Category Archives: Islevale Cycle

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

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

Ready? Here goes…

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

I know. I can’t believe it either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, part II — Attribution

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post began a two part series on dialogue with some advice on the writing of the actual “spoken” words we put in the mouths of our characters. Today, I follow that up with a discussion of dialogue attribution. This is a very long post, which includes lengthy excerpts from my work that should serve to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. I hope you’ll stick with it to the end.

Identifying the speaker in written conversations is one of the most difficult things we do as writers. It seems so simple, right? All we’re trying to do is tell the reader who said what. And yet it is so easy to do this poorly. Part of the problem is that, as with the dialogue itself, everything we try to do in this regard must strike a balance. Too heavy a hand, and our dialogue tags sound clunky. Too light a hand, and our readers lose track of who is speaking. Take too limited an approach and the tags start to sound boring and repetitive.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. Our daughters loved them and Nancy and I wound up enjoying them immensely as well. We have read the entire series multiple times and listened to them on audiobook during many a family roadtrip. I think J.K. Rowling does many things very, very well as both a writer and a storyteller. But in listening to her books on audio and I came to realize that her dialogue attribution is terrible. Why? Because it is unimaginative and repetitious. She resorts to “said Harry,” “said Hermione,” “said Ron,” with almost every line.

So how do we avoid that?

Let’s start by defining some terms. Dialogue tags are words we use as direct attribution – “he said,” “she asked.” Said-bookisms are dialogue tags run amok. They are direct attribution but with more descriptive verbs – “he hissed,” “she growled,” “he averred,” “she opined,” “he remarked,” “she exclaimed,” etc. At times, I will speak of using action, emotion, or mannerism to identify the speaker. By this I mean starting a paragraph with, say, “Kannice brushed a strand of hair from her brow,” before having her speak. And finally unattributed dialogue is simply a line of dialogue that has no other sort of identifier except the spoken words themselves.

In these definitions, we see three broad approaches to identifying the speakers in our written conversations. We can use dialogue tags. We can use action and mannerisms. We can let the spoken words stand alone and unattributed.

When it comes to using these various approaches, there are several schools of thought. I have writer friends who swear that we should NEVER use direct tags of any sort. No “said”s, no “asked”s, and certainly no “hissed”s or “opined”s. And I should add here that said-bookisms are generally frowned upon in all segments of the market these days. They are considered “telling” rather than “showing,” and thus seen as evidence of bad writing. The things said-bookisms might tell us are better conveyed with context, with the spoken dialogue itself, and with other descriptive tools. Some people are VERY strict in their rejection of said-bookisms and the like. I’m not. In addition to “said” and “asked” I will use a few words that convey volume (“whispered,” “called,” “muttered,” “shouted”) and sometimes one or two that supply context and rhythm (“went on” or “added”). I am VERY sparing in my use of these words. Mostly, when I use tags, it’s “said” and “asked.”

There are also benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches. Dialogue tags offer the most clarity, but, as with the Harry Potter books, they can be boring, even pedestrian. Unattributed dialogue flows most smoothly and can be very dramatic and fast-paced when used well. But after a few lines, readers have to start counting back to figure out who is saying what. (And as mentioned last week, we SHOULD NOT deal with this by having characters call one another by name with any frequency.) Finally, using mannerism, emotion, and action can be an elegant way of identifying the speaker, one that also adds details and emotional cues that tell the reader a lot. But overuse of them makes our characters seem unnaturally twitchy; mannerisms can quickly turn into tics, which we don’t want.

With all of that in mind, it probably won’t surprise any of you to learn that I suggest using a mix of the three techniques of attribution. Some lines, I feel, should be attributed directly. Some should stand on their own without attribution. And in some cases the speaker should be identified in some other way – facial expression, gesture, action, etc. By way of example, here is a passage from Time’s Demon, the second Islevale Cycle book. This is the scene in which the Tirribin, Droë first encounters the Arrokad, Qiyed:

Water ran down his body as he stepped from the surf and halted in front of her.

“There is a price to be paid for summoning my kind, even for one such as you, cousin.”

“I know. What price?”

“We shall decide, you and I. Why have you summoned me?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came. Instead, to her shame, she burst into tears. For some time, too long, she could not speak for her sobbing. The Arrokad regarded her, unmoving and apparently unmoved.

When at last she found her voice, she apologized.

“What is your name, cousin?”

“I am Droënalka. Most call me Droë.” She would have expected a human or another Tirribin to reciprocate, but such conventions did not apply to the Most Ancient Ones. Either he would tell her his name or wouldn’t. His to choose.

“Do you seek a boon, Droë of the Tirribin? Is this why you summoned me?”

She hesitated before nodding.

“I see. That, too, carries a cost.”

“I know that,” she said, wearying of being spoken to as if she knew nothing. “I’m Tirribin. I understand the commerce of summons and boon.”

A canny smile revealed gleaming sharp teeth. “Better. That is the spirit I expect when treating with Tirribin. I had begun to think you simple.”

“That’s rude.” But his teasing made her feel better, more like herself.

“Yes, I suppose it is. I am Qiyed. You showed great restraint in not asking. I know how much your kind care about etiquette.”

Her cheeks warmed.

“Tell me more of this boon you seek.”

“I– I don’t know how.”

“That is intriguing, but I do not wish to remain on this strand for long.” Lightning flashed, and thunder followed, sooner than she had expected. “A storm comes, and I long to swim with it.” Another sly grin. “Have you ever done this?”

“No.”

“Would you care to?”

She reflected with distaste on her swim from the ship. “I don’t think so, no.”

“Very well. Quickly then.”

Where to begin?

“There is a Walker. I’m told I knew him when he trained in the palace at Trevynisle.”

“You have come from the northern isles?” he asked, surprise in the question.

“Yes.”

“And what does that mean: ‘I’m told I knew him’?”

“He traveled back in time, and created this misfuture we’re in now. The humans have fought over Hayncalde in Daerjen. One supremacy has given way to another.”

“I knew nothing of this.”

She canted her head. “Payment for my summons?”

He bared his teeth again. “Clever, cousin.” He considered this. “Done. That part of your debt to me is paid in full. Go on.”

As you can see here, I use a lot of dialogue to establish their relationship, and I blend direct attribution with emotion and gesture, while also leaving a few lines to stand for themselves, without any tag or other cue as to who is speaking. And yet, we never lose track of the conversation. Clearly, this becomes more difficult when we introduce a third character (and a fourth or fifth or sixth). The more people in the scene, the more often we need to identify the speaker.

Here is a second scene, this one among three characters, one a woman who has Walked through time and met herself in the past, at the expense of her sanity, and the other two the Tirribin siblings, Maeli and Teelo.

At a stirring of the wind, she caught the fetor of decay and she glanced around again. The smell dissipated as swiftly as it had come.

“I suppose I should be on my way,” she said, after the silence had lengthened uncomfortably.

“I can’t tell what it is,” the girl said in a voice both childlike and knowing. “Can you?”

The boy shook his head. “Not at all. At least not beyond the obvious.”

“Its years are all–”

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why are you talking about me that way?”

“We’re having a conversation,” the girl told her, as haughty as a court noble. “And you’re interrupting. That’s rude.”

She had to smile. “Isn’t it just as rude to talk about someone in their presence, as if they aren’t there?”

The two shared a look, worry in their ghostly eyes.

“Yes, it is,” the girl said, chastened. “Please forgive us.”

“Children shouldn’t be out alone in the streets. You should go home”

The girl hid her mouth with a thin hand, her laughter as clear and musical as the splash of a brook. “We’re not children. You should know that.”

She stared at one and then the other, puzzled now. If not children… Were they creations of her mind, symptoms of her madness? She thought she understood the depths of this Walking induced insanity. What if she was wrong, and it continued to worsen? What if these two marked the beginning of a slide into hallucination?

“You’ve confused it,” the boy said. “Maybe it doesn’t know as much as we hoped.”

She scowled. “Stop referring to me as ‘it.’”

“What else would we call you?”

“‘She,’ of course.”

He shook his head. “You’re not a she, are you? You’re not really anything at all.”

“I don’t–”

“We tasted your years when you were still on the sand,” the girl said. “That’s why we called for you. We sensed the confusion in you, and we wanted to know exactly what you are. But you don’t know yourself.”

We tasted…

“You’re Tirribin,” she said, drawing on a memory from so long ago, it could have been a different life. She took a step back from them. “That’s why…” She stopped herself from mentioning the smell. “Why you could taste my years from so great a distance.”

The girl glowered, appearing to know what Lenna intended to say.

“That’s right,” the boy said. “We’re Tirribin.” To his sister, he said, “Maybe she knows more than we thought.”

Suspicion lingered in the girl’s glare. “I’m not so sure. You don’t need to fear us,” she said, a rasp underlying the words. “Your years are muddied. We wouldn’t feed on you any more than a human would drink sea water. It would do more harm than good.”

“Why? What’s wrong with them?” She feared their answer.

“Don’t you know?”

Of course she did. Tirribin didn’t prey on Walkers because their years were less pure. She remembered a time demon explaining this to her when she was a child in Windhome. Before a boy died and another was sent away. Now she was here, fourteen years out of her time, twelve days out of another, half-mad from having met herself. Whose years could be less pure than hers?

“Yes,” she said. “I know. But that doesn’t make me less than human, and it doesn’t excuse you calling me ‘it.’”

“You’re a creature outside of time,” the girl said with relish. “There are too many of you, and your years are beyond repair.” She made a small gesture, indicating the lane and the houses. “You bear little resemblance to the humans I sense around me.”

“Maeli…”

The girl rounded on the other demon. “Don’t tell me I’m being rude. She was going to say something about the way we smell. Humans do that a lot, and I grow tired of it.”

“What should I do?” Lenna asked, drawing their attention once more.

The girl laughed again, the sound uglier than before. “Do?”

“Don’t you intend to help me? Isn’t that why you called to me?”

“We’re Tirribin. We’re predators, and while your years would be disgusting to us, that doesn’t make you more than prey.”

The boy frowned but held his tongue.

“And even if that weren’t so, there would be no helping you. You are what you are, and can’t be changed or redeemed. You didn’t exist before today. I can tell. Yet you have all these years. Confused, corrupted, but years nevertheless. We didn’t call you here to help. We called to see you. We sensed you, and we wanted to see what sort of being could have such years.” The girl raked her up and down with her gaze. “Honestly, I thought you would be more interesting than you are. You seem no different from other humans.”

“Then maybe you’re wrong about me.”

The Tirribin shook her head. “I’m not.”

The process is trickier here, because of the number of characters, but still I have done my best to use all the techniques at my disposal in a way that keeps the narrative flowing and keeps the speakers clear in the minds of readers.

A few other points and then I will end what is already a very long post: First, punctuating and formatting dialogue is a little complicated. Pay attention to how I have done so in these examples and keep in mind that whenever you change who is speaking or reacting, you need to start a new paragraph. Also remember that things like laughter or sighs are NOT dialogue tags. They are actions/mannerisms. You can’t say, “‘That’s funny,’ he laughed.” But you can say, “‘That’s funny.’ He laughed.” See the difference?

Finally, remember this: Writing dialogue is fun, just as reading it is fun. It’s also hard and takes some time to master. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It took me a while to get to where I feel comfortable using a variety of techniques to attribute my lines of dialogue. You’ll get there as well. For now, your priorities should be remaining true to your characters’ voices and being totally clear about who is speaking. I find that it’s easier to remove tags and other identifiers than it is to put more in, so I always err on the side of clarity, knowing that I can clean things up in revisions.

Best of luck with this, and keep writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Tip Wednesday: A Rose By Any Other ‘Nym…

Poor sales for one novel can drive down orders for the next one or even convince booksellers not to stock that next effort at all. And so, sometimes authors have to restart careers by switching names and starting over. With that new name comes a blank slate – no sales record at all, good or bad.

There are certain questions I’m asked again and again at conventions and workshops – Where do your ideas come from? What is your daily routine? How do you outline a novel? How do you find an agent? What is the average flight speed of an unladen swallow?

(African or European…?)

Many of these questions will find their way into upcoming Writing Tip Wednesday posts, but for today I would like to address another set of questions I get a lot: Why do I write under two names? And why might writers starting out now want to work under a pen nam?

I have noticed that many of the writers submitting to the Galactic Stew anthology have written their stories under pen names. Honestly, in some cases I’m not sure why, but that’s fine. It’s a choice, and we’re all free to do what we want.

But generally speaking, there are specific reasons authors resort to pen names or pseudonyms or aliases (all of which are basically the same thing).

When I first proposed the Thieftaker series, I had just completed my third epic fantasy series (the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands). The books had done pretty well commercially and critically, but taken together the three series totaled eleven novels and close to two million words. I was ready for a change. The Thieftaker books were historical urban fantasy with a strong mystery element. They were shorter, leaner, focused on one point of view character.

Tor was interested in the new series, but they were concerned that readers seeing my name on the cover of the first book would think “David B. Coe – ah! Epic fantasy.” They would be disappointed to read something different and might respond with poor Amazon reviews, etc. So we went with a pseudonym. I was allowed to tell fans that the new series was in the works and coming out under the new name. Tor wanted me to bring as much of my audience as possible over to the new series, but they also wanted to avoid confusion.

This is what’s known as “branding,” which is something of a buzzword in today’s marketplace. Branding is probably the most common reason for using a ‘nym. Often writers switching genres will do exactly what I did with Thieftaker. Then again, I have several friends who write a broad variety of books and do them all under one name. And, for the record, I started writing epic fantasy as David B. Coe and historical fiction as D.B. Jackson; last year I released the second book in my epic fantasy/time travel series as D.B. Jackson, and my book for the History Channel as David B. Coe. So make of that what you will…

But if you have written mystery or romance under your own name and are now trying your hand at science fiction or fantasy, you might want to use a pen name.

People also write under pen names for reasons of reader sensibility. What does this mean? Well, as a for instance, I know authors who write, among other things, both erotica and middle grade. If they want to keep their middle grade audience, and if they want to avoid ticking off the parents of their readers, they are probably safest writing in these genres under different names.

Similarly, some authors are known under their own names for professions that have nothing to do with writing novels. In this case, selecting a pseudonym, or even choosing to write under a different form of one’s own name (say, D.B. Coe instead of David B. Coe) can be a way of preserving the professional integrity of both names.

Sometimes authors change names to fool bookstore computers. Seriously. Publishing is a tough game, and some would say that it has never been harder to maintain commercial success than it is right now. We are only as successful as our most recent book. Poor sales for one novel can drive down orders for the next one or even convince booksellers not to stock that next effort at all. And so, sometimes authors have to restart careers by switching names and starting over. With that new name comes a blank slate – no sales record at all, good or bad. In certain instances, that can be helpful.

Authors can use a pseudonym to conceal their gender. Not so long ago, publishers believed that female authors would have a difficult time selling fantasy or science fiction, and so many women in the business took on names that were purposefully androgynous, or used initials instead of names to obscure gender. Andre Norton’s real name was Alice. So was James Tiptree, Jr.’s. Today, the need for gender neutrality can work in any number of ways  – for example, a man writing romance might want the same sort of gender anonymity  – and this could be one more reason to consider a pen name.

Finally, authors can choose a pseudonym simply because they feel that their real names are not interesting enough, or might be difficult to remember, or might create spelling problems that complicate online searches (although most search engines are pretty good at discerning our intended targets, even if we don’t spell them correctly).

As I said at the outset, this is a choice, one that each author may have to make several times over the course of a career. Yes, there is something special about seeing one’s (real) name on the cover of a book. But if by using a ‘nym we increase the likelihood of the book being published at all… Well, to my mind, that’s a no-brainer.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Overcoming Distraction and Getting Started

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

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

I’m not even caffeinated…

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

TIME’S DEMON Blog Tour, So Far

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time’s Demon, the second volume in The Islevale Cycle, my time travel/epic fantasy series (written as D.B. Jackson), came out last week. The reviews have been very nice, with SFFWorld saying that the book is “about as perfect a second book in a series as a reader could hope to have.” I have been blogging about the book a lot, and thought I would take advantage of this small lull in the blog tour to give you a review of where I have been so far. Below you will find a list of my appearances to date for the release. As I make more stops on the tour, I will alert you to those as well. In the meantime, I hope you will take a few moments to check out these posts and interviews. Thanks, and enjoy!

*****

Black Gate Magazine, a post about my writing inspirations

[Earlier in May, I wrote for Black Gate a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago. And Black Gate also published a “Future Treasures” preview of Time’s Demon.]

PaulSemel.com, an interview with Paul

My Life, My Books, My Escape, an interview with D.J.

Civilian Reader, a post about the challenge of middle books

A Refuge From Life, an interview with Will

Joshua Palmatier’s blog, a post about imposter syndrome

Stephen Leigh’s blog, a post about plotting or not plotting

Marie Brennan’s blog, a post in her Spark of Life feature

Faith Hunter’s blog, an excerpt from Time’s Demon

Alma Alexander’s blog, an interview with Alma

On Writing: Revisions and the Editorial Process

Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

I recently completed revisions on TIME’S DEMON, the second novel in my Islevale Cycle. Almost immediately after finishing them, I began editing submissions to the upcoming anthology from Zombies Need Brains, TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, which I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. So for obvious reasons, I have had revisions and the editing process on my brain.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson  Art by Jan Weßbecher.When we talk about craft, we usually focus on elements of initial creation – world building, character building and development, plotting, structuring and pacing a story or novel, and all the pitfalls we encounter when writing our stories. And certainly those are topics worthy of vigorous exploration.

The fact is, though, the purpose in working on all of those things is to sell our story or novel. And should we be fortunate enough to do so, pretty much the first thing we will be expected to do is revise our manuscript in response to an editor’s concerns and criticisms. So doesn’t it make sense to turn some attention to that part of the creative process?

Receiving editorial feedback on something we’ve written can be incredibly difficult. Chances are, if we submitted a story or novel for consideration at a magazine or anthology or publishing house, we thought the story was pretty good to start with. So hearing that it has flaws – in certain cases significant, pervasive flaws – often comes as both a shock and a blow. Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

Jacket image for TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, edited by Joshua Palmatier and David B. Coe

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

Kidding aside, accepting editorial feedback and turning it into a positive revision process is one of the greatest challenges we face as writers. Especially early in my career, I found that my own reactions to criticism from editors ranged between two extremes. At times, I reacted with a knee-jerk defensiveness: “They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do with my story. If they were better readers, they’d get it, and they’d see that there’s no problem here.” At other times, I internalized it all and allowed it to feed my lingering imposter syndrome: “Yeah, they’re right. This is shit. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I have no place even attempting a story this complex or ambitious.”

Of course, both extremes had little basis in fact. My editors understood perfectly what I was trying to do with my story. There were just elements of it that I hadn’t handled well. Which didn’t mean that I was a shit writer. It meant I was human. My story wasn’t perfect. But it was good, and with my editor’s help, I could make it even better.

The emotional health in that previous paragraph was pretty alien to me early in my career. Sometimes it still eludes me. But it’s what I strive for when I receive editorial letters. So, here are a few things I try to keep in mind when trying to turn editorial feedback into effective revisions.

1. Editors are not our adversaries. The reality is that at times we find ourselves thinking of editors this way, in part because the editor-writer relationship is something of a hybrid. It’s a business relationship. Editors buy our stories and books, and at times we want them to pay us more than they’re willing to shell out. But it’s also an artistic collaboration. Our editors want our stories to be as good as they can be, just as we do. Every margin comment and line in an editorial letter is intended to help us get the most out of our narratives and characters.

2. A second set of eyes helps. No matter how much experience we have, or how good we might be at editing our own work, our stories will ALWAYS benefit from another reader’s perspective, especially if that reader is a professional in the field. We can’t possibly anticipate every problem with the things we write; we’re just too close to the material, the emotions, the creative process. Distance is our friend, and almost by definition, another reader brings that distance.

3. Our initial reaction to criticism is not necessarily our most productive reaction. I read through editorial notes the day I receive them. But I never respond until I’ve let myself process them for a day or two or three. Often I find that my first response to certain criticisms is to disagree, but over time I start to see what the editor is getting at. I generally wind up agreeing with 90% or more of the feedback I receive, although on that first day I probably agree with less than half of it.

4. I find it helps when I ask myself why I’m disagreeing with one point or another. Am I being overly sensitive? Am I too attached to a certain turn of phrase or narrative moment? Or is there really something vital here that I don’t want to sacrifice? A good editor will make clear up front that suggested wording changes are just that: suggestions. Early on, my first editor would cross out what I had written and put in his own wording. And sometimes his wording sucked. But when I talked to him about these instances, he said, “I don’t care if you use my wording. That’s not the point. I just want you to look for another way to say this.” Once I understood that he was pointing out problems rather than trying to make my book into his book, I found his comments much easier to take.

5. Sometimes we do have to fight for our artistic choices. There are times when editors get it wrong, and our way really is the right way. And in those instances, we have to hold strong for what we believe in. I try not to do this too often, because, as I say, we are all prone to defensiveness, and I want to be certain that I’m not opposing changes for the wrong reasons. But there have been times when I have had to stand firm on points about which I felt strongly. And a good editor also knows when to back down.

6. The revision process can be tremendously satisfying. Insights from a skilled editor can make the difference between a book that is just fine and one that is truly excellent. I try to approach revisions with my ego as much in check as possible, my mind open to possibilities I might not have considered before, and my commitment to my original artistic vision foremost in my mind. That last point is key. Clinging to my original vision does not mean resisting change. My original vision and my original wording are NOT the same things. Indeed, sometimes my writing carries me away from that first inspiration, and it takes the input of a perceptive reader to get me back to it.

Be open to new ideas, to the possibility that the current draft might not be the best possible draft, to the notion that the person pointing out where you can improve your story really does have your best interests at heart. Do these things and you might find, as I do, that revising a manuscript is every bit as gratifying as creating one.

Tomorrow is Release Day!

Time's Children, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Jan Wessbecher)We are now just one day away from the release of Time’s Children, the opening volume in The Islevale Cycle, my new time travel/Epic Fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. Today my blog tour for the release continues with stops at a couple of places.

I have an interview up at the site of fellow Angry Robot author Patrice Sarath. You can find the Q&A here.

I also have a question and answer up at the blog site of my dear friend Faith Hunter, New York Times Bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock and Soulwood series. You can find that interview here.

If you would care to read the first few chapters of Time’s Children, you can find a free preview of the book at the Angry Robot site.

Tomorrow, release day, I will be giving at talk and signing books at the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The talk, sponsored by Sewanee Friends of the Library, is called “Imagination as Mirror: What Speculative Fiction Can Teach Us About Our World.” If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll attend the talk.

And as the week progresses, I’ll have other online events to share. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you enjoy the book! Thanks!