Category Archives: D.B. Jackson

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, keep writing.

Monday Musings: Court Wars

Sometimes I write my Monday posts on Saturday morning. It’s just a convenient time. And so right now I am at my desk, trying to marshal my thoughts, and rein in my emotions.

I am devastated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. It pains me that her last hours were spent thinking as much about the political chaos that would follow her death as about her family and a momentous life well-lived. Within an hour of her passing, tributes to her stunning career were already being drowned out by the fight over how and when she ought to be replaced. She deserved better.

And so do we, as a nation. I am enraged by the staggering hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate. In 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, they refused to allow hearings or a vote on Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. It’s too close to the election, they said. The new President, whoever that may be, ought to have the opportunity to fill the vacancy. No, it’s not ideal to leave a seat on the Court open for so long, but this principle is worth the risk. Scalia died in March. His seat remained open for more than a year.

We are now forty-five days from another Presidential election. If the Senate were to follow McConnell’s “rule” on allowing new Presidents to choose a Court nominee, we might have to wait a total of five months. But now Republicans say, There is plenty of time for the current occupant of the White House to select a successor. It would be dangerous to leave the seat open for so long. Fucking unbelievable.

And yet, utterly predictable. Because the real problem is that we have allowed the Court to become completely politicized. The judiciary was designed and intended to be the least political branch of our government. It was supposed to be above politics, the institutional referee between the two elected branches. How far we have fallen from that ideal. Just today, a friend asked me if I could think of any other nation on the planet whose selection of judges was more riven by politics than ours. I couldn’t.

Like everything else in our system of government, in our whole society, all matters pertaining to the courts have become hyper-partisan. It is almost impossible to believe this now, but when Scalia’s nomination came to a Senate vote, he was confirmed 98-0. Ginsberg, as liberal as Scalia was conservative, won confirmation 96-3. I doubt we’ll see another vote like that on a Supreme Court Justice in this century.

Conservatives point to Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful nomination of Robert Bork as the start of the Court’s politicization. They claim that liberal Democrats, opposed to Bork’s ideology, misrepresented his record and vilified him. I remember that fight, which took place during my first semester in graduate school, quite differently. Bork’s very nomination was a provocation. Before becoming a candidate for the Court, Bork was best known as Richard Nixon’s Solicitor General, who, on what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. He did this after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned in protest rather than carry out Nixon’s order. By the time of his Supreme Court hearings, Bork had long since revealed himself as a man who placed party before country, and as an advocate for unbridled executive power. He had been a villain to the Left for more than a decade. He never should have been nominated.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter who started the trend. It’s here now. And with McConnell’s brazen disregard for Constitutional norms in the case of the Garland nomination, it has been escalated to full-scale political war. If McConnell pushes through a Trump nominee before the election, or during a lame-duck session after it, and if, as polls currently predict, the election brings a Biden victory and a Democratic takeover of the Senate, I expect Democrats to attempt to change the structure of the Court in next year’s Congressional session. The Constitution says nothing about the number of justices who can serve on the Court, and it grants to Congress wide discretion in creating and maintaining all levels of the Federal Judiciary.

The problem with this is, as soon as the Democrats lose control of the Senate, the Republicans can change the composition again. And so on, until the Court becomes a caricature of itself, and one of the bedrock institutions of our republic is destroyed for all time.

One solution would be for Senate Republicans to recognize their own hypocrisy and refuse to vote on a Trump nominee. It would only take four of them, and I wish I believed that among the fifty-three members of the GOP Senate caucus there are four people of integrity. But I don’t.

That leaves few options and little hope for a near-term de-escalation of the Court battles. I am as pessimistic right now about the future of our system of government as I have ever been. Another legacy of this dark era in our history.

And I end this piece as I began it: with regret that the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a gender pioneer, a brilliant jurist, a champion for the dispossessed, the disadvantaged, and the downtrodden, should be obscured by ridiculous and unreasonable political machinations.

We should be better than this. I grieve that we are not.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: On Blogging

So, at the risk of going full-on meta, I would like to post today about blogging — the value and costs of maintaining a blog, the secrets of keeping the blog fresh for you and for your readers.

When I got into the writing business, personal and professional websites were just starting to pop up. I remember my editor asking me at one point, shortly before the release of my first novel, if I had a website. He was pleased when I told him I did — some of his writers had been resistant. I also remember people in my little town being more impressed that I had a website than with the fact that I was about to be published for the first time.

“My first book’s about to come out.”

“Nice. Good for you.”

“And I have a website.”

“Oooooohhhhhh!!! You have a website??!!”

Seriously.

A few years later, weblogs became trendy, and my editor, agent, and publicist were all over me to start blogging. Soon everyone had a blog, and drawing attention to any one particular blog proved ever more difficult. But the accepted industry wisdom stated that writers who wanted to be successful, who wanted to develop and keep a substantial fanbase, needed to blog. Putting out books and publicizing them on our websites was no longer enough. Now we needed to generate original content on a regular — some said daily! — basis.

This lasted about until Facebook became the thing late in the first decade of the new millennium. With the advent of social media, blogs started to appear cumbersome, overly formal, and not nearly immediate enough.

And yet today, with the age of social media in full swing and not going anywhere anytime soon, some of the wisdom generated in those early years of web access remain true. A writer can’t survive without a website. And blogging remains a viable way to reach readers.

After allowing my blog to lag for a time, I have recommitted myself to it this year, and I’ve been pleased with the results. I didn’t want to post everyday. That would have been overwhelming and it would have quickly turned blogging into a burden, a commitment I resented. I didn’t want that. But I wanted to generate content, for my readers and for myself. I wanted to have a structured schedule that would keep me on task and that would bring readers to my site on a regular basis. But, I wondered, what should I write about?

Even before Covid-19 and the protests that have swept across the country, I had a sense that this would be a year worth chronicling. The election alone promised to make it such. And so I knew that one day a week, I wanted to have the freedom to write about whatever I chose.

I also was looking forward to a couple of writing events this year (the SAGA conference in early March, and another in August that was cancelled due to the pandemic) and so I thought it would make sense for me to offer writing advice once a week. A lot of my social media followers are launching writing careers of their own. This gave me a chance to pay it forward by helping them.

And finally, I had lamented last year that I didn’t pursue my passion for photography with enough discipline. With my Photo Friday feature, I hoped to force myself to pull out my camera more, to demand of myself that I do this thing I love, and share the results publicly.

I’m glad I did all of it. I have been able to chronicle this remarkable year, for myself and for my readers. I have put together what I think is a nice collection of writing-tip posts. And so far I have a good set of photos for the year. Moreover, traffic at my website has gone up between 100 and 200 percent since 2020 began. Not bad.

So, is blogging for you?

Let me start with this: The most important thing new writers can do to boost their careers is write their stories and books. If your time is limited, if you’re already struggling to find opportunities to work on the material you wish to publish, this might not be the time to start blogging. Concentrate on your writing and on your social media platforms, which ought to be far less time consuming.

I don’t recommend blogging for the sake of blogging. I spend a substantial amount of time on the posts I write, and already I’m thinking about ways I can change things up for next year. I want to keep the experience fresh. As I’ve said, I generate content for my readers, but I also committed to this for myself. I wanted to do it. I’ve enjoyed doing it. But it’s a lot of work. I feel the pressure of having to generate new content for three posts a week. Maintaining the blog in this way has not impacted my fiction writing productivity. Not yet. I can see, though, how it might.

One of the keys to successful blogging is posting something original on a regular and predictable basis. My readers know at this point to expect posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Anything I offer beyond that is gravy. But I wouldn’t want to miss a day and let down those who follow my posts. If you want to blog, you should find a schedule that works for you. Even if you post only once a week, doing so regularly, and drawing readers’ attention to that weekly post, could be enough to gain some traffic at your site.

And, of course, that is the goal. I want readers to enjoy my posts. But I also want them at my site, where they can explore a bit and learn about my books. This is, among other things, a business venture.

I have also found it helpful to blog thematically. A number of my readers look forward to my writing tips. Others like the photos, and still others tune in for whatever rant I might put up on Mondays. My readers know what to expect, which, I believe, keeps them coming back. And, since I know what’s expected of me for each post, I find the essays easier to write. It’s no coincidence that week in and week out, the Monday posts are the most challenging to craft, because my “topic” for them is relatively amorphous.

In the end, only you can decide if maintaining a regular blog makes sense. Don’t let yourself be pressured into it by others who say you must do it to build an audience. Plenty of authors don’t blog, and many others only do so occasionally. The most important questions to ask yourself are, 1) Do I want to do this? 2) Do I have time to do this without sacrificing my productivity? And 3) Do I have something to say that will keep my readers and me engaged?

Best of luck. And keep writing!

Welcome J.D. Blackrose! Her PLUCK AND COVER Blog Tour Stops Here Today!

JD Blackrose Author PicJ.D. Blackrose (aka my wonderful friend, Joelle Reizes) is promoting Pluck and Cover, the first of her Zombie Cosmetologist novellas. (Find it on Amazon.) Here is the series description:

Waylon Jenkins has a problem. Well, he’s got a few of them. The ghost of Betsy Ross lives in his house, he’s pretty sure his favorite client is the victim of ongoing domestic violence, and he’s been roped into helping the police investigate a series of murders.

And his penis fell off in the shower this morning. He needs a new one, but none of his friends are willing to donate theirs to the cause.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, Waylon Jenkins is a zombie.

He’s also one of the most highly respected and in-demand makeup artists in Hollywood, and that keeps him busy, no matter how dead he is. But now he needs to find out who’s committing a string of murders, and make sure nobody hurts Mitzi (one name only), one of his most faithful (and famous) clients.

He also needs a new penis.

Pluck & Cover is the first in the Zombie Cosmetologist Novellas, a new series by J.D. Blackrose, author of The Soul Wars and The Devil’s Been Busy.

And here is an excerpt from the first novella! Enjoy!

Pluck and Cover, by JD Blackrose*****

“We have an appointment with Mr. Addington,” Perkins explained, handing over his identification and gesturing to the star pinned to his chest.

“Yes, sir.” The guard took his ID, checked a list, and made a call. The other guard came around to my side and knocked on the glass.

“We’ll need your ID, too, sir.”​​

“No problem.” I handed over my driver’s license, which was real, although the birth certificate I used to get it was fake, and he took it back to his colleague.

Perkins rolled the window up, calm on the exterior, while they checked us out, but he kept fiddling with the radio. Finally, they returned our identification, handed us each a badge to clip to our clothes, and slipped a placard onto the inside dash that indicated we were guests.

“Leave that on the car when you park, Captain. That way, we won’t suspect a bomb and blow up your car.”

Perkins and I both startled at that.

The guard grinned, or, more accurately, showed us his teeth. “Just kidding.”

“Ha.” That was all Perkins said. I didn’t say anything. We parked in a guest spot right in front of the door, and I checked my makeup in the mirror. It was a nervous tic, and I shouldn’t have done it, given the outside cameras and what the security staff would make of a man powdering his nose.

Perkins didn’t seem to care. He was taking in the surroundings, noting the cameras, the K9 patrol on the far end of the campus, the high fences, and he looked up when a helicopter flew overhead.

“What the fuck are they doing here? Wound care?” he whispered to me as we approached the imposing front doors. “Sure as hell isn’t bandages, antibiotics, and butterfly clips.”

Again, I went with silence.

The armed guards at the front door inspected our badges and waved us through. The man and woman at the desk inside the foyer wore plain clothes, pretending to be receptionists, but I noted the holster bulges under their jackets.

The woman addressed us. “Captain Perkins. Mr. ​Jenkins. Mr. Addington will see you in his office. Allow me to escort you.”

Perkins and I exchanged glances. Like we were allowing anything. It was obvious that they were calling the shots.

She used a card key to access the elevator and ushered us in, pressing the top floor, which was indicated by a blank white button. All the other buttons had numbers on them and were black. The C-suites ranked anonymity.

The door opened, and a man in a suit greeted us before we could step out.

“Captain Perkins and Mr. Jenkins, welcome. I’m Peter Shunk, Mr. Addington’s executive assistant. Please follow me.”

The elevator door closed behind us with a soft hum. Only way to go was forward, but my discomfort was growing by the minute. I was lucky I didn’t sweat, or it would be dripping down my face. Perkins kept pulling at his cuffs, a sign that even his cool veneer was cracking. He wore his uniform, a tan, crisp button-down, a dark tie with a silver tie clip, his star over his heart, and dark green khaki pants. His duty belt was fully kitted out with his gun on his right hip, extra mags in the back, handcuffs, pepper spray, and a pouch for gloves, as well as other paraphernalia that made him look dangerous and all business.

Peter slipped across the carpet like a well-oiled dinner cart in a five-star hotel, silent and unobtrusive. His steps didn’t even leave footprints in the plush fibers. With his dark slick hair, pointy chin, and mincing walk, he reminded me of a praying mantis waiting for an unsuspecting bug. I comforted myself with the thought that male praying mantises don’t live all that long and often met sad, tragic ends.

Monday Musings: A Planet In Its Death Throes

Pray for the forest, pray to the tree,
Pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.
Pray for yourself and for God’s sake,
Say one for me,
Poor wretched unbeliever.

— James Taylor, “Gaia,” from Hourglass

This is what it looks like when a planet dies

milkovi SF Bay Bridge
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under skies turned orange by wildfire smoke. Photo credit: Milkovi, Unsplash

Cataclysmic fires along the American West Coast and the Australian East Coast, in the Amazon and on the Steppe. Once-in-a-millenium events occurring annually. Orange skies over California and the Pacific Northwest.

Storms of unprecedented destructive power striking with unnerving frequency, rendering the term “storm of the century” essentially meaningless.

Deepening cycles of drought and flood. Cities across the world literally being inundated by oceans and seas. Glaciers vanishing faster than even the most aggressive projections told us they would. Coral reefs dying. Species going extinct.

My older brothers turned me on to birdwatching when I was seven years old — a gift that has enriched my life for half a century. And over those same fifty years, North America’s population of birds has declined by nearly 30%. Habitat loss, pesticide use, careless architecture, and, yes, climate change — all have played a role. The result? Three billion fewer birds.

In the spring of 1985, my senior year in college, I took an ecology course for non-majors. It offered a survey of critical environmental issues facing the world, and discussed them in terms history and literature majors could understand. At the time, a scientific consensus had long-since formed around what was called at the time “the Greenhouse Effect,” what we later called global warming, and now global climate change. That was thirty-five years ago.

In 1896, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius theorized that the unfettered burning of fossil fuels, and the resulting release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would lead to a warming of the planet. Four years later, in 1901, his colleague, Nils Gustaf Ekholm, coined the term “Greenhouse Effect” to describe the phenomenon. In fairness, Ekholm thought it might be a good thing, as it would stave off future ice ages. But the concept is not a new one.

For decades, global temperatures have been rising to record setting levels, only to be topped the following year. Global temperature records were first kept in a systematic way around 1850. Of the 170 or so years for which figures exist, nineteen of the twenty hottest have occurred since 2000. 2020 is on pace to join the top five.

I am willing to engage on most political and social issues. I enjoy a good discussion, a vigorous debate. There are, though, a few topics on which I will no longer engage. First among them is bigotry of any sort — racism, sexism, homophobia, trans bias, religious bias, etc. Climate denial is a close second. (And this year, Covid denial has joined the list.)

This is no longer theory. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. Climate change is real. Our planet is dying. If we do nothing — if we as a global community continue on the path we’re on now, we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren a burnt husk of what was once earth. Future generations will live in a world that staggers from ecological crisis to ecological crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe, from flood to drought to famine to pandemic and back again.

We have had ample opportunity to address the issue, and we have squandered one after another. We have absented ourselves from vital global treaties and doubled down on the sort of short-sighted consumerism that got us into this mess in the first place. Like James Taylor in the song quoted at the beginning of this post, I have no faith in our ability to save ourselves. We are a society that cannot bring ourselves to wear cloth masks for the common good. How are we supposed to make the economic transitions necessary to change economic course?

And the tragic thing is, addressing climate change could be a tremendous boon to our standing in the world, to our economic fortunes, to our commitment to education. This is the challenge of our time. It demands bold thinking, new industries, innovation and invention. Implementing the necessary changes would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, replacing and more the jobs lost in the coal and oil industries. Fitting ecological imperatives to our national love affair with cars and trucks could revitalize the American automotive industry. Does anyone really believe that the internal combustion engine, invented more than a century ago, is the be-all and end-all of technological ingenuity? Of course not.

But we have to have the will to change, the courage to say “Saving our planet for our children is worth whatever sacrifices we might have to make.” And, from what I can see, we don’t.

I wish I could end on a more hopeful note.

November’s election is about more than ending corruption, about more than beating back hate and prejudice, about more than the Supreme Court, about more than taxes and health care and social justice. It is about saving our planet. It is about keeping ourselves from a slow and painful march toward extinction.

Please vote.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: SEX and VIOLENCE, and How To Write Them

Title got your attention, eh?

Yeah, figured it would. I might not be a marketing genius, but I’ve learned a little bit over the years…

Last week, I wrote about using profanity in our writing, and at one point likened gratuitous spicy language to gratuitous sex and violence. I went on to reference a fairly explicit sex scene I had included in a trunk novel I happened to be editing at the time, and I said this: “…The sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book.”

It occurred to me later that I had yet to address writing sex scenes and action scenes in my Writing-Tip posts, and so here we are.

I have been fortunate in my life in that I have largely avoided violence. I have never been in combat, and have been spared violent encounters in my personal life. On the other hand – and I do not plan to say much in this regard – I have had sex. More than once.

And yet, I feel equally comfortable writing fight scenes and sex scenes. And, as it happens, I have written far more of the former than the latter. I have made up for my lack of experience with violence by reading a lot about combat in different settings, about hand-to-hand conflict, about weaponry and war tactics, and a host of other subjects necessary to give my scenes the verisimilitude I seek in all my writing.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I believe my action scenes are pretty effective, and, actually, I would say the same about my sex scenes. But that wasn’t always the case. In the first draft of my very first novel, Children of Amarid, I wrote a sex scene that my editor tore apart. And with good reason. While the rest of the narrative worked pretty well, the sex scene felt completely staged and out of character. And the reason was quite simple: For that one encounter, I forgot about my characters’ points of view and tried to write a sex scene that felt, well, sexy. That didn’t work, because my characters were young and in love, but also inexperienced and still a little awkward with each other. None of that came through in the writing.

Point of view, I have said many times before, is the key to good writing, the answer to most, if not all, of the problems that crop up in our work. Because point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend. And so it follows that, like all the writing we do, the success of our sex scenes and action scenes is entirely dependent on point of view.

Our characters’ sexual encounters are particularly dependent on emotion for their success. That unsuccessful first-try sex scene I wrote in the initial draft of Children of Amarid failed because I skipped over emotion and focused too much on lust. To be sure, passion is likely to play a role in most scenes of this sort. But for two young lovers, out of their depth and afraid and seeking emotional refuge from the threats to their lives that drive the plot, emotional is all. Passion is, in a way, secondary. In the trunk novel sex scene I mentioned earlier, emotion and body image and passion and self-doubt are all rolled together into the experience, and that’s why the scene works.

Let me put it this way: Imagine writing three sex scenes. The first features a teenager, madly in love, terrified, about to engage in their very first sexual relationship. The second features an older woman in a Western town who works in a brothel and is confronting the very real possibility that she is about to be fired because she is too old and the men coming to the brothel no longer desire her. The third features a man who is in love with his wife but facing problems in their marriage in large part because they desperately want a child and can’t manage to conceive. Clearly, these three scenes are going to read VERY differently, and those differences will express themselves through the emotions and thoughts and sensations of our point of view characters.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterIn the same way, action scenes – fight scenes, battle scenes, violent scenes; whatever you want to call them – also hinge on the qualities, histories, experiences, and emotions of our point of view characters. A seasoned fighter, someone who makes their living in a violent world or who was brought up to be a warrior, is going to experience violence quite differently from, well, someone like me, who has little knowledge of fighting technique and scant history with violence and bloodshed. The practiced fighter’s point of view might sound almost clinical – this person will know how to control emotion, how to draw upon skills and observations learned over years of training. The novice’s point of view should come off as far more desperate, fearful, overwhelmed by the frenzy of violence in which they find themselves. Again, point of view is all. One is not necessarily more exciting to read than the other – think of the battle scenes in Faith Hunter’s thrilling, New York Times Bestselling Jane Yellowrock books and in A.J. Hartley’s wonderful Will Hawthorne novels, which are not only entertaining but also a master class in writing voice. Jane is a warrior; Will is SO not.. The scenes in both make for compelling reading, but they couldn’t be more different.Act of Will, by A.J. Hartley

Finally, when we’re writing our fight scenes, we should keep these things in mind. First, these are NOT the places to dive into detailed description. Even an inexperienced fighter might notice that their opponent is brawny and big, that they move with confidence and appear to be skilled with their weapon. But our point of view fighter is NOT likely to choose that moment to focus on eye color and hair style and clothing particulars. The character should be far more concerned with staying alive! And second, taking this piece of advice from Faith: The pace of our prose in writing such scenes is the literary equivalent of a musical score in a movie. Just as during action scenes in movies, the music gets percussive and clipped and dramatic, so when writing these scenes we should make our prose spare, concise. We should depend on short, declarative, punchy sentences. We should NOT be using flowery, pretty complex phrases.

So, sex and violence. Yes, they make for interesting reading (and writing!). But they are not easy, and should not be treated the same regardless of character. Try to keep these tips in mind when crafting your next romantic interludes or violent encounters.

And keep writing!

Monday Musings: Missing DragonCon

Like so many of you, like so many of my fans, my colleagues, my friends, I was supposed to be in Atlanta for DragonCon this Labor Day weekend. Yes, I have taken part in several online panels and visited with a writing workshop group – all through Zoom – and those appearances have been enjoyable. Let’s be honest, though: Even the best Zoom panels – and all of those I participated in were well run – cannot replace a live DragonCon. Missing the con has left me frustrated and sad, and I know I’m not the only one.

To state the obvious, the tragedy of this pandemic can be measured in lives lost, in lingering medical issues, in economic dislocation at a level not seen since the Great Depression. People have suffered and are suffering still. And in that context, the cancellation of a science fiction/fantasy convention is a tiny thing, barely worthy of mention.

And yet, it is indicative of so much that the Covid crisis has cost us on several levels.

For those of you who don’t know about DragonCon, it is, as I say, a SF/Fantasy convention that takes place every Labor Day weekend in the Peachtree section of Atlanta. It draws anywhere from 75,000 to 90,000 fans and professionals to the city, including artists, writers, editors, agents, actors, directors, costumers, make-up specialists, and others connected to science fiction and fantasy and horror in all their manifestations. The convention is particularly famous for its costumes which are on display during a well-known and much-anticipated parade along Peachtree Street on the Saturday morning of that weekend. DragonCon is, for lack of a better analogy, Mardi Gras for geeks.

For me personally, and, I know, for many friends as well, the absence of the convention leaves a hole in our emotional lives. Most writers work in relative isolation. We spend our work hours researching and writing on our own, communing with the characters who inhabit our imaginations. In normal years, interactions on Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms supplement the personal experiences with colleagues and fans we expect from workshops and conventions and signings. This year, of course, social media is all we have.

And while the cancellation of each convention this year has been a disappointment, DragonCon is more than just another convention. For me, and for countless others, it is THE convention. It is the centerpiece of my professional year. Everything else I do builds to DragonCon. I reach more of my audience in those four days in Atlanta – through well-attended panels and readings, through signings, through the simple act of walking from one venue to another with so many people – than I do at all my other events combined. More important, I get to see a great number of my writing friends and associates. Every meal is a chance to catch up with an old friend. Every evening in one of the many hotel bars (usually the Westin) my friends and I gather to talk shop and laugh and share news good and bad. It’s very much like a family reunion.

DragonCon also offers countless opportunities for making new professional connections and finding opportunities for work, for collaboration, for broadening our careers in any number of ways. I’ve been attending the convention regularly for the better part of a decade, and over that period I have met with my agent many times; I have had discussions with lots and lots of editors – both those I had worked with already and those I hoped to work with in the future; I have been invited into anthologies; I have worked through plotting problems or character issues or world building conundrums with fellow professionals; I have sold a TON of books. Missing out on those sorts of professional openings, particularly this year, when business is especially tough, serves only to deepen my sense of loss.

DragonCon is famous as well for its dealers’ exhibits, which fill three or more warehouse-sized floors in the America’s Mart in downtown Atlanta. Book sellers, gamers, jewelers, knitters, woodworkers, metalworkers, costumers, and artists in so many other crafts build their years around the convention, just as we writers do. I can hardly imagine what a blow the con’s cancellation must be for them.

As I mentioned before, the convention fills bars and restaurants throughout that part of the city, not to mention all the hotels. I have no doubt that with this event, and ones like it, called off, service industry workers are suffering. It must be harder to find work. Few if any will be earning overtime pay. Cancel an event that brings 80,000 extra people to the city, and it HAS to have a devastating impact, and that impact will be felt most by those who can afford it least.

Exacerbating personal isolation, limiting professional opportunities, deepening economic dislocation – the cancellation of DragonCon offers a view in microcosm of what the pandemic has done to our society. We miss our friends. We begrudge the loss of professional interaction and book sales. We worry for those who need the con’s economic benefits even more than we do personally.

I hope to be back in Atlanta at this time next year. I say that for selfish reasons, for professional ones, and, yes, out of concern for those who depend on the convention for their livelihoods. DragonCon’s cancellation may be a small matter in the constellation of concerns brought on by the pandemic. But as with so much else that has happened this crazy year, its impact is more widely felt than one might expect.

Wishing you a great week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: How To Handle Profanity In Your Writing

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

It’s a Western, the creative child of the brilliant David Milch. It’s violent, brutally realistic, and absolutely the most profane thing I have ever watched, with the possible exception of the Academy Award-winning movie The Departed, (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan).

I would challenge anyone watching Deadwood to record a full minute of dialogue in any episode that does not include an f-bomb, or some other curse. Over the three full seasons the series ran I suppose it’s possible that a “clean” minute exists somewhere. I would be hard-pressed to find it. As you might expect, some viewers are put off by the profanity. Check out online reviews of the series and you’ll find lots of people who want nothing to do with it because of all the cursing, and plenty of others who recognize the excellence of the characters, the imagery, the plotting, but lament the explicit language.

And then there are viewers like me. I LOVE the profanity. I find it poetic, and I felt the same way about The Departed. I believe there is an art to writing works that depend so heavily on strong language. While some may dismiss the profanity in Deadwood or The Departed as gratuitous, I don’t believe it is. I have seen and read other works that DID have gratuitous profanity, and you can tell the difference. For my part, I have never tried to write something with this much strong language, but neither have I shied away from using curses in my writing.

Every author has their threshold for explicit language, just as every author has their threshold for violent and sexual content. Friends of mine pretty much refuse to use any profanity at all. Others throw in a ton. Either approach is fine, so long as the author can make it work. But authors should also understand that, as with sex and violence, they also have to be aware of the predilections of editors and publishers.

The default in publishing these days is that profanity is accepted. Publishers or short fiction markets that DON’T accept manuscripts with curse words in them will generally say so in their guidelines. And, of course, we all know we’re supposed to read and follow the guidelines before submitting any work anywhere, right? Right. At one time, YA markets were assumed to be profanity free, but that rule is less strict now. Still take extra care when submitting to YA markets and understand that while mild swearing might be accepted, stronger language, including f-bombs, might not be. Works aimed at middle grade readers and younger audiences should be entirely clean.

Beyond that, the key things to remember include the following:

1) Profanity for its own sake is not good writing. I generally avoid blanket statements like this one, but in this case it seems appropriate. Just as sex and violence for their own sake, without any narrative or character-related justification, can ruin a book or story, so can pointless swearing. When is profanity justified and how much of it should you use? That will vary from author to author, story to story, even scene to scene. Only you can decide what’s right. But as with things like gore or erotic content, you need to consider your audience AND the characters you’ve created, and then decide what is appropriate for both. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. I have been working on a trunk novel recently that includes what is far and away the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever written. But the sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book. I didn’t write it this way for a cheap thrill. I had a narrative purpose in mind. And that, I believe, should be the test for profanity as well.

2) Your setting also must be a factor in how you handle profanity. As D.B. Jackson, I write the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Throwing in a bunch of f-bombs to a Colonial setting simply would not work. No one would believe it – excessive profanity would yank my readers right out of my world, which I don’t want. I have also written several epic fantasy series set in alternate fantasy worlds. Some of these do have a bit of strong language, but only in contexts that feel appropriate to the world. To my mind, having a foul-mouthed character in most of my fantasy novels would feel wrong; it would seem too much like OUR world instead of my characters’ world. I know of some authors who deal with this by creating their own profanities for their fantasy worlds. They can then have foul-mouthed characters without offending readers or risking too much of a “real-world” feel to their books. I think that is a brilliant and elegant solution.

3) Finally, remember that despite extreme examples like Deadwood and The Departed, a little bit of profanity can go a long way. Think about it the way you might think of hot pepper in your cooking. Yes, there are some dishes that are meant to be REALLY spicy, and you might love dishes like that. For the most part, though, REALLY spicy appeals only to certain palettes. Most people like some heat in their food, but not so much that their eyes water. Profanity is much the same. Masterful writers can get away with extreme language. They can preserve the other flavors in spite of the “spice.” For most of us, a softer touch is often the better approach. Our audiences will likely be more comfortable with the occasional f-bomb and other curses, but not with page after page after page of strong language.

Put another way, you don’t have to be Puritanical, but you don’t have to be fucking rude, either.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Race — Again, and Still, and As Long As It Takes

This past week, I listened to an NPR interview with some Trump voters in Florida. One woman, who swore she couldn’t be a racist because she was of a non-Caucasian ethnicity herself, spoke of the George Floyd killing and the need “to get all the information. Like if he was doing drugs or something like that.” And I wanted to ask her, in all seriousness, what drugs could Mister Floyd have done that would justify a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes until he died?

The Department of Justice this week released additional information about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So, too, did the police union to which the officers involved belong. It seems that Mister Blake admitted to officers that he had a knife, and that a knife was later found in the car. And I would like to ask the police union and the DOJ, how big would the knife have to be to justify a police officer shooting Mister Blake in the back seven times at close range?

Yesterday, video surfaced on Twitter of Brandon Marshall, a former NFL All-Pro and current ESPN television commentator, having the police called on him by security officers in the subdivision in Florida where he had just purchased a new home. Mister Marshall’s name, apparently, was not yet on a list of people authorized to access the gated community. So the security guys, rather than checking with him, calling the real estate agent, or taking any number of remedial steps that could have cleared up the confusion, called the police. Mister Marshall’s children were in the car and witnessed the entire incident. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But I would like to ask the security guys – and I would hope they would answer honestly – would they have done the same thing if he was White?

I would rather be writing about puppies, or making a top ten list of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes, or finding new ways to call Donald Trump obnoxious and incompetent – because that never gets old. I don’t want to be writing about systemic racism yet again. And if I, as an ally, am tired of writing about it and drawing people’s attention to the problem, I can hardly imagine how exhausted my Black friends must be, not only by the conversation, but by living with yet another tragedy, with new aggressions small and large, with the constant emotional abuse that comes with being Black in America.

None of us who are White, no matter how empathetic or sympathetic, can begin to imagine what it is like. It is unrelenting. Try to think back on your worst moments of humiliation, of fear, of righteous anger at injustice directed your way, of frustration with slights that you cannot control and cannot escape. And then imagine putting up with those things all the time. Every. Single. Day. Maybe that comes close.

I’ve had online conversations with several friends the past few days. We’re all progressives, all terrified by the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump in the White House. And we were discussing a point made by a political commentator to the effect that some of the optics surrounding protests in D.C. and in Kenosha, and elsewhere – property damage, confrontations with police, inconveniencing city residents, etc.– might wind up hurting the Biden campaign. None of us want that, of course. But I have to ask of myself, if I were Black, would I care?

Yes, Donald Trump is a White supremacist; I believe that with all my heart. And no, Joe Biden is not. I think a Biden Presidency would be better for all Americans, and for non-White Americans in particular. But systemic racism has been around for a long, long time. Police have been persecuting Black Americans for a long, long time. Black Americans have felt the effects of these things under Republican Presidents and Democratic, under the first Black President, and under all the others.

Is “No justice, no peace” the most political convenient slogan for Democrats right now? Probably not.

You go tell that to the protesters. Because I can’t bring myself to do so.

I don’t have any answers. I didn’t earlier in the year, either.

I can say the words and mean them: Black Lives Matter.

I can and do try to explain to my White friends who don’t get it why it’s so important that we support BLM, that we set our privilege aside and recognize all the ways in which our society and politics and economy favor Whites over non-Whites, that we stop taking personally discussions of rampant racism in our culture. But that only gets us so far, and at a pace that feels glacial.

I can say to my Black friends, I hear you, I see you, I support you.

And I can say to all, please vote.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writing Musically

It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of The West Wing, in particular Seasons 1-4, when series creator Aaron Sorkin was writing nearly every episode, and his creative partner, Thomas Schlamme was directing most of them.

Sorkin talks often about writing musically, about bringing to his dialogue cadence, rhythm, motif, and even melody and refrain. Take a moment to watch this clip from one of the best episodes in the series’ long and storied run, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II.” Listen to all of it, but pay particular attention to Ron’s monologue, starting at time stamp 1:15.

Notice not only the gorgeous cadence of all he says, but also the return to two refrains: “It was an act of mad men,” and, from earlier in the scene, “The Secret Service doesn’t comment on procedure.”

Often in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, I will offer advice that is concrete and easily implemented. This is not one of those posts.

Thinking musically about our writing is an abstract idea, but, I believe, a helpful and important one. I strive, in my dialogue and my prose, to find a musical cadence, to create a rhythm that carries my narrative along. We all know what it feels like to write a clunky phrase or sentence or paragraph. Hell, I’ve written entire chapters that were clunky. I would imagine some of my less generous reviewers on Amazon would say I have entire books that are.

But of course, it’s easy to say “write musically, think about rhythm and beat as you craft your stories.” It’s another entirely to explain how this is done. And I should pause here to say that simply repeating phrases in our writing doesn’t make us Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master, and this technique works beautifully for him. That doesn’t mean we can repeat a few lines and say, “Hey, look! I’m writing musically!” Learning to write this way comes with years of practice, and even more years of reading. And the process is not easy to describe in concrete terms. The books of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite fantasy author, are incredibly musical – like symphonies. But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what specific things he does to achieve this. He just does.

Here, though, are a couple of tips that might help.

Let’s stick with that symphony analogy. Consider a movement from your favorite piece of classical music. No doubt its tempo varies from section to section: it has moments when the pace of the music quickens and others when it slows. Likely the dynamics vary as well, thundering in one passage, softening in another. If you’re not a fan of classical music, think about your favorite rock album. Chances are the rhythms and moods of the songs vary — an upbeat, fast track, followed by a ballad, followed by something moody and tense, followed by another rocker… You get what I mean.

Writing, to my mind, works best when it follows a similar pattern. Some writers like their entire novels to go at one speed — fast, fast, fast. They create one action scene after another, leaving readers breathless and, they hope, eager for more. That is a perfectly legitimate approach, but I don’t like to write that way, and I don’t particularly like to read books of that sort. I prefer to intersperse crescendos of action with quieter moments, pushing the plot forward and then allowing my readers, and my characters, to catch their breath and contemplate the implications of what has just occurred Some scenes must be breakneck and loud — absolutely. Others, though, should be softer, slower. A battle scene, followed by a spoken confrontation, followed by a love scene, followed by hand-to-hand combat, followed by a chase, followed by a key conversation, etc. The narrative flows this whole time — writing musically is not meant as an excuse to insert scenes that don’t advance your story — but sometimes it flows with cymbals crashing and sometimes it flows with the sound of a single violin.

Another way to think musically about writing: Again, think about that symphony or your favorite song. And think about the ways in which melody works. Some phrases end with the perfect note, resolving the musical tension; others end more discordantly, ratcheting up harmonic conflict and propelling the piece in question forward. Storytelling works the same way. I try to vary the narrative energy. I finish some chapters with a resolution of conflict; I end others by heightening tension, by leaving things hanging, by leaving my readers still waiting for that resolving note.

Rhythm and tempo, dynamics and volume, tension and resolution, harmony and discord. I find that these terms work equally well in describing musical performance and the written word. You might find that incorporating these concepts into your narrative will help you find the perfect pace and mood for your current project.

Keep writing!