Born in the wrong era?

How many of you grew up feeling like you were born into the wrong era, the wrong culture, or even the wrong reality?

I used to want to escape into a fantasy world; or I’d imagine what life would be like if I’d lived in the Middle Ages. Sometimes I’d wish I had an ethnic or cultural background a little more interesting than the Anglo-Celtic “default” option in Australia.

The cynical side of me poured cold water on all of these: you only think other cultures are cool because they’re unfamiliar and exotic; you want to live in the past but you’d be a peasant, not a knight; you want to escape into fantasy but that’s all fantasy is – empty escapism.

Yeah, my cynical side is a bit of an arsehole.

And ultimately cynicism is for arseholes. There’s nothing creative or beautiful about shooting down people’s inspiration and dreams. It’s true that the grass can look greener on the other side, but it’s still grass, and why let that stop you exploring the other side if that’s where you want to go?

Maybe it’s just fear of disappointment masquerading as wisdom? “What if I go, and it’s not as good as I’d hoped?” Well at least you’ll have a story to tell. But I can guarantee cynicism won’t help you find what you’re looking for.

Making peace with your reality

But at the same time there is a bit of escapism here. I didn’t just want to be somewhere else, I really hated where I was and saw evidence of it everywhere.

I wanted excitement and adventure, not suburbs and mortgages. I wanted a suit of armour, not a business suit. I wanted to live in a fortress or a mysterious and magical old warren of interconnected buildings and passages, not a McMansion or 70s era unit by a main road. I wanted every day to feel full of meaning and excitement and satisfaction, not some monotonous grind of swapping time for money in a miserable office.

How can I put this delicately…it’s not that I should accept all these things I hate and just live a normal life filled with resentment. Instead, it’s actually possible to see that the way things are right now fulfils a lot of people. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than it was in many ways. Toilets, for example. Modern toilets should inspire endless gratitude and appreciation in us all!

In fact there are so many things about the modern world to appreciate; they vastly outnumber the things to resent. And even if I don’t want to work 9-5 in an office, can’t I at least appreciate that some people do?

Do I really need to be surrounded by peasants for me to be a knight in armour? That’s metaphorical but also literal: there are people around the world who compete in jousting and melee combat with historically accurate weapons and armour, and they get to do it with modern conveniences.

If that doesn’t appeal to me then what does? Maybe that “different era” I longed for was really about a specific feeling I wanted? And maybe that feeling is not about the era or the culture or the clothes people wear or the buildings they live and work in? Maybe that feeling is something accessible right now and the fantasy of a different era was just one way of accessing it?

I can feel that feeling right now, but I don’t know what to call it. Maybe I’ll leave it there, maybe it doesn’t need to be defined or nailed down right this minute. Maybe I can leave it for you to find your own version of this feeling you always longed for, in the form of “another era”.

Happiness Challenge Day 10

Feeling good is your magic power.

I used to love fantasy stories as a kid, and even as I grew up I longed to find magic in the real world.

Eventually I grew disenchanted, and sought my magic in spiritual teachings instead.

But I’ve found my magic power after all. It’s called feeling good, and though I’m only a novice at it I can already see the effects of this magic in myself and in my world.

If I could go back in time I would teach my younger self exactly what I’m learning now.

Feeling good is the key; practice reaching for thoughts that feel good, no matter what the circumstances.

My favourite thing to do right now is to sit and simply feel good.

Well I say “simply” but I’m also aware that by feeling good I’m allowing this magic to spread within myself and through the farthest reaches of my reality.

In untold and mysterious ways, my feeling good benefits and improves everything and everyone around me.

My feeling good works magic on the whole of life, because in fact it is “life” itself that causes the good feeling in me.

It might make more sense to some readers if instead of “feeling good” I called it meditation or contemplative prayer.

All those monks and nuns and hermits and spiritual people around the world, sitting daily or on their knees communing with God or drawing on the great reserve of love and compassion and radiating it out to the entire world: they know what they’re doing is magical. They feel their part in the deep wellspring of peace and joy that flows to all of us, even if we are not ready to receive it.

Do you know that what we call God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and exists outside of time and space? So when we pray or meditate on this pure Being we participate in something totally transcendent.

And at the same time we allow that totally transcendent Being of pure love to participate in us and in our reality.

That is why this practice feels so good that it might as well be magic.

Fiction versus non-fiction: which is easier?

I’m working on the sequel to my novel To Create a World and I have to admit it’s really hard to get started each time. But once I do start, it’s so rewarding!

My non-fiction book The Weight-Loss Paradox was kinda the opposite. It was really easy to start. So easy, I started again 18 times before I was happy with my approach. That’s 17 instances of intense frustration until I finally found the right angle.

Non-fiction is like having a single amazing idea that you know so well you could write it out a hundred different ways and still be drawing on the same central theme. But I can’t be satisfied until that idea is expressed purely and clearly enough, in a way that will engage the reader.

That’s why it took so many tries to finally write The Weight-Loss Paradox. It was only 14,000 words, but those words had to be right on the mark. They had to be inspired in line with the idea behind them.

Fiction is completely different. Fiction is worked out in the process of writing it. At the beginning I have only a vague idea of what’s going to happen, and many of my ideas are rejected along the way or reformed into something almost unrecognisable.

In that sense, fiction is like growing a text. It’s like fashioning a little bonsai or Pen Jing tree. You have to shape it, water it, feed it, and keep it alive. But the work happens while it grows and that lends the work an aspect of discovery no matter how well you think you’ve plotted it at the beginning.

To Create a World had seven drafts, but each of those drafts was about refining and improving a structure or a theme that I didn’t know the book would necessarily contain. It’s like pruning back something that you only partially understand.

If fiction is like growing a text, non-fiction is like having one machined or fabricated. With non-fiction the central idea behind the text is not only clear, it’s like a blueprint. The final result must reflect the blueprint as far as possible. There may be issues that arise and innovations that emerge, but if it deviates too far from the blueprint it simply won’t work.

That’s why, when it comes to the question of difficulty, it’s hard to measure either by effort or duration.

My novel took 15 months and came out at 70,000 words.

My weight-loss book took 3 months and came out at 14,000 words.

So that means my weight-loss book was one-fifth the time and effort of my novel, right?

Well not really, because it took me a year to work out the idea behind my weight-loss book and apply it in my own life. In other words, the ‘research’ behind non-fiction can take as long or longer than the writing of the novel.

I plan to write another non-fiction book about the temperaments, and again that’s an idea I’ve been turning over and refining for a few years. When I finally come to write it, it too might only take a couple of months, but the research and thinking behind it are as long as a novel, if not longer.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is that my non-fiction books have a logical or theoretical coherence that allows the research to be done well before the book is actually written. Meanwhile my fiction has an emotional and narrative coherence that means the research/planning must be done while the book is being written so that it is adaptive to whatever changes or challenges arise along the way.

Want to read the books I’ve written? Click on the covers below to find out more!

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

The writing process: attack from all sides!

I’ve been helping a friend with his writing process.

And though I’ve only published one book, that’s still enough to take it from “the blind leading the blind” to “in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.  My advice has some merit.

By coincidence, today we were both stuck at different stages of our drafts. So I gave him the advice that was as much for me as it was for him:

Getting stuck, losing motivation – these difficulties aren’t obstacles to the writing process, they are the writing process. And there’s no single secret or technique to getting past these obstacles, other than to keep attacking them from every possible angle, to keep pushing towards your goal.

The beauty of writing fantasy is that your own goal of publishing one, two or ten books can be viewed as a “hero’s journey” in its own right, parallel to whatever journey you’re exploring within the story. The challenges you face are largely emotional, motivational, and sometimes intellectual. You can’t see the way forward, you don’t know what should happen next, the story suddenly feels very dull, you realise you have to go back and rewrite major scenes, or even cut out scenes or sub-plots that you really enjoyed.

(Looking at it this way, I sometimes wonder if fantasy stories are a kind of code created by storytellers to describe their own frustrations and victories in creating stories, but that’s a little too meta.)

But like any hero’s journey, you have to take stock of where you’re really at. Maybe you’ve finished your first book and it feels like a triumph, or maybe you’re struggling to decide your setting and it feels like a major battle.

At times like these it’s good to stand back and consider the big picture: you might feel like Sam and Frodo on the verge of their ascent to Mount Doom, but maybe you’re actually Sam and Frodo wringing their hands over how soon they should leave for Crickhollow?

I’m using a similar thought to help keep me on track as I write the sequel to my first novel To Create a World. I figure that in order to make any kind of reasonable living from self/indie published ebooks I need between five and ten of them up for sale, preferably by yesterday. So in my mind, I’m not hesitantly agonising over the plot of my second novel, I’m desperately playing catch-up to my fourth or fifth book in the series.

I’m not the hero defeating his first big baddie, I’m the hero stalking his second, thinking about how far I have to go before i can face the final enemy.

At the same time, I have to admit that even this mindset is a little contrived or naive. Real veterans might scoff, or just shrug their shoulders and continue with the work. But that’s just the way the journey unfolds.

My aforementioned first novel is selling slowly. I’m not too worried, since I’m not investing in marketing at this stage. It’s more about doing what I can to have it available, and keep myself on track to finish the sequel(s).

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that the sequel feels much more consistent with the genre. To Create a World draws on some very big ideas that (as far as I can tell) don’t usually show up in fantasy quite so explicitly. I’m excited to see how the sequel turns out, but so far I’d have to say there’s a much higher ratio of fantasy content to mind-blowing philosophy than in the first book. Check it out on Amazon, or click on the pic for all other online stores.

The meaning of life in fiction

One of the problems with my new fantasy book is that it doesn’t fit all that neatly into the fantasy genre. I’ve tagged it “magical realism” where appropriate because although it follows the standard boy-stumbles-into-hidden-magical-world trope, it does so with what I hope is as much realism as magic.

For me, magical realism is like urban fantasy with an enhanced appreciation for symbolism and hidden meaning. It borders on or blends into a spiritual worldview.

It was gratifying to find that the spiritual ideas most significant to me at the time could work their way directly or indirectly into the story. Tom’s role in the creation of the magical world let me draw on questions of free-will and fate without getting too heavy or confronting. Likewise the question of “what am I supposed to be doing?” could unfold without messing too much with the narrative.

It was probably inevitable that anything I wrote would draw on the themes and ideas that are important to me. And at present, the most significant of these ideas is that the self that feels it’s in control is an illusion.

In the story this theme approaches near the resolution of the conflict. But Tom shies away from it, relying on magic to protect him from his enemy. But as the story itself tells us, that’s Tom doing what he was meant to do.

“I don’t think you quite understand what I’ve been telling you,” Cornelius replied carefully. “There is no ‘supposed to’. There just is. If your reaction to all this is one of confusion and complication, then you just have to accept it. Or not accept it, I suppose. This is how the maker made you, after all.”

“But how does that help me?” Tom demanded. “I feel like we’re going in circles! No matter what you say it just keeps coming back to me being afraid, and there’s no way out of it!”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying,” the gnome replied calmly.

I won’t be trying to force a moral into each story, or put clumsy platitudes in the mouth of every ‘wise’ character. The beauty of magical realism is that everything becomes a kind of sign or message, whether the author realises it or not.

Tom still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. Whether he as a character understands in the end is less important than the story as a whole embodying these truths. That’s what made writing this book most rewarding to me: the chance to see these ideas, principles, and motifs appearing and reappearing everywhere throughout the story. That’s the author’s privilege, I think. We get to discover the meaning hidden in the work in ways that surprise and astonish even its creator.

If you like the idea of gnomes proclaiming free-will paradoxes, or finding the meaning of life in a children’s novel, you’ll find yourself inevitably drawn to my new book To Create a World:

Writing with the power of panic

I think I’ll need somewhere between five and ten good quality ebooks for sale before I stand a chance of really making a living from it.

Bearing in mind that my idea of “making a living” is pretty frugal. Last time I checked, my family of three was living quite comfortably on what the OECD considers the poverty-line for a single adult in Australia.

But as my son gets bigger I’m starting to feel the need for a bigger place to live. He won’t fit in that cardboard box forever.

So while it was exciting to publish my first ebook recently, it’s really only the start. I’ve arbitrarily set myself a June deadline for the first draft of the sequel to To Create a World. If I write 1,000 words a day that will give me about 75,000 words, but I’m expecting the sequel to be bigger than the original, so I’m counting on passing my word-count more days than not.

That’s a lot to write. I won’t get there without making a major effort, and this realisation has done something to my mind.

With my first book, I took my time. I wanted it to be right at each stage. The first draft felt right, right up until the moment my wife finished reading it and paused a long, long time before giving her opinion.  In the end To Create a World took seven drafts to complete. Some were minor fixes, others were major additions or rewrites.

So this time I’m not waiting to see if it feels right when I write. Instead, I’m using my panic over the looming deadline to keep me focused, and my knowledge that rewrites are inevitable to keep me relaxed.

It’s finally making sense why people say not to edit until you’ve finished. If I stop now, I’ll never get it done.

The literal deadline doesn’t matter too much. It’s just there to give me something to strive towards. If the story stretches the draft out to 100,000 or more I’ll keep going until it’s done. But I can’t afford to slow down or dawdle. Even when the sequel is finished, I won’t be.

While you’re waiting for me to finish, read my debut novel To Create a World. I’ve pitched it at middle-grade readers, but so far the majority of people who’ve read it (and enjoyed it) have been adults. I’m sure that’s something I’ll have to rethink in future.

To Create a World: another great review!

High praise from Daan in the Netherlands:

Zac Alstin has managed to take one of the greatest themes in humanity’s history, that of wrongful usurpation of power, and turned it into a highly readable and entertaining fantasy novel. It evokes a strong reminiscence of Narnia at first, but the depth of the main characters and the reflections the story arouses raise the book to a higher level, in my perception. If you like fantasy, and are not averse to big questions in life, read this novel.

A higher level than Narnia? Thanks Daan!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, click on the link below for details:

TCAW: Corporal punishment for Goblins

Judging by the feedback, everyone’s favourite character in my new fantasy novel To Create a World is Torvol the Goblin:

“All goblins are beaten when we’re young,” Torvol explained, “it makes us hungry.”

“Hungry?”

“For power, for position, for profit. Beating is a challenge, not a punishment. So a goblin child who is more fearful than the others will get extra beatings – but he’ll also know he’s getting extra beatings, that he’s being singled out.”

“I don’t get it.”

“If he knows he’s getting extra beatings, then there’s nothing left for him to be afraid of. The worst has already happened. He’s surviving harsher treatment than the others. It’s all part of goblin formation, Tom. The confident ones realise they’re getting away lightly, and that makes them doubt their strength a little. The insecure ones realise they’re enduring the worst of anyone, and that gives them confidence. It’s brilliant.”

“I bet you were never beaten then,” Tom said morosely.

“Oh, I had my fair share,” Torvol grinned. But then his smile twisted bitterly. “But there are far worse things for a goblin than being beaten.”

Tom was too deeply immersed in his worries to ask what that meant.

“So are you going to beat me?” he asked instead.

“No, Tom, I’m not going to beat you,” Torvol sighed. “In the end you’re not a goblin. Who knows what effect it would have on you?”

I enjoyed writing Torvol because he’s almost the complete opposite of Tom. He’s choleric to Tom’s melancholic, but that rare breed of choleric who’s wise enough to be magnanimous without losing the inherent sharpness of his temperament.

I think many readers enjoyed seeing the Goblin tear into Tom, pushing him not so gently into getting his act together. And I loved that Tom was finally forced to confront a perspective so different from his own, without the excuse of turning the Goblin into an enemy.

It was also fun to try out some of my temperament ideas – wondering what it would be like for a whole race of creatures to be more choleric as an entire people and culture. Choleric was the obvious choice for Goblins, not because all cholerics are devious, subterranean, greedy little monsters (I still have choleric friends…) but because (brace yourselves, melancholics) the choleric temperament would ennoble the otherwise borderline-evil Goblin race, giving them a worldview and a way of thinking that encompasses not only greed and cunning, but wisdom and greatness also.

Torvol gave me an opportunity to play with the strengths of the choleric temperament – ambition and a quick wit – to offset Tom’s weaknesses, without him becoming choleric in the process. Who wouldn’t want a Torvol to advise them from time to time? Someone wiser and more astute than you, with an unrelenting yet open-minded conception of profit. You’ll be pleased to know I have big plans for him in future books.

If you enjoyed this excerpt about Torvol the Goblin, you might like my new fantasy novel To Create a WorldCheck it out!

My first-ever ebook review!

Dtcwee has written an awesome review of my new ebook on amazon.com.au:

“Then what about me?” Tom demanded. “What am I meant to do?”
“You’re doing it.” The old gnome said simply. “Even if that means being confused and complaining a lot and being ill at ease…”

Schoolboy Tom Gunn ventures into the forest to find a cure for his sister’s illness, and a way for his family to move back to the countryside, away from alienating suburbs. Lost within, he agrees to join forces with a sorcerer to create a a magical world. However, nothing is as it appears, including the act of creation itself.

From beginning to end, I felt primarily grateful to the author for keeping the paragraphs short, the action relentless, the scope focussed, and the headcount low, even if it meant disjointed themes and leaving loose ends.

A rambling chronicle this novel is not. The pace is rhythmic, the language clear, and the few important points are not glossed over or lost in belabouring. You will not have to flip back or search for a name or event.

Yet, this discipline makes room for complexities seldom explored in heroic fantasy such as anxiety, the paralysis of will, and even the function of the genre. By avoiding errors of indulgence, a modest tale is delivered well, rather than becoming – as often happens – a grand epic that exceeds the prose carrying it.

This ebook was a charming and cheap way to spend several hours thanks to the author recognising – in a self-referential nod – that creating a world is less important than telling a story.

Intrigued? Check out To Create a World

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