Wednesday, 26 September 2012

"Real life isn't always pretty, so why should fairy tales be?"

The Brothers Grimm provided the first collection of fairy tales when they travelled around Germany studying linguistics. As part of their study they collected up the local folk tales told by elders in these regions and wrote them down. Most of these tales tended to be gruesome and violent, with strong sexual undertones and often included dark themes. To make them more acceptable to society and in conform with some of society’s morals the brothers made some alterations to the stories before publishing them as the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales –  in fact, between 1812 and 1857 their first collection was revised and published many times, and grew from 86 stories to more than 200. But even the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales were rather different to the more familiar versions read to children today. For example, in Grimms Cinderella, her father was alive during the story, her step-sisters cut off parts of their feet to fit the glass shoe and they were eventually punished by having their eyes pecked out and the eyeballs given to Cinderella as a wedding present.(For more info go here or here!

Since the publication of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales adaptations have abounded, and as fairy tales became a staple for the nursery the stories were often simplified, the violence watered-down, the good rewarded and the bad punished (through consequences of their own actions.) With the most famous adaptations by Walt Disney, fairy tales became equated to happy endings and a somewhat innoncent, wholesome outlook. Now, with young adult novels becoming more and more popular it seems to me quite natural that these original stories are returning to their darker roots for a more mature audience, and are once again being readapted to handle complex themes and trickier shades of grey in the human experience. As author Sally Poyton eloquently puts it, ‘Fairy tales are by nature ever changing… They are survivors, evolving to suit society’s needs, settling into whichever niche they find.’ And it looks like right now they’ve found YA, where stories like A.G. Howard’s SPLINTERED, are evolving the landscapes of classic tales to reach out to an older audience.

I asked A.G. Howard, whose debut novel Splintered is a dark twist on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, why she thought fairy tale spin offs were so popular right now in YA.

Why do you think these dark fairy tale revisitings are so appealing to young adults?

I think, for one, because dark fairy tales provide a perfect archetype for coming-of-age elements. First, there’s a young heroine (in some cases, hero, but for my answer, we’ll stick with the female lead character) —either troubled, or spoiled like a princess — who needs a quest so she can find her place in the world, become strong enough to face her troubles, and leave the diva days behind. Then there's the hero (prince), or in some cases, anti-heroes, who will accompany/guide/confuse our heroine on her journey to self-realization. Fairy tales often teach life lessons in subtle ways, and when drenched in darkness, the lessons become even less obvious, but leave more of a visceral imprint.

And let’s not discount the adventure aspect. Fairy tales take place either in a far off land or an alternate earth—and offer an eccentric bevy of secondary characters who help or hinder along the way—which provides the temporary escapism we all need from the very real monsters of everyday life.

The original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales published in 1812 (under the original title 'Children's and Household Tales'), and which inspired later writers likes Hans Christian Anderson, were bloody, twisted and gory. Do you think there’s a relationship between the original tone of these fairy tales and the darker themes appearing in YA fairy tale spin offs now?

Sure. Our generation is hyper-aware of violence and tragedy due to disturbing images of terrorism, war scenes, and random shootings, etc… touted by the media day in and day out. So it stands to reason that we’d be drawn to The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson versions, which both cater to the idea that “real life isn’t always pretty, so why should fairy tales be?” I also think the dystopian craze and apocalyptic mindset have contributed, as well.

Do you have a favorite dark YA novel based on a fairy tale you could tell us about?

I recently read the modernized adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Beastly, by Alex Flinn  and enjoyed it (it was definitely better than the Beastly movie version). Still, I haven’t read enough dark fairy tale adaptations yet to determine if it will become a favorite. I have a long list that I still want to read, including:

·      Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley 
·      Cinder by Marissa Meyer 
·      The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale 

Why do you think readers are so intrigued by these stories that are familiar, yet different?

I think dark fairy tales are universally relatable because, like the world itself, they’re twisted and terrifying at some turns, poignant and amusing at others — a charming and alarming tangle of emotions that anyone can relate to and appreciate. Happily ever after is nice, but it can taint our everyday lives with unrealistic expectations. Sometimes we just want to see someone claw their way out of an even darker place than we might be in … proof that there’s hope, if not for a happily ever after, a satisfactory ever after, for us all.

Many thanks to A.G. Howard for returning to Demention and talking YA fairy tales with us! What do you think makes a great YA fairy tale adaptation? Do you think the darker elements entering YA fairy tale spin offs are a natural evolution for a more mature audience, or a sign of the times?

Thursday, 20 September 2012

GO FOR GOLD - why every writer needs a Mr Lendl in their corner

It was the darkest night of my life. I stood in a hospital corridor with another mother, each of us waiting to hear if our child was alive or dead. Hers had been gunned down in a school gymnasium. I’d watched helicopters fly over my house, dashing the shot children to hospital. Now, unbelievably, I was here too and my toddler was fighting for her life. A burst appendix. A crazed gunman. I steered my mind from the horror that I could be burying my 2 year old in the same week as the little Dunblane victims.
My little one survived, but you never forget. So when a young talent burst like a firework from the darkness that had engulfed Dunblane, I was hooked. 

This shy, passionate kid was an artist, a poet of the court. He’d picked up a racquet as others might pick up a guitar, a paintbrush, a pen - and he was taking on the world. It was sheer inspiration. I’d watch him make it up as he went along, solving problems on his feet, berating himself - while I sat doing exactly the same at my laptop, in a creative struggle of another kind, each of us in very different, but brutally competitive environments, trying to impose our ‘game’ on the world. 

The demon of self-doubt lives inside every artist and athlete, in anyone who has ever pushed beyond their comfort zone. So many actors, writers, musicians and comedians (professions of self-doubting stagetakers) were passionately caught up in the Olympics and in Andy Murray’s battle most of all. Writer Irvine Welsh was not the only one in Twitter meltdown during the US Open, recognising it as a creative struggle of the most epic kind. It was just happening on a tennis court, instead of a page or a stage. 

Here’s what every writer can learn from Andy Murray and the Olympic athletes


Writing is the athletics of the mind. A book requires a whole lot of stamina - mentally and physically. Hundreds of pages, countless re-drafts, a million words by the time you’re done. And then you have to sell it. When writing is at its most intense you need to unwind, de-stress, pump yourself up, re-fuel (no, not just in biscuits, caffeine and alcohol.) It’s easy to forget that your brain is just another part of your body. But it is, so get moving. Walk, run, swim, get thee to a gymnasium! Even the dreaded hoovering gets the blood pumping to the brain and irons out the aches and pains from sitting tensed up at a computer for hours on end. (I draw the line at actual ironing.) Physical exercise is necessary decompression after living all day in your head. And it’s amazing how, when blocked or stuck, a solution pops up once you re-connect your mind to your body. 

Self-belief, Self-doubt, Self-Criticism & Serious Intent

There's an ancient saying by an Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton - he who doubts himself is wise. Doubt and self-questioning are crucial. How else do you rise above the ordinary to a seemingly impossible challenge? You’re going to win a Grand Slam, are you? Or write a book that stands out in a slush-pile of thousands then grabs itself a readership among a million others? Who do you think you are?! Well, you are someone who dares to dream and you need to know what your weaknesses are before you can make that dream come true. 

I looked at myself pretty ruthlessly. I wanted to play my own game’ - Andy Murray on his 17 year old self.

Self-criticism is essential, alongside a healthy dose of self-belief. Balance is the key. Berating yourself as useless can be a self-defeating spiral - but it can also fire you up, make you struggle beyond what you thought you could do to achieve something extraordinary. The right mix of self-belief, self-doubt and self-criticism makes an athlete reach their brilliant best. It’s what you need to write a great book. It’s a mindset of serious intent.


Be thrawn. That’s not a typo. Thrawn is a good old Scottish word that doesn't quite translate into standard English. It's a kind of perverse contrariness, but so much more. Thrawn souls can blow their chances by being too stubborn, not listening to people who can help them, too set on Doing It My Way. But a thrawn, cussed self-belief keeps you hacking through the undergrowth to find your own path, to create your own destiny, against all the odds.


Tenacity keeps you going through the hard stuff, the bad reviews, the times when you give your all but are walloped by a Roger Federer Moment - the entire publishing team disappears on maternity leave or off to pastures new just as the book you’ve worked on for years goes to print. Or your book is scheduled for release in the same month as JK Rowling’s. Tenacity makes you dig deep at the very point others give up. 

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up’ - Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb

Robert the Bruce and Spider: thrawn, ingeniously cussed

Get the right team around you. Not easy. So much of a writer's career is determined by people and events beyond your control, but it's important to influence what you can. Successful athletes, writers, artists and musicians often make very hard decisions in their careers to have the best team possible around them. I've changed publishers and agents when it would have been much easier to stay put. But each time, the impulse has been to work with the strongest team - the people who believe in you and will work energetically for you. 

In mainstream publishing - unlike self-publishing where you hire your own team - the financial risks are the publishers, but a writer has little control. An editor was once a writer’s key mentor and they’d stick together for an entire writing life. In today’s fast-moving industry, that’s rare. Editors, publicists and publishers move on and writers exist, more than ever, in a precarious, shifting world. An agent is often your one and only constant - so if you have one, make sure he or she is a good one. 

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise’ - William Blake, artist and poet 

Dig for GOLD

A mentor is pure gold. It could be your agent or editor or trusted, writerly friend. But a mentor is not someone who holds your hand and tells you what you want to hear. It’s someone who truly understands your unique creative struggle in a challenging world where there are no givens, where talent and hard work do not always win through, but who believes in you and pushes you to become the best writer you can be, the one you’re meant to be.

This is the Lendl Factor. And that’s why every writer needs a Mr Lendl in their corner.

Monday, 10 September 2012

METAWARS 1: Fight For The Future by Jeff Norton - review by Julienne Durber

As regular readers of Demention will know, my book reviews normally feature an interview with the author followed by a short round-up and opinion from me.
This week's review of METAWARS 1: Fight For The Future by Jeff Norton is different - because METAWARS is different.

As usual, leave me a comment to be entered into the prize draw for a pristine copy of METAWARS 1: Fight For The Future, tweet and repost on FB to be entered twice more (you know the deal.)

Giveaway closes on 1st October. Winner's name will be posted here.

For a full review of METAWARS, its place within the Demention boys vs girls debate, and its potential as book one of a series ... read on.

METAWARS 1: Fight For The Future is part one of the story of Jonah Delacroix who is drawn into a battle for control of the Metasphere - the virtual world that the internet has become, where your avatar is your identity and you aren't restricted by the laws of gravity or geography from the physical world.  He has to struggle against both real-world and virtual dangers as he searches for the truth about his allies, his enemies, and even his own father.

Its basic premise - the hardships of an ecologically corrupt real world forcing the masses into a bleak existence where their only escape from poverty and hardship is to spend what little they have entering a virtual world - isn't ground breaking.  But from the front cover, with its Bansky-esque figure sandwiched between militaristic decay and gleaming future-fantasy, it is clear that METAWARS is precisely, almost achingly, up-to-the-minute.

Jeff Norton
Despite superficial similarities to The Matrix films, the world Norton has created for METAWARS owes far more to early William Gibson (never a bad thing), but the technology feels pin-sharp and is an entirely believable development of where the world currently stands.  And this is what worries me.  The book is tagged as 'The first in an awesome new series', and if the others follow on as I expect, there will probably be another three.  Technology can move a long way in three years, and I wonder whether the devices and methods used will quickly seem dated.

Don't get me wrong, this is a cracking adventure story - a sort of 'Young James Bond in The Matrix'.  Packed with action and danger, it is the most boy-friendly, popcorn-munching thing I have read in ages.  I devoured it with glee as it ticked every boy's-own box in my head.  I even struggled to complete my own personal review game of 'spot when something convenient happens to allow a dodgy plan to work'.

And the emotional content is high - no real romantic involvement, but some heart-plucking moments surrounding Jonah's family both outside and inside the Metasphere add a layer of warmth and up the girl-friendliness quota.

(For first-time visitors to Demention - I have to repeat the point I made in a previous post that I know many girls who like action and boys who appreciate strong emotional content in their stories.  One of the themes we return to at Demention is whether dystopia is sci-fi for girls and vice versa.  See Teri's original post and my response if you want to know more.)

The idea of literally plugging yourself directly into a virtual world has been around for quite a time, and I would have liked to see something fresher.  (Five years ago, the idea of waving a games controller around to play tennis on your tv was ground-breaking, now it's run-of-the-mill.)

But perhaps I am being unfair.  This is a book for right now, a well-constructed world with a crackling plot.  And an ideal entry point into a genre of future worlds, dark technologies and thrilling action.  I really enjoyed it and I want to read the rest soon - while they are still futuristic.

The question I'll leave hanging is: when science fact is advancing so quickly, how far does science-fiction have to go to remain truly futuristic?

All generic royalty free images provided by

Monday, 3 September 2012

by Claire Merle

Interview with A.G. Howard, author of ‘Splintered’.

Today we’ve got A.G. Howard on the blog, talking about her debut novel, Splintered, which will be released by Amulet Books on 1st January 2013.

“Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on.” (To see the full blurb go HERE)

A.G. Howard says she was inspired to write SPLINTERED while working at a school library. Having been lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced reader copy of the book, I wanted to find out more about that inspiration and how the idea developed into an intriguing and captivating return to Caroll’s Wonderland.

Did you read Alice in Wonderland when you were young or did you discover it later?

I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its companion novel, Through the Looking Glass, when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. My dad was always a Disney fanatic, and I grew up on VHS renditions of every Disney fairy tale adaptation:  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and of course, Alice in Wonderland (along with many more). I can’t remember if I borrowed the Lewis Carroll books from my school library, or if I actually coerced my parents into buying them, but I read and savored each scene (although I secretly imagined the Cheshire Cat as a handsome young prince locked inside a spell … I’m a hopeless romantic; even to this day, in my mind, every story needs a prince). I read the books once again when I started writing Splintered, for a refresher.

After your initial inspiration to draw on the Alice story, how did your ideas for this book develop?

I’m a very organic writer, so I usually just sit down and start writing and things unfold which sometimes even surprise me. However, with Splintered, there were a few things I went in knowing:  

       I knew I wanted my main character, Alyssa, to be able to converse with bugs and flowers, because the talking flower scenes in Carroll’s two books, the Disney cartoon, and the Tim Burton/Disney rendition, were some of my favorites. Also, I always remembered the scene from Through the Looking Glass when Alice is riding a train through the countryside and has a conversation with a gnat. Those were such quirky and indelible images, that I just had to incorporate them somehow.

       Next, I needed my heroine to be tied to the original tales in a very visceral way. Melanie Benjamin’s book, Alice I Have Been, (link) sparked the idea to make Alyssa a descendant of Alice Liddell, the real-life girl who actually inspired Carroll to write his story to begin with. The blood tie to the Liddells became the basis for all of the weird aspects of Alyssa’s life, including the talking bugs and flowers.

Also, I wanted a colorful/vivid world edged with creepiness for my Wonderland setting. To help me visualize, I started gathering pictures into my Splintered synopsis and character folder of anything “Alice-esque” for inspiration. When I Googled for images, I sought out “Gothic” Alice themes. I found that I was drawn to pictures tinged with an “aura of Alice”, but completely different from the original. This led me to go one step further and not only warp the settings, but warp the original characters in unexpected ways—enough that it would throw my heroine and hero for a loop when they first saw them. But there needed to be an explanation for “why” everything was so different, so I came up with one. You’ll have to read the book to find out what that is. ;)

      Lastly, I knew I wasn’t going to rely on the Mad Hatter or Cheshire Cat as my heroine’s enigmatic guide in Wonderland (as other adaptations have). There’s another of my favorite characters who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in the remakes that I’ve seen. So I chose him as the most pivotal player in Wonderland, and gave him a whole new identity and back story. :)

The Wonderland in Splintered is far darker, twisted, seductive and terrifying than in the original book. What drew you in this direction? Was it a conscious decision?

Yes, very much conscious. Lewis Carroll won my heart as a child by weaving underlying threads of violence and eeriness into his nonsensical scenes and characters. So it was a priority for Splintered to pay respectful homage to those elements while coaxing the funkiness/creepiness from subtle nuance to center stage for an older sect of readers. I’m hoping the darker edge of my spinoff will entice others to seek out the Carroll originals if they aren’t already fans.

Had you read any other fairy tale retellings that inspired SPLINTERED?

The only book—other than the original works—that inspired any element of Splintered was Alice I Have Been, which in all fairness isn’t so much a retelling as an alternate historical fiction. But I’ve heard some amazing things about The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor (link), and have them on my TBR list. Now I just need to find time to read them all!

As far as I’m aware you’re the first person to return readers to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, despite some rather intriguing alterations. Did you have to get special permission to do this?

No. From what I’ve seen, once the author is no longer living, their work becomes public domain to some extent, which leaves most fairy tales and classical novels up for reinterpretation.

Maybe that’s why there’s been a surge of such literature lately. For, although I’m the first to revisit Wonderland’s characters and settings, mine isn’t the first book to use actual characters and springboard off of original scenes of classical novels. Here are two other recent examples:

·      Phantom by Susan Kay (link)

·      Dracula in Love by Karen Essex (link)

And these next two remakes actually take the originals, word for word, and just change a few sentences here or there to alter the stories (note the inclusion of the original authors’ names since the original text is used as the basis):

·      Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen (link)

·      Alice in Zombieland by Nickolas Cook and Lewis Carroll (link)

All that said, I did take great pains not to borrow anything from recent Alice/Wonderland reinterpretations (movie or TV versions, books, computer games), to avoid possible infringement.

What do you think makes Splintered more distinct than other YA novels that draw on more traditional and well known fairy tales?

With the creepy character counterparts and “funkified” settings inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Splintered is one part adaptation and one part tribute. Other remakes use parallel storylines in a contemporary or urban fantasy setting, and/or use symbolism (in Wonderland’s case, a white rabbit or a clock or playing cards, etc…) to tie the stories together. But in Splintered, Alyssa’s world is actually impacted by the Lewis Carroll tales, and she turns to her mother’s copy of the book to help solve riddles and fix her life. I’m hoping this “continuation/spinoff” aspect will set my version apart.

Do you have a favorite dark YA novel based on a fairy tale you could tell us about?

I recently read the modernized adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Beastly, by Alex Flinn (link) and enjoyed it (it was definitely better than the Beastly movie version). Still, I haven’t read enough dark fairy tale adaptations yet to determine if it will become a favorite. I have a long list that I still want to read, including:

·      Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley (link)
·      Cinder by Marissa Meyer (link)

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I hope everyone has as much fun reading Splintered as I had writing it! And also, thank you, Claire, for having me over today.

Thanks, Anita!
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be probing further into the popularity and influence of the dark fairy tale in YA and A.G. Howard will be back answering some general questions about the genre. Until then, let me know which YA fairytale spin-offs you think I should be reading! Have you got a favourite?