Category Archives: teaching

Monday Musings: Giving Clueless Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: The Power of Professional Friendships

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

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

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

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

And it was glorious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful week!

Monday Musings: Thoughts About My Upcoming Appearance at JordanCon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, have a great week!

Professional Wednesday: My Editing Journey

Earlier this week, in the closing entry to my “How I Started Writing” series, I had a kind of throwaway line about how I would likely spend more of 2022 editing the work of other people than writing my own fiction. By throwaway, I don’t mean untrue. I just didn’t give it much thought at the time.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierSince writing it, though, I have become sort of fixated on the idea. I am editing my fourth anthology, and already looking at the possibility of editing another. My freelance editing business is attracting a steady stream of clients — I’m booked through the spring and have had inquiries for slots later in the year.

I still identify as a writer. But these days, I am likely to add “and editor” to any description of what I do.

How the hell did this happen?

This is where I would usually insert some joke about crossing over to the Dark Side . . .

Editors and writers exist in an odd universe in which they are simultaneously involved in relationships of several sorts. They are mentor and student, with the editor helping the writer see things in their work they might otherwise miss. They are partners (ideally) working together to make the author’s manuscript as good as it can be and, quite often, doing their utmost to generate buzz around the book that will lead to sales and commercial success.

They also frequently find each other on opposite sides of a business relationship. Editors working for publishing houses are often responsible for making an offer on a book or series, and in those negotiations, writers and editors are not partners; they are, for lack of a better word, adversaries. Editors want contract terms that are as favorable to the publisher as possible. Writers seek to further their own interests. This is why agents play such a crucial role in the publishing business. It’s not just that agents know contracts and so can get writers better terms (though they do and can). Agents also take care of contract talks on behalf of writers so that writers and editors can (to some degree) preserve the good will so essential to a productive creative relationship.

Most writers I know — certainly the most knowledgeable and professionally savvy ones — understand that having a good editor, and being able to work well with that person, contributes enormously to their artistic and commercial success. Moreover, the opposite is also true: Having a poor relationship with one’s editor can be disastrous. And being stuck with an incompetent or hostile editor (yes, they exist) is even worse.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierI am not an acquiring editor. I do decide, along with my co-editor, whose stories will be in the anthologies I edit, so I suppose in that way I am determining the fate of submissions and, in a sense, “buying” manuscripts. But, for now at least, I don’t make decisions about the fate of novels, and so I don’t have to go toe-to-toe with agents. Good thing. They scare me. (Looking at you, Lucienne Diver.)

Most of what I do as an editor is focused on helping writers tease out the best story possible from the work they submit to me. My freelance work is all about this, which is one reason I enjoy it so much. Editing, in this sense, is not all that different from teaching, which I also enjoy immensely. I love the challenge of diagnosing manuscripts, figuring out what a story needs to shine even more than it already does. The best editors I have worked with are those who can make suggestions for improving my stories and novels without changing the nature of my storytelling or my prose. Again, without changing “the nature” of those things. It’s not that my work can’t be improved. On the contrary, nearly every editor I’ve worked with has made my work better with their input. But the best ones figure out how to do that while remaining true to my voice, my vision, my creative ambitions for the work in question. And that’s what I try to do when I edit.

I have had editors suggest changes to me that would have altered my work in ways I didn’t want, and I have resisted those changes. Thus, I always make clear to the writers I work with that my comments and edits are suggestions, nothing more. The story is theirs. My job is to point out all the ways in which I think the manuscript can be improved. But always it falls to the writer to decide what to do with that feedback.

And the best writers I know are those who can take creative criticism to heart without taking it personally. This is not easy to do. Early in my career, I was too sensitive, but even then I was also smart enough to delay my reactions to the edits I received. The second day, when I reread my editor’s comments, they stung a little less. And the third day, less than that. By the time I was ready to discuss the edits with my editor, I had whittled my objections to a relative few. Those I fought for, respectfully but firmly. The best editors I have had made their points, but ultimately respected my wishes.

I believe writing has made me a good editor. I know how it feels to be on the other side of the relationship, receiving that criticism. I know how to give feedback without wounding, and how to tailor my input to the vision of each author.

I also believe editing has made me a better writer. I now see many problems in my own work without needing to be told by a second reader — I can anticipate an editor’s comments. And I also am more cognizant than ever of the simple truth that my editors are my creative allies. They are doing their best to make me as good a writer as I can be.

So I embrace both roles. I have no intention of giving up writing for editing. Just as doing both jobs makes me more effective at both, I think at this point doing only one — either one — would leave me feeling unfulfilled.

Keep writing!

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

Today I continue my series of posts on how I got started in writing. (If you want to catch up, you can find the first post here, and the second post here.) The subtitle of this collection of posts is “A Case Study of Dubious Worth,” and today we really begin to delve into the dubious side of things. So read on, and prepare to disregard everything I have to say . . .

When we left off last week, I was in college still, having abandoned my plans to major in creative writing, because of A) a crappy experience in a creative writing course, B) my parents’ rather trenchant observation about the lack of earning power for Brown graduates with BAs in creative writing. I graduated with my degree in American Studies, worked briefly for a political consultant I’d interned with the previous summer, and applied to Ph.D. programs in U.S. history. I loved the subject and thought I could satisfy my passion for writing by being a historian.

I was wrong.

Yeah, I know: spoiler.

I could take you through my grad school experience, which was hard, but also rich with amazing people, academic challenges and epiphanies, and the beginning of the love relationship that would shape the rest of my life. But here are the salient points. First, writing history wasn’t my calling. Yes, I love the act of writing. But it turns out I also love creating characters and plot lines and even imaginary worlds. And apparently you can’t do that with history and expect to get tenure. Who knew? Second, while writing my dissertation was not at all like writing fiction, I did learn a tremendous amount from the process, because, once again, I had a fantastic teacher. My advisor at Stanford was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy. He was a remarkable, exacting mentor whose high standards and generous feedback improved immensely my prose and narrative skills.

I knew before finishing my degree that I was on the wrong professional path, but I felt stuck — I had devoted years of my life to getting my Ph.D. How could I change course now? — and I was determined to complete my doctorate no matter what. So finish it I did, in May 1993. I figured I would apply for academic jobs in the coming academic year (1993-94) and see how I felt about whatever offers I received.

By this time, Nancy and I were married, and she had taken a job teaching biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee. Soon after I completed my degree, she said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. “Since the day I met you,” she told me, “you’ve talked about wanting to write a novel. The first history jobs won’t be posted until the fall. You have all summer. Why don’t you try writing and see if you enjoy it?”

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I did just that. I started with some short stories that have never since seen the light of day, but which helped me to shape the contours of my world and its history. Then I began work on the novel, and by September had completed the first five chapters of what would eventually be Children of Amarid, my first published novel. I gave the manuscript to a friend of the family who had been a publisher, and he agreed to act as my agent, operating under standard agenting fees. He sent those five chapters and an outline of the rest of the book to various fantasy publishers.

In the meantime, I began my history job search and found a listing for a tenure track position at Colorado State University teaching U.S. environmental history. I took the listing to Nancy and said, “This is my job. This is the one I’m going to get.” It was a perfect fit, and Colorado was a place we’d dreamed of living. If I was destined to teach history, this was the job for me.

And sure enough, I interviewed for the position at that year’s American Historical Association Conference, had an on-campus interview early in 1994, and on a Thursday in March received a call from the chair of the history department, who offered me the job.

Again, this was my perfect history job. I should have leapt at the offer. But the thought of doing so made me nauseous. For the past several months, even as I applied for history jobs, my thoughts had been on that manuscript floating around the halls of New York’s big fantasy publishing houses. That was the future I wanted. That was my dream.

I asked the chairman of the Colorado State history department if I could have until Monday to give him an answer. He said yes, reluctantly.

The next day — yes, that’s right: the next day — I got a call from an editor at Tor Books. He had read my chapters and wanted to buy the publishing rights to Children of Amarid.

And for this week, I’m going to stop there, with my 31-year-old self contemplating this improbable confluence of my two professional paths. We’ll pick up the story next week with the decision I faced that fateful weekend.

In the meantime, a few points to emphasize. As I said, this is the part of my story where the dubious worth of my experience really becomes obvious. The industry has changed so very much in the past thirty years. My friend who served as my agent was not licensed in that capacity. He was a publishing bigwig. People in the industry knew his name. And he and his wife were my parents’ dearest friends in the world. I was SO lucky in this regard. Having an agent at all was a huge advantage — having HIM for my agent was even better. I’m not sure that in today’s world that sort of informal arrangement would even be tolerated.

Moreover, in today’s publishing world there is also no way in hell that I could sell a novel based on five chapters and an outline. It’s laughable even to contemplate. I was a first time novelist with no fiction credits to his name. Yes, I had completed my Ph.D. and so could point to that as proof that I was capable of writing a book-length manuscript. But that hardly qualified me as a novelist.

As it happened, though, the Tor editor who read my chapters had recently bought and edited a book called Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind, which was a runaway bestseller. After that, Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, told my editor that he was free to buy the next book he found that he thought had potential. My editor had once worked for my agent and so the next book to land on the editor’s desk was mine. He liked it, thought it could be good. But if Goodkind’s book hadn’t struck gold, he might not have been free to make the offer on Children of Amarid. If my agent had known a different editor, that person might not have had the freedom to take a chance on an inexperienced unknown like me. And yes, it also bears mentioning that every person in this little story — the agent, the editor, the publisher, the bestseller, and the young writer — was a white man. I was helped enormously by my privilege and that of the people around me.

All this by way of saying that I was fortunate beyond words in every respect.

Don’t get me wrong: That first book was good, as were the volumes of the LonTobyn Chronicle that came after. They were strong enough to eventually win the Crawford Award as the best fantasy series by a new author. Despite my lack of experience, I knew how to write, how to tell a story, how to create compelling characters.

But my career path was charmed, and I trod it at a time when it was far easier to break into the business.

Next week, I’ll trace the early growth of my writing career. In the meantime, have a great week.

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

Last week, in the first of what I expect to be a three or four part series on how I got started in writing, I posted about my early creative efforts and the teachers who were so influential in encouraging and inspiring me. I titled that first installment “A Case Study of Dubious Worth” and I think the title holds for this week as well. This entire exercise — the writing and posting of these essays — might be interesting, I certainly hope it’s entertaining, but I’m not at all sure how illustrative it will be or whether it’s at all relevant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty old, and the world is a different place from what it was when I was getting started. And yet, I continue . . .

My last semester in high school, I was in a creative writing workshop class, taught by one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned last week (Phil Restaino), and populated by a remarkable, talented, close-knit group of fellow students. Many of them remain friends to this day. What I wrote in that class was, overall, pretty mediocre. But I learned so much about writing, about the creative process, about critiquing others and building a safe, productive space for having those intimate, at times difficult conversations.

My Brown graduation pic.

And so I went off to college thinking I would be a creative writing major, and fully expecting that I would find at Brown University a similarly nurturing creative environment.

[Cue sound of screeching brakes…]

Talk about rude awakenings.

Even then, I knew I wanted to write fantasy, and I had an idea for a novel. This idea would eventually morph into Children of Amarid, my first published book, which won the Crawford Award, but this early incarnation was a long, long, long way from that finished product. It was not very good. I know this. But that doesn’t excuse what I encountered in the very first creative writing class I took at Brown. Our professor was a writer of stature, well known in academic fiction circles. I’m willing to believe that early in his career he was a fine teacher. When I had him, he was a year or two away from retirement. His classes meandered, and he left most of the important work, including the facilitation of the critique sessions, to his graduate assistant.

But he did make clear that, in his view of the world, there was “Literary Fiction,” and then there was the genre stuff that didn’t really count because it was, well, genre stuff. And so, perhaps taking their cues from him, or perhaps responding to the fact that my work still needed a good deal of refinement, my fellow students savaged my manuscripts in the critique sessions. No one had taken time to teach our class the rudiments of critiquing. There was no “start with what’s good, move to what needs work, return to what is good and can be built upon.” There was just “this is bad.” After the wonderful experience I had in that high school workshop class, I found the experience devastating.

I should say that I did get one bit of good advice from that class. It came from the graduate assistant, who was unable to steer the critique discussion, but who went out of her way afterward to assure me there were strong elements to my writing, my storytelling, and even my world building. And she said, “I know that session was hard, but don’t retreat into rewrites. Keep moving forward with your book and revise these early chapters when you’re finished.”

It was, and still is, sound advice for any writer, and to this day I offer it to writers I work with. But the fact is, the graduate assistant’s kindness and wisdom were not enough to overcome the negative experience. I never took another workshop class at Brown. I did continue thinking maybe I would be a creative writing major, but I moved away from fiction toward journalism, where I had some better experiences. Sadly, though, that terrible first class pushed me away from writing fiction for a decade.

As I say, I was still thinking about a creative writing major as I began my sophomore year. But then I had a conversation with my mom and dad. Now, as I mentioned last week, my parents were very supportive of my writing. They were also my mom and dad and they worried a creative writing major would have little or no value in the real world. So they gently but persistently encouraged me to channel my interest in writing toward something more practical. Looking back, I am not sure how wise their advice was, but at the time, I found it compelling. I liked nice guitars and nice stereo equipment, and I had figured out that those things cost money . . .

I wound up choosing as my major American Studies, an interdisciplinary program combining (among other things) literature, political science, and history. I found these subjects and their intersections quite interesting, and, to my delight, I found as well that all my classes in the field were writing intensive. By the end of my second year at Brown, I was on the trajectory that would lead me to get my Ph.D. in history.

More on that as I continue this story next week.

But here are the most important things I would like you take away from this post. First, a badly run writing workshop, one in which critiques are done without sensitivity, without compassion, without pairing encouragement with criticism, can do irreparable harm to the aspirations of beginning writers. Dreams are powerful, but they can also be fragile. And just as last week’s post emphasized the importance of pedagogical excellence, this week’s ought to highlight the potential harm that can come of slipshod and lazy teaching.

Second, the literary prejudice that favors “literary” fiction over other sorts of storytelling is as poisonous as it is misguided. Writing is hard, whether our stories are about our world or another, whether they are firmly rooted in realism and “now” or imbued with magic and cast in different timelines. Quality work can be found in any genre; so can mediocrity. And lest we forget, some of the best and most important writing happening today is being done by writers in fantasy and science fiction. Ask N.K. Jemisin.

And third, stuff happens for a reason. I truly believe this. Yes, I was discouraged from writing fiction by a bad class and also by my parents’ overly developed sense of what was pragmatic. It would be easy for me to look at the changing trajectory of my life during my college years, and look as well at where I am now, and decide I had wasted that decade of my life when I didn’t write any fiction at all. But if I hadn’t gone to graduate school in history, I would have missed out on academic training that taught me so much about crafting prose, about doing research, about writing with discipline. If I hadn’t gone to grad school in history, where I developed a real interest in the American Colonial Era, I doubt I would have wound up writing the Thieftaker books. Most important, if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I never would have met Nancy and I wouldn’t have my two brilliant, beautiful daughters.

So maybe that class I hated so much was the best thing that ever happened to me.

More next Monday.

In the meantime, have a great week.

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

I’m often asked how I became an author, and by way of answering, I point to a book I wrote when I was all of six years old — “Jim, the Talking Fish.” Written and illustrated by yours truly, bound between two pieces of blue construction paper and tied with yellow yarn, it was my first novel. I crack a few jokes about the “book,” but then make clear that so early in my life, storytelling was already in my blood. What I usually leave out, for brevity’s sake, is that this was hardly the only book I wrote, illustrated, and bound at that age. There were several. I don’t talk about those others, because I can’t remember all the salient details.

There’s something else I leave out as well, and I really shouldn’t. Ever.

I wrote those books because I had a first grade teacher who encouraged me, and all of my classmates, to write. To create. To dive into our imaginations and explore. And I kept on writing because all through elementary school, and middle school, and high school, I had opportunities to write. I had teachers who encouraged us to write, who required us to write. And not just reports and such. We were required to write fiction, or to write about ourselves, or to journal.

When I was in seventh grade, I was in a team-teaching program at my middle school. Five teachers taught a group of about 100 students on a rotating basis. We were divided into classes of twenty, and we were with our cohort throughout the day, moving among the team of teachers, who covered English, Social Studies, Math, Science, and French. It was an amazing program. All the teachers were excellent. And for the second half of the school year, we 100 students were assigned to keep a journal as part of our regular homework. We could write whatever we wanted, but we had to write pretty much daily.

I still have the journal I kept that semester, in its original folder. I wrote poetry. I wrote about my life. But mostly I wrote stories. Every night before bed, I would put on my favorite music, and write for a half hour, or forty-five minutes, or, if a story really took hold of me, an hour. On some of those nights, my mother or father would come into my room wanting to know why I was still up. And seeing that I was writing, they would quietly retreat from my room and let me keep working.

That’s another thing I tend to leave out when asked about how I got started. I became a writer, in part, because when I was young my parents encouraged me. They loved my stories and kept nearly everything I wrote throughout grade school. They also held on to that journal.

My public high school, in our admittedly privileged town in the suburbs of New York City, was remarkable in many respects, and we had great teachers in many subjects. But no academic department was more impressive than our English Department. Starting my sophomore year, I had one outstanding teacher after another, including one man of incredible energy and passion and creativity who taught every one of us Coe kids — from my oldest sibling, my brother Bill, to me — spanning an age gap of fifteen years. All of those amazing teachers, who I name here — Duke Schirmer, Rose Scotch, Michael DiGennaro, and Phil Restaino — because they deserve to be named, encouraged us to write and spent as much time critiquing our prose as they did the substance of what we wrote. They held us to exacting standards, but did so with humor and compassion and a sense of mission that made us appreciate the importance of the written word.

I write because I love it, because I’ve been passionate about crafting stories for as long as I can remember. And because when I was young, the most important adults in my life — my parents and my teachers — encouraged to me to feed that passion, to follow it wherever it might lead me (to a point — more on that in next week’s post).

Today, we live in a world driven by science and technology, and the recognition of this has, by necessity, changed so much about how we educate our children. Math and science have taken primacy in school curricula. Language skills remain important, of course. But the arts have become afterthoughts. We also live in a time when school budgets have been slashed and teachers and school administrators alike have seen their opportunities for career advancement shackled to student performances on standardized tests. Education professionals have no choice but to devote more and more time to preparing students for those tests, leaving less and less room for passion and creativity in American classrooms.

I believe this is a tragedy, and I hope for a day when test scores will cease to matter so much, and once more students will have ample time during their school day to write — and paint and sculpt and sing and play instruments and act and dance. I fear, though, that this day will be a long time in coming. In the meantime, in today’s education environment, even the most dedicated of teachers will be hard pressed to do for their students all that my teachers were able to do for me in a simpler time. And so it falls to us, as parents, friends, and mentors, to support and inspire the next generations of young creators.

Without such people spurring me on in my youth, I would not be an author today, and I assure you I’m not alone in that regard.

Have a wonderful week.

 

Creative Wednesday: Communicating Our World Building To Our Readers

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

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

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

What do I mean by this?

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.

Book shelfAs you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…

But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.

No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.

For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?

I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.

I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.

That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.

I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.