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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow & The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

I can’t really believe that next week THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW makes its US debut. Hello America! Flux have done an absolutely amazing job with the package – I love how atmospheric and intriguing it looks. They must be doing something right because The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is a Junior Library Guild Winter 2015 pick (yay!) and has had some awesome reviews stateside:

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Buy me on Amazon!

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is easy to dive into and will keep readers engaged… An excellent choice for those looking for a compelling and detailed fantasy novel.” – School Library Journal

“Middle-school readers looking to get lost in another world will enjoy this adventure-packed read.” – Booklist

“An intriguing start to McCulloch’s planned series” – Publisher’s Weekly

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has always been inspired by my travels. It feels like so long ago now, but at the end of last year, L & I had the chance to visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which I knew would just be full of inspiration for future books – but also would take me right back to all the research I did for Oathbreaker. In fact, I spent a lot of time looking at windows and doorways that could easily work on the front of my book cover!

Granada is one of those perfect city break destinations. Easily accessible from London, full of amazing sights, beautiful hotels, delicious food – and one of the cheapest cities we’ve visited by a mile. As it was partly to celebrate L’s 30th birthday, we splurged to stay in the Alhambra Palace hotel at the very top of the hill. It had the most glorious views and a balcony overlooking the city – not too shabby whatsoever.

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But let’s just take a moment to talk about tapas. Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that still offers free tapas with a drink, and we indulged. We wandered up and down the twisting side streets, stopping for a drink and to eat little plates of wonder. But it was only when we squeezed ourselves into the absolutely packed Restaurante Oliver that we understood the true meaning of tapas. I also fell deeply in love with ‘tinto de verano’ – the on tap red wine and lemonade combination. Take me back there right now!

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Tinto de Verano at Restaurante Olivier & One of the tapas streets

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Iberico ham, a must.

It wasn’t just about tapas, of course. We also strolled around the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter. The Albaicin feels like stepping back in time, to a different era. Market stalls pack the streets, tea houses offer up amazing Arab delights, and – of course – it offers incredible views of the Alhambra itself.

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A market stall in the Albaicin & Me inexpertly pouring tea

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Delicious mint tea

Now onto the Alhambra itself. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I visited, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling complex we entered. We had pre-booked our tour slot a few months in advance (this is worth looking into so you don’t worry about not getting in – it’s very easy to do and tickets are picked up from local ATMs). We were then able to walk leisurely around the Generalife – a beautiful palace/villa with stunning grounds.

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A stunning pool inside the Nasrid Palace

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The Generalife and the Court of the Lions and Fountain

The visit to the Nasrid Palaces was the final item on our agenda. And it was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Walking through the highly decorative Moorish Palace, there were delights around every corner. The highlight was the wonderfully evocative Court of the Lions and Fountains. The sheer level of detail of the carvings on the walls made you appreciate just how much work went into building these luscious palaces. I encourage anyone to go and visit if you have the opportunity.

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These windows would fit right in on the cover of my book

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Incredible detail

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The walls of the Nasrid palaces are covered in script and mosaic

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More highly Oathbreaker-y windows

The perfect place to inspire more novels… and to remind me of upcoming ones!

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Our most magical day…

Time seems to be disappearing before my very eyes. I can’t believe that Christmas is around the corner, a new year beckons and my blog lies abandoned. But what better point to bring it back than to talk about one of the most magical days of my life?

That it took me over three months since the wedding to write this post feels crazy. And yet, and yet – there was a honeymoon leg injury to recover from (a post for another time), The Potion Diaries to edit edit edit, the busiest period of my day job and we moved out of our flat in Battersea to a house in Winchester! Plus, a trip to Granada and Eurodisney… there has been no resting on any laurels around here!

Okay, there’s another motive, too. Early on in our wedding planning process, my sister’s wonderful boyfriend, Evan George, offered to be our videographer on our big day. Having seen some of the amazing videos he’s produced, we jumped all over that offer!! He’d never done a wedding video before, but that didn’t faze us (or, clearly, him). And the results have just come in and they’re… well, I’ll let you see for yourself but for me, he captured every single emotion of the day. It’s pretty special. It was just the reminder I needed to share my thoughts about the day on the blog.

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We also had the lovely Melanie Woodward of One Life Studio as our official wedding photographer. She’s seen us through thick and thin, good and bad – quite literally, as she had to photograph our engagement photos while Lofty had his broken ankle in a cast! I thoroughly recommend her to anyone out there looking for a wedding photographer. All the photos in this post were taken by her. You can imagine it was pretty difficult to pick ones to use!

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We tried not to come into the wedding process with too many preconceptions. We knew we wanted it to be a big day, a chance to bring our friends and family together from across the world to celebrate with us. More than anything, we really wanted the day to be a reflection of us. And it ended up being so much better than we could have imagined. It started with the venue. As soon as we heard that we could have our wedding breakfast/reception at the Great Hall in Winchester – a place we visited together very early on in our relationship and many times since – we were sold. It brought together my love (bordering on obsession) for all things medieval, with a city Lofty had worked in ever since we met. It gave us somewhere special to show our guests who were coming from Canada and beyond. And it had King Arthur’s round table. What more could you ask for?

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As a result, when the day came, I felt incredibly relaxed. This was definitely aided by having my lovely bridesmaids around me, my mum and dad, and my amazing hair and make-up artist Annabel Hornsby! (Seriously, if you’re looking for a MUA, you can’t go wrong with Annabel). I also luckily still loved my dress, which was the very first thing I bought for the wedding! It was by Essense of Australia, and I had found it in NYC, tried it on in Wimbledon and bought it in Ottawa so it was a kind of global purchase. It was everything I had always wanted in a wedding dress – romantic, fitted, structured, with a lovely lace bolero that gave me the option of sleeves, which I could remove in the evening. The veil and headpiece were gifts from my mum, and came from the treasure trove that is the Gillion Million store in Teddington. (I recommend every bride to go there, just to feel beautiful). The bridesmaids dresses were Vera Wang White collection from David’s Bridal.

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Our ceremony, at the beautiful St Peter’s RC Church in Winchester, was so much fun – and I really have to thank Deacon Gerard for making the ceremony so personal and memorable. It was filled with laughter – much like the rest of our day (as I’m sure you can tell by the photographs!). I don’t think the grin slipped from my face for a moment. Our flowers were by Jane Reidy, and I loved my bouquet so much I had it preserved! After the ceremony, we walked up to the Great Hall through the cobbled streets of Winchester. Saving on transport made for some really great memories – it was like having our own parade through the city.

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The Great Hall was perfect, and all credit to the amazing Winchester Council catering team as the food was amazing! I also still dream about our wedding cake, which we cut with a replica of Jon Snow’s sword from GAME OF THRONES (natch). The delicious croquembouche and wedding cake was by the amazing Le Papillion Patisserie in Woking, whom we met at the National Wedding Fair in Earl’s Court. After we went for a tasting there, we gorged ourselves on cake all the way home – it definitely confirmed we made the right choice!

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We danced our first dance to ‘One Day’ by Kiwi band OpShop, a reminder of just how far we’ve come in the six years since we met in a hostel kitchen in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

And now, for the main event, our wedding video by Evan George…

The Wedding of Amy and David from Evan George on Vimeo.

(I recommend watching it in full screen and with the ‘hd’ button on, but there you go!) It includes footage from a DSLR camera, a go pro in my sister’s bouquet and a drone!!

I can’t thank him enough for capturing it so beautifully! <3

My Query Journey

Hi guys!

This blog is to accompany one of the videos on my new writing & publishing #booktube channel. I interviewed my agent Juliet Mushens of The Agency Group and we ended up talking about how I ended up as her client. Part of this story is, of course, the first step for most writers… the dreaded query letter! I’m sharing mine here, from over three years ago now, as an accompaniment to the video, with a little bit of added commentary in italics.

I’d been querying agents on and off for The Oathbreaker’s Shadow since I finished university in 2007. My final push came a few years later, after I’d returned from travelling, set up in the UK and found a new job, and realised it was now or never for this book – otherwise, it was time to move on to something else. I was a bit more savvy about agents, so I targeted around 10 from across the UK & US to query. PFD – where Juliet worked – was not on the list at that time, but they had very little YA epic fantasy on their books. My query success rate was pretty high – I ended up with five out of ten full manuscript requests but equally a few form rejections, so I turned to Twitter (as you do) to have a little moan. The result was that Juliet saw the tweet and suggested that I query her boss at the time. I held out little-to-no hope, as you can see below! I was very self-conscious as Juliet was the only person I queried who knew it was me – I was going out under a pseudonym at the time, so that was nerve-wracking. As a result, a long and rambling query letter followed that is a good example of what NOT to do! Thankfully, the manuscript pages spoke to themselves and Juliet asked for a full.

My query:

Hey Juliet, (AA:This is a pretty casual opening but Juliet & I crossed over briefly at HarperCollins, so I knew her and was querying her boss after her suggestion via Twitter).

I got your message on Twitter but thought I’d e-mail you instead. How are things at PFD?

As you know, I’m on the query roll! I’m querying agents for my novel The Oathbreaker’s Shadow under my pseudonym, but obviously as you know it’s me there’s not really sense in hiding it. I did think about you and PFD but I’m worried that this particular project is too fantasy for Rowan? (AA:Starting off apologising for my book – never a good opening!) But I could be wrong! I’m actually working on a much more properly YA fantasy-romance book at the moment which I’m hoping to have finished for the new year, which I will definitely show to you. (AA:Oh dear! Queries should really focus on the book you want to publish. It’s good to show that you have other ideas but this makes me sound like I’m querying a book I won’t end up writing for another three years!) That book is called Philtre, (AA:which is now The Potion Diaries!) and it’s about a Princess who is poisoned by a poorly mixed love potion and the rivalry between two young potion makers – a young girl from a traditional alchemist family and a boy whose family owns a corporation that produces synthetic elixirs [like a magical GlaxoSmithKline] – as they both try to find the cure to save her.

If you want to get an idea of my writing, I’d be really happy to show you the Oathbreaker manuscript as I know you love fantasy!! I’ve copied my query synopsis below. Then, if you think it might work for her, you can pass on to Rowan – though I totally understand if it’s not really her speciality! (AA:Still so very very apologetic – but I did think that Juliet might like it based on the books she worked on at HarperCollins)

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow synopsis: (AA:What follows below is the more ‘typical’ part of a query, which I sent to other agents when I didn’t have a prior connection)
For fifteen years Raim has worn a single blue string tied in an intricate knot around his wrist. Raim barely thinks about it at all; not since becoming the most promising young archer ever to train for the elite Yun guard and not since his best friend (and the future Khan) Khareh asked him to become his sole Protector. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to Khareh’s, suddenly that string on his wrist is all he can think about – it bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin. The knot contained a promise of its own – and now that promise is broken.

Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.

Raim flees deep into the vast desert to live in Lazar: the colony of exiled oath-breakers. It is there he hopes to learn how to clear his name and return home to keep his promise to Khareh. Except in Lazar, he discovers that his scar from the burnt thread marks the first step on the path to becoming a sage, with the ability to perform feats of magic straight out of legend. The trade-off: he will remain tarnished as an oath-breaker for the rest of his life. Can he forgo his honour for immense power? And even if he did want to clear his name, how can he keep a promise he never even knew he made in the first place? (AA: Apart from a couple of lines, which are a bit spoilery, this ends up being pretty close to the actual blurb for the book, so I consider this a pretty successful query summary!)

Set in a world based heavily on the fascinating, cutthroat and deeply honor-bound culture of medieval, Genghis Khan-era Mongolia, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow will appeal to readers of Peter Ward’s Dragon Horse and younger readers of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series. (AA: A little positioning doesn’t hurt! and shows that you know your market.)

All the best,
Amy

**

I hope that seeing this helps some people out there, even though I know that my query experience wasn’t exactly typical! And of course – I did have the benefit of having known Juliet from her previous position. But I could never have imagined that that very apologetic query would lead to Juliet offering representation. Once she did, I remember being very excited at the prospect of our careers growing together. Juliet really impressed me by being as hungry as I was and I wanted someone with that ambition and passion and drive on my team. I told the other agents who had fulls that I was signing with her, and the rest is history…

YouTube… BookTube… A new vlogging era!

My computer officially hates the word ‘vlog’. Whenever I type it, it changes it to ‘blog’ or in the case of the title, it changed ‘vlogging’ to ‘flogging’.

Well, my computer is going to have to get used to it, as I’ve decided to try booktubing! BookTube is a vibrant community of passionate vloggers on YouTube who all talk about their favourite subject… books! I’m going to try and upload once a week minimum, so please do check out my channel and subscribe if you like what you see!

Here are my first two videos to get a taster:

A new book, a new name, a new deal… it’s all change around here

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Any regular readers to the blog might notice that a few things have changed around here! For one, I got married (whoop! – and bigger post to come on that, I promise!) and I decided to take my husband’s name. I’m now Amy Alward, in most things – the big exception being for THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW, which of course is coming out in the USA in February 2015 from Flux books! So there will be plenty of McCulloch-ing still to come.

But that’s not the ONLY change. I’m so unbelievably pleased and excited to say that I have a new book deal for three books, starting with THE POTION DIARIES, which will be coming out from Simon & Schuster Children’s in Summer 2015. Rights have sold in the UK & Commonwealth, USA, Canada, Germany and Brazil – all of which is incredibly surreal.

These books represent a bit of a departure for me. Not only will they be published under ‘Amy Alward’, but they are very different in style and tone to The Oathbreaker’s Shadow and The Shadow’s Curse. Just another reason why I felt a name change might be appropriate. In fact, I might still write under Amy McCulloch again, especially if I return to pure epic fantasy.

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Everything about this book deal feels different. I’m no longer a debut novelist – if anything, I felt the pressure even more this time around. When you are debut, you have never tested the waters – every step in the process is new and exciting. This time around, I came into the process with a more experienced head on my shoulders, but if I thought that would lessen the nerves, I was sorely disappointed.

Some writers at this stage in their career sell on a synopsis or a partial – it’s hard to find the time to write a whole new book, especially when you’re under contract for existing ones. But for me, I always knew I was going to finish this book before showing it to Juliet or anyone else. Part of the reason is because the idea has been kicking around for so long that I wanted to make sure it stood on its own feet. The idea for The Potion Diaries actually came from a tweet, proving that sometimes good things do come from being distracted on social media! And I mention The Potion Diaries (which at that time was called Philtre - the old English word for ‘love potion’) in my initial query to Juliet way back in 2010.  Juliet and I are going to do a ‘dissecting the query’ post sometime in the near future, so look out for that!

But the other reason is because this was something so completely different to what I was already writing. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer; to stretch my skills and experiment with a different voice. Writing in the first person was difficult, and I struggled with finding the right tone for my protagonist. But once I did, it ended up being the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. The words flowed, and I think it shows on the page.

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All this is to say that when I finally finished The Potion Diaries, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I loved it, but it was so very different. Would it be considered ‘off brand’? But a very wise author once told me never to let yourself be typecast, and so I sent it off to Juliet anyway, who read the initial draft with a huge amount of enthusiasm. I think she was surprised by how different it was but – because she is a superstar – she took it in her stride and immediately saw the potential. She gave me very detailed edit notes and I set to work. When I sent back the revised draft, Juliet had her assistant, the wonderful Sarah, read alongside her. The verdict was more than I could hope for – they both absolutely loved the revision, and it was time to send it out into the world.

Like I said, if I thought the experience of being out on submission would be any easier the second time around, I was wrong. It was as agonising and nerve-wracking as being a debut. But I got lucky, and the book found a home with a team who love it even more than I could have hoped for. They completely understand the book and my characters, their passion and creativity just blew me away, and I am so excited to work with them on this publication.

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So what’s The Potion Diaries about? The pictures I’ve been sharing are from a mini potions shop that my parents bought me as a publication present, and it is oh so appropriate! It’s about a Princess (more Kate Middleton than Rapunzel) who gets poisoned by a faulty love potion. It’s about an apprentice alchemist who dreams of researching and mixing new cures for a big corporate potions company (think a magical GlaxoSmithKline) but instead is tied down by loyalty to her family’s apothecary. It’s about mermaids and unicorns and abominable snowmen. But mostly it’s about a girl struggling to forge her own path in a world that seems to have it already laid out for her.

Also – and I think this is important – although this is part of a planned three-book series featuring the same characters and world, The Potion Diaries stands on its own. And I can’t wait for you all to read it.

Here’s the official press release!

Amy Alward moves to S&S with ‘Happy Hunger Games’ series

 18th September 2014, London – Simon and Schuster Children’s Books today announced the acquisition of The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward, who also writes under her maiden name, Amy McCulloch.

Elv Moody, Fiction Editorial Director and Jane Griffiths, Commissioning Editor at S&S Children’s UK, acquired World English rights from Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group in a six figure pre-emptive deal. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers will be publishing The Potion Diaries in the US and Canada. Rights have also sold in Germany and Brazil so far, with interest around the world.

The Potion Diaries follows the adventures of Samantha Kemi who harbours a secret dream of going to university to study potions, and then becoming a mixer for a major alchemy corporation. She’s ordinary – she has absolutely no magical talent – but her instinct for putting together a potion is second to none.

When the city’s princess is poisoned by a faulty love potion, representatives from prominent alchemists, including Sam, are tasked with finding a cure. There’s one main condition: the potion must be made entirely without synthetic material. This is the chance of a lifetime, and Sam is sent across the globe in the hunt for the freshest ingredients, including pearl from a mermaid, hair from an abominable and a unicorn tail. But it seems that someone is determined to make sure the Kemi family don’t complete the hunt, and soon Sam discovers that the stakes are higher than she ever thought possible.

Moody says, ‘It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything that feels as fresh as this. With pulse-pounding thrills, a contest to save a princess (who is much more Kate Middleton than Rapunzel) takes place in a whirlwind of paparazzi and social media – with just a touch of perfect romantic chemistry.’

Alward adds, ‘The Potion Diaries has possessed its own special alchemy right from the start: the spark of the idea came from a chance tweet, which was then blended with many months spent writing in the darkest hours of the night, and now, with the discovery of the perfect publishing partner in Simon & Schuster, it is ready to be bottled and served. From the moment we received their stunning pitch, I knew they would be the right home for The Potion Diaries, and I couldn’t be happier to be working with S&S.’

The Potion Diaries will be published by Simon and Schuster in Summer 2015 as a paperback original.

Amy Alward is a 28-year-old Canadian author living in London where she now fits writing around her work as Editorial Director at Puffin. In 2013, she was listed as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars. Her debut fantasy adventure novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, was published in 2013 under the name Amy McCulloch and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award for best UK debut children’s book in 2014. Amy is passionate about reaching out to her loyal fanbase and is keen to recruit new fans through The Potion Diaries.

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Where to find me! Loncon3 events

I can hardly believe that LonCon3 is here – so exciting! Here’s my schedule for the weekend… please come and say hi if you’re around.

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Kill the Parents

Friday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 1 (ExCeL)

The extreme measures we take to remove responsible adults in order to empower children in stories — whether it’s J. K. Rowling starting poor Harry off as a pseudo-orphan, or C. S. Lewis exiling an entire family to the country, or Suzanne Collins forcing Katniss Everdeen to become the adult in her mother’s own house… Panelists will discuss the importance or lack thereof of parents in YA stories.

Todd McCaffrey (M), Leigh Bardugo , Sarah Maas, Amy McCulloch

Autographing 3 – Amy McCulloch

Friday 13:30 – 15:00, Autographing Space (ExCeL)

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The Trouble With Teens

Friday 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

What are some of the big obstacles associated with writing a teen-centric story within an adult-centric world? What dangers lay in wait for the unprepared first time YA writer? What do young adult readers expect to see in their stories and how will you know if you’ve gone off target in the writing process?

Julia Rios (M) , Suzanne van Rooyen , Amy McCulloch, Eric Senabre, Janet Edwards

Kaffeeklatsch

Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Amy McCulloch, Amal El-Mohtar

Generations of Genre

Sunday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

For one reader, “traditional fantasy” is pre-Tolkienian, pre-genre, sui-generis works; for another, it’s the pattern of story exemplified by Forgotten Realms and David Eddings. Equally, for one reader The Hunger Games is a young adult dystopia, while for another it’s science fiction. Does every generation invent its own reading terminology? Can the evolution of such terms be mapped onto changing demographics — is there such a thing as GenX fantasy, or Baby Boomer science fiction? And do any terms retain their currency, and describe common ground across generations?

Andy Sawyer (M), Maureen Kincaid Speller , S. J. Groenewegen , Amy McCulloch, David Henley