I love being an author. The best bit is writing stories and adventures, but I love lots of the other bits of being an author too. I enjoy redrafting and I really love working with editors. I love meeting readers and talking about my books too.
But the one bit of being an author that I really don’t enjoy is …
getting my photo taken!
At family birthday parties and on family holidays, I avoid being in photos (usually by taking them) but at book launches and book events, and for newspaper articles and book festival programmes, I find myself grinning at a camera on a regular basis.
That grin can get painful after a while. I bet it never looks natural.
And my hair… I always forget to brush it
And my clothes… I only have a couple of tops which are tidy enough to wear in public so they appear in rotation in all the photos…
So, I really don’t like getting my photo taken.
But now I’ve found the best way to do it. Share the picture with a DRAGON! Because then hardly anyone will pay any attention to me.
Or even better, share the pictures with a DRAGON and lots of school pupils, because then noone will pay any attention to me!
And I made this discovery during our recent Dragon Tour. The Fabled Beast Chronicles have splendid new covers, and the clever marketing people at Floris came up with the idea of a dragon tour to publicise the new covers. So Nuria designed and created a dragon costume for her car, and we drove to various schools all over Scotland and the north of England, then dressed the car as Sapphire at each school.
We started at Pirniehall School in Edinburgh, where we learnt how to dress a dragon VERY fast.
The same day, we flew up to Forthview Primary, where every single child from P1 to P7 came out into the carpark to pat and stroke and feel Sapphire’s scales and teeth!
Then we went to the Strathearn campus in Crieff, and children from Crieff Primary, Muthill Primary and Braco Primary schools met Sapphire.
Then our longest journey – up to Arduthie Primary in Stonehaven, where it was so windy we had to anchor the corners of the flames down with children!
Then we took the Fabled Beast Chronicles to Cumbria, first to Hunter Hall School which has RED SQUIRRELS on its school tie!
Then to Armathwaite School, where the amazingly confident and creative children spent the whole of their morning break and most of lunchtime playing with Sapphire
We might take the dragon tour to a couple of other parts of Scotland, once Sapphire has had time to recover (and dry out) but in the meantime: thanks so much to every school we visited, you were all fantastic! (And a huge thanks from me to Nuria – well done for creating such a wonderful dragon, and for all your wonderful dragon navigation!)
But to be honest, I still don’t like getting my photo taken…
And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really love the covers of the books that I’ve been reading and talking about for years, and I’ve got so used to them that it’s hard to imagine those stories and those characters wearing any other covers.
But even though I still do a double take every time I look at the new covers, I think I’m already falling in love with them too. (Anyway, the new covers aren’t available until September, so I have plenty of time to get used to them!)
So, here they are, complete with their new name: Fabled Beasts Chronicles.
The incredible artwork is by Manuel Sumberac, and the covers were designed by the very talented Leah McDowell. And they are certainly very glossy, very professional and absolutely fantastic.
The inside pages of the novels are also newly snazzy, with fancy chapter headings:
This means that First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts has now had THREE covers in its seven year history. Here they are:
I’m going to be honest, and say that I never really liked the original cover for First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts. I was sort of fond of it, because it was the cover of the very first book I ever had published. But I never thought it was right for the story. It seemed too pink and fluffy and girly and young for the cover of a book with minotaurs and snakes and battles in the dark of the night…
However I really did love the silhouettes and colours of the next set of covers. Also, these are the covers that most readers know, because from Wolf Notes onwards these covers appeared with each new book in the series.
But Floris Books wanted to bring all the books together with a series title because, after all, the First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts series is quite long and unwieldy.
So, they came up with these new covers.
I’m going to admit I don’t even know who some of the characters ARE in the covers. Though to be fair, that was true of the first set too. Who is the bloke in the cloak on the rock on the Wolf Notes cover? Is he a one of the Celtic heroes? I’ve never been sure…
So, on the newest First Aid cover, which of the girls is Helen, which is Rona?
I don’t know. But that’s ok. The covers are there to draw readers in, to give them a flavour of the adventure and magic inside, to attract their attention and to intrigue them enough to pick the books up and open them. And I think these covers do that job brilliantly.
My favourite is the Wolves Notes cover, with that incredible sword standoff between the wolves and Lee and Helen. (At least, I think it’s Lee and Helen. They’ve got excellent hair, whoever they are…)
Which is your favourite new cover, and how do you think they compare to the previous covers? And do you associate other favourite books with specific covers, and get a shock when the publishers decide to update them?
I am delighted to announce that I am now the Patron of Reading at Forthview Primary in Edinburgh!
In three very packed events last week, I chatted about books and stories with EVERY SINGLE CLASS in the school (more than 400 kids in one day) and I was really impressed by their passion and their imaginations and their brilliant questions.
I was also extremely impressed that parents turned up to each session and sat at the back of the hall (they got chairs, the pupils sat on the floor…) watching as their kids discussed books and reading, and came up with story ideas.
That was particularly important because what the school really want to achieve is a Reading Community, where everyone – pupils, teachers and families – share their enjoyment of books and reading for pleasure.
I am a huge fan of reading for pleasure (I do it myself as often as I can!) but I’m also a huge fan of writing for pleasure, making stuff up for pleasure, and playing with stories for FUN!
So when I visited, the nursery and P1s read The Magic Word and brought a toy pony to life with some magic ingredients and a bit of stirring.
The P2s and P3s read Never Trust a Tiger and helped a tricksy little rabbit escape several times from a hungry cobra.
I also met some of the teachers, some of the parents, and some of the council and library staff who will be working wit the reading community. And I heard about lots of the brilliant ideas the school are coming up with, like a reading group for dads.
And I want to go back! I want to go back and chat to smaller groups about what they love reading, what they love writing and possibly give them sneak previews of what I’m writing too. And that’s the great thing about being Patron of Reading – I will go back!
It’s amazing to be invited to be part of such an ambitious project, and I’m really looking forward to it!
Thanks Forthview Primary, and hope to see you again soon! (Keep reading! And keep away from cobras and cliff edges…)
Here are some pictures of the launch:
I think this was when I asked who loved stories! (Or it might have been when I asked for ideas about how to escape from a cobra. They’re resourceful kids in Forthview…)
This is inspirational headteacher Mrs Littlewood talking about how much she loves reading.
This is me grinning like a loon in front of a table of books.
And finally, a slightly odd picture of me either doing a wee dance, or pretending to kick a tree trunk into a pit to save a tiger.
I’ve written 21 books, 6 of them novels, so it’s probably fair to claim that I don’t write just one kind of book. But up until now, there have been a few recognisable threads running through most of my books – if it had magic and myth and fabled beasts and Scottish landscapes, then it might be a Lari Don book.
But now I’ve written something totally different to anything I’ve ever written before. Because Mind Blind, my first teen thriller, is published this week.
Mind Blind is for older readers. I’ve written picture books (about bottoms and wolves), I’ve written short chapter books (about tigers and wolves), I’ve written adventure books (about dragons and wolves), I’ve written collections of legends (about heroines and wolves). The nearest I’ve come in age so far is novellas for reluctant readers (no wolves, yet).
But I’ve not written a full length novel for older readers before and it was a very different book to write. I could do a lot of things I’ve never done before. Swear. Injure people. Kill people. Make texts and smart phones an important part of the plot. Use public transport rather than dragons.
And Mind Blind is about a boy.A teenage boy. I’ve written as a boy before – a male phoenix and a blue loon in Maze Running – but only for a couple of chapters. Becoming a teenage boy for months on end was an interesting experience.
Also Mind Blind is written in the first person, so we are inside Ciaran’s head, seeing the world through his eyes, all the time.(Except when we’re inside Lucy’s head. This was meant to be a book about Ciaran, but Lucy became so important to the story, that almost half the novel is from her point of view… )
Ciaran Bain is not a goodie either, unlike Helen or Pearl in my other novels. He’s a criminal, he does a lot of dodgy and illegal and even cruel things. And yet I am asking the reader to care about him and what happens to him – which was a bit of a challenge!
So. Mind Blind has no magic, it has lots of crime, and it has no lovely Scottish landscapes.No mountains or forests or islands or caves or castles. Mind Blind happens on rooftops and at bus stations and in docklands.It’s not even set completely in Scotland!It starts in London, spends a fair amount of time on a bus (not a fun journey…) then finally ends up in Edinburgh and Leith for the last third of the book.
Mind Blind doesn’t tick any of my usual boxes. That is exactly why I wanted to write it. And exactly why I want to hear what you think of it!
(Though, as I write this, I realise there is one book which was almost the precursor to Mind Blind, in a tangential way: Drawing a Veil – a novella about a girl who decides to wear the hijab and how her best friend and classmates react. When I wrote it, I did keep thinking – gosh this is tough, solving plot problems without magic! The story also ends on a bridge in an industrial area, just like Mind Blind. In fact, both endings were inspired by the same bridge in Leith, but in both books the bridge has changed slightly to fit the plot. So anyone who’s read Drawing a Veil might have thought that I was heading for teen thriller territory. I didn’t realise it myself when I was writing about Amina though!)
I’m always keen to know what readers think about my books. Feedback is very important to writers, and especially so with Mind Blind – because it’s like my very first book all over again!
So, if it sounds like your sort of book, please go and read Mind Blind (paperback, ebook, from a shop, from the world-encirling amazon or even FOR FREE from your local library) and let me know what you think!
Many Mind Blinds in a box
And here is Mind Blind IN A BOX even if it doesn’t tick the usual boxes!
Today, I’m going to sit down and read Mind Blind, my new teen thriller. Which isn’t that unusual. I’ve been reading, rereading, redrafting and tweaking Mind Blind constantly over the last few months.
But today, I can’t change anything. Mind Blind has already gone to the printers. It’s going to be available in bookshops on the 20th of March. Next month! Today I’m going to be reading the manuscript without the power to change anything, which will be a bit strange and frustrating.
So why am I reading it?
Because this time I’m not looking for things I can fix or improve, I’m looking for quotes and readings.
My relationship with Mind Blind is changing. For a long time I was writing the book: getting to know the characters, following new ideas, finding out what happens next. Then for months (most of last year!) I was redrafting and editing: working out the best way to tell the story. But now, I’m getting ready to promote the book: telling people about it, getting readers interested in it.
To do that, I need to find readings and quotes.
It’s an odd time. It feels like the book isn’t really mine any more. I’m a writer, but I can’t WRITE this book any more. I can’t come up with new ideas, I can’t change any words, or cut out any flabby bits. All I can do is help the book get out there and find readers. Because once a book stops being mine, when I can’t write it any more, it becomes the readers’ book instead.
So today, I’ll be rereading Mind Blind, looking for:
Sections to read during author events (in classrooms, in bookshops, in libraries, at book festivals etc)
Short quotes to give a flavour of the book
Sections to film on location
All of these readings need to be different – different lengths, focussed on different bits of the story – but they all need to have similarities too. All the readings must be exciting and self-contained, but they shouldn’t give away too much about the plot. They need to introduce the characters and their problems, but not give away how those problems are solved. They need to be short and punchy, and not need much explanation.
None of that is easy to find! So it means reading the book in a different way, almost with different eyes.
Also for the first time, I’ll be filming sections of Mind Blind in both London and Edinburgh, where the story is set, and that’s going to make things even more complicated. Normally I don’t choose readings from near the end of a book, but we’re planning to film in several locations in Leith which only appear in the final couple of fights and chases, so it’s going to be difficult to find readings which don’t contain spoilers!
But there is one other thing I will be looking for today, and it’s the most exciting thing of all. While I’m reading through Mind Blind, I might glimpse a few wee hints of story and characters and ideas that might, just might, point me in the direction of a sequel. And that would give me a whole new relationship, as a writer, with these characters.
So, here I go…
“I killed a girl today, just after the school bell…”
I think I’m a novelist, who writes adventure books like First Aid for Fairies, Rocking Horse War and Maze Running.
I know I write a few other books once in a wee while, like the occasional picture book when I need a break from ambushes, and sometimes I gather together collections of my favourite myths and legends.
But mainly, I’m a novelist. Yes?
Well, maybe not.
I won an award last week, when Orange Juice Peas (written by me, illustrated by Lizzie Wells) won the Dundee Picture Book Award, which is voted for by local P1s and by the P6s who read the books to them. The other shortlisted authors were proper picture book writers, all of whom travelled up from the south of England to be in Dundee. It was a real award ceremony, for real picture books.
And my book won.
Just like The Big Bottom Hunt won the Hawick Picture Book Award a couple of years ago…
So perhaps I’m a proper picture book writer as well.
Perhaps I need to take being a picture book writer just as seriously as I take being a novelist (though I’ll still spend at least year on each novel and a few weeks on each picture book – the number of words just work that way!)
But of course, I won’t take being a picture book writer TOO seriously – picture books work better when they aren’t serious at all!
And it’s not just picture books which are muscling in on my novels. I have six books coming out this year. One of those six is a picture book (it’s called The Magic Word and I’m so pleased with Claire Keay’s lovely pictures, I think it’s going to be … magic!) and five are retellings of traditional tales. I have two retellings of animal tales coming out in short chapter books (Masha And The Bear and The Hungry Wolf, both illustrated by the wonderful Melanie Williamson, who also did Never Trust a Tiger and The Tortoise’s Gift) and three collections of myths and legends: a collection of heroine tales, a collection of Scottish stories and a collection of winter tales.
So am I now a reteller of old tales, as well as a novelist and a picture book writer?
Yes I am, and that’s fine too – because I love these stories, which are one of the main inspirations for the fiction I write, and it’s wonderful to be able to share them.
But don’t worry, I haven’t become any of these other kinds of writers INSTEAD of being a writer of adventures. I’ve just finished one novel and started another, and the oddities of publishing timetables means both novels might be published next year.
But in the meantime, I will enjoy the fact that I have the freedom and opportunity to write all sorts of books, and to be passionately proud of every single one of them.
And here, if you want to see just how seriously I take picture books, is me making a real mess of my kitchen while reading Orange Juice Peas:
I’ve met lots of kids dressed up as their favourite book characters in the last couple of weeks, for World Book Day and for Comic Relief. And one of the questions I’m asked most often during school visits is: who’s my favourite character in the books I write?
So I’ve been thinking about how we choose our favourite characters, and whether readers and writers like different characters for different reasons.
Do readers choose their favourite characters because those characters are like them, or very unlike them? Do readers choose the characters who are the funniest or bravest (or the easiest to dress up as?) Do readers choose characters they’d like as a friend?
Do writers like the characters who are most fun to write, or the characters who are most challenging and difficult to write? Do writers like the characters who keep the story moving, or who can be relied on to make any dialogue sparky?
I know readers have very strong relationships with their favourite characters, because I often get emails from readers demanding to know why I’ve done particularly terrible things to the characters. (The best example of this is a series of questions from a class in Inverclyde – you can read how defensive I got about all those injuries in First Aid for Fairies!)
I’m not sure writers make a decision to have a favourite character. I’m often surprised at which character turns out to be my favourite. Emmie is probably my favourite character in Rocking Horse War, and that wasn’t meant to happen at all. She was meant to be a minor character, but she just took over, which took me by surprise and makes her one of my favourite characters ever to write.
My favourite character in the First Aid series is Yann the centaur. That wasn’t the plan either! He was grumpy and aggressive and not very nice to Helen when I first met him. He argues with me in my head when I’m writing, and he can be very touchy and rude to other characters as well. He’s inconveniently honest (which I played with in Storm Singing) and unnecessarily keen on action and violence (which I did my best to deny him for most of Maze Running) and I’m absolutely sure that if I met him in real life he’d be angry with me about how often I’ve injured his friends and how I use his strengths against him to make my stories stronger. And I don’t really want to meet an angry centaur! But he’s definitely my favourite character, and that wasn’t a choice, it’s just what happened as I wrote the books.
However, I’m glad I don’t have to dress up as a centaur!
I’ve met people dressed as Lavender the fairy (purple dress and wings), Rona the selkie (silky dress and sealskin) and Helen (first aid kit and violin).
But I’d never met anyone dressed as Yann, and I wondered if that was because he wasn’t anyone else’s favourite character (perhaps I’ve done too good a job of making him grumpy and aggressive?) or if it was simply because it’s not easy to dress as a centaur!
So you can imagine how pleased I was when I met a boy at Flora Stevenson Primary on World Book Day who was dressed up as Yann. And he had the best horse’s bottom I have ever seen! (Even better than a real theatrical centaur costume which I saw at the Lyceum a couple of years ago.) He couldn’t sit down in it though. (I find that with Yann as well. He stomps about in a mood while everyone else is sitting down chilling out…)
I was delighted that a real reader of my books also likes Yann best, and very impressed that he (and his parents!) had put so much effort into a centaur costume. Here it is:
the Flora Stevenson centaur!
How do you choose your favourite characters? Does having a favourite character in one book make you want to read more about them in another book? (Is that why series are so popular?) And when you’re writing a story, are you ever surprised at which character you end up liking the best?
I answer lots of questions about writing: questions from readers, questions from teachers, questions from journalists, even questions from publishers.
Usually when I’m answering questions at author events, I’m too busy thinking about my answers and trying to be both honest and interesting, while also trying not to fall off a stage or stand on the kids at the front, that I don’t really listen to my own answers. Sometimes afterwards I can’t even remember what the questions were, let alone what answers I gave, because it was all so fast and furious and exciting.
And once I’ve answered questions from journalists, I never read the articles or listen to the interviews. I just give them to a trusted family member or friend, and ask them to check I didn’t say anything really embarrassing.
But I’ve had to watch an interview recently – a rather beautiful interview filmed by my publishers for their website, with me standing in front of the maze which stars in the first chapters of Maze Running, and answering lots of questions about writing the First Aid series. I had to watch it to let Floris know I was happy with it before they made it public.
It was really interesting to see how I reacted to some of the questions. I wasn’t worried about standing on any kids (though there was a danger I might fall off the terrace into the maze!) and I knew the lovely Benedicte would let me have another go if I fluffed an answer, so this is probably about as relaxed as you’ll see me talking about writing.
And I found out a few things about myself as a writer.
Firstly, I found out that I’d be useless on a real quest (I said I’d take a pen and paper with me in case I had an idea for another book. So apparently I’d treat a real quest as a way of getting ideas to write a pretend quest. That would be quite annoying for everyone else on the quest…)
I also discovered that I am naturally polite to landscapes. I felt I had to say that my favourite location was Traquair just in case the maze was offended while I talking about it. It is a really good location, and perfect for the start of that book, but I’ve set books in caves and on cliffs, and those are pretty exciting to research and write about. But I didn’t like to mention that in the interview, in case the maze went in the huff.
I did look a little embarrassed about conning academics with questions about fish and seals when really I was researching mermaids and selkies. (Warning, professors – watch out for sneaky authors!
And you can tell that I really care about the characters. I talk about Yann, Helen, Sylvie, Lavender and even the Master as if they were real people. Which of course they are, in my head.
And probably the greatest truth about writing that I utter in the entire interview is one which I must remember when I’m auditioning those ideas for the next novel: “You can’t have a story until you have a baddie!”
But you can tell how relaxed I was at answering questions from someone I like and trust, because if you watch the whole interview you’ll catch me admitting to not getting it quite right in the first novel (though notice I try to blame my heroine rather than myself…)
I enjoy answering questions about writing because I sometimes discover new things about my own writing process (and occasionally I even remember afterwards!) But most importantly, when readers ask questions, I find out what you like in stories, so that’s what I go home to write! (I wonder if I can tell what my publishers would like me to write next, from the questions in this interview? Maybe I should watch it again…)
Anyway, have a look at the interview, and let me know if I said anything really daft! Perhaps you could consider what questions you would ask yourself about your own writing, and what you think you’d find out?
And has anyone else ever felt the need to be polite to a hedge?
When my publishers first mentioned a book trailer for Maze Running I was a bit worried – I thought I’d have to script it, or at the very least appear in it. But it’s been a very painless process: Floris Books wrote it, filmed it and edited it themselves, with no involvement from me at all. And now the Maze Running trailer is up on Youtube, I’m really pleased with it. I think it’s a combination of wonderfully simple and excitingly pacy. (Here it is…)
I’m a fan of trailers. When I go to the cinema, I always make sure I’m settled down in plenty of time to see the trailers, so I can enjoy a little taster of films I’ll probably never have time to go and see. And I’ll even admit to wasting a bit of writing time recently watching every available version of the Hobbit trailer online.
A film trailer is usually (not always, but usually) a good way to decide if you’ll enjoy the full film, because you get a sense of the content and the style of the film.
But is a trailer a good way to decide if you’ll like a book? If you like the look of the trailer, or the background music, or a voice-over, then you might decide to read the book, but none of those elements will appear in the book (which is simply words on a page, not pictures on a screen or music in an earphone.)
And if you don’t like the music or the camera angles, could the trailer put you off the book? And would that be daft, because the book trailer isn’t made up of bits of the book in the way that a film trailer is made up of bits of the film?
So is a trailer a useful way to judge a book?
Probably it’s no dafter a way to judge a book than by its cover, given that the cover artist often hasn’t even read the book! Or by its blurb, which isn’t usually written by the author.
Are any of these useful ways to pick a book? Or are they all just ways for a book to catch your eye, then the story inside must live up to the cover, blurb or trailer’s promise?
Are book trailers just another way for publishers and authors to try to give books a presence online (like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this…) and does all this (very time consuming!) online activity actually help readers choose books?
So what do you think of the current trend of trailers for books?
Have you ever gone out and bought a book simply because of a trailer?
Retelling an old story which everyone already knows is a bit scary; retelling an old story almost no-one knows is even more of a responsibility.
My first retelling of a well-known fairy tale – Little Red Riding Hood – has just been published. When I was writing it, I had to decide which bits of the many versions of Little Red I would weave together. I did a lot of research, then chose the elements which were most vivid and which worked best in my voice. So I hope I’ve retold a story which you will recognise, but which will also surprise you. A journalist recently asked me how I had changed the story, what spin or twist I had put in, but that wasn’t what I was aiming to do with this retelling. Every major plot element comes from one of the older tales, though I have told the story in my own words, and I’ve tried to make a few of the things which never made sense to me (why doesn’t she realise it’s a wolf in the bed, not her granny, for goodness sake? Can’t she tell the difference?) seem more plausible (she sees more of the wolf each time she lets extra light into the room: opening the curtains, lighting the fire etc.)
But it’s a huge responsibility retelling a story like Little Red Riding Hood. Children already know it, and if you write something which differs from the version they know, they might think it’s wrong! (Which can prompt interesting discussions with kids about how traditional stories are passed on and changed.) Also, this book, with Celia Chauffrey’s gorgeous pictures, might over the years become some children’s very first experience of Red Riding Hood, so when they read other versions they might think my version is the right one and other versions are wrong… That’s a big and scary responsibility!
But I’m very glad that this story of a tricksy, talking, toothy, people-eating wolf is a story most children already know. Because if they didn’t, they’d probably find it far too scary and gory to enjoy it!
I’m now also retelling some stories which aren’t so well known: six animal tales from around the world (two already published, about a tortoise and a tiger, another four in the next couple of years, including a bear and a fox); a collection of Scottish folktales (coming out next summer, which contains stories I’ve never seen in other illustrated collections); and a collection of heroine stories from around the world (most of which are very obscure.) And that’s a completely different kind of responsibility.
Because I do change stories when I tell them out loud. I deliberately change them so they make sense in my head, so they work in my voice, so they are dramatic in the way that I like a story to grab and hold the attention of an audience. Therefore the story I tell is never exactly as it was when it was written down, a hundred, a thousand or four thousand years ago. And that story, the one I tell out loud, the one I’ve changed to become my story, is the one I write down. I’m always quite honest about that, but now these versions are being printed and published, available on paper for anyone to read, forever… that is a serious responsibility.
With Little Red Riding Hood, if I make a minor change, I know that kids will see another half dozen versions over the course of their reading lives, they will compare those different versions, realise there are many ways to tell a story and decide which is their favourite. But when they read my retellings of the untrustworthy Korean tiger or the Witch of Lochlann or Inanna tricking the god of wisdom, they might never see that story anywhere else. My version will be the only version they know. And that’s a really heavy responsibility.
But I’m not worrying too much about it. These are great stories, I’m writing them as well as I know how, I’m really excited about sharing them and I want you to enjoy reading them. Then if you want to study them more deeply by reading the ancient originals, I’m quite happy to point you in the right direction!
Here is the gorgeous front cover of LRRH, and I’ll update on you on the other retellings nearer the time!