Tag Archives: creativity

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Befriend Your Characters…And Be-Character Your Friends

This will be a relatively brief Writing-Tip Wednesday post. It’s a lazy, hot, stormy day and I’m feeling, well, lazy and hot…

So far this year, I have used my Wednesday posts to offer advice about any number of things, from finding agents and navigating the market to processing ideas and building worlds. I believe every topic I’ve covered is important and useful — I wouldn’t put so much work into these posts if I didn’t.

But I recently realized that I have yet to focus a post on character development. I’ve written about conflict and dialogue and point of view, which are integral to developing characters, but I have not tackled the subject head on. So for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing specifically about building and deepening characters.

Because nothing is more important to good story telling. For all the time we spend on our worlds, our plots, all the twists and turns and cool stuff we do with our stories, nothing matters more than giving our readers believable, compelling characters. The people in our stories are what captivate our readers. I would argue that they are also what captivate us as we write. I love my worlds and magic systems and such, but I live and die with my characters.

I have lots of suggestions I can make about creating characters, and I will focus on some in-depth specifics next week. For now, though, let me begin with something I have said before at conventions and workshops:

The qualities that make us good spouses, good parents, good siblings and offspring and friends, are also the qualities that make us good writers.

What do I mean by that?

Writing, I believe, is an act of empathy. So is being a good person, a caring companion to those in our lives. When the people we love need our guidance or our sympathy, we do our best to set our egos and needs aside and imagine ourselves in their positions. We draw upon our own experiences of course, and do our best to bring wisdom to their concerns, but we let go of the self and cater to what they require of us.

In the same way, we are at our best as writers when we dive deep into the emotions and thoughts of the people we create, when we put ourselves fully into their minds and their hearts and channel for our readers all that they experience. Put another way, our writing is most effective when we subsume ourselves to our point of view characters.

And so I often tell writers to befriend their characters, to nurture them, to give as much love and compassion to them, even our “villains,” as we do to the real people in our lives. Committing to our characters in that way will make them all the more real to our readers.

In this time of unrest and uncertainty, though, I would add this. I don’t often offer life advice in these posts. It takes enough gumption and hubris to offer writing advice in this environment. But to offer advice for the rest of what we do? What a terrible idea. And yet I would ask your indulgence as I do just that.

Because right now our world cries out for the some level of compassion and love that we ought to bring to our writing. And so I would ask that you “be-character” your friends and loved ones. Be as empathetic in dealing with the people you interact with as you would want to be in creating your characters. The world will be a better place for it.

Keep writing, and be kind to one another.

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!

Monday Musings: On New Releases and All That Comes With Them

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)It is release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle, and so that will be the focus of my posts this week. And I’d like to kick off the week with some musings about new releases and the excitement and anxiety that comes with them.

Release days are odd. Even today, with the marketplace changed and production times for books shortened by digital advances and the movement toward smaller presses and self-publishing, the actual day a book drops seems to be removed from time — an irony given that, in this instance, the release is a time travel story. Producing a book takes months, and while the rest of the world sees Time’s Assassin as my newest work, I know it’s not. Since completing the submitted draft of this book, I have written short stories, a non-fiction piece, several novellas, and a full-length novel. I’m currently reading and worldbuilding in preparation for another multi-volume project. In other words, my mind has moved on from Islevale. Talking and writing about this book feels like a journey to a different time.

To be clear, it’s not a journey I mind making. I love the Islevale books; I believe they’re the best novels I’ve published. They’re just not the focus of my professional life the way they were when I was neck-deep in writing them. And that’s a bit of a problem. The fact is, the success of Time’s Assassin and the two volumes that came before it will have a huge impact on everything I do after. Sadly, that’s how publishing works. We are only as successful commercially — and, to a lesser degree, critically — as our most recent work. This is why even perennial bestsellers still worry about each new release. They sweat the reviews and pore over their sales numbers.

We want to take satisfaction in the publication itself (more on this in Wednesday’s post) and to some degree we do. Certainly we should. Writing a book is no small feat. Completing a series is an accomplishment that deserves a moment’s reflection. I still get a thrill out of seeing the jacket art for a new book, or holding the printed novel in my hands for the first time. I have a bookcase next to my desk that holds a copy of every novel I’ve published, every anthology in which I’ve placed a short story or which I’ve edited. Two shelves are full; I’m about to start filling a third. I’m proud of that.

That said, I’m already invested in other projects. I want this release to go well, but my creative energy is focused elsewhere. I don’t mean for that to sound jaded. This is, I believe, as it should be. It’s not just the allure of the New Shiny — though that is real, and worth exploring in a future Writing-Tip Wednesday post. Looking beyond the current release is, to my mind, a natural expression of all that we love about our profession. Yes, completing a book feels great. And yes, starting a new novel can be daunting.

For authors, though, as for all artists working in all forms, creation is a constant. We work on the next project because we have ideas that demand attention, and because we believe with all our hearts that as much as we might love the thing we’ve just finished and are currently promoting, we know that we can do even better.

So, we worry about the sales and the critics. We do what we can to promote the new release.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)…And allow me take a moment to urge you get a copy of Time’s Assassin. (You can order it here.) It is, I believe, a wonderful conclusion to a series I adore. If you haven’t yet read Time’s Children and Time’s Demon, now is the time. The three books are out. There will be no more in this world. And they are as good as any work I’ve ever done. And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…

But I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Even if the reviews for Time’s Assassin suck, and even if we don’t sell a single copy (neither of which I anticipate), I’m still going to work on the new projects. I am a writer. This is what I do.

Creativity is its own reward. At least it should be. Sometimes things get a bit more complicated than that, a phenomenon I’ll address on Wednesday.

Today, though, I intend to enjoy having my mind in two projects at once, two worlds at once. I am deeply proud of my new release. I hope you’ll buy it and I hope you enjoy it. AND I am incredibly excited about my new projects. I can’t wait for you to see them.

Enjoy your week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

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: Reevaluating Goals in the Time of Covid-19

Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit.

I believe strongly in setting professional goals for myself. Sometimes that means work goals – “I want to write book X by June 30th and book Y by September 30th, and then I want to write three short stories in October and November…” Sometimes it means what we might call achievement goals – “I want to see this book in print by the end of summer, and this book sold to a publisher by the same time, and this short story placed by the end of the year…”

I find that work goals keep me focused and productive. They are a tool I use to self-motivate. Once I write something down in my work calendar – “Work on new fantasy from January to April” – the end of April becomes, in my mind, a deadline. I treat it as such, even though in a technical sense no one may be waiting for the book at the end of that period.

Professional goals, obviously, are more fungible. They have to be, because we have limited control over the marketplace and our relationship with it. Even those who self-publish can’t fit every circumstance to their needs and desires. But still, having those sorts of goals can help with focus, with productivity, and also with that tendency many of us have to overwork our books and stories and thus delay sending them out. (See last week’s Writing-tip.)

As I have already written in this Wednesday feature, the pandemic, and the economic collapse that has come with it, are bad news for the publishing industry in general and new writers in particular. This is a scary time to be pursuing a career in any of the arts, writing included. This is, in my opinion, not a good time for strict adherence to achievement goals.

Work goals, on the other hand, might just be the secret to making the most of this time of social-distancing and Stay-At-Home orders. Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit. I have another friend who has been unable to do any creative work at all. I probably fall somewhere in between – I’m too distracted to be as productive as usual, but I’m managing to get work done. I recently completed a 30,000-plus word novella, and I’m already nearly halfway through a second. Given how distracted I’ve been, I’m pleased.

My productivity has actually gone up in recent weeks, and I believe that’s because I have finally adjusted to this new reality, and so I’m no longer beating myself up for not writing as quickly as I usually do. I had considered revising my work goals for the year; instead, I abandoned them entirely in favor of work goals for the next couple of months. We are in uncharted territory at this point. No one really knows what the world is going to look like two weeks from now, much less two months, or six. And so for now my goals are to finish this second novella and then write the third. When that’s done, I’ll edit them and figure out what to do with the trilogy. And after that… Who knows? I’ll make those plans when the time comes.

At the same time, though, I am not ready to give up on goals altogether. True, I don’t quite know how I will market the novellas when they’re ready for distribution, but I still want to get them done, and I still want to feel productive. The truth is, I’m happier when I’m working. I feel better about myself and my career, and I genuinely enjoy creating. I seek a balance: I want to have goals that force me to work, that maybe push me to keep writing, even if not at my usual pace. At the same time, I have to be cognizant of the simple fact that I’m not at my best right now. This is a global crisis – medical, economic, political, social. It’s a frightening world we’re living in, and that has to take a toll.

If you’re one of those people who can work through this at your normal pace or even faster than usual, good for you. I hate you a little bit, too. For the rest of you who feel as I do – that you want to remain productive, but can’t quite work at your usual speed – find that balance I’m talking about. Maybe you usually write 1500 words a day, but currently feel you’re only at 75%. That’s 1100 words a day. That is still a decent pace. That will give you a novella in a month or so, a novel in three months. You’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something while also being realistic about our current situation.

The point is not to write quickly – the goal ought never to be solely about that. Now especially, the goal should be to find a pace and level of achievement that maintains both our standards for the work we produce and a feeling of professional and emotional health.

We really can’t ask for more than that.

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!

Monday Musings: In Defense of the Grateful Dead

Hi, my name is David, and I used to be a Deadhead.

Yep. I saw them some twenty-five or thirty times in my youth. I slept outside, on line in front of arenas, in order to get the best possible tickets to shows. I traveled to different venues during tours to see them multiple times. I learned to play lots and lots of their songs on guitar, and I knew which were Jerry tunes and which were Bobby tunes. (That was a thing. It related to who sang lead and, often, who wrote the song. Really, you don’t want to know.)

I was not as devoted a fan as many I knew, but I was pretty devoted. I had t-shirts, bandanas, lots and lots of records, even more tapes of live performances. It is possible – possible – that I got stoned a lot and listened to tape after tape after tape.

Gradually, during my graduate school days, my ardor for the group diminished. Eventually, I stopped listening to them almost entirely, my tastes shifting in a number of different directions. One or two of their studio albums remained in my listening rotation, but otherwise, I let them go.

When my oldest brother died a few years ago, he left behind a massive music collection that included several Dead disks, including some in what’s known as the “Dick’s Picks” collection. These are CD versions of those old concert tapes I listened to in college (curated by a guy named Dick Latvala). At least I think I listened to them. Did I mention that I might – might – have been stoned? Anyway, my other brother didn’t want the disks, and neither did Bill’s widow, so I took them. For more than two years they sat on my CD rack gathering dust, but finally, a few days ago, I took them out again and gave them a listen.

Here’s what I found:

Let’s start with the bad, because where the Dead are concerned, people often do. Yes, the vocals are shaky. Squeaky harmonies, flat melodies, the occasional forgotten lyric. Then again, the vocals are no worse than Dylan’s, or, frankly, Mick Jagger’s later live efforts. Not everyone can sound like the Eagles. And yes, the musicianship is sloppy at times. The Dead played a huge number of shows – well over two thousand. They rarely had hit records. They only broke into the top forty once, and that came late in their run, only a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. So they made their money by touring. And there were nights when, let’s say, their attention wandered. The spacey jams that were their hallmark sometimes spilled over into tunes that had no business being spacey. Guitar solos spiraled out of melodic control, band members went off in separate directions mid-song, and, on occasion, they fell into the trap of playing the same songs – especially encores – night after night, leaving the songs punchless and at best ordinary.

But there was good as well. Great even. At a time when most rock bands played the same songs – the same setlists – night in and night out, the Dead were remarkably eclectic. Part of the reason Deadheads like me went to so many shows and listened to all those concert tapes was that nearly every concert was different. We never knew what they would play, or what song might seque into another. Deadheads used to compare setlists the way naturalists compare wildlife sightings. Hearing a rare song, like finding a rare bird, was a true thrill.

And despite the aforementioned sloppiness, their musicianship could be truly stunning. The band’s sound revolved around Garcia’s guitar work which was, at times, spectacular. Jerry Garcia played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, appearing on not just rock albums, but also bluegrass, jazz, and country recordings. His pedal steel guitar work on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children” remains some of my favorite guitar playing of all time. His live solos, when he was on, were innovative, powerful, even mesmerizing. He did way too many drugs, and later in his life and career his health suffered, as did his performances. But if you’re interested in hearing what he was capable of doing, I would encourage you to listen to this (beware — the graphic spins slowly). And to this. The man could play.

Yes, the Dead were an acquired taste. But there was a reason they inspired such devotion and passion from their fans. They were imperfect – some nights they simply couldn’t be bothered to play a decent note. On other nights, though, they were utterly inspired. And at all times they were unlike any other band that has ever been. I’m glad to have their music back in my life.

Have a great week!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Writing Every Day, or Not, or Yeah

There is a sort of alchemy that takes place when we manage to convert our own emotions into the different-but-related emotions of our characters. Spinning gold from that straw carried me through my grief. Had I given in to the temptation not to write, that book never would have been as good, and I don’t think my creative development would have followed the same trajectory.

Quick-Tip Tuesday is here again, and I have my post up at Magical Words. Today, I’m writing about whether or not writing every day is a good idea. It’s a more complicated question than it may seem.  I don’t necessarily think we need to write each day. But we should. Although not EVERY day. But yeah . . .

As I said: complicated. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.