Tag Archives: authors

A Storm of Spears

Storm SpearsWriting a historical novel takes an enormous amount of research.

In the first book in The Wandering King series, Summer, Harvest, War, I included a suggested reading list in the back.  I am indebted to many of the authors listed, particularly the ancient writers Herodotus, Pausanias and Homer for my source material.

The second novel in the series, With This Shield, owes a debt of gratitude to an Aussie named Dr. Christopher Matthew and his book A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite at War.  Matthew’s work provided the basis for how my Spartan characters fought in the phalanx.

In chapter two of With This Shield, “The Art of War,” when Portheus and Theokles are teaching the men of Croton how to fight with shield and spear, I relied heavily on Matthew’s research.

A New Spin on an Old Fighting Style

Classical scholars have been battling for generations over how the ancient Greek hoplites engaged in combat. Matthew does an incredible job of analyzing hoplites’ weaponry, armor, stance, spacing and attack methods to provide fresh insights on the debate and provide some startling new conclusions.

For instance, he questions whether or not the phalanx attacked at a run or a walk.  At the Battle of Marathon, Herodotus claims the Athenians ran a mile before hitting the Persian line.  Was this even possible?  Matthew provides convincing evidence that the phalanx was more effective when it attacked at a much slower pace as it enabled them to move in a close order.  Attacking in a tight mass, shoulder to shoulder, allowed them to bring more spears to bear on the enemy.

As soon as a wall of hoplites begin running, they naturally spread out.  So it becomes impossible for a phalanx to charge at a run in close formation.  All of which makes a great deal of sense.

He also provides new insights as to why the phalanx could be arrayed anywhere from four to twelve ranks deep.  The accepted view was that the deeper the formation, the heavier the weight of the charge.  The hoplites in the rear ranks, pushed the men in the front ranks forward, resulting in a mighty crash of shield against shield and a rugby-like scrum.

Matthew refutes this belief.  He states that since the phalanx did not attack at a run there was no deafening collision, no scrum.  So there was no need for the men in the rear ranks to push against the men in front of them.  Instead, the depth of the phalanx merely meant that the men who fell in the front ranks were replaced by the men behind them.  The deeper the phalanx, the more replacements you had during the battle.

Instead of the battle involving a lot of pushing and shoving, Matthew claims the hoplites maintained their orderly rows, kept an arm’s length away from the opposing shieldwall, and calmly attacked one another with their spears.  All of which is an entirely new viewpoint.

Are Matthew’s Findings the Gospel on Hoplite Warfare?

Matthew examines the ancient sources, along with what recent scholarship has written, then tests these theories by using Greek hoplite re-enactors to find out how things actually worked.  When providing his conclusions, he is not afraid to contradict well-respected historians like Victor Davis Hanson and others.

What Matthew taught me, was how hoplites stood together, how they held their shields, how they moved forward and the various methods in which they could have wielded their spears.  All of which found its way into the pages of With This Shield.

As much as I admire Matthew’s new approach to hoplite warfare, I find it hard to buy into all of his conclusions.

He provides his findings from a scientific, almost sterile laboratory analysis. Real soldiers hardly perform under such conditions. Sure, it might make sense for the phalanx to walk toward the enemy, but that takes out the human element.  Soldiers are not laboratory mice.  If you’re being pelted by arrows and sling stones, you may very well be forced to run to avoid catching an arrow in the throat.

The primary assertion that Matthew makes, that I question, is how hoplites wielded their spear.  Greek art shows them using three primary attacks:  the overhead thrust, underarm thrust and underhand attack.  According to the author, by studying these various attack methods using re-enactors, he claims it would have been impossible for the ancient infantryman to hold his spear aloft over his head for long periods of time.  They simply would tire faster.  Matthew shows that the underarm thrust actually has a longer effective kill range.

Chigi_vaseOverhead Spears really Javelins?

In making his argument that the Greeks did not use the overhead thrust with their spears, he claims that all of the ancient pottery showing ancient warriors holding their spears aloft – are not spears at all – but javelins.  They are not thrusting spears, aiming at their opponent’s throat, instead they are throwing javelins.  I find this hard to swallow.

The famous Chigi Vase (shown here), depicts hoplites holding their spears aloft, using them to strike downward at the enemy.  Are they wielding spears or throwing javelins?  According the Matthew they’re throwing javelins.  Is he right?  You be the judge.

It might make more sense for hoplites to attack using the underarm thrust.  They might have a longer kill range, but do humans ever behave in an entirely logical fashion?

The Spartans trained constantly.  What if they didn’t tire so easily?  What if using the overhead thrust to go for the enemy’s throat was a more effective way of killing your opponent?  What if the overhead thrust – because it was so difficult – brought kudos upon the soldier?  What if using the underarm thrust was for amateurs and the overhead thrust was for professionals like the Spartans?  This is the approach I choose to use in With This Shield.

Conclusions

The ancient sources do not comment on these issues, so we are left to try to figure out on our own how hoplites really fought.  I admire Matthew’s ability to take a step back from the accepted assumptions, and look at hoplites from a fresh new perspective that is based on experiments with live re-enactors.

However, they are re-enactors, not real soldiers engaged in battlefield conditions. When you really come down to it, we’ll never fully understand the ancient mind or how the ancient soldier fought. Though I imagine Matthew’s book will provide plenty of discussion for classical scholars for years to come.

Absolute Write or Wrong?

AWAs a reader and a writer I enjoy reading other author’s blogs.  By doing so, I pick up valuable advice, and you come across the current issues facing the independent writing community.   The big issue of the day is the Amazon v. Hatchette debate, but I’ll save my thoughts on that matter for another post.

One of the other issues I’ve seen cropping up is the controversy over the writers’ website, Absolute Write.  On their site they have an extremely well trafficked forum called the Water Cooler.

The site was created in 1999 by an admirable freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer (who left in 2007).  Absolute Write (AW) boasts 60,000 users, and averages 8,000 posts a week, all on issues dealing with writing and publishing.

Over the past few months I began noticing AW popping up in a lot of conversations.  Some people claimed to love it, that it provided them with assistance finding an agent, getting a query letter polished, or critiquing their writing—while other’s absolutely hated the site, even going so far as to say they’d been banned for speaking their minds or they’d been the victim of cyberbullying by the members there.

Not belonging to any writers’ forums, I decided to check out AW.  Please understand, I did not go to their site with an axe to grind or any pre-conceived agenda.  I’d seen people speak for and against the site and was simply curious as to the truth of the matter.  So I put on my journalist’s hat and decided to do a little field research.

I spent a week ‘lurking’ to see if the site looked worth joining.  What I found was a bit overwhelming, a touch of information overload.  There are eighty active boards in the forum covering a plethora of subjects; everything from dealing with rejection, writer’s block, grammar, research, publishing scams, novels, short stories, poetry, literary agents, publishers, freelancing, songwriting, script writing… their list of topical areas is extensive.  Whether you want to talk to other writers working on westerns or greeting cards, you’ll find a home for it on AW.

Most of the areas of the site are open to everyone, but a few require you to have a minimum number of posts or six months of time logged on the site to access.

There are so many topical areas on AW that I’m willing to bet that most users gravitate toward their areas of interest and hang out there.  To visit all of the boards and read all the new posts everyday would be virtually impossible.  The boards that I visited, while some of the threads were silly, for the most part the users were respectful, encouraging and supportive of one another.

After two weeks I decided to join, and was a bit surprised when it took them three days to ‘approve’ my registration.  Not that it truly mattered.  Not being approved simply meant I could not post anything.  There was plenty to read.  Each board had their stickies with instructions and there were a mountain of FAQs to peruse.

Once approved, there is a board for new members, so I created a thread there and introduced myself.   About a dozen people welcomed me aboard.  So far, so good.

Over the next week or so, on the various boards I visited, I began to notice a certain amount of negativity pervaded many of the conversations.  People were depressed because they were getting rejection letters, upset because they had too many ideas and didn’t know which one to work on, gridlocked by writer’s block, unable to write because they were dealing with ADD…

In an attempt to be helpful, I decided to create a thread on ‘Famous rejection stories,’ and shared about a half dozen stories about famous writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dan Brown and J.D. Salinger, who were rejected numerous times before ever getting published.  My thought in starting this thread was to try to encourage people by showing how all authors have to deal with rejection.  It’s something all writers share in common, even the famous ones.  And if you persevere, you just might get lucky like they did.

After creating the thread, someone posted a response saying that he’d heard God had been rejected numerous times before ever getting the Bible published.  Ha, ha.  Sarcastic, but not a personal attack.  Next someone posted a comment that they hated hearing that J.K. Rowling was only rejected 12 times before Harry Potter found a home.  They went on to say they’d been rejected 400 times.  Someone else picked up the idea and added that that J.K Rowling was a horrible example of a writer having a hard time getting published, that her experience was nothing compared to the pain and suffering the average AW writer experienced.  Oi.

At this point I commented that if the posters were having such a hard time dealing with rejection and getting published, why not try self publishing?

This is where my experience with AW went horribly awry and I began to understand why certain people accuse them of cyberbullying.  I was too new to the site to realize it, but I’d stumbled into one of AW’s pet peeve subject areas.  All I had to do was mention self publishing and a dozen people, most of whom had in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 15,000 posts on AW, jumped on me and began ripping me to shreds for daring to even suggest such a course of action.

The basic line of thinking expoused by the hard core AW members was, self publishing is for losers, self publishing is too hard, self publishing is too expensive, self published writers don’t get read… on and on.

In response, I posted that self publishing might be difficult or expensive for some, but if you know how to follow instructions it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t have to cost you a dime.  I went on to quote a recent research study by a group called Author’s Earnings that states 31% of the sales on Amazon are by self published authors and cited my sources.  You can find them here and here.  There are numerous articles in the media on the subject.

Unfortunately, it seems you cannot have a rational discussion on AW, not if you take up a position that goes against the convention wisdom of AW’s tenured elite.  Trying to back up what I was saying, merely caused more old timer’s to pile on.  It was as if I’d been thrown to the wolves, or perhaps more accurately, was being beaten by a bunch of old biddies using their canes and walkers.  People could see I only had made a couple of posts on their site, I was a noob.  You’d think someone, like a moderator, would have interceded and at least attempted to defend or rescue my bloody carcass, but nope.  I ended up at the bottom of a large pile without a voice raised in assistance or even in pity.

One person, with over 5,000 posts on AW, posted a novel length dissertation on the Author’s Earnings report claiming it was grossly inaccurate and that he and the other old time AW members had already concluded, self published authors never got read.  This line of thought was quickly supported by several other long time AW members.  They rather snidely told me that they’d disproved the Author’s Earnings report weeks ago.  Where had I been?  Living under a rock, no doubt.

I replied, asking as innocently as possible if the group had ever heard of Hugh Howey.  That got them howling.  I quickly learned that trying to argue or provide verifiable proof or evidence of what you are stating means nothing to the elite on AW, it only causes them to froth at the mouth.

Here I was trying to offer some simple information, stories about famous authors who had persevered and succeeded, with the goal of trying to dispel some of the negativism I saw on AW—and I was tar and feathered.

At that point, I threw in the towel and gave up posting anything additional.  I’d made a grand total of 12 posts on their site and felt like a group of vigilantes had run me off with pitchforks.

Do I see value to AW?  Yes.  Am I impressed by their long-standing members?  No.  I got the impression that they are an exclusive club, with a preset list of beliefs that you either subscribe to or they burn you at the stake.

Will I go back to their site?  For the past several days I’ve been licking my wounds, pondering that question.  If I do, it will be to read, not to share what I know.  What’s the point, when it appears their entrenched elite already know all the answers?

writing_jealousy

Inherit the Flames

flames3

In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.

Market Your eBook: Ereader News Today

entThis week I opted to try promoting my book through Ereader News Today.  They send out a daily email to their 400,000 members advertising 1-3 ebooks and provide a link to your book on Amazon.  Their service is strictly for Kindle users.

To get promoted in one of ENT’s emails you have to agree to two things:  lower the price of your book so that their members are receiving a deep discount and pay ENT 25% of whatever sales you make that day.

For me, that meant lowering the ebook price of The Wandering King from $3.99 to .99 cents.  Not sure yet what they will charge me, but I can see that over their one-day promotion I received approximately 270 ebook sales.  I’m guessing I’ll owe ENT something like:  270 x .99 = $267 x 30% Amazon royalty rate = $80 x 25% fee = $20.  Twenty dollars is a negligable price to pay for getting my book into 270 additional readers’ hands.  Plus, their fee is coming out of new sales, so it’s not really costing me a dime.

ENT also has a Facebook page where they encourage authors to interact with their members.  By doing so, ENT claims it helps get your book noticed.  I posted 2 messages there.  Whether it helped increase sales, I have no way of knowing, but I figure it didn’t hoit.

All in all, I’ve been quite happy with ENT’s service, and have noticed that even after I raised the price back up to $3.99, I continued to get a spike in sales, possibly from their members who spotted the email after the promotion.

If your primary goal is to make money, ENT may not be the way to go.  But if your goal is to get read,  ENT can help immensely.  I also have 270 additional word-of-mouth advertisers out there promoting my book and 270 potential reviewers that I may never have found otherwise.

bookbubThere is similar service called BookBub.   Like ENT, they offer to send out an email promoting your book to their subscribers.  What’s different is that:  (1) they’ll provide links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, (2) you don’t have to discount your book price, and (3) you do have to pay a fee for their service.

The price BookBub charges is based on the number of subscribers they have in your book category and the price of your book.  For instance, they have 430,000 historical fiction subscribers.  If your book is free they charge $200, less than $1 they charge $400, $1-$2 they charge $600 and over $2 they charge $1,000.

If I were to keep the price at $3.99 and to receive a similar number of sales that I got through ENT, I would spend $1,000 and end up making $800.  Odds are, at $3.99 instead of .99 cents, I’ll get less sales, so it could end up costing a pretty penny.  Even if I were to lower the price to .99 cents, and even if I received 270 sales, it would end up costing over $300.

Might sound foolish, but I am determined not to spend money marketing my book.  So for me, I don’t see where BookBub makes sense.  If others have tried it, I would love to hear about your experience.

Writing Advice for Prospective Bards

Please take the following as suggestions for consideration.  This is not a Biblical gospel inspired by God.  Having worked as a journalist, English teacher and advertising copywriter, these are simply a couple of important lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help you when writing fiction.

1. Be clear

Clarity is your first goal as a writer.  If people don’t understand what you are talking about, you have failed in your mission.  When you can take a complex subject and make it easy to understand, you have arrived.

For example, there is nothing more maddening than people who write poetry that requires an explanation.  This happens a lot in creative writing classes.  Someone reads a poem they’ve written and the class spends the next twenty minutes trying to figure out what the writer is talking about.  Usually these types of poems are strictly personal in nature, and therefore will make no sense to anyone else in the room but the writer.

When I was teaching high school English I told my students:  keep that kind of writing to yourself.  Don’t share it.  We don’t want to read it.  It’s meaningless to us.  Keep it in your private journal.  When it comes to writing poetry, be universal.  Express things that have a deep personal meaning to you, but do it using clear-as-glass language that anyone on the planet can understand, feel and appreciate.

Clarity is everything.  If the reader doesn’t ‘get it,’ you’re wasting the reader’s time.

2. Show, don’t tell

Journalists tell.  They report what happened.  Telling imparts information, which is fine if you are reading a newspaper or a blog like this one.

John Hersey wrote:  “Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers the opportunity to live it.”

Creative writers do this by showing rather than telling.  A fiction writer does not give you facts, like all good art, they evoke feelings. The good writer does this by providing the stimuli that allows the reader to have the experience.

For example, an inexperienced writer will say, “Jack loves Jill.”  You’re telling me these two people are love.  I feel nothing.  Show us Jack in love with Jill.  Show him trembling at the very sight of her.  Show him nervously drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he debates giving her their first goodnight kiss.  Show us the beads of sweat that break out on Jack’s forehead as he holds her hand for the first time.  These types of details allow the reader to share what Jack is experiencing.  We don’t need to be told.  We see it happening right before our eyes.

A professor once told me, “A statement about experience is the enemy of investigation.”  By this he meant, telling us information gives us the answer and takes away our questions.  By telling us Jack loves Jill, we’re no longer curious about these two people.  Telling us about their relationship destroys our need to know and lessens the reader’s need to flip the page.  Conversely, by showing us what is happening between these two people, the reader is allowed to make up their own mind about the state of their relationship, which keeps the reader engaged in the story.

This might sound easy to do, but it’s not.  It takes discipline, attention to detail and the desire to give the reader more than just a whooping good tale.

3. Use narrative sparingly

This is an addendum to #2 above.  Though we strive to let our readers live our story, you can’t do this on every page.  To move the plot forward every writer uses some exposition or narrative.

When I write a story, I think in terms of ‘scenes.’  The scenes in the story are when the camera is zoomed in close.  We see things happening; people speak, action occurs, the story unfolds right before our eyes.  This is the good stuff, when you have your reader completely engaged because they’re living in your story.

To get from scene to scene you need narration.  Narration is what links your scenes together.

For instance, you write a scene where Jack invites Jill to the prom.  She agrees and he goes speeding across town to tell his friend Peter Piper.  To keep the story moving, we really don’t need to see Jack getting in the car, turning on the radio or combing his hair in the rear view mirror.  This is extraneous detail that just bogs down the plot.  It’s best to use a sentence or two of narration to get Jack to Peter’s house so we can get to the next scene, where Peter informs Jack that he saw Jill necking with Little Boy Blue out in the school parking lot.  You get the idea.

Some authors, successful authors, write long swathes of narration and we may stick with the story because we’re enjoying the writer’s style.  Joseph Heller, John Irving and John Updike can get away with this because they’re masters at their craft and we continue to read because like a fine meal we’re enjoying every mouthful of what they have to say and how they are saying it.

Unless you’re a best-selling author or have a Pulitzer Prize under your belt, I’d be wary of writing twenty pages of narration between your scenes telling us Jack’s family history all the way back to the Bronze Age.  If the reader doesn’t see anything happening, if they aren’t experiencing anything, they are likely to get bored and close your book.

Use narration, but use it sparingly to move your reader from scene to scene.

4. String your pearls evenly

For a writer, coming up with a good simile or metaphor is as satisfying as an orgasm.

Metaphor is the broad term for comparing one thing to another.  A simile is a form of metaphor that describes one thing ‘like’ another.

Here are some examples from the masters:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. William Shakespeare

A hospital bed is like a parked taxi with the meter running.  Groucho Marx

Holmes looked at him thoughtfully like a master chess-player who meditates his crowning move.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As you are writing, or after you are done your rough draft and going through the process of re-writing, sprinkle in a metaphor here and there.  Don’t pile them up in one sentence after another.  If you do it’s like forcing your reader to eat an entire cake when a single slice is more than enough to satisfy.

One professor told me to think of metaphors like pearls.  You don’t want them all bunched up together, you want them spaced evenly throughout your story like pearls on a necklace.

Here are some metaphors I sprinkled around in a battle scene in The Wandering King:

The Argives scattered before our attack like a flock of frightened sparrows. 

After I cast my javelin our hoplites rolled by me like an unstoppable tidal wave. 

As he charged forward, in his eyes I saw the eager expression of a young fool impulsively rushing in to a dance, a dance whose steps he did not know. 

The danger in writing metaphors is resorting to tired old clichés.  You’ve seen them before.

Cute as a button. 

Innocent as a babe in the woods. 

Giddy as a kid in a candy store. 

There are all the animal clichés; smart as a fox, dumb as an ox, slippery as an eel…

Clichés offer nothing new and are the product of a lazy mind.  Writing a good metaphor is being able to relate two things in a new way, which takes work.  Some authors have been known to spend hours on one metaphor.  When you do come up with one you like, it’s as magical as the excitement in your child’s eyes the first time they see Disneyland.

5. Write every day

Professor Richard Wertime at Arcadia University told us, “You have to write a mountain of shit before you get to the good stuff.”

He’s right.  Writers are not born, they are made.  You don’t step up to the starting line of your first marathon and win the race without months of practice.  Like a lot of things in life, if you want to get good, you have to pay your dues.  In writing that means banging out a lot pages that you will ultimately ball up and toss into the wastepaper basket.

I’ve always thought of snow skiing as similar to writing.  In high school the first time I went skiing I spent half the day falling down the mountain.  But by the end of the day I sensed some improvement.  Each time I went, I got better.  In skiing the gains were noticeable.

With writing it’s not so easy to see your work getting better.  The learning curve is spread out over years instead of days.  But like skiing, writing is a self-taught skill.  Sure, you can take a skiing lesson or read a blog like this one on writing, but ultimately it’s just you and the mountain.  You go it alone and if you do it enough, you teach yourself some lessons along the way.

Don’t expect to write a best seller the first time you sit down to write.  Expect to spend years honing your skills.  As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “We are all apprentices at a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

6. Daydream

Daydreaming is an important part of the creative process.  Years ago when putting together a writing manual for a major corporation, I included a brief section on daydreaming.  The company questioned it, but to their credit, they left it in.

I’m not talking about daydreaming about your girlfriend or what you’re having for dinner.  I’m talking about constructive musing about your fictional story.   For me, it’s been an integral part of constructing each chapter of The Wandering King.

For example, I know I want to write a scene about the Pythian Games (there were four ancient pan-Hellenic games, the Olympics being one of them).  Who are the players?  What events are they competing in?  Who wins, who loses?  What do the characters say and do?

Whether I’m driving on the turnpike or lying in bed at night, I’m imagining what happens in the next scene that I’m writing.  I’m not worried about metaphors or the exact wording; I’m working out the plot in my head.  I’m answering the question:  what happens?  As I lay there daydreaming about the scene, something miraculous happens.  Like I’m watching a movie in my head, characters speak, they dance, they recite poetry, they fight and fall in love.  Later, all I have to do is record what I’ve witnessed.

A lot of writers, professional writers, sit down and write without knowing where their story is going that day.  I can’t do that.  I’ve found that I work best when I have an idea of what I want to accomplish that day when I sit down at the keyboard.  I may not know the exact wording, but I know who is doing what to whom.  I figure all of that out ahead of time, not by creating fancy outlines: but by daydreaming.

Hopefully you find some of these tips worthwhile.  If you have some of your own, feel free to share.