Lian Tanner

My Blog

How to have a good holiday

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I’ve always been fairly bad at holidays–the ones where I go away, that is. I’m good at the ones where I stay at home and read lots of books and do lots of gardening. But going away has always been a problem, mainly because I get bored. Even in a really spectacular place, there’s a limit to how much sightseeing a person can do. (And New Zealand is spectacular.)

But I think I’ve discovered the trick, for me at least.

1. Take some writing with me. Not the book I’m working on currently, because that wouldn’t be a holiday, but something new. Something that’s been niggling at me for a while, and that I can play with when I need a bit of grounding. Because that’s what writing does – it grounds me. As a friend said, you’re at home in the world when you’re writing, no matter where you are.

2. Run a couple of workshops while I’m away. This gives the trip a bit of focus, and also gives me the chance to meet the local children and teachers, and see how they do things. I ran two lots of workshops in New Zealand. In Christchurch, I worked with a group of Year 7s on building their own fantasy worlds. That was fun. And in Queenstown, I worked with three different classes of Year 5s, doing the Imagination Olympics.

The Imagination Olympics is now one of my favourite workshops. It has teams, frantic competition for points, maps, a whistle (because I’m the umpire), brainstorming, and gold medals for the winning team. It is HUGE fun, and the three different classes really enjoyed it.

And then I came home to find that my niece, who was house-and-Harry sitting while I was away, had crocheted me a pair of mittens, and woven a basket from the coloured rope that washes up on the beach. Beautiful, yes?

So I’m feeling very relaxed, which is just as well because now I need to get stuck back into the third book in the Rogues trilogy. Tomorrow I’ll read through what I’ve written so far and start getting my head back into the world of Duckling and Pummel.

What am I reading (apart from my own writing)?

Squire, the third book in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet. This series is so gorgeous, as the main character, Kel, continues in her determination to be a knight, despite the many people who want to stop her.



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Every now and again I get these Enthusiasms. (Note to self: check definition of ‘enthusiast’ and ‘enthusiasm’ in the dictionary, especially the bit where it says ‘self-deluded’ and ‘irrational’.)

The pattern goes something like this – I’ve just finished a particular stage in writing a book, e.g. I’ve handed in the copy edit. And with a few days fancy free before I need to start something else, I’m suddenly struck with the desire to write something completely different. Like – um – a novel for adults retelling the Bluebeard story.

I get really excited about it, and get out a notebook and start jotting down ideas. I have a wonderful first few lines, which spur me on even more, because this book is going to be amazing.

(Note to self: I don’t actually have time to write this book. No, not even if I write it in the gaps. Which don’t actually exist. And I’ve tried writing two novels at the same time, and it just doesn’t work. *sigh* I’m not listening, am I.)

For about three days, this idea rages inside me, and I do write in the gaps, carrying my notebook with me everywhere I go and working on the story while I wait for appointments.

Then, just as suddenly as it came, the Enthusiasm disappears, and real life creeps back in. And I see that no, I don’t have the time. And although it’s a good idea, I don’t want to write it.

You’d think I’d know better by now than to be caught up – and really, I do. I’ve noticed the symptoms and stopped myself in the very early stages several times over the last couple of years. But this time it snuck up on me – probably because I’m going to New Zealand this week and am a bit distracted.

So now I have several pages of Bluebeard that will sit in the back of my cupboard for the next few years, slowly turning to dust. And yes, the first few lines are terrific. But I don’t want to write the book.

What am I reading?

I’ve started several books that I’d probably like at any other time, but are not enough to hold my attention right now. So I’ve fallen back on an old favourite, The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly. Here’s the blurb:

‘When the women of the City of Mandrigyn tried to hire the mercenary army of Captain Sun Wolf, to help them rescue their men from the mines of evil, he refused. Little did he realize how insistent the ladies could be, and how far they would go to persuade him to train them against the evil of the wizard Altiokis…’

Great characters, a strong storyline, and an appalling villain looming over everything – just what a distracted person needs.

The importance of titles

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For the last couple of days I’ve been preparing workshops and thinking about the importance of titles. A good title doesn’t just help sell a book/workshop. It helps the author write it.

Museum of Thieves is still one of my favourite titles, because of the way it brings together the unlikely combination of ‘museum’ and ‘thief’. And it was such a strong title that it helped me keep focus through the four years it took me to write it.

I like the three book titles for The Rogues, too. Accidental Heroes, Secret Guardians and Haunted Warriors. I go back to them over and over again when I’m writing, to remind me what the original idea was, and to catch the atmosphere that I want.

A couple of my secret projects have excellent titles – only I can’t tell you what they are, because then they wouldn’t be secret. One of them I got from the radio – I was listening to a talk program in the car and someone was talking about a book they’d written, and I thought, What a great title – what a pity it’s already taken! But then I realised I’d misheard, and their book was called something else, which meant I could write the one with the great title.

The Book That Wants to Be Written Next doesn’t have a title yet, but I’d really like to find one. Soon. One thing I do know, it’s not going to be called The Girl Who (insert word here). The world seems to be awash with The Girl Who books at the moment. I think they started with Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which was a great title. But now everyone has taken it up, and I’m sick of it.

The two workshops I’m taking to New Zealand are called, Whispers in the Dark: build your own fantasy world and The Imagination Olympics. I particularly like the second one.

What am I reading?

I’ve just finished three books that I loved in three completely different ways.

For kids, Page by Tamora Pierce. This is the second book in her Protector of the Small quartet, the story of a young girl who wants to become a knight. I’ve only recently started reading Tamora Pierce – missed out on her somehow. But these books are gorgeous.

For adults, Tin Man by Sarah Winman. It’s one of those books that makes me want to downgrade all my other five star ratings so that this one can stand on its own. Utterly beautiful writing, and a moving and deeply true look at love and grief.

Also for adults, Radiance by Grace Draven. An utterly delightful romance about an arranged marriage between a minor human princess and a minor prince of the Kai, a species that used to hunt humans for food. They’re both quite open about finding the other incredibly ugly, but they’re also sensible people who know the marriage is politically necessary. And they like each other. And when there are misunderstandings, they TALK to each other instead of going off in a huff. So it’s a slow burning and unlikely romance between two really nice mature people. I’ve just bought the second book.

Ella and the Ocean

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Many years ago, when I was writing Museum of Thieves, I needed a name for Toadspit’s little sister – something that fitted into the city of Jewel, where parents only gave their children names that were happy and strong and beautiful.

A friend of mine had a daughter called Bonnie, which was just the right sort of name. So I used it, and the character of Bonnie became a big favourite, both with me and the readers.

But the real Bonnie had a twin sister called Ella, and it seemed unfair that I had used Bonnie’s name in a book and not her sister’s. ‘Ella’ didn’t fit into The Keepers, but I had an idea for a picture book, and it fitted perfectly into that.

Now picture books are easy, right? They’ve hardly got any words so you should be able to knock one up in a couple of hours. Right?

*hollow laugh*

The thing about picture books is, they’re a lot harder to write than they seem. They’re probably closer to a poem than anything else, because you have to make every word count. With a novel, you can be a bit less fussy. You can go off on little detours. You can waste a word or two.

But not in a picture book.

The other thing about picture books is, you have to leave room for the pictures. You don’t tell the whole story with words, because they’re only half of the book. The pictures are the other half, and they’re not just there to illustrate the words. They’re there to help tell the story.

Back then, when I set out to write Ella and the Ocean, I didn’t know any of this. So what I came up with was pretty awful. I could tell it was awful, but I didn’t know how to fix it. So in the end, I just stuck it away in the corner of my computer reserved for miserable failures, and forgot about it.

But every now and again I go back to that corner – usually when I’m feeling horribly frustrated with what I’m currently writing and need a distraction. And last year I stumbled across Ella and the Ocean again. And I thought I could see how to fix it. I worked on it over a few months (in the spaces between writing a novel), cutting out huge numbers of words and getting rid of the detours and the waste. Then I sent it to my agent, who sent it to Allen & Unwin, my publishers.

And my editor loved it!

But once again, picture books work differently from novels. Before my editor Susannah could make a formal offer of publication she needed to get an illustrator on board. So she sent me a wish list of illustrators. She warned me that they were all incredibly busy, and I properly wouldn’t get my first choice, and I’d better tell her my first, second and third preferences.

But my first choice was Jonathan Bentley, and oh, how I wanted him to do it! His work is so beautiful; funny and lyrical and richly gorgeous. Look at this, from his book Little Big.

And this, from Janet A. Holmes’ Blue Sky Yellow Kite.

So I gave my list to Susannah and held my breath. And Jonathan Bentley said yes! (That’s him above.)

The book is coming out next year, which means he must be going to start work on it fairly soon. I can’t wait to see what he does with my words.

What am I reading?

I’ve just finished Jo Sandhu’s The Exile (Tarin of the Mammoths #1), which was shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards, along with Accidental Heroes. (Neither of us won – the award went to Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor.)

Here’s the blurb for The Exile:

‘Tarin longs to be a hunter, but his twisted leg means he is feared and bullied. After a disastrous mishap, he is forced to leave his family and travel alone across wild, unknown land to save the Mammoth Clan. Battling the hostile and savage Boar Clan, a deadly illness and treacherous terrain with twins Kaija and Luuka, Tarin realises that if they are all to survive he must conquer his fears and embrace the magic that is hiding within him.’

I loved this book. Tarin is such a thoughtful, self doubting boy, and his quest seems so huge. But there’s far more to him than meets the eye, and in this beautifully built world of violence and magic, he starts to come into his own.

To my great joy, the second book is already out, and so is the third! So I am a happy reader.

I’m also reading The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. Definitely an adult book – the story of a woman who cleans up after suicides, hoarders, etc. Fascinating and heartbreaking.

Writing two books at once

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When I get to a certain stage in writing a novel, the next book starts to gnaw at me.

Not always. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to write next, and the mere thought of writing anything else makes me feel nauseous. Which is a good indication I need a holiday.

But right now, the gnawing is rather like the mouse that lives under the floorboards in my kitchen. I assume it’s a mouse. Sometimes it sounds more like a beaver. It keeps Harry pacing up and down the kitchen, trying to work out where the noise is coming from. And every now and again, it makes me wonder if a large hole is suddenly going to appear in the floor, like one of those sinkholes that swallows houses.

That’s what the next book is like. It wants to be written. It needs to be written.

But it’ll be a while yet before I get to it. I’ve just got the copy edit notes for the second Rogues book back from my editor, and there’s a nice little puzzle there that I need to work out before I go to New Zealand. Then I need to finish the third Rogues book.

And then I can get to the new one.

In the meantime, all I can do is make notes.

Last year, I tried writing two books at once. I thought I’d write the main book – the one I’ve got a contract for – in the morning. Then, late in the afternoon, I’d spend a couple of hours on something else.

The ‘something else’ wasn’t a full-length novel. It was more of a novella, and I thought that if I played the right sort of games with my unconscious mind, I could keep it separate from the main book.

Years ago, I heard a radio interview with author Sue Woolfe, where she tried the same thing. I seem to remember she was writing a novel downstairs, and a non-fiction book about mathematics upstairs. Trying to keep them separate. Only she found that the maths book walked down the stairs and insinuated itself into the novel.

That’s not quite what happened to me. I just found that my head was full of the novel and there was no room for the novella, which meant that every day I had to spend half an hour thinking myself back into the story. So I lost patience with it.

What I have found is that I can work on really short books at the same time as the novel. Picture books. Early readers. That sort of thing. And they’re a nice break from the novel.

What am I reading?

This gorgeous gorgeous book.

‘Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, rescues the abandoned children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, feeding the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, she accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, and the ordinary child is filled with extraordinary magic.’

This is everything I love about a children’s book. It’s almost a fairytale, but not quite. The writing is exquisite, the story is both funny and dark, and the danger is huge.

I’m also reading Reflections on the magic of writing by Diana Wynne Jones, a collection of essays, anecdotes, and thoughts in general about writing. As you would expect from such an author, it’s fascinating.

Other news:

The shortlist for the Children’s Book Council awards came out this week, and Accidental Heroes wasn’t on it, which was no great surprise. What was on it, to my delight, was The Shop at Hooper’s Bend, by Emily Rodda. It’s the only one of the middle grade shortlist I’ve read, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

Here’s the whole shortlist.

New book covers

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In my experience, writing novels is a solitary business. It’s just me and my cat Harry, sitting up in bed in our pyjamas.

I know that everyone does it differently – I have writing friends who work with their editor right from the start, talking through the story before a word goes on the page.

I’m much more secretive. If I talk about a book too soon, I’m afraid I’ll lose the energy needed to write it. Or the story-thief (who comes in the night) will steal it. So no one gets to see or hear a thing until I’ve got it as good as I can make it. I hug it, and hiss at anyone who comes too close.

It’s really different from writing for theatre, which is all about collaboration. The only collaboration for me in novel writing is when it comes to editing – and book covers.

I love seeing new book covers. So this was a good week, with news of a paperback edition of Accidental Heroes coming out in June with a new looking cover.

And more news, that the Spanish publishers Anaya have made an offer for Accidental Heroes. Its first translation! And I’m extra pleased about it because Anaya just recently published The Keepers trilogy in Spanish, and they did the most exquisite covers.

I’m hoping they’ll use the same artist, Xavier Bonet, for Accidental Heroes.

What am I reading?

I’ve just finished rereading Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark quartet, which begins with Cart and Cwidder.

Each of the books in the quartet is based around different people, but the whole story comes together as a tale of children caught up in a fight against tyranny, with a particularly evil mage behind some of it, and some huge and fascinating magic. I don’t think there’s another author who I love as much as DWJ.

I’ve also read a really good YA novel. Planesrunner by Ian McDonald is based around the multiple universes theory. ‘There is not just one you, there are many yous. We’re part of a multiplicity of universes in parallel dimensions – and Everett Singh’s dad has found a way in. But he’s been kidnapped, and now it is as though Everett’s dad never existed. Yet there is one clue for his son to follow, a mysterious app: the Infundibulum.’

The writing is gorgeous, the story is gripping, and to my delight it’s the first book in a series.

Bird rescue

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I found a lost cockatiel last week. I was just setting off for a walk when I noticed a whole lot of magpies and noisy miners dive bombing something at the corner of my street. (Both magpies and noisy miners hang around in families, and when they find something or someone they don’t like in their territory, they are merciless.)

So I went to see what they were attacking, and saw a grey and white cockatiel, clinging to a brick wall with its wings splayed out, trying to hide from these ferocious birds.

I shooed off the magpies and miners, and picked up the cockatiel – it was pretty tame, didn’t try to escape, though it bit me a few times. It was obviously used to humans.

But then I had no idea what to do with it – I didn’t want to take it home, because I thought Harry would be far too interested in it. And besides I didn’t have a cage or anything else to put it in while I tried to find where it had come from.

So I took it to some friends around the corner who keep birds.

It was still pretty early in the morning, and Tim opened the door a crack and peered out, bleary eyed, in his dressing gown. But when he saw the cockatiel, he and Danielle leaped into action.

They had a rescue cage in the garage, from where they take care of wild parrots who have got drunk on fermented apples and need protection until they sober up again. So they cleaned it out, filled up the feed bowl and the water bowl, and we put the cockatiel in it.

It settled down immediately, and started eating – I think it was pretty hungry. Then it went to sleep. Tim and Danielle said it was pretty young – probably just a few months old.

And then we started talking about how violent the world is outside the illusion of safety that we have created for ourselves. It’s easy enough to see it if you start looking. Cormorants diving for fish. Seagulls watching a family of ducklings in the hope that one will stray far enough from its mother to catch and eat. An inchman ant fighting a battle to the death with an intruder.

And the funny thing is, that we humans almost always sympathise with the victim. Our hearts are with the gazelle, rather than the lion. With the cockatiel rather than the noisy miners. And yet we as a species are the greatest predators of all.

Maybe we have a sort of species memory of the time when we were the prey.

Anyway, the cockatiel is safe and happy, and we are trying to find out where it came from. No luck so far, and if no one turns up to claim it, Tim and Danielle will happily keep it.

New Zealand

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I’m going to New Zealand in May. It’s a holiday, not a book tour, but I’m hoping to visit a couple of schools while I’m over there.

So in between writing Haunted Warriors, I’ve been thinking about the workshops I could offer. I’ve come up with a couple of titles – ‘Whispers in the Dark: how to build your own fantasy world’ and ‘The Imagination Olympics’. They both sound like fun. Now I just have to write them. 🙂

I’ve never been to New Zealand before, which is a bit ridiculous, given how close it is to Tasmania. Everyone who’s been there says it’s spectacularly beautiful, particularly the South Island, which is where I’m going.

I’m going to spend a few days in Christchurch and Akaroa. Then down to Queenstown and Te Anau to have a look at the fiords.

But no bungy jumping. Definitely no bungy jumping.

Meanwhile, one of my nieces is coming to house sit and look after Harry.

There was a sad (but happy ending) story on the news yesterday about an old man in northern Tasmania who died, and no one knew he’d gone. And his two old dogs guarded his body for two weeks. When the police came, they wouldn’t let them near the man at first.

Anyway, the happy bit was that a really good home has been found for the dogs, which doesn’t always happen with old animals, because they need a lot of care.

Which got me thinking about Harry. He’d guard my body too, but only because he’s very possessive about his food. By the time the police arrived there’d be very little left.

I must warn my niece.

Who’s telling the story?

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Someone asked me a question on Goodreads this week – why didn’t I give Sharkey a voice in Fetcher’s Song/Battlesong (The Hidden Series book 3)?


It’s ages since I read it, so I had to go back and check. But this was my answer:

‘There just wasn’t room to give Sharkey a voice in the third book. I needed to have Petrel’s and Fin’s voices, because they’d been in the story since the beginning. I needed to have Dolph’s because she was somewhere else doing different (important) things. And I needed to have Gwin’s because she was the main character in the third book. If I’d added Sharkey’s voice as well, it would have got too confusing. A pity, but when you’re writing a book you have to make these choices. Some people will agree with them, some won’t.’

Anyway, that question got me thinking about who tells the story. Because if you as reader can see into someone’s head, you’re much more likely to be sympathetic towards them. (Unless of course that someone is a psychopath, like the Harshman, in which case what’s going on inside them will probably make you want to stick your head under a pillow.)

When my editors read the second book in the Rogues trilogy, they were concerned about a character who was basically good, but was doing bad things to Duckling and Pummel. ‘Kids won’t understand why she’s doing these things,’ they said. ‘They won’t like her. We think you should give her a voice.’

My editors are generally sensible people, and they know what they’re talking about, so when I rewrote the book, I added in some new sections from this character’s point of view. And it made a huge difference – she immediately became more likeable.

At the moment, I’m working on the third book, and I’m coming up against the same problem with the same character. I wasn’t going to give her a voice until later in the book, but she’s behaving badly again, so I spent Friday rewriting a scene in her voice, so that we could see why she’s doing what she’s doing. (Hint: she’s scared out of her wits.) And once again, it makes all the difference.

I just have to be careful that I don’t end up with too many voices. Because I don’t want to drop any, especially the chicken. What’s going on inside her head just makes me laugh.

The trouble with chickens

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The trouble with chickens is, they never do what they’re supposed to. If there’s a bit of garden you don’t want them to go near, they’ll head straight for it. If there’s a bit of garden you do want them to dig, they won’t be the least bit interested.

Turns out it’s the same for imaginary chickens.

If you’ve read Accidental Heroes, you might remember Otte’s pet chicken, Dora. She only plays a very small part in the first book, but becomes way more important in the second. And in the third book she’s—

No, I’d better not tell you. It would give away too much. And besides, I’m not even sure myself after what happened on Friday.

I’ve started on the second draft of Book 3, and I thought I knew how she was going to behave. But right at the beginning of the book, she did the complete opposite of what I was expecting. And now I don’t know how to get her out of the trouble she’s got herself into.

Of course I could rewrite that section and make her do what I wanted. But that’s never a good idea – these unexpected gifts from the imagination often turn out really well in the end. And saying no to them feels a bit like those people in fairy tales who refuse to help the poor old woman, or the injured bear, or the trapped bird.

In fairy tales, it’s never a good idea to refuse to help someone. And in writing, it’s never a good idea to reject unexpected gifts.

So for now, this stubborn and disobedient chicken is going her own way, and I’m going to watch and see what happens. I just hope she makes it to the end of the book alive …