Tag Archives: business of publishing

Professional Wednesday: Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and the Hardest Writing Topic to Teach (For Me)

This week I head to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. I’ll be teaching several workshops over the three days I’m there — a two-hour master class on “Point of View and Voice,” a ninety-minute class on “Character and Character Arc,” and two one-hour classes, one on “World Building” and one on “Pacing and Narrative Arc.” I always look forward to conferences like this one, in large part because I love to teach, and I love to talk about the craft of story telling.

Recently, some of you may recall, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in encouraging aspiring writers given the state of today’s literary market. I don’t believe teaching at the workshop contradicts or undermines what I wrote in that post. If students ask me about the business side of writing, I will be brutally honest with them. And even if they don’t ask the questions, I will not misrepresent the publishing industry or in any way downplay the difficulties currently faced by new writers.

Teaching writing, though, is always a service, always a worthwhile thing to do. Whether someone wishes to write professionally (despite the odds) or write as a hobby — or something in between — it can never hurt to hone those skills. I don’t ever intend to be a professional photographer or musician, but I am always looking to improve at both and would gladly attend photography workshops to learn new techniques. (Provided I can find the time and the money to do so — those workshops are spendy!) Put another way, if I can help any writer improve their skills and get more enjoyment out of their literary projects, I believe I have done a good thing.

I have taught on previous occasions all the topics I’ll be covering this weekend, and I can safely say that pacing and narrative arc are far and away the toughest to teach. Why? Because, they are somewhat amorphous topics. Point of view has definite categories and approaches. It has “rules” most writers tend to follow and most editors tend to look for. I have developed techniques and mechanisms for character development that I am more than happy share. And world building is a process with which I am very familiar and which can be broken down into component parts as a way of rationalizing a complex, sprawling endeavor.

Pacing, though, is all about feel, about instinct. I can talk about things I try to do myself, in my own work, but even those discussions tend to stray into the realm of analogies and metaphors, ways of describing something that defies description. A lot of what I have learned over the years about pacing and shaping narrative arc, has come out of trial and error, mistakes I made in one book or series and corrected in the next, or the one after that.

So why try to teach it? Because, quite honestly, despite the difficulties inherent in talking about a subject that is so hard to pin down — or perhaps because of those challenges — some of the best teaching sessions I’ve ever had focused on this subject. As the topic grows harder to discuss, I find, the classes on the topic grow increasingly interactive, until all in the room are working on ways to conceptualize and contextualize the conversation. In other words, it becomes a team effort, and that helps everyone in the room.

I plan to approach the class in three ways — one is conceptual, relying on those analogies I mentioned earlier; one is visual, using drawings to show how narrative arc ought to progress in a book and in a series; and one is pragmatic, focusing on those narrative mechanics that help us with pacing and that are easiest to discuss in concrete terms.

As I say, my past experiences with teaching pacing and narrative arc have generally been pretty good (and I just jinxed myself) so I am hoping this one will be, too.

The other thing I love about teaching at conferences like Hampton Roads is the opportunity to hang out with other industry professionals, and I believe the coming weekend will be especially fun, since two of my favorite people in the world, Edmund Schubert and John Hartness, will be there as well. In fact, Edmund is one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

So that’s what I have on tap for my end-of-week/weekend. I hope yours is great.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: What To Tell Aspiring Writers About The Current Literary Market

If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion.

This past weekend, while at DragonCon, I spent a lot of time on writing panels, talking with other literary professionals in front of audiences made up largely of aspiring writers. We mostly discussed ways to improve various elements of our storytelling, but we spoke as well about the state of the current writing market, and the challenges of embarking on a literary career.

Reflecting on those conversations, it occurs to me that much of what we discussed warrants repetition and amplification in this venue.

This has been a summer of bad news for those of us who (try to) make our livings writing books. Book sales are down across the board this year. Barnes and Noble is rumored to be cutting back drastically on what books it will carry and market. The trial to determine the future of the proposed merger between Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster has revealed that book sales for the vast majority of volumes published each year are shockingly, depressingly low. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but if they’re not, that would only mean that publishers routinely mislead authors about their sales numbers, which would also be shocking and depressing. Lose lose.

I have neither the data nor the experience to state categorically that it has never been harder to be a professional writer, but I can say that right now the business outlook for our industry pretty much sucks.

Which has left me wondering — as I attend conventions and get ready to teach at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference — how can I mentor young writers when the market is so dauntingly hostile? I struggle with this nearly daily.

I have been in the business for a long time. I have literally dozens of publishing credits — as a novelist, as a short story writer, as an editor. I have awards to my name, a history of strong reviews, a reputation as a professional who hits his deadlines, turns in clean manuscripts, and is reasonably easy to work with. (Mostly.) And yet, I still get lots of rejections when I shop new projects. My advances are lower now than they were early in my career. My sales numbers have declined with those across the industry. Maintaining my career has never been harder — it feels like all my accomplishments and credits mean nothing at all.

Again, I question how I can, in good conscience, tell people, “Yes! Go forth! Write your books! Try to make a career for yourselves in this crazy, cruel, struggling business!”

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and advise young me on the career choice I made back in the mid-1990s, would I tell him/me to embark on this career? Probably. But I have been extraordinarily fortunate in certain ways (and chronically unlucky in others), especially in that I have enjoyed the support of an incredible, generous, accomplished life partner. If I was doing this alone, without Nancy? No way in hell.

If that hypothetical time travel worked differently, and young me was starting now? I would probably advise him/me to find another career, or at the very least to approach this one very, very differently, to look upon writing as a paying hobby, not as a profession, and to keep his/my expectations quite low.

Throughout my career I have spoken often of the importance of loving what we do. And I mean it in several ways. On one level, love what we do means write for the love of it, because the payoffs of this profession, financial and emotional, can be slim and fleeting. On another level, love what we do means we must love the stories we write, and write the stories about which we’re passionate. The market is a moving target. Writing to the market is just about impossible. So we should write the stories that sing in our hearts, because that love will shine through in the final product, and we will enjoy the process more. Finally, love what we do means we must take satisfaction in the stories we produce, because often the artistic creation itself is the lone reward for a job well done.

Strangely, even in this current market — indeed, especially in this current market — “Love what we do” remains good advice. If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion. Writing because we think it’s just a good gig, a great way to make a few bucks? If that’s what you’re thinking, I suggest you go back and reread the opening graphs of this post.

As queasy as I might feel about encouraging young writers to go out and try to make a go of literary careers, I feel even worse saying, “No! Don’t do it! That way lies madness, not to mention bruised egos and poverty!” In a sense, there is no good option here.

And so I will continue on this middle course. I will continue to say the following: “Writing is hard. It’s always been hard. It’s even harder now. But it’s also a glorious journey through imagination and emotion and creation, a wondrous alchemy by which we take words and turn them into living, breathing characters and their fully realized lives. And here are some tips for doing that as effectively as possible . . . .”

Enjoy the rest of your week, and keep writing.

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.

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With My Latest Editorial Feedback

I’ve written many times before about dealing with edits on a story or novel manuscript, and I don’t want to repeat myself any more than necessary. But I have just received feedback from my editor on the first book in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series, and I thought a return to this topic might prove helpful to some. Including me.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my expanded editorial responsibilities, and the ways in which doing more editing had made me a better writer, as well as the ways in which writing for more than twenty-five years had helped hone my editorial eye. I also mentioned that the best editors are those who help writers realize their creative visions without imposing the editors’ own, and that professional writers must learn to be open to editorial comments and to avoid defensiveness.

Neither of these things is easy to do.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)My editor at Belle Books is a woman named Debra Dixon, and she is a truly remarkable editor. This first book in the Celtic series is our third novel together, after Radiants and Invasives. In our time together, I have never once felt that her responses to my work were intrusive or unhelpful. With each book it’s been clear to me that her every observation, every criticism, every suggestion, is intended to help me tell my story with the greatest impact and in the most concise and effective prose. A writer can’t ask for more. This doesn’t mean I have agreed with every one of her comments. Now and then, I have felt strongly enough about one point or another to push back. And she’s fine with that. That’s how the editor-writer relationship is supposed to work, and she has always been crystal clear: In the end, my book is my book. But even when we have disagreed we have been clear on our shared goal: To make each book as good as it can be.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)My struggle right now is simply this: Her feedback on this first book is quite extensive and requires that I rethink some fundamental character issues and cut or change significantly several key early scenes. And she’s right about all this stuff. No doubt. This first book has been through several revisions already, and the second half of the book — really the last two-thirds of the book — just sings. I love it. She loves it. The first third is where the problems lie. To be honest, the first hundred (manuscript) pages of this book have always given me the most trouble. I wrote the initial iteration of the book more than a decade ago, and in some ways those early chapters still reflect too much the time in which they were written. They feel dated.

So I am rethinking the opening. Again.

In the weeks to come, I will likely rewrite most or all of those early chapters. Right now I am still struggling a bit to wrap my head around how, exactly, I am going to tackle those rewrites. This is a book I love, a book I have lived with for twelve years, a book I have worked and reworked and reworked again. I thought I was done with it. I thought it would be fine as written. I needed Deb to look it over and tell me all the ways it doesn’t work.

Now that she has done this, I can’t think about the book without cringing at all the flaws I missed, that I was willing to accept. Again, to be very, very clear, I do not disagree with any of Deb’s critiques of the novel. But this doesn’t mean they don’t pain me.

And that’s all right, too. Again, as I have said many times before, writers have to be open to editorial feedback. We have to understand that our first draft, or our second, or even our tenth, isn’t perfect. A book can always be improved. We don’t publish when our books are perfect. If we did, no book would ever be published. We publish when the book is as good as we fallible humans, working together, can make it.

What I don’t always mention when writing about editing and revisions, is this: I go through a complicated emotional process when dealing with an editor’s feedback. It starts with grief. I always feel a little hurt by the criticisms of my newest baby. I feel bruised and battered, sad and even a bit helpless. We love our books. We have worked so hard to make them as wonderful as they can be. Being told they need still more work, having all their faults and flaws pointed out to us — that kind of sucks. [Editor’s note: delete “kind of”]

Grief gives way to anger pretty quickly. It’s not that this hurts, although it does. No! It’s that [insert editor’s here] is just flat-out wrong! What they hell do they know? Okay a lot. But it’s not like they’ve been doing this for years and years! Okay, yes, they have. It’s not . . . It’s not . . .

It’s not them. It’s me. And my book.

Anger sluices away, and what’s left is resignation, recognition. All those problems the editor has identified? They’re real. They need our attention.

Which brings us to despair.

My book is terrible. Despite what my editor thinks, it can’t be saved. I should just give up now.

But, of course, we have no intention of giving up. We’ve written the damn book. If we’d intended to give up, we would have done it ages ago, when we were first struggling to write it. No, the only thing we can do is fix it, make it as good as it can possibly be, which was the entire point of submitting ourselves to the editorial process in the first place. And so at last we come to acceptance.

And at that point we are ready to begin revising.

I am somewhere between despair and acceptance right now. By the time you read this, I should be fully in acceptance and ready to begin revisions.

Because I’m a professional writer, and this is what we do.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Understand Your Contracts

Today’s post won’t be overly long. It doesn’t need to be, as the advice is fairly straightforward.

One of the advantages of having an agent, beyond increased chances of selling our work to a traditional publisher, and increased access to secondary sales of media rights and translation rights, is that agents understand contracts. When I first entered the business, I didn’t know the first thing about them. I have learned over the course of my career, but I’ve been in publishing for twenty-five years. If I hadn’t learned it would be downright embarrassing.

The fact is, though, in today’s marketplace, finding an agent is harder than ever. And for many of us, it might not be absolutely necessary. Yes, those subsidiary sales are nice, but if our goal is simply publication here in the U.S., and if we’re willing to sign with a small press, we can do this without representation.

But here’s the thing: If we don’t have an agent, we need to educate ourselves on the meaning of contracts. Because no writer should ever sign a contract unless they understand and agree to every single clause.

Look, there are a lot of publishers out there. Small, large, and in between. And many of them — most of them, I would say — are decent, honest, and well-meaning. Many of them are also competent and capable of drawing up a contract that is comprehensive and legally sound. And the Venn Diagram that finds the overlap between those two groups probably includes a good number of publishers.

But it definitely doesn’t include all of them. There are some who are competent but untrustworthy. There are some who are honest but not so good with the legal words thing. There are some who are incompetent crooks, and there are some who probably mean well but simply have some wonky stuff in their business model.

Sadly, none of them come with signs attached telling us to which category they belong. It is up to us to read and understand the legal agreements we’re signing. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we get screwed later on.

Read your contracts line by line. Make notes of anything you don’t understand and ask questions. Ask other writers or editors or publishers you know. Ask that friend who happens to be a lawyer. Seek professional, paid legal advice if you need to. Yes, this last will cost you something on the front end, but you’ll be glad you did it. If you understand the contract but find some of the provisions not to your taste, bring those clauses to the attention of your publisher and try to negotiate a change.

Finally — and this might be the hardest bit of advice to follow — be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t budge. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. Getting a book offer is heady stuff. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment, to believe that this is the ONE opportunity that will ever come our way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we let this one go, we will regret it for the rest of our lives. And I can’t guarantee that’s not the case. But I can tell you these two things: 1) If one publisher thinks our book is publishable, chances are another will too, even if we have to wait a while; and 2) Signing a bad contract can absolutely be worse than signing no contract at all.

So understand your contracts. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand or don’t like. And be prepared to take your book elsewhere.

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: My Editing Journey

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

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

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

How the hell did this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

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

This week I conclude my series of posts on how I came to be a professional writer. You can read the previous posts before moving on with this one. We’ll wait. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

There! Now you’re all caught up. Feel better?

I’m calling this an Epilogue, because it seems foolish to go through every step of my career, when much of it has been fairly public and thus easy to trace through my publications, reviews of my work, con appearances, social media and the like, and my own blog posts about various experiences. Far more valuable, I believe, will be a discussion of a few key points about what I have learned in my twenty-five-plus years as a professional.

I’ll start with this. Recently, while giving a talk to the Apex Writer’s Group, I was asked what I know now about writing that I wish I had known from the start. My answer: I wish I had known then that career trajectories are not linear, they are not smooth, they are not simple. I have said a thousand and one times that writing is hard. A couple of weeks ago I went on a little rant about how we writers should handle adversity without just giving up on the whole thing. But the fact is, I have contemplated quitting more than once. My career followed a nice, upward trajectory for a time, but then, due both to circumstances beyond my control, and to poor decisions I made myself, my march toward bigger and better things halted, stumbled, took a few steps back. My sales numbers dipped. I reinvented myself. Things improved, but then more events I could not control (and a few I could) knocked me back again. Things seemed to be righting themselves and then they fell apart once more, this time through no fault of my own.

Yes, this is vague. Some of the stories that have impacted my career are not mine to tell. Others are, but they involve me casting light on questionable behavior and choices by others and I won’t go there. Another lesson: This — fantasy, writing, publishing — is a relatively small community and we need to be careful about the stories we tell, the actions of others we expose, the decisions we question publicly.

And really, the specifics are beside the point. Because what I’m talking about — the unpredictability of one’s writing fate — is something nearly all writers experience. I know precious few authors whose careers have followed a smooth, ever-rising trajectory. Most of us are knocked on our butts again and again and again.

What separates the professionals who enjoy long careers from those who don’t is the willingness of the former to get up off their rear ends each time they’re knocked down. As I said, I have contemplated giving up multiple times. But I never did quit.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonI am not the most talented writer I know. Not by a long shot. I am good. I believe that. My character work is strong. My world building is imaginative. My prose is clean and tight and it flows nicely. I write convincing, effective dialogue and I have a fine eye for detail. My plotting and pacing, which were once just okay, have gotten stronger over the years. I think writing the Thieftaker books — being forced to blend my fictional plots with real historical events — forced me to improve, and that improvement has shown up in the narratives of the Islevale and Radiants books.

But there are plenty of other writers who do all those things as well as I do if not better. I have been helped throughout my career, though, by a few other qualities. I am disciplined and productive. I work every weekday and at least one day on weekends. I consistently hit my word counts and meet my project goals. I never miss a deadline. I have developed a thick skin — mostly — and have learned not to take to heart criticism and rejections and bad reviews. (Mostly.) I am resilient. And, with effort and practice, I have learned to take to heart the advice I often give to self-define success.

I’m writing and editing for small presses now. I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to the bigger ones. I love my current publishers, and see little need to switch back to the high pressure relationships I once had with big-name houses. I’m writing books I love, and that is, I believe, a key to being successful as I define the word. I don’t expect any one project to make me a ton of money, and that’s okay. I’m happier in my career right now than I have ever been. Partly this is due to my enjoyment of my relatively new career as an editor. This year will see the release of my fourth co-edited anthology with Zombies Need Brains. And I will also continue to expand my freelance editing business. At this point, I expect I’ll spend more time in 2022 editing than writing.

This is not at all where I envisioned myself when I started my career. Back then, I was filled with dreams of bestselling books and a shelf (or two) filled with World Fantasy Awards. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did hope my commercial performance, which has always been a bit disappointing, would match my critical success, which has always been a point of pride. The fact is, though, the business today is greatly changed from where it was when I began. Back then no one had ever heard of e-books. I built myself a web page when my first book came out, and just having a web page conveyed more legitimacy than the publication itself. Seriously.

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

It is a changed world, and it is also now a much harder market. An ever-growing universe of authors are seeking the attention of a fairly static universe of readers, meaning sales for each writer are harder to come by. Advances are smaller if they’re offered at all. Many authors are working harder and harder just to maintain a level of income that is, nevertheless, lower than it used to be. Commercial success means something different now than it did when I began. I count as a triumph the mere fact that I continue to get writing contracts.

I once thought I would reach a point where I stopped worrying that my career would tank, forcing me to give it up as a full time profession. I was disabused of that notion early on by a writer who was very successful and who told me, “Oh, you never stop worrying.” And it’s true. I have been able to continue writing full-time because my partner in love and life has a good job that provides not just the bulk of our income, but also our health care and retirement funds.

The hard truth is, on some level my mother was right when she and I had our big fight about whether I should teach history or write fantasy. As a history professor I would have made a decent living. I would have had job security, retirement accounts, health benefits. And yes, that would have been success as defined a certain way.

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

Again, I find myself struck by my good fortune. Throughout my professional life, I have had the luxury of pursuing a career I love and choosing to define my success not just in terms of earnings, but also in terms of joy. It’s a cliché, but there is no way to put a price tag — or a royalty statement — on that.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Top Ten Reasons You Need INVASIVES!!

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)

In case the daily teasers and cover art reveals and previous blog posts all failed to tip you off, this is release week for Invasives, the second Radiants novel. It comes out on Friday, February 18! Yay!!

Release weeks are a big deal and we authors depend on early sales of new books to maintain series momentum and to get the new book front and center in the attention of the reading public.

And so, here are my top ten reasons why you need to buy INVASIVES!

10. I’m a good guy, and you want to help out my career!

9. Have you seen the jacket art?? I mean I know: book, cover, ixnay on the udgementjay. But this is a seriously cool cover, and, I have to say, it is quite representative of the story contained within.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)8. You read Radiants, right? Right? And so you know how good that book was. Why wouldn’t you want to read this one, too?

7. Along similar lines, I love this series, and I think if you give the books a chance, you’re going to love the series, too. And if the second book doesn’t sell, there won’t be a third. That is simple publishing industry arithmetic. Good sales mean a series continues. Bad sales not so much.

6. My lead characters are homeless teens living in the New York City subway tunnels. I’ve written about an entire underground culture and society — the Below — invisible to those of us in the Above. That alone should be pretty intriguing.

5. You’ve seen the teasers I’ve been putting up daily on social media. Tell me those haven’t whet your appetite for the story.

4. All kidding and promotional enthusiasm aside, this is the book I wrote during the time when I was first dealing with the news of my older daughter’s cancer diagnosis. Without this story, I’m not sure how I would have made it through those dark, difficult days. All my books mean a lot to me in one way or another. But this book in particular is one that I cherish and love, in part because the emotions of my journey as I wrote it come through in the narrative, the prose, the character arcs. This is, to my mind, a very special book.

3. As I mentioned in a recent post, the three lead characters came to me long, long ago — a decade ago, or more — and they have haunted me ever since. Their backstories are complex, as are their conflicted interactions with one another. This is some of the most intricate character work I’ve done — I’m quite proud of it actually.

2. My agent, the fabulous Lucienne Diver, told me when she first read the manuscript that this might well be her favorite of all the books I’ve written. Don’t you want to know why?

And my number one reason why you should buy this new book . . .

1. It really is a fun read, a moving read, an exciting read. The story includes characters with cool Radiant powers, assassins who will chill you to the core, and heroes who will make you stand up and cheer. The narrative will grab you on page one, and it won’t let go. Trust me on this.

You can order Invasives from:

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Kobo | Google Books

 

 

Professional Wednesday: A Rant About Rejections and Quitting

Anthologies from Zombies Need BrainsAs many of you know, I am once again co-editing an anthology for Zombies Need Brains, Joshua Palmatier’s speculative fiction imprint. This is my fourth year as a co-editor, and each year Joshua follows pretty much the same approach to publishing his themed anthologies. Each collection has about fourteen story slots. He chooses a set of eight or so anchor authors for each volume and runs a Kickstarter to fund all the anthologies, using those anchor author names to attract support for the projects. Once the anthologies have funded (and Joshua has a remarkable success rate with his Kickstarters) he throws open the anthologies for general submissions, having reserved six story slots in each collection for non-anchor stories. He pays professional rates for the stories, and he puts out sleek, well-curated, well-edited books.

This year the three anthologies are Shattering the Glass Slipper, Brave New Worlds, and my anthology, Noir. Joshua is co-editing only one of the anthologies, a bit of a change from past years when he has nearly killed himself editing two or even all three of the books. We get literally hundreds of submissions for each anthology, making the selection of six (or five or seven) stories incredibly difficult.

As the publisher, Joshua takes it upon himself to send out acceptance letters and also rejections. Of course, he also handles the contracts and payments. His is a somewhat thankless job.

Most years, the rejection letters are met with either silence from the rejected authors, or, on occasion, with a “Thanks for considering me, maybe next time” note in return. This year was much the same. Except for one note he received:

In it the author said they had decided that if their story was rejected this time around, they would give up on submitting anywhere. And then they congratulated Joshua for killing their nascent writing career.

This is so wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, Joshua is as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet. He doesn’t deserve this shit from anyone, much less a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business. (More on that in a moment)

I should also say that Joshua is a class act. He told his editors about the letter, but he didn’t tell us the author’s name or which anthology the story had been submitted to. I have no idea if I read the story. I do know there is a good chance Joshua had nothing to do with the story’s rejection. Even if the story in question was submitted to the anthology he’s co-editing, the rejection would have been a joint decision between Joshua and his editing partner. Mathematically speaking, it’s more likely that another pair of editors rejected the story. Joshua was simply delivering the bad news in his capacity as publisher.

But in a way, that ignores the galaxy of larger issues raised by this note. None of us editors is responsible for killing this person’s writing career. The author of the story is solely responsible for that. They are the one who chose to base their writing future on the fate of one story. They are the one who decided that one more rejection would be enough to make them give up. This was not a career murder. It was literary suicide.

A moment ago I called this person “a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business.” Maybe that sounds harsh. Too bad.

Writing is hard. Rejections are part of the business. I have been writing for more than a quarter century. I’ve published more than twenty-five novels and at least that many short stories. I have won awards, been a convention guest of honor multiple times, had fabulous reviews. And I still have my work rejected all the time. It. Is. Part. Of. The. Business. Yes, rejections suck. And upon receiving one I give myself a bit of time to be upset, angry, sad, whatever. An hour, maybe two. If it’s a big project and a publisher I really wanted to work with, I’ll give it a day. Then I pull up my big-boy panties and get back to work.

That’s what professional writers do. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer. You’ve been rejected. You’re still working. Good on you. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Writing is not for the thin-skinned. Chances are, if a writer can’t take rejection, they can’t take criticism either. And if they can’t take criticism, they can’t work with an editor, which means they have no business being a writer in the first place.

The author of that obnoxious note has obviously not enjoyed much success as a writer. It’s pretty clear that this was the culmination of a string of rejections. I’m sorry for them. Truly. As I say, rejections suck and a bunch of them can be discouraging. And I can even see where, if these rejections have been spread over a span of several years, that could be enough to make this person give up. It’s almost enough to make me sympathetic. Almost. Because then we come back to the part where this person blames Joshua for ending their career.

Look, writing is not for everyone. Maybe you’re reading this having just been rejected yourself. Maybe you’re thinking of getting out of the business as well. I would say to you two things. First, try to remember that a rejection is not always a final judgment. Sometimes it’s a step in a creative negotiation, an indication that your story just needs a bit more work, a bit more polish, a tweak of a character or plot thread. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of your story and everything to do with the other stories in the anthology and the particular slot in the collection the editors wish to fill.

And second, always remember that your reaction to rejection is a choice. You can choose to give up. You can choose to take it personally and flounce away. Or you can choose to see it as a challenge to improve your submission, or write a stronger tale next time around.

Whatever you choose, remember this: No one can make you quit but you.

Keep writing. Or don’t. But take responsibility for that choice.