Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Last Kingdom

With the latest draft of my novel put to bed, I’ve started researching my next work. This one involves Vikings, so for the foreseeable future I’ll be immersing myself in a world of dragon-prowed longships, Norse gods, fierce warriors, beer, and plunder! All of which call to mind my favorite novels about Vikings.

This was not a welcome sight back in the Ninth Century!
While I’ve read many Viking-related novels that I’ll try to share on this blog, my favorite series is Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales, which tells the story of how the Vikings nearly conquered all of England in the Ninth Century. The first novel in the series is The Last Kingdom, where we’re introduced to Cornwell’s protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, one of my all-time favorite characters. 

Uhtred, the ten-year-old son of a Saxon lord, is captured by Danes when his father is killed during an attack on the Viking stronghold of York. His captor, Earl Ragnar, ends up raising Uhtred to manhood as a Viking, a life Uhtred adores. But Uhtred is still a Saxon by blood, and after treachery strikes his Viking family, he finds himself in the service of Alfred, the Saxon King of Wessex. Uhtred’s loyalties soon become torn between his new king and the Danes he loves like a brother. Yet as war between the Saxons and Vikings threatens to determine the fate of England, Uhtred must discover where his true allegiance lies.  

Cornwell’s masterful storytelling has the reader rooting for both sides in this conflict. The Danes are happy, life-loving people, while Alfred and his Saxons are quite dour. But still, Cornwell has us sympathizing with the Saxons’ plight. In the end, Uhtred’s decision is as difficult for the reader as it is for the main character, which is why this novel works so well. As far as novels about Vikings go, this one’s hard to beat!

This is a must-read Viking tale

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ithaca at Last!

Last month I wrote about my personal revision Odyssey as I embarked upon the sixth draft of my novel.  (Yes, I'm a glutton for punishment!)  Well, today I finished that sixth draft.  The process took about a month (losing some time due to work commitments), but in the end, I reduced the novel's length by another 3,000 words.  After a long journey, I have reached Ithaca.  But now what?  Here is where my ongoing debate about whether to seek an agent and pursue the traditional publishing route or venture into the bold new world of indie publishing takes center stage. 

One of the bloggers I follow, author Dean Wesley Smith, is so skeptical about the survival of traditional publishing that he suggests authors go the indie route for the next two years.  By then, we may know whether his predictions were right.  Author J.A. Konrath argues that traditional publishing is a dead man walking.  But others still value agents, publishing houses, and everything they have to offer. 

I'm still searching for the right answer, and I'm always open to advice.

Ithaca at last - but where do I go from here?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Legends Reimagined

I recently finished Black Ships by Jo Graham, a novel that reimagnes The Aeneid in a more historically accurate way. I enjoyed Black Ships, and it reminded me how much I love novels that reimagine familiar legends.

 My all time favorite reimagining of a famous legend is Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles, which retells the legend of King Arthur from a historical perspective. Cornwell’s story, which consists of three novels, The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur, reimagines Arthur as a warlord, instead of a king, and is told through the viewpoint of Derfel Carden, a Saxon who is raised by Merlin and becomes one of Arthur’s most loyal warriors. What’s so enjoyable about the trilogy is that everything you’d expect from Arthurian legend has been turned on its head: Arthur now serves Uther’s son, a young King Mordred. Nimue, a druid priestess and Merlin’s lover, is the main female character, while Morgan plays only a bit role as a druidess turned Christian. Lancelot is a major villain and Guinevere is, well, complicated (let’s just say she fancies the cult of a certain Egyptian goddess whose religious rites play a major role in the second novel). Other than Arthur, who is a warrior without equal, the only other character that fully resembles his legendary personage is Merlin, who becomes one of most memorable characters of any telling of the Arthurian myth I’ve ever read. Familiar story lines such as the round table, the quest for the holy grail, and the death of Arthur are all present in some form or another, although not always as you might expect. The retelling is both fresh and facilitating, and I highly recommend these novels to every fan of Arthurian fiction.

Who says Arthur was a king?

In the past year I’ve also read Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood, which reimagines the legend of Robin Hood as an Eleventh Century Welsh freedom fighter. Robin is now Bran ap Brychan, heir to the throne of Elfael, and William the Conqueror plays the role of King John. Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are still present, albeit not in a way you might recognize them from the legend’s various film adaptations.

Lawhead's Robin Hood is not like any you'd remember!

Black Ships is told from the viewpoint of Gull, a Trojan girl enslaved by the Greeks who becomes Sibyl, a priestess of the Goddess of Death. Because the novel retells The Aeneid, Aeneas plays a major role, but like Cornwell, Graham tells the story a from a historical perspective. Dido has been replaced by an Egyptian princess since Carthage didn’t exist back then, but Egypt under Ramses III was a major power. In fact, the scenes in Egyptian Memphis are among the best in the novel. Encounters with mythical creatures such as Charybdis and the Cyclops are gone, but the gods – with some truly creative theories as to their origins – are still present, as is Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld. I purchased Black Ships on a whim while visiting my local Borders before its demise. But I’m glad I did since it was an opportunity to experience yet another great legend reimagined. 

You'll like these Trojans!

For those who enjoy this type of fiction, I’d love to know if you have other great examples of famous legends reimagined.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Grim Reaper Cometh

Amid the debate between traditional publishing and indie publishing, including all the concerns about the quality of self-published works, we are reminded again about one hard reality: bookstores as we know them are ceasing to exist. 

Yesterday's article in the Detroit Free Press chronicled the death throes of one local Borders store.  And with shelf-space for new novels shrinking, I wonder whether indie publishing will become the only way for most aspiring writers to get their works published.  Maybe some new model will arise to bridge the gap between the traditional model -- which relied on stores like Borders -- and the wild west of self-publishing, but who knows?  Today, Joe Konrath wrote again about this new reality, and his prognosis for traditional publishing isn't good.  I have not made a decision about which avenue to pursue with my own novel, but I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't concerned about traditional publishing and the diminishing venues in which to sell their wares.

The Grim Reaper has arrived for Borders

Friday, September 9, 2011

Evily Amusing Reads

Of all the blogs I frequent, my favorite for quick and amusing reads is Evil Editor.  Evil Editor (or EE for short) provides critiques of query letters -- those partial summaries of a novel that are supposed to entice literary agents to want to read your book.  While a lot of EE's points are helpful to the writers, his critiques are intentionally hilarious. 

Many writers already know about his blog, but fans of fiction will enjoy it too, especially fans of fantasy fiction because most of the queries critiqued by EE fall somewhere in that genre.  As you would expect for fantasy, some of these story ideas are pretty far out there, which just gives EE more ammunition to work with.  On a recent plane ride from Chicago, I read about fifty of his critiques in a row and laughed almost the entire flight home.  (I'm sure the person next to me thought I had lost it!)  His post on werewolf popes still cracks me up, and his annotations on a magic painting for a story about two boys lost in the Middle Ages are priceless!  If you have a free moment, follow this link to his blog.  You won't regret it!

Falstaff would have loved Evil Editor!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Does Indie Publishing Need a Gatekeeper?

Whenever I post about the debate between traditional publishing and indie publishing, readers comment about their frustration over the morass of bad self-published books on the market. In short, they wonder if it’s worth the effort of sifting through all the garbage out there to find good self-published fiction. Some, like author Joe Konrath, believe readers will separate the wheat from the chaff by relying on sites like Today, on The Creative Penn, author Gerard de Marigny offers a different idea – create an association to establish quality standards for self-published books.

I’m not sure how an association like this would work, especially if it’s not tied in some way to the marketplace. I trust the marketplace – i.e., the readers – but I’m not so sure about an association of select individuals, especially since judging fiction is necessarily subjective. For now, I lean more toward Konrath’s view, although I understand that readers appreciate the “stamp of approval” that’s provided by traditional publishers. I’m curious about what you think. Would a stamp of approval from some association be the next best thing?

Charon was a gatekeeper of sorts - but would you trust him?