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

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

Bibliomancy

Bibliomancy was a form of divination which was popular in the Middle Ages. First, you picked up a sacred or significant text, like Homer or Virgil or the Bible. You laid the book on its spine, allowing it to fall open. Then you shut your eyes and picked a passage at random from the open page. This passage supposedly revealed something about your future.

When you try it these days there is a chance you’ll get stuck with the copyright page, which is very confusing. I suspect this is how many copyright lawyers found their start.

Book Review: Heart of Brass by Felicity Banks

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to my review of Heart of Brass, the first of the Antipodean Queen trilogy by Felicity Banks.

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Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which I’ve only occasionally dipped my toes. It’s so extensive, I have never been quite sure where to start. Heck, it’s more than a subgenre, it’s a subculture. Quick introduction for the uninitiated: in the world of story-telling, steampunk occupies a unique space, somewhere between historical and science fiction, sometimes with elements of the supernatural. The writer of steampunk creates a world based upon the late nineteenth-century fascination with technological progress. Taking their cue from authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whom I loved as a kid, steampunk authors pepper their worlds with futuristic ‘what if’ ideas. What if we never abandoned steam power in favour of internal combustion, but pushed the technology to its limits?

Unlike Verne and Wells, however, a steampunk author isn’t so much elaborating on the present as they are drawing upon notions of the past. Therefore I’d argue that effective steampunk needs to carry a sense of historicity as well as the fantastic. It’s all very well to create a world where folk whizz about on steam-powered motorcycles and wear goggles as a fashion statement, but effective steampunk also needs to capture social mores and attitudes of the Victorian era. And this can be the triumph or the downfall of the genre. Some readers find the subgenre Eurocentric, homophobic or misogynistic, a celebration of archaic attitudes which belong to an imperialist age. How refreshing to find Heart of Brass has none of these negative qualities!

Banks’s novel bowls along at a terrific pace and is filled with fantastic detail, yet the real brilliance of Heart of Brass is its subversion of the unsavoury aspects of the genre. Through deep and sympathetic understanding of the period setting, Banks has crafted a more vibrant tale. By setting the novel in late convict-era Australia, Banks tells the story from the viewpoint not just of the coloniser but also of the colonised. Our protagonist, Emmeline Muchamore is a proper young Englishwoman who carries a dark secret— or rather, a bright shiny one. Her steam-powered brass heart is a source of scandal in London high society. When it goes kaput, Emmeline steals the silver the needs to make repairs. Convicted of petty theft, Emmeline is transported to the distant colony of Australia—or Hades, as she initially calls it. Caught in the fever of the gold rush, Emmeline is swept into an adventure with a pair of ballooning bushrangers and marauding prospectors astride tin horses. In the bloodbath of the Eureka Rebellion, Emmeline’s love of all things imperial is challenged for the first time.

Full disclosure: as an Aussie who is more than a bit partial to adventure stories, I’m really happy the phrase ‘ballooning bushranger’ now exists.

The novel aptly demonstrates that inclusivity enriches a story. Without giving away too many spoilers, Banks includes marginalised characters from the viewpoint of a Christian protagonist. Historically, it makes sense for Emmeline to be part of the Church of England. Yet the Christian viewpoint never drowns out the voices of Aboriginal and queer characters. Banks put in the hard work to ensure that her work is culturally sensitive, consulting Dr Anita Heiss in the preparation of her manuscript. Inclusivity works best when marginalised characters are integral to the narrative, not added in a display of tokenism. The heroes of Emmeline’s world are the dispossessed and the outcast, and she doesn’t shy away from showing Emmeline’s internal conflict when she is confronted by her own privilege. The result is a more complex and dynamic story.

It’s not really a criticism to say that the story left me with a few questions which I would love to see answered in the sequels: for example, it’s never made entirely clear why Emmeline’s father replaced her organic heart with a biological one, or how artificial intelligence works in mechanical beasts the heroes encounter. I know that Heart of Brass exists in a world with its own internal logic, but it’s a world I’d like to explore in greater depth.

All in all, this is a cracking read, and I can’t wait to read the recent sequel, Silver and Stone. Fingers crossed for Ned Kelly-style power armour at some point in the series!

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

My writerly month, September 2017

Salvete, readers!

I trust we all made it through September intact? It was another frantic month for me, but I accomplished a few things I’m proud of.

A few months ago I mentioned that I had co-written an article on mythography with two amazing co-authors, Dr Greta Hawes and Prof Minerva Alganza Roldán. Guess what? The article passed peer review with only a few minor amendments, and will be included in Polymnia this December. Keep your eyes peeled for: “The reception history of Palaephatus 1 (On the Centaurs) in Ancient and Byzantine texts.” I’m really excited by the opportunity to share some cool things my co-authors and I have discovered. We are now among the select few who can honestly proclaim themselves experts regarding the gastronomic habits of Centaurs. And guess what? The best bit is that it’s an open access journal, so it won’t be behind a paywall. Huzzah!

I got a few other things done. During my holidays I managed to bang out more on the middle-grade novel I’m working on with my seven-year-old. Or rather, I’m working on it, and he passes me notes like some Hollywood producer. It’s getting harder as it goes along, to be honest. He was so enthusiastic early on, and we built up great creative energy as we constructed a world together and populated it with characters and creatures. It all started when he wanted a sword-and-sorcery style adventure which featured automatons and submarines. Why not? From there I built upon my knowledge of medieval folklore and combined it with my interest in Roman Britain. The result is basically Celtic myth meets steampunk, with bonus talking animals. It’s absolutely as bonkers as it sounds, and I’m loving the journey. More than that, I loved the experience of creating a world together and reading him a chapter every second night.

Problem is, he was under the impression the whole book would be written in a day or two. Three, tops. And then it would be in the shops a couple of weeks later. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nothing I said would convince him otherwise. When he finally realised how long it takes to write a novel, he decided it would be much more fun to create his own comic book about surviving on a deserted island. In the meantime, he’s moved onto other bedtime stories (Mission Fox! Beast Quest! Yay!) and I’ve lost my deadline. Damn, blast, botheration! I was counting on that deadline. It stopped me dithering over the chapters, as I had to produce one every two days. That’s okay. He still wants me to finish the story and read it to him in full when it’s done. He’s still excited about it, and I think he appreciates me writing a story for him. I need to give him the room he needs to become his own creative person.

In the meantime, the story’s become more of a hard slog. I think that’s pretty normal for a writer, isn’t it? I’m two thirds of the way through draft 1, and I want it out of the way by Christmas. There. That’ll be my deadline. It’ll have to do.

I also spent a bit of my holiday reading the ARC of Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver. I’ve been listening to their podcast, The Bestseller Experiment, for a long time now, learning along with the two Marks as they set out to write, publish and market their novel in just a year. The podcast itself is pure gold—it’s like getting free admission to a writer’s workshop every single week as they interview various authors (both indie and traditional) and people who work in different aspects of the publishing industry. I’ll admit that I had some trepidation as I opened the file on my e-reader. What if, after looking forward to the story for so long, it turned out to be a complete car crash? I needn’t have worried. The book is good. Really bloody good. I’ll post a full review when it’s released on October 16. For now, I always gain a sense of accomplishment from helping out fellow authors. We’re all in this together.

Until next time,

Valete

Literary purgatory

Perhaps there is a literary purgatory where characters from early drafts wind up. They’re sent there when they are rewritten beyond recognition, replaced, or written out entirely.

Here you’ll find Bilbo’s son Bingo Baggins as well as his friends Odo Bolger, Frodo Took, and Marmaduke Brandybuck. They dolefully gaze down upon Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. The warrior-hobbit Trotter glares enviously at Strider. It’s so unfair that they shall miss out on their adventure. All of them give the evil Treebeard a wide berth, though they are perfectly friendly to the sweet-natured imp, Gollum.

Beside them sit Hermione’s parents, who are deep in conversation with a ghostly figure called Pyrites. They wonder aloud why they lifted so cleanly from Harry’s backstory.

And oh, here are twelve-year old Ashla Starkiller and her little brother Luke. Their loving father, Mace Windu, chats with a green-skinned alien by the name of Han Solo.

It’s a strange place.

My writerly month, August 2017

Salvete, readers!

August is over? Really? *checks calendar*

It was another busy month in which I had to remind myself that reality is ultimately more important than fiction. I’ve had to deal with some health-related issues. They haven’t stopped me, though. I’ve been productive, but not as much as I’d like to be. No point wasting time berating myself about that. If you don’t look after your health and that of your family, then what’s the point?

That said, the work doesn’t stop. I’m about at the halfway mark on this children’s novel I’m co-writing with my seven-year-old. Given this project has to fit around my day job and looking after two sick kids, I’m happy with that. The manuscript is continually growing and developing, like him. He gets so excited at bedtime when I read to him from the book. A few nights ago, though, I had to tell him that I only had half a chapter to read him, and I thought he’d be upset. ‘It’s okay, Dad. I want to give you time to write more, so I’ll read to you from one of my books.’ What a great kid! I’m really proud of him. I’d like to do a blog post exploring the process of working together in greater depth.

What else? One of my close writer friends read over the draft of one of my earlier novels, and gave me some very encouraging feedback. It’ll be good to revisit that project, but for now it needs a little time to gestate. I in turn had the privilege of reading a manuscript for a member of my extended family. Being invited to read an unpublished manuscript is really special, isn’t it?

And finally, I made a couple of really important decisions about where I’m headed as a writer. More than anything, I want to write for a living. That doesn’t mean just sitting around waiting for the ‘right opportunity’ to come along like a kid with a band. It means making smart choices, forward planning and being willing to learn from mistakes. Over the last twelve months or so I’ve established a solid author platform. Now it’s time to start building on it. I’ll share more in the not too distant future.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month, July 2017

Salvete, readers!

Sorry I’m a little late with this update. It’s mostly because things have been going really well on the writing front. Hooray!

The upper MG historical fantasy I’m working on is growing little by little. It’s in good shape thus far. Marching ever forward and still on track to complete the manuscript by the end of the year. The story is set in a world very much rooted in Norse myth. I’m half-tempted to brew my own mead for, um, research.

In the meantime, a new and unexpected project has come up. My oldest son (aged 7) asked me if we could write a story together. He is really creative and I want to nurture that side of him, so of course I said yes. Together we brainstormed some ideas for a junior fantasy novel aimed at his age range. Think of Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin or Kate Forsyth’s Impossible Quest, and you’ll have a good idea of what I’m aiming at. The notion is that he comes up with ideas for the characters and I basically run with them. I read a chapter to him every second night and get his feedback.

Egads, what a challenge!  Collaborating on an extended project with a 7-year-old is interesting in itself. But you know what? I love the experience of building a story together. I don’t even care whether it leads to publication, it’s bringing us closer. When it’s finished, he wants to print copies for all the kids in his class and give it to them for Christmas. As for the story itself, I’m in the honeymoon period. I’m pantsing it with only the vaguest idea where the story is going, which I’ve never really done before. And having the deadline of completing a chapter and have it ready to read aloud every two nights certainly drives the story forward. Reading it as a serialised bedtime story also helps me to resist the urge to go back and edit earlier chapters, otherwise it’ll make no sense to him. Basically I’m laying track in front of a moving train. There are far worse ways to tell stories. I’ve never written for this age range before, and I’m learning a lot of new techniques. All in all, it’s good preparation for the day when I transition from ‘aspiring’ to ‘professional.’

As a matter of fact, I should probably get back to it.

Until next time,

Valete

LOTR: Three is company

Salvete, readers!

We continue our epic quest with chapter 3 of The Fellowship of the Ring.

This chapter, when you get right down to it, is about friendship. And, um, procrastination. It’s not the greatest start to the adventure, but it does feature some important character building and foreshadowing. After receiving the mission to save the world, Frodo’s responds by shilly-shallying a bit: ‘To tell the truth, he was very reluctant to start.’ A couple of months go by. Then eventually our hero sets out with Sam and Pippin on a walking holiday to Mt Doom, after he gets Sam away from the beer, of course. Soon, they have a close call with a wraith. The tension builds! Our heroes are very nearly in danger! But then they are promptly rescued by an infuriatingly cheerful band of elves, who by coincidence fate happen to be passing by. Their leader, Gildor, advises Frodo not to go alone on his quest, but to take a few trusted friends with him.

There are many moments in this chapter whose significance only really becomes clear upon re-reading. For instance, Frodo looks at himself in the mirror and worries about his weight, and later declares that a bit of walking will make him ‘thin as a willow-wand.’ Given how much the quest will wear upon him down the track, this seems ironic. Sam offers to share Frodo’s load and lies that his own burden is light. That little moment tells you everything you need to know about Frodo and Sam’s relationship. The theme of their friendship will continue throughout the story.

Ah, the elves. They are strange, and deliberately so. Their power is such that dark creatures flee before them, but superficially at least they seem… Frivolous? Jolly? And incredibly self-absorbed. The elves initially dismiss the hobbits as dull, and only offer help when Frodo reveals he knows their language and lore. He asks Gildor, the leader of the band, for advice on how to elude the wraiths. Gildor responds with a knowing shrug and tells Frodo that he is walking toward certain doom, but he’ll find his courage. Somewhere. Thanks, dude. Tolkien goes to great lengths to show the elves are not human, to the point where they aren’t really relatable as characters. But is that the point? If we can relate to the otherworldly, then perhaps it’s not really otherworldly at all. Perhaps I should be more like Sam, and just appreciate the opportunity to visit Faerie.

Stray observations:

  • The weirdest moment in the chapter is when we suddenly switch to the viewpoint of a passing fox, who is surprised and confused by the sight of hobbits napping, but not as surprised and confused as I am. This feels like a holdover from one of Tolkien’s early drafts, when he meant the story for children. If TLOTR received structural editing, this probably wouldn’t have made the cut.
  • Say what you will about purple prose, but Tolkien’s descriptions of nature are beautiful: ‘Away eastward the sun was rising red out of the mists that lay thick on the world. Touched with gold and red the autumn trees seemed to be sailing rootless in a shadowy sea.’

Until next time,

Valete