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‘The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well.’

I remember reading those final words nine years ago and feeling utterly lost. I had grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione and when they finally left my life I mourned them. All these years later, I experienced the same feeling as I finished my re-read of the whole series – a testament to the power of Rowling’s work.

Hallows is not only the perfect ending to an epic story, but a heartfelt love letter to fans. It has everything. Everything! Just when you think Rowling can’t cram any more action packed twists, emotional reveals or heartwarming nostalgia into the book, she pulls something else from her bag of tricks.

I could easily write an essay listing all of the fanstastic moments within Hallows, but I’m going to try and fit it all into this one post.

It’s always been clear that Rowling has the upmost respect for her fans, but I think Hallows is solid proof of this. It can’t have been easy, tying up a story that spans seven books featuring hundreds of beloved characters, but Rowling tackled this with perfection and her hard work shines through every page. I first read this book when I was 17.  I raced through it in just a few days and it never left my side. 9 years later, I feel like I was able to appreciate it even more, taking in every reference and moment but still rarely straying far from my copy.

Hallows is littered with references from previous books – characters, locations, events, objects – it’s almost as if Rowling has challenged herself with squeezing every ounce of Potter into one book. Saying that, the references never feel unnatural or forced. It’s a great feeling when you recognise or revisit something. The visits to the Chamber of Secrets, the Forbidden Forest, the Shrieking Shack, Godric’s Hollow, The Ministry of Magic and Gringotts Bank all bring back welcome memories of the previous stories, like revisiting a childhood den.

But Rowling doesn’t just re-tread old ground. This book ventures out of Hogwarts and sees our friends journey around Britain. Plenty of new characters turn up, including many that have been mentioned before but never seen. Xenophillius Lovegood, Ron’s Aunt Muriel and Tonk’s Parents all make long awaited, if brief, appearances, each progressing the plot in some way.

From weddings, to duels, to undercover missions, to breaking out of a bank on the back of a dragon – the story rockets a long, hopping from tense scene to another. Soon, we’re back at Hogwarts, where the magic all started, for one final battle.

It’s not all fun though. The stories have got progressively darker and this is book with the highest death rate. Hedwig and Mad-Eye start us of in dramatic fashion as they bow out during an airborne battle , leaving us distraught pretty early in the book. The pang of losing Hedwig, Harry’s loyal owl, matches the foreboding doom that comes with Mad-Eye’s death, who was Harry’s last remaining protector. Many characters are picked off throughout the book as the drama escalates but one of the most painful deaths is that of Dobby the House Elf. Loyal friend to Harry since book two, Dobby’s final heroic act is followed by tragedy as he is hit by Bellatrix’s knife (making us long even more for her demise! First Sirius, now Dobby!). Dobby’s death is a beautiful piece of writing, a moment that will have life-long fans snuffling into their pages.

I’ve said before that Rowling is incredibly skilled at writing dark, tricky themes for younger readers. These books tackle so much – death, torture, discrimination, power, teenage angst and jealousy. The list is endless. The scene where Bellatrix tortures Hermione is particularly harrowing to read, not to mention the earlier chapter where a snake is found to be inhabiting Bathilda Bagshot’s corpse. We’re not dealing with Enid Blyton here. Rowling flexes her talent by including these dark moments but never over stepping the mark. She doesn’t mollycoddle her reader, she exposes them to the dark side of the world, but always stops just short of traumatising her reader. I find that incredible.

However, to counter that darkness, Rowling sends a very strong message on the power of love. Love as protection has a strong presence in Hallows particularly that of a mother’s love. Harry’s survival is all down to his mother’s sacrifice for him as a child and Lily Potter’s presence is certainly felt throughout the final book, even more so at the end where she appears to Harry to reaffirm her support of him. Narcissa Malfoy also protects Harry, in a surprising move, by lying to Voldemort in order to protect her own son. So desperate to save Draco, she buys Harry the time he needs to overthrow Voldemort. And then there’s Molly Weasley. I think every reader cheered when she fatefully cried ‘NOT MY DAUGTHER YOU BITCH!’. Mrs Weasley’s fearsome protection of her daughter leads to her killing one of Voldemorts closest companions, Bellatrix (hooray! Justice for Dobby!).

Another kind of love is revealed as we learn that, after all these years, Snape was in love with Harry’s mother and has been protecting him as penance for (accidentally) playing a part in her murder. Snape is one of most wonderfully written characters as his true intentions have never quite been known from book one, but now the truth is out it all fits in to place. His whole story arc is a testament to the subtlety within Rowling’s writing. Snape’s patronus is revealed to be a doe, the same as Lily’s, and in book six we hear small references to Tonk’s patronus changing to reflect her love. Rowling plans every single detail.

I’d forgotten how much I loved these books and just how much they meant to me as I was growing up. Re-reading them over the last few months has transported me back to my teens and I’ve found myself looking forward to my pre-sleep read every night. Rowling makes you care about these characters and the world they inhabit, making it the perfect form of escapism at the end of a long working day. When I finished Hallows, I was eager for more. I spent last night searching Pottermore and can’t wait for the eighth story to be released in July. If its predecessors are anything to go by, it’s going to be amazing.

As a writer, I find Rowling’s dedication, subtlety and ability to make the complex accessible so inspiring and hold her high on my list of role models. As a teacher, I can see the endless lessons these books can teach children, generation after generation. As a reader, I find them utterly magical, with a story I can revisit over and over again, and still find something new. I really can’t imagine life without these books. They bring just as much comfort and wonder to me now as they did ten years ago. They have become classic books which will be read for many years to come and I hope Rowling realises just how many lives she has touched with her stories. She has brought magic to an ordinary life, and for that I’ll always be thankful.

 

 

 

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Continuing with the HP re-read, it’s the turn of the penultimate book….

I really couldn’t remember much about Half-Blood Prince. A lot of the story felt completely new to me. However, that just makes for better reading, as I’ve spend the last couple of weeks gripped by Harry’s latest adventure.

Half-Blood Prince sets up the mega-finale of Deathly Hallows, introducing horcruxes, Tom Riddle’s past and, of course, bumping off Dumbledore. The book is not just one big plot device though. This is the book where the Hogwarts students are written as adults. Snogging, jealousy and hormones all appear in this book as we start to get the first solid references to romances between Hermione and Ron (I still can’t believe that, reading as a 15 year old, I didn’t see this coming!) and Harry and Ginny.

Ginny is a must stronger character in this book. She’s no longer the timid girl, who peeks out from behind her mother’s skirts and is too terrified to speak to Harry.  She is now fiery and mature, with a string of admirers. I was surprised at the lack of fuss from Ron when Harry and Ginny finally, and publicly, get together. It is a relationship that works. After those disasterous dates with Cho Chang, it’s  refreshing to see Harry in a happy, but brief, relationship. Happiness can never last whilst Voldemort’s at large and Harry makes the choice to end the relationship for the sake of Ginny’s safety. Ginny’s graciously accepts Harry’s decision, a testament to her true feeling for him. It’s clear to the reader that this is not the end.

Although the darkest book of the series so far (they really do keep getting darker, don’t they?), there are some moments of relief. The banter between Ron and Hermione is as good as ever and now tinged with stronger romantic tension. New potions master Horace Slughorn mixes in some comedy with his pompous and heavy-handed attempts to make links with his ‘most talented’ students.

The story builds to a gripping three act finale. Harry finally gets to join Dumbledore on an adventure to find a horcrux in the middle of an underground lake. Obviously, it doesn’t go to plan, leading to a terrifying attack of Inferi (basically…zombies) which leaves poor Dumbledore severely weakened. Harry forcing the poison into Dumbledore’s mouth (on Dumbledore’s orders) is not easy reading and a cruel twist in the beautiful friendship between headmaster and student. The next part of the epic ending sees the pair return to Hogwarts, only to find the castle under attack from Death Eaters. Frozen and hidden safely thanks to Dumbledore’s quick thinking, Harry is forced to watch as his headmaster is murdered by Snape. Trust is a huge theme of the series and Dumbledore’s last moments cast another cruel twist on the tale, as his strong trust in Snape leads to his demise. Snape’s true intentions are never quite known throughout the whole series, but the murder of Dumbledore seems to securely confirm his villainous nature. For now, at least.

The final act sees a dejected Harry mourn the loss of the last of his parental figures. It’s at this point that Harry realises the importance of the task ahead of him – he alone must stop Voldemort. But, of course, he’s not alone as Hermione and Ron are soon beside him, vowing not to return to Hogwarts until the war is over. Each book seems to age with its readers, with Half-Blood Prince carrying darker and more mature themes than its predecessors. These are not children’s books. The way Rowling describes the lake of bodies is genuinely creepy and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to some of the fluffier descriptions of Philosopher’s Stone. Dumbledore’s funeral is also quite hard-going emotionally. You’ll be bawling like Hagrid by the end of the chapter.

Half-Blood Prince acts as a pre-cursor to the grand finale but also stands firm with its own tale. Rowling continues to deliver with her usual mix of emotion, humour and killer twists that you never see coming. Re-reading these stories ten years later is reminding me just how much I love them. These stories are perfectly written and I cannot wait to re-live the final chapter…

The great HP re-read continues and this week it is book five’s turn.

It’s the largest book (it could easily be used as a weapon) so I strategically planned to read to it over the Easter Holidays so I would actually have time to read and it wouldn’t take me thirty years to get through it (I have a chapter-a-day habit during term time. Any more than that and I, frustratingly, end up falling asleep.)

It’s been a good ten years since I read this series and, although I remember the gist of each book, a lot of things have slipped my mind – which in a way is great because it’s like I’m a new reader again. This book certainly coughed up a lot of surprises for me. I’d forgotten about occlumency, sirius’ mother, Bellatrix’s connection to the Malfoys, and Grawp. I was also surprised when Lockhart popped up in St Mungo’s. I’d signed Lockhart off as a character we wouldn’t see again so it was great to have that short scene, even if it was tinged with sadness. I can’t help feeling sorry for Lockhart. I know he was a first class prat but still….there was a moment of sympathy as he signed those autographs in his hospital bed. But of course, the main emotional pull of that chapter is the appearance of Frank and Alice Longbotton. Alluded to in previous books, this was our first glimpse at the severity of their condition and the impact it has had on Neville. Alice handing Neville a bubble gum wrapper was very touching and it’s easy to see how, as Dumbledore later explains, Neville could have easily been in Harry’s shoes. You can’t help feel immediate hatred for Bellatrix Lestrange before she’s even introduced! Her callous destruction of the Longbottoms serves as a warning of just how dangerous she can be….

Speaking of villains, this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is probably the most evil yet – Dolores Umbridge. I remember her being my favourite DADA teacher because she was just so vile.  Umbridge’s danger is palpable because she is so desperate to rise to the top and please those in authority. I’ve met so many Umbridges – backstabbing, manipulative and quietly wicked – with a sickly sweet exterior. Ruthless throughout, the moment she suggests using the cruciatius curse is actually gasp-inducing. She a true villain. A villain that could be found in day-to-day life. She could be in any place of work , any family or on any street. That’s what makes her so frightening – we all know a Dolores Umbridge.

In terms of magical creatures, we’re introduced to the Thestrals in this book. JK has a clever habit of harking back to past stories with the invisible creatures pulling the Hogwarts carriages finally being revealed as Thestrals – dark, winged horses that can only be seen by people who have witnessed death. The mythology and legend surrounding the Thestrals is interesting with wizards believing them to bring bad luck due to their connotations with death. They’re described beautifully in the book and synch well with the darkness of the novel. 

Harry is certainly changed since Goblet. He spends a lot of the book arguing with his friends, which does get slightly tiresome. Hermione and Ron are relentlessly loyal to Harry so it is frustrating that he keeps snapping at them. His relationship with Cho provides a glimmer of happiness in quite a bleak book, but even that fizzles out due to her mistrust and Harry’s indifference. Cho was a promising character in Goblet, but in Phoenix she comes across as fickle and …well…a bit unstable. Yes, she’s grieving for Cedric, but nobody seems very sympathetic as she continues to breakdown in tears. I would have been interested to see Cho and Harry date but this was not meant to be and by the end it’s clear this relationship is a non-starter. I suppose it’s in Cho’s interest to stay away and stay safe.

This is certainly the most emotional book so far. Rowling set the bar in the final moments of Goblet, with the death of Cedric Diggory, but the last few chapters of Phoenix certainly meet that standard. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last remaining hope of family, is a suckerpunch. Voldemort using Harry to lure Sirius to his death is a clever move by Rowling which also gives way to some tragically dark moments. Harry’s resulting guilt is beautifully written – his angst, frustration and pain as he wanders the grounds of Hogwarts is very touching but the most poignant moment comes in his last conversation with Luna Lovegood. Luna seems to wander purposelessly throughout the book but she is finally defined in this last moment with Harry. It transpires that people have been taking oddball Luna’s possessions. Harry offers help but she proclaims

‘[I’ll] wait for it all to turn up…it always does in the end.’

Totally lost on me the first time round, but now as an adult I can see Rowling is using Luna to give profound advice to Harry. Nothing lasts forever and in the end everything works out one way or another. Another emotional moment comes from fan-favourite Dumbledore, as his finally explains the truth about the prophecy to Harry. Dumbledore is notably absent throughout most of the book, and here he explains he was deliberately avoiding Harry for his own protection. As Dumbledore admits his mistakes and reveals that he ‘simply cared too much’ for Harry, the reader can’t help feeling touched by the Headmaster’s attempts to keep Harry safe. His final admittance that he thought Harry had enough responsibility without being a prefect is a very strong moment and perhaps a defining one in Harry and Dumbledore’s friendship.

Goblet marked the start of a dark spiral to the finale and Phoenix certainly develops that. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last caring relative, begins Harry’s journey to adulthood and marks the death of his childhood. Not only does he now have to face the challenges of all young adults, but he also has that little problem of vanquishing the Dark Lord or dying at his wand. Yup, dark stuff.

 

The great HP re-read continues with Goblet of Fire, and this time I managed to squeeze in a re-watch too. This was the story I could remember the least about. I realised it’s been 16 years since I first read the book (feel old? Don’t give me a panic attack) and 11 since I saw the film.

It’s definitely the darkest HP story so far. This is where shizz gets real. The fun of the last three books is still evident but the story is streaked with dark overtones and takes a sinister turn in its final act, paving the way for final three books. By the last few pages there’s a real sense of the beginning of the end.

The story opens in Voldemort’s dilapidated former home. He’s hiding out with Wormtail and Nagini when he is interrupted by muggle Frank, who he quickly executes. It’s quite a disturbing start to the story and I remember as a ten year old noticing the shift in tone. The plot continues with lots of references to missing people, wizards tortured into insanity (poor Neville) and the introduction of three terrible curses. I’ve said before that JK is able to skilfully handle adult themes whilst maintaining a focus on her younger audience. Well, this is even more evident in this story.

This is also the story where Ron, Hermione and Harry start…well…erm….noticing the opposite sex. I totally missed this the first time round (well…I was ten!) but Ron’s crush on Hermione is so obvious and quite cute to read. (I know. I’ll vomit later.) It did strike me as a bit weird though that Viktor Krum is supposed to be 18 and Hermione is supposed to be 14.  I don’t think many 18 year olds nowadays would want to pursue 14 year olds.  Also, why does everyone suddenly have long hair? Harry…Ron…Neville…all the boys have suddenly developed floppy long locks! Perhaps the Hogwarts Hairdresser was another of Voldemort’s victims…..

The biggest shock of the fourth book is the death of Cedric Diggory. Knowing Cedric is about to meet a grisly end certainly adds a chilling dynamic to his introduction. It’s clear his father,Amos, idolises him which makes his final appearance even more upsetting. Reading/watching Cedric gear up for the final task with the knowledge he won’t survive is actually awful and almost unbearable. I actually wept (stop chucking) during the film as everyone celebrated the end of the tournament, slowly realising Harry was crouched over Cedric’s body. Wow, talk about dark. Amos’ cries of ‘That’s my son!’ nearly broke me *sniff*. His actual death, in both versions of the story, is so swift and sudden. It’s genuinely shocking and you can’t help feel that he deserves a farewell speech or heroic moment or something. Cedric is built into a key character throughout the story, and comes across as a decent, genuine guy. Then flash. He’s dead. Just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. How cruel. I suppose this re-establishes Voldemort’s ruthlessness and the fact that he’s just so damn evil. What a bastard, eh?

Anyway, here are five things missing from the film that are awesome in the book.

  • P.E.W. – Remember Hermione’s civil rights campaign for house elves? I’d forgotten all about it to, but her determination makes for some fun scenes.
  • Dobby – Our favourite little elf was cut from the film but plays an integral part in the book, handing Harry the gillyweed he uses in the second Triwizard task. In the film, Neville gives him the weed (*ahem*) which does kind of make sense with him being a top herbologist.
  • Blast ended Skrewts and the Sphinx – No, this isn’t a hip new indie band. There’s quite an absence of magical creatures in the movie compared to the book, with unicorns and flobberworms also not making it to the big screen. Although the mermaids, dragons and grindylows are visually brilliant, it would have been nice to see the odd Skrewt appear.
  • Beetle Skeeter – Journalist Rita Skeeter’s subplot it tied up quite neatly in the final chapter of the book, as Hermione reveals her to be an unregistered animagus who can transform herself into a beetle. In the film, no reason is given for her ability to seek out secret scoops.
  • Ludo Bagman, Peeves, Bill and Charlie Weasley – These characters, particularly Bagman, play vital parts throughout various plots in the book but sadly don’t appear in the film. Ah, the curse of the edit strikes again. Let’s just blame Voldemort. Or the Hogwarts Hairdresser. 

This year I decided to take a leap back into my youth and re-read a set of books that were a permanent fixture throughout my childhood. I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 11 years old. Fourteen years later, and the same book had me gripped all over again. There is something magic about Rowling’s work. She manages to discuss so many adult themes within these books – loss, death, betrayal – whilst ensuring they are still appealing to that younger audience. Philosopher’s masterfully introduces the wonderful wizarding world and its inhabitants, setting us with up for a journey that will last a further six books. I think it is a faultless children’s book, offering plenty of escapism, without being too childish for us adults either. I used to dream of worlds like this when I was a child and suddenly there was a whole book based around that dream!

When I re-read Chamber of Secrets I was struck by the cleverness of the plot. It really is the perfect whodunit! All the subtle references to snakes and events of the past are tied up beautifully at the end and I was almost jealous of my younger self for reading the story without knowing the outcome. The reveal of Tom Riddle’s true identity is beautifully written and a real surprise (to my younger self).  Rowling finds a neat way of using her main antagonist without actually using him (if that makes sense!) which means fans don’t get bored of Voldemort (after the first book, he doesn’t actually appear again until the fourth, but his presence is certainly felt.)

After plunging back into the non-muggle world, I was keen to move on to Prisoner of Azkaban. Again, I could not put this book down, even though I knew what was coming. The world Rowling creates through her descriptions of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade is wonderful. It really fizzes through the pages in Harry’s third outing. The subplots of Hermione’s timeturner and Scabbers’ apparent illness also pay off in the big finale and prove to be more highly significant details that Rowling has seeded through book. She create a brilliant faux-villain in Sirius Black and it’s really heartbreaking when Sirius is forced into hiding, meaning poor Harry is sentenced back to life with the Dursley’s.

Reading these books reminded me of that excitement I would feel on the eve of a HP release. It was like Christmas Eve. My mum would head to town at midnight to buy the book for me, so that when I woke up it would be there. I remember the weight of it. Running my hand over the cover. Studying the artwork. Then the reading would begin. I would read at EVERY opportunity until I had finished. I have never loved a book like I loved the Harry Potter books. Now, as an adult and a writer, I can appreciate their brilliance on a whole new level. To all wannabe authors, Rowling is the perfect teacher. You can tell that she immersed herself fully into this world and truly loved creating these characters and their stories. When it comes to writing, Rowling is a wizard.

Warning: This blog contains spoilers.

In the autumn of 2006 I was introduced to what would become my favourite ever book. I’ve made no secret of it in previous posts – I love Wicked and I love Gregory Maguire. Autumn, for me, has become synonymous with Wicked (as each time I’ve seen the show and read the books it has been September/October) and every year I find myself listening to the soundtrack or reaching for the book. Musical aside, what’s special about Wicked is that each time I read it I spot something new. I always take something different from each re-read. My last re-read was in 2012 so I decided I was long overdue a visit to Oz. The story never ceases to capture me and I am always devastated to reach the end. It’s one of those rare books that you cannot get enough of but are wary of visiting too many times in case the magic wears off. (Though, I don’t think that’s possible).

Maguire manages to re-vision Oz in a completely new light to Baum’s world by using vivid and powerful imagery (who would have thought the yellow brick road would be described as ‘a noose’ around Oz? A symbol of its controversial political implications). Maguire’s Oz is magical but it is also a horribly sinister place – which makes it a lot more like our own world. Maguire’s Oz is real. Yes, there’s magic and talking Animals (note the capital) and TikTok robots but there’s also political unrest, discrimination and conspiracy.

One of the brighter highlights of the novel is the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda. In earlier chapters, Glinda’s snooty judgements are often comically countered by a sarcastic sting from Elphaba. As the two settle into a friendship they develop a powerful bond which leaves the reader genuinely saddened when Elphaba sends Glinda back to Shiz, leaving her in the Emerald City. Their brief reunion at Colwen Grounds years later is a treat to read with Elphaba’s spikiness continuing to douse Glinda’s snobbery. By their last meeting, it’s touching to see that Glinda truly cares about Elphaba, a stark contrast to their initial meeting. It’s also poignantly clear that Elphaba cares about Glinda but is too proud and enraged to show it.

From this year’s visit to Oz I picked up to two references to previous Oz stories which I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, the sands surrounding Oz are said to be considered in some cultures as ‘deadly poison’, a reference to the wheelie’s description of the sand in Return to Oz. I also yelped when I deduced that the famous scene from the movie where the Witch spells ‘Surrender Dorothy’ above the Emerald City could actually be Elphaba asking the Wizard to ‘Surrender Nor to Me’, as she pleads with him at Colwen Grounds. (Oh! I just love Gregory Maguire!)

A major issue throughout Wicked is the struggle between good and evil. Elphaba tells her son, Liir, that ‘evil is always more easily imagined than good’, which links in to my discussion last week about finding villains easier to write. This phrase struck me as an unfortunate truth as, as well as when writing, us humans do tend to focus on the evil within the world and ignore the good. It’s evident in our newspapers, our televisions, even our classrooms sometimes. What is it about evil deeds that fascinate us so much?

Maguire’s main achievement with Wicked is that he casts doubt over the position of the Wicked Witch of the West on the evil-o-metre. Though it could certainly be open to interpretation, I don’t think Elphaba is evil, just a victim of injustice, society and…well…bad luck!  In this latest re-read I really felt for Elphaba in her pre-death descent into paranoia and desperation. She has harboured this urge for forgiveness for years and Sarima slyly refuses her that by befriending her and forbidding her to discuss Fiyero (talk about cold anger!) It hadn’t moved me so much before. Following a life of neglect, failure and loss, it’s no surprise Elphaba sinks into an alcoholic and sleep-deprived madness following her failed attempt to kill Madame Morrible.

Her apparent death at the hands of Dorothy is a final insult and indignity to a modern literary hero.

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For about two months I’ve been haunted by one of my own creations.

I’m in the middle of a re-draft and I am constantly querying my antagonist. Do we need to know more about her? Why is she like this? What would she do in this situation? What would she say to this person? Who is she?

I see her everywhere I go. She’s in the supermarket, she’s in work, she’s in my car, and she’s even joined me in the bath!

I know this is the case with every writer but the troubling thing is…… She is pure evil.

She is the most outrageous, offensive, cruel and manipulative character I have ever written. She’s Voldemort, Patsy Stone, Cersei Lannister and Darth Vader all rolled into one.

Last time I wrote her she was about to be challenged spectacularly in the women’s toilets of a bar by one of my (sort of) protagonists in what could be the campest showdown I’ve ever written. (Seriously, Kathy and Sharon? Pfft!)

To me, she is now real. I’ve created someone who I love to hate.

Now, I’ve always been one for a good villain. When I was a child I was more inclined to be fascinated with Ursula, Captain Hook, Scar and Maleficent than the heroes of their stories. It’s no secret that my favourite book is Wicked by Gregory Maguire that delves into the backstory of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. I am just a sucker for a good baddie. I’m intrigued as to what makes them tick and if they are misunderstood, like Elphaba, that earns them even more points.

I had two sets of villains in Reset. There was the elusive Marston, whose wickedness was probably crafted due to the pressures and experiences of his former career, and then there were Roache and Tremaine. These two weren’t pure evil, they were just doing their job, but happened to be pretty horrible people.

Caitlyn is a different story. From the beginning she is cold and mysterious and as the novel progresses she turns into a spiteful, poisonous bitch. By the end, the only redeeming feature is that she is…well….kind of funny. Her put downs and one liners are cruel and often upsetting but sometimes they can’t help provoke a chuckle. Those who have read the story have all said that it’s a shame she is so evil as she is such an interesting character. Isn’t this the case with all villains? For me anyway, the heroes are safe and boring but the villains have the real fun and there is something satisfying about unadulterated loathing. Look at Joffrey (and many other characters) in Game of Thrones. I hated him so much but his wicked doings were super entertaining (and I did cheer loudly when he finally bit the dust).

Anyway, anyway, anyway, my point is villains are just far more interesting than heroes. I think there is so much more scope for a gritty, powerful backstory with a villain and they, of course, can get away with fantastically wicked deeds. They can also say exactly what everyone else is too scared to say, which is something of a theme in After Caitlyn. I believe Caitlyn is a brilliant villain because none of the other characters realise it until the end. She connives, schemes, manipulates, bitches and backstabs right until the end, remaining mysterious and elusive even up to her sudden exit.

When I think of Caitlyn, I think of Shakespeare.

‘One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’

Saturday night. Whilst other twenty-somethings were downing shots, snogging strangers and being sick in the back of taxis, I was blissfully reading through the full first draft of my second novel with a glass of milk and a Cadbury’s Flake.

I wasn’t bothered about how tame my Saturday was because in front of me was something I had done all by myself. I love that sense of achievement and I will always crave it.

It was all there in front of me (and now I’m going to say the title for the first time…oh God…ready?) – After Caitlyn, draft one. The total opposite of Reset – shorter, more humble and grounded – but still holding enough power in those few pages to make me feel totally fulfilled.  I’d written the whole thing in about two weeks after a sudden and unstoppable burst of inspiration (see last post!). So, again it differed to Reset which took me about a year and half to write.

Now the tough part begins – editing.

Tough for a couple of reasons (mainly because the editing stage is where I find myself most distracted to a point where I can no longer be arsed. Soon, months have gone by and I’ve disengaged with the story completely and have to re-read!). I’m sure it will be different this time. I start with a team of readers (who are reading as I type) then carry out a second edit following their feedback.

Tough, also, because I can be very indecisive. Several characters in this story have emotionally complex backgrounds which are often given as excuses for their behaviour. The dilemma I have is – how much backstory do I give them? I’ve been careful not to explain too much so as not to distract from the main story. I know what happened to my characters before After Caitlyn begins, but I’m not sure I want/need to share all of that with readers. In some novels I’ve read, the fact that a characters backstory is left uncertain contributes to the brilliance of the book, but in others it’s been necessary to know about the character’s history in order to make sense of their actions. I wanted to make this story as real as possible – focusing on real, human people in a real, human situation – so omitting details from a character’s past might work to promote that as, in life, we can never really know anyone.

One character has their background heavily alluded to but details are not given. I think I’ll stick with that. But another prominent character, who carries out really despicable deeds and behaves in a totally unacceptable way, does not have their history fully explained. By the time I’d reached the end of the story I couldn’t help worrying there was a danger of this character becoming 2D and…hmm…slightly pantomime! This character has had a very tricky past and I’m unsure whether explaining that would make their actions a bit more understandable (but not forgivable!) I don’t want to lay on this character’s backstory too thickly as I think their story needs an element of mystery to fit with their sudden arrival and subsequent disappearance. So, is it necessary to know a character’s backstory? Or can great characters often come from mystery and the reader’s own assumptions?

Isn’t it funny how inspiration can hit at any time?

After finishing Reset last summer, I found myself itching to start a new project. I’ve got a sitcom that has been on a slow burn for a three or four years (and has recently turned into a drama series), but I found myself craving prose. I needed to write another novel. I wasn’t looking for commitment as epic as Reset (which ended up at 62 chapters and is a bitch to edit) – I needed a quick literary fling. I’ve started three short stories over the last year but neither of them got finished due to the life-consuming PGCE but when the summer holidays came I had no excuse not to get writing.

Over the summer, I pledged to start writing again but, besides this blog and the odd adjustment to the sitcom/drama, I’d produced very little. Inspiration had evaded me. I sat for hours in front of the laptop but would get distracted by facebook, TV, reading, my dog….etc.

Until last week when – hallelujah! – Inspiration hit! I suddenly realised a story that had lurked at the back of my mind for months could suddenly work! Cue lots of late night planning and writing.

When I’m searching for inspiration I usually turn to three things:

  • Music – I have an eclectic mix of songs on my iPod which can fuel my creative ideas. From Michel Giacchino to Fleetwood Mac – anything works.
  • Walking/Driving – Sometimes I just need to get out and go. Whether it’s a drive around my hometown or a walk along the beach, staying put stifles me.
  • Setting the mood – Writing comes best to me late at night when I’m sat in my room, listening to some music and burning incense. Often with the curtains open so I can see the moon (romantic, right?)

But it wasn’t any of these that worked this time. I was visiting family in a wi-fi free zone. No distractions. I was thinking about a memory which rolled into an idea which suddenly grew into a story. Within two hours I’d written 30 pages. Within just a few days I’d finished a first draft which is such an achievement for me as I usually plod quite slowly through stories. So, for the next few days I will be disconnecting the wi-fi, turning off my phone and locking myself in my room with food and water until editing is complete! If anyone wants to buy me a writing retreat on a remote island you are most welcome.

So three weeks ago I went to watch Jurassic World with some friends. All I wanted to do was enjoy a relaxing Friday in good company, have a few drinks and see some dinosaurs. Instead I was forced to confess an embarrassing secret fear…

Those of you who have seen the film (and for those of you who haven’t – spoiler alert!) will be familiar with the scene were a pteranadon attacks Claire’s British PA. One minute she is chatting away to her fiancé on the phone, the next she is swept up by a winged menace and being tossed perilously above the park. Now birds don’t bother me (moths, however, are a different story) so as much as I was concerned for the PA I wasn’t too panicked at this point. However, just when it looks like she is about to be pecked to death, the poor woman is dropped into a large tank of water. Phew. Thank goodness. A nice soft landing….

‘Oh my God….Oh no! Oh Jesus Christ! I know what’s coming! Oh this is horrific! I can’t look! This is a horror film!’ I cry, clutching my bewildered friend’s arm and preventing her from reaching the popcorn.

The SeaWorld-esque tank is home to a Mosasaur (see above for terrifying image). After lots of gut-wrenching screams and splashing about, the dino-whale leaps from the water and the British PA is swallowed whole. And I am left, peeking through my fingers, totally disturbed.

Because I have a secret fear of whales.

I’m generalising with ‘whales’. It’s more ‘large underwater creatures that could kill you in a heartbeat’. Now, I can’t really pinpoint the origin of this fear. Jaws freaked me out a bit but I think it is more closely linked with my childhood fascination with Shamu (SeaWorld’s killer whale). When I was a child I longed to visit SeaWorld and would spend evenings looking at Orlando brochures and glossy pictures of killer whales. (Don’t judge. It was the 90s). At one point I even found a website with a live video link to Shamu’s tank! I eventually met the whale himself when I was thirteen and remember being completely shocked by his size. He was huge! A bloody big whale! Seeing Shamu made me realise just how dangerous he could be and the fascination twisted into a deep fear. The ‘Wow! He’s amazing!’ became ‘Yes, yes he’s great. Lovely. Thank you. But please don’t make me swim with him’.

I’ve awoken from many a nightmare where I am suddenly attacked by a killer whale or drifting in whale infested waters. When I go swimming (brace yourself for crazy) I always shudder getting into the pool as my mind imagines a dark, brooding shadow waiting beneath the surface…..

I don’t think this is an irrational fear. Whales are beautiful, majestic creatures but just imagine being trapped in a tank with one. How terrifying would that be?

So watching Jurassic World got me thinking about fears and how things change as we grow older. My fear of whales started in SeaWorld and has got worse as I have grown up. When I was a child I was terrified of Bigfoot (and obsessed with the idea that he was in my attic) but now, you’ll be glad to hear, I can look at pictures of him without hiding in the bathroom cupboard. I get freaked out now by more rational, fact-based problems and events. Talking about 9/11 gives me goosebumps. I shudder when I think about losing a family member…..

I started thinking about whether including our fears in our writing can be good for our work and wellbeing. Would it be cathartic or disturbing? Would it enrich my writing or reduce me to a quivering snotty mess? Lots of writers draw on personal feelings and experience within their work – could writing about your deepest fear be a recipe for success or disaster? In Reset there was a whale but I kept it tranquilised and buried in a vault beneath Cardiff (just in case) and I don’t think I’m quite ready to unleash the crazy in novel form just yet (title suggestions always welcome). This particular whale was also a harmless sub-plot but maybe it should have caused more chaos and been given the chance to be utterly terrifying.

So, having been forced to face one secret fear (thank you Jurassic World) the seed has been planted to utilise my phobias in future work. Perhaps writing about another unconfessed fear will prove to be an interesting project….