Tag Archives: writing life

Writing Tip Wednesday: I Suck At Titles, So Let Me Offer Some Advice…

I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

The other day I asked the folks in my Facebook group (the David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson Facebook Group – you can join here) to suggest possible topics for the Writing Tip Wednesday feature on my blog. I will be taking suggestions for as long as you all want to offer them, so again, if you want to join the group, the link is here. (Too much?)

People responded with several suggestions (finding agents, marshaling ideas into a coherent story, using a pseudonym – all of these sound good to me and all of them will eventually work their way into posts), but one that seemed to get some traction related to coming up with titles for novels and short stories.

I found this somewhat amusing, because I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

I tend to think that titling a novel and titling a short story are quite different. For one thing, with a novel we have more to work with. To my mind, it’s just easier to find the right turn of phrase for a 100,000 word project, than it is for one that’s only, say, 6,000 words. More, quite often our novels are connected to a series of books, and together the franchise can yield an effective title pattern. (The Harry Potter books are an obvious example.) Short story titles can be more difficult.

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

A title, whether for a novel or a shorter piece, should be as simple as possible. It should be memorable, or if not, at least easy to remember (and those are two separate things). It should tell the reader something about the story, but not so much that it either gives away key information or depends on the reader understanding details he or she can’t possibly know. Keep your titles short, avoid words or phrases that are unique to your made-up world or that are likely to be unfamiliar. Obviously there are exceptions to this. (My very first book was called Children of Amarid, which turned out to be a crappy title, because, A) no one knew who Amarid was, and B) everyone assumed (incorrectly) that it was a book for kids. And yet the book did well commercially and critically. So, what the hell do I know?

The Hunger Games is a great title for a book, particularly for the first in a franchise. Simple words that are put together in a way that is both intriguing and memorable. The title captures the essence of the book, introducing a fundamental element of the plotting that will remain central throughout the entire series.

I believe my best titles were those I used in the Thieftaker series. I knew I was writing a sequence of books and I knew as well that I was introducing many readers to a profession that was somewhat different for our genre. And so calling the first book Thieftaker allowed me to present the series concept right out of the gate, kind of like a musical act titling their first album eponymously. For the second book, since I was still building series momentum, I wanted a title that related back to the first in some way. And since I had Ethan both hunting for a thief and being hunted by one, I went with Thieves’ Quarry.

By the time I was working on book 3, I thought another “Thief” title would feel hokey, and so was ready to go with something different. My first choice, City of Shades, was TERRIBLE. Shades is another word for ghosts, and, yes, ghosts figure prominently in the story, but still… Yuck. Then I started thinking about my villain, who was a sea captain, almost a pirate. When the final title, A Plunder of Souls, came to me, I knew I had a winner. Again, simple words – unlike “shades” there is no word there that can be misinterpreted. But the words were memorable, evocative, and unusual, especially taken together. Same with the fourth title, Dead Man’s Reach, which sounds ominous and atmospheric, but also evokes the image of a body of water (continuing the nautical theme).

When I work on short story titles, of course, I don’t have to worry as much about a franchise. Yes, I write stories in universes first created in novels (Thieftaker, Fearsson, Islevale) but we don’t market short fiction the same way. Which means that those guidelines I mentioned earlier are even more important for short story titles: keep them simple, make them easy to remember, make them relevant to the story, and avoid words and phrases that are likely to trip up readers. For instance, a couple of years ago I wrote a Thieftaker story for the Razor’s Edge anthology. The story had intrigue, a historical battle, magic, and a villain, a woman who could conjure and who wears a green gown. I could have named the story any number of things, but I went with simple: “The Woman in Green.” She is key to the story, the title is easy to recall and not at all confusing, and there is, to my mind, something slightly mysterious about presenting her in that way.

A few more things to remember about titles. First, they can’t be copyrighted. You can use a title that you have seen elsewhere, and someone can use your title if it fits their story. This also means that there is no harm in using a memorable phrase, say from a nursery rhyme or idiom, as a title. Plenty of people do. (I’ve long thought James Patterson’s use of “Along came a spider” was brilliant.) That said, once I find a title, I do an Amazon search, because though different works can have the same titles, I prefer to have as few duplicates with my titles as possible, and I really don’t want to name my book after something that has been released in the last year or two. Also, keep in mind the genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you might want to avoid titles that sound like science fiction. If you’re writing military SF, you probably don’t want to use a title that sounds like a Regency romance. (Although, as with everything else, there are exceptions. Irony can be fun.) And finally, as with all “rules” about writing. There are as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules themselves. As I say, my very first book had what I would now consider a terrible title, and it did very well. For every Hunger Games or American Gods, there is a The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and lots of them do just fine.

In the end you need a title that speaks to you, that captures what you were after as you wrote. Some of my titles (His Father’s Eyes, for instance) come to me in mere moments. Others, like A Plunder of Souls, I struggle with with months. Ask friends what they think of your title. Ask them what sort of book comes to mind when they hear it. And understand that in the end, a publisher might change your title. It’s never happened to me, but it does happen. Because ultimately titles are part of marketing, and many of us authors really, really suck at that…

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Writing What We Have To

I need to work through the memories and regrets, the guilt and love, the unresolved conflicts and incomplete conversations. Not because I want to, though I do, and not even because I might actually have a home for it when it’s done. I have to write it because NOT writing this story is keeping me from doing my best work on other projects.

As the year began, I found myself in the unusual position of not knowing what to work on. I have one book under contract, but it’s already written and I’m waiting for revision notes. I have the anthology submissions to read and I had to write my own story for Galactic Stew (a new Thieftaker story, for those of you who are fans of the series). After that, though…

I have ideas –projects I intend to take on this year, and I’ll get to those. But there was and is another factor at work.

Some of you know that we lost my oldest brother a couple of years ago. The truth is, I have struggled with everything I’ve written since then. I’ve put out some of the best work of my career – the final products have come out well. But my initial drafts have been far rougher than usual, and the actual process of writing, which I usually love, has been painful.

I didn’t make the connection at first. You might think I would have – it seems so obvious to me now. I suppose, though, that sometimes when we’re in the middle of an emotional storm, it’s not as obvious as perhaps it becomes in retrospect. The fact is, I’m still grieving, and I hadn’t processed my brother’s death.

Until now.

I am working on something new, something utterly different from anything I’ve written before. I’m writing essay-length memoir, a family history that touches not just on my complicated, loving relationship with my brother, but also on parallels between our relationship and the relationship between my father and his brother, who died in World War II. As it happens, an editor has expressed interest in working with me on the project, so I might even wind up selling it.

Honestly, though, the possible sale is secondary.

Sometimes we write what we’re supposed to – a book that’s under contract, a story we’ve promised to one market or another, the next book or novella in a series we’re publishing ourselves. Sometimes we write what we want to. We have nothing under contract or required of us and we dive into the idea that has captured our heart, maybe one that has been percolating in our thoughts for months or even years.

And sometimes we write what we have to, as in the case of this non-fiction piece. Even if it doesn’t come out well, even if no one ever wants to publish it, I need to process these emotions creatively. I need to work through the memories and regrets, the guilt and love, the unresolved conflicts and incomplete conversations. Not because I want to, though I do, and not even because I might actually have a home for it when it’s done. I have to write it because NOT writing this story is keeping me from doing my best work on other projects.

My art is my work, and it’s also my livelihood. Creativity is an expression of will and vision. It can be cerebral. It can be whimsical. It can be calculatingly commercial. That my professional work provides as well an emotional outlet is both a blessing and a burden. Often I am able to process personal issues and confront personal demons as I write. This time I couldn’t. This time I actually had to write about me and my life.

It’s been weird writing this piece. At times it’s incredibly hard. I usually try to write to a certain word count each day. I haven’t with the memoir. I don’t want to force it, and I’m not sure I could. Memories have come to me while I write, some painful, some happy. All of them have enriched the essay. More to the point, each evening when I finish work for the day, I feel just a little lighter, a bit more at peace. I don’t miss my brother any less, but I’m certain that writing about him is helping me heal. Finally.

And that’s what I hope you’ll take away from this. We write to be published. We write because it’s what we love to do. We also write because we have to – for peace, for love, for solace, and for the clarity we need to do our best work.

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!

Monday Musings — Lessons in Rock and Roll

Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent…

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time.

As this is the first of my Monday Musings blog posts for 2020, I feel that I should explain that not all of my musings will be about writing. There are plenty of other topics out there, and I intend to explore a good many of them before the year is through.

For today, though, I am thinking about the craft of writing, and in a broader sense, about toiling in the arts.

I read every morning while I work out, sitting on my stationary bike, sweating away, a book in hand. And I mostly read fiction – generally speaking, I prefer novels to non-fiction books. In the past few months, however, for reasons I can’t really explain, I have been reading biographies and autobiographies of some of my rock and roll heroes. I started with Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, not because he is a particular favorite of mine – I like him fine, but I’m no fanatic – but because the book came highly recommended. I then moved to Graham Nash’s Wild Tales. I am currently reading Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a fascinating three-way biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, and next up in the queue is Timothy White’s biography of James Taylor, Long Ago and Far Away. I also recently read a magazine profile of Rod Stewart, who this year will turn 115. No, I’m sorry, that’s supposed to read 75…

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found shared patterns in the career paths of the artists in question, and analogous progressions in my own career. All of these artists suffered through periods of self-doubt early in their careers. Several of them dealt with what you and I might call imposter syndrome. Springsteen and Stewart in particular speak of it explicitly. (And let’s be honest: Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen are not guys we generally associate with failures of confidence…)

All of them enjoyed moments of stunning, even unexpected success fairly early in their professional lives (the phenomenon that was “Born To Run,” the amazing response to the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, the chart-topping rise of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and then all of them, after building for a while on these successes, suffered setbacks that forced them to reevaluate their art. Some of these setbacks were personal, some were self-inflicted. And some were commercial – a few of them had as much to do with changes in their industry as with something the artist him or herself did wrong. But all of them can point to moments when the public response to the work they did fell well short of their expectations and hopes.

All of them had to reinvent themselves in some way. All of them struggled at times to maintain commercial standing in the face of difficult developments in their private lives. None of their careers – NONE – followed a perfectly linear upward trajectory. Yet all of them persevered, fighting through the down times to achieve a second (and third and fourth…) artistic and commercial success. Because in the end, they loved their music. They couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but writing and singing and playing songs.

I suppose none of this is too unexpected. And I don’t expect that you need to have the lessons spelled out for you. Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent. There. I spelled them out for you anyway.

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time. It’s easy to look at the superstars we admire – in any art – and marvel at their amazing careers, ignoring the flops, the ventures that went nowhere. It’s easy to gloss over the ups and downs and assume that if they’re rich and famous, they never have to cope with doubt. And it’s easy to separate ourselves from the big stars, to tell ourselves that because we’re not rich and famous ourselves, we have nothing in common with those who are.

Thing is, none of it is true. They DID have flops. They DO grapple with doubt. And our pursuit of our art ISN’T all that different from their pursuit of theirs. We might not be as well known or as wealthy, but we have something to say, and we owe it to ourselves to keep speaking, to persist through the hard times, and to make ourselves heard. Not because it might make us millions or get us on the cover of Rolling Stone. But because, like our heroes, we love what we do.

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2020

Happy New Year!

I wish all of you a 2020 filled with joy and laughter, good health and good fun, lots of love and friendship. I also want to thank you for your continued support of my work. It means more to me than I can say.

I wanted to let you know about something new that I’ll be starting this year. Or, in a way, something old that I’ll be restarting. I have neglected my blog for the past several years, as blogging has gone from “THE THING that writers do” to “a thing that many writers used to do.” To be honest, I miss blogging, and with the projects I have on tap for this year, many of which may wind up with smaller presses or even — gasp — self-published, I want to re-establish my online connection to readers.

So, I will be posting regularly (or as regularly as proves possible and feasible) throughout the year, aiming for three posts per week. Mondays will feature general posts — musings on work, or life, or music, or sports, or (if I dare) politics, or whatever else happens to catch my interest. Monday Musings, if you will. We’ll see if the name sticks…

Each Wednesday, I will post a writing tip — craft, business, whinging, whatever. Writerly Wednesdays. Or not. We’ll see about that name, too. But I promise that the content will be geared toward writers of different levels. I will be open to suggestions as to subject — more on that as the year progresses. I can tell you, though, that some of the Wednesday posts will be basic, others more advanced. All, I hope, will be informative and helpful.

And finally, Fridays… As many of you know, I am a dedicated amateur photographer. I love capturing images almost as much as I love writing. And for a while now, I have been looking for some way to motivate myself to be more intentional about taking photos. I tend to use my camera extensively when I travel, but when I’m home, I allow work and other day-to-day stuff to get in the way. So, as a way of forcing myself to use my camera more, I will be posting a new image every week (after this coming Friday, which will likely include an image from my recent trip to Australia). Photography Fridays. Maybe. I suck at naming stuff…

Anyway, that’s the plan. Musings on Mondays, Writing Tips on Wednesdays, Photos on Fridays. I hope that you’ll keep up with my posts and enjoy my renewed dedication to blogging.

Again, Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.

— David

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

Special Guest Appearance: Patrice Sarath!

Patrice SarathToday I welcome Patrice Sarath to my blog. Patrice is one of my fellow Angry Robot writers, and she has a new book coming out today! The book is called Fog Season, and it promises to be another excellent release from a gifted author. In today’s post, Patrice writes about world building. Enjoy!

Building a City from the Ground Up

When I was developing the city of Port Saint Frey, the setting of my secondary world fantasy series, I wanted the city to feel real and lived in, in a way that would draw in readers so they could feel like they were visiting the place themselves. While Port Saint Frey is an amalgam of San Francisco, Baltimore, and Bath, England, I was inspired by Charles de Lint’s Newford. De Lint is a master at creating place, and Newford has the dimensionality of a real city. It lives on after the reader closes the page. That’s what I was aiming for with Port Saint Frey.

The best way to achieve that kind of real-world effect is by presenting your worldbuilding in small, significant details that illustrate how your characters interact with their world. So, in my secondary world, late Regency, early Victorian era, there are water closets and sewer systems and neighborhood water pumps. There are cobblestone streets that are detrimental to horse’s hooves. There are oil lamps, filled with whale oil (old technology) or camphene oil (new technology and highly flammable). There’s a shopping district, a coffee shop where the dealmaking is done (based on Lloyd’s of London in the UK), the docks, the slums, the warehouses, the posh neighborhoods. And instead of writing paragraphs of description, I fill in the details about how my characters are impacted by their world.

They turn an ankle on a cobblestone. They have trouble sewing by a low lamp. They use a water closet or they encounter raw sewage in a slum. They are snubbed in a fancy shop. They rob their friends at gunpoint at a public house.

These small details are far more effective at making a world feel lived in than all the backstory in the world. When you do research to create your fantasy world, even though the majority of that research will stay in your head, it informs the small bits that make it onto the page. You should always know more than your readers do about the world that you’ve created. The more real it is to you, the more real it will be to your readers.

Fog Season, by Patrice SarathOne of the best things I ever did was draw a map of Port Saint Frey. This has saved my bacon a number of times, because once you can go to the map and say, “how do I get my character from Point A to Point B,” and you can see at once that the character has to take Kerwater Street out to Chandlers Row and take a right onto Barrell, then you know your city has taken on a life of its own.

But world building should do more than set the stage or the scene, or provide a physical sense of place. World building should illustrate character and motivation and history and nuance. Again, it’s how characters interact with their world and are impacted by it. In that sense, world building drives plot.

The following scene from Fog Season takes place in one room, but from that one room we get exposition, impact, decision making, and consequences. One room, one conversation — a world happening around the characters, and yet it is pivotal to the plot and to the characters.

The gray light of Fog Season could scarcely be distinguished from noon or evening. Abel lay entwined with Elenor Charvantes, the second assignation in as many days. She drowsed in the crook of his arm. He cursed himself for a fool. This was too dangerous; Doc would kill him if he knew. And though he was not afraid of Jax Charvantes for himself, he knew the lieutenant would be brutal to Elenor if he found out.

He was restless, jumpy. As carefully as he could, he slid out from under her and left the bed, the cold air a slap against his nakedness. In the bed, Elenor murmured, but continued to doze. Abel went to the window and looked out. It was midday but the streetlamps of the fog-shrouded city were nothing but smears of light in the mist. Some other light caught his eye. Red and yellow flames from across the city, high on the western headland. Abel frowned and looked closer. Fire.

“Aren’t you cold?” said Elenor sleepily behind him.

“It feels good,” he said, without turning to her. What could be burning so high above the city?

“What are you looking at?” She was fully awake now. Her bare shoulders almost glowed in the dim lamplight. Her hair had fallen from its prim bun and was tousled and wild. She was lovely and he was an idiot. She got out of bed, wrapped in the blanket, and peered out the window. Her gaze sharpened. “My God. That’s the Saint Frey place.” Almost as soon as she remarked upon it, the fire dwindled, and finally disappeared. The mists closed in as if there were nothing there.

“Oh, my goodness. I hope no one was hurt. Madam Saint Frey lives alone, mostly, but I understand her niece has been living with her lately. Oh, there are the bells. The firetrucks are on their way.”

Abel could hear them now too, the clangor rising up to the third floor of the Bailet. Elenor put her arms around him, pulling him inside the blanket with her. He closed his eyes, the sensation of her desire overwhelming him, overpowering his nerve endings.

“I’ve often thought that it would be a wonderful thing if my friend Tesara married Jone Saint Frey,” Elenor mused, her cheek resting against his shoulder. “They’ve always liked one another. He could get away from that awful mother of his, and Tesara would be happier, I know it. But then again, I haven’t seen Jone in society at all these past months. But they used to be thick as thieves at the salons, not six months ago. I’m sure his mother put her foot down – the Saint Freys tend to look down upon merchant families.”

Interesting, Abel thought. Interesting that a girl who had extraordinary capabilities and powers should like a boy who had not been seen in society for months. Interesting that his mother should stand against the match. And interesting that her house should catch fire.

“I have to go,” Elenor said, sighing against his skin. He turned to face her, and she rose on tiptoes to kiss him. He felt himself helpless under the onslaught of need, hers and his. “Elenor,” he began, knowing it was no use.

“I know. It’s not safe. I know. I won’t come back here. We’ll think of something else.” She was trying to be brave; he could tell. She gave him a smile, touched with rue.

“We will,” he promised, cursing himself for his own weakness. He had to end it, for both their sakes, and at the same time he knew he would not be able to withstand her.

She dressed quickly and wrapped herself up against the cold, her scarf muffling her face. He made sure the hall was empty before she left his room and scurried down the hall to the stairs.

Abel dressed and went downstairs to the Bailet dining room for an early lunch, nursing a glass of beer along with a thick garlic and beef stew, and instead of wondering how to find Trune and kidnap the Mederos girl, he spent his time trying to determine the best way to protect Elenor Charvantes from her brutal husband, and still be able to see her. And still, in the back of his mind, he wondered about the fire at the Saint Frey mansion, so quickly put out, and its odd, almost inconsequential connection to Tesara Mederos.

*****

Patrice Sarath BIO

Patrice Sarath is an author and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her novels include the fantasy books The Sisters Mederos and Fog Season (Books I and II of the Tales of Port Saint Frey), the series, Books of the Gordath (Gordath Wood, Red Gold Bridge, and The Crow God’s Girl) and the romance The Unexpected Miss Bennet.

Patrice is the author of numerous short stories that have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Weird Tales, Black Gate, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, and many others. Her short story “A Prayer for Captain La Hire” was included in Year’s Best Fantasy of 2003 compiled by David Hartwell and Katherine Cramer. Her story “Pigs and Feaches,” originally published in Apex Digest, was reprinted in 2013 in Best Tales of the Apocalypse by Permuted Press.

Patrice is an avid horsewoman. She also enjoys bike-riding and hiking the woods and trails outside Austin.

Website: http://www.patricesarath.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GordathWood/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/PatriceSarath

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/patricesarath6/

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.

Tomorrow is Release Day!

Time's Children, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Jan Wessbecher)We are now just one day away from the release of Time’s Children, the opening volume in The Islevale Cycle, my new time travel/Epic Fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. Today my blog tour for the release continues with stops at a couple of places.

I have an interview up at the site of fellow Angry Robot author Patrice Sarath. You can find the Q&A here.

I also have a question and answer up at the blog site of my dear friend Faith Hunter, New York Times Bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock and Soulwood series. You can find that interview here.

If you would care to read the first few chapters of Time’s Children, you can find a free preview of the book at the Angry Robot site.

Tomorrow, release day, I will be giving at talk and signing books at the Jessie Ball duPont Library at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The talk, sponsored by Sewanee Friends of the Library, is called “Imagination as Mirror: What Speculative Fiction Can Teach Us About Our World.” If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll attend the talk.

And as the week progresses, I’ll have other online events to share. I hope you’ll join me, and I hope you enjoy the book! Thanks!