Sunday, 31 January 2010

January Reading


As well as writing books, it may surprise you to know my author also reads them – and, fortunately for all the other authors in the world, she reads a lot more than she writes. This is not because she likes reading more than writing. It’s time. Since she takes an average of nine months to write a book and only nine days to read one, by the Muse’s calculations she gets through about three and a third books every month, or 40 books a year… am I right? (Remember I have to do this calculation in base 4 because I’ve only got four hooves – sometimes it’s tough being a unicorn!) Anyway, at the end of each month I’ll take a peek at my author’s bedside table and tell you what she reads when she thinks nobody’s looking…

1. ALIEN INFLUENCES – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I happen to know my author has read this book at least twice, which means it’s comfort reading. (She needs some comfort, because it’s snowing outside and she’s been recovering from flu.) It’s a science fiction novel that tells the story of a group of children who live on a planet where the aliens are creatures with long, graceful limbs called Dancers. Desperate to grow up so they can escape their planet, the children try out a Dancer ritual that turns young Dancers into adults… the only problem being that this involves removing their friends’ hands, hearts and lungs to make way for new organs. Tragically, of course, this kills their friends and frightens the adults, who think they have been “influenced” by the Dancers. The children are separated, tried for murder, and scattered across the Galaxy. The book follows John - the leader – as he sets out to find his surviving friends, a task he completes only after he discovers the secret of the Dancer jars filled with strange silver light.

2. ON WRITING – Stephen King
Yes, my author is still trying to discover Stephen King’s secret! This is an entertaining and honest book about life as a famous author, along with some thoughts on writing and where stories come from. It won’t teach you how to write, but it will give you some tips on where to find stories and characters. If you’re a fan of Stephen King, you also get the story of his life so far and a suitably horrific account of how it almost ended. By the way, did you know Stephen King’s muse lives in the basement and smokes cigars…? So unhealthy!

3. TALES OF KING ARTHUR – retold by Felicity Brooks
An illustrated collection of short stories based on the famous legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, retold for younger readers. My author’s excuse is that she’s writing her own Arthurian series… oops, not supposed to tell you that yet! Anyway, she liked the cover.

(...and a third) THE TIBETAN ART OF SERENITY – Christopher Hansard
In the Muse’s opinion, my author needs this book more than any of the others! It has words of wisdom based on Buddhist teachings about success, failure, money, love, life, the universe and everything. It also contains meditations to calm you down when you’re stressed. It’s the sort of book you dip into, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s still there next month.

Have you read any of these books?
Let the Muse know what you’ve been reading this month!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A Zook’s Tale (avoiding unmentionable animals).

My author tells me pigs are out of fashion these days in publishing circles, which means I’m not allowed to post her first story here! I think she might have made that up to stop me embarrassing her… but bowed horn if I have offended in any way. Is anyone offended?

Pigs are not half as beautiful as unicorns, so I promised her I would not mention them again. I am still going to post her story, though, because I am a muse and stories are more important to me than fashion. To avoid offending anyone, I’m going to change the unmentionable animal into a fantasy creature called a zook. The story will work just as well, maybe even better. (In case you’re wondering, a zook is bright yellow, about as big as your thumb, can make itself invisible, and comes from the far side of the Universe…)

“A Zook’s Tale” - written by Katherine Roberts when she worked at GEC, edited for the modern reader by Reclusive Muse.

My first impressions of Planet Earth were somewhat less than favourable. It all began with the GEC Canteen, and in particular with a certain zookmeat pie.
You can hardly be expected to understand my feelings – you are only human, after all. Indeed, I have since observed your great enthusiasm to enter this place called Canteen. But maybe there is someone out there who has a glimmer of sympathy for the unique effect a zookmeat pie can have on a zook?
Before I describe this effect in gory detail, I should perhaps explain how I came to be stranded on your planet in the first place. It was the Most Important Zook’s fault, of course. For reasons best known to herself, she declared that our planet had been singled out of the zook cosmos to compile an unbiased, complete, truthful, official, secret report on the hitherto unknown race of humans, and she honoured me with the position of Chief Observer. In other words, the boss ordered me to come down here and spy on you lot.
I had a rotten journey. My ship materialised inside your planet and promptly went out of control, heading for the surface like a maddened mole. I am afraid it left a rather obvious track across your beautiful grass – sorry. At least it disintegrated on schedule, although a trifle too enthusiastically, since my cosmic sandwiches were blasted into cosmic atoms before my zook stomach had a chance to sample them. Which was why I decided to begin by doing some snooping around your Canteen.
The letters GEC puzzled me a bit, until I realised they stood for “Give Everybody Chips”. I must admit I was most impressed by the chips and, these being the main ingredient in one of my favourite swills back home, I borrowed a few. The apple crumble was not bad, either. In fact, I was doing a grand job of clearing up the leftovers – quite invisibly, of course – when I came snout to crust with the zookmeat pie.
So to the gory detail… I completely lost my head.
Not only did I lose my head, but I dropped the chips I had borrowed as well as the apple crumble and the leftovers. It was a good thing I was invisible, because all this made quite a mess. Luckily, there were plenty of human elbows around at the time. I managed to jog one sufficiently hard to provide a falling plate as cover for my escape. Then I ran, clutching my head and hoping the blood was invisible too.
Soon after my escape from the Canteen, I found a quiet spot out back where I could send my first, and what I believed to be my last, report to the Most Important Zook. I am embarrassed when I remember what that report contained, but I had an excuse. After all, what would YOU have said if your head had just fallen off with the shock of seeing a human pie? (I realise this is a hypothetical question, since the chances of the GEC Canteen serving human are fairly remote, and I’ve heard it does not go that well with chips, anyway.) To get back to my report, it could well have been my last, and most certainly would have been without the New Product Search Team.
There lay my body, headless. There lay my head, bodiless - and in a most uncomfortable position, I might add, with a grass stalk stuck up its left nostril. There lay I, prepared to meet the Great Yellow Zook Manufacturer to whom we must all ultimately return. In short, I was dying. Worse still, I was dying visibly. So I crawled into the long grass and hid as well as I was able. Fortunately for me, this was not at all well.
Sometime later, human feet stomped past on their reluctant way from the Canteen to their office, paused as they almost trod on me, and a large hand lifted my body out of sight. I desperately tried to remember what the Most Important Zook had said about dying. Could the body die before the head, or was it the other way around? You humans have no idea of my anxiety when that hand took my body away. Thankfully, my head was not alone for long. Another hand soon rescued it from its uncomfortable position. Then both hands did their best to rebuild me.
I must admit I had my doubts, in spite of the grand claims my rescuers made about having the technology. Yet my fears were ungrounded. When the final joining was made, I felt only relief at being able to sneeze the grass seeds out of my left nostril.
Those who rebuilt me were somewhat shy at first, but they soon relaxed in my company. I have since been able to send some super reports on human coffee consumption back to the Most Important Zook. Of course the New Product Search Team, as my pet humans like to call themselves, have no idea of my origins and think I am their mascot. A certain amount of deception is necessary in my job so I try not to disillusion them, although I do sometimes find it hard to keep out of their discussions.
I suppose one day I shall be recalled back home. There are enough bits lying about the New Product Team offices to build myself another ship, so that’s no problem. I only hope my humans will not miss me too much. If you see them, tell them to keep on Giving Everybody Chips. Tell them thank you. And tell them their ideas were really very good – for humans.
THE END

Muse’s note: This story was written for readers who worked at GEC’s factory, so it has some jokes that demonstrate the importance of always keeping your readers in mind when you write. In case you’re as baffled as I was when I first read it, GEC used to make electronic chips for computers, as well as serving delicious chips in their canteen at lunchtime... OK now? (And if you’re American you will probably not get this joke at all, since I gather you call them fries over there?!)

Friday, 22 January 2010

Katherine’s first ever stories!

After sending you all away to read the first story you ever wrote (you can come back now!), I thought I’d dig out my author’s first ever story so you can all have a good laugh. This has proved more difficult than you might think, since back when my author wrote her first story, computers had not been invented. In fact, she says she didn’t even write her first stories down. She just told them to her little brother at bedtime…

Katherine’s first ever story (aged 8)
Snowy, Silks and Soot.
Actually a series of stories about three magical dogs who lived in kennels in the clouds. Snowy was a proud white terrier, Silks was a beautiful golden retriever, and Soot was a black mongrel who got into a lot of trouble. Her brother (aged 4) had three little plastic dogs he used to play with, so that was where the characters came from. She says she can’t remember the plots! But they had some amazing adventures and kept her little brother amused (a-muse-d, get it?).

Katherine’s first illustrated book (aged 12)
The Story of Flax.
The first story she kept. It was neatly typed on a little typewriter she got for her birthday, and she illustrated it herself. It tells the story of Flax, a palomino pony who has all kinds of adventures in a riding school, circus, etc, before finding happiness. In the Muse’s opinion, the illustrations are better than the words! But it’s quite an interesting story because it’s told by Flax himself, rather like Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalas tells his own story in “I am the Great Horse”. My author seems to like doing books straight from the horse’s mouth… I must help her write a unicorn’s story one day.

Katherine’s first novel (aged 16)
The Infinity Stone.
A science fiction novel about some telepathic teenagers who build a spaceship to escape their boring planet in search of adventure. Of course they find the galaxy is not quite what they were expecting, and get into all sorts of trouble as they search for the secret of the Infinity Stone and discover why space travel was banned on their home world. My author got into trouble, too, for typing this book on blue and yellow paper. Publishers do NOT like blue and yellow paper! So it never got published, which is maybe just as well, because back then I was only a shadow in the enchanted mist and would not have been able to blog about it.

Katherine’s first published story (aged 22)
A Pig’s Tale.
Well, all authors all have to start somewhere! This short story won a competition in GEC Measurement’s in-house magazine, after they found a small yellow plastic pig beheaded in the grass outside their New Product building. The competition was to invent a story for the pig to say how it got there. My author worked for GEC at the time as a mathematician, but she was obviously a frustrated writer even then… The story is quite short, so I’ll post it on this blog once I’ve had a chance to copy it into my author’s computer (she’ll probably kill me).

What was YOUR first ever story?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Stranger Eyes – Muse’s Secret Formula for revising your story.

As you might have gathered, my author has just come back from holiday. She has been catching up with all the emails and letters that arrived while she was away, so I have come over here to blog because she always tells me to get lost if she’s stressed. But the bemused (be-muse-d, get it?) look on her face when she opened her front door reminded me of my Secret Formula for revision, so this might be a good time to tell you about it.

You know how, when you’ve been away for a while and just come home, your house or your bedroom seems strange? It has all the same things in it that you left there (assuming you haven't been burgled!) and yet it almost seems like someone else’s place. Well, my author had just this feeling when she walked back into her house on Sunday. She immediately saw several things she had not noticed before… like a hole in the curtain that needed sewing up (it was Tara’s claws, not my horn – honest!), like the ash in my incense burner that she had forgotten to clean out (can’t blame me for that), and the mistake she made when she painted her bedroom wall bright orange. But she also saw good things like her sunny kitchen, the first primrose in her garden, and how handsome my picture looks on her study wall.

Writing is a bit like this. When you first write a story, it feels fresh and exciting, rather like moving into a new house or room. Then you fix it up the way you want it, and after a while it starts to feel familiar. By the time you’ve finished writing it, your story seems older and a bit grubby round the edges. You might even be bored with it. DON’T PANIC! This does not mean your story is boring! It simply means you have become too familiar with it, and can’t see the good bits (or the bad bits).

At this stage, it is a good idea to take a holiday from your work. You don’t have to go skiing like my author did… though it’s a good excuse if you have the opportunity! You don’t even have to leave the house. Just put your story away in a drawer or a file on your computer and leave it there for a few weeks. Try not to think about it, and definitely don’t read it. Work on something else if you still feel like writing. Do your maths homework if you’re really bored. Then, when you pull out your story again at the end of those few weeks, you should see it with different eyes… “stranger eyes”.

With these eyes, it is much easier to spot any bits that aren’t working (like my author’s orange walls), spelling mistakes, and plot holes. You can then fix these things. Very few authors get things right the first time, but just occasionally you might see with your “stranger eyes” that your story is brilliant and needs no further work. In that case, treat yourself to a drink from my enchanted pool and relax, because it’s done!

Muse’s Secret Formula for revision:
1. Finish your story.
2. Hide your story away for a few weeks (My author says six weeks is good).
3. Read your story again and mark any spelling mistakes, bad grammar, etc.
Think about the ending. Does it still work for you? If not, you can change it.
Think about the characters. Do they still seem like the people you invented? If not, you can change them as well, maybe give them some extra dialogue to make them more real?
4. Rewrite your story, fixing any mistakes you spotted.
5. Go to step 2 and repeat this process as many times as you like. (My author usually does this three or four times before sending a book to her editor, and then does it all over again when the editor suggests more changes.)

Another way to improve your work is to ask an actual stranger to read your story. They will see it with “stranger eyes” immediately, rather like showing someone your room for the first time. This can be a bit scary because they might say something hurtful about it, but they can help open your own “stranger eyes”. But beware! If you show your story to your mum, she will probably say she likes it because she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. This is not very helpful. The same might happen with a close friend. You need to find someone you trust to give you an honest opinion. My author relies on her editor, and most editors are excellent because it’s part of their job. If you don’t have an editor yet, you might try a librarian or a teacher. If you are on a creative writing course, your tutor will help. Or you could try publishing your story online and asking other writers/readers to comment on it. But always remember you can’t please everyone all of the time, and in the end the most important opinion is your own… after all, it’s YOUR story.

If you don’t believe there are such things as “stranger eyes”, go back and re-read the first story you ever wrote. If it seems like someone else’s story, then you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Do you wish you could change it? No story is perfect, so feel free!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Why you never see a unicorn on skis.

Bowed horn for my long absence! But my author went away one snowy morning with a heavy suitcase and a shovel in the back of her car and did not come back. She left her cat Tara…



who started making horrible mewing noises and scratching at the doors. Naturally I was worried about my author (not to mention poor Tara) so I galloped after her just as fast as I could, over hill and through dale and across water – or rather ice.

I finally caught up with her near a place called Geneva where some big metal birds with wings were circling in a blizzard. My author had travelled inside one of these birds across the Wide Water. I could see her face looking out of the glass holes in its belly but I couldn’t do anything to help her until the bird landed and spit out all the humans it had swallowed earlier. My author then took her heavy suitcase up into the High White Mountains, where I needed all the magic in my golden hooves to gallop through the snowdrifts after her without being seen. I thought she would quickly get cold and come home. But she put on a quilted suit and fixed a pair of long planks to her boots. She sat on a dangling chair until she was almost up in the enchanted mists with me. Then she unexpectedly JUMPED OFF THE CHAIR and slithered all the way to the bottom again as fast as a unicorn can gallop! Crazy. It was all I could do to keep up with her, so I didn’t get any pictures. You'll have to make do with the chair after she jumped off...



I think she glimpsed me out of the corner of her eye a few times, leaping between the pines with my mane and tail sparkling in the sunshine. But it’s too cold for me in the High White Mountains, so I hurried back here as soon as I could to feed poor Tara. My author didn’t even miss me. She told her friends she’d seen a chamois - what an insult! Anyone can tell the difference between a unicorn and a chamois...

NOT A UNICORN!


Why didn’t I stay with my author, I hear you ask? Well, someone’s got to write this blog. Besides, I’ve got four feet and the sliding thing looks plenty difficult enough with two. We muses have our own ways of dealing with snow and ice – it’s called keeping our golden hooves warm at a blazing fire of new ideas. Which is why you’ll never see a unicorn on skis, because we are far too busy thinking up new books while our authors play in the snow.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Some pictures of me

I know you're asking. How does my author know I'm a unicorn, and when did I first enter her life?

If you're new to my author's books, it may surprise you to know I've been bringing her ideas out of the enchanted mists for about twenty years now. She started out by writing short stories. Then she won a competition for one of them and got some prize money. Since it wasn't enough to pay any bills, she decided to buy something special with it to remind her of her success.

Amazingly (could it have been magic?) as she was walking through town the next day, she saw some unicorn book ends in a shop window. It took only a gentle nudge from my horn to make her spend her competition winnings on them. Here they are, holding up some of her books:



I know, I know... I don't sound your typical sweet and sparkly sort of unicorn! But I was a foal in those days, and that's what unicorn foals look like. My author also has my poster on her wall, which she found a few years after the book ends. This is more like me now:



She burns candles and incense for me, naturally. We muses have to be charmed.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Story beginnings

I’ve been pestering my author for her New Year resolutions so I can put them on this blog for you to all see. But she just grunted, put her head under the pillow and told me to go away because it’s too cold to get up yet. There I was bright and early on January 1st with my new blog… and she still hasn’t got out of bed, four days later. I think she’s a bit angry with me because she’s found out what I’m doing online. Of course she claims she’s dreaming up ideas for new stories, because apparently she’s been working really hard all Christmas holidays redrafting her latest book and has finally just about finished it (about time, because I was starting to get bored). But as I told you, new ideas are my job as her long-suffering muse. So what’s my author doing? Trying to make me redundant already? I hope not!

Anyway, while my author’s still dreaming I thought I’d trot softly over here and bring you some first lines from her published books, in case one of your New Year resolutions is “write a book”. You can’t use her lines in your story, of course, because they’re copyrighted, but it might help give you some ideas for your own beginnings.

Natalie saw the first spell in the supermarket car park…
This one’s from Spellfall. Do you like it? Do you want to read more? As you can probably guess, this book combines the real world (supermarket car park) with magic (spell).

The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the beach…
From Song Quest. No supermarket car park here, because it’s a fantasy world. The clue is in the strange names, although the beach could be in our world so you'd need to read a bit further to make sure.

The chariot wreck had been a bad one…
From The Cleopatra Curse. A story about chariot racing.

The dare was Reonet’s idea, but Senu had to do it…
From The Great Pyramid Robbery. Again, the clue is in the names, which are ancient Egyptian.

The day the Macedonians attacked Halicarnassos, Alexis was in the narrow streets of the craftsmen’s quarter looking for his father…
From The Mausoleum Murder. The names should give you a clue again, but more interestingly you get to know Alexis’ father is missing. He’s missing because he's the murder victim, and the book is an ancient murder mystery.

My name is Bucephalas, and you should know right away I’m no Black Beauty…
From I am the Great Horse. That’s the book written by Alexander the Great’s horse. I’m a bit upset about him muscling in on my patch, frankly, but you get the idea.

The trick is to grab the reader’s attention right away and make them curious enough to read on, and it’s trickier than you might think! (Do you want to read any of these books? Which one? Why?) A good general rule is to start your story at a time of change, when something interesting is about to happen to the characters.

So how did my author do?

Seeing a spell in a supermarket carpark is quite interesting, at least it doesn’t happen to everyone every day. (Although if you have a unicorn as a muse, it happens more often than you think.)

The start of Song Quest is a bit vague with “the day everything changed”, but it was my author’s first book, when I was still a foal with a soft little horn, so you'll have to make allowances. Better would be to tell the reader what changed – in this case a ship was wrecked on the island where Rialle and her friends live.

I still quite like the chariot wreck, except for the fact some horses might have got hurt. At least you know there’s a chariot race involved, and the story is probably set in Roman times... although my author tells me people in London have been trying to revive chariot racing lately, which is a bit worrying if you’re a horse... O2 Arena: Ben Hur Live

A dare is always interesting… What is the dare? Who is daring whom? Will they do it? But I’m not too happy with this, because if you didn’t know the names were Egyptian you might not realize it’s an exciting story about robbing a pyramid. Luckily it had a good title, and my author’s publisher made a good cover.

An invading army attacking your home is quite an interesting place to begin, but Alexis and his family obviously also have some history you will find out about as the story unfolds. In this case, the murder happened many years previously. Many murder mysteries begin with the actual murder, which would also work quite well if you are a blood-thirsty sort of writer.

The Great Horse breaks my rule, of course. Well, he broke most rules and he wouldn’t listen to me. His book is written in the first person/horse (like this blog), rather than the third person (using “he” and “she”) like all the others, so I suppose he gets away with it. If nothing else, it shows his character because he’s certainly no gentle horse like Black Beauty. He’s big and battle-scarred and very full of himself, so at this stage I think I’ll just trot back into the enchanted mists before he bites me.

Let me know some of your beginnings, and I’ll try to get my author to comment on them when she's talking to me again.

Friday, 1 January 2010

In the beginning there was a unicorn...

Starting a blog is like starting a story. So this isn’t a beginning, not really. The characters already exist and have probably done so for some time. They will have done some interesting things you may get to hear about as the story continues, plus a lot of uninteresting things you don’t really need to know about so you probably won’t. This is only a beginning for you, the reader, where you meet the characters for the first time. So I'll get on with it and introduce us.

First, there’s my author. That’s Katherine Roberts, the one in the small picture galloping down a beach on a black horse called Lomand. She’s shy and hates people taking photographs of her, but I’ll do my best to sneak a few into this blog for you while she’s not looking.

Then there’s me, Reclusive Muse. I’m the one who does all the hard work while my author just writes the book words. There used to be three of us, and then there were nine. All romantic young women, I believe. You can look them up here if you’re interested but don’t go thinking I’m one of them. I’ll let you into a secret. There’s a lot more than nine of us now. There has to be when you think about it, doesn’t there? After all, there are considerably more than nine authors in the world. You might be one, or maybe you’re planning to be one or even now training to be one. You can probably share a muse with other authors, and some do manage to write this way. But look at it from my point of view. It’s hard enough being the muse of one author, especially an ambitious one like KR, who thinks I ought to be at her beck and call twenty-four seven. Anyway, I'm male and my author thinks I’m a unicorn. Well, she would! Unicorns and other mythical creatures turn up in her books all the time... but more about them later. For now, you can think of me as a unicorn, too. It’ll make things easier, and it’s an excuse for a nice picture. My appearance changes, of course, depending on my mood.

Anybody else in this story? Yes, of course, but I’ll introduce them later. As I keep telling my author, you can’t squash everything in at the beginning, or the reader will get confused and the rest of the story won’t be very interesting. Besides, my author might miss me if I’m gone too long. She doesn’t know I’m here… and don’t you dare tell her, or I’ll be in trouble. She thinks I’ve just trotted back into the enchanted mists to dig up some more ideas for her new book. As if I would dirty my beautiful horn on such things! I’m a MUSE, not a gold-digger. If you’re very good, leave lots of nice comments on this blog, and buy my author’s books, I might even give you a few tips until your own muse turns up. Do we understand each other? Good! Then hop on my back, hold on tight, and let’s get started...

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