Category Archives: LonTobyn Chronicle

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Real-World Influences On Our Fiction

It’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice.

I wrote the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series, in the mid-1990s. The first book, Children of Amarid, had been percolating in my head literally for more than a decade. It changed a bit as I wrote it, but it was a book I first imagined the summer before I started college.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The second book, in contrast, was very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a couple of ways. In that book, The Outlanders, my heroes, Jaryd and Alayna are building a life together and starting a family, just as Nancy and I were starting our own family. When writing in book III, Eagle-Sage, about their young daughter, I drew extensively on our experience raising our first child. And in book II, when Niall lost his wife to cancer, I drew upon the experience of watching my father deal with my mother’s death.

So far, I’m sure none of this is very surprising. When we write, our life experiences shape our fiction — this is hardly the stuff of epiphany.

But looking at books II and III in the LonTobyn series, you can also see the influence of outside events, specifically national politics, on my narrative. I won’t bore you with a deep summary of the plot, but suffice it to say that the partisan rancor between Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress plays out in a split among the community of mages in Tobyn-Ser. I hadn’t intended this, of course, but I did realize at the time that real-world events were informing my fiction and I made a conscious decision to roll with it.

The next time something similar happened, I didn’t realize what had happened to my books until I was well into the series. I wrote Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book in 2000. In that series, a conspiracy among the magical Qirsi seeks to overthrow the non-magical Eandi courts. Not all Qirsi are involved in this movement, but prejudice against the magical race among the Eandi is already widespread, and, as the series progresses, fear of the conspiracy breeds deep fear, even paranoia among the ruling people.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I was still working on the second book, Seeds of Betrayal, when the 9/11 attacks took place, and I wrote books three, four, and five against the backdrop of the Patriot Act, the torture of terrorism suspects, the illegal imprisonment of suspects at Guantanamo, and the deep anti-Islam sentiments of the early and mid-2000s. The Qirsi conspiracy was part of my plan for the series all along, but by the time the books were done, I realized that, without intending to, I had written a post-9/11 allegory. Again, I didn’t go back and change anything. I chose to keep the books as they developed. But I will admit to having been caught off guard by the degree to which our world had intruded upon my concept for the books.

And this still happens to me. My agent and I are currently shopping a supernatural thriller that involves, in part, a government agency trying to separate children from their parent. I wonder where that idea came from…

This is, of course, a writing-tips post, and so I am supposed to offer advice. For a number of reasons, I will not tell you to avoid allowing the real-world to impinge upon your fiction. First of all, it’s almost impossible to do. Even if we’re writing in a medieval setting, as I was with the Forelands books, we can’t help but allow some of our world to seep in. Sometimes it manifests in subtle ways; sometimes, as with Winds of the Forelands, it profoundly shapes the finished product. Chances are, though, it’s going to be there in some form. Second, that real-world influence might wind up being a good thing. It may give your already compelling and exciting novel a resonance and relevance that it otherwise would have lacked. And finally, speaking as a historian, this is the reason students of history view contemporary fiction as primary source material. The influence of our world on our books will be edifying not only for current readers, but also for readers fifty or one hundred or five hundred years from now. That’s all to the good.

The advice I would offer, however, is to watch for these outside influences. Understand that you’re not writing in a vacuum. It may be that history’s impact on your work will do wonderful things for your story. Great. But including those elements ought to be a choice rather than an accident. Because it’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice. If you see your book going places that you didn’t intend and that you don’t like, you can do something about it. Again, the key is to be aware so you can make an informed choice.

We are subject to history’s arc, but we’re not helpless before it. We can allow our art to be shaped by the world around us, or we can make our art a refuge from that world. There is no single right way to do this (a good rule of thumb for assessing any writing advice). Watch for the influence of the outside world on your story, and make an informed decision as to how much of it you want reflected in the final product.

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!

Photo Friday: A Gift From Amarid

As Jaryd and Alayna reached the bottom of the marble stairs and stepped onto the cobblestone street, people from the crowd approached them. The first to reach the pair was a young girl, accompanied by her mother, who stopped in front of Alayna and dropped a small feather into the woven basket the mage had been handed moments before.
“Wear your cloak well, Daughter of Amarid,” the girl said softly, with a glance back at her mother. “May Arick guard you.”
Alayna had no time to thank the girl. A young man placed an­other feather in her basket, and said solemnly. “Wear your cloak well, Daughter of Amarid, and may Arick guard you.”
An elderly man placed a feather in Jaryd’s basket. “Wear your cloak well, Son of Amarid, and may Arick guard you,” he said with a wink and a grin.
So it went for the entire journey around the Great Hall and through the streets of the city to the First Mage’s home. The procession wound through the darkened streets, which were lined with crowds of people. And as they walked, literally hundreds of men, women, and children approached Jaryd and Alayna, dropped feathers in their baskets, and welcomed them to the Order with the ritual greeting. Some smiled, or even laughed, while others remained serious, but all seemed sincere in wishing the mages well.

I’ll admit it. Since writing Children of Amarid, my first novel, I have thought of the feathers I find as “gifts from Amarid.” For those unfamiliar with the LonTobyn books, my mages, the so-called Children of Amarid, drew their magic from the psychic bond they formed with avian familiars — usually hawks, eagles, falcons, or owls. With every act of magic they performed in service to the land, they left a single feather as a token of their devotion.

This particular feather, which I found on my morning walk yesterday, originally belonged to a Blue Jay. I’m grateful to him or her for leaving it for me.

I wish you a weekend filled with unexpected wonders, large and small. Stay safe, be kind to one another.

Blue Jay Feather, by David B. Coe

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

Title got your attention, eh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Allure of the New Shiny

All of us who write have felt it. Many of us have given into it. Others have resisted. Personally, I’ve done both — with different projects and also within a single one. We loves it and we hates it, but always we must have a healthy respect for its power.

I speak, of course, of the allure of the New Shiny. The bane and grail, the procrastination and promise, the distraction and passion. The New Shiny is all these and more.

The first time I experienced it, I was in the process of outlining the SECOND LonTobyn book. Not the third and final book, but the second. Nancy had a conference in Birmingham, England and we made a trip of it, even though we were toting around our older daughter, Alex, who was all of three months old. Our travels took us to Wales, where we toured castle after castle. I fell in love with the countryside, became totally obsessed with the notion of writing castle intrigue, and started to imagine the books that would become my Winds of the Forelands tetralogy.

The problem was, I still had TWO books left to write in my first trilogy. As the Forelands began to take shape in my mind, as I grasped the myriad possibilities of a new world in which to write, LonTobyn seemed to shrink before my eyes. Compared to the Forelands, the LonTobyn world became small and ordinary. In reality, of course, it was neither. In fact, LonTobyn was a pretty good world, and those books not only sold well, but also won me an award and launched my career.

For weeks after we returned home, though, I spent hour upon hour building my world for the new series. The series that wasn’t contracted yet. The series no one had ever heard of. The series I absolutely WOULD NOT GET TO WRITE if I didn’t FINISH MY FIRST SERIES.

I don’t need to tell you that our minds are notoriously independent of our wills. The moment we tell ourselves not to think of, say, golden retriever puppies, golden retriever puppies become the only things we CAN think of. So telling ourselves not to think about our New Shinies is pretty much futile. More to the point, I’m not entirely certain we would want to banish them from our minds. The creative energy that comes with falling in love with a new world, a new concept, a new set of characters, can feed all our artistic endeavors. Why would we want to deny ourselves the power of that process?

At the same time, though, more often than not, the best thing we can do for our careers at any given moment is finish our current project. I learned a valuable skill when writing my first trilogy, with the Forelands concept lurking in my hind brain. I learned to compartmentalize my art. I continued to think about the Forelands books. As ideas occurred to me, I typed them out. But then I closed those files and went back to writing the LonTobyn books. I had no choice in the matter. I wanted to build a career, and I certainly didn’t want a reputation as a writer who failed to complete projects, or as someone who delivered books late. I allowed myself to brainstorm when I had the chance, but I forced myself to reach my daily word counts on the work-in-progress.

And I would suggest that when grappling with the New Shiny, you do much the same thing. Don’t stifle your creative impulses. Take the time to jot down every idea, to write out scenes that come to mind, or to create character sketches as the people in your new world present themselves to you. When you have set aside your WIP for the night or the weekend, let your mind run wild in New Shiny-land.

But do not sacrifice the work you’ve been struggling with, simply because the New Shiny is teasing you from the other side of your brain. Because here are a few things the New Shiny will never tell you. First, the idea might not pan out. I have many files on my computer that contain half-realized worlds, half-baked ideas, and half-formed narratives. The New Shiny can be fickle and undependable. Second, as wonderful as the New Shiny MIGHT prove to be, the work-in-progress is real, it is immediate, it deserves to be finished. It represents a tremendous amount of time, energy, and completed work. As I said before, finishing our current project is almost always the best thing we can do to advance our career. Third, and last, never forget this one essential truth: No matter how bored we might have grown with our current work, no matter how much of a slog those last chapters of the last book can prove to be, the current work-in-progress was once itself a New Shiny.

The next idea is always the most exciting. That doesn’t make it most important.

Keep writing!

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

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

Ready? Here goes…

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

I know. I can’t believe it either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ideas — Finding Them, Using Them

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

Back at the beginning of this calendar year, when I started the Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, I asked folks in my Facebook Group for ideas about what subjects I should cover. I have written about most, if not all, of the suggestions that came in at that time, so I would like to begin today’s post by renewing my call for suggestions. Please, if there is any topic you want me to cover, let me know and I’ll do my best to turn it into a Wednesday post.

Today, I would like to take on an amorphous topic: ideas. I am asked all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” And whenever I’m asked, I come up with some vague answer that goes something like, “Ideas come from everywhere. Writing, particularly writing speculative fiction, is an exercise in asking ‘What if?’ What if we put magic in this historical period? Or what if we take an island world with kingdoms and early flintlock technology and add time travel? Or what if we blend werewolf dynamics with detective-noir storylines and issues of mental health? “What if” is a powerful question, one that can take us to entirely new worlds.”

Or, in response to “Where do you get your ideas?” I might say, “Different stories come from different places. Sometimes I key in on a specific character and grow a story from there. Sometimes my imagination fixes on an element of a magic system, or some other worldbuilding element, and suddenly I’m plotting out three books. Sometimes I’ll visualize a scene – some key moment in a story I’m still discovering, and that’s the foundation for my next project.”

Both of those answers are true. Both of them reflect realities of my creative process.

But the truth is, in answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” I could just as easily say, “My ideas? Where do they come from? I have no fucking clue.”

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Ideas, many writers will tell you, are a dime a dozen. When I was just starting out in this business and still working on my very first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I worried that I would never have an idea for another project. When at last the idea for Winds of the Forelands came to me, I was both ecstatic and profoundly relieved. Today, my worry is not that I won’t have another idea; it’s that I won’t live long enough to write all the ideas I have. I’ve had people – folks who aren’t professional writers and who, frankly, have no sense of what the writing profession involves – say to me in all seriousness, “I have this great idea for a book. You should write it and we can split the royalties.” I usually say, with feigned politeness and more patience than I feel, “I have all the ideas I need, thanks. But it sounds like something you should write.” I WANT to say, “Dude, if you think coming up with some lame idea is half of what I do, you’re nuts.”

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

1. Don’t worry about where ideas come from. I won’t say it’s a stupid question, because it’s not. But the vague answers I offered above are about the best I can offer, and really the question is moot. Every idea has its own origin story, and no source of ideas is better or more valid than another.

2. Simple is okay. Been done before is okay. Even derivative can be okay. The other day I was listening to an NPR story about a new retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. This is a formula that has been done to death, and yet here is a new interpretation of it that sounds fresh and compelling and that is obviously marketable. The idea is a starting point; sometimes it’s a framework as well. Ultimately, though, your characters and voice and style will define the story. Your setting and plot devices will set your work apart. Originality is born in the creative process.

3. Ideas can’t be forced. Except when they can. Yeah, I know – really helpful. But both of those statements are true. Ideas come on their own time, by their own volition. They take us by surprise, inspiring us with their potency and novelty. It’s a great feeling. At the same time, though, we can brainstorm, hastening those ideas, forcing them to the surface. It takes patience, but it can be done. I like to ask myself questions (beyond “what if?”). I will often open a new blank document on my computer and just start typing stream of consciousness. This approach doesn’t always lead to a great story, but it certainly can. Try it.

4. Great ideas keep giving. Some ideas lead to career-defining projects. Some fizzle. It’s not always obvious from the outset which is which. What’s more, we can be blinded by the power of that moment of epiphany when the first inkling comes to us. The test, though, is how the idea builds. I find that the best ideas I’ve had beget new ideas, one after another. The visualization of a scene, say, quickly leads me to a character, or two. And those characters introduce me to a magic system. Which begins to shape my world. Get what I mean? If an idea comes to me, but then just sits there, like an imagined lump, spawning nothing else, chances are it’s not that great an idea after all.

Ideas are slippery. They lack form until we give it to them. They need to be written down, because they will abandon us if we don’t give them our full attention right away. And, of course, there is no guarantee that even the best idea will lead to a bestselling book. But ideas are also the currency of this business, the things for which we quest, and the foundations of all we do.

And so I wish you a never-ending series of wonderful, fruitful ideas. And if I have a really good one, I’ll share it with you and you can write it. We’ll split the earnings…

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: When is a Manuscript Done?

There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal…”

When is a manuscript done?

There are many ways to answer this question, from “A manuscript is never done; eventually we just stop working on it…” to “It’s done when it’s published,” to “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” To be honest, I find some truth in all three of those, and a host of other answers I haven’t yet mentioned.

Those who follow my social media feeds closely, may have noticed that I post about finishing the same manuscript on two or three or even four different occasions: once when I finish the initial draft, again when I complete my revisions and submit it for consideration or publication, yet again when I complete edits and turn in a production draft, and maybe one more time when the book is in its final form and is ready for release. Each of those is a milestone in the development of a book. Each is worthy of celebration.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)But when do I consider the manuscript done? There is some truth to that first answer I gave. I consider all my books works in progress. My very first book, Children of Amarid, published in 1997 and recognized with a Crawford Award two years later, was, to my mind, never really complete. I knew for years that I could make it better. And when we finally got the rights back, I edited the book mercilessly (and did the same to its two sequels) and released the Author’s Edit of the novel. Only then, did I truly feel I had finished that first effort.

There is also an essential truth embedded in the other two answers I gave above: “It’s done when it’s published,” and “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” Notice, I didn’t say “It’s done when it’s perfect,” or even, “It’s done when it can no longer be made any better.” There is no novel I can think of – not any of mine, not any by my favorite fantasy authors, not any by Faulkner or Steinbeck, Stegner or McCarthy, Morrison or Marquez – that is perfect, or that couldn’t be made better, even if just incrementally so, by one more editorial pass. There is no such thing as a flawless book. So stop trying to write one.

Seriously.

The true significance of the question “When is a manuscript done?” lies in its import for writers in the early stages of their careers. I know so many beginning writers, young and old, who are working on the tenth or twelfth or twentieth iterations of Their Novels. And for them I offer that first answer again: A novel is never done; eventually we just stop working on it. There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal. It is time I submitted this book to publishers and agents.”

Now, let me be very clear about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that your novel doesn’t need editing and revision. Of course it does. I’m working on book 25 right now. Or maybe 26. Whatever. I still need feedback and editing. I still need to revise every book, and revise again, and then revise some more. I still use Beta readers. I still seek feedback, tweak the book, and then seek more feedback. Rinse, repeat.

But here’s the thing: I can go through all my edits and revisions and then give my manuscript to a hundred new Beta readers, and chances are each of them will offer some new, unique criticism of the book. Where does it stop? How much editing is enough? When is a manuscript ready for submission?

Obviously, this is a decision each of us must make on his or her own. But the pursuit of perfection can be a career-killer. No editor or agent expects your manuscript to be devoid of flaws. As I said, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, and first novels almost always come with their own set of faults and foibles. Do what you can – make sure your plot works, keep your characters consistent and believable, by all means take care of all the typos and grammatical problems you can find. Your manuscript should be clean and professional. It should be as good as you can make it within reason. It should not be the only thing you’ve worked on for years and years. Because you know what? I’ll bet you every dollar in my pocket that the editor who decides to buy it is going to suggest a bunch of changes. That’s just the nature of the craft, the nature of the business.

In this case, “good enough” is not an abdication, it is not indicative of a lack of caring or effort. It is reality. Work on your book. Make it as good as you can. But don’t obsess over it, and don’t overwork it. Most important, don’t retreat into edits and revisions before you finish that first draft. Get the thing done. Then get feedback and revise. And then send it out and get to work on the next project.

When is a manuscript done?

A manuscript is done when you allow it to be. That’s probably the best answer I can offer.

Keep writing.

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!

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!