Tag Archives: Lucienne Diver

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Finding an Agent

Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

A few of you expressed interest in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post about finding an agent. (And if you’re interested in offering suggestions for future posts, just sign up for my Facebook group here and leave your thoughts in a comment.)

I could write my next three posts about the agenting process and still not cover the topic in a comprehensive way, but I will do my best to start the conversation here. I will likely return to the subject later in the year. And further down in this post I will share a link to a couple of posts about querying written by my own wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver.

To start, though, I want to focus on a question I hear with some regularity: Do I really need an agent?

This is a valid question. The publishing industry has changed markedly over the past decade, and has undergone huge changes since I started writing professionally twenty-five years ago. At one time, when big-house publishing still dominated the industry, when self-publishing was still called “vanity publishing,” and small presses were at best an imperfect alternative, aspiring authors really couldn’t hope to make a professional book-length sale without an agent. Most large publishers were unwilling even to consider unagented manuscripts. And to some degree that remains true today.

The difference, of course, is that with publishing technology being what it is, and e-books and audio books taking up ever larger portions of the book market, small press publishing is far more viable than it has ever been, and, for many, self-publishing has become a legitimate path. Authors can sign with small publishers and/or earn money from their own books without necessarily having an agent.

And yet, I still believe having an agent makes sense. Why? A couple of reasons. First, I can’t tell you how many new writers I have seen struggling with bad contracts, dealing with publishers who, through incompetence or malign intent, have put them in impossible situations. They are stuck earning next to nothing and, in many cases, are unable to regain the rights to their work. Agents – good ones – understand contracts. They are fluent in legalese, and not only can they spot troublesome clauses in a written agreement, they can also improve terms on less contentious but equally important clauses. It is worth finding an agent for their contractual expertise alone.

But a good agent can help in other ways as well. The fact is, even if authors start out signing perfectly fine contracts with small presses, most aspire to more. They want to sell foreign rights to their books, not to mention film or television or game rights. They want to develop a career strategy that will take them to greater and greater heights of success. A competent, honest agent can help with all of that, and the earlier an author begins a partnership with an agent, the more fruitful that relationship is likely to be. So, yes, by all means, find an agent.

How?

There is no single method that is guaranteed to find you the best agent, the most honest agent, the agent who will bring you fortune and fame. Those things are as dependent on your relationship with your agent as they are on the agent herself. A lot of finding the right agent comes down to doing research, listening to people talk about their agent experiences, and then, in the end, finding someone with whom you have some personal chemistry.

The research is fairly simple. Most of us can place our work in a certain genre or subgenre. We know whose work is similar to ours, who our most comparable authors are. Likely, all or most of those other authors have agents who they acknowledge in their books or on their websites. Those names are a good place to start your search. On the flip side, many agents list their clientele publicly. Look at those lists. Do you see yourself fitting in with those other authors? It probably seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: If the agent in question specializes in, say, military science fiction, and you write, say, high fantasy for YA readers, you might want to keep looking.

You can also talk to friends, ask around at conventions and workshops, or even meet agents at such events and find ways to approach them. Agents attend conventions and workshops looking to connect with new writers. Approaching them – politely and in appropriate venues at appropriate times – is perfectly acceptable.

If meeting agents proves impossible, you can still query them. Here is Lucienne’s take on how best to craft a query letter. And here is her post on what comes next after the query.

Finally, you want to talk to any prospective agent in depth. It is always flattering to have an agent express interest in representing you, and it’s tempting to leap at that first offer of representation. Finding an agent is hard, and it’s easy to assume that the first offer could wind up being the only offer. The truth is, though, if one agent is interested, another is likely to be as well. And while that first agent might be fine, or even perfect, there is also the chance that the fit won’t be right.

Ask questions. Where do they think they might place the work you’re selling at the moment? What kind of follow-up do they think you ought to write? What do they think is the best direction for your career going forward? If, in discussing these things, you get the sense that the agent either doesn’t have good answers, or is pointing you in a direction you don’t wish to go, you might want to consider continuing your search.

A couple of nitty-gritty points before I finish: Standard agent percentage is 15% on domestic sales and secondary rights (games, media, audio, etc.). For foreign sales it’s generally 20%. Legitimate agents do not ask for retainer fees, reading fees, etc. They do not try to set you up with “book doctors” or freelance editors who will “improve” your manuscript for a fee. If an agent asks for money, or tries to arrange such services, chances are they’re looking to scam you. Run away. Remember that money flows TO the writer. Agents make money when you make money, by taking a percentage of your earnings. And remember as well that a bad agent – someone who is incompetent or dishonest – can do more damage than good. This is one more reason to be careful with your selection and to not rush into anything because you’re just thrilled to be offered representation.

Writers will work with many, many editors over the course of a career. Editors move from publisher to publisher, they might be interested in one series but not another. Changeover in the editor-writer relationship is to be expected. The writer-agent relationship, on the other hand, is for the long haul. It’s a cliché to compare it to a marriage, but it’s also true. I have been writing for a quarter century. I have worked with at least ten different editors on long fiction and nearly as many on short fiction. In that same time, I’ve had two agents. The relationship with the first ended amicably, as I was taking my career in a new direction and he was looking to retire. The relationship with the second is going strong after twenty years.

The search for an agent can be frustrating, it can be slow, it can be discouraging. Can you start your career without an agent? In today’s world, yes, you can. And if you have that opportunity, go ahead. In fact, if you get an offer from a small press, that can be the perfect opportunity to approach an agent. “I have an offer,” you say. “Would you be willing to represent me in my negotiations?” Many agents will leap at such an offer. And if they prevent even one bad clause from finding its way into your contract, if they win even one concession on royalty rates, if they make even one foreign sale of that same work, the percentage you pay will be well worth it.

(Not So) Quick-Tip Tuesday: Ups and Downs in the Writing Life

I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

Writers tend to want to share on social media when things are going well. We love to trumpet our happy news, and I’m certainly no different.

There are sound reasons for this. One is purely professional: It helps our careers to focus on the good stuff, to show the world new cover art, or to announce an upcoming release, the sale of a book to a publisher, an award nomination or great review from a major journal. Publicizing these things contributes to what the industry refers to as “buzz.” We want people to talk about us, and about our work, for the right reasons.

There is also a purely human reason: As I have said many, many times, writing is a difficult way to make a living. It can be frustrating, even demoralizing. We do much of our work in isolation, struggling with story lines and character arcs, and it can seem, at times, as though those tidbits of good news come all too infrequently. So, when things do go well, we want to shout it from the rooftops. And when those disappointments come, we tend to keep them to ourselves.

Which is why this is such an unusual post for me.

I’m dealing with a professional setback, and I believe it’s worth discussing publicly, because it represents, in many respects the very essence of what a writing career is like. Now let me be clear: In the larger scheme of things, this is a minor reversal, a tiny blip in the course of my career and something I will address and overcome quickly. But it certainly knocked me on my butt for a few days.

In December, I turned in a manuscript to my agent. This is a new project, the first volume in what I expect will be a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy (or more). In my excitement, I announced on Facebook and elsewhere that I had completed the book. I’m pretty sure I said at the time that it was the best work I had done to date. I’ve since been working on the sequel, and just last week I announced, again on Facebook and elsewhere, that I was 50,000 words in to book two.

The day following that most recent announcement, I received editorial notes on the first book from my agent–the terrific Lucienne Diver. And she tore the book to shreds. Poor pacing, lack of tension, slow development of my plot, flaws in the logic of my narrative that seemed to make things far, far too easy on my characters. There was more, but I’ll stop there because, you know, pride.

As you might imagine, I was devastated, and here’s why: A) She was right in just about everything she said; and B) I had thought the book was great and I couldn’t begin to imagine how I could have been so wrong. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years. I’ve published nineteen novels, written lots of short stories, and (for those who like their cautionary tales with a dollop of irony) even co-authored a book on writing. And here I was, totally enamored of a manuscript that had deep structural issues. I should have known better.

I wallowed in self-pity and woe-is-me histrionics for a couple of hours, and then called my wise and wonderful friend, Faith Hunter, who basically said, “Yup, happens to all of us. Get off your ass and fix it.” Which was perfect.

Because it does happen to all of us, and it points to several lessons that every writer, at every level, should keep in mind.

First of all, every manuscript has flaws. Actually, I would go further: Every published work has flaws. I have yet to read a perfect book, and I doubt very much that I ever will. This is why we revise and edit. This is why we send our books to beta readers and friends and agents for feedback.

This is also why every book needs a good editor. I don’t care who you are: J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, the next World’s-Best-Novelist, or the next Self-Published-Sensation. Whoever you are, or think you might be, you need an editor. I fancy myself a pretty decent self-editor, and with some books and stories I am. But I can only see so much in any of my own work. I am too close to my own creative process, too close to my own narrative assumptions. I can’t possibly anticipate every potential issue.

Yes, it’s hard to hear from someone we respect that our book, as it stands right now, is not yet ready for publication. Lucienne’s notes hurt. Each criticism felt like a kick to the gut (or a few inches lower); taken together they left me bruised and bloody. (Figuratively speaking–my agent is tough, but not quite that tough…) But taking such criticism and using it to improve the work in question lies at the very heart of what it means to be a professional writer. If we can’t abide critiques of our work, if we can’t step out of ourselves enough to see and accept and correct the mistakes we’ve made, we don’t deserve the privilege of telling stories for a living.

Even in those first couple of hours after I received Lucienne’s notes, as I cursed and flailed and did more than a bit of whining, I also started to ask myself the questions that would move me beyond this setback.

Do I still believe in the novel? Yes, I do.

Do I still love the characters and the world building? Yes, I do.

Am I still satisfied with the prose? Yes, I am.

Can I do what’s necessary to improve my story and make it worthy of those elements that remain sound? You bet your ass I can.

I already have ideas that will allow me to correct much of what my agent found lacking, and I sense the stirrings of additional ideas that will overcome the other problems. I know I can do this. I’ve fixed flawed novels before. Nineteen times, to be exact.

I’m eager to repair this book because I do love elements of it so much. I want to see it in print. I want all of you to read it. And you’ll have that opportunity, because I have no intention of giving up on the project.

I’m a writer. This is what writers do. We write, we revise, we polish, we publish. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Keep writing. Enjoy the process, in all its frustrating, harrowing glory.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

Then and Now in Publishing: A New Blog Tour Post

Children of Amarid was first published in 1997, which is a really, really long time ago. The person who wrote that book must be, you know, old. Not “Rime-of-the-Ancient-Mariner” old, but at least venerable. Perhaps even vintage. Certainly grizzled.

I’m not sure I was ever the Hot New Thing in Fantasy, but if I was, I’m definitely not anymore, and haven’t been for a while. On the other hand, at this point I’m a Survivor, someone who’s Been Around Forever and Seen It All. And I suppose that’s kind of cool.

Today the Summer/Fall 2016 Blog Tour stops by the site of my wonderful friend and fabulous agent, Lucienne Diver. In my post, I use the recent release of the Author’s Edit of Children of Amarid, my first novel, as a jumping off point for a discussion of changes I’ve seen in publishing over the course of my nearly 20 years in the business.

You can find the post here. Please feel free to leave a comment or question. I’ll be checking in during the course of the day. Thanks!

POV and Q&A, Today on the Blog Tour!

As writers we should be deliberate in choosing the proper voice for each story. We shouldn’t choose third person simply because the market might prefer it, as once it did, nor should we automatically gravitate toward first person just because that voice is in vogue right now. Rather, we need to consider several factors in choosing the right POV voice and, for that matter, the correct point of view character.

Today’s installments of the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour take me to the blogs of two dear friends.

Lucienne Diver is not only a wonderful writer, she is also a fantastic agent, and I should know, because she has represented me for about fifteen years now. I am at her blog today with a post about point of view, and its uses as a narrative tool. Using the examples of Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth Thieftaker novel, which came out a couple of weeks ago, and His Father’s Eyes, the second volume in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I discuss how I choose the correct voice for a novel. You can read the post here; I hope you find it helpful.

Brandy Schillace, author, academic, blogger, reviewer, friend extraordinaire, has been kind enough to host me again on her Fiction Reboot. Today, I answer questions about the Thieftaker books, writing, history, and magic. You can find the interview here.

Enjoy!

A Very Special Interview

Today on the unofficial Winter 2014-15 Spell Blind Blog Tour I have a very special post up at the website of Lucienne Diver, writer, agent, friend. The post is an interview with Namid’skemu, a character from Spell Blind and the other volumes of The Case Files of Justis Fearsson.

Namid, as he is known, is a runemyste, the spirit of a Zuni shaman and weremyste who was sacrificed centuries ago by the runeclave and imbued after his death with enormous magical powers. He is now a guardian of magic in our world and he is Justis “Jay” Fearsson’s mentor in all matters relating to spellcraft.

He is not the most effusive of beings and getting him to sit down for an interview was not easy at all. So I hope you enjoy this. You can find the interview here.