Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Rhino Hunting - part 2

I am learning quite a lot on my rhino hunt (Paignton Zoo's Great Big Rhino Trail - see previous post).

1. Don't assume you know your own town. Louis-the-Rhino took quite a bit of finding! He's Torbay's moving rhino named after Louis Tiffany, creator of the stained glass lamps, and I never even knew the "secret watery path" up from the zoo existed until I had to look for him. Luckily, I'd already tried out the new cycle track at the Torbay Velo Park so that gave me a clue...

Louis is bigger than my bike!

2. Even large, colourful rhinos can be difficult to spot if they are standing in busy surroundings. Here is Paignton's very own How Many in the middle of town, and bright and beautiful Herby hiding in the bus station - I walked right past him once and had to return at a quieter time for the photo.

Herby waiting for a bus.

3. Sometimes you have to be willing to go the extra mile.

These two rhinos at Kingswear steam railway station and at nearby National Trust property Coleton Fishacre required a whole day out, with quite a few challenging hills en route that provided breathtaking views of Dartmouth and the Royal Naval College across the river.

Rupert in the quarry at Coleton Fishacre
(you get 20 minutes free entry to see him)

Dartmouth Naval College seen from Kingswear

Paignton-by-Numbers waiting for the steam train at Kingswear station

Two of the Torbay rhinos are up at Babbacombe, where you can visit the Model Village complete with some mini rhinos. The cycle up from Torquay via Meadfoot beach was very scenic, and the sky still blue in the last few days of September:

Tranquillity and me in the sunshine... bike acting as camera stand.

Down the Road (yes, those houses are meant to be upside-down!)
At the other end of the bay in Brixham I found two more, including one of my favourites "Why the Caged Bird Sings" named after the Maya Angelou book of the same name.

Why the Caged Bird Sings - clearly related to Tranquillity?

Woodland Safari (not so easy to stop here if you're in a car)

And this rhino isn't strictly in the bay at all, he's teeing off at the first hole of Dainton Golf Club in Ipplepen, where you'll find a real-life watering hole with a great view of the greens:

The Watering Hole

4. There are as many different interpretations of rhinos as there are artists. We just have room for Zero, the clever Goodrington rhino who isn't really there, since his ribbons are supposed to curl around a rhino-shaped space:

Zero - am I here or not?
(at least I am still on my plinth, unlike some of my poor Exeter friends)

You can see 24 Great Big Rhinos in and around Torbay altogether (including Louis the roving rhino) and I've managed to visit nearly all of them by bike making good use of the cycle/shared paths across the Bay, so if becoming a tourist in your own town makes you happier then I'm happy!

The Trail ends on 9th October so you still have time to catch the rhinos in their locations before they all return to the Zoo for a well-deserved rest before the auction.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Rhino Hunting on the English Riviera

It's World Rhino Day, which interests my muse since rhinoceroses are probably the closest creature in this world to unicorns, having one large horn on their heads (forget that stumpy one just behind, it's barely a foal's bump). So I've been rhino hunting this month - but don't worry, the only shooting I've been doing is with my camera! Here's one I bagged earlier... 

Spike: Dreaming of the Herd
The Great Big Rhino Trail 2016 is a public art project in Torbay, Exeter and the surrounding area, where 40 life-sized rhinos such as poor lonely 'Spike' dreaming of his herd outside the tourist office are decorated by different artists and sponsored by businesses around South Devon. If you've visited the English Riviera or Exeter this summer, you might already have seen some of them. If not, then there is one of our rhinos at Paddington Station and another at Bristol Temple Meads where you can catch trains to get here (that makes 42). At the end of the summer, the travelling rhinos will return to Paignton Zoo, when the whole collection will be auctioned off in support of endangered real-life rhinos.

It's been good fun cycling around my local area trying to photograph as many of these strange and colourful beasts as I can. Here are some of my favourites so far:

Sir Richard the Rhinoheart stands in a historic spot at Torre Abbey, between Paignton and Torquay:

Sir Richard the Rhinoheart at Torre Abbey

Stardust has definite girl appeal and stands outside the Boathouse cafe at the end of child-friendly Preston sands, where beach huts make the perfect backdrop to her sparkly pink hide:
Stardust... does my bum look big in this?

Lost Time and the Riviera Wheel
Lost Time reflects the Riviera Wheel in the background, shot here on a cloudy but warm September day on Torquay's sea front... bet there's a great view across the bay from the top!

While Rhinosaur shows how closely related rhinoceroses are to dinosaurs, with the addition of a blue reptilian collar and small friend perched on his back in a tropical setting at Living Coasts on Torquay's harbourside.

Rhinosaur (those extra horns are cheating!)

Stella stands guard outside Paignton Zoo, where the Trail starts, sporting star constellations on her glowing blue hide:


Hulk-o-Rhino is ready to dig for victory at Occombe Farm between Preston and Marldon, bursting out of his shorts with green muscles and the addition of a spiky punk hairdo.


The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly brings a playful note to Union Street Shopping Centre in Torquay, with all the animals of the famous rhyme chasing one another around her old-lady costume.


Finally, for those with a sweet tooth, here are two rhinos I think should have swapped places... Big Sweetie can be found outside the English Riviera International Conference Centre (where the auction will take place) while Oh I do Like to Be Beside the Seaside lurks hopefully outside what must be the sweetest candy shop in Paignton:

Oh I do like to be Beside the Seaside

    More colourful rhinos to come!
Big Sweetie

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Ben Hur and other great chariot races!

You can take the author away from the racehorses, but you can't take the racehorses out of the author...

I've written a book about Roman chariot racing already - The Cleopatra Curse (Book 7 of my Seven Fabulous Wonders series originally published by HarperCollins), in which lighthouse boy Zeuxis becomes a charioteer and races a chariot in Alexandria's hippodrome to win his freedom during the riots of Queen Cleopatra's reign. It was a very exciting book to write, and I always knew I'd do another chariot racing book some day.

I'm in the early stages of a new project about a Roman racehorse, so in the interests of research I took myself off to see the brand new make of the classic Roman epic Ben Hur. I've seen the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston on TV, but remembered little of the plot apart from the infamous chariot race that apparently killed some horses during filming and the vaguely religious theme - inevitable since the plot takes place in 33AD against a backdrop of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

The new version of the film certainly has a fantastic chariot race... and all the racing scenes are so realistic, I can't believe they didn't kill at least ten horses during filming this one! I loved the horses, even if some of the non-race scenes seemed rather romanticised, such as when the shipwrecked Ben Hur heals the beautiful white mare belonging to the rich Arab prince who recruits him to drive his chariot in the circus. Judah Ben Hur's story of how he goes from rich Judaen prince with strong Roman connections to criminal and Roman galley slave, and then finally a charioteer in Jerusalem's new circus racing against his former Roman 'brother' Messala (now a respected tribune driving chariots for the glory of Caesar), remained the strongest and most exciting plot thread for me.

There's also a romance angle (no scenes of sexual nature) with Ben Hur's sweetheart the slave girl Esther, who becomes one of Jesus' followers. Other women in the plot include his sister and charismatic mother (played by Ayelet Zurer - she deserved a bigger part!), who were arrested at the same time as him and whom he believes dead. He certainly has reason to hate the Romans for what they have done to him and his family, and turns that hatred on his former adopted brother, who was put in an impossible position by his Roman commanders when Ben Hur refused to betray his zealot 'friends' (actually a wounded boy taken in by the prince in an act of mercy), which is part of what makes the final chariot racing scene so strong.

The religious part of the plot works less well, I think. It isn't overdone by any means, but - in faithful reworking of the 1959 film, maybe - Jesus makes several appearances in the film and the theme of forgiveness and loving thy neighbour does not sit easily with the chariot racing action plot. That might be the whole point, of course - but to my mind it's confusing, and after the amazing ending to the race it dampens things a bit to see Jesus crucified, even with all the miracles happening at the time. The forgiveness theme does, however, work well with the story of the two 'brothers' - Ben Hur and Messala - who start out life as boys racing their horses in the desert for fun and end up trying to kill each other (literally) in the circus. I'm still thinking about it, but my feeling is that the Jesus of Nazareth story is so well known, much of it could have been left to happen off-scene and that might have made the central story of the brothers and the chariot race even stronger. The opening scene is straight in there with the horses and the boys, and should - I think - have been there at the end, too, rather than the crucifixion... this is how an author's mind works when she watches a great film!

Oh yes, Ben Hur has a certificate of 12A in the UK, but is this really a children's film? No sex, maybe, but Violence with a capital V! There are some scenes that were so graphic I can still shut my eyes and see them... the first horse racing accident, the body of a nameless character being dragged out of the Roman galley up the steps so Ben Hur can go down to replace him, Messala's short but realistic battle scenes, the casualties in the final chariot race... to say nothing of the many crucifixions. The Hunger Games (which is obviously based on the whole Roman games thing) has nothing on this!

My new book? Ah well, that is another story entirely and it's not finished yet so I'm afraid you'll need to be patient... very patient, since I am going to send this one around some real publishers when it's ready to share, but you can expect a Roman version of I am the Great Horse...

I am NOT a Roman racehorse!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Do young readers prefer paper books? Let's find out...

Well, everyone's been saying it. Younger readers do not like ebooks. Or, more likely, their parents and grandparents don't consider an ebook a real book worthy of being a gift, and unless they've been let loose with a credit card or some kind of credit online, younger readers don't have the buying power to download their own ebooks. That certainly seems to be confirmed by my indie ebook sale figures (three figures annually) compared to my print sales figures with publishers (five figures).

On the other hand, this is hardly a scientific comparison, even as far as unscientific book sales go, since producing a title indie means no marketing or promotion aside from the odd blog like this one, little support from the traditional channels, and a totally different sales model. The only way to discover if my ebooks are not selling because young readers prefer paper books, or for some other reason (such as I am a totally pointless writer with rubbish stories and should give it all up and walk into the sea on a dark night?) is to publish a paperback indie and keep a record of both sets of sales. So over the summer, instead of walking into the sea, I stayed at my desk and tackled Createspace to produce my first ever indie paperback edition of one of my books:

This is the long-awaited sequel to my second book Spellfall, which was published in 2001 by Chicken House in the UK and Scholastic in the US. Chicken House decided that 15 years was too long between the two books (they have a point - some of the original fans of Spellfall will now have children of their own!) and I did not feel comfortable offering the sequel elsewhere, so it made sense to do this one indie.

Sense does not mean easy. As I suspected, publishing a paperback is a whole lot more complicated than simply uploading an ebook. The cover, as you can see above, needs a back and a spine of the right width for your number of pages. It also needs an ISBN and a barcode (not shown above, but Createspace will add that for you). That's after you've designed the front cover, which I managed for this project using and uploading my own artwork. More about covers in a later post.

Then there's the interior formatting, which I tackled in my ancient version of Word and then uploaded to Createspace for conversion into a pdf. This is not the ideal way to keep control of your book format, but as long as you proof your book carefully after conversion it works fine. (If you're interested in producing your own Createspace title on a shoestring, look out for the Muse's guide to formatting, coming soon.)

Since Spellfall had chapter illustrations, I decided to include a few in the sequel too. To avoid any problems with copyright, I created my own animal silhouettes by cutting out shapes from black paper, photographing them on a plain background, and then converted the digital pictures into transparent background png files for including in my Word file... transparent because I chose cream paper for the interior pages and didn't want the backgrounds showing.

Lord Hawk's familiar before she flew into the book.

Here is the start of Chapter 6, showing a squirrel called Chatterbox belonging to one of the young treemages chosen to join Natalie's spellclave:

You'll see from this page that the print is fairly small for a children's book. That's because both Spellfall and Spell Spring are full-length novels of around 70,000 words each meant for confident readers aged 10+. Having read somewhere that my default manuscript font of Times New Roman is perceived as 'boring' (Muse: maybe change that next time for submitting to a publisher?!), I used Garamond 12pt type, which made the text size about the same as it is in my 2007 copy of Spellfall. I chose a trim size of 5 x 8.25 inches, which is the US YA/teen standard and slightly different from the UK paperback standard but not much. That made the page count about the same so the two books are around the same thickness, and I carried the star theme over from the cover so if you already have Spellfall they should look okay together on your shelf.

Chicken House 2007 edition
Book 1: Spellfall

So here it is at last - the 'real book' version of Spell Spring! And if you want to buy these books as a gift for a young reader, a matching print-on-demand edition of Spellfall is on its way in plenty of time for Christmas.

Both titles are also available as ebooks.

SPELL SPRING (Earthaven Book 2)

SPELLFALL (Earthaven Book 1)
paperback - secondhand editions may also still be available

Interested in indie publishing? See further discussion of the Createspace process over at Authors Electric.


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