Category Archives: Thieftaker Chronicles

Professional Wednesday: The Twisted, Tortured Story of THE CHALICE WAR

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeMy “What matters?” series of posts will conclude next Monday, after a Monday Musings post this week that straddled the personal and professional a bit more than usual. In the meantime, I am using today’s Professional Wednesday post to begin pivoting toward the impending release of my new series, a contemporary urban fantasy that delves deeply into Celtic mythology. The series is called The Chalice War, and the first book is The Chalice War: Stone. It will be released within the next month or so, and will be followed soon after by the second book, The Chalice War: Cauldron, and the finale, The Chalice War: Sword.

In my experience, every new project has a story (no pun intended) and this one is no different. Back in the summer of 2009, I was in a bit of a career doldrums. Blood of the Southlands, my third epic fantasy series, was complete, and all but the third book had been released. The series had done well critically, but sales were a bit disappointing — a pattern I had encountered before and would again — and I was trying to figure out where to go next. I had pitched the first iteration of what would become the Thieftaker series to my agent, and she was trying to sell it to Tor Books. But, as always, the publishing world was moving at a snail’s pace, and I had nothing to do.

Within half a year, I would be working on the Robin Hood novelization and starting to convert Thieftaker from an epic fantasy to a historical urban fantasy. But for the moment, I was without a project.

And then an idea came to me — a sudden flash of insight into what would become a pivotal scene in Stone. I took the idea and ran with it. First, I read a ton of material on Celtic history and lore, taking copious notes and figuring out how I might create modern-day versions of the heroes and deities I was reading about. Then, my research complete (for the moment), I began to write the first draft of a contemporary urban fantasy.

I didn’t do much outlining, but rather allowed the novel to take me where it might. And boy did it take me to some interesting places. It started in an imagined bedroom community in northern Virginia, soon evolved into a cross-country trek on U.S. Interstate 40, and wound up on the Strip in Las Vegas. The Battle Furies — the Morrigan — showed up. Turns out, in addition to being goddesses who fed on strife and human suffering, who could turn themselves into a winged horse (Macha) and twin giant ravens (Badbh and Nemain), who drove armies to a killing frenzy and men to uncontrollable lust, they were also Vegas nightclub singers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I finished the book and showed it to my agent. She liked it a lot, but thought it needed work. She was right, of course. But by that time, I had signed the contracts for Robin Hood and the Thieftaker books. Not too long after, I finally sold the Fearsson series to Baen Books and so had that trilogy to get through.

But I never forgot my Celtic urban fantasy, or its heroes Marti and Kel. When I had some spare time, I went back and rewrote the book, incorporating revision notes from friends and from my agent with my own sense of what the book needed. I rewrote it a second time a couple of years later, and having some time, started work on a second volume, this one set in Australia (where my family and I lived in 2005-2006). I stalled out on that book about two-thirds of the way in, but I liked what I had. By then, though, I was deeply involved with the final Thieftaker books and the Fearsson series. And I was starting to have some ideas for what would become the Islevale trilogy.

The Celtic books languished in a virtual trunk, not forgotten, but ignored. I didn’t know how to end the second book. I knew the first book needed another rewrite. And I had no idea how to complete the trilogy.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)But I had been through this before. The first book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson went through at least half a dozen iterations between the first draft, written in 2005, and its eventually publication in 2014. I first came up with the basic concept for Invasives, the second Radiants book, in 2009. It sat on my computer desktop for more than ten years before I actually used it.

I revised Stone yet again, and in so doing, came up with an idea of how to complete the second novel. I rewrote what I had written of that novel, and this time got past whatever had held me back and managed to complete it. And in finishing that volume, I came up with an approach for the third book. It was daring, and quite different from the first two books, but it worked. I set that one in Ireland, and also in the Underrealm.

Finally, in 2021, I had a conversation with Deb Dixon, my marvelous editor at Bell Bridge Books. She asked me what I was thinking of writing next, and I said, “Well, I have this series I’ve been working on — a contemporary urban fantasy steeped in Celtic mythology . . . .”

Her response: “Yes, please.”

The moral of the story should be clear: Never, ever, give up on a project. Sometimes we’re not ready to write the ideas we have. Sometimes our imagination outstrips our creative abilities. At other times, our careers take us in other directions, and we’re not yet ready to pursue projects that we know we want to write eventually. And at still other times, our ideas come to us piecemeal. We can’t see the entire work, but we know there is something there worth writing.

All three of these things were true for me. On some level I knew what I wanted to do with the Celtic books back when I wrote that first iteration of Stone. But I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to do justice to the idea. I had other projects that were more fully formed and that I needed to work on in the moment. And so I did. And the idea for the trilogy took time to percolate.

In the end, these are books I love, stories I’m proud to see come to fruition. I look forward to sharing them with all of you.

Keep writing!!

Friday Fun: Holiday Time!

So, what are you getting for the holidays?

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)What are you giving for the holidays?

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)May I suggest a book, or several books?

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)Yes, I know, this probably seems a little crass. But here’s the thing: Creators like me make our livings off the sale of our creations. It really is that simple. If our books (or music or art or whatever) don’t sell, we don’t earn.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Now, many of you are probably saying at this point that you have already bought my books and, I hope, read and enjoyed them. That’s wonderful. Thank you. Truly.

The holidays, though, offer an opportunity to share with others the things that you have enjoyed. Maybe a relative or friend loves historical fiction. Turn them on to the Thieftaker books! Maybe someone you know and love enjoys thrillers — Radiants and Invasives might be just the books they’re looking for. Maybe you have a fan of time travel on your holiday gift list. The Islevale Cycle books are time travel blended with epic fantasy. Sounds perfect, right?

Someone else you know might be a huge fan of short fiction, in which case, I would recommend you to the Zombies Need Brains site for any number of speculative fiction anthologies.

And if you’ve already given my books to every person you know, terrific! Thank you so much much! May I introduce you to some friends of mine: Faith Hunter, A.J. Hartley, Milton Davis, Gerald Coleman, Nicole Kurtz, John Hartness, Edmund Schubert, Joshua Palmatier, Tamsin Silver, Stuart Jaffe, C.E. Murphy, J.D. Blackrose, Darin Kennedy, Patrick Dugan, Paige Christie, and so many others.

Creators all, with books to sell, books that make great gifts. Check them out.

And have a wonderful holiday.

Professional Wednesday: Planning For Next Year — Try Something New!

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeAs you know, early in 2023 I will be coming out with a new urban fantasy series that is steeped in Celtic mythology. Before working on this series, I hadn’t known much about Celtic lore. But I did my research, learned all I could, and then started to imagine ways in which I might blend those Celtic traditions with my vision for the stories I wanted to write. I tried to be respectful of traditions that are not my own, while also having fun and writing something I hoped would be fun for my readers.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Two years ago at this time, I was revising Radiants and starting to organize my plans for Invasives, the second book in the sequence. I had never written a supernatural thriller before, but I had the idea and wanted to give it a go.

Two years before that I had just released the second Islevale book and was working on Time’s Demon, the second book in the trilogy. These were my first forays into writing time travel and while I knew there were tremendous pitfalls to writing in that particular subgenre, I wanted to give it a try. Plotting a time travel series is probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever attempted as a professional writer; I doubt I will ever try it again, but I’m glad I did it once.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Around that same time, I was also reading submissions for the Temporally Deactivated anthology, my first co-editing venture. Last year I opened my freelance editing business, and a year ago at this time, I was editing a manuscript for a client.

Back in 2015-2016, again at this time of year, I was working on the Author’s Edit of the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series. Up until then, I had never re-released any of my old work, but I had the rights back, and I knew I could improve the books with a deep edit of the original manuscripts.

Yes, there is a point to all of this.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierLast week, I wrote about planning out my professional activities for the coming year. This week, I want to discuss a different element of professional planning. My point in starting off with a list of those projects from past years is that just about every year, I try to take on a new challenge, something I’ve never attempted before. I didn’t start off doing this consciously — I didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to start doing something new each year, just to shake things up.” It just sort of happened.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As it turns out, these new challenges have brought me to a place where I can say, in all candor, that I have never been happier in my work than I am now. Each time I try something new, I reinvigorate myself as a creator. I force myself out of the tried-and-true, the comfortable. With each of the new projects I mentioned above I had a moment of doubt. I wondered if I was capable of accomplishing what I set out to do. Now, I’m a pretty confident guy when it comes to my writing chops and my ability to help others improve their writing, so those doubts didn’t last long. But they were there each time.

Indeed, part of the joy of taking on the projects lay in pushing myself, in overcoming the doubts and getting the work done. As I’ve written before, writing is hard in any number of ways. We help ourselves when we can self-define our successes, rather than relying on a fickle, difficult marketplace to define them for us. Each of the aforementioned projects boosted my sense of self worth.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)But those new challenges did more than that. They kept my professional routine fresh. I am a creature of habit. I try to write/edit/work every day, so in a general sense, my work days and work weeks don’t change all that much. By varying the content of my job — by writing new kinds of stories and expanding my professional portfolio to include editing as well as writing — I made the routine feel new and shiny and exciting. And at the same time, these new projects made it possible to return to some old favorites, notably the Thieftaker series, with renewed enthusiasm.

I also made myself better at my craft and deepened my understanding of and appreciation for the nuances of storytelling. I learned a ton by revising my first books. I saw old mistakes that I was still making, and also gained a fresh appreciation for the ways I had improved as a writer. Writing time travel strengthened my plotting by forcing me to look for the loose ends that might have escaped my notice had my characters not possessed the ability to go back in time and undo my choices! Editing has taught me a ton about my own writing by showing me, in unfamiliar narrative contexts, what story elements work best (and worst).

My point is this: As you begin to plan your professional activities and ambitions for 2023, try to put in your calendar something new and different. It is fine to set as a goal the completion of that novel you’ve been working on for a long time, or the publication of a series you’ve had written for a little while now but haven’t yet sent out into the world. Those are laudable aims, and I wish you every success with them.

But maybe you’ve never tried writing short fiction, or you’ve written stories but never submitted any of them. Maybe you’ve written fantasy but never tried science fiction, or thrillers, or romance. Set as a goal for 2023 taking on one of those new tasks. Allow yourself to accomplish something unfamiliar. At the very least, doing so will force you to grow as an artist, which is always a good thing. And perhaps you will discover a previously unexplored talent and passion for something you hadn’t even considered trying.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: What I Learned During a Recent Visit With Claude Monet

Last week, Nancy and I were traveling for her work, and we had the opportunity to spend a day and a half in New York City. We had dinners with our older daughter, we attended some university functions, Nancy had finance meetings, and I had part of a day to myself.

As I have mentioned here recently, I am trying to figure out where to go with my writing. (And allow me to take this opportunity to thank those of you who weighed in with opinions about what project I should take on next. Many of you want to see continuations of existing series — Thieftaker was the most popular request, followed by Fearsson and Radiants. Not surprisingly, the new project I mentioned as a possible choice received little love. The unknown is bound to attract less notice. But the most heartening element of the responses I received was the repeated assurance that you would welcome and read whatever I choose to tackle going forward. And for that, I am grateful beyond words.)

As I continue to grapple with this decision, I thought I might find inspiration in art, and so, on a bright, crisp Monday morning in New York City, I walked north along Fifth Avenue to 83rd Street and the grand entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t know precisely what I sought in the museum, but I trusted the instinct that drove me there. Much the way our bodies sometime crave certain types of food — salty snacks, or protein rich foods — so I believe our brains can crave input of a specific type. I felt a strong need to look at the beauty of creative endeavor.

Specifically, I wanted to see the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Degas, Manet, Morisot, Cezanne, Pissarro, Cassatt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and my favorite, Claude Monet. As a historian (and a camera bug), I find the development of Impressionism (in the latter third of the nineteenth century) fascinating. It coincided with the invention and popularization of photography. Suddenly, artists were freed from the need to create images that were accurate and lifelike. A photograph could do that. Instead, artists could begin to experiment with color, with light and shadow, with texture, with the self-conscious use of brushstroke and palette knife.

Claude Monet,  Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight) 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight) 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Monet was fascinated in particular with the way light and color changed from hour to hour, day to day, season to season. He painted series after series, experimenting with images of the same subject matter painted at dawn and dusk and midday. Haystacks on farms, poplar trees in the French countryside, water lilies, the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge in London, and two of my favorite series: the façade of the Cathedral at Rouen, and the Japanese footbridge and pond at his home in Giverny.

Claude Monet,  Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Claude Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Seeing these paintings last week filled me with joy, with a sense of calm and contentment. It was glorious. I lingered in the museum for hours longer than I had intended to.

But what does this have to do with writing? Why would it warrant discussion in a Professional Wednesday post?

Honestly, I am still trying to figure out the answers to those questions. But I think it comes down to this: Creativity demands that we reexamine those things we have taken for granted, the things we have accepted as routine. The daily dance of light across the front to a building, the shape and forms we see each day. But creativity also asks that, on occasion, we rethink everything about our art. Imagine having been trained as a classical artist in the mid-nineteenth century, only to have every assumption about visual art overturned by the invention of a light-capturing box.

In the course of my lifetime (and I’m not THAT old . . .), we have sent spacecraft beyond the pull of earth’s gravity and out to the edges of our solar system. We have created lenses capable of peering through space and time to the very beginnings of our universe. We have replaced the rotary phones that were wired into our homes with untethered devices that take pictures, monitor our finances, store our music, and handle computational tasks that used to challenge machines so big they needed to be housed in warehouse-sized spaces.

We have seen the impossible become consumer-ready, the fantastical turned mundane. And as storytellers, we have had to stretch to come up with ideas that will surprise and captivate and satisfy. That stretch doesn’t necessarily imply pursuit of the increasingly outlandish. Rather, I would argue, it has forced us to reconsider simplicity, to infuse the familiar with qualities that make us marvel or recoil.

And as I search for my next spark of inspiration, I find myself wondering what will be for me the literary equivalent of watching color and shadow transform a garden pond and the reflections of a footbridge. Once upon a time, I worried that I would run out of ideas for stories, that I would complete a series, only to discover that it was the last one, that my creative well had run dry. Now, as I approach the big Six-Oh, my fear is that I will run out of time before I have completed all the tales I wish to write. I’m don’t worry about failing to find a new idea; I worry about choosing the wrong one and wasting time on something I don’t love.

Late in his life, Monet began to lose his sight. And still he worked, learning to create images of power and beauty and drama despite seeing color and form with less clarity. Creativity finds a way. Inspiration carries us past obstacles both physical and emotional.

Maybe, ultimately, that was the reminder I needed when I stepped into the Met. I still don’t know what I’ll be writing next. I do know that the challenges in my life have not gone away and won’t anytime soon. But I am a creator, and I still crave inspiration. So, I will consider, and I will settle on a project, and I will share with you the stories that stir my passions.

And I wish you the same.

Keep writing, keep creating.

Professional Wednesday: An Alternative to NaNoWriMo

First off, many thanks to those who offered feedback on last week’s post, in which I asked for input regarding what I might work on next. I appreciate your thoughts. The general consensus appears to be that there is no general consensus. Several people did express enthusiasm for more Thieftaker and more Justis Fearsson. A number were also interested in reading more in the Radiants supernatural thriller series, and a few fans from way back were excited to see an edited reissue of the Winds of the Forelands books. Others liked the idea of a new writing How-To as well as the space opera concept. Which is to say, there was at least some support for pretty much everything I’m currently considering, and that’s reassuring.

We are nearing the end of October, which means Halloween is almost here, elections are right around the corner, and NaNoWriMo is about to start. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month began in November 1999 as a challenge to writers to write 50,000 words in thirty days. The challenge has grown in popularity each year, and now engages literally hundreds of thousands of writers, including kids, in creative writing. NaNoWriMo is also a non-profit that promotes literacy and creativity.

In many ways, NaNo is a positive force in our industry. It fosters community, by bringing together writers of different backgrounds and abilities in a simultaneous effort to be creative on demand. And as I have said in this space again and again, part of being a professional writer is learning how to produce on demand, without “waiting for the muse,” or some such. I have heard many stories of people finally being motivated to write by NaNo, by the communal aspect of the challenge. Knowing others are making the effort at the same time enables some people to write the story that has been burning inside them for so, so long. I think that’s great.

And yet . . . . From the time NaNo first began, I have had some qualms about the concept and the structure. I have written 50,000 words in a month; I’ve done it a couple of times. I know some professionals who write far more than that in 30 days. It can be done, no doubt. And if the challenge and group dynamics of NaNo get your creative juices flowing, more power to you.

But what I remember about those occasional months during which I churned out 50,000 words is that I was unable to sustain the effort. Each time, during the month that followed, I struggled to write half as much. I was burnt out. I know some people have gone on to publish novels they began during a NaNo November. But I wonder how many NaNo participants still have novel fragments of 50,000 words (or 40,000, or 30,000) on their computers, gathering virtual dust. I wonder how many did NaNo only to find themselves unable to sustain the effort beyond the month in question.

As I said, professionals, myself included, can and do write half a novel in a month’s time, but most of us write slower than that. My brother is a visual artist, a painter. And he will occasionally engage in exercises that force him to paint quickly. There is something freeing about turning off the inner critic and just painting fast, to see how an image turns out. Just as there is something freeing about blocking out our inner editor and writing swiftly and in volume. Most of the time, though, my brother’s process looks nothing like that. And I can promise you my writing process — and that of most of my professional colleagues — bears little or no resemblance to NaNo.

Yes, NaNo can jumpstart the creative process for some people, but I would offer this: If instead of trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days, an aspiring writer were to try to write 500 words a day for 100 days, that writer would wind up with the same volume. Yes, it would take more time, but in the snail’s-pace world of publishing the difference between one month and three isn’t so great. Plus, I guarantee you, the 50,000 word manuscript produced over three months will be far, far cleaner than the NaNo manuscript and will require a good deal less editing, thus narrowing the time gap.

Most importantly, while NaNo will leave many writers exhausted and unprepared to follow up and finish the manuscript in question, the 500-word-a-day writer will have developed a habit, a creative routine that is both manageable and sustainable. More than likely, that writer will be able to increase their production over those three months and beyond.

I’m not looking for a fight here, and again, if NaNo works for you, go for it. Enjoy yourself. But if you have considered NaNo, wondering if you might finally kick off a writing career by trying it, I would encourage you to try the slow-and-steady approach instead. As a model, it is much closer to the professional experience than NaNo will ever be and, to my mind, it is more likely to produce a) clean prose, b) a coherent narrative, and c) a completed manuscript.

Whatever you decide, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: In Which I Ask You, What Should I Write Next?

As I discussed at length in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have recently completed a first draft of the third book in my contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. The novel needs to sit for a while before I can do a final revise-and-polish and send it off to my editor — six weeks or so, I would think. And since the first book has not yet been copyedited and proofed, since the second book still needs to go through a round of revisions and then the entire production process, and since the third book is still wet behind the ears, I have plenty of work left to do on this series.

Thanks to the successful Kickstarter campaign Zombies Need Brains ran late in the summer, I also have a new anthology, Artifice and Craft, to co-edit with my good friend Edmund Schubert. We already have more than 150 submissions for the anthology, so that work is bound to keep me busy through the end of the year and well into 2023. I also have a short story to write for one of the other anthologies, and I have editing clients in my free-lance business queue.

But beyond the short story, which should only take me a week or two to complete, I have no idea what I am going to write next. None.

Yes, I have ideas. Many.

What are they? Funny you should ask.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)One idea is to write my next Thieftaker novel, either in the form of a trio of novellas, like I did with The Loyalist Witch, or as a simple novel. In the Thieftaker novel timeline, the Revolutionary War hasn’t even started yet. There is lots and lots more I can do with Ethan and Kannice and Sephira.

I have also considered going back to the Case Files of Justis Fearsson series, another contemporary urban fantasy that I began in the mid 2010s with Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. I LOVE these books and have missed writing in Justis Fearsson’s world. I have several ideas brewing for that world.His Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe

I have long wanted to return to my five book Winds of the Forelands series and the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, to revise and re-release those eight novels. They are among my best stories, and they have been out of print for far too long. I envision an “Author’s Edit” re-issue, along the lines of what I did with the LonTobyn Chronicle back in 2016.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)I want to write at least one more Radiants book. Actually, I would like to write several more. Radiants and Invasives are, to my mind, the two best books I’ve written to date, and I still would love to see these books gain come commercial traction so that I can justify writing more of them.

And then there are the new ideas . . .

I have one idea for a space opera series (yes, you read that right), set on a pair of terraformed planets. The plot involves intrigue, mystery, romance, and vengeance, and it is actually based on the work of a well-known, much-beloved, and for-now-secret 19th century novelist. I’m excited about this one. (Actually, I’m excited about all these ideas, which is why I’m considering them in the first place.)

I have a middle grade novel that I first wrote back in 2010 or so, when my kids were much younger. The idea still sings to me, though I know the book needs a good deal of work. But I love the concept and I adore the characters. And I think I would enjoy writing for kids.

My good friend A.J. Hartley has been trying for years to get me to write a non-fantasy, non-supernatural, straight-ahead thriller. He thinks I’d enjoy it. He thinks I’d be good at it. And I will admit I have some ideas percolating along these lines as well. Of all the projects I’m thinking about, this one probably has the most commercial potential, which is not the only consideration, but I do this for a living, so . . . .

And finally, I have considered taking all the Professional Wednesday and Writing Wednesday posts I have written since 2020 and collecting the best of them in a new writing how-to book. I have more than enough material, and I think some people would like to see the advice I have offered gathered in a single, convenient volume.

So there we are. Those are the things I’m thinking about right now. (I should add that I can’t guarantee I won’t have five more ideas tomorrow.)

What ideas appeal to you? Feel free to Tweet at me, or to comment in my Facebook Group! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

In the meantime, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Dealing With the Slog, part I

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

Yes, I am a Pixar fan. Sue me. My kids were the perfect age for the magical first generation of Pixar movies — Toy Story (1 and 2); Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars (the first one) — and Nancy and I loved them, too.

But Dory’s little don’t-give-up song is more than cute and annoyingly catchy. It also offers a valuable lesson every writer should take to heart.

Today, I continue my “Most Important Lessons” feature, which I began a couple of months ago. In this installment I intend to give a few pointers about what we can do to keep ourselves moving forward in the middle of the slog that is novel-writing.

Because here’s the thing: We writers love to talk about the big events in our professional lives. We shout from the hilltops when we sign a contract or have a new book come out or complete a manuscript. Those are the golden moments, the ones we live for and love to celebrate. But, of course, those moments make up a teeny-tiny fragment of our professional lives. The achievements themselves are significant and worth marking, but they are fleeting and painfully brief. The vast majority of our time is spent working toward those milestones — slogging through the initial drafts of our books and stories, revising and reworking the manuscripts, marketing ourselves and our writing, developing new ideas, or maybe worrying about when we might have a new idea that’s worth a damn.

Of all of these, the first one — slogging through the initial draft of our manuscripts — might be the most difficult. I think it’s safe to say that’s the place where most nascent careers founder. And so that’s where I’m going to focus today.

How do we keep going? How do we avoid becoming one of those aspiring writers who has started ten books but finished none of them, or has started one passion project but stalled at about the 60% mark and cannot move forward from there?

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

1. Set and internalize your own deadlines. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and have sold several series to publishers large and small. That means I have often written to deadlines imposed upon me by my editors. But most writers in today’s market, even established professionals, have to write the first book in a series before they can sell the project, and so I have also written a lot of books that had no deadline, at least no official one (including Thieftaker, Spell Blind, Time’s Children, Radiants, and the first two books of the new Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on). The deadlines for those books are ones I gave myself. And I can tell you that writing to an external deadline is much easier than writing to a self-imposed one. When we miss an external deadline, we risk angering our editor, giving up our place in the publishing schedule, and even endangering our contract. When we miss a self-imposed deadline, there are essentially no consequences.

And so, we need to internalize our deadlines, to make them feel as real and absolute as the external ones. For me, the best way to do that is to map out my project schedule for an entire calendar year. “Jan. 1-April 15, work on Novel X. April 16-May 31, work on editing projects 1 and 2. June 1-September 15, work on Novel Y. Etc.” This way, missing that first deadline has the potential to set back my entire year. Suddenly, missing my own deadline puts something I care about at risk. These are still all artificial deadlines with artificial consequences, but the more I put at stake with each deadline, the more likely I am to take them seriously, which is the point.

2. Keep your deadlines realistic and achievable. Yeah, I know. That hypothetical calendar in the paragraph above includes two novels, each of which I’m writing in about 3 1/2 months. For me, at this stage of my career, that is realistic and achievable. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve written a lot of books and a lot of stories. You should not necessarily expect the same of yourself. When I first started, I took a good deal longer to complete each novel. When you make your deadlines, you need to be realistic about what you can get done, and you need to set your timetable accordingly. When we set deadlines that are unachievable, we set ourselves up for failure. The purpose of deadlines is to keep us on task and on schedule. The moment we miss our first deadline, that purpose is blown. We become discouraged. Our projects languish. Before we know it, our next deadline is shot as well, and suddenly we’re back where we don’t want to be, struggling to complete the novel we’ve already been working on for too long. So be realistic (and that includes factoring in travel, family and work obligations, and anything else that might slow you down). Set yourself up for success.

3. If necessary, divide large tasks into smaller, discreet, manageable ones. For some writers, the very notion of writing a novel can be intimidating. For these folks, nothing is scarier than typing “Chapter One” on a page. I get that. To this day, I am somewhat daunted each time I begin a new book. It’s a bit like painting the entire interior of our house. That seems like too huge a job to take on. But when we look at the big project as a series of more limited tasks, we remove some of that pressure. “I might be thinking of painting the entire house, but for now I’m just going to paint this room.”

I approach writing books the same way. I don’t fixate on the big project. I think in terms of chapters. How does the book start? What comes next? What do I need to do after that? And so on. I don’t tend to set deadlines for each chapter, because I write my chapters in one or two days. But again, that is something I can do now that I couldn’t have imagined when I began my career. So by all means, if it feels like it would be helpful, establish a schedule for your writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Set realistic, achievable deadlines for their completion and stick to the timetable.

This is already a long post, so I’m going to stop here for this week. Next week, dealing with the curse of the 60% stall!!

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: I’m Stuck

My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

I feel stuck. Have for a while now. It’s nothing too alarming; I’ve been here before. But it is frustrating, and I am ready — past ready — to be, well, unstuck.

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently, and I enjoy that. It keeps my mind busy. It forces me to think creatively, to consider my craft while also making certain to respect the vision and voice of my client. But it’s not the same as writing.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)And when it comes to writing, I am in something of a rut. The last novel-length piece I wrote beginning to end was Invasives, the second Radiants book, which I completed (the first draft at least) eleven months ago. Eleven months!

I’ve written some short fiction since then. A Thieftaker story, a story for the Silence in the City anthology. I had to revise and polish Invasives, and I have done work on the new Celtic series I’ve recently sold. But the first two of those books were already written. I’ve been revising those, too. I’ve started book 3, but only just.

Noir, edited by David B. Coe and John Zakour, an anthology from Zombies Need BrainsMostly, as I say, I’ve been editing. My work. Other people’s work. The Noir anthology. I’ve been plenty busy, but I have not been as productive creatively as I would like. And I wonder if this is because of all the emotional pressure we (my family and I) have been under over the past year-plus.

Recently, I wrote a couple of what you might call audition chapters for a project I cannot talk about. (There was actually an NDA. I really can’t talk about it.) And I enjoyed that process. I had a tight deadline, a quick turnaround from when I got the information on what I needed to write to when the chapters were due. I met the deadline with ease, and was pleased with the results.

As I say, I’ve been here before. I’m not worried that I’ll never write again. At least not too worried.

I wonder, though, if there is a lesson in that experience with the sample chapters. Maybe what I need is a deadline, one that’s hard and fast and not too far away. Maybe I need that sort of kick in the pants to get going again. I’ve long said that when I go too long without writing, I get cranky.

Well, I’m cranky.

I don’t know if I’ll get the gig I auditioned for. I’m certainly not counting on it. But if I don’t, I need to make myself work on something else. According to the contract, that third Celtic book isn’t due for a long time, but I am thinking I should start writing it now. And I should set a hard deadline for myself, well before the actual due date. I have lots of editing projects looming, so I can easily justify forcing myself to write the book now and quickly.

I don’t know. I need to do something.

Creativity is a strange beast. Often it’s thought of as something that comes to us in sudden sparks of inspiration. It can’t be forced, we’re told. But when it strikes, the feeling is euphoric. And some of that is true some of the time.

Inspiration can be abrupt and unexpected, and those moments can be euphoria-inducing. The thing is though, if we want to make our living as creatives, we can’t afford to wait for the muse, or whatever, to strike. We have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, bills arriving in the mail each day. This is our job, damnit!

Which means creativity can be forced. Most times it has to be forced. I write pretty much every day. My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

What does this have to do with me being stuck? Honestly, I’m not certain; I’m working this out as I go. But I think the answer is this: Being stuck is as much a part of making a living as a creator as being inspired. It’s the back half of that shining coin. Fields need to lay fallow for a time before they can be productive again. Writers (and other artists) sometimes need to go through periods of creative dormancy before we can dive back into the projects we want to complete.

This is not an excuse. As I said earlier, I’m cranky. I want to be writing again. But I have also learned over the years that beating myself up because I’ve been unproductive accomplishes nothing. On some level, I believe, the creative brain knows what it needs. Just as a body can crave different sorts of food to meet nutritional needs, the artistic mind can seek out times of rest and times of activity.

I have been in the former for long enough, thank you very much. I am ready for the latter.

Keep writing!

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

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

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

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

What’s my point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

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

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

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

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

What kind of trilogy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week.