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.

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.

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

Museum memories

Salvete, readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adolescent museum patron: When’s lunch?

Pre-adolescent museum patron: Hee hee, doodle!

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

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month: May 2017

Salvete, readers!

Well, we made it to the end of May. Queensland is a bit like Westeros at the moment: winter is coming, but it never quite gets here. Remember a while ago I asked readers’ opinions as to whether I should keep up the weekly updates on progress? Well, after thinking about the feedback I got, as well as my current schedule of deadlines, I opted for a monthly update.

On the academic front, my co-authors and I have put together a complete draft of the article we’re working on. We are well on track to get it out this month. Mythography is an amazing, highly technical area of scholarship which requires expertise in a range of disciplines. It’s also a lot of fun because you discover the weirdest and most wonderful things! I don’t know any other area where you’re called upon to consider the reproductive or dietary habits of Centaurs. I wonder if some of this detail might actually work its way into a novel someday. That said, typing in Greek is pretty much the opposite of fun. My poor word processor hates me right now.

Aside from that, I’ve finally figured out a fiction writing routine that seems to work. Huzzah! When you sit in front of your keyboard and your aim is to bang out a novel, that can be pretty daunting. The challenge seems insurmountable. Know why? Because it is! Especially when you’re working on an academic career and working full-time and raising a young family. Even among full-time writers, very few are capable of producing a novel quickly. Those who pull it off may very well be in league with the devil. The trick is to focus on one chapter at a time, one scene at a time. I’ve also set myself a weekly task—no matter what, I need to do one chapter per week, minimum, with a set word limit. This method of ‘chunking’ the tasks makes the weekly goal is very achievable. My eyes are still on the prize of having a finished novel, but week to week I’m no longer agonising about my productivity. Which, ironically, drives up productivity. Chunking is good for the story too. The pace remains high. Without room to waffle, every scene counts. It also provides a sense of rhythm. Things have been rocking and rolling since I adopted this method, and I’ve got a substantial portion of the manuscript down.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry and where it’s headed. Listening to podcasts, talking to other authors about their experiences. In particular, I’ve been investigating the world of indie publishing. For now, my plan is still to seek a traditional publisher for my trilogy based on the Aeneid. But I’m also open to the possibility of publishing independently. No matter which way I go, the idea is to get better as an author. Connecting with even a small cohort of readers would help me to grow. And getting a behind the scenes look into the industry would be an amazing asset no matter what. Commercial writers can also learn a lot from indie authors, given that even in commercial fiction so much of the onus for marketing falls on the author.

The world is changing, isn’t it? We may be heading toward a time when writers need to show they’ve got the chops to make it on their own before a publisher will pick them up—especially when I see that Macmillan—one of the Big Five—has acquired the ebook distributor Pronoun.

Anyway. Work is progressing on the script for the audio drama, bit by bit. Writing for radio is really peculiar, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Will tell you more about that when it’s ready to go into production.

Anyway. I’ve signed up for a local authors’ event in a couple of weeks, which is thrilling. If funds allow it, I’m heading to the CYA conference in Brisbane next month. Really looking forward to meeting up with some like-minded people. Maybe I’ll see you there?

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

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