Category Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: Giving Clueless Advice

This past week, I spent a good deal of time going through old magazines and books in my office trying to clear out some of the clutter. (More on that in Wednesday’s post.)

For years, I have subscribed to a nature photography magazine. Yes, it’s an actual paper magazine — I get an issue every month, and invariably each includes beautiful, glossy photographs — landscapes, portraits of wildlife, macro shots of plants or creatures — articles about different ways I might improve my craft (if only I had all the time in the world to devote to my cameras and lenses), and lots of advertisements for lots of equipment I can’t afford and don’t need. I look forward to every issue.

But one issue published a year or so ago had an article from a photographer who was trying to give advice to aspiring and amateur photographers about how they/we should deal with the pandemic. Since travel was hard just then, he said, we should concentrate on local sites, places we probably overlook on a day-to-day basis, but which might be beautiful in their own right, and thus might be worthy subjects for our next photographic outings. Great advice.

Except his example, based on where he lived, was Capitol Reef National Park, in Utah’s magnificent red rock country. THAT’S where he was going to take photos as a consolation for not being able to travel due to Covid restrictions. That’s a little like telling someone that since they can’t eat out in restaurants, they should settle for a home-cooked meal, like you do. And then revealing that your partner is a 3-star Michelin chef . . .

I somehow missed this article when the issue first appeared, and so got a good laugh out of it the other day.

But then I started thinking that for many people reading the advice I offer to budding writers, I might come off as equally out of touch.

Let me be clear. I don’t think ill of this writer, and I’m not sitting here thinking all the readers of my blog posts think ill of me. But I do think that for those of us who have achieved some success in a given field, it is often too easy to dispense advice, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how grounded in lived experience. I can suggest that writers experiment with this approach, or rethink that old habit, but the fact is sometimes the advice I give demands a commitment of time, or a certain amount of creative risk. And those sorts of practices are much easier for me to try than they might be for someone who doesn’t have a publishing history or a current contract for a book or trilogy.

Put another way, on some level I can’t help but write from a place of privilege and good fortune, and that may, at times, make me blind to the subtext of my advice and recommendations. So consider this a blanket apology for every time in the past I have given writing advice that I think sounds easy and basic, but that comes across as lacking in understanding or empathy for the experiences of writers at other levels. And consider it as well an apology for every time in the future when I do this again. Because I’m sure I will.

Don’t think for a moment I don’t know just how lucky I am to do what I do. And if in my eagerness to share advice or experience with you, I come across as clueless . . . well, as Nancy and the girls will tell you, it’s because sometimes I AM pretty clueless. But I love what I do. Twenty-five years-plus into this career, I still can’t quite believe I get to make up stories for a living. And I want that for others who have the same dreams I did when I typed “Chapter One” for the very first time.

I should also say that most of the advice I give in my writing posts is stuff I needed to hear in the early years of my career. I highlight mistakes I either used to make or still struggle with to this day. Sometimes I tell you to do things I am currently trying to make myself do. The wonderful thing about writing is that we can always improve. And the frustrating thing about writing is that we always need desperately to improve. We can start writing as young children and continue well into our dotage and still not learn all we need to about this magical craft.

And so I hope you will consider that when I offer advice and lessons on writing, I am there learning and striving right alongside you. Because I am certain I have yet to master beyond the capacity for further improvement any skill or practice about which I’ve written. We are, all of us, students of the written word, and we are still matriculating. How glorious is that?

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: My Approach to Writing Book Reviews

All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel KayAfter publishing my review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvelous new book, All the Seas of the World (coming from Viking Press on May 17), the good people at Black Gate Magazine approached me about writing more reviews for them, something I am excited to do. So, going forward, in addition to being an author and editor, I will also be a reviewer.

In my discussions with the wonderful John O’Neill, Black Gate’s award-winning editor, I made it clear that I would write honest reviews on a spectrum ranging from “this is a pretty good book” to “this is the finest book I’ve ever read.” But I would not write any negative reviews. John agreed, telling me this was just the approach he was after. And yet to many, that might seem like an odd approach to reviewing books, and so I feel it’s a position that bears explaining.

I believe reviews are most valuable when they point readers in the direction of something they might enjoy. I understand there are certain publications — Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews come to mind — that are expected to review a wide range of books and distinguish the good from the bad. By necessity, such venues have to give some negative reviews. Indeed, early in my career I was on the receiving end of several such critiques. It’s part of the business. In a sense, with publications like those, the bad reviews actually lend legitimacy and weight to the good ones.

Black Gate Magazine, and other journals of its kind, are not like that. They do not review comprehensively. They pick out a few books in the genre and shine a spotlight on them. In effect, they say, “Hey, fantasy readers! Here are a couple of books you should check out, not to the exclusion of others necessarily, but simply because they are particularly good.” For a venue like Black Gate, writing and publishing a negative review would be gratuitous. It would be an act of singling out one book for disparagement and ridicule.

As I said to John during our discussion, I have no interest in hurting someone’s career. If he and his staff send me a book to review and I don’t like it, we will simply keep that opinion to ourselves. There’s no need to pan it; we just won’t be recommending it. Because the fact is, just because I don’t like a novel, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’m only one reader. My not liking a book simply means . . . I didn’t like it. Period. Full stop.

I feel quite strongly about this, because I have been on the receiving end of a gratuitously scathing review.

Yes, I know: There are unwritten rules pertaining to writers and professional critiques of our books. Writers aren’t supposed to read our reviews. Newsflash: We do anyway. Writers are supposed to ignore bad reviews. It’s harder to do than you might imagine. If writers are going to read our reviews and not ignore them, we should internalize the good ones and shrug off the bad ones. That might be even harder than ignoring them.

And as it happens, the review in question was the perfect storm of ugliness. First, it was about a book I loved and know was good. Sure, it had flaws; show me a book that doesn’t. But it was a quality book and it certainly didn’t deserve the treatment it received. Second, the review was in a high profile publication. Lots of people saw it. Third, I have good reason to believe the reviewer, with whom I had a bit of history, was acting out of personal animus. The criticism was savage and it was presented in such a way as to be especially humiliating. I won’t say more than that.

Except this. The review hurt. It sent me into a professional tailspin that lasted months. That dark period is long since over, so I am not seeking sympathy. But at the time, it did some damage to my psyche and to my creative output. And there was no reason for it. They didn’t like the book. Fine. Then ignore it. Don’t give it the benefit of a positive spotlight.

They went further. Again, fine. That’s their choice.

I will take a different tack. If I like a book I will publish a review saying so. If I don’t, if for some reason the book doesn’t excite me, or it rubs me the wrong way, I will set it aside without public comment and move on to the next.

Other reviewers are, of course, free to take a different approach. I will not judge them. But I want to write reviews for the fun of it, for the satisfaction of sharing with others my perceptions of an entertaining or moving or thrilling reading experience. I’m not interested in hurting anyone.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Roe, Griswold, and the Danger of Getting What You Wish For

At the risk of wading into very dangerous political waters, I feel I must weigh in publicly on the recent leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi abortion case, which effectively seeks to overrule Roe v. Wade. Based on the text of the leaked draft, at least five of the Court’s six conservative justices are poised to put an end to Federal protection for reproductive freedom in this country, despite assurances several of them (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett) gave during their confirmation hearings to the effect that they would respect precedent, that they viewed Roe as settled law, and that claims they intended to overturn the 1973 decision were based in groundless left-wing fears.

Yes, I support reproductive freedom for all women, regardless of what state they live in, what color their skin, and how big their bank accounts. Overturning Roe, it needs to be said, will not end abortion in this country. It will merely limit its availability to states with solid progressive majorities, and to those in conservative states with the means to circumvent their states’ laws. Put another way, abortion will remain available to wealthy white women everywhere. Women of color and poor and working class women, regardless of race, who live in red states, will be left with few options.

I should also add here that I have several friends who oppose abortion on religious grounds, and whose views on issues of “life” I find unimpeachable. They oppose the death penalty as well. They support commonsense gun control. They support increased funding for daycare, early education, family leave policies, and other initiatives that truly soften the effect of their stance against abortion. I respect their opinions and accept that well-meaning, sincere, and ideologically consistent advocates on both sides of this issue can legitimately disagree.

But I also have to say this to those who are pleased by what they saw in the Court’s draft opinion: Be very, very careful what you wish for.

Samuel Alito’s draft opinion essentially returns the Court to a stance that began to erode during the 1960s with the Court’s decision in 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut. That case, brought by a married couple in Connecticut, overturned a state law that had rendered illegal the use of contraceptives by consenting adults. Read that sentence again. The Court overruled a state law that barred consulting adults, even if they were married, from using contraceptives. The Court, in a 7-2 decision written by William O. Douglas, held that there was in the Constitution an implied right to privacy upon which states and the Federal government could not infringe.

An implied right to privacy.

Here we see the power of precedent. Without Griswold, there is no Roe. Without Griswold, there also is no Eisenstadt v. Baird, a 1972 decision that extended to unmarried couples the unfettered right to purchase and use contraceptives. Without Griswold, there also is no Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 decision that struck down state prohibitions on interracial marriage. Without Griswold, there is no Lawrence v. Texas, a 1986 case in which the Court held that sexual intimacy among consulting adults, regardless of gender, is also protected from governmental interference and regulation. Without Griswold, there is no Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 ruling granting marriage equality to all couples, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

The Griswold decision, and its establishment of that implied right to privacy, is fundamental to every decision since that has taken government oversight out of our bedrooms. Alito’s draft decision, while aimed at Roe, effectively calls back into question Griswold itself, and every case that drew upon its precedent.

Don’t believe me? Think I’m overreacting? In March of this year, perhaps anticipating where the Texas and Mississippi abortion bans would take this new conservative supermajority on the Court, Senator Mike Braun, a conservative Republican from Indiana, said he thought the Supreme Court should return to the states the power to regulate interracial marriage, the availability of contraceptives, and the notion of marriage equality. He is not the only Republican to make such a statement in recent months.

I am far from the first person to point out that the ideological Right is all for small government except when it comes to our most intimate relationships. At which point it very much wants government telling us what to do.

Connecticut, of course, is not about to start banning the sale of contraceptives. But Mississippi might. Alabama might. Utah and Wyoming and Idaho might. I live in Tennessee. I can see the Tennessee legislature being first in line to role back the clock to the 1950s.

Again, think I’m exaggerating the threat? Consider this: Brett Kavanaugh, during his Senate confirmation hearings, called contraceptives “abortion-inducing drugs.” (1)

Conservative observers assure us that while Roe may be in peril, these other decisions are not, because they are popular enough to survive challenges to them. The problem with that argument is that legal abortion is also quite popular in this country. More than two-thirds of Americans oppose overturning Roe. That hasn’t stopped the Court from stepping to the precipice of doing just that. (2)

I do believe that the Court’s impending decision, should it go as the leaked draft suggests it will, is likely to spark an overwhelming backlash from voters on the Left. Recent polls show Democratic voters lack enthusiasm about voting in November’s midterm elections, especially the young and those who identify as most progressive. Those are precisely the groups who are likely to react most passionately to the Court’s action. They will be energized by this. The political landscape, I believe, is about to shift dramatically.

But the real shock for conservatives is likely to come as emboldened legislatures in America’s red states turn their efforts to restricting more and more of our most precious private rights. Some yahoo in Tennessee or Idaho or elsewhere is bound to decide that contraception ought to be regulated, or that relationships between people of different races ought to be outlawed. And at that point, even their most conservative supporters in the electorate are going to wake up and decide they’ve had enough.

Conservative politicians who overreach in this way will get exactly what they deserve. All because Samuel Alito has given them exactly what they think they want.

Have a great week.

—-
1 Litman, Leah and Vladeck, Steve, “The Biggest Lie Conservative Defenders of Alito’s Leaked Decision Are Telling,” Slate, May 5, 2022.
2 Litman and Vladeck.

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Shutting Out the World

I have struggled some in recent weeks to come up with topics for my Monday Musings posts. One reason for this: I don’t want to overload readers with essays about family issues and mental health, though both are much in my thoughts these days. A second reason, I realized today, is that I have, in the interests of my own well-being, shut out current events from much of my thinking. If you look back through my posts in 2020 and early 2021, I wrote a lot about the state of the world and the state of our nation. This year, not so much.

It’s not that I have blocked out all news. I listen to NPR every morning. I check headlines daily. I have not stuck my head in the proverbial sand. But neither am I obsessing over world events right now.

And can you blame me?

Republicans are poised to take back both houses of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections. They have gerrymandered their way to disproportionate representation. They continue to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election. They attack the Administration and its progressive allies for rising energy and food prices, knowing full well that these are not the Administration’s fault. They exploit cultural conflicts over race and gender identity for their own cynical purposes, endangering the safety of Blacks, trans youth, educators, and medical professionals. And their tactics are working, so they have no incentive to stop.

Vladimir Putin is playing the most dangerous game of Russian Roulette since the Cuban Missile Crisis, moving the planet closer to global nuclear conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War. He and his generals are responsible for heinous war crimes — genocide, some would argue — in Ukraine. And despite fighting valiantly for their freedom, their homes, their families, their very lives, the Ukrainian army likely cannot hold out indefinitely. The end game will be hideous and horrifying.

The planet is dying. There is no softening that reality. It’s dying. The wildfire season has already begun in the Western U.S. — months earlier than usual — and it promises to be historically bad. Again.

Prices are rising, thanks to Putin’s war. And the stock market is tanking. Each month, we receive our brokerage statements, the latest figures on our retirement savings, and we file them away without looking at them. There’s nothing we can do, and we have no intention of getting out of the market, so . . . It’ll rebound eventually, right? Right??

But by all means, let’s all get our panties in a twist over yet another egotistical billionaire buying yet another social media platform.

Yeah, so this is why I have been avoiding current affairs topics in my Monday Musings posts. I don’t have the energy. I would never say I don’t care. I do. I care passionately. But I feel like there is nothing I can do that will make a significant difference. I can give to international aid organizations. And I do. I can give to environmental groups and to progressive candidates. And I do. I can drive a Prius and use LED bulbs and set the house thermostats with energy conservation in mind. I do all those things.

But like so many people — perhaps like you — I am weary. I have too much on my personal plate right now. Family crises, work deadlines, things I have to get done, things I want to do. Last weekend, while at a convention, I might have been exposed to Covid. I’ve taken a couple of tests this week, the most recent today. Both negative. I’m probably fine, thank goodness. I will admit, though — and I’m not proud of this — that a tiny part of me hoped the test would be positive, giving me an excuse to just stop and rest and do nothing.

In a way, this post has wound up being about current affairs after all. Because the truth is, I am far from alone in feeling the way I do. We as a society are exhausted. And that exhaustion manifests as both apathy and irascibility. Many of us want to shut out the world. And when we can’t, many of us turn to contentiousness, to behavior that serves only to deepen divides that are already too deep.

Spring is here. Our little corner of the Cumberland Plateau is exploding with color right now: the myriad greens of young leaves, the whites of Dogwoods, the pinks of Wild Azaleas, the brilliant reds and yellows and blues of migrating tanagers, warblers, and buntings.

Covid is less of a threat that it was this winter, and warmer temperatures should mitigate the dangers even more. The housing market is beginning to normalize, which might help calm inflation in the months to come.

Maybe the fire season will prove less destructive than feared. Maybe Putin’s war effort will continue to fall short of his ambitions, leading him to settle for a partial victory rather than total conquest. Maybe the midterms won’t be quite the bloodbath some anticipate.

The fact is, as bad as things seem right now, they could be worse. They could always be worse. And in the meantime, there is beauty in the world. In the colors of spring, in the love of family and friends, in creativity, in work well done, in down-time enjoyed.

And this, in the end, is why I have chosen to avoid a certain kind of post this year. Life has been hard, but it also continues to be good. As I age, I find myself gaining a level of perspective I lacked as a younger man, when I was a sky-is-falling kind of guy. I don’t want to focus on the bad and the hard and the tragic. That stuff is always there for us, if that’s where we want our minds to go. These days, I choose a different emphasis.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Why Write? — Taking Another Swing

Other stories — fictions as well as legends based in truth — shape our languages and our ways of thinking, our imaginations and, yes, the stories we add to humanity’s opus. Every story we tell is, in a sense, a new entry in an ongoing dialogue among storytellers that goes back generations.

During one of the several writing panels I spoke on this past weekend at JordanCon, my fellow panelists and I painted a fairly bleak picture of the current state of the market for writers. Falling advances, shrinking publicity budgets, purges of editors at various publishing houses — the litany of alarming trends goes on and on. Contracting with a big-name New York publisher is becoming ever more difficult, leaving aspiring writers with fewer options outside of self-publishing, which remains a hard road for authors who don’t already have a prominent social media presence. And even for more established writers, myself included, small press publishing has become the more attractive and realistic option.

All of this means less money and more work, almost regardless of how much visibility and experience an author might have.

Which begs the question, why keep at it?

This is a question I have asked myself often over the course of a career that has seen its share of ups and downs. I am sure I have even addressed the issue in one way or another on this blog. But I feel the answer bears repeating.

I keep writing because I love to tell stories, and I still have ideas for novels and short fiction that speed my pulse and light my creative vision. I love to give voice to the myriad characters in my imagination who clamor for my attention. I love world building, discovering new places in which to set my narratives, building exciting histories (yes, I’m a history geek, and, for me, “exciting histories” is NOT an oxymoron . . .) constructing cool magic systems. I love it all. Stop writing? I might as well stop thinking.

More than that, though, storytelling is, to my mind, central to who we are as humans. Every holiday we celebrate, secular or faith-based, comes with a story. And when we share those tales of achievement, or triumph, or spiritualism with our children, we pass to them our shared values, our customs, our beliefs. Societies and cultures define themselves with their stories.

Other stories — fictions as well as legends based in truth — shape our languages and our ways of thinking, our imaginations and, yes, the stories we add to humanity’s opus. Every story we tell is, in a sense, a new entry in an ongoing dialogue among storytellers that goes back generations.

Depending upon who you ask, there are really only twenty types of stories. Or seven. Or three. And regardless of what number you agree with, I suppose there might be some truth to this notion. Stories can be categorized if the listing parameters are drawn loosely enough. Another way to look at it is that every story is different and there are as many stories as there are storytellers and ideas. I edit anthologies, and I have seen authors — literally hundreds of them — take a single theme and each create something utterly unique.

Three basic stories, or billions of them? I can go either way. But I believe with all my heart that every writer is engaged in that dialogue I mentioned a moment ago. Stories are embedded in culture, which in turn shapes each new story, which then informs the next generation of creators. Which suggests that we who write are engaged in an undertaking of near cosmic proportion, one that dwarfs the individual.

So is that why we write?

Maybe.

Or maybe we write because we’re writers and what else are we going to do with our days? Maybe we write because as hard as it might be, it’s still a way to make a living.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Yes, ridiculous. Don’t believe me? You should see my most recently royalty statement . . . [Rimshot]

I come back to how I began. I write because writing is what I love to do. I am profoundly grateful and unbelievably fortunate to have a spouse who loves me and supports me in all ways imaginable. And thus I am able to make a career of my passion. It is not always easy. I have, on more than one occasion over the past quarter century, considered giving up.

But for better or worse, this is what I do, what all of us writers do. And the eternal dialogue awaits our next entries.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: The Power of Professional Friendships

Coming off a fun, productive weekend at JordanCon in Atlanta, I find myself thinking about the power of professional friendships. I am fortunate beyond measure to have a wonderful life partner, children I adore, family (immediate and extended) who mean the world to me, and friendships that have lasted the better part of a lifetime.

I also have many friends in the writing world. Some I have known since the earliest days of my career (which began in the mid 1990s), while others I met only a year or two (or even less!) before the pandemic forced us into relative isolation. All of them, though, are incredibly special to me, in part because they are fellow professionals in the publishing world.

Living where I do, I am pretty isolated from the fantasy/SF community. The college town in which we live has a strong writing tradition, but that tradition is rooted firmly in Southern “literary” fiction. It has little regard for genre writing. And so all my professional friends live elsewhere. Since the pandemic began, my contact with them has been limited to Zoom meetings and phone calls. My last professional event before the world shut down was the first weekend in March 2020, on the very cusp of the ensuing unpleasantness.

I did attend a convention (JordanCon 2021, actually — re-scheduled from its original date) late last summer, and another in Boston this past February. But both were sparsely attended and had strong virtual components. This weekend’s convention was the first I attended in two years that felt “normal,” that was well-attended by professionals and fans alike.

And it was glorious.

My fantasy/SF friends are wonderful. At the risk of over-generalizing, they are smart, generous, caring, funny — just the sort of friends one would want. The community is made up largely of people (myself included) who were nerds and geeks in their youth, who didn’t always fit in with the cool crowd. And they have found in this geekdom a population of like-minded individuals. There is precious little competition among the professionals in our genre. Rather, there is an ethos of (forgive the clichés) paying it forward and believing that the higher the tide, the better for all ships.

I was on a panel this weekend with one incredibly talented writer who I have known since he was a teen and a fan of my books. At the risk of being presumptuous, I feel that I have been a mentor to him. Now he’s a professional, too, and one of his publishing credits is a story I bought as editor of an anthology. I assure you, I bought the story entirely on its merits. It’s a terrific piece. And now we are colleagues.

I was on another panel with someone I first met (I believe) through the Magical Words website, when she was still an aspiring writer seeking advice from my posts and those of the other pros running the site. She, too, is now a published professional, with several books to her name, and a growing, well-deserved reputation as a terrific storyteller. How cool is that?

I spent my weekend talking shop, discussing matters of writing craft and the current state of the literary market. Some of the conversations were great fun. Others were sobering. But all of them were deeply satisfying. It’s not that my other friends don’t care about my professional life. Of course they do, just as I care about theirs. But there is no substitute for having in depth conversations with respected colleagues who understand intuitively the challenges I face in my work, because, of course, they face them in theirs as well.

As with so many other conventions I have attended, I came away from this weekend’s event feeling energized. I am eager to get back to both my editing work and my current writing project. And I am eager as well to attend my next convention with so many of the same wonderful people.

That event, by the way, is ConCarolinas — Charlotte, NC, the weekend of June 3-5. Come join us! It’s going to be great!

Have a wonderful week!

Professional Wednesday: With Special Guest, E.C. Ambrose!

Today, I am delighted to welcome to the blog my dear friend, E.C. Ambrose (a.k.a. Elaine Isaak). Elaine and I have known each other for a long time, and she is one of the truly good people in this business. She is incredibly smart, funny, and deeply passionate about writing and our genre.

Her newest book, DRAKEMASTER, comes out from Guard Bridge Books on April 14!


Two Books with One Stone

by E. C. Ambrose

Drakemaster, by E.C. AmbroseOne of the great delights of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to leap into research and go bouncing off into every conceivable rabbit hole—er, to do a deep dive into a specific time, place or topic which will provide the backdrop for the story you have in mind. Unless you’re already a historical specialist in that area, doing the research is likely to consume a lot of time, attention, and other resources.

My approach to developing a novel idea tends to be pretty methodical. Sometimes, I trip across an engaging fact or historical moment that I want to explore and I’m able to use that as an immediate jumping off point for the more detailed research. Other times, I have a general enthusiasm for a topic that could be mined for fictional potential. Mostly what I’m looking for is moments of cultural instability, ideally with multiple cultures interacting, and rich layers of conflict that can propel a plot as well as inform character.

The genesis of DRAKEMASTER, my new historical fantasy novel, arose from my fascination with Mongolian history and culture, alongside an interest in early clockworks. The first gave me a general region I wanted to explore, but it was the second that allowed me to pinpoint exactly where and when the book would be set. Central Asia is a region both vast in scale, and deep in scope, so it would be easy to get lost in all of those aforementioned rabbit holes.

When I came across a reference in one of my early technology books to “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial” I had found my particular niche. The footnote refers to the court recorders of Song Dynasty China writing down very detailed horoscopes for imperial children, in order to determine who was most fit to succeed the emperor.

These horoscopes depended on a highly accurate astronomical clock built in Kaifeng around 1090 CE by the polymath known to us as Su Song. Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, fell to the Mongols during their southward sweep, but rebelled against the Khan in 1257. Conflicts aplenty! I had my very specific place and time to write into.

By this point in my research process, I had amassed quite a heap of books and references. It seemed sad to use all of that information to craft only the single book, even if it might grow into a series. What to do? The answer was to spin out the same body of research into a completely different book, one that would aim at a different market rather than compete with the fantasy novel.

In addition to my love of fantasy and science fiction, I also adore a good adventure novel, the kind that solves a puzzle which may span centuries and a thousand miles to uncover something extraordinary. I took what I had learned about Mongolian history, and in particular, the landscape-oriented tradition of Khoomei throat singing, and used it to envision a musical map created a long time ago, which would lead a contemporary team on a thrilling chase to locate a great prize, one of the greatest tombs never found: that of Genghis Khan. This project became The Mongol’s Coffin, the first of my Bone Guard archaeological adventure novels.

What’s the takeaway for the would-be historically inspired writer?

First, diligent pursuit of the specific. Rather than be overwhelmed by the sweep of history, or consumed by the “great men” who tend to dominate, look for the telling detail that might serve as the jumping off point for a different view.

Second, find an organizational system that works for you. You’ll need to return to this well throughout the project(s) so marking pages, keeping a bibliography, and making detailed notes about the stuff that most excites you will give you a good start. I am a spreadsheet fan, so I make a timeline for the period of the book and fill in all I can find, then have additional worksheets to cover specific topics.

Third, let your pre-writing brain go wild with the nuggets you discover. Extrapolate what they imply about conflict and character. For a fantasy, look for the gaps that might suggest magic or other fantastical elements. Don’t stop when you have one compelling idea for a book—see if there might be another book or two lurking just behind.

And above all, happy writing!

*****

E. C. Ambrose writes adventure novels inspired by research subjects like medieval surgery, ancient clockworks, and Byzantine mechanical wonders.  Published works include DRAKEMASTER (2022), the Dark Apostle Series, and the Bone Guard archaeological thrillers. Her next adventure will be an interactive superhero novel, Skystrike: Wings of Justice, for Choice of Games.

Learn more about the work of E. C. Ambrose on the author’s website

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Find DRAKEMASTER on the publisher’s website
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Monday Musings: Thoughts About My Upcoming Appearance at JordanCon

This coming weekend, I will be attending JordanCon in Atlanta. There I will see many friends — colleagues as well as fans. I will sell some books, talk about writing, both on panels and informally over drinks and meals, and catch up with people who have been out of my life for too long. We will all be masked, of course. The con organizers are taking no chances, and I’m grateful to them for that.

JordanCon will not be my first convention of the year — that was Boskone back in February. But somehow this one feels like the start of the convention season. It is the first of several appearances I’ll be making this summer and fall — JordanCon, ConCarolinas, LibertyCon, DragonCon, Hampton Roads Writers Conference, perhaps World Fantasy Convention.

And I have to say, I am more excited for this set of conventions and workshops than I have been in several years. I think part of it is my pent up need to interact with people, to be in a professional setting (as opposed to on a professional Zoom call). Another part of it is the simple fact that I miss my friends. For instance, I haven’t hung out with Faith Hunter in ages. And for those of you who don’t know, Faith is this year’s Literary Guest of Honor at JordanCon. I will be “interviewing” her at the Guest of Honor event Saturday morning of the convention. It should be tremendous fun. (11:30 AM — be there!)

I am, generally speaking, an outgoing person. I enjoy conventions. I enjoy talking to fans and discussing craft and business issues on panels. Since the pandemic began, I have struggled more than ever with my anxiety, and have found myself shying from contact with large groups. I’ve had to force myself to be social and I’ve battled nerves before the few events I have done.

In other words, I haven’t felt like myself, and I’ve hated it. I’m ready to be out in the world again, among people I know and care about and respect. I look at these upcoming conventions and such as more than professional obligations, more than promotional opportunities. They’re a step toward renewed emotional health.

Yes, that’s a lot to ask of a speculative fiction convention, and maybe I’m loading too many expectations onto JordanCon and other events. But really, I’m placing those expectations on myself. As I have said in other posts recently, this spring has been a time for me to come out of my emotional bunker. Life remains complicated for my family and me. On the other hand, as I look around, I see a world filled with people coping with issues of one sort or another. It used to be, when I found myself in the midst of trying times, I would look forward to “normal life” when the difficulties subsided.

I have come to realize there is no such beast. “Normal” as I envisioned it was a time without problems, without stuff going wrong. And that’s not realistic. “Normal life” is complicated in one way or another. Pretty much always. I don’t mean to sound grim. I’m not being Eeyore. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m finding that the hard stuff is a little easier to deal with when I understand that all of us struggle, that no matter how bad one part of life might seem at any given moment, I am not alone, and there is almost invariably another part of life that is good, great even.

This coming weekend, I will begin in earnest to put this perspective into practice.

For those of you who will be at the convention — and I hope to see many of you there — I will be on the following panels (with times and hotel venues):

“Economics of Publishing: How Does It All work?” — Friday, 8:30pm, Conference Center

“I’ve Written Something. Now What?” — Saturday, 10:00am, Conference Center

“Author Guest of Honor Spotlight: With GoH Faith Hunter” — Saturday, 11:30am, Dunwoody

“Outlining vs. Pantsing: What are the Benefits and Drawbacks?” — Sunday, 10:00am, Conference Center

“Pro-Tip: What I Wish I’d Known” — Sunday 1:00pm — Conference Center

Southern Red Trillium, by David B. CoeWhen I am not in these panels, I will be at my table in Author’s Alley, signing and selling books. I also plan to have with me some of the new photographic cards I wrote about recently. Please feel free to come by and say hello. Yes, I’ll be working, but I also welcome the chance to catch up. And maybe I’ll convince you to buy a book or two!

In the meantime, have a great week!

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!