The Zen of writing. Series, serial or spontaneous combustion?

zenI’ve come to realise that to write, to spend all those hours strolling around inside your head, you need to be different. I would suggest that many of us who write sussed this out at an early age.  A disquieting, self-aware, maverick streak that sets you apart from the herd mentality.
Quite a few of us, too,  need the distraction of shiny things, of cud-chewing conversation, of mindless TV, a little less than most. That’s because we have more exciting things going on in our heads.
And yet the world doesn’t go away. Lots of people want a piece of you. Family, work, friends. All part of the great plan, and all necessary to make you human. The writing process is a road full of speed bumps, too. Rejections, deadlines, edits, promotions. All of it designed to make you consider why we bother.
I know why I bother. Because I have no choice. If I didn’t, I’d be left with such a big hole, I’d probably fall in and never reach the bottom.

Personally, I think it helps to write a series, and by that I mean books set in the same universe with the same characters. Some people would argue that this is lazy, but I would say that investing time and energy in world building creates a resource that should be exploited to the full.

It’s also important to differentiate between ‘series’ and ‘serial’.
In series, the same characters/world are self contained in a unique story. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a prime example of this overarching approach. A serial is a story told in many installments with a story line weaving through the books and leading to a single point of conclusion. The best examples of these are the Harry Potter Books and the Hunger Games.

Both paths, should you chose to follow them, are littered with booby-traps and pitfalls and it behoves the author to keep very good records and be prepared to re-read their own works when it comes to follow-on novels. Nothing worse than finding that the honey blond hair described in book one has become dark and lustrous by book three–with no hairdresser in sight. And the further you go along the path, the more aware you are of opportunities (or not) missed in planting clues early on. The truth is, in my case, that you end up writing all five books at once, dancing between the five of them like some capricious jester with a bell in your hat that rings every time you spot a glaring mistake.
But there is another side to consider. No one forced me to do this I hear someone yell, and yet that’s not true either because I genuinely believe that it’s bubbling away inside me and if I did not get all of it out I would spontaneously combust.

What is useful is to take a slightly less self-obsessed approach. This awarenes has grown on me probably because I’ve been doing this for a long time. And it’s beautifully summed up by someone who puts it a lot better than I could.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.
Robert Louis Stevenson

Number 2 in the artefact Quintet, The Beast Of Seabourne, releases October 24th.

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Sounds like Harry Potter to me.

booksMike Underwood is an author and  markets for Angry Robot Books. He’s written a great insider post about publishing secrets. A lot of what he says make a great deal of sense and it isn’t as if we all didn’t know it. So it was interesting to see how it might apply to what I write.
Those of us writing preteen or upper MG books for readers who spill over into early teens know it’s the Cinderella of age groups when it comes to books for all sorts of reasons:

  • Gatekeepers, not readers make the buying choices.
  • It’s almost impossible to reach the target audience with any online presence.
  • Paper and ink is still the weapon of choice and not ebooks.

Need I go on.

Mr Underwood has a lot of interesting stuff to say. He tells us that marketing is just buzz. It’s people talking about your book in as cool a way as possible. And in so doing, there is no point getting antsy. You have to have log lines.
“If you like Percy Jackson, then you might like mine.” Or, “It’s a story about the hunt for a mysterious artefact in a haunted house.”
It’s all about positioning and there is no point being shy about it, because you will end up selling your book to one person at a time, be it an agent, publisher, reader at a convention, or someone who’s asked a question vie your email. How does that work?

Underwood says this:

“Step one is to figure out where you book fits – what genre shelf should be its home? What books is it comparable to? Does it have a non-western fantasy setting like N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms? An intense anti-hero reminiscent of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns? The pop-cultural self-awareness of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One? The heartwarming optimism of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor? Combine the snarky dialogue of Jim Butcher with the world-building of Douglas Adams as with DC Farmer’s The 400Lb Gorilla
Every book is its own thing, but humans? We’re comparison monkeys (apes, yes, but monkeys sounds funnier), we put things in boxes and use comparisons to get a handle on things we don’t know directly.  He’s anyone who comes along, makes a comparison and says nothing more. Yet, you’re more likely to get people invested if you call a book “Michael Crichton but with even better science” (Nexus by Ramez Naam) than “It’s a cool science fiction book with action and technology.”
The down side of all of this when it comes to preteen is that we’ve had a tsunami in the form of one JK Rowling and Harry Potter come in and sweep the mind of every reader with its magnificence. I was, and remain, in awe. But ever since, almost any book for the 9-14 age group is auto sorted by consumers into ‘Sounds like Harry Potter To Me (SLHPTM)’ if it contains any of the following.

If the protagonist is Male– SLHPTM
Haunted house— SLHPTM
If there is anything paranormal— SLHPTM
If there’s a child of 10 or 11 involved  — SLHPTM.
Dead parent (s)— SLHPTM
School— SLHPTM
Red hair — SLHPTM
Toad — SLHPTM
Old house — SLHPTM

It’s easy to see how this happens when something as culturally immense as the HP phenomenon happens.
For example, you want a group of 4 as your proactive gang and for balance, two males and two females. But the fourth only joins towards the end of the book—so we begin with 3 — SLHPTM.
You begin with one and stick with it–would it not have been the chosen one? Therefore SLHPTM
One of my Amazon reviewers said, ‘though he uses the Harry Potter Formula…” Crumbs, If only I knew what that was!    Bottom line, there is no point trying to fight this. Forget the fact that there are no wizards or witches or wands or magic, HP is too iconic to try and hide from and fighting it is absolutely hopeless. Best embrace it and accept it is going to happen and see how you can make it help you.
So my own stuff, a five book series called the artefact quintet, SLHPTM? Yeah, sort of, except with no wizards or magic or boarding school or dragons. But aimed for that age group and involving kids. So if you like HP then, hell yeah. What I wouldn’t recommend is ‘The Obsidian pebble. JK Rowling, but without the magic’. That one fails on an awful lot of levels. So how about; ‘The Obsidian Pebble: a fantastical adventure sure to delight followers of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.’
Oh, and by the way, I didn’t say that, someone else did.
The Beast of Seabourne is the follow up to The Obsidian Pebble. SLHPTM–only different.

(You can read more of Underwood’s article HERE.)
Feel free to comment.

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Setting it straight

mordorSetting as a writing tool is not to be underestimated, though it is possibly the most undervalued of the 3 main elements of fiction. Authors fret over characterisation and plot, but it is setting that anchors the writing and is a great thematic tool. One only has to think of Mordor to know how resonant it is in terms of Tolkien’s themes.
In science fiction and fantasy, setting may not only involve location, it can become the whole world of the novel. Worlds where imagination conquers all. Yet even when it is a fantasy world,  familiar details are the things that chime with the reader. The writer who gives purpose to setting by integrating it into the body of the story, shaping the characters and forcing them to interact with the environment it creates, goes beyond simply describing place and time.
I try to do this in my writing. Fro example, in The Obsidian Pebble, Oz Chambers lives in an old house called Penwurt and I wanted to imbue this place with as many qualities as I could. I tried to make it mysterious, a little spooky and full of secrets. An extension, in fact,  of the artefacts which give their name to the whole quintet, and a great metaphor for the science-fantasy theme I’ve employed. It is a place where Oz feels safe, but a place he is also in awe of.
When it comes to setting, by all means use the trite and predictable in your first draft and accept the fact that revision will involve you in deep research and contemplation. Use your character’s viewpoint to show what he/she sees, but remember that eyeline view precludes going on about the weather in the next county.
Setting is a tool best used during revision for:
1/ Adding a sense of place that should intrinsically modify your characters actions and behaviour.
2/ Using as a character in its own right.
3/ Being a metaphor for theme.
4/ Perfecting the emotional landscape through pathetic fallacy.
5/ Using all the senses.
6/ Being not a hang-up for first drafting.

Rhys A Jones

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First Page reads

great expectationsssssThere is a school of thought that says most readers will make their minds up about wanting to read a book after the first few paragraphs. Noah Lukeman in his book  The First Five Pages compares judgment on a book with seeing a Van Gogh for the first time. Most people look and make their minds up in a flash whether they like it or not. They may be scorned by critics and even called a fool, but art is art, and everyone has the right to pass his/her own judgement. Of course, when it comes to the ‘classics’, this gut-reaction response suffers a snobbery bypass and a lot of people keep reading to keep up the pretext.

But most of us read for pleasure. We’re influenced by lots of things. Title, cover art, blurb, reviews. But what do we do in a bookshop? We pick up the book and look inside. Amazon allows you to do much the same, so if they think it’s important to invest in the “look Inside” feature, that should tell you something.  so it’s refreshing to find a site which allows readers to peruse  the first page of a book in order for them to get a feel.

This is what advertiser  BooksGoSocial does. It’s a newish enterprise, but a novel idea. here’s my page for Obsidian pebble.

Worth checking out?

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Cover reveal–The Beast of Seabourne

Beastone page best We’ve had this for some time but for whatever reason we’ve not sent it out into the world. So, at last, here is the cover for book 2 in the artefact quintet. Once again I am indebted to the amazing Lisa Amowitz who has done a great job of injecting mystery and more than a touch of spookiness into this cover.

So whats this one about?
Well, now.

Oz Chambers has a wonderful secret; the obsidian pebble, gifted to him by his dead father, is an artefact of astonishing power. The kind that makes the year eight science competition a hands-down walkover thanks to the pebble’s genius avatar, Soph.

But there are sinister forces abroad who will stop at nothing to get their hands on such power, and when fellow pupils start being attacked, Oz finds himself accused of all sorts of shenanigans and in very hot water. Soon, he and his friend are caught up in a centuries old legend involving a missing ring, lava toothpaste and a murderous monster known as the Beast of Seabourne.

Thrills and spills come from all directions in this mystery-uncovering second book in the artefact series.

Due out in October from Spencer Hill MG, you’ll just have to wait for the rest.

Rhys

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The River Singers — a classic in the making

river singersOne of the really wonderful things about living in the UK is the quality of radio broadcasting. I am lucky enough to have DAB radio  in the car. And since I spend a lot of time commuting to and from places of work, I get to listen a lot. I have broad tastes, but I tend to default to the comedy and drama station of Radio 4Extra which is full of gems. But one of the success stories that does not involve reruns of classic comedy series is a magazine show for children called The 4 O’clock show. In addition to interviews and music and discussions about books and films, they serialize a story. This is usually at the end of the hour and I occasionally catch the last few minutes of one of these. This last week it was Tom Moorhouse’s tale of water voles, The River Singers. And what lifted this one into the stratosphere, apart from the pace and excitement, was the reading by Shirley Henderson (you will know her as Moaning Myrtle from the HP films). Her vocalization of the animals was masterful in a soft Scottish accent.     I took the opportunity of listening to all five episodes and it was well worth it.  A great story for children. I’m not sure how easy it will be for anyone to listen from across the pond, but if you can, give it a whirl. You will not regret it. This is the first of 3 books. I wonder if they’ll be able to persuade Shirley Henderson to do the audio book.

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The fishingboatbobbing sea: Under Milk Wood at the Swansea Grand

UMW2To be honest, I’d rather be writing than blogging. I have no interest in sharing with the world the minutiae of my day and, like a lot of people, find a blog a bit of a nuisance. I still remember the old days when the only way you could communicate with anyone was through a letter. Yes, it’s true! before instant messaging and emails and whatsapp, it was either the telephone or a sheet of paper and a pen, preferably with a plastic tip that you could chew whilst mulling over the words, and the unspoken hope that the top didn’t leak and leave you with a lip the colour of a ripe blueberry.
And, as a college student, it used to be a bit of a chore to think up things to say even though this was a communication to those nearest and dearest to you–you mother or brother or sister, not a meandering thought bubble to the rest of the world.

These days, the idea of having to do something as primitive is frankly laughable in an age where you can Facebook your cat from the top of a mountain. If you google ‘why I don’t blog anymore’ you’ll find, ironically,  a slew of blogs on that very subject (i.e. why they don’t blog,  not why their facebooking a cat from the top of a mountain). Most of them have the same theme. A dawning realisation that the need to share every little thing with the world is a little pointless, takes time, and is usually immeasurably tedious for anyone other than the writer. It may be self serving, it may be unappealing, it may be simply pointless. So, unless I have a point, I am going to limit posts to thing of import in the context of this website.

So what is it, Rhys, that you have to say?

Well, last night I was taken, rather reluctantly, to a stage performance of Under Milk Wood in The Swansea Grand, a home town staged performance of  Dylan Thomas’ play for radio by Theatre Clwyd. I am not a great fan of theatre and this, of course, was written as a play for voices, ostensibly to be performed on the radio. But it is Thomas’ centenary year and this was an all Welsh production with authentic, homegrown accents. And so I went, and have to say, I enjoyed it. The ‘action’ of the cast is limited to augmenting the verbal badinage because the narrative is nothing more than a montage of snapshots as we revisit the lecherous, frustrated, plotting, pious drunks and gossips and feckless fishermen as they exist for twenty four hours in a dazzling, star-skinned soup of words. Yes, you could watch this play with your eyes closed if you wanted to, because it is the prose and poetry that seduces. And yet, to do so, diminishes the skill and style of this performance delivered with  tenderness and paradoxical bursts of gusto. As Kenneth Tynon said in 1956 when the naysayers insisted that this was a work, like the antithesis of childhood, that should be heard and not seen; do they, I wonder, go blindfold to symphony concerts?

It will embark on a world tour and America beckons. if you get a chance, see it because it resonates with love and despair, tragedy,  religion and humour and is what, I think, Thomas surely wanted his play to be.

And as for me and my own literary efforts, The Beast of Seabourne, number 2 in the Artefact series is almost at the printers for an October release. And the amazing Lisa Amowitz has designed another stunning cover. So, next time I post it will be to show the world this wonderful cover.
So, watch this space….

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Gimme 5.

Did I set out to write a five book series? The answer to that is no, I started out with the kernel of an idea, which was; was what if a kid found something left to him by his father that would change his life. And what if that thing had to be kept a secret to stop it from getting into the hands of people who would want to use it to do harm.five
Pretty generic as what-ifs go. But I knew as soon as this little idea for the Artefact quintet crystallized, that it had scope for lots of conflict with family, friends and authority. As I developed the story, I realised that to tell it properly would either need one book 700 pages long, or maybe four or five books in digestible,  140 page wedges.  Since I’m writing for middle grade–10 and up, that seemed to be by far the most sensible approach.

The Artefact series is, in fact one long serialised story with a beginning on page 1 of book one and an ending on the last page of book five. This is not the same as a series whereby the same characters are retained in each book/story, but each episode is a complete and different story. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books are a serial. Enid Blyton’s famous five books were series. Of course, in a 5 book serial, the trick is also to make each book more or less a stand alone story as well. It is not absolutely essential that anyone has read book one to read book two or three, but the hope is that reading any one will drive the reader to the others. And here one has has to balance the need to bring the reader up to speed in each book against boring repetition. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off.

I knew, too that this would be an SF/fantasy. The mission statement on my website is culled from Arthur C Clarke. Magic is simply our inability to understand technology and that, I would suggest,  pretty much explains the wonder of every episode of Dr Who. But I wanted to build a world that was real and yet subtly different. I wanted it to be set in the here and now and full of all the stuff that kids do like video games, texting and all the other distractions that drive everyone mad so that it would be identifiable. I knew that a chunk of 10-14 year olds  reality is school and so, school had to play a big part. But I also needed somewhere for the really good stuff to happen and so I had my protagonist live in a supposedly ‘haunted house’. This way I could begin to meld the supernatural with SF and fantasy. Has it worked? You tell me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent a lot of time working out how this would all end having established my premise. I felt that I needed to know the ending thoroughly before I launched into the writing and this is what I spent a lot of time doing. And I mean a lot of time. It is now six or seven years since I began this little adventure. Was it hard to pretend to be 11, 12 and 13 again? No, I don’t think so. The difference between adult books and children’s books, quite apart from the obvious, is the psychological reaction of the protagonist. I found it quite liberating not to have to think too much about adult themes.

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You can’t even give it away.

Today, I read about a chap in Minnesota who got arrested for throwing $1000 onto a bah humshopping Mall crowd from the 4th floor of a mall. This is possibly the winner of the ‘most ironic story of the year competition’. Why?
1/He did it while a choir sang let it snow
2/He’d just got divorced and lost his business.
3/ He’d invited his wife to the mall to see this stunt in the hope of getting his cat back.
4/ In the spirit of hopeless optimism, he felt that giving all this away might mean that he’d get it back in a ‘What goes around, comes around’ sort of way.
5/ He got arrested for his trouble. “It could have caused a  serious situation”, said the authorities.
Yes, like people actually leaving a Mall with more money than they came in with!
Watch it HERE.
So to celebrate a great idea having had scorn poured all over it, the good people at standoutbooks are giving away copies of The Obsidian Pebble and a £25/$40 dollar Amazon voucher in defiance of the authorities.

YAY. Go on–before they’re all gone–or I get arrested.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Wonders of the Invisible World – Review

 

WOIWI enjoyed this very much. These short stories are full of tenderness and a descriptive, lyrical beauty, and the themes explored were often similar, but intriguing and beguiling. I am now a fan.

The stand out story for me was Byndley and Knight of the Well a close second. Little fixes, like stepping through a door into another existence. perfect for short journeys or bedtime reading.

Great stockign filler for Christmas for those with a taste for fantasy.

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