Sunday, 28 April 2013

An interview with Prince Elphin of Avalon

Today the unicorn interviews Prince Elphin of Avalon, who wrote the ballads for the Pendragon Legacy series.

U: Why did you decide to write verses to go in the chapter headings of these books?

E: In Avalon, we don’t write down stories - we sing them instead. And if our magic is strong enough, then our stories show up as moving pictures in the enchanted crystal walls of my father’s palace, which is a much better way of letting people know exactly what happened.

U: Ah yes, we have movies! But normally we employ actors to play the characters, so I suppose your magic is stronger. You make Rhianna sound very romantic in the ballads with your use of “damsel” and “maiden” though – what does she think of that?

A maiden lives in Avalon’s hall
Her spirit purest of them all.
Brave of heart and hair aflame,
Mortal damsel with secret name.

E: It embarrassed her when she first heard me singing about her, but then she laughed so that was all right. She’s famous now whether she likes it or not, and her father’s knights are always calling her “Damsel Rhianna” so it seemed right. Anyway, she is still a maiden in the stories or she wouldn’t have been able to touch the Grail. (And I find her romantic... but don't tell her that, will you?)

U: She won't hear it from me! In "Sword of Light", you sing the whole Saxon camp to sleep so you can escape. Who taught you how to do that?

E: Ah, did you like that bit? My father, Lord Avallach, taught me. All Avalonians are born with extra fingers and the ability to play a magic harp, but we have to practice and some of us are better at it than others – it’s a bit like humans being born with the ability to swim (which I can’t do). Fortunately, Father also gave me a mist horse called Evenstar, who can trot across the surface of water, so I didn’t have to swim to the world of men when I went there with Rhianna.

So brave Rhianna crossed water wide
With the Prince of Avalon at her side
On horses born of mist and myth
Shod in silver by a six-fingered smith.

U: Does having six fingers on each hand help?

E: Of course. That’s why humans can’t manage the magic, even if they’re excellent harpists. I can’t imagine only having five fingers, although Merlin isn’t bad for someone born with human hands. He can make the pictures quite well if he concentrates, but then he’s half Avalonian - did you know that?

The trees wept gold when Merlin brought
A dying king to the fairy court
To sing of battles grave and fey
In the world of men where hope once lay.

U: Yes, Merlin is known as a powerful wizard in the world of men. Some people say you are Merlin’s replacement in these books... King Arthur had Merlin to do magic for him; Rhianna has you. How do you like being compared to an old man?

E: Rhianna tells me I’m more handsome! But I suppose even Merlin was young once, though the knights say his ears used to stick out when he was a boy, and he grew his long beard to hide them. (It’s a false rumour that I have pointy ears – the cover artist drew them that way to begin with, because someone told him I was a common elf, but my ears are actually quite small.)

U: My ears are pink. Did your ballad get edited at all?

E: Yes, it did. Damsel Goldhawk made me rewrite quite a few verses because they didn’t rhyme very well. Rhymes are difficult, so I think the edits removed a bit of the magic, but I didn’t mind reworking them for human ears. Besides, my editor has such a pretty name... I think she might even have some fairy blood. Being edited is a bit like having a bloodless duel with a friend - fun but hard work too.

At midwinter the fairy host did ride,
Souls of men to their saddles tied,
When brave Rhianna challenged their lord
To a bloodless duel for the sword.

U: You’ve written three ballads now, one for each of the first three books. Will there be a ballad in the final book too?

E: "Grail of Stars" finishes Rhianna’s story, so it wouldn’t be complete without one, and I think I’m getting a bit better at the rhymes now. Here’s the first verse:

Mist covered the land far and wide
When a squire drowned on lonely tide,
While a damsel dreamed to no avail
Searching for secrets of the missing Grail.

U: I can’t wait to read it! So what’s next?

E: Well, after dealing with Mordred and his witch-mother, we’re taking a short holiday in Avalon to recover. But I still have my harp, so if you listen very carefully in the right places you might hear its music in the mist...

U: Thank you very much, Prince Elphin. I think I might join you in Avalon!

E: Unicorns are always welcome here.

The Pendragon Legacy, complete with Elphin's ballads:
GRAIL OF STARS (publishes in hardcover October 2013, preorder now!).

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Seven Fabulous ebook covers

If covers are tricky things, series covers are even trickier. Not only do you need a cover that attracts the right sort of readers for your book, but it needs to be similar enough to the other covers in the series so that it's obvious at first glance the book is part of something bigger... though not so similar that it looks like the same book.

This is where print books have a distinct advantage over ebooks. If you turn to the back cover of a paperback, you'll often find small images of other books in the series. For example, this is the back cover of HarperCollins's original paperback version of "The Cleopatra Curse", showing the other six covers in a colourful row as they might look in an author's fantasy bookshop:

The gorgeous HarperCollins cover of  "The Cleopatra Curse"

In fact, what you'll probably find on the shelf of a bookshop is more like this (without Anubis standing guard):

The spines are usually what you see first in a bookshop.

Or, more likely (without the unicorns):

My books with some titles missing.

(And I bet you wanted one of the missing ones...!)

Well, the unicorn is never fazed by a challenge. I told him my Seven Fabulous Wonders ebook covers needed to be:

1. Simple enough to look good at thumbnail size.
2. Sophisticated enough to look good at full size on a colour tablet or e-reader.
3. Look good in black-and-white on older Kindles.
4. Look similar to the other six books in the series, but different enough so that readers know that they are seeing a different title.
5. Advertise all the other books in the series.

When I did the first e-covers for the Seven Fabulous Wonders series, I used my favourite silhouette trick to replace the artwork on the paperbacks. I photographed these against the same background, to which I'd added some stars by hand to suggest the magical side of these stories. I then fiddled around with the colours to match the original paperbacks, in case readers were still searching for missing titles when these books went out of print, colour apparently being one of the triggers for remembering a cover.

This had mixed results. I quite liked the cover I did for "The Great Pyramid Robbery" and the one for "The Cleopatra Curse", maybe because I like orange but probably because the contrast works best for that colour:

I wasn't too keen on the red for "The Babylon Game", and tried it in green for a while:

And "The Mausoleum Murder" never did suggest an ancient murder mystery to me, being blue originally, which I later changed to purple in an effort to make it a bit more mysterous:

I then published an omnibus edition with all seven titles, and hit on the idea of using the seven rainbow-coloured covers as a border. This worked better than I expected, even at small size:

But this cover, in particular, was quite girly with its pastel colours, whereas I know the original books were enjoyed by boys as well. So I knew I would have to redesign the covers for the entire series at some stage. with seven covers to tackle, I put this off until I decided to make my ebooks available for e-readers other than the Kindle, and discovered that my original covers were now too small to meet the requirements of some ebook stores. That was the kick I needed.

Keeping the original silhouettes, and the idea of a border for the omnibus, I decided to go for a completely new look and try a more sophisticated black background. I had to reverse the silhouettes, of course, to avoid a total blackout - but that's easy enough in photo-editing software. Then I added a bit of colour to the titles and around the silhouettes, and ended up with this for "The Great Pyramid Robbery":

Abandoning the original colour scheme - readers of the original paperbacks now grown up - enabled me to play around with the colours until I got a satisfyingly green Babylon Game, and finally, with the newly-released red, a proper crime story feel for "The Mausoleum Murder":

I then added a jewel-like border made from the seven covers (as before) for the omnibus edition, and ended up with this:

Click here to see the Kindle edition

Finally, since the simple black covers work quite well at thumbnail size but looked a bit basic when blown up to full screen size, I tried adding the border from the omnibus to each of them and finished with a set of covers that also advertise the other books in the series, therefore doing the job of the paperback cover in the first picture above.

Here is "The Mausoleum Murder" with the border added:

Kindle edition

To be honest, I am still in two minds about this last step, since people mostly see the covers at thumbnail size when browsing online, and on my black-and-white Kindle they all look rather samey. Since there is a danger readers might not notice the different titles at a glance if they all have borders, I am thinking the simpler versions might work better for the individual books on Kindle, leaving the border just for the omnibus. But the beauty of e-covers is that you can change them without going into a lot of expensive printing, so I am trying the more sophisticated border versions first to see what happens.

Like? Not much different? Total disaster? The unicorn would love to know what you think...


Good news for those people without Kindles! The Seven Fabulous Wonders titles are now on their way into the Apple, Kobo, and Nook stores. (The books can be read in any order, so you can ignore the series number where it is listed.)

Click here for Amazon Kindle UK

Click here for Amazon Kindle US

Click here for Kobo

Click here for Nook (US only so far... but watch this space.)

Apple itunes - Sorry, no quick link! You need to install itunes, then search for "Seven Fabulous Wonders" in the itunes book store. Mac users and those with an ipad/iphone should already have this.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

I am the Great Horse - FREE this week!

FREE until 10th April 2013
Since today is the Grand National, which was partly responsible for inspiring my Alexander the Great novel "I am the Great Horse", I thought I would re-run one of the posts from my blog series about this book:

"Where did you get the idea from?"

This is a question every author gets asked eventually. But it’s never an easy one to answer. We don’t just sit down one day in front of a blank page or computer screen, pluck an idea out of the air and start writing… at least it never works like that for me!

I don’t lack ideas for stories. They come to me all the time, at the rate of three or four a day if my mind is not too busy working on something else. They spring out of everything. Books I’m reading, newspaper articles, magazines, radio and TV, billboards in town, overheard conversations, peculiar things I see while out shopping or travelling, occasionally a dream. I write them all down – just a sentence or two – in a hardback notebook. It’s a bit messy. Here's a picture of it. (The pieces of newspaper sticking out the sides are newspaper clippings that caught my eye but I haven’t got around to scribbling in the book yet.)

At this stage my ideas are just seeds awaiting the right conditions to grow into stories, and I don’t think I’m alone in having such a lot of them. All the authors I know seem to have plenty of ideas of their own, which is why we always smile when someone tries to give us one of theirs. We’re not too bothered, either, that somebody might steal them. After all, the seedling ideas are out there lying around for everyone to pick up should they so wish. I happen to believe that if you gave the same idea to 100 different writers and sent them away to work in isolation, you’d get 100 different books. The real problem is not finding the ideas believe me! It’s the growing of them into stories that’s the hard part.

One of these ideas, scribbled down in the middle of writing my Seven Fabulous Wonders series, says simply: “Bucephalus – the story of Alexander the Great, as told through the eyes of his horse.” Underneath it I added (at a slightly later stage): “Black Beauty meets Gladiator”, because I’d just seen the film Gladiator and enjoyed the swords and sandals, battles and gore, though of course that one was Set in Roman times a few hundred years after Alexander the Great… history was never my strong point at school! As you can see, it is sandwiched between some other unrelated ideas I had at the time. (The green line I drew across much later, after the book had been written, to remind me I’d used it.)

Most of the ideas in my notebook will never be developed further – there just isn’t enough time in a human lifespan to nurture them all. And not all of them will grow into books. Some would make better short stories. Others might combine to produce something bigger. A rare few demand to be entire series. So the real question for me is not “Where do your ideas come from?” but rather “Why did you choose to write that one next?”

It’s an interesting question for a professional author, because choosing which book to write next is not as simple as choosing the one you’d really love to write. Quite often it comes down to a contract – money, in other words, which is firmly tied to what the market or your publisher wants at the time. But with this particular book I was lucky. I had the dream contract from my publisher Chicken House. It said simply “new novel”. Out of the 13 books I’ve published so far, only two have given me such complete freedom from market forces – my first novel Song Quest (which I wrote while I had another income to live off), and this one with its advance already in the bank. So it’s a good example of the muse having a rare creative freedom.

So why choose Alexander? As explained, I was doing a fair amount of research into the ancient world for my Seven Wonders series, and he kept springing up, razing whole cities and demanding I give him a bit more attention, so that’s where the seed came from. And the horse? As some of you will already know, horses are in my blood. As a child, I helped out at the local riding stables in exchange for free rides. Later, I worked as a racehorse groom, and at the time of scribbling down my idea about Alexander I was exercising up to three spirited racehorses each morning. It was a short leap of the imagination to see one of them as the young king's brave horse Bucephalas and the others in the string as those of his friends - kicking and squealing matches included!

As for why that one next, the twin towers had recently come down, prompting America to invade Iraq and later begin the un-winnable war in Afghanistan. This almost exactly mirrored what Alexander did when he invaded Persia and went on to wage his own un-winnable war in Afghanistan (Muse: the only country that defeated Alexander the Great… did you humans learn nothing?) I’m not a political sort of author – usually I prefer to hide such things in a safe fantasy setting – but the war was in the news, it was in the ether, prompting many books and novels from many different writers. So it was the right time for a book about Alexander. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but I do think the American invasion of Iraq was the trigger that made this one particular idea whisper in my ear: write me NOW.

So I gave in. I took a break from my Seven Wonders series and headed off down the library to find my first book about Alexander the Great. (Today I’d probably Google him, but this was 2003 before the world wide web had reached the Welsh border country, where I lived at the time.) As soon as I read the famous story of how the 12-year-old Prince Alexander tamed the unrideable black stallion with a head like an ox, and discovered that the only other person who could ride the wild horse was a lowly groom, I was hooked…

If you would like to read more in this series, the complete list of Great Horse posts can be found on the tab above.

More from me about the Grand National over at The History Girls today. 

And if you would like to read "I am the Great Horse", the Kindle ebook edition is FREE THIS WEEK from amazon. (Promotion ends midnight pacific time Wed 10th April)


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