Category Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: Thoughts on GET BACK, the Beatles Documentary

Before watching it over the last week, I’d heard and read a good deal about Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the three part, eight hour documentary (sort of) on the Beatles and the lead up to their famous rooftop concert. Some people LOVED it — people close to me, whose taste in such things I trust. Others felt it was fatuous, over-hyped, overly long, and even boring.

Having now watched the entire thing, I wanted to weigh in with my thoughts and observations.

I am the youngest (by a lot) of four kids, and so my musical tastes were formed largely by the preferences of my older siblings. By the time I was seven years old, I was already starting to listen to rock and build my record collection (kids, ask your parents). But still, that was after the Beatles had split up, and already they were, to me, the stuff of legend, a band my brothers and sister spoke of with utter reverence.

So I have long been subject to the mystique of the band, and for me, seeing them unrehearsed, unvarnished, and in the act of creating, is thrilling. The Beatles stopped touring in the mid-Sixties, and though they put out plenty of albums, they rarely appeared in public, which only served to enhance that mystique. Seeing them so intimately in this film is a gift. It rounds out their image. And there are a couple of moments in the first episode, when Paul is working out the lyrics and chords to “Get Back” and Let It Be,” that literally gave me chills.

Beyond that, I believe Jackson’s approach to making this film — basically showing us as much as possible with minimal, almost non-existent outside commentary — proved incredibly powerful and effective. The Beatles and those around them speak for themselves, leaving it to us to evaluate, even to judge. As such, the film, in my opinion, serves as a much needed historical document and corrective.

Things I thought about while I watched, in no particular order:

For a long time, I disliked Paul McCartney. Most of the narratives surrounding the band’s break-up have placed the lion’s share of the blame on Paul. He was the one who initiated legal proceedings against his bandmates. He was the one whose burgeoning solo career killed any chance of reconciliation. There may or may not be truth to this. The legal battles are matters of public record. But my God, the man is a musical genius. During the time documented by the film, he was exploding with creative energy. Every day, it seemed, he had a new tune to share — already he had in mind several of the songs that would populate their final studio album, Abbey Road.

Whatever tension was said to exist between John and Paul — and certainly there is some evidence of that tension in the footage Jackson has shown us — when they were playing music together, they were completely in sync. They are clowning, riffing on each other’s playing and singing, feeding each other’s enormous creativity. I am fortunate to have been in a band with two dear friends (this was long, long ago — the band is no more; the friendships endure) and I can speak to the power of that musical connection. There is nothing like it. Watching them together was joyful.

Whatever blame Yoko Ono has borne for the demise of the Beatles seems unjustified. Yes, she was in the studio with them all the time. Clearly, she and John were very much in love. But Linda Eastman (later McCartney) was there a lot, too. So was Ringo’s wife, and George’s. I saw no evidence of hostility or resentment directed at Yoko by any members of the band. She and Linda appeared to have a good relationship. It seems to me she has been subjected to vilification that has little to do with reality and much more to do with misogyny and racial stereotypes.

To my mind, the most destructive dynamic in the studio, as captured by the filmmakers, was the conflict between George on the one hand, and John and Paul on the other. John and Paul, who have been lauded for their songwriting since the earliest days of the band, appeared dismissive, at times contemptuous, of the original tunes George brought to them. This despite the fact that George wrote some of the band’s best music: “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun.” George’s walkout in the middle of the film was, in my mind, completely understandable.

During their rooftop concert, the police arrive, responding to noise complaints from neighbors. When Paul sees that the bobbies have come, his expression is utterly joyful. Classic moment.

I have often thought of the Beatles as a band of okay musicians who came together and created something magical — the musical version of alchemy, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But watching these sessions, seeing each of them play instruments other than their own, and noting as well the ease with which they picked up on new material, I realized that I have given them too little credit over they years. Yes, the four of them together were magical. But each was very, very good at what they did.

I understand that their earliest music sounds very, very dated now. Not so the material from the second half of their incredible run. I challenge anyone to find in rock history twenty minutes of recorded music that is better than the “B” side of Abbey Road. With the singular exception of the Rolling Stones, who are also deserving of “Legends” status, I would put the Beatles’ 10 best songs from 1967-70 up against anyone’s 10 best from a similar period. The hardest part would be picking which 10 Beatles songs to use.

While watching the documentary, I remembered a conversation I had with my brother Bill. He was fifteen years older than me, and like any teen in the 1960s was fully caught up in Beatlemania. Several years before died, we were talking about the Beatles and he told me about the first time he listened to the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“You have to realize,” he said, “we’d never heard anything like it. Ever. It wasn’t just that the songs were great. They were doing stuff in the studio that no one had ever done before. It was mind-blowing.”

Their later music may not sound dated the way the early stuff does, but neither does it sound trend-setting. Because everyone started doing what the Beatles had done. Fifty years later, it’s too easy to forget the degree to which John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed the world. They weren’t just the most popular, the best selling. They had more than just talent and mystique. They were experimenting with . . . everything. Hair, clothes, drugs, music, lyrics, recording technology. They shaped the future. They were larger than life, larger than fashion, larger than music.

Which is why this close up look at them, this revealing and humanizing documentary, is so welcome. I will never listen to their music the same way.

Creative Wednesday: Communicating Our World Building To Our Readers

Tomorrow night, I will be giving a talk on world building here at the university, in a themed residential house devoted to writing. The students from the house, at least those I’ve met so far, are earnest and passionate and serious about learning their craft. I’m looking forward to what I expect will be a fun and engaging evening.

For much of the evening, I will be answering questions and thus allowing the interests and concerns of the students to guide our discussion. I’ll open, however, with remarks on what I believe to be some of the keys to good world building. Some of these things I have covered in posts on this site — creating maps for our worlds, developing magic systems, building cultural and social traditions into our worlds through the creation of holidays, customs, and rites.

But I will also focus on the maintenance of our worlds. The feeding and caring of them, if you will. To my mind, one of the central elements of world building is putting all the work we do into practice.

What do I mean by this?

A couple of things, actually. First, I mean that the most important thing we do as writers who create worlds is convey the details of those worlds to our readers. The creation is the easy part. The hard part is sharing with our readers all of the cool things we’ve done, without resorting to data dumps and “as you know, Bob” moments. We want the communication of our world building to be seamless, invisible. We want the information we share to feel as natural as, well, every other part of our narrative. And so the descriptions and explanations of our worlds need to be doled out in ways that are consistent with point of view. Characters should not explain things, either in conversation or exposition, that they would not need to consider or discuss in that given moment. Put another way, if they have no reason to think or talk about these things other than to meet our needs as writers, then we have resorted to contrivance, and that’s not good writing. We need to be driven not by our narrative purposes, but rather by the exigencies faced by our characters. And so, world building needs to be conveyed in tiny increments, rather than in chunks, and it needs to be communicated, at least in part, through spoken language, with idioms and expressions and aphorisms and simple analogies that carry within them vital information.

Think of all the things we say in the course of everyday conversation that actually might give a stranger information about our world, our country, our faith traditions, our history. Elements of our landscape work their way into our speech as examples of grandeur or vastness or desolation or beauty. The same should be true of landscape features in our worlds. Figures from our history embody nobility, wisdom, generosity, courage, and also deception, betrayal, villainy. So should figures from the histories of our worlds. Tenets of faith become components of our social and cultural values, of our rituals and practices with respect to courtship and familial relationships. Faith should have a similar influence in our created worlds. I can go on, but I think you get the idea. We have to learn to write our worlds into our stories with the subtlety and pervasiveness of our own world’s insinuation into our language. That is how we communicate our world building without bludgeoning our readers with it.

And then the other element of this, the flip side of the same artistic coin, is making absolutely certain that expressions and analogies and all the rest, which might be reflective of our real, modern world, don’t creep into our writing in a way that contaminates our created worlds. We should avoid any figures of speech rooted in our traditions of faith, politics, history, culture, etc. We should avoid temporal anachronisms that might sound too modern for, say, our early-Renaissance-analogous created world. The last thing we wish to do as writers is create a world with painstaking care, only to undermine its credibility with conversations that sound more like something we might overhear in our local Starbucks.

As I say, I only have a short time at the beginning of tomorrow night’s event in which to present what I believe are key world building techniques. But to my mind the elements I have discussed here are so important that even if I had only half as much time, I would still work them in to my remarks.

Best of luck working on your worlds. Keep writing!!

Monday Musings: Christmas Trees Don’t Belong In November. Just Sayin’

When I was a kid, growing up culturally Jewish in the suburbs of New York City, we used to celebrate Christmas. Many of the Jewish families in our town did, and so too did some of our Jewish relatives in nearby communities. I’ll admit that it struck me as odd sometimes — we identified as Jewish. We didn’t try to hide our heritage in any way. But we celebrated the Christian holidays — Easter as well as Christmas. We also celebrated Passover. We didn’t do much with Hanukkah, though every couple of years one of us might pull out our old, tinny Menorah and light candles.

We had a wonderful old collection of glass ornaments for our trees — ornaments I still have to this day. (Well, I have most of them. Each year one of us would drop one or two — a slow, steady attrition, like ornaments being voted off the Island of Misfit Culturally Inappropriate Holiday Paraphernalia.) My mother always insisted on Scotch Pines for our trees, because she loved their scent. More than any other tree, she believed, Scotch Pines smelled like Christmas. Or like Christmas was supposed to smell in Jewish households.

I was the youngest of four children by many, many years. My oldest sibling, Bill, was nearly 15 years older than me; the other two, my sister Liz, and my brother, Jim, have me by 12 and 6 years respectively. And so by the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, my parents had passed off the task of buying our tree to my siblings and me. Sometimes all four of us went to pick one out, sometimes it was just us “boys.” After a while, certainly by the time I was in middle school, Jim and I were the only ones who cared enough to go.

And there were certain immutable traditions we had to follow. One, as I have already said, was that we get a Scotch Pine. The problem with this rule was that Scotch Pines are actually quite ugly as Christmas trees go. They are short, squat, dumpy even — the Dwarves of Christmas-Treedom. They are also are notorious for having bent trunks, making them hard to set up in a tree stand. Almost every year, Jim and I would reach the tree lot — there was one in particular we went to most years — and spend a bit of time staring wistfully at the Blue Spruces and Douglas Firs, noting their sleek, triangular perfection, their symmetry, their straight trunks. And then, remembering our mother’s preference, we would trudge over to the “Scotch Pine Forest” and pick out our lumpy tree.

The other two immutable traditions — which actually bring me to my purpose in writing this post — were that we get our tree on the day of Christmas Eve, and that we spend no more than the $20 Dad would peel off his billfold that very morning before he headed off to work.

Having the tree in the house meant disrupting the strict order of our furniture and furnishings. My parents loved their home and had designed it with care, so that it looked just so. The tree was like a relative who comes every year and parks himself on your couch in the middle of the living room. They knew he was coming, they knew he would be gone just after New Year’s. Best, then, to limit the damage and its duration. We bought the tree on December 24th, we decorated that night, usually after a dinner of Chinese food at a local restaurant, and we broke that sucker down on New Year’s Day, a week later.

And the $20 . . . That was just Dad’s price limit. He loved to tell the story of the time he spent $2.00 on a tree, back when he and my mother were first married. He bought a tree for $5.00 and then had the vendor cut off a branch or something that made it look lopsided. (No doubt this was a Scotch Pine, too.) And as the vendor cut the piece off, a guy happened by, spotted the scrap, and said to my father, “That’s just what I need. I’ll give you three bucks for it.”

He was in finance, and so understood inflation. He never expected us to replicate his feat. But $20 was his limit. The tree was only going to be in the house for a week, after all. Why should we spend more? This had the effect of further locking us into Scotch Pines, since the trees for which Jim and I pined (sorry, couldn’t resist . . .) were way more expensive. At the same time, I have to admit that the timing of our purchase helped with the $20 strategy. By mid-afternoon on the 24th of December, the guys selling trees were looking at taking a loss on their remaining stock. Every tree we bought at the last moment meant one fewer tree in the wood-chipper. We usually got pretty good deals.

Fast forward several decades, and I find myself, on this post-Thanksgiving weekend, wondering if I need to be buying our tree today. Our girls LOVE having a tree at the holiday, and the truth is Nancy and I love it, too. So we have to get one. In this part of Tennessee, though, as in so many parts of the country, trees went on sale LAST weekend, two thirds of the way through November. A week or two from now, they’ll be gone. Buying a tree on December 24? Impossible.

And buying a tree for $20?

Sorry. I’m done laughing now.

We don’t buy Scotch Pines. Usually it’s Frasier Firs. But they can cost upwards of $80. Or more. By my father’s calculus, in order to make that expense worthwhile, we’d have to keep the tree up until Valentine’s Day. Trees have gotten so expensive, and I feel so much pressure to buy one before the lots empty out, that this year Nancy and I have considered the unthinkable. That’s right. We have discussed getting an artificial tree.

There are real reasons for doing this, or at least thinking about it. Artificial trees, if reused for several years, are marginally better for the environment (although, since they’re made of plastic and shipped here from overseas, it’s a very close call). In terms of relative cost, they pay for themselves in a few years — again, this assumes we would reuse the tree year after year. They can be put up and taken down whenever we want. They don’t have to be watered. They are far less likely to catch fire. They don’t shed to the extent that real trees do.

But they don’t have that Christmas tree smell. Scotch Pine, Balsam, Firs, Spruces. They ALL smell great. The artificial ones, not so much. Which means we’ll probably break down and buy a real tree, likely sometime in the next few days.

Then again, those pine-scented air fresheners for cars are fairly cheap. And they look a little like Christmas ornaments . . .

Have a good week.

Professional Wednesday: Submitting To Our Newest Anthologies

Thanksgiving is upon us, and the year is winding down. But for those of you who write and who are looking for publication opportunities, I want to point out that the open call for short story submissions for this year’s Zombie Need Brains anthologies — Brave New Worlds, Shattering the Glass Slipper, and, Noir (which I am co-editing with John Zakour) doesn’t end until December 31st. You still have plenty of time to submit stories to us.

As I have done in the past, I wanted to offer a post on things to do and consider when submitting short stories to any market, but ours in particular.

Let me start with the most obvious thing. ALL fiction markets — publishers, agencies, journals and magazines, as well as anthologies — have submission guidelines, known in the business as GLs. The guidelines for Zombies Need Brains anthologies can be found here.

GLs are called guidelines for a reason. They are not suggestions. They are not there for you to follow or ignore at your whim. They are requirements. If you ignore the guidelines — ANY of them — chances are your story will be rejected out of hand, without having been read. Why? you ask. Because editors are mean and arbitrary. Ha ha. Just a little editing humor for you there. Well, not really. We ARE mean and arbitrary. But we have good reasons for establishing GLs and wanting to see them followed.

Each anthology ZNB publishes begins with a set of anchor authors, writers you know, people with readerships, who have already agreed to write stories for the collection. Anchor stories usually account for seven or eight of the fourteen stories generally found in each anthology. The remaining stories, six or seven of them, are reserved for stories submitted through the open call.

DERELICT, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierLast year, I co-edited Derelict. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before, I co-edited Galactic Stew. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before that, I co-edited Temporally Deactivated. We received more than two-hundred and fifty stories. Again, these are submissions for a total of six or seven slots.

We have guidelines because reading all those stories, and looking for the ones that are of the highest quality AND that will fit the anthology, is hard work. And one thing that makes it easier is having all the stories look the same, with clear fonts, standard margins and spacing, and professional presentation. If the stories come in looking the same, if the stories are all easy to read, we can judge them strictly on the basis of their quality. And this is exactly what YOU want us to do. The last thing you want is for us to reject your story without ever reading it. Think about those odds I just gave you. Even with Temporally Deactivated, which received the fewest submissions of the three I have co-edited, we only accepted 2.5% of the stories we received. With the more recent volumes, the acceptance rate was under 2%. With all those submissions coming in, we are, of course, looking for great stories (more on that later), but we’re also looking for reasons to weed out submissions, to help us get through the piles of stories we have to read. You don’t want us to toss your story because you sent it in a difficult-to-read font, or because you single-spaced when you should have double-spaced. You want your presentation to be professional and correct. You want us to judge the story on its merits, on the great characters you’ve written, on your gorgeous prose, on your scintillating narrative.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierAlong similar lines, ZNB anthologies are themed, which means that all the stories are about something in particular. Galactic Stew was about food. Derelict was about abandoned or lost ships. Noir is about detectives, in SF, fantasy, horror, or paranormal settings, investigating mysteries. As with the GLs, anthology themes are not suggestions. We’re not saying “If you feel like writing about detectives, feel free, but we’ll take any story about anything.” We’re saying, “For this anthology, we want detective stories with a speculative fiction element.” I can’t tell you how many stories we get that have nothing at all to do with our theme. I CAN tell you that we reject every last one of them. If you send to a themed anthology open-call a story that is off theme, it will not be accepted. Ever. Full stop.

Okay, so what are we looking for? How do you write a story for us that has a chance of being accepted. First, let me say this: If your story is on theme, and if you followed the GLs, we might still reject your story, even if it’s good. Hell, even if it’s great. We always have stories we love that don’t make it in. Think about those numbers again: four hundred submissions; six or seven slots. There’s no way to avoid this sort of disappointment. So do not take a rejection as an indication that your story is bad. It may be that we had a similar story that was simply a shade better. Or it may be that your great story was too similar to an anchor author’s story. Or it may be that we had too many fantasy stories and needed an SF (or vice versa).

But to give yourself the best chance, you want to be creative, different, attention-catching. We’re looking for detective stories in a noir-voice, so we expect a certain number of tropes. But we want to see those tropes turned on their heads. We want unusual mysteries, populated with intriguing, non-traditional characters. We want beautiful, clean prose. We want stories that make us think, that grab our attention on page one and don’t let go until the final passage. We want stories with suspense, or with laugh-out-loud humor, or with emotional power, or, best of all, with all of these things.

This is vague, I realize. The things I’ve told you NOT to do, are much clearer and more concrete than the things I’m telling you TO do. Because the best stories are the ones we can’t possibly anticipate. Often, we don’t know specifically what we want until we see it. We want to be surprised, just as we want the readers who will eventually buy the anthology to be surprised. And so I can’t tell you exactly what to write. But if you’re passionate about the story, if in some way the twists and turns of your story surprised you while you were writing it, if you’ve got something that you believe is different from anything you’ve read before, chances are you’re on the right track.

Best of luck. Remember, the submission deadline is December 31.

Monday Musings: Taking Stock This Thanksgiving Week

A year ago at this time, I wrote a post about Thanksgiving — random thoughts on the holiday, essentially. I just reread it, and laughed once more at some of the memories I recounted. Part of the post touched on the oddness of last year’s celebration, the fact that we were in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that made family gatherings difficult if not impossible. And I lamented this, because, as I said then, Thanksgiving is just about my favorite holiday.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2021, and we find ourselves still grappling with the pandemic. Last year, while writing my post, I didn’t see that happening. Yes, I knew already that Covid would be with us for a long, long time — an illness to be managed rather than one we were likely to wipe out anytime soon. But I thought our management would have progressed further by now. I am not yet in a space where I want to dive into political discussions, but I will simply offer this: If you’re not yet vaccinated, please consider getting the vaccine before year’s end. And if you’re unvaccinated and you refuse to wear a mask, please consider that your recklessness is endangering everyone around you.

Despite the difficulties posed by another pandemic-inflicted Thanksgiving, and despite having endured a year more difficult than any my family and I have experienced before, I find myself embracing the spirit of this most spiritual holiday. I don’t mean spiritual in the sense of “religious,” at least not really. For some, I suppose, thankfulness does lend itself to religious expression. But as someone who considers himself agnostic in matters of faith, I still am drawn to what I perceive as a powerful spiritual component of Thanksgiving. This is a time when all of us in this country — a nation that is both flawed and deeply blessed — are called upon to pause in our work, in our private lives, in our political and cultural rancor, and reflect on all for which we ought to be grateful. We do this as the calendar year draws to a close, as the natural year — the cycle of seasons, of life’s emergence, flourish, and retreat — winds down as well. This is an opportunity to take stock, to appreciate what we have and, perhaps, to think about things we hope to be thankful for in another year.

And so . . .

I am grateful, as always, for my wonderful family. As always, I say. And yet after this year of crisis, of illness, of anxiety and sadness and deepest fear, I am more grateful than ever to be married to my love and closest friend, and to have two daughters whom I adore, who dazzle me with their humor and brilliance and beauty. I am grateful for my siblings, those I have still and the one I have lost, my relationships with whom have been so formative throughout my life. I am grateful for my parents, gone now for more than two decades, but who loved me and supported me in life, and who raised me to believe I could be anything I chose to become. I am grateful for my extended family, relatives I love even though we see one another far too infrequently.

I am grateful beyond words to have truly amazing friends, people who enrich my life with their wit, their intellect, their compassion and generosity. And I am so fortunate to have in my life fans of my work who are kind, vocal in their enthusiasm for my fiction, but also respectful of appropriate boundaries.

I am grateful for my career, which has been through ups and downs, which has perhaps not yet reached every height I hoped it would, but which continues to engage me and challenge me and reward me each day. I am grateful for all the talented professionals with whom I have had the honor and pleasure of working.

I am grateful for the pastimes I pursue daily — my music, my photography, my passion for nature, especially birds.

I am grateful for the comfort of our home, for the food we eat, for the privileges we enjoy, and I am mindful always, but particularly this time of year, of those who are not as fortunate as we are, who live without the certainty of shelter, who eat without the surety of a next meal, who encounter illness or injury without the peace of mind of knowing how they will access and pay for treatment.

And I am grateful for this past year, despite its difficulties. From it, I have learned to appreciate more deeply what I have. I have learned to cope with emotional crises that might have ruined me a year or two ago. And I have grown stronger, so that the next crisis — and of course there will be a next one; such is life — will be just a little easier to endure.

I wish you all a joyous Thanksgiving and hope that you have a long list of people and things for which you are grateful.

— DBC

Creative Friday: Images of Late Fall

Part of my journey back toward normal life and emotional health has been my rediscovery of my love of photography. For reasons I am still trying to understand fully, the difficulties of the past several months caused me to give up certain things. I continued to play music, but I stopped taking photos almost entirely. I missed it, but I stayed away from it. As I say, I’m not yet sure why.

Recently, Nancy and I traveled to the coast for some much needed time away, and while there I got back to using my camera, and in fact, I took photos every day. Upon our return, I continued to take photo walks. This past week, I hiked on two separate afternoons to places where I could enjoy the colors and deep blue skies of late fall.

Here are two of the images I captured. Enjoy. Have a wonderful weekend. Be kind to one another.

Morgan's Steep Falls, by David B. Coe Jackson Lake, November, by David B. Coe

Professional Wednesday: Work as Balm

Continuing this week’s theme of maintaining mental health through difficult times . . .

Back in March, when our daughter’s cancer was diagnosed, my first impulse was to put everything on pause. I contacted my editor and agent to let them know I was not going to be working for a while. I announced on my various social media platforms that I would be pulling back from them as well. I don’t know what I thought I would be busy with. I don’t know what I thought I would do to fill my days. But in that instant, I couldn’t imagine doing . . . anything.

I can’t say for certain if this was a good decision or a bad one. I did what I needed to do in that moment. I made time for myself to deal with something utterly devastating and unprecedented in my life, for the very reason I stated above. I didn’t know what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, being self-employed, I have the luxury of being able to clear my schedule when I need to.

I’ll pause here to say this is why paid family leave should be universal across the country. People deal with crises of this sort every day. The privileged few — people like me — shouldn’t be the only ones who can take the time to care for themselves and their loved ones in this way.

Of course, Nancy had work, and though her colleagues and boss would have understood had she taken time off, the truth is the nature of her position at the university, and the fact that the school was in the middle of implementing the Covid response she helped formulate, made this impossible. And so, perhaps not so surprisingly, after taking only a few days to be shellshocked and emotionally paralyzed, I got back to work as well.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)I was in the middle of writing a book — Invasives, the sequel to Radiants — and I dove back in. It’s a book about family, as so many of my novels are, and about discovering powers within. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why I would find that particular story line comforting.

At the time, I wasn’t very far along in the book — maybe one-third of the way in. But with my reality frightening and sad, I threw myself into the story. Work became the place I went to escape my dread, my grief, my rage at the injustice of my kid’s illness. The emotions came with me, of course, but I was able to channel them into my characters, to turn them into narrative. That is the magic of creation, the alchemy that allows us to convert anguish into art. Each day, I couldn’t wait to get back to my book; I can’t remember a time when work has meant more to me. My haven, my outlet, my balm.

I finished the book in less than two months, which is pretty quick for me, and I knew immediately that I had written something special. I love all my books. Someone asked me just the other day what my favorite book is among those I’ve written, and I answered as I always do: the newest one. But in this case, it was especially true. Invasives is laden with emotional power and it is, to my mind, one of the best plotted books I’ve written. Often when I write, I have to fight off distractions. Not this time. With Invasives, writing was the distraction.

I was sad to finish the book — which was definitely new for me. Usually I celebrate finishing a novel. This time, I wondered how I would cope without the book to write. My child was still sick, still dealing with treatments and such. And I was still scared, still sad.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)And so around that time, unsure of what to write next, I acted on an idea I’d had for several years. I hung out my virtual shingle as a freelance editor. Work came in quickly, and before I knew it I was editing a series for one friend, and talking to others about future editing projects. I also released the Thieftaker novellas. And prepared for the October release of Radiants. And started gearing up for the Kickstarter for Noir, the anthology I’m co-editing for Zombies Need Brains. And wrote a story for another anthology.

In other words, I worked the way I normally would. Yes, some days were harder than others. Some days I got nothing done at all. And part of working through this ordeal has been giving myself permission to have days where I do nothing more than spin my wheels. But more often than not, work has continued to offer me solace.

I’ve watched in awe as Nancy, who has even more on her plate than I do (elder care issues involving her parents and a job that is emotionally and mentally exhausting), has found the strength and discipline to be a loving, supportive mom, an attentive daughter, a skilled and focused professional, as well as a loving partner. She, too, has found refuge in her job.

Looking back, I feel a little foolish for having retreated from my professional life the way I did those first days after learning of my daughter’s diagnosis. From this vantage point, it appears rash, unnecessary. I feared that in some way my job would keep me from giving my full attention to my daughter’s health. I was right. The mistake I made was in thinking that would be a bad thing. Believe me, I spent a ton of time thinking about her, worrying about her, searching for ways I might ease her burden. But I couldn’t do that for every hour of every day, not without doing real damage to my own emotional and physical health.

Work saved me.

Now, I know each of us deals in unique ways with anxiety, fear, grief, and other emotions, and so I offer this post not as a prescription for others, but simply as a description of my experience. I hope that some of you find it helpful.

Monday Musings: My Decision to Start Therapy — A #HoldOnToTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLightShortly after I graduated from college, back in Medieval times, I corresponded with a dear college friend, one who continues to this day to be a close friend. At the time, she was dealing with some emotional issues and had started therapy. “Counseling is the best thing in the world,” she wrote to me. “If everyone was in counseling with a good counselor there would be world peace.”

I wrote down the quote at the time, and have returned to it many times in the intervening years, sometimes with amusement (it’s just a great statement) and at other times with the sense that I ought to take to heart the lesson of her words.

Only this year, with the cancer diagnosis given to my older child, did I finally act on her wise advice and start therapy.

When I was young, being in therapy carried a stigma. Mental health and mental illness were even less well understood than they are now. Seeking a counselor was an admission of “weakness,” of being unable to hack it on one’s own. I grew up in New York, a bastion of liberal thought and cutting edge cultural trends, and was raised in an educated, privileged family. And still, I grew up with this bias ingrained in me. People like me didn’t need therapy, because we were “strong” and “normal” and “healthy,” whatever the hell those words meant.

It took me a long, long time to overcome that element of my upbringing. Which is really too bad, because I now know that I have suffered from anxiety and panic disorder my entire life. I denied this reality for years. I was “high strung.” “Type A.” I was “a worrier.” Given time, I could probably come up with a dozen other euphemisms that I used, or that others used on my behalf, to help me deny the obvious. Because “high strung” was okay. Suffering from anxiety suggested something deeper, more serious, more systemic. It implied that I wasn’t “well.”

Guess what. I wasn’t well.

Back in 2017 and 2018, after my brother died, I went through a really dark period. I was grieving, grappling with all sorts of difficult, nearly crippling emotional issues. At the time, it was the most troubling period of my emotional life. Still I made excuses, explaining away my decision not to seek therapy. Our younger daughter was just starting college and we couldn’t afford the added expense. It was natural for me to be having a hard time — I was in mourning. I could handle the problems on my own.

It was a terrible decision, and I shudder to think of what might have happened had I not fallen back on the next best thing to seeking the help of a counselor. I wrote about my brother. Not just a journal entry (although I should add here that regular journaling has also become a key part of my mental health regimen). I had conversations with people from his life and delved deeply into family history and the papers he’d left behind. The piece I wrote about him is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Few have read it, and for now that’s fine with me. The process itself was the point. It saved me from myself — my stubbornness, my denial, the lingering effects of my upbringing.

With my daughter’s cancer diagnosis earlier this year, which came on the heels of a period of deep anxiety during the fall of 2020, I realized the obvious: I needed help. More, I was  for help. I couldn’t do this on my own anymore, nor did I see the need to.

Starting therapy was revelatory. I was fortunate, in that I found on my first try a counselor who understands me, who knows when to challenge my assumptions and when to let me ramble and find for myself a helpful emotional path. Early on, as we talked about an episode in my life that had been particularly formative and painful, she said something that spoke powerfully to my experience, not only with her, but also with the piece I’d written about my brother.

“When you talk about something painful like this,” she said — and I believe she could also have said, when you write about this sort of thing — “you assert control over it. You’re no longer subject to it. Rather, it answers to you.”

Yes. A thousand times, yes.

This was why writing about my brother and his death proved so therapeutic. This was why my sessions with my therapist have been so positive and helpful. This was why my beloved old friend could see universal therapy leading to world peace. When we acknowledge the things that afflict us, when we accept them and speak to them and come to understand them, they cease to be our enemy. They don’t vanish, at least not immediately. But by embracing them, by asserting control over them and making them ours, rather than us being theirs, we rob them of their power.

This, at least, has been my experience. And all those arguments against therapy, which I used to delay what I never should have put off? I reject them now. The stigma? Fortunately, society has progressed beyond this, and I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The money? Many health insurance policies cover mental health, making it as affordable as most common prescription drugs. The time commitment? I take time every day to exercise, because I know that doing so is good for me. Why would I begrudge an hour each week to do something equally healthful?

And so I stand before you (albeit virtually) as an unabashed booster of therapy. I waited until I was in the midst of a family crisis, and I wish I hadn’t. If I’d had the wherewithal as a much younger man to seek professional help, I might have recognized my anxiety for what it was in my twenties or thirties rather than in my fifties. I could have saved myself so much torment, so much sadness and angst. I choose not to consider this for too long. Water under the bridge as the cliché goes.

But I will say this: If you’re suffering, if you feel that you need help, but have been reluctant, for whatever reason, to seek it out, please take the plunge. I believe you’ll be glad you did. You may find peace, healing, and tools for coping that have eluded you up until now. And, as my friend suggests, you might even move us one step closer to world peace.

Update: What’s Been Going On In My Life

In August, after a long retreat from social media and a series of appearance cancellations, I shared with all in a post on his blog that our older daughter, Alex, has cancer. You can read that post here.

Now, several months later, I wanted to offer an update to that original post, and to share some positive news.

Alex is still undergoing treatments, but her doctors have transitioned her from chemotherapy, which in her case was VERY effective, to what they call a maintenance regimen. Essentially this means that the cancer has been knocked back by the chemo. In many places where she had malignancies, it’s impossible to tell she ever had cancer. In other spots, the cancer remains but is greatly diminished.

The maintenance regimen is intended to keep the cancer in its present, reduced state. It prevents new or renewed cancerous growth without inflicting the kind of side-effects Alex suffered through while on the chemotherapy. Put another way, her doctors are now treating her cancer as a chronic condition, one that can be managed without an invasive and devastating surgery, and without further use of drugs that sap her of energy, make her feel rotten, and cause her hair to fall out.

The sobering news is that, at least for now, they do not know if her cancer is fully curable. It may be that they cannot say “her cancer is gone and it’s not coming back.” This remains to be seen. The reassuring and offsetting news is that they can keep her on the maintenance regimen indefinitely, for the rest of her natural life if they need to. Because Alex responded so well to the first chemotherapy “cocktail” they tried, her doctors have plenty of other treatments they can use on the off-chance that the cancer reasserts itself. And research on exact DNA mutation that caused Alex’s cancer may, before long, yield even more effective, and possibly curative, treatments.

And so it seems she is on a good trajectory, if not yet cured.

I have to admit that adjusting to this outcome has taken me some time. I have lost my mother, my father, and my oldest brother to cancer. I am a gold-circle member of the “Fuck Cancer” club. More, I am shaped by a 20th century view of cancer as a binary phenomenon. One has cancer or one doesn’t; one beats cancer or one dies from it. That has long been my understanding.

But 21st century oncology is not always like that. For some patients with some forms of the disease — including Alex and hers — cancer is something that can be lived with, controlled, kept in check.

From the start, I have wanted nothing more than to be able to announce to the world that Alex is cancer-free. For now, that is more than I can say. But short of that, this is as good an outcome as I could have hoped for or imagined. We will worry each time Alex has a new set of scans to assess the state of her disease, but that was going to be true under any scenario. What matters is that she feels fine, the symptoms associated with her cancer have gone away, she is otherwise healthy and happy, she is working, seeing friends, having fun, living her life, looking forward to the return of her gorgeous hair, which has been an identity marker for her all her life. And the rest of us — Nancy, our wonderful younger daughter, Erin, and I — are breathing easier and recovering ourselves from the emotional ordeal of the past eight months.

I want to thank all of you for your support and friendship during this period. Every expression of concern, every word of sympathy and encouragement, every act of kindness has meant more to me than I can convey.

I look forward to returning to a more normal routine. I intend to be more of a presence online. I plan to attend more conventions in the coming year. Having re-started the newsletter, I will continue to publish it monthly, with the usual giveaways and previews of upcoming releases. (You can sign up for it here!)

Again my thanks to all of you. It’s good to be back.

Professional Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

Islevale compositeA couple of years ago, I put the finishing touches on the third book of a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy called the Islevale Cycle. I loved the Islevale books then, and I remain incredibly proud of them today. I think they represent some of my finest work, and if you enjoy epic fantasy, OR time travel, OR (best of all) both, I recommend you pick the books up and give them a try. (The books are called Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.)

As much as I love them, though, I also have to admit that they nearly destroyed me. I have never struggled so much with any books, and I hope I never will again. Part of the problem was simply the ambition of the project. Sprawling epic fantasies are hard to write. One must weave together multiple plot threads and write from the perspectives of numerous point of view characters. Time travel is even harder to write, first because one must keep track of several time lines at once, second because any plot point is potentially reversible (If time traveling characters are unhappy with events, what’s to keep them from going back and changing them?), and third, because in my story I had more than one iteration of several characters existing simultaneously. (At one point in book 3, I had four or maybe five iterations of the same character inhabiting my world.)

As you might expect, combining the challenges of writing epic fantasy with the difficulties inherent in writing time travel only serves to compound all of those issues. These books would have been hard to write under any circumstance. But here’s the thing: For some reason, I could not outline any of the Islevale books. I don’t know why. To this day I remain mystified. But yeah, I had to write all three books without any advance outline beyond my vague sense of where the books needed to go. The books turned out really well, but the process was excruciating.

What is the point of this?

Well, once I finished the last Islevale novel and worked with the folks at Falstaff Books to shepherd it through production and publication, I needed a new project that would be Different, and Straight Forward, and Directed.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that next book turned out to be Radiants.

Radiants, a supernatural thriller, comes out from Belle Books on Friday (yes, THIS Friday) October 15th, and this “little” book, which I thought of as a sort of creative palate cleanser, has turned out to be far, far more.

Yes, it is different from the Islevale books, and it is quite directed. But it is deceptive in its “simplicity.” It is firmly rooted in our real world, and deals with social issues of weight and emotional power. It has fewer point of view characters and concentrates to a far greater degree on a single narrative thread. As a result, it is fast-paced. Like breakneck. And it includes some of the deepest, most satisfying character work I’ve done. (In fact, in this regard, I believe it might be exceeded by its sequel, Invasives, which will be out in another few months.)

So what makes Radiants a “supernatural thriller,” as oppose to a fantasy of some sort? Partly, it’s that pacing I mentioned, and partly it’s the real world setting and the fact that the speculative fiction element of the story is limited and very specific. And that was the appeal of writing the book. After creating a world whole-cloth for the Islevale series, I wanted to remain firmly fixed in our world for the new project. I wanted my characters to deal with issues that impact us in our day-to-day lives. I wanted them to speak as we do, to think and feel and interact as we do. In short, I wanted the story to be utterly relatable.

It would be easy to ascribe this to something pandemic-related — a need for normality, say, or some recognition that we don’t have to create an imagined world to come up with situations that are ________ . . . insert your preferred word here: Frightening? Disorienting? Surreal? As it happens, though, I completed my first draft of the book in February 2020, just before the current unpleasantness hit. [Invasives, the second Radiants book, is much more a reaction to the pandemic, as well as the personal difficulties my family and I have faced in recent months.]

Radiants really was a response to my creative needs at the time. No more, no less. It is the book I needed to write next. My lead characters presented themselves to me, along with their fraught and frantic circumstances, and I simply wrote. In this sense, Radiants might be the most organic book I’ve ever written. I had no marketing strategy for it; hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even know how to classify the story. I didn’t know if I was writing something for myself, for the sheer joy of it, or if it would turn out to be something I could sell and publish. I had a story to write and I wrote it.

For that reason alone, I love this book. And I am very hopeful that you will, too.