• Ali Isaac

How to Write a Bestseller Like the Ancient Bards

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

In Ireland, the urge to create literary masterpieces was rigorously moulded and polished by decades of training, and was a skill highly revered.

The earliest writing exists in the form of Ogham symbols hewn along the edges of standing stones dating back to the fourth century, but in Irish mythology, Ogma of the Tuatha de Danann, who was skilled in speech and poetry, was said to have invented this ancient script.

The first message he wrote in Ogham was seven b’s inscribed on a birch branch, sent as a warning to Lugh, meaning “Your wife will be carried away seven times to the Otherworld unless the birch protects her.” (Yeah… don’t ask me what that means, I’m fairly sure Lugh understood it though.) Thus the letter b is said to be named after the birch.

Earliest surviving manuscripts date back to the eighth century, although two letters written by St Patrick in the fifth century named  the Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus have been preserved in the Book of Armagh.

The Royal Irish Academy contains roughly 1500 ancient texts alone, and there are other collections located variously around the country, too. Christian monks first began collating and transcribing these ancient stories from the oral tradition of their pagan origins during the seventh century, and inevitably, ‘sanitised’ them by inserting references to their own beliefs.

I have read many translations of some of these ancient texts, and it is quite amazing to think that, even though they were first written down over 1300 years ago, these stories which form the four cycles of Irish mythology, were drawn from an oral tradition which may have originated hundreds, maybe even thousands of years earlier. And they are still being read and retold and enjoyed all around the world today.

So just how do you write a bestseller like the ancient bards? We Indies think we have it tough, but our suffering is nothing compared to what the ancient storytellers endured for their art.

1. Get yourself your own writing space.

Nowadays, we usually write sitting up at a desk, typing into a laptop or pc. The monk scribes wrote their manuscripts laboriously by hand in the monastery’s scriptorium on parchment or vellum using a goose feather quill. Black ink was made from charcoal mixed with gum.

If the Indie moans about having to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, imagine this; the scribe had to know how to make his own parchment, quills, ink, dyes for colouring, how to draw and paint before he even wrote a word. Prior to this, literary works were not written down but composed and memorised in the dark, lying down. This would never have worked for me; I have a lousy memory, and need to write everything down!

2. Decide your genre. 

So you think the genre is a modern invention? Designed to annoy the hell out of Indie authors, who prefer to write in their own hybrid classifications, rather than stick to Amazon’s rigid list of categories. Wrong!

A twelfth century manuscript known as the Book of Leinster lists nigh on two hundred ancient epic sagas, categorised under headings such as the Destruction of Fortified Places, Cow Spoils ie cattle-raids, Courtships and Wooings, Battles, Stories of Caves, Navigations, Tragic Deaths, Feasts, Sieges, Adventures of Travel, Elopements, Slaughters, Water-Eruptions, Expeditions, Progresses, and Visions.

Don’t they sound a whole lot more exciting than Amazon’s sorry list?

3. Develop your own style. 

Will it be poetry, or prose? If you think about it, poetry is designed to be spoken aloud, whereas prose lends itself better to the written word. Many of the early stories were created in epic poem form, using techniques to aid memory, such as alliteration (the same letter or sound for a series of adjacent words), dissyllables (words of two syllables), full rhyme and half rhyme, or a middle rhyme than an end rhyme, assonances (repetition of vowel sounds in a series of adjacent words). Often, the early stories would be written in prose with key moments and events composed in poetry.

4. Create a strong story arc, with plenty of action and convincing characters. 

Goes without saying, and applies just as much then as now. In ancient times, there was a constant source of battles to describe (Moytura, Cattle Raid of Cooley), tragic lovers (Baile and Aillin, Ciabhan and Aine), handsome heroes (Cuchullain, Fion mac Cumhall), powerful kings (Nuada, Cormac), vile villains (Bres, the Dark Druid, Carman the Witch) and Gods who walked among mankind (the Dagda, Brigid, Lugh) … it was gripping stuff! Life is a bit more mundane in our modern times, so we have to make it all up, sadly.

5. Choose a snazzy title which grabs those potential readers by their short and curly imaginations. 

This is something we spend ages on, endlessly running our options through Google, searching out other illustrious scribblings of the same name, and then discarding our ideas disappointedly. Our early colleagues had no such worries. Here are the names of some of their works I regularly consult; Lebhor Gebála Érenn – The Book of the Taking of Ireland; The Annals of the Four Masters; The Book of the Dun Cow; The Yellow Book of Lecan; The Metrical Dindshendchas; Cormac’s Glossary… yawn… yeah, not exactly inspiring... zzzz

6. Fumble through formatting.

We Indies just detest the F-word, don’t we? Format for print, for Kindle, for Smashword’s Meat-Grinder *shudder*… Our ancient counterparts had similar agonising decisions to make. What would it be… parchment or vellum? Wood or stone? Book or scroll? And as for font, which looks better… Ogham? Hmmm… too cryptic; uncial? Too formal, and takes far too long; half-uncial? Well, it is quicker and easier to read, and what Irish scribes are famous for inventing, after all; or maybe cursive? Its joined up, so even faster to write, but maybe not so easy to read. Decisions, decisions…

7. Create your cover. 

This is the fun part, where your book finally comes to life, your instant visual and emotional connection with your potential readers. It’s got to be good. If not, you’ve got no chance of converting those browsers into buyers. So go to town. Invest in your book. Splash some bold colour, use an eye-catching font, slap on a tantalising tag-line, and horror of horrors, don’t forget to include your author name in big proud letters. Just like our early ancestors did. Well, they didn’t actually.

The cover was simply a means of keeping those precious pages of vellum nice and flat. They were made out of boards of wood, usually oak, beech or pine, and sometimes covered in leather, which may have been dyed or stained, and stamped with designs. No title, no author name. Valuable books might be covered with ivory, gold, enamel-work and jewels. Beat that, Indies! All you have to worry about is a poxy picture.

8. Edit, edit, edit.

That evil little four letter word, how we dread it. But mistakes are made, and have to be hunted down. In those days, if an error was spotted fairly quickly after writing, it could be removed by simply scraping the ink from the vellum with a knife whilst still wet. When the text was complete, it would be handed over to a proof-reader, yes, they had them even then! Mistakes were corrected by inserting an amendment into the margin of the page, or sometimes even into the body of the text itself, if feasible.

9. Finance and funding. 

Self-pub, POD, or trad-pub, what’s it to be? And how much does it cost to produce a book these days? Using Amazon or Smashwords or POD is free, hooray for the digital age! But Indies have many associated costs; buying your equipment, for a start; laptop, writing program, hiring an editor, and a cover designer… the costs soon mount up, and where does that money come from?

In ancient Ireland, the work of the poet and the storyteller was revered. They were greatly respected for their art… sob… imagine that! Admittedly, they spent a lot longer learning their trade, up to twenty years, and had to be able to memorise and recite about 250 (loooong) poems, depending on their rank. Most chieftains and Kings employed their own personal poet, installing him in his own house with land and property, as well as paying him regularly for the production of his fine words. In fact, the Chief Ollamh, (poet), of Ireland was considered equal in rank to the High King.

10. Promote.

Self promotion. One of the Indie’s most enjoyable duties. How we love trying to force… um… persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash and read our books. More often than not, we save ourselves the hassle, and just give them away for free. I know… crazy!

So what did the early poet do to promote his work? Oh, that’s right, he did nothing. He was employed by a rich king, remember? He was equal in status to royalty. He was admired and looked up to just because he was a bard, even before he opened his mouth and composed a word. Nice.

And so there you have it, ten nice and easy steps to creating a bestseller like the ancient bards… best of luck! And Indies, remember… don’t try this at home!

The Book of Kells – Ireland’s most famous book?