Author Archives: fictorians

Scott Oden: Weaving a Tapestry of Words: the Art of the Ancient Historical

A guest post by Scott Oden

There are millions of writers spread across the face of the earth, churning out tales both great and small; well over 200,000 of their books achieved the nirvana of publication last year, alone. A few hundred of them are considered successful at the game. And yet, out of this raucous horde of wordsmiths only the tiniest fraction of them engage in the writing of historical fiction set in Antiquity. Why the disparity?

The most-cited obstacle among those writers inclined to try their hand at ancient historical fiction is the difficulty in researching the times. The ancient historical is cousin to the created-world fantasy; both require vast amounts of detail in order to breathe life into their respective narratives. But, where fantasy is created from imagination that is reinforced with research, the ancient historical is built out of existing research that is reinforced with imagination. Thus far, for Serpent of Hellas – my upcoming novel about the battle of Artemisium – I’ve had to research the topography of Attika (that region of Greece under Athenian control), farming in the 5th century BC, and the social and legal ramifications of ancient Greek illegitimacy. Was I writing a fantasy, I could base my creative decisions on a mix of research and fancy . . . which is not as easy as it sounds. Fantasy authors cut their own puzzle pieces from the fabric of history; the good ones work hard at smoothing the edges of their created bits, ensuring what’s borrowed meshes perfectly with what’s imagined. The bad ones simply arrange their pieces willy-nilly, without thought for cohesion or logic.

Historical authors also assemble the pieces of our narrative puzzle from the fabric of history. But rather than cutting and shaping to meet our needs, we tease out the threads of a single tapestry to illuminate the colors and textures within. Some threads are bold, representing the deeds and personalities that resonate through time. Others are more subtle, muted, hidden, colorless, even forgotten. Themistokles versus the nameless soldier who lit the warning beacons on Skiathos; Thermopylae versus Artemisium. Each is important in their own right, unable to exist without the other, but one is given precedence in popular imagination while the other fades to obscurity. It becomes the job of historical fiction, then, to go where historians can’t – or won’t.

The worlds we write about are not necessarily the “real” world. True, many of the events that sustain our prose actually happened; our cast of characters includes men and women, who lived, loved, died, and were immortalized in history. But our portrayal of them, of their times, is no more real than Tennyson’s Arthur in Idylls of the King. It’s an illusion, you see. The phrase we use is historical accuracy, and it is as important to the genre as the willing suspension of disbelief is to fantasy. The world must appear real, torn from the pages of a text book, and the more real it seems the more latitude the writer has in introducing anachronisms. And ancient historicals require anachronisms; they require a touch of inaccuracy in order for the writer to translate the attitudes and mores of so remote a time into modern vernacular.

So, we come back to research, to peering at the tiny threads of a tapestry to understand the colors, textures, tastes, and smells of the world that created it. Much of the information we uncover will, if we’re subtle, appear almost invisible on the page. It will exist as a color palette, a vocabulary, a style of description; research is the stage upon which the actors deliver their lines: the skeleton of the theater, the boards underfoot, the costumes and set dressing. And when the research eludes us – and it will – imagination must fill the gap.

The unanswered questions can be great or small: what did Themistokles and Leonidas discuss the night before their respective forces deployed for Artemisium and Thermopylae, respectively? What did the temple of Artemis that lent Artemisium its name look like? In what year was the ancient monument to the battle at Artemisium dedicated? Barring hard facts, the answers must come from within – though filtered through the threads already known to us and shaped to fill that tiny void in the tapestry. The artistry is in making the created bits match so perfectly to history that only an expert can tell the difference. And that is also the beauty of the ancient historical: if done well, it informs the reader’s own studies on the time in question, breathing life into men and women who might otherwise be forgotten, making flesh the cold marble busts of great men, and lending a sense of blood and thunder to events that shaped our world.

Guest Writer Bio:
Scott Oden is the author of The Lion of Cairo, Men of Bronze, Memnon, and the forthcoming Serpent of Hellas. Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, his fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb.Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs – from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes ancient historicals and historical fantasy from his family home near Somerville.

Mignon Fogarty: Well-Used Words

A guest post by Mignon Fogarty

It’s a huge thrill for a wordie to come across a particularly well-used word; it’s like a little inside joke shared with the author. It’s not necessary to place these Easter eggs in your writing, but if you can, it’s quite fun for you and a certain segment of your readers.

Take “maudlin” for example. Any of your characters can be maudlin, but it’s a freakin’ home run when a nun is maudlin! The word is derived from Mary Magdalene’s name because in Middle Age art, Magdalene was always portrayed as weeping and downcast. As with so many English words, the spelling morphed over time–from “Magdalene” to “maudlin.”

“Anathema” also has religious origins and is particularly well used to describe something devilish or church-related. Today, anything hated can be anathema, but the word comes from a Greek word used to describe something cursed or devoted to evil. In the 1200s, the Catholic Church had a few different kinds of excommunication, and the harshest–proclaiming someone damned–was called anathematization.

If you write about Medieval times, you may want to use the word “bailiwick.” Today it describes someone’s area of expertise, but in Old English, a bailiwick was something like the bailiff of the village–the overseer.

“Egregious” also has interesting origins; it comes from a root word meaning “flock,” as in a flock of birds. The “e” is a remnant of a prefix that means “out,” so “egregious” means to stand out from the flock, which makes sense when you consider that a disruptive bird would stand out from the flock, just as someone who exhibits egregious behavior would stand out from the crowd. If you can smoothly work “egregious” into a sentence about the behavior of animals (or people) in herds or flocks, it’s a win.

“Galvanize” is related to electricity, “gall” is related to liver bile, “haughty” comes from the French word for “high,” and “inchoate” is related to plow animals. The examples go on and on.

I started being particularly aware of words with interesting origins when I began researching etymology for my 101 WORDS book series. You can develop your own list of words to use in interesting ways by browsing a dictionary or signing up for word-of-the-day lists and jotting down promising words in a notebook or computer file.

Mignon Fogarty is better known as GrammarGirl and her newest book is 101 WORDS TO SOUND SMART (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BooksaMillion, Indiebound, Powells)

Mercedes M. Yardley: Your First Hate Mail: How Life Can Change After Working For a Magazine

A Guest Post By Mercedes M. Yardley

Once upon a time there was a girl. She wrote a cheery story about murder and sent it in to a sparkly magazine. They accepted the story. The girl joined the forum. After a while, the Gods of the Magazine asked the girl if she wanted to become a member of the staff. She thought about it and did. They lived happily ever after. Sometimes, they ate muffins together. That made it even better.

I’ve been working with Shock Totem : Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted since 2009. Although I had been writing since childhood, I was brand new to the publishing scene. It was horrifying and confusing and daunting. I wrote stories and decided that I would send them into the ether. I really had no idea what happened to them after that.

When the guys asked me if I wanted to join the ST team, I thought about it very carefully. While my initial reaction was, “How delightful! Yippee!” I knew it was a big decision. If I joined, it would be for the long haul. I wouldn’t skip away if things became too tedious or difficult. Did I like the people I’d be working with? Would the dark nature of the submissions depress me? Could I handle the enormous time commitment? And most importantly, could I work on the magazine without sacrificing my own writing?

I decided to jump in and it was a wonderful decision. Not only did my literary learning curve accelerate dramatically, but I have the opportunity to work with people who might be completely inaccessible otherwise. There are more opportunities than ever before for people interested in working for a magazine. If you’re thinking of taking the plunge, here are five ways that your life might change.

  1. You check your work much more carefully.
    As harsh as it seems, you’ll realize you can be rejected because you have too many mistakes in your submission. I know! The nerve! It’s a great story and that should speak for itself! Those stupid editors!
  2. Of course mags are looking for great stories. We live for great stories. But each piece has to go through a horrifically painful editing process and if your story is rife with mistakes, well…sorry. There just isn’t enough time in the universe, is there? Of course, there are always exceptions. Perhaps your tale is the diamond in the rough, and the editors’ eyes will glow when they pull it from the debris. But why chance it?
  3. You’ll realize that time is currency.
    There simply isn’t enough of it. Your old schedule won’t cut it anymore. You’ll need to balance and juggle as well as any Cirque du Soleil performer. You’ll have to turn things down, say no, and stay in sometimes when your friends go out. It isn’t just your own work that you’re thinking of anymore; there are other authors and coworkers involved. Don’t be the weak link.
  4. People think you know stuff.
    And you will. You’ll know all about proper manuscript formatting, how to write a decent cover letter (or more importantly, how to avoid writing a crappy one), and what type of tropes are a hard sell. If you have the knowledge, the best thing to do is to share it. But you might find that you need to set limits. Some people think it’s absolutely fine to call you in the middle of the night because they want to know what the magazine guidelines are. People also watch you more carefully, and might let you know whenever they see a typo in a post. They expect more from you now that you “know what you’re doing”, and they absolutely should. Which brings me to #4.
  5. You might receive your first hate mail.
    I did, and it was initially devastating. Remember that people see you as a name on a screen and not necessarily as a person. When you put yourself out there, you lose all control of how people perceive you. They see through their own lens. Try not to take it personally (yeah, right) but save those letters in a folder for future reference if you need them. Don’t read them again, but keep them.
  6. You’ll realize that writing is a business, and therefore attainable.
    This might be the most important lesson of all. Writing was always made of magic. It’s ephemerality and gossamer butterfly wings. You wrote your story (perfectly in the first draft, naturally) and a unicorn carried it off to a publisher’s golden castle. Then you had your book, or so it seemed.Imagine my delight and relief when I discovered for myself that this wasn’t the case! Write your piece. Polish it. And then work your butt off trying to sell it. Go to conferences, write queries, meet agents and editors and fellow writers. Tenacity is your friend. So is kindness. Don’t give up. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.
Guest Writer Bio:
Mercedes M. Yardley is a writer of whimsical horror, nonfiction, and “pretty things.” She works for Shock Totem magazine as a nonfiction editor. You can view more of her work at http://www.shocktotem.com/author/mercedes/.

David Farland: The Future of Publishing is Self-Publishing

By David Farland

In the past month, I’ve talked to dozens of new writers who are publishing their own books electronically. Everyone is doing it. In fact, I just put up six of my early novels along with several short stories. Within the next three weeks I hope to post the last of my novels and short stories, along with a couple of textbooks from my seminars (Write that Novel and Million Dollar Outlines).

Of course, that’s the problem. Everyone is self-publishing e-books. Bowker Identifier Services said that a million people bought ISBN’s last year, and another three million will be purchased this year. I spoke to one bestselling author recently who groused, “My neighbor came by last week and told me that he was a published author. He put up an e-book and sold seven copies. Then my paperboy told me that he was published, and he’s only fourteen! If anyone can publish, does it really mean anything anymore to be a published author?”

Well, it means something. It takes a lot of ambition and work even to self-publish, and as publishers keep cutting back on their own buying, it forces even known writers to move into that arena.

As an author, right now I have one foot in self-publishing, and one in the traditional markets. That’s an awkward position to be in.

With my latest novel, Nightingale, I’m going Indie. The standard contracts being offered by major publishers demand far too much from authors on electronic rights, and they really don’t give you anything in return. It’s a money grab.

So I had the best YA agents in New York offer to take the book to major publishers, and I told them “No.” I can’t in good conscience go that route.

So I decided to go indie. But there’s a rub. When you see an e-book from a self-published author, of course, you have to wonder if it’s any good. Is there a reason that the author couldn’t sell to mainstream publishers? Maybe, maybe not.

Sometimes publishers don’t take books that are perfectly good because the books don’t stand out. Sometimes the books have major flaws. Sometimes, though, the world’s just not ready for the author.

Tales are legendary of huge novels that had a hard time selling. Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull are just a few of the classics that couldn’t get in print. More recently, The Help did the same before becoming a bestseller and a film. One can look back and find Nobel Prize Winners that couldn’t get published.

Years ago, I had one publisher ask me to look at their recent books and help decide which one to give the big “push” to. I surveyed about forty recent novels and picked a book called Harry Potter. The marketing department disagreed. The book was considered “too long” for its intended audience. I pointed out that it was written three or four grade levels too high, too, and said that they should push it anyway. The publisher took my advice, and the rest is history.

But there’s a lesson here. You as an author have to believe in yourself, and that’s what indie authors are demonstrating.

So I’m sure that great books will be coming from self-published authors. In fact, a year ago in April, I predicted that the first self-published author would become a millionaire within a year. It took about nine months before it happened.

But of course as book buyers, we have to worry that such books might have major flaws. We need to find a way of making sure that the quality is kept high. One way to do that is to join with other authors who vet the books. You can also hire editors like Joshua Essoe to suggest improvements, and so on.

With so many indie authors coming out, the markets will be flooded this year, and this leads to a new problem. Soon it will become harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. Readers looking for great content will realize that too often they’re paying to read from the slush piles, and they’ll probably start turning back to their favorite authors and to bestsellers in an effort to find works that they like.

In other words, they’ll realize that the gatekeepers-the editors and agents-served a purpose. Sure the gatekeepers weren’t perfect, but at least there was someone manning the guardhouse. The readers might even want to hire them back.

But New York publishing is a mess, and it won’t ever be the same. The big publishers are demanding so much of the profit from electronic rights that many of the best authors are leaving for good.

So readers will be looking for other ways to gauge novels. I think that writing awards, bestseller status, and positive reviews will gain more importance for buyers.

With this in mind, it seems to me that authors need a way to show that they stand out from the crowd.

We can’t return to the past. The overhead for paper publishing is tremendous-printing, storing and transporting the books is expensive. Most of the profit goes to the bookstores.

As the price for good electronic readers continues to drop, everyone will soon have them. School children will get them for school instead of books. Frequent readers will recognize that with the low prices of e-books, it will be far cheaper to buy novels electronically. Just as the whole country has switched to digital cameras, within five years nearly all of us will switch to e-readers.

So how will an author stand out in the electronic age? The answer is with “enhanced novels.” These are books that deliver text, but they can also deliver full-color illustrations, audio, film, games, and other components. In short, we’ll have editors who make the books into a major production.

We won’t spend huge amounts on printing, we’ll spend it on creating a great product.

With my partner Miles Romney, I’ve just completed my first enhanced novel as part of launching a new publishing company. It was an interesting and informative experience.

The novel is called Nightingale, and it tells the story of a young man named Bron Jones, who is abandoned at birth. Raised in foster care, he’s shuffled from home to home. At age 16, he’s kind of the ultimate loner, until he’s sent to a new foster home and meets Olivia, a marvelous teacher, who recognizes that Bron is something special, something that her people call a “Nightingale,” a creature that is not quite human.

Suddenly epic forces combine to claim Bron, and he must fight to keep from getting ripped away from the only home, family, and friends that he has ever known. In fact, he must risk his life to learn the answers to the mysteries of his birth: “What am I? Where did I come from? Who am I?”

So this is a young adult novel, and we decided to go with interior art. I didn’t want the art to be too much like something from a comic book, so we chose a more sophisticated style, similar to the art deco pieces that you might find in the New Yorker. Of course we looked at the work of dozens of artists before selecting our people. I didn’t want it to look like a novel that an amateur might put together.

We considered using a single artist, but we felt that that would take a long time, creating a bottleneck for production. It would also limit us to a single style, which might define the novel too much in the reader’s minds. So we opted to use several artists so that readers would be able to decide for themselves which ones came closest to their own personal visions.

We also wanted motion, and we considered some cool new styles of animation. I very much liked a minimalist approach, where only a single element in a still is animated. These are called “cinemagraphs,” and we could have made them with still photos, but instead opted to do it with illustrations. The idea here was that we found that if we put film at the beginning of a chapter, it competed for the reader’s attention, pulled them out of the book. So we made a game of having cinemagraphs in each chapter.

Now, it would have probably been easier and cheaper to film chapter headings, sort of mini-commercials for each chapter, in the long run, but we aren’t necessarily looking for the “easiest and cheapest” way to make a book. That’s been done for centuries. We wanted to “enhance” the novel, help bring it to life for readers who might find that visuals are helpful. We thought that hiring half a dozen fine artists would be fun.

We also wanted music to enhance the mood and tone of the novel, so we considered how to do that. Miles happened to know the head of the American Composer’s Guild, James Guymon, and so James came in to compose a 45-minute soundtrack. He called upon some smoking-hot professionals for help, including guitarists, lyricists, drummers, and so on. Since this is a story about a young man who dreams of becoming the world’s greatest guitarist, it inspired the musicians to put their best work out there. I had hoped to get some music in the style of guitar great Joe Satriani, and the album really blew me away. It’s much like the theme albums created by Pink Floyd or Joe Satriani himself. Portions of the songs are played as intros to chapters, but one can buy the album, too, from places like iTunes.

Of course, an enhanced novel can do more than just show animations and give us music, so we did put in some film clips, but we restricted them to author interviews, which we inserted along with notes and photographs on the making of the book. These are only visible if one reads the book in landscape mode.

Last of all we created the audiobook, hiring an actor to read it, inserting sound-effects and background music. So that the vision impaired, busy moms, and long-haul truckers can enjoy the book.

Then we’re also printing the novel in hardcover, since a lot of people still actually buy paper novels, and we lined up national distribution with an existing publisher so that we can get the books in stores.

The idea with our company is to push the novel in every possible format.

It has been a lot of work, and I’m feeling wiped. But our goal is to become an industry leader, to pioneer the next wave in publishing. We don’t have unlimited multi-million dollar budgets, but that will come.

I know for certain that I could have sold this novel to a major publisher. I did have the top agency for the genre ask to take it out to the big houses. But I didn’t want to go that route. This book is special to me, and I wanted to showcase it.

So the novel is out now, and Miles did one last cool thing. The enhanced book was made for the iPad, though you will also be able to read it on just about any other pad or smartphone. But Miles had his people create a web app so that you can enjoy the book on your computer-read a few chapters, take it for a test drive, or simply buy it for reading online. You’re free to go check out the results at www.nightingalenovel.com. If you like it, remember to “Like” us on Facebook. Better yet, re-post our site info and tell your friends on Facebook.

Oh, and while you’re there, check out our short-story contest, where you can win $1000.

Guest Writer Bio:
David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, as a screenwriter, and as a movie producer. You can find out more about him at his homepage at http://www.davidfarland.net/.