Monday, 31 May 2010

Hay on Wye Festival

I have been doing a bit of unicorn snooping at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, which takes place at the historic town of Hay on the Welsh border every year during the spring bank holiday week. A few days beforehand, an entire tented village magically appears on a (often muddy) field a short walk from the real town. In these grand white tents, famous writers talk about their books, give readings and sign them, while the rest of us laze around in the sun reading and drinking coffee. Here is a picture of a naked lady showing how it is done:


No, she’s not real… she’s just one of the lovely statues decorating the site! But if you saw a unicorn it might well have been me, because the sun was making my horn glitter so much I had a hard time staying invisible.

The real town is famous for its second hand bookshops, which meant there were plenty of BOOKS around. My author kept having to be dragged away from them:

This is the honesty bookshop in the castle grounds... if you take a book, you have to put your money in the box, or the ghostly border guards will chop off your hand for stealing (don't worry, I made Katherine put that book back!)

And here is a sign the Muse likes:
THESE BOOKS ARE £1-95 EACH - LESS THAN THE PRICE OF AN AVERAGE BIRTHDAY CARD.

Did you go to the Hay Festival this year? If so, which authors did you see?
(Before you ask, yes, Katherine did an event at Hay-on-Wye too, but you’d have needed a time machine to see her because it was eight years ago... long before this blog existed or anyone had even dreamt of the world wide web. However did we all manage?)

Friday, 21 May 2010

May Reading

My author’s bedside table this month shows more non-fiction than novels, which is a sure sign her head is full of a novel of her own at the moment (that would be Genghis Khan's demolished book, now half rebuilt without a roof and looking like a building site surrounded by its piles of broken paragraphs). But she made an exception for…

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
Todd, the last boy in Prentisstown, is on the run except he doesn’t know why. And he doesn’t know why the girl he finds hiding outside town has silent thoughts he cannot hear, or even that she is a girl at first, because in Prentisstown all the men have Noisy thoughts and there are no girls or women. Apart from Viola (the silent girl), Todd takes only a knife and his dead mother’s book, which he cannot read. So begins a long (500-page) chase across country to seek the town of Haven, where Todd believes he and Viola will be safe.

The setting feels vaguely American, so at first it is not clear this is actually an alien planet. But as Todd and Viola flee the Prentisstown army and a crazed preacher called Aaron, we learn more about the aliens called Spackle and the war that gave the men their Noise germ, making their thoughts loud enough to hear. This is very scary and makes it hard for Todd to hide. The plot might be simple, but the true power of this book lies in Todd’s internal struggle with the knife, which he will never let go, even though he refuses to use it to kill a man.

Do not be put off by the length, because the Muse galloped through this book. The style is easy with a lot of short lines, and the story is told in the present tense by Todd himself, which makes the pace seem even faster. The first half of the book is brilliant but (without giving too much away) the ending left the Muse a bit depressed. Of course it is the first part of a series, so the story is not over yet…

Glitter rating: 4.5 (would have been 5 if it had been a bit more cheerful at the end!)

Eternal Echoes – John O’Donohue
This spiritual book is based on Celtic themes that explore the soul’s hunger to belong in the world. Katherine bought it with a book token given to her by her brother, so wanted something she could keep on her shelf to remember the gift, and the orange cover with gold decoration caught her pagan eye. John O’Donohue is the author of “Anam Cara”, and here you'll find a discussion of topics such as belonging, sanctuary, prisons of the mind, suffering, prayer, longing, bridges, loss, absence… all the important things in life you humans never really seem to talk about as much as you should. Not all the essays spoke to the Muse, but when your soul feels wounded you might like to dip into this book to dig out the jewels.
Glitter rating: 3

Finding Water – Julia Cameron
This is the third book in Julia Cameron’s popular “Artist’s Way” series, which the Muse believes is essential reading if you are engaged in any kind of creative life. There are three books in all, each following the same format - a mixture of essays and exercises organized into a 12-week course based around the practice of daily morning pages, weekly artist dates, and regular physical activity such as walking. Each day of the course has a new exercise to inspire and guide you on the path to joyful creativity.

If you haven’t come across Julia Cameron’s books before, the Muse recommends starting with "The Artist’s Way". Give yourself time to work through it properly and don't be tempted to rush, because the power of the course is partly the act of doing the exercises (reflecting that the act of creation is as important as the result). The second book is called "Walking in this World", which continues the artist’s journey. "Finding Water" is all about perseverance, which is often vital part way through a creative career and explains why Katherine is tackling it now. She says it's sometimes hard to find water in the human world, and the last year has been a particularly dry one. The Muse wouldn’t know about that, because there are always plenty of sweet pools to drink from in the enchanted mists, but mortal artists often go thirsty, which is a bit sad.

Glitter rating: 5(+)
The Artist's Way books really deserve a post of their own, so keep your eye on this blog if you want to know more.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Why publish?

The Muse is wondering why people want to publish books? My author – impatient as ever – says I’d better help her write something publishable soon or she’ll starve and her house will be repossessed. But Muses don’t need to buy food. We don’t have mortgages. Debt collectors don’t chase us if we can’t pay the bills. Muses only have to worry about story, and stories come in many shapes and sizes, not all of them suitable for publishing...

1. Stories that are very personal. These are written only for the author and friends/family and would interest nobody else, so there’s not much point in publishing them. Best to create a few hand-bound copies.
2. Stories that come out flawed or damaged in some way. These should not be published. They should be thrown into an enchanted pool so they can dissolve back into the mists and maybe one day inspire more stories.
3. Stories that are very similar to something their author (or, worse, other authors) have written before. These are probably publishable, but where's the challenge?
4. Stories that are fashionable or follow a tried-and-tested formula without being too risky. These seem to be favourites with publishers at present, along with type 3.
5. Stories that are different from what has gone before, have real meaning, change lives and/or inspire people. These are, in the Muse's opinion, the stories most worth publishing. They seldom sell in large numbers, however, unless they win an award, in which case publishers love them almost as much as types 3 and 4.

Katherine says 3 and 4 nourish the body but type 5 stories nourish the soul. This can be a problem when dreaming up new books. The Muse (obviously) would go for type 5 every time, but Katherine says I'd better help her write a few type 3 and 4 first. Is she right?

Authors… which type of story would you work on if you knew it was the last book you would ever write?
Readers… which type of story would you choose if you knew it was the last book you would ever read?

Friday, 14 May 2010

Judging the Song Quest cover contest

This week, my author had the honour of judging the Bookette’s cover contest to find a new look for “Song Quest”. So I am handing over my glittery Muse-horn to Katherine, who has this to say about the entries…

Authors don’t often get the chance to choose their covers, so it was a real treat to pick the winner of this fabulous competition, though a difficult task to choose just one out of such a varied and talented entry. Professional publishers spend a lot of time, energy and money to find the right “look” for a book, yet even they don’t always get it right. Sometimes a brilliant cover looks great on its own but can get lost in a shop, either because it looks too much like all the other books, or looks too different so people don’t recognize the type of book and walk past assuming they won’t like it.

I think a good cover should:
1) Make a reader want to pick up the book (most important!).
2) Say something about the story.
3) If part of a series, have the same “look” as the other covers in the series.

A very beautiful cover can sometimes tempt me to buy a book because it will look nice on my shelf, even if I’m not sure about the story. Colours are important, too, for attracting the eye. A lot of books aimed at girls these days seem to have pink sparkly ones, but Song Quest is not just a book for girls so I’m pleased none of these entries were pink!

Also, covers that appeal to adult/YA readers often don’t work as well for younger readers, so the age level of the story needs to be taken into account, too. Song Quest was originally published for readers aged 9+, which I think can be especially tricky because it falls between child and adult. Too “young” a design could put off older readers, yet too “adult” a design might not inspire younger readers.

Three of the entries stood out for me, and here’s what I thought of them:

ENTRY 1 by Sammee
Sammee’s design is professional and atmospheric, though I felt it looked a bit too much like the original American cover to win, since the aim of this contest was to find a fresh new look. Interestingly, this was the only entry to mention that the book is part of the Echorium Sequence, but since the competition rules didn’t actually specify all the lettering (title, author, series name, etc.) had to be in place, I did not penalise the others for leaving them out.


ENTRY 2 by Daria
Daria sent in several designs with a very distinctive style. I loved all the artwork, but felt that the mermaid gave the best feel for Song Quest. This design would look very striking done in dark blue and silver, and if the waves at the bottom were removed there would be plenty of space for author name etc. to be added. It would also be quite easy to give the other two books in the Echorium Sequence the same distinctive look by using their particular half creatures in place of the mermaid – a centaur for Crystal Mask, a quetzal for Dark Quetzal – perhaps using different colours (green and silver for Crystal Mask, crimson and silver for Dark Quetzal?) With the stars in the background, the covers would glitter. This is a child-friendly design without feeling too “young”, so should appeal to the 9+ readership as well as older fantasy/mermaid lovers, so it’s the one I like best for a children’s edition of the book.

ENTRY 3 by Darlyn
Darlyn’s entry stood out for its clean, professional, modern look. The title and author name and the quote from the review are all beautifully positioned as part of the design. The reflected ghostly image in the eye is clever, and although my Singers don’t actually use musical instruments in the book – she looks as if she is holding a violin? – this could easily be tweaked to agree with the story. It was not quite so obvious, however, how the other two Echorium books could be given the same cover “look”, and I also think this one has quite an adult feel. So although initially drawn to this design as an adult reader, in the end I had to consider the story level and the fact the book is part of a series in making my final decision. If “Song Quest” ever had an adult edition, though, this is the one I’d choose!

Clearly, the above three entries all have different strengths, and in the end choosing a winner must come down to personal preference. Although Entry 3 is more of a finished product, I think Entry 2 would make the best basis for a fresh, distinctive, reader friendly design that could be extended to the other two books in the series.

So the winner is… Entry 2, Daria’s mermaid!

With a special mention for Darlyn’s Entry 3.

Congratulations and a big thank you to everyone who entered. I am in awe of your talents. My agent is in discussion with publishers at the moment about possibly bringing this book back into print, so it seems this campaign is already having some effect.

Naturally the Muse loves the winning cover since mermaids are almost as magical as unicorns. You can see all the entries on the Bookette’s blog. Which one is your favourite?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Poetry Post - Hung Parliament

While the Muse has been busy demolishing Genghis Khan’s book, my author and her fellow countrymen have been busy demolishing their government… and it seems putting the government back together again is proving as much of a headache as restructuring our book!

Katherine has been rather distracted by it all, so here is a poem she wrote to make sense of things:

Number 10 is full of boxes.
Moving in, moving out,
Squabbling over seats in Commons
And common people’s lives.
We are without government,
Without agreement,
Without majority
Or single strong party.
But one thing we have kept
Is our National Debt.

© Katherine Roberts

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Demolishing a book

In my author’s guest book, Sara was curious to see what I am working on. Katherine says her website is really for her published books, but if I want to then I can blog about my muse-work here. So this post is for you, Sara, and anyone else out there who might be interested in what writers and their muses really do all day.

The truth is a writer at work is not very interesting to watch, because a lot of muse-work is invisible and happens inside their head. You know how famous authors in movies are always ripping sheets of paper out of their typewriters? They scrunch them up and throw them across the room with a curse, and then five minutes later you see them type THE END, and in the next scene piles of their books appear in the shops and in the hands of eager readers? Well, these days most writers simply hit the delete key on their computer rather than scrunch up bits of paper, and this can happen rather a lot when a book isn’t going well, which is even more boring to watch! But I’ll try to explain what I’ve been up to.

For the past month or so, while waiting for a decision on the series about King Arthur’s daughter, I have been demolishing a book Katherine wrote two years ago. It took her a year and a half to research and write this one because it is 100,000 words long, which is not quite as long as the Great Horse’s book, but almost! One of the things I am doing is making it a bit shorter, and another thing I am doing is pulling it to pieces and putting them back together again in a different order.

When Katherine first wrote this book, she was experimenting with structure, so it ended up in three parts with the same story told by a different viewpoint character three times over – or rather three different versions of the same story, according to what the characters know or believe to be true. At the heart of the story is a supernatural love triangle between a young Genghis Khan, his blood brother and his childhood sweetheart... and since it didn’t find a publisher at the time, I got the blame for writing it wrong! So I am now hard at work rewriting some of it and putting the book back together in a more linear form with the three viewpoints mixed up to see if it works any better. This is turning out to be a useful exercise, because it shows where the characters repeat things unnecessarily (these bits can be deleted) and where the plot has holes in it (which means adding something to explain the missing parts). When I’ve finished, though, I’ve got a horrible feeling Katherine might ask me to put it back into three parts again…

So what the Muse would like to know is this:
Would you prefer to read this book in sequence (easier to read with more focus on the plot)? Or would you like to see the original 3-part structure (more challenging to read with more emphasis on character)?

All feedback welcome, because this is the sort of thing that makes a Muse’s horn ache!

Monday, 3 May 2010

Blessing of the Horse

Today my author took me to a Blessing of the Horse at Cockington Court, where she used to go riding as a girl. Back in those days there was a riding stable in the village (now closed with its barns converted into houses) and hundreds of horses would come to the Blessing, filling the green. Today just a handful turned up, mostly the heavy horses who pull the carriages to give tourists rides through the park. But the tradition continues.

The horses were a bit frisky because – unlike most humans – they can see unicorns, and I think I startled them a bit with my horn glittering in the spring sunshine. The vicar came out of the church in his splendid robes and held the service in the open air. There were hymns, a reading from the Book of Numbers about a donkey with a cruel owner, and a special Horse's Prayer that might equally apply to all who serve others… muses included! The original author of this prayer is unknown (an unknown horse?) and there are several variations.

To thee, O Master, I offer my prayer:
My life and health I give into your safekeeping,
From you I ask food and water
Shelter in winter and summer
A kind hand and a quiet voice.

Do not use the whip unfairly
Or spur and hit me cruelly,
But give me the understanding
To do your will.

Thus I will serve you cheerfully
On the long trail and in battle,
In the race and over big fences,
So shall we enjoy our time on earth together.

And when I am old
And have served you well,
Pray O my master,
Do not sell me into slavery and a cruel end.
But send me to my rest with tenderness and kindness
And my gratitude will be your reward.

This I ask in the name of him who was born in a stable.
Amen.

The Muse thinks the masters of this world would do well to remember their responsibility to all those who serve and depend on them, horses or not.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Dancing in the May

Summer is a-coming in and winter’s gone away... my horn is glittering even though it’s raining here in the enchanted mists, because today is the time to dance around ancient stones and celebrate the end of winter.

On this day in ancient times, the Celts celebrated their fire festival of Beltane. They would build a great bonfire on the night of April 30th and dance through until dawn. May Day celebrations still happen all around the country with the traditional crowning of a May Queen (a maiden representing purity and beauty) and a May King (associated with the Green Man, a symbol of regrowth and fertility). The crown is usually made of flowers and leaves. Often there is a maypole as well with a traditional dance to entwine the ribbons and then untangle them again. It makes a pretty plait unless somebody goes the wrong way, in which case you just get a tangled knot. And if you're up early enough, you can forget expensive face creams because rinsing your face in the dew on May morning will guarantee you youth and beauty throughout the year… overslept like my author? Never mind, there’s always next year!

The most powerful dancing, of course, is best done at sunrise. That’s when the enchanted mists lie in the valleys awaiting the touch of the sun’s first rays. In the past (when she didn’t need so much beauty sleep) Katherine has danced at dawn with morris men in the Abbey courtyard at Bath, on a deserted hilltop in the English countryside, and in the eye of a white horse.

What did you do this year to celebrate the May?

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