Tag Archives: publishing industry

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.

Monday Musings: Speaking Out

In the spring of my senior year in college, an event took place on campus that changed me forever. It was called a Speak-Out, and it was organized by the school’s Women’s Center. Those running the Speak-Out set up an open microphone and loudspeakers at the upper end of the residential quadrangle that was home to the school’s few fraternities and social dorms. And on a cool, rainy morning, at a rally that followed a silent march through campus, one woman after another stepped forward to tell their stories of humiliation, harassment, misogyny, homophobia, abuse, assault, and rape.

Many of the stories they told focused on their treatment at the hands of men who lived in the buildings surrounding the crowd that gathered there that morning. Other incidents they described took place elsewhere. Almost all of them involved members of our university community. The impromptu remarks these women offered were raw, shocking, eye-opening, deeply personal, heartrending. Nearly everyone who spoke cried. Nearly everyone listening cried. I know I did. I believe — I hope — that for many in attendance the event proved cathartic.

I remember that day vividly and, thirty-five years later, I still think of it often. I knew some of the women who spoke, either in passing or fairly well. But that was less important than this: I knew intimately the behaviors, attitudes, and actions they described.

I had always thought of myself as a sensitive, enlightened guy. I suppose, by comparison to some, I was. I learned that day, though, that men don’t have to be rude to be guilty of harassment, that we don’t have to be abusers to be abusive, that we don’t have to be rapists to be complicit in emotional assault. I recognized in myself, and in too many of the guys I hung out with, just the sorts things the courageous women at the Speak-Out described.

The Speak-Out was intended to give voice to women who, for too long, had been ignored on our campus. It was also an emotional cudgel aimed at the privilege of well-to-do Ivy League men. But to my mind, it was an incredible gift. I said at the outset that the day changed me, changed my life, and it’s true. What I learned about myself that day forced me to rethink every relationship, current (at the time) and past. And the lessons of that day have echoed through every day and every relationship since. They made me a better person, a better friend, a better romantic partner; ultimately they made me a better husband and a better father to my daughters.

Jump ahead thirty-five years, and in recent days, with several men in the science fiction/fantasy field being outed as serial harassers and abusers, the Speak-Out has been on my mind even more than usual. Three and a half decades later, we are still fighting the same battles. Women are still struggling to be heard and believed. Men are still hiding behind our privilege in order to perpetuate a gender hierarchy that ignores and even rewards unacceptable behavior.

And as with issues of race, which I have written about frequently in the past month (here, here, and here), it falls to those of us in the privileged group to change and speak up and act. For too, too long, women have been calling out the harassers and abusers and assaulters, and still those men continue to harass and abuse and assault. Many of my friends in the industry have offered themselves as protectors at conventions and other public events, and I admire them for that. I offer the same to my friends regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. If you need me, I am here for you.

But we men have to do more than that. We have to call out the guys who do this shit, not just in response to public incidents, but also in the privacy of male-to-male conversations where, too often, we offer shelter and complicity by not speaking up, by not drawing attention to sexism, objectification, homophobia, trans-directed prejudice, misogyny, and worse. We have to be more than heroes. We have to be advocates, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Those who suffer the most from the harassment and abuse found their voices long ago, and they continue to speak now — with courage, with conviction, with candor. Yes, we hear them. Yes, we believe them. But no, that isn’t enough.

Now, we have to speak out ourselves.

Wishing you all a good week.