All posts by David B. Coe

David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award winning author of sixteen novels and many short stories. As David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) he has written the Crawford award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and will soon release, SPELL BLIND, the first volume of the Case Files of Justis Fearsson. The second book, HIS FATHER’S EYES, will be out in the summer of 2015. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles -- THIEFTAKER, THIEVES’ QUARRY, A PLUNDER OF SOULS, and DEAD MAN’S REACH, which is also due out in summer 2015. David is part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part III

Today I continue my series of posts on how I got started in writing. (If you want to catch up, you can find the first post here, and the second post here.) The subtitle of this collection of posts is “A Case Study of Dubious Worth,” and today we really begin to delve into the dubious side of things. So read on, and prepare to disregard everything I have to say . . .

When we left off last week, I was in college still, having abandoned my plans to major in creative writing, because of A) a crappy experience in a creative writing course, B) my parents’ rather trenchant observation about the lack of earning power for Brown graduates with BAs in creative writing. I graduated with my degree in American Studies, worked briefly for a political consultant I’d interned with the previous summer, and applied to Ph.D. programs in U.S. history. I loved the subject and thought I could satisfy my passion for writing by being a historian.

I was wrong.

Yeah, I know: spoiler.

I could take you through my grad school experience, which was hard, but also rich with amazing people, academic challenges and epiphanies, and the beginning of the love relationship that would shape the rest of my life. But here are the salient points. First, writing history wasn’t my calling. Yes, I love the act of writing. But it turns out I also love creating characters and plot lines and even imaginary worlds. And apparently you can’t do that with history and expect to get tenure. Who knew? Second, while writing my dissertation was not at all like writing fiction, I did learn a tremendous amount from the process, because, once again, I had a fantastic teacher. My advisor at Stanford was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy. He was a remarkable, exacting mentor whose high standards and generous feedback improved immensely my prose and narrative skills.

I knew before finishing my degree that I was on the wrong professional path, but I felt stuck — I had devoted years of my life to getting my Ph.D. How could I change course now? — and I was determined to complete my doctorate no matter what. So finish it I did, in May 1993. I figured I would apply for academic jobs in the coming academic year (1993-94) and see how I felt about whatever offers I received.

By this time, Nancy and I were married, and she had taken a job teaching biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee. Soon after I completed my degree, she said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. “Since the day I met you,” she told me, “you’ve talked about wanting to write a novel. The first history jobs won’t be posted until the fall. You have all summer. Why don’t you try writing and see if you enjoy it?”

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I did just that. I started with some short stories that have never since seen the light of day, but which helped me to shape the contours of my world and its history. Then I began work on the novel, and by September had completed the first five chapters of what would eventually be Children of Amarid, my first published novel. I gave the manuscript to a friend of the family who had been a publisher, and he agreed to act as my agent, operating under standard agenting fees. He sent those five chapters and an outline of the rest of the book to various fantasy publishers.

In the meantime, I began my history job search and found a listing for a tenure track position at Colorado State University teaching U.S. environmental history. I took the listing to Nancy and said, “This is my job. This is the one I’m going to get.” It was a perfect fit, and Colorado was a place we’d dreamed of living. If I was destined to teach history, this was the job for me.

And sure enough, I interviewed for the position at that year’s American Historical Association Conference, had an on-campus interview early in 1994, and on a Thursday in March received a call from the chair of the history department, who offered me the job.

Again, this was my perfect history job. I should have leapt at the offer. But the thought of doing so made me nauseous. For the past several months, even as I applied for history jobs, my thoughts had been on that manuscript floating around the halls of New York’s big fantasy publishing houses. That was the future I wanted. That was my dream.

I asked the chairman of the Colorado State history department if I could have until Monday to give him an answer. He said yes, reluctantly.

The next day — yes, that’s right: the next day — I got a call from an editor at Tor Books. He had read my chapters and wanted to buy the publishing rights to Children of Amarid.

And for this week, I’m going to stop there, with my 31-year-old self contemplating this improbable confluence of my two professional paths. We’ll pick up the story next week with the decision I faced that fateful weekend.

In the meantime, a few points to emphasize. As I said, this is the part of my story where the dubious worth of my experience really becomes obvious. The industry has changed so very much in the past thirty years. My friend who served as my agent was not licensed in that capacity. He was a publishing bigwig. People in the industry knew his name. And he and his wife were my parents’ dearest friends in the world. I was SO lucky in this regard. Having an agent at all was a huge advantage — having HIM for my agent was even better. I’m not sure that in today’s world that sort of informal arrangement would even be tolerated.

Moreover, in today’s publishing world there is also no way in hell that I could sell a novel based on five chapters and an outline. It’s laughable even to contemplate. I was a first time novelist with no fiction credits to his name. Yes, I had completed my Ph.D. and so could point to that as proof that I was capable of writing a book-length manuscript. But that hardly qualified me as a novelist.

As it happened, though, the Tor editor who read my chapters had recently bought and edited a book called Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind, which was a runaway bestseller. After that, Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, told my editor that he was free to buy the next book he found that he thought had potential. My editor had once worked for my agent and so the next book to land on the editor’s desk was mine. He liked it, thought it could be good. But if Goodkind’s book hadn’t struck gold, he might not have been free to make the offer on Children of Amarid. If my agent had known a different editor, that person might not have had the freedom to take a chance on an inexperienced unknown like me. And yes, it also bears mentioning that every person in this little story — the agent, the editor, the publisher, the bestseller, and the young writer — was a white man. I was helped enormously by my privilege and that of the people around me.

All this by way of saying that I was fortunate beyond words in every respect.

Don’t get me wrong: That first book was good, as were the volumes of the LonTobyn Chronicle that came after. They were strong enough to eventually win the Crawford Award as the best fantasy series by a new author. Despite my lack of experience, I knew how to write, how to tell a story, how to create compelling characters.

But my career path was charmed, and I trod it at a time when it was far easier to break into the business.

Next week, I’ll trace the early growth of my writing career. In the meantime, have a great week.

A Little News To Share!

So for the people in the little college town where I live, this is old news. But for the rest of you . . .

The former president of the university here (officially called the Vice Chancellor) has moved on to a new opportunity (it’s not really my place to say more, except that when the President of the United States asks you to serve, you serve . . .) Next in line for the university presidency is the University Provost, who happened to be my wife, Nancy. And so, I am thrilled to say that she is now acting president of the university, the first woman in the history of the school to assume the office. My sweetie has made a little bit of history. I could not be more proud.

Here is a photo of her presiding at the recent winter convocation. The red ermine robe is the traditional garb of the University Vice Chancellor.

Nancy at Winter Convocation

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part II

Last week, in the first of what I expect to be a three or four part series on how I got started in writing, I posted about my early creative efforts and the teachers who were so influential in encouraging and inspiring me. I titled that first installment “A Case Study of Dubious Worth” and I think the title holds for this week as well. This entire exercise — the writing and posting of these essays — might be interesting, I certainly hope it’s entertaining, but I’m not at all sure how illustrative it will be or whether it’s at all relevant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty old, and the world is a different place from what it was when I was getting started. And yet, I continue . . .

My last semester in high school, I was in a creative writing workshop class, taught by one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned last week (Phil Restaino), and populated by a remarkable, talented, close-knit group of fellow students. Many of them remain friends to this day. What I wrote in that class was, overall, pretty mediocre. But I learned so much about writing, about the creative process, about critiquing others and building a safe, productive space for having those intimate, at times difficult conversations.

My Brown graduation pic.

And so I went off to college thinking I would be a creative writing major, and fully expecting that I would find at Brown University a similarly nurturing creative environment.

[Cue sound of screeching brakes…]

Talk about rude awakenings.

Even then, I knew I wanted to write fantasy, and I had an idea for a novel. This idea would eventually morph into Children of Amarid, my first published book, which won the Crawford Award, but this early incarnation was a long, long, long way from that finished product. It was not very good. I know this. But that doesn’t excuse what I encountered in the very first creative writing class I took at Brown. Our professor was a writer of stature, well known in academic fiction circles. I’m willing to believe that early in his career he was a fine teacher. When I had him, he was a year or two away from retirement. His classes meandered, and he left most of the important work, including the facilitation of the critique sessions, to his graduate assistant.

But he did make clear that, in his view of the world, there was “Literary Fiction,” and then there was the genre stuff that didn’t really count because it was, well, genre stuff. And so, perhaps taking their cues from him, or perhaps responding to the fact that my work still needed a good deal of refinement, my fellow students savaged my manuscripts in the critique sessions. No one had taken time to teach our class the rudiments of critiquing. There was no “start with what’s good, move to what needs work, return to what is good and can be built upon.” There was just “this is bad.” After the wonderful experience I had in that high school workshop class, I found the experience devastating.

I should say that I did get one bit of good advice from that class. It came from the graduate assistant, who was unable to steer the critique discussion, but who went out of her way afterward to assure me there were strong elements to my writing, my storytelling, and even my world building. And she said, “I know that session was hard, but don’t retreat into rewrites. Keep moving forward with your book and revise these early chapters when you’re finished.”

It was, and still is, sound advice for any writer, and to this day I offer it to writers I work with. But the fact is, the graduate assistant’s kindness and wisdom were not enough to overcome the negative experience. I never took another workshop class at Brown. I did continue thinking maybe I would be a creative writing major, but I moved away from fiction toward journalism, where I had some better experiences. Sadly, though, that terrible first class pushed me away from writing fiction for a decade.

As I say, I was still thinking about a creative writing major as I began my sophomore year. But then I had a conversation with my mom and dad. Now, as I mentioned last week, my parents were very supportive of my writing. They were also my mom and dad and they worried a creative writing major would have little or no value in the real world. So they gently but persistently encouraged me to channel my interest in writing toward something more practical. Looking back, I am not sure how wise their advice was, but at the time, I found it compelling. I liked nice guitars and nice stereo equipment, and I had figured out that those things cost money . . .

I wound up choosing as my major American Studies, an interdisciplinary program combining (among other things) literature, political science, and history. I found these subjects and their intersections quite interesting, and, to my delight, I found as well that all my classes in the field were writing intensive. By the end of my second year at Brown, I was on the trajectory that would lead me to get my Ph.D. in history.

More on that as I continue this story next week.

But here are the most important things I would like you take away from this post. First, a badly run writing workshop, one in which critiques are done without sensitivity, without compassion, without pairing encouragement with criticism, can do irreparable harm to the aspirations of beginning writers. Dreams are powerful, but they can also be fragile. And just as last week’s post emphasized the importance of pedagogical excellence, this week’s ought to highlight the potential harm that can come of slipshod and lazy teaching.

Second, the literary prejudice that favors “literary” fiction over other sorts of storytelling is as poisonous as it is misguided. Writing is hard, whether our stories are about our world or another, whether they are firmly rooted in realism and “now” or imbued with magic and cast in different timelines. Quality work can be found in any genre; so can mediocrity. And lest we forget, some of the best and most important writing happening today is being done by writers in fantasy and science fiction. Ask N.K. Jemisin.

And third, stuff happens for a reason. I truly believe this. Yes, I was discouraged from writing fiction by a bad class and also by my parents’ overly developed sense of what was pragmatic. It would be easy for me to look at the changing trajectory of my life during my college years, and look as well at where I am now, and decide I had wasted that decade of my life when I didn’t write any fiction at all. But if I hadn’t gone to graduate school in history, I would have missed out on academic training that taught me so much about crafting prose, about doing research, about writing with discipline. If I hadn’t gone to grad school in history, where I developed a real interest in the American Colonial Era, I doubt I would have wound up writing the Thieftaker books. Most important, if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I never would have met Nancy and I wouldn’t have my two brilliant, beautiful daughters.

So maybe that class I hated so much was the best thing that ever happened to me.

More next Monday.

In the meantime, have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Cover Art and Why It Matters

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Last week, I was able to share with you the incredible art work for my upcoming novel, Invasives, the second Radiants book, which will be out February 18. And because I’m mentioning the art here, I have yet another excuse to post the image, which I love and will share for even the most contrived of reasons . . .

I have been fortunate throughout my career to have some really outstanding art work grace the covers of my novels. It began with my very first book, Children of Amarid, which had a striking wrap-around cover from artist Romas Kukalis. Romas did terrific work on the other two LonTobyn books as well, and also on the third, fourth, and fifth books of my Winds of the Forelands series (Gary Ruddell did books one and two), and the three volumes of Blood of the Southlands.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisFor the Thieftaker novels, Tor hired the incomparable Chris McGrath, who has also done the art for the Lore Seekers Press publications of Tales of the Thieftaker (the Thieftaker short story collection) and The Loyalist Witch.

And I have had amazing art for the Islevale Cycle books (Jan Weßbecher and Robyne Pomroy) and for the Radiants series (Debra Dixon). As I say, I’ve been astonishingly lucky.

But does it matter?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’re told. And as a saying using the proverbial book as metaphor for others things in life, it makes lots of sense. But as a practical and literal (as well as literary) matter, it’s advice we ignore all the time. Of course we judge books by their covers. We do it every day, and one reason we do it is that publishers use cover art to signal genre, story-type, the age of a book’s intended readers, and even the possible series relationship between one book and another. We are programmed to judge books by their jacket art, and we have been for a long, long time.

The truth is, having cool jacket art can be a tremendous boost for a book. Need proof? Hang out by a bookseller’s table in the dealers’ room at the next convention you attend, and see which books shoppers ignore, which they linger over, and which they pick up and open. Covers matter. People are drawn to the Thieftaker books for several reasons. The blend of history, mystery, and magic helps. But few potential readers would know even that much about the books if not for the allure of those Chris McGrath covers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The thing to remember about artwork, though, is that it’s not enough for the covers to be eye-catching. They also need to tell a story — your story. The Thieftaker covers work because they convey the time period, they offer a suggestion of the mystery contained within, and they hint as well at magic, by always including that swirl of conjuring power in Ethan’s hand. The Islevale covers all have that golden timepiece in them, the chronofor, which enables my Walkers to move through time. All my traditional epic fantasy covers, from the LonTobyn books through the Forelands and Southlands series, convey a medieval fantasy vibe. Readers who see those books, even if they don’t know me or my work, will have an immediate sense of the stories contained within.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that’s what we want. Sure, part of what makes that Invasives cover work is the simple fact that it’s stunning. The eye, the flames, the lighting in the tunnel. It’s a terrific image. But it also tells you there is a supernatural story within. And while the tunnel “setting” is unusual, the presence of train tracks, wires, electric wiring, and even that loudspeaker in the upper left quadrant of the tunnel, combine to tell you the story takes place in our world (or something very much like it). And for those who have seen the cover of the first book in the series, Radiants, the eye and flames mark this new book as part of the same franchise. That’s effective packaging.

When I started in this business, and was writing for big publishing houses, I had relatively little input on my jacket art. Sometimes that was frustrating. Other times, it was fortuitous: I had an idea for the cover of the first Thieftaker book that was nothing like what Chris came up with. Thank God they didn’t listen to me.

In today’s publishing world, with so many authors self-publishing or working with small presses, which tend to be far more open to involving authors in these sorts of decisions, we have greater control over what our books look like. We also face challenges that didn’t exist back when I was starting out. Today, a cover doesn’t just need to look good in hand. It also needs to convey a sense of the story, genre, series, and audience age in thumbnail form. It doesn’t just need to stand out on a table in a bookstore. It also needs to compete with a dozen or three dozen other thumbnails on a single web page. Effective art is more important now than ever.

And yet, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that a great cover is the silver bullet for book marketing. Not even the coolest image can help you if the book within is poorly written or sloppily edited. Sure readers might fall for that once, sold on the book by the great image. But they won’t be fooled a second time.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)In the same vein, poor marketing practices by a publisher, even if inadvertent, can doom even the most beautiful book. I LOVE the art for Time’s Demon, the second Islevale novel. But the novel came out when the publisher was going through an intense reorganization. It got little or no marketing attention, and despite looking great and being in my view one of the best things I’ve written, it was pretty much the worst-selling book of my career.

Yes, art matters. Good art attracts readers and brands our books. But we still need to write the best story we can. And we still have to bust our butts marketing the book once it’s out.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part I

I’m often asked how I became an author, and by way of answering, I point to a book I wrote when I was all of six years old — “Jim, the Talking Fish.” Written and illustrated by yours truly, bound between two pieces of blue construction paper and tied with yellow yarn, it was my first novel. I crack a few jokes about the “book,” but then make clear that so early in my life, storytelling was already in my blood. What I usually leave out, for brevity’s sake, is that this was hardly the only book I wrote, illustrated, and bound at that age. There were several. I don’t talk about those others, because I can’t remember all the salient details.

There’s something else I leave out as well, and I really shouldn’t. Ever.

I wrote those books because I had a first grade teacher who encouraged me, and all of my classmates, to write. To create. To dive into our imaginations and explore. And I kept on writing because all through elementary school, and middle school, and high school, I had opportunities to write. I had teachers who encouraged us to write, who required us to write. And not just reports and such. We were required to write fiction, or to write about ourselves, or to journal.

When I was in seventh grade, I was in a team-teaching program at my middle school. Five teachers taught a group of about 100 students on a rotating basis. We were divided into classes of twenty, and we were with our cohort throughout the day, moving among the team of teachers, who covered English, Social Studies, Math, Science, and French. It was an amazing program. All the teachers were excellent. And for the second half of the school year, we 100 students were assigned to keep a journal as part of our regular homework. We could write whatever we wanted, but we had to write pretty much daily.

I still have the journal I kept that semester, in its original folder. I wrote poetry. I wrote about my life. But mostly I wrote stories. Every night before bed, I would put on my favorite music, and write for a half hour, or forty-five minutes, or, if a story really took hold of me, an hour. On some of those nights, my mother or father would come into my room wanting to know why I was still up. And seeing that I was writing, they would quietly retreat from my room and let me keep working.

That’s another thing I tend to leave out when asked about how I got started. I became a writer, in part, because when I was young my parents encouraged me. They loved my stories and kept nearly everything I wrote throughout grade school. They also held on to that journal.

My public high school, in our admittedly privileged town in the suburbs of New York City, was remarkable in many respects, and we had great teachers in many subjects. But no academic department was more impressive than our English Department. Starting my sophomore year, I had one outstanding teacher after another, including one man of incredible energy and passion and creativity who taught every one of us Coe kids — from my oldest sibling, my brother Bill, to me — spanning an age gap of fifteen years. All of those amazing teachers, who I name here — Duke Schirmer, Rose Scotch, Michael DiGennaro, and Phil Restaino — because they deserve to be named, encouraged us to write and spent as much time critiquing our prose as they did the substance of what we wrote. They held us to exacting standards, but did so with humor and compassion and a sense of mission that made us appreciate the importance of the written word.

I write because I love it, because I’ve been passionate about crafting stories for as long as I can remember. And because when I was young, the most important adults in my life — my parents and my teachers — encouraged to me to feed that passion, to follow it wherever it might lead me (to a point — more on that in next week’s post).

Today, we live in a world driven by science and technology, and the recognition of this has, by necessity, changed so much about how we educate our children. Math and science have taken primacy in school curricula. Language skills remain important, of course. But the arts have become afterthoughts. We also live in a time when school budgets have been slashed and teachers and school administrators alike have seen their opportunities for career advancement shackled to student performances on standardized tests. Education professionals have no choice but to devote more and more time to preparing students for those tests, leaving less and less room for passion and creativity in American classrooms.

I believe this is a tragedy, and I hope for a day when test scores will cease to matter so much, and once more students will have ample time during their school day to write — and paint and sculpt and sing and play instruments and act and dance. I fear, though, that this day will be a long time in coming. In the meantime, in today’s education environment, even the most dedicated of teachers will be hard pressed to do for their students all that my teachers were able to do for me in a simpler time. And so it falls to us, as parents, friends, and mentors, to support and inspire the next generations of young creators.

Without such people spurring me on in my youth, I would not be an author today, and I assure you I’m not alone in that regard.

Have a wonderful week.

 

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part III — Know What You Write

For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.

For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.

Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”

I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.

“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.

Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.

Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: My Favorite Things!

We are in the midst of a rainy-soon-to-be-snowy weekend here, and I am thinking about my Monday Musings post, looking for something fun and cheery to write about. There are always world issues to address, and I have been up front about emotional matters in recent months. But the truth is, I am tired of being Mr. Serious-Guy. So for today, something completely different.

I’ve thought of writing posts about a few of my favorite things (cue Sound of Music soundtrack), but none of them would actually fill a full post. Well, most wouldn’t. But how about a list of my favorite things from random categories? Kind of a Favorite Things Lightning Round. Sound fun? Here we go:

Favorite Single Malt Scotch: Starting with the hootch! Yeah, I love single malt, and we have several different kinds. I sometimes enjoy a peaty Scotch, and will also drink some specialty Scotches aged in port or rum casks (Balvenie has a great one, as does Glenmorangie). But mostly I like Speysides, which tend to be less smoky and somewhat sweeter. For my money, the best of these is the Dalwhinnie 15 year-old “Highland” Scotch. They call it a Highland, but it is technically a Speyside, and it is just lovely. I drink it neat, with just a splash of cool water. In fact, I’m feeling a little parched right now…

Favorite Jazz Album: This one is easy, and I’m really not going out on a limb at all. Miles Davis’s 1959 classic Kind of Blue, is an entry point for many who are just getting into jazz, and it was exactly that for me some 40+ years ago. Thing is, this is an album of which I never tire. Each time I listen to it I love it more. By turns haunting, toe-tapping, introspective, and dynamic, it features a who’s who of jazz superstars: Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophone, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. It is brilliant. If you’ve always wanted to listen to jazz, but didn’t know where to start, this is your answer.

Favorite Jazz Album You’ve Never Heard Of: This one is a little harder, but I have to go with Sphere’s Flight Plan. Sphere is a jazz quartet that originally included Kenny Barron on piano, Charlie Rouse on saxophone, Buster Williams on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. They released Flight Plan, their second album, in 1983. It has since gone out of print, and is very hard to find. But my God, it is SO good. Like Kind of Blue, it covers a range of moods, but it is consistently excellent and utterly addictive.

Favorite Sport to Watch: I’m a lifetime baseball fan, and I still count baseball as my favorite sport, though mostly for sentimental reasons. A great baseball game remains a joy-inducing treat, and I love watching games live, at spring training venues or at the nearby Double A stadium in Chattanooga. But the truth is, today’s iteration of baseball bugs the hell out of me. Too many strikeouts and home runs, not enough nuance and strategy. Few games, even during the postseason, rise to the level of “great.” Which is why my favorite sport to watch is now soccer, specifically Premier League soccer on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Nancy and I watch a lot of soccer. It is a beautiful sport to watch. It has nearly nonstop action, and demands tremendous athleticism of its players, but it is also precise, thoughtful, steeped in strategy, and mindful of both defense and offense. Nancy roots for Tottenham. I root for Chelsea.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Favorite of My Books: The most recent one I’ve written, almost always. Which is a copout, I know. Invasives, the second Radiants book, comes out in February, so it is the most recent I’ve written, and it is my current favorite. But in another way, my favorite is probably The Outlanders, the second book in my LonTobyn Chronicle, and my second novel overall. Why? Simple. When I began my career, I knew I had one book in me, but I didn’t know if I could write for a living. Upon finishing The Outlanders, I realized it was better than my first book, Children of Amarid, a book of which I was quite proud. It was much better, in fact. And I understood then that I was not just a guy who wrote a book. I was an author. I could make a career of this.

Favorite Bird: I’ve seen close to a thousand species of bird worldwide, and I love so many of them. But one bird is what my brother Jim, who got me into birding in the first place, calls my trigger bird, the one that made me fall in love with bird watching. As it happens, he and I have the same trigger bird. Canada Warbler. Google it. I’ll wait… Beautiful, right? Sure, there are others that are even more striking, more majestic, fiercer, cooler. Whatever. This is the one that opened up the world of birds to me. I see it nearly every spring during migration. And each time the sighting leaves me smiling for the rest of the day.

Favorite TV Show We’re Binging Right Now: You have to understand, Nancy and I only got decent internet — decent enough to stream — about six months ago. So we are new to the binging thing and we love it. We are currently in the middle of The Great British Baking Show, The Crown, Madame Secretary, and our favorite, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It’s funny and smart, the performances are excellent, and the writing is great. What’s not to love?

Bloodroot and Dew Drop, by David B. CoeFavorite of My Photos: This is a hard one — even harder than choosing my favorite of my books, if for no other reason than sheer numbers: I’ve written about 26 books. I’ve taken thousands of photos. And as with my books, my favorite photo changes as I capture new images and add them to my collection. But one in particular has stood out for some time now, because with it I accomplished in a technical sense precisely what I wanted to. The photo is a macro shot of a single drop of water hanging from a Bloodroot leaf. And it works because I managed to position the drop in the optimal spot in the image, and I got the depth of field (the balance between what is in focus and what is blurred) just right. Here it is (click on the image for a larger version). Enjoy!

I might return to this “Favorites” theme again this year. I have lots of possible categories left.

For now, though, have a great week!

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Monday Musings: The Pandemic Two Years On

Two years ago at this time, we were just starting to hear reports of a strange new disease first discovered in the Wuhan Province of China. We didn’t know much about it, and while doctors in China expressed concern about what they were seeing, most of us didn’t think much of it. China, I remember thinking, is a long way away. Whatever this illness is, it’s not likely to have a huge impact on my life.

The hubris. The foolishness. The ignorance. The innocence.

This Sunday morning, as I began thinking about this week’s post, I went back and read some of the Monday Musings I wrote in 2020, when we as a society were first coming to grips with Covid and its implications for our lives and our world. I returned to the topic again and again that year, lamenting the previous Administration’s bumbling response to the pandemic, and trying to make sense in real time of the changes being imposed upon us by something we didn’t yet fully understand.

As I read yesterday, some of what I found in those posts from 2020 struck me as eerily familiar. Almost from the very beginning a certain, too-large segment of our society refused to take any steps to combat the spread of the virus because the actions in question conflicted with their concept of “personal freedom,” of “liberty.” At the time this mostly meant objecting to mask-wearing, to restrictions on large social gatherings, to business closings that prevented people from eating out and going to sports events and shopping in malls.

Today, we fight many of the same battles, and, of course, we struggle with the added social conflicts over vaccines and vaccine mandates.

We worried then, as we do now, about school closures and remote learning, and their impact on children and families. We saw fatigue and desperation and grief battering health care workers, and we worried about the long-term impact their ordeal would have on our entire medical system. And we saw Covid and the public battles over how to deal with it being politicized, deepening the fracture lines in a nation already bitterly divided by politics and social strife.

In too many ways, nothing has changed. And in other ways, things have only gotten worse.

At the time, we believed children were somehow immune to Covid. We have since learned, tragically, how mistaken we were.

Early on, the CDC was projecting deaths from Covid in the U.S. would exceed 100,000 and might reach as high as a quarter of a million. The number of cases of the illness, we were told, might reach into the millions.

The innocence. The ignorance . . . .

Currently, as we weather the third major wave of Covid, our nation’s death toll stands at approximately 835,000. The total number of cases stands at about 60,000,000.

I wrote in one of my earliest 2020 posts about how I remained hopeful that when the pandemic had run its course, we would return to something approaching the normal life we once had known. I was thinking a couple of months, maybe six, maybe a year. Two years on, and I no longer have any illusions about “normal” and what that means. By midsummer in 2020, I understood how naïve I had been. Normal, as we once conceived it, was already gone. We now live in a Covid world. I expect it will forever be a part of our health-scape. Like flu. Like AIDS.

Pretty grim, right?

Except it’s not. Yes, I know, as often as not (or more) my optimistic takes on things turn out to be off base. And if this is another instance, so be it.

But we as a society have learned to live with flu. We get shots, and though the flu vaccines are imperfect year to year, because they are based on health professionals’ best guess as to what the coming season’s flu strain will look like, they generally perform quite well. AIDS was once a death sentence. It’s not anymore.

Over 245 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. Over 206 million are fully vaccinated. The numbers are growing. We must remain committed to fighting the wacky conspiracy theories and the misinformation, so that we can vaccinate millions more in the coming months. But compared to where we were a year ago, we are safer today because of the vaccines. Covid today is hitting hardest in counties with the lowest vaccination rates. Those who are getting sickest from Covid are those who haven’t had the shots. The vaccines work.

Omicron is hitting the country — and the world — hard right now. But it is demonstrably milder than the original strain and than Delta. My wife, who is a Stanford-trained biologist, tells me this is often the pattern with illnesses. They grow more contagious over time, but also less virulent. And there is an evolutionary explanation for this. The contagion grows, because like all living creatures viruses are driven to propagate, to ensure their own continued existence. And the virulence declines because a virus that kills its host has less chance of surviving and reproducing.

Moreover, while many of the problems we encountered with Covid in the earliest days of the pandemic have persisted over these two years, others have not. I wrote early on that I was so distracted by the pandemic and the accompanying social disruptions that I could barely work. I was desperate for normal interactions, for anything that felt familiar and safe. I had trouble remembering what day of the week it was.

As the pandemic has gone on, though, I have adjusted. I can keep track of the days better. I work every day at a pace very much like that which I maintained pre-pandemic. I don’t like Zoom very much, but I use it a lot and keep connected that way. I have attended many virtual conventions, and have taught workshops remotely. And I have gotten used to wearing my mask, to being with friends in open-air settings, to shopping online rather than in person, to cooking every night with Nancy rather than eating out once a week, or once every couple of weeks.

Is any of this ideal? Of course not. But neither is it such a hardship that I can’t cope. I still do believe we will come to some new way of living that feels closer to the old normal than where we are now. I no longer try to guess when that might happen. Because I can’t know. And because I am not as desperate for it as I was a couple of years ago.

I understand fully that I am privileged in this respect. For too many, the disruptions of the pandemic have been utterly devastating and have done permanent damage — physically, emotionally, economically. And I hope that as a society we will show compassion to those who have suffered most, and will help them rebuild their lives.

My point today, though, is that I believe this will be possible. Two years on, too much is the same. Too much has gotten worse. And yet so many of us have adjusted and are adjusting. It may not seem like it much of the time, but we are already building that “next normal.”

Have a great week.