There are so many exciting things about being a writer:
- Having the initial idea
- Writing the first line and the first scene
- Meeting and getting to know your characters
- When your characters come to life and do something unexpected
- Writing shocking / surprising / challenging scenes
- Working out how to get your characters out of a trap
- Working out how to defeat the baddie
- Getting to the end
- Going back and slashing out lots of words to find the story inside the clutter
- Getting first reactions from early readers…
All of those are fab. And all of them are why I do this job.
But after all the excitement of writing a story, there’s a different sort of excitement. The moment a story becomes a book.
And here it is! Here is The Beginner’s Guide to Curses as an actual book!
I’ve held it. I’ve cuddled it. I’ve flicked through it to double-check a line that I needed to be sure of in order to get a scene right in the next book. I’ve read the first page out loud to kids in a bookshop.
So, it’s definitely a real book.
And I’ll be reading from it, chatting about it and signing it at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 13th of August, if you want to come along.
Then after that, wherever you are, you should be able to get hold of a copy of your own! (Or if you are very keen, you can pre-order it…)
Because of course the entire point of a story becoming a book is so that other people can read it!
And now – even more excitement. (Because being a writer is ALL about the excitement.) I can now also show you the covers for the other two books in the trilogy:
What do you think? I particularly like the looming baddies at the top of each book, and I love the fact that Molly and her friends are having to run faster every time to get away! (The artwork is by the brilliant Jordi Solano)
Now I’m off to put the finishing touches to The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away, then cut a few thousand words out of The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat, to get those stories ready to become lovely shiny books next spring and next autumn.
I just put a Fabled Beasts event up on my website diary (Falkirk Waterstones, Sat 16th July, hope to see you there!) at which I will probably read from First Aid For Fairies or perhaps Storm Singing, then chat about fabled beasts and how to write adventures.
I do lots of Fabled Beasts events. I really enjoy them. And I’ve just realised that I’m about to stop doing them.
I thought I’d said goodbye to Helen, Yann, Rona and the other Fabled Beast Chronicles characters a few years ago, when Maze Running was published.
But I’ve just realised that the real goodbye is this summer.
Because, even though Maze Running was published a few years ago, whenever I’m invited to speak to pupils or readers of the right age group, I always start my event with a reading from the Fabled Beast Chronicles, then a chat about how I wrote Helen’s adventures (unless I’m specifically asked to do something else by the organisers.) But that’s all going to stop. Very soon. August, in fact.
I’m really really really excited that the first book in the Spellchasers trilogy is coming out in September. And I’m so looking forward to introducing readers to Molly, Innes, Beth and the other characters, and the danger I put them in, and the magic that surrounds them.
But doing lots of Spellchasers events means I won’t be doing Fabled Beast events any more.
If I visit a P5 class next autumn, I will be reading from Beginner’s Guide to Curses. Next spring, I will be reading for Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away. And from autumn 2017, I will be reading from Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat. As soon as the first book of the trilogy is launched, Spellchasing will be my default event. Obviously if I’m specifically asked to do a Fabled Beasts event, for a class who are doing a project on it, for example, I will be genuinely delighted to do that. But otherwise, all my adventure novel events will be based on Spellchasers.
And that’s fantastic.
But it is also a little bit sad.
my favourite reading…
I’ve just looked at my calendar. I think I’m doing two more events where I will read from the Fabled Beast Chronicles. That’s only two more times that I’ll be able to read my favourite scene from all four books (the cave scene from Storm Singing, with the definitely vain and possibly murderous mermaids.)
Only two more times. And that’s it. Then it’s all about Molly and curses and shapeshifters and spellchasing. And it’s good bye to fabled beasts and centaurs and phoenixes and minotaurs. Sigh. But, if I hadn’t wanted this, I should have kept writing the Fabled Beast series, and not allowed myself to get excited about any other ideas. But I wanted to meet new characters, I wanted to play with new magic and new dangers. This was my choice. So, I should stride ahead cheerfully into the Spellchasers world, and not look back to the Fabled Beasts world.
But it does feel a bit odd. There are lots of books I’ve written that I almost never read from now. Books that I’m really proud of, but that I hardly ever revisit. However,
the Fabled Beasts series has been the backbone of most of my events, for my whole writing life. Moving on to Spellchasers is the start of something new and exciting. But it’s the end of something too…
I’m really keen to introduce lots of new readers to the world of Spellchasers, so you can meet Molly, Innes, Beth and Atacama. And the toad (not that we know who the toad is…)
But I do hope that, once in a little while, I get the occasional excuse to read from a Fabled Beast Chronicles book too.
Any book has at least two phases of life, maybe a bit like a caterpillar and a butterfly. Or in the case of my new trilogy, like a tadpole and a toad…
For me, as a writer, the book is most alive when I’m writing it, when I’m living inside the story, when I’m making decisions about what happens next, when I can still make changes.
And with my new book, Spellchasers: The Beginner’s Guide to Curses, that phase is very nearly over. I will get one more chance to look at it, not to change my mind about character names or fight scenes or magical plotlines, but just to check that no apostrophes have gone for a walk and that no spelling mistakes have snuck in. After that, my role as this book’s writer will be over.
After that, it’s up to YOU!
After that, the book is only alive when you are reading it! (Or telling people about it, or drawing scenes from it, or acting it out in the garden on a sunny day, or imagining what might happen next after a cliffhanger, or wondering how you would cope if you had a magical curse thrown at you…) That’s when the book is at its most alive.
Normally the book would snooze for a while, in between me writing it, and readers reading it. The book would be waiting for the printer and the marketing people and the distributors and the book reviewers and all those other vital people to do their things.
But this particular book is so bouncy and alive, that it refuses to take a nap at all.
And so, Floris have decided to let a few, a very select few, readers have a look at Spellchasers: The Beginner’s Guide to Curses several months before it’s in the shops.
A few keen readers will get a chance to see a very early copy of the book (so early, it might not even be wearing its jacket…)
And you could be one of those readers!
All you have to do is tell my publishers why you want to get a sneak peek of the first Spellchasers adventure, and the winners will be the people who write in with the most creative reasons.
Here’s are all the details: the closing date, the email address, all of that sort of stuff.
So, if you want to bring Spellchasers: The Beginners’ Guide to Curses alive before anyone else, now’s your chance!
A new book! With a new monster!
My first book of 2016 has just been published! The Secret of the Kelpie is a picture book retelling the story of the Scottish kelpie – the shape-shifting, child-eating water-horse.
I did the research and wrote the words, and the fiendishly talented Philip Longson did the gorgeous scary illustrations.
The Secret of the Kelpie is about a family who meet a beautiful horse by the side of a loch and realise too late that the horse is a kelpie who plans to drag them into the water, to drown them and eat them… So the littlest sister Flora has to discover the kelpie’s secret and try to save her big brothers and sisters.
I had to do lots of research to find out about the kelpie’s powers and the kelpie’s secret. And I found out that there are lots of different kelpie stories from lots of different parts of Scotland, and that kelpies in different places are different colours (white, gold, black…) and like to eat different people (children, fishermen, young women, married couples…) I discovered that some kelpies like their home comforts (one kidnapped a stone mason to build him a fireplace), that some kelpies are good at building themselves (there are bridges and churches and mills apparently built by kelpies), that some kelpies can grow bigger to fit more children on their backs and that some kelpies can be defeated by… actually, that’s a secret.
I was surprised to discover that not all kelpie stories are set by remote lochs in the Highland and Islands. There are great kelpie stories from the east too – from Angus and Aberdeenshire for example.
But now I had far too much kelpie research for one picture book. (Writers often end up with far more research than we need, unless we want our book to be a list, rather than a story.) But luckily, the research I did has also resulted in a MAP so that you can go on a kelpie hunt too!
My lovely publishers Floris have created an interactive map so that you can see all the locations in Scotland where kelpie stories are told, and click on the horse’s head in any location to read a snippet of the kelpie lore from that place.
So, why not find out about the kelpies nearest you, and see if you can go on a kelpie hunt during the Easter holidays or some weekend?
But if you meet a beautiful horse, be VERY VERY careful…
PS – But I have another even more exciting use for all my kelpie research, because one of the main characters in the Spellchasers trilogy (see previous blog post) is a kelpie, with a few different powers, and lots of different secrets! But you’ll have to wait til August to find out about him…
I can finally tell you all what I’ve been working on for the last three years. It’s a trilogy of adventure novels, called the Spellchasers Trilogy, and here’s the first cover:
What do you think? (The artwork is by Jordi Solano, and I think it’s fab!)
As you can see, the title of first book is:
The Beginner’s Guide to Curses
And I can reveal that the second and third titles are:
The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away
and The Witch’s Guide to Magical Combat
I’ll be able to show you the covers for those soon (I hope!)
I can’t give you many details about the three novels just now, though I will almost certainly drop a few hints in the next few months. I can tell you there will be magic, and danger, and witches, and shapeshifting, and riddles, and chases, and a mysterious toad. And the story is set in Speyside, where I grew up.
The Beginner’s Guide To Curses comes out in August this year, The Shapeshifter’s Guide To Running Away will be published next spring, and The Witch’s Guide To Magical Combat will appear the autumn after that. So, they will all be out within about a year…
But if you think that’s far too long to wait, my publishers Floris Books are very kindly allowing a handful of young readers get a sneak peek of the book before it’s published, so if you’d like to read an early copy, head on over to Discover Kelpies blog, where I give a bit more info about the story, and where you can apply to get an early look at The Beginner’s Guide To Curses.
Now I’m off to finish the third book! (Just adding a bit more magic, and a bit more combat…)
I will be submitting the final draft of the first novel in my new trilogy to my editor next week. (And no, sorry, I can’t tell you the title. My publishers are going to reveal that in a burst of glitter and glory sometime soon…)
So I’ve spent this week doing some fairly odd last minute things to the book. The story is written. The words are all there. Now I’m catching daft mistakes, by double checking things I assumed were right when I wrote the first draft, and meant to check, but never quite got round to. And sometimes my assumptions are wrong.
For example, at the start of this week I found myself embroiled in:
The Toad Gait Scandal
One of the five main characters in this adventure is a toad. So I was checking whether toads inflate their throats when croaking (they do) when I noticed a tiny little line on a toad website about toads walking rather hopping. Which was a shock, because when I started writing this book, I assumed toads were basically warty frogs, and because I know frogs hop, I assumed toads hopped too. So in this book, my toad hops, leaps and jumps quite a lot. But at the time I noticed this awkward little line, I was dealing with croaks and throats. So I made a wee note to myself: ‘better check if toads really do walk rather than hop’
The next day, I saw the note and I thought, right, this will either take me 30 seconds or all day. If I find out that toads hop, there will be no changes required. But if I find out that toads don’t hop, I will have to go through the entire novel, all 60,000 words of it, and find every time this amphibian moves, then change the verb. And also possibly the whole page. Or whole chapter…
Because that’s the thing. Changing one word can unbalance or undermine a whole sentence, or a whole paragraph, or a whole scene. Writing a novel is like weaving a piece of fabric. If you pull on one thread, it can warp the pattern and create holes right across the loom. (And with a trilogy, it’s three times as complex…)
So, I took a deep breath, and googled how toads move.
And you can guess what happened. On several reputable wildlife and amphibian websites, I discovered that, even though frogs hop, toads walk. Yes. Go and look it up. They sort of crawl, in a sprawly fashion.
Here’s a toad I met at Jupiter Artland when I was writing the first draft. (In a wonderful cave made of purple crystals.) This toad was very helpful about posing for a photo, but didn’t move around enough for me to realise that TOADS DON’T HOP!
So, one quick assumption I made years ago about how toads move, from my basic (basically wrong…) general knowledge about frogs and toads, resulted in a whole day’s work this week.
Hence, the Toad Gait Scandal.
Other things I’ve checked this week:
Do hares make a noise when they are scared?
Do pike eat eels?
What size is a crow’s egg?
How long are the October school holidays in various council areas?
When were the prime witch-burning years in Scotland?
What’s the best way to dig up tatties?
Does ‘law’ mean ‘hill’ in Doric as well as in Scots?
None of them resulted in nearly so many changes as the Toad Gait Scandal, because most of my assumptions were correct…
But there was one other double check which resulted in even more than a day’s work, because it affected all three books of the trilogy. I had to double check a hare’s field of vision. I knew it would be wide, but I hadn’t realised how wide. It turns out that hares can see almost the whole 360 degrees around them, with just small blindspots to the front and back. Which makes them very hard to sneak up on, and meant I had to rewrite almost all my chase scenes.
Perhaps I have a blindspot about wildlife research?
Perhaps I shouldn’t jump (or indeed hop) to so many conclusions about animals without checking my facts?
Perhaps I should leave the puns alone? (Though calling that frustrating day’s work the Toad Gait Scandal did make me smile…)
So, that’s the fact checking done. Now I just need to have one more readthrough for silly typos, then the book will be ready for my editor next week. Which is very exciting. But even more exciting is that in a few months, the book will be ready for YOU!
Happy New Year!
I’m very much looking forward to 2016, because I have a few lovely new books to share with you!
It’s a bit of a mix this year: a picture book, a couple of collections and perhaps, maybe, if I get it finished in time… a novel! Here’s a sneak preview of what’s coming up (the ones I’m allowed to tell you about, anyway):
The Secret of the Kelpie – March
Every Scottish loch has its dark cold depths, and every Scottish loch has its kelpie… A retelling of the legend of the kelpie, the shapeshifting monster that lives in the water and steals children on the shores of the loch. I love kelpie stories, and this is my distillation of all the best and scariest bits of kelpie stories from all over Scotland. And it’s illustrated by the amazing Philip Longson. I’ve seen the inside illustrations, so I know that when this comes out in March, you are going to be amazed at this beautiful terrifying monster. In the meantime, here’s the cover!
The Dragon’s Hoard – September
Viking stories. But probably not the ones you know… These are my retellings of the Icelandic sagas, the stories told and written down in Iceland hundreds of years ago, the stories the Vikings told about themselves. This book (which took a LOT of research to get right) contains monsters, heroes, heroines, battles, duels, a zombie and a polar bear. Also riddles and babysitting… Cate James (who also did a lot of research!) has brought the spiky sharp bloody tales to life wonderfully, and I’m really looking forward to sharing these saga stories with readers and audiences!
The Horse of Fire – Autumn
I don’t have a cover yet, but this is a companion book to Girls Goddesses & Giants, Serpents & Werewolves and Winter Tales, so I’m sure it will have a lovely papercut horse by Francesca Greenwood on the cover! The Horse of Fire is a collection of horse stories, but it’s not pony club tales. This is filled with quests, dragons, winged horses, unicorns and centaurs. Also, horse dung…
And there might be some novels soon too. And a few fairies on the radio. But all of that will be revealed later…
The best question I’ve been asked by a young reader at a book signing this year:
“Is writing a book just like telling a big lie?”
I answered, “YES! Yes it is! It’s fantastic! And you completely get away with it, because you’ve ADMITTED you’re telling a big lie! Because that’s what ‘once upon a time’ means…”
“Making stuff up is lying,” I said cheerfully, “and I’m quite open and clear and delighted about that! So yes, writing a book is exactly like telling a big lie!”
And my answer made him happy. (Or, at least, made him go away looking thoughtful…)
But was my answer correct?
Do I really think that I’m lying when I’m writing a novel?
Because, in my heart, I believe I tell the truth in my books. I set up a system of magic, and I stick to it rigorously. I create characters, and I let them do what is right for them (which is often extremely inconvenient.) I sometimes have discussions (arguments!) with editors, when I’m fighting for what feels TRUE for that story. I might say “no, we can’t do that, because Yann would never do that, or Helen would never say that.” And my editor knows what I mean – even though these characters are just words on a page, they still have to act consistently, in a way that seems true to the reader.
So there is truth, in that long, extended, totally made up lie.
For example, at the very end of First Aid for Fairies, one of my characters does something extremely brave, essentially sacrificing himself to save his friends from a monster. I set that scene up. I sent the monster after them, I locked the door to block their exit. I created the (entirely fictional!) situation. But I couldn’t have forced the character to make that choice, to do that dangerous and brave thing. That could only happen, and could only feel true within the huge lie of the novel, because he was a character whose loyalty and bravery we already believed in.
And in the novel I’m finishing just now, I have a huge decision to make, about a choice the main character is going to make at the very end of the story. But even though I’m the writer, I’m not going to make that choice. Molly is going to make that choice, because it has to be the choice that is true to her, true to the character that I admit I’ve made up, but who has become real over the course of the three books I’ve written about her.
So, yes, a novel is a lie, but I think it’s an honest lie.
It’s also a lie that a writer puts a lot of effort into making convincing, at exactly the same time as admitting it is a big lie… (Look at this shiny cover! Look at these chapter headings! This is a story! It’s not real!) But we still need our stories to feel real, to feel true.
That’s why I do so much location research, to make my books seem real. Even if I’m writing about magic spells and monsters, I need the book to have convincing settings and characters. I need the lie to feel true, so that you the reader care about the story, care about the characters, and keep reading to find out what happens next. Because while you are reading, it feels real. Even though you know it’s not real. It’s a big lie, and you know it’s a big lie, but you still enjoy it!
If it didn’t feel real, because you know that location and you know the cave doesn’t go that deep into the earth, or the castle door doesn’t look like that, then suddenly you’d be reminded that it was a big lie, which would knock you out of the story.
So that’s why even though a novel is a big lie, and even though I ADMIT it’s a big lie, I still make sure it’s a convincing big lie…
If stories are big lies, then they are big lies that we as writers make as true as we can, and big lies that we as readers seem to need…
Right, I’m off to write another chapter of a great big huge exciting lie… What a brilliant job!
I LOVE stories about shapeshifters.
I’ve made up a few shapeshifter stories myself: Rona, the selkie in the Fabled Beast Chronicles, regularly shifts from girl to seal and back again. And Rona was the first character, apart from Helen, who got her own point of view chapters and heroic action, in Storm Singing. Those scenes were some of the most challenging I’ve ever written, because I had to imagine myself as a creature of a completely different shape, with completely different abilities. Also thinking about why and when Rona would choose to shift from one shape to another was fascinating. (It usually came down to the use of hands …)
Most of my shapeshifting knowledge and lore comes from old stories, and a remarkably high percentage of my favourite traditional tales are about shapeshifters. When I collected my favourite Scottish folktales and legends in Breaking the Spell, four out of the ten tales were about shapeshifting of some kind or another.
In Girls, Goddesses and Giants, my collection of heroine stories, my favourite baddie (who is defeated by my favourite heroine) is a shapeshifting demon.
And The Tale of Tam Linn, a retelling of my favourite Scottish fairy tale, illustrated by the magically talented Philip Longson, is also about shapeshifting – a boy who is stolen by the fairies, and then turned into lots of different Scottish animals (stag, wolf, wildcat…) to try to prevent a girl from rescuing him.
Now, I’ve followed the logic of that path, and written a whole collection of shapeshifters.
Serpents & Werewolves is a collection of fifteen of my favourite shapeshifter stories… illustrated by Francesca Greenwood’s stunning silhouettes. There’s a frog, who doesn’t get kissed, and a dragon, who does. There are several werewolves: a goodie werewolf (sort of), some baddie werewolves (definitely), and a werewolf cub, who was great fun to write. There are escaping fish and diving birds and tricky foxes, a very large serpent and a very tiny caterpillar, and all of them change shape as the story goes on…
As with all the collections I write, some of these stories are ones I’ve loved and told for years. But some of them are new discoveries for me, as I researched shapeshifting tales, looking for stories that I wanted to get to know, from lots of different places, about lots of different animals.
And I found, as always, that researching and writing a book threw up more questions than answers:
Why does almost every culture in the world have stories about people changing into animals, and animals changing into people?
Why do we want (or need) to imagine something human in animals, and something animal in humans?
Why do we like to imagine ourselves with the strengths (and weaknesses) of animals?
Is it shapeshifting a superpower or a curse?
At a logical level (because I like my magic logical…) if you shift into something much bigger or much smaller than your human self, where does the extra bulk come from, or go to?
And what animal or bird what would I like to turn into… ?
My fascination with shapeshifting hasn’t ended yet! I’m still asking those questions, and I’m still writing about shapeshifters…
I can’t give too much away just yet, but in the trilogy of novels I’m working on, the main character is a slightly reluctant shapeshifter… So right now I am having great fun writing about creatures much smaller and much faster than I usually do.
So, there are more shapeshifters to come!
And if you want a wee taste of the stories in Serpents and Werewolves, here is a sample put online by my publishers….
One of the weirder things about being a writer is the long delay between writing a book and the publication of the book. I have completely finished writing the words for at least (counting on my fingers) five books that won’t be out for months or even years, because they are still being illustrated or edited or just sitting waiting patiently in a queue to be published.
That means that when I finally launch a book, and chat to readers about that book, it might be a couple of years since I finished writing it. (And yes, I do reread my books before publication, so I don’t sound like I’ve forgotten them!)
It also means that there can be long gaps between new books, which makes it look like I’ve stopped writing (I haven’t), or lots of books at once, which makes it look like I’m suddenly churning books out (I’m not! I am just writing sort of steadily, most of the time…)
My most recent book (The Tale of Tam Linn, still one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever held in my hands) came out last year, and I’ve had a bit of a lull at the start of this year, but it’s all about to heat up again. I have quite a few books appearing on shelves in the next year or so, and I’m really excited about all of them.
So, here’s what next. Ranging from a book so nearly ready that we’ve actually got a cover, to a novel that I’ve not even started yet…
Serpents & Werewolves, Stories of Animal Shapeshifters from Around the World.
Another collection of my favourite myths and legends, this time about shapeshifters. There are serpents and werewolves, but also dragons and swans and frogs…
This book is very nearly ready (look, we have a cover already!) and it will be published on the 10th of September 2015.
I’m also working on another collection of stories in the same series (along with Girls Goddesses and Giants, and Winter’s Tales). Wild Horses, Wings and Warriors (still a provisional title) will be a collection of horse myths and legends. No pony club stories, but lots of thundering hooves and battles! And perhaps a centaur.
But there’s more! Next spring there will be another Kelpies Traditional Tale picture book, illustrated by the amazing Philip Longson, who also illustrated The Tale of Tam Linn. I am so happy to be working with Philip again, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the monster in this story…
And even more… VIKINGS this time.
The lovely Cate James and I, who worked together on Breaking the Spell, have another Frances Lincoln collaboration on the way.The Dragon’s Hoard is a collection of Viking sagas. There will be dragons, battles, boats and swords. And a swan. Also a zombie. (I didn’t expect the zombie.) I’ve finished the words, and Cate is working hard on the pictures, so this should be out in autumn 2016.
And still more. I’m also writing novels. Probably three novels. Possibly a trilogy. Likely to be set in the North East of Scotland. But whatever happens with all those probablies and possiblies and likelies, there will definitely be magic and danger.
So, that’s what’s next. I’d better get back to writing the books for 2017 and 2018…
I’m children’s writer, and I write this blog mainly for children – readers, young writers, school classes, book groups etc, who want to understand how a writer writes. Everyone else welcome too though! And please do comment if you have any questions, or want me to blog about anything specific.