Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Forward Women

I did a keynote speech for the Guardian's brilliant Forward Women event today, discussing my career and the climate for women in publishing, and I thought I'd post a section of it up on my blog for those who couldn't attend. I've cut the opening section of my speech, as it covers familiar ground about the beginnings of my career, but here's the rest.

... Even now, in 2015, there are certain paths we are expected to follow; certain behaviours that are considered “womanly or unwomanly; certain sacrifices we are expected to make to fit in with the norm. I was horrified recently to read of a gender equality survey carried out by YouGov in 24 countries, where one of the statements put to participants was “It is unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public”. The global average of female participants who agreed with that statement was 15%. Let me just repeat that: a global average of 15% of female participants taking that survey believe it is unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public. In 2015, that should be 0% for both male and female respondents, but to see women think it was particularly upsetting, and shows that we still have a lot more work to do.

It has also traditionally been women, rather than men, who were expected to choose between their career and being a parent. Just this month there was an article in the Telegraph with a female headteacher who said that we shouldn’t be telling young women that the glass ceiling no longer exists, because the onus is still on women to make tough choices between their biological calendar, to quote the article, and their work life. 

I did a radio interview with Caitlin Moran in 2014, and she used a fantastic quote, “I cannot be what I cannot see”. Young women need to see themselves in all sectors to be reassured that they belong there. We can see from recent campaigns for more women to be on bank notes and in passports that we still struggle to celebrate female achievement, in no small part because women were historically not allowed to enter certain jobs, but also because we are only just beginning to realise that the way we teach history has very much been about “his story”, not hers. As I said earlier, one of my special subjects at university was Principles of Film Criticism, and in all of my time studying it, I didn’t learn about any female directors. Yet I discovered later that some of the earliest filmmakers, like French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, were women. Guy-Blaché was making films before women were even allowed to vote. I had to find out about her from Twitter.

One of the ideas I wanted to address in this speech was whether or not being female has affected my career. I don’t believe my gender has significantly held me back in terms of my success as an author, but I do think it has given me a different experience of the book world than I would have had as a man. The publishing industry itself is certainly not male-dominated; many literary agents, editors and other members of the industry are female, as are many successful authors. However, if you dig a little deeper, there are still many hurdles we need to overcome as we strive for complete gender equality. The annual VIDA count, which analyses literary journals and periodicals through the lens of gender, highlights what the VIDA organisation calls the “sloped playing field”, where men are more likely than women to review books, and have their books reviewed, in major publications. Numbers have improved since 2010, when the VIDA count first revealed the scope of the problem, but it does still exist.

There is the issue of explicit gender markers on books. While many people will be familiar terms like “women’s fiction” and “chick lit”, there is no public awareness of “men’s fiction” – because it doesn’t exist, presumably because men’s fiction is considered universal, while women’s is not. Shannon Hale, author of the Princess Academy series and Austenland among others, has recently started a campaign called Stories for All, where both male and female authors have shared their experiences of gender-based marketing, and how boys are often assumed to not be interested in books about girls. The campaign contests the idea that there should be “boys’ books” and “girls’ books”. I am very lucky to have a publisher that doesn’t box my books as being for women only – my covers are gender-neutral – but some women, like the bestselling author of Chocolat, Joanne Harris, have reported having their work bound in flowery or pink jackets, even if such stereotypically feminine motifs and colours are not relevant to their writing.

In the midst of this, I am very grateful to my publisher for urging to me to use my own name on my books. Originally I was planning to use an androgynous pseudonym or my first initials, as I was afraid that men might be put off picking up my books if they saw that a woman had written them, and in a way I was right to be afraid. When Joanne Harris highlighted her experience of sexism in the industry in a string of tweets this July, she reported being told by a man at an academic party that he “never read books by women”. This a sad and limiting attitude, and it’s one that won’t go away while terms like “women’s fiction” exist in the public mindset. Fortunately, Bloomsbury didn’t think it was necessary for me to hide my gender. This marks an encouraging difference in the publishing house’s perspective since JK Rowling was asked to use her initials for fear that boys would be put off reading Harry Potter. I’m relieved that I followed Bloomsbury’s advice and wrote under my full birth name, because, as I quoted earlier, “I cannot be what I cannot see”. It’s vital that women feel confident using their own names and identifying as female within their chosen career, in order to normalise the presence of women in all sectors.

Within books themselves, we have seen an explosion of female-driven stories, particularly in Young Adult fiction. Although my books are published as Adult, I also have the great privilege of participating in, and knowing many people from the Young Adult book community, where there are more complex, interesting, and independent female characters than you can shake a stick at. Protagonists like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen are often praised as role models for modern women. In 2008, Katniss was a new kind of heroine, the polar opposite to damsel in distress Bella Swan from Twilight, who gives up her mortal life for a husband and a baby. Like Bella, Katniss gave birth to a new kind of book, this time with a lead character not defined by her love interest. “Strong female character” is the ultimate buzzword in today’s crop of books for teenagers, especially teenaged girls. A clear message is being sent: that female readers are rejecting the Bella life, taking up their bows and firing an arrow into traditional gender roles for women. On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards empowerment, but the more I’ve considered it, the more it seems to continue imposing a harsh dichotomy on girls, and raise another glass ceiling in the world of fiction. Female characters of all kinds are being written about, but they are persistently viewed as being “strong” like Katniss or “weak” like Bella, rather than multifaceted, unique people. 

When I was in Spain on tour last year, a journalist told me bluntly that my narrator, Paige, was not as strong as Katniss Everdeen, and he asked me why this was. I was at a loss for words, because I couldn’t work out why the question was relevant. Paige and Katniss are completely different women. They go through different experiences and cope with them in different ways – yet here, they were pitted against one another. It felt like a competition I hadn’t entered, a little Hunger Games of its own, with female characters constantly compared and vying against one another to be “strongest”. I still kick myself for not asking the journalist how he came to the conclusion that Paige was weak. I have my own theories, and I’m uncomfortable with all of them. Nowadays, I would definitely have tried to engage the journalist in conversation about it. If there’s one thing I could tell my past self, it’s to be more confident in questioning and sharing ideas with other people.

In my four years in the publishing industry, I have very rarely, if ever, seen male characters likened in this way; neither have I heard the term “strong male character”. Male characters are treated as individuals, as people, and are by default assumed to be strong, while in my opinion, many female protagonists are positioned as knock-offs of their predecessors; copycat cut-outs of Katniss Everdeen or Hermione Granger or other girls who came before them, as if only a limited number of women can be acknowledged as individuals in fiction. There should be room for every female character to exist without comparison to others. It might seem trivial to assess how fictional characters are treated by the media, but all good fiction holds up a mirror to reality. After a few years of observing this culture of comparison, I have resolved never to think of myself as being in competition with other women in my industry, or in my life in general. I want to try my best to raise up other female authors and celebrate their accomplishments as I would celebrate my own. I don’t want to compare myself to them, but to stand alongside them.

In conclusion, I want to encourage all of you today not only to use this conference to learn valuable skills for your own careers, but to talk to the women around you, the other young women who are attending this conference, and be inspired by them. Take heart in their ambition and their achievements. Share wisdom among yourselves. Celebrate what women have done, can do, and are doing. Encourage each other to reach for your goals. Every step women take in their professional lives is a step towards addressing a history of invisibility and ensuring that new generations of women can envision themselves in all careers, and if we take those steps together, it won’t be long before women will stop surprising everyone with their strength.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015



Just a quick note to say thank you all so, so much for your wonderful response to the title of the third Bone Season book, and your patience regarding the release date. I'm glad the book finally has a name I can share – it makes publication feel that little bit closer.

I was also totally thrilled to discover today that The Mime Order has become a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 for Best Fantasy after it received enough write-in votes from readers to qualify. Thank you!! If you fancy voting for it, or any of the other candidates, you can do so here – there are some wonderful books nominated, like Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas, All I Know Now by Carrie Hope Fletcher, and The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, all favourites of mine for this year. Thank you in advance if you do vote for The Mime Order!

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Song Rising

After an incredibly long wait, I am proud to present the title of the third installment in the Bone Season septology: THE SONG RISING, out in November 2016! It might be my favourite title so far – I hope you all love it as much as I do!

I just want to thank you all for your incredible patience in waiting for this reveal over the last year. I feel so grateful to have such loyal and enthusiastic readers – thank you, thank you. I know another year is a long time to wait to have the book in your hands, but I’m confident that Bloomsbury has chosen this date for a good reason, and I will do my utmost to make the wait easier to bear with teasers and hints.

THE SONG RISING will be available to pre-order from all reputable retailers very soon. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s up.

Also, Bloomsbury are currently running three competitions to win On the Merits of Unnaturalness, ending on Sunday. You can find them below: 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Getting Vertigo

Hi, everyone:

You’ve all been incredibly patient in waiting for news about the third Bone Season book for the past few months – thank you. Although we’re inching closer to the reveal of the title and release date, I also have a little bit of news from elsewhere while you wait: I’m making my comic-writing debut! I’ve written a short story for the final installment in Vertigo’s quarterly SFX anthology series, based around the sound effect BANG! I never thought I’d get the opportunity to try out this method of storytelling, much less have it illustrated by a professional artist, and I had a lot of fun with it. 

The anthology will go on sale on 27 January, 2016, exactly a year after The Mime Order came out. You can find out more here.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Judging my first award

This year, I was asked to be one of three judges for the inaugural BBC Young Writers' Award, a new branch of the BBC National Short Story Award set up with reading charity Booktrust. I've never judged an award before, and initially I was going to refuse how does one judge a story, after all? but in the end, I decided to go for it. This was a wonderful opportunity for the country to hear from a new young voice, perhaps a future star of the book world, and I wanted to be part of that. Today, I thought I'd do a post on how an award is judged, and how we came to choose the winner.

My fellow judges were Matt Haig (author of The Humans, Reasons to Stay Alive and many others) and DJ and presenter Alice Levine. Our criteria for the stories:

  • Quality of writing – Originality, imagination and creativity
  • Sentence structure and language
  • Writer's ability to tell a story, capture the reader and hold their attention 

    Solo round

    Booktrust received over a thousand entries for the award. It was impossible for the judges to choose from that many entries, so the initial batch was read by the 'sifters' at the charity, who were faced with the gruelling task of narrowing the number down. 

    I received a list of fifty-one entries. While Booktrust had details on the writers, to us, they were utterly anonymous. We had no information on names, ages, genders nothing. All we had was their words. 

    The easiest way to tackle this, I decided, was to do a single read of each story first. I'm fortunate enough to be a fast reader and each story was a maximum of a thousand words, but I owed it to the entrants to peruse each story carefully, with my undivided attention. I worked in bursts over the course of several days, setting aside a few hours to read in silence on my own. 

    As I worked my way down the list, I would put a strikethrough across the titles that weren't working for me, and note my reasons in case one of the other judges disagreed; bolded those I'd read and liked, but not loved; and finally, highlighter on those I'd found particularly fascinating or experimental. At the end of this first reading round, I was left with eight strikes, twenty-four bolds, and nineteen highlights. 

    A few days later, with refreshed eyes, I gave the strikes and bolds another read, looking carefully for potential I might have missed the first time. Many of the stories were well-written and enjoyable, and many showed sparks of brilliance  most often in beautiful imagery, or a skilful turn of phrase, or their ability to send a chill down my spine but they didn't have the flame I was looking for, or they didn't hold my attention as well as I wanted them to. Sometimes there was too much telling and not enough showing. One or two felt slightly rushed, or like fragments of what should have been a longer story. Sometimes I couldn't put my finger on exactly why I did or didn't find the story compelling, which was frustrating. Most of the time, however, the reason I had to reject stories was simply because others were stronger.

    As I worked through them again, I either downgraded the bolds to strikes, thus ruling them out completely, or highlighted them if I had found something that changed my mind. Next to the titles of removed stories, I would note down what I had and hadn't liked, along with my key reasons for not putting this story forward for consideration. I did this so I had a framework to reassess my views in the event that Matt or Alice was particularly keen on that story. At the end of this round, I had thirty strikes and twenty-one highlights. The strikes, unfortunately, all had to be discarded at this point. Now came the real challenge: narrowing down the highlighted stories from twenty-one to ten. 

    It was difficult. I had eleven stories left. One would have to go. I sat there for a good hour, pondering, re-reading. Finally, I had a shortlist of ten, which I sent to Booktrust.  

    Team round
    After Alice, Matt and I had sent our choices to Booktrust, we found that there were only three stories we had all put on our individual shortlists. For a few, I had voted the same as Matt or Alice, and they had voted for the same as one another, but we each had several stories for which we were the sole advocate. 

    For this round, we met in person at Booktrust's offices in Battersea to discuss the entries. Our aim was to end up with a shortlist of only five. All of the shortlisted writers would be invited to the award ceremony in October and get a tour of the BBC, but only one would be the overall winner, with their story read out on BBC Radio 1. 

    We started off by talking about those stories that we were individually passionate about and discussing them with the whole group. I felt strongly about one story in the way that Alice and Matt originally hadn't; I ended up winning them over, and by the end of the day it had made it onto the shortlist. Then we discussed stories that all of us, or more than one of us, had selected. This was easier in some ways, as there was agreement between at least two of the judges, but also somewhat more difficult, as we had to be tougher on the writers than we had been in our individual rounds. We interrogated each story using Booktrust's criteria, questioning whether or not they were able to hold our attention all the way through, if the quality dipped at any point, if the language mostly avoided cliché, and if there was enough clarity for us to understand what was happening. (Clarity was a point of contention for several stories. It's can be great to have mysteries and uncertainties, but you also don't want to confuse the reader so much that they just don't understand it.) After several hours of debate, with some extremely close calls and last-minute changes of heart under our belts, we had our five stories. 

    Although most involved some sort of rite of passage, I was incredibly pleased with how different they all were. Each had its own style, and an interesting, compelling voice. 

    Final round 

    Our final task was to choose one overall winner out of the shortlist. We were given print-outs of the stories to read again before the meeting. Although it turned out by the end that we all had the same winner in mind, we wanted to do justice to all five, so we sat and picked them apart one more time. All of them were worthy winners. After over an hour of discussion, however, we came to the unanimous decision that Skinning, a story that had been on our radars since the beginning of the process, was our favourite of the bunch. Both the subject matter and the writing felt exceptionally mature; it had an intense, microscopic focus, and the language was confident, poetic, and original, while still being lucid enough for us to understand what was happening. (Some lines we all loved were "The sky is one long gasp" and "The colour feels rude".) We later found out that the story was written by Welsh writer Brennig Davies, the youngest of the shortlisted writers, when he was only fourteen.   

    This was the first ever BBC Young Writers' Award, and I'm so glad that the BBC made it possible for us to discover some truly diverse and exciting new voices in the next generation. I hope it proved to be as much of a fun and valuable experience for the entrants as it was for the judges. We really enjoyed reading the fifty stories we got to see. Long may it continue! 

    If you're reading this and you submitted your story, remember that, even if you didn't win, you should still feel incredibly proud of yourself. You not only had the skill to write a story in a thousand words or less, which is no easy feat even for experienced authors, but you also had the guts to put your writing into the world to be judged by a panel of strangers. I hope you'll all consider entering again next year. 

    You can read the fantastic shortlist here – and listen to the inimitable Sir Ian McKellen read Skinning aloud:

    Wednesday, 9 September 2015



    I just thought I'd give a quick update on the situation with Bone Season 3, as I've had a flood of questions as to when it will be coming out, when the cover will be released, etc. I’m due to get my newest batch of edits this week, and my editor should also be giving me some idea of what we’re doing about the title, which has to be changed from the one I chose originally. Once that’s been sorted, Bloomsbury should be closer to deciding on a time to announce the title and release date. After that, things should start moving a bit faster. 

    On 13th September, Read the Bloody Book will be putting up a teaser for Book 3, written by yours truly, so keep an eye out for that as well.

    I'm sorry for the wait – everything in publishing is carefully scheduled, and sometimes it can seem like it's all going quite slowly but things are happening, I promise...

    Friday, 7 August 2015

    Growing a world

    I often get asked how to build fantasy worlds. When you start building a fantasy world, ask yourself questions about the world you’re building. Ask yourself why and how.

    Let’s try this. I have just come up with a very simple concept for a fantasy world, a world where people are sorted into castes based on their hair colour and the brunettes are the best and the blondes are the worst and everyone else has a rank in-between. Now, I could write a novel based on this concept that doesn’t dig into the heart of the story – doesn’t explain anything, just slaps the world on the page and expects the reader to swallow it happily – but I know I’d find it hard to read, because I’d want to go deeper. So, as a writer, I must do my worldbuilding.

    I’d want to know how this works. How is the caste system maintained? Do people dye their hair to move between ranks? Or is hair dye is forbidden to prevent that happening? What about the elderly? When their hair turns grey, are they treated as outcasts, or are they seen as having transcended the caste system and treated as god-like figures? Are people only allowed to marry people with the same hair colour, or do they deliberately try to marry “up” to increase their children’s chances of having a certain hair colour? Does it matter if the hair is curly or straight or wavy?

    I’d also want to know why this happened, because on the surface, this is seems like an illogical way to run a society and it’s going to take some work for the author to convince me that it could work. Did the caste system originate from a king or queen or supermodel or other public figure having that hair colour and being idolised for it, and everyone trying to mimic them? (That happened in history, seriously. All the fashionable people wanted the same colour hair as Elizabeth I.) Is it far more sinister, part of a plot to create a master race who only have a certain hair colour? (That happened in history, too.) Or is it based on the culture of beauty pageants? Or something else? Look at how hair is treated in different cultures. Look at what hair, and hairstyles, have symbolised throughout history: beauty, marital status, power. Think George RR Martin’s Dothraki, who never cut their hair unless they’re defeated in combat. Think Samson and Delilah.

    Depth is critical to authenticity. A reader won’t fully believe the story if they can see mile-wide holes in it, and fans of sci-fi and fantasy tend to have particularly keen eyes. Trust me, they’ll spot inconsistencies and things that don’t make a lick of sense.

    What comes to you as a simple concept can blossom into something much bigger, and much richer. Just ask yourself questions. 

    First posted on Tumblr