Looking Back – A review of 2017

So much has happened this year. I started with one book written and a second started. I ended the year awaiting the publication of the first book, Bright Sword, in four weeks time. The second, Bright Axe (probably) is with beta readers and a third, yet to be named in progress. How did all this happen?

By January, I had received my first feedback for Bright Sword. The book was OK but contained lots of errors. I knew it needed a professional edit and made arrangements.

This was also when I decided to become more organised. I worked out how many words I needed to write – I settled on a thousand a day, which worked out at 7K a week. I announced it on this blog. Although I haven’t often reached the target, it encouraged me to sit down regularly, whether I wanted to write or not. I have created a routine: after lunch I go upstairs to the old computer in the spare room, and write, sometimes an hour, sometimes I continue into the evening (with breaks for tea.)

In February, I seem to have done nothing much except write, and start to think about publication. I was planning on self publishing – When? How could I do it? There was one landmark this month, another author asked me to write a preview of his book, before publication. This was Kin of Cain, a short book (100 pages) by Matthew Harffy. This was an easy job, it was so good; better, if that is possible, than his other books in the Bernicia Chronicles series. Read my preview here.

March was spent worrying about how many corrections I would receive from my editor.

At the beginning of April I got the manuscript back. Not too bad, but my punctuation appeared to be even worse than I thought. There was a bit of discussion about one of the characters and in the end I added a couple more scenes – only about a hundred words or so. At the end of that month, I attended the Self Publishing Conference, to make  a final decision about which avenue to take. There are so many different options nowadays, that I ended up more confused than ever. Someone suggested The Book Guild. You don’t need an agent, or to prepare a synopsis (although I had one). Just send your complete manuscript and they might offer one of several options. I had nothing to lose.

In May, as I struggled with the ending of book two, a bombshell struck. A (very) famous author, Conn Iggulden had published a book set in exactly the same period I was writing (mid tenth century). It was about Dunstan, who appears, briefly, in my book. What could I do? I read the book and wrote a review. I didn’t think much of it, although other people raved over it. Was I jealous? Perhaps, but I’ve put it behind me now.

At the start of June I heard back from the publisher. They wanted to publish my book. They offered me a partnership deal, which I accepted. I was on my way!

It was in June that I finished the first draft of book two (104,542 words) and started editing. I also went on holiday – an archaeological tour of Orkney and Shetland. It was somewhere I had wanted to go for a long time, and since it was our 40th wedding anniversary this year, I managed to persuade my husband that he would survive the ferry journey. Luckily the sea was calm and the weather beautiful. I learned a lot about pre-history and Vikings, but there was not much about Anglo-Saxons. I took lots of photos which can be found on a series of posts, starting here.

Coppergate Helmet, modelled by the author.

One the way back we stopped for a couple of days in Yorkshire. A bit of research and a trip to the Jorvik exhibition in York. More Vikings, but at least I got to try on an Anglo-Saxon helmet. It was a bit too big for me! Another day, on a walk near Wharrem Percy deserted village I was inspired by wind blowing across a field of grain. By the time we  returned to our hotel I had the plot for book three. (And that is all I’m going to say about it!)

In July, we headed north again. This time to Lindisfarne. We had booked a day’s archaeology at the Digventures site, searching for the remains of the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. Unfortunately it was very wet. We only got an hour in the trench and an afternoon cleaning pieces of bone, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. There was also a little time to explore the area for book two research (and perhaps book four!!)

At the end of August, proofs arrived. A whole new experience. It was at this, rather late, point that I discovered that I had been let down by my editor. All those punctuation mistakes that had been pointed out, were not mine. Most of them had been OK and I had “corrected” them to something wrong. Details here. It was nearly a disaster. It was a big job to rewrite the book and search for other errors at the same time. There were several runs though and gradually I signed off on the final half dozen errors. I never wanted to see that book again!

September was busy, writing reviews of books, finding people to review mine. I volunteered to review Viking Fire by Justin Hill. A great book  reminiscent of Dorothy Dunnett.  I had reviewed her book, King Hereafter, in July but in September was noticed by the fanatics (in the nicest possible way) of the Dorothy Dunnett Society, making it my most popular post this year, at 168 views.

It was also September when I found Bright Sword was listed on Amazon. I thinks it was at that point that I knew it was really happening.

In October, author G K Holloway approached me out of the blue to review his book, 1066 , What Fates Impose He has since reviewed mine and beta read book two – it’s better than Bright Sword apparently.

It was in November, with Bright Sword on track and book two on pause, I started book three. It is causing a few problems, which I’ll talk about another time, but I have written just over 30k words.

With preparing for Christmas, setting up launch events, etc and writing; book and blog posts, I have been busy.

I have taken a week off for Christmas, read a few books, and now stand on the edge of a new year. Where will I be this time next year? I’ll write a few thoughts about that tomorrow – if I am in a fit state.

Writing update for the year: I have written about 118K words of historical fiction. Words deleted and edited – unknown, but a lot.

I have written 53 blog posts – more than one per week. Say an average of one thousand (this is 1166) makes 53K.

Total 171K. No wonder I’m feeling tired!

Thank you to everyone who has helped/supported/encouraged me during this amazing year.

In 2018, may you finish/publish/sell your own books – and if you don’t write; read and add a review to someone else’s.

Just so long as it’s called Bright Sword!

FAREWELL 2017 – HERE I COME 2018!

 

 

 

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Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.

The Book now Standing…

I’m not saying that the book is at a standstill – it is waiting, billowing steam everywhere, eager to go, but, at the moment, waiting.

This is not a problem, it is a planned stop. As mentioned last week I was expecting Book 1 back from my editor. It was delayed for a few days so I managed 4,860 words (of book 2) this week. This included a scene I had been dreading writing from the start. I managed to write it, although I’m not sure I’ll ever let anyone read it. At least I got the words out! I have now reached a total 82,711, the end is in sight, downhill all the way. I just hope I don’t hit the buffers. But enough of these train metaphors – I can’t use them in my books, so it’s good to get them off my chest!

A train, going nowhere – yet.

I am now editing, not writing. It’s going OK so far. Most of the red ink is to do with my mistakes over the punctuation of dialogue – I promise I’ll get it right from now on. Then there is my unfortunate compulsion for the passive tense, all nicely sorted. It has been a bit of a shock to hear my characters speaking with someone else’s voice when extra text is needed, but that is something I must accept – most of the time.

There was one comment. It concerns a character that is introduced early in the book, and never again. Could there be more about her later?  I spent a lot of time thinking about this and came up with something – she enters and disappears again. Should she appear again? It this point I received another editorial communication. Could she be connected to another character?

My first thought was No. Then I got one of those flashes of inspiration. Perhaps she isn’t a separate character, perhaps she is a character that is already there! It kept me up half the night. It couldn’t be her, because of the age difference. If I change that, then something later isn’t right. Alter this and that becomes impossible. I don’t know if I can sort it out. If I do, it will mean some re-writing, but the book will be better.

It is a good job that I was not planning to rush into print (or the digital equivalent.) For a few moments I was tempted. I discovered that Conn Iggulden (one of the big beasts in Historical Fiction) publishes a new book next month – 4th May – not that you’re interested. The title is Dunstan: One Man Will Change the Fate of England. It is about Dunstan (later St Dunstan). Dunstan is a character in my book (minor but important). It starts in the year 937 – so does mine.

After screaming, rolling on the floor and tearing out my hair, my first thought was “Should I give up now?” Everyone will assume that I was copying him. What if I published first? Apart from the fact that no-one would notice, I’m not sure if I could manage that in a month. Anyway, why rush? I’m not ready yet.

My second thought was: If his book is a success, then it shows that there is a market of this period. Just as there is room for Bernard Cornwall and… everyone else who writes about King Alfred, or other personalities of the Anglo-Saxon period. I can live with it.

Just please, please, no-one write a book about Byrhtnoth – at least not until I’m famous and they can be accused of copying me!