Tag Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: On Being Distracted, As Opposed To Dealing With Distractions

A bit less than two months ago, when our lives still resembled something akin to normal, I wrote a Monday Musings post about getting started at work and overcoming distractions.

Then the coronavirus took over our world and changed the equation, and so today I return to the topic.

First off, I want to draw a distinction between managing distractions and being distracted. [And this is my thinking for the purposes of this post. I am not claiming that this is something inherent in the language.] By “managing distractions,” I mean dealing with the day-to-day chores and intrusions that, not so long ago, were excuses to procrastinate and avoid creative production.

This may seem like semantics, a distinction without meaning, but to my mind, right now, “being distracted” is something else entirely. We are distracted when the world intrudes on our thoughts and routines in ways that deserve and demand our attention, that can’t be put off or ignored. Put another way [and again, this is my distinction for this post] distractions tend toward the trivial, while being distracted is an emotional state.

I am very good at managing distractions. But these days I am distracted. My thoughts are on the virus, the effect it’s having on our society, our economy, our politics. I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on my work. The second half of last week, I started a new project, and though I am always slow at the beginning of something new, I got a total of 2,600 words written in three days. My usual pace is 2,500 per day.

I am constantly checking my email and social media links for updates, news, word from friends and colleagues. And even when I force myself to stick to the task at hand, my thoughts wander, my creativity flags.

When I wrote about distractions several weeks ago, I had lots of suggestions for how you might hold them at bay. This, though… This is different. I have no answers for myself, much less for others. I can only offer what I am trying to tell myself, day in and day out.

First, this isn’t forever. True, we don’t know how long this crisis will last, but I refuse to accept that somehow this is “the new normal” or some such. (Hate that phrase, by the way: “The new normal.” Yuck. At some point I’m going to do an entire post about all the crappy turns of phrase that make my skin scrawl. Right now, though, that’s just another distraction.) (See what I did there…?) It may take a month, or six, or twelve, but we will get our lives back. I’m convinced of that.

Of course, that doesn’t make me any less distracted right now. So the second thing I’ve tried to do is be accepting of my own limitations. This is an extraordinary time. It’s natural to be distracted, to be fearful or unsettled or even angry at the world. And it follows that we will be less productive, less than our professional best. Which is not to say that all of us are. Some might be reading this thinking, “What the hell is Coe going on about? I’m churning out 5,000 words a day. This is a Godsend. An excuse to stay home and do nothing but write? Love it!” If that’s you, great. I’m happy for you. I’m envious. Because that’s not me right now at all. And, frankly, it’s not really anyone else I know either. But good on you! You go, person!

For the rest of us, it’s all right to be a little less productive, to want to know what the latest is on the current insanity. Give yourself a break and accept that just as the world will adapt and return to even keel, so will you. As with regular, run-of-the-mill distractions, I have tried these past couple of weeks to ration my news-hunting. “500 words, and then I can see what’s trending on Twitter now.” Or something of the sort. I haven’t been all that successful with this so far, but I’m hoping…

But really, my point as I began this post wasn’t to offer advice. Mostly, I’m writing this to say that if you’re struggling right now, you’re not alone. I know many who are. The world has ground to a halt, people are freaked out, and somewhere men and women of, shall we say, odd disposition are doing something bizarre with all those rolls of toilet paper… Be good to yourself and to the people around you. Very few of us are at our best right now. Distractions are easy. Being distracted like this is a struggle.

Wishing you a safe, calm, and, if you want it, productive week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Monday Musings: More Thoughts on the Pandemic

So, you’re tele-working now. Or you’re home with kids whose schools have closed. Or, like me, you’re just back from driving fifteen hours round trip to pick up your kid from a college that is closed for “two weeks,” but really indefinitely, until this clusterfuck of a pandemic is over.

Our routines seem so solid, so established. We take for granted that they will remain constant, that the foundations of our lives are sound. It’s disorienting to realize how fragile these things truly are. Think about it: On New Year’s Eve, none of us had ever heard of Covid-19; most of us didn’t even know there was a collection of pathogens known as coronavirus. That was the day when health officials in Wuhan Province, China, first reported a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases. The first case has since been dated back to November 17. But even that is only four months ago. And returning to December 31, most of us spent that night with friends and family, celebrating the New Year, unaware that THE dominant news story of 2020 was already underway.

Eleven weeks later, the world is a changed place. Hundreds of thousands ill, thousands dead. Who knows how high those numbers might climb? For many – too many – life will never be the same; for the rest of us, it will eventually return to normal, but the dislocations will be profound and unsettling.

Please allow me to pause here, and to be clear: None of what I am about to say is meant to in any way downplay the seriousness of the situation. For those most at risk – the immunocompromised, the older members of our communities, those who already have underlying medical issues – this is a matter of life and death. Others among us face huge economic hardships that most of us can’t even imagine. The most vulnerable among us – in physical terms AND economic terms – need our support, our love, our compassion, and the attention of our policy makers.

That said, placed in perspective, the disruptions the most fortunate among us – myself included – have endured thus far seem pretty minimal. We hope they will remain so. But in talking to my wife and my kids and other family members, in corresponding with friends and colleagues, I see already the toll taken by the sheer uncertainty of it all. That is another cost of the Trump Administration’s bungling response to the crisis. Yes, they have squandered precious time, and this WILL result in more sickness and, ultimately, more deaths. But even for those who will be fortunate enough to remain healthy, the cost in uncertainty and anxiety is significant.

I got really ticked off at myself the other day because I realized half the day was gone and I had accomplished nothing. I’m finding it hard to concentrate, to resist the temptation to check the news for the latest event to be called off or the next celebrity to announce that they Have It. And as I result I’m getting nothing done.

Which probably doesn’t matter right now. Do I really think publishers are immune to the economic dislocations impacting every other industry? Do I really expect them to be contracting new books or sticking to publication schedules for the ones already in production?

And this leads me to the next thought.

Have you read about the environmental impact of Covid-19? Economic activity has ground to a halt in China and Italy, among other places. And as a result carbon emissions are way, way down in those areas. Now, I am NOT celebrating this. We need to curb carbon output, but subjecting the world to a deadly pandemic is NOT the way to combat climate change.

My point is that many of us – even as we’re expected to “tele-work” (an inelegant phrase, by the way – surely we can do better) – are going to have time on our hands. We’re not going out as much. We’re probably not traveling. Professional conferences are on hold. We’re not going to movies or concerts or sporting events. We won’t be watching March Madness or the end of the professional basketball season or the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

So what will we be doing?

Last week, I went on a hike and took a bunch of photographs (if you haven’t already, check out last week’s Photo Friday post). I have a ton of books to read. Lately, I haven’t been playing my guitar nearly enough. It’s almost time for bird migration, which means more hikes. Yes, I’ll probably be watching TV and movies from home. All of us are going to be binging something, I’m sure. Yet, even the most dedicated bingers can’t spend ALL their time in front of the screen. Those of us who lament never having enough time to do all the stuff we’d like to… well, we finally have that time. It’s been imposed from without. It comes with anxiety-inducing social costs. But if ever there was a time to slow down and enjoy the simple things that modern life too often encourages us to ignore, this is it.

And that’s where I’ll leave you today. This is what I’m musing on this odd Monday. We are in a dark time, to be sure. I’m nervous, as I’m sure most of you are, about the economic and social and biological and political implications of the pandemic. There is plenty to fear. As with all things, though, there is also a flip side. I have thought for a long time that I would like to simplify elements of my life, but in my rush to be productive and to keep all of my professional and personal commitments, I have allowed that wish to fall by the wayside. Now, I have no choice in the matter. For good or for ill. As it were…

Wishing you a good week, whatever that means at this moment in history.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Guest Author Tina LeCount Myers on Writing a Series

Today I welcome to the blog my dear friend, Tina LeCount Myers. Tina and I met at a World Fantasy Convention a few years back and immediately fell into an easy friendship. I have since read her work and discovered without surprise that she is, in addition to being smart and funny and kind, a talented and skilled a storyteller. Please welcome her to the blog!


Tina LeCount MyersWhen I finished writing the first draft of The Song of All, I was convinced of two things:

1.) The Song of All was a stand-alone book.

2.) I was not a fantasy writer.

Over dinner, defeated, I confessed these two realizations to my husband. He, in his over-the-years-learned wisdom, asked me some insightful questions but let my definitive pronouncement stand. I was done.

At least I thought I was done. That very night, I went to bed and dreamed about what would become the next two novels in The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy. Luckily, somewhere around 3 AM, I realized what was happening. For the next 2 hours, I wrote by hand, by candlelight, trying to stay within my dream. By 5 AM, I had a rough plot outline and several key themes. It wasn’t pretty, but clearly this story had more to say.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount MyersOver the next several months, as I edited The Song of All and honed my query letter, I felt confident saying, “The Song of All is a stand-alone epic fantasy novel with series potential.” After all, I had an outline, a roster of characters, and some heartfelt themes. I knew where the story was going and where it would end up. But when the series sold based on the first book and I began to write the second book, I soon realized that, while I had read tons of books in series, I had little or no idea of how to write one. In my giddy state as a writer with a book contract, I didn’t let this fact stop me. I continued to write the story, knowing that I would need to rewrite it many times, confident that I would learn how to write a series.

I did learn how to write a series, it was a long, hard road—one that I wish I’d had more guidance for and one that continues. Overall, my take-away from writing a series is that this is not a place for “pantsing” (going by the seat of your pants). Rather, “plotting” is a de facto reality. That is not to say that your books will be all planned without any spontaneity, but an outline of the series should lean toward filling in as much as possible while leaving some blank places to surprise you as the author. I called The Legacy of Heavens a trilogy but who knows, maybe the series will go on from here, and the Muse and my publisher willing, I’ll have another series to work on in the near future. Until then, I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors be they stand-alone or with series potential.

Here are 5 things I wish I had done when I first started on my series:

Dreams of the Dark Sky, by Tina LeCount Myers1. Fully explore and flesh out the world-building. For some writers of science fiction and fantasy this might be obvious because world-building is their jam, but for other writers, who are more interested in themes or characters or plot, digging deep into world building might not be their first choice. Nevertheless, the better your understanding of how your world works (geography, socio-economic and political structures, cultural and legal norms, clothing, food, relationships, architecture, magic, etc) the easier it will be to see how the plot will unfold, where the themes might manifest, and how the characters will react.

2. Maps. Whether you love them or hate them, create them. This might be considered part of world-building, but it’s also about logistics and plotting. Even if you don’t plan to include maps in the books, make them for yourself and start right from the beginning, even if they’re rough. You will need to know the geography of your world. Where are the mountains, rivers, oceans, volcanoe   s, towns, and cities? What planets, asteroids, and galaxies exist in your world? To keep your characters moving you need to know the paths and the obstacles. Moreover, if you have a number of characters in movement, map it out so that when you are on book 5 of your series, referring to a military campaign that happened in book 2 of your series, you’ll know who’s where and doing what without going back and rereading book 2.

3. Detailed character lists. Sometimes characters come to us fully formed and that’s awesome, take advantage of that gift and make sure you write down all those details (physical traits, psychological quirks, emotional needs, etc) so that you can refer back to them as the plot continues. Sometimes, however, characters take shape or evolve the more you write about them. Here too, keeping detailed notes helps not only with character development but also continuity. Like world-building, the more you know about your characters, the more effectively you can use them.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount Myers4. Upping the stakes without jumping the shark. What keeps someone reading a series? Characters we love (so develop those characters) and the situations they find themselves in. As a reader, I fall in love with characters and want to know what happens to them as they face challenges, but if they face the same challenges over and over it can get boring​. I want them to learn and grow from their obstacles. As a writer, creating new challenges for growth can run the risk of going over the top. Killing off everyone that a character loves over a series definitely ups the stakes. But where does it leave your character? And where does it leave your reader? It is a balance between tension and emotional exhaustion, and something which I am still working on.

5. On a practical note, when working on a series try to set realistic timelines for publication. Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, having a clear understanding of the work involved is important. A 120K word book written in a year works out to 10K words a month, so 333 words a day or 500 words a day with weekends off. Sounds totally doable. And maybe not. Factor in life (work outside of writing, family, vacations, health, etc) and add in revisions, probably a couple, maybe creating and maintaining a website, writing blog posts, and marketing your work through a newsletter or social media. Suddenly, writing a book every 3 months or 6 or 9 or 12 might be too much. When you can, be realistic and kind to yourself when you set your deadlines for a series.

*****

Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, surfer, and gluestick artist. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina is the author of The Song of All, Dreams of the Dark Sky, and Breath of Gods (Books 1-3 of The Legacy of the Heavens series). Her work has also appeared in Literary Hub and Tor.com.

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Monday Musings: Uncertainty — Thoughts on Current Affairs

I am home from a great weekend at the Saga Professional Development Conference in Charlotte. Terrific people, great workshops and panels, and good humor all around when it came to dealing with the looming threat of the coronavirus. Containers of hand sanitizer were everywhere, including in the swag bags we were given at the start of the weekend. Handshakes and hugs – fixtures during most con weekends – were replaced with fist bumps, elbow bumps, and knowing, slightly nervous smiles. People wiped down everything in sight, hoping that would be enough to stave off a disease that we had no reason to believe was any threat to any of us in that particular place at this particular time.

To say that it was weird, is to vastly understate the matter.

But weirdest of all were the farewells at the end of the conference. “What’s next for you? Where will I see you next?” These are normally questions my friends/colleagues and I ask one another during such goodbyes. This time, our answers were tinged with an ominous uncertainty. We made light of the situation; there was lots of gallows humor.

The fact is, though, we know nothing. Clearly the financial markets expect this to get much, much worse. Major universities, from Stanford in California to Columbia in New York, are cancelling in-person classes and moving to online interactions. School systems are shutting down schools in Washington State and Westchester County, New York. In other countries – Italy, South Korea, Iran – where the outbreak is already far more advanced, remedial measures are even more severe. They could very well foretell our near future.

I’m not trying to be alarmist. These Monday posts are called “Musings” for a reason. This is where my mind is this morning. We are dealing with a situation that could go off the rails pretty quickly. And at the risk of veering into politics, I have to tell you that I have no confidence in our government’s ability to deal with. Or, to be more precise, I believe the CDC and other agencies could deal with it if we had a President who was capable of confronting the truth and allowing the experts to do their jobs. Unsurprisingly, he has shown through the early days of this crisis that he doesn’t have those arrows in his proverbial quiver. He can lie, he can blame others, he can deny and deflect and then double-down. He cannot lead.

I hope that his shortcomings won’t cost lives and won’t deepen the already-serious crisis before us. I’m not confident.

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!

Monday Musings: The Social Side of Cons

At the end of this week, I will drive to Charlotte for the Saga Professional Development Conference, where I will be speaking over the weekend. It should be a fun event and I hope to see many of you there.

As I prepare for it, though, I realize that I left something out of my recent Monday Musings post on attending conventions. Clearly, we all want to glean from our conventions and conferences all that we can professionally. But there is another reason we attend these gatherings. I am looking forward to my panels and my workshop, but mostly I’m excited to spend time with my friends and colleagues, to reconnect with fellow writers who I don’t get to see nearly enough.

I live in a tiny town in the rural south. It’s a college town – good places to eat, lots of cultural opportunities, and a wonderful community of smart, interesting, socially-aware people. But I’m pretty much the only speculative fiction writer in the area. There are plenty of writers in town – and I spend time with several of them – but our genre is not well represented.

Moreover, writing is a solitary act (if you don’t count the clamor of voices in our heads). It’s easy to feel isolated in this profession, especially early in one’s career, when we haven’t yet had the chance to build a writing community.

And so when we attend conventions, conferences, and the like, of course we want to sell our books and stories, of course we want to connect with agents and editors who can help us further our careers. But we also want to build that community of colleagues and friends. I’ve been in the business for a quarter century, and I still find new friends at nearly every event I attend. I’m not particularly good at small talk, at being “social” on demand. To some degree I have to force myself. There is a part of me – almost always – that wants to retreat to my hotel room and watch TV, or read, or work, or take a nap. Any of those would be easier than making myself into Socialize Guy. And I did make a point in that previous post I mentioned about building in alone time when attending a convention. I believe that’s important.

The danger lies in retreating completely. As I said, writing is a solitary act. Many of us are drawn to it for just that reason. I love my work time, I enjoy being alone with my ideas, my creativity. That element of my job comes naturally to me. It’s the hobnobbing I struggle with.

Yet, I’m fortunate. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have lots of friends in the business. I already know many of the people I’ll be seeing this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited to catch up with them. Whatever social anxiety I have is helped by those long-standing friendships. I know that what I’m describing here is difficult, and even downright terrifying, for many people. And all I can say is, we’re really a friendly bunch, and we are more like you than you might think. Make the effort to step outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person.

Because as much as we all want to connect with an agent or get invited into an anthology, it is every bit as important to start building your community. And the truth is, I wouldn’t trade a single one of my dear friends for all the book contracts and anthology invites in the world.

Although, if you happen to be a movie agent, you should ignore that last line. Really. Call me!

Have a great week!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writers Read

I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

In last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post I tried to ease up on the old “truism” that writers have to write every day. This week, I address another truism (Spoiler Alert: notice the lack of quotation marks this time…): Writers have to be readers.

I will admit that I find this one so basic, so integral to all that it means to be a writer, that I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

To my mind, trying to be a professional writer without being a serious reader, is like trying to be a professional athlete without exercising. Except golf and NASCAR. Okay, bad analogy… But you get what I mean.

Seriously, though, we make our livings with the written word; we should be consumers of what we produce. And I expect that for most people this is not a burdensome idea. Generally speaking, those of us who care about words and language and storytelling are drawn to reading without need of being prompted.

That said, I have had people ask me what sorts of things I read and, perhaps more to the point, what sorts of things beginning writers ought to be reading.

The answer to the second question, for the most part, is “whatever you want.” Really. If you like epic fantasy and horror, read those. If you like mystery and urban fantasy and space opera, read those. If you like guitar magazines and books about photography (not that there’s anyone here who likes those things…) have at it. Read what you enjoy, what interests you. Just read.

Then again, if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you should be familiar with the genres AND forms in which you write. You should familiarize yourself with some of the classics of whatever sort of story you wish to write, and you should also be reading new work, to see where your chosen genre is headed. At the same time, you don’t have to read EVERYTHING in the field, or even every book or series considered a classic or a current trendsetter. We all have our preferences, we know what we like and what we don’t. There is a HUGE amount of material available to us and life is just too short to read books we don’t enjoy.

So, as a for instance: I have been writing epic fantasy off and on for close to twenty-five years. I started my career writing big fat high fantasies. By that time, I had read extensively in the genre – classics by Tolkien and Lewis and LeGuin, more recent books by Kerr, Donaldson, Kurtz, Brooks, Eddings, McCaffrey (though she considered herself a science fiction writer rather than a fantasist), Mary Stewart, and my favorite, Guy Gavriel Kay. And so I was familiar with the tropes. I knew which I wanted to avoid and which I wanted to build upon. I knew the story structure. I understood what was required in building worlds and magic systems.

When I decided to start working on urban fantasy, I read extensively in THAT genre, learning the tropes and narrative structures and character arcs that one finds in those books.

These are the reasons we read in our genres: because books and stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger conversation. They are, in a sense, contributions to a dialogue that will, we hope, continue long after we are gone. Trying to write without being familiar with the genre is not only an act of supreme arrogance, it is also a great way to wind up inadvertently writing something that is either too similar to someone else’s work or so far outside the realm of what readers expect that the books fall flat.

On the other hand, there are obvious omissions from my list of epic fantasy authors. I didn’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I didn’t read past the first book of Terry Goodkind’s series. I actually stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because the set-up was too similar in certain ways to my Winds of the Forelands books and I didn’t want to be accused of copying from George R.R. Martin. (A few people accused me of this anyway, but what can you do?)

The point is, we can read to learn our craft without having to treat that reading as a mandatory study list. Read. Read a lot. But choose books that you want to read. If you’re interested in writing short fiction, and are not as sure of yourself in short form work, pick up a couple of collections and/or anthologies. (What’s the difference? Collections are books of one author’s short fiction; anthologies have works by several different authors.) You couldn’t possibly read all the anthologies and collections out there, so choose the ones that sound interesting to you. (And yes, I can recommend a couple of titles…)

But if you want to write, you absolutely have to read. Yes, I’m going there. This is not negotiable. This is not one of those questions for which there are lots of different answers.

Writers read.

Period. Full stop.

Keep writing! (And reading!)

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!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: On Writing Every Day

We’ve all heard it said — usually with authority and condescension and a certain righteous certainty.

A real writer writes every day.

If you want to be a professional writer, that’s what you have to do: Make it a habit, part of your daily routine.

It is even possible that such pronouncements have, in the past, crossed my lips. And I will say that most professionals I know do write each day, or very close to it. I write at least six days most weeks — I certainly work every weekday. And I would recommend that even those who have yet to make writing your profession make the effort to write as often as possible.

That said, let’s be clear about a few things.

First, when I said that I write every day, and that I work each weekday, that does not mean that I am always writing fiction on those days, or even always churning out pages of prose. “Writing” can mean research. Writing can mean blogging. It can mean updating my website or doing social media stuff. It can even mean, at times, staring out the window trying to work out my next plot point. Yes, when I am in the middle of a novel, I will write 10,000 or 12,000 words per week for weeks at a time. Usually I have some prose project or other underway and I will work on it steadily.

But “writing” can mean many things, can refer to different elements of my job. It doesn’t always mean “writing my book.”

Second, even if the only work we ever needed to do as writers was write our fiction, it still might not make sense for all of us to write daily. As I have said many, many time before, there is no single right way to do any of this. Some writers outline, others wing it. Some writers write in absolute silence, others like to have rock (or country or classical or jazz) blasting in the background. Some writers produce clean first drafts, others sneeze their books all over the proverbial page and spend the next six weeks cleaning up the mess in rewrites.

Some writers write every day. Some don’t. Some writers get burned out if they try to produce pages each day. Such writers are not doing it wrong. They’re not neglecting their art. They work a certain way at a certain pace. Full stop.

Third, life matters and sometimes it gets in the way. I know plenty of writers who would LOVE to write everyday, but simply can’t. It’s just not an option. Jobs, familial responsibilities, financial factors, the sheer enormity of emotional burdens and physical health problems — any one of these things can make writing on a regular basis impossible. Combine two or three of them, and time for writing becomes an almost unaffordable luxury. That doesn’t mean these people aren’t writers. It isn’t cause to question their commitment to their work in progress. It means that right now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, their writing output will be limited.

My point — and it is directed at myself as much as anyone — is that stating glibly that writers ought to write every day reflects the worst sort of arrogance and privilege. I GET to write every day. This is one of the great blessings in my life. I do this professionally, and I have the opportunity to give expression to my creative visions daily. Judging those who don’t have that same chance is pretty far off base.

Look, if you want to write, if you aspire to a career in fiction, and if you have the chance to write at least for some time each day, I would encourage you to do so. I would also encourage you to count your lucky stars that you can.

If you can’t, don’t get down on yourself and don’t let anyone (including me) tell you that somehow you’re neglecting your art or doing this wrong. You’re not.

And finally, if you’re in this position — wishing you could write more — consider keeping a journal, even if it just consists of typing an email to yourself in a moment’s free time with some scrap of an idea or a stray thought, or writing a few words in a notebook. You don’t have to Write Your Book. You can simply express yourself in the easiest, quickest, most convenient way possible. There are no rules to this, no single right way blah, blah, blah. You can’t do it wrong, because in this respect there is no wrong. There is only what we can do and what we want to do.

Best of luck. Keep writing.