Fascinating Patterns from the SPFBO 2016 Competition

Honestly! Who’d be a fantasy book reviewer?

Day in, day out, reviewing endless narratives from a single literary genre, ducking the infinite queries from enthusiastic independent authors and then …Wham!

Just when you’ve established a workable regime, you’re suddenly enlisted in some bizarre, year-long competition, obliged to score thirty books you had no desire to read, books that are dragging you away from the ones you’d set your heart on.

But, I guess the view is very different from the other side of the mirror.

I came across Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) back in 2016, completely by chance. Because I like Mark’s books and I wanted to support what he was doing, I submitted two books on a bit of a whim (FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA and LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) and promptly forgot about it. Generally speaking, I’m not a fantasy writer so much as a writer of Irish mythological fiction. This contains substantial elements of fantasy so my books occasionally get lumped into the ‘fantasy’ category but it’s by no means a perfect fit. [Please note, Amazon – your categories need work!]

I intentionally refrain from spending too much time online so it was several days after the announcement was made before I found out that FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA had been selected as a finalist and only then because a fan of the FIONN series alerted me (cheers, Gary!).

As a slightly abstract finalist however, it’s been quite interesting to watch the competition unfurl. At first, I’d occasionally drift over to Mark Lawrence’s website to see how/if things were progressing. Later of course, the twitter account I’d set up to facilitate our annual Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition was hijacked by fellow SPFBO authors (you know who you are, you bastards!) obliging me to spend many hours of unproductive activity gigging over my keyboard like an inbred teen.

Meanwhile, back in reality, far away from the land of publishing, my alter-ego – mild-mannered concept designer and strategic analyst Brian O’Sullivan – couldn’t help but notice some interesting patterns that related to the particular dynamics of this unique competition. He’s done his best to summarise these below.

The diversity of reviewer tastes:

One characteristic that’s immediately obvious with the SPFBO is the diversity of reading tastes amongst the reviewers. One reviewer might absolutely LOVE a book, others might hate it. Others again might be all a bit …’meh’ about it.

That’s all completely natural of course and yet this characteristic wasn’t immediately obvious during the initial phase of the competition. At that point, the finalists and semi-finalists are still being chosen and the reviews produced tend to be mini-reviews so it’s hard to get a real feel for a reviewer’s taste. I became aware of the characteristic only because I had two books in the mix and the one which I’d thought the strongest contender (LIATH LUACHRA: THE GREY ONE) fell at the very first hurdle whereas FIONN: DEFENCE OF RÁTH BLÁDHMA ended up being the second book selected as a finalist. Both initial assessment/ reviews were carried out by different reviewers (Bookworm Blues and Bibliosanctum) so it was enough to get me thinking.

In the final phase of the SPFBO, once the three hundred contenders had been reduced to ten and the scores started to appear on Mark’s spreadsheet, the diversity of review blogger taste became far more visible. As the competition progressed, it was interesting to watch some books like THE GREY BASTARDS, PATH OF FLAMES and LARCOUT receive remarkably consistent scores whereas others like OUTPOST, PATERNUS or ASSASSIN’S CHARGE seemed to experience a much wider fluctuation, depending on the individual tastes of the reviewer. Interestingly, if you look at the score detail a bit more closely, you can actually see how some review blogs have quite a narrowly defined spectrum of what they like whereas others are far broader. Occasionally, this can be explained by the fact that some review blogs have a number of different SPFBO reviewers but this wasn’t always the case. Bring human, there’s also a genuine possibility of reviewers being influenced by the scores of their peers but, in fairness, any incidence of this appeared low (if at all).

For me, this wide range of tastes was one of the more interesting dynamics of the competition. Whereas for some reviewers you could see a slight trend of “every book but the one I chose wasn’t great”, for others there was really no way you could even hazard a guess as to what kind of score you were about to receive. This made the competition far more exciting.

A surprising openness to diversity

This characteristic really took me by surprise but in a sense it shouldn’t have as it’s probably a logical expansion of point (1).

As explained earlier, the books we publish (fiction and non-fiction) are based on Irish mythological fiction and focus strongly on historical accuracy and cultural authenticity (otherwise, the mythology makes little sense). Cultural authenticity was the whole reason I went down the self-publishing route in the first place. Generally speaking, my experience with mainstream publishers, distributors and reviewers in the English-speaking market is that they don’t allow much room for diversity of style or culture, preferring to stick to strict genre formulae that have proven themselves in the past. It was surprising therefore to see how the SPFBO reviewers handled things.

From the SPFBO FIONN reviews that have been published thus far, you can tell that the Gaelic names (characters and placenames) in the book created a degree of discomfort or challenge for the reviewers. For some this was minor and others complained a bit more, but in almost every case, to their credit, the SPFBO reviewers accepted them for what they were – an essential part of the story.

That genuinely surprised me. Having looked at the websites of the SPFBO review blogs, I’d got the impression they predominantly read and reviewed mainstream fantasy. As a result, I’d expected a similar mindset and that the language (and other Gaelic cultural aspects) would pose something of a barrier. Indeed all the advice I’d received from mainstream publishers to date (including Irish ones, sadly) was that it was critical to ‘anglicize’ Gaelic names for the market. The predominantly positive response from the SPFBO reviewers, however seems a pretty good indication of yet another reason why mainstream publishers are losing such a large proportion of the fantasy genre market to independent authors.

The SPFBO openness to diversity was not just limited to culture of course. Style also formed an interesting part of that. If you look at Jonathan French’s winning novel – THE GREY BASTARDS – you’ll see that the descriptions include ‘coarse’, ‘foul’, ‘filthy’ (one SPFBO reviewer even suggested it could “dial back the profanity/ sexuality”). My personnel favourite however, was from Pornokitch’s review:

“The Grey Bastards is filthy. In every way, really… from being coated to swamp mire to constant penis jokes. If there’s a way to be earthy, or just plain dirty, Bastards will find it. And then roll around for a while. This is part of the book’s steep learning curve: in the first few pages, we’re thrown in the deep end, with politics, sex, action and naked women shooting crossbows.

Despite all that, this book consistently scored ‘nines’ and – most amazingly – a ‘ten’, a first for the SPFBO.

The writing style of a number of other finalists (K. A Krantz’s LARCOUT and Dyrk Ashton’ PATERNUS, jump to mind) was also criticized on occasion by one or two reviewers (maximum). Again however, both of these books scored exceedingly well overall and remain comfortably nestled in the top five of the three hundred books considered, which speaks strongly about their quality.
For me, this situation with respect to diversity was best described by Bibliotropic (in one of the FIONN reviews) as follows:

“We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit.”

There’s been a lot of criticism in the fantasy/sci-fi (and other) publishing sectors over the last three to four years with respect to diversity. Overall, the SPFBO methodology of assessing books across ten different book reviewers seems a far more accurate and less biased process for looking at the general public’s taste with respect to fantasy literature.
If they have any nous, the mainstream publishers will be watching this carefully.

SPFBO Finalists receiving early (and positive) reviews have an advantage

The SPFBO competition is quite different from most other literary competitions in that it’s spread over an extended period (a year). In most cases, this works well for the participating authors (as they receive more exposure and visibility) and the participating fantasy review blogs (who see a corresponding increase in the number of visits to their sites).

The busiest, and most popular, period of the SPFBO definitely appears to be the initial phase of the competition. Over this period, at least 300 authors are online discussing the SPFBO, their own (and other authors’) books, exploring the various reviewer websites to get a sense of the reviewers to whose groups they’ve been assigned and ‘checking out’ of the competition (the other authors in their reviewer group). Numerous other bloggers and fantasy review sites are also interacting at this time, mini-reviews are released, some semi-finalists are identified, the identities of selected finalists trickle in and, of course, other participating authors are slowly but surely, eliminated.

The second phase of the competition seems a little more subdued in comparison. As the number of participating authors has been reduced from three hundred to ten, many of the eliminated authors have moved onto other things and the associated social media activity appears correspondingly diminished. There’s still quite a lot of interest in the initial reviews of the finalists however.
By the time more than half of the finalist reviews are in, there’s certainly a visible tapering off in activity with a drop off in Twitter and Facebook shares, blog comments and in discussions across most other social media outlets.

This all means that there’s a sliding scale with respect to timing of SPFBO Finalist selection, SPFBO reviews and the associated activity/visibility benefits for the authors. This was highly apparent this time around when the Pornokitsch review blog released a post identifying its finalist (Phil Tucker’s PATH OF FLAMES) and close contender (Josiah Bancroft’s SENLIN ASCENDS). Because this post identified the first finalist and provided the first in-depth review, the Pornokitsch post generated an enormous amount of interest and publicity for both Phil and Josiah (deservedly so, I’d have to add). Despite the fact that Josiah was eliminated from the competition, the positivity of the Pornokitsh review and the amount of interest it garnered (plus the quality of the book and a subsequent review from Mark Lawrence) meant SENLIN ASCENDS actually went on to perform exceptionally well in terms of sales and online reviews. Far better in fact than some of the actual finalists.

In some respects, this was also the case with FIONN: DEFENCE OF RATH BLADHMA as there was a flurry of sales and reviews following its initial selection (and like the Pornokitsch review, the Bookworm Blues reviewer struggled to choose between FIONN and Benedict Patrick’s excellent THEY MOSTLY COME OUT AT NIGHT). Due to very understandable circumstances, the reviews for both books were relatively short compared to those of the other blogs which no doubt had some effect.
I haven’t analysed whether the other finalist authors experienced similar dynamics with their initial selection but given the timing issues, I suspect the associated benefits diminished for the later finalists. I suspect this is also the case with the actual reviews themselves. Finalists who received a lot of reviews at the start of the second phase would have obtained far greater benefit than those who received the majority of their reviews in the latter part (for example F.T. McKinstry’s OUTPOST, S.K.S. Perry’s THE MOONLIGHT WAR and to a lesser degree K.A. Stewart’s THE MUSIC BOX GIRL).

The diversity of the fantasy blog reviewers creates different scales of response/benefit

When you consider the SPFBO review blogs, it quickly becomes apparent that they vary broadly in terms of size, from one man/woman bands (such as Bookworm Blues and Bibliotropic) to larger, more collective-style blogs (such as Fantasy Faction or Fantasy Literature). Over the course of the competition, I certainly got the sense that the smaller blogs suffered more from the strain of the increased review workload (the larger blogs could, at least, share the load amongst a larger number of reviewers). Given that, you would have expected the larger sites to complete their reviews first. Ironically, that didn’t seem to be the case. At the time of writing this post, many of the SPFBO reviews from two to three of the larger sites have yet to be posted (although the scores have). This isn’t a criticism – I’m sure there are perfectly good reason why – I just found it quite amusing.

From the perspective of the participating authors, the size and of the reviewing blog probably has some importance. It seems logical that the larger (or more established) review blogs have a greater follower count than the smaller (less-established) sites. This also means that any reviews from those sites (and associated benefits of visibility etc.) spread far wider than the reviews from the smaller sites. To a degree, this effect is balanced by the linking of all the reviews to the centralised SPFBO home site but it’s almost certain that some variance of benefit remains.

Conclusion:
The above are just some of the interesting characteristics that I’ve personally observed over the course of the SPFBO competition research but given the limited amount of analysis I carried out, that’s all they really are: observations.

All competitions have their own particular features, their strengths and their shortcomings. Given that the SPFBO is facilitated by volunteers who do it for passion rather than for pecuniary or other benefit, I don’t think any of us participating authors have too much reason for complaint.
Personally, despite my initial lack of expectations, I ended up obtaining immense enjoyment from the experience (more as a result of the online friends and relationships I’ve established than from any increased sales or visibility – although these too have been beneficial).

I recently carried out a scoping exercise to assess the possibility of facilitating a SPFBO event here in Wellington and although the results indicated it wasn’t really a feasible option as yet, I did identify hints that the SPFBO competition was on the cusp of a step-change in terms of influence. I’m not really interested in the political pros and cons of the “indie versus traditional” publishing discussion but what’s clear to me is that events such the SPFBO have irreversibly transformed the publishing sector. Independent or self-publishing is (and probably has been for a while) the mainstream publishing sector.

I’ll close off with thanks to Mark Lawrence (read the Red Queen), Sarah Chorn and all the participating reviewers of the SPFBO 2016.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh

That a thousand good things might come to you.

Brian O’Sullivan

PS: If I’ve got anything wrong, omitted or misinterpreted anything, feel free to correct me in the comments.

What Comes Next: Update On Production

As you’re probably aware, Fionn: The Adversary , the third book in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series was released at the end of February (if you’re not aware you must be deaf and blind as I’ve been shouting about it from the rooftops for months while waving a bright red flag!).

Following that publication and various other projects, I decided to take some time off and do absolutely no writing for a month or two. I was still working of course. There were still numerous articles to write, my sections for the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 (released last week) to complete and then of course the editing and the actual publication process. Although this preoccupied me on an administrative level, creatively it freed up some headspace to think about the next book. Having completed another in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, I was keen to try something slightly different.

Subsequently, I’ve decided to work on two books this year (three really, if I count the next Celtic Mythology Collection but that’s not for several months yet). The first one (which I’ve already scoped out) is going to be a second Liath Luachra novel. Some of you might be a little surprised at that, given that I discounted that possibility last year (I’m nothing if not fickle!).

I originally wrote the first individual Liath Luachra novel (Liath Luachra: The Grey One) as a prequel to the Fionn mac Cumhaill series, one I had intended to be accompanied by a second book called ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’. Both were meant to provide context and background to the two main protagonists in the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series and essentially serve as an entry into that series.

As it was, Liath Luachra: The Grey One ended up being far darker than I’d originally envisaged and I felt it just wasn’t suitable as a prequel. The lack of response (reviews and sales) to the book following its publication also convinced me to put it aside, something I announced in one of the earlier newsletters. Many of the elements I’d intended to put in ‘Bodhmhall: The Black Hag’, meanwhile, ended up in Fionn: The Adversary.

Following the SPFBO 2016 competition however, there’s been quite an unexpected surge of interest in Liath Luachra with several people writing to ask for more stories on this particular character. As a result, I’ve decided to give Liath Luachra her own mini-series (of three books). This series will include Liath Luachra: The Grey One and the remaining two books will follow on directly from the events in that novel.

The second Liath Luachra book (the one I’ve started) has the working title Liath Luachra: Sons of the Land. Gaelic speakers amongst you will know that ‘Sons of the Land’ is a direct translation of the word ‘Mactíre’ – the Irish word for ‘wolf’ and wolves of course will play an important part in this story. I’ll tell more about that in the next newsletter.

But that’s the Liath Luachra book.

The second book I’ll be working on this year is a non-fiction work that requires a substantial piece of research – something I’ll be carrying out through the remainder of the year. At this stage, I’ll say no more about it apart from the fact that I’ve previously written about it in other newsletters as Project Tobar. Tobar is the Irish for ‘well’ (the one with the water in it, not the “well, well, well!”).

In between times, I’ll also be working on the plot lines for the next Fionn book (FIONN: The Salmon of Secret Wisdom). This has some significant plot twists in it and it will require quite a bit of thinking to get the effect I want while aligning it with the established Fenian Cycle. Some of it will also overlap with the new Liath Luachra series.

I feel exhausted already!

Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 is Now Available (partially) Online

We initiated the release of the second Celtic Mythology Collection yesterday and it’s a pretty impressive collection. I guess as editor, I’d be expected to say that anyway but the truth is I’m genuinely impressed, probably because of the larger range and mythological depth of the stories in this edition.

From our perspective, the primary goal of these books is to counter the copious amounts of shite nonsense out there, relating to Celtic mythology. We have hundreds of years of disinformation to counter and it really is no easy task, particularly when you’re competing against the entities out there who make money from disseminating false information (and publishers who republish ‘out of copyright’ editions of Yeats, I’m looking specifically at you).

So, first, the spiel!

This time around, there’s also quite a large diversity in terms of Celtic/Gaelic topics/concepts covered. Will O’Siorain’s (winner of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition) Hour of Greatest Need is a very exciting retelling of the ancient tale on how Emain Macha (Eamhain Mhacha ) got it’s name. Diana Powell meanwhile has a stirringly emotive interpretation of changelings in her story The Black Hen. Damien McKeating, who came in third place in the competition, also does a brilliantly original take on An Daghdha (An Dagda) in A Good Man.

The three competition winners are ably supported by three other new talents. Darren Fecky’s The Drunken Joe Malshy is probably the most original (and funny) take on Irish mythology I’ve read for years (if ever – this guy is a serious talent). Méabh de Brún also does a very effective and individual take on the Cave of Cruachann tale with Revival and makes it very much her own. Finally, after last years ‘flood’ of selkie stories, I swore we wouldn’t do another but Molly Aitken’s story Seasick was simply too good not to include.

Seriously, though, there is some pretty amazing writing and storytelling skill at work in this year’s release and given that this is all freely available in digital form, we’d strongly urge you to give it a try.

And then there were the practicalities!

As usual, when it comes to releasing anything with a zero price, it’s fraught with difficulty and time delays. At the moment therefore, the Celtic Mythology Collection is available for free at:

Kobo as an ePUB file

Smashwords as an ePUB and Kindle file

Within a week or two (all going well) it should also be available at
Apple Barnes & Noble (Nook)

The book is also available on Amazon for 99c (Amazon are reluctant to make anything free until they have to price-match the larger ebook stores so this should happen in the next week or two). Meanwhile, if you want to get it there and enrich our copious coffers (not) feel free to do so. I think we’ll get 35c on every sale until it reverts to ‘free’. Aaaah, the wealth and the glory!

But really!

This book is a lot of work for us and we’re exceptionally proud of the final product but, obviously, it’s not a success unless readers actually enjoy it. If you’d like to leave some feedback via a review at the ebook store or on Goodreads, we and the authors would greatly appreciate it.

The Completion of Two Irish Imbas Projects, the Start of Another

The first batch of hardcopies for Fionn: The Adversary arrived in this morning. Fifteen copies and they’re already gone, mostly committed to people who’ve helped with the production, editing, reviewing etc. I think I have a single copy left which is remaining here on the home shelf.
Even after all these years, there’s still a great thrill and satisfaction in seeing all your intellectual work captured and consolidated into physical form. Digital copies are fine but I still prefer the tactile experience of flipping pages and the tangible weight of a book in my hand when I’m reading.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the way the book has been received. Given the rush to complete it on time, I was growing too close to the final product by the last stage of edits and found it increasingly difficult to tell whether the story was working as I wanted (really need to work on those self-imposed deadlines!). In the end, I went with gut instinct and the advice of my test readers and editor and, fortunately, that seems to have worked. The reviews to date (on Goodreads – it seems to be getting increasingly harder to get reviews on Amazon) have been extremely positive so that’s a major relief.

Since the publication, I’ve done absolutely no creative writing and have been focussed mostly on editing the next Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection (due for release this week if everything comes together). The timing for this release has actually been seriously hampered by New Zealand Post losing our final edited version between the north and the south islands (despite having paid for tracking, they were unable to find it). Essentially, NZ Post has been run into the ground by the current New Zealand government over the last few years and can no longer be trusted for even the most basic of deliveries. We certainly won’t be using them again.

Apart from that our monthly newsletter will also be released later this week. I’ll be outlining my next writing projects in that and on this website in a future post.

A Restrained Saint Paddy’s

St Patricks Day in New Zealand started with a bang – literally.

I heard the story from the Honorary Consul General who’d been stuck on a plane in Auckland airport for two hours. Bound for Wellington, the plane ended up being grounded due to a dog running loose on the runway. Ironically, we later found out the 10 month-old dog was actually an Aviation Security Dog (a ‘sniffer’ dog) who’d escaped its handler and panicked. The airport staff tried to catch it for three hours but in the end they resorted to shooting it. Sixteen flights had been grounded (including the Consul-General’s) and several more had been diverted. Apparently, they weren’t going to let an animal cause any further loss of income.

Even more ironically, I started the day by attending a St Paddy’s Ulster Breakfast celebration at the British High Commission. I was a bit surprised to get an invite to such a formal occasion, particularly from a British Government organisation. When I told K, she was cynical: “They’re probably trying to cover all options for the forthcoming Brexit trainwreck. Maybe they’re hoping to get jobs in Ireland.”

Actually, this turned out to be quite a bit of fun as the weather was stunningly beautiful and there were numerous people from Cork there. Apparently there’s some secret special deal between the New Zealand Emigration Office and Cork people at the moment. I used to be the only Cork person in Wellington city. Now the place is flush with the bastards.

I had an interesting conversation with one person (from Cork) who approached me to ask why I wasn’t wearing green.

Me: I’m green on the inside.

Him: Ah, sure, I know but it’s symbolic of the day. If you wear green people will know you’re Irish.

Me: All I have to do is open my mouth and people know I’m feckin Irish.

A lot of people were wearing Irish rugby jumpers. Given there were so many people from Cork they could have probably just have worn the red and white Cork colours. The High Commission staff were the only people who wouldn’t have got it.

As we were leaving the British High Commission, one of the senior staff was outside playing with a control handset for a drone set up on the pristine grass garden in front of the residence. ‘A communications package,’ he hurriedly assured us. ‘Just testing it out.’

We nodded knowingly. There’s no hiding the enthusiasm of a fifty-plus year old man with a new toy. While we watched, he pressed the ‘up’ button. The drone literally jumped a foot into the air, did a flip and collapsed, props spinning, back onto the grass. There was a stunned silence.

‘It’s not a drone’, my witty friend commented. ‘It’s some kind of new Flymo.’

That afternoon I returned to the home office to do some work on the Celtic Mythology Collection 2017. I’d decided to give the whole creative writing side a break for a month or so and it was actually nice to just write contextual notes for other people stories.

That night there was a party but you’re getting no further details on that.
I want to be invited to another Ulster Breakfast.

The Challenge of Cultural Integrity in Writing

When I first started writing the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series over two years ago, I was keen to create a realistic, culturally authentic version of the famous Fenian Cycle that was recognisable to Irish readers but also accessible to non-Irish readers. As part of my overall goal with Irish Imbas Books however, I was also keen to use the series as a way of reintroducing lost Gaelic/Irish concepts (that is words, expressions and – more importantly – ways of thinking) that have been lost from common parlance as a result of colonization but which still have significance at a societal level.

This is why throughout the series, you’ll find a constant smattering of words like ‘fian‘, , draoi, ráth, and some others, words that by themselves mean little, but which in the context of Irish/Gaelic culture have a major resonance.

The word ‘Fianna‘ is a classic example of how much was lost. This word – the basis for the contemporary word ‘Fenian’ – is believed by most people (including many Irish people who’ve never been taught any better) to be the name of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s war band. In fact, ‘Fianna’ was simply nothing more than the plural of the ‘fian‘ (which meant ‘war party’). This means that Fionn’s fian was one of a number of such war parties and that they were a recognised dynamic in the society of the time. It’s a little thing, but when you take the downstream consequences of that new knowledge into account you can see how it changes the interpretation of the story.

Trying to balance those competing goals (the requirements of cultural integrity and the requirement to deliver an accessible and enjoyable story to an international audience) can actually be quite a challenge at times. The truth is that any decision you make with one can have a huge consequence with the other.

One of my earliest decisions, for example, was to retain the original Gaelic spelling for the character names (Fionn, Liath Luachra, Bodhmhall, Fiacail etc.) and place names (Seiscenn Uarbhaoil etc.). This demonstration of cultural accuracy – naturally – clashed bigtime with the accessibility goal. For non-Gaelic speakers, Irish names can be the equivalent of having a broken stick in your mouth – whatever comes out is going to come out mangled! Anyone used to thinking in English – understandably – struggles with the unfamiliar combination of vowels and consonants.

Naturally, the advice I received from everyone was to use an anglicization of the names to make the reader more comfortable. After all, that’s why in the early days Fionn mac Cumhaill’s name was anglicized to the meaningless ‘Finn Mac Cool’. Sure, the latter is easier to say for an English speaker but the English name doesn’t carry the strong cultural associations of the Irish one (Fionn means ‘fair-headed’ but also has related connotations of ‘insightfulness’ etc.). ‘Finn’ is a meaningless term that includes no such depth or resonance (and, here, I’ll have to apologise in advance to those parents who’ve gone and named their kids, Finn!).

If you’ve read any of the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series books, you’ll already know I went with my heart rather than my head on this particular issue (although I did soften the challenge for readers by providing an audio pronunciation guide). In some respects that actually seems to have paid off in that readers predominantly respect what I’m trying to achieve and have demonstrated immense patience and willingness to overcome the temporary pronunciation challenge. At the end of the day, I guess what my experience has really demonstrated is that if you produce something that’s good enough/intriguing enough/interesting enough for people to enjoy, they’ll put up with your whims and even support you.

As an aside, here’s a question I once held up at Irish cultural/heritage class I was running:
How would you pronounce the following?

  • Zach Galifianakis
  • Michelle Pfieffer
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor

Everyone in that group of attendees (about 18) was able to pronounce at least four of those names and where they couldn’t they knew exactly what that person had achieved as part of their creative career.

Basically, culture is not a barrier to success unless you let it be.
And, seriously! If an English speaker can manage to pronounce Schwarzenegger, Fionn is never going to be a problem.

Bored? In need of scintillating cultural stimulation?

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Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition: Results

As mentioned in my last post, the initial shortlist of 19 short stories (this was actually a long-list – we’ll know better next time) was reduced to a more manageable number for the judges. The ten stories in question were:

  • A Face in the Snow by Majella Cullinane
  • All Man by Philomena Byrne
  • Gebann’s Daughter by Jane Dougherty
  • In the Hour of Greatest Need by Will O’Siorain
  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Lexi on her Sixty-second Journey by Randee Dawn
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken
  • The Black Hen by Diana Powell
  • The Good Man by Damian Keating

It was a tough job culling the nine stories that we did. Certainly, some of them were good, others we thought had immense potential but at the end of the day we had to make a decision.

These then were the ten stories considered by the judges. Even with the reduced number however, the choice remained a difficult one with extremely close scores between the first and second place winners and an even tinier gap between the third and fourth places. Certainly, in our view, any of these ten stories are suitable for publication.

Still at the end of the day, this is a competition so the three winners are as follows:

First Prize
$500 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection

‘In the Hour of Greatest Need’ by Will O’Siorain

Second Prize
$250 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Black Hen’ by Diana Powell

Third Prize
$100 and story published in Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Collection
‘The Good Man’ by
Damian Keating

Special mention also needs to be made for:

  • Joe Malshy by Farren McDonald
  • Revival by Méabh Browne
  • Seasick by Molly Aitken

All three of these were within a hairsbreadth of the top three places and we’re very pleased that they’ll at least appear in the final Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017.

So What Happens Next?

  • The winning authors should receive payment by the end of this week
  • Irish Imbas Books is closing down for a much-needed break next week so we’ll probably not be contactable for several days
  • The Irish Imbas: Celtic Mythology Collection 2017 will be released sometime towards the end of March 2017. We’ll keep you posted on that.
  • Once that publication’s complete, we’ll provided feedback to those authors who didn’t make the initial shortlist (and who requested feedback). We’re still not sure how/when that will occur but I imagine this will happen between April-June 2017.

Congratulations to the winners and immense thanks to those of you who took the time to enter or follow the competition.

Odd Dynamics of the Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition

ODD DYNAMICS IN THE CELTIC MYTHOLOGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION

In 2015, when we ran the very first Celtic Mythology Short Story Competition, we received about 35 submissions. This year, we were expecting a slight increase but, in fact, that number more than doubled. This caught us by surprise and it involved a lot more work than we’d originally envisaged. The shortlist we finally released (see here) contained 19 short stories but it soon became obvious we’d have to reduce that number again so as not to overwhelm the judges. After another reading and using the same criteria, that list was subsequently reduced to ten.

Today (Sunday 26 February) a number of the judges met to consider that reduced shortlist. We’re still awaiting the results of the final judge (who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to illness) but there are some interesting dynamics which have already become apparent.

The Judging Process:

This year, we amended the judging process to reduce the Irish Imbas Books input into the final decisions (I had the sense that we were just a little too close last year). As a result, for decisions on the 2017 Celtic Mythology Collection we had four judges instead of three and Irish Imbas Books (through myself) had a single vote out of four. The judging process was also different this year in that three of the judges were male and one was female (the previous year, the majority of judges were female). You might think such minor changes wouldn’t have too much of an impact but, interestingly, I suspect they do. Two of the stories I had considered shoo-ins for the top five actually ended up getting far lower scores from the other judges than I’d anticipated. One story I hadn’t expected to get in, is now up there in the top five/six.

The Dynamics

Mythology not fantasy:

Something that did surprise us (and which I referred to in an earlier post) was the substantial confusion out there with respect to what mythology is and how it relates to fantasy. Some of the submitted entries seemed to have no connection with any established mythology from the Celtic countries (apart from being set in Ireland, Wales, Scotland etc.). In one respect, I suppose I wasn’t surprised – this gaping lack of understanding of mythological knowledge was why I set up Irish Imbas Books in the first place. What did shock me though was the sheer scale of the misunderstanding out there.

As a general rule, it’s probably best to think of mythology as a mechanism our ancestors used to explain the world around them. It operated through narrative as our ancestors didn’t have access to the scientific rationale that we utilise today. Essentially, mythology is culturally based (which is why different cultures have their own characteristic mythological elements). It contains fantastical elements but it’s not fantasy.

Recurring Themes:

With last years competition, we noticed a number of recurring themes with the stories submitted (i.e. some of the mythological aspects used in the stories occurred fare more often than others – Bean sí, selkies. etc.). This year, we also noticed a surprising number of recurring themes that included:

  • Bean sí / Banshees (again – 7 entries)
  • An Toraíocht/ Diarmuid agus Grainne (five stories)
  • Changelings – replacement of young children by supernatural creatures (five stories)

This pattern of recurring themes is a bit odd but it does seem to occur purely by chance (certainly, there’s no way I’d have anticipated so many An Toraíocht-based stories). Last year, we had a surplus of Selkie stores (which was why I suggested not submitting a selkie story this year). Next year, I’ll probably add Bean sí.

I suppose, in hindsight, it wasn’t really surprising to receive so many Bean sí stories. Internationally, the Bean sí is one of the more well-known elements of Irish mythology. Ironically, it’s also one that most Irish people tend to avoid like the plague. We’re all very familiar with these stories so to an Irish person, many of those stories hold limited interest. In addition, when someone from overseas writes those they often feel overly melodramatic or overly romanticised. As one of the judges commented – banshees felt like the default/easy option.

Unfortunately, I think those submitters who happen to get caught up in a recurring theme are at a (slight) disadvantage when it comes down to the shortlist and winner selection. That’s because these short stories not only have to compete against other mythological short stories but stories within their own subject area as well.

Faux Irish

A surprisingly large number of entries (at least ten) also seemed to be attempting to put an Irish ‘voice’ to the characters in their stories (particularly where the story was set in Ireland – fair enough). As a general rule however, the old adage – write what you know – is particularly relevant when it comes to writing about a culture that’s not your own. Certainly, it’s possible but it really does help to have more than a passing familiarity with the culture (i.e. you’ve lived in the country for an extended period etc.).

This was particularly obvious with respect to dialogue where the judges were exposed to a number of ‘clangers’ (i.e. words or expressions introduced by a character that no Irish person would use) or with cultural contexts that just jarred and didn’t ring true. This was probably more important this year as three of the four judges were Irish.

That’s probably enough of a tease for the moment.
The final results will be posted here tomorrow or the day after.

Note: We’ve estimated that the free digital version of last year’s Celtic Mythology Collection was downloaded between 40,000-45,000 times (minimum).

‘Tests of the Fianna’ – Do you have the RIGHT STUFF to join the Fianna?

Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record . Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.

One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous Fianna war band.

The most well-known reference to the ‘Tests of the Fianna’ is probably in T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but he may have originally gleaned the reference to the Tests from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634).

This goes as follows:

“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”

Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:

1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Picking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.

To this day many Irish people still refer to these tests and certainly most would have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because (a) they enjoy the concept and (b) they like lists.

I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well and has continued to tickle my funny bone. That’s probably why I decided to make reference to it in the latest of my Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (FIONN: The Adversary). In that series, the young Fionn (Demne) is drawing closer to the time in which he must start his war training so it seemed kind of sensible to bring it into the story, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that it’s not entirely true. In this regard, I refer to a training cycle known as the Gaiscíoch Path (the Path of the Warrior) which an unblooded young warrior (óglach) must follow to be accepted into a war band (fian).

In this particular scene, Bodhmhall (Demne’s aunt) has just woken up and is listening in on a conversation between Demne and the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna.
——————————————

A loud snort of laughter startled her awake and she jerked upright in alarm. Blinking, she looked around in confusion. The sun was warm on her face, the breeze stirred her hair and at that very moment two wood pigeons fluttered past, wings taking them north towards Dún Baoiscne. Behind her, she could hear the voices of Fiacail and Demne – the origin of the laughter – conversing loudly on the subject of her nephew’s birth and early days of infancy.
Exhaling slowly, Bodhmhall turned around to observe them, curious to see Demne’s reaction. Like all children, she knew her nephew was fascinated by the concept of himself as a new-born.
‘I was present when you were little more than a few hours from your mother’s belly,’ Fiacail was telling him. ‘For days you squealed like an injured pig.’
‘Like a pig?’ The boy’s eyes were wide.
‘Like a pig. But do you know what I remember most?’
Fascinated, the boy shook his head.
‘The shit you produced. In truth, I’ve never seen a child make such a mass of offal. You seemed to create a quantity of shit that weighed more than the weight of your own body. I don’t know how that’s possible.’
The conversation deteriorated into a bout of giggling.
‘Shit or no, I’ve promised your aunt to initiate you in the gaiscíoch path. But know this.’ And here the warrior’s voice suddenly turned stern. ‘I will drive you hard for the gaiscíoch path sets arduous trials and you must overcome each one.’
‘Trials?’ The boy’s voice was thick, not so much with concern as intrigue.
‘Indeed. Physical trials that would challenge the mettle of a hardened warrior. As it is, an óglach like you must leap a stave of your own height and run under another the height of your knee. While pursued though the forest you must pluck a thorn from your foot without breaking stride. Later, when buried up to your waist in the earth, you must defend that position from spear-wielding warriors while armed only with a staff and shield.’
There was a silence as the boy considered these gruelling challenges. ‘Can you do all these?’ he asked Fiacail at last.
The bandraoi was unable to smother her snort of laughter.
Fiacail cast her a withering look.

When Game of Thrones Goes Bad

Here’s a potential Christmas gift for the Fantasy fan in your life!

You’ve heard of GAME OF THRONE’S MONOPOLY …

Well, now, EVEN BETTER comes ………………

GAME OF THRONES CLUEDO!!!!!

Possibly the most challenging of games ever played. Essentially YOU play the role of a city warden – one of King’s Landing’s finest – and YOU have the unenviable task of working out who did NOT murder the victim.

Simple?

Well, maybe not. This is a game that requires a keen and subtle mind and the task is a little more complicated than it might appear at first.

In King’s Landing, EVERYONE murders everyone else! The city is awash with homicides, patricides, fratricides and any oul-cide you can think of. Finding an innocent man or woman is like finding an unpoxied doxy in Chataya’s Brothel!

At the end of the game, it’s YOU – and only YOU – who must report back to the King’s Hand to boldly proclaim:

X did not kill Y in the Z with the:

  • thumbs in the eye-sockets
  • rats in the chest cavity
  • knife to the eye
  • molten gold on the head
  • crossbow bolts through the bedpost

And SO MANY MORE!!!

Endless hours of fun for ALL the family!!

Note: For the more gullible among you, this is not a real game … unfortunately!