Category Archives: Islevale Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

Both, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

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

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

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

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

What’s my point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: About That Professional News I Mentioned Two Months Ago…

Screen shot of Facebook postNearly two months ago, early in the new year, I posted on social media that I had some exciting professional news I couldn’t share quite yet. I was thrilled, and wanted to let people know. But I also didn’t want to say anything before all the details had been settled. So I posted my little teaser, forgetting the one immutable rule of the publishing business: Things always happen slower than one thinks they will.

Well, I can finally make the announcement official. I have signed and sent the contracts, and they are (or soon will be) back in the hands of my publisher.

I have signed a contract for a new trilogy with Belle Books.

What kind of trilogy?

I’ll tell you, but first some brief background. (Sue me: I’m a writer, so I always build suspense, and I’m a historian, so I always fill in backstory . . .)

A little more than a decade ago, in the summer of 2011, I found myself with nothing to write. We (my agent and I) had sold the Thieftaker books to Tor, and had turned in the first volume, but was waiting on revision notes. The year before I’d finished my Blood of the Southlands series and had also published the Robin Hood novelization. We were shopping the Justis Fearsson series, but sensed that the first book needed more work. And, frankly, I was not yet in a state of mind to tackle another rewrite on that front.

And so, with nothing else to do, I started something new. When I named the file folder on my computer desktop, I just called it “NewUF” (new urban fantasy). The book remained untitled for a long time.

The scene I first envisioned (not the first scene in the story) centered around a woman who wakes up from a night she can barely remember with a wound she feels but can’t see. She stumbles to the shower, but the pain only increases. At last she finds herself picking at skin that looks normal but feels rough and scarred. And suddenly blood is cascading down her side. She doesn’t know or remember why.

A little weird, right? Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Some books take form clearly and sequentially. Some introduce themselves piecemeal, like a jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the scene I’d imagined, but working backward from it I filled out the character of this woman, I sculpted her world, which is basically our world with a magical twist, and I built other characters around her.

The result was a contemporary urban fantasy steeped in Celtic mythology: two women, a Sidhe sorcerer and her human conduit, fighting off shapeshifting Fomhoire demons and their allies from the Underrealm, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

It sounds grim, and it also sounds a bit like other books we’ve seen before. It’s neither. Yes, there is some serious shit going down throughout the book, but there is also humor and there are lots of unexpected twists in both the magical underpinnings of the story and the narrative itself.

I wrote the book in about three months. And then I set it aside. I had final edits to do on Thieftaker and I needed to get started on Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in that series. I loved this other book I’d written, but I knew it was part of a larger project, and I didn’t know yet what to do with the next books in the sequence.

Thieftaker and its sequel did well. We sold the Fearsson series. And abruptly, I had more than enough work to keep me busy for a few years. But I certainly never forgot about my Celtic series, and a few years later, when I pulled the book out of the proverbial drawer, I reworked it, taking into account my agent’s editorial comments from that first draft, and all that I had learned since while writing the Thieftaker and Fearsson books. A couple of years after that, I took it out again and edited it some more. And finding myself once more with a bit of time, I started work on the second volume.

This second book built on what I’d done in book one, but the plot stalled at the 2/3 mark (as books often do) and, with other work to get done — now on the Islevale series — I put it away again.

And on it went. I returned to these books again and again, polishing book one to a high shine, eventually completing and then polishing book two, and finally developing an idea for the third book in the trilogy. By then we’d reached the middle of 2021. I was working on the Radiants series with an incredible publisher and editor, and I decided it was finally time to bring these books out of the drawer they’d been in and present them for possible publication. Which brings us to this post.

We don’t always know what will happen with the stories and books we write. The first book in this new Celtic urban fantasy has, at this point, been through five or six iterations and countless edits. It wasn’t ready in 2011. Not even close. But I believed in the idea, and I knew that with work I could make it into a publishable novel.

Sure, I have other books and stories that have never gone anywhere and probably won’t. I also have ideas like this one that are still awaiting their time.

Never give up on a story you love. Maybe it’s not ready yet. Maybe you haven’t figured out how to end it or where to take subsequent volumes. Maybe you’re not sure what it needs, but you know it needs something. Stick with it. Work on other things as well. Sometimes we need to confront stubborn ideas and stories head on. Sometimes we need to set them aside and let them percolate while we write other characters in other worlds.

I don’t yet know what to call this new series. When I know, you’ll know. The first book is titled Stone Bound. I expect it will be out later in 2022 or early in 2023. The second book is called The Demon Cauldron.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, Epilogue

This week I conclude my series of posts on how I came to be a professional writer. You can read the previous posts before moving on with this one. We’ll wait. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

There! Now you’re all caught up. Feel better?

I’m calling this an Epilogue, because it seems foolish to go through every step of my career, when much of it has been fairly public and thus easy to trace through my publications, reviews of my work, con appearances, social media and the like, and my own blog posts about various experiences. Far more valuable, I believe, will be a discussion of a few key points about what I have learned in my twenty-five-plus years as a professional.

I’ll start with this. Recently, while giving a talk to the Apex Writer’s Group, I was asked what I know now about writing that I wish I had known from the start. My answer: I wish I had known then that career trajectories are not linear, they are not smooth, they are not simple. I have said a thousand and one times that writing is hard. A couple of weeks ago I went on a little rant about how we writers should handle adversity without just giving up on the whole thing. But the fact is, I have contemplated quitting more than once. My career followed a nice, upward trajectory for a time, but then, due both to circumstances beyond my control, and to poor decisions I made myself, my march toward bigger and better things halted, stumbled, took a few steps back. My sales numbers dipped. I reinvented myself. Things improved, but then more events I could not control (and a few I could) knocked me back again. Things seemed to be righting themselves and then they fell apart once more, this time through no fault of my own.

Yes, this is vague. Some of the stories that have impacted my career are not mine to tell. Others are, but they involve me casting light on questionable behavior and choices by others and I won’t go there. Another lesson: This — fantasy, writing, publishing — is a relatively small community and we need to be careful about the stories we tell, the actions of others we expose, the decisions we question publicly.

And really, the specifics are beside the point. Because what I’m talking about — the unpredictability of one’s writing fate — is something nearly all writers experience. I know precious few authors whose careers have followed a smooth, ever-rising trajectory. Most of us are knocked on our butts again and again and again.

What separates the professionals who enjoy long careers from those who don’t is the willingness of the former to get up off their rear ends each time they’re knocked down. As I said, I have contemplated giving up multiple times. But I never did quit.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonI am not the most talented writer I know. Not by a long shot. I am good. I believe that. My character work is strong. My world building is imaginative. My prose is clean and tight and it flows nicely. I write convincing, effective dialogue and I have a fine eye for detail. My plotting and pacing, which were once just okay, have gotten stronger over the years. I think writing the Thieftaker books — being forced to blend my fictional plots with real historical events — forced me to improve, and that improvement has shown up in the narratives of the Islevale and Radiants books.

But there are plenty of other writers who do all those things as well as I do if not better. I have been helped throughout my career, though, by a few other qualities. I am disciplined and productive. I work every weekday and at least one day on weekends. I consistently hit my word counts and meet my project goals. I never miss a deadline. I have developed a thick skin — mostly — and have learned not to take to heart criticism and rejections and bad reviews. (Mostly.) I am resilient. And, with effort and practice, I have learned to take to heart the advice I often give to self-define success.

I’m writing and editing for small presses now. I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to the bigger ones. I love my current publishers, and see little need to switch back to the high pressure relationships I once had with big-name houses. I’m writing books I love, and that is, I believe, a key to being successful as I define the word. I don’t expect any one project to make me a ton of money, and that’s okay. I’m happier in my career right now than I have ever been. Partly this is due to my enjoyment of my relatively new career as an editor. This year will see the release of my fourth co-edited anthology with Zombies Need Brains. And I will also continue to expand my freelance editing business. At this point, I expect I’ll spend more time in 2022 editing than writing.

This is not at all where I envisioned myself when I started my career. Back then, I was filled with dreams of bestselling books and a shelf (or two) filled with World Fantasy Awards. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did hope my commercial performance, which has always been a bit disappointing, would match my critical success, which has always been a point of pride. The fact is, though, the business today is greatly changed from where it was when I began. Back then no one had ever heard of e-books. I built myself a web page when my first book came out, and just having a web page conveyed more legitimacy than the publication itself. Seriously.

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

It is a changed world, and it is also now a much harder market. An ever-growing universe of authors are seeking the attention of a fairly static universe of readers, meaning sales for each writer are harder to come by. Advances are smaller if they’re offered at all. Many authors are working harder and harder just to maintain a level of income that is, nevertheless, lower than it used to be. Commercial success means something different now than it did when I began. I count as a triumph the mere fact that I continue to get writing contracts.

I once thought I would reach a point where I stopped worrying that my career would tank, forcing me to give it up as a full time profession. I was disabused of that notion early on by a writer who was very successful and who told me, “Oh, you never stop worrying.” And it’s true. I have been able to continue writing full-time because my partner in love and life has a good job that provides not just the bulk of our income, but also our health care and retirement funds.

The hard truth is, on some level my mother was right when she and I had our big fight about whether I should teach history or write fantasy. As a history professor I would have made a decent living. I would have had job security, retirement accounts, health benefits. And yes, that would have been success as defined a certain way.

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

Again, I find myself struck by my good fortune. Throughout my professional life, I have had the luxury of pursuing a career I love and choosing to define my success not just in terms of earnings, but also in terms of joy. It’s a cliché, but there is no way to put a price tag — or a royalty statement — on that.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Cover Art and Why It Matters

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Last week, I was able to share with you the incredible art work for my upcoming novel, Invasives, the second Radiants book, which will be out February 18. And because I’m mentioning the art here, I have yet another excuse to post the image, which I love and will share for even the most contrived of reasons . . .

I have been fortunate throughout my career to have some really outstanding art work grace the covers of my novels. It began with my very first book, Children of Amarid, which had a striking wrap-around cover from artist Romas Kukalis. Romas did terrific work on the other two LonTobyn books as well, and also on the third, fourth, and fifth books of my Winds of the Forelands series (Gary Ruddell did books one and two), and the three volumes of Blood of the Southlands.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisFor the Thieftaker novels, Tor hired the incomparable Chris McGrath, who has also done the art for the Lore Seekers Press publications of Tales of the Thieftaker (the Thieftaker short story collection) and The Loyalist Witch.

And I have had amazing art for the Islevale Cycle books (Jan Weßbecher and Robyne Pomroy) and for the Radiants series (Debra Dixon). As I say, I’ve been astonishingly lucky.

But does it matter?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’re told. And as a saying using the proverbial book as metaphor for others things in life, it makes lots of sense. But as a practical and literal (as well as literary) matter, it’s advice we ignore all the time. Of course we judge books by their covers. We do it every day, and one reason we do it is that publishers use cover art to signal genre, story-type, the age of a book’s intended readers, and even the possible series relationship between one book and another. We are programmed to judge books by their jacket art, and we have been for a long, long time.

The truth is, having cool jacket art can be a tremendous boost for a book. Need proof? Hang out by a bookseller’s table in the dealers’ room at the next convention you attend, and see which books shoppers ignore, which they linger over, and which they pick up and open. Covers matter. People are drawn to the Thieftaker books for several reasons. The blend of history, mystery, and magic helps. But few potential readers would know even that much about the books if not for the allure of those Chris McGrath covers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The thing to remember about artwork, though, is that it’s not enough for the covers to be eye-catching. They also need to tell a story — your story. The Thieftaker covers work because they convey the time period, they offer a suggestion of the mystery contained within, and they hint as well at magic, by always including that swirl of conjuring power in Ethan’s hand. The Islevale covers all have that golden timepiece in them, the chronofor, which enables my Walkers to move through time. All my traditional epic fantasy covers, from the LonTobyn books through the Forelands and Southlands series, convey a medieval fantasy vibe. Readers who see those books, even if they don’t know me or my work, will have an immediate sense of the stories contained within.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that’s what we want. Sure, part of what makes that Invasives cover work is the simple fact that it’s stunning. The eye, the flames, the lighting in the tunnel. It’s a terrific image. But it also tells you there is a supernatural story within. And while the tunnel “setting” is unusual, the presence of train tracks, wires, electric wiring, and even that loudspeaker in the upper left quadrant of the tunnel, combine to tell you the story takes place in our world (or something very much like it). And for those who have seen the cover of the first book in the series, Radiants, the eye and flames mark this new book as part of the same franchise. That’s effective packaging.

When I started in this business, and was writing for big publishing houses, I had relatively little input on my jacket art. Sometimes that was frustrating. Other times, it was fortuitous: I had an idea for the cover of the first Thieftaker book that was nothing like what Chris came up with. Thank God they didn’t listen to me.

In today’s publishing world, with so many authors self-publishing or working with small presses, which tend to be far more open to involving authors in these sorts of decisions, we have greater control over what our books look like. We also face challenges that didn’t exist back when I was starting out. Today, a cover doesn’t just need to look good in hand. It also needs to convey a sense of the story, genre, series, and audience age in thumbnail form. It doesn’t just need to stand out on a table in a bookstore. It also needs to compete with a dozen or three dozen other thumbnails on a single web page. Effective art is more important now than ever.

And yet, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that a great cover is the silver bullet for book marketing. Not even the coolest image can help you if the book within is poorly written or sloppily edited. Sure readers might fall for that once, sold on the book by the great image. But they won’t be fooled a second time.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)In the same vein, poor marketing practices by a publisher, even if inadvertent, can doom even the most beautiful book. I LOVE the art for Time’s Demon, the second Islevale novel. But the novel came out when the publisher was going through an intense reorganization. It got little or no marketing attention, and despite looking great and being in my view one of the best things I’ve written, it was pretty much the worst-selling book of my career.

Yes, art matters. Good art attracts readers and brands our books. But we still need to write the best story we can. And we still have to bust our butts marketing the book once it’s out.

Keep writing!

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 Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

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

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

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

What is the point of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Book shelfAs I mentioned in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have a teaching gig coming up. I’ll be leading a couple of critique workshops, and this Saturday, I’ll be giving a long talk on writing epic fantasy. This opportunity came my way because someone mentioned to a mutual friend that the people running the program needed an epic fantasist, and this person thought of me.

I’m flattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The thing is, though, I don’t necessarily think of myself as an epic fantasy author.

At Boskone a couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel about historical fantasy and others forms of historical fiction. In fact, I am usually on at least one history panel at just about every convention I attend, whether in-person or virtual.

I don’t necessarily think of myself as a historical fiction author, either.

I can go through this same formulation with media tie-in work, with urban fantasy, with novels and with short stories. I can even apply it to my blog posts. Am I a political blogger? An advice and instruction blogger for aspiring writers? A social critic? A commentator on the arts?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The writers I know who are happiest tend to be those who are least easily defined by genre speciality. I have one friend — many of you know him — who has written thrillers, epic fantasy, middle grade, YA, science fiction, something approaching horror. He’s excelled at everything he’s tried, and he’s been a bestseller in more than one section of the bookstore. I have another friend — and many of you know her — who says that if writers haven’t had to re-invent themselves at least two or three times, they’re just not trying.

I have published twenty-four books. My twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, and possibly my twenty-seventh, will be out this year. Of these, eleven are epic fantasy, nine are urban fantasy, with five — soon to be six — of the UFs also qualifying as historicals. Three more are a hybrid of epic fantasy and time travel. Two are tie-ins. And two of the books coming out this year are supernatural thrillers, a genre I’ve never tried before now. I can divide up my short fiction publications — I have somewhere between twenty-five and thirty — the same way. I’m all over the place.

And that’s just how I want it. I would get bored writing the same thing all the time. I like jumping from epic to historical to contemporary and back to epic again. The variety keeps every project fresh.

I see too many young writers trying to define themselves by subgenre. I think some do it because the industry encourages a certain level of pigeon-holing. If we enjoy some success in one area, the market responds by saying, “That’s great! Do it again, only better!”

I would encourage you all to resist that pressure. Certainly if you want to keep working for a time in the same world, with the same characters, do so. I can hardly fault anyone for that, having set eight novels in the Forelands/Southlands universe, and having turned Thieftaker into a franchise of both short fiction and novel-length works.

But I would also urge you to experiment, to try different sorts of stories, to challenge yourself to write something outside your comfort zone. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be publishing supernatural thrillers. Five years before that, I would have told you that I had no intention of ever attempting to write a time-travel story, much less a trilogy. Seriously. That shit will make your brain explode. And yet…

And yet, the time-travel novels of my Islevale Cycle might be the best books I’ve written. The thriller coming out this spring/summer is a book of which I’m deeply proud. The sequel, which I’m writing now, is taking me in all sorts of cool directions. I’m having a blast.

And that’s sort of the point. As I said in last week’s post about my new approach to writing, I am working with the goal of enjoying my work, of taking satisfaction in what I do. This remains a very difficult profession. So write for the joy of it. Stretch, push yourself, take chances. You’ll improve your story telling. You’ll hone your prose. Most important, you’ll have fun.

So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure. But I do have this science fiction idea I’ve been toying with. And a pair of contemporary fantasies based on Celtic mythology. And a middle grade book that I’d like to get back to. And… and… and…

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

I have written about the holidays a good deal in the past few weeks, but I have yet to address holidays as a topic in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post.

Now, you’re first response to this might be, “Well, why would you?”

And my answer? “World building.”

Think about the holidays that mark our calendars. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur — these are events that reveal much about our faiths, about the histories and traditions of the religions that guide the lives of so many. Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day — these holidays carry meaning for our secular history, showing who and what we as a culture and society value year after year. Even Halloween and Groundhog Day, which are not holidays in any real sense of the word, offer glimpses into a pagan past that a small but significant part of our population still honors with celebrations marking Beltane, Samhain, Candlemas, the Solstices and Equinoxes.

Every culture and country has its special days, and every one of those special days comes with a story. Which is why the worlds we create for our novels and short fiction also need to have annual observances. Celebrations of this sort are something people do. They are one way of perpetuating the social norms and cultural touchstones that create communal identity. Holidays at their core, are all about story, about history and faith and tradition. And, as it happens, world building is about precisely the same things.

Seeds of Betrayal, by David B. Coe Weavers of War, by David B. CoeFor the Winds of the Forelands series (Rules of Ascension, Seeds of Betrayal, Bonds of Vengeance, Shapers of Darkness, Weavers of War) , I created what is without a doubt the most complex “calendar” I’ve ever undertaken for any project. For those of you not familiar with the world, I’ll give a very brief description. The world has two moons, Ilias and Panya, the Lovers, who chase each other across the sky. Each turn (month) has one night when both moons are full (the Night of Two Moons) and one night when both moons are dark (Pitch Night). Each turn is also named for a god or goddess, and so each Night of Two Moons and each Pitch Night has a special meaning.

For example, Adriel’s Turn (roughly equivalent to our May), is named for the goddess of fertility. According to lore, a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in her turn will last forever. A love consummated on Pitch Night will end in betrayal. Kebb’s Turn (roughly October) is named for the god of the hunt. People believe a successful hunt on the Night of Two Moons presages good hunting throughout the cold turns. Meat from a beast killed on Pitch Night is considered cursed and cannot be eaten. Each turn has similar legends, or in some cases actual phenomena: Pitch Night in Morna’s Turn (named for the goddess of thunder) is always a night of violent storms. The first killing frost in the Forelands almost always arrives on Pitch Night in Sivan’s Turn. Several Nights of Two Moons and several Pitch Nights are observed with prayer and/or gift giving.

These beliefs and traditions make for a much richer, more believable world. If my characters were to traipse through their year without any sort of holidays or occasions, readers might still be drawn in by the rest of my storytelling, but the world would feel flat, and far less interesting.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I did something similar for the Islevale Cycle novels (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, Time’s Assassin). In this world there are two primary deities, Kheraya (female) and Sipar (male), and the calendar is structured around them. It begins with the spring equinox — Kheraya’s Emergence, a day and night of enhanced magickal power and sensuality. The spring months are known as Kheraya’s Stirring, Kheraya’s Waking, Kheraya’s Ascent. The summer solstice is called Kheraya Ascendent, a day of feasts, celebration, and gift-giving. This is followed by the hot months of summer: Kheraya’s Descent, Fading, and Settling.

Sipar’s Emergence coincides with the autumn equinox, the pivot of the year, another day and night of sensuality and enhanced power. And then the pattern of the first half of the year repeats itself — Sipar’s Stirring, Sipar’s Waking, Sipar’s Ascent. These cooler months culminate in the solstice, called Sipar Ascendent, a day of fasting and contemplation. Finally, the year ends with the winter months: his Descent, Fading, and Settling.

In part, of course, I need a calendar for my worlds in order to organize my story. The Forelands books were sprawling and complex, with multiple narrative threads and point of view characters. I had to have a detailed calendar that allowed me to track all the stories and people. And with the Islevale books, which added time travel to the mix, I REALLY needed to know where and when I was in every chapter and on every page.

But my creative work on these calendars went far beyond what I would have required had I simply been interested in a utilitarian time structure. I wanted something that would enhance my storytelling, that would give my readers insights into these worlds and the people who inhabit them. Yes, they’re complex. That’s the fun part! That’s what made this element of my world building so exciting for me.

So as you think about the worlds you’re building, consider not only geography and climate, history and religion, weaponry and food. Think about holidays as well. Create a calendar that is completely endemic to your world. And then show your readers glimpses of it. You don’t have to let them see every detail. Likely that would be too much. It would drown out your story. Give your readers just enough to hint at all the great work you’ve done in the background. And take pride in knowing that you have taken one more step toward crafting a fully realized, intricate, living, breathing world.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Plotting Or Not — Doing Away With a Dumb Debate

This is my forty-second Writing-Tip Wednesday post of the year, and somehow I have gotten through forty-one posts without addressing that age-old writing question, “Do I or do I not outline?” Or put another way, “Plotter or pantser?”

First, a word on nomenclature. “Pantsing” and “being a pantser,” as in “writing by the seat of one’s pants,” have come to be seen by some as demeaning and denigrating terms. As if those who plot, who outline their books and stories ahead of time, are creating “the right way,” as opposed to those who “write organically,” who are just sort of winging it. Frankly, I hate ALL of these terms, because I think all of them make assumptions about process that are unfair and unsupported. This, to be honest, is why I have avoided this particular topic for most of the year.

Having used the term “pantsing,” I am going to avoid it for the rest of this post. Because I do agree that it sounds demeaning. I am also going to avoid the word “organic” when describing how people write, because I don’t think it applies to one side of the debate any more than to the other. Even those books I have outlined extensively have come to me “organically.” Neither side owns the term.

Two hundred words into the post, and already I’m exhausted. The Outline vs. Don’t Outline debate is one that inspires a good deal of passion on both sides. I have seen discussions of the topic break down into ugly arguments. And I believe this is because many of us, myself included, have in the past been far too prescriptive in articulating our positions. Too often, we have said, “This is how I do it, because this is the way it’s supposed to be done.” Again, I have been guilty of this myself. For a long, long time, I have self-identified as someone who outlines, as a plotter. Thinking about that now, I’m reasonably sure that I have never actually been that writer.

You’ve heard me say this before, but it seems especially important to repeat it now: There is no single right way to do any of this.

Full stop. Period.

I have friends who outline in great detail. Their outlines are pages and pages long. I know of writers who outline to such a degree that writing the book basically consists of filling in description and dialogue in order to turn their outlines into finished novels.

And I also have friends who don’t outline at all. Not a bit. They have an idea, they sit themselves in front of a keyboard, and they start to compose.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonThen there are people like me. Some books, I outline in a good deal of detail. The Thieftaker novels demand preparation of this sort because I am tying together fictional and historical timelines, trying to make my story meld with established events. The Islevale books — time-travel epic fantasies — should have demanded similar planning. But for reasons I still have not fully grasped, all three books defied my efforts to outline. I simply couldn’t plot the books ahead of time. I tried for months (literally) to outline the first book, Time’s Children, and finally my wife said, “Maybe you just need to write it.” Islevale compositeThat’s what I did, and the result was a first draft that needed extensive reworking. When I began book II, Time’s Demon, I ran into the same problem. I didn’t even try to outline Time’s Assassin, the third and final volume. I knew it would be a waste of time. All three books needed extensive editing, more than I usually need to do. But they wound up being far and away the finest books I’ve written.

Yet, I wouldn’t want to write future books that way. The process for all three was tortuous and frustrating, and I know I don’t HAVE to suffer through that in order to write successful stories.

The truth is, like so many writers, I work on an ever-moving continuum between the extremes of creating hyper-detailed outlines and not outlining at all. With some projects, I lean one way, with other projects I lean the other way. Neither approach is right or better. As with so much else in this craft, we have to understand that the exigencies of each project will shape our process. Let’s go back a moment to the writer friends I spoke of earlier. Even the most detail-oriented outliners I know admit that their outlines change as they move through a novel, because almost invariably something happens in the book that surprises them and takes them away from their original vision. And even the most outline-adverse writers begin with ideas of where they intend to do with their characters, their setting, their narrative. They might not write it down and color-code it, but they have a sense of what path their story will follow.

This debate has, for too long, shed far more heat than light. I have yet to meet a pure outliner OR a pure non-outliner. And I know precious few writers who would say they write all their novels exactly the same way. We reinvent ourselves and our process each time we begin a new project.

So, my advice to you is to not worry about whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, or how others define your approach. Write your book. Plan it to the extent you wish to. Dive into it when you feel you’re ready. You can always pause to outline if you need to. And you can always crumple up or burn or shred the outline you’ve already done. It’s your book. It’s your process.

Keep writing.