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