Category Archives: Case Files of Justis Fearsson

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Let’s Talk Trunk Novels

A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects.

Let me tell you about my trunk novels. Not all of them – that would take a while. But I have two in particular, the first two books of what I once thought might be a three- or four-book series, that I have been working on for the past week or so.

Many of us have trunk novels and don’t even know it. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trunk novel is a book – complete or partial – that we worked on for a time and then put away, for any number of reasons. The idea is, we shove them in a trunk somewhere – metaphorical? Metaphysical? – and try to forget about them.

Sometimes we put these projects away because we can’t sell them. Sometimes, we are so convinced that the books are deeply, deeply flawed, that we don’t even try to sell them. Sometimes we get feedback on the books – suggestions for revisions – that we’re unwilling or at least not ready to implement. Sometimes we write something, but the market is not right at that moment for the book in question.

I put these books away for several of those reasons. I LOVE the first book, but the market wasn’t right for it. And while I thought it had some great moments, I also knew that it needed serious revision. The prose needed tightening. It had too much exposition, which was slowing down sections that should have been punchy and concise. The second book… well, the second book was a hot mess. Again, I liked elements of it, loved certain passages and plot twists. But I never did figure out the ending. I knew it needed to be torn apart and put back together and I had neither the patience to undertake such a massive rewrite nor a concrete vision of what I wanted the book to look like.

I wrote these books several years back, and around the time I might have forced myself to tackle the revisions, we sold the Justis Fearsson series. Into the proverbial trunk they went. I got them out a couple of years later, but then we sold the Islevale novels and I shut the lid on the trunk once more.

Now, though, with the Thieftaker novellas in edits, with other projects lurking but failing to excite me, I have opened the trunk once more and taken out the books, determined this time to do something with them. My old impressions of the novels remain intact. I still love the first book, but see serious problems with the writing and the excess exposition. And I still see potential in the second book, but it remains a train wreck.

What are the books about? Well, they’re sort of a blend of Celtic fantasy and urban fantasy. Hence the marketing issues. Urban fantasy is well past its peak, and Celtic stories have long since flooded the market. There is no strong demand for either. That doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be again. Or that my readers wouldn’t be interested in new novels, even if they are not on the cutting edge of what New York publishing considers “hot” and “trendy.” Self-publishing and small press publishing make it easier than ever to bypass the marketing gatekeepers and reach our readers.

Because, while the books need work (I’m about 20% through the revisions on book I), they are engaging and fun. I love my characters, I love the magic. I love the snark in the dialogue and the relationship between my two heroes (both women, one looking to rebuild her life, one bored to tears with hers). There is lots here to like. And the books might make a very nice premium for readers if I wind up creating a Patreon.

These posts are supposed to include tips for those of you trying to establish yourself as writers, and so here goes:

Chances are, you have trunk novels, too, even if you didn’t know them by that name. As writers we ought never to throw anything away. Yes, there are books and stories in my trunk that are irretrievably bad, that will never, ever see the light of day. But there are others that, despite their flaws or lack of market viability at a given time, represent quality work. I’d wager you have books like those, as well.

Don’t give up on those books. I know plenty of people who have sold trunk novels five or ten or even fifteen years after they first wrote them. A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out where a story ought to have gone.

And in the meantime, reading those old stories and books can tell us things about ourselves as writers. We can see our own growth, recognizing the mistakes and shortcomings of things our younger selves did. And we can also see, from the distance of years, with fresh eyes, the raw potential and effective moments of stories we soured on long ago. Those insights have value in and of themselves, even if we decide in the end that those trunk stories still belong… well, in the trunk.

Do you have trunk stories and books? Might it be time to dig them out and take a look?

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Single Point of View v. Multiple Point of View

If you know me, if you have been with me in panel discussions at conventions, if you have ever received any sort of writing advice from me, or even heard me give such advice to others, I need for you to sit down and prepare yourselves. What I’m about to tell you is shocking. For some of you, it may be more than you can handle. But we’re in this together and we will get through to a better place. I promise.

Ready? Here goes…

It is the last week of May – we are twenty-one weeks, twenty-one Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, into the year – and I have yet to write about point of view.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

Don’t worry, though. I’m going to make it up to you today. Who knows, I might even return to the subject in the weeks and months to come. I’m confident that, by the end of the year, you’ll be as tired of hearing me go on and on about point of view as you usually are. A bit of normality in a topsy-turvy world…

Point of view, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is, essentially, the narrative voice used to tell a story. And the initial choice of point of view for each project we write usually focuses on the relative advantages of writing in first person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “I,” “me,” “my”) versus writing in close third person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “she/he/they,” “hers/his/theirs”).

(Yes, there are other choices. One can write in what is known as omniscient POV, a challenging voice to use and master, because it demands that the narrator know what all characters are thinking and feeling WITHOUT resorting to what’s referred to as head-hopping. And one can write in second person point of view, in which the author writes the entire narrative in effect addressing the reader – “You walk into a bar and order your drink. Sounds and smells assault you from all sides…” Etc. Both of these are difficult, even risky choices for beginning writers.)

One day last week, though, I had a conversation with a writer friend (let’s call her “Haith Funter”) about the other choice we make when deciding on the narrative voice for our projects, and it is this element of point of view I wish to focus on today. Specifically, our conversation centered on whether Haith should consider using a single point of view character or multiple point of view characters for a future project she’s considering.

And being me, the moment she mentioned that she was grappling with this I launched into a lengthy (and unasked-for) recitation of the relative merits of each approach. A recitation I offer again here.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Let’s start with what I mean when I speak of multiple point of view characters. This is NOT an invitation to jump willy-nilly from character to character, sharing their thoughts, emotions, and sensations. That is called head-hopping, and it is considered poor writing. Rather, writing with multiple point of view characters means telling the story with several different narrators, each given her or his own chapters or chapter-sections in which to “tell” their part of the story. When we are in a given character’s point of view, we are privy only to her thoughts and emotions. In the next chapter, we might be privy to the thoughts of someone else in the story. This is an approach used to great effect by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin goes so far as to use his chapter headings to tell us who the point of view character is for that section of the story. Guy Gavriel Kay uses multiple point of view quite a bit – in Tigana, in his Fionavar Tapestry, in many of his more recent sweeping historical fantasies. I have used it in my epic fantasy series – The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, Blood of the Southlands, The Islevale Cycle.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterThis is in contrast with single character point of view, in which we have only one point of view character for the entire story (and that point of view can be either first or third person). Think of Haith’s Yane Jellowrock series, or my Thieftaker or Justis Fearsson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series, or even (for the most part) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

With both approaches, the point of view of each character is inviolate, meaning that your reader can learn nothing from a given character that the character her- or himself can’t know. The key is that this limitation means vastly different things in single POV on the one hand, and multiple character point of view on the other.

You might notice that the examples I give for each approach are distinctive. Granted, my examples are FAR from comprehensive, but they are instructive.

SPELL BLIND,  by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollack)For single character point of view we have essentially two kinds of books: urban fantasies that have a mystery element, and YA novels that concentrate as much on the lead character’s emotional development as on external factors. Single character POV tends to be intimate. Readers form a powerful attachment to the narrators of these books. And, of even greater importance, readers learn things about the narrative at the same time the characters do. Even in books that begin with our narrator looking back on past events, we are soon taken back in time so that this older narrative has a sense of immediacy. This is why single character POV works so well in mysteries. The reader gets information as the “detective” does. Discovery happens in real time, as it were.

My examples of multiple character POV books are almost all grand, sprawling epics of one sort or another. In part, this is because it can be more difficult to tell such stories from the vantage point of only one character. But more than that, the power of multiple POV lies in two simple facts.

First, because we are following several POV characters at once, we are drawn into a number of subplots. All of these are braided together in some way, contributing to the larger story line. And since we can leave one to pick up another, we almost always have several characters in danger, or creating danger, at any one time. Each shift from one POV character to another leaves one story hanging in order to pick up another. The shifts in narrator actually impart momentum to the story.

Second, in multiple POV, our readers always have more information than any one character. We see traps as they’re being laid, we see intrigue from all angles, we can recognize the perils for one character based upon the machinations of another. Rather than discovering things as our narrators do, our readers are almost always one step ahead of them. This knowledge creates anticipation, feeds expectation, some of which we can satisfy, some of which we might thwart, all of which ratchets up the narrative tension.

Different stories lend themselves to different point of view choices. I would never dream of telling anyone (not even Haith) what approach to use for their story. Chances are you’ll know what your story requires as soon as you begin to write it. But my hope is that a clearer understanding of the relative strengths and advantages of each option will make that choice a little easier.

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot.

For today’s Writing Tip, I would like to offer the first of what I expect will be an intermittent series world building posts. I love world building. Of all the things we speculative fiction writers get to do, it may be the one I think of as the most fun. It can involve a ton of research (which, for many of us, adds to the fun), but it is, at its core, an act of pure creation. It is that stage of writing a book when we get to play “let’s pretend,” sometimes for days, even weeks, at a time. What’s not to love?

There are lots of elements to world building, of course, but for today’s purposes, I want to talk about creating our magic systems.

To many, magic is the defining feature of fantasy stories, the one story element that sets what we do apart from the work of other writers. I’m not entirely sure I believe that (and it could be a topic for a fun bar conversation), but I do agree that for fantasies that include magic, developing a consistent and believable magic system is absolutely essential to the success of our narrative.

So, what are the most important ingredients of a good magic system?

Let me start here: Everything I’m about to say is just my opinion. These are the things that I strive to put into my magic systems. There are other ways to do this, and I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that if you don’t set up your magic with the properties I use in mine, you’re doing it wrong. So with every declarative statement I’m about to make, please insert a silent “In my opinion” or “To my way of thinking.”

I try to make my magic systems limited, costly, ordered, and realistic (to the extent that anything magical can be). I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot. In my opinion.

All of my magic system requirements are interlocked, but the first two in particular are closely related.

By limited, I mean just that. Magic can be powerful, it can be frightening. It can be wondrous. It should NOT be the answer to every problem our magic-wielding characters encounter. It can’t be omnipotent. At least not if I’m to keep to what I said above about not allowing magic to take over my story. So the first thing I like to do with my magic system is figure out specifically what magic can do. In the Thieftaker and Fearsson books, that has meant coming up with a partial list of spells, and giving all of them a similar amount of reach and impact. For the Winds of the Forelands series, it meant coming up with different categories of Qirsi magic – mists and winds, language of beasts, shattering, healing, etc. It’s not that every person’s magic is the same, or even that my list of abilities is necessarily comprehensive. Part of the fun of writing these books is discovering new flavors of magic as each series progresses. But in determining what most magics are like, I begin to define the boundaries of what magic can do and what it can’t.

Magics should be costly because even a relatively limited magic can take over a story if your magic-wielder can draw upon it over and over and over without consequence. By imposing a cost for magic – fatigue, blood loss, the shortening of one’s life (as in Winds of the Forelands) or the loss of years (as with the time travel in my Islevale Cycle) – I force my characters to use their magic strategically and, even more important, to rely on other qualities as they seek to overcome whatever problems I place in their paths. Magic without cost is empty, it’s boring. Any victories achieved with it will wind up feeling cheap and unearned, which we don’t want.

An ordered magic system is internally consistent. Limits that apply in one situation will, generally speaking, apply in all situations. The costs of magic are extracted from all. Sure, a more experienced or more powerful sorcerer/mage/conjurer/weremyste might deal with those costs better than others. There is nothing wrong with hierarchies. The problems arise when there is no rationale for discrepancies in what magic does for one person or another. Now, I will also say that quite often we set up our rules and costs and limits, only to introduce a villain who finds her way around those things. That’s fine, as long as we can explain within the logic of the system exactly what makes her exceptional. The fact that there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean that our hero knows all of those rules. By giving our villain this sort of advantage, we make her that much more dangerous, and we force our hero to find a way, within the rules, to overcome her foe’s powers. Our hero might have to learn something new, or find an innovative way to apply old rules. These are the sorts of conflicts I relish as a writer.

All of these structural elements are intended to make our magic systems as realistic as possible, but realism goes beyond them. Magic should seem to the reader to be as endemic to the worlds we create as air and water, as the cycle of days and seasons, as the oceans and deserts and forests we describe. It should be elemental, integral to the larger world. Just as gravity applies to all on our planet (until we find some way within the rules of physics to defy gravity), so should magic and its rules apply believably across the board in our worlds. This is why Thieftaker magic looks just like 18th century descriptions of witchcraft – I wanted my magic to blend with my historical world.

I’ll end this by returning to a point I raised early on: Magic is a plot device, something we use to make our work original and intriguing and fun, for us and for our readers. It is no replacement for good plotting and convincing character work. In fact, I’ll take this a step further: in most of my stories, at the end, magic will fail my characters. They will find themselves driven to the very limits of their magical abilities, and these talents will prove insufficient. In order to prevail, they will need to draw upon other qualities: wit, resourcefulness, courage, strength. Only by combining these other, more ordinary, human attributes with their magic, can they emerge triumphant. Because magic is not, cannot be, the most important thing. We are writing about people, first and foremost. And we want their victories to reflect who and what they are. It’s easy to write a magical victory. Writing a human victory – that’s the great challenge.

Keep writing! Hope to see many of you at Saga this weekend!

Monday Musings: Overcoming Distraction and Getting Started

The problem isn’t one of desire – I want to work, I want to be productive. Rather, the problem is one of inertia. A body – or in this case a creative mind – at rest will remain at rest; a creative mind in motion will remain in motion.

I’m trying to settle on a single idea for today’s Monday Musing, and I can’t. My thoughts are everywhere. They’re with family and friends, they’re in the impeachment hearings and in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re in the non-fiction piece I’m writing, they’re in the anthology, they’re in an intriguing idea I have for a new novel, they’re in travel and music and birdwatching and photography.

I’m not even caffeinated…

This isn’t a new problem, of course. It’s actually, to my mind, one of the great challenges we face as writers – and artists and musicians and actors, doctors and lawyers, construction workers and luthiers, students and teachers, and pretty much any other profession we can think of. It’s easy to forget sometimes in today’s culture – a lot of what is said and done, a lot of what appears on our social media feeds and news alerts, seems to involve little or no forethought – but we are cerebral creatures. We spend a lot of our time locked in our own heads, trying to make sense of our thoughts and emotions.

That we are often distracted isn’t surprising. What’s actually remarkable is that we get anything done at all. The hardest thing for me to do each day is get started on my work. I love what I do, but almost invariably when I sit down to write my mind is on anything but writing.

So how do we focus our minds on the task at hand? How do we banish those other thoughts from our minds so that we can work?

Let me address that second question first, because the answer is pretty simple: we don’t. Or at least I don’t. I can’t simply forget about my family. I can’t easily set aside that ongoing dispute with the phone company, or the weekend plans we’re trying to finalize, or the photography project I have in mind that isn’t really work, but about which I’m equally passionate. And so I don’t even try.

It’s not a matter of ridding my mind of extraneous thoughts. That’s not possible. And so the relevant question is really the first one: How do we focus on the task at hand?

Part of the answer involves practice. I’ve been writing for more than twenty-five years, and I’ve learned to compartmentalize my thoughts to some degree. I can set aside my other problems and concerns for a time, and concentrate on the work. I can’t pretend those other things don’t exist, but I can try to relegate them to background noise for a time.

How?

There are a few tricks that work for me, all of them based on this simple truism: The problem isn’t one of desire – I want to work, I want to be productive. Rather, the problem is one of inertia. A body – or in this case a creative mind – at rest will remain at rest; a creative mind in motion will remain in motion. The task then is not to motivate, but rather to get going.

The first trick, taught to me by my wonderful graduate school adviser when I was writing my dissertation, is pretty basic. When I finish my work in the late afternoon or evening, I break off in the middle of a sentence. So the first thing I have to do when I sit down the following morning is finish that phrase. Immediately, I’m working. Some people accomplish the same thing by going back to read and polish what they wrote the day before. I don’t like to do that because I wind up retreating into revision, which doesn’t help me be productive today. Better for me to have that sentence to finish, so that I can get some forward momentum.

Sometimes, though, ending with an unfinished sentence isn’t practical. Sometimes we finish a day with by ending a chapter or section. In this case, I make notes in the document – what comes next, what is the very next thing I want to write. I only need to jot down a few words or phrases – that’s enough, and it does much the same thing as the unfinished phrase: It gives me an entry the next morning and allows me to start working.

A number of my writing colleagues do not listen to music when they work. Others can’t work without something on the stereo. I fall somewhere in between. I can write without music, and I do fine with music playing. But I’m pretty particular: I listen almost exclusively to instrumental music when I write – jazz, bluegrass, occasionally classical. And I choose a musical genre for each particular work (Thieftaker books and stories call for bluegrass; Fearsson stories demand jazz; Islevale flows best to classical.) And when I struggle to get going, music can help a lot. The appropriate music can put me in the necessary head space and move me past those distractions that hinder my process.

When all else fails, there is also surrender. I’m serious. Some distractions can’t be ignored. Some of them – often those relating to the people we love – are more important than work. And quite often, taking a half hour out of our work day to address issues that weigh on our minds can salvage the balance of the day, allowing us to be far more productive than if we had continued to brood.

So those are the techniques I use to get going with my writing. And look! I wrote a Monday Musings post. All I needed was something to get me moving…

Have a good week.

Writing Tip Wednesday: I Suck At Titles, So Let Me Offer Some Advice…

I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

The other day I asked the folks in my Facebook group (the David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson Facebook Group – you can join here) to suggest possible topics for the Writing Tip Wednesday feature on my blog. I will be taking suggestions for as long as you all want to offer them, so again, if you want to join the group, the link is here. (Too much?)

People responded with several suggestions (finding agents, marshaling ideas into a coherent story, using a pseudonym – all of these sound good to me and all of them will eventually work their way into posts), but one that seemed to get some traction related to coming up with titles for novels and short stories.

I found this somewhat amusing, because I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

I tend to think that titling a novel and titling a short story are quite different. For one thing, with a novel we have more to work with. To my mind, it’s just easier to find the right turn of phrase for a 100,000 word project, than it is for one that’s only, say, 6,000 words. More, quite often our novels are connected to a series of books, and together the franchise can yield an effective title pattern. (The Harry Potter books are an obvious example.) Short story titles can be more difficult.

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

A title, whether for a novel or a shorter piece, should be as simple as possible. It should be memorable, or if not, at least easy to remember (and those are two separate things). It should tell the reader something about the story, but not so much that it either gives away key information or depends on the reader understanding details he or she can’t possibly know. Keep your titles short, avoid words or phrases that are unique to your made-up world or that are likely to be unfamiliar. Obviously there are exceptions to this. (My very first book was called Children of Amarid, which turned out to be a crappy title, because, A) no one knew who Amarid was, and B) everyone assumed (incorrectly) that it was a book for kids. And yet the book did well commercially and critically. So, what the hell do I know?

The Hunger Games is a great title for a book, particularly for the first in a franchise. Simple words that are put together in a way that is both intriguing and memorable. The title captures the essence of the book, introducing a fundamental element of the plotting that will remain central throughout the entire series.

I believe my best titles were those I used in the Thieftaker series. I knew I was writing a sequence of books and I knew as well that I was introducing many readers to a profession that was somewhat different for our genre. And so calling the first book Thieftaker allowed me to present the series concept right out of the gate, kind of like a musical act titling their first album eponymously. For the second book, since I was still building series momentum, I wanted a title that related back to the first in some way. And since I had Ethan both hunting for a thief and being hunted by one, I went with Thieves’ Quarry.

By the time I was working on book 3, I thought another “Thief” title would feel hokey, and so was ready to go with something different. My first choice, City of Shades, was TERRIBLE. Shades is another word for ghosts, and, yes, ghosts figure prominently in the story, but still… Yuck. Then I started thinking about my villain, who was a sea captain, almost a pirate. When the final title, A Plunder of Souls, came to me, I knew I had a winner. Again, simple words – unlike “shades” there is no word there that can be misinterpreted. But the words were memorable, evocative, and unusual, especially taken together. Same with the fourth title, Dead Man’s Reach, which sounds ominous and atmospheric, but also evokes the image of a body of water (continuing the nautical theme).

When I work on short story titles, of course, I don’t have to worry as much about a franchise. Yes, I write stories in universes first created in novels (Thieftaker, Fearsson, Islevale) but we don’t market short fiction the same way. Which means that those guidelines I mentioned earlier are even more important for short story titles: keep them simple, make them easy to remember, make them relevant to the story, and avoid words and phrases that are likely to trip up readers. For instance, a couple of years ago I wrote a Thieftaker story for the Razor’s Edge anthology. The story had intrigue, a historical battle, magic, and a villain, a woman who could conjure and who wears a green gown. I could have named the story any number of things, but I went with simple: “The Woman in Green.” She is key to the story, the title is easy to recall and not at all confusing, and there is, to my mind, something slightly mysterious about presenting her in that way.

A few more things to remember about titles. First, they can’t be copyrighted. You can use a title that you have seen elsewhere, and someone can use your title if it fits their story. This also means that there is no harm in using a memorable phrase, say from a nursery rhyme or idiom, as a title. Plenty of people do. (I’ve long thought James Patterson’s use of “Along came a spider” was brilliant.) That said, once I find a title, I do an Amazon search, because though different works can have the same titles, I prefer to have as few duplicates with my titles as possible, and I really don’t want to name my book after something that has been released in the last year or two. Also, keep in mind the genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you might want to avoid titles that sound like science fiction. If you’re writing military SF, you probably don’t want to use a title that sounds like a Regency romance. (Although, as with everything else, there are exceptions. Irony can be fun.) And finally, as with all “rules” about writing. There are as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules themselves. As I say, my very first book had what I would now consider a terrible title, and it did very well. For every Hunger Games or American Gods, there is a The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and lots of them do just fine.

In the end you need a title that speaks to you, that captures what you were after as you wrote. Some of my titles (His Father’s Eyes, for instance) come to me in mere moments. Others, like A Plunder of Souls, I struggle with with months. Ask friends what they think of your title. Ask them what sort of book comes to mind when they hear it. And understand that in the end, a publisher might change your title. It’s never happened to me, but it does happen. Because ultimately titles are part of marketing, and many of us authors really, really suck at that…

Keep writing!

SHADOW’S BLADE Audio Book Giveaway!

Shadow's Blade, by David B. Coe, audio book

Look what I have! A new, unopened, single-disc, MP3 format audio book of SHADOW’S BLADE, book 3 in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson urban fantasy series from Baen Books. The narrator is Bronson Pinchot, and the novel is the best I’ve published to date.

And I’m giving this away. Tweet about this post, share it on Facebook, spread the word in some way online, and you are entered to win it. Drawing will be next Friday, and the disc will be sent out first class on Monday Dec. 19th, in time for holiday delivery. So get started!! And good luck.

Justis Fearsson Journal Entry — September 23: A #HoldOnToTheLight post

#HoldOnToTheLightWhen Gail Martin invited me to participate in the #HoldontotheLight campaign, I leapt at the chance and thought immediately of Justis Fearsson, the lead character in my contemporary urban fantasy, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson (Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, Shadow’s Blade, all from Baen Books). Every book in the series deals with mental health issues, and the magic system itself is build around them. Jay Fearsson is a weremyste. He’s a sorcerer all the time, but every month on the full moon he lapses into temporary insanity and his magic strengthens. Gradually, these moon phasings will drive him permanently insane, as they did his father, also a weremyste.

Magic in Jay’s world is known, but stigmatized, much as mental health problems are in our world, and Jay not only suffers from his own magic-induced illness, he is also a caretaker for his Dad. Magic, of course, is a device, a way into these issues that allows me to write books that are entertaining and edifying at the same time. In the piece that follows, Jay reflects on grappling with his own demons, just as people I love — friends and family — deal with theirs on a daily basis. I wish all of you strength and good health, and I hope that this piece, and our group efforts to #HoldontotheLight, help in some small way. — DBC

*****
If Billie and I ever have kids, and any of them grow up to be weremystes, like me, I’ll tell them about this, my second birthday.

A person can’t be a weremyste without understanding mental illness. Can’t be done. Every month on the full moon, and the nights immediately before and after, we lose our minds, even as our magic strengthens. That the insanity is temporary does nothing to soften the impact of those moon phasings. And over the course of time — no surprise — subjecting our minds to that magical meat grinder does permanent damage.

My dad is a weremyste, a burned-out old sorcerer who’s subject to delusions, hallucinations, and all the rest. I look at him, and I see more than a man with my pale gray eyes and tapered jaw. I see me in thirty years. I see my future, and it’s not pretty.

There isn’t one of us who hasn’t put something to his or her head in the middle of a phasing. A bottle of cheap bourbon, a crack pipe, a pistol. I’ve never tried crack, but the other two . . . Yeah, I’ve drunk my way through a lot of full moons, and I’ve rested the muzzle of my Glock against my temple more times than I care to count. It’s a miracle that I’m still alive.

But what set September 23, 2007 apart from all the other times was that it didn’t fall on a full moon. We were still three nights shy of the first night of the phasing.

It wasn’t temporary insanity than put the pistol in my hand. I don’t have that excuse.

I didn’t have Billie in my life back then. I was new to the Phoenix police force and really wasn’t holding it together too well, what with trying to take care of my dad and stumbling from one phasing to the next. I couldn’t confide in my partner, Kona, because at that point she didn’t know I was a weremyste, and I wasn’t ready to confess all. And I was staring down the barrel of yet another phasing.

That night, I’d had enough. I was weary to my very soul. I couldn’t imagine weathering another full moon, much less a lifetime of them. I was filled with dread and self-loathing and I just wanted a way out, no matter how extreme or final. I wouldn’t say I was at my best or even fully cogent. But as I say, I didn’t have the excuse of the moon phasing. This was me, unvarnished, face to face with the worst of my demons.

So, why am I still alive? Why am I able to celebrate today as a second “birthday”? I wish I could point to some heart-warming epiphany that made me put down the Glock and pull my shit together. I wish I would say that I thought of how much I love my father and knew I couldn’t leave him alone, or that I realized God loved me and so understood my self-worth and my place in the world. But I don’t think life works that way. It certainly didn’t for me.

No, it was darker than that. I imagined Kona finding my body. I imagined her having to drive out to Wofford, where my Dad has his trailer, and explain to him what had happened. What I had done. I tried to piece together that conversation in my head; I thought of her fighting through his dementia, making him understand that I was dead, a suicide.

Okay, maybe it was that I love him. But there were no angels signing, no fanfare of trumpets, nothing beautiful or dramatic or romantic about it. I chose not to kill myself because I wasn’t willing to put the people I care about through the pain of dealing with my mess.

Only later on, a couple of months down the road, did I come to appreciate how close I had come to  doing something unspeakable. And by that time, Kona and I were getting along better. I had started to confide in her. Namid, the Runemyste who guides my magical training, had come into my life and forced me to see my powers as something other than a burden. I’d started to work on improving my relationship with my Dad and, lo and behold, on those rare days when he was coherent, he responded by opening up a little.

In other words, life got better. Not turn-my-world-around better. But it was progress nevertheless. The phasings still sucked. There was no way around that. And yet, even they weren’t quite so bad. I managed to get through more and more of them without reaching for a fifth of Jack, or wondering where I’d left my weapon.

My second birthday didn’t Change Everything. Really it changed nothing. All that happened was I hit bottom and managed to keep myself from pulling the trigger. That was enough, though. Because we get better. We learn to cope. We love and we live and we fight the battles that need to be fought.

I don’t have a lot of answers. When my son or daughter wrestles with his or her demons, I won’t have any magical solutions for them — pun intended. I’ll just be able to tell them what I learned all those years ago. Every day we refuse to give up, is another day we win.

*****
About the campaign:

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to
https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/

Release Day Quick-Tip Tuesday Post!

So I’m going to push myself to achieve my goals. I’ll do everything I can to make my ambitions come to fruition. And I’ll dream a little. Because here’s the thing: Dreams can’t come true if I don’t push myself to be ambitious. And I can’t entertain my ambitions if I don’t put my butt in the chair and meet my goals.

Shadows-Blade-RR-banner-1-1Today is release day for Shadow’s Blade, the third novel in my Case Files of Justis Fearsson series from Baen Books. And it also happens to be Quick-Tip Tuesday over at Magical Words. The result is a special Quick-Tip Release Day post on the ways in which we define success and deal with ambition, dreams, and all the stuff life in the publishing industry throws our way. The post can be found here.

And the book can be purchased here! Or here! Or here!

I hope you enjoy the book and the post. And thanks.