Thursday, 29 July 2010

The devil makes work for idle unicorns

Katherine says I need to spend more time helping her write her next bestseller and less time moonlighting over here. She says if I don’t pull my sparkly unicorn socks up soon, she will find herself another muse.

So I need your help, faithful followers! Please consider the questions below and be as brutally honest as you like.

Is this blog boring?
Is it worth a unicorn’s glitter to blog for 15 people?
How many other people (not followers) are reading this blog?
Who reads blogs apart from other bloggers?
Are we all just blogging for one another?
Which parts of this blog do you like?
Which bits don’t you like?
What else would you like to see on this blog?
What do you think makes a REALLY GREAT author blog?
Or do you think authors and their muses should just get on with writing their books and leave blogging to everyone else?

Katherine has set me a target of 500 followers by the end of this year. If I do not achieve this, she says she’s putting me out to grass without a pension and I can forget my Christmas bonus. This is understandable because unicorns are immortal and would soon eat their way through even the largest of pension pots. But muses hate to be idle… which is, of course, why I’ve been moonlighting over here in the first place!

I await your comments. My future as a blogger (and quite possibly the fate of my muse-soul) lies in your hands.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

July Reading

Summer is a perfect time for reading - in the park under a shady tree, or on the beach taking a well-earned holiday. But Katherine tells me times are tough in the human world, so if you can’t afford a real holiday this year the Muse suggests taking a “mind-holiday” in a book instead...

Natural Flights of the Human Mind – Claire Morrall
Peter Straker is a recluse (a bit like the Muse!) who lives in a crumbling lighthouse on the Devon coast, haunted by the 78 people he believes he killed when he crashed his plane on a railway line, derailing a passenger train. He spends his days trying to piece together the lives of the victims, and has not flown since. Then he meets Imogen, who has inherited a rundown cottage in the nearby village complete with a barn containing an old Tiger Moth plane, which she dreams of restoring to its former glory despite having no money for repairs. Peter helps her mend her roof, while Imogen’s brother gets interested in restoring the plane. Peter wants nothing to do with the plane, but when relatives of the train crash victims finally track him down at his lighthouse, seeking justice, events push him into the skies once more…

This is a haunting and beautifully written novel by a Booker shortlisted author (who also wrote “Astonishing Splashes of Colour”). Her characters have lonely souls and crumbling lives to match their surroundings, yet this book also contains healing and redemption. The ending is not the obviously happy kind you might find in the enchanted mists, but that makes the book more realistic. (The Muse was a bit disappointed Imogen never finished her children’s book, though… it sounded fun!)

Next up is a book Katherine won in the Bookette’s draw last month, so the Muse says it’s about time she did a post on it! This one takes you to the Mediterranean…

Dido – Adele Geras
Queen Dido of the title is a rich and beautiful widow, mistress of the ancient city of Carthage, who falls in love with Prince Aenas when his men seek refuge in her city after escaping the Trojan War. Dido’s story is a tragic one, and the book spans a single day and night when Aenas decides to sail off into the sunset… or in this case sunrise… never to return.

You might already know the tale of Dido, but this beautifully structured and atmospheric novel also tells the stories of lesser known characters at the queen’s court – including the queen’s handmaiden Elissa, who is appointed nursemaid to Aenas’ small son and soon falls in love with the handsome prince herself. In the close community of the palace, she knows she’ll be in trouble if anyone finds out. Court poet Iopas is hopelessly in love with Elissa, while the queen’s sister Anna is hopelessly in love with Iopas, and when it becomes obvious Elissa is pregnant she gets caught in the middle. Knowing it can’t be his baby, jealous Iopas goes straight to tell the queen. Meanwhile, kitchen boy Cubby – a bit short in the brains department – is sent to guard the queen’s bed without knowing why, and sees shining strangers drifting through the palace corridors after dark. These are the gods, often present in Adele Geras's novels, meddling in human affairs. In this book you’ll meet Aphrodite the goddess of love, and Artemis the virgin huntress, who advise and comfort the women. But when grey-cloaked Hades appears, even Cubby knows all is not well…

If you like your romance set in ancient times with ghostly gods and handsome heroes, this book is for you. It is a standalone novel, but ties in well with Adele Geras’s previous books “Troy” and “Ithaca”. All of Adele's characters seem like real people, even those who might not have been real, which helps bring the history alive. If you’ve not read any of them yet, the Muse advises starting with Troy, since that one tells the story of the Trojan War that sparked off all the others.

Troubadour – Mary Hoffman
This is another historical teenage romance, but set in a very different period and location – the south of France at the time of the Crusades. It is more realistic than Dido, being based on real history rather than myth, so should appeal to those who like their romance without the gods interfering.

Bertran de Miramont, the troubadour of the title, is witness to a brutal murder in the first chapter when one of the Pope's men is killed by an assassin. He gives chase but is unable to catch the heretic, and later becomes a suspect himself. Meanwhile Elinor, eldest daughter of a minor lord and madly in love with Bertran, flees marriage to a much older man by disguising herself as a boy and joining a troupe of travelling players. As the young lad Esteve, she has a beautiful singing voice that captures the hearts of her listeners, including Bertran when he hears her sing at the castle where he has been imprisoned to await interrogation.

After a daring prison break, during which Elinor persuades her new friends to rescue her beloved, her troupe goes on the run, and so does Bertran – but in opposite directions, while the country is torn apart by war around them. Will Elinor and Bertran escape the slaughter and eventually find happiness together? You’ll need to read this well-researched book to find out.

PS. the Muse advises looking for a copy with the UK cover, because Katherine thinks it's much prettier than the US one! What do you think? (UK cover on left)

You might have noticed the Muse has stopped using glitter ratings on this blog. This is because Katherine does not think it appropriate to give creative works a mark out of ten - or five - or whatever, and has told me not to! She says books can’t really be compared to other books, because each one is a unique creation in itself… you either enjoy the story and characters, or you don’t. Everyone is a different sort of reader with different tastes and moods at different times, and even unicorns have their favourites (as you might have noticed from previous posts). So the Muse hopes you enjoyed your tour of these literary holiday hotspots, and will forgive him for not "scoring" them.

Tell us what YOU have been reading this month (and what you think about the glitter ratings?)...

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

TRICKED – edited by the Muse

Some authors hate being edited, so the Muse apologises in advance for any unwanted glitter that might find its way into Alzrith’s story during this post. But as promised, here we go…

Normally, two levels of editing are done on a story before publication. The first involves rewriting parts of it, maybe cutting out a paragraph to speed things up, or adding a sentence or two to explain something in more detail. Usually at this stage, the editor will make suggestions and leave it up to the author to go away and do the rewrite. Otherwise the editor might end up putting some of their own style on the story, which would be very un-muselike!

With “Tricked”, the challenge was to continue from an opening paragraph set by BR Collins, which can be difficult because every author has his or her own style. Alzrith did this well with the line “I didn’t know why I said I was ready”. One thing the Muse noticed was that BR Collins’ opening uses the present tense, but Alzrith changed into the past tense – did anyone else notice this? The story still works fine, but this line could also have been written: “I don’t know why I say I am ready” or even "I don't know why I said I was ready." Which do you prefer?

Then we get some dialogue between Rachel and the hero, which explains the ghost story (the bloody white ladies) they have come to investigate. Dialogue to set a scene can be a good thing in a novel, but can often work better shrunk down into a paragraph of explanation for a short story - though there is some excellent dialogue here, so it would be a shame to lose it all!

The Muse will pick up the next level of editing at the end of the story. This is called copy-editing, and involves things like correcting punctuation and grammar but without removing the author’s own style. Often the best authors don’t use “correct” grammar and punctuation, so this is harder than it looks! Out of interest, I have also put Tricked into the present tense here so you can see how it might work – although a real copy-editor would not have dared to do this! I can only get away with it because I’m a unicorn.

TRICKED (last part, edited by the Muse)
The two ladies float lazily towards us, trapping us in the middle. Rachel lets out a short scream before she falls unconscious. I catch her in my arms, crouch, and close my eyes tightly…
Laughter floats in the air and reaches my ears. It isn’t the same laughter I expect from the ladies, after all, but mocking laughter I am sure I recognize.
I open my eyes to find the place where Rachel and I are standing lit with huge flashlights hanging above the low sturdy branches. The two ladies reveal the faces of none other than the class storytellers, Leo and Kevin, their dark wigs in their arms. They are suspended in midair by some ropes attached around their waists.
‘Did you see that? They almost believed it!’ Kevin says, laughing.
Then there are my classmates, too – probably the storytellers’ accomplices to set up this dreadful night – roaring with laughter.
‘How did you do that?’ I demand, annoyed. Rachel is still unconscious.
‘With help from the whole class, of course!’ replies Leo. ‘Especially from you two and some glow-in-the-dark costumes. Aw, you look really meant for each other, Lime!’
I blush but don’t let Rachel go from my embrace. The exhausting night continues until the next morning, when Mum decreases my usual allowance by almost seventy-five percent for catching my bed empty. Maybe this is the consequence I should have been worried about all along?

Thank you very much to Alzrith for offering up this story to the Muse. Young writers are always welcome to send in their stories or poems for feedback on this blog – see the link opposite for more details.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

TRICKED - a story by Alzrith

The first brave young writer to share their work with the Muse is Alzrith, who wrote this story for the Henrietta Branford competition inspired by an opening set by last year’s Branford Boase winning author BR Collins.

It’s freezing cold in the bus shelter, and there’s only just enough light from the streetlamps to see Rachel’s face. She’s squinting past me, biting her lip.
I've had enough,’ I say. ‘My Mum’ll kill me if she notices I’m not in bed.’
Rachel frowns and ignores me.
‘I can’t believe I agreed to come,’ I say. ‘Nothing is going to happen. This is so stu—’
‘Shut up!’ She shoves an elbow into my ribs and leans forward, staring. From the note in her voice I can tell she’s seen something. I follow her gaze, but all I can see is shadows.
Rachel looks round at me. ‘Ready?’
I take a deep breath. Suddenly my heart is beating too fast.
‘Ready,’ I say.

I didn’t know why I said I was ready. But Rachel grabbed my arm and pulled me to the other side of street – which was empty from vehicles – where the trees’ shadows swallowed us slowly. The streetlights were dimming behind us as leaves and twigs crunched under our shoes. My hands began to sweat.
This was crazy. I was forced to come because Rachel threatened to tell Mum I was flunking Geometry…that stupid subject! But the darkness formed different hallucinations in my mind.
Finally, I found my own force to pull back from Rachel’s grip and came to a halt. ‘You don’t want to believe those childish tales, do you?’ I asked, panting.
Little amount of moonlight passed through umbrella of leaves above enabled me to see faintly Rachel’s frown that creased her forehead. ‘Don’t tell me you’re scared,’ she said.
‘I’m not! I just… you see, the night’s deep and I’m kinda sleepy. We better go home.’
‘No excuses.’ She grabbed my arm again. ‘We’re going to see ourselves if those childish tales are true or not. Come on, if you don’t want me to tell your Mum.’
‘Who the heck’s the source of that tale?’ I demanded, suddenly sweating. Rachel just dragged me along without knowing much about her plan.
‘Kevin and Leo. Remember those boastful storytellers?’
‘Who’d forget them? Remember their last story? It was about—’
Rachel cut me off with her warning look. ‘Don’t remind me that failure!’
‘But you—’
I was hopeless. I knew how Rachel was obsessed in any kinds of tales that wandered in all corners of school. She’d boasted some of them true while others were left unfolded. But this was the second time she forced me along with her – the first time was a failure and I didn’t want talking about it - though she knew I’d be no use... or maybe she wanted a witness for her success.
'No turning back now,’ she said with a tone of finality as she pulled me deeper into the woods and darkness. I felt my mouth dumb that I couldn’t protest. Kevin and Leo had invented another story about wandering bloody-white-ladies in some part in these woods. I didn’t know how much deal would it cost Rachel to find the bloody-white-ladies but somehow I adored her braveness. She wasn’t like me, a boy, who easily got scared.
We got too deep now and I was trembling. That was it. Being scared left me dumbfounded, if not fainted. Rachel was beginning to relax her grip when an owl’s hoot tensed me up. I looked round as I heard soft rustles behind me. Rachel’s grip went alarmingly tight.
'This is it. Leo and Kevin told me that the first sign of bloody-white-ladies’ show up was the owl’s hoot,’ she whispered and I saw her teeth flashed white in the gloom. ‘We’ve got to wait. By the way, I brought my camera,’ she tapped a small bag attached on a thick belt around her waist. I noticed it only now. ‘just in case we’re lucky enough to meet those ladies.’
Lucky? I thought not as a sudden loud rustle gave my heart a great failure and, hardly daring to believe, out of the shadows from the trees around us, emerged a glowing white curtain that floated right on front of us! No, my eyes deceived me. It wasn’t a curtain but a gown billowing in the wind, tattered in several places and smeared with blood on hems and sleeves. I looked slowly up to meet that dark waterfall that covered its face but I glimpsed glowing yellow eyes behind that waterfall.
I felt Rachel behind me, her hand holding camera trembled. My voice was lost…I couldn’t scream. Luckily, Rachel did it for me.
‘Run!’ she shouted, seized my arm, and pulled me into nowhere, clutching on one hand the camera.
There was only an instant to think as another glowing-white-bloody-lady floated ahead of us. We turned around to find the first bloody-white-lady whom we thought we escaped. I didn’t know what to be scared about—their horrible faces or I and Rachel’s doom.
Rachel raised her camera. Her fingers trembled that she didn’t know where the capture-button was. A wind blew, strong enough to knock her camera out her hand and broke on the ground. The two ladies smiled.
Trembling equally, I went to Rachel’s back to cover myself from those faces. But she also went to my back to take cover. I thought you were brave, I wanted to say…but not this time. My heart was beating too fast again.
The two ladies floated lazily towards us, trapping us in the middle. Rachel let out a short scream before she fell unconscious. I caught her in my arms, crouched, and closed my eyes tightly…
Laughter floated in the air and reached my ears. They weren’t the same laughter I expected from the ladies, after all, but mocking laughter I was sure where were from.
I opened my eyes only to find the place where Rachel and I were was lit with huge flashlights hanging above the low sturdy branches. The two ladies revealed the faces of the class’ storytellers no other than Leo and Kevin, their dark wigs in their arms. They were suspended in the midair by some ropes attached around their waists.
'Did you see that? They almost believe it!’ Kevin said, laughing.
Then there were my classmates – probably the storytellers’ accomplices to set up this dreadful night – too, roaring with laughter.
‘How did you do that?’ I demanded, annoyed. Rachel was still unconscious.
‘With help from the whole class, of course!’ replied Leo. ‘Especially from you two and with some glow-in-the-dark costumes. Aw, you look really meant for each other, Lime!’
I blushed but didn’t let Rachel go from my embrace. The exhausted night continued until the next morning when Mum decreased my usual allowance by almost seventy-five percent for catching my bed empty. Maybe this was the consequence I should be ready about.

Enjoyed this story? Let Alzrith know by leaving a comment below.

Of course most stories benefit from some editing, so in the next post the Muse will use his sparkly horn on “Tricked” to show you the sort of thing that happens before your work gets published…

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Branford Boase Award Party

Ten years ago Katherine won this award for Song Quest, which means she still gets invited to the parties hosted by Walker Books in London. It’s a long way from Torbay to London, and the train went very fast, so the Muse’s legs are dropping off. But it was an exciting occasion so I’m using my last remaining energy to write this before I disappear back into the enchanted mists for a much needed glass of magical unicorn glitterade.

Yes yes, get on with it Muse, they want to know who won… pause for glitter shower… this year’s winner is Lucy Christopher for her book Stolen, published by Chicken House and edited by Imogen Cooper. Here’s Lucy (speaking) on stage with Imogen and last year’s winner B A Collins, proving that you can never go wrong with a little black dress.

Chicken House also published Song Quest as well as other past winners, which means they now have a whole collection of little black boxes with butterflies on the cover sitting along their office windowsill.

Strangely enough, the cover of Stolen also has a butterfly on it – could the judges have been a little bit influenced???

The butterflies are a Branford Boase theme. Its wings are the two B’s from the names of writer Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase, who founded the award to find new talent in children’s books, and Walker Books decorated their warehouse accordingly (look on the curtains)...

For younger writers, the Henrietta Branford Young Writing Competition runs alongside the main award. Here is Jacqueline Wilson presenting her prize to Sarah Hunter, one of the winners.

The other young winners escaped the stage before the Muse could work out how to use the flash on Katherine’s camera… it’s not easy with four hooves, especially with a glass of orange juice in one of them and a miniature pizza in another… But you can find a list of all the young winners and lots more pictures on the Branford Boase website.

Katherine says winning the Branford Boase Award feels a bit like a fairytale, which is probably why Lucy looked so happy (though the Muse noted she was wearing red shoes… has she read that one???) Jacqueline Wilson, complete with sparkly silver sandals, was rather like the fairy godmother and generously sponsored the prizes. Katherine felt a bit like Cinderella, having to run away before the end to catch her train home. She sends apologies to all those people she didn’t manage to find in time to say a proper goodbye, but you’ll be pleased to know she got home just a few minutes before midnight, when her party dress turned back into rags and I turned back into a grumpy old dragon… that would have been embarrassing!

If you enjoy writing stories of your own and want to come to the party next year, then why not enter the Henrietta Branford Writing Competition? Next time it could be YOU meeting Jacqueline Wilson and all those other famous authors!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Calling Young Writers

Katherine has just returned from a secret authors’ conference in a magical English shire. This is the view from her room. She’s not allowed to breathe a word of what went on behind closed doors, but she has returned full of crazy ideas that mean I’m going to have to work pretty hard in future, I can tell you!

My first task is to make this blog more useful and interesting for young writers. I’ve already posted a link to the excellent Young Writer magazine, which once ran a serial based on “Crystal Mask”, but people often ask Katherine to read their stories, too. So the Muse has decided to make the enchanted mists into a space where you can share your work with other readers (if you’re brave enough!) and gather comments about it. The Muse will also comment, and maybe even other professional authors and book people who read this blog, you never know. The idea is to get some feedback on your work and have a bit of fun with your writing. From time to time, the Muse will also include posts with writing exercises to help get you inspired.

To get things going, THE MUSE NEEDS YOUR STORIES AND POEMS! If you are under 18 and would like to publish your work on this blog for feedback, then please send a maximum of 1000 words pasted into your email (not as an attachment) with your pen name to the Unicorn. If you’ve written a novel or a longer story, then it might be possible to post this up in several episodes, but it depends how many people send in their work... we muses like to be fair.

ARTWORK is also very welcome - whether to accompany your story/poem or inspired by one of Katherine's books! Please send this as a .jpeg or .gif picture file attached to your email (keep the original for yourself).

Please note:
1. Publication on this blog does not stop you from sending or publishing your work elsewhere.
2. There is no payment.
3. You keep copyright in your work at all times.
4. If you also interested in a critique/edit of your story, please let the Muse know. This might be possible (for stories only) as a follow-up post.

Interested? Then spread the word and let’s get writing…

Friday, 2 July 2010

ALCS Exeter roadshow

The wonderful people from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society travelled all the way to Exeter yesterday to meet their members, so I gave Katherine a prod with my horn and off she went (I went too, of course, but stayed invisible so she wouldn’t have to pay the unicorn fare for me on the train). Here are Lucey and Alison from ALCS, still smiling after the long day.

In the afternoon we discussed money and where it comes from (a human obsession) with ALCS expert Barbara Hayes and ate delicious sticky lemon cake. Later on, we discussed stories and where they come from (a Muse obsession) with local children’s author Mal Peet accompanied by wine and nibbles – though after another gentle prod with my horn Katherine had orange juice, because it's always good to keep a clear head in public in case there are any paparazzi about… and a good job she did, because here is Mr Mal Peet snapped with a glass in his hand!

Mal won the Branford Boase Award a few years after Katherine did for his first book, and has since become a well-regarded teen author. The reason his books are published for teens is that they contain sex. Well, the new one does… we all got a sneak preview when he read from the manuscript. Unicorns, of course, don’t know ANYTHING about sex (unicorn foals appear by magic out of the enchanted mists, and we only talk to maidens) so I won’t go into details here… if you're curious, I'm afraid you’ll have to wait for Mal’s book! But the Muse can tell you it is set in the year Katherine was born - 1962 - when Mal was a teenager growing up in the wilds of Norfolk and still innocent of the world.

To give you an idea of how innocent everyone was back then, here is the official advice for nuclear attack apparently given out in schools at the time:
1. Dig a shallow pit.
2. Cover your bare skin (hood over head, etc) and lie down in the pit.
3. When the bombs have stopped, wait two hours to make sure.
4. Upon emerging, remember to brush the “fallout” off your clothes and wipe your shoes before getting on with your life.
Mal said he thinks Norfolk was a bit like Devon back then… sounds to me it was rather more like the enchanted mists!

Many thanks to ALCS for hosting the day and providing such delicious refreshments.

The Muse would like to test the effectiveness of the 1962 advice for nuclear attack, so here is a short survey: has anyone reading this blog survived a nuclear bomb in this way? Do you think it would work?


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