Category Archives: Thieftaker Chronicles

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…

Thieftaker Cover Reveal! THE LOYALIST WITCH

I shared this with subscribers to my newsletter and Facebook Group on Tuesday, along with another in a series of teasers from the new Thieftaker project.

Now, here for all to see, is the artwork for the new Thieftaker novellas (written under the D.B. Jackson pen name). The artist, of course, is the wonderful Chris McGrath, who has done the art for just about every Thieftaker project, and who continues to do just magical things with the world and character.

The new project is called THE LOYALIST WITCH — THIEFTAKER, FALL 1770, and it consists of three novellas: “The Witch’s Storm,” “The Cloud Prison,” and “The Adams Gambit.” The novellas will be released by Lore Seekers Press, and though we don’t yet have a firm release date, I can tell you that we are in the final stages of production, and I expect the first novella to be out sometime in the next couple of months.

Each novella will be released as an e-book, and then the three will be combined in an omnibus that will be released in both digital and paper formats.

And now, without further ado, here is the art! I am sooooo excited…

Thieftaker: The Loyalist Witch, Jacket Art by Chris McGrath

 

Creative Friday: Story Excerpt!

For today’s Creative Friday post, I offer a teaser from my short story, “The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr,” which will be appearing in the DERELICT anthology that I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier (to be published by Zombies Need Brains). The story is set in the Thieftaker universe and, of course, stars Ethan Kaille, my thieftaking, conjuring hero.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt!

 

“The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr,”
©2021 D.B. Jackson

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, 11 May 1767

Ethan Kaille limped northward on Treamount Street, newly earned coin jangling in his pocket, his mood far brighter than that of the grim men and women he passed on the damp, slush-covered lane. His jaw ached from a blow he’d taken from Nigel Billings, a blond-haired behemoth in the employ of Sephira Pryce, Boston’s most infamous thieftaker. He didn’t care. Nor did he mind the chill wind whipping across the city, or the low, dark clouds scudding overhead.

He had bested Sephira, collected his coin, and succeeded in delivering a punch or two to Nigel before putting the man to sleep with a conjuring. Now he was headed to the Dowsing Rod, the tavern owned and operated by his love, Kannice Lester, so that he might spend a bit of his hard-earned money on the finest chowder and Kent ale the city had to offer. All in all, a fine day.

Upon entering the tavern, he was greeted by the warmth of a grand fire in the great room hearth, and the aromas of bay and warm cream, roasted fish and baked bread. A few patrons stood at the bar drinking flips and ales, and others sat at tables near the fire, but the Dowser wouldn’t be full for another few hours.

Kelf Fingarin, Kannice’s hulking barman spotted Ethan as he walked in and had already filled a tankard for him when he reached the bar.

“Chowder, too, Ethan?”

“Aye, thanks. I’ll be at my usual table in the back.”

“Right. Kannice’ll be out shortly. She’ll want to see you.”

Ethan frowned. “That sounds ominous.”

“You had a visitor earlier. She can tell you more.”

More mysterious by the moment. Ethan set a shilling on the bar and carried his ale to the back. He hadn’t been seated long when Kannice emerged from the kitchen, accompanied by Kelf, a tureen of chowder held between them. She wore a deep blue gown, which brought out the pale azure of her eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, her auburn hair tied back, though as always a few strands flew free and fell over her brow.

Kelf said something to her and she glanced Ethan’s way, a smile on her lips. Matters couldn’t be all that dire.

The barman brought Ethan his chowder, while Kannice retreated to the kitchen again. She soon returned bearing rounds of bread, one of which she brought to his table. Placing it before him, she stooped and kissed him, her hair smelling faintly of lavender, a hint of whisky on her breath.

She sat in the chair adjacent to his. “I didn’t expect to see you here so early.”

“I had a good day.”

Her eyes fell to his jaw, which, no doubt, had already begun to darken. Ethan meant to heal himself before entering the tavern.

“Why do all your good days consist of beatings at the hands of Sephira Pryce’s ruffians?”

He grinned, winced. The skin around the bruise felt tight and tender. “In fairness, not all of them do. You and I have passed some very pleasant days without laying eyes on Sephira or her toughs. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

A reluctant smile crept over her features. “You found the gems you were seeking.”

“Aye, and was paid handsomely for their return.”

“And now you have a bit of coin to spend on me?”

“On you, on my rent, on the excellent chowders served here at the Dowsing Rod.”

“Well, I’d like a bit more spent on me.” She pulled from her bodice a folded scrap of paper, and held it out for him. When he reached for it, she pulled it back beyond reach. “Promise me.”

His smile returned. “I promise that all the coin—” He frowned. “Or at least most of the coin I make as a result of whatever you’ve scrawled on that parchment you’re holding, will be spent on you.”

Eyes narrowed, she handed him the paper. He unfolded it and read what was written in her neat, slanted hand.

James Hambly. Shipwreck. The Sarah Mohr. 7 tonight.

“Was it Mister Hambly himself who came?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice flattening. “Do you know him?”

“Not even by reputation. And the Sarah Mohr…”

“A ship, carrying goods in which he has a stake. He wouldn’t say more than that.” Her voice remained emotionless.

“You didn’t like him.”

She stared at her hands. “I barely spoke to him.”

“Kannice.”

“No, I didn’t like him.” She met his gaze. “He struck me as the sort of merchant who would have defied the non-importation agreements, and who cares only about the weight of his own purse. He said not a word about the ship’s crew. Only her cargo.”

“He came to a thieftaker. It’s my job to recover items, not sailors. And lest you forget, if I were a merchant, I might defy the agreements, too. It’s what Tories do.” He softened this last with a smile.

“Well, you’re not a merchant, and if I have anything to say about it, you won’t be a Tory for much longer.” She stood, then bent to kiss him again. “He’ll be back here at seven. If I’d known you were coming in so early, I’d have told him to arrive sooner.”

“No matter. Thank you.”

He ate his chowder and sipped his ale, trying to recall all that he had heard of James Hambly, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. The man lived in Newport or Providence—Ethan couldn’t remember which—and he had made a name for himself selling quality goods. He catered to the sort of clientele Sephira Pryce would have claimed as her own in her competition with Ethan: the prosperous and renowned. Likely, the goods lost with his ship would fetch a fair price, and that meant Ethan could demand a substantial fee for their recovery.

Why, though, would Hambly need him? Given the resources at his disposal, couldn’t he salvage the vessel and its contents on his own? And wasn’t this just the sort of job Sephira insisted should belong to her? Ethan’s jaw ached at the thought.

He finished his meal, and with hours left before the appointed time, left the Dowser for Boston’s waterfront. He hadn’t been at sea for many years, since his return from the prison plantation on Barbados where he served time for mutiny and lost part of his left foot to gangrene. Still, he knew a few men who worked the wharves, and had long been friendly with an old sea captain, Gavin Black, who, like Ethan, was a conjurer.

He learned little from the wharfmen with whom he spoke. They knew no more about Hambly than he did. His conversation with Gavin, however, proved more fruitful, though not particularly illuminating.

“Yeah, I know Hambly,” Gavin said, as he and Ethan strolled along Fish Street near Burrel’s Wharf. From his tone, Ethan gathered that he was no more fond of the merchant that Kannice had been. “I even transported cargo for him for a time. It’s been a few years now.”

“Is there a reason you stopped?”

Gavin glanced his way, his expression guarded. “I didn’t like what he had me carrying. I won’t say more than that.”

“Fair enough. Do you know anything about the Sarah Mohr?”

Surprise widened his eyes. “The Sarah Mohr is Lewis Gaine’s ship. Why, what’s happened to her?”

“Apparently she was wrecked. I don’t know where yet. When I learn more, I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you, Ethan. I’m grateful.” He hesitated. “As for the cargo I handled for Hambly—it was…” He shook his head. “I never should have agreed to it. It wasn’t illegal, but I’m ashamed nevertheless. I’m sorry for speaking to you the way I did.”

“You owe me no apologies.” Ethan halted and proffered a hand, which Gavin gripped. “Thank you for your time, Gavin. I’ll be in touch when I can.”

Ethan left him by the wharves and headed back to the Dowsing Rod. The last of the recent storm had moved through, and the sun hung low in the west, golden rays streaming through layers of thick, gray cloud. A stiff wind still blew, and the air had turned cold—winter’s last gasp.

The Dowsing Rod was far more crowded when Ethan returned. Still, Kannice spotted him as he entered and cast a glance toward a lone man seated at a table near the hearth. Hambly, Ethan assumed.

As he approached the table, the man glanced up, then stood. He was about Ethan’s height, with dark eyes in a square, handsome face. Flecks of silver salted a head of dark curls. He wore a dark blue suit. A tricorn hat, in far better condition than Ethan’s rested on the table beside a cup of Madeira.

“Mister Kaille?”

“Yes, sir. Mister Hambly, I assume.”

“That’s right.”

They shook hands, and at a gesture from the merchant Ethan lowered himself into the opposite chair.

“I won’t waste your time,” Hambly said. “I have it on authority that you’re good at your work, you’re honest, and you’re discreet. That last is most important to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I also understand…” He faltered, looked around to see that no one was listening, and leaned in. “…That you are a man of diverse talents, if you catch my meaning.”

Indeed, Ethan did. Hambly needed help with something magickal, and someone had told him Ethan was a conjurer. No wonder he had chosen Ethan over Sephira. Ethan didn’t like the idea of strangers discussing his conjuring abilities. Spellers were still hanged as witches in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and Ethan had no desire to wind up with a noose around his neck.

On the other hand, his talents appeared to have earned him this job, whatever it might entail, so he couldn’t complain too much.

“How can I be of service, sir?”

This was all the confirmation Ethan intended to offer, and Hambly seemed to take it as such.

“I hired a ship to bring some goods up to Newport. Valuable goods.”

“The Sarah Mohr.”

“Just so. Unfortunately, the storm that battered the region over the past few days blew her off course, and rather than making port, she ran aground between Newport and here, on the shoal near Point Alderton.”

“South of Hull.”

“That’s right.”

“And where was she coming from?”

“She had followed the coastline north.”

This wasn’t exactly what Ethan asked.

Seeing his frown, Hambly hurried on. “Where she was coming from doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she beached. Several of her crew were injured. Some were killed.”

“And Captain Gaine?”

The merchant considered Ethan anew. “You’ve done your research. I suppose I should be impressed.” He straightened. “Gaine suffered a broken leg, and was borne to safety by the fittest among his crew. He should be fine. The ship itself is my primary concern.”

“She remains on the shoal?”

“For now. I fear a strong tide could pull her back out to sea, crewless and at the mercy of the surf. The night after tomorrow, the moon will be full. A spring tide could cost me dearly.”

“I believe I understand. But I’m curious as to why the uninjured crew can’t go back to salvage your cargo.”

“Forgive me, Mister Kaille, but you understand nothing.”

Ethan bristled. “Then, by all means, enlighten me.”

The merchant lifted a hand. “Forgive me. I phrased that poorly. But you see, I don’t need you to salvage the ship. As you say, Captain Gaine’s crew will see to that. Right now, though, they are being prevented from doing so.”

“Prevented? By what?”

He leaned in again. “Ghosts.”

 

Professional Wednesday: Creativity and the Market

As a professional writer — as a professional in the arts — I take on several career roles. I am an artist, of course. I create. I am an editor, and not just in the traditional sense of editing the work of others, as I’m doing now for the Derelict anthology. I also have to edit myself. All the time. Anything I publish will face edits from another editor, but first my work has to get through my own editorial process, which is fairly rigorous.

I am also a business professional. I make career decisions on a weekly-if-not-daily basis, often in consultation with my agent, but not always. Most short fiction projects don’t involve an agent, and the same is true of some projects that I put out through small presses or that I might publish myself.

And, of course, I am responsible for a good deal of my own marketing and publicity. Maintaining this blog, and the websites on which it appears, keeping up with social media, etc. — all of this is time consuming and absolutely essential to my career.

Most of the time, I can fulfill each of these roles without my actions in one coming into conflict with my actions in another. Most of the time. But what about those few occasions when there are conflicts of a sort? What do I do then?

I’m often asked whether my publishers have pressured me to write a book a certain way in order to have more marketing appeal, or (related) whether I have ever had a publisher tell me to write a certain type of book. And the short answer is no. I have worked with many editors on my various series, and (as I mentioned last week) all of them have been very clear in saying that my books are, well, MY books. I retain final creative control over how the books are written. Editors may make suggestions designed to improve the book, but these are suggestions and in the end decisions about content are mine to make.

That said, though, I have throughout my career received suggestions that were designed to maximize the marketability of a book or series. Again, the decision has always been mine to make, but marketing suggestions often come with what we might call “implied incentives.”

“If you do it this way, you may well sell more books and make more money.”

Some of these choices are huge in scope. How huge? Well, when I first pitched the Thieftaker series, I envisioned it as an epic fantasy, set in an alternate world. My editor at the time suggested that turning it into a historical would make it more marketable, and, he added, if I did so Tor would be able to give me a bigger advance. He suggested I set the books in London. I didn’t want to do that, but once I started thinking about it as a historical, I hit on the idea of setting the series in Boston. And, as they say, the rest is history… [Rimshot]

At other times, the artistic/marketing choices are more subtle. And that brings us to the immediate inspiration for this post. I am starting the edits on a supernatural thriller that I have recently sold to a small press. The first book in the series is complete, and I love it. But I have been aware from the very start that the book will not be easy to market. It’s a thriller, intended for adults, but it has a teenaged protagonist and a few elements that convinced my agent we should market the book as a YA thriller. I wasn’t sure about this, but she was, so that was how we pitched it to publishers.

Well, a publisher bought the book, and the series, but like me, the publisher sees the book as an adult thriller and has asked me to make some changes that she feels will make the marketing of the book easier. Her initial suggestions struck me as too drastic, and so we talked and have reached a compromise that satisfies our shared marketing concerns while also preserving my original concept for the book and overall project.

And this is really the point of today’s post.

As an artist, I have in mind a plot, a set of characters, a setting, a tone and pace and voice for the book. I am committed to that initial vision, and certainly will follow it as I write and revise the first iteration. Once we transition from the creative impetus to the actual marketing of the book, though, the business side of my professional brain kicks in a little. I will not jettison my creative vision for money. Not ever. But I also will not — cannot — allow my adherence to a creative vision to undermine a book’s commercial viability. My goal as writer is to put out the best product I can, and to make a living. So, I will strive to find a balance between respecting my creative efforts and working with the publishing professionals who have agreed to put out my book, and who are skilled in the marketing side of the business.

Writing is my art. It’s my profession. It’s my source of income. I’m not interested in preserving my amateur status in order to make the literary Olympics. I want to write, and I want to make money doing it. In order to be satisfied, not only with my work, but also with the results of that work, I need to blend my roles and get the most out of each project — creatively and financially.

That’s what it means to be a professional.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: A Ton of News, and Organizing My Time

Welcome to my new Wednesday blogging feature, Professional Wednesdays. As some of you may remember, back around Thanksgiving I asked you for advice on the future of my midweek posts. My Writing-Tip Wednesdays were well received throughout 2020, but by the end of the year I was struggling to come up with new advice topics. I became convinced that I couldn’t sustain that old format for another year without repeating myself.

What I suggested in that Thanksgiving week post was a new, related feature — Professional Wednesdays — that would combine a few disparate ideas: a professional journal discussing current projects and struggles and epiphanies; more generalized musings on the market, the craft, and others elements of creative life; a few advice posts, as I think of topics I failed to cover in 2020; and my responses to the storytelling components of books, movies, TV shows, and other artistic endeavors I encounter.

This catch-all idea for the blog received a lot of enthusiastic support from those of you who commented, and so here we are. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing with you all sorts of posts touching on professional issues, creativity, and “behind the scenes” looks at my own works-in-progress as they develop. I hope you enjoy this new approach to my Wednesday posts.

To start off 2021, I would like to share with you some news and how it relates to something I did on New Year’s Day — something I do every New Year’s Day.

Let’s start with the news. 2020 was a fairly quiet year for me professionally (no, THAT’S not news. Be patient…). I was pretty productive, especially given the circumstances, but the year was somewhat light on professional news. Until the very end of the year…

News item number 1: I have signed a contract for a pair of supernatural thrillers, the first of which I expect will be coming out late in 2021. The first book is written, but needs to be revised. The second book is in its conceptual phase. I expect to write it this spring. I am not ready to reveal who will be publishing the books except to say that it is a highly respected small press, a house I’ve wanted to work with for some time. Details to come as soon as the last of the “t”s and “i”s are crossed and dotted.

News item number 2: We have artwork for the Thieftaker novellas, and it now looks like the first of those novellas should be out sometime later this winter. And the artwork? It’s by Chris McGrath. Yep. The same Chris McGrath who did the artwork for all four of the original Thieftaker novels. It is magnificent.

News item number 3: Speaking of the original Thieftaker novels, we have gotten the rights reverted on the third and fourth Thieftakers, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. These are books that came out after my editor debacle at Tor, and as a result neither book ever received the TLC and attention it deserved. Well, Lore Seekers Press has reissued the books, with the original artwork, in ebook format and (forthcoming very soon) in trade paperback. If you have yet to read these novels, this is the time to get them, before the new Thieftaker novellas come out. They are among my favorites of all the novels in any series I’ve ever written. Dead Man’s Reach in particular might well be the best crafted novel I’ve ever done. Check them out. (A word about the links to the books: ONLY the Kindle versions are the reissues. The physical books listed on Amazon right now, are the old ones from Tor. You want to wait for the new trade paperbacks.)

News Item number 4: I will be teaching an online class in epic fantasy AND serving as a main workshop faculty member for the Futurescapes Writing Workshop in March.

News Item number 5: Submissions are now closed for Derelict, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. We received 340 stories for about five open slots, and will be reading stories this month making our final choices for the anthology. Derelict should be out late in the spring or early this summer.

So, yes, I suddenly have a lot going on, and I am so excited. The thing is, though, all of this stuff is happening quickly. The revised first book in the new supernatural thriller series is due March 1. The completed manuscript of the second book is due June 1. The Thieftaker novellas still need some final polishing and proofing. That should happen this month. My talks for Futurescapes need to be ready by early March, and the Derelict submissions need to be read before the end of January.

Which is why I spent part of New Year’s Day with a calendar — a paper wall calendar, something I can hang by my desk and see every day — breaking down week-by-week, at times day-by-day, what I need to do and when in order to meet my various deadlines. As I mentioned earlier, this is something I do at the beginning of every year, although some years it’s more necessary than others. I view New Year’s as a time to organize myself and set goals that are attainable. That last is key. Setting goals and having ambitions is great, but only if we don’t set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Setting too many goals can be overwhelming, especially if we’re unsure of how we’re going to meet them. By mapping out my time, breaking down my tasks into discreet tasks that I can fit into a work calendar, I convince myself that I can do all the things I want to AND I provide myself with a roadmap for success.

I recommend it.

I wish you all a successful and fulfilling 2021.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue Attribution Revisited

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

 

Back in the early spring — it feels like a hundred years ago now — I wrote a pair of Writing-Tip Wednesday posts about dialogue and dialogue attribution. The post about attribution was particularly involved and long, and, to my mind, was one of the best writing advice posts I wrote this whole year.

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

I have just finished writing my short story for the DERELICT anthology, the collection of stories Joshua and I are co-editing for his imprint, Zombies Need Brains. That’s right: I’m editing the anthology (as David B. Coe) and writing a story for it as an anchor author (as D.B. Jackson). The story is set in my Thieftaker universe and it’s titled (for now) “The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr.”

Writing for an anthology I’m also editing is something I’ve done with the other anthologies I’ve edited for ZNB, and each year Joshua has been pleased with my stories, except with regard to my dialogue attribution. He doesn’t like dialogue tags — “he said,” “she asked,” etc. I mean, he really doesn’t like them. And so every year, he goes through my stories and marks a bunch of them that he’d like me to cut.

Fine.

But not this year. This year, with this story, I was determined to preempt his edits. As I said in my post back in April, I am not one of those writers/editors who feels that all writing tags ought to be cut. I believe good dialogue attribution demands a mix of simple attribution, use of mannerism, gesture, and description to indicate who is speaking, and a few lines of straight dialogue with no tags. (I do suggest you go back and read that attribution post from the spring.) But for this story, I tried to use as few tags as possible.

And I found that imposing this limitation improved my storytelling. I really hate it when Joshua is right, so this is hard for me to admit. But it’s the truth. In trying to avoid the use of direct dialogue tags, I had to find other ways to keep clear in my readers’ minds who is speaking at any given time. In part that meant finding different ways to describe what my characters are doing or feeling. That, though, can carry risks. Too much description of that sort can sound clunky, and overuse of character mannerisms can make them seem twitchy.

So, the other thing I did was trust my dialogue more. In effect, I allowed my characters to speak for themselves, and I trusted my reader to be able to follow the course of their interactions. Now, when I say I trusted my reader, I am quoting an old editor of mine who used to say that whenever he thought I was explaining too much. “Trust your reader to understand,” he would scrawl in the margin. And what he really meant was, “Trust yourself. You’ve done the work. You’ve introduced your characters and established your narrative. Trust in that work and stop slowing down to explain stuff.”

“Trust your reader” equals “Trust yourself.”

So with this story, I trusted myself.

Here is a quick sample from the story:

Kannice sat in the chair adjacent to his. “I didn’t expect to see you here so early.”

“I had a good day.”

Her eyes fell to his jaw, which, no doubt, had already begun to darken. Ethan meant to heal himself before entering the tavern.

“Why do all your good days consist of beatings at the hands of Sephira Pryce’s ruffians?”

He grinned, winced. The skin around the bruise felt tight and tender. “In fairness, not all of them do. You and I have passed some very pleasant days without laying eyes on Sephira or her toughs. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

A reluctant smile crept over her features. “You found the gems you were seeking.”

“Aye, and was paid handsomely for their return.”

“And now you have a bit of coin to spend on me?”

“On you, on my rent, on the excellent chowders served here at the Dowsing Rod.”

“Well, I’d like a bit more spent on me.” She pulled from her bodice a folded scrap of paper, and held it out for him. When he reached for it, she pulled it back beyond reach. “Promise me.”

His smile returned. “I promise that all the coin—” He frowned. “Or at least most of the coin I make as a result of whatever you’ve scrawled on that parchment you’re holding, will be spent on you.”

Eyes narrowed, she handed him the paper. He unfolded it and read what was written in her neat, slanted hand.

There is not a single dialogue tag in that exchange. Yet you should have been able to follow the entire conversation, knowing at all times who was speaking, and understanding as well the dynamics at play.

I would suggest that you give this a try as well. Write a scene, or a story, or a chapter, and try not to use a single direct dialogue tag. If you hate the way it comes out, so be it. But you might find, as I did, that it does unexpected things for your prose.

Look, I have not allowed Joshua to lure me to the dark side. I still believe there is a place for dialogue tags in our writing. And I do use a few in the course of this story. Nevertheless, in forcing myself to use as few of them as possible — to avoid “he said,” “she said,” “he asked,” “she asked,” whenever I could — I actually improved the flow of my story and made it more concise.

Which is good, because in spite of this I managed to go over the word limit just a little. I guess Joshua will ding me on that…

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Goals Revisited Again, End of Year, and NaNo

That is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come.

First let me wish a peaceful, healthful Veterans Day to all who have served. Our deepest thanks to you and your families.

The year is winding down. Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and after that we have the sprint to the winter holidays and New Year’s. For those of us who still have a good deal to get done before the year is out, whether to meet external deadlines or self-imposed ones, time is slipping away at an alarming pace. And in my case, I haven’t been at my best the past several weeks and have not been nearly as productive as I would have liked. All of which leaves me feeling rushed and a little desperate to get stuff done.

Early in the year, I wrote a couple of posts about setting goals for myself. I’m a big believer in doing so, in setting out a professional agenda for my year, or at the very least for a block of months. Often as we near year’s end, I will go back and check on my goals to see how I’ve done. Not this year. This year has been too fraught, too filled with not just the unexpected, but the surreal. The goals I set for myself in January were upended by March. And that’s all right. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I want to be as productive as I can be, and with any luck I’ll get this, and this, and this finished.” That’s the sort of year I’ve had. I did what I could (the month of October excluded…) and I am poised for a productive year in 2021.

And in a sense, for me at least, that is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come. The last several years, this one included, that has meant reading a ton of short fiction for the anthology I’m editing. For the third year in a row, I am co-editor (with Joshua Palmatier) of an upcoming Zombies Need Brains publication. This year’s anthology is called Derelict, and I have only just started reading submissions. These will make up the bulk of my workload through the end of December.

But I’m also finishing up a novel, and thinking about how to write the next one (the third in a trilogy). I am working on the production of the Thieftaker novellas, working out artwork and such with my publisher. I am preparing for the re-issue of the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. And I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind. My goal for these last weeks of 2020, aside from reading as many short fiction submissions as I can, is to plot out that next novel, settle the production questions with the Thieftaker projects, and, I hope, figure out how one other project can fit in with these plans. As I have said, for the last month I’ve been less productive than I should have been. I want to turn that around before the year is out so that next year I can start fast and keep moving.

Which brings me to a question I have been asked many times. Readers want to know what I think of that November literary tradition known as NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this, it is a now two-decades old tradition that sees writers trying to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the month of November. The idea is to get writers to write, to turn off their inner critic and put words to page, with the understanding that they will edit and polish when the month, and the manuscript, are done.

I have never done it. I’ve written 50,000 words in a month on several occasions, but usually these are words in the middle of a longer project. And I’ve been writing for long enough that, when things are going well, 50K a month is about my normal pace.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever written 50K words for more than two months in a row. Usually one such month leaves me feeling a little spent. Writing so much in so little time isn’t easy. At least it isn’t for me. I know fellow professionals who write at that pace or faster all the time. Each of us has a process and a pace that comes naturally. Writing quickly isn’t for everyone. Which is kind of my point.

Look, if you do NaNoWriMo, that’s great. Good for you. I hope you find it satisfying and fun and helpful. I know many writers swear by it. They like the focused work period. They like the challenge. They like to feel that they’re working virtually alongside a community of like-minded writers and making their writing part of something bigger than themselves.

It’s not for me. And if a young writer came to me seeking advice, I would probably tell them not to do it. I would suggest that they focus instead on making of writing a daily or weekly habit, at a pace and under conditions that are sustainable for the long term. It’s not that I doubt November will prove productive for them. It’s that I worry about the effect of that sort of effort on December and January and the months to come. Again, if it works for you, or if it’s something you really want to try, by all means, go for it. Overall, though, being a productive, successful writer is about maintaining a steady pace for months, even years, at a time.

Which is why my year will end with me finishing some projects, laying the groundwork for others, and, of course, reading short story submissions. I will, as I usually do, start working out a task calendar for the coming year, prioritizing projects and allocating time to them. I actually find the process exciting. It’s a chance for me to visualize the coming work year and to imagine where my new projects might take me.

In the meantime, I have stuff to finish up before the ball drops.

Best of luck, and 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.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Anatomy of a Rewrite

As I described in a recent Writing-tip Wednesday post, I have been working recently on a trunk series — a pair of books, the first two in a projected trilogy, that I initially wrote nearly ten years ago. I have returned to working on these books for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always loved the storylines, the characters, the relationships — these stories spoke to me when I wrote them, and have stayed with me in the years since. And second, in the midst of this emotionally challenging year, I have found it hard to create new worlds and projects. I’m not sure why, but there it is. On the other hand, polishing older work, or returning to old worlds for new stories, as I’ve done with Thieftaker, has been productive, rewarding, and even comforting.

In the previous post about trunk novels, I mentioned that while the first book in this series needed close line editing and little more, the second book was “a hot mess.” I’m now neck-deep in my edits of the second book and that impression still holds. The novel has tons of potential, but when I left off with it years ago, it had a number of significant flaws. Which, I suppose, is why it wound up in the proverbial trunk.

Many of us have novels that need work, projects that we’ve set aside, or even works-in-progress that we know have problems. I thought it might be helpful to give you a sense of how I am tackling this rewrite.

1) The Initial Read-through: I started by re-reading the two books in quick succession. I didn’t try to edit as I worked. I just wanted to remind myself of the current state of the novels — the content and the style. I made a few notes as I read, but mostly I approached them as a reader might.

2) The Line Edits: Yes, usually line edits are the last thing we do, after what is known in the business as a “developmental edit.” I chose to do the line edits first, even on the second book, which needs so much structural work. Why? Well, first because some of the prose was so rough that I couldn’t imagine revising the book and ignoring the problems. Those problems included passive constructions, overuse of “that” and past perfect constructions (using “had”), over-explaining, general wordiness, and “humorous” passages that fell flat. Second, I started with the line edits because doing these close revisions allowed me to study the narrative elements more closely and become more familiar with the structural problems I wished to address.

3) The Ruthless Cuts: This is a different editing task, but I actually did it while going through the line edits. There were elements of the story that just didn’t work as written. Unfortunately, at least one of them included some of the best written passages in the draft. Nevertheless, they had to go. I shortened one section of the book by 6,000 words, and cut a thousand from another scene as well. Overall, including scene cuts and general tightening of the prose, I have cut well over 12,000 words from the book. And what a difference this has made. The prose is concise and punchy, and the story flows far better than it did.

4) The Brainstorming: This is where I am now. The book currently stands at about 72,000 words. I can probably delete another thousand, but I’ve cut most of the fat from the manuscript. The story is better than it was, but it needs certain elements inserted along the way and it needs an ending. A good ending. Not the train wreck I was in the midst of writing when I gave up on it a decade ago. By now, though, having read it front-to-back twice, and having done my close edit of the writing, I am steeped in the story and ready to tackle the problems.

When I brainstorm, I tend to open a file in my word processor and type stream-of-consciousness, asking myself questions and answering them on the keyboard. That’s just my approach — your mileage may vary. The point is, I am considering how to work in key elements currently missing from the story. I am figuring out how to work in a new idea for a plot twist that occurred to me during the line edits. And I am keeping better track of all my plot threads, making certain that this ending ties everything up as it should.

5) The Implementation: When I start writing the new scenes, including my concluding chapters, I will create them in separate files. I do this because I find it freeing. It’s totally a mind-game. When I am writing a new book, I work in a single document from start to finish. But when revising, rather than mess with that original file, I not only make a working duplicate, I also create new files for big inserts and additions. That way even if the new scene turns out to be a disaster, the original manuscript is no worse off. Again, it’s something I do out of consideration for my own obsessiveness. And it works.

6) The Final Edit: When I have written and polished these new scenes and pasted them into the manuscript, I’ll then set the novel aside for a while. I’ll work on other projects — I have stories to read for the anthology I’m co-editing; I want to outline the third book in this series; and other stuff… After maybe five weeks, I’ll come back to this book and read it through again. I’ll do a final polish on the prose, but more important I’ll make certain the plot works and that the new narrative elements blend seamlessly with the old. When I’m satisfied, I’ll send both books, volumes one and two, to Beta readers. By then, I hope, I’ll be ready to write the concluding volume of this trilogy. I’ve been thinking about the characters and story for nearly ten years. It’s time I finished it.

I hope you’ve found this deep dive into my process helpful.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!