Monday, January 28, 2008

My books #6: Go Gos Are Go Go!

Let’s Go!

They’re the latest craze to hit the streets!

They’re taking over playgrounds and classrooms all over the country!

They’re the coolest thing since caps!

What are they?

Go Gos!

If you want to know more, all you need is right here in this exciting new book!

Well, if that doesn’t get you excited, what will?

‘Go Gos’ is an unusual book from my back catalogue. I had started working full-time as a teacher in the autumn of 1996 and then the opportunities to write, that I had been waiting for whilst working freelance, began to present themselves. So, during the half term holiday I found myself signed up to write both a book and a short story. Suddenly, for two short weeks, I was effectively working full-time as a writer to make all my deadlines.

Puffin Books had published a book about the POGs craze earlier that year and, having seen the children at the school where I worked playing with Go Gos Crazybones (effectively just a plastic version of knucklebones) I decided to pitch a Go Gos book. I had a meeting with my editor at Penguin’s offices in London and, lo and behold, the book was commissioned!

As I say, Go Gos were really just brightly-coloured bits of shaped plastic with which children played games likes knucklebones. In my book, I developed into the history of the game of knucklebones itself whilst also making up other games for children to play. A week later, the book was finished and saw print the following year.

It didn’t sell particularly well and in the end was pulped, something which I have never had happen to me before or since (so far, fingers crossed). However, some might say that pulping the book was a little premature. In the last few years Go Gos have seen a resurgence in popularity and are available on newsagents’ counters all over the country.

If anyone else has the bright idea of bringing out a book to support the craze, just remember - I was there first.

PS – By rights, ‘My books #6’ should have been about ‘Bloodbones’ but more on that when I get to... ‘My books #13’!

Lego is 50 years old!

The Lego plastic brick is 50 years old this month!

'So what?' I hear you cry.

I mention this fact because Lego has been a huge influence in my life one way or another. As a child I remember being given my cousins' hand-me-down sets and excitedly receiving new boxes full of plastic bits for birthdays and Christmases.
I spent many happy hours playing with my Lego, creating worlds for characters to inhabit and then telling their stories (which were always on the adventurous side). And, of course, through such play I began to develop my narrative sense. So, if it wasn't for Lego, I ask myself, would I be the writer I am today?

The other thing that impresses me about Lego, is how the company have reinvented the product in recent years to appeal to a nostalgic adult audience as well as today's media-drip-fed intellectual-properties-saturated generation of children. So we have Lego Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, Harry Potter et al, and there are also Lego games available for the latest next-gen consoles.

Now my own children are starting to play with Lego and I witness my son starting to tell stories about the characters, so who knows where that might lead?

Today's fascinating facts:
  • The LEGO Group, which is based in Billund, Denmark, is the fifth largest toy manufacturer in the world in terms of sales and was founded in 1932.

  • There are 2,400 different LEGO brick shapes.

  • The name LEGO in a fusion of two Danish words 'LEg' and 'GOdt', meaning 'play well'.

Keeping to the Lego Star Wars theme, check out the following link. It made me smile, anyway...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Small Potatoes

I just logged on tonight, to see what sort of traffic myblog had been receiving of late, to discover that this site has now had over 1,000 visits - 1,004 when I checked, to be precise.

I realise that this must be small potatoes to many bloggers, but it gave me a real buzz to know that so many people were regularly checking up on what I'm up to, from right across the world.

I also discovered that the latest country to be added to the roster of international visitors is Pakistan! I've now had visits from people residing in five of the world's seven continents, with Africa and Antarctica yet to register (strangely enough).

So, until next time... au revoir, adios, arrivederci, sayonara, hejdo, ciao, zai jian, namaste, do zobaczenia, adeus, do svidan’ya, tot ziens, goodbye, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night...

Monday, January 21, 2008

My books #5: Stormin' Sonic

Storm clouds over Mobius.

Sonic and his pals have never seen anything like it. All the Zones are being affected by a mysterious weather egg creating climate chaos wherever it goes. Only you and Sonic can save Mobius from a weather wipeout.

Use your skill, luck and stamina to help Sonic in this amazing gamebook adventure.

‘Stormin’ Sonic’ followed hot on the heels of ‘Theme Park Panic’. Where the first book had been based within an out of control theme park, the second Sonic adventure Marc and I created was based around the idea of bizarre weather affecting the world of Mobius.

We worked just as we had for our first collaboration but, having gained the confidence of writing one already, we put in rather more of Sonic’s world, rather than take him out of it (as we had effectively done with the first adventure). ‘Theme Park Panic’ had featured the hyperactive blue hedgehog Sonic and his twin-tailed foxy pal Miles Prower, a.k.a. Miles Prower, and (inevitably) his nemesis Dr Robotnik. In ‘Stormin’ Sonic’ we also threw in Sonic’s girlfriend Amy (a pink hedgehog) and his rival Knuckles (a red echidna).

We had great fun thinking up bizarre weather systems and what it was that might be generating them. I remember much laughter was had when we came up with the concept of Foggy Froggy the Fog Frog. We also enjoyed juxtaposing creatures with the setting in which they found themselves. For example, there was a walrus stuck up a tree and a penguin foreign legion in the desert zone, with a polar bear selling ice creams.

There was, of course, the obligatory final battle with the big bad boss Dr Robotnik himself inside his insidious Weather Egg. And that was the end of my involvement with Sonic the Hedgehog. It was fun while it lasted, and I’ve recently been fortunate enough to come back to the popular-IP-gamebook-gig with my Doctor Who: Decide Your Destiny adventure. But there will always be a special place in my heart reserved for Sonic the Hedgehog.

My books #4: Theme Park Panic

A rollercoaster ride to mayhem.

An amazing new theme park has opened on Mobius. But for Sonic and his pals it turns out to have more than the usual thrills and spills, thanks to the devious mind of Robotnik. The crazed inventor plans to wipe out all the Zones on Mobius, and this time he's determined to succeed.

Only you and Sonic stand in his way. Are you ready to accept the challenge? If you are, get ready for the ride of a lifetime.

After graduating from university in the summer of 1994, I decided that I wanted to make it as a full-time freelance writer. The fact that I only had one commission to work on didn’t stop me for a second, and just to make things really hard for myself, I moved out of the family home and upped sticks to Nottingham. I was going to prove to everyone (including myself) that I could really do this, and succeed on my own merits.

But why Nottingham? Having written three Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I had made contact with the consultant FF editor, Marc Gascoigne. He was based in Nottingham as was the tabletop miniatures gaming company Games Workshop. I hoped to work with both Marc and GW in the future, so Nottingham it was.

Puffin had been producing a series of adventure gamebooks based on the popular computer game character Sonic the Hedgehog. Two more were wanted for the series and Marc and I ended up getting the gig. This was the first time I had ever co-written anything. I realise that the process is likely vary for other co-writers, but the system which Marc and I came up with seemed to suit us both very well.

We started by bashing out plot ideas and, having decided on two, started to work them up into fully formed adventures. Whilst planning ‘Theme Park Panic’ we managed to work in all sorts of film references from Jurassic Park to Westworld.

Having thoroughly plotted each one to its conclusion together, I then went away and wrote a largely unpolished manuscript but which had the gamebook structure in place. Marc then polished the MS making sure that it was Sonic-y enough (he had worked with the franchise before) and added lots of terrible jokes. He then also had to re-structure the gamebook so that the paragraphs were all muddled up and wrote the illo brief for the artist.

However, the project almost never happened. I was about a week into writing ‘Theme Park Panic’ when the call came from Marc to say that the W H Smith chain weren’t going to stock the book and as a result Puffin weren’t going to publish. Well, that’s retailer power for you!

Fortunately, not long after, that decision was reversed but I still had the same deadline to meet, so much writing into the small wee hours followed. But we made the deadline and the book saw print and I had the added satisfaction of saying that I had worked on the Sonic IP, in my own small way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My books #3: Curse of the Mummy

Beware the Curse of Akharis!

Helping an eccentric archaeologist unearth an ancient tomb in the Desert of Skulls seems like an easy task for a heroic adventurer like YOU. But when that tomb turns out to belong to Akharis – a legendary ruler from a previous age – and when you discover some of his followers are trying to return the evil pharaoh to life, YOU must act quickly.

Soon you will have to learn the true meaning of the Curse of the Mummy! It will take a real hero to defeat Akharis and win the treasure. Dare YOU take on the challenge?

I finished university in the summer of 1994 and, turning my back on four years’ of training to become a teacher, I decided that I was going to try my hand at being a writer. I made this bold decision with only one commission to my name, and that was for my third Fighting Fantasy adventure, ‘Curse of the Mummy’.

Do I even need to explain what the inspiration was for this book?

I had been fascinated by Egyptian mythology ever since I was a child, and it was an interest that had stayed with me. My final university dissertation was entitled ‘Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egyptian Art’ (catchy, I know). As part of my Art course, I was lucky enough to visit Egypt for two weeks, visiting everything from the Pyramids at Giza and the Valley of the Kings to the temples of Edfu, Komombo and Karnak. It was a truly inspirational trip and the dedication at the front of ‘Curse’ harks back to an adventurous trek I made with a group of friends, climbing the mountains above the Valley of the Kings to descend to the temple of Queen Hatshepsut on the other side.

I tried to cram in everything I could into ‘Curse’ and loved putting a spin on traditional fantasy archetypes (such as including a Golem, but one made from sand). I created a whole pantheon of Djaratian animal-headed gods which are referenced over the course of the adventure and I think a little bit of Indiana Jones might have snuck its way in there too.

I was delighted to discover that Martin McKenna was going to illustrate the adventure and paint the cover, which (incredibly) was to be his first solo cover for the FF line. It was always Martin’s style that I pictured when I came up with ideas for illustrations. With a number of the illustrations he finally produced they were just as I had imagined them. With several more they were better than I had imagined.

'Curse of the Mummy' has recently been republished by Wizard Books and it is one of only two books which have retained their original cover from the original series, so strong was the image Martin McKenna produced of the risen Akharis. Oh, and for those in the know, the upright sarcophagus you can see behind him is from the Tom Baker classic Doctor Who adventure 'Pyramids of Mars'. (Martin even managed to sneak one of the robo-mummies into the book!)

What was unusual about ‘Curse of the Mummy’, at the time of writing, was that it was the first traditional dungeon bash I had written (and even then, the first quarter of the book is about finding the Mummy’s tomb). This mainstay of the RPG genre had been done to death so many times before, but with ‘Curse’ I felt that I could do something new. I even have the carefully worked out scale maps I drew for this adventure somewhere amongst all my notes...

A small piece of FF trivia: I was told that Keith Martin’s ‘Revenge of the Vampire’ (original FF #58) was to be called ‘Curse of the Vampire’ until my proposal landed on the editor’s desk.

Monday, January 7, 2008

My books #2: Knights of Doom

For years the brave Knights Templar of the Demonkeep have kept the peace in Ruddlestone. But now an ancient evil has reawakened in the land: the sorcerer Belgaroth has returned from the dead and will use his powers to bring chaos and terror to this peaceful kingdom. To ensure his plans succeed, the evil sorcerer has enlisted the services of the Knights of Doom. One heroic knight - YOU! - must creep through a land plunged into war, penetrate the enemy lines and overcome the deadliest foe of them all!

Summer 1993 arrived and with it the publication of my first book ‘Spellbreaker’. Less than a month later, I was into writing my second Fighting Fantasy gamebook. Having been successfully published once already, I found it much easier to get a book accepted the second time around. I had a better idea of what the series editors were looking for and they knew that they could rely on me to turn in the goods, and on time.

I had pitched ‘Knights of Doom’ back in March of that year and as the sample and synopsis seemed to tick all the right boxes, by the July I had been commissioned, with publication planned for the following summer. (At that time Puffin were bringing out three FF gamebooks a year, in the spring, summer and autumn.)

Again, I enjoyed the experience of writing ‘Knights of Doom’, creating the set piece encounters and back-story for the adventure, whilst trying to come up with fiendish ways to challenge the reader. If I am honest, I think I got rather carried away with trying to outfox those people who flick through gamebooks, keeping at least three options open at the same time, with their fingers stuck between the pages as bookmarks, whilst saying that they have any required object when they don’t. In other words, the cheats. (Or, to put it another way, people like me. By this time, when I played a gamebook I was as much reading it to see how it worked and was put together, as I was enjoying a well imagined adventure.)

‘Knights of Doom’ was published in the summer of 1994 with Tony Hough on art duties. The book was in itself something of a first as it marked the first time I had a piece of my own artwork published, in the form of the map that appeared at the start of the adventure.
This came about following my experiences with map art on ‘Spellbreaker’. I had produced a rough sketch map for my first gamebook, expecting the artist to run with it and turn it into a fantastic illustration in its own right. However, what eventually saw print was almost identical to what I had drawn and, truth be told, I was very disappointed. I felt that I could have done better myself and so when it came to ‘Knights of Doom’ I decided to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak.

My editor at Puffin was obviously happy with my efforts as the map I had drawn saw print, unchanged in anyway. I went on to draw the maps for ‘Curse of the Mummy’ and ‘Bloodbones’, and was even commissioned to illustrate the map for Keith Martin’s ‘Revenge of the Vampire’ off the back of it.

‘Knights of Doom’ is yet to be re-printed by Wizard Books but, should it be, you can rest assured that some modifications will be made to the original to make it a fairer challenge.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

My books #1: Spellbreaker


Rassin Abbey has guarded its arcane treasures for centuries. But when their Black Grimoire is stolen, the land of Ruddlestone is plunged into a crisis of epic proportions. For the ancient book holds the key to the legendary Casket of Shadows - and the evil imprisoned within it. Should it be opened, the Infernal Beast will be unleashed to wreak its terrible carnage across the Old World.

On the night of Shekka's moon, scant days away, this will surely come to pass. Unless, that is, one brave hero can retrieve the Black Grimoire in the nick of time - a hero like YOU!

Let me take you back a few years – nearly eighteen, in fact. It is July 1990 and, having finished secondary school, I am preparing to go to university that autumn. I have wanted to write for as long as I can remember and was a huge fan of the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks when they first came out in the early 1980s. Having already sent for a set of writer’s guidelines I sit down to prepare my masterpiece that will break me into the world of publishing. And so, ‘Outlaws of Kaan’ is born.

Suffice to say, ‘Outlaws’ does not float the FF consultant editor’s boat because, well, basically it’s rubbish. However, I receive some very helpful feedback and enthusiastically set about a re-write. Cut to a year later and ‘Outlaws’ has well and truly gone the way of the Dodo. Instead I’m now working on a proposal for ‘Spellbreaker’. With the Background and 100 paragraphs written I send it off and in due course receive a much more encouraging response. This one they like and after a re-write it gets as far as the commissioning editor’s desk at Puffin Books. A re-drafting of the plot synopsis after that and, having finished my second year at Uni, I receive the letter telling me that I have been commissioned. (I still have that letter to this day.) Now all I have to do is write the book – gulp!

I have to say that I absolutely loved the experience of writing ‘Spellbreaker’, everything from plotting the adventure to creating the monsters and villains the hero encounters along the way, from writing the illustration brief to drawing the flowchart for the editors to work from. It was the best paid summer job I ever had and I bought my first word processer (an Amstrad, of course) with my advance to type it up on, having written the whole thing by hand.

‘Spellbreaker’ finally saw print in June 1993, three years after I tried to break into the world of publishing. With hindsight, it’s not my best work (but then you’d hope I would have improved in the intervening fifteen or so years since I wrote it) and others have been kind enough to point out flaws in the game-play along the way. However, I am still very proud of ‘Spellbreaker’ and hold a place for it in my heart.

The inspirations for the book are not hard to see: I had been reading all the Brother Cadfael mysteries I could get my hands on around that time and there’s a fair bit of Shakespeare in there too (and what I couldn’t fit into ‘Spellbreaker’ made its way into ‘Knights of Doom’ a year later), but I’ll put that down to the A-level English Literature course I’d taken. And that’s not to mention the none-too-subtle references to Robin Hood and his ilk that not so much crept in as stormed into the book.

So, if witches, black magic, demons and innocent pastiches of medieval whodunits are your thing, check out the new improved edition available now from Wizard Books.

Public Lending Right loans - 2006/2007

Once a year I, like other registered authors, receive a statement from the kind people at PLR (Public Lending Right) informing me of how many people have borrowed my books from libraries over the past year. For each loan I earn a few pence which, at the end of the day, add up to a fair few pounds (now that I have established a bit of a back catalogue of publications).

The idea behind the PLR is to reimburse authors for what are effectively lost earnings from people borrowing books rather than actually buying them. There is a limit to how much an author can receive from the PLR and this year some 242 writers are being paid the maximum amount of £6600 (and I hasten to add that I am not one of them).

PLR is one of those things I always forget about and which comes as a pleasant surprise after the inevitable financial excesses of Christmas. What was pleasing for me this year was that I have had more loans of my books than ever before and so have earned more than in previous years.

It also pleases me to see that books like the Sonic the Hedgehog gamebooks (which I co-wrote with Marc Gascoigne twelve years ago) are still popular and being borrowed alongside my newer publications. My most borrowed title was 'Conquest of Armageddon' with 1394 loans while three publications failed to register any loans this year.

And things should only get better from here on in as by the time my next PLR statement comes round in January 2009 (gulp!) there should be another four or five titles listed.

So, until next time...