Tag Archives: Artifice and Craft

Professional Wednesday: What Matters Professionally, part II

If you follow my blog at all, you know that in this month’s posts I have been asking the question “What matters?” in a number of personal and professional contexts. Last week, in my first Professional Wednesday post of the year, I focused on the big things that matter to us as professionals and aspiring professionals — our ambitions, our favorite projects, our goals, both immediate and longer term. This week, I would like to address the question from a different perspective.

When we’re working on a project, we tend to concern ourselves with different things at different times. Some of those things matter more than others, and I have noticed when working with new writers, that those with somewhat less experience often wind up worrying unnecessarily about issues that really don’t matter all that much in the greater scheme of things. And at the same time, they will often not give much thought to things that really ought to be foremost in their minds.

So I thought I would look at a few common issues and give some sense of how much, in my opinion, these things matter.

For instance . . . .

New writers tend to worry a great deal about being “scooped,” about having someone — in the worst instance, someone more famous and accomplished than they are — come up with the same concept for a story or novel, rendering their idea unmarketable. Does this sound familiar?

Stop worrying. This is, to my mind, a definite “doesn’t matter.” You will not be scooped. Some thirty-plus years ago, when I was in graduate school, my dissertation advisor told me something that has stuck with me ever since. I expressed to him my fear that someone else would publish a dissertation on my topic before I had a chance to finish. (This is a fear that plagues grad students even more than it does fiction writers.) And he said to me, “If you think you can be scooped, you’re thinking of your dissertation topic too narrowly,” meaning, essentially, that all good dissertations operate on multiple levels. They are works of complexity and personal creativity and thus cannot be duplicated by someone else.

Stories are the same. I edit themed anthologies. For our latest collection, Artifice and Craft, Edmund Schubert and I have received over 530 submissions, all of them born of the same prompt. And no two are the same. You and I could start with the exact same story premise, and within ten pages our books would diverge, because we all write from personal experience, from idiosyncratic emotions, from unique imaginations. You will not be scooped.

New writers also tend to worry a lot about genre and marketing, and I understand why. Certainly I have been guilty of telling young writers to come up with elevator pitches for their projects. “Know how to sell it,” I often say. “Know who your audience is going to be.” And I believe this is sound advice as one is revising their novel and getting ready to send it off to publishers and/or agents. Early on, though, as we are conceiving the novel and diving into that first draft, I would argue that marketing and audience identification are secondary to the creative process. Write your book. Write the story that makes your heart sing, that stirs your creative passion. The marketing stuff will wait — and ultimately will be easier if you write the book or story you love. Commercial imperatives should not guide your imagination. You’ll have plenty of time later to figure out how to sell the thing to readers. At the start, our greatest concerns should be character, plotting, setting, pacing, prose. Those are what matter.

What about those things that DO matter, but that tend to get short shrift from too many authors? I would encourage every author, regardless of experience level, to think about a few questions as they begin work on their novels and short stories. First, we should consider who we ought to use as our point of view characters. I like to ask myself, “Whose story is this?” and base my choice of POV character on the answer to that question. If I decide to use multiple points of view — a question closely related to “Who?” is “How many?” — I will ask myself at the beginning of each new chapter or section, “Who is the key person in this scene?” More often than not, that person will be my POV character for the passage. I have run across many scenes that are written from the perspective of someone who is, in my opinion, the wrong character to tell that part of the story. As a result, I, as a reader, don’t have access to the thoughts and emotions I want to read at a particular moment, which can be incredibly frustrating.

We should also ask ourselves,“Are we starting our story in the right place?” So often, I read manuscripts that open way too early in the narrative. For page after page, we get background information and little-to-no important action or emotional content. Or, less commonly, I see manuscripts that begin too late, AFTER what really ought to be the inciting event. Be sure you know where to begin your story — and consider the possibility that what SEEMS like the right spot early in the writing process, might ultimately prove to be less than optimal once you have a better sense of your story. Be willing and prepared to revise accordingly

Finally, we should constantly ask ourselves if the scene we’re writing — if every scene we write — serves the larger narrative. It’s not that we can’t pursue subplots and secondary narratives. Of course we can. They enrich and deepen our stories. But they should also serve the whole. We should strive for coherence, for interconnection among our various plot threads. A secondary story for its own sake will only confuse and annoy our readers, distracting them from the narratives that are most important.

More on “what matters” next week.

For now, keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Preparing For the Coming Year

December has come to my little corner of the Cumberland Plateau. The trees are bare, days of gray skies and cold winds outnumber the blue, chickadees and nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers and cardinals flock to my feeders. Yes, we still have nearly a month left in 2022, but already these remaining weeks feel foreshortened. The holidays will gobble up much of our time and energy in the closing days of the month, and we will be distracted by all the preparations for family get-togethers and the like.

Which is as it should be. The past two years have seen our holidays strained and, for some, ruined by the pandemic. We deserve a holiday season.

Already, though, my professional thinking has turned to 2023. In past years, I have written about my penchant for mapping out my professional year, trying to plan for the many projects I intend to take on in the months to come. I didn’t write a post of this sort last year, because of the uncertainty surrounding our daughter’s health, and the fresh memory of how so many of my plans were upended in 2020 and 2021 by the pandemic, by family issues, by emotional strain, etc. The fact is, my professional plans are always just that: plans, intentions, hopes even. Nothing more.

And so I approach the coming year with a bit more humility than I did in the years before Covid and before my family’s health crisis. Any work calendar I create will be written in pencil, not pen.

But I also understand that planning out my work calendar helps me, and I believe you might find it helpful to create a similar plan for your coming year.

Right now, I am struggling to decide what major writing project I will take on next. I have posted about this before, and have asked for input from followers of my work and this blog. Yet, still I haven’t been able to decide on a path forward. That’s fine for now. I have stories to read for the Artifice and Craft anthology. I have a story to write for the Dragonesque anthology. I have a couple of editing clients interested in engaging me for some work. In short, I have no shortage of things to keep me busy.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t missing the allure of the new shiny. One of the things a work calendar does is keep me looking forward. Often a project supplies its own momentum. The desire to see it through to the end, to complete the damn thing, is usually enough to keep me on task. Now and then, though, I need the carrot of the next project to pull me through. “When I finish this, I get to work on X.”

Put another way, I don’t have to decide right now what major writing project to take on in 2023. I am certain, however, that if I can decide and hold that next project out as the prize I get for completing other things, it will make reading anthology slush a little easier.

I also find a work calendar helpful as I seek to manage my own professional expectations. It’s easy to look at a blank calendar and think, “I have all year to get X,Y, and Z finished.” As it happens, this is rarely the case. Already I know that I’ll be editing short stories for much of January and preparing for the releases of The Chalace War books starting in February and continuing through the spring. (Oh, and here’s the art for book I again, just because I love it so much . . . .) Plus, non-writing stuff is bound to impinge on my writing time. We need to do some work on our house, and that will also probably come in the spring. The work promises to be disruptive. There is no way I’ll be as productive as usual while it’s going on.The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. Coe

I need to take all of this into account while planning my schedule. Because even if some of my deadlines are self-imposed (rather than coming from a publisher) I know that missing them can disrupt the work to follow. It can also have an impact on my mood, on my self-confidence as an artist. We should always keep our expectations for ourselves realistic. The last thing we want to do is set ourselves up for repeated failures by expecting too much from ourselves and not taking into account time commitments we have to make to other parts of our lives. This is not to say that we should budget too much time for projects. There is a balance to be found. We want to push ourselves to accomplish tasks that matter to us, without expecting so much that we can’t help but fail. A work calendar helps me with that.

So as the year winds down, and as I sit in front of a fire, or in front of yet another World Cup soccer match, I will be working on my work calendar, mapping out a strategy for getting done all I hope to accomplish, and also for managing the inevitable disruptions that life — both professional and private — tends to throw in our path. It’s easy to do. I receive calendars in the mail all the time from the various charities we give to each year. I always reserve one of those calendars for this.

Best of luck with your 2023, whether or not you map it out ahead of time.

And, of course, 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: Writing For a Themed Anthology . . . And My Story Idea Revealed!

With the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter well underway, and our pledges slowly creeping up on our ambitious funding goal (four anthologies instead of three this year, to mark ZNB’s 10th anniversary!), it is time for my yearly “Writing For a Themed Anthology” post. This post, though, has a bit of a twist, which I’ll share with you at the end of the essay.

This year, I am hoping (Kickstarter gods allowing) to co-edit Artifice and Craft, with my dear friend, Edmund R. Schubert. Edmund is an experienced editor, a fantastic writer, and one of my very favorite people in the world. He and I have been friends for a long, long time, and have worked together on many projects. He edited and contributed to How To Write Magical Words, the book on writing I co-wrote with A.J. Hartley, Faith Hunter, Stuart Jaffe, Misty Massey, and C.E. Murphy. He also edited a couple of my short stories when he was lead editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show. And I edited a story of his for Temporally Deactivated. We have, however, never co-edited before this. I’m excited.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierThis will be the fifth anthology I have edited for ZNB (after Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, Derelict, and Noir). For each of them, we have had literally hundreds of submissions for about seven open slots. Getting a story into these anthologies is really hard. We editors have the luxury of being highly selective, because we have so many stories from which to choose.

I have found that no matter the theme, there are recurring categories of stories my co-editors and I tend to reject. The first category is fairly obvious, and encompasses the vast majority of rejections: Some stories just don’t work for one of several reasons. The writing might be too rough, the prose unclear and inelegant; the plot might be too hard to follow (or even indecipherable); or the character development might be weak. Put another way, some stories simply aren’t ready for publication. This is fairly self-evident. When reading slush, we expect to encounter a lot of stories that need too much work to be up to standard.

But then there are two other categories that are far more important for our discussion today.

A) Some stories we get are beautifully written and have really fine core ideas. But they fail to move beyond their conceptual strengths and delve into the emotional and narrative potential of those ideas. I can’t tell you how often we read stories like these, and it’s deeply frustrating. Yes, a themed anthology demands stories that have strong conceptual underpinnings. But the idea is only as good as the story it inspires. It’s not enough to show us the great idea. Authors need to develop those ideas, to give them meaning by building compelling characters and creating tension and suspense and all the other emotions that come through in effective storytelling. So if you submit a story, make sure you give us more than an idea. Give us a fully realized story.

B) Some stories we get are brilliantly written AND developed beyond the conceptual to dive into emotion and character arc and all the rest. But they’re not on theme. This year’s theme for our anthology, Artifice and Craft, is pretty simple. The story needs to have at its core some piece of art that has magical or supernatural qualities. It can be any kind of art, from a painting or sculpture, to a theatrical production or musical composition, to a piece of fine furniture or a piece of short fiction. It’s not enough to have the work of art in the story. It needs to be central to the plot, so that if the work of art were taken out, the entire story would collapse. We will make this clear in the call for submissions. And yet, I can guarantee you that we will receive dozens of stories that aren’t at all on theme, or that, for instance, feature a magical artist who creates great art (which is NOT on theme) or that mention a magical novel, but focus on a scheme to steal the book, rather than on the book itself. (Again, that is NOT on theme, because you could replace the book with, say, a diamond, and you’d have the same basic story.)

So make certain you are following the theme as it is described in the guidelines. Make sure you are doing more than just jotting down an idea, that you’re developing that idea with character work and emotion and tension and conflict and all the other good stuff we writers like to do. And then go to town! Because writing for anthologies is really fun.

Finally, allow me to share with you my own story idea. I am editing Artifice and Craft, but I am also an anchor author for Dragonesque, which will be edited by Joshua Palmatier and S.C. Butler. The theme of Dragonesque is dragon stories written from the point of view of the dragon. Fun, right?

So, the dragon in my story is going to a re-enactor, a dragon who does Renaissance Faires and such. Each weekend she allows herself to be “slain” by a knight, and in return she is paid in gold. Except, she’s getting tired of losing all the time, of letting herself be humiliated by these pretend knights. And during the weekend on which my story focuses, she decides to take matters into her own talons, as it were . . . .

Our Kickstarter is going well. We’re about 2/3 of the way to our funding goal. But if I’m going to write my dragon story, and if Edmund and I are going to find the best magical-work-of-art stories available, we first have to fund the anthologies. So if you want to read great short fiction, and/or if you want to have four new anthologies to which to submit your work, please consider supporting the project! Thanks so much!

Monday Musings: Wading Back In (and Why I Left)

Yes, I’m back, dipping my toes cautiously into the social media waters, gauging my mental state. I have a lot going on professionally right now, and I need to write about it, to boost the signal (as the market phrase would have it), to shout it from the virtual rooftops.

And so, I’m venturing back out into the digital world. But you, who have put up with me disappearing now and again, deserve a bit of an explanation for my sudden withdrawal back in early July.

The short version is this: Our older daughter, who has been battling cancer since March 2021, had an unexpected setback. “Unexpected” as in out of the blue. All (or at least almost all) the indicators had been looking pretty good, pointing toward slow but measurable progress. And then one scan — a formality, dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s — came back with unambiguously bad results. Bad.

We were devastated, and I needed time. As it happened, at that point in the summer, Nancy and I were preparing for a long stretch of travel, and I would have needed to write several weeks worth of blog posts in advance and schedule them for our time away. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to write a bunch of happy, chatty posts when I was shattered.

Hence, my pull-back.

Our daughter is back in chemotherapy. We’ll find out before too long whether it is working as we hope or if her doctors will need to try something else. In the meantime, she is doing remarkably well. The side-effects of this particular drug are, mercifully, not too terrible. She is working as usual on non-treatment days. She is seeing friends, going to parties, having fun. She is a wonder. A force of nature. Her courage and strength and resilience and determination humble me. I am embarrassed by my own fragility. But I’m a parent and my kid is sick and I can’t do a damn thing to make it all better. Isn’t that what dads are supposed to do? Make it all better? I feel helpless.

But given all she is doing for herself, how can I do any less than step back into the world, be a professional, and live my life as best I can?

So . . . .

I am currently working on my new contemporary Celtic urban fantasy. I have recently revised the first book, The Fugitive Stone, and am now about to submit for editorial feedback the second book, The Demon Cauldron. The third book, The Lost Sword, is about two-thirds written. I’ll be resuming work on it soon.

The Kickstarter for the new set of Zombies Need Brains anthologies is live and it needs your support! We have four anthologies in this year’s set, including Dragonesque, an anthology of stories from the dragon’s point of view, for which I will be writing a story, and Artifice and Craft, an anthology of stories about magical or supernatural works of art that I am editing with my wonderful friend, Edmund R. Schubert. We are halfway to our funding goal, but that leaves us with some fundraising distance to travel in the three weeks we have left. Please, please, please help us out.

I am also continuing to edit on a freelance basis, as I have been for about a year now.

And I am preparing for a couple of upcoming professional events. I will be a guest at this year’s DragonCon, my first appearance at the con since 2018. I can’t wait to get back to our genre’s version of Mardi Gras — it’s always a highlight of my professional year, and it’s been too long. DragonCon takes place in Atlanta, the first weekend of September.

And later in September, I will be an instructor at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, leading workshops on Point of View, Character Development and Character Arc, World Building, and Pacing and Narrative Arc.

Busy times. Difficult times. But I think that’s true for all of us. We all struggle. We all find ways to cope, to overcome, or at least to distract and scrape by.

I mentioned our travel — Nancy and I went to Colorado, where we had a wonderful visit with our younger daughter and her partner. From there, we went to Boise, to see Nancy’s family. And finally, we spent nearly a week in the area around Bozeman, hiking every day, looking at birds and butterflies, the brilliant hues of wildflowers and mountain vistas that stole our breath. Maybe I’ll post a few photos in the weeks to come.

Thank you for your understanding when I needed to step away from social media. Thank you for the warm, welcoming embrace of your friendship as I return. Going forward, I will try to do better.