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A Tale of Two Parrots


The story of a second chance at love--and inspiration


If the smoke detector hadn’t gone faulty, Xander would not have died on Christmas Eve.

23 December 2015. A malfunction in my house’s alarm system had meant that every thirty minutes, for around ten minutes, an ear-splitting noise would spiral throughout the building. The alarm company, after trying to talk me through a fix over the phone, finally sent someone out. He cut the wires, advising me that the fault was irreparable and the unit would have to be replaced.

The four hours of aural hell had left me with a splitting headache. I let my green cheek conure out of her cage and started to get ready to cook my dinner. I popped into the next room to collect a magazine, and when I tried to shut the door, it caught on something. 

It only took a moment for me to realise that the ‘something’ had been my bird’s head. Xander flew onto a kitchen cabinet, and made a noise of such distress that the air was sucked from my lungs. I could see that her head pained her. Only the next morning did I notice that the lower mandible of her beak had been shoved sideways. She couldn’t eat, and even drinking was difficult.

Finding a vet open on Christmas Eve was a challenge. The specialist avian practice was shut for the holidays. The general vet sent me home with a syringe and liquid hamster food (!). However, even when I managed to pin Xander down and squirt food into her beak, she coughed and gasped. The physical damage was just too great. So I arranged for a friend to drive me back to the vet. And I held my little bird while the vet gave my beloved bird the injection which would end her life.

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Xander had been with me through so much. My divorce, a change in career, more house moves than any creature should have to face. She had given me a reason to smile on the darkest days. And now she was gone. 

This should have been a good time for me. After many years of writing fantasy novels, I had finally come up with a new series which beta readers loved. Xander had been the inspiration behind Morey, the small gryphon who accompanies the main character, Penny White. When I published the book, ‘The Temptation of Dragons’, I dedicated the novel to her. 

My life seemed empty. I was now living totally alone. There seemed no reason to return home from work. I knew that I had to share my life with a new companion, for my own sanity’s sake.

Since there are so many parrots looking for second chances, I started looking for a rescue bird. Through searching the web I found Tilly, a year old green cheek conure looking for a new home, and in March I collected her.

I was very nervous. I felt I had the experience to deal with whatever issues a rescue bird might have, but on the other hand, Xander had been so tame and trusting. And I’d had Xander from the age of three months old. Would this new bird and I be able to form a bond?

Things were a bit rocky to start with. I’d make assumptions which Tilly didn’t share! But I read up and employed clicker and target training, and taught her a number of tricks (including flighted recall). Our relationship grew from strength to strength. 

There were some adjustments to be made. I’d gone from a mature bird to a youngster! I spent a small fortune on toys--Tilly becomes bored far more easily than Xander ever did. I bought a bigger cage and transitioned her to a different type of pellet diet. Unlike Xander, Tilly doesn’t really care for dried chilli pods, but she would sell her grandmother’s egg for a Nutriberry.

My new companion also influenced my next novel, 'The Cult of Unicorns'. Tilly is much cheekier than Xander, and her antics fed into the character of Clyde, the small snail shark who lives with Penny. 

A few days before Christmas, ‘Your memories on Facebook’ offered me a video I’d made of Xander. Watching her dance to my rendition of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ brought tears to my eyes. But then I lifted Tilly to the computer screen, and let her see the video. ‘That’s your sister,’ I told her. ‘And I love you both very much.’

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Character Arc!

One way for a writer to obtain reviews for a book is to agree to do reviews for other writers.  The advice is that you need reviews in order to entice someone to buy your book, and also that very few readers will take the time to leave a review (no matter how nicely you ask!).

I’ve been involved in ‘review rounds’ organised by a group on Goodreads. Ten authors sign up, and the moderator ensures that there are no reciprocal reviews. You agree to read/review four books in return for four other people reading/reviewing yours. 

Some of the review rounds have been in a specific genre. Others have been ‘open.’ So I’ve found myself reading historicals, romances, and even a children’s book along the way. 

What I’ve discovered, now that I’ve been forced to read outside my preferred genres, is I don’t mind what the book is, so long as there is a character arc. Let the setting be in an alternative Japanese history, or an 18th century melodrama, or a small town in the 1970’s. If I find the characters engaging, if I can see (rather than be told) them change during the course of the tale, then I can take pleasure in a wide variety of settings.

Conversely, if the characters remain static for the course of the book, it doesn’t matter if the novel fits into my preferred reading material. I want to go on a (sometimes metaphorical) journey with the person I’m reading about. If I finish the last page and what s/he has been through hasn’t changed her/him in some way, then I find myself wondering why I’d bothered.

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When I wrote my first two novels, my inspiration for character change was the singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg. I had many of his CDs, and I was intrigued as to how his voice had changed during his career. My thought was, ‘I want Gonard’s voice to change during the course of his travels.’ Not literally, actually, but in the way he would go from cowering in front of humans to a willingness to challenge them. 

For my next two novels, ‘The Dragon Throne’ and ‘The Unicorn Throne,’ I knew the beginning and the end point for the characters, so writing their arcs seemed to come easily. Forgiveness features across the story of both Fianna and the Prancer. Both of them act in foolish ways, because they’re young. Part of growing up is to realise that your parents make choices which they feel were for the best, even if you didn’t think so at the time. Both of the main characters learn from making their own mistakes that they can forgive their fathers for those mistakes which their fathers had made.

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But those novels, and ‘The Judas Disciple’, were written to be more self contained than my new series. The first ‘Penny White’ has been published, I’m reaching finishing line on the second book, ‘The Cult of Unicorns’, and I have ideas for at least another three. So it’s a challenge to both provide some character development in each book, yet leave matters open ended for the next one. That might be why I loaded so much on Penny’s plate! For example, jer parents dying when she was a teenager, her husband drowning just a short while before the first book starts, an annoying younger brother for whom she is and yet is not a mother. And the traditional romantic triangle, although perhaps not entirely traditional as the sexy ‘bad boy’ is a dragon. 

The other challenge is to seed things into earlier novels which can then become important later on. The main idea for the fourth novel, ‘The Vengeance of Snails’, came to me while I was just about to publish ‘The Temptation of Dragons.’ So I was able to add an important point to the description of Clyde’s parent before I released the book. 

Perhaps part of the challenge for me, personally, is that I haven’t read too many book series. The ‘Harry Potter’ books, of course, but those were able to develop the characters because the series followed them growing up. As a teenager I loved ‘The Dragonriders of Pern’ series, but the author’s attitudes towards women and gays now disturb me. I liked the first few books of the ‘Temeraire’ series by Naomi Novik, but these have become less interesting as the series has progressed. 

So I’ve been making notes, and plotting story arcs, and trying to leave clues in earlier books which will make sense later on. But there’s only so much I can think of in advance. Or as my favourite Doctor once said, ‘Even I can’t play this many games at once!’ (Ghostlight, 1989)

Show don’t Tell


I’m still getting used to the life of a self-published author, particularly in this age of Amazon and customer reviews. Authors are advised that books need to have reviews, the more reviews the better, even those which are not entirely positive. 

In order to obtain those reviews, I’ve been involved in various ‘review exchanges.’ I read one writer’s book and post a review, and s/he does the same with one of mine. Better yet are the non-reciprocal reviews set up by groups on Goodreads, in which people sign up for a review round and the moderator ensures that you are not reviewing the work of someone who is reading your book. This is to ensure complete honesty.

So I’ve been reading a lot of self-published work. Some of the books have been real finds, and I’ve enjoyed them. Others... Sadly I’ve had to leave some less than complimentary reviews, for various reasons.

One of the greatest failings of these books, which have not been screened by any professional publishing process, is the emphasis on telling the reader. In great detail. The advice to writers is always, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But many writers seem to ignore this. There are long paragraphs telling us exactly how the character is feeling, rather than finding some way to show us these emotions by means of what the characters does and says.

There are several levels to telling versus showing. For example, one could write, ‘Sarah glared at John, annoyed at his interruptions.’ There may be no need to state that she’s annoyed, if the dialogue earlier showed his multiple interruptions, and ‘glared’ already indicates this. Better yet might be indication her feelings by dialogue. ‘Sarah glared at John. “Maybe you could let me finish a sentence once in awhile?”’ 

Perhaps writers fear to trust that the reader can fill in the gaps. If a piece of dialogue ends in an exclamation mark, I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘he shouted’, never mind, ‘he shouted angrily.’ If we have the line of dialogue, ‘Look out!’ I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘she shouted in warning.’ Again, surely that’s obvious?

It’s made me more aware of showing versus telling in my own writing. In my most recent novel, ‘Penny White and the Temptation of Dragons’ (to be released in April), I was very conscious of trying to show rather than tell emotion. For example, Morey, the small gryphon who has come into Penny’s life, is proving to be very annoying. In a scene in Morey’s room, I originally wrote this:


       We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

       ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

        ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

        His snobbery was beginning to eat away at my patience. ‘They’re easier to lift than your books.’

       ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

        ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

        ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ He cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’


I worked with this scene because I felt there was no need to tell the reader that Morey was being a snob. The conversation made this very clear, I felt. Nor did I want to tell the reader that this was annoying Penny, at least not directly. So after some work, this is how the exchange now appears in the book:


        We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

         ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

         ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

         ‘They’re easier to lift than your books,’ I pointed out.

         ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

         ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

         ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ 

          I was tempted to find out how many volumes of the Summa it took to squash a small gryphon. ‘I can always look it up on-line.’

          Morey cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’


I like this so much better. Not only have I shown Penny’s annoyance, there’s a reference back to the books in question. And she gets in a retort of her own.

But that doesn’t mean I always get it right.  In ‘The Dragon Throne,’ I tried to give early clues that the setting wasn’t on Earth. There are references to two moons, for example. Above all, the length of the year is different than on Earth. So although the main female character, Fianna, is referred to as being eleven years old at the start of the book, in Earth terms she is actually nearly fourteen. As I tried to indicate in what Fianna’s father says to her outside her mother’s rooms.

 

       ‘Take one last look.’ Her father’s soft voice startled Fianna. She glanced at him, but Stannard was studying the room. ‘Fourteen months have passed since I placed my seal on wet plaster outside this door. But the seasons turn on, and the year is soon over. This is the last time we will see this place as she left it. Tomorrow, all must change. Will you want these rooms?’


From the summaries given by some reviewers, however, I think I might have been too subtle. People seem to take it for granted that she’s the age stated as in Earth terms, not taking into account that a year on this other world is actually fourteen months long. *sigh* Maybe I needed to find a way to tell that more directly. 

There are times when sensitively handled telling is required. I remember my confusion the first time I read Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ I was a fifteen year old living in California. I had no idea what a ‘zebra crossing’ was or why the name ‘Ford Prefect’ would be a good disguise (there was never a Ford model by that name in the USA). So after a beta reader for ‘The Temptation of Dragons’ asked what a ‘chemist’ was, I went through the book and tried to ensure that there was explanation for English cultural references. For ‘chemist,’ all I needed to add was, ‘to pick up some medicine’ to make that clear. Simple.

I’m continuing my review exchanges, and I’ve decided to smile at the worst instances of telling rather than showing. To date, my ‘winner’ in the telling stakes is probably this line, from a book and writer I shall not identify:

‘The stars were out in the dark sky. He so enjoyed taking his nocturnal strolls every night.’

Well, quite. Wouldn’t work during the daytime, would it?

‘Where do you get your ideas?'



‘Where do you get your ideas?’

 

When a writer was asked this, at a science fiction convention I was attending, he said, ‘Well, there’s this company we authors write to. We send a cheque, and then about two weeks later the idea arrives in the post.’

If only…

Where do writers get their ideas from?

A month ago I was looking through an old school notebook, and I found the first draft of ‘Dragons Can Only Rust.’ I wrote it when I was fifteen years old, and the whole point of it was The Great Reveal. The story seemed to be about a flesh and blood fantasy creature, but when his Master opened him up, Gonard was revealed to be a robot. In the original story, the dragon was dismantled at the end. It took a friend of mine to ask, ‘Oh, why can’t the dragon live?’ for the short story to become the first chapter of the novel of the same name.

I can’t remember how all of the novel came to me. The green crystalline City emerged in my imagination when, as I was driving through the Peak District (England), I heard the Starship rock anthem  ‘We Built this City.’ The combination of the song and the rocky peaks around me gave me the vision of green crystals growing in response to song.

‘The Dragon Throne’ and ‘The Unicorn Throne’ grew out of my reaction to the fantasy novels I was reading at the time. My feminist hackles were rising because, novel after novel, the men got to be knights and go on adventures, whereas the women ran the home and had to preserve their virginity for marriage. So I deliberately created a world in which both men and women could serve as knights, rule kingdoms, and it didn’t matter if you weren’t a virgin on your wedding day. Bringing in a unicorn as one of the major characters was originally meant as a way of emphasising that a Queen could still associate with a unicorn even if she were bedding her squire. That the Prancer would then develop his own character arc wasn’t something that I had foreseen.

My one off move into Christian fiction came from a friend’s fascination with Judas, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus. ‘How could he do that?’ she would ask. And so I explored how it feels to be betrayed, how one can betray with the best of intentions, and set the story of Jesus into our modern day world.

I only had the idea for my latest novel, ‘The Temptation of Dragons,’ on 10 September. I was driving to visit a family to talk about the baptism of their baby in my church. On the way, I was pondering a conversation I’d had with a senior clergyman some years ago. ‘Holy water is a protection against vampires,’ I had told him. ‘But what if a woman priest has blessed the water, and the vampire doesn’t accept the ordination of women?’ ‘Only you would ask that question, Chrys,’ had been his response. But what, I wondered, if he had responded differently? What if he had said, ‘Of course vampires aren’t injured by holy water. How could they be baptised if they were?’ And I pulled the car over and sketched out notes for what became the second scene of the novel.

It can be hard, though, to work out where ideas come from. I’ve sometimes taken a break from writing, wondering what on earth to put down next, when the scene suddenly appears in my head. Other times I can sit and stare at the computer screen and absolutely nothing comes.

Maybe I should have asked that professional writer for the name and address of where he sends off for his ideas…

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On Writing Quickly: NaNoWriMo 2015


Am I the only writer who faces this problem?

It’s a day off work. I sit at the computer, determined to get a good few thousand words written on my novel. I write a paragraph. Then I check Facebook. And the news headlines. I write another paragraph. Then I wonder what reviewers made of the last ‘Doctor Who’ episode. Oh, look, there’s an email, I should check that out! And another paragraph…

Sometimes the words just zing out of the fingers and onto that blank page. And other times it’s so tedious that I’ll do anything to avoid grinding out yet another sentence.

Which is why I thought I’d try the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. I’d never heard of National Novel Writing Month before. This now international scheme encourages you to commit to writing a novel in November--well, 50,000 words. You sign up on-line, provide a title and blurb for your novel, and you update your word count every day. I decided to work on ‘The Temptation of Dragons.’ I was 10,000 words in, but I didn’t include those in the word count for the contest. 

The pressure was on. I already faced the difficulty of catching up from a four day break in the middle (to visit friends in Wales), as well how to find writing time in some rather full days. But I managed to complete my 50,000 words a day early and I got my certificate!

I thought I’d wait a few weeks to reflect on the experience before writing about it. So, what are the pros and cons?

Pros:

With the pressure to hit my daily word target, I was able to keep far more focussed. Less wandering onto social media sites.

My imagination seemed to rise to the occasion. New scenes emerged as I needed them.

I discovered another community of writers out there!

Cons:

I seem to have concentrated mostly on dialogue. At the editing stage I’ll need to go back and add more description into scenes.

It worked for ‘The Temptation of Dragons’ because the novel is meant to be light and funny. I'm not certain whether a serious novel could be written under those pressures. Well, not by me, anyway.

I’m certain there will be a larger number of typos along the way.

I have decided that it was a useful experience. And I plan to try to participate again next year. Anyone want to join me? 



Help for writers… 12 Days of Christmas Giveaway



‘Everyone has a book inside them…’

Many thanks to you who enjoy my books and that’s the reason why you venture out into the internet to read my blog. But I also know that a number of you are aspiring (or even successful) writers yourselves. 

When my first two novels, ‘Dragons Can Only Rust’ and ‘Dragon Reforged’ were published, this was by a professional publishing house. I didn’t have to worry about editing, formatting, or book cover. All that was taken care of for me. 

When I decided to self-publish those two books, and others I’ve written since, of course all this fell to me. And I felt rather inadequate to the task! How was I to go about getting a cover which would appeal to readers, how could I find an audience for my books when I don’t have the marketing muscle of a publisher behind me?

I searched the internet, and one of the most informative websites I’ve found is at www.creativindie.com. Derek Murphy has filled his website with tutorials and thoughts on how to put together and to market your book. 

At the moment he’s running a ‘12 Days of Christmas Giveaways for Writers and Authors.’ There are fun things like book pillows and an Edgar Allan Poe lunchbox. More importantly, for writers, he’s offering the chance to win his expertise for your ebook or physical book design, and even an author platform review and marketing plan. And, finally, you could win a month’s free stay in a castle to write your next book!

For his assistance on book design, go to http://diybookcovers.com and to http://bookcovers.creativindie.com

Have a look, and good luck! Just click on the logo below to go to his website. 

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The Curse of the Infodump

Captains Log Stardate 69178.6. So we can get on with the action, heres the story to date. Our main character has lost her family to attack donuts in our previous adventure, and after burying her father she now has sworn revenge on confectionary everywhere

How is an author to bring a reader up to speed at the start of a book?

I think we all expect a certain amount of exposition at the start of a sequel. Even if we have come fresh off the first novel, we realise that some people will be starting the story with the second (or subsequent) ones. Or perhaps it's been awhile since even we read the first one, so it's useful to be reminded of what has happened thus far.

But I've been noting what seems to be an increasing amount of infodump even in first novels. And not only from those new to writing and/or self-publishing. Even established, professional writers seem to be front loading the first couple of chapters with long paragraphs telling us where the character has got to in their journey and how they feel about it.

All this feels, well, clumsy to me. When I was preparing my two previously professionally published novels, 'Dragons Can Only Rust' and 'Dragon Reforged' for self publication, my re-read reminded me that I had originally written the story as one novel. Due to the manuscript length, the publisher had decided to split the novel in two, and I was asked to produce extra material for the second novel. I also had to write a prologue and ensure that the first chapter of the second novel helped to bring in readers who hadn't read the first novel.

What I wrote feels a bit awkward to me now, but I wanted to reissue the books pretty much as they had been published before, so I left all this in place. However, neither book in 'The Four Kingdoms' sequence had been published before. So as I edited 'The Unicorn Throne', the book which follows 'The Dragon Throne', I felt free to work through the exposition and try to make it feel more natural rather than an infodump.

I think there are three ways to bring readers up to speed. The first, and easiest, is to provide a chunk of exposition. The genius of Star Trek was the invention of the Captains Log, which enabled a scene to be set with little fuss. Writers have often used this method, and it has been accepted.

Or, at least, accepted in the past. I think that modern readers, who spend much time also watching TV or movies, are used to much faster exposition and scenes. Compare the newer Doctor Who series to the original and you can immediately see that the older series takes much more time, not only on separate scenes, but also to tell the story.

So a newer method is to smuggle background into dialogue. This can be done very clumsily. I know that youve never forgiven that donut for smothering your father in jelly, but was it really necessary for you to throw that family of custard creams out of the airlock before we destroyed their ship? And now were on the run from the Jelly Donut Alliance and our water stores are running out.

Ive been trying out a third option. When reworking The Unicorn Throne, Ive tried to put the information into dialogue but in such a way that it reveals something about the characters at the same time. The conversation not only helps or reminds readers what happened in the first book, it also shows something about the relationship between the characters having the dialogue.

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Whether Ive done so successfully will be up to the readers to decide Here are the first couple of pages. The Unicorn Throne will be available in November. Here are the first couple of pages. Sign up for my newsletter and/or click on the Amazon logo go to my author’s page at Amazon.com to ‘Follow’ me so you will know when the book has been released! Anywhere else in the world you can ‘follow’ me on Goodreads by clicking on their logo. 

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‘And these knights, Your Majesty,’ Pealla said, moving one of the markers across the board, ‘could be placed along the border here, with messengers to advise us once King Anton begins his move.’

Fianna nodded as the Colonel released the small pewter knight, then glanced up from the map of the Four Kingdoms at the knights. When she’d been younger, she’d played at planning battles, moving her troops against the Third Kingdom. Now that war might be truly coming, she knew that the capture of a marker meant blood and death. The General and his first officer seemed unperturbed at the eventuality, and Arwan even looked cheerful. Of course, they were all at least twice her age, and she was the one who had chosen to fight rather than accept Anton’s terms for the merger of their kingdoms.

Abruptly she pushed away from the table, marching across the wooden floors to the large window. The thin glass panes held back little of the winter chill, and Fianna crossed her arms over her chest as she studied the courtyard below. The horses had had their morning exercise, and most were back in their stables, a wooden building which rested against the castle walls. In the otherwise empty exercise yard the Prancer was circling the long fence, his strides smooth and strong.

‘There was a time,’ Pealla said at her shoulder, ‘when you enjoyed discussing battle plans.’

Fianna looked up at the older woman. ‘That was before knights died in my service.’ She glanced away. ‘As you nearly did.’

‘But I did not.’ Boot heel scraped against floorboards as Pealla too looked out the window. ‘I have your Champion to thank for that.’

The Prancer had increased his pace to a gallop. Those either free of or hiding from their duties stood nearby, watching as the unicorn's muscles rippled under his light grey coat. Silver horn gleamed even in the dim day, and ivory tail flicked against a blast of wind. Sand flew from silver hooves as he neatly changed direction. Fianna smiled as several stable hands shook their heads in disbelief. The Prancer might now be larger than any stallion in the stables, but he was many times as nimble, and he made even the best bred horse appear an ordinary nag.

‘If only he would agree to breed one of our mares,’ Pealla mused beside her. The second-in-command of the royal armies was descended from a family of horse breeders.

‘Have you asked him?’

Pealla smiled. ‘That I did. And he pointed out that he had as little wish to cover an equine mare as a human would. Horses, he informed me, are a different and lesser species than the People of the Trees.’

Fianna shared a smile with the Colonel, easily imagining the unicorn's haughty tone. ‘His pride will be his undoing.’

The unicorn finally slowed to a trot, then a walk. A dark-haired man detached himself from the watchers, hurrying up to the Prancer with a blanket which he threw over the broad back. The unicorn obviously made a remark. Jeremy grinned, then laughed, reaching up to punch the grey-white shoulder. ‘My squire has an easy way with my Champion,’ Fianna said.

‘Aye,’ Pealla replied, with a mother’s quiet pride in her son. Then she nodded back at the map on the table. ‘Your Majesty, shall we continue?’

‘I still think we are ill-advised to meekly await an attack,’ Jerome growled. The General hulked at the opposite end of the table, his broad shoulders reminding Fianna of the Sacred Mountains. He could be just as immovable. ‘Anton broke guest law. He dared to raise sword against a delegation which entered his city and castle at his invitation. We should avenge this insult to our Queen and our Kingdom. Anton might have the greater number of knights, but if we can gain the dragons and the unicorns to our banner--’

‘But we would still be at the disadvantage if we took war to them.’ Fianna strode back to the table. ‘Remember what I’ve told you. Anton has devices under Primus castle which were designed by our ancestors to fight the Family and the People.’

Jerome shrugged. ‘You spoke of metal carriages and silver cages.’

‘Tanks,’ Fianna corrected. ‘And the cage once held the herd. Anton plans to ensure that all the magic goes from the Land, and that would affect dragons and unicorns. We do better to let him bring battle to us, to a place of our choosing.’

The door suddenly slammed open, oak hitting rock with a clang that made all the occupants of the room start, hands reaching for swords. None of them relaxed as Lady Sallah glared at the meeting. ‘What matter are dragons and unicorns?’ she demanded, thumping the end of her cane against the floor in emphasis. ‘Why not ally ourselves to the Third Kingdom against the beasts, even as King Anton invited?’

Fianna ignored the various gasps and grimaces at her aunt’s blasphemy. The green eyes, a shade darker than her own, narrowed slightly. Fianna felt herself slip back into memory, of other times when that same hard gaze had halted her in mid-argument. ‘We will not,’ she said slowly, fighting against the usual knot of fear in her stomach whenever she dared to go against Sallah, ‘betray those to whom we are linked by blood and by oath.’

‘Even if it means war?’ Sallah demanded, lowering herself into a chair beside Jerome.

‘Yes,’ Fianna said, fuming inwardly that more words would not come.

‘The Queen has spoken, my lady,’ Pealla said firmly. ‘We must turn our thoughts on how to convince the Family and the People to join our cause.’

‘If these unicorns have any sense of honour,’ Jerome growled, ‘they will leave their ties to the Third Kingdom and ally themselves to us.’

‘And their heir is your Champion,’ Arwan added.

Fianna unwillingly returned to the table. ‘The unicorns are still allied to the Third Kingdom.’

‘Did the Prancer not renounce that tie when King Anton betrayed guest law?’ Pealla asked.

‘Many things were said.’

‘Enough to bind the unicorns to us?’

‘The Prancer is the son of the Herd Stallion, the Dancer,’ Fianna admitted. ‘But there are matters to be resolved between them both, if and when he finally returns to the herd. He blames his sire for the death of his mother, who was twin to the Dancer.’

Pealla shrugged. ‘There is no shame to the breeding of brother and sister. It is rare, but I have known breeders to do so with horses.’

‘He’s not a horse. And his dam was most likely unwilling.’ Fianna smiled bitterly. ‘I know what it’s like, to feel betrayed by one’s own sire.’

Ending Well: Using the Bomb

I wrote what I thought were the final versions of ‘The Dragon Throne’ and ‘The Unicorn Throne’ back in 1997. They were rejected by one publisher, and I never tried further. Partially because I was never happy with the ending. I felt that I had great character development, I liked the cultural backgrounds I’d given to the dragons, the unicorns, and the humans, and I felt the plot held together. But I couldn’t get the ending to work. So the novels were filed to my hard drive and were forgotten.

When I found a way to convert the files earlier this year (note to writers: Be careful what word processor you use, you can be left with work which more modern software refuses to open!), I’d forgotten most of what I’d written. So in many ways I was a reader of my own novels. And I could see immediately what the problem was. I hadn’t used the bomb.

I’m borrowing an idea from Alfred Hitchcock here. This is him explaining how to build suspense in a film:

‘There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. 

‘We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" 

‘In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.’

With my characters I had, in effect, revealed a number of bombs to the reader. But I hadn’t detonated all of them. After the build up, we hadn’t seen Sallah carry out her plans, nor the exposure of Arwan’s terrible secret. And what does Fianna ultimately have to give up? I felt cheated, and I knew that any other reader would have felt cheated. 

Nor had I fully understood the ending. I fear I’m not quite certain I still do, but then the Land is supposed to be slightly beyond understanding. Just like the ability of the dragons (the Family) to change the past is also a bit mind warping. (Let’s face it, time travel is always a complex and mind warping concept.)

So, after some new scenes, and revision of older ones, I think I’ve got there. The characters are still, I feel, the main strength of the two novels. As I write in the blurb, ‘Whether human or unicorn, the greatest wars are not fought on the battlefield, but in the heart.’ For those who prefer lots of sword and sorcery, these books ain’t it. But for those who like drama based on the emotional drives of people (humans or otherwise), then this should be right up your street. And the bombs are not only seen, but allowed to explode. 


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