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

Friends: The Reunion

A lot of Friends fans hope for a reunion. I don’t.

Can you picture it?

Joey moved to Hollywood and became the star of a new sitcom. Sadly, everyone hated the show and it got canned before its first season was done. He wound up moving back in with his parents, who still hate one another. Joey doesn’t mind, though, so long as he gets an Xbox One Kinect for Christmas. He’s baffled that women now find it sleazy when he tries out his classic pick-up line. The problem, obviously, is that his pick-up line has gotten stale, so he goes in search of another.

His buddy Chandler tried to start his own advertising business around 2005. Chandler accepted a loan he knew he’d never be able to pay off, but he figured things would work themselves out. Then he promptly lost everything in the GFC and hit the bottle pretty hard.

Chandler and Joey try to relaunch their careers with a series of crowd-funded comedy shorts. Problem is, hardly anybody in the twenty-first century finds Chandler’s homophobia or casual misogyny funny anymore, and his jokes about his love of tobacco are kind of gross. The tiny handful who do find his skits funny aren’t willing to pay for them. Realising the problem is they’ve gotten too old for this stuff, Joey tries Botox. Hilarity ensues.

Phoebe, on the other hand, shot to internet stardom as an anti-vaxxer, and is now blissfully unaware that she has become a spokesperson for the alt-right. She is politely bemused by the fact that nobody stops to question her crazy conspiracy theories or pseudo-science any more.

Monica, meanwhile, works two jobs to support her deadbeat husband and the kids, but keeps smiling even though she’s dying inside. She alternates between binge-eating and exercising until she passes out.

Ross now works as a trainee barista at Central Perk: a committee which mostly consisted of representatives from the Faculty of Business decided that the palaeontology department no longer fit with the university’s strategic plan. It turns out he is as hopeless at serving coffee as Rachel was. He is no longer on speaking terms with his son Ben.

Rachel regrets turning down the permanent position with Ralph Lauren, and now is stuck in a never-ending series of temporary contracts. She and Ross now have four children, and still haven’t decided whether they are ready to commit yet.

Gunther, meanwhile, is now a millionaire.