Why didn’t she tell the police? – A word on abuse, family and Beautiful Broken Things

Like all sensible authors, I don’t comment on reviews. At most I will thank kind reviewers who link me to their positive reviews, but I sometimes hesitate doing even that. Bad reviews, even those that sting, even those that I disagree with, are best left alone. But there are certain things that crop up occasionally that make my heart sink for a different reason than simple wounded pride. And that’s questions like this: “Why didn’t she tell the police?”

In Beautiful Broken Things, one of the three main characters, Suzanne, has been abused for much of her childhood. The book starts after she has moved to Brighton for a “fresh start”, so the abuse is only ever referred to, never seen. You know that it was physical and emotional, that it was at the hands of a step-parent, that it was a deep, ugly family secret. It’s not stated explicitly, but the abuse was never reported – not by Suzanne herself, and not by anyone else in her family.

And so to that question. Why not? Why didn’t Suzanne report her stepfather? Why didn’t she get help? And variations of the same. (And also “Why isn’t this discussed in the book?” which I’ll get to a bit later.)

Questions like this make me sad. They make me sad for abuse victims everywhere. For those going through it, and those recovering from it. Because what it says is this: why didn’t you save yourself?

And that says this: You could have saved yourself.

And that says this: You didn’t save yourself.

A child doesn’t stop loving their parents because they are abused by them. Maybe the whole thing would be a bit easier if they did; maybe breaking free would be easier; maybe “getting over it” would be easier. They want to be loved in return, it as as simple and as heart breaking as that.

How could a child who is desperate for their parents’ love and approval “report” them to the police? Think about how impossible that would seem. How unfathomable.

Suzanne grew up in a household where she was the only one being abused and so, alongside the physical violence, there was years of emotional manipulation from both her parents and her brother. For most of her life, she heard things like this from people she loved: “Don’t tell anyone, you’ll break up the family.” “You don’t want to be put in care, do you?” “They’re my parents too.” “You don’t want to be the reason your family gets split up, do you?” “What would people think of you if they knew?”

It wasn’t a choice for Suzanne to not report what happened to her; it was literally never an option, because it was never allowed to be. Manipulating children into keeping quiet is one of the most horrible parts of child abuse. Questioning why a child kept quiet is like asking them why they have a bruise. The answer is, “Because this is what was done to me.”

Now Suzanne, obviously, is fictional. But this happens in real life every day, and it happens to people who then have to read things like “Why didn’t this fictional character report this? They should have reported it, and then things would have been better.”

None of this is included in the text of Beautiful Broken Things for two main reasons. One is that there’s only so much backstory you can include in a story without sacrificing the actual story you’re trying to tell, especially when the character is not the protagonist. The second is that it’s the wrong question to ask, and including all of this justification for Suzanne not having done what she was “supposed” to do as a victim would feel like I was letting her down. What I would want to say is, Suze, you didn’t do anything wrong. You were let down by everyone around you, but it is not your fault.

Let’s keep the blame where it belongs, and that is with the abuser, not their victim.

 

 

Note to those who need it:

If you need help, if you are suffering, if you are being abused, and reporting it feels impossible for these reasons or any other reasons, there is support available. There are people who can help. 

If you are in the UK, Childline is a completely free, private and confidential service. When you’re ready, they’ll be there. 

 

 

What I Learned About Publishing in 2015 (aka IT’S A REAL BOOK!)

If I’m summing up my years in blog titles, this is The Year My Microsoft Word Document Became An Actual Book With Pages. Last year was The Year I Got My Agent And She Made All My Dreams Come True (Thanks, Claire!). Next year will be My Debut Year.

But in the interests of leaving the past in the past and not being clairvoyant, I’ll keep this particular blog post to 2015. My crash course in publishing. The year I learned what “stet” meant. The year I held a proof of my book in my hands and turned ACTUAL PHYSICAL PAGES.

So, without further ado, here’s what I learned about publishing in 2015:

  1. It really is full of brilliant people. It’s true! I thought I’d have encountered some mediocre ones by now, but I haven’t! My publishing house – Macmillan Children’s – is just full of incredibly talented, passionate, friendly and supportive people. And they give me books! They’re pretty great.
  2. Everything takes a really long time. Like, a really long time. Maybe even longer than that. Learn to be patient, or this is not the industry for you. Unless you’re a contestant on The Apprentice.
  3. Editing is hard. And however long you think it’s going to take, double it.
  4. And you will realise you hate your book. Then love it again. Then hate. Then love. Then
  5. Goodreads is where happiness goes to die. Don’t go on Goodreads. Just don’t. (Maybe next year I might even take this advice.)
  6. Book v/bloggers are all kinds of awesome. Passionate, dedicated, supportive and enthusiastic. Guess which blogger I’m talking about? Jokes, it’s ALL OF THEM.
  7. Author friends make the best friends (aka Ode to Mel Salisbury). Written a book? Find someone else who has written a book and make friends with them immediately. Then find some more. Repeat. They will pull you out of funks. They will celebrate the highs with you. They will remind you why you are doing what you are doing. They will go on adventures with you. They will sign their book for you with a private joke. Get writer friends. Really.
  8. It’s not all joy all the time. Getting a book deal is a dream come true, there’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean everything will be perfect and wonderful from then on. Don’t feel guilty for having bad days. They’ll still happen.
  9. Someone else will always have a better deal, a higher review, more buzz, more followers, more territories, more more more. Don’t compare, you dingbat. There lies madness.
  10. There are a lot of brilliant books in the world. And they’re being written, edited, marketed, sold and read by some pretty brilliant people. Huzzah for publishing! Here’s to next year.

Books on a shelf, words on a page: the books of my life

At the beginning of the year some writer friends and I set up a mini book club where we committed to reading each other’s top three “books of our lives”. These are not just books we love or mean a lot to us, but the kinds of books that feel like they get right into the marrow of who we are. Some books do that, though most don’t, and of course it’s a deeply personal thing, dependent on a number of factors independent of the book itself. Sometimes books come into our lives at just the right time, elevating the book above “favourite” to something more like sacred.

I’m excited to have the chance to share these books with my friends and also to read the books that they feel have had a similar effect on their own lives. The only downside was narrowing my own personal list down to three.

As I have more space here, I’d like to expand my list a little more. They are the books that made me feel grateful to be a reader, desperate to be a writer and more aware of what it means to be a person. They’re the books that shaped me. Aka, the books I force on people when they ask for recommendations.

1) Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr 

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

slaughterhouse-5  War. Time travel. Aliens. Dresden. Truth. Satire. Hilarity. Sadness.

2) Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

“Thank God for books and music and things I can think about.”

flowers-for-algernon-by-daniel-keyes Intelligence. Lack of. Wisdom. A mouse. A man. ALL. THE. TEARS.

3) The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver 

“Listen. Slide the weight from your shoulders and move forward. You are afraid you might forget, but you never will. You will forgive and remember.”

poisonwood-bible Religion. Africa. Racism. Colonialism. Post-colonialism. Wisdom.

4) Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

51PR5E6NCDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Women. Wartime. Friendship. Loyalty. Bravery. Fly the plane, Maddie.

5) My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece – Annabel Pitcher 

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does.”

41xR2ghaHzL Cry. Cry some more.Then recommend it to everyone you know.

6) Gilead – Marilynne Robinson 

“We fly forgotten as a dream.”

gilead1 Wisdom. Grace. Truth. Religion. America. Racism.

7) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer  

“I said, I want to tell you something.
She said, you can tell me tomorrow.
I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always unnecessary.
The books in my father’s shed were sighing.
The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna’s breathing.
I thought about waking her.
But it was unnecessary.
There would be other nights.
And how can you say I love you to someone you love?
I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her.
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you … It’s always necessary.”

1ed03f39421c60a52c0101de2d18fcab Quotable. Hilarious. Devastating. Strange. Sad.

8) Maus – Art Spiegelman

images

Maus Essential. Life-changing. World-view-shifting.

9) The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

“Wonder. Go on and wonder.”

51jXpcgG33L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Strange. Confusing. Brilliant. Caddy.

10) On the Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta

“What do you want from me?” he asks.
What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him.
More.”

1162022 Everything YA can and should be.

Aaand a shout out to STATION ELEVEN, which I read a couple of months ago and adored. I would have added it to this list, but feel I should allow a grace period of a few years before calling something a “book of my life”. But Station Eleven is utterly wonderful and you must read it.

Have you read any of these? What would be the books of your life?

The Little Mistakes That Aren’t So Little – Advice For Jobseeking Graduates

I’ll start by saying I’ve been on both sides of this fence. I’ve worn the shoe on both feet, if you will. In 2010, I was a fresh graduate, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, throwing myself into job applications, just waiting for my first chance. I wrote about it, and everything: evidence.

Almost a year after graduating, I was given that first chance, albeit after several crushing months doing temporary and contract work. I started working as a Junior Content Writer at an international online healthcare company in London. Fast forward three years and a bit and I am now Content Manager for the company. In the interim years I’ve done my fair share of recruiting. Being that we’re a relatively small company, I take care of the entire process from start to finish. This means I write the ad, I read all the applications, I select and then interview the candidates and I, ultimately, make the final decision.

I’m sympathetic to fresh graduates, because I remember what it was like. How frustrating it can be when you don’t have the experience the employer thinks they want, but know you have the potential, the skills and the enthusiasm to be just who they need. How exactly to put that across, how to strike the right balance between hopeful and desperate, enthusiastic and frightening, is damn hard. I know that.

So I like to think I read incoming CVs from such grads with good faith and a fair amount of generosity. I forgive the occasional ill-judged exclamation mark or oh-so-quirky turn of phrase. I get it. You’re trying to make yourself stand out. I even forgive teh occasional typo (see what I did there? LOLZ, etc), because hey, everyone makes mistakes.

But the harsh fact of the matter is I am just one person. A human person, with 200+ applications for a role I need to fill (yes, really. 200+). Sometimes I’ll be in a bad mood. Sometimes I’ll be in a GREAT mood. But whatever mood I’m in, the fact is I’m trying to get through your application as fast as possible.

Here is the truth: I read your covering letter and CV looking for the thing that will make me say NO. And then discard your application. (Or, in my case, move the email into what is essentially my rejects folder. Sorry.)

Harsh? Yes. But honest. It’s a total myth that employers look through CVs waiting for the EURKEA! moment. We’re not. I usually make it to three typos (in the entire application) before I reach my NO! point, for example. Alternatively, a brilliant cover letter which details the candidate’s suitability for an entirely different role will also get a resounding NO. Fact is, superstar, no one cares if you’re brilliant. Not really. They only care that you’ll be brilliant TO THEM. IN THEIR COMPANY. DOING THEIR JOB.

If I get through your application without a NO!, you’ll go into the Pile of Potentials, which I then revisit after a couple of days to choose my interviewees.

Job-hunting can be a stressful, thankless task. There’s nothing quite as crushing as applying for 75 jobs and hearing nothing back. It’s all too easy to become a little sloppy. To stop caring about tailoring your CVs and reading the job description thoroughly before crafting your cover letter. Mistakes crop in and go unnoticed. Just little mistakes, right? Well, not always.

Here are some examples of the kind of things that get a NO!

1)  I’m a brilliant editor. Just brilliant. I am proving it to you with this poorly edited covering letter that I clearly have not read over more than once. Please hire me. 

Yeah. Sorry, chaps. It’s one thing to not be great at editing – this is entirely forgivable, even in writing/creative roles. It’s a skill like any other, and one I’m more than willing to work on with new hires. But in this case, the mistake you’ve made is telling me you think you’re good at it while simultaneously proving that you’re not. A little self-awareness goes a long way. A lack of it is costly.

2) I’m quirky. Oh, so quirky. I’ll come and quirk up your office with my quirky ways. Maybe I’ll even play my mandolin for you in the sun. Please hire me, sensei.  

Quirky candidates are like nice guys. If you need to say you are one, you’re not. Trust that your personality will come through in your writing – that is what covering letters are for. Do not, for the love of God, put things like your favourite song on your CV. You’ll think, this will make me stand out because no one else will do it! And you’re right. But there is a REASON no one else does it.

3) I really want to work for your company. I’ve heard such great things about your company. Please read these 5 detailed paragraphs about why I’ll be such an asset to your company. Please hire me, hiring person.

Look. It doesn’t matter how long you spent perfecting the perfect cover letter if you are too lazy to even copy-paste the ACTUAL NAME of the company you are applying to into the letter. Always – ALWAYS – put the name of the company you’re applying to somewhere in the letter. The best thing is to say SPECIFICALLY WHY you want to work for that company. You will be AMAZED how many people don’t do this. THIS is the kind of thing that will make you stand out in a good way.

4) My experiance:

NO. Some mistakes are forgivable. Some are not.

5) I write mellifluous prose.

NO. (Really, no. Also, cool it with the adverbs. No one in the world is voraciously hungry for a career in marketing.)

I’m almost at 1,000 words so I’ll leave it at 5 for now. I’ll do a follow-up if anyone wants more. (Because, unfortunately, I have many more.)

If you’re a jobseeking grad and anything in this post made you nervous, feel free to hit me up for advice/tips/reassurance. And finally? GOOD LUCK. This will be your year.

The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet) – Vivian Versus the Apocalypse

Look at that beautiful cover.

This is the first post in a series: The Best YA You Haven’t Read (Yet)

I found out about Vivian Versus the Apocalypse (Katie Coyle’s debut) via a chance post on tumblr that found its way onto my dashboard, and I’m very, very glad I did. I assumed when I first heard about the book – and even more so after I read it – that it was destined to become one of Those YA Books. You know the ones. The ones that crop up in every YA conversation and take one of the top spots on Best Of lists.

It’s strange to me that this hasn’t happened, because Vivian is a brilliant book. In a market as busy and varied as YA, it’s hard to find books that have a truly original premise. Vivian, which features the eponymous teenage heroine facing a world seemingly in the grips of a religious apocalypse, is startlingly original. Yes, end of the world scenarios have been done to death, but I tell you what. They haven’t been done like this.

Vivian features all the expected components of an apocalypse story: there’s the left behind lot bandied together and struggling to survive; sudden and jarring acts of violence and murder; strange weather occurrences; the yes-the-world-is-ending-but-I-still-want-to-kiss-you subplot (emphasis on subplot, thank the storytelling gods); and the cross-country journey for against-the-odds answers.

But here’s what else Vivian has: brilliant secondary characters (Harp!), amazing Rapture/capitalist/Bible puns (“Lot’s jeans. Go ahead, turn around” made me laugh out loud in an airport), Doctor Who references, thoughtful but not invasive questions about religion and capitalism, a sledgehammer-wielding protagonist and the kind of opening chapter that makes you want to grab the person nearest to you and shout “ZOMG!” in their face.

I suspect that the reason Vivian is still relatively under the radar is because it hasn’t yet been released in the US. When that happens – January 2015, I believe, with the new title Vivian Apple at the End of the World – I’m sure it will indeed become one of Those YA Books. How can it not?

If I’ve convinced you (and if I haven’t, what else do you want?!), you can find your own copy by clicking right here on this link.

Not-so-absent girls, the champions of YA and what Caitlin Moran should read

Anyone who reads or writes young adult fiction will have had that conversation.

“But… why teenagers?”

You explain, trying to temper your enthusiasm and the urge to grab the listener’s arm and scream “CODE NAME VERITY! WE WERE LIARS!” in their face, but still you remain braced for their inevitable, dubious reference to sparkly vampires or, if they’re a touch more informed, arrow-wielding dystopian heroines. That an entire canon of YA literature exists, of which Twilight and The Hunger Games are simply a part, will likely never have crossed their minds.

It’s not news that YA as a section of literature is mischaracterised and misunderstood, but it was still a surprise to see Caitlin Moran make the same tired mistakes last week in an interview with the Bookseller. Not surprised because of the same incorrect clichés coming to light once again, but surprised because they came from someone bringing out a YA novel of her own.

In the interview, Moran talked enthusiastically about her upcoming novel How to Build a Girl, which apparently centres around a “funny, weird teenage girl” having “sex adventures”. Moran emphasised the importance of teenage girls having access to frank, honest material about sex. So far, so good.

Moran’s mistake was to go on to boldly proclaim that this kind of writing didn’t already exist and, in the process, completely mischaracterise YA fiction as being “always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures”. Moran’s intention is to correct this perceived imbalance and the absence of girls (“unless they’re being bitten by vampires”) with her novel. This is no doubt a worthy aim, if such a problem actually existed.

Young adult literature is, in fact, full of “funny, weird” teenage girls having adventures of all kinds. Historical adventures, contemporary adventures, paranormal adventures, sexy adventures. Adventures with boys and without them. Adventures with humour and heart and a few life lessons occasionally thrown in for good measure. In this sense, it is just like adult literature. The only difference is the age of the protagonists.

YA is, at best, patronised in the mainstream media and, at worst, outright ignored, precisely because it is written for and loved by teenagers, most of whom are female. This is a deadly mix for a media that traditionally has little time for teenage culture (unless it requires hand-wringing) and a superiority complex about anything deemed “women’s interests”. How could YA be seen as anything but wholly lesser than any and all other fiction? Aren’t teenagers just smaller, stupider versions of adults? Isn’t anything marketed to them inferior by default? Why would anyone have heard about it?

Moran’s real error was to assume that the lack of discussion about books championing quirky teenage girls and their sexy adventures meant such books didn’t exist. With no representation of young adult fiction in the mainstream media, the disconnect between the perception of YA and the reality is not a surprise. Even less surprising is the impulse to fill in the blanks with cultural stereotypes. Young adult fiction must be about teenage boys having adventures while girls remain invisible, because isn’t that the case in countless (grown up) books and film and stories from every day life? The problem isn’t that Caitlin Moran made this mistake. The problem is that it’s a mistake that is so easy to make, and one that is continually perpetuated by incidents exactly like this.

The YA community, made up of readers, writers and appreciators of all ages, was quick to respond to this mischaracterisation of their field. Keris Stainton, herself an author of several YA novels containing funny, weird teenage girls and frank discussions about sex, started the hashtag #caitlinmoranshouldread, with recommendations of books that prove to Moran why her statements were not just ill-advised, but actually completely false.

Even in the US, where the YA market is bigger and more established, YA fiction is only just starting to be considered by the media. Publications like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are starting to sit up and take notice, printing reviews and profiles of leading authors, as well as the occasional think piece about the so-called “rise” of YA (Judy Blume who?). But this new scrutiny is not without its problems. YA hasn’t been picked up by the press because its cultural worth and literary merit has suddenly been recognised. It’s been picked up because of the John Green Effect.

John Green is that most prized of literary things: a white, male, middle class writer of realistic fiction.  To be clear, he’s a very good one. His novels, most recently The Fault in our Stars, are bestsellers all over the world, with a film adaptation due for release next month and millions of subscribers on his various YouTube channels. As an advocate and champion for YA, they don’t come much more successful and beloved than John Green.

John Green is not the problem.

The problem isn’t even that it took the success of John Green to convince the mainstream media that YA was worth talking about. The problem is that as these discussions begin to take place in the pages of mainstream publications, the erasure begins. Reading these articles, you’d be forgiven for thinking YA just didn’t exist until John Green arrived on the scene. The pioneers of YA, from Laurie Halse Anderson to Sarah Dessen to Meg Cabot, are all but forgotten. In one instance, Judy Blume’s incalculable contribution was written off in a dismissive line raising an eyebrow at the failure of her books to be made into films (never mind the fact that this decision was made by Judy Blume herself).

This matters because it perpetuates the entrenched impression that women’s contributions do not matter, and the only way for writing or art or thought to gain mainstream recognition is to be spearheaded by a man. Caitlin Moran may have bold ideas about redressing an imbalance, but by virtue of her femaleness history teaches us she won’t be the gamechanger she thinks YA needs.

The true imbalance isn’t within the books themselves. It isn’t the gender of the protagonists or the amount of sex contained within the pages. The imbalance comes down to true value and perceived value. Books that matter and books that don’t. People who matter and people who don’t. Until this imbalance is addressed, it doesn’t matter how many funny feminists throw their weight behind YA. Because, sadly, it’s just not that much weight at all.

What I Did When I Didn’t Run A Marathon

Sometime last year, sprawled across the sofa with my laptop on my lap, I ended up watching the Virgin London Marathon. I’d probably meant to just have a bit of a gawp from the lazy safety of my living room, a gawp tinged by the resentment of the perpetually unsporty. But instead I stayed on BBC One and watched the coverage for some time, taken by the stories of the runners and the long routes they had taken to wear their numbered vests.

The real stories of the London Marathon aren’t of athletes or superstars, of course. You can tell that after five minutes of watching the coverage. They’re of average Joes and Josephines raising money for big charities and small charities; running in four hours or six hours or eight hours; hidden inside elephant costumes and gorilla suits; doggedly determined on crutches.

I was transfixed. I was awed. I was inspired.

I sent a message to my sister, high on the endorphins of watching someone else do something inspirational. We should run a marathon! I said. I looked up training schedules and advice for non-runners. Running a marathon was a huge challenge, the internet said, but entirely doable with the right training, commitment and determination.

 So we signed up, my sister and I, to run the Brighton marathon, which would be taking place the following year. April 6th. Which is tomorrow.

As you can probably tell by the title of this blog, it will not be my trainers hitting the wet Brighton streets (forecast: rain) tomorrow. It will not be me in the bright orange vest. I am not running the Brighton marathon.

It all started well. I did a lot of reading on how to go about getting myself ready, not just for a marathon but for long distance running in general. I did the Couch to 5k (which is brilliant, thank you NHS) and bought trainers and running gear. I divided up the following year until the marathon into training chunks, so I’d be ready for the real training to begin several months before the marathon itself.

There are plenty of reasons people don’t end up running marathons. First, running is hard. Second, the body, if used to an exercise regime of walking and trips up and down the office stairs, doesn’t always respond very well to a sudden change to high-impact exercise. Usually this only translates as things like muscle pain and cramps, but occasionally it shows up problems you were happily oblivious of, like the fact that you’re actually flat-footed and that said unawareness of this can screw up your knees. This is what happened to me.

But the point of this blog isn’t to lament my unmarathoned status. The point of this blog is for me to take a written moment and appreciate how the twists of my marathon non-journey lead me to achieve something quite different: I wrote a book. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t think, hey, I’m not running a marathon, I should write a book instead. But that’s what happened. On the evenings and weekends I would have increasingly dedicated to running longer and longer distances, I wrote instead. Over the same several months I would have been turning into a runner, I typed myself into the writer I’d always wanted to be.

I know this isn’t an either/or situation. It didn’t take a failed marathon attempt for me to finally get over my writer’s block of several years, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the failure to achieve something big had spurred me on to achieve something quite different. However subconsciously, I chose to use that period of time to actually do something. For once.

There’s a part of me that’s wistful when I see the signs around Brighton warning of road closures for the coming marathon, but it’s just a small part. There’ll be other marathons, other opportunities, other challenges.

I’ve attempted to assuage my one true regret, which is not raising the money I’d hoped for the MS Society, by sponsoring as many of my friends who are running for charity as possible. I hope one day to be able to try again and raise the money the MS Society needs and truly deserves.

For all this, I’m not making any grand statements about how another door opens when one closes, but I do think of this unexpected last year as a small reminder of how paths sometimes choose themselves, how where we end up isn’t always where we expected and sometimes it really is true that things fall apart so better things come together.

To all those running tomorrow’s Brighton marathon and any and all marathons around the world: good luck and congratulations! I am still transfixed, I am still awed, I am still inspired.