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

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

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

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

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