This has been a squirrel week - so many distractions and challenges and opportunities! Work and family aside, even the writing has squirrels bounding in disparate directions, demanding attention.
So I thought I'd focus on fixing the Amazon edition covers on the Andrakis series. Andrakis hasn't had much luck when it comes to covers. The original series from Pan Macmillan started with different artists unable to capture the first cover until the final design emerged with Andra on the final battlefield facing dragons emerging out of roiling clouds. I totally loved that first cover visual because of its energy and dark threat. The lettering for the title - meh - but the cover was great. And then it was all downhill. The cover for Kingmaker always felt half-finished, leaning towards cartoonish; Andra standing in a stream of dragonfire on Cennednyss bridge. And then came the disastrous cover for book three. Conceptually, Dragonlords with Andra confronting A Ahmud Ki beneath the twisted trees had merit, but the cover design was nothing like the first two books and readers looking for book three didn't recognise the link. By the time most did, Dragonlords was off the book shelves and it still remains the most difficult book to track down. I maintain that the sales drop from book two to three was entirely due to the odd marketing decision to make book three look nothing like books one and two. that experience made me overly cautious thereafter. The original series covers are posted with this entry.
Jump ahead ten years and the Andrakis books were out of print so Rob Stephenson kindly had them redesigned and marketed through Altair as POD (Print on Demand) for readers still interested in reading the series. It was a low budget, quiet reprint, but Kirsi Salonen created new art work for the covers and the series finally looked like it was a series.
Jump forward ten more years and I decided to rekindle (pun deliberately intended) availability of the Andrakis series via Amazon. Well, what a learning journey that has become so far as cover production is concerned. Initially I created three very amateurish covers on white backgrounds just to see how the whole CreateSpace/Kindle space worked. Then I thought maybe I should make the covers a little more professional, so I played with Kirsi's original artwork, made several mistakes and finally ended up with a finished product last week. What did I learn?
Okay, I learned I'm no artist - or designer actually. But I have learned a little more about design and Photoshop.
I learned self-publishing is a little bit of fun and a lot of craftsmanship and that precision is essential. Someone In Amazon would be sick of sending me emails saying there was still an error in the print or on the cover. Jan Balo popped into conversations and offered sound advice to help me avoid some design errors. However, I made the corrections and learned more from the mistakes. Text shape and size can significantly change the 'professional' appearance of a cover. Layers can be manipulated to add depth. Colour matching and linking adds continuity, and so on. I've included the final covers as evidence of the progress. I would post the alternative cover designs I tried while I was learning but they are seriously embarrassing (and no doubt still visible somewhere on the web).
So the cover squirrels kept me chasing in circles the past week, but I've enjoyed the chase.
Writing squirrels also had me running in circles - and jumping between projects, including writing the first chapter of the sequel to The Last Wizard (yes, I know, 25 years later!). I've mapped out a story/plot for the second book. When I finish it, and begin the third in the series, the titles will emerge as Tamesan's Song: The Last Wizard Book One (the original), Chasse's Song: The Last Wizard Book Two and Jaysin's Song: The Last Wizard Book Three. I originally wrote The Last Wizard to be a stand-alone novel, but even as I reached the end the next two books announced themselves. I wrote notes etc, but my life tilted sharply in a different direction in the late 1990s and the project never took flight - but now it has.
So, yes, I'm working on three writing projects concurrently again. Squirrels. Everywhere.
And then theres' COVID 19 and school and IT and...
Back we go..
Tomorrow is back to work after four days and two weekends away from the chaos. In fairness to Meg, I did spend three days working on school web sites for teachers, parents and students during the so-called break, but the last four days I devoted to being a writer.
After a wee bit of excitement back in 2015 when I tried to kick start a flagging writing business, I neglected much of what needs to be fostered. As my previous blogs detail, I have returned to writing in earnest and the momentum is good. What I neglect is everything AFTER a book is written, and that I must change.
This week I revamped my tired old writing website at www.tonyshillitoe.com.au Drop by for an updated view - still a page to fix around how and where to buy my books, but essentially it's almost done. From now on I will also store these blogs on that site.
I also spent time this week revamping the Amazon covers for the Ashuak and Andrakis series, learning new techniques and applying them to the covers to make them less amateurish. This led to updating the interior content as well, again to improve the appearance. It takes a full day to design a cover, and another whole day to check the layout of the content, and that's the tip of the iceberg. Examples of the updated covers, one from each series, are included below (drafts - finals are too large a file for here).
Moving forward, I am about to embark on book two of the new fantasy series later this week and I'll add updates of that in the next entry. For the record, yesterday I was distracted for three hours and wrote an intro to yet another new series. I need to focus!
Well, no recent posts because of our common enemy Covid-19 who has consumed my life within our school; building an online learning strategy, environment and resources for parents, students and teachers, supporting teacher resilience and competence in that strange new environment for ELC-12 using Teams, Managebac and Showbie and a vast array of web resources and tools, and basically caring for the learning and emotional wellbeing of a community. I'm currently building web sites to support teachers, parents and students with digital skills. As John Lennon aptly sang, 'strange days indeed.'
Writing took a back seat, but some events chugged along. I submitted Girlie to a publication contest, but lucked out on that one, so now I'll prepare the manuscript for the usual submission processes. A re-read yesterday revealed a couple of glaring editing errors - no matter how ruthlessly you work through 115,000 words, even with vigilant friends checking, you miss details. When I hear someone complain that they found a spelling error on page 27 of a novel, or a missed word, I know how and why those errors happen - and no, I'm not talking about lots of errors in a text. Anyway, Girlie will be packaged and sent to the first publisher target to see if they will take her on. If not, we move to the next one.
The pandemic zombie-fest novel, working title All We Have, was sent to its first publisher a fortnight ago, so we will see where that ends up. Either my timing is terrible or great in this current world event. While it was never aimed at imitating a Corona style pandemic, maybe there is enough in it to make it a worthwhile read. Anyway, the waiting game has begun for that novel.
I also reshaped and finished Book One in the new fantasy series, currently titled (insert title here). Creating a title is really challenging because so many books and films have been published and already bear the very titles the next writer/creator want to use. So one target in the next few days is to generate a list of options, test them against the titles already published and come up with an appropriately interesting/catchy title for this work. I'm hoping to head into Book Two during the coming week, given I'm taking four days off work post-Easter (happy dance).
I hope everyone out there is safe, socially-distancing and looking out for family, friends and neighbours. We are living in one of our films or novels right now. I might say that for a full-time writer this might seem 'normal', as it would for gamers, introverts and only children (I qualify in some of those categories). Use the time we've been given wisely. Happy Easter!
Best Laid Plans...
As Douglas Adams wrote, 'The best-laid plans of mice.' The plan was to flesh out the fantasy world for the new series and even draw maps. Well, I did find time to flesh out the worlds a little. The maps - not so much.
Currently, two cultures are drafted, three to be drafted more.
Working out a hierarchy and political and social structure for the dragon culture has been interesting. Essentially, the political structure is a regal matriarchy supported by an oligarchy overarching a loose socialist democracy. Queen Shadrael is the inheritor of rule from her grandmother who featured in the Ashuak Chronicles, but her right to the role is challenged. While the Queen has absolute authority, she is guided/advised by a group of Elders, and Clan-wide decisions have to be agreed to by the dragon Congress. Social status is tied closely to political status, with some allowance for birthright. Economically and militarily, the dragons live off of a human slavery system that they have established by domination. The dragons can draw on several millenia of cultural history, stemming from a time when they were beasts in the wild, through the era of the dragonlords and the Andrakian trilogy to inheritors of magic from the Genesis Stone.
The key human culture of the tale is the Domovinan kingdom, ruled by a Shah. Inherited absolute rule is the key system, supported by a warlord leading class and a fledgling and highly-threatened democracy in the city. The culture is misogynistic in the extreme as a result of a history where powerful women were users of magic who were eventually overthrown by men. There's a tale within a tale buried in that history that will also hark back to the Andrakian trilogy. The Domovinan kingdom is in the middle of an industrial revolution and ruthlessly and jealously guards its technology (this technological revolution precedes but ties into the world in the Dreaming in Amber series). Social strata in Domovina is very much like that existing in C18th England - from wealthy royals through to wealthy merchants/criminals, middle class business owners down to workers and the poor.
The dragon culture embracing the human slaves is still taking shape as those characters begin to receive airplay in the story. The Alfyn culture is to be developed early in Book Two and a new human culture will be brought into play as the first two clash.
The complexity of the cultures is still unravelling as I write and new necessary detail is required in the story. A friend on the weekend asked if I subscribe to George Martin's differentiation of writers as being architects (detailed planners) or gardeners (organic growers). In my case, both apply. There is an awful lot of planning and almost as much organic growth to create characters, places, communities and a story embracing them.
And as for the diversion of direction on the new project, I accepted an invitation to Meander - a B&B property near Springton owned by good friend Evelyn - and used the escape time to add and edit details in another project to complete it. This is the post-apocalyptic project for which I now need to find a publisher. Tonight I will begin drafting a proposal and blurb to accompany the first chapters of the novel and select who I will approach. Frankly, I'm so far out of the writing loop my choices will be dictated by what I can research online. I'll post the progress on that as it unfolds over the next few months.
PS: The fantasy novel is now at 100,000 words and growing, so I've stayed busy
As an act of self-discipline, this post is generated in a writing break today - otherwise I won't remember to do it.
Currently titled Dragon Storm - but only in draft because that title is in plenty of other places - the fantasy project is now past 60,000 words today, with the fifth key character introduced.
I've been wrestling with multiple ways from the outset how to introduce what are effectively five disparate characters who will be brought together in the one major event. I considered multiple devices, but I've settled on four of them having 4-5 chapters to open the series - enough time for the reader to get to know a little about the character and their circumstance. Each set of chapters do end at a point hopefully leaving the reader wanting to know what will happen to them next. Readers will judge that. I like it - but, hey, I'm just the writer.
Oh, the fifth character? She gets her intro early in Book Two.
60,000 words puts me just short of halfway into Book One. What will follow now is the drawing together of the characters into the bigger conflict unfolding while they are resolving their own personal conflicts in different ways as I head for the close of the first book.
Because this is a project blog, there will be many spoilers as I discuss what I'm doing. It is what it is.
The first key character I'm developing is the Dragon Queen. She is caught up in the ambitions of her dragon culture to seek revenge against humans, and this she is pursuing, but dragons have the ability to use magic, including the ability to polyform into human form. As a dragon, their scale and hide strength is almost unparalleled, but they lose all their dragon ability in human form and are therefore extremely vulnerable - exactly as the species they become. The impact of this transformation on the Dragon Queen will be to influence her attitude toward humans as the tale unfolds until she is caught in an ethical dilemma...
The second key character is Ven, fundamentally a ruthless underworld boss who seeks power and fortune. He is driven by his own form of ethics, but his relationship with a child eventually also creates an ethical imperative that takes him on a pathway that collides with the other key characters.
The third key character, Ara, twin prince of Domovina, makes a decision that leaves him leading a kingdom under direct threat from the dragons despite a prophecy that named his twin brother as the one to lead the fight.
The fourth key character, Jai, is a girl unwittingly caught up in the unfolding events after trying to spy on the Domovinan princes. In the misogynistic Domovinan culture, she inherits the legacy of women without understanding its import until circumstance teaches her otherwise.
I'll write about the fifth character when we reach that part of the tale.
The bleeding obvious is that all five characters are embroiled in the one conflict, taking sides and struggling with their ethical and not-so-ethical decisions. Growing the characters is my current challenge.
Next instalment will be around world-building, hopefully next week.
Moving forward into the new project, I can record I've smashed through the 45,000 words barrier, although the pace slowed once school kicked into top gear this past week.
After initial concepts were drawn around how the story will run to a conclusion - I always map a conclusion before I begin a project: it creates a target and purpose - generating characters has proven interesting. I do have the antagonist/protagonist (depends on point of view in the story) taking solid shape. She is becoming increasingly complex, given the clashes between her responsibilities and desires and cultures and powers. Her goals and aspirations run against the goals and aspirations of a second character and cultural group, and that character is also taking shape. Of course, the big driving event of the story - one culture vying for domination over another - brings into play a trope of most stories in many genres, although I'm hoping the reasons for the struggle and how they change as the conflict unfolds will bring some fresh aspects to that 'big picture' view.
Additional cultural clashes are already planned to occur beneath the big picture - one the legacy of previous novels I've written and one that resonates today around gender.
Below the two primary characters are four secondary characters whose lives are both driven by personal 'quests' and whose lives are also caught up in the bigger battle by circumstance.
And so my writing project dilemma - how to begin the individual stories and draw them together.
I began with alternating chapters, but I've abandoned that as I did the very first time I started a fantasy series, in favour of running between 4-6 chapters focussed on what a particular character is doing. The upside is the reader has time to get into the character's story. The downside is with multiple characters the reader may be forced to wait multiple chapters between one character's story and returning to it. I know readers will persevere because it isa common approach in many novels, so I will continue in this vein for book one in the series. The plot is such that by early book two the plan is to bring several characters together - the old quest-line-for-a-common-cause trope of course - so the dilemma becomes resolved as far as writing.
First draft means punching out the writing in pursuit of plot and characters so I'm not spending time adding details yet unless they 'present themselves' in the process, but I've reached the point where I'm beginning character notes to keep track of characters and their parts - major, moderate and minor - in events. For the record, already that's sixty-three characters who've made an appearance of some kind in the story.
Names are also an interesting dilemma. The dragons are being named using conventions I created back in the original Andrakis series - names non-human in every way really. Human cultural groups I'm swinging between 'made-up' names for less important groups, but the core human culture names are based on Slavic and Arabic names rather than Anglo origins. The purpose is to add a mix of familiarity/factual naming with a sense to the likely English-speaking readers of foreign names as well. I don't know how this will work. I'm experimenting for now.
I'm also going to devote some time in the next fortnight to mapping places in the story - it's a nice therapeutic task, but it helps me create travel distances and visible landmarks and features for the background and character experiences.
Okay. Saturday afternoon is here and it's my only writing space this weekend. Hope your weekend is relaxing and productive too!
Editing completed on the Girlie manuscript, that project now moves into the submit-and wait-category of writing, and because I chose to enter the raw manuscript in a literary competition late last year, I do have to wait for the outcome of that before I can begin the process of approaching alternate publishers one by one.
So, onto the next project.
The last epic fantasy I had published was the Dreaming in Amber quatrology back in 2008. Shortly after that I began a new fantasy project, but I set it aside multiple times as other life events and pieces of writing intervened. Now I am returning to it to finish the first book and my blog entries will focus on this project.
Tentatively titled The Clan Chronicles with a trilogy outline, the simple concept at the base of the project is to draw together six core characters creating and/or caught in major events around a plan by dragons to conquer the world. Book One doesn't have a title yet. That will come when it's done.
My fantasy novels are all positioned within a common world beginning with the lands of Andrakis, Targa and Ranu Ka Shehaala in the Andrakian trilogy, spreading to Ashua and Vechwer in the Ashuak Chronicles, and then spreading from Shess and Chekisu in the Amber quatrology to embrace all the previous lands.
In Freedom, the third novel in the Ashuak Chronicles, Alwyn and the Alfyn trick the dragons into chasing the Alfyn through a portal that takes the dragons far away from the source of magic, the Genesis Stone. The new series picks up on where the dragons emerged - on another part of the world, far to the west of the original lands.
Starting the new series has been nothing short of problematic, to the point where I had written eight completely different openings since 2008, each of which I really like and each of which would be a good choice, but none of which suited the bigger picture/concept when I reviewed them. My writing preference has always been to begin a story mid-action - my 'trick' for hooking the reader if you like - and each attempted start did exactly that.
Almost every opening I've used to begin a project never ends up in the final copy as the opening. The Andrakis trilogy original beginning became Chapter 10 in the final. The original opening to Blood never made the final copy at all by the time I submitted it to a publisher.
So, I've made a choice to open the new project with the dragon queen-to-be learning from an Elder what she must know and how she must act to be the Queen, and that she is under threat from within the Clan. This week has seen 14,000 words take shape - the first four chapters of what will most likely be a fifty chapter novel (target guide figure only).
The novel now begins with the reader meeting and getting to know the dragon queen, Shadrael, and dragon culture and plans. These are the new generation of dragons, the descendants of the dragons who were led through the portal. They are motivated by a desire for 'revenge' against their old enemies, the Alfyn and the Eyano - humans, and a core belief they are the most advanced intelligence and the dominant species who should rule the world. Their magic is still strong, but not what it might have been if they had been able to take control of the Genesis Stone. Readers will decide how they feel about the dragon's ethics and plans. And there is a whole lot more to unfold and reveal as the tale takes shape.
In the opening chapters, we learn how so far the dragon domination has been successful and that they know and are preparing to encounter a very different Eyano (human) culture - one that has developed industrial age science and engineering, semi steam punk level if you like. The dragons know that if they defeat this nation, Domovina, nothing can stand in their way.
The next set of chapters will introduce the next major character, Ven, a criminal boss making a living in Grad, the capital of Domovina. Through Ven I'm hoping to introduce part of the Domovinan culture and give glimpses of two more major characters who will emerge in the story - Ven's daughter, Jai, and the Domovinan prince, Ara, who will get their stories unfolded in chapter sets, before we return to the Dragon Queen and the looming main event. Time to write.
Christmas with Girlie
Christmas 2019. Done. Meg and I went to the Bonney family get-together at the beginning of December, Christmas Eve was joyfully spent with the Stropin-related family side and then I flew to Brisvegas on Christmas Day to have a pleasant lunch with the Shillitoe line. Grandson Henri was awesome as always. Girlie would have enjoyed all three events.
The last Christmas I spent with Mum was the end of 2012. On her birthday, March 24, 2013, she was taken to hospital and told she had terminal bowel cancer. Happy birthday. She died in August of that same year. Christmas as the only senior adult of the family is not the same.
Festivities and family activities aside, at least I can spend a little more focussed time on the novel's second-edit and redraft. And let me just say to would-be writers - this is the part that is mind-numbingly challenging because by this stage I have read all and parts of the work maybe 6-8 times creating and making alterations. Writing requires a level of self-discipline I struggle to commit to, especially when so many great things are going on around me. And there's always sleep as an option!
Today, I am at the halfway point of the manuscript since my last post concerning readers' feedback. I have worked in adjustments and suggestions, as well as added details from interviews with family that fit the story concept. An example is shifting the nurses' names from first to surnames to reflect the work environment at the hospital - so Woods instead of Shirley.
I ended up returning to researching the 1948 storm that wrecked the foreshores, smashed the Glenelg pier and beached the warship HMAS Barcoo, and added more detail around it to a chapter of the novel. Inevitably I found myself distracted, reading about the efforts to refloat the Barcoo and how Charlie Pudney was stranded at the end of Glenelg pier during the storm - research does that.
What the most recent family interviews brought to light was a very obvious discrepancy between how the older and younger children viewed the father of the family, so I have worked that into the text. Also my mother - Girlie - never mentioned a range of facts around what was happening to the family during her time at the Repatriation Hospitals, so I am now working small details into the text concerning the family move to Port Neill and various places in the city, up to and including three of the children ending up in children's homes for a period of time. Again, these are not crucial to the overall story, and will be passing mentions in the scope of Girlie's tale, but they add a layer or texture to the background that highlights the tragedies so many families experienced in post second world war Adelaide.
Now I must go back to reciting dialogue aloud to myself and ruminating over the right words for the sentence, and the sentence structure and length, and deciding whether the adjectives and adverbs are necessary, and whether the reader will be able to feel/imagine the scene and the people. I'm hoping to finish the second half before the end of this week and before I head back to work the following week.
At Christmas time, there's something rather warm about writing a novel based on my mother as a young woman - like having those conversations together we might never have had about our lives otherwise. I hope you all had good Christmases and that you spent time with those you love and those who love you. This brief life is precious. Cherish the special moments. Be in them.
The readers' reports are in - well almost all of them - and now we move into the next phase of editing the project. The feedback has been extremely helpful and insightful, and there's very little I will reject or ignore (entirely). To give you an idea of the kind of matters and issues the readers' feedback addressed, here's an outline. I am not listing typos etc in this list and there were a few found by the readers. There will be more of those to come.
Two readers indicated the story has an arc that needs strengthening - the sense of Girlie's journey and personal growth from the story start to end requires work. This is, of course, the challenge in taking a factual life and moulding it into more than an historical list of events, which is the purpose of this project. I will work on that closely.
The readers were happy with the development and sense of places, although one correctly pointed out a glaring historical error which is now amended. I'm re-checking the others as I go through this second major edit.
Language became a point of discussion - Australian slang and swearing in particular. Curiously, while swearing was not uncommon, it was often contextual and also reflected social class, or an attempt to belong to a social class in the 1940s and 1950s. Girlie's parents did not abide swearing and so the children grew up with an abhorrence for it, as I've reflected in the novel. This was at odds with one reader who expected more robust Aussie expression, but that's one of the oddities that fascinated me in researching this project - the lack of 'bloody' and 'bastard' and so on in the Bonney family that is sometimes incorrectly considered synonymous with Australian culture. It's not that some of the lads couldn't or didn't swear either - but not in front of children or girls and ladies - and it was strictly followed by certain groups of people in Adelaide.
All readers concurred that they felt the dialogue felt real and advanced the story, but I will still check it thoroughly on the second key edit. For what it's worth noting, I read dialogue/conversations aloud when I write them. It helps me find emotional authenticity in each character, even when the dialogue is trivial conversation. Dialogue is a key component to my story-telling style and I need the characters to sound and feel real.
I've now interviewed three more surviving members of the family about a range of incidents in the story - the family living on Brighton beach, the number of moves the family had to make in the homeless period, and the fates of the younger children when they were forced to live in foster homes. Many of these events won't make it into the novel, but I now have a richer tapestry of what was happening to her siblings when Girlie was in Melbourne and Tasmania.
I've also learned that while the father was a philanderer and put the family in dire straits during the post-war period, fascinatingly he never abandoned them entirely - finding them places to stay, sometimes work - and some of the children remember him with fondness: the elusive TD as he was nicknamed by the boys. I learned that while he was not invited to Girlie's wedding to Bill, which forms the closing chapter of the novel, he was there, standing on the Morphett Road bridge overlooking the church. This poignant fact will now find its way into the story.
I have one more interview to hold, to gather additional facts and confirm others, during this second edit period. This is the point where I now work steadily through the draft manuscript, adjusting and correcting sections in line with the reader's feedback and the new interview information, and embellishing the creative components of figurative description and character reflection.
Time to work harder on the project. Second edit is underway!
Been a little while - not without things happening. Currently I'm having fun and some degree of joint and muscle pain in the midst of the Australian Masters Games. Five games of indoor volleyball down, two to go, and then on to two days of beach volleyball. So I'm having fun.
The project, Girlie, first draft, is now undergoing its second round of revision, looking at more research, currently focussing on two key events in 1948.
April 1948 saw Adelaide shorelines wracked with probably the most powerful storm in the time of European settlement. The Glenelg jetty had its guts torn out, ending the era of the amusements and kiosk and aquarium on the jetty in the rebuild. HMAS Barcoo was stranded north of Glenelg beach and the chaos along the shoreline saw caravans overturned and boats beached. The damage extended inland with cuts in telecommunications and electricity and trees and buildings ripped and wrecked. Trove provides a range of newspaper entries recording the event:
December 1948 also saw Adelaide's longest mystery established - the finding of the body of the Somerton Man on Somerton beach. Coincidentally, two days ago, I overheard an ABC radio program covering the curiosities surrounding the mystery. No cause of death seems to be available, although autopsy reports suggest poisoning. The man was neatly dressed, but all the labels of his clothes were removed, no wallets or identity available, and no one ever reporting a man of his description missing. The case is still currently unsolved after 70 years, although there is recent hope DNA science will finally provide answers. It's worth reading about, or listening to on ABC radio RN Presents. Here's one snippet of information of the event:
So, the novel continues to grow into second draft and edit.
Simultaneously, while this project moves through editing phase, I have two other projects underway - a revival of a fantasy project that has been long in creation and a novel around men. The fantasy project currently has 160,000 words drafted (all of Book 1, the start of Book 2), but the 'struggle' is around character focus and sequencing back stories. Between breaks in editing Girlie, I am developing the fantasy project into a shape and structure that satisfies me.
The second project is a novel I've wanted to write for several years, but never quite get to. Now I have. Although it's barely 5,000 words in, it is at least started. I'll make it the focus of posts in the coming months at it takes shape.
Okay. Off to another volleyball game.
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...