Tag Archives: character

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

Early in the year — even before the pandemic hit — I wrote a post in which I basically said that all writers should read. There are certain “rules” about the profession that are actually negotiable — writers don’t really HAVE to write every day; we don’t HAVE to outline our books to be successful; some people like to write to music while others need absolute silence.

The reading thing, however, as I said at the time, is about as close to an ironclad rule as I can think of. If we want to learn the tropes of whatever genre we write in, we have to read. If we want to learn the craft of storytelling, and continue to hone that skill over a lifetime, we have to read. If we want to be informed and culturally literate citizens of the world, we have to read.

But what should we read? As an author with many friends in the business, I find that making recommendations can be tricky. I don’t wish to insult any of my colleagues with sins of omission. But there are certain books that I have read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. That’s what I’m after in this post. The following books have taught me something about narrative, about conveying story and emotion, about crafting prose. There are some unusual, even quirky, choices here. That comes with the prerogative of writing on my own blog. I hope you find this list helpful, informative, even inspirational.

In no particular order…

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Okay, for starters, it’s just a great book and the start of a remarkable series, a deserving winner of the Hugo (which was actually awarded to all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy). Her plotting is fabulous, her use of point of view innovative and striking. Jemisin has since been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So, yeah, she basically rocks.

Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. This is an older novel, the 1996 winner of both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It’s a great story, and it makes use of point of view and voice so beautifully that I have used it for teaching on several occasions. Basically she uses three different voices for a single character, each representing different moments in her life. Brilliant.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is probably my favorite fantasy writer, and in recent years he has become a good friend, so I’m bending my own rule here, including the work of someone I know well. But I was a fanboy way before we became friends, so… He does a lot of things very well in all his books, but the world building in this particular book is breathtaking. He borrows extensively from history — he does in most of his books — but he also constructs his worlds with the care and skill of a watchmaker.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The entire Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, but this first volume especially is masterful. It’s a relatively short work, and originally received less attention than it deserved because it was classified, somewhat patronizingly, as “children’s literature.” The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the storytelling simultaneously spare and rich, the prose understated but flawless. Even if you’ve read it, give it another look

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. The first of a couple of non-genre novels. Stegner was not only a terrific writer, but also a passionate, outspoken environmentalist and a chronicler, through his fiction, of the development of the American West. In 1972, Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a master class in narrative. He basically tells two stories at once, one set in the present, one in the past. He blends them beautifully. And his prose is golden.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. Another exquisitely written novel of the American West. Kingsolver weaves together multiple narratives and employs several different points of view to tell her tale. It’s moving, sad, uplifting. Actually, writing about it makes me want to read it again…

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and then adapted the novel for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. He wrote Marathon Man, and then adapted it to the screen. And he wrote or adapted scripts for about twenty other movies you’ve heard of. In 1983, he published Adventures, which is part tell-all, part how-to. You don’t have to be an aspiring screen writer to learn from it. It is a treatise on creativity and the business of creation. It’s also entertaining as hell.

Five Seasons, by Roger Angell. Okay, this is, admittedly, a VERY quirky choice, but bear with me. Roger Angell, who recently turned 100 years old, is quite possibly the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker from the 1960s through the first decade of this millennium. He has several collections of baseball essays, and Five Seasons is my personal favorite. But if you’re a baseball fan, you can’t go wrong with any of them — The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, Game Time. They’re all amazing. His descriptions of the game and the people he encounters are strikingly original and incredibly evocative. Even if you DON’T like baseball, you could learn from his work.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Back to genre stuff for a moment. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, and it deserved them, along with every other honor it received. Terrific storytelling, powerful prose, mind-bending world building. This is the whole package.

Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. Another quirky choice. Hawthorne is, I believe, one of the more underrated of American writers. He was writing speculative fiction a century before anyone knew what the hell that was. His stories are haunting, strange, and memorable. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” might be my favorite short story. By anyone. Ever.

And with that, I’ll end.

Except to say, as I did back in February, that to be a writer is, by necessity, to be a reader as well. That is one of the joys what we do.

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue Attribution Revisited

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

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

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

 

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

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

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

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

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

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

Fine.

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

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

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

“Trust your reader” equals “Trust yourself.”

So with this story, I trusted myself.

Here is a quick sample from the story:

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

“I had a good day.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Call For Stories, and Submission Advice Revisited!

I am co-editing a new Zombies Need Brains anthology with my friend, Joshua Palmatier, who is the founder and owner of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua is co-editing all three of the ZNB anthologies this year, which to my mind is totally nuts, but good for him.

The theme and title of our project for this year is DERELICT, and if you’re a writer, you should consider submitting. We are looking for stories about derelict ships (seafaring ships, space ships, even a good story about a derelict bus or truck or car could find its way into the collection). The stories should be speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, or horror) and they should be about 2,500-7,500 words long, though REALLY good stories that are shorter or a bit longer will be considered. You can find the guidelines for all three of this year’s anthologies at the ZNB website. ALWAYS read the GLs before submitting to any market.

With stories already arriving in good numbers, and the call for stories open until December 31st, I thought I would revisit some of the short fiction submission advice I offered earlier this year and late last year.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierAnd I’ll start with this: Joshua and I are generous readers. We will read an entire story, even when it’s pretty clear halfway in (or a quarter in…) that the story probably won’t make the cut. Your goal as a writer is to sell us a story, obviously. But really your goal is to make us consider your story on your terms. Here’s what I mean by that: We are expecting to get somewhere between 300 and 400 submissions, for a total of 6 or 7 slots. (Last year, for GALACTIC STEW, we received 409 and selected 7.) Read those sentences again; I’ll wait.

We have a lot of stories to read, and while we are eager to be blown away by something really good, we are also looking for reasons to reduce our pile of submissions to be read. If you send us a manuscript that doesn’t follow the theme, or that doesn’t follow the submission guidelines, or that is filled with typos and misspellings and grammatical issues, we are probably going to reject your story and move right on to the next. That’s just fact. So, you want to get all of that stuff right, so we can consider your story solely on its merits — your terms.

Now, it may be that your story is good but not as good as others, or it might be good but too similar to others we’ve read. We’ll reject stories, even fine ones, for a number of reasons. But by getting the simple stuff right, by turning in a solid, clean, professionally presented manuscript, you give yourself a better chance.

With that in mind…

— Read and follow the guidelines. Follow the formatting to the letter. There is nothing that bothers me more than being in the middle of a 10 hour day of reading slush and getting a single-spaced manuscript that I then have to format myself. In the same way, if the GLs say the story should be no longer than 7,500 words, don’t send us something that’s 10,000. Either edit it down to the word limit or submit something else.

— Edit and polish your story. Proofread it and then proofread it AGAIN. Don’t be in such a rush to get the story out that you neglect to get rid of that typo on page 6 or three instances of “your” that should have been “you’re.” Take pride in your work. Be professional.

— Pay attention to and follow the theme. Again, we’re looking for stories about derelict ships. That doesn’t mean we want a story in which a derelict is mentioned. The ship should be the essential element of the narrative. Without the derelict, your story should fall apart. Think of it like the instructions on a cooking show: “Make our theme the star of your dish…”

— Keep in mind the basic principles of good storytelling. A successful story has conflict, emotion, tension. Characters should be impacted by what takes place. If you have trouble identifying the protagonist and antagonist of your story, it may be that you have more work to do.

— This piece of advice is one I heard Joshua give at a conference last year: Chances are your first idea won’t be your best idea. Sometimes the first idea that comes to us is the one everyone will think of. A bit more digging and thinking might produce an idea that is more original and innovative. And that may well give you a better chance of making it into the anthology. Now, I will add that now and then, the first idea IS the best. But more often than not, a bit of thought and patience will be rewarded.

— Most important, understand that a rejection from this anthology is NOT a judgment on your ability as a writer, or even on the quality of your story. Remember those numbers I gave you earlier: 300-400 submissions for 6-7 slots. Our anthology is harder to get into than Harvard. We will absolutely be rejecting outstanding stories. That’s inevitable. So don’t take it too hard. Rejections are part of being a writer. View them as a step in a longer negotiation. If your story is rejected, take ten minutes to cry over it. Have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea. And then figure out where you’re going to send the story next.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Descriptions and Point of View

Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

Not that long ago, I offered tips on writing scenes involving sex and violence, and essentially said that dealing with such encounters is almost entirely a matter of understanding and sticking to the point of view of our narrative character. These are the moments in which emotion, experience, and thought process are absolutely critical, and so for the scenes to work, we need to be completely rooted in the observations and feelings of our point of view characters.

I also offered this: “…Point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend.”

With that in mind, I want to talk today about more general descriptive passages. Describing is something we writers do all the time. Whether we are telling our readers what another character looks like, or what kind of room our point of view characters have entered or what kind of smells or tastes or sensations they are experiencing, we are describing constantly. So getting it right is really important.

I love writing descriptions. Long before I became a professional writer, I knew I was destined for this line of work because I was constantly composing such passages in my head. I would see a sunset and think, “how would I write this?” I’d ask myself the same question upon tasting something exotic and new, or smelling something awful, or… whatever. During my career, I have written descriptions that still evoke pride when I go back to read them.

Always, though, what makes the descriptions work is not just powerful prose and precise word choice. As with those action scenes I’ve written about previously, descriptions of settings and people have to tap into character, into emotion and mind-set and motivation.

Let me put it this way, if we walk into a room we’ve never been in before, we’re going to notice different things about it depending upon our circumstances and how we feel about being there. If we’re relaxed — say, visiting the home of a friend, we might take time to notice the floors, the art on the wall, the framed photos of family arrayed around the room. If, on the other hand, we’ve been brought to a place against our will, we would be more inclined to look for ways out, for details that will tell us more about our “hosts” and their intentions. If we’re trained in such things, we might even look for objects we can turn into weapons or tools of escape.

In the same way, our impressions of someone new will yield very different responses depending on whether this person seems to be an adversary or a friend, a rival or a potential mate, a long lost sibling or a celebrity we’ve been hearing about all our lives.

Now, chances are that we, in the course of our lives, will not be in a position of being taken somewhere against our will. We will likely have few opportunities to meet celebrities and few occasions to encounter mortal enemies. Our characters on the other hand… Well, we do all sorts of shit to them, don’t we?

So when we write these descriptions from THEIR point of view, we need to take into consideration what they might be thinking and feeling, what they’re worried about, if anything, and what their goals are for the encounter that is about to take place. Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

The other thing to keep in mind when writing description is the simple fact that we have five senses, not just one. We are highly visual creatures, and it’s all too easy to become so caught up in telling our readers how something looks that we neglect to mention how something sounds or feels or smells or tastes. Smells in particular are far too easy to overlook. Our sense of smell is unrefined compared to that of, say, dogs or cats or other hunting mammals. But smells can be among the most evocative of the senses. Aromas and scents can transport us, rekindling memories and emotions long buried. I still grow nostalgic for my childhood in New York and my college years in New England when I smell leaves burning in the fall. My adult daughters often remark upon arriving home for a visit that the scent of our house brings back some of their earliest memories. Taste can have a similar effect.

Again, you want to be true to the point of view of your narrator. All your readers’ sensory experiences should be colored by the emotions and exigencies of your characters. And your descriptions should involve as many of the senses as possible. Within reason, naturally. Your POV character doesn’t need to lick the walls and furniture in order to render a more complete sensory experience. That would just be weird. Unless, of course, you happen to be writing a new take on the Willy Wonka story, in which case have at it!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

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

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

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

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

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

High risk, high reward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: SEX and VIOLENCE, and How To Write Them

Title got your attention, eh?

Yeah, figured it would. I might not be a marketing genius, but I’ve learned a little bit over the years…

Last week, I wrote about using profanity in our writing, and at one point likened gratuitous spicy language to gratuitous sex and violence. I went on to reference a fairly explicit sex scene I had included in a trunk novel I happened to be editing at the time, and I said this: “…The sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book.”

It occurred to me later that I had yet to address writing sex scenes and action scenes in my Writing-Tip posts, and so here we are.

I have been fortunate in my life in that I have largely avoided violence. I have never been in combat, and have been spared violent encounters in my personal life. On the other hand – and I do not plan to say much in this regard – I have had sex. More than once.

And yet, I feel equally comfortable writing fight scenes and sex scenes. And, as it happens, I have written far more of the former than the latter. I have made up for my lack of experience with violence by reading a lot about combat in different settings, about hand-to-hand conflict, about weaponry and war tactics, and a host of other subjects necessary to give my scenes the verisimilitude I seek in all my writing.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I believe my action scenes are pretty effective, and, actually, I would say the same about my sex scenes. But that wasn’t always the case. In the first draft of my very first novel, Children of Amarid, I wrote a sex scene that my editor tore apart. And with good reason. While the rest of the narrative worked pretty well, the sex scene felt completely staged and out of character. And the reason was quite simple: For that one encounter, I forgot about my characters’ points of view and tried to write a sex scene that felt, well, sexy. That didn’t work, because my characters were young and in love, but also inexperienced and still a little awkward with each other. None of that came through in the writing.

Point of view, I have said many times before, is the key to good writing, the answer to most, if not all, of the problems that crop up in our work. Because point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend. And so it follows that, like all the writing we do, the success of our sex scenes and action scenes is entirely dependent on point of view.

Our characters’ sexual encounters are particularly dependent on emotion for their success. That unsuccessful first-try sex scene I wrote in the initial draft of Children of Amarid failed because I skipped over emotion and focused too much on lust. To be sure, passion is likely to play a role in most scenes of this sort. But for two young lovers, out of their depth and afraid and seeking emotional refuge from the threats to their lives that drive the plot, emotional is all. Passion is, in a way, secondary. In the trunk novel sex scene I mentioned earlier, emotion and body image and passion and self-doubt are all rolled together into the experience, and that’s why the scene works.

Let me put it this way: Imagine writing three sex scenes. The first features a teenager, madly in love, terrified, about to engage in their very first sexual relationship. The second features an older woman in a Western town who works in a brothel and is confronting the very real possibility that she is about to be fired because she is too old and the men coming to the brothel no longer desire her. The third features a man who is in love with his wife but facing problems in their marriage in large part because they desperately want a child and can’t manage to conceive. Clearly, these three scenes are going to read VERY differently, and those differences will express themselves through the emotions and thoughts and sensations of our point of view characters.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterIn the same way, action scenes – fight scenes, battle scenes, violent scenes; whatever you want to call them – also hinge on the qualities, histories, experiences, and emotions of our point of view characters. A seasoned fighter, someone who makes their living in a violent world or who was brought up to be a warrior, is going to experience violence quite differently from, well, someone like me, who has little knowledge of fighting technique and scant history with violence and bloodshed. The practiced fighter’s point of view might sound almost clinical – this person will know how to control emotion, how to draw upon skills and observations learned over years of training. The novice’s point of view should come off as far more desperate, fearful, overwhelmed by the frenzy of violence in which they find themselves. Again, point of view is all. One is not necessarily more exciting to read than the other – think of the battle scenes in Faith Hunter’s thrilling, New York Times Bestselling Jane Yellowrock books and in A.J. Hartley’s wonderful Will Hawthorne novels, which are not only entertaining but also a master class in writing voice. Jane is a warrior; Will is SO not.. The scenes in both make for compelling reading, but they couldn’t be more different.Act of Will, by A.J. Hartley

Finally, when we’re writing our fight scenes, we should keep these things in mind. First, these are NOT the places to dive into detailed description. Even an inexperienced fighter might notice that their opponent is brawny and big, that they move with confidence and appear to be skilled with their weapon. But our point of view fighter is NOT likely to choose that moment to focus on eye color and hair style and clothing particulars. The character should be far more concerned with staying alive! And second, taking this piece of advice from Faith: The pace of our prose in writing such scenes is the literary equivalent of a musical score in a movie. Just as during action scenes in movies, the music gets percussive and clipped and dramatic, so when writing these scenes we should make our prose spare, concise. We should depend on short, declarative, punchy sentences. We should NOT be using flowery, pretty complex phrases.

So, sex and violence. Yes, they make for interesting reading (and writing!). But they are not easy, and should not be treated the same regardless of character. Try to keep these tips in mind when crafting your next romantic interludes or violent encounters.

And keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: How To Handle Profanity In Your Writing

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

It’s a Western, the creative child of the brilliant David Milch. It’s violent, brutally realistic, and absolutely the most profane thing I have ever watched, with the possible exception of the Academy Award-winning movie The Departed, (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan).

I would challenge anyone watching Deadwood to record a full minute of dialogue in any episode that does not include an f-bomb, or some other curse. Over the three full seasons the series ran I suppose it’s possible that a “clean” minute exists somewhere. I would be hard-pressed to find it. As you might expect, some viewers are put off by the profanity. Check out online reviews of the series and you’ll find lots of people who want nothing to do with it because of all the cursing, and plenty of others who recognize the excellence of the characters, the imagery, the plotting, but lament the explicit language.

And then there are viewers like me. I LOVE the profanity. I find it poetic, and I felt the same way about The Departed. I believe there is an art to writing works that depend so heavily on strong language. While some may dismiss the profanity in Deadwood or The Departed as gratuitous, I don’t believe it is. I have seen and read other works that DID have gratuitous profanity, and you can tell the difference. For my part, I have never tried to write something with this much strong language, but neither have I shied away from using curses in my writing.

Every author has their threshold for explicit language, just as every author has their threshold for violent and sexual content. Friends of mine pretty much refuse to use any profanity at all. Others throw in a ton. Either approach is fine, so long as the author can make it work. But authors should also understand that, as with sex and violence, they also have to be aware of the predilections of editors and publishers.

The default in publishing these days is that profanity is accepted. Publishers or short fiction markets that DON’T accept manuscripts with curse words in them will generally say so in their guidelines. And, of course, we all know we’re supposed to read and follow the guidelines before submitting any work anywhere, right? Right. At one time, YA markets were assumed to be profanity free, but that rule is less strict now. Still take extra care when submitting to YA markets and understand that while mild swearing might be accepted, stronger language, including f-bombs, might not be. Works aimed at middle grade readers and younger audiences should be entirely clean.

Beyond that, the key things to remember include the following:

1) Profanity for its own sake is not good writing. I generally avoid blanket statements like this one, but in this case it seems appropriate. Just as sex and violence for their own sake, without any narrative or character-related justification, can ruin a book or story, so can pointless swearing. When is profanity justified and how much of it should you use? That will vary from author to author, story to story, even scene to scene. Only you can decide what’s right. But as with things like gore or erotic content, you need to consider your audience AND the characters you’ve created, and then decide what is appropriate for both. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. I have been working on a trunk novel recently that includes what is far and away the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever written. But the sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book. I didn’t write it this way for a cheap thrill. I had a narrative purpose in mind. And that, I believe, should be the test for profanity as well.

2) Your setting also must be a factor in how you handle profanity. As D.B. Jackson, I write the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Throwing in a bunch of f-bombs to a Colonial setting simply would not work. No one would believe it – excessive profanity would yank my readers right out of my world, which I don’t want. I have also written several epic fantasy series set in alternate fantasy worlds. Some of these do have a bit of strong language, but only in contexts that feel appropriate to the world. To my mind, having a foul-mouthed character in most of my fantasy novels would feel wrong; it would seem too much like OUR world instead of my characters’ world. I know of some authors who deal with this by creating their own profanities for their fantasy worlds. They can then have foul-mouthed characters without offending readers or risking too much of a “real-world” feel to their books. I think that is a brilliant and elegant solution.

3) Finally, remember that despite extreme examples like Deadwood and The Departed, a little bit of profanity can go a long way. Think about it the way you might think of hot pepper in your cooking. Yes, there are some dishes that are meant to be REALLY spicy, and you might love dishes like that. For the most part, though, REALLY spicy appeals only to certain palettes. Most people like some heat in their food, but not so much that their eyes water. Profanity is much the same. Masterful writers can get away with extreme language. They can preserve the other flavors in spite of the “spice.” For most of us, a softer touch is often the better approach. Our audiences will likely be more comfortable with the occasional f-bomb and other curses, but not with page after page after page of strong language.

Put another way, you don’t have to be Puritanical, but you don’t have to be fucking rude, either.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The ABCs of Character

Last week, I wrote about befriending our characters, as a way of using empathy to improve our character development. This week I would like to continue the discussion of character work by taking a slightly different approach to creating and enriching the people we write about in our books and stories.

I first came up with this formulation about a decade ago, while preparing to teach at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, which then took place at Myrtle Beach. I have since used it at conventions, in workshops, and in an Odyssey Online course I taught several years ago. I refer to it as “The ABCs of Character,” because it gets at the basics, and because it uses a handy mnemonic.

The ABCs are “Attributes, Backstory, and Circumstances,” and they cover the elements of character that I like to think about as I “build” the person in question.

Let’s start with Attributes: These are basic facts that define who the character appears to be to the outside world. They include, but are not limited to, the following: name, age, gender identity, racial identity, national and religious identities, occupation, family/partnership situation (single, married, married with children, widowed, etc.), appearance (eye color, hair color, body type, etc.) socio-economic status, education level, and pretty much anything else we deem essential to identifying this person. If our world is a magical one, and this person has access to magic, or if it’s a tech world, and our character has special techie abilities, then that information would fit here as well. This is important stuff, but it’s fairly superficial. The deeper issues come next.

Backstory: This is where we start to delve into our character’s past. What has happened to her so far in her life? Where is she from? What kind of childhood did she have? Was she happy? Did she have lots of advantages growing up? Or was hers a more difficult upbringing? Were her parents around? Were they kind? Abusive? Indifferent? What has she survived? Is there darkness in her past?

Backstory is where our character’s secrets lie. And in those secrets may lie the seeds of conflict that will inform our story. This is also where we might find the roots of our character’s strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how very important backstory can be to all that will happen to our character and, even more to the point, how she might respond to adversity.

Finally, we have Circumstance: This is the immediate situation our character finds herself in as our story begins. This is where attributes and backstory meet our inciting event. Perhaps something has happened to change a key attribute. She has lost a job. She has found out her partner is cheating on her. A beloved friend or relation has died. Or… She has won the lottery, gotten her dream job, or discovered that she is the true heir to the throne of Whatever-Land. You get the idea. Big things have happened and her life has changed.

This event, for good or for ill, has dredged up some key element(s) of her backstory — a rivalry with a sibling, a dynamic in her relationship with her family, a buried memory that circumstance uncovers. Or this new circumstance calls on her to draw upon those strengths and weaknesses that are rooted in her life experience. This change, this inciting event, is where our story begins. This is where our character begins to figure out what motivates her, what she wants, and what obstacles she will face in trying to attain her goals.

Pretty straight-forward, right?

Let’s put this technique to use by using Gollum, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a case-study.

Gollum’s Attributes: Gollum is several hundred years old. He is basically bald, he has overlarge blue eyes. He is small, wiry, very strong for his stature. It would be generous to say that he dresses poorly and in a minimalist way… He likes to eat fish. And he has this Ring that he just loves. A lot. I mean, he really, really loves this Ring. He calls it “Precious” for God’s sake. You might say he’s a little obsessed with it. He has no friends. And he likes to talk about himself in the second person, like royalty. Except he calls himself “Precious,” too. He has issues.Gollum, Lord of the Rings

Gollum’s Backstory: He was once one of the River Folk, a branch of the Hobbit people. His name wasn’t always Gollum. It used to be Sméagol And, to be honest, the Ring wasn’t originally his. It belonged to his cousin, Déagol, who found it while they were fishing on Sméagol’s birthday. When Sméagol saw the Ring he fell in love with it, and he murdered his cousin to get it. His obsession intensified, and the Ring stretched out his life for centuries. He retreated into caves, existed in utter isolation as little more than an animal. He hunted, hid, tolerated the presence of orcs. Mostly he looked at his Ring.

Gollum’s Circumstance: Gollum has lost the Ring and he is hell-bent on getting it back. It seems that is slipped from his grasp and wound up in the hands of — ironically — another Hobbit. He is forced to leave the lonely comfort of his cave and venture once more into a world that he fears, one that looks upon him with disgust and contempt. He is captured by agents of the dark who torture him for information about the Ring, which tells him that others are looking for it as well. He must find it first, even if it means killing the Hobbit or Hobbits who have it.

And there we are. The ABCs of character. Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance. Give it a try. You might find it helpful to conceive your main characters in this way.

Best of luck and keep writing!