Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Free eBook - Dark Quetzal Giveaway!

A New Year gift for my Song Quest fans... until January 4th, you can download the Kindle edition of DARK QUETZAL (Book 3 of the Echorium Sequence) completely free of charge from Amazon.

Yes, I know it's traditional to give away the first book in a series, and Dark Quetzal is the third book in my series about the blue-haired Singers who live on the Isle of Echoes and control their world with the power of Song, but the unicorn would like to reward people who have read Books 1 and 2 and might want to complete the trilogy, and I'm not about to argue with a mythical beast waving his sharp horn. Besides, if you're new to this series, you can always keep it on your Kindle (or other device with a free Kindle app) until you get around to reading the first two books.

Also, if you're very quick, UK readers might still be able to download the first two Echorium titles Song Quest and Crystal Mask at the old 2014 prices, before the new 20% VAT rate on all ebooks purchased in the UK comes into force on January 1st. (American readers don't need to panic - the prices in the US will stay the same, though other European countries may also see a local VAT rise.)



So what are you waiting for? The first book in this trilogy won an award, so the judges (who included author Jacqueline Wilson that year) must have enjoyed it... and in case you don't believe me, here's a picture of the actual award, which the unicorn makes me keep on the mantelpiece to impress people.

Branford Boase Award
It looks like a small book, and the "cover" opens up to reveal a little silver plaque engraved with the name and date of the award (2000 in mine). The butterfly and the stars you can see on the front are silver as well, and they turn as black as the box if I neglect it, which means the unicorn has to keep reminding me to polish it - he's such an old nag sometimes!

Muse: Sigh, some authors are never satisfied... my advice is to take advantage of the free download while she's in a generous holiday mood. Here's the link again:


* Free until January 4th 2015 *

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Solstice Review

Today is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the longest night of the year. Tomorrow, the days will start to get longer and the nights shorter. So do not despair, fellow unicorn riders... there is a glitter of light in the dark window of this blog, and it'll be summer before you know it.

I realise there have not been many posts here lately. I have an excuse. I've been busy working with students on their essays (see Royal Literary Fund Fellow on the right), and a unicorn cannot do two things at once. I am in the middle of writing a new book, but at the moment do not know when or how this will be published. All I can tell you at the moment is that it's YA romance and contains sexy angels, so will probably come out under a different name to avoid confusion with my other books... but I haven't decided yet whether I'll tell you what that name is, or let you guess!

Meanwhile, my ebook sales continue to rise as more people get hold of e-readers. I can't report ebook figures for my Pendragon Legacy series since these are missing from my statements, but I know how much they have earned me this year for sales made in the period July 2013 to June 2014 (there is a time lag of 6 months in the reports from my publisher). So this year I'll do two Top 5 lists - one for sales, and the other for author income - as the unicorn thinks gross income is a more genuine way to compose bestseller lists, particularly with ebooks where price promotions can skew the results.

TOP 5 BEST SELLING eBOOKS by sales quantity (the traditional list):

1. I am the Great Horse
2. The Great Pyramid Robbery
3. Spellfall
4. Crystal Mask
5. Seven Fabulous Wonders Omnibus

(My Pendragon books would probably fit somewhere near the top of this list but the figures are missing -
naughty publisher.)

TOP 5 BEST SELLING eBOOKS by author earnings (the most important list from a unicorn's point of view):

1. I am the Great Horse
2. Grail of Stars (via. my publisher)
3. The Great Pyramid Robbery
4. Sword of Light (via. my publisher)
5. Seven Fabulous Wonders Omnibus

So the winner for 2014, hitting the top of BOTH ebook lists (which must mean he's twice as popular), is...

 Get hold of him now before the VAT increase!*

* Note: on 1st January 2015, the VAT charged on all ebooks downloaded in the UK will rise from 3% to 20%. This is not the unicorn's fault.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Spellfall Halloween Treat!

Oh, the unicorn has been neglecting you! He has an excuse. He's been hard at work creating a new cover for the only novel I've written so far with unicorns in it... SPELLFALL.

First he went for a trot in the woods and speared a few autumn leaves with his horn...

Then he persuaded me to open my paintbox...

And, after a bit of digital wizardry, we ended up with this:


Naturally, the unicorn has made himself the biggest thing on the cover, but Spellfall also contains a heroine called Natalie, a hero called Merlin, a wolf/magehound called K'tanaqui, a standing stone with a hole in it called the Thrallstone, a giant soul-tree called Oq (whose leaves are spells), a villain called Hawk (he's hiding in the woods, I think), and a police helicopter.

The story takes place partly in our own world, and partly in the enchanted world of Earthaven, which lies beyond the Boundary. Normally we can't see unicorns, or spells growing on trees. But at Halloween, the Boundary opens and all kinds of creatures can pass from one world into another - both good and evil. Can Natalie and Merlin stop Lord Hawk from killing the ancient soul-trees and destroying Earthaven?

If you have a Kindle (or a free Kindle app), you can read Spellfall for only 99p / 99c all this Halloween week... price returns to $3.99 on 1st November.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Further thoughts on blogging

Some electric cats left comments on my last post, so total annihilation of this blog has been suspended until further notice.

As the unicorn has pointed out to me (with his glittery horn), many people worked hard on guest posts for his little corner of the blogosphere, so it would not be good karma to delete those. If you haven't read them all yet, see the MUSE MONDAYS tab at the top for a full list of links.

Also, there is a long-running series of posts based upon my epic novel about Alexander the Great's horse "I am the Great Horse" and its associated projects. That series is not quite finished yet, and Bucephalas will probably bite me if I try deleting him. He'll certainly squeal at the unicorn, which could get nasty. For links to this series, see the I AM THE GREAT HORSE tab.

If you're looking for a viral blog, this is not the place to be. (But then you probably never found it in the first place, so that's okay.)

If you're looking for an information blog, you'll probably want to try somewhere else. The only information around here is some out-of-date Kindle advice (2011) that follows my own personal journey into ebooks. You're welcome to use anything you find helpful, but please be aware that things have moved on in the ebook world since I wrote those posts. For more up to date ebook advice and thoughts on the current publishing industry, try Kristine Kathryn Rusch or Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?

If you're looking for cats or unicorns, however, or are interested in my books and what this author thinks about the writing and publishing game, then this is a good place to be and you're very welcome! But don't be surprised if the unicorn takes extended breaks in the enchanted mists from time to time, because that's the only way he is ever going to write more books. There's only one of him, and it's do or... Unicorn? Are you still there?

Seems the unicorn has trotted off already, so you'll have to make do with a picture of my cat Tara, who is now famous on Facebook since she used up her ninth life earlier this week.

This is a cat blog? Really?

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Apparently this is a "cat blog"...

... which means it's not really helping anyone, it's just for me and possibly my publisher (I'd call it a "unicorn blog" but that's the same thing, really, only a bit shyer and with a glittery horn.)

So the big question is this: would anyone really miss me if I deleted the whole thing?

I'll take zero comments as a big hint...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Tragic Tale of a Welsh Pirate and his Vanishing Millions

I'm over at the History Girls today with a post about my fantasy fortune... which might be of interest if you have some Welsh blood in the family!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Spellfall cover challenge!

I am trying to find a new cover for the ebook edition of my Halloween fantasy thriller Spellfall! Since it is ebook related, I have posted about this over at Authors Electric, where you can see all the covers this book has had so far and vote on the current shortlist.

Obviously my muse's favourite is cover number 1 (below)... but which one would YOU click on?
Littera premade cover 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

We're all going on a summer holiday...

I'm on holiday over at the History Girls today, investigating the Historic Heart of the English Riviera... do you know its name?

I'll give you a clue. It starts with P and was mentioned in the Domesday book, and the people are called "pudden eaters" because they sometimes bake an enormous pudding to celebrate special events in the town.

Follow this link to find out more!

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Meet Princess Scheherazade

Today I'm visiting the History Girls, where Persian princess Scheherazade has some tips on how to survive 1001 nights as an author...

Click here to read the full post

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Gospel According to... Dog (by Peter Ward)

And what is a dog doing on the unicorn's blog, I hear you ask? Well, it's all because of a little book called The Gospel According to Dog which the author, Peter Ward, kindly sent me for review.

The Gospel According to Dog by Peter Ward

This book claims to be “the greatest story ever told by a dog”, and it certainly gives a unique viewpoint of the better-known accounts from the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Kal is just a small, orphaned puppy when Peter the Fisherman rescues him from a gang of youths and takes him out on his boat. Growing strong and fierce on fish heads, Kal joins the disciples when his master Peter is called from his nets by Jesus to become a fisher of men. Kal follows the disciples to Jerusalem, where he takes his guard duty for his new pack very seriously. Along the way, Kal witnesses miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and later treats us to a unique dog’s-eye view of Judas’ betrayal.

I very much enjoyed the challenge of matching Kal’s dog-speech to the locations and characters in the Bible stories. Human names for things like “Big Water” (Sea of Galilee) and “Wisest One” (Jesus) are sprinkled sparingly through the text, since Kal sees everything through the eyes of a dog and is often puzzled by the actions of his “Great Ones” (humans)! I especially liked the way Kal befriended Judas, giving us a glimpse into the troubled disciple’s mind when Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death after being betrayed by Judas in the “Praying Garden” (Gethsemane).

This neat little book (I have the paperback version) is charmingly illustrated in black and white by Lucy Burns, with the addition of “smells” sprayed across the pages as colour-coded dots that only dogs can read. I wasn’t quite so sure about these dots where they strayed across the text, but that might not worry younger eyes and they do help to make the book memorable.

With its doggy narrator and Kal’s often humorous innocence, this book has obvious appeal for younger readers. But the subject matter gives it an additional depth, which would make "The Gospel According to Dog" a good bedtime story, or for use as a class reader with obvious potential for discussion.

The unicorn was very pleased to meet Kal, so he asked the author Peter Ward for an interview to find out more…

Portugese water dog

Retelling the gospel stories from a dog's point of view is a great idea! Why did you decide to use a dog, rather than any other kind of animal mentioned in the Bible?

Peter: The kernel of the idea came from the Portugese water-dog which, in the days of pre-mechanised fishing, was important enough (in terms of its practical functions) to be counted as one of the crew. So I thought, why not have St Peter, a humble fisherman, with his own water-dog..? Except I called it a 'fisher-dog' rather than a water-dog. Also dogs have much more of a connection with us humans than any other animal, so I thought the reader would be able to identify most strongly with a dog, rather than a donkey or camel or whatever.

Or a unicorn, I suppose! How did you come up with the distinctive dog-language Kal uses, such as "Great Ones" (humans) and "shouting" (barking)? How easy was it to remember to use Kal's words as you wrote the book?

"Great Ones"
I simply tried to imagine how dogs perceive us, being their providers of food, shelter and sometimes if they're lucky (in Kal's case) affection; and especially regarding shelter, we provide fire. This is the single most impenetrable mystery, to a dog, of our powers, and just on its own would earn us humans the accolade of 'Great One'!

When Kal is trying to tell his human masters something, as far as he's concerned he's talking, it's just that we can't understand him rather than vica-versa! To use the word -barking- wouldn't have fitted at all with the 'world view' of Kal that I was trying to put in place for the reader.

Other words in the dog-language were more an imaginative thinking process of: what would you call [X] if you don't have a particular word for it? Hence the sun becomes the great-yellow-so-that-all-things-can-see. Kal knows the word for the moon, but not the stars, so they become the 'glittering stones in the sky that guard it' and stop it from falling from the sky - which is why dogs always bark at the moon to make doubly sure it won't fall on us!

Once you've been through the process you don't really forget the words you've come up with, so it wasn't an issue remembering them.

You can tell Kal the moon won't fall on him... that's one of the things unicorns take care of with our magical horns. Did you base Kal's story on any one of the gospel accounts in particular?

Peter: Not particularly. And the episodes I chose more or less 'presented' themselves to Peter: me as my strongest childhood recollections of the Gospel story. I'm well aware that I've actually missed out quite a few episodes. Perhaps these may be stronger recollections than other people's as I am a 'cradle Catholic' and still semi-practising.

Were you able to explore any new angles to the gospel stories by using Kal's viewpoint?

Peter: Definitely, if you consider a dog's perspective a new angle! Perhaps what I wanted to show most, using Kal's viewpoint, is his total acceptance of the "Wisest One" from the minute he comes across him. Kal just knows he (Jesus) is something very special, and can't understand why his Great Ones just don't 'get' Jesus. As he (Kal) observes after Jesus has calmed the waters: 'I wondered if the Wisest One would teach his Great Ones what he had done that day. But I knew they would be too afraid to learn, and the Wisest One would be a white-beard by the time they even started to understand a smallest part of his mysteries.'

True! The use of smells represented by coloured dots on the pages is an interesting idea... are there any plans for a "scratch-and-sniff" book with real smells in the future? (I could use my horn for the scratching part.)

Peter: Not really. Interesting idea though!

Thank you very much, Peter and Kal!

You can tweet your own questions to Peter @gospeldog.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Summer Solstice - sun, Writers Workshop, and a free ebook!

On this sunny Summer Solstice, I'm delighted to have been invited over to the Writers' Workshop blogspot, where I'm one of the authors talking about my route to publication and what has happened since.

(Muse: Yes, that should say "publishing over TWO centuries" in the guest post... not sure where the "four" came from, but I suppose Katherine's author photo does make her look as if she's just stepped out of an ancient oak tree.)

And if a workshop sounds like too much hard work in all this sunshine, young Alexander the Great fans can grab the first part of the new I am the Great Horse serial free today for Kindle:


Happy Summer Solstice to all my readers!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

I am the Great Horse - the serial

My Alexander the Great novel I am the Great Horse just refuses to lie down!

If you're already a fan of Bucephalas' account of Alexander the Great's conquests, this probably won't surprise you very much. But for those who have not come across this book yet, all you need to know at this stage is that it's a lo-o-o-ng story (over 150,000 words), and proved difficult to market on its original children's list, eventually finding a readership across all generations, particularly readers with an interest in horses. (If you want to know more, there's a series of past posts you can explore by clicking the "I am the Great Horse" tab at the top of this blog.)

The book is currently out of print, but is available as an ebook for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and from Apple itunes. You might also still be able to find secondhand copies of the original print edition in both hardcover and paperback - though, be warned, these can be pricey!

So far so good. I'm delighted that the cost-effective publication of ebooks has enabled me to keep this novel alive, and also delighted to report that it is currently my best-seller in digital format. But the complete ebook edition is probably more of an adult read than a children's book, so this year I am making the book available in serial format for younger readers who might not know as much of the background history.

The first part Prince of Macedonia has just been been released for Kindle (it will be available through other ebook channels too from October, and possibly as print on demand).

In this title, the bold black stallion Bucephalas arrives in Macedonia with a shipload of horses intended for King Philip's army, but is so wild that none of the king's horsemen can stay on his back. The king orders him taken away in disgrace. But the 12-year old Prince Alexander bets his father he can ride the great horse... Alexander not only tames Bucephalas, he then rides him to victory in his debut battle on the Thracian border. In this episode, you'll also meet Bucephalas' groom, Charmeia, who pretends to be a boy so that she can look after the big stallion all the other grooms are afraid to touch.

The book includes bite-sized historical facts at the end of each chapter, plus a bonus story by Petasios - the mount of Alexander's best friend Hephaestion, who accompanied him to the edge of the world.

I carried Alexander's friend Hephaestion all the way to India!
Part 2 "Treachery at Thebes" is due out later this month, where Bucephalas recounts what happens when Alexander becomes king after his father is assassinated and the Greeks rebel.

There will be ten episodes to collect altogether. Each title in the serial will be around 15,000 words, and I'm aiming to get them all out by Christmas, so wish me luck...

Thursday, 29 May 2014

How to paint: Seven Fabulous Wonders covers

My painting marathon has finally come to an end, with the final two Seven Fabulous Wonders covers. (The word "marathon" comes from the ancient Greeks, so it seems appropriate to use it here - even though painting these covers didn't take nearly as long as writing the actual books!)

And now that I've done all seven, I thought you might like to hear a bit about the process. I needed three sessions for each painting:

1. First, I had to get the sketch/composition down on a blank sheet of paper (rather like the visualisation/outline stage of a novel). I then blocked in the main areas of colour with a large brush. Since these are watercolours, it is also important at this stage to leave some white paper, rather like the unwritten scenes of a novel... sometimes what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. For example, I had to resist painting over the pale temple in this scene for The Amazon Temple Quest.

Lysippe, last of the Amazons, meets a gryphon at the Temple of Artemis

2. My second session involved building on the main colours, changing those that didn't work so well, and adding detail with a smaller brush. Also at this stage, it's possible to dab the paper with a wet tissue or brush to remove colour, but this is not easy - as someone who has done oil painting, where you can simply paint pale colours or white highlights on top of darker colours, I find this aspect of watercolour the trickiest. Luckily, I used thick paper!

3. In the final session, I used a thin brush to highlight the details until I reached a stage where the painting seemed to be finished. Deciding on this point can be just as difficult as knowing when to stop fiddling with the details in a novel, so I use a trick that only applies to short-sighted people... I take off my glasses and look at the painting sideways. If the colours work, and I can see a vague shape of what I've painted, then it's done. If it's all a blurry mess and I can't make out anything at all, I know it needs some more work! (The same effect can be produced by squinting at a picture if you have perfect eyesight.)
Princess Phoebe and Alexis trapped in the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus with the Chimera!

When the painting was done, I took a digital photograph of it and transferred this to my photo-editing software to create the cover. The picture can then be edited just like a photograph to add contrast, tweak the colours or trim the composition. This also lets me check the picture works in black and white for older Kindles... not always the case with a beautiful watercolour cover.

Here you can see I've trimmed my Amazon painting so the colours of the egg blend better with the purple background of the cover, whereas I tweaked the background colour of the Mausoleum Murder to match the shadowy background of the tomb.

If you've missed them, you can see the other five Fabulous Wonders paintings at these earlier posts:

Seven Ancient Wonders in colour

Two more wonderful ebook covers




Nook / Apple / Kobo

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Two more wonderful ebook covers.

I know I promised you some more Seven Fabulous Wonders covers, so here they are...

Colossus underwater after the earthquake

The Colossus Crisis takes place on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, just as a major earthquake topples the sixth wonder of the ancient world - the famous Colossus of Rhodes, which was a huge bronze statue of their sun-god Helios.

The statue actually fell on land according to the ancient writers, but having Helios' head splash down into the sea made a much more dramatic painting. Here you see the heroine of my story, Aura who has "mermaid" blood, diving down to reach it. She can breathe underwater, which is a usefull skill since she is a sponge-diver. That blue thing in her (webbed) hand is a magical creature rather like a sea-sponge but linked to the sea-god Poseidon, enemy of Helios and the human race. Aura, having both human and telchine(mermaid) blood, is caught in the middle when the two gods clash.

Here is the cover with the painting brightened up slightly to match the turquoise colour:

The Colossus Crisis

With statues of gods on my mind, I was inspired to tackle the Statue of Zeus at Olympia next. His temple was in the sacred precinct at the site of the ancient Olympic Games, and his statue was so huge that, even sitting down inside the temple, Zeus' head brushed the roof! Showing scale in a painting can be a bit difficult, so I decided to just paint his hand in the foreground, with a little statue of the goddess Nike standing in it.

The hand of Zeus holding the goddess Nike
Nike means "Victory", which is probably why it's used as the name of a well-known sports clothing company. In my book Nike is alive, and appears to the boys who are competing in the boys' events at the Games to help them fight off a terrorist plot launched by the Persians. (The terrorists - calling themselves the Warriors of Ahriman - are trying to disrupt the Olympic Games in an effort to stop Alexander the Great rampaging across Persia.)

Here's the cover:

The Olympic Conspiracy

The winner of the boys' sprint - in this case our hero, Sosi - used to carry a torch around the temples in the precinct at Olympia, which is where we got the idea for our modern Olympic torch relay.

Have you been keeping count? That's five covers done and two more to paint. More soon!


Kindle / Nook / Apple / Kobo

Kindle / Nook / Apple / Kobo

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Hunting dragons

Today, I'm hunting dragons over at the History Girls (because my unicorn doesn't like dragons flapping around here, he says they make his horn itch).

Click to visit the History Girls group blog

Meanwhile, I'm still painting those Seven Fabulous Wonders, which is quicker than writing about them since a picture is worth a thousand words... more to see soon!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Seven Ancient Wonders in colour

When my Seven Fabulous Wonders series was still in print, I used to carry around some laminated A3-size pictures of the ancient Wonders to show children when I visited schools. Six of them were paintings I found in books and enlarged, but I could not find a picture of the pyramids at Giza as they would have appeared at the time they were being built, so I had to paint that one myself.

Great Pyramid at Giza (about 2500BC)
After these books were retired by their publisher, this picture went into a box with the rest of them, where it stayed until I created the ebook editions and realised I needed some e-covers. I dragged it out and tried to create a cover from it, but gave up when I realised:
(a) it was the wrong shape.
(b) it was too big for my scanner, which was refusing to talk to my new computer, anyway.
(c) I'd have to paint the other six ancient wonders to make the covers look as if they belonged to vaguely the same series. A daunting task, when I wanted to get all the books up by Christmas!

Cue some experimentation with silhouettes and a digital camera in place of my stubborn scanner, and eventually seven covers evolved looking something like this.

But the ancient Wonders still lived as colourful places in my head, so once I'd finished my Pendragon Legacy series for Templar, I promised myself I'd have another go at the paintings. Out came my pyramid painting again, this time exactly the right shape (well, almost... the observant among you will notice I had to stretch it a little) for replacing the scarab in my existing cover design.

In a thoroughly Egyptian mood now, I tackled The Cleopatra Curse next. This time, I decided to focus on the chariot race of the story, rather than the seventh Wonder of the Ancient World - the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, which appears here in the background.

Zeuxis, the lighthouse boy, driving the Roman team to victory.

Happy with the two Egyptian books, I decided it was time for a challenge, and set out to recreate the one ancient Wonder that has vanished completely... the Hanging Garden of Babylon (or, in some accounts, the Wall of Babylon). No doubt influenced by watching Oliver Stone's film Alexander the night before, with its amazing CGI effects of the city, I ended up with rather more wall than garden:

Tiamat and Simeon play a game of Twenty Squares under the Ishtar Gate
I added a dragon, which plays an important part in the story, looking as if it might have crawled off the walls themselves. You see here the Ishtar Gate with its gold aurochs (bulls) and sirrush (dragons, or possibly unicorns?) - both ancient creatures apparently common back when the original walls of Babylon were built. The two children are playing the game of the title, Twenty Squares - sometimes called the Royal Game of Ur - on a simple board scratched into the pavement, just as the guards of Babylon might have done to pass the long hours of their shift.

To be honest, the right side of this picture (meant to suggest the Hanging Garden) didn't work so well, and watercolour is difficult to change once it goes wrong. So I fiddled about with it - the joys of digital images! - to focus more on the dragon, and ended up with two possible covers:


I haven't quite made up my mind about the green / orange background, so at the moment you'll find the orange one on the Kindle edition, and the green one on the epub. (Poor Tiamat got cut out of both, but I'm claiming artistic licence.)

I hope the new covers reflect the ancient and magical settings of these books. Four more Wonders to come, once I've finished painting them...

Click HERE for two more covers - The Colossus Crisis and The Olympic Conspiracy.

Click HERE for the fiinal two covers - The Amazon Temple Quest and The Mausoleum Murder

You can see the new e-covers in action, and read extracts from these books, at the following stores:

Kindle / Nook / Apple / Kobo

Kindle Nook / Apple / Kobo

Kindle / Nook Apple / Kobo

(For Kindle, when you see the book page just click on your country's flag to be taken to the correct Amazon store.)

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Over at the History Girls today...

Today I'm over at the History Girls blog, revealing all about my public library loans from the beginning of my publishing career to the present day. (That's 14 years, in case you're wondering... not long enough to get famous, but too long to be called a sparkling debut any more... a perilous time in any author's life!)

Click here to read more

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Daughters of Time and Queen Boudica of the Iceni

This month, I'm excited to have a short story published in a new anthology about famous women and girls from British history. (Muse: or should that be British herstory...?!)

Templar Books asked authors from the History Girls blog to tackle a woman from a different period of history, and I chose 60AD, when the Romans were in charge of most of Britain but the British were not very happy about it... in case you haven't guessed, my 'herstory' is about Queen Boudica and her two brave daughters. (I like to live dangerously!)

You can find out more in my guest posts at:

Winged Reviews
Girls Heart Books

You can buy "Daughters of Time" at good UK bookshops, online from Amazon, or order direct from Templar.

Monday, 10 March 2014

THE GREAT HORSE RELOADED: Choosing a viewpoint

Pick up any award-winning or best-selling YA novel today, and chances are it'll be told in the first (normally young female) person. So I ought to have been on to a good thing with picking the first person viewpoint for "I am the Great Horse"... except my book is told by a (definitely male) horse, and they aren't very romantic as a rule.

If I'd been cut-throat commercial at the planning stage for this book, I might have let Bucephalas' groom Charmeia tell the story. But then it would have been a totally different book, and possibly a different story since Charm did not get to fight in all of Alexander's battles alongside the king.

So it could have been a romance - but it's not. And it could have been a horsey book aimed at girls - but it's not. Since it was neither of those things, the publisher wasn't quite sure how to market it, which is bad if you're talking marketability in a bookshop, but maybe not quite so bad online where several search keywords can all end up at the same book.

Here are a few of them: Horses. History. Alexander the Great. Ancient Greece. War.

So, over to the horse...

I knew early on this story would be told by Alexander’s horse, to the extent that I was able to scribble it down as part of my original idea. This is actually quite unusual for me. Quite often the idea for a story will come without any characters, in which case I have to invent a few before I can decide which of them I’ll use as a viewpoint. Or the idea might come with a strong character, but until I start developing the story I can’t be absolutely sure that character will make the best viewpoint.

It might sound obvious, but the viewpoint character needs to be present in all the important parts of the story, or have some clever way of finding out about these - for example, another character could tell them, or they could see it on TV (assuming they have a TV, which of course Alexander the Great didn’t… can you imagine him as an armchair conqueror?). The viewpoint character doesn’t have to be the main character in the story, but it often makes sense to combine the two.

In this case, my main character was Alexander the Great. So the most obvious viewpoint to use for the book would have been Alexander himself. Why didn’t I do this? Well, first of all I knew I had to write a book suitable for a young audience, because my contract was with Chicken House, who do not publish adult fiction. If I’d used Alexander, I’d need to leave out some parts of his story when he starte to grow older and I reached the dodgy question of his sexuality. The death count in his battles wasn’t a problem – publishers of teenage fiction don’t seem to mind how many characters you kill off, or how bloodily you do it – but if I was going to do Alexander justice, I wanted him to be a fully rounded character… and there was no escaping the fact most historians considered him to have had a same-sex relationship with his best friend, Hephaestion. Added to this, I was a bit wary of getting too far into Alexander’s head. Could I, a girl born in the twentieth century who has never fought in a battle or had much desire to conquer the world, really understand Alexander the Great’s innermost thoughts? I know authors are supposed to use their imagination, but with such a well-known historical character, I'll admit I chickened out.

A solution might have been to tell just the first part of the story, while Alexander was still a boy. There is plenty of exciting material even in the first few years of his life. But could I honestly end the amazing story of Alexander the Great halfway through and abandon him and his brave horse on some dusty battlefield in Asia? I decided I couldn’t. What I really needed was a viewpoint that would enable me to tell the whole story from beginning to end, particularly since some of the best-known tales surrounding Bucephalas happened later in his career. So not Alexander.

Another possible human viewpoint who would have been with Alexander and his horse most of the time was Bucephalas’ groom. This seemed a bit more promising. The history books claim Bucephalas would only allow one special groom to ride him bareback, but not much else is known about this person. Being aware that horse stories are mostly read by girls, I decided at this stage it would be a good idea to make my groom into a girl, who could disguise herself as a boy to look after Alexander’s horse. I called her Charmeia (Charm for short), stealing the name from a tiny scene near the end of Alexander’s life where he hugged a common slave boy called Charmides much to the amazement of his generals and friends. No problem getting into her head – having been a groom myself, I understood grooms all right! At least I’ve never groomed a warhorse, but imagine sending a warhorse into battle is similar to sending a racehorse into a race like the Grand National. You bite your nails, watching helplessly, until they return safe and sound (because, sadly, sometimes they don’t). But this girl would grow up, too, as the book progressed. Alexander’s career spanned twenty years from the time he first sat on Bucephalas as a young prince to the time he died in Babylon, so not the groom.

I briefly considered changing viewpoints half way through, starting with my girl groom while she was still young, and then – when she and Alexander grew up – switching to a son or daughter of one of the characters so I’d have another young viewpoint to finish the story. This had possibilities… the Persian king’s son Prince Ochus, perhaps, or maybe a fictional child of Charmeia’s. But switching to a brand new viewpoint character so late in a book is usually a bad idea. OK if you know the character well from the beginning, maybe, but in this case they’d not even be born at the start of the story. So no to multiple viewpoints. To tell the story of Alexander all the way through, I really needed a character who could be with him the whole time, but who would not “grow up” during those twenty years he was busy conquering the world. The only really obvious answer was his horse, Bucephalas, who carried him into all his major battles.

Like most pony mad girls, I’d read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, so I knew a horse’s viewpoint could be done well, and that readers of all ages would accept it. Also at the age of ten, possibly inspired by Black Beauty, I’d written my own little book from the point of view of a pony called Flax, so I knew I’d enjoy doing it. Using Bucephalas as a viewpoint character would allow the reader a glimpse into Alexander’s head when he spoke privately to his horse, while remaining blissfully unaware of anything that went on inside the king’s pavilion. On the battlefield, I decided, even Hephaestion would be discreet. A horse’s viewpoint would also cut out most of the tangled Alexandrian politics, which would have made the book three times as long, believe me!

So I had my viewpoint character. And with him being a black stallion, I saw right away there would be comparisons with Black Beauty so I was determined to give him his very own character from the start. Fortunately, all the history books agree Bucephalas was no mild-mannered beauty. He had a big head, he was getting on a bit in years when Alexander’s father bought him for his son, and he had been in battles before so would have certainly had the battle scars to show for it. Then there was the famous story of the horse being unrideable when he first came to Macedonia, so I gave him a temper to match. His “voice” arose from my image of a grumpy old warhorse, impatient with the youngsters but fiercely protective of his friends, both human and horse.

I usually pin up pictures of my main characters above my computer while I am writing about them, so I drew a sketch of Bucephalas to remind me what he’d act like when threatened:

And with such a big-headed character, I thought I’d let him kick his main literary rival out of the way before he got started. Here Bucephalas introduces himself:


My name is Bucephalas, and you should know right away that I’m no Black Beauty. 

My coat is the colour of oil-from-the-ground, but that’s where the resemblance stops. I have a big head, a white splodge between my eyes, battle scars, and a brand in the shape of two horns burnt into my backside. I am, however, very strong and worth my (considerable) weight in gold as a warhorse – at least I used to be, until I did the most shameful thing a horse can possibly do and killed my own rider...


I AM THE GREAT HORSE is now available as an ebook
Amazon us
Amazon uk
Nook (NOT digitized from 1845 volume!)

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Would you eat a mermaid? - Echorium special offer!

No, not shrink-wrapped mermaids on a 3 for 2 offer at your local supermarket, you'll be glad to hear... but the fantasy author's equivalent! This weekend, you can download my award-winning Echorium trilogy Kindle ebooks for only 99c or 99p each (see below for details).

The title of this post was inspired by the lovely Shelley Workinger's blog, where I was invited to guest yesterday for her Foodfic Friday series. Mermaids, you see, swim in the warm seas around the Echorium, and in the first book of the trilogy "Song Quest" they are being hunted for their eggs. The 'quest' part of the title takes young Singers Rialle and Kherron from the Isle of Echoes to the frozen mountains of the Karch in a desperate attempt to stop the hunting.

These books were first published more than ten years ago, and Song Quest was my debut novel for young readers - winning the very first Branford Boase Award back in 2000. So revisiting the texts for the ebook versions was an interesting experience. Would ten years of experience mean I'd want to rewrite the books? And if I did feel the need to rewrite, how many changes should I allow myself before the book became a different book?

In the end, though, the whole process seemed natural. After converting my final texts to Kindle format, I sent them privately to my Kindle and gave them a proofread on the same device most people would be using to read the ebook version. Reading them in this way meant any errors I'd overlooked in the manuscript versions leapt out and hit me.

Song Quest got a few minor tweaks and a couple of tiny corrections - the amount of editing that originally went into this book for the first published version under Barry Cunningham's experienced eye had clearly produced something that was as near to a polished story as possible. Any further work would have meant changes to the story or style, and I honestly did not feel the need to make any.

Crystal Mask got similar treatment. Again, any changes I made for the ebook were relatively minor, and I challenge anyone who has read the original to notice. Mostly it was just breaking up long paragraphs so the story reads better on a Kindle screen.

Dark Quetzal, however, got a bit more work. Having not read this story for ten years meant I could approach it almost as a new reader, having forgotten much of the plot - and I'm ashamed to say I found myself getting slightly confused in places, even though I WROTE IT! So I added further explanation to a few places to help, deleted some confusing parts, and moved a few other bits around. I hope the result is a more streamlined story, and that anyone who loved the original version won't scream too much.

I hasten to add this is no reflection on my original editors, who were the same editors who worked with me on the first two titles in the series. But I do have a theory why this third book inspired me to do a bit more work on it... Back in 2004, my editors and I had already spent two years working in the world of the Echorium, so we knew that world like the backs of our hands... or the scales of a mermaid's tail, anyway. It's all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming the reader knows just as much, and forget to explain things that are actually quite vital to the plot, or forget to introduce new readers to the familiar characters, etc.

Also, there's the time factor when working to publishing schedules. My debut Song Quest had seven years of leisurely rewrites while I was searching for a publisher. Crystal Mask was already half written by the time I found one. Dark Quetzal not only had the task of completing the trilogy in a satisfactory manner, but also had to be written from a standing start while we were all still involved with editing the second title and promoting the first... and as any author knows, publicity is a double-edged sword. After Song Quest won the Branford Boase Award, I was suddenly in demand for interviews and appearances all over the country. Writing and editing the third title of the series therefore got fit in around these visits, and I also still had a day job working with racehorses. That's why I felt the need to give Dark Quetzal a final polish at this stage. Not a rewrite as such, more a preening of quetzal quills to sort out the sticky bits so its plumage can glow a bit more - and all for just 99c/99p this weekend, if you're quick!

SPECIAL OFFER (until Monday)

If you're in the UK, you can get two ebooks for the price of one:
Crystal Mask
Dark Quetzal
with Song Quest available in paperback

If you are in the US, it's three for one:
Song Quest
Crystal Mask
Dark Quetzal

Please pass the word to anyone you think might enjoy them!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

THE GREAT HORSE RELOADED: Where do you get your ideas from?

Since this is the Year of the Horse, and books no longer disappear when they go out of print, I have decided to re-run my popular series about writing my Alexander the Great novel "I am the Great Horse", which is currently galloping across the world in digital form.

It's interesting to note that some of my comments below about 'what to write next' are now out-of-date, since authors are no longer quite so dependent upon publishing contracts. But if you are after an advance and traditional publication they still apply.

So, without more ado...  Where do you get your ideas 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. That’s a picture of it above. (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 heady days of the world wide web... or at least before it 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…

Next: choosing a viewpoint.


I AM THE GREAT HORSE is now available as an ebook
Amazon us
Amazon uk
Nook (NOT digitized from 1845 volume!)

also secondhand in hardcover or paperback

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Happy New Year of the Horse!

It's the Chinese New Year of the Horse, so I'm over at the History Girls this week with a few horse books to get you in the mood.

Happy New Year of the Wood Horse

Please feel free to add your recommendations to the comments, since we are trying to build a History Girls list of interesting horse stories with a historical or Chinese/Mongolian slant - preferably both!

Here's one to get you started, which I really enjoyed.

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Five Rules of Writing

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

These rules are not new. They are not mine. They were put together by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1947 and have been quoted so often they've become infamous in the writing world.

Having a unicorn for a muse, you might have guessed I am not really into rules. I believe every writer has their own way of producing creative work and trying to follow someone else's rules can seriously interfere with that, if not kill it stone dead. But I have time for Heinlein's rules because they aim at the heart of what we do.

Rule 1 is obvious. If you don't write, you will never be a writer. Note Heinlein does not say "you must write every day" or "you must write 2,000 words an hour", or whatever the latest creative writing course tells you to do. These might work for some writers, but will destroy others.

The Unicorn says: Write as much and as often as works for you.

Rule 2 is also obvious. Nobody likes a half finished story. It's difficult, though, because how do you know when your story is finished? If you're anything like me, you'll keep going back to it and tinkering after the last word is written. Or maybe you'll delete half of it and start again. Or maybe, having a deadline for delivery, you're the sort of writer who will send it in anyway, even though it could do with having half of it deleted? Deadlines can encourage you to finish a piece, but if you accept one then you are following another rule - someone else's time limit - which might work for you or might not.

The Unicorn says: Trust your instincts to tell you when a story is finished, not someone else's opinion or an unrealistic deadline.

I've heard Rule 3 has creative writing teachers screaming in horror. But I don't think Heinlein meant "refrain from redrafting" or "refrain from editing your own work". That is all part of finishing a story to your own satisfaction. You might be a first draft writer who plans meticulously beforehand and so only has to do a final proofread when the last word has been written, or you might be someone like me who writes several drafts and lets the story grow organically. But however you work, you'll know when your story is finished. I think Rule 3 really says do not rewrite excessively unless an editor is helping you shape your story for the market once it will definitely be published.

The Unicorn says: Refrain from making changes to your story to please other people (e.g. creative writing teachers, agents or editors who have not given you a contract yet, your friends, your mum, your inner critic) who are really trying to make your story into their story.

Rule 4 only applies if you are seeking publication. In 1947 "on the market" meant sending it to publishers and/or agents in the hope of getting a publishing deal. Today, it might mean putting your story out there for people to read - either on a blog like this one, or as an ebook, or going the whole way and producing a paperback print run yourself. Until you do one of these things, your story will remain unread and unjudged.

The Unicorn says: Don't be scared to send out your work. That's the only way it will ever reach readers.

Rule 5 is a bit redundant today with the ease of self-publishing (see above). But if you are determined to secure a traditional publishing deal, then this can be the toughest one of all. Rejection, for whatever reason, hurts. I sent my first novel SONG QUEST to 16 publishers before it got picked up back in 1999 - I was sending it out to agents too, but an editor picked it off the slush pile first. It took me seven years altogether from writing the first word to seeing it published. I never gave up, but it's not an experience I'd like to repeat.

The Unicorn says: Self publishing is an option now for those who are happy to invest time and money upfront. But publishing deals are still out there. However you decide to publish, remember no rule works for everyone. The important thing is to have fun inventing your own!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

My Top Ten Borrowed Books 2013

When I was a child most of my reading came from my local library, so I am always excited to see my annual UK library loans. Although libraries are sampled for the purpose of calculating the loan data (which means not all of them are represented each year), I think loan figures are a truer indication of how much people are enjoying a book than sales figures, since when readers borrow a book from a library they do not have to worry about its availability or cover price.

I'm pleased to report that my most popular borrowed title with over 5,000 loans is:

Book 1 of the Pendragon Legacy
The UK loan year runs until June so it's a bit early for libraries to report later books in this series, but I'm delighted to see some of my older books are still popular too. (Muse: maybe this means historical books are like wine... they improve with age?)

My top ten borrowed books of 2013:

1. SWORD OF LIGHT (Pendragon Legacy 1)
2. THE GREAT PYRAMID ROBBERY (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
3. SONG QUEST (Echorium Sequence 1)
4. THE CLEOPATRA CURSE (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
5. THE OLYMPIC CONSPIRACY (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
8. THE MAUSOLEUM MURDER (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
9. LANCE OF TRUTH (Pendragon 2)
10. THE BABYLON GAME (Seven Fabulous Wonders)

Sword of Light, Lance of Truth, and Song Quest are still in print and available to buy new in paperback or hardcover. My other titles are now available as ebooks.

The Unicorn sends glitter to libraries and all who work in them!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Unicorn's Best-Selling Formula 2014

January is traditionally a time for taking a step back, reflecting on the year that has passed, and working out what to do in the year ahead. Using some kind of oracle like the Grail Code in my last post can be good for drawing hidden issues from the subconscious and giving general guidelines, and maybe you were inspired to try something similar. But there's nothing like hard data to give you a kick up the backside (or a slap in the face), so this post is going to take a look at the numbers.

Last week, I wrote a post over at the History Girls asking why some blog posts are more popular than others, based on which of my posts had collected the most "hits" over the past year. Of course, as some of the comments pointed out, a "hit" might simply be someone searching for a certain term on Google. So if their search string happens to be in your post title (by accident or design), then it will count as a hit even if the person searching has no intention of reading your post. This is either very clever or very stupid, depending upon what you are trying to achieve. It will bring readers to your blog, but many of them will be the wrong readers, so unlikely to explore further, or buy anything from the site, or come back for more. The equivalent in books is a cheap or free title, which attracts readers outside its genre but might not please all of them.

Then some people might click on your post title thinking it sounds interesting, but quit reading at the third line because they hate history (duh!), or are otherwise finding your post a bit boring. In that case, the title is probably misleading, or just didn't work quite the way you intended. Same applies to book titles - and, as every publisher and author knows, titles are not easy to get right. Finding one for "I am the Great Horse" took several months.

Other people might read your whole post - result! - but not really enjoy it much. The equivalent with a book is a reader who perseveres hoping it is going to get better, but is left disappointed at the end. That's the kind of book that gets 3 star reviews, if it gets any - right kind of book, just not as brilliant as others they have read, and in some way vaguely disappointing.

The perfect "hit" is a reader who clicks on your title, reads the post to the end - maybe twice, and either loves or hates it enough to tell a friend or retweet it to their thousands of Twitter followers. That post will naturally get more hits because of their recommendation, some maybe falling into the categories above if Twitter is used, but others who might be inspired to do same. This is the post or the book that gets promoted around the world by word of mouth, sells in huge numbers, and makes its publisher very happy.

But WAIT just a minute, I hear you say... loves it or hates it? How can something that someone hates count as most popular?!

Well, love is obviously nicer from an author's point of view - but hate is also a strong emotion, and links to blog posts/books/videos that rub people up the wrong way get passed around Twitter, just as often as those everyone loves like these popcorn kittens on YouTube. (Have you found anyone who hates that? I haven't!)

I can see this happening in a small way with my republished backlist titles. In 2013, I am the Great Horse accounted for almost half of my total backlist ebook sales over the year - and I had 12 backlist titles selling that year, most of them priced lower and some of them promoted more often. So what is selling this particular book? I can only think word of mouth - and presumably not always the love kind, since this was the book that ended my relationship with my first publisher in the UK, was not supported by booksellers in its original format, and did not make it into paperback in the US (where it sells the best as an ebook). If you want further proof, it collected a 2-star review on Barnes and Noble shortly after publication criticising it for being unsuitable for young readers because it mentions violence and (very briefly) rape. I understand it's not a very marketable book because it's difficult to shelve, so that might have been the problem. Yet it still sells the best out of my backlist, and collects some great reviews from those readers who discover it. The numbers do not lie.
So here's the unicorn's theory for writing a popular blog or a best-selling book in 2014....

Forget the safe middle ground. Forget trying to please the largest number of readers while avoiding upsetting everyone else. Forget the latest computer analysis of best-selling titles, which claims to predict with 86% accuracy if a book will be a best-seller or a flop. Write something that arouses strong emotions, give it a title that works perfectly for that particular post or book (and if you can squeeze a couple of popular search strings in there, go right ahead). Then put it out there, and let readers do the promotion for you while you try to come up with something even better.

Hmmm... off to get writing!


Related Posts with Thumbnails