Wednesday 5 August 2015

Sunday 2 August 2015

Pre-publication inteview by Kathryn

Hello Again, Kieran,

     Wow, it's been three months since our first interview, and I thought, on the eve of The Black Lotus's August 6th release, now would be a great time to catch up with you. So thank you for taking the time to answer some follow-up questions and thanks again for letting me hijack your blog.
 You've been busy. In a previous blog post you described the makings of your book cover, you've put together an amazing trailer (which I can't stop watching), and you've garnered some excellent reviews. (Did I read movie potential?) Obviously, promotion is on your mind right now. What else are you doing to make sure the world knows about The Black Lotus?

I'm trying to get that tricky balance correct: promoting without being annoying. My publisher has set up a lot of interviews with bloggers and reporters for website and newspaper articles, so I'm busy doing that at the moment. I spent last night writing the content for a cool competition my publisher, Chicken House, is running. I'm also busy organising my launch - sending out invitations, making posters, creating origami black lotus flowers (119!), meeting people, organising cake and wine, etc. Today, I got my 'head-in-the-hole' poster back from the printers. I wasn't sure how it'd work, but it turned out well. Basically, people at the launch can take photos of themselves as a Black Lotus ninja. I plan on taking it to events, too. I think kids will like it. In fact, I might just take it everywhere from now on!

Oh, that's so cute. I think kids will love it, too. However, I find it both delightful and shocking to think of a writer ordering cake for his own book launch and folding 119 origami flowers. It really contrasts with the image in my mind of the diligent, slightly underfed writer laboring over the typewriter in total isolation. Are you enjoying the promotional, more social aspects of writerly duties? What have you most enjoyed and what are you most looking forward to as you continue to promote TBL?

Mostly, I'm pretty happy with being a 'diligent, slightly underfed writer labouring over the typewriter in total isolation' (without the underfed part! I like to be fed) but I'm also enjoying the promotional bits. In many ways, it's easier than writing, though I am nervous about the book launch because I'm not a spotlight kind of guy. That's perhaps why the social media promotion is a little easier for me. I possibly also suffer from a typically Irish thing of not wanting to be seen to get too big for his boots, which means I'm often reluctant to talk about my novel, unless someone asks. I really enjoyed making my book trailer, my posters, and the Chicken House competition because that's what I love to do - make stuff. I suppose the thing I'm looking forward to most is meeting kids who have read my book and hearing their thoughts. I've had plenty of reviews from adults but none from kids yet, so that will be fun when it happens.

I agree. I think meeting your young readers will be a blast. But gosh, my concept of a writer kicking back after
his book goes to the publisher is shot! You've taken on a lot of your own promotion. Is this something you, your publisher, and your agent all discussed as your release date neared? What guidance are you receiving from them? Do they have to approve your marketing ideas? What is your publisher doing independently of you?  I suppose I just want to understand the division of labor and know whether or not all your hard promotional work is the norm.

In the past, writers were just expected to write, but now promotion is a big part of the job.  Chicken House did send me on an author training day to help me prepare for events, so that was really useful. But no, I didn't really sit down and discuss it with my agent and publisher, though I do keep them abreast of what I'm doing/planning. In this day and age, promotion goes with the territory, and I'm happy to do it. I mean, you can't expect others to promote your book if you won't do it yourself. My publisher however, has been hugely supportive and has approved of most my ideas. They've organised book reviews, articles for websites and newspapers, interviews and competitions. But at the end of the day, they have three other books publishing on the same day as mine, so they can't only be plugging The Black Lotus. Is the amount of promo I'm doing the norm? I think so. In fact, a lot of authors do much more!

Your book launch is coming up in four days. I'm embarrassed to say I've never been to a launch. Please tell me about yours.

Well, it's going to be held in a really nice independent bookshop in Temple Bar, in the centre of Dublin. To be honest, I'm not sure what it's going to be like as I haven't been to many launches. But I've invited lots of people - friends, family, pupils from my school, colleagues and lots of bookish people too - writers, editors, booksellers, and generally people with an interest in books. Most excitingly of all, I'll be meeting some people that I've known for a long time online, but have never met in the flesh! That's going to be cool! One of them is Eamon, who is part of the critique group that you and I are members of. I'd love if you and Suja could be there too, but I know you'll be there in spirit.

My publisher is flying over from the UK so I'm hoping he'll speak. The keynote speaker will be Robert Dunbar, a renowned commentator on children's literature. I suppose I'll have to speak too, but this will be short, because public speaking is not my forte. I'll probably do a reading too, and sign some books. Apart from that, I hope people will have a glass of wine, some cake and a good time. I'll be decorating the shop with 'Name That Famous Ninja' posters for people to identify celebrities in ninja attire. I'll also be leaving origami black lotus flowers around the shop for people to take home with them. Each flower comes complete with a unique ninja name and superpower!

But that's it really. I'm keeping it simple, hoping that people are happy to mingle and chat.

That's it really? What do you mean? It sounds fantastic. I have to admit, I did just feel a little twinge of jealousy that Eamon will be there and that he'll be having cake. On your Twitter page last week, you posted a photo of your book on the shelves of a REAL book store. What was that like?

It was pretty cool seeing The Black Lotus on the shelves. What was even cooler was that the book was spotted by my wife and kids. It's not officially published until August 6th so I was really surprised to see it 'in the wild'. My kids were chuffed too. My eldest has read it and said it was 'good, but not as good as Harry Potter'. She was promptly sent to bed without her supper after that remark!

But yes, everyone is pretty excited about the book, often more-so than me! My pupils all wrote books in school this year, and as I was the only one who hadn't, I think some of them will come along to the launch armed with a red pen to get their own back on me!

Nah, you'll be the coolest teacher in school!  You've worked for years on The Black Lotus, worked to find an agent, and then a publisher. You've seen your cover develop, seen your book on the shelves, seen some great reviews. It's been quite the process. The official release date of The Black Lotus is in four more days. What are you thinking right now at this very moment?

I'm excited, but worried too. What if people don't like it? What if I get bad reviews? What if it doesn't sell? I think all writers are plagued by the same worries and self doubt. So, nervousness and excitement in equal measure!

I'm incredibly excited too. It's going to be so much fun watching people discover your work. I can't wait. But I do have to ask. When was the last time you read The Black Lotus and when you did, were you still in editing mode? I guess what I want to know is: Does the desire to edit ever end???

The last time I read it was just before it went to print, so I wasn't allowed to make any changes, I was just searching for errors. But yes, you could edit forever. However, once your finished book arrives, there's no more you can do, so you need to move on.

What a relief to know it's possible to put a book to bed and get on with the next one. By the way, what is your next one?

I'm working on a novel I started some time ago, but it's far too early to say any more than it's for 9+ and has two points of views. 

Cool. I look forward to reading it soon. Kieran, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. It's been an amazing journey for you, and you've been so wonderful to share it with us. We all wish you the best--lots of good reviews, lots of readers, and lots more books to follow.

Sunday 7 June 2015

How I Made My Book Trailer

When I discovered the existence of 'book trailers' I knew I had to have one. Some Chicken House authors have really good ones, like these: Big Game, One of Us, Flashes, The Killing Woods. But I am not a movie-maker, nor do I know anyone who could make one for me.

However, I did stumble across a cut-paper animated movie called PATH OF BLOOD by Eric Power. I contacted him and asked him if he'd allow me to use some footage from his movie in my trailer. I honestly expected him to say 'no' but guess what, he said 'yes.' How generous is that?

So I bought his movie and downloaded it. Then using Windows Movie Maker I cut the pieces I wanted out of Eric's animation.

Next I needed some royalty free music so I Googled and found Incompetech. They've got some great tracks that are free to use as long as you credit them properly.

Once I added the music, I re-arranged Eric Power's movie clips to tell a new story, that of THE BLACK LOTUS. I wasn't confident about doing a good voice-over so I added text to narrate the trailer.

The initial trailer was too long and Chicken House suggested I cut it down to somewhere between 1 and 2 minutes. So I did, and then uploaded it to YouTube.

Now, I don't know if a book trailer is necessary, or even if it will sell any books. But it definitely can't do any harm, right? And it was great fun making it. So here it is!

Tuesday 2 June 2015

The Evolution of a Book Cover

One of the most exciting things about publishing a book is seeing your cover for the first time (a) because it makes the book feel real (b) because it's interesting to see how someone interprets your entire story in one image, and (c) because it's easy. For the author, at least, As in, I didn't have to do anything.

The only thing I did was provide a mood board of covers and images I liked. Some I chose were:

So you can see what I was thinking. My publishers however, were thinking differently. They wanted to strike 'a balance between young teen fantasy, heroes, edgy martial arts & more niche Japanese imagery. We also wanted to avoid showing figures which might make it too male/female. We also know that knives and swords can be tricky with the gatekeepers to children's fiction (teachers, librarians, and some book-selling buyers) so instead, we have focussed on motif and strong series styling that will work across all future books.'

And that made perfect sense to me. They were thinking along the lines of The Maze Runner series and the Alex Rider series.

So here's what they came up with:

And it was a shock. But in a good way. I loved it, but I think my publishers thought it might get lost in the sea of black-covered books that already exist out there. They wanted it to stand out from the crowd so they switched the colours:

It certainly did stand out. I didn't think I could love my cover any more but Chicken House went and 'urbanized' it to reflect the contemporary New York setting where some of the story takes place. I give you the finished product:

Isn't it awesome!

Sunday 31 May 2015

Review of MY NAME'S NOT FRIDAY by Jon Walter

Image Source
From the author's opening comments, you know you're in for a treat.
'This book appeared out of the darkness... an unsettling experience, trying to use all of the senses other than sight... and then a voice... clear as day... a boy in the pitch black with me... and he believed he'd been brought there by God.'
That voice belongs to Samuel, and it's as real and true as any voice you'll find between the pages of a book. From the opening paragraph, I was sucked in by its vulnerability and unwavering faith. What follows is Samuel's sale to a slave-trader by the priest who runs his orphanage. From this point Samuel is given the name of Friday and is taken to a cotton plantation where he spends most of the book, until the American Civil War comes to his doorstep and the boy escapes. I especially loved this part, where Friday escapes to freedom, reclaiming his own name. And even though he is nearly killed by a mortar, he is unrelenting in his quest to be reunited with his little brother.  This is a book about fate, loyalty, freedom, love, hope and family. As a teacher, I especially loved the theme that education is the axe to break the chains of slavery. I also loved Samuel's journey from darkness on page one to light on the final line - 'Some time soon I'll stand in sunshine.'
This story of slavery and cruelty and the American Civil War is one which feels familiar to us, and though history isn't something I normally like to read, when I do, this is how I like to do it - with a book that's not fuelled by historical events, but by the loves and losses of a character that is so real, you feel he is sitting beside you. Highly recommended.

Saturday 2 May 2015

Hauling the Water from the Well

Today I get interviewed by Kathryn, a fellow middle grade author.

Hello Kieran, 
Firstly, congratulations on The Black Lotus. I'm looking forward to its release on August 6, 2015, and thank you for allowing me to borrow your blog today for this interview. Which leads to my first question. These days, there's an expectation for authors to become social media darlings. I feel intimidated by this, yet some writers embrace it, including you. How do you handle social media? Any reservations about it?

I didn't grow up with social media so it's all relatively new to me. I was reluctant to embrace it, but
finally took the plunge with Twitter and now I love it. I've met so many bookish people there, REAL people. And even though they're e-quaintances, I feel like I know them as acquaintances. I have found the community to be hugely supportive. So many people I've never met seem genuinely enthusiastic about my book release. It's been a great way to spread the word about my novel. I also find it to be a treasure trove of information - articles, advice, reviews etc. It's also a great place to go if you have a question. For example, I just tweeted that I'm thinking of launching my book in Dublin and wondered if anyone knew of any good venues. Immediately, I received a great list. I love how you can connect with writers almost instantly. I often tweet authors of a book I'm reading, or have read, and most seem thrilled to get the feedback. I hope readers will contact me, too. I'd like that.

So yes, it's great. The downside is it can be a time vortex that can suck up extraordinary amounts of time - time when you should be writing!

Blogging is new to me, too. And I guess I'm less attracted to this. Probably because I don't really like writing about myself, and the 140 character limit of Twitter suits my single-digit-hen-pecking typing better. Though I do like having the blog space to post reviews, pictures and stuff - like this interview! 

I've yet to allow Facebook in, though I am feeling the pressure to join. But I spend so much time on Twitter already, I don't want to open another vortex!

You went through several revisions of The Black Lotus before you were satisfied. If you had to repeat the entire writing and editing process, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Jeez, where do I start? I did everything wrong. When I started writing I knew nothing about point of view or voice or anything. I learned as I went along, which was not ideal because it resulted in cutting vast tracts of text and starting again. But on the other hand, isn't learning from your own mistakes the BEST way to learn? So I'm really not sure if I'd do things differently. Do I wish I hadn't gone through the heartache of rewriting my entire novel? Yes! But I think it was only by writing the thing the wrong way, that I figured out (with the help of my editor!) how to write it the correct way. In some writing advice by one of my favourite authors, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, he talks about how Roald Dahl's manuscript of Fantastic Mr Fox was already with the publisher before he thought of the idea of having Mr Fox tunnel into the farmers' stores of food and drink. And yet 'it reads like the very first thing he thought of.'

'You have to go out and haul the water from the well and pour it into those jugs and cart it over to the wedding feast. Then and only then will some AMAZING GRACE come along and turn it into wine.' Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Not that I'm saying my writing is wine, by the way. More like fizzy cola - not very nourishing, but fun to drink (hopefully!).

So despite all the mistakes I've made, I'm not sure I'd do any of it differently, except perhaps for the research. I spent a lot of time researching stuff about feudal Japan, stuff which never made it into my book. I feel like I wasted – no, wasted is the wrong word - SPENT a lot of time researching fascinating stuff that never got used in my story. On the other hand, all this knowledge did perhaps allow me to write more confidently about a period in history which I knew little about.

I realise this is a very bumbling reply to your question. So perhaps I'l sum up by saying: I wish I had done everything differently, but am glad I didn't.

The writing and revising process is exhausting. Finding an agent, and then waiting for a publisher to commit to your novel is just as tough. During those times when you really wanted to give up, what motivated you to keep going?

My wife was a great source of support to me, as was my agent. But so were my critique buddies, Nobody understands a writer like another writer does. And because some of us were at the same stage in our writing career, and writing for the same audience, I think they understood my disappointments better than anyone. Because they’d seen the work I put into my book. So for that I will be forever grateful.

How did The Black Lotus develop from ideas in your head to reality? Was it a few disconnected thoughts you built a novel from or did you have a whole universe of ideas you pared down until you had a novel outline?

 The book started with a single idea - an image in my head. It was of a Japanese lord standing on the battlements of his castle at night. The wind whipped his long black hair out of his topknot and fluttered the butterflies on his silk kimono. He looked down at the road below where he saw a trail of torches making their way through the darkness towards his castle. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword and smiled.

That was it! That was what started the ball rolling. Unbeknownst to myself I had created my villain - Lord Goda. I spent ages fleshing out this opening scene. I was immensely proud of it. Then I began to wonder who these visitors were that were arriving at his castle in the dead of night. And why? But I also knew I wanted to write a contemporary children's book, and this opening scene felt neither contemporary or for children.

So I began to wonder what sort of children could take on a villain like this They couldn't be ordinary kids, could they? And from there the whole thing started to evolve. I got ideas and suggestions from loads of people - my agent, my critique buddies and my editor. But they are sworn to secrecy. The Black Lotus knows where they live.

The first person I showed the book to was a renowned literary agent who said she loved the story but thought I needed to cut that opening scene. What?! My first and beloved scene? My seed of inspiration? I was delighted and devastated at the same time. But that's what writing is all about isn't it - lashings of disappointment with a sprinkling of euphoria.

So yes, it was a few ideas, feelings and images, fleshed out into a brand new world. I wish I had plotted it all out and saved myself years of hardship, but where would the fun be in that?

What book on the market would you say is most similar to yours?

I would like to say it's like nothing on the market but my publishers have already said it'll appeal to fans of Chris Bradford and Anthony Horowitz, so who am I to argue? And I'm more than happy to have those two authors mentioned in the same sentence as me. In fact, I'm thrilled.

Without giving too much away, what was the most difficult scene in the book for you to write? What scene was the easiest?

I like writing action scenes, so my three opening chapters where I introduce Cormac, Kate and Ghost and their superpowers were fun to write. I also particularly enjoyed writing about these three kids breaking into Lord Goda's castle. I guess because I'd done the research, I knew exactly what this castle would look, smell and sound like. I knew how vigilant the samurai guards would be. I knew how dangerous it would be. The only thing I didn't know was HOW they were going to get in. I left that bit up to them.

I suppose the scene I found hardest was the climax. How would three kids and a handful of ninjas take on the might of Lord Goda, the Swords of Sarumara and the Samurai Empire in a battle which would leave the reader breathless and gasping for more? Guess you'll have to read the book to find out!

The Black Lotus is chock full of ninjas and samurai swords, and part of the book is set in feudal Japan. What is your interest in this period and place, and how much research time did this save you once you began writing?

We never went to the cinema as kids but my first cinema-like experience was in a boy scouts' hall where we watched a Bruce Lee movie. This had a big influence on me. Later I took up Karate and I guess my interest in Japan started there. But I also grew up watching TV in the 80s and programmes then were full of ninjas. As a kid I dreamed of performing the same acrobatics as these masked warriors. As I got older I got interested in video games and gamebooks and again, I sought out martial art content. I particularly remember loving 'The Way of the Tiger' series of gamebooks by Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson.

As an adult, I took up Karate again, for a while, and was particularly inspired by our sensei who taught us much more than Karate. He taught us about the language, the customs, the culture, the food and the people of Japan. I guess I've always had a fascination with all things Japanese. I think a lot of people have a foreign destination that they feel a strong kinship with - for me it has always been Japan. I'm a Japanophile, of sorts.

The only thing that bothered me about the portrayal of ninjas on 80s TV was that they were always the bad guys. And more recently they've become a bit of a joke in popular culture. So I wanted to write something where ninjas would be the good guys, and they'd be taken seriously. And when I say serious, I mean deadly serious!

As research I used the old (un)reliable internet , but also read a lot of fiction set in this time. Novels like Shogun by James Clavell were brilliant for giving me tiny details which brought feudal Japan to life. I also loved Blue Fingers: A Ninja's Tale by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel as well as Lian Hearn's Otori trilogy. I also watched a lot of movies and documentaries - anything I could find.

As I said earlier, I think I spent too much time researching stuff which never was used in the books but I guess it did help me write with a certain confidence.

Your main characters, Cormac, Kate and Ghost, are from three different countries: Ireland, the USA, and Brazil, respectively. What made you chose these particular home countries? 

I wanted my three kids to be of differing sexes and nationalities, because The Black Lotus is a gender blind, international organisation. The reason why I chose the USA and Brazil as destinations is because I've visited these places. I chose to have Cormac from Ireland because at least that would be one part of the story I wouldn't have to research!

Thanks to the same comic books being made into movies (over and over again) everyone in the world knows origin stories are a critical part of a superhero: Peter Parker's spider bite, Bruce Banner's gamma research, Bruce Wayne's tragic family history. Will we learn the origin stories for your characters in book 1 or will you make us wait until book 2?

The origin stories are hinted at in book one but you'll have to wait for the sequels to find out the rest. 

If you could be one of your characters, who would you chose?

Not sure if I'd choose any of my protagonists because they've had tough lives prior to joining The Black Lotus. And things don't get much easier for them after they join. So I think I'd like to be Lord Goda, just for a day. I wouldn't want to rule the world but I would like to sample his power - My villain has always been a fascinating character to me, and I actually wrote loads of chapters about him alone - chapters that didn't make it into the book. Perhaps when my Middle Grade readers grow up I'll write an adult book about Lord Goda.

The Sword of Sarumara, the most powerful samurai sword ever crafted, has just fallen into your hands. You can now go to any place and to any time. Where would you go?

What a great question! I love history but the more I read about it the less I'd like to go back in time. I think I'd miss my comforts too much. We've never had things as good as we have today. Bearing all this in mind, I'd like to travel into the future. When I was a kid I could never have imagined smartphones and the internet. So I'd like to go forward 50 or 100 years to see what cool things we've invented. And I'd like to see if we've improved as a species. How do we treat the poor, the sick and the marginalised in the future? How does the planet look in the future? Have today's endangered species become extinct or survived? Are there any rainforests left? What do people do for entertainment? How is space exploration going? Have we discovered aliens? Or have they discovered us?

Have you had any ninja training?

Yes. But if I told you how much, I'd have to kill you.

Thank you, Kieran!

Kathryn is the author of Sirin and the Wardogs of Shanidar

Sunday 19 April 2015

11 Things I Like about 'The Dreamsnatcher' by Abi Elphinstone

1. Moll. She's mischievous, brave, loyal, pig-headed, and stubborn but with a heart of gold.
2. Gryff. Inspired by Lyra's Pantalaiman, this wildcat makes an excellent sidekick for the feisty Moll.
3. The setting. So many children's books are about epic adventures and journeys, I found the rather enclosed nature of the book's setting very refreshing. It's basically set in one forest, and the reader encounters nothing of the world outside the trees. To Moll, the forest is huuuuge, but I'm guessing it's actually not. And the world of a child can often be like that. A bed can be an island, a bedroom can be a sea, and a back garden can be a continent.
4. The Gypsies. I think this is the first novel I've read about gypsies and in this book we get a real sense of them - their beliefs, their superstitions, their clothes, their food, their music. You get to smell that camp-fire smoke! And you've got to love those names - Oak, Mooshie, Wisdom, Cinderella Bull and (my favourite) Hard-Times Bob.
5. The magic. The Dreamsnatcher is full of magic, both good and bad. The good relates to old world beliefs and superstitions but also new world eco-friendly living.  The bad magic is really scary and hangs over the novel like a dark cloud about to rain.
6. The villains. Skull is a genuinely frightening character and his malevolent presence pervades at all times. His gang of cronies and monsters are also terrifying.
7. The puzzles. If you've read any of my Code Crackers books you'll know I'm kinda fond of puzzles, so this aspect of the story was always going to be a winner for me.
8. Nature. The author's (and Moll's) love of nature seeps through the writing.
9. No technology. The Dreamsnatcher is a most welcome break from technology of any kind - a mechanical detox, if you like - no phones, computers, Twitter, cars, iPods - nothing!
10. The author. Isn't Abi Elphinstone the best name for a children's author. She seems like a cool person too.
11. The cover is brilliant, as is the map inside.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Review of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone"

So I read this book when it was first published and really liked it.  Then the whole world seemed to read it and adored it.  Twelve years later I've returned to it to see if I missed something, because clearly the rest of the world loved it more than me.  My rating stays the same - 4 stars.  I really like it and can see its appeal to kids - a fresh and exciting world full of quirky characters- pure escapism. The writing is solid too.

Having read it the first time, I didn't feel inclined to read the sequels, and unfortunately I kind of feel the same now.  We'll see...

Thursday 2 April 2015

My Top 13 Children's Books

Today is Children's Book Day. Inspired by SF Said's list and the BBC's poll of the top 10 children's books of all time, I decided to do my own top 13. Here they are in no particular order.

by Louis Sachar (1997)

by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2005)

Watership Down
by Richard Adams (1972)

His Dark Materials
by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)

Chaos Walking
by Patrick Ness (2008-2010)

by Robert Cormier (1998)

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

The Giggler Treatment
by Roddy Doyle (2000)

Danny the Champion of the World
by Roald Dahl (1975)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
by John Boyne (2006)

Artemis Fowl
by Eoin Colfer (2001)

Charlotte's Web
by EB White

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
by Kate DiCamillo