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KEEPING THE WARLOCK ON SCHEDULE – guest post by Sean McMullen

I have two special guests in one: Sean McMullen and Paul Collins. They’ve both been forces for good (and for good writing) in the Australian speculative fiction scene for a long time, so it makes me very happy to share Sean’s thoughts on their collaboration.

The Warlock’s Child series is approaching the first anniversary of its birth as a collaboration, so this is a good time to look at how it went from Paul Collins’s partial draft to a published, six book series in just eleven months.

I resigned from my day job to become a full-time author in October 2014, when I discovered that I was paying the government to go to work. At that time Paul had a draft novel called Broken Magic which had been on hold for quite a while, so when he heard that I was about to have way more spare time, he suggested collaborating to get it moving again.

Paul and I had collaborated before, so we already had our roles sorted. I had helped Paul with the technical side of a short story published as Deathlight some years earlier, and he had started to expand it into Broken Magic. We spent half a day workshopping what was going to be written and establishing a story arc. This was the key to getting six high quality books written and launched in eleven months: we sorted out exactly what we were doing right up front.

The language had to be easily accessible to engage the reluctant readers, yet we needed a strong story arc so that accomplished readers did not feel patronized. Both of us had written for this age group before, so no problem.

Dragons are always popular, and I had some dragon themes that I’ve wanted to work on, so dragons became the driving force behind the expanded plot. Paul soon had the Deltora Quest artist Marc McBride lined up to do the covers. Marc does wonderful dragons, so the covers were sure to be winners.

Dantar, the fourteen year old cabin boy at the centre of the action, presented a problem. He was just a cabin boy, and we needed the view from the top as well as from the lower deck. I expanded the role of Dantar’s older sister, Velza, quite considerably. Velza became an officer on Dantar’s ship, and got to mingle with the leaders, so we see the big picture through her.

Any magical story needs rules for the magic: no rules means boring book. In The Warlock’s Child, humans can only ever use one of the four types of magic, which are earth, air, fire or water. Dragons have the lot, so they have the edge on humans. However, while the dragons are immortal, they have become sterile. Even immortals have accidents, like in Book 2 when a dragon hits a mountain and becomes a very large crater, so this is an issue.
When a human warlock, Calbaras, discovers the cure for dragon infertility, he trades this secret with the dragons for power over all four magics. The dragons are less than enthusiastic about this. So is his son, Dantar, who is being used in his father’s experiments. Only in Book 6 do we learn the truth about Dantar, Velza and the broken magic.

Plot sorted, but another problem remained. We were looking at a 100,000 word book. Give that to a ten year old reluctant reader, and count how many seconds it takes for him (they generally are boys) to grab a football and run. Paul’s solution was to break the story into six novellas of about 15,000 words. The books would not be confrontingly large, and would end on cliffhangers which encouraged the young readers to read on.

I started writing on 2nd October. Paul had expanded Deathlight to around 35,000 words, so I was not starting from scratch. So far so good, but Marc McBride needed scenarios for the six covers, and I only had firm ideas about one of them. This meant that I had to spend time roughing out the plots for the later books and sketching dragons doing interesting things.

This caused another problem. Paul needed the finalized drafts of the first book within weeks. In any series the characters and world building get done in the first book, so it needs a lot of care. Thus I was writing rough outlines at the same time as writing highly polished text that would become pallets of Book 1 by January. This also involved rewriting Paul’s draft, to fit in with the expanded plot in the later books.

Anyone who does a lot of rewriting will know that you end up with things in your head that are not in the text. Vital conversations and incidents get swapped around or even deleted, so you know what is happening, but the reader does not. When the Ford Street editors saw the drafts of the first book they found lots of loose ends to tie off, so I had to address these – while working on cover ideas, titles and the plots for the later books. This was quite a strain.

Book 1, The Burning Sea, was released on 1st April, and launched on 18th April in Ford Street Publishing’s auditorium. The reviews were great, and the kids were highly enthusiastic when we visited schools for signings. One book came out on the first of every month for six months, and the publisher ran a competition for best related story and dragon picture after Book 3. Book 1 is into its third print run, and the other books are selling better than expected, so the series is a winner commercially.

There are three main lessons in scheduling for authors in the hyper-fast creation of The Warlock’s Child.
• If you are on a tight schedule you must plan carefully up front and stick to your plan.
• If we had been learning about how to write for reluctant readers, we would still be writing Book 1, so write for the audience you know.
• Minimise the research. I have done some sailing, have spent time in historical re-enactment groups, and have a pretty solid background in karate and fencing. Thus I can write that sort of detail straight out of my head, without having to do a Google search.

As the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo, it was a close run thing. Paul and I coped by establishing the rules early, avoiding paths where there were speed humps, and keeping the research to a minimum. That said, I am now writing a bit slower, and really enjoying it.

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