Tag Archives: creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I wish you the same.

Keep writing, keep creating.

Professional Wednesday: An Alternative to NaNoWriMo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever you decide, keep writing!

Monday Musings: Thoughts on Parenting

There is a great scene in the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which Indy (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) discuss their relationship aboard a blimp heading out of Nazi Germany. Indy is lamenting his father’s standoffish approach to fatherhood and the fact that they never spoke about much of anything.

To which his father replies, “You left just when you were becoming interesting.”

I was anything but a standoffish dad when my girls were young, and I certainly haven’t become one as they have entered adulthood. (Sometimes, I think, they might wish I was a bit more standoffish, but it’s not in my nature.) That said, I totally relate to the line quoted above.

Nancy provost installationI write about my girls a lot in this blog. Needless to say, I love them tons and tons, and I savor every opportunity to be with them, to talk to them by phone, even to exchange silly texts in the middle of a busy work week. I talked to Alex just the other night — she called out of the blue, which was lovely. No agenda. No big news good or bad. Just a chance to chat. And Erin was home this weekend for a quick visit. She needed a little Mom and Dad Time, and we were all for that. We had a wonderful time with her.

Parenting, I believe — and I say this as a professional creator — is the most creative, challenging, rewarding thing I do. This has been true since day one and it remains so even as my girls work their way through their twenties. A friend has recently had her first child, and like any older parent, I couldn’t resist dispensing a bit of unsolicited (unwanted? unwelcome?) wisdom. What I told her was fairly simple: Parenting is so much fun. It starts that way, and it keeps getting better. Yes, it’s exhausting and frustrating and just plain hard. We get as much wrong as right, and some of the mistakes haunt us. But while every stage has its peculiar difficulties, each one also has unique rewards that far outweigh anything else.

What I didn’t say, and what no one told me ahead of time, is precisely what Henry Jones, Sr. remarks upon aboard that blimp. If we do it right, if we do what we’re supposed to do as parents, and we give our kids the emotional and intellectual tools they need to succeed in the world, they leave us. That is the inevitable, and even desired outcome of good parenting. They strike out on their own, just when they’re getting interesting, and they embark upon their own lives.

I love that my daughters are out in the world living their best lives. They have their own places, they have jobs, they have friends and interests and ambitions. As they should. But I miss them. All the time.

Fortunately, the whole empty nest thing is a bit of an illusion. Yeah, sure, they don’t live here anymore (we didn’t even need to change the locks . . .). But (again if we do this right) they never stop turning to us for advice, for support (emotional and, on some occasions, material), for friendship. I remember when the girls were really young, one of them starting kindergarten, the other still in diapers, Nancy and I couldn’t wait for the time when going to the grocery store didn’t involve packing as if for a vacation: a change of clothes, extra diapers, extra pacifiers (yes, we used pacis — sue me), snacks, drinks, favorite toys, etc. A few years later, we couldn’t wait until both kids were old enough for us to say, “take a shower and get ready for bed. We’ll be up to say goodnight.” That level of self-reliance was like the Holy Grail. And so on. Every new level of independence, it seemed, gave us more freedom. And we loved that.

(In fairness, I should also add that sometimes — sometimes — I miss those early years, when mom and dad were the be-all and end-all of their worlds. Sometimes.)

Their relocation to their new lives was much the same as those early independence milestones. We love the freedom all of us have now. And we are deeply grateful that, having that freedom, the girls choose to see us, to call us, to rely on us. Like many families, we maintain an ongoing group chat — a continuous conversation among the four of us, a place to share news and funny stuff and photos of new dishes produced in our kitchens. It might well be the most active chat thread I have. It is certainly the one I treasure most.

Yes, this post is kind of all over the place. I miss my girls and I am so very appreciative that our family remains close and connected. I’m thrilled that Alex and Erin have moved out into the world, and I am delighted that they still come back to us. All of these realities can exist side-by-side. Monday Musings posts are about exactly what the title of the feature suggests: the stuff I’m thinking about as I emerge from another weekend. Today, my heart is full, my mind is aswirl with thoughts of my daughters, and I am feeling like a very lucky man indeed.

Have a wonderful week.

Professional Wednesday: Once More Unto The Breach — To Outline or Not, Redux

After attending DragonCon and speaking on panels about various aspects of writing, I have found myself thinking—yet again—about the age-old debate between those who outline their books and those who don’t. Or, between planners and pantsers, in the parlance of the discussion. And yes, I know those who write without an outline object to the term “pantsing.” (For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from the phrase “Flying [or in this case ‘writing’] by the seat of one’s pants.”)

I actually understand and sympathize with these objections to the term. As one who sometimes writes with an outline and sometimes without, I can say with confidence that I am no less a writer when in the midst of those projects that defy my efforts to outline ahead of time.

As I have said before, my creative process reinvents itself with each project I take on, often with each book. Some projects lend themselves to outlining and are better suited to a systematic approach to plotting. The Thieftaker books in particular are easy to outline. Indeed, when writing in the Thieftaker universe I feel outlining is absolutely essential. With each book and story, I seek to blend historical events with fictional ones, and keeping the two timelines—the imagined and the real—in sync, demands that I have plan things out with care.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)

On the other hand, I have written books that I could not outline at all, despite making every attempt to do so. Most notably, the three volumes of my Islevale Cycle (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin) simply would not submit themselves to any sort of advanced planning. They were like children, refusing to sit still long enough to be photographed.

I have also said before that to me the outlining thing is not so much a binary choice—outline in detail or write the books without any planning at all—as it is a continuum. Even the most dedicated “pantsers” I know have a good idea of where their books are headed. They just don’t like to be tied to a formal outline. In the same way, the most diligent outliners I know leave a great many details out of their outlines, allowing themselves to create in the moment, to preserve the energy that comes from writing organically. Each of us is a little bit planner, a little bit pantser, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll . . . .

(That is my first, and will be my only, Osmond reference EVER in this blog . . . .)

So why am I revisiting the outlining question this week? Because I am in the process of finishing the third volume in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series (which STILL needs a series name!!) and in the final weeks of writing the book, I have been outlining—perhaps it’s more accurate to say RE-outlining—the last ten chapters or so of the story.

And I’ve realized this is something I do a lot. Yes, I try to outline most books, but I almost never outline all the way to the end of the novel. Why? Because things change along the way. I can set out plot points for the first fifteen or twenty chapters of a book before I begin writing Chapter 1, but I know my story is going to shift along the way. Characters will do things that surprise me, that upset my best-laid plans. It’s inevitable. And, in fact, I welcome those kinds of narrative disruptions. When my characters start surprising me, it means they have become fully realized personalities in my head, which is always a good thing.

So, I might outline twenty chapters initially, but I almost always need to adjust my outlines starting at around chapter ten. And then I need to do it again at around chapter seventeen or eighteen. And then I need to do it yet again for the final five or ten chapters of the book.

Put another way, outlining is not simply a task I complete early on, before I start to write my book, and I never think of my outline as a static document. Rather outlining is a process, something I have to revisit several times along the way in order to keep up with the constant creative evolution of my narrative vision.

Because, like so many writers, I am a hybrid. I plan my stories and I also write organically. I adhere to an overarching concept and I adapt to an ever-changing plot line. I take comfort in having a roadmap for my novel and I draw energy from all the story ideas I discover along the way. As I say, my process changes with each project, but these things remain the same.

I like to say there is no single right way to do any of this. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to plot or you have to write organically. Find the balance that fits best with your creative style.

And, of course, 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.

Professional Wednesday: One Hot-Mess of a Writing Post

Dispensing writing advice when one is struggling a bit with one’s own work can be somewhat strange. Just ask . . . well, me.

I am more than 50,000 words into my current work-in-progress, the third book in my Celtic urban fantasy. (No, you haven’t missed any releases. Book I is in production and should be out later this year or early in 2023.) Some days, the writing comes smoothly and other days it’s a struggle. And, of course, I am closing in on the dreaded 60% mark, so at that point all bets will be off.

Over the past few years, I’ve offered advice on dealing with a whole host of problems. Stuck at 60%? Distracted? Unable to get started? Unsure of how to finish? Check the archives of this blog. Chances are, I’ve got some post somewhere that tells you how I have addressed the issue. All the posts are well-meaning. Some of them might even have helped someone somewhere at some point.

Sometimes, though, there is no cure. Sometimes the only way past the struggle is through the struggle.

I am not at my best right now, for any number of reasons. And I am doing all I can to write despite distractions small and large, personal and national, serious and foolish. Writing, though, is messy. Writing is not one smooth, free-flowing creative process that starts when we type “Chapter One” and completes itself when we type “The end.” (And just an aside here: Writers shouldn’t have to type “The end.” If we need to tell our readers when the story has ended, we haven’t done a very good job ending it. Just saying.)

Writing, as I have said too many times before, is really hard. Writing is fits and starts. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. It’s write, revise, delete, write some more, delete some more, write some more, revise some more, etc., etc., etc.

And here’s the thing. Or here are the two things. First, anyone who has ever devoted any meaningful portion of their life to writing knows this already. And second, everyone who has ever known this, has promptly forgotten it the moment they start their next book.

Because we want it to be free-flowing, smooth, easy, linear. We want it to be painless. And why wouldn’t we? Who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book and I hope it comes within a hair’s breadth of killing me?” Then again, who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book…?”

But I digress.

In all seriousness, we want the process to be simple, and so we forget what it’s like to be in the throes of creating. Every book I have written has been a struggle at one point or another. Some are worse than others, but every one has its moments. I’ll struggle with plot points, argue with my characters, second-guess my world building. I’ll doubt that the book is any good, I’ll question whether I can even finish it, I’ll go through periods, sometimes weeks long, when I have to force myself just to sit down in front of my computer. Because I. Don’t. Want. To. Write.

Until I do again. And then all is well with the world, and the book seems pretty good. Better than that. It’s very good. Hell it’s one of my best — maybe even THE best thing I’ve ever done. And it will only ever be eclipsed by the next one.

Put another way, writers are head-cases. I know I am. And there’s a reason my writer friends are my writer friends, if you know what I mean.

You may be surprised to learn that there really is advice embedded in this hot-mess of a post. It’s simply this: Keep working. Writing is a battle, like any creative endeavor, like any endeavor at all that is worth pursuing. It frustrates us and exhausts us. It challenges us by striking at those places where we’re most vulnerable — our confidence, our sense of self-worth, our ability to stare failure in the eye and say, “Not today, motherfucker.” But that’s also the beauty of it. If it was easy, finishing a book wouldn’t feel so damn good. And it will feel good. Because you will finish your book.

Wishing you smooth-flowing prose, fast-moving plots, and characters who surprise and delight you.

Professional Wednesday: Listening To My Own Work

SPELL BLIND, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)About seven years ago, I received out of the blue, an email from the actor Bronson Pinchot, who is probably best known for playing the role of “Balki” in the sitcom Perfect Strangers. He was, by then, enjoying a successful career as a voice actor, and he was writing to me because he was about to return to the studio to begin recording his reading of the second Justis Fearsson book, His Father’s Eyes. He wanted to know what I had thought of his treatment of the first book in the series, Spell Blind, and if there were things I wanted him to do differently with the second book.

HIS FATHER'S EYES, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)I was thrilled to get the email, and also impressed by the care he was taking with my books. But I wasn’t really able to give him the feedback he was after. “I have heard great things about your performance from friends, as well as from online reviews,” I told him. “I’ve listened to the sample on the Audible site and very much like your take on the character’s voice. The truth is, though, I am incapable of listening to others read my work. It has nothing to do with your performance, or any one else’s, for that matter, and everything to do with hearing the flaws in my own writing, which I find excruciating.”

This prompted a reply from him that was as amusing as it was courteous. Saying we were “birds of a feather,” he admitted that he had never been able to watch any of his on-screen performances for much the same reason. And there we left it.

Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, when I attended ConCarolinas. I have been thinking recently of returning to the Justis Fearsson series to write more books in that world. I loved those characters, and really enjoyed writing contemporary urban fantasy, and I have felt for some time now that there is more I can do with the storyline. But I need to re-familiarize myself with the existing works, and I have been eager to start going back through the books.

SHADOW'S BLADE, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)As it happens, I have from Audible the MP3 CD of the third and final book in the original trilogy, Shadow’s Blade. Since I also had in my immediate future two seven-hour drives, I thought I would go ahead and listen to the book. How bad could it be, right? Even if I hated what I heard (to reiterate, I wasn’t worried about Pinchot’s performance, but rather my writing), I could take solace in knowing that I was now seven years and at least eight novels more experienced than I was when I wrote the book.

I want to make clear here that prior to this, I had never, ever listened to one of my novels as an audiobook. Never. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Well, first of all, I loved Bronson Pinchot’s performance. His interpretation of most of the characters was spot-on. His pacing and mood and approach were terrific. I would be delighted to have him narrate more of my work in the future.

And I will also say that I enjoyed my own writing. I was far enough removed from the process of writing the book that I actually got caught up in the story, but was also familiar enough (still) with the book that I could anticipate key scenes and remember lines of which I was particularly fond at the time I wrote them. It was a little like rewatching a favorite movie, but more intimate.

Earlier today, I reached out to Bronson Pinchot, after all these years, and thanked him for his marvelous interpretation of the book. We had a very nice exchange; it turns out he has his own recording studio and business now, so if I want to hire him to do future books, I can.

But the larger point of this story is this: There is nothing wrong with pausing to take pride in our creative accomplishments. Were there passages in the book that I would write differently now? Absolutely. I noticed places where I could have trimmed, where I explained too much, where I should have left stuff unsaid, or presented the material differently. Overall, though, I was struck by how well the book held up. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed writing Justis Fearsson novels. And I was reminded as well that, generally speaking, I am pretty good at this writing thing.

I say that without fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit. Well, okay, I say it with just a little fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit . . . . But as I have suggested in previous Wednesday posts, writing is a difficult profession and if we don’t give ourselves a little credit now and then, an occasional pat on the back for a job well done, no one else is going to do it for us. I wrote a good book. Instead of finding the experience of listening to it excruciating, as I feared I might, I found it really fun and very satisfying. I wound up energized and even more eager to return to that world and write more Fearsson stories.

So, if you are feeling down about a current project, put it away for a while, work on something else, and then return to it and read it fresh. Or, if you are generally lacking in confidence right now, take a moment to go back and look at some old work that you’ve set aside for one reason or another. Sure, you might see elements of the storytelling and writing that need improving. But chances are you’ll also rediscover what you loved about the projects in the first place. And there is definitely value in that.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With the Slog, part II — The 60% Stall

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Many years back, while I was working on one of the middle books in my Winds of the Forelands quintet, my second series, I came downstairs after a particularly frustrating day of writing and started whining to Nancy about my manuscript. It was terrible, I told her. There was no story there, no way to complete the narrative I’d begun. The book was a disaster, and I might well have to scrap the whole thing.

To which she said, mildly, “Ah. You’re at the 60% point?”

The question brought me up short, because that’s exactly where I was. And prompted by her remark, I realized something obvious to her that I’d missed up until then: To that point in my career, every book I’d written had stalled at the 60% mark.

Last week, I began a new “Most Important Lessons” feature that focused on “Dealing With the Slog.” The first post focused on meeting our self-imposed deadlines. Today’s installment will discuss how to address the 60% Stall.

I would love to tell you that as my career has progressed, I have moved past this problem, but I’d be lying. I don’t stall at 60% with every book, but I do run into problems at that point in most manuscripts. It seems to be endemic to my process. And I’m certainly not the only writer who does. The more I talk about the problem, the more I realize it’s fairly common.

The problem as it presents itself to me can be boiled down this way: When I begin a novel, I know what the main conflicts are, and I have a clear understanding of the obstacles I intend to throw in the path of my protagonist(s). And I also have a good sense of how I want my story to end. Quite often, though, as I write my story, certain elements change. I often alter plot points as I write them. My characters assert themselves in subtle ways, developing their own personalities and wills, and forcing me to rethink their arcs.

So those obstacles as I have written them are not quite the same as what I envisioned originally. On the other hand, the ending, as I imagined it, remains largely unchanged. And thus the path between the crisis point for my protagonists and the end point I want them to reach has to change as well. And the pivot point, the moment when we shift from doing all sorts of nasty stuff to our heroes to beginning to have them fight back and turn the tide, usually starts at about the 60% mark. Yes, shit still goes wrong after that. I’m not saying the last third of the novel has to be a golden time for the protagonist. Far from it. But, for me at least, 60% is when things begin to turn.

How do we address the 60% stall?

First, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t panic. I don’t rant and rave. I don’t freak out. Not anymore. Not since Nancy pointed out to me that this is something I go through with most of my books. Plot holes happen. The book as we planned it — whether we outline in detail or write by the seat of our pants — doesn’t always look exactly like the book as we write it. And that’s okay. There is still a story here worth telling. There is still a path between where we are at 59% and where we wish to be on the last page. Breathe. Calm down. It’s going to be all right.

The second thing I try to do is assess the deviations between what I’ve written and what I had in mind originally. Quite often, the answer to overcoming the Stall lies in those differences. Maybe (for instance) we have introduced a new character we hadn’t planned on including, and that person’s presence has set up this narrative disconnect. Most likely, that means the character in question needs to figure into the new narrative path leading us from where we are to where we need to be. Or maybe we have added a key plot twist we hadn’t anticipated originally. Again, if that’s the case, chances are our new solution needs to address the consequences of this twist.

The third thing I consider is whether I need to A) change the ending I’d had in mind, B) add an element in the final 40% to deal with the new conditions I’ve created, or C) go back and edit out some of the changes I have allowed to creep into the first 60%. Choice C) is almost always my least favorite option. Why? Because I have written the book as I have thus far for a reason. If I have strayed from my original, pre-writing vision, it’s because new stuff came to me organically, as I wrote. And generally — not always, but most of the time — I find that my organic decisions are my best decisions.

Finally, and most important, I keep writing. I keep moving forward. Even if my (temporary) solution to navigating past the Stall is flawed, I always, ALWAYS believe it is better to keep pushing through. The alternatives are to give up entirely (unthinkable!!) or to retreat into rewrites and try to fix the problem that way, which in my opinion makes the Stall harder to overcome. Every completed manuscript will require editing, and it may well be that after completing the first draft, setting it aside for a while, and then starting the revision process, we will discover solutions to our narrative issues that weren’t obvious when we were in the middle of writing.

The important thing to remember is this: The 60% Stall is not a death knell for our story. It is a temporary setback. It is not cause for panic, but rather for reflection, for brainstorming, for creative thinking about our narrative.

Keep writing!!

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

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: Tending To Our Work Space

About a month ago, I wrote a Professional Wednesday post about how I was somewhat stuck creatively. I felt stagnant, unable to kick myself into motion when it came to writing new material. Then, about a week ago, I posted a very, very brief excerpt from my current work-in-progress on social media, along with a comment about how much fun I am having with this new book.

It’s not that I now find myself “unstuck,” and it’s not that I was lying about having fun with the latest project. I have been in a place recently where both things are true. I still feel that I’m struggling to be as productive creatively as I would like to be, and I also have been enjoying the small amount of writing I have managed to get done.

Late last week, though, I stumbled on a possible cause for my sluggish work pace.

It might have been last Wednesday — I walked into my office, feeling ready to work, and as I entered the room, I felt all the air go out of me. The space was a complete wreck. It was cluttered and messy and filled with too much stuff that I neither needed nor wanted.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. This was months, even years of accumulated crap finally intruding enough upon my consciousness to make me take note of it. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it, if you know what I mean. I became aware of it, and then I could hardly get myself to think about anything else. Everywhere I looked, there was a jumble of junk waiting to be dealt with.

And so began several days of throwing out, cleaning up, rearranging, and neatening. I went through bookshelves and donated close to one hundred volumes to a local library. I went through collections of old magazines, clipping articles I wanted to keep and recycling the rest — enough to clear two complete shelves. I vacuumed and straightened and tossed stuff away. I was brutal, keeping only those things I really thought I would need/want going forward.

Mostly, I carved through all that mess and junk, recreating my office. Don’t get me wrong: to the average person walking into the office off the street, it would still look cluttered. I still have lots of crystals and geodes on my shelves, next to photos of my family and various small gifts given to me over the years by Nancy and the girls. But compared to how bad it was, it’s now pretty Spartan. Most important, I am left with a work space that feels clean and efficient and work-ready.

That last is really the point. When I mentioned to Nancy, during a break in my work on Saturday, how refreshing it felt to throw stuff away and reclaim my space, she reminded me that while she was still teaching, before her administrative duties claimed what was left of her spare time, she used to clean out her office at the end of every school year. That was the only way she could be productive with her research during the summer months. I had the sense she had been wondering for some time how I could possibly function in what my office had become . . .

Obviously, I don’t know yet if my cleaner, sparser office will result in greater productivity. Time will tell. But as I write this, I am already enjoying my surroundings and looking forward to diving back into the WIP, which I find promising.

So, if you are stuck with your work right now — if you’re distracted, if retreating to your writing nook is not yielding the sort of productivity you’re used to, maybe you need to pause and take a look around. Is your space as functional and comfortable as you would like it to be? Is the clutter around you cluttering your thoughts as well? Is it time to reinvigorate your creativity with a spring cleaning? Or, even if things in your work world aren’t as messy as they were in mine, is it possible that just rearranging the space might help stimulate your writing mind?

Our work environments are hugely important and also incredibly easy to take for granted. As I said early, the entropy that tends to envelop such spaces doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process, one that can sneak up on us. It snuck up on me, until finally I couldn’t help but notice. Maybe it’s done the same to you.

If so, you know what you have to do.

Get cleaning! And then, keep writing!!

Office image
My office.
Office image
Yeah, I know. But it looked even worse before…