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.

Professional Wednesday: Write What You Know?

I remember a conversation with my father when I was a kid, about a friend of the family who was trying to make a second career for himself as a writer of fiction. His first novel had come out recently, and having already developed my own passion for writing stories, I was interested to know more about the book. I asked Dad how the book was and he told me, with some regret, because this really was a good friend, that it wasn’t very good. He blamed the book’s failings on the fact that our friend had strayed too far from his own experience in writing it. And then he repeated that age-old admonition for writers, “Write what you know.”

Now anyone who has read my blog entries or social media knows that I loved my dad — to the moon and back, as the children’s book says. I adored him. But I’ve understood for years now that this particular bit of received wisdom — “Write what you know” — is, at best, of questionable value. At worst, it is terribly limiting, particularly for authors of speculative fiction.

Or is it?

Let’s start with the obvious. If we take “write what you know” too literally, we can never write from the point of view of any character who is not like us. We can never set our stories in any world unlike our own. We can never place our characters in situations that we have not lived. Which, if you’re at all like me, leaves you with nothing but really boring stories to tell.

And I fear that my father, who was wonderful and well-meaning, but didn’t know a great deal about what it meant to write creatively, hewed a bit too closely to this limited and limiting interpretation of the old adage. For him, “write what you know” meant exactly that.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.The thing is, we writers do and must “write what we know.” But we understand that “what we know” does not equal “what we have lived.” Writing is all about emotion, about delving into the thoughts and feelings and visceral reactions of our point of view characters. I may not have ever traveled through time (for example), or investigated a murder in pre-Revolutionary Boston, or discovered that I possess supernatural powers and then been pursued by rogue government agents intent on killing my family and making me their weapon. (If you haven’t read Radiants, it’s really time you did.) But even if I haven’t done those things, I have lived the gamut of emotions my characters experience. I have known fear. I have been in love. I adore my children and have been frightened for them. I have been enraged. I have experienced physical pain and illness, exhaustion and hunger, desire and pleasure. I have known joy and confusion and shock, the thrill of ambition realized and the bitter disappointment of expectation thwarted. I can go on, but I think you get my point.The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)

As writers, we tell stories that range through time and place, that mine the very depths of our imaginations, that spin circumstance and situation into plots of complexity and innovation. But we connect with our audience through what our characters feel and experience, and what they, in turn, evoke from those who read their stories.

Put another way, “write what you know” proves to be quite valuable advice if we take it the right way, if we see it not as a limitation on our subject matter, but rather as an exhortation to delve deeper into the emotional and sensory content of our narratives.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)This is a topic to which I intend to return next week and in the weeks to come. Because when we start to think of “write what you know” as an invitation to think more about what our lives, despite their mundanity, have in common with the lives of our characters, we find new ways to enrich our storytelling and world building.

But for today, I leave you with this: The more you incorporate your emotional history into the character work you do, the more relatable your characters are apt to be. And then it won’t matter if they are Qirsi or weremystes, wizards or necromancers, vampires or vampire hunters. Their thoughts and feelings will resonate with your readers. And that, after all, is what we want.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Uncertainty, Optimism, and the New Year

I have been sitting in front of this screen for the better part of an hour, trying to write something for my opening Monday post of 2022. I am in no mood for prognosticating. With Covid still raging, and forty million Americans still stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated and bizarrely resistant to wearing masks, this doesn’t seem a time to be confident about anything, near-term or long-term.

I have no interest in reviewing the year just past. Any discussion of current political trends is likely to be irrelevant a month from now (and depressing for me and my like-minded friends in the interim . . .).

I also don’t wish to write about something frivolous (I have been enjoying this week’s Premier League soccer broadcasts and considered — briefly — writing about that).

I have written far too often about my personal struggles of the past year, and don’t wish to revisit them once again.

And, I realize as I write that last, I am reluctant to delve too much into my current emotional state. Because the truth is, I feel pretty good right now. Better than I have for much of the past year.

This will sound odd, but optimism scares me.

I come by my pessimism naturally. My mother could be terribly superstitious, and often didn’t like to give voice to her hope for good things, at least not without knocking on wood or something of the sort. I can be the same way. And on occasion in the past, when I’ve allowed myself to think positively, I’ve had bitter disappointments. None more devastating than this past year, when I dared feel some optimism in the winter, with The Former Guy having left office and the harsh winter Covid wave seemingly on the wane. Then our daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

And so saying I feel good right now scares me a little. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen with our daughter’s illness. Things look good right now, but with a disease like this, there are never guarantees. We as a nation don’t know what will happen with the pandemic. Things look dire right now, but if we can weather this wave, which seems likely to peak late this month, who knows? We also don’t know what will come of the anti-democratic rumblings and activities of the far right. I fear the worst, but hold out some hope that our system of government, which has seen so many crises over the past two hundred and forty years, will prove resilient.

Life’s uncertainty is a source of both wonder and terror for all of us. Good things come out of the blue, sometimes changing the course of our personal or professional existence. Disappointment and tragedy do the same. The hardest part of my emotional health journey over the past year has been coming to terms with that uncertainty and embracing it. Because we can’t know what will happen. Over the years, I’ve written so many characters in so many different stories in so many fantasy worlds, who have the power to glimpse the future, to judge people’s fates, or to see their own. Call it Divination, or The Sight, or Scrying — the power is a common trope in the realm of speculative fiction.

It is a power I am not sure I would want. I know, I just said that dealing with uncertainty has been difficult for me. But I also think knowing our future would rob us of something essentially human. Because while I have never been good at being optimistic, it is something I strive to be. I believe hope is the most human of emotions. Take away uncertainty, and we take away hope as well.

I will admit that my view on this isn’t entirely consistent. Would I like to know for certain, right now, that my daughter will forever be just fine? Of course. Would I want to know the opposite? No way in hell.

Embracing uncertainty means more than merely accepting what we can’t know. It means refusing to game out scenarios in our minds (something I do far too often, to my own detriment), resisting the tendency to give in to our worst fears, or to build up too much expectation for unrealistically rosy outcomes.

And so as I stand at the leading edge of this new year, I find myself unwilling to make predictions, or even to spell out with too much specificity what I want to see happen and what I don’t. Life comes at us fast, and the older I get, the harder it becomes to slow down the days, the seasons, the years.

But for the first time in my life, I am content to begin the new year saying to myself and to the world, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to us personally, professionally, politically, socially, culturally. I. Don’t. Know. And that’s okay. Today, I feel good. I’ll let you know about tomorrow when it gets here.

Have a good week. Have a good year.

Professional Wednesday: Writing To Heal

Writing saved me this year.

I have been through a lot over the past 12 months, from dealing with the devastating reality of one of my kids having cancer, to coming to terms with my personal mental health issues, to dealing with some physical health issues of my own, to grappling with all the other shit all of us are dealing with these days — the pandemic, economic and social uncertainty, existential threats to our republic, etc., etc., etc.

To the extent that I’ve worked through these issues (and many of them remain works-in-progress), I have done so by drawing on a variety of resources. I have a wonderful support system that consists of family and friends (you know who you are; I am more grateful to you than I can say). I am in therapy. I take a lot of long walks. I birdwatch and play guitar and take photos.

And, of course, I write.

Soon after my daughter’s diagnosis, I threw myself into writing the second Radiants book, Invasives, which will be out early in 2022. The plot doesn’t really touch on the issues I was coping with in my life, but it is a powerful book, one that demanded I plumb the depths of my emotions and consider what it means to be part of a family, in all its definitions. Writing that book got me through the early days of our family crisis. The novel allowed me to channel my grief and fear into something productive, something other than my own bleak moods. I often say that my favorite among my own books is my most recent one, and there will continue to be truth in that long after Invasives is no longer my most recent. But this book will remain special to me for the rest of my life. How could it not?

After finishing the book, I turned to a new editing venture — a freelance editing business — in large part because I needed to keep busy and, at that time, had no idea what I wanted to write next. But I also continued something I began the day after we learned our daughter was ill.

I journaled.

That may not sound revelatory, and the truth is I have journaled off and on throughout my adult life. But journaling about my daughter and her illness, journaling about my emotional health issues, journaling about all the sources of fear and grief and rage and every other emotion I’ve encountered recently, has been a key element of my mental health regimen over the past year.

I don’t journal daily, and I try not to make journaling feel like homework, like something I have to do. But I have found that writing an entry a week works quite well for me. Sometimes I don’t have a lot to say and after a couple of pages I’m done. Other times, I can’t wait to get to the journal and before I know it I’ve written ten pages in the course of an hour or two. Always, though, I give myself room to roam in my writing sessions. I might come to the entry with things I want to jot down, but invariably I go in directions I couldn’t have anticipated. Often I write my way into epiphanies I likely would not have experienced if not for the journal. Sometimes thoughts that have come to me while I journal will, in turn, spark an idea for this blog. Sometimes, they will even creep into my fiction in subtle ways. But I journal for me, for my health and my clarity.

Last year, in my final Writing Wednesday post, I wrote a piece called “Why Do We Create?” In it, I wrote about my various creative endeavors and what I get out of each one. I was trying to make the point that we don’t have to write for profit, for professional advancement, in order for writing to be valuable and rewarding. Little did I know what awaited me in 2021.

And so with the year winding down, and with a new year and new challenges arrayed before us, I wanted to amend a bit what I wrote in last year’s post.

I write because I love it. I write because I have stories burning a hole in my chest waiting to be set free and characters in my mind who clamor for my attention, who are eager to have their stories told. I write as well because it is my profession. I make money doing it. I aspire to critical success, I hope for the respect of my writing colleagues, I wish to please my fans and gain a wider readership. And I write because the act of creation is a balm for the mind and the soul. I draw comfort from the mining of my emotions, from the process of chronicling my personal journey, my struggles and demons as well as my growth and realizations. And I take satisfaction in using the emotions of that journey to animate characters who have different issues in their lives, but whose emotions have the same weight and resonance as my own.

Put another way, I write to heal. To heal myself, and also, perhaps, if I am fortunate, to bring a modicum of healing to those who read my work or my blog, even as they struggle with their own crises and challenges.

I wish all of you a joyful, healthful, healing 2022. And I look forward to continuing our creative journey together.

Monday Musings: Showing 2021 The Door

A year ago, as 2020 was winding down and the nation was exhausted from months of lockdowns and economic devastation, from a disturbingly divisive Presidential campaign, and from the anti-democratic rantings and tantrums of our then Sore-Loser-In-Chief, I wrote a Monday Musings post about the year that had been, and the year I thought and hoped would be coming.

I closed last year’s post with this: “But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.”

This is why I don’t gamble more. I really, really suck at prognostication. [Early in 2020, I closed out my first post of the year by saying I hoped that year would be “your best year yet.” Wowza.]

Six days into 2021, a group of terrorists posing as “patriots” stormed the Capitol building, the seat of the American republic, in an attempt to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential election. Six people died.¹

So much for the “new normal.”

The pandemic proved far more stubborn than many anticipated, its resurgences fueled by the Delta and (recently) Omicron variants. Too many Americans have refused to be vaccinated. Too many still resist wearing masks. And so the virus has had ample opportunity to mutate, to grow more transmissible and more adept at evading the protections offered by the vaccines. (A silver lining: Maybe this will convince some people that evolution is real . . . Or maybe not . . .) We enter 2022 in the midst of a spike in cases that could prove to be the worst yet numerically, even as this newest strain of the virus appears to be somewhat less virulent than those that preceded it.

And, on a personal note, our family was beset in March with a terrifying health crisis that dominated much of our year, leaving us exhausted and emotionally spent, even as we celebrate quietly what has so far been a promising outcome.

In short, 2021 has been for us, and I know for many of you as well, anything but the bounce-back year we were anticipating.

So, where do we go from here? How do we say goodbye (or perhaps good riddance) to this year without setting ourselves up for another disappointment in the year to come?

Honestly, I’m not certain. The truth is, pretty much every year brings joys, be they large or small, and every year brings its share of tragedies and crises. Some years may be better than others on balance, but they all bring a mix of emotions. 2021 has been just about the hardest year of my life, and yet it has also seen the graduation of our younger daughter from college, a wonderful professional opportunity for Nancy (more on that in the weeks to come), and several publications for me as well as the auspicious beginning of a new freelance editing venture. Even our older daughter, who faced illness and grueling treatments, had an excellent work year and some memorable travel experiences with friends.

We are, all of us, resilient, as individuals and as a social community. It may not always seem that way, and certainly ominous clouds loom on our social/political horizon. Anti-vaccine misinformation is literally killing people across the country, just as continued lies about the 2020 election threaten the very existence of our democratic republic. We have a long way to go in so many respects. But I suppose, despite everything, and notwithstanding last year’s utterly useless predictions about 2021, I remain an optimist at heart.

It feels strange to say this, because I suffer from anxiety, and too often allow myself to spiral into negative thinking. But somehow my anxiety and my basic optimism coexist. I’m sure 2022 will bring its share of trials and calamities. I live with a Stanford-trained biologist, so I’m not so naïve as to think that Covid is going away anytime soon.

Yet, I also believe 2022 is going to be better than the past two years have been. I suppose on some level I have to believe this, for my own sanity. And so without making bold predictions, and without any illusions as to how foolish I might feel a year from now, reading back through this post, I look forward to the coming year. I welcome it.

And I say to 2021, “Don’t let the door hit your butt on your way out…”

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¹ Two insurrectionists died of heart attacks. One was shot and killed. A Capitol police officer died that day of a stroke after sustaining injuries and being sprayed with chemicals by those trying to breach police lines. And two more officers committed suicide within a week of the insurrection.

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