A Thousand Roads is OUT!

For those of you not on my newsletter, this is the BIG DAY. After 7 years of work, A Thousand Roads is OUT. No need to repeat myself, so I’ll link you to the newsletter. Sign up if you want to be on future updates (links in the newsletter).

Click the image to open the newsletter:

My newsletter is periodic and focused specifically on my epic fantasy writing and progress on that, whereas this blog will continue to be a freer forum discussing anything from living under the reign of two cats to gardening to the occasional reflections on writing life or writing tips.

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The Iliad: a review

I do not usually post my book reviews on my blog, though Goodreads does have a link to past reviews (right-hand column). As I’ve run out of things to blog about, at least for the present, I figure I’ll start posting book reviews here as well, for further visibility.

Enjoy!

>>>>

[read the review on my Goodreads page]

This book was an epic undertaking for me. In total, I recorded 137 hours of reading time that went into processing it fully. Even A Clash With Kings, a 1300 page epic fantasy, took me 50 hours to read, so this truly was the most complex read I’ve done to date. (For what it’s worth, though I am a slow reader, a typical “simple” genre fiction or nonfiction novel usually takes me about 5-8 hours to read.)

Reviewing this book is difficult. A review about the book itself feels pointless, since this is one of the oldest books in existence, and a foundation of not just the epic fantasy tradition, but much of literature, even culture. Enough has been written about it, so I cannot add anything that I feel is useful. My review then would be more about my experience of 137 hours with Homer and his words, as presented by the brilliant and meticulous translator, Robert Fagles.

That itself is probably what stands out most in this copy of the Iliad I read. Put together by Penguin Classics, the book gave me the experience of getting lost in analysis of Homer’s hypnotic poetics. I might have taken 137 hours to read and analyze this text, but that’s a fraction of the time Fagles spent over the 2 decades of his research he committed to writing the translation presented in this book. Some purists would say without reading the Greek, one cannot truly appreciate the Iliad, but Fagles has given enough notes (including a glossary with notes on every name, including pronunciations), that as a writer reading to improve my writing (and not a classics scholar), I did not feel in reading the English prose that I was missing the appreciation for the source material. The essay by Bernard Knox at the beginning is itself a masterpiece, 60 pages of analysis that set my expectations correctly when I began the translation proper, without which I would have felt I was just jumping into some poetry that would invoke soon images of Brad Pitt on the shores of Troy.

Reading this book was a true maturation process for me personally, in that it has instilled an endurance for me with reading itself. Whereas my past tendency has been to feel I should be rushing faster through books, to read more, this book taught me the importance of doing the opposite. True, there are millions of books, and there are so many to read. But does it really matter if you’ve read 2000 books, or 5000, or 700 that you know intimately like your own soul? What does it mean to read, to sit and immerse yourself in text and the existential experience of it?

That was the main takeaway for me from reading this copy of The Iliad. How fitting for a book whose origin might indeed have been the origin itself of writing stories down using the new invention brought to Ancient Greece by the Phoenicians, which later would become our Latinized scripts. How fitting to contemplate just what it means to sit and read a book when reading a book whose author was taking an innovative leap — daring to write down what could only be spoken, daring to capture the fleeting, the auditory and dramatic experience that would ever change unless it was copied into a form that would live longer than the short life of mortals. How fitting for me, a writer struggling to do the same, to sink into this foundation, and emerge a butterfly.

I look forward to reading many more books, but will read none of them the same thanks for the experience of this book, this rite of passage. Onward I go to Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Middlemarch by George Eliot, the Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Leguin. The Iliad and Homer will shine like a bright sun, and will draw me inevitably back to the Greek world, via the Odyssey and other works translated by Robert Fagles, such as the Aeneid and the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

If you are considering reading some of the classics, especially a book like the Iliad, I highly recommend this translation presented by Penguin Classics. It presents a powerful intermediate between old, stuffy and outdated translations, and modernized, simplified texts that lose context. This book is fucking hard to read, but in the form it’s been presented by Fagles, it becomes a labor of love, not unnecessary torture.

I now have a column of books in my office by Penguin Classics, inspired by the experience reading this book, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which will help me tap into some foundation reading amidst my diversified pile over the next 8 or so years I spend writing my next book. I am truly grateful that Penguin has put together the classics in this form and that I discovered them through this version of the Iliad.

So here I conclude a different kind of review, about the value of reading a book, rather than the book itself. Those 137 hours will instead go into decades of inspiration that has rocked the universe of my fiction-making mind, and that defies any attempt to distill it into a review, but for those who want it, I would add:

Most ideas I had about what I thought the Iliad was were wrong. Basing it on the movie Troy, or even the slightly more accurate Troy: Fall of A City put out by Netflix, misses the mark. This book is not about a war or heroes or Greek gods. It is about the rage of Achilles, and that as a metaphor to appreciate the tragedy of war as it was perceived in the ancient world at a time when agricultural innovation was evolving into a new problem: that of alienation of neighbour from neighbour, through the guise of the great city and its walls and its deep treasury to be looted. How we rage over what has been denied us, and so exacerbate that into full-scale wars and impersonal conflicts, when in fact, like Achilles and Priam clasping hands, the true solution — uniting in compassion, empathy, understanding, setting aside ego — eludes us until the moment when it is too late. What a tragedy, that whole matter, and it is this itself that is Homer’s point. Not that there is a solution or a way out, but simply that this conflict has to exist when we, in our roots, evolved from cooperating tribes trying to work together to survive, and stopped learning how to share, and forgot how to be one family. What a tragedy, this rage of man against man.

A powerful book, and relevant in our day today, and in any future day so long as we live in strife and xenophobia and egotism, a true mirror into the collective human soul, as captured immortality by Homer’s hypnotic brilliance, to take that daring leap and write down a story, that it might live on and on, in many a heart and mind, that we might be forced to contemplate this fundamental, most important truth — this horror and injustice, this rage of Achilles — for many generations to come…for as long as it is relevant, living on like the glory of Achilles promised when he chose vengeance instead of long life and peace.

Posted in Blood Dawn, Fantasy, John's blog | Tagged | 2 Comments

Learn Something New Every Day

In the last year, I have learned a lot about myself as a writer. Probably the most unexpected lesson: I enjoy writing educational nonfiction.

I’ve written 12 courses now on the platform Highbrow (click here to see all my courses). I’m presently finishing my 13th. Writing these courses has been a great way to balance the longer time commitment of writing a fantasy epic by writing shorter projects in a different genre.

I started writing for Highbrow because I was a student of their courses and enjoy the format. The setup is great for anyone who wants to learn something new every day:

  1. You sign up for a course of interest (they have 300+ courses, which you can view here)
  2. Every day for 10 consecutive days, you receive a short lesson (500-700 words). It only takes 5 minutes to read
  3. If you sign up for a year, you can take 36 courses. This means you can have something new to learn every single day

Highbrow is also continually growing. It was mentioned by Writer’s Digest last year as an important resource for writers and has been recognized in the New York Times and Time magazine.

To this day, I keep my Highbrow course queue full and continually learn something new. Right now, I’m working through a course on the mad world of Roman Emperors. Probably my all-time favorite course was How to Read and Retain More.

If you decide to try Highbrow out, but are worried about getting overwhelmed with 10 emails each course you sign up for, remember you can always open and star each email, then read them later.

If you’re a writer interested in teaching through writing, Highbrow also is looking for good writers to become teachers. Check out their call for more teachers here. They have 400,000+ subscribers, so your lessons will get traction. The Highbrow team is also great and will work with you to help you pick a popular topic. They edit and produce your course, so you need only focus on putting together great material and doing your research.

If you’re not sure of the format, I recommend you take a few courses and see. Here are my latest courses:

 

 

 

 

 

 

I really can’t recommend Highbrow enough, and will write for them as long as they are willing, and I’ll keep taking courses as well.

Speaking of which, time to get back to work on my 13th course, this one on meditation techniques. As fall gets closer and the 2nd draft of Blood Dawn approaches, this is the perfect way to recharge my batteries and push that writing to a new edge.

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Every word is not enough

As I come up for air from 7 months of intensive revision, I come up with some perspective.

Writers are told that every word must count. As I’m learning, that’s not enough.

It’s difficult in draft 1, 2, or even 3, to make every chapter count. But making every sequence of paragraphs count is even harder, and that’s not even par. Making every paragraph count, and then every sentence, well, that’s just getting started. It’s no wonder I’m on draft 8 of my book, 1300 hours in, 7 years later, 6 editors and counting, and just now am I starting to get to grips with how to economize on every sentence.

There’s a reason we kill our darlings. Not just because we have to be evil writers, but because almost is never good enough. It’s not putting out a book we bank on, but putting out a book that will be remembered. This is tough work!

Making every word count, even that isn’t enough. Every syllable matters sometimes, and beyond that, every single character. Visual clutter will lose readers. To make a book work, every single line of text must carry the reader from the beginning to end, so much so they’d rather lose sleep than stop reading.

I used to think there was a formula to this. Draft 6 = sentence perfection, draft 7 = word perfect, and so on. This is simply not so. Sometimes, to get every word just right, it requires insight gained from 8 takes, getting it wrong every time, but getting other things right, and then that insight, being there in that moment when you finally get it, exactly what this paragraph needs, and all the words that flow are gold.

Never give up. Your story might feel rough and you might feel like a crappy writer, but gold is just shiny rock when it’s trapped in ore. Some writers prefer to keep writing 1st drafts, in hope they’ll eventually get it right, or throw their hands in the air at draft 4 and say, “Good enough, time to publish.”

I don’t think there ever is good enough. A book can always be better. We publish so we can share, but there’s a reason authors release 2nd editions, and 3rd and 4th.

I also don’t think one should just revise for revision sake. I’m on the 8th draft of my book, but only because the 7th draft left an enormous loose end that I simply had to fix, and knew it wouldn’t come to me without a rest. Going over draft after draft without writing other things in between is like being a dog chasing your tail. Fixing words and typos does not improve a book. A new draft can be as radical as a new book, built from the previous mould, but that requires perspective gained from writing other things. Even as I write this, and know my book will be published soon in print, I know it needs a 9th draft, though that will come near the end of the year, when I go over it all again to record it as an audiobook. Less and less will change, of course (even now I am limited in changing anything to the story that would change the presently published ebook), but there will be those moments where silver is spotted, and thrown away for gold, or some debris slipped past my tires eyes (I’ve been working on the 8th draft since December, and so far have clocked close to 200 hours of labor).

I might sound like a perfectionist. I’d say no. I’m a novelist, and I’d think any other kindred spirit out there would relate. Art is never finished, only abandoned, and it always gets better, our vision honed sharper though it.

In a way, it is a live performance, the audience waiting. You never know what could happen next, what improvisation might surprise. At any rate, 8 drafts and 7 years of work will produce a pretty good book, and I’m excited to unveil it in print format soon.

Those on my newsletter, get excited! The big announcement of the date is coming. But meanwhile, let’s find out how that last Game of Thrones episode is going to play out.

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Don’t write for the market, write for the heart

I recently read several writing articles that had tried and tested advice from those writers who have been fortunate to make a living on their craft. You’ve probably heard it too:

Write for the market. Figure out what readers want and give it to them. Somewhere in that, write what you enjoy. Learn to cut, change, alter, all based on what sells best.

This advice is, to me anyway, just plain dumb. Not because it’s practical, but because it defeats the whole point of what writing is about.

Telling writers they should conform based on what they think will sell is like telling people they should adopt a diet of canned beans. “Every nutrient and vital substance is here in this can. You can now cut out all the garbage and eat only what you need.”

Readers have shrinking attention spans today, this might be true. But if writers only write for what readers expect, and what they expect readers will expect, then what a sad death to creative diversity.

Write from the heart. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with this.

Even if you suck at writing, writing from the heart will keep you coming back to the keyboard. It will keep you thinking, “How can I get better at this?”

Even if your book(s) flop(s), well, you keep coming back, because the heart never runs out of energy. It never runs out of ideas.

Even if you have to scramble and go in debt and your life is a mess, you’ll always know you’re living for your deepest passion. You’ll do whatever it takes to give the time you need to write and improve. You’ll have the drive to lose sleep now and again, knowing that sacrificed dream time went into actually bringing dreams to life.

Wouldn’t it be nice to make a living off book sales. When the winners write history, they’ll give you all sorts of tips, but those tips ignore the “losers” who are writing their own history, possibly a history of tomorrow. In my mind, we are the winners, and our day is coming, which is why I’m so passionate about writing to be true to you, to your vision, to your passion.

There are so many kinds of fiction being written that change the life, even if in small ways, of readers here or there. These are the largest piece of the pie. The writing that has a sticker attached to it is only the tip of the iceberg. The mass market bestsellers capture many and many and many, but so has the obscure, almost forgotten fantasy book that happened to be on a hospital bookshelf and captured the heart of someone terminally ill who found comfort in it in their last days.

The problem with a diet of canned beans is you fart a lot. The same is true if every writer pushed themselves to write only for market and get to the top. The farts in this case are figurative.

I say don’t waste your time chasing markets. Invest your time chasing your unique vision and passion. Self-publish. Screw the traditional model, unless it fits in somewhere. Self-publish because there’s no censor on your vision and your voice.

Being self-published doesn’t mean being shitty, like the stereotype goes. It doesn’t mean being hasty and popping out a half-cooked muffin. Take your time and hack the process. Hire good editors and beat the shit out of your manuscripts, however necessary, to get something that’s been well-discerned and honed. Forgive yourself if it still flops because not every pancake turns out perfect. Make a whole batch, because tastes differ, and the pancakes get better the more you get used to the griddle and its nuances. And remember: a flop isn’t necessarily a flop. 30 copies sold are still 30 people who might be changed, in some way you might never imagine.

The griddle isn’t just the act of writing a draft in isolation. It’s the cogs of publishing: editing, revising, formatting, designing, publishing, marketing, getting read and listening to readers. You don’t need a big company to do it for you. I run an editing company and have several amazing editors who help self-publishing authors (http://www.storyperfectediting.com).

It costs money, true, but you’re better to spend money getting your work out to readers so you can start mastering those pancakes than you are in isolation with no sense of who will read your work and what it will take to be ready. Writing draft after draft in isolation is like mixing the ingredients for a batch: mix all you want, but the batter is still raw.

Write, publish, repeat. You’ve probably heard this advice before because it’s the title of a popular writing book. It’s catchy for a reason: suddenly you kick your ass out of the expectation that you have to write one perfect book and break in, and instead realize that actually, this is like scratching through a steel wall. Instead of scratching, go around the wall and start searching for drain pipes. There is a way in and it doesn’t have to lead to bloody keyboards.

When I dream of the fiction of tomorrow, it’s a fiction that is so far outside any box you can’t even place it anymore. No more cookie cutters, except when referring back to the history of how fiction evolved, those “turbulent times in the 21st century when the novel went through various limiting expressions, stemming from postmodern movements in the 20th century, before finally becoming so tangled and branched that categories no longer make sense, as is the case today.”

In the context of this dream, I don’t aim to be anything other than a writer who chases wild visions, whose voice will be sharp and alive, honed and strong. And I will be an author, because I’ll go through the process of write, publish, repeat, every time. I will have readers, even if the party room with my name on it is small and I have to find other ways to pay the bills.

Wouldn’t it be great to make a living off writing. But meantime, it’s great to live for writing, with no other ambition than to keep telling stories, and never stop.

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Why bother reading?

If you’re reading this, then I’ll ask you right now:

Why?

Why bother reading at all? Why are you taking time out of your day to open this up and read these words by some guy?

If you’re still reading, I’m honoured. You must have a reason you kept going.

I’ll try not to disappoint you.

See, I don’t know what to blog about when I’m not allowed to blog about writing. I like this challenge.

Reading is close to my heart. I can’t read enough. I’m convinced if everyone read for 4 or more hours a day, the world would be 10 times better.

It doesn’t matter what you read. If you’re on a high horse about a perfect program, that’s pretentious.

When I read, it’s to become less ignorant. I used to read to get more smart. What arrogance (in hindsight, it’s innocent naivety, but if I had a time machine, I’d go back and give my smart-ass past self a slap).

I think the greatest value I’ve found in reading has been reading things I already know. Correction: things I think I knew, but really, on setting away my pride and actually just opening my mind to be refreshed, I realize actually, I didn’t know like I thought! Ah, those are the best.

What’s a tam? Oh, it’s a round hat, or something to do with hardware. *stops and consults dictionary* Ah! A tam-o’-shanter, named after a Robert Burns hero in a poem of the same name.

That might make you roll your eyes, but to me, who never knew that before, it blew my mind.

I’d like to think that I’m not the only person like this. I’d like to think that we’re all ignorant in different ways. I’d like to think there are two kinds of reading: reading where you’re the co-pilot, and reading where you’re the pilot.

I believe reading as the pilot is bad. This is where you go wherever you want. You read what interests you. You filter out what doesn’t interest you. You skim or skip things you think you already know (but actually don’t, but you’ll never know that because you won’t steer your plane that way to discover it).

I believe reading as the co-pilot is the way for us all to share our tribe energy, as a human collective. That sounds nuts I’m sure (remember: I’m not allowed to spend long on these posts, nor to revise, so you’re getting raw John in his pyjamas again). However, compared to some of the rants on fake news feeds or other discussion forums, I’d like to think I’m completely sane.

Reading as the copilot is this:

Your eyes are open and you are taking in everything. It’s a meditation. The object of focus is whatever words are in front of your eyes. When you catch your mind wandering (ie skimming or getting bored), notice that and begin again. Return to what you’re reading, and process it. Change from the inside out. Trust the pilot, that she knows what she’s doing, and you’re taking everything in to ensure the trip is sound.

Maybe that’s a bad metaphor, but, well, I’m in my pyjamas, so forgive me.

There is so much about the world we don’t know. The worst is what we assume we know, but actually don’t know correctly. The enemy is ourselves, that impatient urge to grab the steering wheel. The need for control, and so we read, and we read into corners and become opinions rather than beacons of truth that percolate light for others.

We live in the age of fake news, fake information, thirdhand and fourth-hand sources, and worse. I think there is a way out, and it starts with the individual, specifically, the one who says “I don’t know what I don’t know” and from that place, begins anew; and with that wisdom, begins to read, begins to change.

And we can change those around us, with this, in small ways. I truly believe in the power of books and scholarship and collective wisdom, of combing the sources rather than dangling in the branches of skewed discussion forums and hurried articles with agendas. If you’re still reading, then you’re sharing some of my light, and I hope it will compel you, as I was compelled, and if not, then on you go. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, I’m just some guy writing a blog post.

But maybe I’m right, in which case some day there might be some value to this. I certainly can say every story I tell, everything I do as a writer, is infused with this belief, this insight that’s been growing in me some time now. This post will be buried and forgotten, but it’s only a small glimpse, because there will be more (but you’ll have to pay money for that).

“What do I read?” you might ask. It’s not so much what you read, but what attitude you bring with you when you read. It’s not enough to think you know nothing. That’s just a part-step. Going all the way means you admit that you don’t even know if you know nothing, or if what you know is true or part-true. With a mind like this, you become a child at heart, and inside: curious, without limit.

There’s no end to what you can be when you reclaim this. And when you read, you gain power, so much power: because everything you read can make you better, make you more empathic, more compassionate, more understanding, more angry at the hate in this world that should all end, more aware of history and how the world we live in today has been becoming what it is, and continues to be so. You learn, like being a student all your life. You don’t become hardened in your heart and resentful, because you also see hope, and if not that, then at least the reason for it. With that hope, even if you die and still the world is a bad place, you die at least yearning for it to be better.

And that’s all I have time for today. It’s time to read this week’s newspaper. Time to change a little more, and repeat tomorrow.

Until next time,

Happy reading.

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Holding an actual book

I will make two promises on this new approach to blogging:

-I will not talk about religion

-I especially will not talk about politics

But I will occasionally lapse into musings, or some of the things that keep me up at night. This is my blog and the place to pick my brain, after all.

Here’s one:

The value of holding a physical book in your hand.

This has a lot more meaning than might be obvious.

No, it’s not just about the psychology of how reading a book in print invokes different kinds of memory and experience (ie tactile). For me, it’s about what the gesture represents, more than anything else.

I’m typing this post up on my phone. Before this, I was reading my way through a print book (The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith). When I read a book, I by far prefer to read something physical.

It goes a step further. When I take notes, I write them on a cue card with a pen. When I look up words, I collect them by writing out the definition in a small-page binder. I do this for all notes, even when I’m reading through Wikipedia.

I’ve tried typing things up at my computer, but it’s not the same. It’s like reading at my computer: a different experience.

A few weeks ago on the BBC Global Podcast, which I listen to when driving, I heard an interview with experts discussing consciousness. The leading argument in question: panpsychism.

This is the idea that your chair is conscious. This blog post you’re reading right now is also conscious. In reading it, you are communing with it in your own way, like having coffee with a friend, except in a language of exchange much deeper than that.

If I wrote this blog post out by hand, it would have a different consciousness, the same way as J.R.R. Tolkien would be the same essential person if born as a woman instead of a man (but be completely different and unique).

What is consciousness? Such a deep question that keeps me up and often keeps me pondering.

So the book I’m reading, it’s just a book, printed by a printer, the words set in place by an author, tailored by collaboration. The ink came from a machine, spattered on the page by fine motor control and precision. That ink itself came perhaps from a chemical factory, or maybe even (at least in part) from the ocean itself as in the old days. The paper came from trees, and those trees grew in the forest, took in water, spread their roots. So many things come together to make that book. All these things, perhaps, may be the life and soul of its consciousness, if this new possible theory to explain consciousness turns out to be true.

Imagine that. Your day is a conversation with things in a language you don’t even know you speak. You are surrounded by life in manner beyond your comprehension.

Is it any wonder why a simple thing like taking a deep breath, closing your eyes and focusing on it, can be a life and world unto itself?

Oh the possibilities!

I still don’t have an answer for why reading a physical book translates to be something different than digital. Maybe I’m old fashioned. Or maybe I’m too attached to a dying trend. Or maybe . . . it’s not so much attachment as it is listening, listening to this older way that lives and breathes in the printed, tangible thing, a way that refuses to die, a way that asks us to remember, in our deepest hearts.

Here’s to the book, the printed book. Here’s to it being the last furniture remaining in our completely digital homes of the future. Here’s to a pillar to remind us always of what we are, like trees in the forest, bigger and older than us, in which we are immersed.

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