Category Archives: Thieftaker Chronicles

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

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Release Day Interview: David B. Coe Interviews D.B. Jackson!

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)Release week continues with a special Tuesday interview post! Yes, that’s right: I am going to interview… Myself!!

Today, I am pleased to welcome author D.B. Jackson to the blog. D.B. has a new novel out this week. Time’s Assassin, the third volume in his critically acclaimed Islevale Cycle, will be released on Tuesday, July 7, by Falstaff Books. (Order it here.  Buy the first two books in the series at a special price here.)

David: D.B., welcome to the blog, and may I say that you are even better looking in person than you are in your pictures.

D.B.: Nice, starting right off with full-on conceited creeper. Way to hold your audience…

David: Why don’t you start by telling us about Time’s Assassin?

D.B.: Well, that’s a lazy-ass question. It’s not like you haven’t read the book….

Fine. Time’s Assassin is the concluding volume of the Islevale Cycle, my time travel, epic fantasy series. The Islevale books tell the story of Tobias Doljan and Mara Lijar, fifteen-year-old Walkers, time travelers, who go back in time to stop a war. But they’re trapped in the past and forced to protect and care for the infant daughter of an assassinated royal. The catch to all this is that time travel in my world exacts a price: For every year they go back in time, they age that amount. So they went back fourteen years, which means that they arrive in the past as twenty-nine year-olds, but with the thoughts and emotions of teenagers. They are pursued by assassins, caught up in castle intrigue, and have to match wits with a host of Ancients, as my demons are called. There’s a lot going on, and in this volume, all the story arcs come together.

David: It sounds interesting!

D.B.: Well… I’m glad you think so. If I couldn’t win you over, I was going to have a lot of trouble getting anyone else to care…

David: What made you decide to take on time travel?

Islevale compositeD.B.: Hubris, foolishness, self-loathing: take your pick. Time travel is so difficult. I love these books, and I’m very proud of them, but I hope never to write another time travel novel. The allure of time-travel lies in the narrative possibilities, the complications, the twists and turns. And it’s all there. But those attractions are also the biggest problems. No plot point is certain. Every event is, potentially, subject to a do-over. When we mess with time, we take away the guaranteed permanence of everything we do to and with our characters. That’s why I had to make the price of my time travel magic so steep. Because if it costs nothing to travel across time, then the time travel itself takes over the story and makes everything transitory. At least with the time travel exacting such a cost, I can limit this somewhat. And even so, once my characters made it to the past, I had to take steps to ensure that they couldn’t Walk through time again, at least for a while.

David: Islevale is yet another world of your own creation. Tell us a bit about it.

D.B.: Islevale is a world of oceans and islands, a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. The Earthsea trilogy was one of my very favorite fantasy series when I was young — it’s one of the works that inspired me to write — and so I meant the world as an homage to Le Guin and to those books.

If I had to place Islevale in a period analogous to some historical era of our world, I would probably choose the early Renaissance. That’s the technology level. And, like many fantasy worlds, Islevale is inhabited by a diverse population of humans and also by other sorts of creatures. Specifically, humans share the world with the Ancients, different races of what the humans, in their ignorance, call demons. These are magical beings with their own customs and ancient forms of commerce and culture. They were enormous fun to write.

David: So, you are actually a pseudonym. What’s that like?

D.B.: Excuse me?

David: You’re a pseudonym. A pen name. You don’t really exist. You’re just the alter ego of a real, well-established author. So I’m just wondering—

D.B.: I knew you were going to do this.

David: What?

D.B.: You know what. Pulling the whole “I’m real, you’re not” thing. That is so typical of you corporeal types. You think our readers give a flying fart about which one of us is “real”?

David: Just for the record, I am.

D.B.: I know! But what I’m saying is, it doesn’t matter. We share a newsletter and a Facebook page—

David: Maintained by yours truly.

D.B.: —And a lot of our audience likes books by both of us. Moreover, Mister Real Guy, I’d be careful about who you call the “real established author.” Would you care to compare reviews?

David: [Clearing throat] Why don’t you tell us what you’re working on now?

D.B.: Yeah, I thought so.

I’ve just finished working on a set of three novellas set in the Thieftaker universe. These will be released one at a time in ebook format later this year, and then the three together will be published in a printed omnibus. And, speaking of Thieftaker, our agent and I have recently gotten back the rights to the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach, which had been hard to find. We will be re-issuing these in trade paperback later this year or early next year.

David: Well, that sounds great. I wish you — us, really — every success with Time’s Assassin and the rest of the Islevale books, as well as with the upcoming Thieftaker releases. Best of luck to you.

D.B.: Thank you. And to you. [Sotto voce] Pinhead…

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

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

Ready? Here goes…

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

I know. I can’t believe it either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Mapping Out the New Year

What can I say? I have a bit of an OCD streak. Okay, maybe even more than “a bit.”

But setting work goals and making up a work schedule for a new year is not just about me being the writing equivalent of Felix Unger (kids, ask your parents). I find that mapping out my professional year improves my chances of meeting whatever goals I might have for the coming months.

I have always been one to make New Year’s Resolutions and to set goals for the coming year as one wall calendar gives way to the next. Probably it’s the same impulse that leads me to outline most of my books, and to organize my book and CD collections alphabetically by artist. What can I say? I have a bit of an OCD streak. Okay, maybe even more than “a bit.”

But setting work goals and making up a work schedule for a new year is not just about me being the writing equivalent of Felix Unger (kids, ask your parents). I find that mapping out my professional year improves my chances of meeting whatever goals I might have for the coming months. Because at the root of the exercise is the creation of self-imposed deadlines, which, as I’ve mentioned previously, I treat as immutable, just as I would a deadline given to me by an editor. If I keep my deadlines realistic, and I commit myself to meeting them, I should have a productive year. And as writers, we really can’t ask for more than that.

So, that said, here are my goals for 2017:

1. I have just sent off to my agent the first book in an as-yet-uncontracted new series. I love the book and look forward to writing the rest of the series. My next step in working on this project is to write a synopsis of book 1 (which will help my agent place the book with a publisher) and to write as well brief descriptions of books 2 and 3.

1.a.  Once I’ve completed those preliminary steps, I want to dive in and write the second book. The first book took me a while and I have a feeling this second one will, too. I would guess that I’ll be writing the first draft of Book 2 through the end of April.

2. The next thing I have in mind to do is write a new Thieftaker novella about Ethan Kaille’s early life. (For those who are fans of the Thieftaker books, I plan to write the story of the Ruby Blade mutiny, which led to Ethan’s imprisonment.) I believe I can get this done in about 6 weeks, which will take me to mid-June. Once this is complete, I will gather all the Thieftaker short stories, of which there are about 8, and release them as a collection. I hope to see that in print by the end of the year.

3. Around mid-June I will also begin work on another new project that I’m undertaking with a couple of friends. We’re not yet ready to talk about this publicly, but essentially I will be writing a new novel of approximately 90,000 words. I should be able to have that written by the end of the summer.

4. During the summer, I will also begin editing for reissue the five books of my Winds of the Forelands series (originally released 2002-2007). As with my LonTobyn books, which I re-released in 2016 as Author’s Edits of the original books, I will be polishing and tightening the prose of these books without changing any of the plotting or character work. Since I’ll be working on item 3 at the same time — interspersing writing days with editing days — this will take me past the end of the summer and probably well into the fall.

5. Finally, I will also leave room in my schedule for the unexpected: editing work on the new project, assuming that we place it with a publisher some time during the year; short stories that I might be asked to write for anthologies or the like; travel for family stuff, or for conventions.

Those tasks should take me through much of 2017. If I can get all of that done — and I believe I can, meeting all of my self-assigned deadlines — I’ll consider it a successful year.

What about you? What are your professional plans for the coming year?