Painting with gold leaf, not easy

I’ve been practising applying gold leaf before I tackle the Dark Water Codex. OK, I’m not actually using gold leaf. It’s a very thin metal foil that’s a similar colour and sheen. Finding #1…it isn’t all that easy. Finding #2…’gold’ foil is ridiculously flyaway! Sneeze and you’ll wonder where it’s gone. Finding #3 (and this is the big one)…you need an adhesive that dries slowly and evenly. Like a regular bloke, I ignored the instructions and dabbled with PVA and a multi-purpose adhesive. No good, so I reached for the instructions where I discovered that I should be using varnish! Here’s the result of the latest test…

Third attempt

Third attempt

It would have been great to embed something like this in the book, speaking of which, ‘Dark Water’ now has two 5-star ratings in Amazon.co.uk. It’s on the way! Woo-hoo!

How to create an evil character

“Easy!” I hear you cry and perhaps you’re right. Place your hero in front of them, restrained on a chair with his hands pinned to a battered wooden desk and then hand a machete to the villain of the piece, or a rusty hammer. The hero’s fingers wiggle in horrible anticipation. “Oooh!” I hear you cry. “Argh! Nasty, nasty nasty!” Yep…easy. All I have to do is make you identify with the lantern-jawed, clean shaven hero with a twinkle in his eye and a penchant for rescuing [preferred fluffy animal] from [place of peril], then whomsoever wishes to inflict gruesome suffering on him is pure badness.

But…what if we want to make our baddie a bit more 3-dimensional? Let’s call him Gerald. What if we want the reader to see inside his head and understand why he’s about to perform a digitectomy on our dashing hero? We still want the reader to squirm in horror at what happens and be appalled at Gerald’s moral dereliction but we also want them to see his side of the story. Gerald didn’t start out bad. When he was a little lad, he used to play with Lego and cuddle a stuffed raccoon when he went to bed.

This is the conundrum I am wrestling with in ‘Dark Water’. One of the characters is capable of torture and murder but I want the reader to understand that my ‘Gerald’ has arrived somewhere where this is the only (if not entirely rational) course of action. Put simply, he has to have motive. If Gerald’s story unfolds in such a way that you can see that HE believes he’s doing the right thing, then the reader will be carried along too. [Top tip: It’s REALLY lame if Gerald explains it all in the final scene.]

For the best example – bar none – of a properly motivated villain, look to ‘Inquisitor Glokta’ in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Books of the First Law’. Glokta is the man you’ll love to hate. So, I have my work cut out. The good news though is that this is the toughest character to get right. Sentimental readers will swallow any soapy old nonsense that the good guys spout. ;-)

Writing Workshop

14th of July was a special day for me. I got to be a teacher for one day. Following on from my presentation to the Year 10s at Steyning Grammar School in March (see previous post), I was asked back to take part in a writing workshop.

Teaching isn’t something I’m trained for so it’s fair to say that I was significantly outside my comfort zone when I turned up at the school on Monday morning. In truth, it wasn’t hard. I had prepared a framework of what to say that also allowed time for the students to do some writing and for some critique. With that in place, I simply let my enthusiasm for reading and writing shine through.

“He was a big man.” – Well although there’s nothing technically wrong with this, it isn’t great is it? “He was a slab of a man.” – How is that different to the sentence above? Does it help you form a picture of the man?

“Steve picked me up in his old Vauxhall.” – Another weak adjective, ‘old’.
“Steve picked me up in his antiquated Vauxhall.” – Why use ‘antiquated’ instead of ‘old’?
“Steve picked me up in his dilapidated Vauxhall.” – Different again, isn’t it? This one’s falling apart. The antiquated one might be a classic car, the pride and joy of Steve’s collection.

English is an immensely rich and powerful language with so many extraordinary words to nuance what you want to say. The power of language has practical applications outside of the literary world, in business for example. It’s well known that you can influence the way people feel and make them behave differently using the right combinations of words.

The only real difficulty I faced was trying to get volunteers to discuss what they had written. The key to being a great writer is to review and rewrite your work. There’s always room for improvement and there are two key ways to ratchet up the quality of your own work.

Method 1) Allow other people to read and review it and really listen to what they have to say. Even if you’re sceptical, try and rewrite a piece of your work in response to some feedback. The result might surprise you and if it doesn’t, you can always revert to your initial draft.

Method 2) Review other people’s work and provide constructive criticism to others. It needs to be constructive; you simply must not trash someone’s work if you’ve offered to help. This will teach you how to look for improvements in your own writing. This is the best tip I can offer you.

Writing…what it’s all about

I suppose it’s possible that one day, I may own a small island, a yacht and helicopter and when I do, it will be hard to remember the original reason for writing stories. For now though, it’s great to bask in the knowledge that I wove a world in a distant land, made pictures in someone’s head and for a short while, that person was transported to my world and lived and breathed it! THAT is a really, really cool thought.

I received this feedback below from someone on Goodreads…

“I loved your book! Actually, I borrowed it from my cousin Tiffany who won it on here. :) She read it first and loved it so I read it too. You are an incredible writer and I can’t wait to read the second book when it comes out! Thanks for sending my cousin the book so I could read it.”

Zoe Saadia – ‘A Thing for the Aztecs’

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Zoe Saadia in this article. Not only is Goodreads providing me with ideas for books to read, it’s also helping me to make new friends across the globe. Zoe is one such friend and she’s important to me because she’s another author who is in love with Aztec history and culture. Zoe has written at least ten novels set in Mexico before the Spanish invasion. Zoe’s books are rich with cultural references and demonstrate the tremendous amount of research she has done in this area.

AE: Hi Zoe, thanks for agreeing to do an interview. First of all, please would you explain how you chose the Aztecs as your cause? I know this is usually the first question people ask me.

Zoe: Hi Phil, first of all thank you for greeting me to your wonderfully informative site. It’s a real honour. As for your question, I didn’t not choose any of the Mesoamerican cultures to research and write about. They sort of chose me. My speciality is pre-Columbian North America. I researched this continent and the most prominent of its cultures for over ten years, intending to represent them in historical fiction to the best of my ability. I never as much as glanced over the Mexican border. To my opinion the fact that most people are generally familiar with the word “Aztecs” was enough to indicate that pre-contact Mesoamerica was better off than the absolutely neglected or dreadfully misrepresented and misinterpreted North American people.

So, no Aztecs entered my mind until two years ago, when I was working on “At Road’s End”, a novel that dealt with the decline of the Anasazi. Little did I know! Apparently to get that close to the Mexican border spelt danger. Unaware of the threat, I let a secondary character into the story, to reflect on the fall of the Anasazi better, to give a foreigners’ point of view. A Tepanec warrior escorting a group of traders (the Aztecs were far from being a powerful nation back in those days compared to the powerful Tepanecs). He entered the story to spice it up a little. Well, I didn’t know that the forceful Mesoamericans are not made for the second leads. The necessary research on those same Tepanecs left me fascinated beyond reason. The story turned to be about this warrior, with the Anasazi people taking the second leads, instead.And the rest is history. [AE: Nice pun Zoe! :-)] The book turned out to be the first in the Mesoamerican Saga, consisted by now of 9 full-length novels. I just couldn’t stop! From the glorious Tepanecs all the way to their fall and rise of the well-known to us Aztecs.
Apparently, I was wrong. This history and these people were misrepresented in our modern literature as badly as pre-contact North America was.

AE: It’s obvious from the way you write about the Aztecs, the Tepanecs, Tlaxcalan’s that you have a deep affection for them all. Do you have a favourite amongst these states or tribes?

Zoe: Oh yes, I’m hopelessly in love with those cultures. :-)My favourites? I used to admire the Acolhua people with their beautiful capital (Texcoco) and their most prominent emperor, lawmaker, engineer, poet and statement Nezahualcoyotl. But as the series progressed, the Mexica-Aztecs had won my affection, so today the Acolhua and the Aztecs are sharing the first place :-D

AE: And what about the bloodthirstiness of it all. Doesn’t that affect your ability to relate to them?Zoe: No, not at all! First of all, the bloodthirstiness was greatly exaggerated by the later-day Spanish newcomers. The human sacrifice was an old custom and it did not involve screaming commoners and sobbing virgins being dragged up the pyramids. The sacrifice was a solemn ceremony and to offer unwilling victims would do nothing but offend the gods. In the old days, before Tenochtitlan turned into a great city and maybe did stir to some extravagance of the mentioned above, only the captured warriors were sacrificed and those offerings ascended the steps of the pyramids most willingly, having refused to do anything else even if offered.


As the warriors were a class in itself, raised and educated very strictly in special schools called (calmecac or telpochcalli) for years, the rules of a honourable conduct were clear to them. They were to face the death bravely. If captured alive, the warrior has only one way to redeem his honor. He has to be sacrificed. The offense of a more “merciful” solution would have been unbearable to such man. No one wanted his name to be spat upon and his soul wandering the horrors on the Mictlan, the Underworld. Only warriors were eligible for the eastern-sky paradise, and only those who died bravely, killed on the battlefield or sacrificed to the glory of gods, were allowed to enter. So this way the process of human sacrifice included both sides collaborating and willing.

To me, it makes a perfect sense. Having dealt with the general history for decades I do believe there was no more bloodthirstiness in Mesoamerica than in any other warlike culture. Medieval Europe presents us with more than enough evidence to plead my case. :-)

AE: Although there are a few writers working in this setting, if you look at the bookshelves in the shops, it’s obviously not as popular as Tudor England or the Roman times. Would you like to see a few more historical fiction writers moving in on this field?

Zoe: Oh yes, absolutely! I hope these cultures, times and places will catch the wave and will became as ‘fashionable’ as the done-to-death Romans, Tudors or Regency aristocratic dance floors. Having read “Five Dances with Death” by Austin Briggs and now enjoying “New Fire”, I can firmly say that I most sincerely wish to see more books of this quality.

AE: Have you made any attempt to get agents or traditional publishing houses interested in your work and would you share your thoughts on self-published versus traditional?

Zoe: Not with my Aztecs books, but I did try to go the traditional way for a few years, before the publishing world got into its current earth-quaking stage.Umm, it didn’t work. I was told that I’m writing well, and that should I change my subject to a better known history, they would be prepared to accept my manuscripts. Speaking of Romans and Tudors! Needless to say, this response left, literary, screaming with rage. They didn’t want to take their chances with my pre-Columbian Americas.

Luckily, the Indie publishing world was already opening, with more and more articles published about its possibilities. So, two years ago I took the plunge, and frankly, I never regretted taking this particular decision. Independent publishing is more demanding, leaving the author to deal with all the aspects of this business, but it is much more rewarding, too. After two years, and quite a few mistakes made along the way ;-), I built a satisfactory name for myself, a respectable site to promote this history and my works, and a nice fan base to receive a lot of feedback through Goodreads and Amazon.

More importantly, I have a good theme to help me along, with a good editor, proofreader and a cover artist cooperating wonderfully, so I can write away and let my books out with no delays. In the traditional publishing industry they would have been piling up, waiting to be attended stage by stage. Independently, I can let them out as fast as I can write them, provided I, and the people I’m working with, are prepared to work hard…which we most certainly are! :-)

AE: Thank you Zoe. For anyone wanting more information, visit Zoe’s website, ‘Pre-Colombian Americas’ or visit her Facebook page.

Dark Water – writing to a plan

Progress on draft #1 of ‘Dark Water has been slow and steady but most importanntly, according to plan. Yesterday, it officially reached the halfway stage. 50,000 words at 7.5 chapters. Here is a little extract to whet your appetites.

Visibility inside the workshop was worse than outside because of the smoke and heat of the charcoal fire that was needed to fabricate the new jewellery. Soot and the dry air made Precious Flower cough. Arrow One was stooped under a low section at the back of the building, deep in conversation with a pot-bellied man with unruly hair and a filthy leather apron that was the only thing he was wearing other than his loincloth. Arrow One was bare-chested having dispensed with his cloak and the short skirt he was wearing was more appropriate for the suffocating heat in the workshop than Precious Flower’s long dress. He caught sight of Precious Flower and introduced her to the craftsman who bobbed and nodded enthusiastically in response to Arrow One’s request for him to demonstrate the process.

‘Yes, yes! You do good timing,’ he spluttered through gums inadequately populated with teeth. ‘New piece ready to try.’ His Nahuatl was poor, the accent sounding Huastec. ‘You two!’ He shouted suddenly at a stocky lad of no more than twelve and a severe-looking youth. ‘What are you gawking at? Pumping bellows or copper will never melt!’

Precious Flower watched in amazement as the craftsman took the carved wax figure and held it upside down in an earthenware pot of damp sand which he proceeded to pack very gently around it until it was entirely hidden, all save a tiny section at the base. All the while, his indentured labourer and the sullen apprentice worked a pair of leather bags in the scorching confines of the new room. Precious Flower didn’t believe she’d ever seen anyone sweat as much as these two lads. When he was finished poking at the sand, the craftsman then took to examining the pot nestling at the centre of the fire that was now sending so many sparks whirling up into the rafters of the workshop that Precious Flower was convinced the whole place would soon be alight. The heat was so intense it seared her throat and made her fear for her newborn child. She stroked the child’s cheek briefly through the folds of fabric, relived to see it make attempts to suckle.

After a good deal of squinting and muttering at his assistants, the toothless man reached into a bucket of water and pulled out what appeared to be two long fire-blackened sticks, joined at one end with hemp. He gingerly clamped them around the tiny pot and then slowly upended the contents into the urn full of sand where he had made a conical indentation over the wax figure. Precious Flower was entranced by the fiery orange liquid that smoked and burped as it sank into the sand. If the gods bled, she thought, this is what their blood would look like.

Ideas and suggestions for the title for book #2

Hi,

Has anyone got any suggestions for the title for book #2? The theme is Aztec Elements. The second word has to be ‘water’ and the first word needs to be an adjective. The current working title is ‘Bad Water’, but my friend John says it’s not a great idea to have the word ‘bad’ in the title. I’ve got to admit that his suggestion, ‘Dark Water’ works well, especially as one of the scenes takes place in a flooded cavern.

Thanks,
Philip

The book sales of a self-published author

For anyone out there who has written a book and is wondering whether to self-publish or hold out for an agent and a publisher to say the magic word, ‘Yes’, here is the kind of thing you can expect if you go the SP route.

Go the traditional route and you may well spend months or years trying to get that book deal, but if or when it does, you may just become rich. If you go the self-published route, you’ll be able to start earning almost immediately and unless you’re a celebrity or have a gigantic social network, this is the kind of graph that you’ll be able to plot with your revenue from the first six months.

Graph of book sales

Graph of book sales

J.K. Rowling I ain’t! :-)

Other authors of Aztec novels

Someone just advised me that Graham Hancock is about to lauch a historical fiction book set in at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. It can only be good news for ‘New Fire’ if more famous authors than I take up the Aztec banner. Hopefully they will draw in people who would not otherwise have looked in.

War God

Other novels set in Mexico during the Aztec Empire, in no particular order:

Let’s see if the ‘Eye of Sauron’ (Bernard Cornwell) turns this way! :-)

Books disappearing from the disappearing bookshops

Here is a quote from Waterstones’ website…

We are extremely keen to support independent publishing, and recognise the rich contribution that independent publishers, who have a long and prestigious heritage in the UK, make to the world of books and literature. Finding and championing publishers that are small, new or hard to find on the high street is a big part of what we do.

Two branches of Waterstones have be SO KEEN to help me that they have lost the copies of my novel that I lent to them! Of course it’s always possible that they sold them but that wasn’t what they were supposed to do.