Interview: The Blade of Ahtol with Dan Gillis

I am honoured to announce the publication of a new epic fantasy and to present my second interview on this blog.

My last interview, with Malyn Mawby, featured her incredible scrapbooking and blogging journey, 10minutes, for the Art House Projections 2012 Sketchbook Project.

Author Dan Gillis This interview features Dan Gillis, a good friend and member of the Write Group, who yesterday published his first book, Sapling: The Blade of Ahtol.

The Blade of Ahtol is an epic fantasy novel. It follows a band of outcasts who find themselves hounded by evil forces. I will start my post with my review of the book.

Sapling Cover Review of the Blade of Ahtol, Book 1 of the Sapling cycle in the Aerluin Weave saga, by Dan Gillis.

Since Llian wandered and Aerluin was lost, evil has steadily crept across the lands, building itself to conquer all of Aeredia.

The pickpocket, Firah, joined by her burly patron, Tohm, a bartender; Zyr, a monk shrouded in layers of mystery; and Shien, an expelled patriot seeking heirlooms stolen from his family, venture out and soon find themselves thrust together and targets of the spreading evil. They attempt to flee, only to be doggedly pursued by their enemy and even by their allies. When they also become afflicted with madness, possession and magic they cannot control, how can Firah and her companions survive to save Aeredia and Aerluin?

Sapling: The Blade of Ahtol is set in a world of conflicting magic, where demons possess humans, and monsters enslave farmers and villagers. Factions clash in their struggle for control and in all of this is a violent race to find someone to embody the growing evil or the essence of Aerluin. In the midst of this turmoil, Firah is a sensitive; she is attuned to the magic moving through Aeredia, making her a receptacle for good and evil. Her sensitivity makes her trackable and constantly dogged by those who would possess her. In a world where loyalties shift and alliances and adversaries switch, any move, even flight, is dangerous.

I like Gillis’ Blade of Ahtol. Dan pulls us through a complex world using engaging characters, a rich story, a dynamic pace and embedded backstories. Dan’s attention to detail provides a history even to the geology and conflicting magic in his unique world. His clashing cultures develop different perspectives on this history and their often-hostile interactions. The atmosphere is tense, even in the enervating and the tranquil sequences between his fast-paced, yet clear, fight scenes. These calculated fight scenes are meaningful to Dan’s story and his world; they are not contrived conveniences. In similar fashion, Dan manages to expertly embed, rather than insert, informative backstories, and ulterior motives and goals, into his epic tale. This last is refreshing as backstories are often the bane of story flow; here they contribute to the fiction. Dan also sprinkles liberal doses of humour and romantic tension throughout his story as well as interesting cues specifying change in point of view, timing and scene, and visual icons, matched to a calendar explained in an appendix, identifying the date of events in the novel.

I had a few chances to listen to Dan reading portions of this riveting tale and love the way the story reads when he recites it. I think any reader who is interested in fantasy and suspense will love this novel. I highly recommend it.

Check Dan’s novel out. It is a good story.

To mark the occasion of the publication of Dan’s first book, I interviewed him about his novel and writing practice. Here is what he had to say.

SU: First, congratulations, Dan. It is incredible to watch the editing, revision and publication processes in action.

SU: Share some things about yourself. Who are you?

DG: I am a teacher of a most imaginative group of people, that being junior high. They inspire me everyday, to say nothing of general source material for teenage characters. I think of my creative experiences in my young teens [adolescence] and I want to foster that same feeling in the youth today. Its most rewarding with the self-proclaimed non-writers who learn to create amazing tapestries of imagination. Anything creative I have grown to enjoy and participate in; namely painting, sketching, digital media, photography, guitar, drama/theater, martial arts and starting a family. I guess you can say I received a lion’s share of creativity and I have tried not to bury it in the ground.

SU: That is interesting. I also felt most creative when I was a teen and I see it all the kids, from Grade 5 to Grade 12, that I teach. I believe kids are the most creative people in the world.

SU: What were your first stories and poems like? What were they about?

DG: What a range of stories took shape!

In one case a boy is taken by a secret organization and a small micro-computer is implanted in his brain. When he escapes and remembers nothing, he is thrust into chaos as the organization tries desperately to recover their investment. He is most surprised when the computer comes online and assists him in his attempts to escape recapture. I was 15 when I imagined that one.

In another yarn, my sister and I collaborated when I was 18. Beings have come to earth. They are time travellers and are fleeing their world in destruction. The earth story is somewhat dystopian, with an oppressive government that has the earth locked down. The travellers decide to help a young boy and girl with their struggle.

My poetry was lively and comedic. Teenage angst rolled out occasionally, but for the most part it was lighthearted fun. Classic titles include “To Live and Die in LA (Language Arts)” and “Pass the Napkins Please.”

SU: Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

DG: My father once wrote a poem for each of his children, which was placed in each of our personal journals. I was very young when I received mine. I have treasured that poem for decades which symbolizes a father’s love and creativity. I know my father loved to read and maintained a personal library of his favorite books. Most were academic, but it was clear that poetry and humor were integral to his preferences. My dad has supported me in all my creative and academic pursuits and has never faltered. What more of a treasured friend and mentor could I ask?

SU: How would you describe the Blade of Ahtol to someone who has not read any of your work?

DG: I have found this sort of question a challenge because of the scope of the project. Sapling falls into the genre of epic or high fantasy as just one of many unique and varied stories to be told in Aeredia. The Blade of Ahtol is an introduction to the world and establishes a context for the power that drives the conflict for all the narratives that will follow in the Aerluin Weave.

The fantasy genre is certainly replete with many worlds and characters. While I have endeavoured to create an interesting and unique mechanic to the genre, my joy of writing is in the exploration of the human condition. As such, the Blade of Ahtol is as much a character study of those who struggle against the corruption of power in others as it is in themselves. I have always found this a compelling theme to write about. Firah is very much the catalyst for the reader’s discovery; a character who knows little of the world outside and is caught up in the power games of others. While the narrative is written from various perspectives, the general flow of the novel follows the young girl along her journey. Firah is a character that you can become very attached to – faults and all.

SU: What is your favourite part of the Blade of Ahtol?

DG: Hands down, the part I love to read the most is the interactions between Zyr and Nuril, particularly the encounter during the skirmish of the White Guard and the Blade of Ahtol. This backstory was the most taxing to write as I felt so much for Tehsa and the threads of fate which change her life. As with most writers, I have a vested interest in all my characters and the troubles I create for them. As I indicated earlier, I get attached to the characters and they feel very real to me.

SU: What is your favourite part about writing?

DG: Creating images with words is a rewarding undertaking whether in narrative or poetic form. The more subtle but effective device work is the ultimate challenge. I am always trying to refine this craft and make the writing richer and more efficient.

SU: What is writing to you?

DG: Writing is a form of expression as much as any other medium such as art, drama, martial forms and many others. Each medium offers a special form of communication to the recipient. Out of all the forms of creative expression I love writing for the ability to convey the thoughts, hopes and desires most accurately. Yet, it lacks in perfect description of character and settings without a laborious diversion from the plot. Cinema is a direct contrast of these points, offering perfect visual clarity, but limited to verbal dialogue as far as understanding motivation. In this way, I imagine my writing in many forms at once to understand the full effect. Often I will imagine my sequences in cinematic display. I create maps to get a sense of distance and scope of the world. I draw on my knowledge of martial forms to guide characters into combative sequences. A friend of mine at the time of writing created music specifically suited to each chapter; it was tremendous. So writing is only one sibling in the Creative family and without every member involved it can feel slightly dysfunctional.

SU: Did the writing of the Blade of Ahtol influence your life? How?

DG: This was the first novel I ever tried and it certainly opened my eyes to the reality of published writing. Thankfully, the traditional market is changing with the ever increasing options of self-publishing. I once queried a series of agents with the rough novel and received a healthy dose of reality. I learned then the amount of work and sacrifice that would be required to complete the project. I took the challenge and worked hard with my outstanding editor to produce an amazing piece of work. Now with self-publishing, I can strike off one of the ol’ bucket list of life accomplishments.

SU: What is your creative process like? What happens when you sit down to write?

DG: I find that when I am teaching certain units in Language Arts that it triggers my own creativity. I also have noted that while I am out for long bike rides my brain tends to linger upon my various projects. It feels like peeking into doors. Sometimes inspiration comes rapidly and I must pull over and start entering my ideas into my phone (my memory should not be trusted for when I get back home). The synopsis of ideas generally comes then, the framework if you will, and when I sit down and write the stylistic forms simply come along then. I certainly have felt more creative when I feel my body is healthy.

SU: What advice would you give to a beginning writer? Why that?

DG: Allow for the expansion of ideas. As you reflect upon your plot you will find ways to improve, expand and enhance your text. Don’t rush your revisions, allow time for the creative process to continue. There are wonderful additions that can happen in this critical phase.

Oh, and listen to your editor.

SU: Can you describe something you wrote that was so stimulating that you could not get your mind off of it?

DG: Well, I hope you’ll excuse me for getting sentimental and personal. When the day came to propose to my wonderful and dear companion, I had a feeling of what to do. To propose to her with a poem seemed to encapsulate all of who I was. When I sat down to pen that most sacred and vital verse, I felt like a channel had opened to a source of power an Ashori could only dream of. I felt it flow from me so easily and I almost felt like an observer. There was no construction or revision of any sort. When I think of the marvel of that night and the twenty minutes of sweet joy where my soul and pen were in harmony – I am forever grateful. That was my greatest achievement and not to mention it would be an insult to inspiration.

She said yes.

SU: Congratulations.

SU: Did you have a message in mind when you wrote [the Blade of Ahtol]? What did you want to share from it? What did you want to keep?

DG: I did not have an intended message to convey initially as Sapling began as a creative outlet to explore the cellars and attics of my imagination. Much of university study was literal interpretations – I needed a place to go where I could shape the rules and outcomes of my own creations. How liberating! I know that Sapling is a study of loyalty and personal sacrifice. That theme grew powerfully as I created the story.

SU: Did you get out of this story what you expected and wanted? What did you learn?

DG: I learned that great ideas are only the beginning. There is a whole other craft that goes unmentioned far too often and that is the genius of editing and the art of clarity. Thank you, Shawn for your expertise, keen eye and clever mind.

SU: You are a Language Arts teacher. How do you inspire your students to get the most out of what they explore, create and investigate?

DG: Finding the joy in reading often takes that special spark of entertainment. I love doing readers theater with the students, trying on voices and being animated. I also dive deep into the story with the students and encourage them to try and find books in their genre of interest. We have had much success noticing elements of stories and the writer’s craft. When they create their own stories, I encourage them to expand their writing using their favorite stories as models. This includes all the techniques that lead to interesting ideas. It is certainly rewarding to see struggling readers or writers have the creative ‘aha’ moment.

SU: What are you working on now?

DG: I am revising and editing the second book, Sapling: The Broken Halls, which was written in the same year as the first book [(2004)]. I am halfway through DOVE which was mentioned earlier in the interview [read the full interview]. Another intriguing project that been ongoing is a supernatural thriller called Crossing Over. I don’t think I can be pinned down into any genre, or at least my brain doesn’t seem to think so.

SU: How can readers contact you or learn more about your books? Where can they read some of this story or other pieces of your work?

DG: I have creative works scattered over various places. Readers can go to my dedicated creative works page at Facebook called Ad Infinitum Creations. You can follow me on Twitter @AerluinWeave. Over at Tofield Write Group I have a member page. For a look at my poetry and graphic poetry you can check out Lands of Myth. Some interesting forum writing I did with my good friend Talia (check out her youtube channel) turned out some wonderful machinima in the Guild Wars setting. It is entitled the Fire of the Covenant and encompasses two full series of episodes. Zyr was featured here, and I even snuck in some voice acting. One of my favorite scripts about the afterlife was featured in this series. Some of my graphic novel work is found at my old guild’s hangout page. I am sure you will all love Keryn (also featured in the video series) who happens to be one of my favorite characters. I wouldn’t dare argue that point with her …

Ad Infinitum Creations: https://www.facebook.com/adinfinitumcreations

Poetry:
Ashes & Steel / Rebirth http://cv.englishmist.com/?page_id=121 (Halftoe)
The Fall of the House Ridow http://www.landsofmyth.com/Forum/index.php?topic=122.0 (Dan the Skald)

Fire of the Covenant: http://cv.englishmist.com/?page_id=221 (et al)
The link to my forum writing was for video scripts written by my good friend Talia based on our Forum RP.

Graphic Art:
Fire Dream: Fire of the Covenant Spin-off Comics http://cv.englishmist.com/?page_id=217 (Great White Norn)

General Art and Storywork:
Ad Infinitum Creations scrapbook https://m.facebook.com/adinfinitumcreations?ref=bookmark (Ad Infinitum Creations)

The link for the actual writing which I write under the Halftoe pen is here:
Private writing palette http://cv.englishmist.com/forums/index.php?topic=5789.0 (Halftoe)

SU: I would like to thank you, Dan, for agreeing to be interviewed. I hope your work inspires others to share their own experiences and stories with the world.

This was an excerpt of my interview with Dan. You can read the complete interview here and buy the Blade of Ahtol at Amazon.

To learn more about the Blade of Ahtol and Dan, visit his blog and his Tofield Write Group member page. You can follow him on Twitter @AerluinWeave.

Blogging The Write Group

The Write Group has a new blog. We have moved from our wiki on Wikispaces and expanded into our blog on WordPress.

The Write Group is a writing club with members who write fiction and non-fiction in either prose or poetry forms. We write in many genres and write everything from two-liners to novels. Some of us are professionals, some are hobbyists. We have everything from published writers to others who are just starting out.

Come peruse our blog and other resources.

The Write Group

Van Gogh and the Moon

One of the many things I love about writing clubs, such as the Write Group, is the surprise writing exercises we do in them. Today, two of my students — not already members — joined the Write Group and I prepared tic-tac-write prompts to inspire our creative juices.

This was the perfect exercise to entice my students and draw them in. They enjoyed themselves, which really is the point, and one even overcame his shyness and read his response plus a few other works aloud.

Prompt: Tic-Tac-Write

The tic-tac-write board is a 3×3 grid with nine prompts in it. These prompts have setting, character, plot, event, perspective, atmosphere, starters, object and random slants to them. They are arranged so that prompts along a single line — either row, column or main diagonal — could form a story with some creative thought.

These combinations are not so obvious that a story can be written without some thinking, and the writer need only pick any three prompts on the board, rather than only those in a line. This arrangement ensures that the writer has plenty of story prompt options to choose from.

In today’s meeting, I handed out four unique prompts (given below), which increased the variety of story writing that the group shared afterward. The group loved them and the stories they produced.

Board 1

Humour Write a letter to yourself. Was it my fault the doorbell rang?
House in the middle of the block This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything! About time I got out of that cookie.
Someone dies. Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. Solve a mystery using clues left behind.

Board 2

Rewrite a nursery rhyme from a character’s point of view. You got laid off today. Caramels
Smelly as a skunk Van Gogh Shut up and deal!
Procrastination Raisin pie Let us go then, you and I.

Board 3

Easter without eggs Write a palindromic piece. Sisters
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be. Baby blankets Minor character takes over scene, then leaves.
Beer, book, bed Promises made Bumblebees

Board 4

Your car shutters. Straight, crooked Drawing straws
The train whistle blew. Stop scratching! A banana, marbles and a bag
Orange The wind picks up. What’s that?

Van Gogh and the Moon

I picked Nursery rhyme — Character POV; Van Gogh; and Let us go then, you and I from Board 2, and worked in Procrastination and Caramels from the same board. Here is my response.

Van Gogh and the Moon
© Shawn Urban

Let us go then, you and I,
over the moon and across the sky.
No there is no time to paint.
The sun comes up,
then it will be too late.

Yes, the stars are beautiful tonight.
And the sickle of the moon is great.
But look there now,
the moon nigh fades.
Let us go then, you and I.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
why do you procrastinate,
admiring the dish and the spoon?

The cat on his fiddle
will play all night,
though that will end soon.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
chewing on your caramel,
with sugar rotting your teeth,
the dog is not barking to play with you,
but to tell you that time will not wait.

Let us go then, you and I,
Van Gogh, before the moon disappears.
Look already your stars are gone.
There is nothing left for you to paint.

Van Gogh, spit out that caramel.
We must jump and leap over the moon.
And look here what you have done.
The sun is up, the moon is gone
and you have ruined this nursery rhyme.

I wish you all a great today and a creative tomorrow.

Prompt Sources

@djeurope

This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything!

Figment Daily Themes

Write a letter to yourself. — January 5

Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. — January 6

Solve a mystery using clues left behind. — January 24

Weird Fortune Cookies

About time I got out of that cookie.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — C.S. Lewis

Let us go then, you and I.

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be.

All other prompts were supplied by members of the Write Group or me. (Just in case some of these come from elsewhere, let me know and give me a reference and I will check it out and credit the source here.)

The Write Group: Recruiting New Members

This post is cross-posted and extended in my professional blog, Digital Substitute.

I have had three deep passions throughout my life so far and the good fortune to experience them all. I love nature, so I became an ecologist. I love learning and passing on my passions, so I became a teacher. And I love storytelling and penning pictures in others’ minds, so I became a writer.

In a previous post, I discussed the change in teaching style when one engages with students outside of the lesson and in camps and clubs. About a month ago, I attended a Don’t Hibernate Fair in my town. This fair is designed to connect clubs and people. I attended a table and recruited new members into the Write Group.

This was an exhilarating experience for me. I have been in many clubs and organizations, but this was the first time I recruited new members to a club. I had thirteen people sign up and express keen interest. Best of all a few of these are students I sub.

Tonight is the first meeting of the Write Group this year. I am thrilled at meeting new faces and old and seeing more “foxes around a risen altar whisper and trade incantations from crinkled scrolls“.

The Write Group

© Shawn Urban

Picture the purls penned on our paper.

And through the darkness they slip and slide
along old pathways worn far and long.
They move through shadows between dim lights
and enter boldly through locked doors.

Many a stranger, who dare disturb
the wisping, quillling lychnobioi,
find there quietly sleeking olden owls
in steep stairways and hidden chambers.

Up the attic they gather and hide,
foxes around the risen altar,
whispering, trading incantations
from crinkled scrolls pro- found words they read.

They walk the pattern and weave the life
of heroes, monsters far long away.
In deep sanctity purling riffles,
and joining as one in common task.

And strangers observe shut gates open,
and in hidden truth locked knowledge.
For in that attic the Write Group writes
and through the darkness they slip and slide.