In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014: The Good and the Bad

 So, it's that time of year when I look back on the last 12 months and share my opinions on everything from films to books. Some get a thumbs-up, others... don't. I'll start with films, and a bit of Sci-Fi.

 Ender's Game was a big disappointment. I love the novel, and the first sequel too, but the film managed to cover all the key events but somehow lose the soul of the story. I'm not honestly sure why. I've heard the project spent a lot of time in production hell, so maybe there were too many rewrites, too many fingers in the pie. But another day it was raining, my fiancee and I couldn't do what we'd planned, so we went to the cinema and ended up watching any old junk to pass the time. That junk was Guardians of the Galaxy, and it turned out to be the best superhero/ comic book movie I've ever seen. Everything was spot-on, from the action scenes to the comedy. The whole theatre was laughing one moment and engrossed the next. Fabulous film, if you haven't seen it you should, even if it isn't your usual thing.

 Another excellent movie was Hunger Games: Mockingjay. The book was the weakest of the trilogy I thought, but the film is the best of them all. Very well done, and it's unlucky not to be #1 for the year. But do not, and I mean NOT, watch Transformers 4. It's the highest grossing film of the year apparently, $1.1 billion, but it's a turkey. Worse by far than the 2nd Hobbit film, which was my least favourite last year. It's just a rerun of previous Transformers films, this time with Dino-bots at the end (which makes it different, apparently). Avoid at all costs.

 I don't watch much TV, but I do like Doctor Who because it's usually so well written. This season fell short though, partly because Peter Capaldi makes such a surly Doctor, and partly because the writers don't seem sure how to best use that. Normally there are one or two episodes which stand out, but not this year. It wasn't a disaster, but a schoolteacher might write "Must do better" on the report card.

 And so to books...

 I finally got round this year to reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. It's creative and imaginative, but for me it just didn't have the X factor of Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games. I think it just lacked depth of detail. The wizarding world especially is brilliantly realised by J K Rowling, brought to life with all its little quirks, and Panem feels real too. Pullman's alternate worlds didn't, not to the same extent. It's still a decent series but to my mind is left behind a little by other recent works of fantasy for younger readers.

 One very good book I've read this year is Rebecca Alexander's The Secrets of Life and Death. It's a Fantasy set partly in our world and partly in the past, and the two stories alternate chapter by chapter until both reach a crisis at the same time, and everything is explained. It's desperately tricky to do, and the author pulls it off very well indeed. Also I read Ruso and the River of Darkness by R S Downie, which uses an even more fiendishly difficult trick - a detective, Ruso, in Britain during the Roman period. He has no forensics, no fingerprints or blood sampling, nothing to link a person to a crime. Ruso has to work only by asking questions and working things out, and to do so he - and so also the author - needs a tremendous knowledge of the details of Roman life. Ms Downie manages that and still keeps the story interesting, so kudos to her for it.

 Beyond these I've read a lot of factual books, often for research reasons. Babylon by Paul Kriwaczek, Freedom Next Time by John Pilger, and The Forgotten Arts by John Seymour are just three of those. The last of them is very useful; it details things like how to make charcoal and horseshoes, and tells how to take ash and fat and turn it into soap. A very helpful book for getting details of ancient cultures right.

 Of course, the best thing of all this year is my engagement to Caz, who by this time in 2015 will be my wife. Sort of makes all the other things feel unimportant, really. She encourages me to write, rather than taking time away from it, so at the end of next year I'll probably be doing another of these "best and worst" blogs ("yay!", I hear you cry). Meantime, enjoy New Year, and have a great 2015. I hope it's good to you all.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Buried Treasure

 Amazing what you discover, when you do research on Google.

 I didn't know, for example, that the Roma gypsy people originated in India. The story goes that a king in Sassania - modern Iran - was told that few of his people listened to music, so he had hundreds of musicians brought from India to play for them. Later the newcomers were expelled, and began to wander from place to place. In those days they were called the Luri, after the lyre, which was their favourite instrument.

 Isn't that fascinating? A little piece of history, broken off and carried intact into the modern world. I love it when that happens.

 You might have guessed (clever you) that this is to do with a story. I'm rewriting The Bone-Smile, volume one of a trilogy I've mentioned before. In essence a secretive clade of sorcerers controls the world, while a gaggle of misfits tries to defeat them. The mages have ruled behind the scenes for thousands of years, but a few fragments of knowledge have survived - some of them through the gypsies, who are so poor and rootless that the sorcerers have never considered them significant. The gypsies are new to the story, so I needed to know what they were like about 4,000 years ago; their language, how they dressed, what they enjoyed doing.

 A lot of it is guesswork. A lot more I can invent according to what the story needs, because in the end I'm not writing a history book here. But the heart of it ought to be true, I think, or as close to true as I can manage. Because the truth is, friends and readers, that nothing a Fantasy writer can create is half so fascinating as what you find in the depths of the internet when you go a-wandering, following link after link into a labyrinth you never knew existed. And that in itself is a journey into other worlds. Sometimes I find I have 15 windows open and am reading about the mating habits of the bower bird, for no reason I can easily remember. But other times I stumble over some hidden gem, a treasure buried deep under mounds of internet wiffle. That's how I found out about gypsy origins, and so got the idea to add them into Bone-Smile.

 That's all for now. My next blog will be about all the good and bad things I've encountered during 2014, but that's for the end of the month. For now let me just wish everyone the best Christmas and New Year. I hope you get a little of what you wish for and a lot of what you most need. Take care.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Best Life

 NaNoWriMo is over (already). I won, managing 58,000 words in November despite having a new job, volunteering at Cancer Research UK and spending time every day with my fiancee. This is good. Especially the last bit.

 Troy volume 3 will need a major rewrite and then the usual metric ton of editing, as all first drafts do. But it still feels like the end of my Troy saga, after well over a year. I wrote volume one for NaNo 2013, and spent the months before planning and plotting the story - everything from characters and events within it, to researching details of Bronze Age weaponry and clothing. So this is the culmination of some 16 months of work, during which time I've got a bit fed up of Troy, as I said last time. Sometimes an itch needs to be scratched or it drives us mad, but this took a great deal of scratching.

 I've decided that next, I'll rewrite "The Bone-Smile", which is volume one of a trilogy set in a world controlled by a shadowy group of sorcerers who destroy any culture which grows advanced enough to threaten it. The world is full of relics and ruins left by these vanished peoples, and there are fragments of their knowledge too - pieces which survived, and which tantalise but often make no sense. One of the reasons I want to do this is that it's so different to Troy. "Bone-Smile" is a much more mainstream Fantasy, with magic and mystery right out front - unlike anything else I've published, in fact. It includes (among other things) a man following a prophecy, gypsies, curses and creatures not fully alive, all in a land where magic has mutated some plants and animals into new forms.

 Unfortunately it's hard at the moment, because my time's a bit limited. But if we want to do this writing lark properly we have to find time, and thankfully my lady Caz is the type to send me away to do some work whenever she feels I might be slacking off. I still can't quite believe how lucky I've been to find her. She makes me even more determined to make it as an author, even if I only earn an average wage by it, because I want to be able to give her the best life I can.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Lessons Learned

 We're halfway through NaNoWriMo now - the challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during November. As of today, the 16th, I have 41,000 logged, so I've broken the back of it now. I had an advantage in that my story was already blocked out in detail, being the final volume of my Troy trilogy. I knew who was going where and what would happen when they arrived, so that part was easy.

 Still, I've re-learned something I was taught in NaNo 2013 - it's easier to write when you have a really detailed plan.

 Sounds obvious, doesn't it? The trouble is that while I prefer to write off the cuff, making the story up as I go (or discovering it), I think I write better with a plan. With the background taken care of I can immerse myself deeper into the story and write it faster, with few of the hics and bumps that normally come along. The result is a more complete piece. I wrote Risen King the same way, years ago, but somewhere along the road I've slipped away from it.

 OK, then. Evidently I'm a bit of a dope, but that's all right. It's never too late to teach an old dog to suck eggs, or whatever it is they say. And if realising this makes me a better writer, well that's OK too.

 It's a good thing I'm going fast, because I've been writing Troy for so long that it's become a bit tedious. I need a new challenge once this is done, and luckily I have just the thing - a whole range of unfinished or yet-to-be-started novels sitting in my filing cabinet. Some are halfway written, others just bones with a few notes hanging off them like scraps of flesh. Stories waiting to be told.

 Isn't that exciting?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Do Your Own Thing

 Well, NaNoWriMo is nearly here again. For those who don't know, NaNo is National Novel Writing Month - the challenge is to write a manuscript of 50,000 words or more in the 30 days of November.

 I did it last year, for the first time. I said then that it was impossible, really; nobody can write 50,000 words of publishable material that fast. It works out at 1,667 words a day, a huge number. But what we can do is produce 50K words of a first draft. On that level NaNo is great, because it motivates people who are struggling to find time, and helps those who tend to start a story and then lose their way as they progress. It gives a big obvious target and anything else but word count can be thrown cheerfully over the side.

 Still, some people do get silly. I won't mention names, but there's a woman in the US who has hit the 50k word target on the first day seven years in a row. Last year another entrant said her intention was to beat the first one, to finish faster than she did. I don't see the point of that. I could write blah blah blah 50,000 times and win NaNo, but what have I got to show for it?

 Novel writing is not a competition. I'm not up against you, and it's not a knockout between Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. We're all doing our own thing, that's all. There's no need to worry that someone else is faster, or knocks out words more consistently. So what?

 For myself, I fit NaNo into whatever I'm doing at the time. Last year I did volume 1 of Troy, which was published in April after several months of rewrite and edit. By then I had Troy II well under way. With it published in September, I can now use NaNo 2014 to do volume 3. The whole novel is blocked out already, I know what will happen and who will be there to see it, and in honesty some sections of the text are already written. In a trilogy that happens. I thought they'd go in volume 2, they didn't and since I'm not going to delete them, they'll slot into volume 3 at some point.

 I go into NaNo happy with my work and my life. The former, because I hosted an author event at Bideford Library yesterday (Saturday 25th) and sold a few copies, which is always good. The latter, because my lady Caz and I are engaged and planning a wedding for September 2015. The world is sunny right now.

 Nice when that happens, isn't it?

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Telling Stories

 Isaac Asimov once said that when he read a sci-fi novel that was very bad, he threw it across the room in disgust. When he read one that was very good, he threw it across the room in frustration that he hadn't written it first.

 I like Stephen King, and own about 20 of his books - but until recently, I'd never read The Shining. Weird, eh? Anyway, I recently began it, and I feel like throwing it across the room. I will never be as good as that man has been. Give me a thousand years to learn and I'd still fall short. King has an eerie feel for people, and tremendous skill in expressing that. I wish I could be angry but he's just too damn good.

 The same goes for Sheri S Tepper, author of The Awakeners and A Plague of Angels, among others. I'm now reading the sequel to that last, called The Waters Rising - yes, while also reading King. Even more weird. After 80 pages I'm gnashing my teeth in envy while also captivated. She's so good it's unsettling. Often her work has feminist themes, but they're so subtly done that at first I didn't notice. I think that's refreshing, because a lot of feminist authors use writing as a club. Tepper uses it as a fine paintbrush.

 This is depressing. If I can never be as good as these people, why should I bother?

 Well, there are other authors who I can match, I think - or even surpass. Tepper makes the ordinary seem magical; by contrast, Harry Turtledove takes extraordinary events and makes them mundane and uninteresting. Terry Brooks copied Tolkien for the first Shannara book, and has told the same story over again two dozen times since in more turgid prose. There are others, but I don't want to name them all. I'll offend too many people (and inflate my own ego besides, hehe).

 Even this isn't the point, though. I tell the stories I do because that's what I've got. I can't match the highbrow novels of Jane Austen, or follow the flights of fancy of Neil Gaiman. And no, I can't match the psychological insight of Stephen King. But I think I can tell decent stories that have a bit of excitement, which feel somewhat fresh, and which hopefully give people enjoyment.

 I suspect, when you strip away all the interpretations made by critics, that most authors were doing only that. Telling stories. It's a pretty good life.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Discipline

  Troy: Heirs of Immortality is now out!

  It was a day late going live on Amazon Kindle, because the ratification check took so long. Very strange, but complaining/ asking why does no good, as a reply takes so long to arrive and is usually a bit rubbish when it does. So sorry to anyone who was looking for it on Monday, the official release date. I'll try not to let it happen again.

  The print version will take a little longer as the cover design was refused (sigh...). That should be sorted out in a few days.

  Volume three, The Untrodden Sanctuaries, will be mostly written (I hope) before the end of the year - the first draft, anyway. NaNoWriMo is coming in November - National Novel Writing Month - and I hope to complete a good chunk of the book in those 30 days. I quite enjoyed NaNo last year. It's a bit daft in some ways, because it prizes the number of words and makes no mention of quality. I could write wah wah wah until I hit the 50,000 word minimum and I'd be classed as a winner.

  But still, NaNo is an excuse for writers who struggle to find time to set some aside. It gives us a target of 1,667 words per day, about what a professional writer might aim for, and challenges us to match it. There's a discipline in that, if you treat it right. Some don't - a couple of people reach 50,000 words on day 1, which tells me they understood the target but not the point. But most do. And if you end on 40,000 words, or half that, you've still managed to write a goodly bit, and hopefully learned a little about how to manage your time too.

  I'll be playing in the local pool league during November, and beyond. I'm also now engaged, and will be married almost exactly a year from now. Finding time for NaNo is going to be a wee bit interesting.

Heirs of Immortality is $0.99 by the way. Find it at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Heirs-Immortality-TROY-Book-2-ebook/dp/B00NU6X0B2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1411586760&sr=1-1&keywords=ben+blake+heirs+of+immortality

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Fast and Breathless

  Hi everyone. Summer may be on its way out but there's still lots to look forward to, including crisp autumn mornings, mist on the water, and this;


  This is the first glimpse of the cover for TROY: Heirs of Immortality. It's the second volume in my Troy series, and will be out on September 22nd. If you like your Fantasy fast-paced and breathless, this is for you. From the ports of Greece to the beach and plain of Troy, Agamemnon and Achilles argue and Odysseus plots, while Hector defies them and the walls of the city stand impregnable above it all.

  In other news, I've arranged a personal appearance at Bideford Library on Saturday October 22nd, from 10.30am. It's only a small library and a small event, but if you're in the area, come along for a chat, I'll be glad to see you, and I'll have books to sign.

  When I did my last PA, at Barnstaple, one of the copies of The Risen King which I sold went to a woman called Gill. I saw her recently, and she said she'd been on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales and had found herself looking down on a moorland valley, lush and green with high rocks all around. In a moment her mind went back to the place where Kayl finds the Brethren, right at the start of the novel, because (she said) I'd described what she was looking at so vividly.

  Thanks, Gill. I can't expect finer praise than that.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

All Roar and No Teeth

 Hi everyone, I hope you're all well. I'm doing great at the moment, largely due to developments in my personal life which are taking up a lot of time. Mostly I mean my lady, Caroline, who I love to spend hours with. But that hasn't stopped me writing. Volume two of Troy is still on target to be published in a month's time - the edit and redrafting is nearly done now, there are just some final checks to make to catch rogue punctuation and try to cut out a few more adverbs.

 Next time on this blog I'll reveal the cover design, which as usual was created by Mark Watts. For today, I thought I'd share an excerpt from the text, as a taster. Volume Two, Heirs of Immortality, rattles along at a much faster pace than the first book did, because this is when the struggle really begins. There are some familiar faces in the excerpt.

 Enjoy.

*

 "So," Achilles said. Rage bubbled in his voice. "The Lion of Achaea can conquer only a strip of sand, without Achilles."
 Isander was looking at Agamemnon then, and he saw utter hatred flash across those thick features before it could be masked. There was no mistake. Agamemnon would nurse those words as a mortal grievance all the years of his life, even if the Fates spared him and he lived on and on into great old age. They might poison his soul - if he had one - and still he'd hold them close around his heart. Achilles had made an eternal enemy today.
 And he didn't care. That was obvious as well. Achilles wasn't merely angry, he was eaten up by fury. It came off him like heat, baking into the Greeks gathered round. Isander, near the front, began to wish he'd hung back. Blood might be spilled here.
 "Be warned," Agamemnon said. There was rage in his voice too, the anger of a man unused to being defied. "I would not forgive that tone from a king, and you don't have a crown."
 "I have something better," Achilles snapped back. "I have something the High King can gain from no other man. I can kill Hector. Or did you call me back for a different reason?"
 Gulls cried above, but the beach was utterly quiet.
 "I thought not," Achilles said. He was still stiff with anger, a bad-tempered boar which might charge at any moment. "I will do it. Tomorrow I'll challenge Hector to single combat, with the war hanging on the outcome. He wins, and the Greeks sail home. I win, and the Trojans hand Helen over, and half their treasury beside. Will you honour those terms?"
 "Show respect," Agamemnon began.
 He was cut off by Achilles' laughter. "Spare me your bluster. Will you honour them?"
 Agamemnon glowered, lips twisting. "I will honour them."
 "Then know this. And let all men know," Achilles added, raising his voice. His words carried over men's heads and out to sea. "I do not do this for the High King. I don't care of Greece wins this war or Troy does, it's no matter to me. I fight for my own name and my own causes... and I fight for Patroclus. For the memory of my friend, who was cut down while I fought elsewhere, sent from the beach of Troy by the pride of a fool.
 "And after I have killed Hector the bards will sing that this was my war - my glory, my victory. If they remember the name of Agamemnon it will be as an afterthought. The man who tried to keep Achilles from the fight and failed, the man who tried to win without him and failed. Perhaps we should put that on his tomb, do you think? The Lion of Achaea: he was all roar and no teeth, and had to call on stronger men in his need."

*

 That's all, folks. Heirs of Immortality will be published in the second half of September - exact date to follow.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Hidden Tension

 There was an article posted on Facebook recently by CreateSpace, Amazon's paperback division, asking one question - what is the most important element of fiction?

 I think it's got to be tension. Raymond Chandler once said When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. Anton Chekhov put it another way; If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. Both comments mean the same thing, that an author must keep the tension high.

 Not that you need a gun. The romantic fiction genre survives on the basis of "she will, she won't, she does", as a woman dithers over whether to marry her lover. (Yes, I'm sure there are exceptions, but that's the general rule). Wuthering Heights is a tale of people caught in in their own tangle of love and envy, and destroyed by it, with nary a gun in sight. And so on; you don't need a list. The point is that tension can be created by any conflict, physical or emotional or anything else - but you do need conflict. Without it your story might end up like this;

"OK Dave?"
"Fine, Bob. You?"
"Fine. Kids all right?"
"Not bad. Well, see you."
"Bye Dave."

 Tension comes partly from pace. The fashion today is for fast-paced tales, in which one event is barely over before the next is upon our protagonists. Look at The da Vinci Code as an example. It's not very well written in truth, with cardboard characters and a predictable plot, but it does rattle along at a very high pace. Sometimes that can distract the reader enough that he doesn't realise the book is a bit rubbish, the same way that big explosions do in some films.

 But tension can also come from characters. They can lie to each other, betray friends, plot and scheme together against an enemy. Or they can be driven from their comforts and forced to embark on a journey they never wanted, perhaps to regain their former lives, perhaps to find themselves liberated. If we have the skill, we can create enough tension this way that we don't need a rifle hanging on the wall, or a man with a gun bursting in (Well, not very often).

 The Harry Potter books are a case in point. In the early volumes - up to number four, The Goblet of Fire - there's hardly any clear danger until the end, and not much threat of it either. We all know the danger is coming, but it takes forever to appear, which creates tension for Harry and his friends, and by extension to the reader. And it works: for the most part the Potters are very tightly written indeed. I know it's fashionable to criticise JK Rowling these days - as it is to criticise Dan Brown - but in Rowling's case I think it's unjust. The realisation of the wizarding world is brilliantly done, and as Stephen King says, the books are also cracking good fun.

 But you know. other people will have their own ideas about the most important element in storytelling. God and all the little fishes know there are lots of important things. Tension is only my choice. If you can make a story work another way, then good luck to you.

Friday, 25 July 2014

So Bends the Tree

 Every artist - writer, painter, whatever - draws on his or her own experiences. I don't wholly buy the popular advice of write what you know, because if we all stuck to that there would be no sci-fi (who's ever really flown between stars?), no Fantasy, not even any Victorian Gothics. But the things we know and feel do find their way onto the pages, because they're what shaped us as people - we're each the sum of our own experiences.

 The most important factor of all this is family. Nothing does as much to form our character as that. There are proverbs about it, such as give me the child until he is seven and I shall give you the man. Or as grows the sapling, so bends the tree. As children we can be conditioned to respond a certain way, and as adults we still do. Habits like that run very deep, and are fiercely hard to break.

 Now, I don't have a great family. I knew it even as a small boy, the sort of age when most children accept their world almost without question. My parents made a bad marriage and I can't remember a time when they didn't hate each other. My elder brother was effectively a functioning sociopath, unable to feel or empathize as normal people do; he saw others as pieces to be moved, there for his own amusement but without valid lives or cares of their own. And my mother couldn't see that - wouldn't see it, in truth - because she'd invested such hopes in him she couldn't bear to see them crushed, or accept he wasn't capable of achieving the things she dreamed of.

 (Incidentally, I think it's interesting that I saw this so young. Even aged 6, maybe before, I'd begun to stand aside from events and watch them. see how people behaved and how it differed from what they said. Any artist needs that distance, I think, while also being involved enough to empathize. It's a curious thing. Some people believe writers are born, not made; when I think about this I suspect they might be right).

 Anyway.

 All that conflict and chaos in my childhood affected me. Of course it did, it's inevitable. I'm sure there are people who suffered worse and dealt with it better; I know some of the wounds I carry are due, in part at least, to me not coping well. But I was a child, and it's hard to beat myself up. It was dreadful and too often there was nobody there who would protect me from the barrage, but I got through it and here I am, still standing. If we find a way to deal with our scars and move on, that's a win.

 As a child, I used to think my friend Mark's family was perfect. I'd wish I'd been born there instead of to my own parents, but of course I hadn't been and I'd missed all the internal arguments, the shouting and tears, a thousand things that would be inconsequential to anyone else but are agony for a child living through them.

 As an adult, I've discovered there are families much worse than mine was. Forget the child abuse cases on TV, these are just ordinary people who don't seem able to stop hurting each other, day after day. People for whom the love and bitterness have become so entwined they can't be separated anymore, so they twine around each other in spirals that go on and on and on... There might be no major events, nothing that would make it onto Jerry Springer, but there's a parade of little things, like the Death of a Thousand Cuts. And even in the good families there are still sore places, memories nobody speaks of at the Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone's wounded. Nobody grows up unscarred.

 Cheery thought, eh? Actually I think it is, in a crooked sort of way. Because scarred or not we do grow up, and we deal with the shit and move on - and that's a win.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Packed with Good Stuff

  Well, there's been a bit of a change in my life this past fortnight. I'm now in a relationship with a woman named Caroline, who's clever and tough and brooks no nonsense from anyone. I've known Caz for some time, and liked her, but since she was seeing someone else I couldn't speak. However, we're together now, and I couldn't be happier.

  But it's going to cut into my writing time....

  The good news there is that TROY: Heirs of Immortality is finished. The first draft is, anyway, so now I'll leave it for a month and turn to other things, tinker with another story or start a new one, and then return to Troy II to edit. I loathe redrafting, it's just boring and technical most of the time, and has none of the creative spark that actual writing does. But it has to be done, in both online and traditional publishing, so there's no point complaining. I knew the deal when I signed up to it.

  What I'll actually spend this month or so doing is a new version - the fourth - of a story called Starfire. There have been so many because I haven't been able to make the story work. It has masses of good ideas and elements; different magics and cultures, non-human creatures, ancient power struggles and a secretive group of archivists, to name only some. But the story won't let itself be told. The third effort failed because several people told me the opening sounded like an info dump, with too much information thrown at the reader too fast. Trouble is, avoiding that meant restructuring the story from top to bottom, and I didn't really know how to go about that, besides which Troy was under way by then.

  This is a pain.

  But I was thinking about it the other day and I had an idea about an 'in'. Essentially it involves throwing away nearly everything I wrote, and coming at the story from a different angle. It should be more immediate and direct, so what I throw at the reader isn't dry info but a series of events that slowly come together to reveal what's going on. There's a good story somewhere inside Starfire, it's packed with good stuff, and despite all the problems I still believe in it. My job is to find that story and tease it out.

  So... my To Do list now reads: redraft Troy II, write Troy III, redo Starfire, keep sending Black Lord of Eagles to conventional publishers, redraft volume one of Chained Dragon and then do volumes two and three, and proceed with The Playground of Fawns (set in an analogue of ancient China). Including all the sequels it adds up to ten volumes. That's five years work right there, minimum, and I somehow have to do this while also making Caz happy and taking her out now and then.

  My life. Packed with good stuff.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Leap of Courage

  In a Fantasy novel there's going to be some fighting. Maybe a pitched battle, maybe a riot, but there's nearly always physical conflict of some sort. In my work I try to show it as an ugly thing, which means a degree of realism. I remember that I'm telling a story, people don't want to see anything too graphic, but I also think of Saving Private Ryan and know there's a place for a certain amount of gore.

  In the real world we've come to disassociate war from its horror, to a large extent. We've all seen the images taken from cameras on aircraft, or tracking a missile to target, and they really do look like video games, all green flickers and numbers down the side of the display. It's the reverse of what the ancient Greeks did, in a world where warfare took place at a distance, in an exchange of arrows and stones. Greek warriors were farmers who couldn't be away from home for long, and their homeland was mostly mountains with few flat places, both of which factors contributed to their preference for close up, hand to hand fighting. This was a choice, not a last resort: it's how they wanted it. But it was a genuine transformation of warfare, because up close combat is visceral and personal, and it takes a leap of courage to brave it. An arrow is aimed at an area, but a swinging sword is meant to kill you, and you can see the eyes of the man who wields it. The awfulness of death is right in your face the whole time.

  In truth, war is still like that. So is suffering, for people in pain or hunger. In the Western world we rarely come closer to such things than a picture on a TV. They're far-off events, made impersonal by distance. Yet hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq over the past eleven years, many of them killed with knives or marketplace bombs. Tens of thousands have died in Palestine over recent years, either at Israeli hands or one another's. Perhaps more than two million have been killed in DR Congo during its long civil war, often hacked to death with machetes in the bloodiest conflict since World War Two. In those countries, and many more, war isn't a distant or impersonal thing, it's a horror that walks at your shoulder every day.

  I have an upcoming series called The Blessed Land, in which the battles are made very shocking. I do it deliberately, because part of the story addresses a group who trigger a war simply for their own interests, and I wanted to show what they caused as unflinchingly as I could. I'm also writing the TROY series, of course, which of necessity includes a lot of battle scenes; there's no way around that. But having written these stories, I want now to move away from it if I can. There are other ways to show conflict, other means of raising tension.

  It's very hard to think of a Fantasy novel that doesn't include armies in battle though. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic makes a stab at it but does have some scenes. Mark Chadbourne manages it sometimes, Storm Constantine goes through much of the Magravandias series without it, and there are Peake's Titus books, but for each of them, there are dozens which revel in it. Anything by David Gemmell or David Eddings, Jordan's Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings, most of Terry Brooks' Shannara stories... the list just keeps going.

  There's a place for battle in Fantasy, of course there is. I'm not saying I want to cut it out completely. But I want some of my books not to focus on it, or wallow in it. If I'm any good at all I ought to be able to create an intriguing plot through more subtle conflict. After all, as the countries I mentioned above show, there's quite enough war in the real world without us escaping to invented battles as well.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Back on the Path

  Hi everyone, and first of all an announcement. TROY: A Brand of Fire is now available via Smashwords, at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/446968. So now you can find it in pretty much all online book stores and almost all formats. Just $0.99, too.

  OK, plug over, now onwards.

  I read out a sample of my work at the monthly authors' meeting at Barnstaple Library last Saturday (the 7th). It's the first time I've read in that group, and I picked a new piece - the opening of Kaprikorn - because it's a first draft, and still pretty raw. I thought I'd be better able to make changes as suggested than with a more developed piece.

  Well, that was a good call. The other writers liked it, generally, and some parts they thought were very good. But I still came in for some criticism - all of it deserved, too. Some of the (justified) comments were that the story starts too slowly, that the 2nd passage ought to be 1st, and that it's not immediately clear that Mani is the main character. People liked my use of language and my characters, but not the structure of the story.

  Someone once said that we write first drafts for ourselves, and only think of readers when we reach the second draft. Well, maybe. But I think writers often write for ourselves even when redrafting or editing. It's natural enough, since we spend so much time planning and writing on our own, that we'll listen to our inner voices more readily than we will to outsiders. Bit by bit other people's voices fade away, while our own remain clear. We end up losing sight of the goal.

  That goal is, of course, to publish a book that will sell at least reasonably well. Structure is very important in achieving that. What galls me a little is that I know it: I critique others in the Library group (constructively, I hope) on the same grounds. Throw the reader into the story from the first line, set up the dramatic tension right away. Simple things, but critical too, as important as cutting out adverbs and keeping a limit on your metaphors.  Writing isn't just about inspiration. It's about knowing how to put one word atop another and then another atop that, paragraph on paragraph, building the novel layer by layer.

  It's also about support. I'm late coming to that realisation, perhaps, because I've tended to think of authors as solitary folk - and we are, that's still true. But we're not entirely solitary folk. It does us good to meet up and chat, exchange experiences and triumphs, and commiserate over setbacks. At the same time we help remind each other that the fundamental things apply, and we can nudge each other back onto the path when our feet stray a wee bit from it.

  The guys at the Library are right, Kaprikorn needs to be reshaped. I can do it easily enough, I think I know how already (though TROY II has to be finished first). But without the honest advice of Rebecca, Michelle, Sue, Colin and all the others, I might not have seen it until so late that a total rewrite was needed. So thanks people, you saved me some work and you led me back out of some treacherous ground.

  It's good to have friends.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Busy Summer

  Hello all, and welcome to my increasingly stressed life. I'm scrambling to finish Troy II as soon as I can, because there's a hectic summer ahead. It's not just the usual things - my nephew's birthday, bike rides in the sunshine, and hikes on Exmoor. (I probably won't be able to do that last, because the nail is about to fall off my bad toe, and hiking on that injury might not be too clever.) There's something else.

  The World Cup.

  Yes, I know, England have no chance. They're not the Three Lions right now, more a sort of three-legged whippet. But this tournament is in Brazil, and my lord, I can't help but be excited. I want to see how Argentina play, and whether Ghana can deliver on their promise. Will Germany bounce back yet again? Will Belgium show why they're dark horses, and will Brazil themselves handle the immense pressure? Brazil are favourites, but if they crack the title is up for grabs, and any of six or eight nations could seize it.

  But in this 25th anniversary year of the Hillsborough disaster, there are real dangers. Brazil was well behind its building schedule and has rushed to finish several stadia, some of which have seen workmen killed in a series of accidents. I wonder how many corners have been cut to get those places finished on time. There are too few hotels, too many appalling roads, and far too much rioting in the streets in protest at the cost of the tournament. It would be a surprise if there wasn't a serious problem at some stage this summer. I only hope it doesn't involve a lot of deaths - but it might.

  That puts the football into perspective. Any sport is just entertainment in the end, no different from watching a film or yes, reading a book. The Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that football wasn't life and death, but "much, much more important than that." It isn't, as Hillsborough reminded Liverpool in 1989. Football is an escape; again, like a film or a book. It's life to many people, but it's not something we should have to dare death in order to enjoy.

  In a way it ties into the question of how realistic fiction should be, doesn't it? But only to a point. If you're caught in a riot or a stadium collapse in Brazil then you're caught in it, but even the most realistic novel can be put down. The thrills are vicarious. Which is how it should be.

  I'll be watching the England games with a pint in my hand, hooting at every misplaced pass and cheering every goal. I can't help it. And y'know, somewhere in the midst of it all I might, just might, start to hope for the extraordinary. Well, I do write Fantasy, after all. Though I probably won't write much on the days when England play.

  I remember Istanbul 2005, when Liverpool came from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan and win the Champions' League. Sometimes fantasies come true. Just now and then.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Capricorn

  I appear to have an infected toe. Sounds like a joke, doesn't it? Bit painful really though, so I'm spending a lot of time either a) sitting in the sunshine in the park, or b) sitting at my PC writing. And playing games, a bit. Not much, honest.

  Life is so hard sometimes.

  Anyway, I've had a crackerjack new idea, which all came from idly reading a history book while something boring was on the TV  (I think it was Avatar - stunning effects, terrible derivative story. It wants to be Dances with Wolves when it grows up). The book mentioned in passing that the star sign Capricorn is the only one remaining of the original Sumerian zodiac, in which it was represented as a "Sea-Goat" - body of a man, tail of a fish and head of a goat. They called it Kaprikornus and thought the Sea-Goats were minor deities. At which the old brain went whiz-bang for a second and there was my idea.

  This reading lark is terrific, isn't it? I don't really know why I had the TV on in the first place, books are way better than the average pap on telly.  Except that I live alone, so sometimes I want to break the quiet with music, or some rubbishy program on the tube. Then as often as not I read a book while something warbles to itself in the background, and quite often I discover something fascinating or read a tremendous new novel, and all's well in the world for a bit.

  (Speaking of which, I recently read Hugh Howey's Wool - an indie book, originally published online and now a big wow in the conventional publishing world. Good novel, too. It shows it can be done, people).

  So I stopped writing Troy II for a couple of days while I jotted down some ideas for Kaprikorn, and now have a finished chapter. I can't do more because I'll come too far out of the Troy story, mentally: I need to stay immersed or I'll get my plot lines terribly tangled. I might post the opening of Kaprikorn on here later, when I get back to it, just to see what you all think. Meanwhile I'm now back in Troy II, where the Greeks are in deep trouble and looking for a hero to pull them out of it. I've got 50,000 words down now, so one more solid push should see me on the home straight.

  I was asked recently if I'd help with another project, something that came from the local Library. There's a decent story in it, but I just have too much in my In-Tray already. My To-Do list includes Kaprikorn, a trilogy called Chained Dragon (one volume complete), a probable duology called The Playground of Fawns (3 chapters finished), and The Spirit Wood, which had half a volume done but which I need to rewrite. In short, if you want to add to my load then call me in about 5 years - by which time I'll have even more piled up, I expect, so if you ask, be prepared for some shouting.

  And yet... someone emailed me recently to say he'd bought Risen King, enjoyed it, and given it to his son to read. The son has now bought both Songs of Sorrow books and is immersed in the first. Just one instance of that every few months is enough to lift my heart a little: I might not be changing the world, but somewhere in that In-Tray is a story that will touch someone, somehow, and that's a pretty encouraging thought.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

A Proper Author

  Yesterday I hosted my first author event - just a small one, a meet-and-greet and book signing at Barnstaple Library. For a couple of days beforehand I went through long periods of calm broken by sudden attacks of gibbering panic, but it turned out OK. Part of the reason why is that a good number of friends turned up to support me, some of them writers and others from my work. I'm really grateful to them, so big thanks for that to Ruth, Colin and Sue, Gill, the other Gill, and everyone else.

  Thanks as well to Elliot Anderton, who's a reporter for the local paper and who took a couple of photos, which will be in the Gazette with a write-up next week (Me! In the paper!). I was invited to do another signing at Bideford Library in the summer as well, and most importantly of all I sold a few books, so today was a good day.

  And you know, it wasn't half so scary as I was thought it might be. Once I was settled I found I could actually talk a bit of sense (don't tell my Mum, she'll never believe it). Writing is one thing, but as I've said before, speaking sensibly about it is quite another. Sitting at my desk I get distracted sometimes, my thoughts wander, or else I write a bit and then delete it, write another bit and scribble half of it out before rewriting, and so and so - none of which really works when you're talking face to face. You'd come across as a stuttering loon. Also I have a tendency when nervous to make silly jokes. I'd be hopeless as a hostage negotiator.

  But people are generally willing to make allowances for nervousness. We're a good-hearted lot, most of us, and sometimes in the midst of worrying about something we lose sight of that. I think I did, in the run-up to this signing. I still half expect a day to come when everyone points at me and laughs, and someone says "You didn't really think we'd let you call yourself a proper author, did you?" Silly of me, that. The books are selling bit by bit and the reviews are all good. What more can I ask?

  Well, yes, apart from sales in the thousands and a film deal...

  It's amazing what this does for the confidence. If you're thinking about doing a first author event, my strong advice is to crack on and do it - at your local Library, at a school, in a nearby second-hand book store; wherever you can arrange it. It's not just for the sales, or the publicity, but for the feeling it gives, like breaking through ice to cool water beneath. Maybe this is just my relief talking, but you know, that itself shows how enjoyable I found this.

  Go on, put yourselves out there. I bet people will be glad to see you.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Babbling about Demons

  I'm off camping this weekend, onto Exmoor. That's a smallish upland in the west of England, for those who don't know - small, but wild in places. I'll likely see deer, wild ponies, trout in the streams and an otter if I'm very lucky indeed, but probably no other people. Best of all my phone doesn't get a signal there. It's complete isolation.

  I need that, now and then. A disconnect from the world. I was on an Outward Bound course when I was 17, in the Lake District, during which we were sent on "Solo", a couple of days stranded alone on a mountain. It was meant to teach us how hard it is to manage alone, and so remind us how great it is to be part of a team. Unfortunately I didn't feel that. Instead of missing my team I revelled in being left to my own devices, and afterwards found myself accused of not being a team player.

  Well, damn, you needed Solo to work that out?

  I suppose writers often are loners. Spending hours hunched over a pad of paper, or these days sitting at a PC desk, isn't going to be much fun if you spend the time craving conversation. We have to enjoy our own company, very often. But I think as well that this modern world is so crammed full of ways to communicate that many of us, writers or no, can find ourselves slightly overwhelmed by it. Not so very long ago you could only be reached by letter or land line phone. Now we have mobiles, tablets and laptops, with email and video chat available on all of them. A lot of us tweet constantly, which drives me mad. Now imagine being cut off from all that, unable even to pick up a signal on any of your devices. What would you do with your time?

  If the answer is that you'd feel restless, bored or frustrated, then stay home and watch the reruns of The Simpsons. Again. If you might feel slightly liberated, like a drained battery given a chance to charge... well, you're a bit like me. And would have done just as badly as I did on Outward Bound.

  Of course, I never completely disconnect: I'm one of those people whose brain never shuts down. Every night I have to remind myself to relax, often several times, before I can sleep. So I'll be up on the moor thinking about how to resolve a plot issue in Troy II, or trying to knit a decent new idea into an older thought that might mesh with it... for a while. After a day or so the mind lets go. There's nothing productive for it to do so it begins to do... nothing. Given a few weeks of that most people go a bit mad, like the prophets in the Bible who spent months in the desert and came out babbling about gods or demons. But just a few days is incredibly refreshing.

  So anyway, I'll be gone for 3 days, if all goes as I hope, through all of Easter weekend. If I come back dribbling on about being talked to by demons, I suppose we'll know why, eh?

  Take care.

Monday, 31 March 2014

An Attack of the Nerves

  Have to start with some sad news today. The owner of Dorian Literary Agency, Dorothy Lumley, passed away late last year. I only found out when I submitted Black Lord of Eagles to Dorian earlier this month, and received a letter in reply from the solicitors winding up her estate. So it looks as though Dorian will close, which is a loss to the industry. Ms Lumley herself always responded to my submissions with a hand-written note, something few agents or publishers take time to do, and her advice was always helpful and encouraging. She'll be missed.

  Right, onward then.

  This month I've spent a small fortune on my own books. I now have boxes of them teetering on top of a chest of drawers, among other places, because I need stock for upcoming events. In barely a month I have my author meet-and-greet and Barnstaple Library, on May 2nd, where I'll be signing copies (hint hint, turn up if you're about. I might even manage a smile for you). Then Waterstone's bookshop has agreed to take copies as well, and sell them in store as a local author kind of thing, just in Barnstaple. I don't know how many copies this will mean but I'd rather have too many than not enough, hence the stacks of boxes I have to sidle around.

  I'm trying to put together a short talk as well, just a couple of minutes of chat about why I write what I do. Someone might ask at the Library event, after all, so I ought to sound at least slightly sensible. The trouble is, even practicing on my own my speechifying voice goes like this, "I started writing when I was er. I was always interested um. The story is um er who goes and eek."

  I begin to suspect nerves may be playing a part. The last time I had to stand up and talk in public I was in school and my tongue got a bit tangled, possibly because I fancied one of the girls listening. Characters in my books don't fold their arms and stare at me when I hesitate, you see. It's terribly distracting when real people do.

  I'm going camping on Exmoor next weekend, if the weather is even halfway decent. All that quiet will be a good opportunity to sort this out. I enjoy camping on my own, all the pressures of life just fall away until there's nothing but the sky and whatever animals happen to be about. Wild ponies, buzzards, trout in the streams, maybe deer if I'm lucky. I haven't been out since last summer so I really need this, it's going to be great. Then it'll be back home and time to get ready for a big month.

  I want to say thanks to C J Brightley, who invited me to do a guest spot on her blog on the 25th March. I enjoyed it, though it feels a bit weird to be writing on someone else's blog. But anyway, thanks C J, it was fun.

  Finally, two of my books will be free from Kindle on Friday 4th and Saturday 5th of April. They're Blood and Gold and TROY: A Brand of Fire. Tell your friends about it, pass the word, and feel free (hehe) to pick one up. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Hitting the Right Keys

  I've just finished reading "Ruso and the River of Darkness", by Ruth Downie. It's part of a series of books following Ruso, a doctor or Medicus in Roman Britain, as he finds himself investigating various crimes. I haven't read the others, and only picked this up because I went to a talk by the author at the library. But you know, it was rather good. I read it in 3 days and enjoyed it right to the end.

  I think I can guess how much research went into this book. I do the same sort of thing, in that I use ancient cultures in my work, and research takes as much time as writing. You end up following a trail on the internet, tracking links from one page to another until you realise you have 8 windows open and are reading about the mating patterns of Anatolian frogs (which is not information you need, by the way). After a while you'll have sheafs of notes, page after page of them, and you know that only 1 detail in 20 - if that - will make it into the final draft.

  But those little pieces of flavour are what gives a book its feeling, its colour. When I write about a pseudo-Celtic world I need it to feel Celtic, and in the same way Ms Downie needs to make we readers feel immersed in Romano-British culture. Which she does very well indeed. Ruso of course has no forensics, no blood tests or fingerprinting; he has to find his answers by asking a lot of questions, and in doing so he travels through the Britannia of his day and so shows it to us.

  Ms Downie is in the authors' group which meets at Barnstaple Library once a month, as I am. Another member is Rebecca Alexander, author of "The Secrets of Life and Death", which is on my "To Read" list. It's great to have such writers there, it helps me (and I'm sure it helps the group) to spend time talking with people who understand, because they've had the same experiences.

  You know... days when the words won't come, or you're tired and keep writing words like 'wonberful' because you hit the wrong keys. When concentration won't come and you spend your writing time staring absently out of the window.

  Or the days when we realise we're hungry, look at the clock and find it's 2 in the morning and we've been writing for hours (and by some malign rule of inconvenience, usually have work tomorrow). Times when the words spill out all by themselves, pouring onto the page in a flood so rapid we can't check grammar, can't editorialise, we just get it written down and worry about the details later. Days when we check our progress and find we've done 10,000 words in a week, and aren't entirely sure how that happened.

  Other writers understand that because they've done the same things, nearly always. Sometimes I think the best definition of an author is someone who spends a lot of time humming idly while gazing into the middle distance, and sometimes scribbles a bit. But someone like that couldn't possibly manage all the research that we do. There's a perseverance in us as well; we know that writing a book is much more about perspiration than inspiration.

  Contradictory, we writers, aren't we?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

A Year in the Life

  A year ago today I moved house, leaving Pontypridd in Wales and heading to Barnstaple, in England. There were a number of reasons, not least that I was healthy again after my back operation - the first time I'd been OK for four years. I also wanted to find work, and thought I had no chance in Ponty. It's not exactly a hot bed for jobs.

  So here I am, and the calendar pages have turned the way they always do. Things haven't turned out quite as I'd hoped they might, in some ways. I'm working as a volunteer for Cancer Research UK, but I don't have a paid job yet; and I had a relapse of my back injury last autumn that landed me in physiotherapy for two months. Still, I am working, and at least my time at CRUK shows employers that I'm capable and reliable again (well, as much as I ever was, anyway).

  But my writing has begun to progress. I've published three novels since I moved, the Songs of Sorrow duology and now also TROY: A Brand of Fire, which opens a trilogy. Sales have been slow, to be honest, but the reviews have been very good indeed, much better than I'd even hoped for. Now I've made a few contacts in this new town, other things are now starting to happen as well. I'll be hosting a semi-formal meet-and-greet at Barnstaple Library on May 2nd, which will be covered by the local paper and at which I'll hopefully sell a few copies, and hand out some publicity cards. I'm also due to meet the manager of the local Waterstone's store, with a view to my books being sold there under a "Local Author" initiative. (Yes, my books would be in a proper bookshop!) I'll be speaking to people at other libraries too, and at Appledore Book Festival, to spread this effort a little wider if I can.

  And when you enter Ben Blake Author into Google, there's a raft of references to me in the first page, from Amazon and Smashwords to Facebook. That feels a little bit eerie in truth, as though the bloke on the search engines isn't the same as me - he might look the same, and talk the way I do, but gosh-darn it he's an imposter! That's not me. I'm just minding my beeswax while I write out another chapter of my latest - oh, yeah. Now it makes sense.

  It's a funny thing. Social media takes a lot of my time now, and publicity is shaping up to take a chunk more. It can be vexing sometimes but it's also necessary, and I meet fun people and we all have a chuckle, so it's not so bad... and yet I still sometimes nearly shriek with frustration because I'm updating a profile or tinkering with my website when I want to be writing. But of course the writing is still there, it still takes more time than the rest even if it doesn't always feel that way, and writing is the beating heart of everything I'm trying to do. Of everything I want to do, and what I want to be.

  Do I want to be rich? Famous, like the reality TV bone-heads who cram the airwaves? No, I want to write. Give me that and I stay sane. Give me that and my health, which is what I now have.... and Barnstaple is right where I want to be.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Publication, and the Library

  TROY: A Brand of Fire is out!

  The cover image is to the right now, but you can't click on it yet, for some reason when I add the link it won't save. I'll figure that out (or wait for blogger to solve it) ASAP.

  But anyway, it's out, and this time I'm following up the publication of a new book by hosting an author event at Barnstaple Library, on 2nd May. It's just a meet-the-author sort of thing - I'll have a couple of desks for copies of my books, some poster boards, and so on - but there'll be a reporter from the local paper there, a chap called Elliot, and hopefully it will raise awareness of my work. Afterwards I hope to have a similar event at Waterstones bookshop in town, and then later at other nearby libraries; Bideford, Ilfracombe, even Exeter in time.

  It's a bit scary, to be honest. Writing novels is about sitting in a quiet room with no distractions, and certainly no other people. Talking about writing, now... folks will be looking at me. They might even listen to me (a bit), and that means I have to sound as though I know what I'm yakking on about.

  This poses a bit of a challenge. Authors like the shadows under rocks, we don't like blinking in the sunlight. Shadows are nice.

  But this has to be done, if I want to make anything of my writing. It's unavoidable, so I might as well start now, in a small way, and get used to it. Besides, there's a hint of a thrill about it too, as though this makes the whole writing lark more real, not just a way to while away quiet hours. So there it is. If any of my local friends and readers can make it to Barnstaple between 10 am and 12.30 pm on Friday 2nd May, I'd be glad to see you at the library.

  PS - the link is working now, so just click on the TROY cover and it'll take you to Kindle.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Unmeasured by Mortals

  I thought we'd have a bit of a change here today, since my new novel "Troy: A Brand of Fire" will be coming out in a couple of weeks. It seems a good idea to use the blog to give you an excerpt of the novel, taken from the very beginning when I'm trying to set the tone and feel of the book.

  So not much of my chatter this time. Here instead is a preview of the tale of mighty Troy.


Book One                Blood Red Roses

Chapter One

A Thessalian Field

The great boar turned at last just beyond the woods, in a wide vale sprinkled with the crimson droplets of anemones.
The chase had lasted half a day by then, and the heroes and princes of Greece were strung out across the hills like ants in the sun. Fewer than half of those who had roused the beast from its peace in the wood remained to fight it when it turned, and those were all tired beyond reason. Many of them didn’t get their spears down in time.
Castor, the heir to Sparta, was picked up on a tusk and tossed thirty feet through the air, a broken leg flapping like a torn sail.
Chaos reigned after that, as men struggled to bring the points of their spears to bear on the rampaging animal. Atalanta shot the creature but missed its eye, and her arrow did nothing to slow it. A bronze knife, thrown by no less than Theseus of Athens, whipped over the boar’s shoulder and buried itself in the thigh of Telamon, who gave a fearful bellow as though he was a beast himself. He took a step forward and fell over.
The boar was upon him in an instant, mouth gaping to reveal rows of curved yellow teeth.
It ran straight onto another man’s spear, driving the bronze point deep with its own rage and momentum. Even then it didn’t stop attacking. It began to chew along the ash length of the spear, impaling itself more with every convulsion but also coming closer to the man at the other end. The air was filled with grunts and drops of porcine sweat. The animal reached the middle of the spear and was stopped, foiled by a crosspiece of wood put there for just that purpose. It roared and thrashed even harder.
Then ageing Theseus was there, driving with his legs to thrust his own spear deep into the boar’s flank. A moment later the young prince of Mycenae, Agamemnon, did the same from the other side. And then everyone joined in, ramming spears from all angles while the pig screamed and flailed in utter fury, until finally it made a strange coughing sound and died.
The men let go of their spears cautiously. Behind them Atalanta came up, an arrow still half-drawn and her eyes sharp. But the boar didn’t move. Arms wiped sweat from faces, and a few men found the energy to smile.
“Well,” Theseus said finally. He turned to the man who had first impaled the creature. “That was good work, Peleus. Artemis herself couldn’t have done it better.”
“Is it possible,” Telamon demanded, sprawled in the grass a short distance away, “that one of you kopros eaters might actually help me up?”

*

Boars represent war, and death. They should perhaps have remembered that, those kings, before they gathered for the hunt.
An hour later the chariots had started to come up, bringing the men who had fallen behind as the chase wore on. There were great names among them: some titans of the past, others giants whose time was yet to come. Among the former was Atreus, the High King, stooped and worn now like an old sandal, attended by three pretty handmaidens who rode a chariot of their own. He was stopped and almost completely bald: not one of them was more than seventeen. Most men thought they were for show, a boast for all men to see. Surely Atreus had no use for young women now except to look at, and stir faint memories of the days when blood ran hot in him and the colours of the world were bright and clear. Nobody said so aloud though, or if they did they whispered it behind a cupped hand, and only to trusted friends. Carefully.
The gods gave the House of Atreus pride, men say, but not wisdom. They had given them temper as well, and that was one thing about the High King that had not diminished with the years.
The younger men included three who were judged too young to join the hunt proper, but old enough to ride with the followers, and see the chase unfold. One was Atreus’ younger son Menelaus, the younger brother to Agamemnon, a good charioteer but a soft spear, or so the murmurs said. Alongside him rode Telamon’s towering son Ajax, a man so big he drove his own chariot because the horses couldn’t pull him and someone else besides, not for any distance. A careful distance behind these two came a slim youth with brown hair, nondescript compared to red-haired Menelaus and the looming form of Ajax. He was from a tiny island in the west. His name was Odysseus.
Behind all these came the wagons, each one drawn by eight sweating horses and burdened with sacks of grain and amphorae of wine, great barrels of figs and olives and nuts. Servants leapt down and began to lay out tables, covered with embroidered cloths. Others went to the boar with skinning knives in their hands, only to be stopped by Atreus.
“Let the priest do his work,” he said. “We can wait a little longer for our meat.”
The priest was a servant of Apollo, an old man in a once-resplendent white robe now spattered with mud thrown up by the chariot wheels. He had tried to wipe it off and only smeared the stains instead, making them worse. As he moved forward a new arrival dismounted from his chariot and went to join the other kings, limping slightly on the uneven ground.
“King of Messenia,” Theseus said, inclining his head.
The smaller man nodded back, just as minimally. “Lord of Attica. I see you are well.”
Theseus smiled a tiny smile. “I see you couldn’t keep up.”
Nestor didn’t rise to the taunt. He was almost a decade younger than Theseus, and could have kept up well enough if it hadn’t been for a tummock of grass that snagged his foot and turned his ankle over. Theseus probably knew that anyway. He was just taking his chance to score a point.
It was remarkable, really. Thirty years ago Theseus had been the darling of all Greece, famed for killing the terrible Minotaur of Knossos and throwing down the Minoan civilisation there, almost alone. He’d entered the maze of tunnels beneath the palace and slain the priests and their awful monster, and then slipped away unseen. In the ensuing chaos people fled the city, convinced their bull god had abandoned them, and Theseus found King Minos unguarded and killed him in his own throne room.
On his way home he’d abandoned Ariadne on Naxos Island, tossing her aside now her usefulness was done in a gesture of magnificent contempt.
Then he met Atalanta.
She was famous too, the Arcadian princess who refused to conform. Neither her parents nor their priests could make her obey. Atalanta liked the outdoors, not scented baths and weaving. She dressed in a chiton like a man, and ran or climbed with the boys, and she refused to be caged. Finally her parents gave up trying and just let her run free. By the time she was twenty she was as good a hunter as any man in Arcadia, fleeter of foot than most and better with a bow than anyone in Greece, man or woman. She’d refused a dozen offers of marriage by that time, some from princes of other lands. Her father the king, knowing it was impossible to force her against her will, only shrugged and let her go her way. People began to say she must have sworn an oath of virginity to Artemis, and would never allow any man to touch her.
She and Theseus met when both were hunting a lion in Boeotia, not far from Mount Helicon where the Muses dwell. They were in their prime then, strong and proud, ready to abandon whatever they were doing to go chasing after a beast that rumour said was unusually fierce. Neither spoke of it often, but it was known that they’d killed the lion and then spent a week together, sleeping under the stars and going where the mood took them. They’d been together ever since, though Atalanta had never slept under a roof as far as Nestor knew. Still, her hand on Theseus’ shoulder now stopped him, and with a shake of his head the Athenian turned from Nestor and moved away.
Beyond them all another man stepped down from his chariot, this one dressed not in a chiton but a shirt and kilt, and wearing boots instead of sandals. His brown hair was cut short, barely an inch from scalp to manicured end, more like a slave than a free man. Nestor nodded to him too and went to stand with Peleus, not far from Odysseus and the other younglings.
”Kalapogma Apollo,” the priest said. Murmured conversations came to an end around the field. His voice was slightly nasal, giving each word a whine as it entered the ear. “Hear now your servant Archilaus! I come to you with head bowed, in all honour, in the names of the kings and lords gathered under your light today. Heed my words, Lord of the Bow!”
“Theseus doesn’t like you,” Odysseus murmured, almost in Nestor’s ear. The crackle of a votive fire bowl being lit would have kept anyone else from hearing him speak. “Why?”
“Theseus doesn’t like anyone who can add two numbers and get the same result every time,” Nestor answered in an undertone. “He’s great fighting bull kings, but not much use with his brain, our Theseus. I think it’s mostly fat between his ears anyway.”
There was a pause, and then Odysseus whispered, “You told him that, didn’t you?”
It was hard not to laugh. Odysseus was easily the cleverest of the younger nobles in Greece, though he was still young and na├»ve enough to think he could speak openly in a gathering of lords and not risk being overheard. Still, it was a shame he’d been born to the king of tiny Ithaca, and not as heir to Mycenae or Sparta, or to wealthy Argolis. He might have changed the world, if he’d been born there. As it was, hardly anyone would listen to Odysseus even when he spoke wisdom.
“I might have said men like him were the past in Greece,” Nestor said, “and men like me, who can think, are the future. Men like you too. Now be quiet, there’s a good lad. I want to listen.”
The woody smell of burnt frankincense wafted over the assembled men as the priest went on speaking. “Send us your favour, Lord of the Sun! We await your word!”
He bent and slit the boar down the middle. The curved knife was whip-sharp, but even so he had to saw it back and forth to penetrate the think skin of the animal at his feet. Innards spilled out onto the grass. An attendant stepped swiftly up and wafted the bowl of burning frankincense under Archilaus’ nose.
The priest’s eyes flickered and he fell to his knees. He had gone pale with that inhaled smoke, and his hands trembled as though palsied. He blinked and his irises were missing, leaving only the whites of his eyes, and when he spoke the nasal whine was gone and his voice throbbed from deep within his chest.
“From this moment the world turns towards war,” Archilaus said. Or the god said through him, in truth. “There will be glory and sorrow unmeasured by mortals, and amidst it shall be the son of the man who first impaled the boar, a warrior ten times greater than his father.”
Afterwards, even years later, Nestor swore that when the priest fell silent a breeze soughed across the valley, ruffling the hair of the silent men. There was no other sound. One by one heads turned towards Peleus, standing at Nestor’s side in the wide circle; Atreus and his sons, Theseus with Atalanta by his shoulder, even the stranger in his kilt and boots. It was a great pride for a man to have a renowned son, but a great sorrow to be so insignificant that your get outshone you. What Archilaus had said was a curse. Nestor looked at Peleus and saw, to his surprise, that the big northerner was smiling.
“A toast!” Peleus cried. He strode to the nearest table and scooped up a cup of wine, already watered by the servants. “To my son, who will grow into a warrior to outshine us all. To Achilles!”
The breeze sighed once more, and then time resumed its steady tread, the sun moving across the dome of the sky.

*

 Caesura

I was not there that day in Thessaly, when the boar fell to Peleus’ spear. I heard the tale later, when I had grown to an age when my elders thought me worth talking to. When some thought so, at least. There are always men who cannot bring themselves to regard a hollow-chested youth with a club foot as a proper man at all, who turn away rather than speak as though feebleness might be catching if they open their mouths.
I became a storyteller, and then people talked to me.
Every king wants his name remembered. They build palaces for their sons and burn the houses of enemies, all to make a mark on the world. They etch their names in silver and have them carved into stone, and still it’s not enough. Still they want more. When the sky shudders to the echo of their name, chanted by multitudes, then they might be content. But I doubt it.
As a teller of tales, I was sometimes given a place in the megaron of a king. A long way down the table, or across the hearth, far enough away that the lord and his cronies could pretend not to see me – but close enough to hear. That was how I learned what had happened on that hunt. I heard it in Atreus’ hall, and in Nestor’s in the west, and Peleus’ own poorer palace to the north. Later I heard it told in Mycenae again, seated on the same bench as when Atreus spoke, but this time it was his sullen son Agamemnon who told, short days after his father had been laid into his tomb.
It was there, too, that I heard of the death of Theseus, leaping from the cliffs of Attica into the sea three days after Atalanta passed in her sleep. She was several years past fifty by then: a good age for any woman, but remarkable for one who slept in the open from choice. Atalanta was not a woman who took easily to imprisonment. Perhaps that was why Theseus loved her so. He longed for the one bird he could never catch. Happiness is elusive for such men.
I’ve long thought I should write a play about their story. A hero king, home from slaying the dreadful Minotaur; and the free-spirited maiden who takes his great heart and ties it on a thong about her neck. Perhaps I will, one day, if the Fates spare me and the seasons are kind.
But this is a greater tale, the story of the age. There has been none greater since Zeus threw down his father and the time of the Twelve Olympians began. It is the story of what flowed from that day in the Thessalian meadow, the events which came down through time to fall upon mortal men. Is it bad luck or good, to be fated to live in such times? I have heard the tale told in a hundred halls by a thousand tongues, and I do not know. Perhaps Zeus himself does, the Lord of the Black Cloud on his throne atop Olympus. Or perhaps not, for even the gods are subject to Fate, not masters of it.
This is a tale of the fall of kings, the ruin of empires and of pride. A tale too of love and honour. And for much of its length it is my tale, the story of how a crippled boy went from the lakes of Magnesia to the walls of Troy, to the halls of kings from Greece to Phoenicia, and who knew the men who walked with gods on their shoulders. Achilles, Hector with his voice of thunder, Diomedes shining like silver in mud. Agamemnon, king of kings, and great Ajax hefting his oblong shield, and Paris staring down from the wall at the chaos his recklessness had brought. I remember Helen, first demure in Sparta and later standing forth in Troy, proud as Aphrodite with the golden apple in her hand.
And I remember Odysseus, an ordinary man standing usually in a corner or half in shadow, speaking little but always watching, watching, and smiling his wry smile.
I knew them. I spoke with them, and they with me, and I heard the thrum of the gods in their words and saw divinity glimmer in their eyes.
I am Thersites. I will tell you of Troy.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Prophecies of Glory

  Morning all. Well, after lots of editing and a small amount of gnashing of teeth, I'm finally happy enough with the novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo to say it's ready to publish. This is the cover, created as always by Mark Watts;


  I may have to jigger things around a bit when I go through the publishing process; Amazon are devils for that. But this is basically how the cover will look. I think it's great, it has the look of ancient Greek art and just a hint of age about it, as the black peels away or fades in patches.

  I've said before that I've written this because I'm not satisfied by any of the versions of the Troy tale that I've read. Lindsay Clarke's was short and superficial, David Gemmell's too heavy on battle scenes and too light on everything else. So I'm telling the story a different way. Part of volume one deals with the reasons for the war - some of them cultural, others more to do with foolishness or pride. I think Troy may have been a war that nobody really wanted, at the start.

  For all that, though, there are characters here who no one can ignore. Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, Paris and Helen, Odysseus, and most of all Achilles - it's been said that The Iliad should actually have been called The Rage of Achilles, and there's some truth to that. But there are also lesser characters, if you like; farmers and artisans who find themselves under the walls of Troy, or defending them, and who have their own hopes and fears. There are gods, and nymphs, and prophecies of glory or doom, all making the background against which the struggle plays out. It's an incredibly rich story, the greatest tale ever told as I said in an earlier blog. The trick is to keep the feel of it, all the passion of the original myth, while making it fresh and surprising at the same time.

  So I've made changes. It got me wondering though, about how much people actually believe about the Trojan War. We know Troy was real: Schliemann found the site in 1871. But what else? I'd be interested to know what you all think. Was Helen a real person, the cause of the war? Was she abducted? Did the Greeks really build a giant wooden horse and trick their way into Troy, and was it after ten years?

  I have my ideas, but new ones are always welcome. There's sometimes a moment when a new idea makes me think oh wow, I can do it this way instead, and the story changes in my hands. It happened in Songs of Sorrow, when Luthien was meant to do a certain thing and I realised he just wasn't the sort of man who could. So off the story veered, in a new direction. It could happen in Troy just as easily.