Wednesday, 3 December 2014

"Cosmic" by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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I first discovered Frank Cottrell Boyce through his movie, Millions.  I later went on to read the book which was very good but somehow, for me, failed to live up to the movie.  Framed however blew me away.  When I finish a book I like to rate it out of 5 and this book was definitely *****.  The hilarious story is a family drama set in a small Welsh town, where nothing ever happens.  Until the day the entire contents of the  National Gallery are moved into the local slate mine for safe keeping while London recovers from flooding.  The book is warm and touching and absolutely hilarious, and introduces art to the reader in a fresh and funny way.  I've read it many times, and every time I do, it gets better and better.  Go read it, I say.

So it was with some excitement that I began Cosmic.  And indeed much of what I love about Framed is featured within - a somewhat eccentric main character with a passion for some obscure topic (saints in Millions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Framed, and World of Warcraft in Cosmic), mistaken identity resulting in comic consequences, unashamed references to pop culture, and a warm, touching story which highlights the importance of family.

The main character, Liam, who is unusually tall for his age, is mistaken as a dad and attends an extreme theme park with his pretend child and accidentally ends up in Space!  As I've said, all the things I loved about Framed are in there, but I think that's where I have the problem.  TOO MUCH of Framed is in there!  I really was expecting something fresh and new.  I also found the plot to be totally bonkers - unbelievable, and very far-fetched.  So for me, it's 4 stars.

But I stand by my assertion that Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of the wittiest and most talented writers for children.  And trust me on Framed.  You've got to read it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

"The London Eye Mystery" by Siobhan Dowd

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I first encountered the work of Siobhan Dowd when I was a judge for the Bisto Book of the year, now titled The CBI Book of the year.  Her debut novel, A Swift Pure Cry, blew us all away with its beautiful and emotionally charged prose, and its tragic and fragile main character, Shell. 
I then read, Solace of the Road, about another troubled teenager, albeit in a different era.  And more recently, I reviewed The Ransom of Dond, with stunning illustrations by Pam Smy.
I love the work of Siobhan Dowd, and Robert Dunbar's recent "Top 50 Irish Children's Novels" in Inis magazine prompted me to hunt down Dowd's remaining titles.
The London Eye Mystery particularly interested me because it is the only Dowd title pitched at Middle Grade readers.  The premise is immediately captivating.  MC, Ted, visits the London Eye with his cousin Salim.  Salim gets into a pod and Ted watches it make its half hour orbit through the sky.  But when the doors of the pod open again, Salim has vanished!  Ted, with his big sister Kat, become intrepid detectives, and set out to solve the mystery, as their parents, aunt and uncle crumple under the stress of the situation.
The London Eye Mystery is a good old-fashioned detective story, and the short chapters and pacey plot will be enough to hold the interest of any child of 10+.  But more notable than the plot, is the character of Ted.  A child, clearly on the autistic spectrum, makes for an unusual MC.  The boy, whose brain "runs on its own unique operating system", has trouble dealing with the simple things in life, but is perfectly equipped to see what the adults (including the police!) can't.  His logic and obsession with meteorology make for amusing scenarios and interesting perspectives.
Dowd's observation skills and writing are impeccable throughout and I find it hard to flaw anything about The London Eye Mystery. 4 stars.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

My Love/Hate Review of "The Bone Clocks"

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Never before have I craved to see the reviews of a book, having finished it, as I do now, having completed The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.  My love/hate reaction to it is so strong it makes me want to hear what others thought.

I first encountered Mitchell's writings in Cloud Atlas, a ground-breaking novel of such scope and freshness, it bowled me over.  I truly loved it, and would safely say it's one of my favourite books ever.  His ability to create different voices and characters, centuries apart and then connect them with a tentative thread, made me immediately want to read it again.  Because Mitchell's work is so clever, and inlaid with clues and connections, you know there'll be a host of treasures waiting for you on a second and third (and more) reading.

I went from there to Black Swan Green, a heavily biographical tale, wonderfully, but simply told.  I was disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, because I love all things Japanese but I found the historical tale dull, and actually gave up on it.

When I heard his latest offing was a throw-back to Cloud Atlas, I immediately purchased a copy and even went to get it signed at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire where he was appearing with John Boyne, as part of the Mountains to Sea festival.  On the night, he read from the book and chatted with humour, empathy and intelligence to John.  Having got my title signed, I couldn't wait to read.

The book is divided into six sections, the first one featuring the main character, Holly Sykes, who has run away from home in 1984.  It's brilliantly written and I was immediately sucked in.  But if this was to be anything like Cloud Atlas, I knew it would not simply be a traditional tale.  And it's not.  Because Holly hears voices in her head and sees things which no one else sees.  So I'm thinking, yeah interesting.  But then the strangest of events happens out of the blue and hits the reader like an articulated truck.  Over the course of a few pages, the reader is left reeling, wondering "what the hell is going on?"  Has Holly finally cracked up, or is there something strange going on in the world of The Bone Clocks?  Luckily, things return to normal again, and we are left wondering if Holly had some sort of seizure?

The next four sections of the book feature characters which are part of Holly's life and we get to see her from their perspective.  All very clever.  I was liking this a lot.  The weirdness however continued, assuring the reader that the bizarre events of section one are not the wild imaginings of a young girl.  There IS something bigger and stranger going on in this book.

But nothing prepares you for section five, in which we are immediately thrust into this strange and weird war between Horology and the Anchorites, two secret groups who "psychodecant", "subspeak", and perform "Acts of Suasion" in "The Chapel of the Dusk".  Weird, you say?  Well that's exactly how you feel as you plough your way through a section which is so far removed from the rest of the book you feel like you just wandered onto the set of a Science Fiction serial which had been running for twenty years.  I was totally bamboozled and lost, and even thought about putting the book away.  But I hadn't invested in 400 pages to give up now.  When Holly finally appears, we feel a little less disorientated, but only a little.  This single section is such a mind-warp that it cannot be reconciled with the rest of the tale.  I honestly felt like Mitchell had overdosed on acid as he wrote the section called "An Horologist's Labyrinth". 

So, exhausted, confused and nauseous, I arrive at the final section, which like the first, is from Holly's Point-of-View.  And this section is brilliant.  Set on The Sheep's Head peninsula in County Cork (where Mitchell lives), in the year 2043, it chronicles the final years of Holly Syke's life in a world where technology has failed, and society is falling into chaos and ruin.  The ending is wonderful.

So I have a love/hate reaction to this book, something which seldom happens to me.  I love five sixths of it, but hate one fifth.  Perhaps I'm just not clever enough to have understood section five, but I honestly found it so jarring and confusing and head-melting, that I would have to say, it ruined a perfectly good book.  And so it is for this reason that I give this 5-star book, only four stars. 

Now I'm off to read the reviews.  Can't wait to hear what others thought.  Is this a work of genius which I just wasn't equipped to cope with?  Or does Mitchell finally cross the line in The Bone Clocks with his experimental fiction, and should he have been stopped in his tracks by his editor?

What do you think?

Monday, 3 November 2014

Do I Need an Agent?

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All writers will ask themselves the question, "Do I need an agent?" at some stage or other.  And these
same writers will weigh up the pros and cons, as I have done. 

As far as I can see there is only one con - your agent will take a slice of your earnings (usually 10-15%).  There are many pros however:

1. An agent has firmly established contacts (which you don't) in the publishing world.
2. An agent acts as a mentor and editor.
3. An agent will guide you through the minefield of a publishing contract.
4. An agent will always push to get you a better deal.
5. An agent will promote your book at book fairs, to foreign publishers, TV and movie people.

So for me, it was a no-brainer.  I wanted an agent.

This desire was compounded by a phone call I once had with one of my literary heroes, Eoin Colfer, in which I asked him for some publishing advice.  "Get an agent," he said.

So where do you start?

I started by attending a "Meet an Agent" event organised by CBI and SCBWI.  I submitted a few chapters in exchange for a ten minute meeting with a rather renowned agent for children's writers.  Let's call her Agent A.  She really loved my submission and asked to see the manuscript when it was finished.  I celebrated. 


Anyway, I finished the manuscript and sent it off to Agent A.  Again, she said she liked it but didn't like X and Y.  So I rewrote the manuscript to fix X and Y, before sending it off again.  But this time, it was a firm "No". She didn't like Z. 

So I wallowed in the dust of self pity for a while, before looking up at my horse and wondering if should get back on.  Finally, I dusted myself down and purchased a copy of the Children's Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (Has there ever been so many apostrophes in a book title?!)

I studied the listings and chose one to submit to.  I had read somewhere that it's not recommended to make multiple submissions, so I didn't.  I waited. One month, two months, three months, four months.  Nothing.  So I sent an email, and I received an apologetic reply that Agent B would take a look at my submission ASAP.

I waited some more.  One month, two months, three months.  Nothing.  I sent another email and this time DID get a reply.  Agent B really liked the book, but felt it was too similar to the writing genres of some of her other authors.  She advised me to look elsewhere.

This time there was no self pity.  Ignoring the advice, I multiple submitted sample chapters to many agents.  And this time - RESULT!  Lots of interest.  Many requested the full manuscript.

I waited some more.

Among the replies were many rejections with lots of praise and advice, but also three interested parties.  Let's call them Agent C, Agent D and Agent E.

Agent C spoke to me on the phone.  She loved the book and seemed really nice, enthusiastic, experienced and full of high hopes for my work.  She made an offer.  She even sent me a beautiful hardback copy of one of favourite authors who was one of her clients.

This time I didn't celebrate.  Not yet.

Agent D pulled out of the race when she heard there were two other interested parties.

Agent E offered to meet me.  We met and I was very impressed by the youthful, energetic, ambitious, and intelligent woman that I had coffee with.  Here was a lady I could work with.

I nearly celebrated.  But held off, because I now had a dilemma on my hands. Agent C or Agent E?  I would have happily went with either one, but something about that face-to-face meeting sealed the deal. 

After receiving many rejection letters from agents, it felt so weird SENDING a rejection letter to Agent C.  I signed the contract with Agent E.

And celebrated.

And I've never looked back.  That gut instinct about choosing an agent served me well.

My agent is brilliant.  She helped me fine-tune the manuscript, submitted to publishers, and bagged me a fine publisher.  She is enthusiastic, energetic, professional, supportive, wise, and talented. A national newspaper described her as a "rising star", and I agree.

So if you ask me, "Do I need an agent?" my reply is, "If you can get one like mine, then YES!"

Sunday, 2 November 2014

My A-Team of Critters

In my previous two posts I wrote about the value of having a critique partner.  But even better is a critique team.  Because sometimes you don't always agree with what a single critter says, and disregard their advice.  But when a few people tell you the same thing, you have to sit up and listen.  It took me a few months to put my team together, and though it's changed a bit over the years, it's core has remained relatively unchanged.

And just like the A-Team, who I grew up with in the eighties, each member of my team has a particular skillset.  Meet my A-Team of critters. 

My "Hannibal" of the group is Kat - there from the beginning, she is my "go to" girl, my most trusted adviser, a talented writer who doesn't mince her words. Always honest, always supportive.  She's quick to critique, and never shirks her duties.  She can be relied on, when all else fails.  She writes for kids too, so "gets" what I'm about.  Has a particular talent for seeing the big picture, coming up with inspiring ideas or ways to rewrite sentences.  Her word is "almost" gospel.

My "BA Baracus" is Chee, the guy who told me about Critique Circle.  His prose is as polished as Mr. T's bling. And this is his strength. He examines everything with a microscope.  He's the grammar cop and is brilliant at spotting a word, phrase or clause that doesn't quite work.  He'll help fix it too - BA style!

My "Faceman" is Suj - a discerning reader who tells you when something works (which is very important) but also when it doesn't.  This YA fan always brings an interesting perspective to the table and has been a valuable part of the team since the beginning.

"Murdock" has been filled by various people over the years but the most recent ones are Est and Bland. Est writes YA and is queen of punctuation. She also helps Americanise my US characters and will go out of her way to help you.
Bland writes for adults and is a sci-fi fanatic. He's intelligent and knows a lot about the craft of writing.  He is honest and a bit mysterious.

The internet is notorious as a place where abusive strangers hang out. But my experience on Critique Circle has been the opposite.  I've been bowled over by the kindness of strangers. 

For example, in my novel I have my American girl dial a wrong number and receive an automated reply.  But Est (Murdock) thought my automated reply (internet sourced) didn't sound quite right so she dials a false number in real life and sends me a transcript of the automated reply!

My other Murdock, Bland, wondered if a knot I was using in an action scene would be fit for purpose.  So what does he go and do?  He recreates the scenario using ropes and climbing equipment to test out my knot!  Can you believe that! He wrote about it here.

These are just two examples of how my A-mazing critique Team have helped push my novel over the line.  As Hannibal would say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

All images were sourced on Wikipedia

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Critique Circle

Critique Circle is a fantastic website for those seeking critiques of their work.  Here's how it works:

When you sign up you get some free credits.  These are needed to post a piece of writing to a genre queue - The Newbie Queue, General, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Women's Fiction/Romance, Children's/Young Adult, or Mystery/Horror. It costs 3 credits to post a piece of writing to a queue.  The piece can be as long or as short as you like but anywhere from 1K to 3K is a good ballpark figure.  Pieces which are too long can be off-putting to critters (those who critique). Submissions can be individual pieces like short stories or chapters of a novel.

Then, for the period of a week, your submission is open to being critiqued by any of CC's members(3,000 active members at the time of writing this). Now why would a complete stranger want to critique your work?  Answer: to earn credits, which they need to submit their own work. 

The system works really well.  Of course, you will come across some members who are only critiquing your work for credits, but if you hang around long enough you will meet some great people who are genuinely interested in reading your stuff and helping you.

But you've got to work at it. There is an unwritten "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" rule which implies that if someone critiques your work you should critique theirs.  It can take months to find genuine critique partners but the effort is time well spent.

Five years later I have a small team of diverse crit buddies who read everything I submit, and I in turn do the same for them.  The anonymity of the site allows readers to be more honest than in a face-to-face writing group.  Each of my crit partners have a particular skillset, some have superb writing instincts, others act as the grammar police, and others critique as readers.

I've reached the stage where I don't post writing to public queues anymore.  As a paid member, I can create my own queue, which can only be accessed by those I invite.

As well as being a place to critique and have your work critiqued, CC is also a community of writers with interesting and active forums on all topics, as well as helpful writing tools and links.

I honestly couldn't recommend Critique Circle highly enough.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Value of Critters

Naively, I used to think this writing business was a one-man-show, a pursuit for the lone wolf.  If my seven-year journey towards publication has taught me anything, it's that it CAN be a one-man-show but is SO MUCH BETTER if it's not.

Let me start at the beginning...

What is now called THE BLACK LOTUS began as a single scene, an image, a movie clip.  It featured my samurai lord villain standing on the battlements of his keep under a full moon.  The wind blew his long jet-black hair off his face, and rippled the butterflies on his red kimono. He looked down at the trail of lights snaking their way towards his castle.  He put his hand on the hilt of his sword and smiled.

That was it. Short, sweet and cinematic.  And I was quite proud of it.  And so I wrote another 30,000 words.  And when it was finished I was excited and nervous.  But what to do next? I needed to show it to someone - someone who wasn't a friend or family.

I submitted the first few chapters to one of these "Meet an Agent" events run by CBI and SCBWI.  Rather sheepishly, I approached a small desk in one of the aisles of Tallaght Library to meet a renowned agent for Children's Writers.  She smiled as I approached and I could see my WIP on the desk in front of her.  This would be my first feedback.

And mostly it was really positive.  So much so, that she requested to see the full manuscript when it was finished.  And she also gave me plenty of advice; among which was the cutting of that opening scene on the battlements.  That scene I'd slaved over.  That scene I'd heavily researched to find out about samurai family crests, clothes, swords and castles.  That scene I was so proud of.

The short meeting was a shot in the arm to finish the book.  It also taught me the value of "killing your darlings" and the value of having your work critiqued.  Because when I cut that scene, my story became so much stronger.

A year later, I finished the book and was quite happy with it.  But having experienced the value of an honest critique, I sought other anonymous "critters" for honest feedback.  And where better to look than the Land of Anonymity itself - the internet.

I began submitting extracts to an Irish writing site (which later fell into serious disrepair so I won't name it).  There I received great encouragement and praise, which helped me believe in myself and gave me the courage to continue. The feedback made me sit up and think, "Wow, people are interested in reading this."

And though this feedback was SO important, I still sought more detailed, constructive feedback, which would improve my writing.  One of my critters told me about Critique Circle and that's where the real critiquing began.  I have so much to say about Critique Circle that I'll deal with it in my next post.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Social Media, Blogging and all that Stuff

When you've a full time job, your writing time is limited and precious.  And so, you want to spend it actually writing - as in writing stuff you want to publish - in my case, fiction for kids.  I do not want to spend it blogging or tweeting or Facebooking.  Which is why I've stayed away from such vices for so long.  I also have no interest in reading about what someone had for breakfast or indeed, writing about what I had for my own.

And so for years, I resisted the social media temptation, though everyone kept saying what a powerful tool it was. And then, reluctantly, I dipped my toe into the Twitter pool and liked what I found.  By and large, most people weren't tweeting about what they had for breakfast, and nor did I.  Instead, I found a like-minded community of individuals passionate about the things I like - children's books and writing.  Already, I've made a lot of friends (can you call them that?) - e-quaintances who post interesting things and are helpful when I ask questions.  Twitter is also a great place for joining in conversations and making contacts.

And now, here I sit, writing my first ever blog post about... well... blogging.  I'm not convinced of the value of this, or even if anyone will be interested in reading what I write, or indeed if I'll have anything interesting to say.  Time will tell.  But I've read enough interesting blog posts from others to convince me it's worth giving a shot.

I've still shunned the giant of social media, Facebook, because I fear it IS full of people talking about what they had for breakfast.  Am I right?  Or should I cave, and become a Mark Zuckerberg minion?

Anyway, that's my first blog post.  Time well spent?  Or more valuable writing time wasted?

We'll see...

Sunday, 26 October 2014

My Illustrations from my Code Crackers Series

I'm in the process of de-commissioning my old website so I'm moving my old illustrations here for safe keeping.  Click an image to view as a slide show.