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

Modern political discourse

Salvete, readers.

I was walking along, and I saw a rock in my path.

It wouldn’t get out my way like a sensible rock, so I kicked it aside.

The rock slightly bruised my toe. The wound was mild, but the pain brought tears to my eyes.

I was so angry, I went out and found some more rocks and kicked them.

Again, the rocks hurt me.

Therefore, I am oppressed by rocks.

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

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

My writerly month: June, 2017

Salvete, readers!

It was a tumultuous month, to say the least.

One of my old friends passed away a few weeks ago. Dealing with this ended up being a large focus of my month. I had planned to attend a local writer’s event, but the funeral was organised for that afternoon. Theoretically, I guess I could have attended the event in the morning and then gone to the funeral, but I thought it was better to focus my energies on helping out my friend’s family that day. Then I delivered a eulogy at the funeral. That’s one of life’s less pleasant story-telling exercises, but really vital. Stories can help people heal. The important thing, as always, is to speak from the heart and make it real. This person was an important character in your life, so you want it to be as genuine as possible. A few people came up to me afterward and said how much they appreciated my speech, so I guess I did okay.

I decided to take a week off from blogging after that. Sorry about that. I needed some head-space.

In the end, finances prevented me from attending this year’s CYA Conference in Brisbane, but I’m really thrilled to see that some of my writer friends have experienced such success this year in the pitch sessions and learned so much from the panellists. And gosh, I’m particularly happy that somebody to whom I gave some encouragement at last year’s conference did so well in the competition! Well done to everybody, but particular congratulations go to the organisers for making this conference as special as it is.

Things are steaming ahead on my current novel. It’s going in a rather different direction to what I initially envisioned, because the characters aren’t quite who I thought they were. Initially I had intended to retell the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf from the viewpoint of a teenage girl. Beowulf was going to be a love interest. However, after spending about 10,000 words developing the female protagonist, I realised it would be a real disservice to her if Beowulf came sweeping in. She doesn’t need a male love interest to be a well-defined character. If anything, adding a male protagonist was in this instance going to undermine her characterisation by robbing her of agency. The solution, of course, is to remove the Beowulf framework and let the story stand on its own. It’s inspired by Beowulf, but is no longer an adaptation. The novel is an original historical fantasy whose heroine is a Viking girl. Stepping away from the canonical text is absolutely exhilarating. It has given me the freedom to create something wholly new, and to take my characters to places they never could have otherwise.

Meanwhile, my amazing co-authors and I are pretty much ready to submit our article for peer review. I’ll keep you posted on that one. I also got some good writerly news last week, which could lead to some better news in the future… But that’s all I’ll say for now.

Until next time,

Valete

A lesson from Star Wars

Salvete, readers!

Just a short post tonight, as I’m juggling a couple of deadlines and need to focus more on writing.

A few weeks ago, I watched Star Wars with my boys for the first time. This was a big moment for me, as I’ve loved Star Wars since I was seven years old. The kids were enthralled right up until the medal ceremony at the end. It went like this:

Master N: Do the good guys get medals, Daddy?
Me: Yep!
Master T: Even that guy? (Points at Han) But he’s a scaredy cat who ran away!
Me: Yeah, but he did come back at the end.
Master N: But the robots didn’t run away and they don’t get medals. That’s not fair. They all helped.
Master T: The princess should get a medal too, and she’s definitely not a scaredy cat!
Master N: I’m Luke.
Master T: That’s okay, I’m Chewie. He’s my favourite, except I can talk. RaaaAAAAAaargh!

There are a few important lessons here for a children’s author.

  • Kids will usually identify with the marginalised characters and the dorks, rather than the suave ones.
  • They also have a strong sense of justice and will call out unfairness if their favourite characters get short shrift.
  • Children can spot nonsense a mile away. Han is a scaredy-cat in Act 3. He’s willing to let his friends die to save his own hide—I think he mostly comes back out of guilt. But he’s uber-cool, so most of us still cheer for him.
  • Boys will absolutely identify with a female heroine until some idiot tells them they can’t. Kids are less worried about the gender of the character than their achievements.

Until next time,

Valete

LOTR: The Shadow of the Past

Salvete, readers!

I continue on my epic quest to blog my reactions to re-reading TLOTR for the first time since high school. This week we enter the Exposition Zone with Bk. 1, Ch. 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Look, I’m not going to lie. Tolkien’s world-building is amazing, but sometimes his methods of exposition aren’t. And when exposition is done badly, it slows the story down to the approximate pace of running tar.

To give an example, let’s consider the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, aka The Golden Compass. There are lots of reasons that film didn’t work, but I would argue the biggest is that the story pauses every ten minutes or so to tell the viewer what’s going on. And it adds an unnecessary prologue which consists, more or less, of briefing notes on how the world of Northern Lights works. It’s a light, inoffensive and dull film which utterly lets down its dark, controversial and very exciting source material. In fact, exposition is one of the things which Pullman does really well. He throws the characters into the scenario and builds the pace and tension from the very first scene in which Lyra spies on her uncle. Every little bit of information we gain about the world of Northern Lights feels like a moment of growth for the characters. Know why the novel works so well? Because Pullman is not trying to be Tolkien.

Make no mistake, there’s a large number of oddities in Tolkien’s method of getting important information to the reader. There’s no drama in Chapter 2, no tension. Given that the fate of the world is at stake, everyone’s oddly calm about it. Tolkien actually opens Chapter 2 by assuring us that the story is going to have a happy ending.

‘The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fireside-story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.’

From there we get a paragraph which summarises rumours of goings-on in the wider world. The dark lord’s back, the dwarves are fleeing from war and the elves are getting the hell out of Dodge. Tolkien follows up with yet another scene of Hobbits sitting around the pub discussing these very rumours, followed by a quiet scene in which Gandalf monologues about current affairs, relays the history of the Ring, and gives Frodo his mission. In other words, we get the same information conveyed thrice, using different techniques. I get what’s happening here—set the scene, then plonk the characters into it. But honestly, the opening chapters are not the place to test the reader’s patience with a lecture. If I didn’t know how amazing the story becomes later, I’d probably have given up by this point.

There’s a lesson here for any budding author. Tolkien wasn’t writing Tolkienesque fantasy—he was just doing his own idiosyncratic thing, and it works for him because of the authenticity of his voice. Many writers striving to produce the next epic fantasy try to mimic Tolkien in their early chapters. The exposition is usually about the point when the reader struggles to maintain the will to live. Copying Tolkien’s style of exposition, in which everything is told before it’s shown, is a rookie mistake. It’s always better to find your own voice than imitate another author. You’ve got to get to the heart of your story from the very first page.

Moving on, then. Here are a few stray observations from Chapter 2.

  • This is the first introduction of Sam. I find it interesting that Merry and Pippin are Frodo’s closest friends, while Sam is most definitely his servant at this point. This dynamic is largely absent from the films.
  • Sam’s ‘accidental’ discovery of Frodo’s quest seems a little less coincidental in light of A Conspiracy Unmasked, where we learn that Merry and Pippin have been onto Frodo and the Ring for ages and have recruited Sam as their spy. Again, this is a nice little bit of implicit detail which didn’t make it into the movies.
  • Entwives! Sam, sitting in the pub (sigh) mentions a strange story that one of his cousins saw a tree walking. This is brilliant foreshadowing for the Ents, and I think it’s very likely that Sam saw one the Entwives—if so, it’s a real tragedy he never meets Treebeard. But then, maybe the Entwives are better off on their own. Treebeard’s poetry and the responsibility for a forest of half-tamed trees would be enough to drive anybody away.

I know I’ve been a bit critical of Tolkien in this post, but this bit still never fails to move me:

‘I should like to save the Shire, if I could—though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons would be good for them. But I don’t feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.’

For every idiosyncrasy in Tolkien’s story-telling, at its heart the story is beautiful. Reading the books again is like spending time with an old friend, knowing their flaws, but enjoying the familiar presence nonetheless.

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

Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to the first of my series of blog posts in which I analyse The Lord of the Rings novels chapter by chapter. We begin with the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party.

 

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Bilbo’s birthday always struck me as an odd place to start the story—it has caused more than one reader to give up on the novel. They were promised adventure and epic tales of good vs evil, not detailed descriptions of Hobbits sitting around hobnobbing at the pub. It’s worth bearing in mind that TLOTR received no structural editing from a third party at all—though his publishers were very much of the opinion that it needed to be cut down, Tolkien resisted what he saw as interference. You can do that when you’re an established author, though I personally am not sure it’s ever a good idea. It takes a village to raise a novelist. I suspect that if Tolkien submitted his novel to an editor today, they would advise him to open with a more gripping prologue, preferably something violent.  Perhaps Isildur slicing the ring from Sauron’s hand? If I were writing the story, I’d probably start with Smeagol taking the Ring from Deagol. But, you know, I’m not the one telling the story, and that’s absolutely okay. I’ve decided on quite a conscious level to let Tolkien take me on a journey with his characters. Readers, on the whole, were more patient in the post-war period. I can be patient too.

So why start with the birthday party? At first glance, the party seems somewhat extraneous to the larger story. The closest thing we get to a narrative hook is that Bilbo has lived an unnaturally long life and seems not to be ageing: ‘”It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” Here Tolkien seems to be very much reliant upon the audience’s investment in the character of Bilbo. Fair enough: it’s a fair bet that anybody who picks up TLOTR will have read The Hobbit first. And yet the narrative purpose behind the birthday party doesn’t become obvious without close reading.

For me, it didn’t become clear why Tolkien would start with lengthy descriptions of the birthday party until I got into Chapter 2, where we hear the sad story of how Gollum stole the Ring and murdered his best friend—on his birthday. He felt he was entitled to possess the Ring for no reason other than the fact it was his birthday. The Hobbits of the Shire, on the other hand, celebrate their existence by giving, not taking. Tolkien speaks at great length of Bilbo’s generosity and the lavish and helpful gifts he bestows upon his poorer friends and relatives. Throughout the novel, Gollum will refer to the Ring as his ‘birthday present.’ Frodo too receives the Ring upon his birthday. After all, he and Bilbo share their special day. Even at this very early point in the story, Frodo and Gollum share a connection. The difference is that Frodo received the Ring in the spirit of kinship. He didn’t take the ring, it was given to him freely and willingly—more or less. And I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that Bilbo explicitly tells us the purpose of the party:

‘“After all that’s what this party business was about, really: to give away lots of birthday-presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time.’”

Gollum, on the other hand, would never have dreamed of giving away the Ring; certainly not on his birthday. Embedding this sort of parallel between Gollum and the Hobbits is brilliant, especially given how intensely the story will revolve around Gollum’s capacity for redemption under Frodo’s guidance.

The long-expected party, then, is absolutely integral to the characterisation of the protagonists and to the resolution of the central conflict.

Here’s a few stray observations from Chapter 1:

  • Tolkien shows a surprising amount of meta-humour. One of the first things Bilbo tells us is that nobody is going to read his book, of which TLOTR and The Hobbit are supposedly translations. You’re reading that you’re not going to read what you’re reading.
  • It’s interesting that Merry is introduced as one of Frodo’s close friends, while Sam is all but absent from the opening chapter.
  • Did Tolkien invent the word ‘tween?’
  • Tolkien the stickler uses the British ‘connexion’ rather than the Americanism ‘connection.’ I’m really glad the editors haven’t seen fit to ‘correct’ this archaism.
  • One of the highlights of the chapter is the quarrel between Bilbo and Gandalf—I really got the sense that these were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and one has gone down a bad path. There is a sense that each speaker is working under the influence of a higher power yet to reveal itself. Gandalf hints at his true ability as a supernatural creature and ring-bearer, while Bilbo shows signs that the Ring’s influence is starting to bend his mind.

The reasons will be revealed next week, as we move into the Exposition Zone with The Shadow of the Past.

Until next time,

Valete

An Unexpected Blog Post

Salvete, readers!

I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read The Lord of the Rings books for a while, now. Real life has been giving me a rough time lately, and I find that picking up an old favourite is a wonderful consolation. Sort of like nestling under a blanket with a hot cup of tea. Not coincidentally, I often do this very thing while reading.

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Picking up the book again is exciting!

The last time I read TLOTR was in junior high school, and I desperately tried to convince my friends it was cool, and nobody believed me until the movie came out. After that, folks couldn’t get enough of my Gollum impression.

Who knows what I’ll find on my journey back to Middle Earth? Odds are that Thirty-Year-Old Julian will react to the story a bit differently to Teenage Julian. I’d like to think I know a bit more about story-telling and criticism than I did back in those days. Present Julian loves the Aeneid and Beowulf and Norse myths a lot more than Teenage Julian did. And certainly my values have shifted a bit since I was a kid. If they hadn’t, then I would be worried. Will I be at all sympathetic to Tolkien’s portrayal of women, or of race? I wonder. Acknowledging Tolkien’s limits doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t appreciate his achievement, does it?

Does it?

Starting next week I’m going to blog my nerdy reactions, chapter by chapter. I’m not stopping my writerly posts, but once a week or so I’ll share new insights, favourite quotations, and reflections on how Tolkien engages with story-telling traditions from medieval and classical literature. As a story-teller and writer of fantasy, it will be interesting to think about Tolkien’s impact on the genre. I may just take a crack at trying to understand some of the languages of Tolkien’s world. I never really tried that before, as I thought that was too nerdy. Sorry, Past Julian, but I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed.

What am I saying? I’m not sorry at all.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, folks.

Until next time,

Valete