Tag Archives: Joshua Palmatier

Writing Tip Wednesday: The Nature of Conflict

When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.

One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.

Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.

I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.

And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.

Right? Right.

Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.

And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.

Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.

The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”

No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Submissions

Welcome to the first of my 2020 Writing Tip Wednesdays (name still very much negotiable…). Every Wednesday, I intend to post a tip for writers about some element of the craft or business of writing. I don’t really have in mind any long-term structure for this feature – at least to begin with. I’ll probably be ranging somewhat randomly from one topic to the next. And I will be soliciting your input on what you’d like to hear about in these Wednesday posts.

For this week, though, I am thinking about short fiction, mostly because I am reading stories for the Zombies Need Brains anthology, Galactic Stew, which I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. In particular, I am thinking about the way in which stories ought to be submitted to editors for consideration, in terms of both appearance and content. Bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.

Let me begin with this: Joshua and I received 409 submissions for this anthology. Our plan is to accept six stories (the other eight in the anthology are to be written by our anchor authors). Again, six stories will be selected from 409. Think about that for a moment. It is harder to get into our anthology than it is for a high school senior to get into Harvard. And so you want to give your story the very best chance of being selected, and that means a couple of things. Yes, naturally you want to write the best story you can. But you also don’t want to disadvantage your entry by failing to follow our submission guidelines or by presenting your work in a manner that is less than professional. So with that in mind, a few tips:

1) Follow the submission guidelines. If you have been to a convention I’m attending, you’ve probably heard me say this before, because it’s that important. Every anthology, every magazine (paper or online), every publishing house, every representational agency – EVERY market – has guidelines. Your job as writer is find them and follow them to the letter. Do not assume that the guidelines for one market apply to all. Chances are they don’t. ALWAYS check the guidelines. Always follow them. If by some chance you find the one market in the world that doesn’t have guidelines, then I recommend that at the very least you follow standard manuscript format: one inch margins all around: 12 point font, preferably Times New Roman; double-spacing; indenting at the beginning of each paragraph; headers containing page number, your last name, and the title of the story; .doc or .docx format (NOT .pdf). These are basics; they should be second nature. This is how professionals present their work.

2) Word count matters. In part this means that if we say “no longer than 7,500 words,” you probably shouldn’t send us a 9,000 word story, even if it is the greatest piece of short fiction since “The Lottery.” But it also means think about how long your story should be at minimum. Many sites will help with this, offering a word range, or, as with the Zombies Need Brains site, specifying an average length of story (in this case, 6,000). Still, even without such information, the upper word count limit should give some indication of desired length. If a market says they want stories no longer than, for instance, 7,500 words, that is likely an indication that they are not looking for flash fiction. Often publishers are trying to produce something (a book or magazine issue) of a certain length, and so they might well have in mind a page count, a word count, an approximate size for the project. For this reason, unless markets specifically ask for flash fiction, or very brief pieces of short fiction, a story that is only 500 or 1000 words long, probably is not going to make the cut.

3) Theme matters. Sometimes. Not all anthologies are themed. Sometimes editors are simply looking for the best stories they can find. At other times (as with the Zombies Need Brains anthologies) theme is everything. For anthologies like these, you want your stories to embrace the stated theme fully. It is usually not enough simply to have a passing mention of, say, food (the theme for Galactic Stew); it needs to be the focus of the story. To give a theme-appropriate analogy, it’s like on a cooking show, when the host tells you it’s not enough simply to use your basket ingredients. Rather you need to make those ingredients the star of whatever dish you’re making. In the same way, the theme should be central to your story.

4) When working with a theme, your first story idea might not be your best idea. This bit of advice I borrow from my co-editor, Joshua Palmatier, who offered it during a panel we shared at RoberCon in Binghamton back in September. This tidbit works on a number of levels: To begin, quite often, the first idea you come up with as you grapple with a theme is going to be the most obvious idea, not only to you, but to everyone who intends to submit. So, again using the food anthology as an example, if you write about, say, poisoning (which is actually an approach we urged people to avoid, but stick with me for the purposes of the example), it’s possible – likely even – that your story will be competing against dozens of poisoning stories. Yes, yours might be the best of them, but chances are we’re only going to take one, so you’re potentially putting yourself at a disadvantage. But also, don’t settle for the first idea works in a deeper way. Sometimes the most obvious idea is also the least interesting. The best stories we’ve seen have been those that surprise us, despite the fact that we’ve read literally hundreds of offerings. The more you think, the more you delve into the possibilities presented by the theme, the greater the chance that you’re going to discover something truly creative and unique. And that, after all, is your goal.

5) And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if your story isn’t accepted. Did I mention that we received 409 submissions? These days, with so many people hoping to publish and so few markets available, editors and agents everywhere are inundated with stories (or manuscripts, or queries). It’s a tough market, and rejection, while painful, is not the same as judgment. A rejection does not mean your story sucks. It means that for this market, at this moment, the story is not what the editors or publishers or agents are looking for. And that’s ALL it means. The story might well be perfect for the next market to which you submit. Keep trying. If, after a while, the story still hasn’t sold, try another story, and maybe share this one with Beta readers who can offer constructive feedback. But do not freak out, and do not lose hope or get down on yourself. As I have said before, rejection is not the final word; it is simply a step in a long-term negotiation.

Best of luck to all of you. Keep writing!

TIME’S DEMON Blog Tour, So Far

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time’s Demon, the second volume in The Islevale Cycle, my time travel/epic fantasy series (written as D.B. Jackson), came out last week. The reviews have been very nice, with SFFWorld saying that the book is “about as perfect a second book in a series as a reader could hope to have.” I have been blogging about the book a lot, and thought I would take advantage of this small lull in the blog tour to give you a review of where I have been so far. Below you will find a list of my appearances to date for the release. As I make more stops on the tour, I will alert you to those as well. In the meantime, I hope you will take a few moments to check out these posts and interviews. Thanks, and enjoy!

*****

Black Gate Magazine, a post about my writing inspirations

[Earlier in May, I wrote for Black Gate a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago. And Black Gate also published a “Future Treasures” preview of Time’s Demon.]

PaulSemel.com, an interview with Paul

My Life, My Books, My Escape, an interview with D.J.

Civilian Reader, a post about the challenge of middle books

A Refuge From Life, an interview with Will

Joshua Palmatier’s blog, a post about imposter syndrome

Stephen Leigh’s blog, a post about plotting or not plotting

Marie Brennan’s blog, a post in her Spark of Life feature

Faith Hunter’s blog, an excerpt from Time’s Demon

Alma Alexander’s blog, an interview with Alma

On Writing: Revisions and the Editorial Process

Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

I recently completed revisions on TIME’S DEMON, the second novel in my Islevale Cycle. Almost immediately after finishing them, I began editing submissions to the upcoming anthology from Zombies Need Brains, TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, which I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. So for obvious reasons, I have had revisions and the editing process on my brain.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson  Art by Jan Weßbecher.When we talk about craft, we usually focus on elements of initial creation – world building, character building and development, plotting, structuring and pacing a story or novel, and all the pitfalls we encounter when writing our stories. And certainly those are topics worthy of vigorous exploration.

The fact is, though, the purpose in working on all of those things is to sell our story or novel. And should we be fortunate enough to do so, pretty much the first thing we will be expected to do is revise our manuscript in response to an editor’s concerns and criticisms. So doesn’t it make sense to turn some attention to that part of the creative process?

Receiving editorial feedback on something we’ve written can be incredibly difficult. Chances are, if we submitted a story or novel for consideration at a magazine or anthology or publishing house, we thought the story was pretty good to start with. So hearing that it has flaws – in certain cases significant, pervasive flaws – often comes as both a shock and a blow. Sure, these criticisms come in the context of someone saying, “Hey, I love this story, and I want to pay you for it. In real money.” So, thinking about this rationally, we should be able to process the editor’s feedback with this underlying praise in mind.

Jacket image for TEMPORALLY DEACTIVATED, edited by Joshua Palmatier and David B. Coe

But we’re writers. We don’t necessarily do rational. And given the chance to fixate on praise or criticism, we will invariably choose the latter. Pathetic, I know. But it’s a living…

Kidding aside, accepting editorial feedback and turning it into a positive revision process is one of the greatest challenges we face as writers. Especially early in my career, I found that my own reactions to criticism from editors ranged between two extremes. At times, I reacted with a knee-jerk defensiveness: “They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do with my story. If they were better readers, they’d get it, and they’d see that there’s no problem here.” At other times, I internalized it all and allowed it to feed my lingering imposter syndrome: “Yeah, they’re right. This is shit. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I have no place even attempting a story this complex or ambitious.”

Of course, both extremes had little basis in fact. My editors understood perfectly what I was trying to do with my story. There were just elements of it that I hadn’t handled well. Which didn’t mean that I was a shit writer. It meant I was human. My story wasn’t perfect. But it was good, and with my editor’s help, I could make it even better.

The emotional health in that previous paragraph was pretty alien to me early in my career. Sometimes it still eludes me. But it’s what I strive for when I receive editorial letters. So, here are a few things I try to keep in mind when trying to turn editorial feedback into effective revisions.

1. Editors are not our adversaries. The reality is that at times we find ourselves thinking of editors this way, in part because the editor-writer relationship is something of a hybrid. It’s a business relationship. Editors buy our stories and books, and at times we want them to pay us more than they’re willing to shell out. But it’s also an artistic collaboration. Our editors want our stories to be as good as they can be, just as we do. Every margin comment and line in an editorial letter is intended to help us get the most out of our narratives and characters.

2. A second set of eyes helps. No matter how much experience we have, or how good we might be at editing our own work, our stories will ALWAYS benefit from another reader’s perspective, especially if that reader is a professional in the field. We can’t possibly anticipate every problem with the things we write; we’re just too close to the material, the emotions, the creative process. Distance is our friend, and almost by definition, another reader brings that distance.

3. Our initial reaction to criticism is not necessarily our most productive reaction. I read through editorial notes the day I receive them. But I never respond until I’ve let myself process them for a day or two or three. Often I find that my first response to certain criticisms is to disagree, but over time I start to see what the editor is getting at. I generally wind up agreeing with 90% or more of the feedback I receive, although on that first day I probably agree with less than half of it.

4. I find it helps when I ask myself why I’m disagreeing with one point or another. Am I being overly sensitive? Am I too attached to a certain turn of phrase or narrative moment? Or is there really something vital here that I don’t want to sacrifice? A good editor will make clear up front that suggested wording changes are just that: suggestions. Early on, my first editor would cross out what I had written and put in his own wording. And sometimes his wording sucked. But when I talked to him about these instances, he said, “I don’t care if you use my wording. That’s not the point. I just want you to look for another way to say this.” Once I understood that he was pointing out problems rather than trying to make my book into his book, I found his comments much easier to take.

5. Sometimes we do have to fight for our artistic choices. There are times when editors get it wrong, and our way really is the right way. And in those instances, we have to hold strong for what we believe in. I try not to do this too often, because, as I say, we are all prone to defensiveness, and I want to be certain that I’m not opposing changes for the wrong reasons. But there have been times when I have had to stand firm on points about which I felt strongly. And a good editor also knows when to back down.

6. The revision process can be tremendously satisfying. Insights from a skilled editor can make the difference between a book that is just fine and one that is truly excellent. I try to approach revisions with my ego as much in check as possible, my mind open to possibilities I might not have considered before, and my commitment to my original artistic vision foremost in my mind. That last point is key. Clinging to my original vision does not mean resisting change. My original vision and my original wording are NOT the same things. Indeed, sometimes my writing carries me away from that first inspiration, and it takes the input of a perceptive reader to get me back to it.

Be open to new ideas, to the possibility that the current draft might not be the best possible draft, to the notion that the person pointing out where you can improve your story really does have your best interests at heart. Do these things and you might find, as I do, that revising a manuscript is every bit as gratifying as creating one.

TIME’S CHILDREN Blog Tour Info!

TIME’S CHILDREN, the first book in The Islevale Cycle, my new series from Angry Robot Books, will be released in just six days (10/2). Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.This is an epic fantasy/time travel story, and I have a post up at the blog of my friend Alma Alexander that is all about writing time travel books — the pitfalls, the challenges, the rewards. I hope you’ll check out the post.

There are two new reviews of the book online, both of them very positive. You can find them here and here.

And Black Gate Magazine has a preview up as well.

Tomorrow, Thursday, September 27, my blog tour promoting the release continues with a post at the site of my dear friend Stephen Leigh. Again, I will be discussing the writing of time travel.

On Friday, September 28, I will be visiting the blog of friend and wonderful writer Stina Leicht. My post for Stina’s blog is about world building for the Islevale series.

On Monday, October 1, I’ll be doing a Q&A with fellow Angry Robot author Patrice Sarath at her site.

Tuesday, October 2, is release day, and I’ll have an essay up at Black Gate  — a continuation of my “Books and Craft” series, on key craft elements of classic books. I’ll be discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, which has long been one of my favorite works. In fact, I intended my world for this new series, Islevale, as an homage to Earthsea.

Wednesday, October 3, I will be doing another Q&A, this one with another friend, Bradley Beaulieu.

And on Thursday, October 4, I will be at the site of Joshua Palmatier, author and editor extraordinaire, as well as the founder of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua and I have worked on several short fiction projects together, and I wrote a story for him that is set in Islevale. The story is called “Guild of the Ancients.” It appears in GUILDS AND GLAIVES, and anthology Joshua co-edited with S.C. Butler.

A Word About Editors

I have just turned in a revised version of the short story I submitted to TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER, the new anthology being edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray. I am on “Team Patty,” which means that Patricia edited my story. And her feedback, and the subsequent revisions I did on my story, reminded me once more (as if I needed reminding) of how important a good editor is for all that we write, regardless of length.

As it happened, my story didn’t really need extensive rewriting. But it did need polishing and some subtle changes to deepen the character work and clear up the plotting. I hadn’t realized that it needed these things; it took Patricia pointing them out to me, gently, diplomatically, professionally for me to see the issues and find solutions. It helped that she was looking at it fresh — having a different set of eyes look through a story always helps, which is why having Beta readers can be so helpful. But more than that, Patricia is a fine editor who understands storytelling and can diagnose narrative problems with a simple read-through.

Of course she’s not the only person who can do this. Joshua is an excellent editor as well, and I have been fortunate enough to have worked with countless others — both on my books and my short fiction — who have improved my work and taught me valuable lessons about the craft. And that, really, is the point. We ALL need editing. I have been writing for a long, long time, and I have never written anything that was so perfect it didn’t need at least some help. A good editor is invaluable. And a good writer understands that her/his work can always — ALWAYS — be improved by editorial feedback.

A New Interview is Up!

My friend Joshua Palmatier (aka Benjamin Tate) has interviewed me about the release of Spell Blind, the first book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson. We talk about pseudonyms, urban fantasy, and character development, and, of course, we do so with panache. So check it out. You can find the interview here.