Category Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: The Wisdom and Love of Friends and Family

Many years ago — decades, in fact — in a rare moment of precocious insight, I wrote the following in my journal:

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends to remind us of who we are.”

Even at the time, I understood that I had, without any intention of doing so, stumbled upon some deep wisdom of my own. Because add to “the wisdom and love of friends” the words “and family,” and you have precisely the experience I have just enjoyed.

I have recently returned from an extended journey east and north, and I am feeling stronger than I have in some time, in large part because of the friends and family I encountered along the way. The trip began with Nancy and me attending a university event in Richmond, where she was the guest of honor and featured speaker. Seeing her excel at her job, watching her move among strangers with ease and poise, listening to her deliver remarks with the aplomb of a seasoned pro, brings me such joy and makes me so proud I can hardly find words to express the emotion. And so the trip began, as do all things in my life, with her, with us.

From there, as many of you already know, I went on to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, which was well-run and professionally fulfilling. The highlights of the weekend, though, were the two evenings I spent hanging out with Edmund Schubert and John Hartness. Both nights, we talked business, we talked craft and market, we spoke of family, of life and friendships, we just shot the shit for hours. It was amazing.

I have spent too, too long, in my own head, dealing with uncertainties, with anxieties, with fear and grief, with my own emotional health issues as well as with the challenges life throws at so many of us. It wasn’t that these evenings with my friends made me forget all that other stuff. Rather, it was that these two amazing friends and I made room in our interactions for all that each of us is going through right now. We commiserated and supported, even as we also laughed and spoke of other things.

And that was a harbinger of the entire trip.

David and daughter AlexFrom Virginia Beach, I went to Brooklyn, where I spent two evenings with my older daughter. She looks beautiful, seems great, has a ton of energy, and was her normal, playful, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, slightly acerbic self. Seeing her, having such amazing time with her, was reassuring to say the least.

I also spent an afternoon with two old friends from my high school and college years. We are, all of us, changed. How could we not be? But our affection for one another remains, as does our ability to joke and laugh one minute, and then shift gears into matters weighty and significant the next. Seeing them was a rare treat, one I have missed these many years.

I drove from Brooklyn to central New York State, where I stayed with my brother Jim, and his wife, Karen. They are among Nancy and my favorite people in the world. Jim is my birdwatching partner and guru, not to mention my oldest and dearest friend in the world outside of Nancy and my girls. Karen, his wife of 35 years, is brilliant, witty, articulate, passionate about her work, and so much fun. She and I share affinities for good Scotch and teasing Jim. While I was there, we were joined for dinner one night by Jim and Karen’s daughter, Rachel, who is as terrific as her parents.

And while in the Albany area, I also saw my wonderful friends Alan and Karen. Alan was (along with our friend, Amy — more on her in a moment) my closest friend in college, my musical partner (also along with Amy), and my housemate. In the nearly forty years since college, he (and Karen, and Amy and her husband, Paul) has remained as caring and constant a friend as anyone could want.

I started home on Friday, driving into the wind and rain of Ian, and I stayed that night in the Charlottesville area with Amy and Paul. We drank Manhattans and ate pasta, they showed me photos from their son’s recent wedding, and we talked deep into the night. Or as deep as we of advanced middle age are capable of these days. Which is to say, not really that late at all. But it was a great evening.

The next day, I arrived home.

My trip lasted twelve days, and pretty much every one of them brought me to someone I care about, someone who knows and understands me, someone whose wisdom and love made for a special day or evening.

I am back home now, and I feel restored in some way. Yes, the anxieties and difficulties persist. Life continues to throw stuff in our paths, and much of what Nancy and I have struggled with for the past year and a half will continue to challenge us for a long time to come. But I feel more connected to the person I have long known myself to be, and to where I come from. I am reminded that there is more to me than fear and sadness and struggle. There is strength as well, and worth and humor and, most important, the love of people I respect and admire.

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends and family to remind us of who we are.”

Yes, maybe there is something trite to the thought. But at 22, when I wrote it, it felt like a valuable insight. And three and a half decades later, it still carries the weight of truth.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: It’s All Connected

One more post about my teaching weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference . . . .

As I believe I mentioned last week, I taught four classes at the event. The topics were: point of view, character development, world building, and pacing/narrative arc. And something I noticed as I spoke at the event — something that had kind of escaped me during my preparation of the talks, probably because I worked on them over several weeks, rather than in a single compressed weekend — was the tremendous amount of overlap among the different subjects.

It makes sense that talks on character and point of view would have a lot in common. In fact, usually I combine the two, especially if I have more time or am teaching over the course of several sessions. But world building? Pacing? As it turns out, yep.

It’s all connected. Storytelling doesn’t care for siloing or creating artificial boundaries among various topics. Our writing is most effective when we accomplish several aims at once, when our character work reinforces our world building, which furthers our narratives, which strengthens our pacing, which ups the tension and sense of conflict, which helps us deepen our characters. And so the cycle goes on.

There is a theory about writing — an old editor of mine referred to it as Vernor’s Rule, because he first heard it from award-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge (who he also edited). Vernor’s Rule says the following: As writers, what we do can be categorized broadly in three ways — we develop character, we advance our plots, and we fill in background information. Yes, those are broad headings, but he’s essentially right. And according to Vernor’s Rule, at any given moment in our novels, in any given scene, we should be doing at least two, and preferably all three of those things simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, or, God forbid, none of those things, our manuscripts have stalled, and we need to fix the scene in question.

It’s a simple rule, and it fits in with the realization I had at the writers conference. We should strive to do many things at once with our writing, in part because we can do many things at once. Character arc and narrative arc (plotting) work together to build tension in our stories, and ideally we want them to peak at the same time, with our protagonists coming into their “power” (in whatever sense we care to have this happen) at the same time our plots are reaching their zeniths. Keeping our readers apprised of relevant background information is actually quite helpful in tracing character development AND in deepening our world building, which should bear directly on our narratives.

And really, that is the extent of what I had on my mind today. Writing conferences and convention panels and the like function best when we can break down writing into its component parts. Handling the subjects that way simplifies and clarifies. There is absolutely value in concentrating on individual topics — on character and setting and point of view and the rest. The danger is that we will come to think of these things as operating independently of one another. Because they don’t. Yes, by all means, study each one in turn. Learn all there is to learn about them. But then apply all you can learn in such a way as to blend them together, allowing your various story elements to coalesce into something that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where words on a page turn into living breathing people, into places that feel as real as our own world, and into stories that keep us turning the pages deep into the night.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Additional Thoughts On Writing and Teaching

After a wonderful weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Workshop (kudos to Lauran Strait and all those who helped her make the conference such a success), I am reminded again of why I love to teach writing, to talk about craft and the business in such a setting.

As with so many things in the literary world and publishing business, no one is going to get wealthy teaching at writing workshops. Don’t get me wrong: Those of us listed as presenters for the event were housed, fed, and paid honoraria for our time. The conference charges its attendees a reasonable amount for all that they offer, and they do not in any way take advantage of their instructors. But I can also tell you that I worked hard on my talks beforehand, preparing them with care so that my presentations would take full advantage of the time I was allotted. I know for certain that my fellow presenters did the same. And then we spent the weekend giving our talks and speaking formally and informally with the conference attendees. If we were to take the time to calculate what we earned for all our work on a per hour basis . . . Well, let’s not go there.

In this way, as I mentioned, writing workshops are a lot like other elements of professional writing. If I were to figure my novel writing earnings on a per hour or per word basis, if I were to do the same with my editing work— But no. That way lies madness.

The greater point is that the vast majority of us who write DON’T think in those terms. Because while we do get paid, and we would, all of us, love to earn more as writers than we do, we don’t do it for the money. We do it for the love of the written word.

And so it follows that I don’t teach at writing conferences for the money, though it is nice to be paid, and shown in that small way that our time and effort and expertise are valued, I teach writing because I love to talk with fellow writing professionals and those who hope to be professionals at some point, about what we do. Edmund R. Schubert, my dear friend and colleague, gave a terrific keynote address at Hampton Roads and he expressed this idea so well. He compared it to churchgoers who speak of being spiritually fed (or not) by a sermon or sanctuary service. And he quoted a pastor who said that if one goes to church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) just looking to be fed, without looking for ways to feed others, they are missing the point.

I go to writing conferences hoping that my talks will “feed” those who listen, creatively, intellectually, professionally. But I also go to them because I know that the give-and-take of a writing session will feed me in turn. I will come away inspired, filled with a deeper appreciation and understanding of my craft. As I did this past weekend at Hampton Roads.

My time with Edmund and also John Hartness, who was there as well, as a presenter and book dealer, fed my need to hang with old friends who share my passion for and frustration with this crazy business. My conversations with fellow presenters I hadn’t known before this weekend offered me new perspectives on the writing industry and new friends who I look forward to seeing again at future events. And my interaction with the attending students, a diverse group who varied widely in age, writing level, life experience, and creative aspiration, filled me with renewed enthusiasm for the ongoing “conversation” in which all storytellers engage.

Yes, in recent posts I have lamented the state of the literary market. But writing is not going away. Storytelling is not going away. One need only experience first-hand the passion of these up-and-coming writers, who are not doing it for the money, who are struggling and working and honing their craft without having yet earned much of anything from their creative endeavors, to know that the future of our craft is not about the troubles in New York publishing. It is about the next generation of writers and their collective voice. And the generation after that one. And so on.

The publishing behemoths in New York can change, or at least make the attempt. They can cut advances, and shake up their staffs, and look to the mammoth booksellers with trepidation, wondering what their next pronouncement might mean for the bottom line. But readers still want a great story. Small booksellers still market books because they love literature. Small presses still publish great stories knowing that they are putting something positive and powerful into the world, even if their profit margins are, well, marginal. And writers of all levels still write the tales that burn in their hearts, and give voice to the characters they encounter in their ever-active imaginations.

Storytelling lives. The conversation continues.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and the Hardest Writing Topic to Teach (For Me)

This week I head to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. I’ll be teaching several workshops over the three days I’m there — a two-hour master class on “Point of View and Voice,” a ninety-minute class on “Character and Character Arc,” and two one-hour classes, one on “World Building” and one on “Pacing and Narrative Arc.” I always look forward to conferences like this one, in large part because I love to teach, and I love to talk about the craft of story telling.

Recently, some of you may recall, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in encouraging aspiring writers given the state of today’s literary market. I don’t believe teaching at the workshop contradicts or undermines what I wrote in that post. If students ask me about the business side of writing, I will be brutally honest with them. And even if they don’t ask the questions, I will not misrepresent the publishing industry or in any way downplay the difficulties currently faced by new writers.

Teaching writing, though, is always a service, always a worthwhile thing to do. Whether someone wishes to write professionally (despite the odds) or write as a hobby — or something in between — it can never hurt to hone those skills. I don’t ever intend to be a professional photographer or musician, but I am always looking to improve at both and would gladly attend photography workshops to learn new techniques. (Provided I can find the time and the money to do so — those workshops are spendy!) Put another way, if I can help any writer improve their skills and get more enjoyment out of their literary projects, I believe I have done a good thing.

I have taught on previous occasions all the topics I’ll be covering this weekend, and I can safely say that pacing and narrative arc are far and away the toughest to teach. Why? Because, they are somewhat amorphous topics. Point of view has definite categories and approaches. It has “rules” most writers tend to follow and most editors tend to look for. I have developed techniques and mechanisms for character development that I am more than happy share. And world building is a process with which I am very familiar and which can be broken down into component parts as a way of rationalizing a complex, sprawling endeavor.

Pacing, though, is all about feel, about instinct. I can talk about things I try to do myself, in my own work, but even those discussions tend to stray into the realm of analogies and metaphors, ways of describing something that defies description. A lot of what I have learned over the years about pacing and shaping narrative arc, has come out of trial and error, mistakes I made in one book or series and corrected in the next, or the one after that.

So why try to teach it? Because, quite honestly, despite the difficulties inherent in talking about a subject that is so hard to pin down — or perhaps because of those challenges — some of the best teaching sessions I’ve ever had focused on this subject. As the topic grows harder to discuss, I find, the classes on the topic grow increasingly interactive, until all in the room are working on ways to conceptualize and contextualize the conversation. In other words, it becomes a team effort, and that helps everyone in the room.

I plan to approach the class in three ways — one is conceptual, relying on those analogies I mentioned earlier; one is visual, using drawings to show how narrative arc ought to progress in a book and in a series; and one is pragmatic, focusing on those narrative mechanics that help us with pacing and that are easiest to discuss in concrete terms.

As I say, my past experiences with teaching pacing and narrative arc have generally been pretty good (and I just jinxed myself) so I am hoping this one will be, too.

The other thing I love about teaching at conferences like Hampton Roads is the opportunity to hang out with other industry professionals, and I believe the coming weekend will be especially fun, since two of my favorite people in the world, Edmund Schubert and John Hartness, will be there as well. In fact, Edmund is one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

So that’s what I have on tap for my end-of-week/weekend. I hope yours is great.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Celebrating Nancy

David and Nancy
Us in Dublin, Ireland for WorldCon 2019. (Photo by Cat Sparks)

I mention Nancy on this blog quite often, yet, I rarely write about her. Well, she has a big birthday coming up this week (tomorrow) — a BIG birthday — and so this seems as good a time as any to sing her praises.

For those who have somehow missed the references, Nancy is my wife of thirty-plus years. She and I met at Stanford, when we were both getting our Ph.D.s. She was a first-year grad student in biology; I was in my second year in the history program. We met because one of her suite-mates in grad school housing, another history candidate, brought her to the department’s weekly grad student card game at the on-campus pub.

Yes, we met over a game of hearts, and we were both smitten that very day. Nancy later confessed that she saw me and thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.” Poor thing . . . . For my part, being a guy, I saw her and thought, “Wow!”

Wedding Day Photo 1
Our wedding day, 1991.

We were married in the Rodin Sculpture Garden beside Stanford’s art museum, and a year later moved to Tennessee so that Nancy could take an assistant professorship at Sewanee: The University of the South. Our plan was to stay for a couple of years, and if nothing worked out for me in the history department, we’d leave for wherever and start again with me taking the offered job and her trying to work something out. Rinse, repeat until both of us were employed. That was the idea. But at her urging I started to pursue my lifelong dream of writing fantasy professionally, and before we had to leave, I got my first publishing contract. Thirty years later, we’re still here.

Nancy provost installation
Our family, the day Nancy was officially made provost of the university. Erin is on the left, Alex is on the right.

In that time, Nancy has been assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and chairperson of her department. She has been appointed to a named chair in the biology department (for those unfamiliar with academia, this is big deal). She has received research grants to support her scholarship from a host of organizations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation. She has been an associate dean, associate provost, university provost, and, for the past nine months, acting president of the university. She is the first woman ever to serve as Sewanee’s president.

I am a pretty confident person. I believe in my creative abilities, and I believe in my own intelligence. I like to think that I’m usually one of the smartest people in whatever room I’m in. And yet, when both of us are home, I’m not even the smartest person in my own kitchen.

Erin, Nancy, Alex
Erin, Nancy, and Alex.

Nancy is a creative thinker, too, though in an entirely different way. Her creativity, her brilliance, is rooted in her ability to approach any problem, any issue, at any given time, from multiple perspectives. This is what has made her such a successful scientist, and it is what informs her strategic thinking as an institutional leader. She is also a person of remarkable yet quiet strength. She is serving as president, coping with issues large and small, interacting with people in various university constituencies who, let us say, sometimes forget how to be their best selves. She is also, like me, dealing with the illness of her child. She recently lost her mother and, with her brothers, had to help get her father situated in an assisted living community. She is spouse, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, community leader. She does all of this with composure, with grace, with her sparkling and mischievous wit, with an equanimity that humbles and dazzles me on a daily basis.

Nancy and Samantha
Back when we first started dating. Nancy is the one on the left . . .

Yes, I adore her. I would never claim to be a neutral observer where Nancy is concerned. But you don’t have to trust me on any of what I’ve written here. Others will say it as well, including many who don’t always see eye-to-eye with her. That is part of her charm. She can disarm with a smile. She can discuss without bringing ego to the conversation, and — something truly rare in today’s world — she can agree cordially to disagree.

And still I haven’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to telling you about her. She is far more than her professional activities. She knits and gardens, she brews beer and makes AMAZING Indian, Thai, Moroccan, and Southwestern cuisine, not to mention gorgeous fresh bread and the best chocolate chip cookies anywhere. She has run triathlons and used to be an active rock climber. She loves to travel and to hike (and she tolerates my birdwatching interruptions when we’re hiking together). She plays cards and board games and is somehow really good at all of them.

I’ll stop now. Except to say she’s the love of my life, my partner in silliness, my best friend. And yeah, tomorrow’s her birthday.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. Love you.

Professional Wednesday: Once More Unto The Breach — To Outline or Not, Redux

After attending DragonCon and speaking on panels about various aspects of writing, I have found myself thinking—yet again—about the age-old debate between those who outline their books and those who don’t. Or, between planners and pantsers, in the parlance of the discussion. And yes, I know those who write without an outline object to the term “pantsing.” (For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from the phrase “Flying [or in this case ‘writing’] by the seat of one’s pants.”)

I actually understand and sympathize with these objections to the term. As one who sometimes writes with an outline and sometimes without, I can say with confidence that I am no less a writer when in the midst of those projects that defy my efforts to outline ahead of time.

As I have said before, my creative process reinvents itself with each project I take on, often with each book. Some projects lend themselves to outlining and are better suited to a systematic approach to plotting. The Thieftaker books in particular are easy to outline. Indeed, when writing in the Thieftaker universe I feel outlining is absolutely essential. With each book and story, I seek to blend historical events with fictional ones, and keeping the two timelines—the imagined and the real—in sync, demands that I have plan things out with care.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)

On the other hand, I have written books that I could not outline at all, despite making every attempt to do so. Most notably, the three volumes of my Islevale Cycle (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin) simply would not submit themselves to any sort of advanced planning. They were like children, refusing to sit still long enough to be photographed.

I have also said before that to me the outlining thing is not so much a binary choice—outline in detail or write the books without any planning at all—as it is a continuum. Even the most dedicated “pantsers” I know have a good idea of where their books are headed. They just don’t like to be tied to a formal outline. In the same way, the most diligent outliners I know leave a great many details out of their outlines, allowing themselves to create in the moment, to preserve the energy that comes from writing organically. Each of us is a little bit planner, a little bit pantser, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll . . . .

(That is my first, and will be my only, Osmond reference EVER in this blog . . . .)

So why am I revisiting the outlining question this week? Because I am in the process of finishing the third volume in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series (which STILL needs a series name!!) and in the final weeks of writing the book, I have been outlining—perhaps it’s more accurate to say RE-outlining—the last ten chapters or so of the story.

And I’ve realized this is something I do a lot. Yes, I try to outline most books, but I almost never outline all the way to the end of the novel. Why? Because things change along the way. I can set out plot points for the first fifteen or twenty chapters of a book before I begin writing Chapter 1, but I know my story is going to shift along the way. Characters will do things that surprise me, that upset my best-laid plans. It’s inevitable. And, in fact, I welcome those kinds of narrative disruptions. When my characters start surprising me, it means they have become fully realized personalities in my head, which is always a good thing.

So, I might outline twenty chapters initially, but I almost always need to adjust my outlines starting at around chapter ten. And then I need to do it again at around chapter seventeen or eighteen. And then I need to do it yet again for the final five or ten chapters of the book.

Put another way, outlining is not simply a task I complete early on, before I start to write my book, and I never think of my outline as a static document. Rather outlining is a process, something I have to revisit several times along the way in order to keep up with the constant creative evolution of my narrative vision.

Because, like so many writers, I am a hybrid. I plan my stories and I also write organically. I adhere to an overarching concept and I adapt to an ever-changing plot line. I take comfort in having a roadmap for my novel and I draw energy from all the story ideas I discover along the way. As I say, my process changes with each project, but these things remain the same.

I like to say there is no single right way to do any of this. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to plot or you have to write organically. Find the balance that fits best with your creative style.

And, of course, keep writing.

Monday Musings: Some Hard Truths About Me

I don’t do well with change. You know how little kids have trouble with transitions, how you need to warn them about impending shifts in circumstance? “Sweetie, I know it’s been fun visiting Grandma and Grandpa, but in a few minutes we’re going to have to say goodbye, okay?” Sometimes even fair warning can’t stave off a complete meltdown, but it’s the only tool we have, right?

Well, I’m not much different from a toddler in this respect. I don’t like transitions. The way I see it, I’m close to sixty years old and at this point I have set up my life pretty much the way I want it to be. So, change equals bad.

In the last two months, my dentist and my general practitioner have both announced that they are leaving their practices, and my therapist has told me that due to the fact she’s about to have her first child (truthfully, I am very, very happy for her and her partner), she will be stepping back from her practice for the next half year or so.

It’s me, isn’t it? This is not mere coincidence. I don’t know what I did, but clearly I did something. I shower. I brush my teeth. And even if I didn’t do these things, my therapist and I do tele-therapy sessions, so she wouldn’t know.

All kidding aside, I have been with my GP for close to twenty years, my dentist for more than ten. Relationships like those are not easily replaced. And I really don’t do well with change . . . .

This is one of those Monday posts that’s going to bounce around a lot. It’s not that I have nothing on my mind, nothing to write about. It’s that I have too many things, and some of them are best left unsaid, at least in a public forum. I’m not very good at keeping my mouth shut, figuratively or literally. When I’m pissed off, I tend to say so, and I don’t hesitate to call people out for bad behavior. This sounds admirable in some ways. Really it’s not. It gets me in trouble far more often than not. It rarely makes any situation better.

And so this week, I am looking for things to write and I have lots of ideas. But each one bumps up against my (admittedly underdeveloped) sense of discretion.

In order to avoid creating problems closer to home, I have considered writing about the Yankees and the Mets, my two beloved baseball teams, who are both in the process of blowing massive leads they enjoyed in their respective divisions not so very long ago. But I complain about such things just about every year. If I’m not complaining about them blowing a lead, I’m complaining about them not having a lead. If I’m not complaining about the Yankees, I’m complaining about the Mets. It’s actually a rare season in which I can complain legitimately about both, so I suppose I should be grateful. But let’s be honest: no one wants to read my complaints about two privileged but poorly run New York teams who can’t get their shit together. So, moving on . . . .

I have also considered writing about the upcoming midterm elections, which are looking far better for the progressive-minded today than they were a few months ago. But let’s be honest, midterms usually hurt the party in power, and with inflation high, gas prices still above normal, and the country polarized, things don’t look great. I won’t get into who is to blame for what, except to say that inflation and gas prices are high everywhere, all over the world. The U.S. is hardly an outlier in this regard. In fact, things are better here than in most places.

The problem is, though, politics these days is one of the things that sets off my anxiety in a big way. And since my therapist will soon be unavailable (please refer back to paragraph 3), well, focusing on the midterms is probably not the best idea from a mental health perspective. I used to be able to manage my political anxiety. But the perils faced by our system of government have grown so frightening, so violent, so persistent, that whenever I dive into the topic and confront the existential threat to what I once believed was a stable republic, I kind of freak out. So, I think I’ll move on again.

I am not alone in any of this, I know. Anticipating the many kind comments this post is likely to prompt, I will say that I really am okay. The doctors thing? I’ll find new practitioners, and they will be fine. Better than fine, most likely. The Yankees and Mets? Many of us grow a bit irrational about our sports loyalties. For some it’s soccer, for some it’s basketball, for some it’s American football at either the pro or college level. For me it’s baseball. I’ll get over it. I do every season. And the politics? We are all under threat. We are all invested in the stability of our republic, regardless of ideology or party affiliation. And at some point, I believe, both sides will recognize the threat and turn down the temperature a bit. We will get through this.

But now you know a bit more about me. Not the prettiest of pictures. At least I’m honest, though, right?

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: What To Tell Aspiring Writers About The Current Literary Market

If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion.

This past weekend, while at DragonCon, I spent a lot of time on writing panels, talking with other literary professionals in front of audiences made up largely of aspiring writers. We mostly discussed ways to improve various elements of our storytelling, but we spoke as well about the state of the current writing market, and the challenges of embarking on a literary career.

Reflecting on those conversations, it occurs to me that much of what we discussed warrants repetition and amplification in this venue.

This has been a summer of bad news for those of us who (try to) make our livings writing books. Book sales are down across the board this year. Barnes and Noble is rumored to be cutting back drastically on what books it will carry and market. The trial to determine the future of the proposed merger between Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster has revealed that book sales for the vast majority of volumes published each year are shockingly, depressingly low. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but if they’re not, that would only mean that publishers routinely mislead authors about their sales numbers, which would also be shocking and depressing. Lose lose.

I have neither the data nor the experience to state categorically that it has never been harder to be a professional writer, but I can say that right now the business outlook for our industry pretty much sucks.

Which has left me wondering — as I attend conventions and get ready to teach at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference — how can I mentor young writers when the market is so dauntingly hostile? I struggle with this nearly daily.

I have been in the business for a long time. I have literally dozens of publishing credits — as a novelist, as a short story writer, as an editor. I have awards to my name, a history of strong reviews, a reputation as a professional who hits his deadlines, turns in clean manuscripts, and is reasonably easy to work with. (Mostly.) And yet, I still get lots of rejections when I shop new projects. My advances are lower now than they were early in my career. My sales numbers have declined with those across the industry. Maintaining my career has never been harder — it feels like all my accomplishments and credits mean nothing at all.

Again, I question how I can, in good conscience, tell people, “Yes! Go forth! Write your books! Try to make a career for yourselves in this crazy, cruel, struggling business!”

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and advise young me on the career choice I made back in the mid-1990s, would I tell him/me to embark on this career? Probably. But I have been extraordinarily fortunate in certain ways (and chronically unlucky in others), especially in that I have enjoyed the support of an incredible, generous, accomplished life partner. If I was doing this alone, without Nancy? No way in hell.

If that hypothetical time travel worked differently, and young me was starting now? I would probably advise him/me to find another career, or at the very least to approach this one very, very differently, to look upon writing as a paying hobby, not as a profession, and to keep his/my expectations quite low.

Throughout my career I have spoken often of the importance of loving what we do. And I mean it in several ways. On one level, love what we do means write for the love of it, because the payoffs of this profession, financial and emotional, can be slim and fleeting. On another level, love what we do means we must love the stories we write, and write the stories about which we’re passionate. The market is a moving target. Writing to the market is just about impossible. So we should write the stories that sing in our hearts, because that love will shine through in the final product, and we will enjoy the process more. Finally, love what we do means we must take satisfaction in the stories we produce, because often the artistic creation itself is the lone reward for a job well done.

Strangely, even in this current market — indeed, especially in this current market — “Love what we do” remains good advice. If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion. Writing because we think it’s just a good gig, a great way to make a few bucks? If that’s what you’re thinking, I suggest you go back and reread the opening graphs of this post.

As queasy as I might feel about encouraging young writers to go out and try to make a go of literary careers, I feel even worse saying, “No! Don’t do it! That way lies madness, not to mention bruised egos and poverty!” In a sense, there is no good option here.

And so I will continue on this middle course. I will continue to say the following: “Writing is hard. It’s always been hard. It’s even harder now. But it’s also a glorious journey through imagination and emotion and creation, a wondrous alchemy by which we take words and turn them into living, breathing characters and their fully realized lives. And here are some tips for doing that as effectively as possible . . . .”

Enjoy the rest of your week, and keep writing.

Monday Musings (On Tuesday): Back From DragonCon

I have spent this past weekend at DragonCon, catching up with friends, meeting new people, and returning an air of normalcy to my professional calendar. To be honest, I went into the weekend a bit reluctantly. I was excited to catch up with friends, but I was nervous about little things — Covid exposure at a convention attended by tens of thousands, and also just being back among so many people after a difficult year in which I have, to the extent possible, tended to avoid public activities.

As it turned out, being among people was fine. Not always easy, but definitely not as difficult as I feared. My friends know me well enough (and are thoughtful enough) to understand how to be supportive and sympathetic without being intrusive. And others . . . well, there’s no rule that says we have to bare our souls to all we meet, right? It’s okay sometimes to put on a smile and answer “How are you doing?” with the immediate truth rather than the longer-term assessment. “I’m good thanks [at this moment]. How are you?”

This all should be second nature, I know. People do this stuff all the time. But it’s not always easy to give ourselves room to be private when we’re in public spaces and situations. And as for the Covid exposure . . . Time (and antigen tests) will tell.

My panels — on writing, urban fantasy, high fantasy, alternate history — were fun. Good discussions and excellent work by our moderators. It was, as always, so great to talk shop with fellow pros and answer terrific questions from engaged, informed audiences. My reading was attended by a few fans, and the occasion allowed me the opportunity to try out the opening chapters from my latest project, the Celtic urban fantasy I’ve been writing about recently in this blog and on social media. I read from The Fugitive Stone, book I in the series. The chapters were very well-received.

In fact, I should say that every time I mentioned the Celtic series (which STILL needs a series name) the response from people was very positive. Interest, enthusiasm even, and lots of eager curiosity. I’m excited.

I missed home, of course. I am a homebody when it comes right down to it, and I would always rather be with Nancy than not. And at this point, I’m pretty exhausted. It’ll take me half the week to recover and settle back into work and routine. But it was worth it. DragonCons are ALWAYS worth it.

To my friends who were at the con — you know who you are — thank you for contributing to a great weekend. To those who attended the panels, as well as my reading and signing, thank you so much for taking time out of your con to listen and chat with us. We appreciate it more than you can know. Without you, there is no con. And finally, to the con organizers and track leaders, thank you so much for all you do. Your hard work and selfless efforts make possible everything that the rest of us enjoy so much.

Already looking forward to next year.

Professional Wednesday: Writing For a Themed Anthology . . . And My Story Idea Revealed!

With the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter well underway, and our pledges slowly creeping up on our ambitious funding goal (four anthologies instead of three this year, to mark ZNB’s 10th anniversary!), it is time for my yearly “Writing For a Themed Anthology” post. This post, though, has a bit of a twist, which I’ll share with you at the end of the essay.

This year, I am hoping (Kickstarter gods allowing) to co-edit Artifice and Craft, with my dear friend, Edmund R. Schubert. Edmund is an experienced editor, a fantastic writer, and one of my very favorite people in the world. He and I have been friends for a long, long time, and have worked together on many projects. He edited and contributed to How To Write Magical Words, the book on writing I co-wrote with A.J. Hartley, Faith Hunter, Stuart Jaffe, Misty Massey, and C.E. Murphy. He also edited a couple of my short stories when he was lead editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show. And I edited a story of his for Temporally Deactivated. We have, however, never co-edited before this. I’m excited.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierThis will be the fifth anthology I have edited for ZNB (after Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, Derelict, and Noir). For each of them, we have had literally hundreds of submissions for about seven open slots. Getting a story into these anthologies is really hard. We editors have the luxury of being highly selective, because we have so many stories from which to choose.

I have found that no matter the theme, there are recurring categories of stories my co-editors and I tend to reject. The first category is fairly obvious, and encompasses the vast majority of rejections: Some stories just don’t work for one of several reasons. The writing might be too rough, the prose unclear and inelegant; the plot might be too hard to follow (or even indecipherable); or the character development might be weak. Put another way, some stories simply aren’t ready for publication. This is fairly self-evident. When reading slush, we expect to encounter a lot of stories that need too much work to be up to standard.

But then there are two other categories that are far more important for our discussion today.

A) Some stories we get are beautifully written and have really fine core ideas. But they fail to move beyond their conceptual strengths and delve into the emotional and narrative potential of those ideas. I can’t tell you how often we read stories like these, and it’s deeply frustrating. Yes, a themed anthology demands stories that have strong conceptual underpinnings. But the idea is only as good as the story it inspires. It’s not enough to show us the great idea. Authors need to develop those ideas, to give them meaning by building compelling characters and creating tension and suspense and all the other emotions that come through in effective storytelling. So if you submit a story, make sure you give us more than an idea. Give us a fully realized story.

B) Some stories we get are brilliantly written AND developed beyond the conceptual to dive into emotion and character arc and all the rest. But they’re not on theme. This year’s theme for our anthology, Artifice and Craft, is pretty simple. The story needs to have at its core some piece of art that has magical or supernatural qualities. It can be any kind of art, from a painting or sculpture, to a theatrical production or musical composition, to a piece of fine furniture or a piece of short fiction. It’s not enough to have the work of art in the story. It needs to be central to the plot, so that if the work of art were taken out, the entire story would collapse. We will make this clear in the call for submissions. And yet, I can guarantee you that we will receive dozens of stories that aren’t at all on theme, or that, for instance, feature a magical artist who creates great art (which is NOT on theme) or that mention a magical novel, but focus on a scheme to steal the book, rather than on the book itself. (Again, that is NOT on theme, because you could replace the book with, say, a diamond, and you’d have the same basic story.)

So make certain you are following the theme as it is described in the guidelines. Make sure you are doing more than just jotting down an idea, that you’re developing that idea with character work and emotion and tension and conflict and all the other good stuff we writers like to do. And then go to town! Because writing for anthologies is really fun.

Finally, allow me to share with you my own story idea. I am editing Artifice and Craft, but I am also an anchor author for Dragonesque, which will be edited by Joshua Palmatier and S.C. Butler. The theme of Dragonesque is dragon stories written from the point of view of the dragon. Fun, right?

So, the dragon in my story is going to a re-enactor, a dragon who does Renaissance Faires and such. Each weekend she allows herself to be “slain” by a knight, and in return she is paid in gold. Except, she’s getting tired of losing all the time, of letting herself be humiliated by these pretend knights. And during the weekend on which my story focuses, she decides to take matters into her own talons, as it were . . . .

Our Kickstarter is going well. We’re about 2/3 of the way to our funding goal. But if I’m going to write my dragon story, and if Edmund and I are going to find the best magical-work-of-art stories available, we first have to fund the anthologies. So if you want to read great short fiction, and/or if you want to have four new anthologies to which to submit your work, please consider supporting the project! Thanks so much!