Mummy, where do books come from?

This is going to sound ludicrously arrogant, given that I’m white, cisgendered, more or less able-bodied, and from a First World country: but when I look back at why I’ve started writing books, most of the time it’s because I’ve been irritated that the books that were already out there weren’t reflecting me.

No, I don’t mean that I expect any book I spend my money on to feature an untidy, myopic woman with two cats and a serious Sims habit. I mean that I kept seeing books misrepresenting me or my experiences or the people I was closest to. I kept having to make the choice of either trying to twist my head around into the mindset of the reader who was expected, or reading against the grain and hoping that if I loved any given character enough, it would make up for the author not giving them the attention they deserved: that this time it would come right, that the disabled character wouldn’t turn out to be ‘twisted in mind as well as in body’, that the fat character wouldn’t be a figure of disgust, that the gay character wouldn’t die. And again, I know that compared to what some people have had to face in the way of seeing themselves and the world around them represented in books, I’ve had it easy. I’m just explaining how I got here.

I started writing the stalled Big Ol’ Fantasy Novel because I was sick and tired of reading about heroines who have ‘strong bones’ and ‘interesting faces’ and are skinny and coltish and long-legged, and, if they’d shown up in the real world, could make a living on a catwalk with no problem whatsoever. I wouldn’t have minded, except that these characters invariably had a snotty, manipulative foil with a big bust.

You know, I was a teenager with a big bust. I hung out with the other early developer in my year a lot, because while we didn’t have a lot else in common (she was graceful, socially savvy, and had been interested in long-distance running until puberty struck, and I, er, was none of those things) we both had to deal with the same stupid crap, from taunts shouted across the playground to the bizarre, targeted nastiness of the P.E teacher, who I think may have had some issues of her own.

And neither of us thought that the way to deal with this was to devote our lives to the downfall of those in our year who had hit the ‘built like a model’ jackpot, particularly as they had their own problems, mostly in the area of trying to buy large shoes. I absolutely don’t mean to say that tall, thin teenagers have it easier. I’m not even sure they have it that different, given that being a teenager is a minefield for everybody. But the way they were represented in the books I read was different, and that annoyed me.

So, I was reading yet another novel where the heroine’s ability to dress up as a boy was more or less written up in neon lights as a sign of her virtue (I can’t think why, but I suspect the writer had never read a life of Lady Caroline Lamb) and I thought ‘Enough with this’. And started writing a book about a short, curvy mage with a problem with fire elementals and a tendency, when locked in a room with nothing in the way of a possible disguise but her unpleasant fiancé’s breeches, to think ‘Well, that‘s never going to work, because those wouldn’t have gone round my hips when I was eleven’.

And I would have finished it too, if it had only had any plot.

Fast forward a few more years, and I got diagnosed with anxiety panic disorder, which was in a lot of ways a relief, as previous to that I’d thought I was going to die every time I started hyperventilating. And that’s where Tzenni came from.

I was tired of brave heroes and fearless, kickass, quipping heroines: I was going to write a book about someone who was scared of stuff to the extent that I was or possibly a little more, and they were going to be the heroine and get stuff done, damn it. And if they could, I could too. (I’m managing the anxiety with the help of my GP, so please don’t leave suggestions in the comments: thank you for the kindly thought, but whatever it is you think would help, the likelihood is good that I’ve already heard of it)

I don’t have Tzenni’s fear of stairs (though possibly I should, considering that I have fallen down stairs and broken the same ankle twice: the stairs clearly have it in for me, possibly due to having diagnosed me as Always Chaotic Evil on account of my bust): I just thought ‘What’s the most inconvenient thing I could have my protagonist be scared of, in a mostly vertical city-state?’ and the answer popped back, stairs.

So I had a heroine who hated stairs, and a… well, antagonist, at least to start with, who lived at the top of a staircase. And the rest of the book grew from that. She rescues her prince, she has a damn good go at brokering several different peace deals between radically different factions, and at the end of it she’s a bit less scared of stairs, even though she’s never going to like them. And I felt brave enough to put the book up on Lulu. And here we are.

Because when some medical person gives me the stink-eye and says ‘It’s just anxiety’ as if I’m wilfully wasting her time, I wish I had Innes Liang at my back. And I bet I’m not the only one.

20 thoughts on “Mummy, where do books come from?

  1. I can relate to that, one the things I love most about Tzenni is that she is terrified but still gets things done. The world would be a better place if more people understood what that was like.
    Also, what is it with PE teachers? I got picked up by mine because I was the lightest person in the class; one day she decided to basically swing me around in the air by my arms and legs, she regretted it when I nearly burst her eardrums and drew blood clinging on by my finger nails! I HATE being picked up and being swung around makes me feel sick and dizzy 😦

    1. That sounds to me like the perfect definition of real courage – being terrified and still getting stuff done. If you’re not scared, you don’t need to be brave. She sounds like an excellent character.

      1. Well yes, but the thing that I thought was important is that she is scared of normal everyday things that other people take for granted that everyone is fine with. When you talk about courage most people think of being scared of usual things, like getting wounded or killed in a battle, not stairs.

  2. She did what? I’m sure there are decent P.E teachers out there, but some of them sound like they should never have been let near children in the first place!

    I didn’t get into exercising for years because I just thought about how horrible school PE and games lessons had been, and I assumed I was too uncoordinated to do anything anyway. When I think of how much better I feel when I make exercise part of my life, I feel angry about all the time I wasted. 😦

    1. This gets me very angry every time we are told how important it is that children – especially teenage girls – must do more sport in schools because ‘Otherwise they may get turned off sport for life.’

      Because nothing will give you a love of physical activity more than being the [wheezy short one*] in the corner who’s useless at everything.

      *delete as appropriate

      1. It is infuriating. It makes me really angry. It ties in with all kinds of body image stuff – the teenage years are exactly when it really helps to know that your body is you and deserves to be cared for and allowed to do stuff, and not just a kind of problematic meat-case that you’re constantly having to apologise for.

      2. (sorry, these only thread so far, actually replying to Ankaret)

        Ahhh, body image stuff was a whole other minefield for me at school – the home economics teacher looked at me like I was a freak when I said I didn’t want kids one day and told me getting pregnant was the only way I’d ever have a decent pair of breasts to my name!!

      3. Oh God yes. I was fairly awful at sports. In Y11 my PE teacher said proudly to my mother how much weight I’d lost, and my mother muttered later: “Yes, she joined a gym.” I was also better at trampolining, and anything that didn’t require me to work with people I hated, doing something I knew I was bad at.

    2. I’m sure there was some point to it at the time. I guess most kids enjoy that sort of thing, fairground rides seem to be very popular despite how much I hate them! Gymnastics classes were the bane of my life at school but I did enjoy some sports we played, particularly the summer ones (rounders and tennis) so it could have been worse. And she never did pick on me to demonstrate things again after that 😉

      1. Well, I’m glad your screaming-and-clawing technique worked!

        I hated rounders. And netball. I’m not sure how much of this was due to having been in a split-year class my first year of middle school, so that everyone assumed that we’d learned the basics the year before – I still don’t really understand how rounders works or when you’re supposed to stop and when you’re supposed to keep going.

        Then again, I was just as useless at hockey, and I started out on that at the same time as everybody else! The only thing I was ever any good at was swimming, and I went swimming every Saturday anyway and didn’t really see why I should have to go swimming with people I couldn’t stand on occasional weekdays as well.

      2. You see, I didn’t mind gymnastics quite so much. Not that I was much good at it, but at least I wasn’t letting a whole team of people down by being bad at it. My school were very big on team spirit. Which was fine unless you knew you were always the weakest link in any team. Ugh.

        And I am 36 and I still don’t really do any exercise, largely because I promised myself when I left school that I wouldn’t have to any more.

  3. Yup, PE teachers ruined exercise for a lot of people.

    I’ve been reading a lot of vintage books lately and tbh, I wish some of the (white, British) writers had stuck to writing only about white British people because as annoying as their portrayals of working class people are, the times they mention people of other races… Fair makes my head boil!

    Fantasyland needs more realistic characters 🙂

    1. Oh, what period have you been reading books from? I used to love reading 1930s thrillers, but it got to a point where if I saw one more ‘funny’ Chinese or Indian character, or one more Jewish or black villain, or even one more Cockney whose speech was all written in eye dialect, I would have done something regrettable.

  4. Replying to Ros: damn, this threading is annoying!

    I would have liked gymnastics if I could actually do anything more complicated than a forward roll, I think. To this day I have no idea how people who can do cartwheels and so on actually learned to do it!

    1. I think I learned by falling over a lot first. I had a couple of friends who were better than me but we used to practice together. I still have warm fuzzy feelings about the time my gym teacher complimented me on my bridge.

  5. This entry made me squee and look forward to the books even more than I was already. (They’re on the way, according to Lulu.) Cos guess what, I was another scared, large-busted teenager. Sport? Exercise? Don’t make me laugh.

    Actually I quite like swimming, but (a) the local pool’s opening times are not set up for commuters and (b) I hate having to do the hair-removal thing (takes ages, does my back in) and haven’t managed to achieve a state of not minding what people think about me for not doing it. And I always wanted to play tennis properly, but neither of my schools bothered teaching you how if you weren’t already recognised as good at sport. My games teachers tended to be nice-but-dismissive rather than vile, but it still left me with a “can’t do” attitude towards all sport.

    1. I never seem to get round to going to the local pool either! It’s partly that I am short-sighted to the point that other people just look like pink blobs (talking of pink blobs, there is a family story involving my father, who is about as myopic as I am, who was once waved to cheerily by a young woman in a swimming pool on holiday, swam over on the assumption that he knew her from somewhere, and then discovered that not only did he have no idea who she was, she was topless) and therefore negotiating new places without glasses on is fraught with danger, and partly that I can do yoga in my own sitting-room and not have to walk home with wet hair.

    2. It took me a while not to feel self-conscious but I’ve mastered the not caring about showing my body hair in the pool (I do have a short legged costume though, I draw the line at showing my pubic hair). I’d highly recommend it if you can manage it, swimming is the only thing that keeps me sane sometimes! I hear you on the times though, I belong to the local university pool and the termtime timetable is a nightmare if you can’t make it at lunchtimes 😦

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