10 questions to ask before publishing with a small press

Salvete, readers!

My first novel, The Way Home, was published this year by Odyssey Books, a small press in my native Australia. I have personally found the experience positive. However, this isn’t always the case when dealing with small presses. For example, my friend and fellow author Robyn Sarty shared on her blog the difficulties she encountered while working with a small press. Good experiences with small presses seem to be the exception. There are many reasons to be wary. For today’s post, I’ll run through some of the questions I ask myself before submitting to a small press. I went through all these questions before I signed on with Odyssey.

This post is unusually long for me. Here’s the short version: make sure you know what kind of career you want right from the very beginning, do your homework, and scrutinise the contract very carefully. With that in mind, here are the big questions:

  1. Am I better off self-publishing?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • With a small press, chances are you will end up doing most of the marketing yourself. It’s a lot of work, and you will receive less royalties per sale than you would by self-publishing. All things considered, is it worth sacrificing the royalties?
  • If the publisher is decent, you may have to surrender some creative control over things like content, formatting, layout, pricing, and the cover. You may or may not be okay with this.
  • Ask yourself: what are the advantages of being with a small presses? What does this small press offer that you can’t do yourself?

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • Perhaps the publisher has a good reputation in the industry, or they might have great distribution, or they might have excellent people on their staff with whom you would like to work.
  • The ideal publisher will give expert guidance on aspects like cover design, editing, layout. I personally gain energy from working with others and wanted to benefit from my editor’s expertise.
  • There is a plethora of self-published content out there and it’s easy to get lost in the over-saturated market. Perhaps you’ll stand out from the crowd a little more with a publisher behind you, though nothing is guaranteed!
  • Potentially, you may have marketing opportunities you wouldn’t have as a self-published author. For instance, The Way Home was included in the Christmas catalogue for The Small Press Network and advertised in Books + Publishing, the magazine for the Aussie publishing industry. I don’t think these would have happened if the book were self-published.
  • Perhaps, for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable self-publishing—and that’s absolutely fine! It’s enormously time consuming and can be very costly to have sole responsibility for every aspect of your book. Lord knows I wasn’t ready to step into the indie world when I started seeking to publish The Way Home. It’s a somewhat different story now, and I would like to have a foot in both the indie and trad camps. But that is another story for another time…
  • As I mentioned in a previous post, it comes down to your long-term career goals and what your aspirations are for this particular book.

 

  1. Am I better off with a larger publisher?

Disadvantages of small press publishing

  • I’ll keep it short. If you want big advances, to see your books in chain stores, sell the film rights, have a full marketing team behind you, become a household name with your debut novel, then small press publishing probably isn’t for you.
  • Again, it comes down to your goals as an author. Be clear about this from the outset.

 

Potential advantages of small press publishing

  • These days even major publishers tend to grant smaller advances than they used to, and the marketing support has shrunk to the point where you’ll still be doing quite a bit of it yourself. However, if you get an advance you are under considerably more pressure to sell copies, as the publisher wants to recoup its investment. If your first book doesn’t earn out (often for reasons that are completely beyond your control), then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to publish a second.
  • This pressure doesn’t really exist with a small press if you don’t have an advance, as is usually the case. Without an advance, the book doesn’t need to sell nearly as many copies to be profitable—in the small press world, around 5000 copies is generally considered a bestseller.
  • Again, it comes back to your goals—for your career and your book. These will shape your decisions about whether or not to submit to a small press. For an unknown author with long-term career goals, just starting out and looking to make a reputation in the industry, a well-regarded small press can be a great place to start.
  • Small press publishing fulfils the goals I currently strive for. It won’t work for everyone, but at this point of my career it does work for me.

 

  1. What kind of website does the publisher have?
  • Okay, let’s say that you’ve decided to start looking into small presses. You want to eliminate the bad options and make sure your book ends up in the right hands. Before submission, the first thing you’ll check out is their website.
  • If it’s a clean, professional, modern-looking website, that’s a good start.
  • You’d be surprised how many small presses’ websites look like they were built by twelve-year-old kids learning to use HTML.
  • If the website looks bad, the publisher is bad. That simple. If the website is good, well, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. See below.

 

  1. Am I actually dealing with a legitimate publisher?
  • I can’t stress this one enough. There are a lot of predators out there. Many vanity presses pass themselves off as small presses, trying to prey on the newbie writers who don’t know better. Or perhaps the authors are desperate to see their name in print—even if it means paying ridiculous fees!
  • Though I know there are experimental models of hybrid publishing, as a general principle I think it’s best for the money to flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way around.
  • There are a lot of great resources out there like Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s project, Writer Beware, which keeps track of literary scams.
  • The longevity of the publisher is a good indication of how much you should trust them. Most small presses fold within two years, for lots of reasons. If it seems like a fly-by-night operation or lame get-rich-quick scheme, it probably is.
  • Any publisher which will just print your book with no edits whatsoever isn’t worth your time.
  • Put simply, predators are not your friends. They want to eat you. Be smart like a rabbit and run.

 

  1. What sort of digital footprint does the owner of the publisher have?
  • With a small press, the business owner is most likely also the commissioning editor and solely responsible for the range of books they produce. It might feel a bit intrusive, but I do think it is worthwhile Googling the business owner and seeing what you can find.
  • If your submission is successful, then you’ll be working very closely with this person for a long time. There is a good chance you’ll be under considerable time pressure through the production process as small presses tend to have tighter schedules. It’s stressful. You want to have the confidence at the outset that you’re dealing with a decent person who knows their business, somebody you can work with under adverse circumstances.
  • See question 4 above. If you can’t find anything about the owner, that is a real worry. It suggests that either the individual doesn’t want to be found, or that they have no experience in the industry.
  • If the authors in the publisher’s current stable sing their praises online, that is a very good sign. Decent publishers tend to attract loyalty from their authors.

 

  1. Does the publisher have a good reputation in the industry?
  • How do you know they are well-regarded? Go to conferences and ask people who know. Check out who follows who on social media.
  • If the publisher’s books get shortlisted for publishing awards, it’s a very good sign. One of the reasons I was confident going to Odyssey was because Kathryn Gossow’s Cassandra was nominated for an Aurealis Award, the biggest award for science fiction and fantasy in Australia. My hunch that I was onto a good thing with Odyssey was confirmed when Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s The Tides Between was shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

 

  1. Do I actually like the books they publish?
  • Some small presses publish a diverse array of materials. Others specialise in a particular genre. Either way, if you don’t like the books they publish, chances are you won’t like working with this publisher.
  • See if you can find a consistent theme or tone running through the books. If it resonates with you, go for it. If you like their books, there is a chance the editor will like your stuff. If you don’t like the books, move on.
  • Do the books’ covers appeal to you? Does the publisher invest actual money into cover design? If their covers look cheap, tacky, unprofessional or unappealing, then run.

 

  1. Can I find their books in bookshops/libraries?
  • I’m not just talking about distribution to online stores like Amazon etc. That isn’t a big deal these days. You can distribute to online stores for a very small fee through an automatic service like Draft2Digital. I’m talking about distribution of hard copies to libraries and bricks-and-mortar stores.
  • Chances are you won’t see the books in the major chain stores. That isn’t necessarily a problem. However, do check out the franchises like Dymocks in Australia or Waterstones in the UK. Also check independent bookstores, who are much more likely to stock small press books out of a desire to support the writing community.
  • If you Google “Publisher name” + “distributor” you should be able to find out which company distributes their books. If they don’t work with a distributor, that may be a cause for concern. Part of the reason I was attracted to Odyssey was because their books are distributed via Novella Distribution, which has a great relationship with schools in Australia and NZ. If you write for kids or teens, school libraries are your bread and butter. The distributor isn’t just there to take orders, store and deliver the stock. They also champion the book to potential retail outlets and libraries.
  • The public library is also particularly important litmus test in Australia, which has a thriving public library system. Authors receive a (very small) compensation every time their book is borrowed.
  • It can also help to check out websites like worldcat.org, which give a fairly good overview of which libraries hold a particular book. It isn’t comprehensive or kept up to date, but it will give you some idea.

 

  1. How fair is the contract?
  • Let’s say you’re successful in your submission and you are offered a contract. It can be tempting to sign anything the publisher waves in front of you, but make sure you go in with both eyes open. Read it carefully. If it’s not acceptable to you, renegotiate or walk away. Other opportunities will come along. You have power in this situation. You have something the publisher wants—it is easy to forget that.
  • It is of enormous value to have an expert read it and give their professional opinion. Professional bodies like the Australian Society of Authors and the Queensland Writer’s Centre will provide this service for a fee. It’s worth it.
  • I’m a bit wary of anything written in excessive legalese. The English should be clear even to a lay reader.
  • What rights are you granting? Any publisher that expects you to surrender your copyright is predatory.
  • The terms of the contract should only last for a finite period whose date of expiry is explicit.
  • Also, it should spell out that if the publisher folds—which happens all too often—then all rights revert to you as the author.
  • You are in essence granting the publisher a licence to print and distribute your work, and when the contract is finished you should have the opportunity to renegotiate before renewing it. If the rights lapse, they should automatically revert to you, and this should be made clear.
  • You should keep the adaptation rights. They are more valuable than you think.
  • The contract should also make it clear who has the final say on the book’s content—i.e. the publisher shouldn’t be allowed to make major revisions without your expressed permission.
  • The contract should also spell out exactly what you and the publisher are expected to do in order to ensure the book’s success.
  • If the contract restricts your right to submit future work elsewhere, renegotiate. If the publisher won’t renegotiate, run. There is at least one player in the world of Australian publishing who compels authors to surrender part of their royalties if they submit future work elsewhere. I won’t name names, but for heaven’s sake, don’t sign anything like this!
  • Finally—the contract should spell out what will happen if things don’t work out between you and your publisher. Sometimes they don’t. Look after yourself.

 

  1. How much are my royalties?
  • If you are going to a small press for the money, you may be in it for the wrong reasons. But you *do* deserve to get paid fairly for your work, no matter what.
  • The contract should clearly spell out how much you get paid, how royalties are calculated, and when you can expect payment.
  • If you are not receiving any kind of advance, then it is reasonable to expect more generous royalties. A major publisher will offer 25% of net receipts on e-book sales on top of the advance. Ideally you should get a bit more than this.

 

  1. Bonus question: Are you willing to work your butt off to make the book a success?
  • No matter which avenue for publication you choose–indie, trad, small press—you’re going to need to work hard to make sure the book sells. If you know nothing whatsoever about marketing, then now is a very good time to learn the basics.
  • Again, you are also going to have to work fast and be available to respond to editor’s notes very quickly, as small press schedules are usually tight. If you can do that, you are doing well.

I think that’ll do it for today.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Pantser? Plotter? Why not both?

Salvete, readers!

There is a lot of debate regarding the best way to write a novel. Many a message board has been filled with surprisingly bitter arguments between ‘pantsers’ and plotters. Each side has its advantages and disadvantages. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about how I strive for the best of both worlds.

Upsides of pantsing

Now there’s a heading I never thought I’d use. I personally don’t like the term pantser. Isn’t pantsing a childish prank about pulling someone’s trousers down? Yeah, I know, it’s about flying by the seat of your pants and making the story up as you go along. I just prefer to call it discovery writing. It’s a little more dignified. Discovery writing is all about getting lost in the woods without a map, learning the lay of the land through trial and error. A lot of discovery writers love the thrill of not quite knowing where they’re going and letting the story sweep them along where it will.

Downsides of pantsing

To misquote Tolkien: ‘It’s a dangerous business, stepping out your door. And if you don’t keep your feet there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.’ Sometimes discovery writers don’t what kind of story they’re telling until the very end, or they go off on tangents that wind up getting deleted. And so extensive redrafting becomes necessary.

Upsides of plotting

Others prefer to have a map for the journey, a very detailed outline written in advance. The biggest advantage of this approach is that you get a clear sense of story structure and will hopefully eliminate issues of character development and plot before you write a word. You start out with a pretty good idea of the research you’ll need to do and have an endgame in sight. The actual writing tends to go faster and more smoothly… Though this isn’t always a good thing!

Downsides of plotting

Outlining can make the writing process feel very unnatural and mechanical. It can suck the joy out of the process. Outlining can be a dry exercise in craft—sure, it’s less chaotic, but where’s the fun in that? Beauty can come out of chaos. Sometimes writing to an outline is dull and repetitive—you’ve already told the story once in the outline, why would you want to tell it again? And what happens if you realise halfway through your story that what you outlined is nothing like the way it’s coming out? It happens, believe me.

Why not have both?

When I go walking in the woods, I like to have a general idea of where I’m going. The idea of just stepping into the wild with no clear destination or way of navigating is not something I’m prepared to try. That said, I like being able to find my own path and make the journey my own.

I discovery write the first third of my books. I find that this gives the writing a sense of pace and urgency and allows me to figure out who the characters are, letting their voices come out on their own. I need to figure out what kind of story I’m telling through experimentation. However, once I reach a significant turning point in the story, I put it away to the drawer and don’t look at it for at least a few weeks. It’s best to go away and work on something else. Once I’ve gotten a bit of distance I pull it out, re-read it, and start to think about structure. From here I write a very detailed outline, a blow by blow description of what goes on in the story with notes on dialogue, settings, characters, and research I will need to complete. Usually I do wind up rewriting the first third of the book a little, but I very rarely have to do any major structural edits.

It’s not a method that’ll work for everybody, but it seems to work for me.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Ashes of Olympus: The epic illustrations

Salvete, readers!

I was really grateful that I could include illustrations in The Way Home, as Greek mythology lends itself to visual story-telling. The nine lavish illustrations enrich the story and give the book a unique character. I’m telling a tale of gods and monsters and magic… Why would I not want to see that fill the page? It’s the next best thing to having my book adapted for film. And given that The Way Home is intended for both YA and adult readers, it also felt right to include illustrations. In the age of the graphic novel, visual literacy is more important than ever. I didn’t want the illustrations to simply complement the story, but to be an essential part of it.

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Every illustration functions like a panel from a comic book. Some things are better conveyed visually than through prose, which meant that I could be sparer with exposition. For example, I felt more comfortable leaping into the action with the fall of Troy because this was the first thing readers saw:

Illustration 1

The image of the Trojan horse at night, wreathed in flames, instantly tells readers everything they need to know about where we are in the story. I didn’t need to tell the reader about the horse because it was all there to see. At my editor’s suggestion, I even ended up changing the first chapter because the illustration made some of the description redundant.

One of the most powerful images in the story is actually from a moment which isn’t conveyed through prose at all, but occurs between chapters.

The illustrator Matt Wolf is an old friend of mine, a Queensland-based artist. What I love about his work is that it evokes the numinous, the mysterious and the epic. Check out Matt’s Instagram here! He has a great ability to conjure other worlds with his artwork, and when I discovered that I would be able to include illustrations in the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, I instantly knew he was the one for the project. Matt took the idea of handling it like a comic book with gusto, creating vivid, dramatic and startling images which bring the story to life.

It was a pleasure to collaborate with Matt, who was easy going, professional, and transparent in his communications. I suspect I was more involved in the process of creating the illustrations than most authors. Initially I gave him the synopsis along with a set of extracts from scenes which I thought would make for good illustrations. I also provided notes on character appearances and photographic reference materials for him to use as a starting point.

In choosing the reference materials, I decided to go with artefacts from the Hellenistic or Classical ages of Greece, rather than stick too closely to the bronze age. Not historically accurate, perhaps, but instantly recognisable. If readers can recognise certain icons, it makes the story that much more relatable. However, I tried to do so in a manner sympathetic to the past. For example, in the illustration below the warriors are kitted out in hoplite armour with Corinthian helmets, but their swords are taken straight from the Myceneans. A case of gleeful anachronism! You can get away with these things when you are writing fantasy.

Illustration 3

Aeneas’s appearance is modelled upon that of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s look brings to mind the idea of kingship in antiquity, partly because so many subsequent monarchs emulated him. But given that Alexander so consciously styled himself to look like a Homeric hero, I thought it was acceptable.

From there, I was happy to let Matt run with it. I made the conscious decision to give him the space to make his own decisions. It isn’t easy to hand over the story to another creative person and let them play, but its worthwhile. Matt did consult me and provided me with running updates, but for the most part I let him tell the story his own way. Sometimes his interpretation does differ from the way I picture things, and that is a good thing. Sometimes when you let other people into your world, the result is better than you could have possibly imagined. The illustrations turned out so well, in fact, that my publisher printed the book on white paper rather than cream to maximise their effect.

Matt, mate, if you’re reading this (and I know you are!!) I just want you to know from the bottom of my heart how grateful I am for all of your efforts. You helped to define the book and it stands out from the crowd because of you.

And if you would like Matt to illustrate your work, he is available for commissions.

The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

Publishing your first book: Some very broad advice

Salvete, readers!

Since the publication of The Way Home, a few people have asked me for advice on how to get published. To be honest, though, I’m still finding my way in the industry and my journey toward publication is by no means conventional. I started out publishing academic work in ancient history. Building on that platform, I’m transitioning to historical fiction. My path is an atypical one. Of course, I’m not actually sure there is such a thing as a typical path to publishing a novel. There are so many different ways to get your work out there, especially in the age of indie publishing. I love hearing authors tell their stories of how they started their careers. That said, I question how some well-established authors speak as though theirs is the only way. Serendipity is always a factor in publishing. Just because it worked for one author doesn’t mean it will work for all. It’s also worth considering that publishing practices vary a lot from country to country: advice that works in the US or UK may not necessarily work in a smaller country like Australia.

The best advice I can give is fairly broad.

Embrace every learning opportunity. Learn from multiple sources and be willing to try different things. Go to writing conventions, talk to agents, listen to interviews with people who know what they are talking about. Don’t be half-hearted, jump in with the enthusiasm of a space cadet. And don’t give up. It’s a hard road and can take a long time. I also think it’s really helpful to engage in self-reflection and be honest with yourself about what your goals are as an author and what kind of career you want. Being clear about your expectations is an important step to realising them.

I think I’ll follow this up with a post sharing the process Matt Wolf and I used to come up with the amazing illustrations for the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. In the meantime, The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Way Home: Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

I thought I would share the first chapter from my debut novel, The Way Home, Book I of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. I hope you enjoy it!

promo2

Illustration by Matt Wolf

Chapter 1

‘Aeneas, for the love of the gods, open up!’ cried Sergestos, pounding on the front door.

Aeneas ran to the door and wrenched it open. ‘Stop yelling, would you? My father will flay me if you wake him.’ He stopped short as he realised Sergestos’s round face was covered in soot and reeked of smoke. The scholar wore a studded baldric over his tunic. ‘What’s happened?’

‘It’s the Greeks, they’re here.’

Aeneas swore. ‘Let me get my gear. I’ll be at the main gate in—’

Sergestos shook his head. ‘Aeneas, they’re here. Inside the walls.’

Aeneas staggered. The sea god had built the walls himself. They stood over forty cubits tall. No mortal power could break them.

‘What? How can that be? They sailed home yesterday.’

Sergestos shrugged. ‘Something to do with that horse. Point is, half the city’s in flames.’

Aeneas rushed upstairs to see for himself, and Sergestos followed.

Fire.

All his life Aeneas had loved to look down upon the city, to gaze at the twinkling lanterns in the streets. Now thatched rooftops were alight, the flames glaring like eyes in the night. The fire was spreading from the outer city, where the peasants lived. The screaming echoed heavenward. He blinked sweat out of his eyes, straining to peer past the flames. Far off, the city gate gaped like an open wound. Column after column of Greek warriors passed through, hungry to pillage the defenceless Troy. They were making a beeline toward the palace, marching up the main road. The bronze of their helmets and armour glistened in the burning.

What in Hades was going on? Somebody should have rung the warning bell. This wasn’t a battle. It was defeat, the end of everything. The thought twisted in his belly like a knife.

‘Daddy?’ Little Julos waddled out of his bedchamber at the foot of the stair, rubbing his eyes. His curls were tousled with sleep.

‘Hey, little man,’ said Aeneas. ‘Where’s Mummy?’

‘I’m here,’ said Kreusa. ‘Has something happened?’ She emerged from the bedchamber opposite Julos’s, tying her hair back with one hand. Looking up, she saw the embers spiralling into the sky. ‘The city,’ she breathed.

Sergestos swallowed. ‘Gods help us, our training never prepared us for this. Troy has fallen.’

Aeneas shook his head and jutted his jaw. ‘Not yet. Not if we save the king.’

Sergestos glanced from Kreusa to Aeneas. ‘Right. See you shortly, then.’ He clapped Aeneas on the shoulder and bolted down the stairs past Julos and out the door.

Tightening her lips, Kreusa beckoned Aeneas downstairs and into their bedchamber. ‘Julos, wait in your bedchamber, please. I won’t be long.’

‘But I’m—’

‘It’ll be fine, son,’ said Aeneas.

Kreusa passed Aeneas his sword belt, her hands steady.

He buckled it to his side, put on his leather jerkin. Aeneas glanced up at his polished helmet and breastplate mounted on the wall. Father had given them to him for his eighteenth birthday last year. No self-respecting warrior would go into a fight without full armour, but there was no time.

Father gave a snore from down the hall.

‘I’ll get him up,’ Kreusa said, reading Aeneas’s mind. Julos padded into their bedchamber, slurping on his fingers, and she scooped him into her arms. ‘Go on. We’ll be fine.’ Kreusa looked him in the eye, resolute.

Aeneas had always loved Kreusa for her ability to take charge, right from their betrothal day. He reached for her and Julos.

Kreusa kissed him once, hard, on the mouth. Then she pushed him away gently. ‘There’ll be time later. You need to go,’ she whispered. ‘Please, love. Just go. And if you run into enemy gods, stay out of their way.’ Kreusa turned, but it didn’t hide the tear streaking down her cheek. She swept out of the chamber, holding their son tight. Julos peeked over her shoulder at Aeneas, eyes wide and green as his father’s.

Aeneas stared after them for a moment, then shook himself. Kreusa was right, he’d wasted enough time already. He snatched up his gear on his way out, found the weight of his spear a familiar comfort. The leathery smell of his ox-hide shield reassured him it was ready to protect.

Taking a deep breath, he passed over his doorstep.

***

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 1. In the meantime, The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

Releasing my debut novel: The first week

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home has finally been released worldwide and is available in a variety of online stores as both an e-book and paperback. Cue the confetti and balloons! Nothing can beat the chemical high of knowing that after months and years of hard work, the story is finally out there for the public to read. This is a moment which I have looked forward to since I was a teenager and decided I wanted to be a writer. And after working on the manuscript so long, it is surreal to know that there is literally nothing I can do to make the book better. It’s out there now. However, I also know I would never have made it this far without the amazing support of many people. A great big gigantic thank-you for sticking with me, everybody. Your marvellous support and encouragement makes all the difference to me.

The paperback actually snuck onto Amazon a little early, which was a nice surprise. To my amazement, it actually started to attract sales before the official release date! But I decided not to announce it was ‘officially’ available until both the e-book and paperback were released, hoping that this would attract a rush of sales which would be looked upon favourably by the gods of the algorithm. To my delight (and relief) it paid off. I was watching anxiously—after all this preparation and planning, what if the whole thing flopped? So much of this industry depends on luck. However, it didn’t take long for the novel to reach the number one spot in its little niche on Amazon Australia. The highlight came last weekend, when my little book reached the top 50 books selling on Amazon overall. Not just in its niche, but for the store overall. I documented its steady rise through the charts the only way I knew how… with terrible cartoons I drew using Paint!

bestsellers 10818

hot new releases 3107

 

No 1

Just assume that cartoon-me has feinted in that last pic and is thus out of shot.

It was such an honour to see my book ranked alongside those of Rick Riordan, even for a moment. For me, as an unknown Australian author published by a small press, that was the best feeling in the world.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received via social media during the release week—I had to switch off my phone at work because it kept pinging through the day. People liked, shared, retweeted, and declared they had bought the book. I was taken aback by the warmth shown by not only friends and family, but also the classics community, fellow Australian authors, teachers and librarians. And, of course, listeners of The Bestseller Experiment! I have done a few podcasts with them over the last few months, and I’m profusely grateful for the way listeners took the book into their hearts. One of my goals throughout this process has always been to reach a community of readers, and I’m glad to have achieved it.

Then came the big moment when my copies (30 of them!) arrived. Believe it or not, this was the first time I had held the book in my hands. It’s a scintillating sensation—seeing the cover on the screen of my laptop could never convey the richness of the red and gold cover. And I cannot get over how handsome the illustrations are by artist Matt Wolf!

And so, what started as my nerdy little ambition to adapt an ancient epic has turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my life. And I’m so very grateful. It’s time to get cracking on the next book, of course, and I have a few other projects in the pipeline. I shall admit that I’m tired and could probably use a rest. But still elated and so ready for the next step. As always, I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

If you haven’t bought The Way Home already, it is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Way Home: Origins of the novel

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home officially launches in just a few days. The pre-order also has found its way to Amazon early, both for the paperback and the e-book. It’s actually doing pretty well already, given that I haven’t officially announced that it is available! It is a little bit surreal, seeing it in the top ten of its little niche, alongside Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. It’ll be properly available next week, and you can bet I’ll let you know when it’s out. In the meantime, a few people have asked me where I got the idea to write the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, a YA adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

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Check out some of the amazing illustrations from Matt Wolf!

It started when I was an undergraduate in Latin class. My lecturer’s enthusiasm for the Aeneid was infectious, and I was not immune. Just about every lesson he would put a passage from Virgil on the board for us to decipher with the air of Santa Claus pulling a toy from his sack. Determined to know more of the story, I picked up a translation of the Aeneid and read it cover to cover. I had encountered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey before, but the plight of the Trojan prince Aeneas spoke to me on a level I had not really expected. Perhaps the desire for a place to belong spoke to me in my late teens. On a more superficial level, I loved the sense of adventure. I had always been a reader of fantasy and historical thrillers, and here was a classic quest with monsters, gods, and epic battles. More than that, I adored the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. Though I sometimes found the character Aeneas difficult, it helped me to understand that when we are reading classics we are dealing with the ideals of another age. Discovering the joys of Latin scansion helped me to find the music in Virgil and gave me an appreciation of poetic language which I had never really found before. Every time I returned to the poem, the same thought would occur to me: this would make such a great novel!

Later in my degree, when I came to translate the poem itself, I decided to translate it into the prose of an adventure novel whose language echoed the historical thrillers I had always enjoyed. Something along the lines of Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell. There was just one problem: the translation was awful! For some reason, dactylic hexameters didn’t gel with the direct language of a thriller or fantasy. I hated what I had written, and so would anybody with sense, so I shelved it and moved on.

Several years passed. I wrote a lot of terrible stories which will never see the light of day. I married and became a young dad. I did a postgrad research degree, worked for a museum, and immersed myself deeper into the classical world than is healthy. Eventually I went to present a paper at the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading. This was the first time I had travelled overseas on my own, and I felt very far from home. It was worth it though. One of the themes of the conference was the reception of Greek and Roman culture in children’s and young adult novels. There were a lot of great panels on Caroline Lawrence and Rosemary Sutcliffe. But the key moment didn’t come until I was on my way home.

At Heathrow I met a young woman who was struggling with her luggage. I offered to help, and we got chatting, and I casually asked where she was from. At this point she started crying—she was from Bosnia, but she was effectively homeless, a citizen of nowhere. Neither side of the civil war wanted anything to do with her. One side rejected her because of her heritage, and the other side because of her father’s religion. The war had been over for years, but she was still a refugee. She had endured horrors as a child which no human being should have to go through. I was sitting on the plane home, reflecting on what she had said. And that’s when it hit me: the Aeneid is in its essence a refugee’s tale from a world of gods and magic. It’s a tale for anybody who has felt there’s no place in this world for them. A theme which, two thousand years after the Aeneid was written, is still sadly relevant. And somehow this idea connected with the panels on YA literature I had seen. By the time I got off the plane, a plan was forming.

I wasn’t going to translate the Aeneid. I was going to adapt it, tell the story in my voice. I wasn’t going to put Virgil up on a pedestal. Instead, I would write an original work which captured something of what made the story significant to me. It would still be a rip-roaring adventure for young readers. Yet it would focus on the deeper theme of the refugee crisis. My goal was to make it a great story in its own right, not edutainment. And I would infuse it with something of my own experiences, make it personal. And you know what? This last part was actually really scary. But for the first time, I felt like the writing worked. It was real.

Five years and many drafts later, here we are. The book will be in readers’ hands very shortly. I’ve done all I can to make it the best story possible.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete

Newsletter adventures

Salvete, readers!

Wow, it has been a little while since I last posted, hasn’t it? I’ve hit 2018 running, as ever. Guess what, though? I’ve got something exciting to share… I set up a free monthly newsletter for followers!

I’m really excited about this. The newsletter will be a great way to keep in touch and share cool free stuff with like-minded people. I can interact with readers in a more meaningful way via correspondence than social media. And I’ll be honest, the recent changes to the Facebook algorithm gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start a mailing list. There’s never any guarantee with Facebook that your posts will ever find your followers. Unless you pay a small fortune, of course. Likewise, interactions on Twitter are fun but fleeting. The good old-fashioned mailing list remains the most reliable and cost-effective way to get messages out to readers.

Right now, if you subscribe, you will get an exclusive prologue chapter for the Ashes of Olympus series, my upcoming historical fantasy based on Virgil’s Aeneid. This chapter won’t be included in the book. It’s an exclusive free gift to followers. You’ll also get a special glimpse at the blurb for the first Ashes of Olympus book! Huzzah! Over the coming months, I’ll give subscribers the first look at the development of the book. You’ll get the sneak peek at the cover and read the first extract before they’re released to the wilds of the internet. Over the next few months, I’m going to share with my subscribers the early sketches for some illustrations I’ve commissioned for the book, so you’ll also receive original artwork based on Virgil’s Aeneid. In the long term, I am going to update the newsletter about once a month with my writerly updates. It’ll be a hoot!

What you won’t get is spam. I might send out an announcement about releases of my books. But I won’t clog up your inbox with advertising. Nor will I give anybody your email address. That would be an awful thing to do, quite simply.

I hope you’ll join me in this wild ride up to launch day!

Here is the sign-up page!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. Don’t worry! I’ll still keep up the blog. Regular posts resume now.

My little library of Alexandria

Salvete, readers!

Check out this bookcase in my study! 

It mostly consists of items from the pre-modern period. You might also spot Latin translations of Harry Potter and the lost journal of Indiana Jones, but never mind. As you can see, I’m running out of space. Just for something different, I arranged them into rough chronological order.

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It was quite an eye-opener! Sun-Tzu (possibly) wrote around the same time as Plato, and the Koran sits close to the Law Codes of Justinian. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini rests alongside Wu Ch’eng-en’s Monkey. The Roots of Ayurveda is right next to the Hippocratic Corpus, and The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam is nestled next to the Arthurian Romances of Chrétien De Troyes, which bumps up against Njal’s Saga. The world is a big place!

I’ve been thinking of starting a project where I focus on reading the whole lot through in order, starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh and finishing with Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s The Art of the Samurai. It’ll be a tough slog, and will involve some re-reading, but I’m up for the challenge. One of the keys to being a good writer is to step outside your comfort zone, and I would love to see the development of story-telling from a global perspective. I might just blog about what I find along the way.

Until next time,

Valete