Category Archives: Writing

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…

Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

Book shelfI am reading stories right now for a teaching gig I have coming up in early March. I’ll be running a critique workshop, and so I not only have to read and comment on the manuscripts, I also should take the opportunity to turn the issues I identify into writing lessons. Because the truth is, all the submissions seem to be from writers with limited experience, and all the submissions suffer from similar problems.

Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating any of the writers in the group. The problems I’m seeing are ones that editors found in my work when I was starting out. I don’t make these errors as often now — I’ve moved on to new mistakes. And when I’ve overcome this new set of problems, I have no doubt that I will find still newer ways to mess things up. This is the creative process — there’s a reason why authors should never stop relying on editors.

Back to the workshop manuscripts… Here is what I’m seeing: All of the writers have terrific ideas. Their worlds and magic systems are fresh and innovative and exciting. And their characters are compelling as well. Some of the writers need to work on staying in tight point of view and injecting emotion into their stories, but even on these fronts they’re doing fairly well.

The flaws I’m finding in their work are largely mechanical. Their story telling is good, but their prose is getting in the way of their narratives. Specifically, I’m seeing three trends again and again.

1) They are trying to do too much with each sentence. There are places in a manuscript where it is perfectly appropriate to use compound sentences, phrasings that rely on the connection of several clauses in order to express complex emotions. There are places where short declaratives work better. (See what I did there?) I have noticed, however, not just with this batch of manuscripts, but in other settings, going back years, that beginning writers are drawn to the complexities of longer phrases. It’s almost as if they feel that writing shorter sentences will expose them as newbies.

This isn’t the case. As my wonderful, talented, and wise friend, Faith Hunter, has pointed out, syntax and phrasing is to the written story what soundtracks are to movies. When the action ramps up in a movie, the music grows taut, staccato. When the action ramps up in written stories, phrases should become shorter, punchier. Thoughts should be pared to the bone. And even when the action isn’t necessarily at a fever pitch, it is fine to rely on short declaratives as well as longer sentences. Short phrases punctuate key passages, drawing attention to important moments. They are an invaluable tool. (See? Did it again.)

2) A related point: Beginning authors, including those whose manuscripts I’m reading now, often tie themselves (and their prose) in knots seeking clever phrases. Again and again, in my margin notes, I have tried to remind them that simpler is usually better. This is not to say that every phrase needs to be simple, that every sentence should be short and to the point. Stories written that way would bore an audience — books would read like grade school primers, which we don’t want.

But sometimes it’s clear that a writer has decided on a certain construction for a sentence, and even after that structure has become unwieldy, they continue to batter the phrasing into submission. I know I’ve done it. I have a rhythm in mind, and I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. Work! The problem is, by the time I’m done, the sentence is a mess. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. You may love the concept you had for that phrasing, but if it has turned into a struggle for you as you write it, chances are your readers will struggle with it too. Simple is better. Simple works. Try a different approach to the sentence. Shorten it. Or better yet, divide it into two (or three) sentences. Your readers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. The beleaguered instructor reading your manuscript for a workshop will thank you.

3) Finally, I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn into their scenes great swaths of world building information. They know better than to resort to full-blown data dumps, but they feel compelled to explain certain elements of their world in the moment, and they do so by overloading their sentences with background. The result, again, is sentences with too many clauses, too much information, and no flow.

In a sense this is a point of view issue. When characters are in the moment — whether they are deep in an important conversation, or facing an immediate threat to their own safety or that of people they care about — they are unlikely to pause to consider, say, the history of the city they’re in, or the anatomical differences between different species in the world.

It may be that this is important information. But writers need to ask themselves, “Is it crucial that my reader know all of this right now?” Chances are it’s not. If it is, anticipate that need and work at least some of the information in before the action heats up. Otherwise, save it for later. Either way, don’t try to heap all of the necessary info into a single serving, like an over-eager kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doing so only confuses readers and leaves syntax in shambles.

Write with purpose. Strive for concision. Remember that, more often than not, simple is better.

And keep at it.

Monday Musings: My Declaration of Creative Independence

Book shelfSo many professional issues on my mind today — I’m finding it hard to organize my thoughts into something coherent.

These remain hard times for creators. Writers, musicians and composers, visual artists of all sorts, actors and directors, dancers and choreographers. I could go on, but you get the point. The irony of art: it is considered a solitary endeavor, when in fact it is anything but. We all know the clichés of the lonely artist working in isolation, the writer holed up with her computer, tapping away at the keyboard, churning out her next story.

The truth is, though, art is decidedly communal. The act of creation is only the beginning. All art is interactive. Music must be heard. Paintings and photographs must be seen. Stories must be read. Because every song and book and painting has as many lives as there are people who experience it. Twenty people might read my book — or better yet, twenty thousand people might read it — and each would experience it their own way. Same with songs. Same with works of art. Creation is incomplete until it is received.

And so when a pandemic prevents that interaction between creation and audience, art suffers. So does the artist. I can write as many books in isolation as time allows. But until I know my book is being read by someone, I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything.

A dear friend posted a couple of times last week about writing in the COVID age. His first post touched on the slowness of the industry right now. Again, we writers can turn out new books, but if the publishing industry does nothing with them, we struggle to reach our readers. And right now, the publishing industry is the literary equivalent of a clogged sink. Nothing is flowing. So it wasn’t that surprising when, a couple of days later, this same friend shared an article about how hard it is to be productive right now. The dialectic between writer and reader is about far more than books sales. It is, as I indicated above, the way we complete the creative experience. When we know that our books are going nowhere, that they have no immediate hope of reaching audience, our motivation leaches away. And without motivation, we’re lost.

A couple of weekends ago, at Boskone, I moderated a panel on self-defining success. This is an important topic for me; I believe we must take satisfaction in our work on our terms. There is a difference, though, between, on the one hand, finding internal affirmation for our work and our careers, and, on the other, working in a vacuum.

So, where am I going with this?

I guess here: I will continue to write with an eye toward big-press publishing. I have not given up on “New York” entirely. But I am currently writing and editing for small presses. Working through an imprint I have developed with a couple of friends, I am bringing out my own work.

I am, in effect, declaring my independence. I am writing for myself, and for the audience I can reach. And I am worrying far less about what the imprint on the spines of my books says about my status as a writer.

A confession: A couple of years ago, after a disappointing stretch, a series of serious professional setbacks, and a particularly demoralizing experience at a convention, I was ready to quit. I’d had enough. I had been kicked, and kicked again, and kicked a third time. My ego had been brutalized. I didn’t want to write. I certainly didn’t want to deal with any more reversals like those I’d just experienced. I was done.

Except, obviously I wasn’t. I still had stories to tell. I still had characters in my head and heart who clamored for attention. I still had things to say. And while I thought I didn’t want to write anymore, I was wrong. Turns out, I can’t go more than a week or two without writing something. I get grumpy. I snarl and mope and brood and rant. Very, very unattractive. Nancy never says anything when I get this way. Not directly. But she’ll ask me, “So what are you working on today?” And the subtext of that question is, “When are you going to start behaving like an adult human again?”

It has taken me a while to reach the place I’m in now. It was a process, as fraught and difficult as the creation itself can be. But I’m here now. I have an idea of what success looks like, and it has far, far more to do with contentment and peace of mind than it used to. I have a sense of what my career will look like going forward, and while some of my old ambition remains, I am happy — eager even — to approach publication and editing and other professional pursuits in a way that preserves my emotional health and feeds the joy I derive from the simple act of telling stories.

Don’t worry. I have no intention of quitting. I have stories to tell, short form and long, and I have every intention of putting them in the hands of readers.

Because creation is communal. It is a never-ending conversation. And we’re all part of it.

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts After Virtual Boskone

Boskone was held this past weekend. Virtually, of course. It has quickly become one of my favorite conventions, and it was the only in-person convention I attended last year (not counting the SAGA professional workshop) before COVID shut down the con circuit.

If you’ve never heard of Boskone, I encourage you to look into it. It is everything a convention should be. The people who run it also happen to be the folks who put together the Dublin WorldCon a couple of years ago (that’s actually how I started attending Boskone). They know what they’re doing and they do it really, really well. The con is a great size — big enough to allow authors to reach a sizable fandom, but not so large that one feels lost amid teeming crowds. Boskone is attended by a large and diverse constellation of writers, editors, artists, and other creators. The panels are top-notch. People are friendly, but also professional.

The hotel, when the con is held as usual, is well-located and very nice. There’s great food within walking distance, and all of the great attractions of Boston, one of my favorite cities in the world, can be reached from the T stop, which is only a couple of blocks from the hotel.

None of us who know Boskone were surprised to find that the virtual version of the con was run with the same level of expertise, efficiency, and attention to detail that characterizes the real thing. My panels this weekend came off perfectly. The one I moderated, a great discussion on self-defining success, included incisive questions from our audience and a dedicated behind-the-scenes zoom host who kept us on task and on time.

Yes, I missed seeing my friends in person. I missed hanging out in the hotel bar and talking shop until the wee hours. I missed having dinner with friends and catching up with the family I have in the Boston area. I missed drinking Guinness at the nearby Legal Sea Foods!

But my experience with this con was not about loss and regret. As much as I would have preferred to be there, in person, with the friends I have missed for the past year, I was still able to reconnect with people, to find in our discussions the sense of community that makes conventions so special. And, I will admit, there was something quite nice about engaging in a spirited panel conversation for an hour, and then going downstairs to sip wine with my wife.

Look, COVID sucks. What it has done to our social lives sucks. The way it has circumvented travel and direct social interaction sucks. And I do not mean to make light in any way of the very real suffering of those who have contracted the virus, and of the hundreds of thousands in this country who have succumbed to it. We have suffered as a nation, as a global community. And that suffering is far from over.

Which is all the more reason to view virtual conventions and other inconveniences as just that: inconveniences and nothing more. Virtual Boskone was fun. Better by far to have had the experience than not. Did the virtual con replace the real one? Of course not. But it did for me what cons are supposed to do. It grounded me in my artistic community. It allowed me to catch up with a few friends, and meet some new people. It gave me an opportunity to connect with new fans. It left me feeling inspired and eager to continue my various projects.

And, as a bonus, it reminded me of something I too often forget in this time of pandemic: We are a resilient and resourceful species. Yes, there are obstacles in our path. But we have already found ways around many of them, and we are working to reach accommodation with COVID, if not victory over it.

This is all to the good.

Keep writing. And use the resources at your disposal to reach out to fellow artists. Make those connections. Don’t allow present circumstance to deny you that comfort and stimulation.

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

 

Professional Wednesday: Placing Your Inciting Moment In the Right Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Rethinking the Digital Revolution

I’m a dinosaur. I have been in this business for more than a quarter century. My first book was published during the Clinton Administration. I could list for you all the celebrities born since that first publication, but I’ve never heard of any of them…

To state the obvious, the business has changed in the time I’ve been a professional writer. Hell, the entire world has changed. Some of the transitions specific to publishing have been for the better, some have not. And, to make all of this a bit stranger, many of the biggest changes fall into both those categories.

Lately, I find myself thinking about the democratization of the arts facilitated by the digital revolution, trying to balance the good with the not-so-good.

Example 1: A dear friend of mine, one of my musical partners from college, has been recording and performing music for years. He does covers, he writes his own material. Prior to the pandemic, he performed regularly in the area around his home in the Northeast. Since the onset of COVID, he has done a series of online concerts and has also produced videos of himself playing — again, his own tunes and covers of songs by others. His music always — ALWAYS — sounds amazing. Not only is he incredibly talented, he has also mastered the technology at his disposal. The result is great music with astonishing production values.

Without digital technology, without the ability to turn his basement into both a recording studio and a performance space, he couldn’t manage to do any of this. Of course, he is hardly alone in this regard. Musicians around the world can now record and produce their own music, reaching audiences that they never would have found twenty years ago. And it is hard for me to look at this as anything but an unalloyed good. Major recording studios should not be the only arbiters of what you and I get to hear. Once upon a time, they were, but not anymore. As a musician myself, and as a fan of music in general, I’m pleased by this.

Example 2: As most of you know, I am an avid photographer. I specialize in nature photography — landscapes and close-up work — but I also have done a good deal of urban photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have also been, for years and years, a collector of photography books, and I have a small collection of photo prints by other artists, as well as many of my own enlarged images, framed, and hung on the walls of my home.

I have a high quality digital camera and I have several applications on my computer that allow me to process my photos to a fine degree. Once upon a time, when I first got into this hobby and was still shooting film, I was very much at the mercy of the photo labs that developed my pictures. I couldn’t control the production of each image the way, say, Ansel Adams did in his darkroom. Only with the advent of digital technology, have I gained access to the tools I need to develop my photos precisely as I wish to. At this point, I can produce professional quality images. My best photos, the ones on my walls as well as those in the one coffee table photography book I have created, can stand alongside the best images by some of my favorite professional photographers.

As with the musical example, given how much joy I derive from my photography and my ability to produce images with such quality results, I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a positive historical development.

Except…

Example 3: In my capacity as a writer, I have seen the impact of the digital revolution on my own profession. Yes, more and more authors can now reach readers. Authors who might otherwise have never had a chance to get past the gatekeepers at major publishing houses, can now put their stories within reach of audiences that crave what they offer. This means that unconventional, risk-taking stories can now be told and sold. It means that diverse voices now have an outlet for their work. Authors of any race, of any gender identity, of any sexual orientation, of any religious or cultural background, now have an easier time making themselves heard. I welcome all of these changes.

But those of us who are familiar with the publishing business also know that the democratization of publishing has not been an unalloyed good. Yes, eloquent voices who for too long were excluded from mainstream publishing are now reaching audiences. But there are also too many books being produced that require substantial editing, but aren’t getting any. There are too many authors now being published who weren’t excluded from the field because they were innovative or speaking from underrepresented groups — they were excluded because they had not yet mastered the rudiments of writing prose and creating narrative.

I know lots of young, talented authors — of different genders, races, cultural traditions — who are deserving of success in publishing, but who can’t make themselves heard in the new marketplace, because that market is already flooded with stories, many of them of questionable quality. Because I know the publishing world so well, I understand the nuances of these new dynamics, the good and the bad.

And I find myself reconsidering all that I said before about music and photography. I don’t know those industries the way I know the literary world, but I have to imagine that musicians and photographers face the same struggles and frustrations writers do. I do have a friend who is a professional photographer. He is successful, having worked for years for National Geographic and other prestigious publications. I know the fact that amateur photographers like me can now make our work look “professional” has made his business harder to maintain. I have no doubt that many professional musicians face similar challenges. So all the confidence I expressed earlier in this piece, about how the opening up of technologies in music and photography to everyone is nothing but good — that now strikes me as ill-considered, a reflection of my ignorance.

I have no answers. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what questions I’m asking. I simply know that the artistic world has changed thanks to digital technology and the opening of artistic industries to everyone from the most advanced professional to the laziest weekend hobbyist. Lots of good has come of this. But for those who make their livings in the arts, these changes, taking place on a historic scale, present new and daunting challenges as well.

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: Lessons From A Recent Edit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you found this helpful.

Keep writing!

 

 

Tuesday Special Announcement

So, I have been sitting on this for a little while, but at this point the contracts are signed, the editorial process is well underway, and discussions of marketing have begun. Which means I can now make the official announcement.

My new supernatural thriller, RADIANTS, and its as-yet-untitled sequel, will be published by Belle Books! The books will appear under the David B. Coe byline.

Woot!!

I am very excited and will keep all of you informed as publication dates are firmed up, cover art is developed, and the time for teasers approaches.