Last year I boarded the train for Dublin, clutching the manuscript of my novel (then called Einar’s Saga), one of many hopefuls who had won a “Date with an Agent” at the International Literature Festival run by Writing.ie. By the end of the day, I had not been signed up by an agent, but I had taken a significant step towards getting published.
Before meeting our prospective agents in the magnificent surroundings of the 17th Century Smock Alley Theatre, we were treated to a fireside-chat style Q&A session with several publishing industry insiders along with the agents themselves. As I listened to their fascinating stories, insights and statistics, one constant message was clear – it’s very hard to get published. The statistics quoted against being published were daunting. As most writers will know, when writing a novel the main struggle is with yourself; Finding time, motivation and determination to complete the story. However, when you submit the manuscript to an agent or publisher it goes on the slush pile with what could be the hundreds of other manuscripts that arrived that week. An agent, editor or –gulp – intern, might spend maybe five minutes looking at what you’ve worked on for perhaps years. Then there were the market metrics. The Irish Fiction market was about the same size as that of Birmingham. So the historical fiction section of that market (which I was chasing) was even smaller. As discussions turned to plot working, editing, rewriting and polishing a realisation dawned on me: my book just wasn’t good enough yet. I shouldn’t even be there.
The urge to slink back to Connolly Station and home during the break was strong. However, realisation dawned on me that I was right at the heart of where a pivotal part of the action in my book takes place, albeit a thousand years later. Einar, the hero of the novel, grows up in Viking Age Iceland under the watchful eye of his Irish mother, Unn. Who his father was is a secret she tells no one, not even him. When he is exiled from Iceland, Einar joins a band of dangerous wolf skin clad vikings in a quest that brings him to Ireland and Dublin at the height of its power as a Norse-Irish city. Smock Alley Theatre was right beside Wood Quay and the heart of Viking Dublin. Inspired by this I decided to hang around for the one to one session with the agent, who in my case was Piers Blofeld.
Despite sounding like a James Bond villain, Mr Blofeld was very nice. He had read the introductory ten thousand words I had sent and the plot summary that accompanied it. He was very polite in explaining what I had realised earlier – my book was not yet ready. He also shared practical criticism of the work that was gold dust to someone like me whose dream it has always been to get published. I had great, readable style, but style alone is not enough. Plot, characters and story telling art are equally important, the elements that make writing a craft. He also talked about how readers of each genre, whether it be historical fiction, murder mystery or literary fiction, have certain expectations and, much as we may feel it restricts our art, it’s important not to frustrate or disappoint the reader. The readers of the historical fiction niche I was aiming at, for example, tend to be men of a certain age, yet key central characters of mine were female. Finally he talked about subject matter and trends. Successful historical fiction tended to follow soldiers of ancient civilisations – Rome or Greece – as they journey beyond the borders of those civilisations to clash with barbarians. Vikings represent those very barbarians. They come from outside. They are, well, a bit foreign, so hard for a modern reader to relate to.
It was probably that word “foreign” that struck me most. The name the Gaels used for the Norse was Gall, foreigner. However, like the DNA of those ancient foreigners which survives among us today, we’re surrounded by that Norse heritage in familiar place names associated with those Galls, from Donegal to Galloway in Scotland, as well as those which still retain their Norse names like Wicklow, Waterford or Carlingford. Christian names like Dougal and Fingal and surnames of clans from MacCloud, MacLoughlin, MacOtter, MacKorkindale and many more, all show that those once “foreigners” were one of the many tributaries that eventually became, well, us.
I understood then that what he was getting at was that I somehow had to make these ancient Vikings relatable to modern readers, without losing authenticity of the time and period they lived. I hope I have succeeded.
So I took the train home, unsigned and somewhat daunted by the size of the task ahead of me. If this sounds depressing then don’t worry. I learned about the things they had talked about. I read many other books in the target genre. I made changes and my book was then accepted by Aria Fiction, an imprint of Head of Zeus. Odin’s Game, as it is now called, is now available not only in e-book and paperback but they signed me up to deliver a series of five books based on the characters.
Odin’s Game is set in AD 933. It follows the adventures of Einar Unnsson as he travels the viking sea roads on a quest to find the truth about his father. On the way he visits Dublin, Strangford, Orkney and Iceland and falls in with a Norse Irish princess and a crew of wolf warriors dedicated to Odin.
So what I learnt at on that day at the IFL was that everything they tell you need to know about in those courses, masterclasses etc. you actually do. You need to know the rules before you can break them (I kept those female characters, by the way). If I can do it so can you. Just keep on writing.
(c) Tim Hodkinson
Tim Hodkinson grew up in Northern Ireland where the rugged coast and call of the Atlantic ocean led to a lifelong fascination with vikings and a degree in Medieval English and Old Norse Literature. Apart from Old Norse sagas, Tim’s more recent writing heroes include Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, George R.R. Martin and Lee Child. After several years living in New Hampshire, USA, Tim has returned to Northern Ireland, where he lives with his wife and children.
About Odin’s Game:
AD 915. In the Orkney Isles, a young woman flees her home to save the life of her unborn child. Eighteen years later, a witch foretells that evil from her past is reaching out again to threaten her son. Outlawed from his home in Iceland, Einar Unnsson is thrown on the mercy of his Uncle, the infamous Jarl Thorfinn ‘Skull Cleaver’ of Orkney. He joins forces with a Norse-Irish princess and a company of wolfskin clad warriors to become a player in a deadly game for control of the Irish sea, where warriors are the pawns of kings and Jarls and the powerful are themselves mere game pieces on the tafl board of the Gods. Together they embark on a quest where Einar must fight unimaginable foes, forge new friendships, and discover what it truly means to be a warrior. As the clouds of war gather, betrayal follows betrayal and Einar realises the only person he can really trust is himself. Not everyone will survive, but who will conquer all in Odin’s game?
Order your copy online here.