Sunday, 18 December 2016

Yule Tidings

As the cold winds of winter slowly gather, and the land falls under a glistening white spell of frost, the world braces itself for the holiday season. My somewhat early gift to you is the complete Steel and Silver, which has been available for a week now. Click the link to read the next chapter in Hugh, the far-fallen only son of an Esdarian noble family. Of course, for those who have not read the opening chapter in his story, Watcher of the West, my first-ever short(ish) story, is still available.

First, notice my festive efforts with the thumbnail. This is as good as it gets, I'm afraid.

This post has been one of the hardest I've had to write. I've been coming back to it for the last two weeks, adding to it here, taking a bit out there, never quite happy or sure with it. What started as a brief, three-paragraph footnote to this year has turned into its own short story about yours truly. That said, as far as Tales From Esdaria is concerned, this year has been a huge success: I've surpassed my own expectations with both quality and quantity of content, and have been overwhelmed with the gushing love and support I've had from so many people. However, as one may have guessed, I am sorry to say this will be my last update until 2017. Between now and some time early next year - I'm reluctant to specify an actual date - I plan to take a break from Tales From Esdaria to recuperate and resupply. I hope that stuffing myself with mince pies and chocolate will feed the fires of creativity into next year, and I will, as a result, have plenty of content ready to go early in 2017 - and, doubtlessly, plenty of Christmas weight to lose.

It has always been my dream to write in some form, and this year, thanks to this blog, I have been able to realise that in a very basic form. One of my earliest memories - I was perhaps three or four at the time - is presenting my mother with a poorly-illustrated page in a workbook upon which was scrawled the story of Sam, a Dalmatian (my mum loves Dalmatians) who went into the garden and did a poo - complete with illustration. 

We all have to start somewhere. 

From there, I spent my primary school years telling myself fanciful stories, writing silly tales about myself and my friends and drawing comics about the family dog; back then, that was a Labrador called Rocket who was, of course, a super hero (there was also less poo involved this time round - but much more bloodshed). Secondary school saw the exposition and development of my passion under new, keen English teachers with a real fire and passion for writing themselves. By my final year, I began writing what I was sure was going to be the next bestseller: a fantastical tale about a boy prince whose grief-maddened father tossed his kingdom into an alliance with an authoritarian, repressive, ultra-nationalistic Elven empire. At the same time, for my final piece of GCSE creative writing coursework, I channeled my inner angst-ridden, wanna-be-edgy pseudo-satanist into a fifty-page story - now (probably fortunately) lost. When I received this back after marking, at the bottom of the final page, after a short paragraph of feedback were written four words that went on to have a huge impact on me:

'You have to write.'

This fired me beyond belief. I was certain, as a result, I was on to becoming a winner with the other story I was writing. This is it! I once thought to myself, How can I possibly go wrong when all my English teachers assure me of my writing ability? I cannot fail! This fire began to burn, yet its flames were stoked perhaps too high. The heat was directed at the story about the boy prince, a manuscript that culminated in a 400,000 word tale which took me almost three years to complete, as I was forever dicing with either GCSE or A-Level exams, as well as playing in, writing for, and organising a band with a few friends at the same time.

When it was done, I proof-read it some half-dozen times - a gargantuan task in itself - to ensure that ever error was ironed out, that every paragraph was as riveting as the last, and that the grand, cinematic narrative that played in my mid-teen imagination was as clear on the page as it was in my mind's eye. When I was satisfied - no, elated that I had written something that could, at least to me, be seen as a possibly publishable text - I sent the finished piece to one of my high-school teachers, the very one who had assured me of just how I had to write. I wanted to feel their pride, for them to tell me just how far I had come and that my writing ability had improved exponentially in the two-years that had passed at sixth form. This was a terribly unwise decision, I admit with hindsight.

I never had a reply. The last thing I ever heard from that  member of staff came via an email sent almost three years ago to the day - their promise not to go through the story with a red pen. Not that I ever found out if they did or not, for I never heard back from them. For a time, my creative heart broke. I felt as if the grounds upon which I had built my love of the written word had cracked and crumbled beneath my feet: my drive and motivation had disappeared into a yawning chasm of apathy. I convinced myself that there was no hope, no future for me with stories or creative prose.

So I stopped.

It was only some months - perhaps a year or so - later, when I was midway through my first year of university, I rediscovered the manuscript. Still struggling with the fact I had been left high-and-dry, I reread the manuscript, trying to work out just what it was I had done so wrong. It was only then that I realised why the member of staff had never replied: the story was awful. There was no control, no thread of realism, and nothing remotely compelling about any one of the characters: the boy prince was so whiter-than-white in his morality that the plot armour he wore about his form was never once chipped; the female lead, an Elf, went through possibly the single most predictable maturity and redemption arc I'd ever seen; the various monarchs and other characters fitted simple stereotypes - the big guy was broody and grumpy; the good queen was calm and clever; the Merry-and-Pippin-style best-buds were torn apart when one of them was killed. There was nothing neither original nor compelling on a single page of the monolithic tome.

But in going through the failed opus I learned so much: I saw how not to create characters, how not to build relationships between the competing factions, and how not to make a world. It's interesting now, with the dozens of short(ish) stories and various other tales I'm slowly chipping away at, to see how far I've come - to see what I've built and have yet to refine.

As now is probably obvious, around this time of year, like most people, I begin to get reflective and nostalgic: I look back on the last twelve months and beyond, thinking of all that has happened, of what I have and have not achieved, the people I've gained and lost. As a result, for me, Christmas is always tinged with a little sadness. It's a time where I'm made aware of the smallness of my family, and the absence of certain members is one felt all the more sharply in the cold.

My family is small and scattered, across both England and the rest of the wider world. When I was growing up, the festive season used to be spent, in a very large part, with my maternal grandmother. Christmas Day was a time when Granny would appear in her little Peugeot, bearing Terry's Chocolate Oranges and armfuls of presents. She would drink a little too much sherry and doze off in front of the telly with a wide smile on her face. To her, I would present the stories I wrote when I was growing up - particularly the comics about Super Rocket, the hero Labrador (coincidentally, it was her and my grandfather who owned some dozen Dalmatians, and likely, several decades before I was born, began turning the cogs that would lead to the Sam the Dalmatian and the poo story).

She passed away in early January 2010 - the exact date I cannot ever remember, no matter how hard I try. The space she left is one that remains - and always will - raw and weeping. Her absence is most poignantly felt on Christmas Day: a spare seat still remains at the head of my parent's table which, years ago, she would have occupied. The 25th of December 2009 was also the last time I ever saw her, bedridden and fading though she was. It's a grief that has both been a weight and a weapon: it drags me down yet it drives me, and occupies a strange place in my mind somewhere between depression and ambition.

She is also one of - if not, perhaps the - reason I continued to write. She relished the words I put down on paper, even when I could barely hold a pencil. The pride in her hazel-brown eyes drove me then as it still does to this day. She ignited, tempered, and honed the love of the written word that lives within me - a love I hope has been made manifest on this little page before you over the last few months.

I started this blog on the 24th April this year following a careers advice session. Back then, I was nearing the end of my undergraduate BA and stood on the precipice of the future - and what a future it was to behold. Before me, on the edge of the Cliff of the Present, all I could see was a nauseating fall into darkness and hopelessness; no light of the future, no hope for prosperity and joy. I saw dead-end jobs in retail, serving dead-eyed, cold-hearted men and women whilst slowly my dreams turned to dust. I saw the fire of ambition being replaced by the cold, hard stone of failure. I saw myself fading into nothing, achieving nothing, and never again fulfilling a dream.

I told Adrienne - the careers lady I met with - all this. I told her that I saw no future for myself, never amounting to anything with what I had. I mean, I thought at the time, what will I actually do with a BA in History? Time and again, by dozens of people, I had been reminded it's not going to get me a "real job" and that doing a degree did not constitute actual life experience. I became convinced that I'd be tossed into the cold, hard light of the real world and left to disappear into nothingness, crushed under tens of thousands of pounds of crippling student debt with nothing to show for it. At the start of this year, therefore, I felt terrible: empty, owing more money than I could comprehend, and with what felt like no future. But when Adrienne asked me what I loved doing I, of course, responded with "Writing."
     'Well, do that,' she said with something of a wry smile.
     I laughed. 'Don't be ridiculous.'
     She shrugged at me. 'Have you ever tried.'
     'No,' I remember responding, 'but what's the point? I'm not good enough.'
     'You don't know that - you should try,' she told me with a broadening smile. 'You never know. Share some of your work. Try a blog, or post something on a forum. You never know what might happen.'
At first, I was dubious. Several weeks elapsed before I so much as dared considering writing something that I may or may not actually post on the internet. After all, I told myself, the internet is a dark and scary place full of cruel and terrible people who relish in the destruction of dreams and hope. Yet, over the last eight months, time and again I've been surprised and shocked by what I've seen thanks to this little site.

The praise I've had - from friends, family and strangers alike - has been incredible. The love, feedback, and (in some cases) pure hatred that has been elicited from some of you through my stories and characters has left me utterly gobsmacked. I had no idea anyone cared so much about the Vidorian Empire, the Kingdom of Maedar, Sir Hugh, Daith, and beyond. Even the most minor characters, in some instances, have received emotional reactions on levels I never imagined.

And you people keep reading this stuff! Eight months in, I expected maybe a hundred views from my closest friends, and perhaps a few page refreshes from the more sympathetic of you. Instead, Tales From Esdaria has been visited (at the time of writing this) over 3,700 times, and has reached countries in and beyond Europe, the Americas, and Africa. I can say nothing but thank-you to each and every person who has so much as glanced at this page. You've made me very happy.

This year, as you may have been able to tell at times, has been hard for me. Writing, however, has been one of the very few releases I've had from the real world. Escaping to Esdaria has constantly been an opportunity I've needed and loved. I can but hope that my work has provided each and every one of you with a few minutes of release from whatever you are running from - or towards! Your support, love, and feedback has dragged me out of bed on the darkest mornings, and kept my imagination alive and ever-expanding.

And you! You readers! You Englishmen, Americans, and Chinese! The Dutch, Danes, Russians, French, Polish, Spaniards, Czechs, Germans - the list goes on and on for longer than I could've ever imagined! - Thank-you! Your support has been incredible. To everyone - whether you've read each thing I've written, or just clicked about for a quick look - I really cannot thank you enough.

From what I can tell about you, readers, is that you rather enjoyed Stonesworn and Watcher of the West. You were relatively indifferent towards Blood and Gold (my personal least-favourite this year, I must admit), but absolutely loved Of Fire and Shadow. But nothing, I'm amazed to say, has come close to the popularity of the Silver Penny of Emperor Lyshir III, which has generated almost as many views as Of Fire and Shadow without so much as a tenth of the marketing effort. To any of my archaeologically-inclined friends who are reading this, you will see the irony, as coins have been something of a theme for me this year.

Finally, though, if there's one last message I could leave everyone before disappearing for the next few weeks or months, it's this: be proud. I think it was Adrienne who taught me this months ago, I just didn't realise it. When it comes to you, do those things you love for yourself: learn, write, read, create, enjoy. Draw the picture. Play the instrument. Sing the song. Write the story. Get the girl (or guy, or whatever). When it comes to your family - be they blood or otherwise - be proud of what you have. It isn't perfect, and you certainly didn't choose it. It is, however, the only one you've got. Love it while it lasts.

So, I wish a Merry Christmas and a wondrous New Year to all! I'll see you all in 2017!

Yours as always,


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