Today I am delighted to welcome Julie Pike to the blog to talk about her debut, ‘The Last Spell Breather.’ Having heard so many wonderful things about this book, I decided to save it for a time when I could totally savour it rather than read it in quick snatches here and there. So with no expectation of reading the whole book, I sat down and before I knew it three hours had passed and I’d completely devoured it, captivated by this believable world filled with spells and magic. Rayne is a reluctant Spell Breather, no matter how hard she practices things always get in a muddle and she can’t bear the responsibility of keeping the village safe. Instead she longs to be at school with her friends, enjoying a care free existence. Her life becomes more intolerable when her mother has to leave Penderin after a mysterious stranger gets a glimpse into their secret world. Rayne is forced to confront her fears and embrace her role as Spell Breather, but one clumsy move causes a catastrophic chain of events. Can Rayne find a way to save her village from the monsters that threaten its very existence.
The first thing that struck me about this book was the originality of the premise, the notion of spell breathing is really intriguing and gives an interesting twist to this magical element. We feel a real resistance from Rayne, who at only twelve years old has this immense responsibility laid on her shoulders that she can see no escape from. Yet when she is put to the test after the disastrous incident Rayne soon discovers a fierceness and incredibly bravery inside when she is tested to her very limits. I love how the world-building seems effortless, Julie transports us to this rich and lush place that appears before our eyes as we set off on this thrilling and dangerous adventure with Rayne. Ultimately it is a story of friendship, courage and the power of believing in yourself, a truly impressive debut. Superb characterisation meets sublime storytelling in this magical and delightful tale.
To celebrate the release of this wonderful book, I have a special Q & A with Julie and her editor Liz Cross.
Q&A – The Last Spell Breather
Julie – Where did the idea for The Last Spell Breather come from?
The idea grew from the seed of a writing prompt given to me on an Arvon week in Devon. The course was tutored by authors Steve Voake and Gillian Cross. It was a marvellous week, playing with words and learning story craft. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Steve hosted a writing workshop in the old barn called ‘Gothic Pick ‘n Mix’.
From a list of settings, props and characters, we chose one of each and were tasked to write a gothic story. I chose: a lost girl, steps inside a tower, and a fox fur. The girl told me her name was Rayne, and the fox told me his name was Frank. She tried using her magic skills, but didn’t know how. So, she draped Frank around her shoulders and set off up the steps in search of her mother.
Liz – What attracted you to The Last Spell Breather?
My first encounter with the story was in the Bath Spa MA anthology. At that time it was called The Mud Book, and I remember being quite intrigued by it. Then I met Julie at the anthology launch event and instantly liked her – she talked so interestingly about her book, and about the authors she admired, and I came away with a really strong impression that she’d be someone who would be a pleasure to work with. That just meant that when she sent me a draft of her book a little while later, I was really receptive and knew it would be worth spending some time on. As for the book itself, I was attracted by the accessible and compelling voice, the interesting magic system, and the quite classic yet original feel of the book.
Julie- How long did it take before you initially started to write The Last Spell Breather to publication day?
The first words were written in October 2012. The last edits were completed December 2018. The early years were spent learning how to write, so the plot was slow to develop. The biggest stumbling block was devising the magic system. I wanted the reader to know how it worked so they could follow Rayne into danger and worry if she would succeed. My breakthrough came when I put a call out on the SCBWI Facebook page for help with magic systems, which led me to Brandon Sanderson’s excellent essays.
The first draft Liz Cross saw was during the summer of 2017. She liked it, but said (and I knew this too), it needed more work.
Liz – Is it usual for a publishing house to suggest edits before acquisition? What were the main edits you could see were needed before making an offer?
This really varies from book to book, and depends on all sorts of things. Do the changes you’re suggesting feel essential to the book really working? Are the changes structural, do they relate to specific events, or to the underlying themes, or to the narrative voice? How confident do you feel as an editor that the changes are likely to be made successfully? In the case of The Last Spell Breather, I could see there was something really special there, but it felt as if there was a lot of work to be done on bringing the characters’ arcs and the themes to the fore, and giving the story the power and shape I thought it could have. It felt too big a risk to commit to publication before exploring with Julie how this might be done. Happily, she was fully prepared to dive back in and see where she could take the story.
Julie – How did you approach the edits? What were the main changes you made from the original submission to the final draft?
Liz’s edits gave me a huge boost of confidence and narrowed my attention to the specifics of what wasn’t working. She asked questions about why certain things were so, and whether I could think of other ways to achieve a better result. Ways that led me to deepen my characters and bolster the themes.
After three months of mulling over our conversation I formed a clear plan of what I had to do, which involved re-writing the beginning (again) AND re-writing the end (fortunately, the middle didn’t sag).
The biggest edit was back in the magic system. The original ending Liz saw didn’t have any magic in it. I’d become hooked on the hearsay that magic wasn’t supposed to solve a character’s problem. And this is true, EXCEPT when the character’s arc is all about them accepting that they can perform magic. Eureka! When I finally understood that (after Liz had nudged me twice) everything fell into place.
Liz – What was your reaction to the final draft? What were the main differences that stood out from Julie’s original submission?
Honestly – I was absolutely blown away by the final draft. Julie had taken on board everything we’d talked about, and really thought through how she wanted to take it forward. She hadn’t tried to fix things with little tweaks here and there, and hadn’t tried to get away with the minimum amount of work possible – she’d plunged right in and got to the heart of everything. It was such a pleasure to read.
Julie – What are your top tips for aspiring writers?
Keep going. Creating something new, from scratch, is hard. So many established authors talk about this. Stories don’t come with a ‘how to’ guide. When it comes down to it, it’s just you and your story, inching forward in the darkness, one scene at a time. If I’m worrying, ‘I don’t know how to do this’, then I reassure myself I must be creating along the right lines.
Reading author blogs, going to their events and taking onboard feedback from trusted critique partners is invaluable. Last month I was at the Winchester Writer’s Festival where Katherine Rundell talked about story craft. She talked about transferring The Explorer from manuscript to screenplay. Because films are expensive to shoot (say $80 million for 80 scenes), she now asks herself, ‘is this scene worth a million dollars?’
Liz – What advice would you give writers to help them stand out in submissions? What are the qualities you are looking for when deciding whether or not to publish a book?
We’re looking for books that we think will delight and entertain children and – crucially – that we think we’ll be able to get into their hands widely. We’re looking for books that have a clear point of interest or point of difference, that we can confidently shout about – and we’re looking for authors that we can work with collaboratively, over the long term. To stand out in submissions I guess my best advice would be – have a clear sense of what your story is about, and how you can communicate that most pithily and enticingly. Be open to feedback without losing that clear sense of what you want your work to be. And don’t give up!
Julie grew up on a council estate, nestled between the forests and foothills of the Welsh Valleys. She is passionate about adventure stories, and volunteers in local schools and libraries in Dorset, helping children find stories that excite them. She is passionate about real-life adventures too, and has crawled inside the great pyramid of Giza, travelled to the peak of Kilimanjaro, and camped on the Great Wall of China in a lightning storm.
Why not join in with the rest of the blog tour for more reviews and guest posts.
Thank you to Julie for inviting me to join in with the blog tour and to OUP for sending me a gifted proof copy of this fabulous book. ‘The Last Spell Breather,’ is available to buy now online and from any good bookshop.