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.

Small gestures of kindness

Salvete, readers!

Short post today to rhapsodise about a bookmark and the power of simple gestures of kindness…

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This bookmark is one of my most prized possessions. When I was working at the local library there was this nice Kenyan family who came in every week. Eventually they had to go back to Kenya, but before they left the mum said she wove it for me to say thank-you for helping her son find the info he needed for his homework, and for making them feel welcome. I keep it to remind myself I don’t have to be a martyr to make a difference in this world. And this lady’s gesture of kindness put a smile on my face for a week.

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.

Meeting Terry Brooks

Salvete, readers!

A few weeks ago I promised that I would share my experience of meeting legendary author Terry Brooks at Supanova on the Gold Coast. Well, here we go! Terry gave me some great advice which I’m sure will stand me in good stead as an author. It was an important moment for me and I’m thrilled to share it with you.

I was full of nerves as I approached the table. Brooks is among the first big-name fantasy authors after Tolkien. People mention him in the same breath as Ursula K LeGuin and Lloyd Alexander. He’s written about 40 books. His Shannara series has been adapted for TV and his Magic Kingdom series has been optioned for a film by Warner Bros. Heck, he worked with George Lucas himself on the adaptation of The Phantom Menace and was partly responsible for the lore surrounding the Jedi and Sith. His writing had a big impact on me as a teen. I was meeting one of my heroes and a veteran of the industry, but I decided to be polite and not act like a fanboy. He probably gets that all the time.

He and his wife Judine were both at the table. The tension in my chest dissipated as they smiled and waved.

‘Hi, there!’ said Terry.

‘Hello! It’s great to meet you both,’ I said.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Julian.’

‘What have we got here, Julian?’ Terry took my book—I’d brought his memoir on writing. He and Judine exchanged a glance. ‘Sometimes the Magic Works?’

‘You’re the first person to ask Terry to sign this—for this trip, anyway,’ said Judine.

‘Oh, really?’ I said. ‘It’s the first book I ever read about writing, followed by Stephen King’s.’

Terry’s eyes twinkled. ‘The thing about me and Stephen is that we’re polar opposites. There’s an important difference between us, though.’ He leaned close. ‘I’m right, and he’s wrong.’

I laughed.

‘Are you a writer?’ he said.

‘Oh, well, yes actually…’ I hadn’t intended to give him a spiel but thought it would be rude not to answer properly. I rummaged around in my bag and pulled out one of my promotional post cards.

‘My first novel is coming out later this year. It’s an historical fantasy based on Greek myths.’

‘Oh really?’ he said. Maybe he was just being polite, but he seemed genuinely interested. ‘Is it just coming out in Australia, or will it be in the States too?’

‘It should be available world-wide.’

‘Oh, great! I’ll keep an eye out for it. But what you should really do, and I’m sure you’re doing it, is read lots of different books about writing and come up with your own ideas.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ I said. ‘I try and make the most of every learning opportunity.’

‘Good on you!’

I noticed there was a chapbook on the table. Street Freaks? What was this book? I had never heard of it.

Street Freaks

He tracked my gaze and his eyes lit up. ‘Street Freaks! Now, this is my last chapbook, but I’ll let you have it if you prove you’re worthy.’

‘Oh, um, okay.’

He opened the chapbook to an illustration. ‘What do you notice about it?’

I blinked. It featured a young man climbing out a skyscraper window, a futuristic cityscape in the background. ‘It’s kind of similar to the poster for Ready Player One?

‘Well, yes, it is. It isn’t gaming lit though. But what else do you notice about it? It’s science fiction!’

‘Aha! You’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel, right?’

He nodded. ‘Right! I wanted to try it out. And I wanted to know what it was like to have total creative freedom and oversee every aspect of the publication process. The edits, design, marketing, the whole deal. It’s coming out through a small press later this year.’

‘Oh wow,’ I said. ‘I really admire the fact that an author as advanced in his career as you are is trying something different.’

He grinned and grabbed my shoulder. ‘I’ll give you some advice that you should keep in mind throughout your career as an author. If you have an idea, and it scares you because it’s different, that means you should go for it. Because you never want to lose that creative energy, that spark, and if you just do the same thing over and over, it’ll die out.’

‘That’s good advice. Thank-you.’ Oh what the hell, I can be a little bit of a fanboy… ‘Look, um, it’s such an honour to meet you. I read The Sword of Shannara when I was fifteen, and I loved your books as a kid.’

Judine smiled. ‘That couldn’t have been that long ago, surely?’

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well, half a lifetime ago.’

Terry’s eyebrows raised. ‘No! Really? You are not in your thirties?’

I shrug. ‘I, ah, hope it means I’ll age like Clooney.’

They chuckled, and he signed my book. ‘All right, you’ve proven yourself. The chapbook’s yours, but can you do me a favour?’

‘Sure.’

‘I’d like you to read it, and let people know what you think of it—on your blog, your Facebook page, whatever you got. Will you do that for me?’

‘Absolutely.’

And then I stammered my thanks and quietly slipped away from the table so he could talk to the next reader.

I read the first couple of chapters of Street Freaks that night. It’s a YA thriller set in a dystopian cyberpunk future. Here’s the blurb!

It begins with a dire call-right before his father disappears and his skyscraper home’s doors explode inward. It is the kind of thrilling futuristic story only Terry Brooks can tell.

“Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks,” his father directs Ashton Collins before the vid feed goes suddenly silent. The Red Zone is the dangerous heart of mega-city Los Angeles; it is a world Ash is forbidden from and one he knows little about. But if he can find Street Freaks, the strangest of aid awaits—human and barely human alike. As Ash is hunted, he must unravel the mystery left behind by his father and discover his role in this new world.

The writing whizzes like a bullet from a gun. It’s a definite departure for Terry Brooks, who normally eases the reader into the story. This one grabs you and doesn’t let you go. It sets up a mystery which hooks you with the first line. In spare prose, he conjures the setting of an LA whose air is poison and where androids hunt down the innocent. It promises to be a really fun read. It comes out in October 2018 and I can’t wait to see what happens next—I really can’t pay a higher compliment to a story-teller.

You can read an excerpt at i09 here.

Until next time,

Valete

P.S. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series! In the meantime, check out the image below for a sneak peak at one of the illustrations by Matt Wolf… The Way Home will be released July 31, 2018.

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A brief message for every writer working today

There’s something you need to remember, no matter how tough things get.

You are lucky.

Published or not.

Indie or trad.

Full-time or otherwise.

Pantser or plotter.

Whether you write for yourself or others.

Even if you just keep a journal.

Lucky.

You’re lucky because you have a story worth telling.

You have the education and the means by which to tell it.

Compared to the totality of human history, you’re a long way ahead of the curve.

 

What I strive for as an author

Salvete, readers!

As publication day of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home draws closer, I find myself reflecting on what I’m aiming for in terms of my career as an author. I’ve had a few folks tell me I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and they are looking forward to the (hypothetical) movie of The Way Home. While I recognise and appreciate the compliment, it always makes me a little uncomfortable. I love the Harry Potter books and admire J.K. Rowling, but I don’t want to be her. It’s much better to be me. At this point in my career, I don’t think it’s realistic to aspire to be a bestseller like Rowling. Very few authors become superstars like that. And to be honest, I can’t think of anything worse than having that level of ubiquity.

So what am I striving for, at this point? Much simpler, more achievable things.

I want to reach a community of readers who find something to enjoy with my work. There is great satisfaction in cheering somebody up who is having a bad day, and I think novels are the perfect form of escapism. And if readers get something more out of it, I’m glad.

I want to be part of a community of writers. Acceptance by peers and being able to give back something in return means the world to me. I cherish my friendships with fellow writers, published and not. These people make me a better writer. Functional creative relationships are precious gems.

I strive to be professional. I want to develop a reputation in the industry as a versatile, disciplined author who meets deadlines and works well with others. Professionalism is an under-valued attribute among aspiring authors. Admittedly I’m still learning the ropes as an early-career author, but one day I’d like to reach a level of mastery where I can pass on what I’ve learned.

And finally, I’m working hard to make a living as an author. Yes, I know, this is going to be the toughest of the lot. However, I made the decision long ago to adopt the mindset of a small business owner rather than a hobbyist. Making the business profitable will be a multi-phase project which may take years. That’s okay. I’m in it for the long haul. For the time being, any money I make from The Way Home will be invested in the next book, growing the business until it becomes a reliable supplement to my day job. Then eventually my writing will become the main source of income. I still aim to be a hybrid author with a foot in both the indie and the trad camps.

If I can achieve these things, I’ll be satisfied. However, all of these goals are contingent upon me being prolific, so I’d better get back to it.

Oh, and big news! Next week I’m going to share the cover of Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. I’m sharing it first with my newsletter subscribers. If you’d like a sneak peek, then please feel free to subscribe.

Until next time,

Valete

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

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

On being a wizard

Salvete, readers!

I didn’t last long as a teacher, for a few reasons. Long hours, lousy work-life balance, low pay. It wasn’t doing good things for my family. That, and it often felt more like being a prison warden whose job was to crush the spirit of the inmates. That’s not me. That said, the experience of working with schoolkids did much to shape me as a writer. There’s one memory in particular that always makes me smile.

I’m on playground duty, watching to make sure the kids aren’t running on concrete or throwing the football on the roof or smooching or punching each other.

A bunch of boys are casually talking about me after class. I don’t remember their names now, so let’s call two of them Jim and Baz. They don’t know I’m in earshot.

‘That guy?’ says Jim. He’s a tall kid, gangly. Fifteen, maybe sixteen. ‘Gave me a detention for being two bloody minutes late. I hate him.’

His mate Baz pushes his long, stringy hair out of his eyes. ‘What? Mr. Barr? Nah, man. He’s cool. He’s a wizard.’

‘Hey? The fuck you on about, Baz?’

‘He’s a fucking wizard. Got the little glasses and beard and talks all posh. And he knows all kinds of shit and he’s chill. Like, I’ve seen him lose it maybe once. He’s like Dumbledore.’

One of the boys spots me and nudges Baz to shut up.

I walk on, pretending I can’t hear them. When it comes to behaviour, there are many worse things than bad language. Why get reactive? Generally, it only makes the situation worse and kills any possibility of establishing a rapport. And to be honest, I’ve worked with these kids for a while. They act tough, but there’s no real harm in them. Rough kids are generally okay. It’s the bullies I can’t stand.

As I continue on my rounds, Jim yells at my back. ‘Oi, sir! Are you a wizard?’

The other boys guffaw.

I turn, put on my most guttural voice. ‘Young knave,’ I say. ‘I answer not to a mere apprentice, for I am a Fire-Mage of the North.’ Not very good, maybe, but the best line I can conjure up on the spot.

The kids stare for a second. ‘Was that, like, a quote or something?’ says Jim.

‘Nah,’ I say. ‘Just made it up.’

‘Jesus,’ says Baz. ‘That totally sounded like you were quoting an actual thing.’

‘Why the hell you teaching, sir?’ says Jim. ‘You should be a writer or something.’

He’s right, of course.

Anyway, from that day onward, I’m ‘Mister Wizard’ with those kids. Never had a problem with them again.

Until next time,

Valete

 

Museum memories

Salvete, readers!

One of the best experiences of my life was working as an education officer at a small antiquities museum. I loved seeing how different people reacted to artefacts…

Archaeologist: Well, we can clearly see the fertility motif, and our most accurate dating technique puts it somewhere in the late Archaic period, and the decorative style and clay are consistent with Attica. But without knowing the exact provenance, I’d hesitate to identify the artefact more precisely. Let’s call it a ‘ritual object.’ Please don’t cut my funding.

Historian: I can’t find any reference to this object in the literary sources. Are you sure it exists? Please don’t cut my funding.

Historian 2: Wait! If we interpret it *this* way, it fits my hypothesis! And this obscure German scholar published a paper on it 84 years ago, and that proves it! Please don’t cut my funding.

Philosopher: Well, existentially– Oh, I’ve lost my funding.

Museum patron: Gosh, how much is this stuff worth?! Your discipline must be really, really well-funded! Wait! Are you sure you should be displaying that in a museum? Think of the children!

Adolescent museum patron: When’s lunch?

Pre-adolescent museum patron: Hee hee, doodle!

Thirty-three year old museum patron: Hee hee, doodle!

Until next time,

Valete

A lesson from Star Wars

Salvete, readers!

Just a short post tonight, as I’m juggling a couple of deadlines and need to focus more on writing.

A few weeks ago, I watched Star Wars with my boys for the first time. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve loved Star Wars since I was seven years old. The kids were enthralled right up until the medal ceremony at the end. It went like this:

Master N: Do the good guys get medals, Daddy?
Me: Yep!
Master T: Even that guy? (Points at Han) But he’s a scaredy cat who ran away!
Me: Yeah, but he did come back at the end.
Master N: But the robots didn’t run away and they don’t get medals. That’s not fair. They all helped.
Master T: The princess should get a medal too, and she’s definitely not a scaredy cat!
Master N: I’m Luke.
Master T: That’s okay, I’m Chewie. He’s my favourite, except I can talk. RaaaAAAAAaargh!

There are a few important lessons here for a children’s author.

  • Kids will usually identify with the marginalised characters and the dorks, rather than the suave ones.
  • They also have a strong sense of justice and will call out unfairness if their favourite characters get short shrift.
  • Children can spot nonsense a mile away. Han is a scaredy-cat in Act 3. He’s willing to let his friends die to save his own hide—I think he mostly comes back out of guilt. But he’s uber-cool, so most of us still cheer for him.
  • Boys will absolutely identify with a female heroine until some idiot tells them they can’t. Kids are less worried about the gender of the character than their achievements.

Until next time,

Valete