Friday, 20 December 2013

Scott Westerfield, more Animals in Stories, Editing, and a Secret Photograph of the JD Field Writing Process

What's your favourite Potter animal? What would be your Patronus? Or your Daemon? What's your favourite Scott Westerfield animal?

I've talked about the appeal of animals in kids books before. It's interesting that it doesn't seem to cross over to YA books that I've seen. There's something about the play of imagination necessary to see the world through the eyes of an animal that maybe stops as we grow up.

Westerfield is my latest discovery. I've just read leviathan.

It's BRILLIANT. Recommended to everybody. It's a re-imagining of the events at the start of the First World War, seen through the eyes of a teenage girl and a teenage boy who get caught up in events. It's fast-paced and action packed, but that's not the best bit.

The best bit is that the Germans have armies of gigantic, walking war machines, while the British have fabricated animals by blending their DNA together. There are enormous, armoured elephantines, and ferocious wolf-tigers. There are jellyfish filled with helium that float into the sky. Best of all is a whale as big as a village, that produces hydrogen in its guts, and floats through the sky like a gigantic airship. This is the best thing ever.

If you've read The Water Book you'll understand why. If you haven't, then read the Water Book. It's free at BARNES AND NOBLE. That's got a whale, and imaginatively depicted animals, as well.

Fortunately Westerfield's work is such compulsive reading that it won't be keeping from my editing for much longer. I've printed Levels 4 onto 70 A3 pages.

Here it is, with the corner of my new noticeboard. The corner has a note about the stories I'm going to write AFTER Levels... I'm currently on page 35 of the edit, scrawling arrows all over everything, and crossing stuff out. Crossing tons out. Lucky I've got plenty more to add, so when it finally gets to you you're not going to feel short changed...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Thors v. City of Bones, why YA movies fail, and a FREE EBOOK.

I'd been looking forward to City of Bones for a year. Thor, not so much, though I like the character. He's got a lot in common with my character, Eddy Moon. I imagine they talk in the same stilted, regal kind of way and they share a connection with ancient myths. Probably some of the people Eddy came across believed in Thor. Here he is, a bit. If you've read the Levels books you'll get what I mean.

Coming into this City of Bones had more advantages than being anticipated. I bought both DVDs in downtown Amman, which looks like this.

My copy of Thor had bonus audience coughing and head-scratching silhouettes in front of the camera.

But still I preferred it. Thor is silly, operatic, but it's lots of fun and it's straightforward. City of Bones  - as a movie - is just so tortuous, and at the same time differs from the book in little, annoying ways. And what's wrong with the light? Why can nobody in New York get a 100 watt lightbulb? I think it's a bad sign if the only way you can make a film dark is to - literally - turn off the lights.

If you're into YA books or movies and want to read a bit more about this, there's an interesting article here: YA books into movies don't go, HERE.

I felt bad about my bargain basement DVDs, and so have decided to even out my karma a bit, by giving a book away. It's a novel aimed at teens, probably more suitable for boys - though bright, curious girls will like it too. If you know somebody who has an interest in - or a love for - wildlife and might like an imaginative story, in the tradition of Willard Price and Watership Down, then please point them in the direction of a free ebook. It's about a rebellious, imaginative teenage boy who gets embroiled in marine biology adventures.

It's called THE WATER BOOK and it's HERE.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Procrastination techniques, exercise, and how to work out what book to read next.


That was the unspoken resolution. Get more writing done. Finish The Wills Tower, and move on to rewriting Levels 4. The good news is that I've printed out the first draft of Levels 4 in small writing on A3 paper. The whole thing is only 20 double page spreads, for me to scribble over and highlight. I particularly need to find where add some Great Gatsby, and some violence.

And I will do all that, and more, once I get started. Unfortunately I'm still loving the Vulture a bit too much. This is a chart that tells you what YA book you should read. Genius.

You can find it HERE, courtesy of the Vulture.

I'm not going to read the book, of course. I'm going to get on my new exercise routine, then get that final Wills Tower chapter done. The exercise involves walking up the steps to Jabal Webdei, walking down then back up again. Kittens skitter around my feet and from time to time the mosque drowns out my audio book. Got to get fit before Christmas...

Friday, 22 November 2013

What concept did I invent today? And how did it turn out? What are the top ten YA books of the year? Lena Dunham and Girls 3.

I invented the November resolution.

The concept is simple. If things are worth doing, then why wait til January? Get them done. What are mine?

1. Surf the internet more imaginatively. Find cool stuff. Learn. Get new perspectives. Up until today I mainly bounced between my four or five favourite little corners, which is crazy, because the internet is like a massive magical world.

Here's one of the things I found today: TOP TEN YA NOVELS OF 2013. Which have you read? I only managed one, but I definitely need to check out Rainbow Rowell.

Another brilliant discovery was VULTURE, where I came across tons of cool stuff, including the GIRLS teaser.

2. Get a pinboard. An actual physical pinboard on the wall behind my desk. Okay, I did this two days ago, but I started using it today. The plan is that random ideas will go there, instead of in a dozen scattered notepads. I'll see them every day, and add to them, and rearrange them, and be prompted to do stuff about them.

3. Blog more. My last post was on Monday, four days ago. Job done.

Monday, 18 November 2013

New LEVELS story, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness, The Wills Tower and Kyle Thompson

I'll tell you the good news first. The good news is that there's a new Levels story approaching.

The bad news is it's not the one people are expecting. I finished the first draft of Levels 4, and put it aside to get my breath, and got distracted by dystopian novels. Got so distracted that I wrote one...

Here's the idea: Song to Wake to is the springboard of the Levels series. It's the unveiling of the key relationship, and the paramount secret. What happens next is kind of the obvious way for the story to go, if the world stayed the same.

What if the world didn't stay the same?

What if in lots of ways it ended?

What would happen to the Levels series, and its characters - bearing in mind their special qualities - if society collapsed around their ears?

That's what THE WILLS TOWER is about. I  read and obsessed about Wool, by Hugh Howey at the beginning of the year. Then I read the complete Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. Here's the first, The Knife of Never Letting Go:

It's set in a world quite like ours, but with two key differences: Men can hear each other think, and the world is inhabited by a second, very different, intelligent species. Patrick Ness really develops about these two things would really mean. People's thoughts are 'noise' and they're deafening, and maddening. The other species are communal, maybe aggressive, maybe not. They are so fused as a social unit that they don't even have individual names.

The story is about a boy, the last boy, trying to make his way through this world. So is THE WILLS TOWER. As well as being about Maddie and Eddy, it has a third character, a boy alone, called Roman.

We meet Roman when he is in love, and being picked on. He asks a girl out, and a bully mocks him. "Only if you were the last boy in the world," he is told. THE WILLS TOWER in part, is about the process of that coming true, and in part about how dealing with high school can be good preparation for dealing with the end of the world.

I'm going to call THE WILLS TOWER 'Levels 2B' and it can be an alternative sequel to Song to Wake to. It will be out before Levels 4, which is being slowed by rewrites and getting the cover perfect. I've just been inspired by the photo at the start of this blog, and this one.

You can read more about them here, the most amazing pictures I've seen for years. Hopefully the cover of Levels 4 'THE WALLED LAKE' will have the qualities of one of them.

Hopefully it won't take too long...

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Minas Tirith is a Real Place, as is Alicante of the Shadowhunters: 5 Reasons this is a Great Vacation

I've got a new completely amazing place for you to visit.

This city was New York, Rome and London combined. It was the richest, biggest, most modern place in the world. When many people lived in huts of dirt and sticks, and a big town had a hundred families, this was a city of palaces and cathedrals, and millions of inhabitants, from every corner of the known world.

Many of the hut dwellers wouldn't have even known it existed, of course, or where it was, but for those that made it there it must have been an astonishing place. Now you can do better. You know it exists, and if you really, really want to, you can go there.

Constantinople, later known as Istanbul, simply 'The City.' When King Arthur was alive, this place was the centre of the Western World.

 These are the great walls, stretching completely across a peninsula, built one-and-a-half thousand years ago and still standing. They were the greatest fortifications in the world, and behind them they kept safe the riches and palaces of an empire. One happy afternoon I walked their length, from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. In places they are tumble down, and incorporated into the structure of raggle-taggle houses. In others they are restored, and grand, and you can walk along their tops. In a thousand years they were breached only three times, by the Crusaders, the Ottomans, and an outcast emperor, returning to take back what was his.
 The walls and the city were built by emperors in their lives. In their deaths they were housed in great black coffins, made from ton-heavy cubes of stone. The Archaeological Museum has them lined up, bigger than parked cars and much more menacing. The statuary of the Byzantines that has survived the centuries stands in a beautiful little garden.
 The palace of the Byzantines, once the most luxurious and magnificent in the world, has disappeared, but the amazing mosaics of its floors have been rediscovered. They stretch the size of basketball courts, works of art composed of millions of fragments of stone.
 The coolest place in Constantinople, though, is here:
 An enormous water cistern in the form of a gigantic cave, its roof held up by lines of slender, stone columns. Small lights sit at the base of each pillar, and the light glimmers on the two foot deep water that fills the floor. The light is feeble, though, and dies before it reaches the last line of pillars. The columns and dark water stretch beyond sight.

As cool as the cisterns (there are a couple of them) are, they aren't the best bit of old Constantinople. This is it. Hagia Sophia. The holy wisdom. For 1000 years it was the biggest building in the world. If you aren't convinced check out the size of the people standing on the balconies, then see how high the ceiling arches above them, and remember it has arched like that for 1500 years. When Columbus sailed the Atlantic, this was one of the oldest buildings in the world.

Read that again, and think about it for a second. It was the cathedral of Christianity. When Rome was being trashed by savages, this church was where the great emperors of Byzantium celebrated mass. A thousand years ago Vladimir the Great of Ukraine visited. "We no long knew if we were in heaven or earth," he said of the moment he looked up at the vast dome, that seemed to float above dozens of windows.

Of course I've missed out the whole Ottoman Istanbul bit, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, etc. Maybe I'll save that for another post. Maybe you'd like to go and see it yourself. I recommend it.

There are places on the earth that outreach the greatest dreams of authors and artists. This is one of them. A tumbled stone from a Byzantine wall has forgotten more stories than I shall ever write.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Adventures in Bombay, Contemporary Epics, review of Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Curry.

I just went on another excursion outside of the YA and paranormal zones, and it was completely worth it.

I read the gigantic, extraordinary, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It's supposedly based on the extraordinary true life story of the author, and his adventures in India in the 80s. I was in India myself 6 months ago. To me it was all about the history, the wildlife, and the numbers of people. India hits you around the face with its population everywhere. This is the Victoria Terminal in Mumbai in a rare moment when there aren't - literally - millions of people there.

In Shantaram the lead character experiences or observes EVERY facet of Mumbai. Which is impressive. With a population of 20 million it's bigger than most countries. He describes life in slums, among gangsters, lepers, and film stars in depth. My Mumbai was mainly the tourist facet. The beautiful old Victorian buildings, the jungly trees, the huge eagles on the street, and the monkeys...

His book is also filled with mystery, and intensity. The mystery is cool, there's a couple of clever who-dunnits in the story. The intensity, though, can be a bit much. It might be just me. But there's much love and so much hate, and none of it makes sense, but it's enough to sign your life over to someone else, apparently...

The two biggest similarities between the book and my experience are lots of food and taxis. The cabs are replicas of British cars from the 1950s, with 'busy' signs tacked on the hood, that flip out like flags when the cab is busy. I've never seen such gigantic menus, lists of hundreds of amazing combinations of vegetables and cheese and multiple kinds of bread. When I was a kid I loved the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the fantasy world of Narnia, but Narnia actually resembles my suburban childhood more than the fantasy that is India.

If you want to get an in depth, exciting, dramatic over view of Bombay, then this is just the story for  you, and everything else in the book is worth it...

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

No Books, No Stories. Real Life.

This blog is about fiction, writing it, reading it, and things that contribute to it. Real life doesn't often intrude here, and my real life never does.

But this post is an exception. Today, making up stories about King Arthur paled in comparison with the story of my working day.

 In my real life, my real job, for the last six months, I've been working on projects involving Syrian refugees in Jordan. Specifically, I've been organising programmes to deliver English training in the Zataari and EJC refugee camps.

I've visited them both.

I've travelled around a fair bit, I've been to thirty or so countries, but these are, hands down, the most dreadful places I've been. Before the war I visited Syria. Damascus was one of the most vibrant, fun, historical cities I knew. The people there had dynamic, comfortable lives.

The change they have experienced, and the violence that preceded it, have to be among the most horrible things that can happen to anybody.

They live in tents in the middle of the desert, miles from anyway. Everywhere they move they are surrounded by clouds of dust, though they can only really move in the daytime. At night it's too dangerous.

There are schools for the children, but not enough spaces in them, and even if they were many of the children are too busy to go to school. They need to bustle from place to place in the camp, queuing up for hours for bread, shoes, mattresses, whatever they hear is on offer. Some of it  they keep, some of it  they try and sell.

Today, for the first time in my life, I was in a traffic jam of wheelbarrows. Wheelbarrows are the commercial vehicle of choice in Zaatari camp. They are pushed by small boys, rented by the hour, to haul rice, bread, bricks, blankets, from one place to another. Don't get me wrong. The boys are laughing and shouting. But they should be at school.

Zaatari is a phenomenon. It is populated by 150,000 people who have had their homes torn from them. Everybody has family who have died. But life goes on. The resourcefulness is astonishing. Tents and caravans are converted into shops and businesses. I saw tailors, barbers, an internet cafe, shaorma restaurants, bakers and shops selling fruit and vegetables. There is a place you can rent wedding dresses for heaven's sake.

There are places, run by amazing teachers, themselves refugees, that are working with kids who have missed two years of school, so they can join the camp schools and not be in a class with children  3 years younger, then drop out. I'm planning training for these teachers, so they can better help the kids, and so that they feel like professionals, though they teach in a tent, coated with dust.

I've placed a teacher in a camp. She travels an hour to get there and she teaches refugees how to introduce themselves, how to fill in forms, and how to explain their wishes and dreams. Tiny children sneak into the back of the classroom, covered in dust, and stare at her goggle eyed. She treats them all with kindness and smiles. The adults get a sense of progression, that today, a little bit, was a good day. But she's just one teacher, and there are two million refugees.

And of course, the camps are only the thin end of the wedge. Jordan, a poor and tiny country, has taken half a million refugees into its towns and cities, the equivalent of Canada moving to America. They deal with it with astonishing sympathy, as desperate Syrians drive up rents and food prices, use scarce water and electricity, work for less than they will, and mean teachers work double shifts to deal with all the new pupils.

I don't know if you are the kind of person who gives to charity, who contributed to the Tsunami response. I don't know if you are distracted by the war rhetoric. I don't know if you think that food and water are most important, or that education and security are more so. Probably you're tired of  the constant influx of news of suffering.

But still, I would urge you to think about it a little, and wonder if you can contribute a little. There are a horde of organisations that are labouring to try and improve conditions in the camps and in Jordan. They focus on sanitation, or child brides, on education, or counselling. I won't recommend one to you, though if you email me a question, I'm happy to answer.

All I would say is think about the children, who are forgetting the street they came from, who are adapting to life in a hut, who still laugh, and jostle to play in the playgrounds and football pitches established by aid agencies. Day by day, as they don't go to school, their future shrinks, and is being curved and warped by the decisions of the powerful and the mad.

Do what works for you.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Levels 3.2, Lullaby of Lies behind the Scenes, FREE SHORT STORY

Lullaby of Lies, the third book in the Levels series, is about Maddie Bride. I wrote it all down, everything that happens to her.

The other side of the coin is that there is lots of stuff that happened in that story that I didn't write down. Specifically what happened between Jenna deGrace and Hurley Laker. They meet. There's all kinds of intensity, but I don't show them talking to each, or getting to know each other. Though they do both of those a lot.

So last weekend, just for a fun, I spent an evening with them at Levels, and I wrote a short story about it. It was lots of fun, and it really didn't go where I thought it would. The lost small boy was a big surprise...

You can have the story, for free, if you sign up to my mailing list. I'll be using it to send you a couple of messages a year, letting you know when new books are out.

The SIGN-UP FORM IS HERE, so if you'd like a bit more Levels today, type in your email address and I'll ping it to your inbox in the next week or so.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Beer, King Arthur, Pubs, King Arthur, 5 Places You Must Go on Vacation

King Arthur was real. Definitely real.

He might not have been called Arthur. His table may have been long and thin. But there was definitely somebody there who cast a shadow across all the history that followed.

Think about it this way. There's a definitely 300 year window where we know NOTHING that happened in Britain. It's like it went behind a curtain when the Romans left, and didn’t reappear until the time of King Alfred. The Britons were in charge, then when the lights came up again they had more or less gone, and the Saxons ruled the roost.

300 years of war and change. It’s IMPOSSIBLE that there were no awesome heroes in that period. Think of any history you know about the time from 1713 till now. There are warriors and leaders all over the place.

Like all the others Arthur left a mark. There are the stories of Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth. There are movies. There is the amazing Tintagel castle I wrote about HERE

And there are pubs.

The photo at the top of the post is a pub in Tintagel. I had to go there because of its relevance, clearly. The plate of bacon and eggs was incidental.


This was a guest house.

And this, obviously, was a beer. Very tasty Dad said, brewed and bottled in the heart of Cornwall.

After Tintagel our next stop on the Arthur tour was Bodmin Moor, the third biggest moor in the south west, after Dartmoor and Exmoor. All three are high, bleak, and beautiful, but Bodmin is the most atmospheric and a big part of its gloomy charm is the fact that it’s associated with Arthur’s death.

We got lost twice and were helped by a, then stunned by a rare wild otter boldly crossing the road in front of us. Apparently the water in the Looe, the moor-river, is the cleanest in Britain.

We followed a narrow, winding lane between tall mossy banks to the highest point  of the moor. Up on the top is a deserted, windswept lake, called - amazingly - Dozmary Pool and it’s here that Sir Bedivere was told by the mortally wounded King Arthur to throw Excalibur. Twice he told him, and twice Bedivere hid the sword in the reeds and returned to his dying king. The third time he did as he was bidden, and a pale arm shot from the water and retrieved the sword, returning it to the Lady of the Lake.

I didn’t see a ghostly arm, but we did meet cheerful farmer who claimed he’d never been out of the county in his life.

I think that’s all of my Cornish adventures that are of any interest. The next post will be about something written, and published, and available to readers, I promise…

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Levels 4 (The Walled Lake) FINISHED

So far Levels 4 stands at 112,843 words, though I've written and deleted far more. Today, though, I wrote the best two:

It's been hard going, weaving together a couple of different story lines from the first three books, giving prominence to all the old characters and adding some new ones, has been difficult. There was a patch in the middle where drawing all the threads together was really, really hard, but then, when I started to wind up the tension towards the end, writing got easier and more fluid, until this weekend I wrote the two big, climactic scenes not far from here:

This is the treasury at Petra, lit by candles. Relevant to the story in an Indiana Jones kind of way...

I'm giving myself a week to maybe knock out a quick short story, and let things settle, then I'm getting into redrafting and cover design. Hopefully it won't be long until the story is on your Kindle...

Thursday, 8 August 2013

In search of King Arthur and the perfect English Breakfast

So last month when I should have been writing Levels 4 I was on holiday in Cornwall. Now, instead of writing Levels 4 I'm writing about it...

As I've said BEFORE King Arthur lived in the 400 years between the Romans departure from Britain and the Norman arrival. Where he lived is less clear, but it's generally thought to have been in the south and west of Britain. Camelot may have been Caerleon, or further south in Somerset or Dorset in the area of Glastonbury or Stonehenge, where Levels are set.

Cornwall, however, is where he might have been born, and where he might have been killed.
 This is Tintagel Castle, a jumble of ruined walls on a cliff overlooking this bay. The shadows to the left conceal the entrance to somewhere called Merlin's Cave...!
The hall, guardrooms and garden are marked out, though now all that remains are lichen covered stones and gull haunted grass. Steep cliffs all around once made it impregnable. Now they make it a bit scary, with stunning views all down the coast to places like this:
This is Bude, a little up the coast, where I stayed. I could have gone surfing, but instead hunted down the perfect full English fried breakfast and ate it vigorously on several occasions. 

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Levels 4, The Hunger Games, Milestones and Vacations

Sometimes novel writing, it turns out, isn't a dream come true.

Saying it's like coal mining, or fishing for crabs in the Arctic, is ridiculous. But sometimes it's really difficult.

Writing is most fun for me when I'm caught up in the flow of the story. An extravagant, exciting scene, or a new relationship dynamic explodes onto the page, and I go along for the ride. Levels 4 has it's share of those, but it's also technically very demanding. As the series has gone it's picked up backstory and complication, and of course I've encouraged that. Anybody who's read the epilogue to Lullaby of Lies (Levels # 3)   knows that there are a horde more characters ready and waiting to stake their claim to story strands in Levels 4.

Part of working this out has involved a lot more, shorter chapters, as well as spider diagrams, head scratching, and storming out the room to make cups of coffee. none of which have been helped by going on vacation.

The good news is that I'm getting there, and here's the proof:

The next step is to finish it, probably 10,000 more words, chiselled from the coal face or dredged from the bottom of an icy ocean.

Not really. The words are in my head, but they have to get past two distractions

The first is an alternative sequel to Song to Wake to, set in a world that has quickly gone dystopian, that reminds me of the Hunger Games, but with less people, more water, and a NASTY twist.

The second is a set of three blog posts about an awesome vacation in King Arthur country, when I did much less writing than I should have done. I'll try to write them quickly...

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Another Week, Another Distraction, Bernard Cornwell's Winter King, and Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak

Three weeks ago I went to London for the weekend. At the end of the trip, with two hours until I had to take the tube to Heathrow Airport, I finally achieved my goal of visiting a bookstore.
I bustled from Victoria Station, past the back wall of Buckingham Palace and through the beautiful, green dampness of St James's park, to the grand shops and mansions of Piccadilly.
Drizzle fell constantly. I didn't care, I was going to a bookshop.
In the end, though, I didn't go to a bookshop, I went to two bookshops. The first was Hatchards, in Piccadilly. It's the oldest bookshop in the UK, on five floors, and it looks like this.

 I bought a copy of Idylls of the King Publisher: Penguin Classics, and a history of the Kings of England (exciting stuff). More importantly I roamed around their five floors, got recommendations from their lovely staff, and browsed through all kinds of fascinating little nooks and crannies.
And then, from there, I went up the road to Waterstones Piccadilly, ANOTHER five floor book store. What an embarrassment of riches! it used to be a department store called Simpsons, and it's huge.
Here I bought this:
Because I thought it would be interesting to see a historical representation of the King Arthur years.
It turned out it was more than fascinating. basically, in British history, there's a 500 hundred year gap, after the Romans left, and before the Normans came, when we know NOTHING that went on. While the Romans were around they wrote letters about people, and drew maps, and recorded battles, and accounts. Then they went, and everybody pulled their palaces down to make pig sties, and let grass grow on their roads, and stopped recording anything.
It's like there's an invisibility cloak over the whole time. A cloak that Cornwell attempts to push aside. He makes a real historical time fascinating, and quite dreadful, and the characters amazing.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Other Queen, Philippa Gregory, Levels 4

So the bad news is that Levels 4 'The Walled Lake' is growing slowly. The good news is that my distractions are fun....

The Walled Lake is a new kind of book for me. It has four main characters, for a start, and a dozen extras. Levels 1-3 were like threads that I woven together into a line from beginning to end. Levels 4 is more like a fabric, or a lace, with different stories criss-crossing each other, and some of them not reaching an end. It surprises me all the time, and so a big part of the slowness is caused by continually going back to the beginning to lay the foundations for exciting events I've just thought of...

Two of the characters are Maddie, the heroine of the first three books, and Oh Sanden, who you will know if you read 'Reason to be Shy.' Their relationship is complicated, and so it was a happy accident that I read 'The Other Queen' while I was working.

This tells the story of three women, Elizabeth the first of England, Mary Queen of Scots - her cousin and prisoner, and Bess of Hardwick, who is forced to use up all her resources and give over her house as Mary's prison. The women are forceful, and dramatic and they clash openly and surreptitiously.
Though you know how the story will end, because it's all true, it's completely captivating because of the strength of the characters, which is kind of a lesson for me.


Monday, 15 April 2013

Where do those funny little things in your imagination come from? And Vampires.

So, this has taken a while. I'm usually up on titles well before a book finishes. Most of the stories floating around in my head, or on scraps of napkins from coffee shops on South Street, have titles. In fact I probably have more titles than stories. I think of them, and send them to myself as text messages, or scribble them on receipts.

If I had all the time in the world, a book shaped-flood would pour from my balcony, scattered with titles like 'The Cloud Ceiling,' 'The Course,' 'No Love Song Finer,' 'Jordan's Golden Shoulder,' 'Bath Night,' 'The Wonder of it All,' 'The Lost Ocean.'

But I don't have all the time in the world. Fortunately I have saved a little time by realising that a title I scrawled on a receipt from the internet cafe at Istanbul Airport, was perfect.
Once upon a time I lived in Bucharest, Romania (there's a lot of stories there, too. I know the real stuff about vampires...).

Anyway Bucharest is full of fascinating corners, where confusing fragments of the past sneak through the grey concrete of communist times. There are streets named for Greeks who ruled the city as the ambassadors of the Turks. There are cemeteries filled with men who fought the Russians when they came. There is a park, near a road called Basarabia Boulevard, named after the home of the people who once lived there. Besarabians, from a place now called Moldova, then also part of the Ottoman Empire.

Here's one of my favourite Bucharest Places:

What is the point in all these connections?

Of the titles I suggested for my stories, in my little survey in the post below this,  I liked the made-up words 'Giantorium' and the long ones 'The Girl who gave up her Name.'

You didn't. You preferred the places, 'Traitor's Gate' and the others. The one problem with those is there wasn't a connection between them all, not like the 'song' theme of the first stories. Two of them, 'The Locked Chapel' and 'Traitor's Gate' had the theme of openings/access. But I needed a third. Which is where the park in Bucharest came in.

All parks in Bucharest have lakes, but this one was different. It had been encroached on by the walls of the stadium next door. They pinched it between their high, grey surfaces, and gave me the idea for a book title that I never had a story for until about six months ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, Levels 4, Idylls of Merlin, book 1:


Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Half-Blood Prince, City of Heavenly Fire, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Once and Future King, and A River Runs through it

What's the link between these five books?

It's that I really like the titles. And why is this? To me great titles have to do three things. They have to have at least a little poetry, maybe from rhyme, rhythm, assonance, whatever.  Good titles have to hint at what's in the book (more important for kids' books than adult ones). Finally they have to be catchy, or memorable.

In addition, if the book is in a series, they have to link backwards and forwards through the series. Cassandra Claire, for example, achieves this with her 'City of...' titles.

There is of course a second link between all these books. I really like 'em. A River Runs Through it matches the poetry of the title in the rest of the story, and it's carried over into the movie. Take a look here:

The 4th Levels book will also be the first in a new trilogy. I've decided to move on from the song theme of the first books, and have come up with the following ideas for titles. It's soooo hard to decide.

What do you think?

1 Wait
2 Want
3 Waste

1 The girl who forgot her own face.
2 The boy who lost his past
3 The girl who gave up her name

1 Traitors Gate
2 School of War
3 The locked chapel

1 Giantarium
2 Otherself
3 Enchantless

1 Broken Knights
2 Knight Fall
3 Dead of Knight

1 Damsel
2 Lady
3 Sorceress

1 Wizard
2 Knight
3 King

If you've got an opinion, please leave a comment. i want to stop referring to this as L4...!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Bigger than Jacob Black, Cooler than Jace, Smarter than ET and Jacob Cullen. What is it?

As readers we love cool, imaginary non-human species. ET, Jacob Black, Simon from the Mortal Instruments. I've got news, though. I've written a book about the coolest non-human species, and it ISN'T IMAGINARY. Here it is.

It's unfortunately called the sperm whale, which is a stupid name, because we used to think its head was filled with sperm. Go figure. It gets worse. We hunted these amazing creatures in their thousands to get the 'sperm' out of its head, so we could burn it, or grease watches with it.

Ridiculous. So I prefer to use the French name 'cachalot.' It sounds like Catch A Lot, which is what it does. It's the biggest predator EVER, bigger than dinosaurs, and what does it live on? Giant squid. It hunts them two kilometres deep, in complete darkness and pressures that would squash you flat.

It's as weird and distant as if it was hunting aliens off the plains and valleys of the moon. Most of what we know about giant squid is from the scars we've seen on cachalots, and the remains found in their stomachs.

The more I knew about cachalots, the more I knew they would make an awesome story. I worked out a way to have them interact with teenagers, and pressed 'cook.'

The NEW news is that it's free on Amazon Sunday and Monday the 3rd and 4th of March. Check it out, the story's quirky, the kid is cool, and you'll learn tons of amazing stuff. If you know a teenager who likes animals, or is a bit geeky, or maybe just curious, point them at it. They'll like it

Bizarrely, we know more about vampires and werewolves than we do about cachalots. We don't know what the stuff in their heads is for, we don't know why they have the biggest brains on earth, and we don't know why they make the LOUDEST noise of any animal ever. Louder than a jumbo jet.

The cool thing for a writer, about all these 'don't knows' is making up reasons. I made up tons of cachalot backstory, and some of it might, one day, turn out to be close to the truth. Check it out.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey and THE INDIE AUTHOR save the bookstore.

Everybody buys their books at Amazon. Borders has gone. Everybody else has gone. Barnes and Noble is fading away.

Are we looking at a world where there's no such thing - beyond college campuses, airports, and places like the wonderful STRAND BOOKSTORE - as a bookshop? I hope not. But at the same time, I owe such a lot to Amazon. They allowed me to publish my stories, find readers, and make more money doing it than if I'd ever gone through a traditional publisher.

As marvellous as it is, though, Amazon is missing something. There will never be a movie scene, like this, shot in an Amazon warehouse.

This is one half of my marvellous, bookstore-saving hypothesis. The other is me.

Or rather, those like me. The Indy Author, publishing on Amazon. A phenomenon that can take pride in being scorned less and less (we're not very full of ourselves). I don't know what the latest stats are, but we sell more and more books every year, and there are more of us, and whatever we do sell, we keep far more of the income than our traditionally published colleagues.

The one thing that we don't have is books on shelves. We don't have book signings, or chances to meet readers (and many of us have tens of thousands) in the flesh. But bookstores can give us that, and in exchange, I think some Indie Authors might be very nice to the traditional bookstores that also sell eBooks. Especially, of course, if the bookstores were run by Hugh Grant, or Kate Winslet.

If they can offer Indie Authors shelf space, or meet-the-reader evenings, book signings, or physical publicity, who knows what Indie authors might give up in exchange. It's the hint of a beginning of an idea. What do you think?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Reason to be Shy, Salisbury Plain, Real Life Spookiness...

I'm from the south-west of England, from an area crammed with amazing places (though I'm sure everywhere else is also crammed with amazing places, it's just that I know these).
Wells, Glastonbury, the Somerset Levels, Bath, Bristol, Dorset, the South Coast. I've written about some of them in my stories, and I'll keep on referencing them, and today it's the turn of Salisbury Plain.
For my latest story, I needed somewhere weird and wild, yet near the Somerset levels where my stories are set. Salisbury Plain fit the bill.

It even has villages that stand, undamaged,but empty for 50 years, since the army began using the area for practice. Where better to set an spooky story? I couldn't think of anywhere that made a more eerie setting.
Obviously I'm not the first to think of this. Thomas Hardy set some of the greatest novels in the English language in the area, notably Tess of the Durbervilles, which even has a Stonehenge Scene.
If you're interested in how I dealt with it, check out Reason to be Shy, available now on Amazon for 99cents, a short, paranormal mystery. Click on the image below, artwork courtesy of the eternally talented Olly Prentice.

If not, enjoy this clip, day-to-day life on Salisbury Plain. Not your usual kind of place...

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Wool, Hugh Howey, 99cent stories, and a New Story with a Twist

Hugh Howie and his story WOOL are another of the romantic, Indie Author rags-to-riches stories, like Amanda Hocking and 50 Shades of Grey.

Hugh Howey worked in a bookstore and wrote in his free time. He published series of books, with moderate success, and then he produced a 60-page dystopian short on Amazon, for Kindle, and slowly, but steadily, it became incredibly successful.  WOOL is set in an underground bunker, where thousands of people hide from the dangerous, post apocalyptic atmosphere. The little society is believable  and intriguing, as are the characters, and the slowly revealed lies that underpin it all

The story is imaginative  and beautifully written, and the fans cried out for more. Which Howie provided, a series of novellas, set in the same world, and introducing a series of enticing characters and fascinating storylines.

And so, in classic style, he quit his job, made a million, got a book deal, and now, astonishingly, has a film deal with Ridley Scott!

You can find out more about Hugh and his success, in this fascinating interview here:

I liked the idea of these short, quick to read, cheap stories, and the idea for the plot of one of them bubbled up in my mind. It's set in the world of Levels, my paranormal series. Though not directly interacting with the plot of the first three books it's set at the same time as the third, Lullaby of Lies.

The exciting thing about this story, which is 12,000 words long, and which I wrote in a week, is that it's put a completely new spin on Levels 4, and given me an exciting new character, Oh Sanden, who will take centre stage in the new - as yet unnamed - book.

It was also really fun to construct a short story which was essentially all about the twist. I only had space to focus on one character, a couple of locations, creepiness building, and then the twist. That kind of discipline is a lot of fun to work with.

I'll release it on Sunday February 17th for 99 cents, and thanks to the super-talented Olly Prentice it will look like this. Put it in your diaries...

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Ukraine, Travel Writing, and Secret identities

At the begining of the millenium I lived in Ukraine for four years. It's been a while, but I remember it perfectly.

 I remember very well the low-ceiling hall beneath Tolstova roundabout in Kyiv, accessed by subways from three main roads, that led to the metro station. Here, in the iron grip of winter, hundreds of people would gather to buy snacks and beers from stalls, smoke, listen to buskers, and even dance. When the thaw comes the crusts of filthy snow that line every road are ploughed into the middle of the street for cars to bump over and smash up.

In the summer, every beautiful, wrought iron bench in every park is full. The horse chestnuts on the main street in Kyiv flower, making it look as if the road is lined with beautiful candelabra. On Sundays the road is closed and people stroll along, dressed in their best. they drink beer, have their pictures taken with monkeys, and pay 10 cents to weigh themselves.

Hundreds of islands in the river, lined with beaches, become pleasure parks. Stalls and open air restaurants sell shashlik, delicious marinated pork kebabs.

When I got the job that took me to Ukraine, I didn't know where it was. Somewhere - roughly - between Japan and Germany. It turns out that Ukraine - as well as being the biggest country that is entirely within Europe, also holds the centre of Europe. It is a big, boisterous, beautiful, kind of backwards place, and I loved it.

I was always going to write about Ukraine, and now I finally have it makes sense that the hero is larger than life. Ukraine is also a very mysterious place, and sometimes adventurous, and so that's how I wrote the story.

These are both firsts for me, so I've started out with a short, 20,000 words, which has the lead, Ox Purcell, as a kind of metaphor for the country. Hopefully it's also quite funny.

As well as everything else, Ukraine is raw, unsanitised, and so the story is as well. For that reason I've used a pseudonym, and I've doubled down on the name of my main character, Ox Purcell.

This post is a tiny snapshot of the lifeof an observer  in Ukraine, if you want more, as well as mystery, comedy, and adventure, bad-language, and very bad behaviour, check out Weirdo Beach:  99cents only...

Friday, 4 January 2013

Dogs using knife and fork, Mrs Frisby and the rats of Nimh, The Black Stallion, and Art Garfunkel

So, it seems like an age since I wrote one of these posts. I've missed them.

The question: why do kids like stories about animals? When I was a young reader, I absolutely loved them. Mice were a favourite, from  'Mice in clothes with swords' of REDWALL, to the mice that read books and use electricity of NIMH. There was something about a secretive little world going on, in parallel to mine, just beyond the skirting board, that filled me with delight, and it was a constant disappointment that there were never any Tom and Jerry type holes in the walls.

Though I didn't ride, for some reason I loved stories about horses. THE BLACK STALLION, mainly describes the horses from the point of view of the boy who owns them, but BLACK BEAUTY is written beautifully from the horses point of view. THE SILVER BRUMBY series was my favourite. It tells the stories of WILD horses in Australia, focussing on the brave leader, Thowra.

Another series that grabbed me were the stories about the king of cats, CARBONEL. A bit like the mice under the floorboards, this tells of a parallel world of cats on rooftops, that I loved. Another book, about a different kind of cat, that is much less well known is THE STORY OF A SERENGETI PRIDE, which beautifully describes the efforts of a group of brother lions to hold onto an immense territory, while the female lions go about their lives.

All of these stories allow kids to experiment with seeing the world through different eyes, which, maybe, is something they are instinctively drawn to. Kids at play can put a personality into anything, a doll, a car, a teddy bear, or a toy animal, so why not read stories about them as well?

I didn't come across my absolute favourite until I was a little older. WATERSHIP DOWN tells the amazing, epic story of a group of rabbits trying to find a new home. The characterisation is spectacular, but the story also tries to do something else different, it builds myths and legends for rabbit society, and it tries to show how they understand the world differently to humans, not intelligent enough, for example, to understand how a boat works.

There was one other animal book I loved as a kid, DOLPHIN ISLAND, one of Arthur C. Clarke's less well known books, about a boy who becomes involved in experiments on dolphins in the Pacific. All of these books had an impact on me, but maybe the last was the one I dwelt on the most, when, inevitably I came to write my own animal story.

It's at least as challenging as any of the other nine, but hopefully number ten will be a tiny bit as rewarding as some of them. The animal I've chosen is a whale, and I've tried to show the difference of its perception in a way that no other book does. Give it a try...