Tag Archives: David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Scary New Realities of Publishing

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts.

I give a lot of writing advice – not only in these Wednesday posts, but also at conventions, writing workshops, and other professional events. I try to offer encouragement along with that advice. The idea and hope, of course, is that those I work with in those settings will eventually find a home for their written work and an outlet for their broader creative ambitions.

And so this is a difficult post for me to write. Difficult, but necessary.

The market sucks right now. I mean it really, really sucks. New York publishers are laying off editors. Authors with whom I share a listserv – and I’m talking about some big names (bigger by far than me) – are sounding the alarm about the industry’s impending collapse, about rapidly shrinking advances and print runs, about the future of their careers.

Yes, this is somewhat anecdotal. There are still opportunities out there for writers who are self-publishing or going the small press route. But even there, economic downturns like this one… Well, there has never been an economic downturn like this one, so we really don’t know what it’s going to mean for our profession. We do know that during times of recession, content creators suffer just like everyone else. Sure, people need entertainment, including reading material and audiobooks. On the other hand, people have less money for luxuries than they did even a few weeks ago. And, in times of crisis, people often become so obsessed with reading about current affairs that their other reading falls by the wayside.

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts. Big house traditional publishing has become ever more a haven for the most successful and most famous. The so-called B-list – authors who have decent-but-not-spectacular sales, who have fan bases but not true fame – has been squeezed for the better part of a decade. Recent events have simply accelerated an ongoing process.

So what does this mean? It means that more new writers than ever will be forced to go the self-pub/Indie route, which, in turn, will mean that an already crowded Indie marketplace will be even more difficult to navigate. It means that writers like me – middle-aged, long wedded to the traditional publishing model, moderately well-known and successful, blessed with a small but devoted fan base – will need to turn more and more to unfamiliar and even intimidating technologies and business models. Everything has been disrupted. Everything has changed. We are in a new world.

I will admit to being unnerved by all of this. I love what I do, but the part I like best – the part I have ALWAYS liked best – is the actual writing. The rest, the business stuff, the publicity, the ins and outs of turning my ideas into a physical (or electronic) product, I don’t know as well.

On the other hand, I have projects I want to work on that may have been considered risky in the old marketplace. They may be no less risky now, but I am bound less by those market forces. My audience in this new world may be smaller than I would like ideally, but those readers will, I believe, be receptive to reading the things I want to write. As I said before, there is opportunity here as well.

Those of you who are starting out on this journey, however, are coming into a world that none of us recognizes. Writers like me can continue to offer advice on craft – the fundamentals of good storytelling and sound writing haven’t changed. But take with a grain of salt ANY business advice you get right now. Because none of us has ever seen anything like this before. We don’t know where it will lead. We can’t promise you that doing A, B, and C will invariably carry you to success. That’s sobering, I know. Scary even.

I could offer you platitudes and false assurances, but they won’t help you, and they’ll leave me feeling like crap. It’s a Frightening New World, and all I can promise is that we’ll be exploring it together.

In the meantime, keep writing. That one bit of advice has not and will not lose its value.

Monday Musings: Flattening the Curve, Projection “Hoaxes,” and Righteous Anger

I’m angry today.

The pandemic – the isolation, the uncertainty, the steady stream of tragic news, the underlying fear – elicits different emotions at different times, running the gamut from those I’d expect (sadness, fear, numbness) to those I might not. At times lately, I have looked with renewed appreciation at the blessings I have and have had, and I’m thankful, even peaceful.

Today, for a whole host of reasons, I’m pissed. Why? Well, if you really want to know, read the articles about the so-called “Red Dawn” emails. Read the articles about red state Senators getting ventilators for their states, while blue states, where the virus is MUCH worse, have to beg for masks and tests, as well as ventilators. Read the articles about how dangerous it would be to “reopen the country for business” at the end of this month.

But it’s not just those things. How many of you have heard people claiming that, because the national death toll is now projected to be lower – “merely” 64,000 rather than 100,000-240,000 – the more alarmist projections were a “hoax” and symptomatic of panic and overreaction? Never mind that 64,000 is more Americans than died in either the Korean or Vietnam War. Never mind that it’s more people than die in traffic accidents or are killed by firearms each year. Never mind that it’s comparable to annual drug deaths in this country. And never mind that even this new projection could have been much, much lower if only our nation’s leaders had taken action more quickly.

Those crying “hoax” ignore the fact that the projections fell because we (belatedly) reacted to the crisis. They refuse to acknowledge that social-distancing saves lives, that shutting down the economy, though excruciating, saves lives. The best analogy I have seen for this insanity comes from a Tweet I read the other day: Claiming, based on the new projections, that we have “overreacted” to the crisis is like saying, “The fire department told me my house would burn to the ground, but they were wrong – it’s still standing and now it’s all wet…”

In the same way, the President’s talk of opening up the country before his own health experts deem it safe is a recipe for disaster. We are in the first wave of this pandemic. More waves will come. Flattening the curve now does NOT mean we have won. It means we have bought ourselves a bit of time, during which we should be making more masks, building more ventilators, increasing the capacity of our hospitals, and, one hopes, developing a vaccine for the virus.

There will be another wave. It may well be worse than this one if we don’t avail ourselves of this time we’ve gained. The next wave will certainly be every bit as bad if we end the social distancing and self-quarantining too soon. This is not my opinion. It is basic epidemiology (and yeah, I live with a biologist). So, in other words, we have succeeded in slowing the first wave of the pandemic, and in doing so have likely held down the initial infection rate and death toll. And that’s great. But that’s all we’ve done.

Again, flattening the curve is a delaying tactic, a way of marshaling our resources so that we’re not utterly overwhelmed by a highly contagious and deadly illness. It is not the ultimate goal, but rather an interim strategy. Which means that even after this curve has run its course, we will not be done and we will not be safe.

Finally, consider this: Despite early reports to the contrary, this is not an older person’s disease. Yes, fatality rates are higher among those in older age groups. But young people are getting this virus, and young people are dying from it. For whatever reason – and thank whatever deity you worship for this – children really do seem to be relatively immune. But the recurring conservative talking point about how Covid-19 is only killing the elderly and infirm, like it’s some sort of airborne wolfpack, is complete bullshit. Remember that the next time you hear someone saying that we should be willing to make sacrifices to open the country for business again. Yes, recessions and depressions take a terrible toll, not just economically, but also in terms of our physical and mental health. But look around at your family, your circle of friends, your community of professional colleagues. Who among them would you be willing to consign to an early death?

So, yeah, I’m angry today. Angry because we as a society are still not doing all we can to stop this thing. Angry because our leaders are failing us again and again and again. Angry because the information we need to combat the virus is not as readily available as it should be, leading to false narratives and unrealistic expectations.

Stay safe. Stay hunkered down. Be smart. Be careful. Not only because your health and life are at stake. But because so are mine, and so are those of the people I love.

Photo Friday: Spring Hues from the Bluff

Another week of distancing, another week of hikes around our beautiful little town. Spring is in the air, despite the light freeze we had just last night.

Early in the week, I hiked out to one of my favorite view points. It’s called Piney Point, and though the usual parking area for this trailhead has been closed, I was able to get close enough and make up the rest of the distance with a little extra hiking.

One of the reasons I love this spot is that during the spring, as trees begin to leaf out, the valley below the point comes alive with a thousand different shades of green. With a telephoto lens, I can capture segments of the hillsides, searching for subtle patterns in the new growth. And so, with that in mind, I offer you two images from Piney Point, both of them providing, I hope a taste of what spring is like right now in the Appalachians.

Enjoy, and have a peaceful, safe, joyous weekend.

Spring Hues I, 2020, by David B. Coe Spring Hues II, 2020, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, part II — Attribution

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

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

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

So how do we avoid that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. What price?”

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

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

When at last she found her voice, she apologized.

“What is your name, cousin?”

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

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

She hesitated before nodding.

“I see. That, too, carries a cost.”

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

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

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

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

Her cheeks warmed.

“Tell me more of this boon you seek.”

“I– I don’t know how.”

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

“No.”

“Would you care to?”

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

“Very well. Quickly then.”

Where to begin?

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“I knew nothing of this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Its years are all–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What else would we call you?”

“‘She,’ of course.”

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

“I don’t–”

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

We tasted…

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you know?”

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

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

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

“Maeli…”

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

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

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

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

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

The boy frowned but held his tongue.

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

“Then maybe you’re wrong about me.”

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

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

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

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

Best of luck with this, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Movie Favorites!!

Last week, I wrote a Monday Musings post about my rock and roll favorites. I meant it as a diversion, something fun to write (and, I hope, to read) that had nothing to do with the pandemic or politics or any of the other stuff that makes the news so fraught right now.

This week, I thought I would take on my cinematic favorites in a variety of categories. Some of those categories are “serious.” Others, as you’ll see, are pretty goofy. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Again, as with last week, these are MY favorites, and are not in any way meant to be statements of what is “best.” This is meant to be fun. I’m not looking for arguments, though I welcome other opinions offered in the same spirit of amusement and sharing.

That said, and without further ado….

My Favorite Drama: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is a movie that can tick a lot of boxes. Some might call it a comedy – there are a lot of laughs here. Somehow, though, when both your heroes die at the end in a hail of bullets… well, not so much a comedy in my view. This is also my favorite Western of all time, and my favorite Buddy Movie of all time. Stars Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Katherine Ross. Directed by George Roy Hill.

My Favorite Comedy/RomCom: High Fidelity. Based on the novel of the same title by Nick Hornby. If you’re a music lover, you should see this movie. Wonderful. I know John Cusack is a bit of a wacko, but he’s great in this (he’s great in everything, actually). Stars John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Joan Cusack. Directed by Stephen Frears.

My Favorite Oldie Drama: Casablanca. Yeah, not really going out on a limb here. But good lord, what a movie. Intrigue, forbidden romance, Nazis to hate, ex-Pat mysterious Americans to love. It’s got it all. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Claude Raines, Peter Lorre. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

My Favorite Oldie Comedy: Philadelphia Story. Charming love triangle farce with a stellar cast. Really a fun movie once you get by the upper crust, high society classism of the thing. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ruth Hussey. Directed by George Kukor.

Movie that Makes Me Cry. Every. Single. Time: Field of Dreams. It’s not just the Dad-son thing, though yeah, that turns me into a puddle. But also that moment when Moonlight Graham has to choose between baseball and being a doctor. Damn. Got something in my eye just writing about it…. Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, Burt Lancaster. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson.

Movie I Can’t Help But Watch Every Time It’s On: Tie – The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II. Brilliant movie making, spectacular casts, utterly compelling. The first movie is probably the best adaptation of any novel ever. And the second is probably the best sequel ever made. Al Pacino, Marlon Brando (I), Robert DeNiro (II) James Caan (I), Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, John Cazale. Directed (both) by Francis Ford Coppola.

My Favorite Movie That Led Directly to My Favorite Television Show: The American President. Written by Aaron Sorkin, this is the movie that basically gave us The West Wing. Similar themes, similar quality, in a really delightful romantic comedy/political drama. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfus, Anna Devere Smith. Directed by Rob Reiner.

My Favorite Animated Movie: Monsters, Inc. As a dad, I have sat through my share of terrible movies and TV shows. I have also been treated to some wonderful movies from the folks at Pixar and Dreamworks. This one is so funny, so touching, so exciting. Voiced by Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Mary Gibbs, Jennifer Tilly, James Coburn, Rob Peterson. Directed by Pete Docter.

My Favorite SF Movie: Blade Runner. Let me say first (and I know this is not a widely shared opinion) that I LOVE the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise. I think those movies are marvelous. And I love, love, love Guardians of the Galaxy. But this movie is so atmospheric, so thoughtful, and weird, and noir. Love it. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos. Directed by Ridley Scott.

My Favorite Fantasy Movie: Excalibur. Similar to the SF films. I love the LOTR films, and also several of the Harry Potters, but this treatment of the King Arthur legend is an underrated gem. Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Helen Mirren, Cherie Lunghi, and a host of young future stars (Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart). Directed by John Boorman.

My Favorite Caper Film: The Sting. Redford and Newman together again in a movie that won seven academy awards. The plot is complex, at times almost impossible to follow. But it is so, so good. Redford, Newman, Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan.

Two Movies That Convinced Me Steven Spielberg is a Freaking Genius: On June 9, 1993, just in time for summer blockbuster season, Spielberg premiered Jurassic Park, which went on to become the highest grossing movie Hollywood had ever seen (to that point). Less than six months later, on November 30 of that same year, he premiered Schindler’s List, which went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. That combination of achievements in a single year is, I am certain, unequaled in cinematic history.

Best Movie I’ve Seen In the Last Six Months: Just Mercy. This was screened at the university here just before the pandemic, and followed by a lengthy community discussion. Fantastic, devastating film. Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

My Favorite Actor: This is hard. Let’s go with a list – Pacino, Denzel, Redford, Bogie, James Earl Jones, Jimmy Stewart, Dustin Hoffman.

My Favorite Actress: Cate Blanchett, Katharine Hepburn, Zoë Saldana, Ingrid Bergman, Meryl Streep, Octavia Spencer, Emma Thompson.

Actor (and Role) Who Might Make Me Re-Think My Sexual Orientation: Robert Redford as Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I mean, get real. He’s gorgeous.

Actress (and Role) Who Might Make Me Leave My Happy Home: Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa in Casablanca. She is luminous, strong but also vulnerable, and simply exquisite.

And there you go! Hope you enjoyed this. Have a great week!

Photo Friday: A Hike to Jackson Lake

As the pandemic progresses, the limitations placed on what we can and should do grow more stringent. Here in our little town, that has meant, most recently, a ban on parking at many of the more popular trailheads in and around campus. Too many people are coming from out of town to take advantage of the amazing physical surroundings of our university (the school is located on 13,000 acres atop the Cumberland Plateau) and they’re congregating in the parking areas. Hence the ban.

For those who live in town, this prohibition is not that big a deal. The town is small enough that they can walk to most of those trailheads from their homes. But for those of us who live too far outside of town for such a walk to be feasible, the challenge is greater. And so this week, after having already given up access to the gym, and while still desperate for ways to stay active, I have lost access to some of my favorite hikes.

In the end, though, this turned out to be a boon. Two days ago, faced with this newest limitation, I finally tried a hike near our home that I had been putting off literally for years. I don’t know why I avoided it. Lots of people told me it was a great walk, but I had my favorites, and I am nothing if not a creature of habit. Now, without other choices, I was forced to try this hike.

It was magnificent. The roundtrip was about five and half miles, and it took me to a couple of great spots, chief among them a pair of lakes. One of the lakes, photographed here, is about a mile and a half from our house. It is overgrown and picturesque and stunningly beautiful, even with spring foliage just beginning to emerge. When I arrived there, I flushed a pair of Wood Ducks. Newly arrived warblers and vireos sang from hidden perches

It is called Jackson Lake, and I am already planning my next visit and thinking of times when it will be even more spectacular – at the height of fall color, after a snow in winter, in the midst of one of our many foggy mornings, etc.

For now here is one of the images I captured the other morning. Enjoy. And have a wonderful weekend.

Jackson Lake, Early Spring, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, Part I

I love writing dialogue, in part because I love reading dialogue. I believe that people are natural eavesdroppers. We like to listen in on other people’s conversations. That’s what reading dialogue is all about – it is one of the few times we can be privy to the private conversations of others without violating social mores.

Writing good dialogue is difficult. Attributing that dialogue skillfully and clearly can be incredibly challenging. So this week and next week I am going to focus my Writing Tip Wednesday posts on writing and attributing dialogue.

This week, let’s talk about the “spoken” words themselves. What are some of the tricks to writing good conversations among our characters?

Perhaps more than any other element of writing, constructing effective dialogue is an exercise in finding balance. What do I mean by that?

It should go without saying that our characters’ conversations need to have purpose. Every scene we write should be accomplishing multiple things at once – providing necessary background, deepening character development, furthering our narratives. Conversational scenes are no different. So our conversations need to be directed, they need to accomplish something – in other words there needs to be a point. But, you don’t want the conversations to be so directed that their outcome feels predetermined, nor do you want every encounter among characters to feel agenda-driven. We seek a balance in which the conversations accomplish all that we need them to in a way that feels completely believable.

We want our characters to get their points across without the conversation meandering too much, but we also want the dialogue to sound natural and easy, as opposed to stilted and formal. If you listen to humans conversing in a restaurant or bar, you can’t help but notice that we are remarkably inarticulate beings. We rarely speak in complete sentences, and even less frequently in sentences that are devoid of syntactical errors. We throw in a ton of “uh”s and “ummm”s and “like”s and “you know”s. Generally, we writers leave most of that stuff out of our written conversations, or else we throw in an instance or two, just to make things sound a bit more realistic, or to give a verbal tic to one character. My point is, we don’t necessarily want to make our characters sound like real people when they talk, but we also don’t want them to sound so perfect that they’re unrealistic or unrelatable. The balance here is, in effect, to make our characters talk the way we wish real people would.

So then the question becomes, how do we strike these balances?

Here are a few things I do. First, when I begin work on a scene in which, say, two characters are speaking, I already (I would hope) have some sense of the characters themselves – who they are, what they usually sound like when they speak, what they bring to their relationship with each other. For instance, if I’m writing a Thieftaker story and have Ethan interacting with Sephira, I already know that Ethan will be defensive and wary of her motives, but also willing to stand up for himself. I know that Sephira will be mocking and rude. She will use sexual innuendo to try to keep him off balance, and she will be driven always by greed and ambition. And they will have their conversation against a backdrop of extended enmity, rivalry, mistrust, but also familiarity and grudging respect. Knowing all that helps me find the right tone. Obviously, if Ethan was interacting with, say Diver, or Sam Adams, the equations would be quite different. The point is, knowing these things up front is incredibly important.

Second, I will have in mind throughout the conversation exactly what each character wants out of this particular encounter. I know that some of you are dedicated pantsers – you don’t like to plan any part of your books. And actually, when it comes to writing dialogue, I do as little outlining as possible, and I never plan ahead of time what actual words the characters will say. But this isn’t about planning or pantsing. This is about understanding our characters’ motives, and we should always be aware of that. Motive is particularly important in scenes with dialogue, because motive allows us to direct the conversation without making any of it sound predetermined. So knowing what every character privy to the conversation wants to get out of the exchange is crucial to the scene’s success.

Finally, as I write, I speak the dialogue. Or, more accurately, I carry on the conversation in my head, and then transcribe it into the manuscript, line by line. I tend to speak as I write anyway – if you were to watch me write, you’d realize that I am constantly sub-vocalizing everything. But I find the practice especially helpful when writing dialogue. If the words come naturally to me in the course of “conversing” on behalf of the characters, chances are it will read well on the page.

A couple of other things to keep in mind. Again, if you listen to people speaking in the course of everyday conversation, you’ll notice that we almost never call each other by name. As an experiment, try ending every other sentence in a real-life conversation with the name of the person you’re talking to. It sounds utterly ridiculous. So resist the urge to use names in your written dialogue. We all do it WAY more than we should. It is one of the first things I get rid of in revisions. I’m not saying don’t do it ever. But once in an entire scene is plenty.

Contractions: If you are writing in a world in which contractions do not exist, or if you have certain characters who never use contractions, do not use them. (See what I did there?) Otherwise, use ‘em. We all speak with contractions, and they help to make our words sound informal and natural. They’ll do the same for your characters.

Remember, you want your dialogue to sound as believable and unforced as possible, and at the same time, you want it to accomplish specific tangible things for your narrative. Yes, that’s a fine balance to strike, but with practice and a bit of forethought you can absolutely do it.

Next week, dialogue attribution!

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Musical Favorites — A List Post

Okay, I am tired of Covid posts, of contemplating the meaning of life in the time of plague and all that. Today’s Musings are of an entirely frivolous sort. I have been listening to A LOT of music. Oldish music. Boomer music. Dad music. The music I have listened to and loved since I was a kid being turned on to 60s and 70s rock by my older siblings. (I wrote about this in the context of another music post earlier this year.)

And because I’m bored, and having trouble focusing on the work at hand, and also a huge fan of the movie High Fidelity, I started making lists in my head. What sort of lists? I am SO glad you asked….

[And before I go on, this is my list of MY favorites. I know they may not be “the best.” I’m sure that we could survey one hundred of you and wind up with a hundred different answers for all of these. I did this for fun, and because I thought you might find it entertaining. I am not looking for a fight and will not engage in arguments about any of this. Okay?]

My Favorite Musical Performer: This is a no-brainer, and it is a sentimental choice. My very first real album (not something put out by Hanna-Barbera) was James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, which I was given when I was seven years old. Ever since, James Taylor has been my favorite, the artist I go to when I need cheering up, when I seek solace or comfort. His music has literally been the soundtrack of my life; his various albums are signposts that help me date certain key moments of my personal history. I know he’s not the best musician or the best songwriter, but he is the one I love most. Also, he and I share a birthday. For what that’s worth.

My Favorite Band: Little Feat. A little bit rock, a little bit country, with elements of funk and R and B and Creole thrown in. I was turned on to Little Feat by my oldest brother, Bill, who was my guru for all things Rock ‘n Roll. Their live album, Waiting for Columbus, is, in my view, the greatest live album ever made. And I say that as a huge fan of the Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East. Sacrilege, I know. But this is my blog. So there. For a sample of their sound listen to the live version of “Dixie Chicken” or any version of “Rock ‘n Roll Doctor.”

My Favorite Songwriter: There are a lot of wonderful songwriters out there, including James, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and, the one who was very nearly my top choice, Paul Simon. Among newer artists I think Adam Duritz and, yes, Taylor Swift are both remarkable writers. But to my mind the finest songwriter of the last half century is Joni Mitchell. And I think if she was a guy, it wouldn’t be a controversial choice. Her lyrics are simply brilliant – emotional, unexpected, evocative. Listen to “A Case of You” or “Song For Sharon.” I know some don’t like her voice. Sometimes I don’t either. This is about the songs and lyrics themselves.

My Favorite Musicians: Okay, this is a tricky one – I’m kind of thinking about this the way I might an all-star team: putting together my favorites by instrument. I’m not necessarily looking at creating the perfect band. Some of my choices don’t go together so well. But… well… this is my game and these are the rules by which I’m playing.

Lead Vocals, Male: So many great voices to choose from – Roger Daltry, Bob Seeger, David Crosby (a personal favorite). But I think my favorite guy’s rock voice might be Phil Collins. Honorable mention: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows fame. And Michael McDonald from his Doobie Brother days.

Lead Vocals, Female: Again, so many great voices. I was never a Heart fan, but Ann and Nancy Wilson could sing. That said, I have to go with Melissa Etheridge. LOVE her voice. Bluesy, gravelly, powerful. She’s also a remarkable songwriter and has been a courageous voice for social justice. And I could listen to her sing all day long. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Christine McVie, and Susan Tedeschi.

Lead Guitar: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. His solos have a blend of edginess and elegance that I just love. Listen to the guitar work on “Comfortably Numb.” Mind-blowing. Honorable mention to about a thousand people, among them: Dickey Betts, Stephen Stills, Patrick Simmons, Jerry Garcia, Mick Taylor as well as the giants, Clapton and Hendrix.

Rhythm Guitar: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Yeah, I know he also plays lead, but I think that while he is a very good lead guitarist, he is a masterful rhythm guitarist. That’s just me, but it’s how I feel. Honorable Mention: Bobby Weir.

Slide Guitar: I include this because it’s probably my favorite instrument to listen to. And it’s a chance for me to mention Lowell George, the creative force behind Little Feat, and the best slide guitarist I’ve ever heard. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Duane Allman, Jon Pousette-Dart, and Derek Trucks.

Keyboards: I will admit that I know far less about keyboards than I ought to. I love Elton John, and so does my wife. But I’m not sure how he fits with this list. Among my favorites are also two from the same band, which is a little unusual. Gregg Allman played organ and piano for the Allman Brothers Band and was very good at both. And Chuck Leavell’s piano solo on the song “Jessica” is one of the most joyous passages of rock ever recorded. So they will share top billing for me, with honorable mention going to Billy Payne and Billy Powell.

Bass: “Do not be deceived by nor take lightly this bit of musicianship that one describes simply as ‘bass.’” Kenny Gradney of Little Feat. Just a remarkably expressive and creative bass player. Honorable mention: Tina Weymouth and Phil Lesh.

And finally Drums: This one, to my mind, is not even close. There are drummers, and then there is Keith Moon, of The Who. His work was mesmerizing, surprising, powerful – just terrific stuff. Honorable mention to Steve Gadd and Charlie Watts.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this. Maybe next week I’ll do movies and movie stars…

Have a great week!

Photo Friday: More Macro of Spring Flowers

Another week gone, and another Photo Friday post. I’m not sure how the days can fly so when all I’m doing is working at home, living at home, keeping entertained and busy at home, but there it is.

I hope you all aren’t tired of macro photography, because once again that’s what I have for you. These are two photos I took last week down in Shakerag Hollow. One is of water droplets on Dutchman’s Breeches greens. The other is another Rue Anemone. I hope you enjoy them.

Stay safe, stay healthy, be thoughtful of others, and have a wonderful weekend.

Rue Anenome II, by David B. Coe Dutchman's Breeches Greens and Raindrops, by David B. Coe

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!