Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Samain!

To the Celts, October 31st was Samain, a harvest festival that many believe became the inspiration for Halloween. I could write more about Samain, but today I’d like to simply quote the great opening passage of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God. Cornwell, who reimagines the Arthurian myth, writes about a time when the old Celtic ways remained strong, despite the spread of Christianity in Ireland and Britain. So, in the words of Derfel Cardan ...

Today I have been thinking about the dead.
This is the last day of the old year. The bracken on the hill has turned brown, the elms at the valley’s end have lost their leaves and the winter slaughter of our cattle has begun. Tonight is Samain Eve.
Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords. Tonight the dead will come from the Otherworld to this world, but we shall not see them. They will be shadows in the darkness, mere whispers of wind in a windless night, but they will be here.
In this novel, Arthur discovers one of his worst nightmares.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Indie vs. Traditional Publishing – The Battle Rages On

As readers of this blog know, I am keenly interested in the debate about whether authors are better off self-publishing their novels or pursuing a literary agent and a traditional publishing deal. The good news for me, at least, is that the blogosphere is filled with arguments for both sides. Recently, the debate has become so intense I likened it to the Battle of Agincourt, but the question now is, which side in this debate represents the English and which side represents the French?

This past week, Jane Friedman posted an article on Writer Unboxed about the benefits of traditional publishing. Her article focuses on some of the primary concerns of many commentators on this blog, namely the higher quality (or perceived higher quality) of traditionally published novels. She concludes that some writers are simply better off with the professional assistance associated with traditional publishing.

On the other side of the battlefield, Joe Konrath, commenting on a guest post by Barry Eilser, makes another argument in favor of indie publishing. Among other things, Joe argues that both indie publishing and traditional publishing require "luck" for a book to sell, and he concludes that “legacy publishing requires a lot more luck than going solo.” He also notes that “[w]hen you throw in poor royalty rates, dwindling paper distribution, returns, and non-existent marketing budgets, it is almost astronomical that any new author ever makes money” in traditional publishing.

Now that my novel is finished, I’ll remain focused on this debate. But let me know what you think – which side is winning this battle?

Who represents the English and who represents the French?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Agincourt!

Happy Saint Crispin’s Day! And happy Saint Crispinian’s Day too! Nearly 600 years ago today, on the feast of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the French and the English fought the famous Battle of Agincourt – the inspiration for at least two great works of fiction and the topic of today’s post. 

The English won the Battle of Agincourt, but they weren’t supposed to. According to some accounts, the French army, with its heavy cavalry and plate-armored knights, stood five times larger than the English forces of Henry V, who had come off a long and costly siege at Harfleur. But thanks to overnight rains that turned the battlefield into a morass of thick mud, the French cavalry was unable to charge, leaving it at the mercy of the English archers and their deadly longbows. The Battle of Agincourt demoralized the French, who lost many of their best knights, and became one of the more legendary battles of the Hundred Years’ War. William Shakespeare featured the battle in Henry V, and so did Bernard Cornwell in one of my favorite novels, Agincourt.   

This is one of my favorites!
The hero of Agincourt is Nicholas Hook, a nineteen-year-old forester who escapes punishment for trying to murder one of his family rivals by serving as an archer in the English army occupying the French city of Soissons. Due to the treachery of an English knight, Nick gets caught up in the French massacre of Soissons, where he saves a nun named Melisande from being raped and starts hearing the voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the town’s patron saints.  

After the two saints help Nick and Melisande escape, Nick learns that Melisande is the daughter of a powerful French knight nicknamed the Lord of Hell, who is not too happy she’s taken up with Nick. Soon, Nick and Melisande end up in the army of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur in Normandy, but amid Henry’s forces, Nick encounters his old family rivals, who may be even more of a threat than the French. The novel culminates at Agincourt, where Nick must face all of his enemies, including the Lord of Hell and a French army larger and more powerful than Nick ever could have imagined.

The novel is classic Cornwell, filled with memorable characters, lots of tension, and thrilling scenes that lead up to the centerpiece battle at Agincourt. Conwell’s gift is making the reader feel like they’ve lived through this famous battle. But he does so much more. He makes the reader genuinely concerned for his heroes as he places them in one dangerous situation after another, all at the mercy of a host of villains that will leave you longing for the moment they meet their bitter end. The voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian add a hint of a fantasy to what is otherwise pure historical fiction, but I think the novel is better for it. If you like medieval historical fiction, odds are you’ll love Agincourt

The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Long Journeys Part II - Through the Mines of Moria!

I’m halfway through my recent travels, and – keeping with my journey tale analogies – I feel like I’ve made it through the Mines of Moria. But there’s still a long way to go and the Dead Marshes await, so it will be a while before I get back to writing on a regular basis.

In the brief time I have this week, I’m staying on the topic of journey tales. The late Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat! calls this plot type “The Golden Fleece,” based on the legend of Jason and his Argonauts. These stories embody the classic quest myth. Or, as Snyder puts it, a “hero goes ‘on the road’ in search of one thing and winds up discovering something else – himself.” Since Snyder wrote about screenplays, he offers several movie-related examples including the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. But I think the two journey tales I wrote about last week, The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Tower, fit Snyder’s definition perfectly.

Although the quest in The Lord of the Rings involves destroying the One Ring, the journey transforms Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin from comfortable “everymen” to unlikely heroes. In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the transformation of Roland Deschain is more subtle. Along the way, Roland encounters allies in Jake, Eddie and Susannah, and his relationship with them through the various trials they face tempers Roland’s ruthlessness with compassion. Roland’s change is just enough to have a critical impact in the novel’s shocking conclusion.

Jake helped Roland Change.
Much of the fun a journey story offers is all the interesting places the protagonist goes and the various obstacles he or she must overcome. We love the Mines of Moria and its Balrog, Fangorn Forest with its Ents, and the stairs of Cirith Ungol with its spidery queen. Yet, in what Snyder called one of his truisms about a good Golden Fleece tale, “it’s not the incidents, it’s what the hero learns about himself from those incidents that make the story work.”

I wholeheartedly agree. In most of the journey tales I’ve read that didn’t work, Snyder’s truism was lacking. I’ve tried to be mindful of this in my own novel, which is structured as a journey tale even though a puzzle is imbedded in story’s bones. But what do you think of Blake Snyder’s truism? Is it the key to a great journey tale?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Long Journeys

I haven’t been writing much because I’ve been on the road for work, and it looks like several more weeks of that are on the way. All this travelling, however, has had me thinking about storylines that involve long, arduous journeys. The classic tale, at least for fantasy fiction, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Samwise have to get from the Shire to Mount Doom, though it's far from easy, and that long journey changes their lives.

Another grueling journey that jumps to mind is that of Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. King was inspired to write this series by The Lord of the Rings, and, like Frodo’s, Roland’s journey is fraught with challenges up until its very unexpected ending. Tolkien undoubtedly inspired numerous journey tales over the past few decades of fantasy fiction, including The Belgariad by David Eddings and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks.

So as I embark on my next journey, let me know if there’s a favorite fictional journey that sticks in your mind.

Roland had one long journey!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Byzantium

Continuing my musings on Viking-related fiction, I thought I’d talk about a not-so-obvious Viking tale, Stephen R. Lawhead’s Byzantium.

When I picked up this novel at my local Borders, the last thing I thought this book would be about is Vikings. Set in the Ninth Century, the novel tells the story of Aidan, an Irish monk who is selected by his abbot to join an expedition to deliver the famous Books of Kells to the Emperor of Byzantium. While most of the novel takes place in and around Constantinople (formerly called Byzantium), Aidan only arrives there after he’s captured by Vikings.

Aidan ends up in the service of King Harald Bull-roar, a Danish king who is intent on sacking the fabled city of Miklagard, the Danish name for Byzantium. After travelling through Russia and Ukraine, Harald and his small fleet of longships arrive at Miklagard, which of course is more massive than any city in Christian Europe, guarded by towering walls and legions of Byzantine Greeks. The scenes that follow are truly amusing as the Viking king and his warriors are hell-bent on plundering the city, despite the obvious impossibility of doing so. Harald and his Vikings can’t even get into the secured harbors, let alone any of the well-guarded city gates. But Harald keeps trying.

Although it has many charming moments centered around Harald’s designs toward Byzantium, the novel is truly epic in scope with strong themes about faith and Christianity woven throughout the story.  After reaching Constantinople, Aidan becomes a spy to the Byzantine emperor (Basil the Macedonian) and must journey into Arab lands, dogged by his enemies in the Byzantine court, where he ultimately must decide whether to save King Harald and the Vikings who once enslaved him.  All of these story lines help make Byzantium the rich epic that it is. But it was Harald and his memorable Vikings that made this novel work so well for me.

Who would have thought this novel was about Vikings?