Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Interview with Scott Bly, Author of SMASHER

It's always exciting when we interview a debut author on the Enchanted Inkpot.  Today we are featuring Scott Bly, whose middle-grade novel, SMASHER, came out just yesterday!  Here's what's it's all about:

SMASHER is a fast-paced techno-thriller about computers, magic, and time travel, set in an alternate Los Angeles in the near future. A magician’s apprentice in the Renaissance era is recruited by a time-traveling bionic girl to help stop Gramercy Foxx, the most powerful media mogul alive, from releasing The Future — his most exciting and mysterious product ever.  They race against time to unlock the secret of The Future before the magical computer virus enslaves every human being on the planet.

And now for the interview:

Lena: Welcome to the Enchanted Inkpot, Scott, both as an interviewee and as one of our newest contributors—and big congratulations on your debut!

Scott:  Thanks for having me, Lena!  It’s a real honor to be included among the ranks of authors such as yourself, Gretchen McNeil and my fellow Scholastic author Jennifer Nielsen.

Lena: I really enjoyed SMASHER.  One of the things I found the most original was the way you wove together both magical and technological elements.  How did your own work with computer technology influence the book?

Scott:  I’ve spent the last fifteen years helping people with their computer issues and dealing with small business technology needs – everything from getting a computer virus to identifying hacker intrusions and working with the FBI.  Of course, there are lots of other little things, too, but those are the most dramatic examples!  One the most common pieces of advice that writers get is to “write what you know."  I certainly know computers.  And I wanted to give kids a way to learn about computers in a way that wasn’t dry.  So finding the most interesting story where that could happen was a really strong motivator for me.

Lena: I saw that you began your novel in 2006 and wrote more than nine versions.  My own first novel took ten years to write, so I’m always interested to meet others who have had a similar experience.  What stayed the same from that first early draft?  Was there a key moment when the final story began to come together?

Scott:  Yeah, it was quite a journey!  There are two key chapters that never changed – the second, in which Gramercy Foxx is introduced (although it was originally chapter one), and the scene where Jane Virtue is running through the shopping mall as Foxx calls for her video call.  I’m sure there are other pieces here and there that were largely unaltered, but those two stood out as being nearly untouched the whole time.

Even for a long process like mine, there are times when the voice and the structure and the pacing all line up and you just have it and it rings true.  I think I just got lucky with those two.

You ask about the final story, and I think that by the time I was most of the way through the first draft, which in and of itself took nearly three years (I had no idea what I had gotten myself into), the story was pretty well locked.  It became a matter of cutting and cutting and cutting.  There were a few key elements that changed, and things shifted a lot and tightened a lot, but the story itself never really changed.  Of course, this is over nearly ten years, so who knows?  Memory is a fickle thing.

Lena: I know what you mean! Sometimes I think we authors forget what a story was like in an early draft and then when someone asks, we end up struggling to make something up.

Everyone’s path to publication is different.  How did SMASHER end up being published with Scholastic and what was the editorial process like?

Scott:  Well, I had stopped writing for quite some time after film school and a frustrating introduction to the entertainment business.  So I started writing and playing music for a creative outlet as I got my computer consulting business off the ground.  One of my clients referred me to my editor, Bonnie, here in LA when she got a computer virus. 

During that first lengthy conversation she said to me, “In twenty years of unsuccessfully trying to use a computer, you’re the first person who has been able to talk to me about this stuff in a way I can understand.  Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book?”

So I gave it some thought and we had a series of conversations over lunches that ultimately started to turn into chapters. She had a very brilliant way of asking just the right questions that would turn my entire worldview on its head and send me off into different directions.  I was really fortunate in that she served very much as a mentor through the whole process. 

Lena: Tell us about Charles and Geneva, your two main characters.  I thought they were great foils for each other.

Scott:  Thanks!  I really enjoyed the dynamic between the two of them as they in turn served as master/student then reversed roles.  It was very important to me that each had a gift that was the opposite of the other so that they would depend on one another.

Lena: Charles is a boy from the past who is brought forward in time.  Did you have to do much historical research for the book?  What about computer research?

Scott:  The historical research was probably more involved for me than the computer research.  There were certainly some details about some of the theoretical quantum computing and DNA encoding that I had to dig around for, but the computer side of things was primarily stuff that I use on a day-to-day basis.  Also, I love the magazine Scientific American, so getting to read about whole worlds of scientific research as a layperson really informed a lot of the book's future technologies.  Of course, some is completely made up, like the AquaFase screens.  Seems cool, seems plausible, but outside of some knowledge of how researchers use lasers to cool atoms, I have no idea if something like that could ever exist.

The historical side, though, required research for almost every detail that made it’s way into any draft, whether it survived to the end or not.  There are actually a tremendous number of chapters that served as episodic educational adventures that were cut from early drafts, and those will almost all end up online in the very near future.  That represented the lion’s share of the research that I did, and was actually a lot of fun!  It’s just that about 95% of it isn’t in the published novel.

Lena:  I know that you’ve developed children’s interactive computer games.  Do you think that books and reading will become more interactive in the future?  If so, is that a good thing?

Scott:  I don’t want to overstate the development I’ve done, but I’ve certainly been involved in the creation of some alternate reality gaming that I have worked on with a team.  We’re gearing all of that toward the educational market, and it’s very much a story-driven experience.  But that’s more about the educational experience, which I think has to change – we’re a couple hundred years into the current educational paradigm of teacher in front of class, and we’re finding that the approach is only partially successful.  Kids are driven to games because of the interactivity, the fact that those individual small goals on the way to a larger goal – they totally hit the pleasure/reward centers of the brain – and they’re learning the entire time.  Unfortunately, most of the skills they’re learning aren’t particularly helpful in the real world except to maybe a drone pilot in the military, but they are skills nonetheless.  With the gamification of education taking place right now, I think we’re going to see a dramatic rise in gaming theories and approaches change the education landscape.

As for the book business, I’m not so sure.  The process of reading hasn’t changed in thousands of years.  There is of course, a different language in images, and now in moving images, but that’s a different paradigm altogether.  Books may be available on e-readers and what not, but I think that the fundamental process of being told a story is something that human beings want at a nearly genetic level.  And with reading, if the interactivity takes you out of that experience, I think it can be a negative effect.  That said, if the interactivity is a truly organic part of the storytelling experience and can be done smoothly, without technical glitches and the other frustrations that we all run into with computer issues, then I think we might see a real increase in “interactivity” as it were.  Of course, I say all of that having now positioned myself very much in the interactive space.  I hope that the trend continues, but it really depends on the successes being a transformative experience.  I think Avatar is a great example from the film world, where a 3D movie successfully accomplished what 3D is meant for.  There are a lot of films where the 3D is just an updated version of the same gimmick that we’ve seen since the sixties or seventies.

Lena: What were you reading when you were thirteen?  Do you think any of your childhood favorites have influenced SMASHER?

Scott:  I was reading Dungeons and Dragons novels, specifically the Dragonlance books, which I loved.  And of course Lord of the Rings.  So a lot of fantasy, but not many of the other real established names like Piers Anthony or Asimov on the scifi side.  Once I was just a bit older I started reading Stephen King and Tom Clancy, and I think that their influence is more obvious on the kind of writing I did in SMASHER, especially Clancy.  I really see SMASHER as a Tom Clancy novel for kids.  With magic.

Lena: I like that!  Any advice for debut authors like yourself (or debut-authors-to-be)?

Scott:  Eat your vegetables and stay away from high-carb meals, especially late at night.  And call your mother.  She misses you.

Lena: Thanks Scott! And congrats again!

Read chapters one to three of SMASHER here!

Lena Coakley's first novel, Witchlanders, was called “one stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite award for the Americas.  It is a 2013 MYRCA nominee and a 2013 OLA White Pine honouree.  Lena is also the author of two children’s picture books and the former administrative director of CANSCAIP. Learn more about her at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Interview and Giveaway: C J Busby, Author of DEEP AMBER

Hi, there! I'm Amy Butler Greenfield, and I'm delighted to welcome C J Busby, author of DEEP AMBER, to the Enchanted Inkpot today.  I was lucky enough to meet Cecilia in person last autumn at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, where she read an extract from DEEP AMBER that was full of humour and action and absurdity - a perfect combination for middle-grade readers.

Cecilia lived on boats till she was sixteen: she vividly remembers mushrooms growing out of the walls, and a terrifying occasion crossing the English Channel in a gale in a small barge which nearly overturned. She studied science and then social anthropology at university, and lived in a South Indian fishing village for a year to research her doctorate. She has spent time living in Scotland, Wales and various bits of England, and currently lives in Devon with her three children
Here's a quick summary of DEEP AMBER (Templar UK / March 2013):  People and objects are moving between different worlds – and somewhere there is a very powerful piece of deep amber causing all the mayhem. Can siblings Cat and Simon join forces with apprentice witch Dora and castle mischief-maker Jem to find the amber before it falls into the wrong hands?

And now for our interview...

DEEP AMBER is a wonderfully funny book. What advice do you have for writers who want to make kids laugh?

I’m so glad you found it funny! My books are mostly what you’d call fantasy adventures, but I do like to inject a bit of humour, too. I love to hear my readers chuckling, and if they have proper laugh-out-loud moments I feel I’ve done my job well. It’s hard to give advice on this, as I’m not consciously thinking ‘what will make kids laugh?’ – the humour just comes out of the situation. Usually there’s the odd character who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, and with the best will in the world somehow manages to create chaos. I also have a soft spot for characters who add a bit of rolling-eyed sarcasm into the proceedings. I have a quite childish sense of humour myself (I’ll always laugh at any Laurel and Hardy type mayhem!) so maybe that helps.

That's great advice!  For me, part of the fun of DEEP AMBER is the way it switches between the fantasy world of Dora, the apprentice witch, and the modern-day world of Cat and Simon.  Which world did you most enjoy writing about?

When I started the book, it was from the point of view of the modern-day world, and it was originally going to be from that perspective only. But I found I just couldn’t get the tone right, And then I tried starting from the other world first, and it just took off. Maybe because my previous books had been based firmly in that kind of Arthurian setting, so it felt comfortable. Both worlds were fun to write, but what I enjoyed most were the bits where they collided – the knight trying to follow his quest in the middle of a modern market town, or the castle kitchen boy trying to work out what a Nintendo DS does.
What were your favorite books as a child?  And when did you first start reading fantasy? 

I read all sorts as a child. I loved history, fairy tales, fantasy, adventures, funny books. The earliest writer I remember being aware of was Enid Blyton, and I raced through all of the Famous Five and Malory Towers series. Then for a long time my favourites were Richmal Crompton’s William books, which are hilarious. But at the age of ten or so I would have answered the question “Who is your favourite author?” with one name: Diana Wynne Jones. At the time that would have been based on only one book – Eight Days of Luke – but it was so amazing, and so unlike anything else I’d read, that I was a die-hard fan from that moment on. I also loved John Masefield, Alan Garner, and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence. Apart from Tolkein, though, and a few others, I’m not a big fan of high fantasy – I generally prefer the more Jones-like mix of magic, humour and the real world.

Before writing DEEP AMBER, you wrote a very successful series (FROGSPELL, CAULDRON SPELLS, ICESPELL, SWORDSPELL) for slightly younger readers.  Was it tricky to make the switch to a new series?  

Yes, it really was, and I wasn’t expecting it to be! I hadn’t realized how much background knowledge of your characters and the world they live in you draw on when writing later books in a series, and then suddenly, there it all is to build up again from scratch. What made it worse is that in the previous series I’d had a fair few ready-made characters, like King Arthur and Merlin – and although you do reshape them and make them your own, there are some givens that you start from. In the new series, everyone had to take shape just from my own head! It could have been liberating but was actually rather daunting. I learned a lot about the craft of writing in struggling through that process.

Speaking of the craft of writing, there's an important secret in DEEP AMBER that's hidden with intriguing mix of alchemy and runes. Do you have any advice for writers and readers who want to create their own riddles and secret codes?

I always loved secret languages and symbols as a child (my sister and I used to try and write messages to each other in Tolkein’s Elvish script – although we could never properly decode each other’s notes!) So I enjoyed putting that puzzle into Deep Amber, and searching for the exact combinations of runes and alchemical symbols that would say what I wanted. It’s quite tricky, as there are a number of different interpretations of some of the runes, and my editor and I had to go over it a few times before it worked. It had the advantage of making a nice little extra for David Wyatt to illustrate. The main advice I’d have for other writers, I guess, is that you have to check and re-check your logic, because children will definitely spot any flaws!

You had a remarkable childhood, living on a series of boats and then on the site of a Welsh ruin.  Did any bits and pieces of that life find their way into DEEP AMBER?

There are a few, yes. Albert Jemmet is the name of a barge captain who worked with my dad for a while, but the character in the story is not at all the same - he’s more like my dad, in fact. Then there’s my younger brother, who bought a sword on ebay when he was seventeen. In the book, there’s a scene where Simon gets a bit wild with the sword that’s magically appeared in their house, and he chops up his mum’s washing-line and slices the arm off the sofa… Well, that’s not a million miles away from what happened in real life. Needless to say, my brother’s sword was swiftly confiscated! I suppose what my childhood really gave me, though, was a sense that life ought to be adventurous, and also that grown-ups were quite likely to be quirky, interesting and in on the adventure. I tend to make my grown-up characters part of things, whether as allies or enemies, rather than shadowy background figures.

A sense of adventure is a wonderful gift! And it’s great to see that DEEP AMBER won't be the end of this adventure, since it's the first part of a trilogy. Can we persuade you to reveal any secrets about the next books?

Well, there are two more bits of magical amber to be found by the end of the first book, and the race is on to find them before the sinister Lord Ravenglass and his dark-suited allies can get their hands on them. So the next two books follow that struggle into a couple of new worlds: one, a hot desert world of temples, bazaars and dragons, and the other a watery world of sailing ships and pirates. The final showdown will be back in our world, but it may involve a chase backwards in time… I’ve nearly finished book 2, which I’ve really enjoyed writing, but there’s a bit of a dispute over the title at the moment, which will either be DRAGON AMBER or FIRE AMBER. The final book, though, will be called THE AMBER CROWN. I’m very excited about getting started on it!

And we're excited that you're working on it!  Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us.

Now for the GIVEAWAY!  

Cecilia's publisher, Templar, has very generously provided TWO copies of DEEP AMBER for two lucky Inkpot winners (UK residents only)! All you have to do is leave a comment here and make sure that we have some way of contacting you. The giveaway will run until midnight GMT on March 29th, and two winners will be chosen at random.  Good luck!

[ETA: If you're having trouble registering a comment to win, you can instead email Amy via her author contact page and enter your name that way.]


Amy Butler Greenfield was on her way to a history Ph.D. when she gave into temptation and became a novelist. Now an award-winning writer, she lives with her family in England, where she eats chocolate, bakes cakes, and plots mischief.  Her most recent book is the YA historical fantasy CHANTRESS (McElderry / S&S, 2013).  Its sequel, CHANTRESS ALCHEMY, comes out in May 2014. You can find her at