Ian Graham, author of Monument, Q&A

I’m VERY pleased to be joined today by a really fantastic writer, Ian Graham. I reviewed one of his two new books a couple of days ago HERE, and now I get to ask him some questions about his work. Read on and enjoy!

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Hi Ian, thanks for joining me for this short interview today. I’ve been a fan of yours for years now so it’s been a joy to finally get hold of your second book. Going back to that first book, though, why did you decide to write about an anti-hero in Monument?

Hi Steven. Oddly enough, I didn’t consciously decide to write about an anti-hero. During the writing of Monument, Ballas didn’t strike me as exceptionally unpleasant at all; I suppose that I was considering more his virtues – determination, resilience, physical competence – than his vices. Of course, I wasn’t quite so oblivious as to fail to recognise that he was fairly unwholesome in many respects, but I was generally preoccupied with his admirable qualities; also, knowing that his childhood had been harrowing, I was inclined to regard him with a certain degree of sympathy.

Only when the book was released, and reviews started to appear, did I realise that Ballas appeared a much darker character to readers than he did to me, which was a great – and gratifying – surprise.

 

How did you plan it out before you started writing? I mean, Ballas is such a bastard yet, somehow, you managed to make readers empathise enough with him that they were rooting for him and reading right until the end of the book to see what happened. It must have been incredibly difficult to strike that balance so people didn’t just throw down the book in disgust at his behaviour.

Monument is the only book I more or less improvised from start to finish. I began with a handful of loose ideas: the Penance Oak, the character of Ballas, and a (very) vague notion of an artefact called the Monument (I didn’t know what its function was, only that it was a device of great importance). Each day, I’d write a scene, or part of a scene, then spend time working out what I would write the following day. Nowadays, its seems an appallingly reckless way to work, but back then it felt completely natural. As I didn’t think of Ballas as being conspicuously unpleasant, I did not foresee any real problems regarding the readers’ empathy – beyond the usual ones, at least; if I had, Ballas might’ve turned out a softer – and less interesting – character. Sometimes, perhaps, it helps to be stupidly unaware of important things!

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Now, I should say, I read Monument years ago but I’ve been waiting eagerly for the next book from you. Finally, I found it (and another one!) just a couple of months ago. You had a gap of years between your first and second books – why?

After Monument, I became paralyzingly self-conscious when I sat down to write – and self-consciousness obliterates the vital naturalness of the creative process. This led to a catastrophic drop in confidence, and a hideous loss of perspective. I became hypercritical, and everything I wrote didn’t seem up to scratch. I’d show work to friends and other writers, but when I received positive feedback, I’d assume it arose from politeness or a desire to be encouraging. It was a long, grim period; I was writing every day, but getting nowhere. Of course, I still have a self-critical streak – most writers do, I think – but it’s largely under control, thank goodness.

Let’s just make things clear for people – Monument was your debut novel, but your two recent books Path of the Hawk (Books 1 and 2) are actually prequels to Monument. What made you go down that route and are you glad you did it like that?

The publishers asked if I’d consider writing a prequel – it was that simple – and I was more than enthusiastic about the idea. I’d often wondered what Ballas was like in the period between childhood and embittered middle age. I knew, roughly, how he had spent the time – that he’d been a soldier, then a member of the Hawks, Druine’s elite regiment. But how had his personality developed? What was he like before he sank into alcoholic hopelessness? Fortunately, when I started writing Path, I found that I had an instinctive feel for the younger Ballas, and didn’t have to go through a tricky process of “reverse engineering” the character back to his former self.

What would be your suggested reading order for the series?

As Monument and The Path of the Hawk can be read as standalone pieces, there is no necessity to read one before tackling the other. If someone starts with Monument, they’ll be catching Ballas at his lowest ebb; if they then move onto the prequel, they’ll get a good – and hopefully interesting – sense of what he once was, and exactly how far he had fallen by the time Monument takes place; within Path, there are hints of the unhappy direction his life will eventually take . . . Alternatively, if Path is read first, the reader may enjoy the shock of coming abruptly face-to-face with the reprobate version of Ballas.

I haven’t read Path of the Hawk Book 2 yet, so is that the end of the Ballas series, or will there be more from him? And will there be another long gap before you publish something new again? I hope not! What are you working on now, if anything?

I’d be delighted to write another Ballas book, but at present I’m working on a story set in a different world with a different cast of characters. With any luck, the new one should be finished before too long. I won’t say anymore about it; I’m one of those writers who feels that discussing a work-in-progress, no matter how vaguely, completely kills the desire to write it. Unusually for me, though, I plotted out the entire story before starting to put down the words; hopefully, this will prevent me from crashing into dead-ends or getting lost amongst plot-tangles . . .

What about your own reading tastes – who are your favourite authors? Monument was, of course, graced with a cover endorsement by the much-missed David Gemmell, were you a fan of his?

I’m fairly magpie-like in my reading tastes. When I’m working on a book, I avoid fiction as I find myself involuntarily adopting the stylistic traits of whoever I’m reading at the time; during such periods, I’ll read a lot of philosophy, psychology and occasional gobbets of history. Novelwise, though, there are so many writers I admire. My academic background is in the Romantic poets – Keats, Byron , Wordsworth et al; they made an enormous impact on me. But so did many other writers: Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Goethe, Borges, Gogol, Bulgakov . . . The list rolls on, endlessly. Within the genre, though, it was David Gemmell who had by far the largest impact on me. I think there are primarily two ways in which a writer can influence an aspirant: he can either make them realise which kind of fiction they want to write or, if they already know, they can show them how to go about it. With Gemmell, it was the latter: I already had an inkling of the type of fantasy I was keen on writing – in particular with regard to the realism of the characters – and when I read my first Gemmell novel – Morningstar – I thought, Ah, this is how it’s done! It was quite a revelation.

I was incredibly fortunate to know Dave in person. In the winter of 1992, I attended a five-day residential writing workshop at which Dave was the writer-in-residence. Afterwards, we stayed in touch, and I’d occasionally go to visit. He was a fountainhead of good advice and encouragement and, of course, is greatly missed.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers, old and new?

To the old readers, I’d say, Thanks for your patience! And to the new ones, I hope you enjoy the books – and try not to pick up any of Ballas’s bad habits . . .

Thanks for doing this Ian, I really appreciate it. It was a great pleasure to finally read more of Ballas, a character who truly stuck in my brain. You created a real classic in my opinion!

Bio: Ian Graham is a writer living in the north of England. The Path of the Hawk is a prequel to his first novel, Monument.

Website: iansgraham.net

One final note – a few people asked me (Steven) where to get Ian’s books in the USA as apparently they’re not available there. I’d suggest American readers track down the paperback versions from the Book Depository or Amazon UK as they are really worth reading!

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Robin Hood meets Odysseus!

Here’s a fun new Q&A between myself and Odysseus author Glyn Iliffe on the Edinburgh Book Review website, take a look!

http://www.edinburghbookreview.co.uk/news/steven-a-mckays-interview-with-glyn-iliffe

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Glyn Iliffe, author of the excellent Adventure of Odysseus series.

Q&A with Wayne Grant, author of Longbow

I’m chatting today with Wayne Grant, author of “The Saga of Roland Inness” series.

Wayne’s books have been selling by the (virtual) truckload and I’m sure most of my readers will have noticed the likes of Longbow showing up in Amazon’s list of books you might like after you’ve read one of mine.

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So, I asked Wayne if he’d like to do a Q&A and here’s the result. I hope you enjoy it and check out his books (links at the bottom of the page).

First off, tell us a bit about you, and why you chose to write about an archer. Are you a fan of Robin Hood in general, or other re-enactments? I know your series isn’t a direct re-boot of the Hood legend, as mine is, but you take elements from it don’t you?

Longbow, the first book in the series, was written 15 years ago for my two (now grown) boys who were still little—so I wanted to have a young protagonist. I had just read a great history of the Templar knights and the 3rd Crusade, so I came up with the idea of a young (14 year old) boy who becomes squire to a knight and goes on that Crusade. Of course, my young hero needed to have something that made him special and what could be better than a longbow? While this time period is the setting for many Robin Hood tales, I didn’t intend (at first) to have that be a part of the story. Once I decided on the longbow as Roland’s weapon, however, I couldn’t resist pulling Robin and Tuck in as supporting players. They are such wonderful characters. My Robin is a pretty traditional version, but my Tuck—now he is quite different.

w grant books

What’s your writing process? Do you have plan everything out? Work off the cuff? Do you have to write every day (personally I don’t like that old myth – I write when I feel like it and it’s worked so far)? Do you like to work in silence or have any favourite music to help you concentrate?

I always have a general plan for the main arc and the key scenes of my story from the beginning, but my outlines always die an early death. I quite often write scenes that I know are completely out of order because I know what I want to say in those scenes. Once those get done, then writing the connective scenes becomes much easier for me.

Like you, I am a streaky writer. When I get in a rhythm I write for long stretches and I write fast, but then I tend to set it aside for a while. That said, I do set pretty firm personal deadlines for finishing books, and so far, I have not failed to meet one.

Writing historical fiction does require setting aside time to read up on events and characters you include in your story. In The Broken Realm, I introduced William Marshall as a character and needed to do some research. Luckily there have been a number of great biographies of him published lately. I also spend a lot of time on the historic timeline, which is probably the most challenging part of my process. Everything moved so damned slowly in the 12th Century! It’s hard to stick to the actual timeline and maintain narrative drive, so I do sometimes fiddle with that. Anytime I make a major deviation from the documented history, I cover it in my Historical Notes at the end of my books.

Regrettably, I am easily distracted, so no music while I write. Otherwise, my musical tastes run to storytellers—Warren Zevon, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc.

Can’t beat a bit of Richard Thompson – his playing on “A Sailor’s Life” is mesmeric!

I see you’re planning on making your series run over four books – a tetralogy. That’s exactly the same as my series – I’d set out to write a trilogy but decided I had enough to say to stretch it over an extra book. Did you plan four books from the start? And, if so, why?! Hahaha, it seems you and I are the only ones writing a four book series!

I’m so glad I’m not the only one to experience a run-on trilogy! Yes, three was my original plan, but I just couldn’t get to a proper stopping place in The Broken Realm. There was just too much chaos back in England when Roland returns from Crusade to sort it all out in the third book, hence Book 4 is in progress. My plan is to complete the “coming-of-age” arc of Roland’s story in that book so that readers can move on if they please. That said, I expect I will add additional standalone books in the future with the same characters.

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I notice you have your books listed in the children’s charts, but looking at the reviews suggests the books are equally suitable for an adult audience? Do you have a target audience in mind when you’re writing? Do you, for example, make sure there’s no profanity in your work so it’s more accessible?

When I first wrote Longbow for my two boys, I very specifically crafted it to be suitable for kids of ten and up so, while I had a pretty high body count, the violence wasn’t all that graphic and I did avoid most profanity. I tried to follow the example of CS Forester and Hornblower rather than some of the current popular historical fiction writers (though I love many of them and relish a good gory battle scene). When I later decided to self-publish, I did edit it to be a bit more gritty and mature—more young adult, but still light on the sex and graphic violence—and it seems quite a few folks actually like things a little less bloody.

I think it’s true that people get more interested in historical themes as they age, but I was a bit surprised that my readership turned out to be primarily adult with many of middle age and up. Kids seem to be more drawn to a dystopian future—I like to write about the dystopian past!

Your cover art is very engaging. It’s simple, with snappy titles and, to me, that’s perfect for Kindle. Who designs them?

I was very lucky to find a great artist on the internet named Brian Garabrant (http://www.briangarabrant.com/). He has been a real pleasure to work with and his pricing is very reasonable.

I wanted an old fashioned kind of cover in keeping with an old fashioned kind of adventure tale and Brian hit the mark for me. The Broken Realm is my favorite of the three covers, but it was a challenge because, for the first time I wanted all three of my main characters shown. Roland and Declan were no problem, but getting Millicent right was difficult. The first version was a “damsel in distress”, which was nothing like this bad-ass young girl. In the next version, she looked like a Frank Frazzeta Amazon warrior. Bad-ass, but geez, she was only 14, so I had to have him scale back the bust etc. In the end, he got her just right.

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I agree with you, Broken Realm is also my favourite, and that brings me to my next question: you are, I believe, self-published, like me. Did you try to find a publisher before you decided to go it alone? Further to that, do you have an agent?

What about branching out into audiobooks or translations into other languages? I’ve been using ACX to make all of mine into audio and they do really well! I’m also looking at translations although that’s just as expensive as audio and, to my mind, probably not as likely to sell as much. What’s your thoughts on this?

Whew! There’s a lot in that question. Yes, I am totally self-published through Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct and have no agent. Back in AD 2000, when I first wrote Longbow, I got an agent rather quickly (to my surprise) and made it to the final editorial review at Harper Collins before they passed on it. I was told they already had a book in the queue about a young medieval archer. The following spring, Harlequin was published by Harper Collins, so I suspect I got bumped by Bernard Cornwell and Thomas of Hookton. As much as I love Cornwell, to this day I have never read his Grail Quest series.

Back in 2000, self-publishing was not very feasible and I had my “regular” career to tend to, so I put Longbow on the shelf for 14 years. In 2014, I retired and did a rewrite/edit of the book and sent out queries to agents, but generally got the response that there wasn’t much of a market for an historical “boy’s adventure” in the U.S. Enter Amazon.

I committed myself to finishing The Saga of Roland Inness, in part as a legacy to my two sons. I put Longbow out on Amazon with zero expectations. It was published in October and I told my wife that I hoped it would sell 100 copies by Christmas. That would mean that someone, somewhere (besides friends and family) had purchased it. Somehow it caught the eye of the wonderful folks in the UK (God love you all!) and it started to sell. By Christmas 2014, 3000 copies had been sold and everyone, including me, was astonished. So my retirement hobby morphed into second career. All-in-all it’s been better than taking up golf.

I have not had the books translated or made into audio books, but I am somewhat interested in the latter. The vast bulk of my sales are Kindle with only a few hundred a month in paperback, so I’ve been concerned that audio would do about the same as paperback. What has your experience been there? ACX looks like an interesting option.

I’m in the same boat – I hardly sell any paperbacks compared to Kindle versions. But I do pretty well with my audio sales. I wrote a blog post for the Historical Novel Society which you can check out here. I’d recommend ACX/Audible to anyone who’s selling well with their Kindle versions.

What about your feedback from readers? Do you have a favourite review, or compliment someone has said about your work?

I’ve had some wonderful reviews, like the mom in South Africa who thanked me for finally getting her 12 year son to read a book and the care giver for an autistic boy in Australia who says my books got her 11 year old into archery and an archery club.

My negative reviews are just as interesting. I had one that began “Absolute pants!” I had to Google that, as it is not an expression here in the States. I’ve also learned a number of things from fans, like:

  • Fall is not a season in the UK.
  • You never “fire” a bow (I should have known that one.)
  • There are virtually no tides in the Mediterranean

 

Hahaha, yep, I also fell into the “fire” trap – the original version of my second book actually started with Robin giving the command to, “Fire!” I had to sort that before any reviewers noticed.

What do you have planned for the future, once your fourth and (perhaps!) final Roland Innes book is finished? More historical fiction, or something completely different?

I plan to have the fourth in the Roland Inness series out by sometime this summer (I’m almost half done with it) and I have had a new series in my head for a long time. It would be set in the first decades of the 19th century and would focus on a young officer in the early American Army. 1800-1820 is sort of a golden age for historical fiction (Hornblower, Aubry, Richard Sharpe), but there isn’t a really good American series set in that time period. I would like to take a stab at that, though I would hate to alienate my wonderful British readers by taking the opposite side in the War of 1812. Somewhere in there, I will do the other two Roland Inness books as well.

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Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Or any tips on marketing?

There are no sure things in this business. Amazon puts out over 100,000 new titles a month so it is hard for even a great self-published book to get noticed in the flood. On the other hand, trying to get through the bottleneck of traditional publishing remains a long shot.

At this point, I doubt seriously if I would sign a traditional publishing contract. With the royalty differential, a publisher would have to convince me they could sell 4-5 times as many books for it to be in my interest financially. Finances aside, I love having complete control of the process. I do my own editing, with a big assist from my gimlet-eyed wife, and set my own prices. If I find a mistake in a book, I can go in overnight and fix it, no fuss and no muss.

Of course, if none of my books were selling, I would probably feel differently. So what are my thoughts if you choose self-publishing? Nothing that original, but:

  • Edit, proof, repeat. Lots of self-published books turn off readers because of bad grammar and typos. Be sure there are none in the first 20 pages and very few thereafter.
  • Get a good cover. A lot of covers are similar in this genre. Be different, but good different.
  • It’s all about visibility on Amazon. Choose your categories carefully. Drill down to the lowest possible subcategory. Early on Longbow rose to the top of the tiny “Children’s Medieval Fiction” category, got slapped with a #1 Bestseller tag by Amazon and sales quadrupled overnight.
  • Be lucky. I picked a simple title for my first book—Longbow—only half realizing how that title and that weapon resonates with the British people.

 

Excellent tips, I agree completely with all of those.  What about you as a reader, rather than a writer? What are your own favourite books?

I love to read good histories. Right now I am reading Six Frigates by Ian Toll about the birth of the US Navy. My very first historical fiction was the Bruce Trilogy by Nigel Tranter, which I read as young officer in the US Army in Germany many, many years ago. I still think those are great books. Then, of course, there is the gold standard for American historical fiction—The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara—great book. I also indulge the guilty pleasure of an occasional Lee Child Jack Reacher thriller!

 

Huge thanks to Wayne for answering my questions. Our writing careers seem to have followed a very similar trajectory and it’s been great to find out more about him and his work. Do check out his books via the links below!

http://www.waynegrantbooks.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Longbowbooks/

New Q&A with the Indian Book Reviews blog

Here’s a short interview I did recently with the Indian Book Reviews website. They’ve enjoyed all my books and really supported me since the beginning so please take a look! You even get to see what the title of the first book in my next series might be…(actually it’s changed since I did this Q&A but it’ll give you an idea of the direction I’ll be going in once the Forest Lord series is done with).

CLICK HERE

Also, the US Countdown deal worked pretty well, pushing Wolf’s Head up to number 1 in the Medieval chart, while my overall author ranking also reached number 62 in the History section. Of all the thousands of authors writing history-themed books on Amazon.com I was in the top 100, it’s mind boggling to me. 🙂

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So, THANK YOU if you bought any of the books, I hope you enjoy them!

 

Need a cover designer? Q&A with More Visual

Today I’m talking to the guys that have created all of my fantastic covers. If you’re an indie author and need a striking image that will attract readers then you should really check this out and get in touch with More Visual Ltd once you’ve read the interview!

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First of all, you’re a two-man team, is that right?

Yes that’s right, we’ve been working together for nearly ten years now so we have a great working dynamic. I think it makes us both stronger to have another set of eyes critiquing our work.

How long have you been designing book covers?

I [Olly] started when we were at our previous company, so about ten years ago. Richie (Cumberlidge)’s been doing them for over 15 years.

Did you study art at school/college? What inspired you to become a designer?

Stunning cover for one of David Pilling's great books

Stunning cover for one of David Pilling’s great books

I did Art and Design at college and also went on to do photography as well. In fact, both of my brothers are graphic designers as well and my dad studied graphic design at college, so I guess I was inspired by my own family in a way, it’s sort of in the blood. I’ve always loved playing around with graphics, manipulating images, drawing and sketching ideas, I feel incredibly lucky to have a creative job, especially one where I work with writers. I find my clients very inspiring too; their excitement about their books and ideas is often the best inspiration for my design work. There is nothing more satisfying than when you create a cover that does justice to an author’s idea and helps with the book’s success.

What’s the cover you worked on that you personally like the best?

That’s impossible to answer; I usually prefer whatever I am working on at the time. Seriously I could not pick out one cover. Some I like because they fulfilled a challenging brief, some I like because they are technically strong, some I like because the book’s premise really caught my imagination and I am pleased with the artistic outcome. I can’t pick a cover I like best, but I can say which genre – personally I prefer working on sci-fi and fantasy the most. It’s a genre where you really have to be innovative and imaginative to make a cover stand out.

The Knight of the Cross cover for the Audible version.

The Knight of the Cross cover for the Audible version.

Have you ever read any of the books you designed a cover for? If so, what did you think of them?

I read a lot, but I am a sucker for older classics like War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend and Dracula. But yes, sometimes I will end up reading a book because I have felt very close to the cover design, or because the writer’s idea really intrigued me. But look, you can’t ask me to start reviewing my clients! I think they all deserve their success; it can’t be easy to write a whole book.

How does the process usually work? Obviously, for my last couple of books I emailed you a sketch of what I wanted and you brought it to life, but the cover of my debut novel, Wolf’s Head was just an idea I gave you and you did the rest. How do authors normally work with you?

I do like it when writers send sketches but it can be even more challenging than a blank slate. You have an idea but I have to make it look as good as it does in your head! It’s quite good when someone knows what they want it gives me a good starting point, as long as I can get an insight into what they’re visualising. Other than that, I just work with written descriptions and sketches with a general plot line to the book.

Has anyone been a real pain to work with (no names needed, just the story!)?

Everyone’s different really and everyone has quirks that are challenging and enthusiasm that’s catching. If you’ve been writing a book for some time and you have lived and breathed the characters and architecture of your novel, it’s hard to pick a visual for the front cover which explains your book and which is understandable to someone glancing at it on the shelf. Sometimes I have to point out that my client needs to step back and not try and explain the entirety of the book in the cover, ideally you want something visually appealing that will bring your reader to your book.

Was my sketch for The Wolf and the Raven the worst an author has ever sent you?

To be fair, a lot of the sketches are quite similar to the one you did! It’s fine; it gives me a good idea of what you want, which saves a lot of time. And if you can’t draw, remember that I couldn’t write a book.

My wonderful concept art for The Wolf & The Raven...

My wonderful concept art for The Wolf & The Raven…

How does it feel when you hold a paperback with one of your covers on it? It must be pretty cool to know thousands of people all around the world have your artwork in their houses!

Yeah definitely it’s good to see it printed, although nowadays quite a few are just seen online.

What other services do you offer? You had a vinyl decal made for me using the Wolf’s Head text for my guitar which was great – what other stuff do you do for authors? Posters? Business cards? Flyers? Mugs?

We originally started out doing stationery, point of sale and brochures whilst doing the covers at the same time. Although we try to specialise in the covers, we can provide other services from printed material to even websites.

My "Wolf's Head" Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar with custom decal.

My “Wolf’s Head” Jackson Randy Rhoads guitar with custom decal.

What are some of your own favourite book covers (ones you didn’t design I mean)?

I use to like those point horror book covers when I was about 12. You know the ones I mean, the they looked a bit like those illustrations by Drew Struzan (Star Wars, Indiana Jones poster artist). I really like the front cover to the hard back version of The Martian by Andy Weir, the one where the astronaut is being blown through a sand storm.

the martian

Do you take inspiration from other places, like album covers?

Probably more from film posters I’ve always been intrigued by them; I’m always looking at apple.com/trailers and Imdb at the new film posters. Saying that, I really like the photography and imagery that Storm Thorgerson created for Pink Floyd, Muse, Biffy Clyro and Mars Volta album covers.

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Storm Thorgerson’s iconic (and wonderfully simple) cover for Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”.

Thanks to Olly for talking to me. I think you’ll agree the covers these guys come up with look fantastic. I’m pretty sure a large part of Wolf’s Head‘s success was down to the great artwork.

If you’d like a quote for your own project, you can find the guys HERE.

This incredible cover was the one that caught my eye when I was looking for designers. Gordon's books are also great reads!

This incredible cover was the one that caught my eye when I was looking for designers. Gordon’s books are also great reads!

Writing Superheroes! New interview with me, have a gander

Brand new Q&A with yours truly in which I talk about the new bookhow I deal with my supervillain, and the importance of Wham! and Noddy Holder…

http://randombitsoffascination.com/2015/07/19/writing-superheroes-steven-mckay-the-sequel/

All good superhero stories, have a sequel–something else happens after the first foe is vanquished.  How does your sequel begin (after the publication of you first/most recent book….)

In my last book, The Wolf and the Raven, Sir Guy of Gisbourne was vanquished, with a terrible scar and an eye missing for his troubles. In the new novel, Rise of the Wolf, Gisbourne is back and, as you’d expect, rather annoyed…In terms of beginnings, this is the first time I’ve used a prologue. I never really understood why they were needed but, looking at the structure of the book, I thought this would be a better way to kick things off than the first chapter. I hope my readers agree!

Click the pic of me to read the rest!

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