The shape of fairytale princesses

‘Let Down Your Hair’ is clearly of its time. Hollywood seems obsessed with fairytale retellings at the moment, what with ‘Into The Woods’ and yet another Cinderella remake. With a promo poster featuring a fairytale princess photoshopped to resemble the shape of her animated forbears:(

When it comes to animated princesses, I confess I’m on the fence. On one hand, I can see that heroines with huge eyes and waists smaller than their necks aren’t a shape you want a little girl to aspire to. On the other, I’m not entirely convinced that little girls *do* aspire to be the shape of their cartoon characters or Bratz dolls or whatever. I haven’t read any decent research on this, but I’ve certainly heard stories about four-year-old girls who’ve cut off well-meaning reassurances with comments like “Barbie’s only a doll, Aunty Sue. She’s just pretend.”

Part of the problem is my Inner Scientist getting in the way and waffling about super stimuli. These, for those who’ve never heard of them, are things where the features that appeal to people (or other creatures) are exaggerated. They did these experiments with chicks in the 1970s or something. They found that seagull chicks actually pecked more at a fake-looking beak that was long and thin and stripy than they did at a realistic model of an adult gull’s head. Disney princesses are drawn along the same principles. Large eyes and small waists appeal, so they’ve exaggerated these features until the eyes are about as long as the waists are wide. You’d think they’d look gross and distorted, but they don’t, do they?

My feeling is that a doll or cartoon character isn’t nearly as powerful as a Photoshopped photo of an actual woman. The message then is that this is a shape someone real has achieved, therefore even inadequate you can attain it too, if you try hard enough. So sign up and pay us lots of money for these diets, gym memberships and operations!

I explore notions of beauty and status quite a bit in Parts II&IV of ‘Let Down Your Hair’. Terrible business. But it is, indeed, business, and big business, so the images keep coming, and with them the myth that the closer you get to that shape, the “happier” you’ll become. “Happier” being the advertiser’s way of saying “higher status”, i.e. envied by more women and pursued by more men. Never mind that envy can be toxic and men who want a trophy might not be what you want.


The first person fallacy

Not long ago, a young friend of mine was enthusing to me about Miley Cyrus’s song ‘Wrecking Ball’. She played it to me on her phone, and told me the song was obviously about Liam Hemsworth. Being less up with celebrity gossip than she was, I asked her to explain. “The song’s about a really painful break-up,” she said, “which is what happened with Miley and Liam. It’s obvious this song’s about him.”

Later, I went to my computer, and Googled up the song. And as I suspected, it was written by a team of songwriters, and not one of those was Miley herself. This didn’t surprise me: I write songs as well as novels, and know a bit about how the music industry works. The only way this song could actually be about Miley and Liam was if the songwriting team decided to write a song that resonated with Miley’s personal crisis in the hope that this would give their song an edge with her manager.

My friend’s face fell when I explained this, and I realised that I’d just devalued the song for her. When she thought the song was a tribute to a lost love, she felt like Miley had opened her heart to her fans, and told them about her heartbreak. It felt like a personal connection. Telling my friend that the song was something a faceless team wrote and sold to Miley’s management turned that personal connection into a cynical commercial transaction. I felt a bit bad, and mused that this was why the fact that most pop singers don’t write the songs they sing is kept fairly quiet: people want to believe the emotions and the lyrics are coming from the singer.

After years of writing stories, songs and poems in first person, I invented my own name for this: the first person fallacy. When you write or sing in first person, using “I” and “me”, a lot of readers will assume the narrator is you. That the singer is the person whose lover came in like a wrecking ball, or (in the case of Let Down Your Hair) that the author is the person who was raised by a controlling feminist professor.

It’s not that there’s no truth in that. You do draw on your own inner world when creating one for a fictional character, because your own inner world is the only one you have full access to. There are aspects of Sage’s character and personal history that parallel mine, but Sage isn’t me, any more than Miley is the narrator in ‘Wrecking Ball’.

When I think about it, though, I wonder whether the first person fallacy should actually be taken as a compliment. It means that your listeners or readers feel connected to your main character, and believe her emotions are real.

Ha! The 90 degree Rapunzel spin: a SIGN!

Days after I blog about my original vision for Rapunzel-as-flight-attendant, look! It’s a SIGN! How’s that for an inflight Wicked Witch?

What it’s a sign *of*, I’ve yet to figure out. A superficial reading might declare that it’s a SIGN that I should actually write that 90 degree spin sometime (and set it on board Korean Air?). Hey, Robin McKinley wrote two novels based on Beauty and the Beast! Still, I think that might be well and truly enough Rapunzel for the moment. Can’t get myself pigeonholed as a Rapunzel reteller, now, can I?

I’ve officially stopped reading reviews. Way too traumatic. Am getting paranoid about the “romance” classification being misleading. I wouldn’t classify it a romance myself, more a gritty coming-of-age story. A fairytale adaptation, not a fairytale romance. Very different things. It does contain an important romantic relationship, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

Have also had to stop my obsessive checking of the Amazon sales rank, because Amazon puts the figures way too close to the average star rating and number of reviews tally. Gah (withdrawal symptoms).

Writers. Way too invested in their writing. I think I’d head for the sea and be a swimmer instead.

Rapunzel: The 90 degree spin that never was

Novel release day! Ah, to be one of those proficient social media types, blithely unleashing the news upon a breathless audience of thousands. Me, I’m flapping about ineffectually from site to site like a lost hummingbird. Except with less humming and more cries of “Aaargh, I should be doing something, shouldn’t I? Promo. Or something. Or writing more of those guest blogs I’m meant to be doing. Or writing the As for the Q&As. Or figuring out how to win at Twitter. But what? What??”

OK. Calm. Focus. The release day is just the beginning. There is plenty of time. Plenty. Good.

So. I’ve decided a hasty blog post is the go. And, oddly enough, the topic which leaps to mind isn’t today’s release at all. It’s my original vision for a modern-day Rapunzel novel, with an entirely different spin. A 90 degree spin, to be precise. My original plan was making her a flight attendant. Trapped in her horizontal metal tower in the sky, presided over by a Flying Dragon of flight managers whose vicious streak manifested in the policing of her underlings’ hair. I went as far as interviewing a flight attendant friend, and inheriting her old work stuff for material when she quit (found a giant box of it in my garage).

Hey, I liked it. But the manuscript never took off (so to speak), and I moved onto other things. My return to Rapunzel came a couple of months after I fell pregnant with my first child. Rather like the mother at the start of Rapunzel, in fact, and it occurs to me that this was significant.

One thing that worried me about a potential daughter was the scary way the media spew out the message that a woman’s first duty is Looking Hot. It was depressing enough when I hit my teens and started wasting way too much energy on comparing my body parts to some mythical ideal woman and despairing over not measuring up. But in an era where girls of five are scared of getting fat, the prospect of raising one is scary indeed. I figured the thing to do was try to arm her against those messages, because there was no way I could stop them from reaching her.

And somewhere, in a deep writerly corner of my brain, a voice asked “Ah, but could you raise a girl completely shielded from those messages? What would you have to do?” And the answer is, you’d have to home-school her, keep her away from all popular media, and vet everything from the books she sees to the company she keeps. In short, you’d have to lock her away from the world. Rather like the Wicked Witch in Rapunzel, in fact. And with that Andrea Rampion, Professor of Womyn’s Studies (Y intentional), came stomping out of the ivory tower and into my head…

Publication eve!

One more sleep until the publication of my debut novel!

Long time in the making, this moment, given that I decided I wanted to be a writer at six (before that I wanted to be a ballerina, principally because I was in love with pink tutus and wanted a career where I’d get to wear one). By fourteen, I was trying out and practising different versions of my signature, so that I could do my novels justice when the time came for selling signed copies for my launch. I still use the version I decided on today.

Now that the moment is here, of course, the times, they have a-changed. The publishing contract for ‘Let Down Your Hair’ is “digital-first”, which means that carefully rehearsed signature won’t have anywhere to go (unless I sell over 500 copies, whereupon they’ll offer it as print-on-demand). As a model that enables publishers to take a risk on new authors, I’m all for it, even if my Inner Fourteen-Year-Old is pouting.

The same goes for the launch, which is all a bit virtual when the book is a digital file. Still, it’s mid-December, and however great that may be for sales, it really ain’t ideal for launches. Who can fit in yet another function two weeks before Christmas? My plan is to content myself with a small night out, and hope for a physical book to launch next year. Until then, I’ll satisfy my launchtime urges by printing off a flyer, folding it into a plane, and releasing it tomorrow from a Rapunzelesque top floor window…

Fairytales: Difficulty ratings

When I was ten, I wrote a story called ‘Petrolella’, inspired by ‘Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes’. I found this story recently, and while it made me cringe, I’m glad I never threw it out. Childish as ‘Petrolella’ looks to me now, it was my first step on a road that led to my Rapunzel adaptation ‘Let Down Your Hair’ being published (

As I muse on which fairytale I want to do next, I’m finding not all tales are equal, especially for retelling in the present-day real world. Some are quite easy, because the plot revolves around characters doing things real people do. Some are much harder, because the plot depends on magical trinkets and unlikely events.

At the Easy Street end of the scale, we have Cinderella. Winner of the Most Adapted Fairytale Award, because the story is just so accessible. Put-upon girl triumphs over nasty step-family and lands herself rich, handsome husband. It’s your basic rags-to-riches, with a side-serve of revenge. The only tricky bit is the business with the shoe, which doesn’t turn up until the end. Work around that, and you can set Cinderella just about anywhere in any time you like. Difficulty rating: 2/10.

At the School of Hard Knocks end is Snow White, which is jam-packed with tricky magic trinkets. That mirror, for a start. It’s central to the story, and quite a challenge to adapt. Not long afterwards is the first of four attempts on Snow White’s life, all of which she survives. Four attempted murders. Setting up motives and escapes for one attempted murder is enough to make a whole novel! Some Snow White versions wriggle out of this by paring down to two: the huntsman and the apple. But if you want to go the whole hog with the lace and comb as well, you really need to get creative. And that’s before you even start to think about how to fit in seven dwarves. Difficulty rating: 9/10.

Rapunzel falls somewhere in the middle. It only has five characters—Rapunzel, her parents, the Wicked Witch and the Handsome Prince—and the tower is easy enough. The most challenging part is finding some way to make the plot hinge on Rapunzel’s long hair. Once that’s sorted out, the writer also needs a way around the Prince going blind then having his sight restored by her tears. Difficulty rating: 5/10.

In ‘Let Down Your Hair’, I found ways to meet all these challenges, which I might tell you more about later. For the moment, though, I’m giving the fairytales a rest, and working on a fantasy trilogy. When I’ve finished Book I of the trilogy, though, I plan to switch into ninth gear and tackle Snow White and the Seven Dwarves…

The hard sell?

Long, long ago, at the dawn of publishing, the writer’s job was to write. The tawdry task of selling the writing was left in the hands of the publisher.

These days, however, the writerly hand can no longer expect to stay pure. The dog-eat-dog digital age is upon us, and with it comes a new and daunting duty. The hands which hold the pen and caper on the keyboard must soil themselves with the sordid business of sales.

“Start a blog!” they said. “You need one!” they said.

The subtext here is plain. The aim of a writer’s blog isn’t posting photos of my pets, or documenting my scandalous personal life. It’s to LURE IN READERS by dazzling them with my witty and deathless prose.

The pressure!

The problem with the hard sell is that it’s just so hard. Marketing is the curse of the modern age. I’m heartily sick of people trying to sell me stuff. Why would I want to inflict the hard sell on other blameless people?

Well, OK, I do know why. It’s because Momentum Books is publishing my debut novel ‘Let Down Your Hair’. It’s a modern-day adaptation of the Rapunzel fairytale. Not the sanitised versions of Grimm and Disney, but the darker original story with the gritty bits put back in. The coming of age tale of a cloistered young woman, part comedy, part tragedy, part romance, With two towers for the price of one, each ruled by a different Wicked Witch.

Look, here it is:

Much as playing saleswoman makes me wince, I would, of course, like people to buy it. I suppose the trick with marketing is to market at people who’d like to buy what you have to sell. It’s why Facebook and Google watch what you write and send you targeted ads.

Does this make this entire blog a kind of targeted ad? What a disturbing thought. So disturbing I think I might leave this entry here and drown my fears in hot chocolate.