than I previously have been. I actually know how to plot now! ;)What about you? Will you be joining the masses and slogging away at a first draft this November? And how do you go about choosing what to write next? Let me know in the comments.Till next time.

Flash Finished?

Well the competition over at writerunboxed has ended and unfortunately I didn't place (which is sad because I wanted one of those t-shirts for jogging!). But the whole thing has been a massive learning experience for me; the challenge of writing 250 word pieces, coming up with new ideas in such a short space of time, drawing inspiration from sources/ images I wouldn't normally choose, it was all a brilliant way to get out of my comfort zone. So much so, I'm going to incorporate 250 word flash pieces into my weekly writing as a way to keep pushing myself.

That wasn't all I got out of participating though. The competition got me talking to people about my writing, including many of my real life friends. That in itself has been a big step for me. It's also the first time I've put my writing in a public forum under my "writer" name and to have other writers like my writing enough to make me a weekly winner on two occasions was an amazing feeling. It was a really supportive environment unlike some of the critique forums I've used before which can at times be little intimidating for a newbie writer ;) Anyway, the whole thing's really spurred me on and made me realise how much I want this!!

In other news, I've finally settled on which shiny new idea to move onto now that Pearl is finished. I've pitched it to a couple of friends who were enthusiastic about the premise which was pretty exciting! Just working on the plot grid and also quite excited to develop the main character who's going to be a super-cool-intelligent-wry-humoured geek. Oh and of course, I've been browsing flickr to find source images for  future flash pieces, the results of which I may post up here depending on how much I like the outcome!

Until next time.


I finally have the internet in my new house. Just in time to let you in on some good news...

Moving is always stressful. Cleaning, packing, the inevitably unreliable man with a van. But it's also a chance for reflection and renewal. During my organising, I took the opportunity to collate all the things I've written during the two years I've lived at my old house. I got the chance to read through first drafts turned into second drafts, pages of ideas, character names, pictures, maps, several timetables, plot grids, re-worked plot grids, scribbled out plot grids, an intricately devised metric time-keeping system (?). I got to see all the ink and paper that's gone into this hobby of mine.

This here, is the first first page of "Pearl":

"Pearl" which now stands completed at 82,000 words.

Yup. Somewhere in the last several months this piece of paper turned into my first proper completed novel. I'm not even sure how it happened. But after I'd finished and after several hours of not thinking about writing (and eating cake, and watching The Beatle's Anthology with my friends) I felt a little odd. Because writing (or trying to write a novel at least) has become such an ingrained habit I feel wrong not doing it.

Turns out, that's how I wrote "Pearl" in the first place. I made it a habit. But it wasn't always that way. I often fell short of my daily writing goals, sometimes for weeks on end. I found it hard to stay tied down to one project. I flitted from idea to idea, changing plots, scraping characters, re-building worlds as I went. For a long time, "Pearl" was my secondary project. I didn't even realise she was going to be the idea I put all my effort into until somewhere down the line I found a writing goal that suited me and just stopped flitting.Then I started making progress and the progress became addictive.Watching the word count go up, even when it was by as little as 1,000 words a day, was what spurred me on. And spurred me on all the way to completion.

So "Pearl's" having a little rest for a while but my brain isn't ready to give up its addiction. I've already started going through all my ideas to find out what I'm going to work on next. Some of them have been ridiculous. Some of them have been good. Some of them aren't sci-fi. One of them involves mermaids.

I don't know what will come after "Pearl". All I can say is watch this space!

Young Adult All The Way

I’ve recently started reading a novel by an author who has previously written for young adults. I loved the young adult book because it had a good premise, excellent world-building, relatable characters and unpredictably. I was fully expecting the adult one to contain all these things but on a bigger scale.

Instead, I found none of these things. What I did find was bizarre and somewhat pompous language selection. Reading the novel made me aware that the author must have “dumbed down” his writing style for the young adult book. But why? The adult book was at times incomprehensible. It made me feel stupid. It almost seemed to mock me and my inability to work out what was going on. And thanks to the surreal writing style, the dialogue came off as entirely unbelievable. I struggled to relate to the main character (who is more-or-less the same age as I am and works in an office like I do) when I have no problem relating to post-apocalyptic heroine hunters.

The experience has made me consider what young adult really means to me. Why am I so much more satisfied with a young adult novel? Why do I choose to read a young adult novels over adult novels? Why do read them (and lots of them) with un-flagging attention while I struggle to stick with an adult book to the end? Here’s some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

1. Clear Writing

I’ve never been made to feel stupid by a young adult novel. That’s not to say they don’t stretch me. I’ll still reach for the from time to time, but the process is enjoyable, it’s a learning process. I’m rarely presented with a situation where my mind boggles, where I can’t work out what the characters are doing. That’s not to say I’m necessarily happy with where the plot it going but I can, at the very least, understand it. (And no, before you ask, I don’t have any problems with reading!) More importantly, I’m made to feel included. The author wants me to get what’s going on. There’s no pretentiousness. The ultimate result is that I can move through the plot without having to re-read passages to work out what the hell's going on.

2. Well paced / fast-moving plots

If your local book shop is anything like mine, the adult novels are grouped by genre whilst the teen novels are grouped together simply for being for teens. I like sci-fi, but selecting a novel from the sci-fi section gives me no indication as to how it will be written. Is there action or is it long and arduous? Are there going to be huge long descriptions of technologies and political systems? Will the novel start with a long back-story laying out all the world-building facts I’ll need in the back of my mind if I hope to understand anything it’s on about? It’s hard to know. But if I selected a sci-fi from the young adult section, there’s a very high chance that the story will start right where it needs to and not a moment sooner, any descriptions of technologies and political systems will be woven throughout and only if necessary, and yes, there will be a hell of a lot of action. Why? Because that’s what agents take on. That’s what agents believe will sell. And does that stuff sell because teens have shorter attention spans? Or is it because, like me, they want to consume as many stories and messages and ideas as possible? There’s not enough time to read every book in the world and I tend not to pick the one where I’m playing catch-up with an author’s imagination. I tend to choose the one where the author’s made sure every last word is relevant.

3. Not really feeling like a grown-up

This is probably the most significant point and the one that is most young adult specific. We do a lot of learning when we’re teenagers. We start becoming who we want to be, rather than who we’re told to be. We leave our learning institutions, some of us for ever. But it’s not easy. It’s been several years since I stopped actually being a teenager, but the person who emerged out of those formative years is still me and I still need and want coming-of-age messages. I don’t have life figured out and neither do the teen protagonists I read about. In fact, through the vast array of young adult books you can read, this is one of the most common threads. By seeing how other characters deal with that transition, I can help myself with my own (rather lengthy) transition. You don’t really get that kind of help from grown-up books.

What do you think makes young adult novels so great? Do you agree with any of my points or does young adult mean something different to you entirely? Please let me know in the comments section.

New Territory / Milestones

When I started this blog, the idea was to talk about all the ins and outs of my personal writing journey. So I’m pleased to announce that I am currently in brand new writing territory.

I am half way through a second draft.

I feel a) a bit silly and b) like a bit of a phony saying that. Silly because it doesn’t sound like much of a milestone and a phony because my first draft was only 16,000 words and I only wrote the dialogue (i.e. the first chapter consisted of two words: “ Pearl hunts”, and the ending didn’t even exist).

But it’s still a milestone because I’ve never not given up at this stage. I’ve never let myself get this far. And now I have it’s exciting and rewarding and also scary.

And baffling. Why is it working this time?

Here are what I believe to be the important factors:

1. People. I’ve started putting my work out there and commenting on other people’s blogs and getting support and encouragement and feedback. Which I always knew I needed, I just had no idea how much.

2. Flash Fiction. Linking on from the above point, I've recently got some very positive feedback from my flash fiction. Having other people express that they like my writing has been a real confidence boost.

3. Time / Practise. I’ve been doing this for a while now. When I started writing, I didn’t know I wanted to write sci-fi YA. I thought I wanted to write fantasy for kids. Only through trial and error and reading new books did I find out where I wanted to be and start practising the right stuff. Which leads me to…

4. Reading the right stuff. For ages, this project stalled because I couldn’t get Pearl ’s voice right. She’s meant to be feral and uneducated. I just didn’t know how to make it work. That was until I read the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness and saw how someone else had done it and done it well. No, I haven’t copied Todd’s voice and I don’t use phonetic spelling, but seeing where someone else had got it right helped me work out how to give Pearl a strong and recognisable voice. I can hear her in my head when I’m writing, now. Until I got her voice right, I couldn’t do anything. So thanks Mr Ness.

5. This blog. In creating my blog, whether I realised it at the time or not, I shifted my perception of myself from someone who’s trying to write a book to someone who’s telling people they’re trying to write a book. I’m not doing this in secret anymore! I’m using my real name and my real face alongside my real words. Anyone who knows me could find this blog. And that makes me vulnerable because I might fail in this endeavour and I wouldn’t be able to hide it from anyone. But I’m doing it anyway because this matters to me and I don’t care who knows it.

6. Goals. I know goals are important but I always set my too high. 2,000 is what I can write on a good day when I'm feeling well and I'm not stressed out. 1,000, however, I can write on any day. Halving my goal has upped my productivity. It's also meant that I've been able to sit down and say "Well, this novel will be done by the 13th August". Not knowing when I would be contributing to the novel made it impossible to set that kind of goal before. But now I'm confident in my ability to get 1,000 words out a day and can therefore set a deadline.
So, there you have it. These factors (and probably a load more I haven’t thought about yet) mean that over the last two months I’ve become more focused, more driven and more enthusiastic. I don’t just think about writing sometimes, I think about it constantly. I don’t just write about characters, I care about them ( Pearl actually made me cry the other day). I go to bed thinking about my book. I read (aka “research”) on the bus to work and on my lunch break. I follow author blogs and writing blogs. I tweet.

And all that’s impacted upon my writing. I’m in a new and exciting place. And it’s a little bit scary.

Can I actually do this?




So everything's going well at the moment with my writing. I've passed a personal milestone (half way through a second draft!), have a million ideas for things to work on once I'm done with Pearl, and I'm generally happy with the way my writing is developing. I don't think I'm publishable yet, but I'm getting there!

What I'm worrying about is all the extra stuff that comes with being an author. Reading other author's blogs has made me aware of how much touring and public speaking and conferencing they do. The idea of public speaking fills me with a dread bordering on phobia.

But by the looks of things interacting with people is pretty crucial when you're an author. Even if you're not public speaking, there's phone calls with agents and meetings with editors and signing with fans (imagine that, eh?). It's all incredibly daunting.

I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but the idea of actively choosing to put myself in the spotlight is so alien to me. I feel sick just thinking about it! Still, I know there's something I can do. Practise.

In the same way I have to practise writing to get better, surely I can practise these other skills, too? It's not unnattainable, it's just the process of getting there will be difficult...


Wow. So the votes are in. I got a total of 6 likes for my flash fiction piece and a very nice person had gone out of their way to comment on it, too! I am thrilled. It means so much to me to know that other people enjoy my writing.

That said, the big news is... I got an "honourable mention"!

Go here: to see my name mentioned on a well respected writer's blog!


Flash Fiction!

I just wrote my first piece of flash fiction for a competition on writer unbox and thought I should post it here too for all to see!

Last delivery of the day. Thank God.
I peer at the glass vessel on the seat beside me. The mask inside is all golden curls and thick eyelashes and full lips. Hardly remarkable. Barely even beautiful.
What’s the point? If I had the money, I’d transform into a superstar, not a housewife!
Rain splats against the windscreen. I enter the client’s name and address into the Sat-Nav – Kim Low, 445 Grooble Street – then press “Go”. The car lurches forward and weaves into the steady flow of traffic.
The rain drenched city goes by. Billboard after billboard. NuFace4U! Girls With Curls! Star Features! Beneath them, the jobless try to stay dry.
The further I go, the taller the buildings get, until the sky is just a slither above me. Then the car draws to a stop beside a cement tower block.
Kim Low must have saved up for years for this new face.
And it’s not even nice.
The car door pops open. I slide out, heave the heavy glass jar into my aching arms and struggle up the drive. By the time I reach the porch, I’m soaked.
Irritated, I slam my palm onto the intercom button.
There’s a pause, then a male voice cracks through. “Hello?”
“Package for Kim Low,” I say.
“Fancy Faces?” comes the wavering reply.
There’s a spluttering sound. Sobbing. Choking. And between the noise I can make out one word, whispered over and over.
“Thank you…”

Taking Stock of It All

My manager was asking about my book earlier today (I think I've already mentioned how great she is). So I told her about it being a sci-fi book for teenagers. Then she remembered about a teacher she'd worked with in the past who writes YA who had just been published.

So we googled him ( and read the blurb of his book (which is about witches) and I said, "The first book I wrote was about witches but it was really awful." 

And then I stopped. Because I realised what I'd said.

"The first book I wrote..."

I've never said that out loud. And in doing so, I realised something. I've only ever thought of that book in terms of it being "really awful". In fact, I've been so caught up in the awfulness of it, I've completely disregarded it.

But what that awful first book is -- far more than being "awful"  -- is a massive accomplishment.

It was the point where I went from saying "I'd love to write a book one day," to saying "I've written a book". 
It was the point where I learned that I had both the drive and the perseverance to start a project and see it through to the end. 
It was the point where I learned what "awful" meant and what I needed to do to avoid "awful" in the future!

And it wasn't until I was speaking to someone who hadn't written and book and had no desire to write one that I was able to see what I had accomplished. 

I don't want to talk for everyone, but a lot of us seem hard-wired to focus on our short-comings rather than our achievements. I wonder if it's something to do with comparisons. When we surround ourselves with people who are at the top of their game, it's easy to see how far we have to go. "The more you know the more you know you don't know" as they say. I wonder, too, if it's because writing a novel is such a long, massive task. So much work goes into it that the end isn't in sight for a long, long time. And for me, I know that once I get to the end, there's a whole new load of things to learn because I'll have the query letter to write and the agents to research. And before even that I have to get over my fear of betas!

Maybe we could all benefit from taking a step back and taking stock of what we've accomplished. Even if it's just a chapter or a page or even just a plot, it's one step closer to our ultimate goal. If I hadn't had that awful first book, I would never be where I am now.

So let's congratulate ourselves today on what we've achieved, rather than focusing on how far we still have to go.

-CB Soulsby

PS - Since you're wondering, I managed to write 15,000 rage-fuelled words over the weekend!

Using Anger

I’m not an angry person. I do get angry but then I almost immediately get sad. For me, anger involves blame and animosity but (thanks to my Psychology degree) I spend most of my life striving to understand and empathise with people. Add to this my fear of causing anyone to feel anything even remotely unpleasant (no matter how much they deserve it) and instead of getting mad, I end up sad. And sadness, it turns out, is not a great motivator.

Thanks to some coaching from my amazing manager at work, I’m learning to become more assertive. Backing down has been my defence strategy my whole life, and I use it both as a way to avoid the unpleasantness of conflict and to help the other person save face. It’s what she calls a “You’re OK, I’m not OK” pattern of behaviour. In other words, the way I behave in many of my interactions is to make sure the other person is OK before myself, to the detriment of myself, even.

So this time, round about the point I usually admit defeat and dissolve into tears, I've vowed not to get sad but to stay angry for as long as I need to. Anger is a valid emotion and one that I now realise is damaging for me to suppress. And in allowing myself to be angry, an interesting thing has happened.

It feels good. 

It makes me want to write a kick-ass novel.

Anger, it turns out, is a great motivator.

Do you use your emotions to fuel your work? How? Or do they get in the way of your creative process? What strategies do you use to get over those hurdles? Comment away!

What I Do When I Don't Know What To Do

I have a problem with focusing. I'm not going to lie. I jump from project to project and back again. It's just the way I do things.

I have two main projects going on at the moment. I refer to them after their main characters: Pearl, and Ivy. I also have Generation Lawless, which is something I fall back on when I'm stuck with either of the other two. And as of today, I have Syrup.

Which leads me to the title of the post. Syrup came up as something to do because I didn't know what to do. Why? Well, I have a rough draft of Ivy I wrote by hand that needs to be put on my laptop before I move on, and I'm on the second draft of Pearl so I need my laptop with me to work from that. But I did not have my laptop at the time so neither of those were options.

So I did what I do when I don't know what to do. I came up with a new idea.

This doesn't always happen due to being sans laptop. Sometimes it's cos I've gotten stuck with a scene, or I've hit a plot hole and I'm berating myself for my stupid, or maybe I've become disillusioned with a character or a way of writing cos I've been staring at the same chapter for weeks on end. This happens with Pearl, for example, because she speaks in a lot of slang, and I have to make a really conscious effort to keep my writing authentic to her voice.

Sometimes, I just need to do something a little less labour intensive.

So this is how I do it.

I open (or draw, if I'm not near a computer) a "plot grid" template. It's basically just a table with four columns: Chapter, Synopsis, Sub-plot / Things to remember, Word Count, that's split into twenty rows and divided into five parts: Introduction, Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Denouement. I split it into parts so that I can have a slightly different focus for each part and make sure the plot progresses and shifts rather than just plodding in a linear fashion.

So I get my grid and I think of ways to fill it in.

What's great about doing this is the complete freedom. I have no limitations, no preconceptions, no fear and no commitment. It doesn't matter if I only fill out the introduction box then give up because I'm really only filling my procrastination time.

And what's even more useful, is it helps me turn off my inner tweaker. Every time I read something or watch something, I get inspired. Which makes me make hasty decisions with my projects that I think are going to turn them into brilliant books but which in reality turns them into big piles of steaming confusion. Many a project of mine has ground to a halt this way.

Instead, what I do now, is make one of these plot-grids. Sometimes it's straight after a film, sometimes after the first page of a book. I just can't help reinventing what I consume (thought this mainly involves taking something that isn't set in space and sticking it in turning dragons into robot octopuses or Nazis into aliens). It's fun but it's also important. Because instead of reading something and saying "Oh God my book is awful, why can't it be more like the master piece I'm reading?" I get to go "This is what I would do if I had the chance, but I don't have time to devote to this idea, so I'll just write it down and come back to it later." It takes the emotion out.

Then every once in a while, I hit on something I really like. Pearl was one of those. She was just an exercise in plotting and was where my plot grid came from in the first place. I wrote a first draft for her, put it away then came back six months later and realised I had something I could work with.

Today, I've struck something else that I'm willing to explore. I'm reading Divergent by Veronica Roth and it depicts a load of characters who I think are really far from the types I write. They're violent and selfish and arrogant and they take stupid risks with their lives. I'm such a cautious person that so many of my characters get bits of my own reticence seeping into them. So I started thinking of my own world where such selfish, dare-devil characters could live. Add to this the fact we have an ant infestation in my house at the moment, and a recent documentary that's been lingering in my mind about the Holocaust, and there I am, with a filled out plot grid that's the skeleton of a complete novel. Plus, I have a handful of characters to populate it.

Will I ever write it? Who knows. I've tried a preliminary first chapter which I like today, but may hate tomorrow.

The point is today hasn't been a wasted writing day. I've honed my skills. I've thought creatively. I've worked on character development, dialogue, action, rising tension. I've practised grammar and spelling.

And it's all helped my main projects as well, because I haven't been tempted to mess with them. Granted, it would be easier if I could focus, but in the meantime I think it's a pretty effective use of those dead spaces.

Pick Me Ups

I can’t count the amount of times tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, Pro-Plus or other stimulants are advocated as a way of getting through the writing process. Great if it works. But what if you can’t rely on these?

Due to my ME/CFS, it’s incredibly important that I don’t consume stimulants. This kind of “fake” energy can have disastrous long-term implications (think of it like drinking alcohol; you can stay up for hours on end because it makes you believe you have more energy than you do, but eventually you will run out of steam and you will get a hangover. That’s me. But with tea).

That said, I do use pick me ups. Just really boring, sensible ones.

  1. Water – Staying hydrated is ridiculously important when you have ME/ CFS (well, it is for everyone, but even more so for us!). I always have a big bottle of water to hand because if it’s there, I’ll drink it. Yes, I do spend all day peeing, but atleast inbetween the toilet breaks, I can concentrate enough to produce some good writing!
  2. Co-Enzyme Q-10 – there’s no current guidelines on the amount of this that can be consumed in a day. You can have 3 tablets at a time, and I’ve read about people doing this up to three times a day though I personally feel that’s pretty excessive. I only use it rarely, as and when and it’s pretty good at making me more alert!
  3. Omega 3 –This was a real turning point for me in my recovery process and helps keep the dreaded “brain fog” at bay. At the moment, I take 5 IQ tablets a day. People with ME/CFS generally respond well to taking it in vast quantities (though try to get the stuff that has less DHA as this can build up in the body and cause other problems). VegEPA is DHA free but it’s hella expensive.
  4. Fresh fruit / veg – these guys have loads of nutrients and are very low on the Glycamic Index, which means they give me energy without a nasty sugar crash. Snacking regularly instead of having big meals is considered very helpful for people with ME/CFS as it keeps energy levels stable and means the body doesn’t have to waste energy digesting. I recommend anything you can eat whilst still typing (so definitely no oranges or kiwi fruit) and I usually eat something every hour.
  5. Pacing – can’t beat the power of a pace. For those who aren’t familiar with pacing, it usually requires closing your eyes, lying down (or atleast getting cosy), and trying to shut down your brain for at least twenty minutes. I don’t pace nearly as much as I should (doctors recommend 4 lots of 20 minute sessions a day regardless of how good you’re feeling that day), but it’s always incredibly refreshing. I have to listen to music when I pace because if I leave my brain unoccupied for any period of time, it tends to lead me to a bad, dark, despairing place.

So those are my top tips for staying alert. They’re not full-proof but I definitely produce more and better quality work when I use them.

Good luck, let me know what your pick-me-ups are in the comments!

This week in writing

Wow. So something truly magical happened to me this week. I realised that it had been about a year since I'd stated writing my first novel (which is still languishing in first draft format somewhere on my hard drive) and to celebrate this milestone, I decided to look back over all those other terrible first drafts I'd produced, just to prove to myself how much I'd evolved as a writer.

Among all the false starts, one piece (sci-fi) had made it all the way up to the last chapter before I'd gotten confused by my own plot-twists and run out of faith in myself.

So I read through it.

And it was good...

With my fresh objective eyes, I could see it for what it was: a pretty decent story with interesting characters and believable dialogue and plot twists.

So I set about thinking of an ending. And then I started writing.

8,000 words later and months after I first started working on it, the first draft is complete.

And I'm still excited! I haven't finished it with this sense of dread about everything that I need to go back and change about it. I'm actually looking forward to make this story shine.

And all I needed was time,  by leaving the first draft and working on other projects so that when I came back to it it didn't even look like something I'd written.

Generation Lawless will have to take a backseat, because this project is really going places. I just hope I can finish it before the doom sets in this time!

Slight change of Direction

I’ve decide that this blog will be devoted to the process of writing a novel with a focus on the emotional impact of doing so. It will still contain the short “episodes” of the novel as I write it, but I will also include behind the scenes detail – what I’ve achieved this week, my short-falls, how I’ve felt throughout, and how I’ve overcome (or not!) the problems I’ve encountered.

My aim is to provide an honest account of my experience of the creative process in the hope that others may benefit from it. There are many blogs out there with articles on the trials and tribulations of novel writing (this one from YA highway is particularly good) but for me, the emotional side of writing is my biggest hurdle and most enduring problem.

Why? I believe this is because of my health problems; I have depression and ME/CFS, and both like to put their respect spanners in my way on a regular basis. A lot of what I read on the internet about “Writers Block” follow the Pull-Yourself-Together school of thought – keep going, plod on, work through it, chin up. It’s great advice that I know through experience that my brain doesn’t respond well to. Hammering away at a problem (in any avenue of my life) can lead to me being overwhelmed with self-doubt and can trigger depressive episodes. Stopping, walking away, resting and re-evaluating are always better strategies for me but that greatly effects my productivity.

So how do I overcome these hurdles? That’s what this blog will be devoted to: support and advice for getting a brain that lacks motivation into gear, that lacks concentration to focus, that gives way to irritability and anger to chill the hell out! Can I silence my self-doubt enough to achieve my dream? I suppose only time can tell…

Plentiville - The place

Imagine how the Earth might be if the population kept increasing, if our fuel consumption did too, if buildings got taller and spread across the countryside as sea-levels rose, destroying coastal dwellings and making their residents homeless. Now imagine if technology existed that meant we could terraform other suitable planets and fly out to them within a reasonable measure of time. Would we leave, or would we stay behind to clear up our mess?

Who would leave? Who would stay behind?

Who would decide?

This was the starting basis for my construction of Plentiville. In my imagination, the people who'd leave Earth would be the wealthiest; the ones most culpable for its destruction and those more able (and willing) to leave their mess behind.

The fundamentally religious would also see an opportunity in leaving Earth. How could they resist the appeal of setting up a world where only their religion and beliefs were practised?

Trickling down from this, different political groups may want to leave to start worlds where their opinions weren't challenged. Imagine the scope for abuse?!

In the future I've created for Generation Lawless, this is how the first colonies are created. Different groups splitting off from the mainstream to create worlds that fit in with their own ideological beliefs.

Once all these groups leave, the Earth that's left behind is a desolate, decaying, wasteland. There may be some who try to create a better world, but there would be many more who would seize this opportunity to take power. Imagine if there were no coherent police force? No courts to uphold the law? How long would there be a law left to uphold?

Plentiville is meant to have come into existence a significant time after terraforming rose in popularity, as an alternative to the other models that were in existence. Its aim was to be a world where children had childhoods, similar to the ones their grandparents may have experienced; with schools, roads, transportation, parks, cinemas, galleries, museums. It aimed to be self-sufficient, with an abundance of resources. Basically, Plentiville is meant to be an example of how our world could be.

The first wave of Settlers to Plentiville were those with skills: builders, farmers, carpenters, anyone who could construct the dream world its founders envisioned. The second wave of settlers, who set off from Earth five years later, was made up of families who wanted to raise their children in what could, potentially, be a utopian civilisation.

But of course, that utopia was not to be...

Generation Lawless Episode Two


Episode Two

I stay completely still for a long time, staring up at my little brother like it's the first time I've ever really seen him. Then I pull myself to my feet and approach him cautiously.
He just stands there staring at the knife.
I wrap my hand around his; around the hand that's gripping the knife. It shakes but loosens at my touch.
Here, let me.”
I take the knife from him and stow it back in the place between my belt and jeans. I want to say 'thank you' but it ent the right time for it.
Come on,” I say softly, circling an arm round his waist.
Let's help the girl,” he says almost robotically and that's when I remember the child, curled up and bloodied.
I turn and approach her. A tangle of black curls lies across her closed eyes. Her dark skin looks ashen. Her lips are parted and as I scoop her into my arms, I realise that no breath comes from between them. I don't tell Mim that but I think he knows.
She weighs hardly anything and she looks younger than Mim. Must've been born on the ship, must've spent her whole life cooped up in space and now... now... after just a brief taste of life, she's had it snatched away from her.
We turn back towards the house, picking our way across the litter strewn garden. I don't wanna think about what happened here, don't wanna believe that the Firsters could be this feral. To kill a child? For what?
That's when I see a figure in the upstairs window, striking the glass with her fists. She looks so similar to the girl in my arms it's freaky – she has the same dark skin and hair – but about my age or older. She locks her terror-filled eyes with mine and where her hands have struck the window, there are bloody prints.
She's been attacked.
Her eyes dart from the girl in my arms and back up at me.
Jessie, don't be a hero. I hear my Dad's voice as clear as anything. Don't be a hero.
My body's bruised from the struggle with the Firster, the last thing I wanna do is risk further injury rescuing another girl I don't even know.
I just want to get out, get away, get to safety.
But her stare penetrates me.
I can't get it outta my mind, don't think I ever will.
Then suddenly Mim stops. He's seen her, too.
Jessie...Jessie,” he says, tugging on my sleeve.
I know. I saw her. I know.” I say. “But we've gotta go. It's too late to save her. The fire's upstairs and it'll spread and the smoke'll choke us.”
Mim looks at me, horrified, his eyes brimming with anger.
What's wrong with you?” he screams.
That's when I realise he has so much more riding on that girl living than I do. He just killed. He's a murderer. He'll never forgive himself if it was for nothing.
We stagger through the back door, through the kitchen, into the hallway, then pause at the bottom of the stairs. From above, black smoke collects on the ceiling like a storm cloud and a ring of fire engulfs the door frame of the master bedroom like it's the gateway to hell.
Mim gives me this look of determination.
Don't go up there,” I say, feeling myself well up. (Shut up).
I have to” he says, placing a foot on the bottom step. It's so hot his figure warbles before my eyes like a mirage and I think is this the last time I'll see my brother? Is this it?
Then I grab him by the collar of his shirt and yank him back down. I plonk the dead girl in his arms.
Check the other rooms! Make sure no one's trapped. Get any one out you can, but keep outta sight.” Then I sling my bag off my back and dump it at his feet. “And take this.”
You don't need it?”
I pat the knife at my waist. “Got everything I need right here.”
He looks up at me with his stupid doe eyes, all scared and worried and I rile with anger. He can't have it both ways! He can't pester me into playing a hero then look like a slapped fish when I do!
But then he smiles suddenly; a proper grin like I've just given him the best present in the world.
And I realise that's pride in his face –
Pride at me, at what I'm gonna do –
And I think I feel it a bit too –
Then, in a flash, he disappears down the corridor.
I look up the stairs. The fire from the bedroom's giving me enough light to see by but the heat that pours down with it stings my face and my throat.
I step up, my finger tips hovering beside the ivory hilt at my waist. Dunno when I might need it.
There's stuff littering the steps: broken photos, hair brushes, that sorta thing. Whoever ransacked the place mustn't've found anything worth stealing. So they killed a couple of kids and torched it? For what?
I seethe as I stomp up the stairs, coughing and spluttering.
Just because we're Newbies? It's so stupid. So mindless. So petty. So...immature! Yes, the adult's are dead. But that doesn't mean life has to descend into chaos. That doesn't mean we have to kill each other, doesn't mean we have to turn against each other in order to survive.
But then... I was gonna leave that girl upstairs. I was gonna leave her in whatever crummy situation she might've been in – to be murdered or left to burn or whatever –
Am I any better?
I reach the landing and the heat nearly knocks me backwards.
I pause.
The girl's window was overlooking the garden which means it was at the back of the house. Which means her bedroom is beside mine. Which means the whole time I've lived in Plentiville only a single wall, a thin row of bricks and cement, has separated me from her.
And I dunno who she is. Never even wanted to.
I glance down the hall towards the room. There's only one way to get there without getting so close to the fire I risk the chance burning and that's by climbing across the banisters that border the stairs. But the fire is painfully hot and I can't get close enough.
Hey!” I cry, forgetting myself for a moment, forgetting there could be a Firster in there with her.
But when a figure appears at the door, stooped over, it's her. She staggers forward and I see the deep gash across her forehead, with blood pumping from it and pouring down her face.
You're hurt,” I say.
She looks dazed. “Firster.”
Are they still there?”
She leans against the door frame for support. “We fought him. He's dead.”
Me. My dog.”
The crackle of fire gets louder.
You gotta come this way,” I shout. “I can't reach you, but if you climb on the banisters you could jump down.”
No!” she cries. “He's hurt!”
Who's hurt?”
My dog!” She slaps a hand across her cheek in absolute despair but I almost laugh. Her sister's dead. Her parents must be too. Her house is on fire. She's been attacked. She's got blood pumping out her like there's no tomorrow... And she's worried about a dog?
I guess it's just the shock that makes me wanna laugh, right?
Just the shock.
You've gotta leave it behind!” I say.
She gives me this look like I just told her she has to eat it or something. Then she staggers forward and crumples to her knees.
The fire from the main bedroom room swells forward with a roar, then there's a craaack above me and the ceiling plaster caves in. I fling my arms over my head to protect myself, stagger back down the steps, almost tripping.
A series of clatters and swooshes follow and when I open my eyes, I see it: a wooden ladder. It's dropped down on its runners from the hatch that leads into the attic. It's within reach. I can use it to pull myself to the girl.
I grip the bannisters and swing my legs up, crouching on the hand-rail, then carefully stretch myself up to standing. The fire is so hot it hurts but I reach for the ladder, grasp a rung and pull myself forward using all the strength I have in my body. My feet lift from the bannister and I swing my body round and collapse to the ground but my feet are just inches from the flames and I scrabble backwards and –
I'm safe.
I'm alive.
I made it.
The girl lies on the floor, looking up all wide-eyed, blinking.
What happened?” she says, her voice slurring.
You blacked out. You're bleeding and the smoke's making you weak. We've gotta get out.”
She grabs my hand and uses me to hoist herself up. “Pip,” she says, darting back through the corridor to her bedroom.
Leave the frugging dog!” I cry, glancing back over my shoulder at the swelling flames.
When I reach her room, it looks just like mine but decorated differently, with floral wall paper and pictures of animals. On the floor is the Firster who must've attacked her, lying face down, covered in bloody bite marks. Beside him lies a rusty meat clever.
I feel sick.
Then I see the dog on the bed – a massive thing with a great big, pink tongue hanging out its mouth. There's so much blood pumping from a deep, blunt wound on his shoulder, his blonde fur's stained red.
What happened?” I say.
He was trying to protect me from the Firsters. They had that.” She gesture to the cleaver. “They cut him. Then me. I tried to get him up but then I saw the flames and I...I... panicked.”
I kneel beside the dog and lean my ear close to his mouth, feeling warm, soft breath on my ear. He's still alive.
I straighten up. “OK, this ent gonna be easy.”
The dog's big and meaty but I reckon I can bare the weight of him. Afterall, I dragged both my parents down the stairs earlier this evening. This evening? It already feels like a life time ago!
Earlier this evening Mim and I weren't orphans.
Earlier this evening, Mim wasn't a murderer.
Earlier this evening I wouldn't ever have risked my life for a stupid dog!
I wedge my arms beneath his stomach and heave him against my chest. He's not as heavy as I was expecting and I wonder if that's from the effects of the adrenaline that's coursing through my body.
We make it into the corridor but the fire is bigger, closer, hotter.
And the bannisters are ablaze.
We can't go down.
We could go back, go out the window, but then we'd have to leave the dog and for some unknown reason I ent letting that happen. Not now. Not after everything.
I cower at the sound of another horrify crash from the master bedroom. The ceiling must've caved in some more.
And that's when I have my idea.
The attic!” I say.
It's the only way. If we go up, we can go through the sky light onto the roof.
The girl stares at me, all big brown eyes and terror. “What?”
Help me!” I say, ignoring her.
I've twisted round, trying to get the unconscious dog onto my back. The girl realises what I'm doing and with all the strength she must possess in her thin body, she helps drag the dog onto my back.
Now go, I need you to pull.”
She scampers into the hall and up the ladder in a flash, crouching at the top, peering down. I stagger through the hallway then, with one hand securing the unconscious dog's forelegs over my shoulder, I use the other to pull the weight of us onto the first rung. Every muscle in my body screams
I pull.
I step.
I pull.
I step.
Inbetween each movement, a roar or a screech comes from between my teeth without me even meaning to. I sound like an animal.
Three rungs.
Four rungs.
Five rungs.
Closer and closer while the flames lick at the base of the ladder like an orange ocean.
Six rungs.
Then, I'm close enough for the girl to reach us and she leans down, clasps my hand in hers and pulls.
With a last groan, the unconscious dog and I burst through the hatch into the attic and tumble onto the floorboards.
I roll onto my side and get straight to my feet. The dark attic's lit by the fire light that pours through a massive hole in the floor where half of it has fallen away. Underneath I can see into the master bedroom, can see two charred and blackened bodies lying side by side surrounded by flame.
Her parents.
The Firsters set fire to their bodies.
I retch.
Get the skylight open,” I say through my gagging.
The girl scampers across the room and yanks the window with the full weight of her body. It swings down towards her and air rushes in –
But there's an enormous whompp noise –
And a plume of fire stretches up through the hatch towards us like an enormous, column of heat –
Shit!” I cry, falling back from the jet and pulling the dog by his back legs.
The flames fan across the ceiling, rushing towards the oxygen it needs to burn.
Shut the window!” I scream. “Shut the window!”
But it's too late. The girl leaps onto her tiptoes, pushing at the top bar of the window with her fingertips, but she hasn't got enough strength to propel it upwards. She turns to me, pleadingly, her eyes filled with despair.
There's thick smoke collecting above us so I crouch low and drag the dog behind me until I'm just below the window.
Get out!” I say to the girl.
She pulls herself onto the ledge and squeezes through the gap onto the slanted roof top. Then, with difficulty, I get the dog back into my arms and shove him out after her. But he's big and his tummy wedges in the gap.
I push his rump with both arms.
Sorry doggy, sorry, sorry,” I say, watching as the flames grow bigger, the smoke thicker, feeling my lungs struggling more and more to get enough oxygen.
I shove.
I am not gonna die here. I refuse to die here.
I cover my face with my sleeve, coughing and retching –
My eyes sting and my throat burns and my skin pricks from the heat –
And I turn and shove that stupid frugging dog with my back, pushing my whole weight into him –
If I die because of this stupid dog, this stupid frugging dog –
If this is how I go –
I blink –
My eyes are wet with tears –
The fire roars –
My throat burns –
My skin hurts.
My skin, my skin –
It hurts –
And the flames get closer and –
This is it –
It's too late –
It's over –
It hurts –
Then suddenly the dog slides out and there's that space for me in the window and I pull my arms through and the girl grabs me and tugs and the fire's at my feet and I scream and I slither and I'm through – I'm through! – and I slam the window closed.
And I breath.