Category Archives: editing

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part III — Know What You Write

For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.

For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.

Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”

I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.

“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.

Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.

Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Writing To Heal

Writing saved me this year.

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

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

And, of course, I write.

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

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

I journaled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Musings: Showing 2021 The Door

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

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

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

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

So much for the “new normal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: Stop Writing

Here’s some writing advice for today, three days before Christmas:

Stop trying to write and go spend time with someone you love.

I am all about BIC — put your Butt In the Chair. Writing, like exercise or playing a musical instrument, grows easier with practice and repetition. The more you write, the better your prose and storytelling will become, and the more productive you’ll be. So I often tell writers to write every day (though I am less dogmatic about this than I used to be).

But I will also say this: Sometimes we have to take time off. Write every day if you can. But once you’ve established the habit, be willing now and then to give yourself a day for other things. This year in particular, I am conscious of how precious friends and family are to us, of how many things in our lives are far more important than publications and word counts.

Yes, we have deadlines to make. For all I know, you’re reading this and thinking about submitting to Noir, or one of the other Zombies Need Brains anthologies. And yes, that deadline looms. December 31, 2021.

And still I say, turn off the computer and take time off to be with the people you love. You’ll make the deadline. You’ll put in a bit of extra work next week, and you’ll be okay. Give yourself the time. Take care of yourself. Share your day with others.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have people to see.

Wishing you and yours a magical holiday. Be well. Be safe. Be kind to one another.

Creative Wednesday: Books To Buy For The Writer In Your Life

‘Tis the season for giving, and for searching out gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list. Or, if YOU are the writer on your holiday shopping list, searching out gifts for yourself!

And so I thought I would share with you a list of some of the books on my bookshelves that I would recommend most strongly as presents for a writer. These are not novels, though I could probably make that sort of list as well. These are reference books, tools a writer might use in the crafting of their current work in progress. [That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my website, www.DavidBCoe.com, has a bookstore, from which you can purchase many of my novels!]

Reference booksThese are books I turn to again and again during the course of my work, and I expect the writer on your list will do the same. Not all of them are easy to find, but I assure you, they’re worth the effort. So here is a partial list:

1) Standard Reference Books: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition (the hardcover, bound in red); Roget’s International Thesaurus: Seventh Edition (organized thematically, not by alphabet — trust me); The Chicago Manual of Style: Seventeenth Edition (although if you were to get, say, the fifteenth edition instead, you might save some money and not really lose out on much).

These are all invaluable books. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes not only definitions and the like, but also dates for when the words in question entered the English language. This is a huge asset for writers of historical fiction or fantasies set in worlds analogous to historical eras in our world.

Roget’s Thesaurus, with the thematic index rather than an alphabetical or “dictionary form” organization, demands a little extra work from the writer. Looking up words is a two step process — check the index to find the precise meaning of the word you’re trying to replace, and then go to the indicated page. But the advantages of having entries grouped conceptually are huge, if difficult to articulate. Suffice it to say, I often wind up finding the right word not with my original search, but with a secondary one that begins with a related idea or concept.

And the Chicago Manual not only offers style and usage guidance for almost every imaginable writing circumstance, it also shows how to prepare and format manuscripts professionally, and how to copyedit and proofread (and how to read a copyeditor’s or proofer’s marks), among other things. Every writer should have a copy, and actually, now that I think of it, I need an updated version!

2) What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, Edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. I found this book used several years back after it was recommended to me by a friend, who happens to be a writer as well. Basically, the book provides you with the correct name for every part of every common object you can imagine. I used it just the other day, while writing a new Thieftaker story for the Noir anthology. I needed to know the name of the “u”-shaped arm of a padlock, the piece that swings open and closed to lock something. It’s called a shackle. I hadn’t remembered that, and would have spent way too much time looking for the word online had I not owned this book.

3) English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Like Merriam’s, this book provides the date for when common words entered the English lexicon. The added bonus that sets this book apart from the dictionary is its detailed index, which differentiates among various usages and meanings for the word in question. For instance, “lap” has an entry for the “lap” that a child sits on, and another for “lap” as a verb, as in a dog lapping up water, and still another for “lap,” as in an orbit around a track. Those usages entered the language at different times. This book gives a date for each. Handy, right?

4) The Cunningham Series of Magic Books. Scott Cunningham has written a series of books for magic practitioners that cover a wide array of topics. He has one on magical herbs and plants, another on gems and minerals, still another on oils, incense, and brews. He has books on Wicca and one on elemental magic, and others beyond these. I am not a practitioner, but I find the books immensely helpful when I am writing about magic, particularly for series that are set in our world, like the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books.

5) The HowDunIt series from Writer’s Digest. These books are meant for mystery writers and those who write police procedurals, but I believe they are also indispensable for writers of urban fantasy, horror, and even epic fantasy and science fiction. Available volumes touch on writing crime scenes, on writing about investigative procedures, on poisons, on murder forensics, on injuries and body trauma. I have seven of them, and I’ve used every one.

I could go on with more titles, but this is already a long post, and I have A LOT of books on my shelves. But here’s the thing: When it comes right down to it, there are no limits to the kind of books a writer might find valuable. I have history books, tourist guides to castles and cathedrals, an illustrated architecture book on a ninth century Frankish monastery, books on astronomy, books on weapons, books on military campaigns and tactics, a book on animal tracking, field guides to trees, flowers, edible plants, rocks, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and birds . . . SO many birds . . .

If you know a writer, and you happen to be glancing through the bargain bin at your local bookstore, chances are you can find something that person is going to love and find useful. Because — surprise! — writers love books.

Keep writing!

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.

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: Easing Back In

Dear Friends,

About five weeks ago, I announced on various platforms that I would be withdrawing from social media for a while, and would also be delaying the releases of some upcoming projects. My announcement prompted expressions of sympathy and friendship from so many of you and I am deeply grateful for the love and support I have received since then.

I am, at this point, beginning once more to dip my toes in the social media waters. The family health crisis that prompted my pull-back from various platforms continues and will be on-going for months to come. I ask for your patience, your understanding, and your respect of our privacy as we cope with the issues at hand. Nancy, our daughters, and I are fortunate in so many ways. We love each other, we communicate well, we support one another. We also have at our disposal resources — stable finances, excellent health coverage and health care, mental health support — that too many people in this country — in this world — don’t enjoy. And we have marvelous friends and loving extended family who are bolstering us and helping us in every manner possible. We will get through this.

In the meantime, as I have seen to my own emotional well-being, I have learned a great deal, confirming things I thought I knew about myself, and discovering other things that have surprised and even shocked me. I am 58 years old, and I am still growing and deepening my understanding of my own mind and emotional history.

One discovery that probably surprised me more than it should have is this: A quarter of a century plus into my literary career, the simple act of sitting down each day to write is still both a boon and a salve for my tender emotions. Day after day, I have immersed myself in my current world and narrative and character arcs. And not only has working been good for me, it has been gratifying. I can’t always tell while writing a book if the finished product is going to be any good. Often, I’ll finish my first draft and then start to read through the novel, expecting to be horrified, only to find instead that what I’ve got is decent. And it’s possible that with this book, since I think maybe it’s pretty good, I’ll read it through and find that it totally sucks.

But I don’t think so. I am enjoying it far too much. I am 80,000+ words in at this point, shooting for a finished product of 90-95K. I expect to complete draft number one by the end of this week.

As to my pending releases, I hope to release the first of the Thieftaker novellas, “The Witch’s Storm,” within the next six weeks or so. Two more novellas, “The Cloud Prison,” and “The Adams Gambit” will follow. I hope that RADIANTS, my new supernatural thriller, will be out sometime late this summer or early this fall. And I know that DERELICT, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I have co-edited with Joshua Palmatier, will be released late this spring or early in the summer.

In short, while my family and I are weathering a difficult stretch, life — professional and personal — must go on. I am not yet ready to resume my three-blog-posts-a-week social media regimen, nor do I expect to be as active on Facebook and Twitter as usual. And my plans in terms of convention appearances remain uncertain.

But I will be more visible in the weeks and months to come than I have been since mid-March. Again, I am grateful for your support, your patience, and, most of all, your continued friendship.

Be well, be kind to one another, and find joy in the love and companionship of the people who mean the most to you.

David

Professional Wednesday: Placing Your Inciting Moment In the Right Spot

Generally speaking, writers — from beginners to professionals — know what it means to have an inciting moment for our stories. The inciting moment is the occurrence that sets in motion all the events that constitute our narrative — Luke Skywalker’s purchase of two droids from the junk hauler on Tatooine; the unannounced arrival of dwarves at Bilbo Baggins’ otherwise peaceful and respectable home in the Shire; the chance meeting at a masquerade of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from feuding families.

The inciting moment is not necessarily the beginning of conflict. Rebels have been battling the Galactic Empire for ages before Luke takes R2D2 to his uncle’s farm. Others have tried and failed to steal Smaug’s treasure before Gandalf employs Bilbo as a thief. And the Capulets and Montagues have hated each other for generations. Incitement is more than a beginning. It is the moment when a grander story meets our protagonist(s).

There is nothing revelatory in what I’m saying here. You’ve heard versions of it before. I have chosen to focus this week’s post on it, though, because while most of us understand inciting events, and can even identify them in the works of others, we often have trouble choosing exactly where to place them in our own work. And yes, I speak from personal experience.

I am in the process of plotting the second book in my new supernatural thriller series. I know what needs to happen, and I even know what the inciting moment looks like. I’m struggling, though, to get there, to figure out where to begin the story so that we arrive at that event both quickly enough and slowly enough. Weird, right? But here’s the thing: I want my inciting moment to hook the reader, but I also want it to happen naturally enough that the reader understands the stakes and already cares about my protagonist.

With the first book in the series, the inciting moment presented itself clearly and with perfect timing. Other moments in the narrative gave me some trouble, but not this one. The idea for the series and that first book came to me with the incitement fully formed. This second novel focuses on different characters and has a more complex plot. Hence some of the trouble I’m having.

But the truth is, lots of writers struggle to begin their stories — short fiction or novel-length — at precisely the correct moment. In editing anthologies, I have noticed again and again that writers of every experience level can miss the mark now and then. The most common error is to begin too early, giving readers far more lead-in than they need to acclimate themselves to the story background, characters, and setting. And that’s all right. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “You know, you could begin this story here, on page 3 [for example] and cut or greatly condense everything that has come before.”

Less frequently, authors will begin their stories too late in the narrative arc’s development. I actually believe this is a professional’s mistake. There is a golf truism, that professional golfers miss putts long, and novices miss them short. Novices are afraid to be aggressive and so leave their putts shy of the hole, while pros understand that a firm putt has a much better chance of going in; usually when they miss the ball winds up past the hole. In the same way, beginning writers are sometimes afraid of giving their readers too little information, and so they often start their stories way earlier than they need to. Professionals aren’t afraid to withhold a bit of information early on, understanding that keeping readers in a constant state of discovery is a great way to keep them engaged. As I say, though, occasionally this leads pros to start things a little too late in the arc.

This, then, is the dilemma I’m grappling with now. I know better than to give my readers too much information early on, but I don’t want to give them too little by rushing my inciting moment. I have no doubt that I’ll figure this out — even now, I feel like I’m circling in on the right solution. But with this new novel on my mind, and recent edits of stories that faced both problems fresh in my memory, I thought I would address the issue here.

So how do we time our inciting moments for maximum effect? That is a good question with, I am afraid, no easy, formulaic answer. The best response I can offer is this:

It should come early — chapter 1 if at all possible — but it doesn’t need to be on the first page or even the first five. We do not need to explain everything to our readers before the inciting event occurs. I cannot stress that enough. Go back to the examples I offered up front — Star Wars, The Hobbit, Romeo and Juliet. We as readers/audience still had plenty to learn after the inciting events. We knew the bare outlines of the underlying conflicts (far less than that, actually, in The Hobbit), but we didn’t have the all the details we would need to understand the rest of the story. And that’s as it should be. On the other hand, by the time the inciting event occurs, we want our readers to care — about our world and the people in it. We want them to have formed some attachment to our lead character. We want them to have some small stake in the events we’re setting in motion.

Yeah, I know: That’s pretty vague. The truth is, locating the inciting events in our stories takes practice and experience. Sometimes it takes some guesswork. But the good thing is, Beta readers and editors can help us fine-tune the timing.

And now, I am going to get back to the opening of my new novel. I’ll keep you informed as I make progress, and I am sure I will encounter other challenges that inspire additional posts.

Until then, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Lessons From A Recent Edit

As part of my new Professional Wednesday format, I intend to tie advice posts to issues I am encountering “in the moment” with my own work. And so, today, I share with you a few insights that grew out of an editorial note I received from the marvelous Debra Dixon on the supernatural thriller I’ve recently sold to Belle Books.

Writers, myself included, sometimes “make” things happen to our characters, either for good or for bad, that are essential for our storylines, but not necessarily convincing in the natural flow of events. Put another way, sometimes we contrive things to happen because we need them to happen. This is one of those writing pitfalls that brings to mind the old Tom Clancy quote: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Real life is filled with coincidences, with random occurrences the timing of which could not be better (or worse), with odd little quirks that make us stop to take note of how strange/funny/ fortunate/terrible (pick one or more) the world can be.

But when we put such things into our books or short fiction, they seem to lack authenticity. “That’s too convenient.” “No one will believe this.” “This feels contrived.”

In my thriller, I had my two young protagonists, having just been separated from their mother, taken in by a couple who wind up helping them at potentially great cost to themselves. The circumstances of their encounter with this couple made perfect sense. But as Debra pointed out, the mere fact that the couple were willing to help, despite the danger — well, that strained credulity just a bit. Not a lot. I was almost there. But the couple’s backstory needed… something to make their choice more understandable.

First of all, this is a GREAT editorial note. This is just the sort of thing a developmental editor is supposed to notice and bring to a writer’s attention. As a writer, the note is both helpful and, yes, a little frustrating. I had worked hard to make the interactions believable, and, as Debra said, I almost succeeded. That I hadn’t meant more work, and changes that might upset the flow of the book. That, at least, was my initial reaction. Something along the lines of, “Well, crap. She’s right.”

As it turned out, the fix I came up with, far from upsetting the flow, deepened the story and the interactions between my protags and these two people they meet in the midst of their adventure. The backstory of the couple feels richer now. There is a poignancy to the entire encounter that makes everything around it better. As you’ve probably sussed out by now, I’m not going to tell you what I did. You’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

But I can tell you HOW I did it, and I can share with you a few lessons I draw from making these revisions.

First the “how.” I needed to build into the couple’s backstory a trauma that was somewhat related to what my heroes were experiencing, but not so similar as to raise new believability flags. That was fairly easy — the lives of my heroes are quite different from those of this couple. By the same token, though, all of them are human. They love and feel, they experience loss and tragedy and injustice. There were actually several directions I could have gone, and I chose one that was neither the most obvious nor the most complicated. Which, I suppose is a lesson in and of itself: When developing backstory, particularly for secondary characters, strive for the somewhat unexpected, but keep things simple.

Once I had decided on an approach, I didn’t simply blurt it out. I meted out the information in dribs and drabs throughout the pages that followed. The couple are “on stage” for only two or three chapters total, but that gave me plenty of time to build in the information. I hinted at it early and had one of the characters make a cryptic reference that put the history at the heart of their decision even before I explained that history fully to my reader. Finally, when the emotional payoff seemed likely to be greatest, I wrote my reveal, working the information into an exchange that served as the final button to a key scene. So that would be lesson number two: Give out information to your readers on a need-to-know basis. Don’t resort to data dumps, and don’t feel that your reader has to know every detail up front. Sometimes a slow reveal can be far more satisfying to the reader than having all that knowledge from the start.

As I said, this was a great editorial note, and like all great bits of editorial feedback, it improved my novel. It forced me to rethink an essential narrative element, and in doing so it strengthened my plot AND my character work. Which makes lessons three, four, and five really easy: Trust your editor. Be open to constructive criticism. And look at the editorial/revision process not as a burden, but as an opportunity to make the story you love even better than it already is. As I’ve written before, edits are part of the business. Accepting feedback is part of being a professional.

So in the end, I wound up with a better book, a more powerful way of getting my protagonists the help they needed, and, most important, a deepened appreciation of and trust in my new editor. I also reminded myself that at times withholding information from my reader, at least in the short term, can heighten the impact of the revelation when it finally comes.

I hope you found this helpful.

Keep writing!