White Pine Awards 2015!

On Tuesday I had the IMMENSE pleasure of attending the White Pine Awards at the Festival of Trees at the Harbourfront Centre, Toronto. The Oathbreaker’s Shadow was nominated as one of the ten Canadian YA books on the list. I’d flown over especially for the event, as I’d heard it was one of the most fun book festivals in Canada (if not anywhere!). And I was not disappointed. I loved every second of my day, and it was amazing to meet so many passionate and devoted readers.

A few of the readers I met at the Festival of Trees!

A few of the readers I met at the Festival of Trees!

The White Pine is the oldest age category of books, and I was up against a superstar list of Canadian YA titles. I’d read only two of the books on the list, apart from mine (Teresa Toten’s marvellous and heart-warming story about OCD teens, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, and the kick-ass, action-packed RUSH by Eve Silver) but I quickly got to downloading the others onto my Kindle. This was a great year for showcasing new talent on the Canadian YA scene, as a few of the authors were like me: debut authors, on the list for their first books!

The full list of White Pine nominees!

The full list of White Pine nominees!

The awards are voted upon by the students, who have to have read a minimum of 5/10 books to be eligible. That requires a lot of devotion – especially from high schoolers, who have so much on their plate already. So I am endlessly thankful to any student who was dedicated enough to read and vote. You ROCK.

With my high school teacher-turned-librarian friend Mme Charron!

With my high school teacher-turned-librarian friend Mme Charron!

It was also amazing to have some students from my old high school come and visit me! Hello Immaculata students! And accompanying them was their librarian Mme Charron, who also taught me Phys-ed when I was a student there. It was so nice to have some hometown support.

The ceremony itself

The ceremony itself

And that brings me to the very best bit of the day: getting to meet so many readers. I don’t think there has ever been a gathering of so many people who had read The Oathbreaker’s Shadow in one place! And although I didn’t win, I had the absolute best time. For the ceremony itself, I walked in with two students from Sir John A McDonald High, one who introduced me and another who held my sign. RUSH was the overall winner, and I was so pleased for my wonderful friend Eve Silver. If you haven’t read her books yet, GET ON THAT RIGHT NOW.

With Eve Silver, Jan Andrews and Heather Smith after our panel

With Eve Silver, Jan Andrews and Heather Smith after our panel

I then did a WORLDBUILDING 101 panel with Eve, Jan Andrews (THE SILENT SUMMER OF KYLE MCGINLEY) and Heather Smith (BAYGIRL). The feedback I had was that it went really well, especially as we got to showcase so many different styles of world-building, from the truly fantastical (me) to the emotional and the real.

Signing away, in the chilly weather!

Signing away, in the chilly weather!

Doesn't get more 'Toronto' than signing underneath the CN Tower

Doesn’t get more ‘Toronto’ than signing underneath the CN Tower

My last event was a signing. I always get nervous at signings (especially ones that are scheduled to last a whole hour) because come on… it can be embarrassing to sit there while no one comes to visit! But to my surprise, there were a few students there when I arrived, waiting to be first! I signed solidly for almost an hour, which is pretty amazing. I was stunned, but it was the same for all the authors: we just happened to be in the midst of the most engaged audience, who had all read our books. It was pretty fantastic.

Being interviewed by the OLA in the green room

Being interviewed by the OLA in the green room

Thanks so much to the OLA for nominating me, and to the students for voting! I had a blast.

The main event - the Festival of Trees!

The main event – the Festival of Trees!

Meeting Morgan Rhodes (author of the AWESOME Falling Kingdoms) and Eve Silver (White Pine winner, with RUSH!)

Meeting Morgan Rhodes (author of the AWESOME Falling Kingdoms) and Eve Silver (White Pine winner, with RUSH!)

Hidden amongst the Forest of Reading

Hidden amongst the Forest of Reading

And for anyone who loved THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW, don’t forget that the sequel (and conclusion of the story) is out now: THE SHADOW’S CURSE!

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!

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…

Game of Thrones… for teens

(This is a repost from my Tumblr)

With all the success of fantasy fiction recently, we’ve all heard the ‘Game of Thrones for teens’ marketing line applied to YA epic fantasy. But which books really stand up to that marker? The truth is, most books can’t match the complete depth and breadth of A Song of Ice and Fire but many do have elements that will appeal to lovers of GRRM. Here’s my take on the best ‘Game of Thrones for teens’ books and who they’d appeal to:

If you love… Tyrion Lannister. A flawed hero who steals every scene he’s in.

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half

You’ll want to read… HALF A KING by Joe Abercrombie

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

If you love… The Westerosi political intrigue. The battle between the houses in a rich and engrossing medieval Europe-esque world.

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You’ll want to read… FALLING KINGDOMS by Morgan Rhodes

In a land where magic has been forgotten but peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest is simmering.

If you love… the Khaleesi and the Dothraki. Swords and sorcery in a medieval Mongolian-inspired setting.

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Together

You’ll want to read… THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW and THE SHADOW’S CURSE by Amy McCulloch

When a young warrior is wrongfully accused of treachery against the heir to the khan, he is exiled into the desert where he must learn how to survive – and clear his name.

If you love… Arya Stark. Kick-ass young female assassin on a journey all of her own.

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You’ll want to read… THRONE OF GLASS by Sarah J Maas

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince.

If you love… beyond the Wall. Icy intrigue and mysterious supernatural creatures lurking in the woods.

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You’ll want to read… SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, crawling with monsters that feast on human flesh, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka. A lavish world, with a Russian-inspired setting.

If you love… Brienne. A fiercely talented female warrior trapped in a man’s world, with her own twisted sense of honour

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You’ll want to read… GRACELING by Kristin Cashore

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

If you love… dragons. Just give me more and more dragons.

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You’ll want to read… Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

The kingdom of Goredd is populated by humans and by dragons who fold themselves into a human form. Though they live alongside each other, the peace between them is uneasy. But when a member of the royal family is murdered, and the crime appears to have been committed by a dragon the peace and treaty between both worlds is seriously threatened . . .

If you want… George to explore the rest of the world he’s created and learn more about Yi Ti, the Jade Sea and Essos

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You’ll want to read… PROPHECY by Ellen Oh

A superb YA epic fantasy inspired by ancient Korea. Intrigue and mystery, ancient lore and action-packed fantasy come together in this heart-stopping first book in a trilogy.

If you want… to read a fantasy that tackles a subject even George hasn’t addressed (yet)

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You’ll want to read… PANTOMIME by Laura Lam

The heartachingly beautiful tale of intersex youth Micah and his struggle for identity and love, set within the confines of a magical travelling circus.

The publishing ebb and flow… & a paperback cover!

Being a published author is funny business. Sometimes it feels like there are some big lulls where not much is going on book-wise (except the writing bit of it… that bit goes on all the time!), and then things step up a few gears and it’s go go go all the time! March has definitely revved into high gear, so here’s to keeping that momentum going right the way through paperback publication of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow (May 22, 2014) and the brand new release of The Shadow’s Curse (3 July, 2014 which you can pre-order now, hint hint)! 

Those who follow me on Twitter (hello! I’m over at @amymcculloch) or on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/amymccullochbooks/) will know that there’ve been some pretty exciting developments recently. One of the best was receiving this brilliant endorsement from Jonathan Stroud, author of The Bartimaeus Sequence and Lockwood & Co.:

“Exotic lands, cool magic and high adventure – The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has it all. Set in a stunningly realized world where broken promises literally come to life, it’s the most compelling new fantasy I’ve read in years.” – Jonathan Stroud

I‘m so blown away by his kind words, to say the least.

Next came the news that I’ve been nominated for the Canadian Library Association‘s YA Book Award! I’m on the list with the amazing Governor General Award-winning Teresa Toten, so it’s great company. I did my volunteering hours in high school at the Sunnyside branch of the Ottawa Public Library system, and I’m so appreciative of all the work librarians do to keep people reading. 

And finally… I have the final version of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow UK paperback! 

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I love the new border – I hope it will really jump off the shelves! 

#Inspiration series… Travelling, part 2

Travel has always formed a big part of my life. My parents were not the sort to leave their children at home, or who avoided long travel until we got older, and we often went to distant places together as a family. They trained me well – even now, I can’t get on moving transport without falling asleep almost immediately (it makes it awkward on those long tube journeys home, though).

So two things were prevalent in my life: travel, and carpets. The latter won’t be a surprise if you’ve been following the blog, but for those of you who don’t know, my parents own an oriental carpet store in Ottawa, Canada, and when I was a child he worked as the carpet buyer for Harrods, and later Bentalls department stores. As a result, my sister and I spent a lot of time playing hide and seek through stacks of carpets. And, yes, dealing with all the requisite high school jokes later on.

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Me and my sister, hanging out at my parent’s store

There’s no doubt that accompanying my parents on trips while I was young shaped and influenced me as a writer. One of the most influential trips I went on came in 1995, when I was 9, and we had the privilege of being invited to a huge, 10-day wedding celebration in New Delhi, India.

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At a Hindu wedding in New Dehli, 1995

The wedding was lavish and spectacular, and my sister and I both loved dressing up for the occasion in our saris chosen especially for the colour of each particular day. But India also equalled enormous culture shock. It was the first time I can vividly remember witnessing extreme poverty: we were driving in the car from the hotel to the wedding venue, and when we were stopped in traffic, dozens of children surrounded the car, banging on the windows and begging. The driver just pulled away. After that I remember being shocked into stunned silence – partly fear, but also partly curiosity. I asked my parents why children had to live like that. Children ask the most difficult questions, I feel.

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All the bangles you could ask for!

But there were other abiding memories too – the wedding was also a riot of colour and ritual and amazing food. I wore bangles up to my elbows, and had henna designs drawn on my hands. I managed to irritate the woman doing mine, and so I was bestowed a (what I remember to be) hideous henna pattern, with thick blobs like a chessboard, where everyone else had delicate vines and flowers. The jealousy still stings.

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During the mendhi session, having henna painted on my hands

We managed to see some of Northern India too – taking the train down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. There, we spotted snake charmers lining the street up towards the beautiful marble building. I was obsessed with snakes at the time (so much so, that even now when it came to killing a snake in a scene in my book, I couldn’t do it!) and so I watched on, intrigued.

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Okay, maybe I look a little bit scared… But look at that rocking jumper

We also visited places like the Red Fort, which no doubt subtly planted the seeds in my mind of a vast, red castle, surrounded by heat and sand.

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My sister and me at the Red Fort, New Delhi

But no greater moment stayed with me longer than the main wedding day, where we walked alongside a procession of musicians, dancers and – wait for it – elephants, as the groom rode astride a beautiful white stallion covered in red and gold cloth. There were garlands of flowers everywhere, all in deep, rich colours: marigold, crimson and indigo. The bride was absolutely stunning, and both my sister and I watched with mouths agape throughout the entire ceremony.

When I look at the below picture, I can picture exactly a scene from The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, right near the end – so I won’t spoil it by saying too much more. It makes me wonder just how much I was influenced by what I had seen as a child, and why it was so natural for me to want to set my book in that particular environment. I’m going to be exploring this even more in a later post, but for now, I leave you with a painted elephant…

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Beautiful painted elephant during the Hindu wedding