Professional Wednesday: I’m Stuck

My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

I feel stuck. Have for a while now. It’s nothing too alarming; I’ve been here before. But it is frustrating, and I am ready — past ready — to be, well, unstuck.

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently, and I enjoy that. It keeps my mind busy. It forces me to think creatively, to consider my craft while also making certain to respect the vision and voice of my client. But it’s not the same as writing.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)And when it comes to writing, I am in something of a rut. The last novel-length piece I wrote beginning to end was Invasives, the second Radiants book, which I completed (the first draft at least) eleven months ago. Eleven months!

I’ve written some short fiction since then. A Thieftaker story, a story for the Silence in the City anthology. I had to revise and polish Invasives, and I have done work on the new Celtic series I’ve recently sold. But the first two of those books were already written. I’ve been revising those, too. I’ve started book 3, but only just.

Noir, edited by David B. Coe and John Zakour, an anthology from Zombies Need BrainsMostly, as I say, I’ve been editing. My work. Other people’s work. The Noir anthology. I’ve been plenty busy, but I have not been as productive creatively as I would like. And I wonder if this is because of all the emotional pressure we (my family and I) have been under over the past year-plus.

Recently, I wrote a couple of what you might call audition chapters for a project I cannot talk about. (There was actually an NDA. I really can’t talk about it.) And I enjoyed that process. I had a tight deadline, a quick turnaround from when I got the information on what I needed to write to when the chapters were due. I met the deadline with ease, and was pleased with the results.

As I say, I’ve been here before. I’m not worried that I’ll never write again. At least not too worried.

I wonder, though, if there is a lesson in that experience with the sample chapters. Maybe what I need is a deadline, one that’s hard and fast and not too far away. Maybe I need that sort of kick in the pants to get going again. I’ve long said that when I go too long without writing, I get cranky.

Well, I’m cranky.

I don’t know if I’ll get the gig I auditioned for. I’m certainly not counting on it. But if I don’t, I need to make myself work on something else. According to the contract, that third Celtic book isn’t due for a long time, but I am thinking I should start writing it now. And I should set a hard deadline for myself, well before the actual due date. I have lots of editing projects looming, so I can easily justify forcing myself to write the book now and quickly.

I don’t know. I need to do something.

Creativity is a strange beast. Often it’s thought of as something that comes to us in sudden sparks of inspiration. It can’t be forced, we’re told. But when it strikes, the feeling is euphoric. And some of that is true some of the time.

Inspiration can be abrupt and unexpected, and those moments can be euphoria-inducing. The thing is though, if we want to make our living as creatives, we can’t afford to wait for the muse, or whatever, to strike. We have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, bills arriving in the mail each day. This is our job, damnit!

Which means creativity can be forced. Most times it has to be forced. I write pretty much every day. My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

What does this have to do with me being stuck? Honestly, I’m not certain; I’m working this out as I go. But I think the answer is this: Being stuck is as much a part of making a living as a creator as being inspired. It’s the back half of that shining coin. Fields need to lay fallow for a time before they can be productive again. Writers (and other artists) sometimes need to go through periods of creative dormancy before we can dive back into the projects we want to complete.

This is not an excuse. As I said earlier, I’m cranky. I want to be writing again. But I have also learned over the years that beating myself up because I’ve been unproductive accomplishes nothing. On some level, I believe, the creative brain knows what it needs. Just as a body can crave different sorts of food to meet nutritional needs, the artistic mind can seek out times of rest and times of activity.

I have been in the former for long enough, thank you very much. I am ready for the latter.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: My Favorite Hidden Gems

Not so very long ago, I wrote a post on some of my favorite things. I thought I would follow up on that with a post about a few things I love that I consider “hidden gems,” things I have found along the way with which a large number of people might not be familiar.

So buckle in and enjoy a brief spin through the backwaters of my artistic and entertainment tastes.

Hidden Gem novels: I have a couple of recommendations in this regard, as it happens, both of them by people I know. The first series comes from fantasy author Lynn Flewelling. Her Tamir Trilogy (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle’s Queen) is one I have recommended before, but I love, love, love it, and I think others will as well. It is haunting, thrilling, and romantic, but it also bends our expectations when it comes to gender and the roles imposed upon girls and women. Brilliant stuff.

I also love C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator Trilogy (Heart of Stone, House of Cards, Hands of Flame). These are urban fantasies set in New York City, but they are unlike any UF I’ve read before or since. They’re exciting and romantic (yes, I admit it: I like romantic plots), with a magical element that is utterly fascinating and entirely captivating. I love these books.

Americanization of Emily promo posterHidden Gem movies: Two entries here, too, both of them idiosyncratic. But that’s the point, right? The first is a film from 1964 called The Americanization of Emily. It is a war movie set during World War II, but it will turn your expectations upside down as it rejects normal images of heroism and wartime valor. The cast is great — Julie Andrews in the title role is terrific. She’s worldly, sassy, and a long, long way from Mary Poppins and Fräulein Maria. James Garner, a favorite of mine, is her love interest, and is not at all the usual romantic lead. James Coburn and Melvyn Douglas are strong in supporting roles.

The second film is 1992’s Passion Fish, starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, and Angela Bassett. Written and directed by John Sayles, Passion Fish tells the story of a spoiled soap opera star who is paralyzed in a car wreck and returns to her childhood home in the bayou, intent on drinking her way into an early grave. What she discovers at home changes her life. It sounds hokey and depressing. It’s neither. Trust me on this. It’s wonderful, and the performances are phenomenal.

Hidden Gem music: I’m a big fan of acoustic instrumental music and I have a couple of recommendations along these lines. The first is an album I know I have mentioned on this blog before, but it’s been some time. The album is called Skip, Hop, and Wobble. The musicians are Jerry Douglas on dobro, Russ Barenberg on guitar, and Edgar Meyer on stand-up bass. The music is bluegrass inspired, but it has little of the twang that some object to in bluegrass. Rather, the tunes are by turns lyrical, humorous, and toe-tapping. I have a lot of bluegrass, a lot of instrumental music. This album is unique. I can think of nothing else like it.

The second album I would classify as Scottish folk music. Some might call it Celtic, but I tend to think of Celtic music as specifically Irish. Tomato, to-mah-to. Anyway, the album is called Highlander’s Farewell, and it features Alasdair Fraser on fiddle and Natalie Haas on cello. The music is evocative and gorgeous. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Scotland.

Finally, a third recommendation. Alison Brown is an amazing crossover musician. She plays banjo and has been a session player for bluegrass stars like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss. But she also has a band of her own, the Alison Brown Quartet, which includes her husband, bass player Garry West. They play an amazing form of bluegrass-jazz that is completely addicting. I recommend you start with the album Replay.

Hidden Gem TV: Many of you know I am a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and many of you share that passion. Before he started work on that classic, though, he was show-runner for a short-lived series called Sports Night. It’s about a late-night sports show similar to ESPN’s Sports Center, but for a third-place network. Like all of Sorkin’s shows Sports Night is funny, poignant, intelligent, and filled with marvelous dialogue and terrific acting. It aired on ABC, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They marketed it as a romantic comedy and even added a laugh-track, which is really too bad. It was far too smart a show for the network, and they managed to kill it in two seasons. But those seasons are great, and you can find it on one of the streaming services. Easy to binge, and so, so good.

And with that, I will stop, although I reserve the right to return to this theme in future posts.

In the meantime, have a great week!

Creative Friday: My New Toy!

I have a new toy.

Sony RX10 Mk IVAnyone who has met me and/or read this blog knows I am an avid photographer. And I have a very nice camera, a digital SLR with several interchangeable lenses that I use for landscapes, portraits, macro, travel photography, and pretty much everything else. Pretty much.

The one thing I don’t do much with that camera, because I don’t have the appropriate lens, is bird photography. Now, the other thing readers of this blog know is that I am a dedicated (read: fanatical) birdwatcher and have been for most of my life. So I have long been frustrated with my inability to take good photos of birds.

In the past, I have balked at buying a big lens, capable of taking decent bird photos, for my DSLR. There have been several reasons for this. One, such lenses are expensive. Even the lens with the minimum focal length I would need (a zoom lens of 100-400mm) costs well over $2,000. There are off-brand versions that are decent but not great. These would run closer to $800.00. But they do not solve the second issue: Big lenses tend to be, well, big. They’re heavy and bulky, as is my DSLR, actually. Combine the big lens with the hefty camera, and you have something weighing about five pounds hanging around your neck or off your shoulder. I know myself well enough to question how often I would actually take such a rig out in the field.

So I have finally decided to go in a slightly different direction. I recently purchased a rather pricey new toy, the Sony RX10 Mk IV. This is a mirrorless “bridge” camera, meaning that it sort of straddles the line between a DSLR and a point and shoot camera. It weighs far less than my DSLR would with a telephoto lens. But it has a very good, very powerful, built-in lens, made by Zeiss, an excellent German optics company. This lens zooms from 24mm to 600mm, making it actually more powerful than the big, expensive lens I’d been considering. It also costs a good deal less.

The digital sensor in the camera is not as good as my DSLR, and I will likely never use this lens for landscapes. I am very picky about image quality, and am particularly uncompromising when it comes to my landscape photography. Birds, though, are tough to photograph to begin with, and I understand that I would likely get precious few razor sharp images with any camera and lens combination. And because this camera is so light and easy to carry, because it has a very strong stabilizing mechanism that keeps the image still and clear even when the camera is handheld, and because the sensor and lens are, while not perfect, very, very good, this is the perfect solution for me when it comes to birds. I take it with me on walks all the time, without hesitation. And I have gotten some very good photos already.

Below find some images I captured in Florida, around my birthday, when I was first learning to use the camera. As you can see, the quality of the images is quite good. They are sharp and the color is excellent. And I am having so much fun! I can finally take pictures of my feathered buddies, and I don’t have to carry the equivalent of an anchor around my neck. I’m very happy with my purchase. I do love my toys . . . .

Have a great weekend!

Least Bittern, by David B. Coe
Least Bittern, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Pied-billed Grebe, by David B. Coe
Pied-billed Grebe, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Green Heron, by David B. Coe
Green Heron, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Red-shouldered Hawk, by David B. Coe
Red-shouldered Hawk, Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Great Egret, by David B. Coe
Great Egret, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Red-winged Blackbird, by David B. Coe
Red-winged Blackbird, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Florida, by David B. Coe
Wood Duck Pair, by David B. Coe
Wood Ducks, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, by David B. Coe

Professional Wednesday: Confessions — The Ways In Which I Waste Work Time

I have shared some personal stuff in these posts in the past. Today’s post is the most private, the most embarrassing, the most revealing I’ve ever written.

Well, not really. But today, I confess to all of you, in front of God and everyone, how I waste time when I ought to be writing.

Let’s be honest, we all find ways to procrastinate and distract ourselves when we’re working, writers and non-writers alike. I also think, though, that writers in particular need to have ways to occupy the front parts of our brain, while the hind-brain works through plot points and character arcs and the like. (Go with it, people. My blog, my rules . . .) Certainly I need these things. And I resort to all sorts of stuff during the course of a day.

Confession #1: I play Bejeweled Blitz on my phone. I play it a lot, and I have been addicted to it for years. I have enough gold bars and coins piled up to make Warren Buffett envious. I have so many free gems wracked up that I could play for weeks straight, without pausing for meals or sleep, and never have to pay for a gem with any of those hoarded coins. It’s a bit of a sickness, actually. But I do enjoy it.

Confession #2: Bejeweled Blitz is not the only game on my phone. Not even close. I play Wordscapes, Crown Solitaire, Hearts, Spades. I don’t play them nearly as much as I play Blitz, but . . . well, let’s just say I don’t lack for entertainment options. And don’t get me started about Wordle.

Confession #3: I will, at least a couple of times each week, I look at guitars on various music store websites. Yes, I own three acoustic guitars, all of them very nice. Yes, I own an electric guitar. Also very nice. And yes, I covet more. I look at Reverb.com. I look at Musician’s Friend. I look at Sweetwater. I look at Music Zoo. I could go on, but I think you get the point. I never tire of looking at beautiful new guitars that I neither need, nor can afford.

Confession #4: Repeat last paragraph, and everywhere I mention “guitar” substitute “camera” or “lens,” and everywhere I mention a music store, substitute a camera dealer. I’m not proud of this.

Confession #5: I shop for other stuff, too. Books. CDs. Sometimes clothes or shoes. Sometimes gifts for other people. Not as often as I would like you to think. But I do look for stuff for others. Really.

Confession #6: This is really not a confession, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But I’m talking about procrastinating, so . . . I play guitar during my work day. It’s a good way to refocus, a nice break from sitting at the keyboard, a constructive use of time I might otherwise spend, oh, I don’t know, playing Bejeweled Blitz?

Confession #7: A lot of the online searches I do for the purposes of book research quickly morph into rabbit holes that have nothing to do with my stories and everything to do with wasting time and NOT writing. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard. Looking at you, every writer reading this post . . .

Confession #8: A lot of the online searches I do never had any connection to the book or story I’m working on in the first place. They were about birds or music or baseball or anything but the book or story I’m working on. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard, either.

Confession #9: Email — blah, blah, blah. Facebook — blah, blah, blah. Twitter — blah, blah, blah. YouTube — blah, blah, blah. Etc. Ad infinitum. Social media is absolutely essential to self-promotion, to building our audiences and platforms. It is also the ultimate time-sink.

Confession #10: Sometimes when I am listening to music when I write, I’ll suddenly just HAVE to know who is playing rhythm guitar on this particular song. And then I will need to know what other albums this person played on and who he played with. And pretty soon it’s an hour later.

Confession #11: This is not a complete list . . .

In all seriousness, to procrastinate is human. It is, I believe, part of my creative process. I was actually serious earlier when talking about front-brain stuff and hind-brain stuff. I find these various things I do to distract myself are essential to my writing day. That’s not just a rationalization. I honestly believe these “wastes of time” enable me to be productive. And I AM productive, despite my distractions, which, I would say, proves my point.

And that mention of rationalizations reminds me of a line from a movie. I think I know which one. And IMDB is a really fun website, so I gotta go . . .

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Baseball, Opening Day, and Childhood Dreams

Baseball season opens this week. That might not seem like a big deal to you. And in truth, it’s far less of a big deal for me now than it used to be.

But once upon a time, Opening Day was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. It was the best day of the year that didn’t involve me getting presents. It was a day of possibility, of dreams deferred finally having their day in the sun. And, yes, quite often, it was also the day those dreams and possibilities were doused with icy water.

When I was a kid, baseball was everything to me. Sure, I had other interests, but I lived and died with the Yankees (mostly died, for the first twelve years of my life) and I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. I remember a first grade class assignment in which we were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves in whatever job we expected to do when we grew up, and then write a few sentences about that job. I drew myself playing center field for the Yankees.

I should pause here to say that I must have been truly delusional. I was a TERRIBLE baseball player as a kid. I was terrified of getting hit by the baseball. My little league at-bats were panic-inducing affairs that saw me swinging at any pitch within four or five feet of the plate so that I could strike out more quickly. The strikeout itself was a foregone conclusion, right? So why prolong the encounter and risk devastating physical injury? Every once in a while, I would screw up the courage NOT to swing and would manage a walk.

And as I trotted down to first base, marveling at the mere fact that I was still alive, my father would clap from the stands, calling “Nice going, Charlie [his nickname for me — he did, in fact, know my real name]! Walk’s as good as a hit!”

Kind, but untrue. Walks are great — on average, players who walk a lot help their teams far more than players who walk infrequently. Still, hits are better. There are stats to back this up. But I digress . . .

What about my fielding, you might ask. Well, I was already a birdwatcher by the time I was playing little league, and I spent a lot of time out in right field, watching for interesting fly-overs, and running after hit balls that were safely on the ground and decelerating, and therefore far less of a threat . . .

[I did get a little better as I grew older. I spent three summers at sleepaway camp when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, and during my last year there had a pretty good season. I batted over .300 — yes, I kept track; yes, I still remember — fielded well, and generally acquitted myself quite well. But I should also say that this was a camp for well-to-do Jewish kids. Not exactly the training ground for future Major Leaguers. The pitchers I faced were more likely to wind up as orthodontists than as professional athletes.]

And still, I insisted year after year that I would someday play for the Yankees. And not just at any position. I would play center field. The realm of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As I said: delusional. My parents tried, gently, to steer me away from this dream, pointing out that baseball players — and most professional athletes — had certain skills and attributes that I lacked. Like hand-eye coordination. And height.

Joe Morgan, 1974 Topps“Aha!!” I was able to reply. “What about Joe Morgan? Two time Most Valuable Player, perennial All-Star, World Series champion. He’s five foot seven!” Besides, I assured them. I didn’t expect or need to be six feet tall. I would be perfectly happy with five foot ten, like my hero, Roy White.

Amazingly, it was this statement that my father couldn’t abide. God bless him, he was willing to put up with my elephantine blind spot when it came to my playing ability. But me growing to be five foot ten? No. This was the bridge too far. “Charlie, I’m sorry. But you are never, ever going to be five foot ten . . .”

Spoiler alert: He was right.

I did eventually get over my baseball-playing dreams. Mostly. But baseball’s Opening Day still elicits from me a different sort of dream. “This is the year!” I tell myself, literally every year. “This is the year the Yankees will dominate the American League. The Mets will dominate the National League. The two will meet in an epic seven game World Series! I won’t even care which team wins!”

So maybe I’m still delusional.

But did you know that in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, both teams were just one year removed from last-place finishes in their respective divisions? True story. In 1969, the Miracle Mets won 100 games and the World Series, after spending their first seven years of existence at or near the basement of the National League.

And while we’re at it, did you know that Freddie Patek, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, three time All-Star, was only five foot five??

Anything can happen!

And that really is the point.

Look, baseball is no longer the game I worshiped as a child. Games have gotten too long and boring. Batters swing for the fences in every at-bat. Pitchers try to strike out every batter they face. The nuance and strategy that I loved — it all seems to be gone. And yet, with Opening Day approaching, I find myself dreaming of a season in which smart baseball returns, in which the obsession with power-hitting and power-pitching fades, and this amazing game returns to the subtle brilliance I remember so fondly.

Call me delusional.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Why Fantasy, Why Magic?

My oldest brother, Bill, who we lost several years ago, was an avid reader. He loved books of all sorts. Every year, he made a list of the National Book Award nominees — finalists and books on the long list — and read them all. He read fiction and non-fiction, his interests as reflected in the latter ranging from baseball to natural history to military history. He was a poet in his own right, and he revered literature of every stripe.

And yet . . .

He was always quite proud of my career, and he had a shelf among his many book cases that he reserved for my novels. But he felt on some level that I was wasting my ability by writing fantasy. Many times over the years, he suggested I try my hand at writing so-called literary fiction. Every time he did, I cringed just a little.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)The bias against genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Westerns, romance, etc.) among those who consider themselves devotees of “true” literature, is something I have encountered again and again throughout my career. Not surprisingly, I don’t believe it has any basis in reality. Fantasy (to address my speciality) like literary fiction, runs the gamut in terms of quality. One can find in all literary fields examples of brilliance and also of mediocrity. No genre has a monopoly on either. I write fantasy because I enjoy it, because I love to imbue my stories with magic, with phenomena I don’t encounter in my everyday life. I wasn’t shunted to this genre because I wasn’t good enough to write the other stuff. I don’t hide in my genre because I fear I can’t cut it in the world of “real” literature.

I said before that I cringed whenever my brother raised the issue with me. I also told him in no uncertain terms that I was writing what I enjoyed, and enjoying what I wrote, which remains true to this day. Writing fantasy demands that I create coherent, convincing magic systems. Often it requires the creation of entire alternate worlds, complete with their own histories and cultures, politics and religions, economies and social structures. These are not distractions from the fundamental elements of narrative — character development, plotting, pacing, clear and flowing prose, etc. Quite the contrary. These fantastical elements enhance those fundamentals and present unique and rewarding challenges.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.It’s not enough to create my worlds and magic systems. I have to explain them to my readers in a manner that is entirely natural and unobtrusive. And — my own preference — I also have to complete my stories and my character arcs in ways that utilize my fantasy elements without allowing them to take over my story telling. My heroes may possess magic, but in the end, I will always choose to have them prevail by drawing upon their native human qualities — their courage and resolve, their intelligence and creativity, their devotion to the people and places they love. Magic sets them apart and makes them interesting. It is often the hook the draws readers to my books. But those human attributes — those are the ones my real-world readers relate to. They form the bond between my readers and my characters. And so if those are the qualities that allow my characters to prevail in the end, then their triumphs will feel more personal and rewarding to my readers. It is the simplest sort of literary math.

I believe part of the bias against genre fiction is based in the erroneous belief that the trappings of these literary types — magic, imagined technology, romantic tension and conflict, the ticking clock of a murder investigation — somehow serve as substitutes for character development and good writing fundamentals. In truth, they are complements to solid narrative work. Genre fiction, when well done, has all that extra stuff we love AND great story telling.

I expect I am preaching to the choir a bit with this post. That’s okay. It’s not just those of us who write genre fiction who have to put up with the biases of others. Readers of our genres deal with the same sort of prejudices all the time. Fine. Those other people don’t know what they’re missing.

Plus, their book jackets aren’t nearly as cool as ours.

Keep writing. Keep reading.

Monday Musings: About That New Normal…

Don’t look now, but there is a new Omicron variant — the so-called “Stealth Omicron” — moving across Europe, and it is likely already here in the U.S. It is more contagious than the original Omicron, which is a little scary, given how transmissible the first iteration has proven.

The thing is, this is likely our future. One variant after another, each carrying its own unique attributes and, thus, dangers. As many have said already, Covid is not going away. Rather, it is likely to circulate through the population continually for years, even decades to come, ebbing and flowing much like influenza.

Which means we need to learn to live with it.

I am not, and have never been, a Covid denier. I am vaxxed and boosted, and when the next booster is available, I will get it. I have been diligent about masking, and continue to wear a mask when I shop or go into most public spaces. Put another way, from the beginning of this pandemic, I have followed the science. I’ll continue to do so. And I will continue to urge others (perhaps you, gentle reader) to get vaccinated. Vaccinations remain our single best hope in combatting the pandemic. Vaccines protect individuals and so they also protect communities. If you’re not yet vaccinated, please consider getting the shots.

But having said that, I also have to add this: I am weary of this pandemic, and I find those moments when I am able to take off a mask in public — when being served food or drink in a restaurant, for instance — incredibly liberating. I miss conventions and look forward to attending several this year, including DragonCon, which could be, I know, a super-spreader event waiting to happen. I would love to get to the point where I feel comfortable attending movies, concerts, and sporting events. I enjoy those things. I want them back in my life. I am tired of dealing with supply chain issues and higher prices, both of which are a direct consequence of this worldwide health crisis.

During our older daughter’s fight against cancer, she has at times been immunocompromised. I am deeply sensitive to the needs and fears of those who are at greater risk from the virus. I am also sensitive to the concerns of those who have suffered professionally and financially from the economic impacts of social distancing and shut-downs. Just as Covid itself has shown an uncanny and disturbing capacity for attacking organs and systems throughout the human body, so the pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our society and economy. It is, on all levels, pervasive and insidious.

And, once again, it’s not going away.

So how do we live with it, as a people, as a community, as a world? As I said, the best weapon we have is the vaccine. But we also need to recognize that some people simply will not give up on whatever notions or ideologies prevent them from getting vaccinated. There will always be a portion of the population that chooses vulnerability over protection, and that therefore facilitates the spread of future variants. The efficacy of masking is somewhat less clear than that of vaccination, and many vaccine skeptics are even more skeptical of wearing masks. Herd immunity will remain beyond our reach for the foreseeable future.

The same has been true of the flu for decades. And to be clear, I make the comparison reluctantly. Despite the claims of the uninformed, Covid is NOT just a glorified flu. It is NOT just an overhyped cold. Influenza kills between 12,000 and 52,000 Americans annually. The common cold kills far, far fewer. Covid, in its first two years, killed over 900,000 Americans. But flu shots work pretty well for those who get them. Covid vaccines, from what I understand, are actually more targeted and thus more successful.

Covid infection ratesAnd so those who trust the Covid science will remain safer than those who don’t. Those who keep up with vaccinations and boosters will get sick less often and less severely. They will die in far smaller numbers and spend far less time in the hospital. The numbers are dramatic and indisputable. Sadly, but predictably, living with Covid means accepting an ever widening gap in the rates of infection and in case outcomes between those who ignore the advice of medical professionals and those who follow it. It means accepting that some social and economic disruptions will be unavoidable. One-third of the people in this country are unwilling to protect themselves and their families. There are bound to be consequences for this.

In recent months, there have been more and more articles and reports about “compassion fatigue.” Medical professionals are having a harder time expressing sympathy for those unfortunate individuals among the unvaccinated who are getting severely ill. Many, like myself, who make the effort to follow the science, are losing patience with those who don’t. Because their choices are hurting the economy, delaying the return to “normal,” and putting all of us at risk. I suppose it’s fair to say that this post is a symptom of my own compassion fatigue. It’s not that I don’t care that the unvaccinated are getting sick, that so many are being hospitalized, that too many are dying. It’s not that I don’t recognize the tragedy. But I can’t help feeling the outcomes are self-imposed.

I know that’s harsh, but it’s how I feel. We are fighting to find our footing in a world forever changed by this pandemic, and every person who defies the realities presented to us by medical professionals makes this task just a bit harder. We, as a society and a nation, are ready to move on. We are eager to have our lives back. And we are denied the ability to do so by the decisions of a stubborn — and, I would add, misinformed — minority. It is one more growing chasm in a country already riven with such divisions. Sadly, though, that too is part of our new normal.

Wishing you a healthful week.

Professional Wednesday: Punctuating Our Stories (Not the Way You Think I Mean It)

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

We all know the line. Even people who haven’t seen Casablanca know the line. (And please, don’t get me started about not seeing Casablanca. I mean, sure, it’s dated, But it remains one of the greatest movies of all time. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, and so many others. It has romance, intrigue, action, and it keeps you guessing right up to the stunning ending. See? This is why you shouldn’t get me started . . .) Anyway, the line. It is one of the great bits of closing dialogue in any movie ever made.

But it’s more than just clever. It is the perfect punctuation point for the film’s narrative. From that line, and those that come directly before it in the last minute or so of the film, we know everything we need to about what is next for our hero, Richard Blaine. We know that he’ll survive letting Ilsa go (yeah, I know: spoiler. Get over it. The movie was made, like, three centuries ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, that’s on you, not me). He’ll go on to join the French Resistance and fight the Nazis with Louis Renault by his side. And, very likely, he and Louis will be heroes in that effort.

What’s my point?

Simply this: Every story — certainly every novel — needs its own version of “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I’m doing a lot of editing these days, and I have seen several manuscripts that reach endings of a sort, but that fail to tie things up in a satisfying way. To be clear, I am not saying that every book needs a pat conclusion. We can leave some questions unanswered. We can hint at futures to come. My favorite fantasy novel of all time, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, ends with a prophesy that suggests fates for three men, but we are left to wonder which future is tied to which character. It works.

I am also not talking about the climax of your novel. That is something different — also important, obviously, but different.

What I am suggesting here, rather, is that we need to have some closure for our lead characters, AFTER the final battle/confrontation/major plot point. We need to see those characters in the aftermath of all to which we have subjected them, and we need to see them moving on (or not), healing (or not), finding peace or contentment or new purpose (or not). Yes, the details are vague. I would never think to tell any writer how content-wise to end their book. We each have a vision of what awaits our characters and that is intensely private.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)But at the very least, we need to see our main heroes grappling with what they have endured and setting their sights on what is next for them. We don’t need this for every character but we need it for the key ones. Ask yourself, “whose book is this?” For me, this is sometimes quite clear. With the Thieftaker books, every story is Ethan’s. And so I let my readers see Ethan settling back into life with Kannice and making a new, fragile peace with Sephira, or something like that. With other projects, though, “Whose book is this?” can be more complicated. In the Islevale books — my time travel/epic fantasy trilogy — I needed to tie off the loose ends of several plot threads: Tobias and Mara, Droë, and a few others. Each had their “Louis” moment at the end of the last book, and also some sense of closure at the ends of the first two volumes.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Why do I do this? Why am I suggesting you do it, too? Because while we are telling stories, our books are about more than plot, more than action and intrigue and suspense. Our books are about people. Not humans, necessarily, but people certainly. If we do our jobs as writers, our readers will be absorbed by our narratives, but more importantly, they will become attached to our characters. And they will want to see more than just the big moment when those characters prevail (or not). They will want to see a bit of what comes after.

So, I am suggesting that you decide which characters matter most to your story and therefore to your readers, and then give those characters (and your readers!!) a satisfying conclusion to their narrative and personal arcs. Let us see them post-conflict, post-finale. Give us a glimpse of what life has in store for them next. They have been our friends and companions for hundreds of pages. Maybe thousands. And while we can reread the story you’re finishing, the fact is we’re saying goodbye to them. We may never encounter them again. Or maybe we will, in which case you can hint at that. But we need . . . something.

J.R.R. Tolkien did not end The Lord of the Rings with the battle in front of the gates of Mordor. He didn’t end it with the scouring of the Shire, or even with Frodo and Bilbo sailing to the Grey Havens. He ended it with Sam returning home after bidding farewell to Frodo and saying, “Well, I’m back.” Because that is the point of the story: Our heroes may be leaving these shores, Aragorn may be king far, far away and Legolas and Gimli may be back with their people, but the Shire and Middle Earth endure and go on. And Sam is the best character to make that point.

Mastering the use of that sort of story punctuation is a key element of effective storytelling. I recommend you work on it.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: “Time, Time, Time, See What’s Become of Me…”

The other day, as I was shaving (yes, I shave, despite the beard — I like to keep it trim and neat) I paused, taking in how very white my beard looks these days. There is almost no brown left in it. My temples are graying, my thinning hair is frosted with more white than I had realized. I am grizzled. That’s the polite way of saying it.

I suppose I should pause here to make a confession: I had a birthday last week.

To be sure, I am feeling my age. But this post is about more than just a guy of advanced middle age staring down the barrel of his sixtieth trip around the sun (my next birthday is A Big One). Time seems to be rushing past in an alarming way. We’re more than halfway done with March and I have no idea where the first two-months-plus of this year have gone. Each week, I set work goals for myself, and generally speaking I meet them. But then I have other things I want to get done — personal things; a song I want to learn on my guitar, photos I want to process from a recent shoot, a walk I’d like to take — but the week is already gone, and I am no closer to getting those things done.

I remember when I was college I spent a lot of time fighting the passage of time, which is a losing battle if ever there was one. I don’t know if I was hyper-conscious of how brief those four wonderful years would wind up feeling, or if I was struck by a growing awareness of my parents’ aging, or if I was merely anxious to get on with my life — with my search for direction, for love, for confidence and contentment. Whatever the reason, I struggled with a sense that my life was speeding past me, and I needed to slow it down somehow.

I have that sense again now, but it’s my own aging that has me thinking this way. Life is hard right now. It’s hard in a macro sense — the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the existential threat our own actions pose to our planet. It’s hard in a personal sense — my daughter’s health, end-of-life issues impacting Nancy’s parents, the difficulties of maintaining a writing career in this publishing climate, my own struggle with anxiety.

And yet, despite these difficulties, I am enjoying life as much as I ever have. Nancy and I are empty-nesters and, as much as we love our daughters, we also love our life together. We are deeply proud of the adult human beings our girls have become, and we savor our time with them. The literary landscape is fraught, but I love the stuff I’m writing, and I have been enjoying my new career as an editor. Nancy has just reached a career milestone and is finally receiving the recognition and attention she has deserved for so long. Life is good. But it is speeding by. Again. Still.

When I was a kid, I would express impatience for one thing or another — my next birthday, a baseball game for which we had tickets, a family trip in the offing — and invariably my mom or dad would say, “Don’t rush it. It’ll be here before you know it.” Years later, I found myself saying the same thing to my girls. Each successive year of life represents a smaller percentage of the time that has come before. Of course the years feel shorter and shorter. Put another way, time snowballs. It is relentless, immutable. It is the advance and retreat of the tide, the rotation and orbit of the earth. Sunrise and sunset. Waves upon sand. Pick your cliché.

The title of this post comes from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade Of Winter” — Paul Simon is a musical hero of mine. James Taylor, another of my musical heroes, famously sang “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” He may well be right. I wouldn’t know. It’s not a skill I’ve ever mastered.

I’m just back from a week in Florida with Nancy, Erin (our younger daughter), and Erin’s boyfriend. I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks, months even. As my parents would have warned, it was here and done before I knew it. I have learned nothing. Erin is preparing for a move westward. She has a job waiting, the promise of a new life with her love, the anticipation of the unknown, of something new and different and exciting.. She is counting the days. I can’t blame her.

Time, she likes to tell me, is a human construct. Like money. It doesn’t really exist except in our own minds. It has units and meaning and definition because we give it those things. And yet, it is the defining characteristic of life, of existence.

On a recent trip north, I spent a morning with two close friends from high school, guys I hung out with, was in theater with, got high with, played music with. We three hadn’t been together in probably thirty-five years. We had a great time. Truly. The years melted away. Except they didn’t. We were, all of us, wiser, calmer, kinder, more tolerant, less competitive. Time is a cudgel, but also a balm. It tests us, but it also smooths our edges. When my friends and I were making our plans to get together, the time since our last encounter felt like a chasm. It turns out it was anything but. Maybe Erin is right, and it doesn’t exist except in our heads.

I honestly can’t tell you what my point is. I’ve had a few posts like this recently. There’s a reason I call them “Monday Musings” . . . This is what I’m thinking about right now. Time. Age. Life. And I wish the flow of days and weeks and months would slow down a little, especially with spring coming. There are things I’d like to do.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: A New Venture In a Different Medium

The title for today’s post actually should be “Semi-Professional Wednesday…”

Spring Beauty, by David B. CoeAs many of you know, I am a fairly serious photographer and have been for some time. I have shown in local galleries, sold photos out of those galleries, and had a few photographs published in magazines. The walls of our house are sprinkled generously with enlargements of my images.

Winter Light Lake Cheston, by David B. CoeAnd now I have a new side hustle I’m working on, to go along with my book sales at conventions and such.

I am having sets of notecards made from some of my photographs to sell in collections. There will be eight cards per set, two copies of a total of four different images. They will, of course, come with envelopes. And my plan is to have the first sets available for sale at JordanCon in April.

Southern Red Trillium, by David B. CoeThe sets are themed. There are two sets of macro (close-up) images of wildflowers and other flora from the area where I live, on the Cumberland Plateau. Another set features images of butterflies, also from around my home. (Actually, thinking about it now, I think every butterfly image was taken in Nancy’s flower garden.) And finally, a set I call “Reflections” features images of the various lakes around our little town.

I don’t know yet exactly what I will charge for each set of eight cards. I have been checking prices in local shops around our town, where people charge as much as $5.00 per card! (More often $2.50-3.00 per card.) My rates will be lower than that, although the exact price will depend on exactly how much my cost per set is for printing, envelopes, packaging, etc. Eventually — sooner rather than later — I hope to offer sets for sale in the online bookstore on my websites.

Great Spangled Fritillary, by David B. CoeFor some of you, I know, this venture will be of little or no interest. I totally understand. But I also know that for others among you, you might think these sets are pretty cool. I hope you enjoy them.

Keep creating!!

Books, stories, writing ephemera