As a glutton for punishment with a very eligible young debutante of a manuscript to push, I’m taking part in this year’s #PitchWars competition over on the Twitter. That means something called “Pimp My Bio,” in which I make myself pretty to potential mentors with a writerly bio (in two sizes, small and huge) and plug for my book. I’m doing this on my main blog: apologies to my regular readers while I get all self-absorbed for a moment. First, I give you…
The Short Version
I’m a Canadian writer working primarily in various #SFF genres: literary high fantasy is my focus at the moment, and it’s what I’ve got finished and on the agenting circuit. I have a PhD in English, tried my hand at being a professor, and after a few years with no vacancies have gone back to law school in Toronto. All this background has gone into my first literary fantasy novel, The Season of the Plough. This novel is 76,500 words long (see below for details), and eagerly awaits you if you like inclusive stories about diverse protagonists who take the well-trampled tropes of the fantasy genre and turn them on their heads.
Now, since I know mentor-types often like more words and information, here’s the longer version below:
A little about me
A certain well-known Oxford professor of medieval English turned fantasy novelist established some pretty powerful stereotypes about folks like me, and a lot of them are true. I defended my PhD in English in 2013 at the University of Victoria. My dissertation explored the rise of early supernatural fiction, and my areas of concentration were an odd pairing: the Middle Ages on one hand, and British Romanticism (especially Gothic fiction) on the other. This background informs my writing in a lot of ways.
I worked for a couple of years on the part-time adjunct professor circuit, a woefully stressful existence as a “hired gun” for universities that can’t afford to maintain full-time professors (this is, sadly, the way Humanities education in North America is headed). After a respectable amount of time trying to make a go of being to the English Department what Indiana Jones is to the Anthropology/Archaeology Department, I branched into a new line of work and study. This fall, I’m going back to school for degree #4, a law degree at the University of Toronto.
There’s a long tradition of people with law degrees who write for a living. The most famous is John Grisham, but I can’t think of a more misleading example of what I do in my writing. Guy Gavriel Kay and John Cleese are both writers with law degrees: the fact that I feel a closer kinship to them should say a lot about the work I imagine myself doing.
What I write
I’m a sucker for fantasy (high fantasy, but urban fantasy, slipstream, cyberpunk, and light “soft” SF) are all fair game too. I’ve had some recent success in short fiction writing everything from erotica to Lovecraftian horror, and I seem to be working in the latter vein a bit just because the publishing momentum is there.
Overall, though, high fantasy with grand immersive world-building is probably my wheelhouse. I have a sense of humour (see inset photo) and a taste for comic and satirical writing, but I I don’t necessarily write comedy as a “genre” unless I’m working for a medium that demands it like sketch comedy or radio. Generally I try to bring a broad emotional spectrum into all my work, rather than thinking of specific “moods” as if they’re genres. Comedy is what sharpens tragedy, and vice versa.
What I read
“Anything & everything,” which isn’t very helpful. Authors (and other literary types) who have shaped me immensely as a writer include Neil Gaiman, Peter S. Beagle, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leon Garfield, George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, James Leo Herlihy, A.S. Byatt, Frederick Forsyth, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew “Monk” Lewis, the anonymous Beowulf and Gawain poets, Storri Sturluson, W.B. Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Christina Rossetti, Lord Byron, and yes, Mark Knopfler and Tom Waits. I think a lot about visual storytelling too, and consider Casablanca probably one of the three greatest screenplays ever written.
What I will tell you is that I’m very conscious not to read within the genre I write while I’m writing it. I specifically avoid Tolkien/George R. R. Martin/Ursula Le Guin when I’m doing imaginative high fantasy. I specifically avoid reading William Gibson when I’m doing cyberpunk or Lovecraft when I’m doing horror. The potential for contamination, for taking the bait to be too derivative, is just too high. I prefer cross-pollination rather than direct subconscious borrowing: that’s why I immersed myself in the Ninja Turtles to write Lovecraftian horror. It’s why I read Guy de Maupassant and William Faulkner while working on the fantasy MS I’ve got on the market.
Which brings us to…
What I’m pitching
The Season of the Plough is a 76,500-word literary fantasy novel about an asexual fairy-blooded foundling, Aewyn, who is raised to believe she’s the child of an ancient prophecy—only to find out that the prophecy is wrong, her wise old mentor is a dubious wanted criminal, and there’s really no such thing as a Chosen One in the way the old men’s stories foretell. The threats of the prophecy are real, but in the midst of her village’s social expectations, the rumours of a great supernatural evil, and the very real outbreak of civil war, she has to grapple with the same questions that plague all young people who are not predestined for greatness: what does it mean to be an ordinary person living in an age of heroes, and how can she “do good” in a fallen world where good and evil are no longer such cosmic absolutes?
This self-contained novel is the first part of a series centered on the “bit players” of epic fantasy—the marginalized voices usually forgotten in the shadow of the genre’s shining-armour, square-jawed heroes. As an asexual, adopted, working-class serf, Aewyn is a deliberate “anti-princess,” and the first protagonist among a diverse ensemble cast of varying race, culture, sexual orientation, and physical ability. In the Old Norse tradition of sagas about farmers, exiles, merchants, and families, this character-driven literary saga will break with the traditional credo of high fantasy that heroes of might and deeds of great renown are the only ones worth writing about.
When pressed for comp titles in the past, I’ve described the saga as a cross between George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the BBC’s Extras. It’s not as massive as Martin’s epic—it’s really not intended to be. The focus here is not on the kings & knights who make history through warfare, but on the people usually forgotten under the muddy boot-heels of those who think that history is a chronicle of battles and coronations.
And finally, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, I should offer you…
The Top Five Things That Make Me Your Ideal Pitch Wars Mentee
5.I’m a shameless self-promoter.
That is, I work hard to get my work out there, to connect with fans and have a real social working relationship with the people who support me and read my stuff. I’m a fairly active blogger (50,000 views here and climbing), and I believe that writing isn’t just a product you make; it’s a way of living in the world that makes it better for you and everyone your work touches. So why not work hard to make sure it touches as many people as possible?
4.I’m 100% legit when it comes to the details of my work.
If you overfeed your horses on sweet grasses in the spring and fall, they can develop painful laminitis in their hooves, which makes them pretty unfit for all those heroic things your hero’s horse does. This is something you know before you throw in an off-handed line about the horse grazing while the hero does something cool.
Likewise, the swampy coastal province of Haukmere isn’t so named because there are hawks that fly there. The word is related though: in older times it might have been Hafocmēr, which means something like “the Grasping Swamp.” When Shakespeare writes “cry havoc,” or an invading army wreaks havoc, they’re basically plundering: havoc originally relates to the seizing of things, clutching greedily, looting, and so on. Hawks themselves are so named because of their hunting methods: as raptors, they swoop down on prey and likewise grab it and clutch it and carry it off (side note: the word raptor and rape, with its original meaning of “seize and carry off,” are also very closely related). So I suppose that Haukmere is related in some way to hawks, but only indirectly. As an unpleasant, marshy swamp region, where weedy coastal plants make sailing the narrow shoals extremely treacherous because of the likelihood of boats getting snagged and scuttled there, the name given the region by the sailors, Hafocmēr, which collapsed over centuries of linguistic laziness into Haukmere, makes perfect sense.
In short, I do my homework pretty fastidiously when it comes to almost every aspect of the immersive worlds I build. My “fantasy character names” don’t come from a generator, and they don’t look like you just shook up a tin can full of Scrabble tiles. Languages, words, customs, cultural values, and many other qualities that make the world feel real are all carefully crafted.
I try to write “iceberg novels.” The top 10% of the iceberg is the novel that readers enjoy, and the other 90% is what gives it support and makes it real. Nobody else wants to read that whole 90%: I think the etymology of the place-name Haukmere is fascinating, but I’m sure it’d bore most readers to tears. And yet they’re very, very aware if that extra depth is not down there.
3.Diversity is a cornerstone of my writing.
As far as white mostly-het cis-men go, I try very hard to be an intersectional ally in my writing: this is important to me, but comes across mostly in quiet ways. I welcome marginalized characters and especially LGBTQIA+ characters in my fiction: I don’t necessarily feel their stories are mine to tell, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than a straight-ish white guy who, in the interest of “writing what you know,” plants himself firmly in an artificial world where people like him are the only kind represented. I don’t always get it right, but I give it my best shot with respect, because diversity’s important to me: fictional worlds that welcome people of all kinds, but don’t always get things right, are to me a much lesser evil than fictional worlds that shut them out and deny them a place. I write to the Bechdel-Wallace Test wherever possible; and even when my stories aren’t necessarily about marginalized people (in part, I think it’s not my right to tell those stories), I try to make a point of making sure my stories are a welcome place for characters (and readers!) of all kinds.
2.I take criticism and negotiate revisions like a champ.
As long as you keep in mind that everything I do is done with a purpose and built on a foundation of very well-informed choices (see #4 above), I’m very open to making changes and revisions as necessary to ensure the success of my work. Being a writer in its purest form is an art that allows for some snobbery and stubbornness; but the moment you also want to become an author, things change and you are now not just an artiste, but also a service worker in a cooperative conversation with an audience that has certain expectations. The question of “what the market will support” should not matter at all to a writer; but it matters a great deal to an author. With this in mind, nothing is set in stone until it’s typeset. I welcome corrections and input, and am happy for the efforts of anyone who want to improve the thing I do even further.
1.You are dying to read (more of) my work.
Maybe, in the end, this is the only one that counts. If my work hooks you, if I can spit out this many words and you’re still reading with interest, then you’ll be happy with writing that’s much more tightly crafted than this blog post is. If your interest has been kindled by anything that’s here, you should consider having a look at my work in a mentor/agent capacity to see if it’s the right fit for you.
Thanks for reading all this, if indeed you did. Mentors have worked so hard on their own bios this year that I wanted to give you something worthy in return. If you need anything else (like, say, a mentee), I am at your service. Thanks again.