Review– Troy: Fall of a City

Salvete, readers!

I finally finished the Netflix/BBC retelling of the Trojan War. It has taken me a while as I like to take my time when I’m watching a show I find interesting. ‘Interesting’ is probably the word for Troy: Fall of a City, in a good way for the most part. It’s a rich, complex adaptation with some amazing production values. It takes its time to convey the plot, but the characterisation has the chilliness of a Greek tragedy. Which makes sense, because that’s precisely what it’s meant to be.

Mild spoilers below.

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I was amazed by the sheer scope of the show’s storytelling, and was surprised that it drew not only upon the Iliad but also the Odyssey and Aeneid, as well as Sophocles and Euripides. I get the sense that the show-runners wanted to convey the full sweep of the Trojan War and approach it from as many angles as possible. This ambition is simultaneously the show’s strength and its weakness. Though the cast is enormous and the story is rich with intrigue and tension, we never really spend enough time with any of the characters to become overly invested. I seldom had the sense that it was anybody’s story in particular, or a sense of the characters’ development or growth. The difference between this story and HBO’s Rome is striking. I think casual audiences would prefer to cheer on a likeable viewpoint character whom they could follow through this sea of names and faces. Troy: Fall of a City really needed an everyman character like Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo to work as a straightforward heroic narrative.

That said, the show plays with a lot of the tropes of Greek myth in a really clever way which absolutely drips with irony. A good example is a scene where Achilles slices an enemy’s Achilles tendons before he kills him. Another is where Hector declares that he would rather a short life with his family than a long one alone– a brilliant inversion of Achilles’ choice to have a short life as a warrior than a long one as a family man. The show also manages not to make the Trojans look like idiots for bringing the horse into the city, and that is actually quite a feat. The writers included gods in the story and succeeded in invoking a sense of the numinous rather than high camp. I’ve never seen that before.

Troy: Fall of a City differs greatly from the 2004 film Troy in that it doesn’t glorify war, and perhaps you’re not really meant to like any of the characters. There’s no honour or love to be won on this battlefield. Instead, the show captures the brutality and pathos of a Greek tragedy. It doesn’t have any of the warmth or human moments which fill Homer. One of my favourite scenes in the Iliad is from Book 6, where little Astynax interrupts an argument between his parents by crying at the sight of his father in a crested war-helmet. Andromache laughs and sniffles at the same time as Hector whips the helmet off and cuddles his son to calm him. It’s a tender scene, simultaneously sad and funny. You won’t find many such moments in Troy: Fall of a City. It’s mostly bluster and blood.

There’s no talking horses, either. But whatever.

It isn’t meant to be Homer, but a tragedy staged for the screen. It differs from most sword and sandal epics in that it’s a meditation on the horrors of war, told in a thoughtful and unrushed manner. The characters could be more approachable, but then, you don’t necessarily  go see a Greek tragedy because you want to cheer on the heroes as they rush toward their doom.

Until next time,

Valete

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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.

 

Fantasy Maps

Salvete readers and happy Easter!

I’ve been in a very visual space this week. Along with my publisher, I’ve been looking at concepts for the cover of my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. It should be finalised very shortly and I can’t wait to share it. All I can really tell you for now is that the cover will be red and gold, Gryffindor colours! Just as exciting, The Way Home will feature nine internal illustrations as well as an incredible map. I’ll share more on the internal illustrations as we get closer to release– here’s a teaser if you can’t wait! But for today’s blog post let’s focus on the map and the thinking that went into it.

I love maps in books. Done properly, they can evoke a sense of space and place, making the story that much more real to readers. It’s great fun to follow your heroes’ journey on the map, and sometimes it can enrich the experience of the author’s world. A map can convey a sense of politics far more effectively than mounds of exposition. The most effective maps, I think, are those which are created to be in-world, because they become a form of world-building. A good map draws you into the story before you’ve even read a word.

However, I’ve also read many fantasy novels where the map actually detracted from the experience of the story. I think if your reader can’t make sense of the story without the map, something has gone terribly wrong. And there are times when the map is included seemingly out of a sense of obligation. They’ve become a staple of fantasy. If you’ve got a map for the sake of having a map, it becomes grating. There are times also when they are nothing but a gigantic spoiler. If every place your characters visit is included on the map, it destroys a sense of discovery. Even worse, if they feel like something out of our world, maps can yank the reader out of the story before you’ve even started. Maps rendered on a computer are too painstakingly accurate for a medieval fantasy, for example. And having a scale in modern miles or kilometres is equally problematic– leaving aside the fact these measures might not exist in your world, the last thing you want is to take away a sense of wonder by having everything precisely quantified. The key is to create the map in a very deliberate way, keeping in mind that it’s a form of story-telling too.

It was very important for me that the Ashes of Olympus trilogy have a map, for a number of reasons. It’s an historical fantasy which uses ancient Greek place names, eg Sikilia for Sicily and Hesperia for Italy. It helps readers connect more if have that visual link between past and present. And to evoke the sense of the past, I wanted it in an antiquarian style, with ships and sea monsters in the water. I did make a couple of concessions to anachronism in drawing up the brief. It wasn’t entirely possible to have the map come from within the universe because the majority of my readers probably don’t read Greek. And I thought it would be confusing to present the slightly jumbled geography we find in Homer and Virgil. Artist Linc Morse rose to the occasion with an exquisitely crafted design. Check it out below!

Map of Middle Sea

 

I particularly love the little Scylla! Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home will be available in July 2018. Sign up to my free monthly newsletter for news and previews, as well as an exclusive prologue chapter to the Ashes of Olympus series!

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.

Some very good news!

Salvete, readers!

As you may have seen on Facebook and Twitter, I have just signed a publishing contract for my debut novel with Odyssey Books. The Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off in 2018, both digitally and in print. It’s a YA historical fantasy based on Greek mythology, in which a band of refugees must face the wrath of the gods to find a way home.

I want to convey how thrilled I am to share this news, but words just won’t cut it. Instead, I’ll let my good friend Snoopy do the talking.

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This isn’t my first rodeo when it comes to publication, but still, it’s my debut novel. Academic publishing and commercial fiction are universes apart, and you can bet I’m going to make the most of the experience. Publishing fiction has been a dream of mine since the first grade, when I wrote a story about a boy who was transformed into a koala.

I look forward to sharing the adventure with you over the coming months. As we get closer to publication day, I’ll share the cover with you and tell you more about the story and what went into it.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

Going Indie

Salvete, readers!

I have something very exciting to share with you. You know that middle-grade novel I’ve been writing for my son? Well, I had a fit of madness/daring/recklessness and decided to serialise the work in progress online via Wattpad with a view towards indie publishing next year!

Serialising the work in progress will help to keep me motivated to finish the draft by the end of the year. I have a lot of other writing projects to tackle in 2018, one of which already has a publication deal — more on that later! But I’d like to have this one completed by Christmas. I’ve got two thirds of a draft, but I think I’m more likely to work faster if I’m laying track in front of a moving train. Also, I gain energy from having people read my work and especially love receiving useful feedback. Is it a bit scary to share the unfinished draft with the world? Absolutely. But Wattpad is the ideal medium for sharing work in progress, as nobody expects it to be in its final, polished state. Also, Wattpad is a great way to connect with a younger generation of readers. Better than a blog. Of course, it’ll be sharing space with a lot of fanfic, but that’s cool. If it’s okay for Margaret Atwood, it’s okay for me.

After the draft is finished, the manuscript will go through a few rounds of professional editing before I formally release it. I’ve learned a lot from indie publishing guru Susan K. Quinn over the last twelve months. The biggest lesson is that an author needs to be clear as to whether they are writing/publishing for love or money. In the case of The Black Unicorn, I’m definitely writing for love. My main motivation is to produce a thrilling story for my kids. This is a very personal project. And this will also be a learning experience for me. I’ve long been curious about indie publishing as a vehicle to empower authors, and I’ve spent a lot of time researching the ins and outs of the indie world. Still, there’s only so much you can learn from research. Sometimes you need to experience something before you really get it. I’m not necessarily trying to make money from this first novel, but to facilitate my personal growth as an author. It’s a new challenge, and one which I embrace whole-heartedly.

It’s also a wee bit terrifying, but fortune favours the bold, right?

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on traditional publishing, either. I’m aiming to be a ‘hybrid’ author with a foot in both the indie and traditional publishing camps. Sometimes authors go indie out of frustration or anger with the publishing industry. That’s not me. How can I be mad at an industry that does so much good for the world? An industry is made of people, after all, and publishing is full of people who dedicate their lives to books. That said, the industry as a whole is going through a period of disruption like never before. It is likely that in future authors will need to demonstrate they can achieve indie success before the traditional industry will take them seriously. Even in the world of traditional publishing, authors are increasingly being relied upon to promote their own work. So I’d like to think that I can apply whatever lessons I learn in the indie world to the traditional publishing world, if and when the time comes. Indie and trad can play complementary roles, can’t they?

I’ll make an official announcement about the Wattpad project over the next couple of days. In the meantime, if you’d like a sneak-peak at the amazing front cover, pop on over to my author page on Facebook…

Until next time,

Valete

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete

Historical howlers

Salvete, readers!

I’ve written a few posts now which talked about the ideas of historical authenticity vs historical accuracy. Here’s the long and the short of it. Basically, I don’t think the concept of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction is all it’s cracked up to be. What’s important is that the story feels real and remains sympathetic to historical sources. Anachronisms are a problem insofar as they undermine the reader’s ability to buy into your world. In fact, there are instances where careful and conscious employment of anachronism can result in strong story-telling.

Good gravy, it reads like a manifesto, doesn’t it?

That said, I do want to stress there are definitely instances in which anachronism can have a disastrous effect upon the sense of authenticity. I’m not talking about the decision to, say, invent a scenario in which two historical characters meet when they couldn’t have. I’m talking about silly mistakes that make it glaringly apparent that the author hasn’t thought about their world deeply or done a lot of research. For a lot of readers of historical fiction, that can be a deal-breaker. On a deep and fundamental level, historical howlers can undermine an author’s voice. The illusion that this story could be true falls away to reveal an author who is visiting the past like a tourist. When anachronism undermines the world-building, the entire story is going to fall down. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

For whatever reason, food is one of the most common places where howlers occur. I don’t know why descriptions of meals are so galling when the author gets it wrong—maybe it’s because sharing a meal together is such a universal human experience, and because it is a classic setting for character development. So when I read stories of, say, peasants in early medieval Ireland tucking into potatoes… well, suddenly the story doesn’t feel real any more. Potatoes, after all, come from the Americas and were hence unknown in Europe until after Columbus. But they quickly became common fare, so I guess they’ve become shorthand for peasantry. Gosh, I remember grinding my teeth when I saw peasants hurling tomatoes on Merlin for much the same reason.

Leaving the middle ages aside, howlers like this really grate when the author is writing about historical experiences within living memory. Kathryn Gossow (author of the contemporary fantasy Cassandra, which is really good and I recommend it highly), pointed out on one of my previous posts that it doesn’t make sense for a story set in 1950s Australia to feature a working class family sitting down to a hearty meal of mac and cheese. Really it should be meat and veg. A really clear sense of world history is your best friend when it comes to writing about food—not just the nitty gritty details of a particular time and place, but a clear sense of the ‘big picture’ of history around the globe.

I think howlers become a serious problem when they undermine characterisation. I’m going to use another example from a very popular historical fantasy series set in ancient Rome—I’d rather not say which one. It’s a first-person narrative. We are inside the protagonist’s head for the duration of the novel, and so I’d argue that it is extra important to keep the story feeling authentic. One of the subplots revolves around an infected wound. And that’s fine, infection was rife before the age of antibiotics. You could die of a broken bone in antiquity. The issue is that the protagonist describes it in terms of ‘infection.’ As in, he seems to be aware of bacteria. Now, the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the process of corruption. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to the subject. And yet to have the character diagnose himself using the modern medical term has an effect like crunching gears on a car. It’s unpleasant to the ear and bad for the mechanics. The protagonist doesn’t sound Roman anymore—it’s become a generic fantasy with Romanesque costumes. Sometimes historical authenticity comes down to something as simple as word choice.

To avoid howlers, I always recommend digging into the primary sources for the period—newpapers, diaries, and especially novels from the time you’re depicting. Not just to mine for details, but to get a sense of the voice, the way people talked and thought.

And you know what? I’m also going to recommend a resource: Susanne Alleyne’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. It’s an awesome little reference guide. The examples used in this book do tend to gravitate strongly toward a European and American context, which makes sense given the author’s historical interests. However, it also gives a really good, solid grounding in the methodology for avoiding historical howlers. And, you know, if you want to know a bit about medieval undies, it’s a great place to look.

And on that lovely note…

Valete

My writerly week, ending 28 April, 2017

Salvete, readers.

I’ve crawled across the finish line this week, and I’m weary. And yet I do have a few things to celebrate.

  • One of the highlights of this week was when a friend of mine showed me a photo he’d taken at the Classical Association’s annual conference– my academic book was on sale at the Routledge table! And another written by a colleague which I had proofread. I’m really happy that Tertullian and the Unborn Child is reaching people who will find it helpful, and that my efforts do make a difference in this world.
  • After a very intense month in my day job, I decided to carve out some time this weekend to focus on my creative pursuits. I decided to add a few key details to my novel based on the Aeneid, added a new scene to the radio play I’m co-writing, and pushed the next novel forward another few steps.
  • By the end of this weekend, I aim to have my contribution to an academic article done and dusted. It’ll be so great to have that Centaur off my back– hoofs hurt more than monkey paws!

I listened to a podcast this week–The Bestseller ExperimentHave you heard it? It is kind of brilliant. Basically these two guys (whose names, confusingly, are both Mark) have set out to write, publish and market a bestselling novel in one year. Every week they interview somebody from the publishing industry. Whether it’s an author, publisher, editor, agent, or a number-cruncher, the guests share their secrets to success in the world of book publishing. I wish the guys who run the podcast loads and loads of luck, though I suspect that the aim to produce a ‘bestselling’ novel in just a year may be an exercise in hubris. That said, the podcast is really informative and entertaining. I did a literal spit-take when they interviewed Ben Aaronovitch, and the interview with Bryan Cranston is amazingly insightful. Not only am I learning a lot about how the industry works, but I love the sense of connection with all these people who love books and contribute to our literary culture. At the end of the day, whether as big-time mainstream novelists or as indie authors, we’re all in this together. And, yeah, I can dream about being on the show someday. Well done, Marks, you’ve inspired me.

I’d love to talk about building upon one’s academic cred to make a career as a novelist. And compare and contrast modern and ancient means of storytelling. What can we learn from the ancients? How have we progressed? In some ways, have we come full circle?

Or, you know, I could just write a blog post about it.

Well, that’s about that for this week. Thanks as ever for sticking with me, folks. Building a community is one of the main functions of story-telling, as I see it. The writer’s journey can be impossible if you go it alone, but it gives me courage to know that my words reach others, and it’s so heartwarming to hear of others’ success.

Until next time,

Valete