Thursday, 27 August 2020

Burn The Kingdoms Down

SURPRISE! This is a last minute decision as, on a whim, I emailed Phoebe at Penguin, wondering if Sally Green, author of the Half Bad trilogy and the Smoke Thieves series, fancied writing a small guest post for me to celebrate to release the third and final book in the Smoke Thieves, The Burning Kingdom. Phoebe asked Sally and both were thrilled to. As am I as I got quite obsessed with Half Bad, Sally's debut trilogy!

I'm not going to do a write up about The Burning Kingdoms as third and final in series (I'm not going to spoil! I'm not a monster!), so let me do a tiny write-up of Smoke Thieves. Smoke Thieves follows several leads, each from four different kingdom.

In Brigant, Princess Catherine prepares for a loveless political marriage arranged by her brutal and ambitious father. In Calidor, downtrodden servant March seeks revenge on the prince who betrayed his people. In Pitoria, feckless Edyon steals cheap baubles for cheaper thrills as he drifts from town to town. And in the barren northern territories, thirteen-year-old Tash is running for her life as she plays bait for the gruff demon hunter Gravell.

As alliances shift and things take several sharp turns, throwing everything off course, our four heroes find their past lives transformed and their futures inextricably linked by the unpredictable tides of magic and war...

I am thrilled that Sally found the time to write this guest post, so thank you Sally. I, also, want to thank Phoebe for saying yes and chatting to Sally about this post.

Now, before I hand over to Sally, if you want to say hi to her, you can say hi to her via her Twitter (@Sa11eGreen). Plus, if you are curious on The Burning Kingdom or any other of Sally's novels, you can always check her Penguin's website or Book Depository!

With this all out of the way, OVER TO YOU, SALLY!

The End of Something and the Start of Something Else

I confess, I haven’t written much at all in the last five months. We all make excuses to do or not do things, and writers are notorious for finding other jobs – even if it means scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush – to avoid facing the blank page. A global pandemic is a great excuse – I don’t even have to scrub the floor. 
I had started lockdown on March 23rd in the not-quite-believing-this-is-happening state of mild stress, glued to my screen at 5pm to watch the daily government covid briefing, horrified by the death and suffering whilst desperately calculating how many days of toilet paper I had left. I had some writing work to do; making the final edits of my latest book, The Burning Kingdoms. This involved going through a hard copy proof, page by page, over the phone with Wendy, my copy editor – three or four hours a day on the phone for two days. I don’t think every writer does this (actually, I’m absolutely sure they don’t) but for me, it works and my copy editor hasn’t complained yet (at least not to me). And even in those early days of confinement I think we were both grateful to have someone to talk to on the phone. But then the book was done, the acknowledgements were written, and I gently folded my laptop closed. 
I had said I’d take a break after The Burning Kingdoms. The rest was needed as writing a trilogy is actually quite hard work – not mining at the coalface hard, but still it’s hard. I’d had a contract for one book a year which left me with little time other things. And The Smoke Thieves series is told from five different points of view and has at least three story threads going through each book, so it was particularly complex to structure (that is a massive understatement) and my brain was fried. And besides it was April and the sun was out! I busied myself with things I’d normally put off, not only was the kitchen floor clean but my tax return was done (I’m still disappointed that I haven’t been given some kind of award or at least a congratulatory letter from the Inland Revenue for fastest submission). I wrote mundane notes most days in my journal – Lockdown Day 1: Went to the shops. They have perspex screens up. Toilet paper is back in, but bread goods are rationed. And then running out of chores I laid in the sun on my lawn and poured my glass of wine ever earlier each day. 
The weeks rolled by. I rested, soaked in the sun and the wine, and occasionally wondered if an idea for another novel would arrive. But it didn’t, at least not then, but that’s not surprising – I wasn’t looking for inspiration, I was just in recovery.
I also did some reflection. I’ve written six books and I’m still learning how to do it, finding what I’m good and bad at, and what I should avoid (five points of view in one story is the top of that list). 
Things I’m good at: character and voice. 
Things I think I’m bad at: plot, planning, endings. 
Things I dread writing: action and fight scenes. 
Things I just dread: looking at my daily word count.
Things I’m pleasantly surprised by: my ability to create fantasy worlds, my ability to create anything! 
Thing’s I worry about never: grammar/punctuation. 
Things I occasionally worry about: character names. My characters change names so often that when I look back at early drafts I can’t work out who these people are! 
Things I very occasionally thing about: My name! Would I sell more under S Green? A pseudonym – but what?
And then there are all the other story telling worries: Where’s the story going? How to start it? How to end it? How to expand the middle bit? And, yes, which character should I kill, or in some cases in my stories, which ones should I leave alive? 
One of the things I don’t worry about and indeed have a weird confidence the universe will provide at the right moment is inspiration. Of course, I know it’s not the universe providing, it’s me looking for ideas and being open to them, and I’ve discovered that a global pandemic does make me quite closed. 
But as society opens up to the new normal, so my mind is now opening to the possibility of new stories. 
Previously I’d search out ideas by wandering through art galleries but currently I have to satisfy myself by looking at art online. I can still read, watch movies and tv – no shortage of time for that. But my starting point is a theme. I go looking for ideas with my theme in mind, and this is the central core from which my stories build their layers. 
For the Half Bad trilogy, the theme was the simple idea of what is good and bad and what it means to be labelled as such. For The Smoke Thieves series, I wanted to have a story with my version of a strong female character. I had a loose idea of what this female character would be like but when I came across Catherine The Great, I knew I’d found my true inspiration.
Catherine was sixteen years old when she was married to the future Peter III of Russia. She detested him from the start and knew her marriage would not be happy, but ‘ambition alone sustained’ her – she admitted just that in her journals (OK, her journals are a little more exciting than mine). She also wrote ‘At the bottom of my soul I had something … that never for a single moment let me doubt that sooner or later I would succeed in becoming the sovereign Empress of Russia in my own right.’ *
I love the simplicity of her ambition which is perhaps a mix of teenage confidence and innocence (at the scale of her task). She wasn’t trying to be nice or good – she wanted to rule.  She knew she could do the job a lot better than her foolish husband. So she worked hard – reading, writing, learning languages, managing her public profile and the people in her court. She was incredibly politically astute and yet also had love affairs. She even wrote children’s books. She also plotted and planned, and disposed of her husband in a coup. 
I wonder what that bottom of the soul feeling is and how strong it must be? There must be great fear there too, as if her plans went wrong she would suffer terribly. But they went right and she became the most powerful woman on earth at the time.
Catherine the Great inspired my Princess Catherine in The Smoke Thieves. My Catherine, too, has to battle against sexism, injustice, traitors inside and outside of her family, though she wrestles a little more with her own ambition to rule. It helps her cause when the men she’s up against are villains or fools but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous – though it does make the story a lot of fun to write.
And what now for my writing? What will be the theme of my next book and where will I look for ideas? For the moment that’s my secret, but I can say that I’ve bought a portrait of a beautiful woman with dark eyes and she’s my current inspiration, though I’m still at the early stages and I’ve not been reduced to scrubbing the kitchen floor with my toothbrush yet.

* From The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, translated by Mark Cruse and Hilde Hoogenboom, 2005, Modern Library Random House Publishing Group.

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