Tag Archives: Middle Grade fiction

One Girl Went to Mo, Went to NaNoWriMo…

Yes. The rumours you may have heard are true. I am, in fact, taking part in NaNoWriMo 2017. I’m currently way behind on my word count, naturally, because as well as being the mother of a toddler so energetic that, basically, by the end of the day I’m barely fit to sit upright in a chair, I’ve also been sick for the past three or four days.


I’ll be all right in a minute.


I don’t think it’s catching – hey! Come back!

Anyway. For those of you still within shouting distance, you can check out more about NaNoWriMo here. If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s basically a writing challenge for the month of November where people all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I took part in it before, back in 2013, and managed to complete the challenge; the novel I started then turned into what has become The Eye of the North. I’m far from being the only person who has turned a NaNo project into a published book – check out the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on Twitter, where other authors have talked about turning their fast-drafted first drafts into polished, publishable work.

So. Have I convinced you to try it yet? Check it out. 50,000 words sounds like a lot – it is a lot – but it’s basically 1,700 words a day for the entire month. And then? You have the bones of a finished book. It’s an amazing thing, to validate your novel and get marked as a winner – and even if you never do anything with your words, you’ve still managed to complete a challenge that most people will never attempt.

And maybe you’ll find yourself, in a couple of years, reminiscing about good ol’ NaNoWriMo as you sign your publishing contract with an artistic flourish. Who knows?

In any case, wish me luck. I’m going to need it. My NaNo project is titled – for now – The Leaky Witch, and you can read a bit more about it here. I’ll keep you all posted!



Book Review Saturday – ‘Darkmouth’

Shane Hegarty’s newly published début novel for Middle Grade readers, Darkmouth, has been causing quite the stir.

Image: easons.com Artist: James de la Rue

Image: easons.com
Artist: James de la Rue

Sold to Harper Collins for an excellent sum, and recently acquired by a film company (likely theatrical release is set for 2017), it’s stories like this that give me hope there’s life, and plenty of it, in the children’s book market.

Darkmouth introduces us to Finn – who, at the story’s outset, has no surname because he hasn’t earned it yet – and his family. They live in the town of Darkmouth, which is one of a number of Blighted Villages dotted all over the world where monsters can manipulate the fabric of reality and break through into our world. These monsters, including Griffins and Minotaurs and Manticores, and some less familiar creatures like Hogboons, are correctly known as Legends – and, despite being as real as you or me, have been relegated over the centuries to myth and fantasy in an attempt to cope with the fact that they aren’t, in fact, imaginary at all. They’re out there, and they want to take over the world.

Only a handful of brave people can stop them – the Legend Hunters, who are stationed in the Blighted Villages, waiting for a chance to capture and neutralise any encroaching Legends. Finn’s dad, Hugo, is one such Hunter, and Finn (as is customary) is supposed to take over after him. The only problem? Finn would rather be a vet. He doesn’t have the stomach or the heart to hunt and destroy living creatures and, despite being very brave, feels he is completely inadequate and unequal to his calling. A calling, by the way, which he doesn’t even want in the first place.

This central conflict is a strong one, and it is a perfect base for the story. Hugo is a great character (despite being rather stubborn, dense and sometimes extremely insensitive), Finn is likeable and intelligent, always ready to do his best despite his desperate fear, and I particularly liked Clara, Finn’s mother, who – unlike a lot of mothers in children’s fiction – is not only alive, but has a career of her very own. She is a dentist, and a successful one at that, and her occupation becomes important as the plot thickens.

Then, we have Emmie and her father Steve, who arrive in Darkmouth at an important point in Finn’s life. He’s learned he has a vital test to pass in order to become a Legend Hunter, a test he feels he is in no way prepared for or capable of passing, and then Emmie turns up in Finn’s class at school one day. Immediately, this is flagged as ‘weird’; nobody moves to Darkmouth. It has a terrible reputation. So, why is she there?

Why, indeed.

As much as I enjoyed the other players in this story, I thought Emmie, and Steve, were underdeveloped as characters. Steve isn’t important until the end, but Emmie is a regular figure throughout the book, and I never managed to warm to her. This might be because of the role she plays in the story (lips are sealed!) but I’m not sure. I also thought some of the other characters were ‘stock’, like the Savage brothers (who are, as you may have guessed, the bullies of the piece). One of the most significant characters, for me, was Sergeant Doyle, the local policeman, who is only in the story for a very brief time but who left a large emotional footprint on me. Having said that I did enjoy the ‘villain’, naming no names, and – even though I saw it coming – the twist at the end, and the opening up of another mystery, right in time for the sequel which is coming later this year.

The book is paced well and the dialogue is sparky and good, full of wit and banter and clever images. Finn’s family have a wonderful dynamic, and I loved how their relationships to one another are portrayed. I thought Finn was genuinely three-dimensional, and the sort of character I’d cheer on any day of the week. The compassion he brings to everyone and everything, and into every situation, is a fantastic touch. I also really enjoyed the inventions in the story – the Desiccator, which shrinks Legends into tiny balls, and the Reanimator (which does what it says on the tin) – and the fact that surnames have to be earned, depending on a Legend Hunter’s success or failure in his calling.

I didn’t love the story, though. It never wormed its way into my heart, the way other stories do, and have done in the past. I was interested, but not gripped; committed, but not invested. Make of that what you will. Darkmouth is a clever book, well written, and should appeal to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love for Tales of Mortal Peril… so, basically, everyone. I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, and to the movie, and I’m delighted to see a fellow Irish author doing so well. More power to you, Shane Hegarty!

When You Know, You Know

I’ve been working on a new WiP for a while now – since, perhaps, last November. Things have been going slowly; I’m at just under 13,000 words, which isn’t the worst, but it’s far from where I’d like to be this far into a project. It’s a story I’m enthusiastic about, it has great characters, it has an awesome baddie (hopefully, at least), and I’m fairly sure I know where I want it to go. Every so often I get ‘flashes’ of scenes I haven’t written yet, and they’re deliciously creepy and dark, and different from anything I’ve written before.

But, nevertheless. Something’s not working.

Yesterday, as I struggled to the end of a new chapter, I decided it was time to think about some tough issues and make some hard decisions. I think it’s time to let this proto-draft go, and to start afresh, and that’s upsetting.

I’ve been caught in a dreaded ‘never-ending editing’ loop with this book, too, which doesn’t normally happen to me. I end up reading the whole thing from the beginning every time I try to add to it, instead of just picking up where I left off. This isn’t a bad thing, as such, but it makes for painfully slow progress, and it means that the book’s opening starts to seem unbearably stale and unnervingly boring. However, because it’s not something I normally do I think it’s my brain trying to tell me ‘there’s a problem here.’

Photo Credit: privatenobby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: privatenobby via Compfight cc

I think the problem is that things in this story escalate too quickly. Basically, it’s a MG tale with a contemporary setting, into which a malevolent and magical force appears, and instead of building up to things gradually – hinting at the creepiness, giving small indications that all is not as it should be, and working on the characters – the full force of the supernatural just bursts onto the scene all in one go, and it comes across as rather melodramatic and over-the-top. Instead of being scary, it seems a bit Hammer Horror-esque.

This, needless to say, is A Bad Thing.

I think there’s only one thing for it, and that’s to start again from scratch, pick a different starting point, and firmly establish the ‘real’ world before I start to bring in hints of the ‘other’. Perhaps it was enthusiasm, perhaps it was stress (I’m leaning more towards stress, to be honest), perhaps it was self-pressure caused by my intrinsic need to be doing something, to be constantly moving forward, but I’ve made an error of judgement with this story so far, and with writing as with so much else in life: when you know, you know. Sometimes, writing is a struggle, and that’s to be expected: it doesn’t always flow like you’re taking dictation from a higher power. It’s work, at the end of the day. But when writing feels like hacking through solid rock, it can indicate a problem, whether it’s with your writing or your life in general, or both. It doesn’t always mean you need to stop and move away from what you’re doing (sometimes taking a rest is enough), but sometimes it does. This is one of those times.

So, today will be spent picking through my original plan for this story (for some reason, the draft I was working on diverged rather a lot from the initial ‘shape’ I’d envisaged; some of these changes were good, and will be kept, and others not so much), and making some tentative steps towards beginning again and finding a new ‘voice’ for the story. Hopefully it will be clear pretty quickly whether I’ve managed to make things worse or better, and I can take it from there.

Of course, the fact that it’s January probably isn’t doing a lot to help. It doesn’t do to overlook the depressive power of the first month of the year! But there’s more to it than just that, I know. There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to keep putting words on the page – but I’ve got to make sure they’re the right words, in the right story, and that writing them doesn’t leave me feeling vaguely empty and unsatisfied inside. I’m hopeful I’ll find the proper path again, and I know this experience has been a valuable one. You can only find the right path when you’ve been down a few ‘wrong’ ones… So, I’m strapping on my hiking boots and getting on with it.

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I hope the world is well with you today, wherever you may be.

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Twistrose Key’

Aha, the lure of a gorgeous cover. It snared me again with ‘The Twistrose Key.’ But before you judge me, just look at it. Wouldn’t it have snared you, too?

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

‘The Twistrose Key’ is the début novel of Tone Almhjell, a Norwegian writer, and the love of the North is inscribed all over this book. It is set partly in a wintry magical Otherworld known as Sylver, where the snow and ice is not seen (hurrah!) as a symptom of evil magic, but merely is, and the creatures who live there exist quite happily within it. The central concept of the story is lovely – Sylver is a place where creatures who were, in life, loved by a human child go when they die – and there are some moments of gorgeous writing and wonderful scene-setting. There are some memorable characters, and lots of juicy mythological/fairytale references for nerds like me to pick up on, but… But.

Is it possible for a book to try to do too much? If so, then I think ‘The Twistrose Key’ falls into that trap, just a little.

Our central (human) character is Lin Rosenquist, who has just moved into a new rented home with her parents after her mother is asked to come and work in a large, prestigious university. Thrillingly, her mother is employed as a sort of musicologist – or, at least, she examines folk and traditional music for its larger, wider meaning, which is important as the story unfolds – and I found that interesting, and different, and just up my alley. The book’s opening sentence is: ‘The grave that Lin had made for her friend could not be touched by wind’, and once we’ve been thoroughly sucked into the story by this gripping image (what grave? What friend? How can a child make a grave?) we gradually work out that ‘the friend’ is her late, lamented pet Rufus, who was (or is?) a vole of remarkable fortitude.

She returns to the house in order to eat with her parents, who give her some bad news – softened somewhat by offering her her favourite dessert of rice pudding (another thing we had in common, Lin and I) – and notices someone giving her a message through the window. When she rushes to the front door to find out who this strange messenger is, all she finds is a mysterious parcel addressed to her – but not using her given name. The parcel is addressed to ‘Twistrose’ – a name she has given herself, but which she has not told anyone else about. How can this be?

Inside the package, Lin finds a pair of keys. One opens the door to the cellar, entry to which had been forbidden by their landlady, but Lin ignores that and goes down there anyway. The second key, shaped like a rose complete with thorns, opens up a passageway through the wall of her cellar into a different world entirely. Lin finds herself in the land of Sylver – and reunited with her beloved Rufus, who is now as tall as she is, and able to speak.

Lin is a Twistrose, or a special child with power to pass between our world and that of Sylver. She is not the first – several others have been there before her, and all of them have succeeded in carrying out a special, vital task, something which only they can do. Lin’s task is perhaps the most important of all. In order for Sylver’s magic to continue, it depends on the gate which leads to the ‘real’ world being kept open – but a special boy, a Winterfyrst, with the power to do just this, is missing. Lin must find him before the night is out, or Sylver will die – and her passage back home will be closed forever.

I liked the basic plot of this book, as I’ve outlined it above. However, there was far more to the book than just this. We also had plots and counter-plots, intrigue and skulduggery from some of the animal characters; we had a whole subplot involving the boy (Isvan Winterfyrst) and his mother, who is also missing; we had the land of Nightmare, kept separate from Sylver by the Palisade which is also at the risk of failing and, thereby, wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of this pet-afterlife. We had the ‘baddie’, named the Margrave, who is mentioned throughout the book but who only appears very briefly near the end. In short, there was a lot going on.

Perhaps it’s as a result of this packed narrative, and maybe also a certain coolness and compactness of phrase which is common to a lot of Scandinavian authors, but I never really felt I got a sense of Lin. I was far more emotionally invested in Rufus, her pet, who is more roundly described and more engagingly realised than his human. I liked the fact that we have a character named Teodor – a fox, fittingly – who we’re never quite sure of; is he good, or bad? What are his motivations? I liked the writing, which – very regularly – had me nodding my head or smiling at a particularly well-turned phrase. However, there were a lot of coincidences in this story, and things popping up just when they’re needed, like a magical sled with a personality which just happens to have the power to do exactly what’s needed, right when it’s needed, which I just couldn’t buy. Also, the phrase ‘by an incredible stroke of luck’ appears at least twice. If you’re relying on ‘incredible strokes of luck’ more than once in a book, then something isn’t quite right with your plotting, I feel.

I had worked out who the Margrave was long before ‘the reveal’, and I should think any child who has read the Harry Potter books would be able to do the same. This isn’t a problem, as such – but what I wish is that there had been more time devoted to this character. Almhjell could have written a whole book based solely on the Margrave, and she could have written another based solely on Isvan Winterfyrst. This means ‘The Twistrose Key’ is complex and layered, but also frustrating in its lack of character development. The book is not short, but there’s just so much going on that some of the wonderful elements in it don’t have the room they need to breathe.

I did enjoy the book, but it wasn’t – for me – a patch on Philip Pullman or Garth Nix or J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, or any of the other authors whom Almhjell seems to be modelling herself on. I will look out for her future work, and hope she doesn’t throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into her next novel.