Hey, young readers, Happy New Year from a nervous grown-up

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What will I have written by the end of 2016?  Now that the Tales of Fontania are finished (the 4th, The Knot Impossible, is out already in New Zealand and Australia, out in March in the USA) it is time for me to try something new.

At the moment I’m packing my bags ready to take the ferry from Wellington NZ to the South Island. Then I’ll drive all the way down the east coast to Dunedin and Otago University for six months as the 2016 Children’s Writing Fellow. This still makes me blink with astonishment.

I told the University something about the new novel I hoped to write. I even showed them the first few pages of the first draft. They said, ‘Yay, we want you! Come down!’ (Um, they were rather more formal about it but they did sound excited, which was very flattering and made me super-excited too.) I had to keep the news deep-secret for months. That was extreeeemely hard.

But now – I’m nervous.  I’d rather scurry back to Fontania and the strange creatures that live in its forests and oceans. Already I miss the brave Fontanian children who struggled to sort out the muddles grownups were making of everything.

I have to tell myself – the new novel will have a different set of brave children. They too will struggle, make jokes and be bemused and amused by grown-ups. (After all I am still very bemused and amused by plenty of grown-ups.) When I’m finally in Dunedin in my own university office, maybe the ideas and action of this new novel and the jokes will begin to bubble in my brain and race out my fingertips through the keyboard and onto the screen.

Please send encouraging thoughts to beautiful Dunedin with its magical harbour and Otago University with its handsome clock tower – very gothic and even a bit Harry Potter-ish. I must post a photo of it on the blog very soon.

In the meantime here’s a shot of a performance of the Anarchists’ Marching Song from The Volume of Possible Endings. Rousing.

Marching Song 3

Let’s hear it for minor characters!

Probably every reader has favourite characters from favourite stories. Most often they’ll be the main ones, like Pippi Longstocking or Pooh Bear, Willie Wonka or Charlie himself  from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I had a great letter from a reader a couple of weeks back. It’s always special to hear from children who’ve enjoyed one or more of the Tales of Fontania and Zac from Nelson said something really pleasing. Among other things he liked a minor character in The Travelling Restaurant, Crispin Kent. He’s a journalist who also appears in The Volume of Possible Endings. Journalists are meant just to report the news, not take sides.

But Mr Kent seems dodgy at first. Is he a spy? Is he an enemy? He’s one of my favourite minor characters too, because he does seem so slippery and I’ve known several slightly wicked but very funny people a bit like him.

Have a think about the last book you read. Did any of the minor characters stand out? Can you work out why? How about writing a story of your own, with that character as the main one?

 

How cool are maps?

J R R Tolkein said: “Believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough. Otherwise you wander all over the place. In The Lord of the Rings I never made anyone go farther than he could on a given day.” I loved following the adventures in the maps, and the artist helped give atmosphere to the story.

I feel very lucky to have an artist as clever as Sam Broad to do the cover and maps for each of the Tales of Fontania. He has an amazing sense of fun and drama. I don’t think he could do a boring picture no matter how hard to tried. His illustrations almost zoom off the page with energy. The other thing I really like is how he adds his own details to the basic ideas.

The Volume of Possible Endings is in five parts and each one is headed by an illustration. The one on page 158 is a fabulous raven soldier. See how his foot rests on the toadstool. See the feather dropping off his hunky arm. And take a look at the can of army rations on p 98. It’s disgusting. I love it.

The inside covers of The Volume of Possible Endings have a map of Owl Town where most of the action takes place. While I’m drafting a novel, I have to do maps myself to make sure I’m sending the characters in the right directions. I’m very grateful that Sam can look at my scrappy scribbles and turn them into versions that are so much fun and – well, I’ve already said clever. But when it’s about Sam Broad, it is worth saying clever at least twice.

Check out more of his work on his website.

What’s Cooking?

Readers told me they loved the food in The Travelling Restaurant and hoped there’d be more delicious feasts in The Queen and the Nobody Boy. Well – most of the food there was rather awful, like stale potatoes and the mess in the dining car of the wind-train.

The third book, The Volume of Possible Endings, is due out in November. There’s a horrible lunch which seems to be cat food on a slice of bread. But there is also the main character’s favourite fish dish, spotty plumpoe (you can only catch spotty plumpoe in Fontanian rivers.)  It is followed by lemon slice which really is very good and I make it here in New Zealand. One young man I know ate so much of it that he threw up.

I wrote about another dessert in The Queen and the Nobody Boy. It is Um’Binnian Cabbage Cream.  The recipe was printed in the back of the book with this note: I don’t think it is actually very nice. But try it with ice cream if you like. Your choice.

Several people have told me they’ve tried it and really liked it. Their choice!

Um’Binnian Cabbage Cream:
Find a cabbage as big as your head.

Cut it in half (Yes, dear, I mean the cabbage) and put both halves in a pot of cold water.

Put the pot on the stove and let the cabbage cook for 15 minutes. (Watch that it doesn’t boil over. If it does, you’re the one who has to clean up the mess.)

Pour off the water. (Don’t let any cabbage slither into the sink.) 

Fill the pot again with boiling water from your kettle.

Boil it for 20 more minutes.

Drain the cabbage dry, then chop it into very little bits.

Put the bits into a bowl, add three big knobs of butter and sprinkle in 12 dessertspoonfuls of brown sugar.

Add a heaped teaspoon of cinnamon and half a teaspoon of nutmeg.

Stir it all up.

In another bowl beat three fresh eggs and half a cup of cream.

Stir the eggs and cream into the cabbage.

Put it all into a baking dish.

Bake the dish in a medium oven until the cabbage is brown on top.  (No, no, you can do it in a small oven or a very big one. I actually mean a medium temperature, which is about 180o C).  It should take about 20 minutes.

The writer as a pushmi-pullyu

I’m in a pushmi-pullyu state. Do you know the pushmi-pullyu of the Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting? It is the front half of a gazelle joined to the front half of a unicorn, so you’re never sure which way it wants to go.
One half of me is in a creative flurry. I’ve sent the Third Tale of Fontania to my publisher, Gecko Press. Though it is ‘finished’ it will need to be edited so it isn’t completely off my mind or desk yet. I’ve also pounded out a goodly chunk of a new children’s novel, feeling excited about the adventures and discoveries to come over the next few months while I work on it at my new standing desk (which I love to bits).
The other half is me is being public. My favourite sister is coming to stay, and she and my other favourite sister will spend a week catching up and having fun. (BTW I only have two sisters.) I’m also speaking at the Kokomai Festival tomorrow, then in just over a week have another talk to give up in Kapiti Village. I’ve also just done couple of book signings in New York (don’t it sound grand!) so I’m being much more out there than usual.
Question: which is the gazelle part, which is the unicorn? I can only say they’re both pretty excited in their own ways.

Writing villains – a tip or two for young writers.

Who do we love to hate?

I look at a lot of manuscripts by other writers and try to help them make their stories stronger. One problem I often see is that the writer hasn’t managed to get a sense of tension and threat into a story early enough. As soon as possible, the reader needs to see that the bad guys are definitely bad.

It’s not enough just to say that the villains are wicked or mean or whatever. The writer has to come up with a piece of action that shows how wicked the bad guys can be. You don’t always need to see the villains themselves in an early chapter. But you need to see evidence of what they can do.

How have I managed my own villains? In The Travelling Restaurant, Lady Gall feeds something secretly to little Sibilla that makes the toddler throw up.

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the bad guy is Emperor Prowdd’on. In the early draft he was too much just a comic pompous figure. To make him more of a threat, I decided to have him do something really horrible then deny it was his fault: “Little Queen was very wrong to encourage me to play with faulty rodent.” It upsets the little Queen and the other main character, Hodie.

It also upsets one of the scruffy little squirrels that lives in the Grand Palace grounds. That turns the novel into a sort of revenge story. That squirrel becomes very determined to keep after the Emperor and it plays an important part in the ending.

Some writers plan the end of a novel before they start writing. I don’t like to do that myself in a lot of detail. I plan some things, but when it comes to the villain I love to see what happens as I write and hope that a good idea for poetic justice will come into my head. ‘Poetic justice’ means that the villain will come to a sticky end exactly right for their particular crimes and personalities.  Lady Gall wants to be forever beautiful … Emperor Prowdd’on is vain and greedy ….  Serve them darn well right! is what I want the reader to think in the scenes of final come-uppance.

I’ve just had great fun discovering how the villain in the third tale of Fontania fares at the end of the novel. But that’s a blog for another day.

Is it steam punk?

I think this blog should become more for children, so here goes.

Earlier this month I had a fabulous tour to several schools from Christchurch to Dunedin. Bright kids, great teachers and librarians, and some really interesting question sessions after I’d read from the Tales of Fontania.

‘Is it steam punk?’ asked one boy at North Dunedin Intermediate. Yes! In the world of the novels, magic and science are trying to find some sort of balance.

In The Travelling Restaurant, stern but fair Polly (who climbs rigging in her high-heeled green boots)  says this: ‘Once upon a time, the world was rich in magic. It was used wisely, not wasted on anything selfish or mean-spirited. It was saved for important things like making sure babies slept safe in their cots, that people had enough to eat, and that the world was peaceful. There were dangers, as there always is with magic. But there was also common sense. Some people began to experiment with science and machines, and that was all right. You see, everyone thought somebody was in charge.’

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the wind-train is one such new machine. I based it on a very early 19th Century idea for air travel. And in a newspaper last week, I saw that a new 21st Century airplane uses some of the ideas I’d come up with for my wind-train: using oil for an engine but also being able to glide when necessary. Did I feel proud? Definitely. And the message birds in The Queen and the Nobody Boy are really like primitive cell phones.

One question underlying the stories is, where do things that appear magical become ‘real’ and able be explained by science? But I like to feel that some things can’t be explained, that there is a magic in ordinary human decency and respect for each other, and that some things just don’t rely on logic and being rational.

In the fourth Tale of Fontania, I hope the themes of magic versus science will come to a chaotic, funny and moving finale. But at the moment, I’d better move on with the third Tale. It is coming close to being finished.