The Last Viking Returns

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Evolution of a scene: the rough sketches for ‘Big Trouble’


final rough on the left, finished version on the right

There’s a scene in The Last Viking Returns called ‘Big Trouble’ where Fafnir the dragon is finally revealed in all his terrible glory. The scene went through a lot of changes during development, so I thought I’d share them here.

It’s a lot of pics though so I’ll share them in two parts. This post will show you the roughs, and next week’s post will show how the final illustration was put together.

(And if you haven’t read the book yet, there’s a few SPOILERS below.)

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The Cutting Room Floor / Outtakes


 James suggested this blog, but I wasn’t so sure. It is bad enough putting your carefully selected words out there in the magical world of Children’s Book Land for every reader and their unicorn to read after the words have been polished, proofed, repolished, endlessly discussed, reedited and edited again. But raw, just as they came out of the tips of our fingers? Shudder! In the very distinct danger that I will end up looking like an illiterate fool existing on the edge of lunacy, or at least in some sort of altered reality, here are some of the scenes and paragraphs they were, often very wisely, dropped.
James can get away with it. He’s an artist, so all he needs to do is cut his ear off, or something equally eccentric, and people will nod wisely and think, artistic temperament, work in progress, isn’t the structure behind the ink interesting. Me, I just look like I have a poor relationship with grammar.

Occasionally, James would say, “Come on, you can do funnier than that,” goading me into producing a better joke, and sometimes he would just add in the better joke himself.
More often Cate Sutherland, our editor, would simply highlight a sentence in red and leave if for me to think about (reconsider) and, occasionally, I’d think of a better subplot, but rarely, as I tend to think every word I write is worth a Pulitzer Prize, at least initially. The short passage of time usually brings me crashing back to my more humble senses.

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So, in no particular order, here are some parts that never made it in the 32 pages of either The Last Viking nor The Last Viking Returns, which you can see after September 1st.

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Sunday School? What kids go to Sunday School anymore? That had to go even though I really liked the reference to Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley. reference.

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The tame bullying here seemed out of proportion to the Gods’ retribution at the end. The nastiness needed revving up somewhat.





On the other hand, the bullies hanging poor little Knut up by his ankles was way over the top. We could imagine wholesale nightmares among the Kindy kids of Australia.

These bullies are far too frightening. By not seeing their faces, we do not know how old they are. They could be teenagers, or even be Hell’s Angels… or worse.

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ImageImageThe fire-fighters were dropped in the paddling pool / funeral sequence as they added more characters to the scene and so distracted from Knut and Nan & Pop.


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ImageThis is the initial storyboard. As you can see, the text almost swamps it. The writer may have forgotten the first rule of Picture Books 101. Let the pictures tell the story when possible.


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A 3 o’clock in the morning addition after a wild dream not even connected to the story.

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The numbers down the side are me deciding on the page breaks. I have no idea what the Stalag 13 reference is on the top. The soon-to-be-Runes along the bottom read Why are you reading this (?)
I would also have loved to have seen James’ version of a Bunyip mentioned in the last paragraphs.

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This is a prime example of the editor earning her fabulous salary. Well, it would be except Cate is in the book trade where the words fabulous and salary are never, ever found in the same sentence.

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And this following page is a section of The Last Viking Returns that did not make it to the final version as Knut didn’t quite reach the graveyard on his quest before he ran out of pages.
The 32-page picture book rule is strictly enforced across the book industry, unless you are Shaun Tan and you have just created The Arrival.

Pages 22-23.
Scene : The Recreated Village.
In the graveyard among the Runestone grave stones.
Carved on the rune gravestones are:
Here lies Harald Greentooth. He became Christian and believed he could walk on water. Seems he could not.
He lies Eric the Black. He pillaged the wrong village. Now he is plundering down under.
He lies Bjorn Berserker. He thought he was loved by everyone. He got that wrong.
This grave is saved for Sven Svenson. He will be using it just as soon as his wife catches up with him.

It changes into a dark, Tolkeinesque forest full of scary long sinister shadows. Brrrr! Scary characters straight from Lord of the Rings / Boewulf surround Knut. Knut is in the graveyard with Rune gravestones and.
Knut is all alone in Viking World, frantically searching for his twins. He was responsible for them, and now he has failed.
‘I am not lost,’ he says, trying to convince himself. ‘I am not worried. I am brave. I am Knut, a fierce Viking, afraid of nothing and no one. Nan and Pop and the twins are the ones who are lost.’
The shadows of the ogres and the building grow bigger and take on shapes.
Knut takes out his sword.
‘I will be fine,’ continues Knut, bravely. ‘I will be. I must be brave and find the twins.’

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This is another scene that did not make the cut in TLV II as it is too much of a horror story, though I may try reworking it if we do TLV Three.

Later, Nan and Knut are back in the kitchen making the pirate outfit, while Pop is reading the Norseman Times.
‘Closing our library? ‘That’s what they think!’ rants Nan. ‘Philistines! Fools!’
‘But there’s nothing you can do,’ says Pop. ‘That ICE Corporation is a world-wide giant, and we’re too little. What chance do we have?’
‘That’s nonsense, James! Of course we can do something. Remember who your ancestors were! They were afraid of nothing and no one!’
‘Just like me!’ thinks Knut, excitedly.
‘Go and make some banners, Pop. Josh will help, won’t you, Josh? And get some chains.
6. ‘We’re going to stand up to these creeps. Remember the sixties peace marches! The equal pay for women protests!’ declares Nan. We’re not too old to do it all over again!’
7.Outside the library small children are wailing and lamenting, and looking pitiful.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ says Sam, the Children’s Librarian, ‘but story-time has been cancelled. Forever!’

8. Nan chains herself to the library railings, holding her umbrella up like a sword.



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Coming Up with a Decent Title

Deciding  on the title for our new book took some effort.  A good title has to give  a hint at what the book is about, but at the same time, be obscure enough to have a little mystery about it. That was my theory anyway.  Originally, I had wanted to call it Son of  The Last Viking, like the Saturday matinee movies I used to watch back in Narrogin when I was a kid. Son of Zorro, Son of Captain Blood and  Son of Frankenstein all came to mind, but, obviously, that couldn’t work, as the story takes place two years later, not a whole generation into the future.


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The Last Beserker?


I was just send this fabulous photo of Toby by his proud grandmother, Margaret Eaton. Toby is the five year old son of multi-award winning author of stacks of great novels, Tony Eaton, and his lovely wife Imogin. Margaret  is a curator at  the Fremantle Literature Centre who have been fabulous supporters of me from when my first book was launched there twenty years ago, and of James and I and The Last Viking from way before the day it was launched at the centre during the wildest storm anyone can remember. James is even away in the Kimberley region at this very moment  on a Literature Centre sponsored  tour of schools in remote areas.

Below is Margaret’s charming note that came with photo.

Hi Norm,

 Thought you would like to meet the latest Viking to join the band. It is our grandson Toby, Tony and Imogen’s wee one. He has the book read to him each night and he made this great costume with mummy over the weekend. Tony’s contribution was the head wear! He does not seem fussed that it was Wolverine and not Josh thus attired, I shall let him wear the real deal when he visits later this year. He is very proud of the fact that the shield says ‘Toby’  in Viking.

Roll on the sequel!


And as for the sequel that Margaret mentions,  let me tell you, IT LOOKS FABULOUS. All the sketches are in place, and even the words have got past our eagle-eyed editor, Cate Sutherland, without too much slashing and burning.  James has let his imagination really rip and has come up with some stunning images, and I can hardly wait to see it in its full glory. Onward to Viking World.


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Little Knut Discovers the Knutnited States of America.

One of the problems with writing picture books, I reckon, is the 32 page size limit imposed on them by the size of paper folds. A sheet of A1 paper folded in half, then half again, then one more time, equals 8 sheets of A4. Stitch 4 bundles of A4 together and you have 32 pages, the standard size of a picture book.  If you are onto a good story and the ideas are flowing thick and fast, then you can use up all the available space really quickly. Being a picture book , however, you have to save some space for the pictures, and preferably lots and lots of space if your illustrator is half decent and is on the same wavelength as you. Unfortunately for what I thought were my well chosen words, James is more than half decent and so he needed lots and lots of white space to let his talent run free.

In this first daft you can see I was ready to head off on several tangents that appealed to my sense of adventure. It was pointed out to me later on when the plot was coming together, by Cate Sutherland, Fremantle Press’s children’s publisher , that the tangents tended to detract from the core of the story. That is the reason that Knut setting off in his head to discover America and trade with the Indians came to a sticky end.  Ironic really, as that is precisely what happened to many of the Vikings that first set foot on Newfoundland. The Native Americans didn’t like them one little bit and fired a multitude arrows in their general direction.

The same thing happened to the scene when Knut and his imaginary band of hooligans decide to attack and burn the monasteries of Northern England. We cut it short and let the reader imagine the consequences of a full-on Viking raid on a monastery full of placid, defenceless monks. Showing monks murdered or being led away to the slave markets and their houses set on fire probably wasn’t all that advisable if we wanted Knut to remain a sympathetic character. Our audience might be a bit young for anti-heroes.

Another long scene that bit the dust was where Josh declares he is going become a follower of the Norse Gods.  I originally had him announce to his Nan, ‘I’m off to become a Pagan.’ Nan looks over her glasses and says sternly, ‘Over my dead body,’ and drags him by his ear down the street to the Sunday School to meet the Vicar, who we based on Dawn French, the Vicar of Dibley.  There were two problems with this. Firstly, we didn’t want to set up a competition between the Pagans and the Christians in a book for children and where a lot of the customers are likely to be Christian libraries. That battle was fought 900 years ago and the Christians won, with Scandinavia converting to Christianity around 1100AD. The second reason is that hardly any kids go to Sunday School anymore. We could just image modern readers asking, ‘Sunday what?’

I often say it is so much easier writing novels where the only constraint on the length and number of words is the boredom threshold of the editor. If you can keep her interest up to when the hero is hanging from his finger nails from a two hundred metre  high ledge,  then you can continue, but the minute the story starts to lag is the time to cut it short.   Like about now.


Ominous Weather

My Working with Children card, designed by our government to protect the little darlings we writers and illustrators are talking to in class and at festivals, is okay for illustrators, but writers tend to be, by the nature of their profession, a bunch of half-mad professional liars, and the card is not going to protect your impressionable young minds from the lies of manic children’s book writers, especially this one.  And, unfortunately, much against my better judgement, I can feel untruthfulness becoming a habit.

For instance, I told a group of Year 8s at Bunbury Catholic College yesterday that the Viking wench in the picture was my girlfriend. (What’s a wench? – you try explaining it after you’ve said it!) It was obviously a joke, as what girlfriend would go about dressed like that these days?  Okay, no need to answer Frane’ … but a huge percentage of the kids instantly believed me. It wasn’t until Kathy Hogan, the librarian sitting down the back, burst out laughing that the kids began to doubt me.

My other slip-up was at All Saints Festival where, in the chapel, for God’s sake,  I announced that  being a writer is fabulous because you get to invent worlds, cities, towns and people and you get to command them and push them about to your will. You play with their lives. It is just like being God, I said. Well, it hasn’t rained in Perth in six months, but at that exact instant, outside, a huge peal of thunder sounded. Gulp! One more crack from me and it might have started hailing Marys.

And I was probably right to be a little wary considering God is probably not too keen on me and James at present, in view of an earlier draft of The Last Viking, where I had Knut, the hero, announce to his grandmother and the local vicar, based on the Vicar of Dibley, that he was no longer going attend Sunday School, instead he is going to become a Pagan and a follower of the Norse Gods; Thor, Odin, Hemrod and the rest.

Luckily, Cate Sutherland, our editor at Fremantle Press, more sensibly thought better of that sequence and slashed it, not really wanting to set up a conflict between Pagans and Christians in a book for young children, and where the Pagans win out, what’s more. But then that is what first, second, third and twenty-third drafts (and editors) are for. To iron out the stupidity that half-mad, manic, professional liars think are good ideas at the time.

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The Last Cowboy

As you have probably worked out by now The Last Viking is essentially about a boy who is threatened by bullies but manages to overcome them through the power of his imagination and reserves of courage he didn’t know he possessed until faced with danger. I hate to have to admit it but the plot is inspired directly by the 1952 movie High Noon, starring Gary Cooper as the town marshal and Grace Kelly as his new bride. Now you may wonder how I took this leap from Kansas in 1880 to Denmark in AD980 and back to country town Australia 2010, and what cowboys have to do with Vikings, however, plots are essentially about people and their interactions, and it doesn’t really matter when they are set or what the characters are wearing.  Their reaction will generally remain the same when faced with same dilemmas. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway.

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