Second time around…

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Me, and my friends Fran and Katja, who came over from Germany to celebrate with me.

This time last week I was downstairs in Waterstones Piccadilly. It was the night of the launch of my second novel THE SLEEPING PRINCE.

Half of my face was painted gold and I was wearing a crown I’d made at home two nights before. At that point in time, I still had my shoes on. If I remember rightly, my publicist Rachel had just shown me my cake, and I was trying not to cry because there was a cake, and the cake had a map on it of the world I’d created, and my publishers did that for me.

They had set up a table with alchemical potions and knick-knacks on; they’d made badges showing the countries in my world so people could choose where they were ‘from’. They’d supplied wine and pop and crackers and blue cheese. And they’d got me a cake – did I mention the cake?

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CAKE

It was my cake. For my second book.

There’s a lot of nervous talk around second books – second anything, in fact. We’ve all heard of Second Album Syndrome, and the Sophomore Slump. Second books are notoriously harder to write; first books are often laboured over and nourished for years before eventual publication, whereas second books are usually written to a deadline. There’s more expectation to write a ‘better’ book second time around. There’s the fear that all of the fire and innovation was used up writing the first book and the second will come from a more mechanical place. There’s the worry that being able to write a first book was a fluke, and it can’t possibly be repeated.

I’m lucky, because when you write a series, you already know largely what the second book will be about. You don’t truly have to start from scratch, as all of the groundwork – the world, the history, the characters – is already in place.

Unless you do something stupid, like set it in a different place, and have a different character telling the story. But what kind of idiot would… Ah. Yeah.

From the very earliest days of The Sin Eater’s Daughter, I knew I wanted it to be a series. And I knew the narrator of the second part would be Errin. I knew the whole story was the tale of two very different girls; one raised up to be something special, and one ordinary; one full of darkness and fear, one light and hopeful. But it felt like an unusual approach, and I was scared it would go wrong, that it would fail. To be honest, I was scared of everything when I was writing The Sleeping Prince.

I’ve never admitted this before, but this time last year, I was not having any fun. I was terrified of what people would think of my first book. I was convinced it would be a flop, and that I was going to let down everyone who’d worked so hard on it, my cover designer, the sales team, marketing, editorial. Everyone. I couldn’t connect with the experience, I couldn’t really talk about it. I felt like a fake and a fraud and I was so, so frightened that this one thing – this impossible dream – was going to be taken away from me. I kept waiting for the axe to fall. For a year, I couldn’t look up in case I saw it.

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Lovely Katie Webber, me, and my agent Claire.

The thing that got me through last year was my agent and my publishing team – the very people I was convinced I was failing. Claire Wilson, Genevieve Herr, Emily Lamm, Rachel Phillips, Mallory Kass. They kept my mind focused on The Sleeping Prince, but still reminded me how much they loved TSED. They replied to my emails with speed, and kindness, and understanding. They gave me the room to be creative on my own terms, and always, always with their support.

So that’s why having a cake was A BIG DEAL. Having a cake was the solid proof that they were proud of me – proud of us, and what we’d made – and that they wanted to celebrate. It seems such a stupid thing, of all the things they’ve done for me, to wax lyrical about a cake but to me it was everything. So this year I won’t shut up about The Sleeping Prince. Because my team deserve to know how over the top, over the moon thrilled I am with it and all of the work we’ve all put into it.

And to reassure Claire that there will be a lot less, “Claire, I think you’ve made a huge mistake representing me” emails this year.

mel 4To make up for not letting myself be happy in 2015 I am making an extra effort to enjoy myself in 2016. And there’s a lot to celebrate. The Sin Eater’s Daughter was the bestselling UK YA Debut of 2015. It’s been nominated for the Carnegie Greenaway Medal, for the Branford Boase award (along with my UK editor, Gen Herr). It is shortlisted in the North East Teen Book Awards and has even been nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America (!!!).

In fact, I’m so determined to be proud of myself that I launched The Sleeping Prince twice! The beautiful Chelley Toy of Tales of Yesterday wrote an ace write-up of the second one, and I think I’ve been mawkish enough for one post, so I’ll leave you with her version. But at the time of going to press, I predict I’ve probably started a trend for multiple launches, because it’s the most fun. I fully expect many authors to hold multiple, country-wide launch events this year. And so they should. This is a great job to have. We should celebrate more.

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Can we stop, with the idea you can’t stop.

I have just had to put down a book I was reading and it has made me immeasurably sad, and incredibly angry. I was excited to begin this book, I’d read one other by the author and enjoyed it; I liked the themes of the book; I’d heard good things about this one. I was set on enjoying it, but now I know I’m not going to finish it. I’m not going to name it, or the author, as my problem isn’t with either of these in any particular sense.

My problem is with the idea that sexual aggression is sexy. That being unable to control your temper is desirable. That manipulation is normal. That coercion is healthy. That instances of this are indicative of a woman’s attractiveness and perfectly ok, even aspirational.

Let me tell you straight up that in a healthy relationship where there is respect and caring, that violence, manipulation, coercion and aggression of any kind have no place. Not in familial relationships, not in friendships, and not in romantic ones.

And yet this myth keeps being recycled, that the threat of being overpowered is alluring.

It’s 2015 and we’re still there.

After Steubenville, after Delhi 2012, after the celebrity sexual assault scandals across the globe, work is still being published in which men are physically domineering and demanding and the heroines swoon at them. And we have to shut this idea down because it is dangerous and it is never more dangerous than when we’re telling young women that it’s not. That it’s actually ok.

When I was a young adult, I didn’t have all that many friends. I was kind of awkward, and a bit weird, my interests didn’t match those of my peers. So books were where I went to figure things out. Walking in a character’s shoes meant I could rehearse situations that I hadn’t come across – might never come across – but books provided me with a chance to do that. To test the waters, and the boundaries. To channel the heroes and heroines I loved best in my own life. To try on difference personalities like armour, or a fake-fur coat, or an evening gown, or a mermaid tail. To become the self I wanted to be.

They taught me to be brave, to ask questions, to say yes, to say no, to speak up, to stay quiet, to rush into something, to bide my time. Without realising it, and certainly without their permission, I allowed all the authors I read to become my parents, my brothers and sisters, my friends. I took their unintended advice, I learned from them and it’s something I’m painfully, painfully aware of now I write myself. That there might be young people out there who read my work and do as my characters have done. I’m not saying they will, or they should, but I never let myself forget that when I put things out there I am making a statement and people will read it.

So I’m so disappointed that work is being published still that perpetuates the ideology that if a man growls or shouts at you, smashes up a room, pins you against a wall, or tells you that if you carry on being intimate they won’t be able to stop, it’s normal. It’s ok. To me, that sends a reckless, dangerous message to young women and men.

I can promise you, from experience, that someone smashing things in front of you isn’t sexy. Being shouted at by someone who outweighs you won’t make you horny as hell. It will make you whimper, and cower, and possibly cry. And that is absolutely and undeniably the very opposite of sexy.

I can promise you that either party can stop at any point during sex, whether clothes are on or off, or bits are touching, or have been touching for a while. Sex isn’t a tsunami of inevitability, it might be frustrating to stop but you sure as hell can, and you better well had. And there should never be a suggestion that you can’t. Or won’t. Because then it’s no longer sex and becomes very definitely rape.

We have to stop teaching our young people that these behaviours are ok. It is not ok when a little boy pulls a girl’s hair in the playground, don’t tell your daughter it means he likes her. What is means is that he needs a bloody good talking to about keeping his hands to himself unless expressly invited to touch. Don’t let your sisters believe it when their boyfriends tell them it hurts them to not touch them, that by not allowing them a triple A pass to their bodies they’re being cruel. Don’t let your friends shake it off when they tell you their partner threw a vase against a wall and then told them it was because they loved them so much it drove them crazy. No. No. No. This is bullshit. And we have to say that, and keep saying it until it finally sinks in.

It is 2015 and we have to stop telling the girls and women in our lives that this behaviour is normal. It’s not. So can we stop writing it into our stories, showing it on our screens, singing about it wistfully? Can we stop romanticising abuse please?

And fyi, if a man EVER says to you he won’t be able to stop if you keep going, you knee him in the balls and ask if he’s sure.