Sunday, 16 November 2014

Spirit Rider - The Royal Problem - COVER REVEAL!

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but Spirit Rider: The Royal Problem is very nearly finished. Even as I type, the manuscript is sitting in the lap of the best proof-reader I could find. Seeing as I plan to go down the traditional publishing route, the book isn’t going to be widely available (yet). But in the meantime, I've commissioned a professional artist to design a cover for the book, so that I can release it to friends, family, and a few select others. Who knows, when the world at last comes to know Spirit Rider, it may not be with THIS cover (which would be a shame – I think it’s awesome!).

Upon the front, we see the early, pivotal scene where Sam Mundle, our ill-equipped, but inventive hero, meets the Grim Reaper – and sets his whole adventure into motion. They are both within Sam’s living room, in the town of Besfen, a mountain-top settlement, deliberately ignorant of the rest of the world.

The back cover depicts a conceptual image of Acheron Dae-Cache Beachis, a powerful magician of unparalleled intellect and cunning – the story’s villain. He stands within the M.O.T.O.R.S tower, a magical building accidentally teleported to a jungle, then left abandoned for centuries. Beside him is a rettamilne, a vicious beast, with an even more vicious temperament.

So here it is, a testament to what might have been, or may still be. Enjoy!

A Review of my Editor - the Mighty Marissa van Uden

Reviewing another human being, this should be interesting…

It all started roughly seven months ago. I had just finished a heavy re-write on Spirit Rider: The Royal Problem. It was leaps and bounds better than the original version, which makes sense, seeing as I wrote that nearly five years ago! I must warn you that writers, like myself, are often inclined toward arrogance. So in my own hubris, I thought the latest version of my manuscript was perfect. I was all but ready to plonk it on Amazon and watch the money roll in. But then, people are supposed to get their work edited, are they not? Well, I had some money to spare and I thought, ‘sure’.

Enter Marissa van Uden.

I found her website through Google, and I approached her through email. Funny, intelligent, works in fantasy, loves dogs – what’s not to like? I requested a sample edit of my (then) first chapter, which Marissa kindly supplied. She made some very astute observations, pointing out a couple of details I’d never noticed before.

I was impressed. So much so, that I took the plunge. I shelled out for the Developmental Edit, whereby Marissa gives the entire manuscript a thorough examination, resulting in a (speaking purely in averages) thirty page report. Here, my arrogance (embarrassingly) took hold again. I thought, it’s one thing to find some clever points in the first chapter, but to get thirty pages out of examining my perfect story? Not possible! I genuinely sat on my haunches, worrying that for the amount I’d paid, I would only get back a document of perhaps five pages!

Then it came – all thirty eight pages of it. I was very pleasantly surprised. Amidst tonnes of praise, for what already existed, Marissa gave me a real, professional insight into the weaker parts of my manuscript. Everything from characters, to scenes, to chapter titles, was covered. I read the whole document in one sitting, nodding all the way with practically every point she made. I still had a lot of work to do.

I went away, reshuffled events, rewrote scenes, layered in more characterisation, and even conjured up a few brand new chapters from scratch. The big flaws had been addressed, now it was down to the finer, more intricate details. It was time for phase two – the Line Edit.

Marissa re-read the manuscript, with all the new changes. There’s no denying she was thorough before, but it was in a very broad, sweeping kind of way. The Line Edit is exactly what it sounds like. She goes through everything line-by-line, pruning the unneeded, suggesting little problems or inconsistencies here and there. That’s one of the most important points. Marissa isn't the kind of editor who just says “I don’t get this part” or “The dialogue here is clunky”. With almost every comment, she offered a little “Have you thought of it like this?” or “How about something along these lines?” Each of those little hints and suggestions were so perfectly thought-out and well-written, they often needed very little alteration before incorporating into the existing text. Trust me, this woman writes so well that I imagine she could very easily author her own best-seller, should the dark urge take her.

Back and forth the manuscript went between me and Marissa, ironing out niggling problems here and there. When we finally exceeded the established revisions set out by our original contract, yet were not finished, Marissa endeavoured to get as much done as possible, before she’d have to start charging extra. She apologised, because my alterations were taking us outside of the contract. That’s Marissa in a nutshell, going above and beyond the call of duty, for the sake of us authors.

Now it’s all coming to an end. I used to spend every morning, afternoon, evening (as well as every second in between!) waiting for her latest email. Sadly, this partnership is temporarily coming to a close. But it’s been a blast, and one thing’s for certain: when it comes to the Spirit Rider sequels or any other book I’ll write – Marissa van Uden will always be my first port of call.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Energy Drinks - My Secret Addiction

Hello again, dear internet. Today is a ‘Very Special Entry’ in my blog. Today we’re talking about addiction… to energy drinks. Laugh if you will, but I feel these magical beverages are a dangerous force and should be treated carefully.

It all began when I was seventeen-year-old gent, popping over to my boyfriend’s abode. Whilst there, I was offered an energy drink. I had heard of such things before. Red Bull, for example, is marketed often on TV. However, my juvenile mind thought that because energy drinks were high in caffeine – they would taste like coffee. Ew.

But eventually, I relented and tried some of the energising elixir. My goodness – that didn’t taste like coffee at all. Imagine a soft drink (any will do, they all blend together in the end), but better. I’ve tried many brands of energy drink since then and the taste is surprisingly uniform. It’s a sort of… fruity taste, but with an extra something just behind it. I’m inclined to say it’s got a metallic aftertaste, but in a really, really good way.

I struggled sleeping that night, due to the phantasmal effects of that dull-gold (the colour being another staple of energy drinks) liquid. But life carried on.

Fast-forward five years and we find myself working at my current job, in a call centre. The shifts are long and I, being young and foolish, have a habit of staying up late. The allure of energy drinks tempted me, and on a particularly tired day, I bought a bottle of the stuff at lunch.

Maybe I was particularly exhausted that day, but that was the first time I truly felt the effects of an energy drink. Within half an hour of finishing the bottle, my world changed. I was suddenly more alert and perceptive than I had ever been in my whole life. Every one of my senses was turned up to its maximum. My mind was racing and yet so very clear. My fingers flew across the keyboard. My mouse clicked with a sniper’s accuracy. It was a fantastic feeling and I never wanted it to end.

The come down-which came roughly an hour later, was sudden and hard. My mood plummeted and my body was reduced to a slow, sloppy, mess of yawns and grumbles. Had my tiredness returned, or was this just how normal people felt? Even now, I can’t be sure. But whilst I was sitting there, half-slumped over in a dull, grey world, I remembered how it felt when I was running on the energy drink’s power. I started to ask myself, why doesn’t everyone want to feel this way? Is this how we’re supposed to function? If there’s a way to be the best you possibly can, why don’t we do it?

So I kept on buying energy drinks. I got several multi-packs at home and always took a few to work. They became a staple of my day. It was normal. I’d always have some – even if I wasn’t tired. I’d wake up, have a can, then another on  the way to work, then one before my shift, then one with lunch, then one or two when I got home as well. Any one of those cans I just mentioned, may or may not have been a litre bottle, depending on the day.

That’s when I realised I was addicted.

It was a bizarre thought, sitting down and taking stock of need. I didn’t like it. The idea of addiction, of being reliant on something, wasn’t something that sat well with me. I decided to give up the energy drinks. The very next day, I went cold turkey.

It was one of the longest, hardest days I’ve had in a long time. It was as if the hours of tiredness I’d been fighting back, all came on at once. I felt as if I’d gone a week without sleeping. People at work noticed. I’m quiet at work. No one ever notices.

Yet I managed to survive. It’s not a perfect recovery. If I have a hard night, then sometimes the allure of that sparky, golden mistress is too much. But I like to think that I’ve at least got a handle on it. I know when to stop.

So in short kids, energy drinks are fun. They can help you achieve a level of attention and dexterity that you never thought you had. But it’s not worth it. The quantity you need slowly goes up and up, almost without noticing. The comedown is harsh and withdrawals are exhausting.

Invite that witch’s brew into your life… at your own peril.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ever Wondered How to Create Wonder?

As a writer, I’ve talked before about how casual familiarity, is the key to accessible fantasy. But sometimes we don’t want to just ease people in. We want to bowl them over with the most fantastic of images. We want them to go away spellbound by what they’ve read. You want to evoke a mood, and one of the best – is wonder. It’s that perfect moment when you give the reader something that absolutely latches them to the page. It’s the moment when, without outright saying it, you’re grabbing the reader by their neck and screaming: “Look at this! This is wondrous and spellbinding!”

But how is this done? How do you make this particular scene so interesting or this locale so mystifying? These are, in my humble opinion, the best tips.

-       Build it up. Whether it’s a place, a person, or an event. If you want the reader to sit up and be attentive, then you need to whet their appetite. The story needs to place some great importance upon the thing you’re attempting to ‘wonderise’ (shut up, I added it to my Microsoft Word dictionary so it’s definitely a real word). You need other characters to comment on just how vital and special this person / place / event is. But don’t go overboard. There needs to be a little something every now and then. Like most things, if there’s too much, then it draws attention to itself.
-      Make it mysterious and don’t answer all the questions. A great way to make sure an idea sticks in a reader’s mind, is to make it mysterious. Reveal as little as possible, until the vital moment. If there’s a bunch of mysteries about the person / place / event, then the reader will almost always be burning with questions. They go in, expecting answers. Now he’s the kicker. Leave things unanswered. If there’s some crucial plot elements involved, then get those seen to. But remember that if you leave a couple of things open-ended or unanswered, then the sense of mystery is sustained, even after we’ve moved on from the thing itself.
-     Tease the reader. This is closely related to the two above points, but should also be awarded its own space. Building up your person / place / event and laying it with mystery, is all well and good. But to better excite and intrigue your readers, give them a little taste of what’s to come. After building up the thing, give us a tiny glimpse of it. After loading us with a dozen questions, answer one of them.
-      Make it alien. This doesn’t mean that it has to be extra-terrestrial or in any way delve into science-fiction. I mean alien in the purest sense of the word. Your person / place / event, needs to be unlike anything else in your character’s world. It needs to defy everything your book has taught you. It has to baffle your narrator. It needs to be unexpected and bizarre.

For quick case study, invoking all of the above points, look no further than the aptly named Department of Mysteries, from Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. It’s no secret that I love this book, and the Department of Mysteries is one of the main reasons. The place is built up from early on in the novel, when Harry finds himself continuously dreaming about the place, in the form of a mysterious, sealed door. Harry and by extension the reader, desperately wants to know what lies behind it. This gets two points in one, hammering in the mysterious aspect as well. The tease comes when, later in the book, Harry’s dream finally takes him a step further and he sees beyond the door, into what lies beyond. But then what he sees throws up yet more questions. Other teases / build ups, include characters mentioning in passing how well protected the Department of Mysteries is, as well as the penalties for trying to breach it. Then we come to the master-stroke, the reveal. When the characters finally enter the Department of Mysteries, not in a dream, but in real life, the place is fantastically bizarre. Without giving too much away, it’s the magical equivalent of Area 51, where wizards perform very practical magical research into such subjects as death, space, and time. The characters see a great number of strange sights and almost all of it is left unexplained. More than once, the scenes within the Department of Mysteries had me coming back to reread them again and again.

In closing, dear readers (I’m allowed to say that because blog stats tell me more than one person has peeked at my ramblings!), the list above illustrates the ways in which I find it’s best to create a sense of wonder. By no means is it definitive, and in all good faith I welcome you to challenge it. I like to think that linking my points to such works as Harry Potter lends some strength. But as Shakespeare once said:

‘The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.’

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Defying Expectations - How to do it Right!

As you may see from my previous post, I find a lot of fantasy rather unimaginative. Looking at my own (as yet unfinished) book series, Spirit Rider, there’s no point in saying that it’s like nothing you’ve ever read before, or that it’ll blow your mind. Some tropes were simply too good a fit. For example, Spirit Rider is, at its heart, a battle of good versus evil. It features a reluctant, ill-equipped, teenage hero. There’s a quest across a pseudo-medieval world, with magic… and there’s a queen involved. But that, my friends, is where the buck stops.

I like to pride myself on defying expectations. I don’t feel the need to make excuses for my book. Because of fantasy’s sometimes stagnant reputation, people often get a little embarrassed to admit that they write / read the genre. Unfortunately, because of this stigma, whilst I’m not afraid to say that I write fantasy, I do sometimes feel that I need a disclaimer after the statement, informing people that I’ve lovingly crafted a (in my opinion) unique world and characters, which defy many of the established criteria.

If you want to do this as well, then you must be aware of the extremely precarious position we find ourselves in. You want to move away from the clichéd traditions, but with that in mind, don’t go opening the story in a meadow of multicoloured straw, under an amber sky, speckled with black stars. It’s a very fine line between ‘Seen it a million times before’ and ‘Urgh! What are these images? It’s too much!’ Find a middle ground. Take what’s there and do something new with it. Find something just beyond the norm. To take two landscapes from Spirit Rider, there’s the Ashlands, a wasteland surrounding a long since erupted volcano, where the air is so full of ash, that you can’t see two feet in front of you and the whole place is toxic. There’s also the Whistle-Moors, moody, gloomy moors, where the lay of the land accelerates the ferocious winds, to the point where they could easily slice a person to ribbons.

Push the boat out, just don’t push it over a waterfall.

Characters are another thing. When you’re designing a character’s personality, think, have you seen this before? Some people suggest you should base your characters on interesting people you know / have met. This works sometimes, but only if those people are real characters, in the truest sense of the word. Otherwise, I tend to find day-to-day, real-life people somewhat uninspiring. All too often I’ve seen these attempts at ‘real people’ in fantasy novels with a large cast (which is a problem in itself, but that’s for another time). To conjure an example, let’s say you’ve got Risenbeard, the wise and intelligent wizard. Alright, he’s a wizard, he wise, he’s intelligent. And that’s enough for some people. But if you want to make Risenbeard really real, then he needs more definition. What does he do when he’s not out saving the world? Does he have a family? How would his night go if he’s out for a nice meal? What would he eat?

A character needs to have a life beyond the page and in the best cases, it needs to be something unexpected, perhaps even opposite to what you’d expect. Maybe wise and intelligent Risenbeard has a soft spot for comics? Look to the Harry Potter series’ very own Albus Dumbledore. He’s the greatest, wisest, most powerful wizard in the world. He’s almost always very kind and sagely. But guess what? He’s got a big sweet-tooth, names his secret passwords after sweets, and enjoys reading knitting patterns in non-magical magazines.

To bring along one of my own Spirit Rider examples again, we’ve got Matt Pinely. He’s the head of all things magical in the world. He’s an arrogant, superior, condescending ass, who takes a real issue with the carefree kind-hearted Grim Reaper. But when you look a little closer, there’s a hint that he hasn’t always been rich and powerful, suggesting that he had much humbler beginnings. And of course once we learn a little more about the Grim Reaper, then his prejudice starts to make sense.

Your main character, or more importantly, their journey and evolution, needs to stand out. It needs some degree of realism. If your hero is one of those annoyingly common trained-as-a-swordsman-their-whole-life types, then sure, they’ll not have the trouble of learning to do anything. If you want to torture us, then you might show them spending all their spare time training and sparring. I shudder at the very thought. However, if your character is someone plucked from obscurity, with no former experience, I don’t want to see them wielding a sword with expert precision by the end of the book, unless years have passed. This isn’t the kind of thing you just pick up. My own main character from Spirit Rider, Sam Mundle, has zero ability with weaponry. By the end of the first book, he can swing a sword, but still has no real fighting ability. Magic, luck, intelligence and other people are usually the things which save his neck.

Likewise again, I turn to Harry Potter. The titular boy wizard comes up against the big-bad Lord Voldemort more than once – and he never wins in a straight fight. Even after seven years of magical education, he simply doesn’t compare in terms of power or skill.

So, in short, we all need to start going against the trend. Do the unexpected. Make new tropes. Toe the line between the familiar and the new. Most importantly of all – be interesting!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

I'm Sick of Traditional Fantasy!

There are two things you should know. 1) I love fantasy. It’s the genre I write and read. 2) I’m really sick of most ‘traditional’ ‘epic’ and ‘sword and sorcery’ fantasy.

It’s hard to explain and I’m not sure if I can put my finger on exactly why my beloved genre puts me in such a foul mood. If I had to sit down and think about it (as I am attempting to do right now) then I imagine that in reality, I simply find the genre is often handled badly. Traditional tropes and clichés seem all too prevalent. I’m not saying that every single story follows these pet peeves, but a whole lot of those I’m reading do.

You can put good money on it being a medieval world, where food is basic and boring, decoration is basic and boring, and people are basic and boring. Guess what all the characters do in their spare time? Go hunting and / or train to be a warrior. I get that these worlds, based upon medieval life, are supposed to be harsh and requiring of brave, noble people. But there’s just something about that, which I find so very, very dull.

Then out come the stock fantasy races. Why hello, elf! Let me guess, you’re a pointy-eared quiet and reflective type very in touch with nature and / or magic, or alternatively a massively arrogant jerk? Hello to you too, dwarf! I bet you’re short and abrasive, with a love of weapons, fighting, and gold. Races beyond that are a little better, but there’s something about dwarves and elves that really gets under my skin. I think I simply consider them lazy. One is just a short person. The other is a model with pointy ears. Vampires do come very close to joining this group of annoyances, but despite their torrent of popularity and representation in this current age, they’re not such a problem. In reality, they’re just pale, fanged models. I think the thing which keeps them a cut above, is that you can (based purely on available classical mythology) do so much more with vampires. They have such a rich weave of powers and weakness, differently attributed across the globe.

But I digress.

What else bothers me about ‘typical’ fantasy? Well there’s the journey and training parts. Our characters need to go somewhere. You can be fairly sure they’ll have to trek through either a forest or some meadow-land. I can just about bear it, if we’re going through a desert or some snowy climate, but even then, there’s something very tiresome about journeying. The scenery is all a bit too samey. Somewhere on the way (if the hero isn’t already a shining paragon of goodness, with muscles and expert swordsmanship / magical powers) we’ll have an obligatory training montage. Again, perhaps because I’ve seen the same thing so many times, having to read as someone learns how to fight and / or use a sword is extremely boring.

Looking all these factors over, I have to round back to my point right back at the start of this little rant. I dislike a lot of fantasy, because there’s no imagination there. I mean, come on, this is fantasy! By definition, that encompasses literally anything you can imagine! So why, why, why, why, why do people insist on taking the easy route and reusing such tired clichés? I’m not saying ‘elf’ should become a swear-word. I just mean that if you’re going to give me an elf, for goodness’ sake, do something different with them.

This is fantasy, where the potential should be limitless, rather than stuck to the same tropes J.R.R Tolkien invented nearly a hundred years ago.