Category Archives: D.B. Jackson

Photo Friday: It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of the Year!

As I mentioned in a recent post about Thanksgiving (which covered the December holidays as well) I come from a Jewish family and still consider myself Jewish, though we are not at all a religious family. Nancy was brought up Catholic, but left the Church long ago. We are decidedly agnostic, but also consider ourselves multi-denominational.

And so yesterday, with a recent snowfall melting away and more bad weather bearing down on us, my younger daughter and I went to the valley to buy our Christmas tree, and then I put up the holiday lights on the house.

When I was growing up, my family always celebrated Christmas, even as we also observed Passover (and Easter) in the spring. These were compromises made by a lot of non-religious Jewish families in the mid-twentieth century. Living in a world still recovering from World War II and plagued by continued anti-Semitism, many of these families, ours included, chose to assimilate rather than broadcast their Jewishness. It was often a safer choice, and certainly a more comfortable one.

As a kid, I didn’t care about the reasons, I just knew that I loved Christmas. Yes, the presents were part of the allure — greed was absolutely a factor. But I also loved the lights, the tree, the decorations. I was a sucker for all that stuff, and, truth be told, I still am.

Our house is now decked out in holiday lights, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s actually a little ridiculous how happy these lights make me.

I wish all of you a wonderful weekend and a joyous start to the holiday season, no matter what holidays you happen to celebrate. Stay safe, and be kind to one another.

Christmas Lights on the House, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Call For Stories, and Submission Advice Revisited!

I am co-editing a new Zombies Need Brains anthology with my friend, Joshua Palmatier, who is the founder and owner of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua is co-editing all three of the ZNB anthologies this year, which to my mind is totally nuts, but good for him.

The theme and title of our project for this year is DERELICT, and if you’re a writer, you should consider submitting. We are looking for stories about derelict ships (seafaring ships, space ships, even a good story about a derelict bus or truck or car could find its way into the collection). The stories should be speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, or horror) and they should be about 2,500-7,500 words long, though REALLY good stories that are shorter or a bit longer will be considered. You can find the guidelines for all three of this year’s anthologies at the ZNB website. ALWAYS read the GLs before submitting to any market.

With stories already arriving in good numbers, and the call for stories open until December 31st, I thought I would revisit some of the short fiction submission advice I offered earlier this year and late last year.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierAnd I’ll start with this: Joshua and I are generous readers. We will read an entire story, even when it’s pretty clear halfway in (or a quarter in…) that the story probably won’t make the cut. Your goal as a writer is to sell us a story, obviously. But really your goal is to make us consider your story on your terms. Here’s what I mean by that: We are expecting to get somewhere between 300 and 400 submissions, for a total of 6 or 7 slots. (Last year, for GALACTIC STEW, we received 409 and selected 7.) Read those sentences again; I’ll wait.

We have a lot of stories to read, and while we are eager to be blown away by something really good, we are also looking for reasons to reduce our pile of submissions to be read. If you send us a manuscript that doesn’t follow the theme, or that doesn’t follow the submission guidelines, or that is filled with typos and misspellings and grammatical issues, we are probably going to reject your story and move right on to the next. That’s just fact. So, you want to get all of that stuff right, so we can consider your story solely on its merits — your terms.

Now, it may be that your story is good but not as good as others, or it might be good but too similar to others we’ve read. We’ll reject stories, even fine ones, for a number of reasons. But by getting the simple stuff right, by turning in a solid, clean, professionally presented manuscript, you give yourself a better chance.

With that in mind…

— Read and follow the guidelines. Follow the formatting to the letter. There is nothing that bothers me more than being in the middle of a 10 hour day of reading slush and getting a single-spaced manuscript that I then have to format myself. In the same way, if the GLs say the story should be no longer than 7,500 words, don’t send us something that’s 10,000. Either edit it down to the word limit or submit something else.

— Edit and polish your story. Proofread it and then proofread it AGAIN. Don’t be in such a rush to get the story out that you neglect to get rid of that typo on page 6 or three instances of “your” that should have been “you’re.” Take pride in your work. Be professional.

— Pay attention to and follow the theme. Again, we’re looking for stories about derelict ships. That doesn’t mean we want a story in which a derelict is mentioned. The ship should be the essential element of the narrative. Without the derelict, your story should fall apart. Think of it like the instructions on a cooking show: “Make our theme the star of your dish…”

— Keep in mind the basic principles of good storytelling. A successful story has conflict, emotion, tension. Characters should be impacted by what takes place. If you have trouble identifying the protagonist and antagonist of your story, it may be that you have more work to do.

— This piece of advice is one I heard Joshua give at a conference last year: Chances are your first idea won’t be your best idea. Sometimes the first idea that comes to us is the one everyone will think of. A bit more digging and thinking might produce an idea that is more original and innovative. And that may well give you a better chance of making it into the anthology. Now, I will add that now and then, the first idea IS the best. But more often than not, a bit of thought and patience will be rewarded.

— Most important, understand that a rejection from this anthology is NOT a judgment on your ability as a writer, or even on the quality of your story. Remember those numbers I gave you earlier: 300-400 submissions for 6-7 slots. Our anthology is harder to get into than Harvard. We will absolutely be rejecting outstanding stories. That’s inevitable. So don’t take it too hard. Rejections are part of being a writer. View them as a step in a longer negotiation. If your story is rejected, take ten minutes to cry over it. Have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea. And then figure out where you’re going to send the story next.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Our New Game Nights

About a month ago, Nancy and I decided that we had been watching too much television during our evenings together, and that we needed something else to pass the time in this age of Covid and a world gone mad.

If you’re my friend on Facebook, you might have seen my post asking for advice on fun games we might play. We had a lot of recommendations, all of them helpful, some of them quite amusing. We had in mind something cooperative and immersive, and after a bunch of searching, and reading reviews and descriptions on line, we settled on Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. This is part of the Gloomhaven family of games from Cephalofair Games, but it is both easier to learn and far less expensive than the full Gloomhaven.

Gloomhaven JOTL BoardWe received the game about three weeks ago, and have been playing more and more in the days since. Even with the parameters streamlined and simplified from Gloomhaven, Jaws of the Lion is very complicated. Our first night with the game all we did was read instructions, sort the pieces and cards, and get acquainted with the broad outlines of play and process. The game is played out over a couple of dozen scenarios, one more complex and difficult than the last. We battle monsters, seek treasure, solve problems, and explore this imaginative world, all the while working together rather than in competition.

Those who have played Dungeons and Dragons will find much in the game that feels familiar. It’s basically a board game built around the concept of D&D. I was never a gamer — I came to fantasy through fiction rather than gaming — and so this is all fairly new to me. The same is true for Nancy.

There are four characters in the game, each with unique talents and abilities, weaknesses and strengths. Obviously, since it’s just the two of us, we’re only using two of the four, and already we’re planning to finish this campaign and then start over using the other two characters. After that, we might start again, with her playing one of my characters and me playing one of hers. Each iteration of the game will be different, even if the initial set-ups for each scenario are the same.

Generally we play in the evenings, while sipping wine or whisky. Early on, we completed a scenario, or most of one, in a single night. We’re only on scenario six now, but already we know that we won’t be finishing our future scenarios so quickly. That’s fine. We spend a lot of time laughing, a LOT of time discussing strategy. Sometimes, in the middle of cooking dinner, one of us will suddenly have a thought about how we might handle an upcoming battle, or what new magical items we ought to get the next time our characters earn some gold. We’re having a lot of fun.

Gloomhaven may or may not be your thing. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. We could just as easily have chosen some other game, or decided to read a book to each other (something we’ve done before), or even found a new television series to binge. The important thing, of course, is the time together, the companionship. Nancy works hard, and despite the jokes I sometimes make about the leisurely life of the writer, I do, too. Our weeks are full, our weekday evenings a bit too rushed. So on weekends, we make time for each other: for walks, for watching a bit of Sunday morning soccer, for cooking fun meals and making the occasional interesting cocktail. And yes, for going to an imaginary world to fight monsters and find treasure.

Wishing you a wonderful week!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Whither This Blog? I Need Your Help

I’m taking a break from dispensing advice for this week — well, mostly: Don’t eat too much, take a walk after your Thanksgiving meal, and never, ever pick the Lions to win on Thanksgiving Day.

Instead, I am seeking advice from you. At the beginning of 2020, I decided that I was going to be more intentional about blogging. Monday Musings, Writing-Tip Wednesdays, and Photo Fridays were the result. I haven’t missed a post all year long, and, more to the point, I have enjoyed blogging. It has allowed me to chronicle this terrible, remarkable, consequential year. It has forced me to take photos more regularly. And it has allowed me to offer what I hope has been helpful writing advice.

The thing is, I’m not sure what to do about blogging in 2021. I intend to continue the Monday Musings feature. I’m sure there will be plenty to chronicle in the year to come, and while the balance of the posts will likely skew less to the political than it has this year, I have no doubt that I’ll have plenty of material. Likewise, the Friday feature will probably continue in some similar form. I got a great response to the musical post I did a few weeks ago, and so I might mix in more of that in the new year. And I might post a couple of short readings as well. So rather than limiting myself to Photo Fridays, I might expand it to Creative Fridays. But in a loose way, I’ll keep it going. At least that’s my thinking. I would welcome feedback on this.

Mostly, though, I need your help with Wednesdays. The truth is, I am just about out of topics for Writing-Tip Wednesdays. There are a few more things I can do that will get me through the rest of this year. But there is no way I can sustain the feature for all of 2021, much less in years beyond, at least not without repeating myself conspicuously. And so I would love to know what you would like to see in my Wednesday feature. I am happy to keep the focus on writing — the craft and the business. I’m just not certain how to do that.

One thing I have thought of is keeping a sort of professional journal — keeping track of the things I do to complete and market and promote my work. This would no doubt lead to lessons, advice, insights into the craft and business, etc. But I fear it would be terribly boring for you.

I could also use Wednesdays for professional musings — something like the Monday posts, but focused entirely on writing issues. I’m not entirely convinced that I can fill this space week after week with that, but it’s possible. I can certainly see where thoughts on writing might be helpful or illustrative, even if they’re not “how-to” in orientation. But again, I don’t know if this would be interesting for my readers.

I could also blend different ideas, add in a how-to post here and there if something comes to me that I haven’t yet covered, add in as well book recommendations or observations on storytelling I’m experiencing in movies, TV, books, articles, etc. In other words, have a sort of catch-all “Professional Wednesdays” that covers a host of stuff. The trouble I foresee with this is simply that I will, each week, be scrambling to think of SOMETHING I can do for my Wednesday posts. Not necessarily much fun for me. On the other hand, with a more open format for Wednesdays, maybe I’ll find that it’s easier to think of topics. I honestly don’t know.

It doesn’t help that none of us has any idea what 2021 is going to look like in terms of travel, conventions, the marketplace, etc. Another year of limitations and isolation like this one, and I could see all of these Wednesday ideas running out of steam pretty quickly.

So, what do you all think? Do you like any of the ideas I’ve offered here? Am I missing something obvious that you think would make for an interesting feature? If so, PLEASE tell me what it is.

I really do want to keep the Monday-Wednesday-Friday structure going. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve seen a dramatic uptick in traffic on my sites. And I’ve enjoyed the responses my posts have evoked from all of you.

But I need your help to keep it going. So please comment on my Facebook page or my FB group, or on my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to your advice and input. Thanks!

Monday Musings: Random Thoughts About Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. It is, and has long been, one of my two favorite holidays of the year, along with Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the coming of spring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions revolve around family-style meals that are steeped in tradition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I didn’t always love Thanksgiving so much. When I was a kid, Turkey Day seemed nothing more than a gift-less dress rehearsal for Christmas. The food was similar, we saw the same relatives. The chocolate treats on the table were basically interchangeable, except for being shaped like turkeys rather than Santa. But, again — and I really can’t stress this enough — there were no presents! And also no tree.

Somehow it became a tradition in our family to pull the same prank on my poor, beleaguered mother year in and year out: At some point during the meal, one of us — usually my sister or me — would go over to speak with her about something we had contrived. And in the course of the conversation, we would slip a dinner mint into the cranberry sauce on her plate. Don’t ask me why we did it; I honestly don’t know. But we did it every year.

By the time I was in high school, we were having our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations either at our house, or at my aunt and uncle’s house — Turkey Day at one, Christmas at the other. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas, despite being Jewish. A lot of Jewish families did — it was a form of assimilation rooted in social pressure and prejudice.) But in the earliest years of my childhood (and in the years before I was born — I am the youngest child in the family, even the extended family, by quite a few years) we used to drive into New York City to celebrate both holidays at my grandmother’s apartment. Our Gram was a pistol. Funny, irreverent, fiercely loving, independent, strong-willed. She was all of 4 foot 10, but she dominated any room she was in. Even after all these years, when I think of Thanksgiving, the first image that pops into my head is that of our family gathered around her table.

Gram had a few friends who used to join us for Thanksgiving each year. Many of them had been friends of the family for so long that we were expected to call them “Aunt so-and-so” even though there was no actual blood relation. One of these friends was widowed, and she had remarried to a man named Milton, whom we were to call Uncle Milton. Uncle Milton was… Well, how do I describe him? He was old, as one would expect of the friend of a grandparent. But he was also somnambulant. And, looking back on it, I think he used to get pretty hammered at these dinners. We would arrive after he and his wife did, and he would already be well into his cups. We would go to say hello to him and, invariably, he would say, “David. Good to see you. Mind if I don’t get up?” He said this to everyone (although, as far as I know, he didn’t call everyone David…). He never got up, at least not until it was time to transfer from his comfortable chair to the supper table.

Milton became the butt of many, many family jokes. I am not proud of this. None of us are. But it’s true. When we would play 20 Questions, one of us would always devote a round to the poor man. “Is he dead or alive?” “Yes.” “Uncle Milton!” At some point we heard that Milton had fallen and broken his hip. His wife had called him for dinner and he had, against his own better judgment, gotten up. He pushed himself out of his chair and just sort of kept going… When sometime later, we got the sad news that Milton had died, we all wondered how anyone had been able to tell. I know — this is just terrible. Cruel, disrespectful, inappropriate. But, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m laughing as I type it all out.

Nancy and I have had extended family to our home for Thanksgiving now and again, and for a while we used to share the holiday with another family here in our little town. But our favorite Thanksgivings have been the ones we’ve had with just our daughters, and there have been too few of those in recent years. Our older child has lived in New York since going there for college in 2013. We’ve probably had only two or maybe three Thanksgivings with her since, and we miss her every year. Our younger daughter is still in college and will be coming home this year, with her boyfriend. They both had Covid earlier in the semester and, according to the public health experts Nancy works with at the University, should still be immune and will present no threat to us. It will just be the four of us for the holiday. Quiet, safe. We’ll Zoom with our older daughter at some point, and also with my brother and his wife, who are alone as well, and will be Zooming with their children and my sister-in-law’s parents. Needless to say, this is a strange year.

Which brings me full circle. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even under these extraordinary circumstances. I find the concept behind it, simple though it is, remarkably affecting. Of course we should take a day to ponder those things for which we are thankful. Yes, we should do this daily, but the fact is we are too often consumed with the demands of the day-to-day, the fraught emotions of a world that seems to careen from one crisis to another, the necessities of work and the obligations that sometimes keep us from appreciating fully the importance of family and friendship. A day of Thanksgiving is, it seems to me, just the tonic we need, this year especially, even as the exigencies of the pandemic limit how many we ought to have seated around our tables.

And so please allow me to close by thanking all of you. Whether you are a stranger who has read one of my books, or a friend I have known for years, or a relative who sat with me at our Gram’s table, I am glad to have you in my life. I wish you a joyous, safe holiday.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

Monday Musings: A Nation In Need of Common Ground

A video surfaced on Twitter and social networks over the weekend. It came out of D.C. and the demonstrations there, and in its first iteration, slowed down for effect, it appeared to show a left-wing demonstrator sucker-punching a Trump supporter, who goes down in a heap on the street, unconscious, his phone falling to his side.

A second version of the video emerged soon after, this one longer and in real time. It begins with the Trump supporter attacking a counter-protester who holds a bullhorn and who is obviously saying stuff the Trump supporter doesn’t like. The Trump supporter punches the man, rips the bullhorn from his hand and then knocks the man down and tries to stomp on his head. Other counter-protesters come to the aid of their comrade, a lot of pushing and shoving and punching ensues, and THEN the demonstrator lands his sucker punch.

Finally, a third version of the video, also in real time, longer still than the second, shows that after the Trump supporter is knocked out, another counter-protester, darts in, grabs his dropped phone, and hurries away, bearing a mischievous grin, as if enjoying the violence and also the theft of the phone.

So who is in the right? Who is in the wrong?

The answer, of course, is that none of them is in the right, and that our country is verging on a very dangerous partisan dynamic.

I have struggled with today’s post, going back and forth between my own outrage and resentment, and my deeper fear that our divisions are insurmountable and are bound to spark more and more violence.

I am sick and tired of the extreme political right in this country denying reality in pursuit of their ideological agenda. They don’t want to wear masks or make any meaningful sacrifice that might impact their daily lives. So their answer is to call COVID a hoax and endanger the rest of us. They don’t want even to contemplate long-term changes in their social or economic activity. So they deny that climate change is real and doom our planet to a bleak, likely devastating future. They don’t want to admit that their incompetent, race-baiting President lost. So they call into question the integrity of an election that everyone, from election officials of both parties to international observers brought in by the Trump Administration to Bill Barr’s own selected investigators agree was fair and honest. And in doing so, they imperil our republic.

But I am also pissed off at the activist left. This weekend’s “Million MAGA March” on Washington was a total bust. The event attracted all of 17,000 people. It was a blip, an event worthy of ridicule, despite the laughable attempts of White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany to claim that a million people really did attend. At least it should have been all these things. Lots of people warned counter-protesters away from the city. “Let them have their little protest,” people said. “It will be small, a non-event, and it will make them look that much more foolish.”

But no. Counter-protesters had to show up anyway, leading to brawls like the one caught on camera, and turning the event into something else entirely. Now the story, at least in some circles, is about violence in the streets, about the poor Proud Boys, who came for a simple protest and were attacked by BLM and ANTIFA. That’s a ludicrous narrative, of course. But they have video, which can be manipulated and made to fit their story, as the first version of the fight was.

So, how do we return tolerance, civility, and compromise to our politics and society? Seriously, I’m asking. Because I’m not sure I know.

I want to believe that some of the tension we see boiling over will ease as the passions of the campaign recede. I am fairly confident that certain elements of our nation’s political life will improve, approaching something we will all recognize as normal, once the current occupant of the White House is gone and Joe Biden assumes the duties of the office. Really, though, I’m not entirely convinced.

I hear many on the right say that Democrats and progressives spent four years challenging the legitimacy of the current Administration, and so we should expect them to do the same. Yes, they ignore Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, and Trump’s illegal solicitation of aid from Ukraine, AND the simple fact that Joe Biden won the election. But they’re not likely to be swayed by my arguments. I understand that.

I also know that these divisions pre-date this Administration. I remember during the Clinton Administration hearing Rush Limbaugh rail against the President, questioning his legitimacy, running a nightly feature called “America Held Hostage.” Democrats still carry resentments from the 2000 election, which was a historically close election. To this day, many on the left believe the White House was stolen from Al Gore. And I still remember the pain of the 2004 election, which I was convinced would rectify that previous injustice.

Most of all, I remember the eight years of Barack Obama’s Presidency, during which he was badgered, insulted, and obstructed non-stop by Republicans in Congress. To my mind, whatever indignities Trump has endured are nothing compared to what Obama faced, in part because Obama did nothing to deserve them. Like a Black motorist being harassed by police, Obama’s only “crime” was governing while Black.

The resentments exist on both sides, and I know that my recitation of grievances could be countered by those on the other side of the political spectrum. There are slights and bruised feelings aplenty throughout the body politic.

The question is, how do we move past them? Or do we not? Are we doomed to spiral on and on into deepening hostilities and civil unrest? Are we witnessing the final years of the American republic as we know it? I don’t want to believe that, but when we can’t even agree on basic facts, like vote totals and election winners, or whether a deadly disease is actually real, what kind of future do we have?

I didn’t mean for this post to be quite so bleak. I take hope from nations that have faced divisions far more serious and lethal than ours. Northern Ireland has enjoyed two decades of relative peace and stability, after a violent conflict that seemed too bitter ever to be resolved. The divisions in the U.S. are not yet that bad. Surely, we can find a way forward as well.

First, though, both sides must commit to finding common ground. And it seems to me that we should begin with the pandemic. COVID is now attacking rural America with the same merciless ferocity it unleashed on New York and other urban areas earlier this year. The red state/blue state divide some sought to exploit for political gain back in the spring and summer doesn’t exist anymore. This disease is attacking everywhere, which means we need a national solution.

Wouldn’t the energy and ingenuity we currently pour into partisan bickering be better spent combating COVID and saving lives in all fifty states? Can’t we agree that dying from a virus is bad, that keeping people alive and healthy is good?

Seems pretty basic to me.

 

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Goals Revisited Again, End of Year, and NaNo

That is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come.

First let me wish a peaceful, healthful Veterans Day to all who have served. Our deepest thanks to you and your families.

The year is winding down. Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and after that we have the sprint to the winter holidays and New Year’s. For those of us who still have a good deal to get done before the year is out, whether to meet external deadlines or self-imposed ones, time is slipping away at an alarming pace. And in my case, I haven’t been at my best the past several weeks and have not been nearly as productive as I would have liked. All of which leaves me feeling rushed and a little desperate to get stuff done.

Early in the year, I wrote a couple of posts about setting goals for myself. I’m a big believer in doing so, in setting out a professional agenda for my year, or at the very least for a block of months. Often as we near year’s end, I will go back and check on my goals to see how I’ve done. Not this year. This year has been too fraught, too filled with not just the unexpected, but the surreal. The goals I set for myself in January were upended by March. And that’s all right. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I want to be as productive as I can be, and with any luck I’ll get this, and this, and this finished.” That’s the sort of year I’ve had. I did what I could (the month of October excluded…) and I am poised for a productive year in 2021.

And in a sense, for me at least, that is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come. The last several years, this one included, that has meant reading a ton of short fiction for the anthology I’m editing. For the third year in a row, I am co-editor (with Joshua Palmatier) of an upcoming Zombies Need Brains publication. This year’s anthology is called Derelict, and I have only just started reading submissions. These will make up the bulk of my workload through the end of December.

But I’m also finishing up a novel, and thinking about how to write the next one (the third in a trilogy). I am working on the production of the Thieftaker novellas, working out artwork and such with my publisher. I am preparing for the re-issue of the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. And I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind. My goal for these last weeks of 2020, aside from reading as many short fiction submissions as I can, is to plot out that next novel, settle the production questions with the Thieftaker projects, and, I hope, figure out how one other project can fit in with these plans. As I have said, for the last month I’ve been less productive than I should have been. I want to turn that around before the year is out so that next year I can start fast and keep moving.

Which brings me to a question I have been asked many times. Readers want to know what I think of that November literary tradition known as NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this, it is a now two-decades old tradition that sees writers trying to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the month of November. The idea is to get writers to write, to turn off their inner critic and put words to page, with the understanding that they will edit and polish when the month, and the manuscript, are done.

I have never done it. I’ve written 50,000 words in a month on several occasions, but usually these are words in the middle of a longer project. And I’ve been writing for long enough that, when things are going well, 50K a month is about my normal pace.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever written 50K words for more than two months in a row. Usually one such month leaves me feeling a little spent. Writing so much in so little time isn’t easy. At least it isn’t for me. I know fellow professionals who write at that pace or faster all the time. Each of us has a process and a pace that comes naturally. Writing quickly isn’t for everyone. Which is kind of my point.

Look, if you do NaNoWriMo, that’s great. Good for you. I hope you find it satisfying and fun and helpful. I know many writers swear by it. They like the focused work period. They like the challenge. They like to feel that they’re working virtually alongside a community of like-minded writers and making their writing part of something bigger than themselves.

It’s not for me. And if a young writer came to me seeking advice, I would probably tell them not to do it. I would suggest that they focus instead on making of writing a daily or weekly habit, at a pace and under conditions that are sustainable for the long term. It’s not that I doubt November will prove productive for them. It’s that I worry about the effect of that sort of effort on December and January and the months to come. Again, if it works for you, or if it’s something you really want to try, by all means, go for it. Overall, though, being a productive, successful writer is about maintaining a steady pace for months, even years, at a time.

Which is why my year will end with me finishing some projects, laying the groundwork for others, and, of course, reading short story submissions. I will, as I usually do, start working out a task calendar for the coming year, prioritizing projects and allocating time to them. I actually find the process exciting. It’s a chance for me to visualize the coming work year and to imagine where my new projects might take me.

In the meantime, I have stuff to finish up before the ball drops.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Breathe

Breathe.

In and out. In and out.

It’s finally over.

I am relieved, elated, a bit nervous about the shenanigans yet to come from the White House. Not because I believe they will succeed, but because I believe that even in failing, they could do lasting damage to our republic.

Many of my friends on the Left, while sharing my relief, remain unnerved by the relative closeness of the vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed, too. I hoped for a landslide, for a decisive repudiation of this Administration. I am horrified by the fact that more than 70 million people, 47% per cent of this year’s electorate, cast votes for a man who coddled White supremacists, flouted the norms of our democratic republic, and utterly failed to lead the nation safely through a devastating and deadly pandemic. How, I keep asking myself, can so many people not see him for what he is? How is it possible that, relative to 2016, the President gained support among Latino voters, among Black voters?

I have no certain answers to any of these questions, but I can offer a few thoughts, starting with a couple of obvious ones: First, Trump remains to many Americans a symbol of defiance against institutions that they despise — the mainstream media; Congress; faceless, poorly defined “bureaucracy.” These people see his outrageous pronouncements not as offensive, they way I do, but as a righteous response to what they call “political correctness” — a changing standard of speech and action and thought that challenges assumptions they have embraced, and privilege they have enjoyed, all their lives. They care less about the substance of what he says than they do about his willingness to say it. They see him as courageous and authentic. Even after four years as President, he still seems to them the outsider, the guy who isn’t a politician and who therefore can be trusted to do the right thing.

Second, people really do vote based on their wallets, and rightly or wrongly they believe that he would have been better for the economy than Joe Biden will be. I think this was especially a factor in the shift in the vote among people of color. Trump’s claim that he has done more for Black voters than any President since Lincoln is, of course, laughable. But before the pandemic hit, the economy was doing well. He inherited a strong economy from Obama, and for the first three and a half years of his Presidency didn’t screw it up. And related to this, I believe a lot of people think he has handled the pandemic poorly, but don’t actually blame him for the devastation. To my mind, the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, and also the catastrophic collateral damage caused by COVID, are all directly attributable to Trump’s inaction, denials, and incompetence. But to many, these are things that happened, rather than something he did.

People talk about the level of support Biden enjoyed among women — and it needs to be said that without the gender-gap, we would have a very different outcome. But the gender-gap cuts both ways. Lots of men, including many men of color, like Trump because they see in him a brand of (toxic) masculinity that remains popular with a segment of the population. The whole America-first, go-it-alone, screw-the-rest-of-the-world vibe is very attractive to some people, just as Ronald Reagan’s John-Wayne-esque masculinity was forty years ago. In my view, his actions have made our world less safe, our country less influential, our planet’s future less certain. But some folks, including a lot of men, like that he “stands up for America.” They credit him for taking on China in a trade war, and for removing the U.S. from the climate treaty, the World Health Organization, the Iran deal. Where I see recklessness, they see strength.

Certainly there are people out there who voted for Trump because he spouts racism and homophobia and sexism, because he calls the pandemic a hoax, because he incites people to violence. But I know a lot of Trump voters. I’m even related to a few. None who I know support him because of these things. None of them are bad people. They voted for him despite all of this.

And — plot twist — that disturbs me even more than if they supported his extremism.

If they shared his views, then at least I might explain to myself how they could vote for the man. But I can’t help feeling that by caring about these other things and ignoring the ugliness of Trumpism, they make themselves complicit. They may not hate, but they voted for hatred. They may be patriots, but they voted for a man who is still trying to undermine the pillars of our republic. They may lament the damage done by COVID, but they rewarded with their vote a President who made the pandemic infinitely worse than it needed to be.

Hence my bewilderment and dismay at the level of support he received. It will take some time before I can reconcile myself to how close we came to having four more years of this President.

But that is not how I wish to end this post. Because the fact is, Trumpism has been rejected. And while it felt close, in large part because Republicans in Pennsylvania and other states wanted it to feel close and arranged the counting procedures accordingly, the fact is that this was a broad and impressive victory.

Joe Biden’s popular vote margin is likely to exceed five million votes. He has already received more votes than any candidate in U.S. history, and will easily clear 75 million before the counting is done. His margin will also likely be in excess of four per cent, making it the second largest margin in this century (after Obama ‘08). He is the first candidate to defeat a sitting President since Bill Clinton in 1992. His electoral vote total, while not huge, should wind up north of 290, and (depending largely on the vote in Arizona) could reach 306, which is exactly the number won by Trump four years ago — a unique historical oddity were it to occur.

And, of course, thanks to his courageous and wise choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has given us our first woman Vice President and our first person of color in that position. We are, we can hope, that much closer to having a woman as President. I still remember vividly the campaign of Shirley Chisholm for President in 1972. She was dismissed as a sideshow, a curiosity. A Black New York Congresswoman running for President? Absurd! And I remember as well the excitement of Walter Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his VP candidate — the first woman to appear on a major party ticket. Today, finally, the promise of those two pioneers has been realized. More cause for celebration.

Finally, I should point out that Donald Trump has made history as well. As the folks at CBS News pointed out this past weekend, just after the race was called, he is the first President in United States history to lose the popular vote twice.

Have a good week, all. Breathe.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Waiting…

[11/4 Edit:I went to bed last night thinking all was doom and gloom. This morning I see rays of hope. This isn’t over, and counting votes doesn’t happen according to ANYONE’S timetable. Hang in there folks. We are living in Interesting Times.]

I am writing this, as I do most of my Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, ahead of time, a couple of days before election day. Naturally, I have no idea what the world will look like Wednesday morning. I am at times deeply afraid; at other times I’m hopeful, even confident.

Whatever happens, though, I know that I will soon need to get back into my work rhythm. For so long, I have been too distracted to concentrate on my writing. I have forgiven myself for lost days and low word counts and procrastination. I haven’t even started to read through the submissions for Derelict, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The deadline is still more than eight weeks away, but already the submissions are piling up. It’s time for me to start reading through them.

I have a novel to finish, and projects that need shepherding toward release. I have stuff to do, and I am sick to death of being trapped in my own head, debilitated by my anxiety, obsessed with things I can’t control.

More, I remain uncertain as to how I will deal with these tasks and projects going forward. That comes, I suppose, from still being in the dark about how events will unfold.

But I know that one way or another, I have work to do. If the worst happens on Tuesday, I will still wake up Wednesday a writer and editor with stuff to get done. As I said in Monday’s post, this week will be one of brief, inadequate posts. A week from now, I hope to be able to tell you much more about where I am and what I’m doing to close out this year.

Until then, if you can, keep writing.