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.

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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Free short story!

Salvete, readers!

Publication day for The Way Home, Book I of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy is just a few short weeks away. In the meantime, I’ve written a short prequel, which I’m giving away to newsletter subscribers for free!

Betrothal introduces the characters of Aeneas and Kreusa, whom we here meet as children. The story takes place ten years before the events of Ashes of Olympus. On the eve of the Trojan War, a young girl must find her voice to stand before the gods… As an added bonus, you’ll also get a first look at the first three chapters of The Way Home.

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I’m offering the e-book 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.

This was an absolute blast to write and I’d love to hear your feedback!

Until next time,

Valete

Cover Reveal! Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home

Salvete, readers!

As promised, I’m absolutely thrilled to unveil the cover and blurb for my upcoming novel, Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home, coming July 2018 from Odyssey Books. It’s a YA historical fantasy based upon Greek mythology, in which a band of refugees must face the wrath of the gods to find a way home.

TWH

I’m absolutely in love with the cover, and I am so grateful to my editor and the graphic designer for coming up with such a wonderful image. But what’s it all about? Read on for the blurb…

The gods betray you.
The winds are hunting.
Nowhere is safe.
The journey begins…

The war of the gods has left Aeneas’s country in flames. Though he is little more than a youth, Aeneas must gather the survivors and lead them to a new homeland across the roaring waves. Confronted by twisted prophecies, Aeneas faces the wrath of the immortals to find his own path.

First in a trilogy based on Virgil’s epic poetry, ASHES OF OLYMPUS: THE WAY HOME is a tale of love and vengeance in an age of bronze swords and ox-hide shields.

The novel will be released both as an ebook and in print, July 2018.

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! Over the next couple of months I’ll be giving readers an exclusive sneak preview of the amazing interior artwork in the book.

 

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

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

 

 

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.

Review: Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow

Salvete, readers!

Given the current LoveOzYA theme is ‘country,’ it seemed a good time to share my review of the historical fantasy novel, Cassandra, which is set in rural Queensland.  In her debut novel, Kathryn Gossow interweaves Greek myths with a coming-of-age story to great effect.

Cassandra

Ever since she was bitten by a snake as a toddler, Cassie has experienced glimpses of the future. Her visions are as frightening as they are confusing: she sees betrayal, death, and the devastation of her family’s farm. Everybody dismisses her prophecies. As her family tears itself apart, Cassie must find a way to prevent the doom which threatens them all—even at the cost of her own sanity.

If you’re at all familiar with the Greek myth of Cassandra, your eyebrow may be raised. The story is strongly influenced by the epic cycle of the Trojan War.

Gossow evokes a sense of the otherworldly while capturing the storm and stress of a difficult adolescence. Make no mistake: this is not some kind of antipodean Percy Jackson, nor is it a light read. The novel deals with confronting themes—substance abuse, infidelity, sexual assault, and the breakdown of the family unit—but never descends to the level of sensationalism. Thanks to her sensitive characterisation of Cassie and her family, Gossow overcomes the challenge of crafting a sympathetic teenage character. I don’t remember the last time I read a story which captures the loneliness and isolation of youth so well, the desperation for a sense of connection.

Life fills every page. The narrative voice captures the protagonist’s sense of curiosity and wonder. It is heavy on metaphor and simile, without slipping into purple prose. Gossow imbues her description of the Queensland landscape with sensory details. You feel the shudders as a serpent creeps over young Cassie’s skin, hear the warbling of magpies in the backyard. One of the great strengths of the novel is the sense of authenticity in its portrayal of rural Queensland of the 1980s. Cassandra is peppered with pop culture references sure to provoke nostalgia in many readers. Crank up the Midnight Oil and pop a tape in the Betamax! As an aside, I grinned like a loon at the reference to Doctor Who, which has as much significance for the younger generation today as it did during the 80s.

This story might be considered a case of magical realism, albeit with a classical flavour. The story is chock-full of mythological allusion. The most obvious example is Cassie’s best friend, her intellectual neighbour Athena. Athena’s bearded father crafts images of humans and is a philandering troublemaker, just like his mythological counterpart, Zeus. Let’s be frank, 90% of problems in Greek myth start when Big Z can’t keep it in his pants. Yet the mythological influence is understated—Gossow’s Athena might not have a mother, but I don’t imagine her being born directly from her dad’s head as in the Homeric Hymns. The presence of the gods is manifest throughout the novel, but the supernatural elements are for the most part limited to Cassie’s visions. Even then, we are invited to view them in New Age terms—one of the keys to Cassie’s clairvoyance is her mastery of tarot. The decision to interpret ancient concepts of the paranormal using a modern one absolutely pays off. The mythological allusions are naturally integrated into Cassie’s journey toward adulthood, and never feel forced or intrusive. On a deeper level, though, I feel Gossow deserves praise for her creative exploration of questions at the heart of Greek myth regarding human agency and predestination. To what extent can humans control their own destiny? Is it a blessing or a curse to know the future? Gossow has the wisdom to avoid prescriptive answers. It is enough, perhaps, simply to question.

As a Queenslander who is more than a bit partial to Greek myths, I’m really glad this novel exists. Cheerfully recommended.

#LoveOzYABloggers is hosted by #LoveOzYA, a community led organisation dedicated to promoting Australian young adult literature. Keep up to date with all new Aussie YA releases with their monthly newsletter, or find out what’s happening with News and Events, or submit your own!

2018: The Road Ahead

Salvete, readers!

Happy new year!

I’m a bit on the fence about new year’s resolutions. They never seem to work out, because they tend to be unrealistic. At the same time I’m also a big believer in having a clear sense of the path I’m on, so I do make concrete plans for the year ahead.

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In terms of my writing career, my ultimate goal is of course to reach the point where I can write full-time. But it takes a lot of work to get there, and that’s what this year is all about. So here is my list of writing and research priorities for the new year!

On the research front, I’m teaming up with classical archaeologist Dr Amelia Brown to co-write a really exciting academic book! Our project will feature the first translations of the early sources associated with St. Nicholas of Myra, along with a commentary. Yes, that St. Nick! For me, this all started when I went to do some research for an historical novel about St Nicholas, and then I was shocked to discover that most of the sources for his life hadn’t been translated from Greek. This is the first time research for my historical fiction has led me to produce original academic research. I’m looking forward to sharing what we discover.

In the world of commercial fiction, the Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off mid-2018 with the first instalment, The Way Home. I am gearing up to work with my editor and market the book. I’ve already contacted a few bookstores in my local area, and they seem interested in stocking it. Yay, Dymocks! Yay, indie bookstores! You guys are the best. I’ve also devised a pretty thorough plan to promote the book online and have set aside a budget for advertising and a book launch. Oh, the book launch! I’m looking forward to organising that, it’ll be so much fun. You’re all invited, of course! The more the merrier! And though I will be attending a few cons and such to promote it face-to-face, the bulk of the promo will take place online. Makes sense, as I’m working with a digital-first publisher. The strength of the story is probably the biggest factor in attracting readers, or so I’d like to think. People fall in love with your characters and your world. That’s why one of the keys to promoting the book online is a prequel short story, which I intend to release for free to all the major online retailers via Draft2Digital. Keep your eyes peeled!

I’m also going to start seeking a publisher for The Black Unicorn, my middle-grade fantasy in which Celtic myth meets steampunk. I had initially intended to publish it independently, but I’m taking the advice of a few people in the industry and seeking a traditional publisher before I go down that path. Finding readers is an uphill battle to begin with for an indie author, and just about impossible for children’s books. The market for children’s ebooks just doesn’t seem to exist. I’m really excited to start the next leg of my publication journey. And I have a feeling won’t be quite as tough to get published this time, because I have a foot in the door. I’m just about finished the first draft, which I have been serialising via Wattpad. The serial has been on hiatus over the Christmas period, but I look forward to continuing the updates next weekend. I’ve written loads which I haven’t yet shared. Once the serialisation is complete, I’ll probably leave it up for a month or so before taking it down and giving it a good polish.

But mostly, I am really looking forward to getting a copy printed and bound and giving it to my son for his birthday. Without him, the story wouldn’t exist. Even if it doesn’t get published, it will all be worthwhile to see the look on his face when he unwraps it.

After that, it’s time to get cracking on the next Ashes of Olympus, whose working title is The Ivory Gate. Guess what? I have about 60,000 words down on it already, so that will largely be a matter of refining what I’ve already got. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’m looking forward to making my story the best it can be. After June, that’s probably where the bulk of the writerly work will go.

There are also a couple of projects which have been in the works for a long time, but which I haven’t discussed much online. Probably the most exciting for me is The Ravenglass Adventures, an audio drama series I’m co-writing with my friend Chris Spensley. It’s a pulpy sci-fi serial about a teenage space archaeologist named Philia Ravenglass. After some very helpful and encouraging notes from an experienced screenwriter, we’re doing a few tweaks to the pilot script. After that, we plan to record later in the year and release it for free as a podcast. We have assembled an amazing cast, and I can’t wait to share the story with you. Post-production will be a lengthy process, and we’re doing this in our spare time, so I cannot say yet when the show will be released, but you’ll be the first to know when it becomes available.

That’s about it, as far as the major projects go. At least, that’s as much as I can share for now. I do have a couple of little surprises up my sleeve… Short stories and interactive fiction and the like. Whew! It’s going to be a great year. It does seem like a lot, but much of it is bringing work to completion which has been in the pipeline for a while. Stay tuned.

Until next time,

Valete