Tag Archives: creativity

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

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

Last week, in the first of what I expect to be a three or four part series on how I got started in writing, I posted about my early creative efforts and the teachers who were so influential in encouraging and inspiring me. I titled that first installment “A Case Study of Dubious Worth” and I think the title holds for this week as well. This entire exercise — the writing and posting of these essays — might be interesting, I certainly hope it’s entertaining, but I’m not at all sure how illustrative it will be or whether it’s at all relevant. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m pretty old, and the world is a different place from what it was when I was getting started. And yet, I continue . . .

My last semester in high school, I was in a creative writing workshop class, taught by one of those outstanding teachers I mentioned last week (Phil Restaino), and populated by a remarkable, talented, close-knit group of fellow students. Many of them remain friends to this day. What I wrote in that class was, overall, pretty mediocre. But I learned so much about writing, about the creative process, about critiquing others and building a safe, productive space for having those intimate, at times difficult conversations.

My Brown graduation pic.

And so I went off to college thinking I would be a creative writing major, and fully expecting that I would find at Brown University a similarly nurturing creative environment.

[Cue sound of screeching brakes…]

Talk about rude awakenings.

Even then, I knew I wanted to write fantasy, and I had an idea for a novel. This idea would eventually morph into Children of Amarid, my first published book, which won the Crawford Award, but this early incarnation was a long, long, long way from that finished product. It was not very good. I know this. But that doesn’t excuse what I encountered in the very first creative writing class I took at Brown. Our professor was a writer of stature, well known in academic fiction circles. I’m willing to believe that early in his career he was a fine teacher. When I had him, he was a year or two away from retirement. His classes meandered, and he left most of the important work, including the facilitation of the critique sessions, to his graduate assistant.

But he did make clear that, in his view of the world, there was “Literary Fiction,” and then there was the genre stuff that didn’t really count because it was, well, genre stuff. And so, perhaps taking their cues from him, or perhaps responding to the fact that my work still needed a good deal of refinement, my fellow students savaged my manuscripts in the critique sessions. No one had taken time to teach our class the rudiments of critiquing. There was no “start with what’s good, move to what needs work, return to what is good and can be built upon.” There was just “this is bad.” After the wonderful experience I had in that high school workshop class, I found the experience devastating.

I should say that I did get one bit of good advice from that class. It came from the graduate assistant, who was unable to steer the critique discussion, but who went out of her way afterward to assure me there were strong elements to my writing, my storytelling, and even my world building. And she said, “I know that session was hard, but don’t retreat into rewrites. Keep moving forward with your book and revise these early chapters when you’re finished.”

It was, and still is, sound advice for any writer, and to this day I offer it to writers I work with. But the fact is, the graduate assistant’s kindness and wisdom were not enough to overcome the negative experience. I never took another workshop class at Brown. I did continue thinking maybe I would be a creative writing major, but I moved away from fiction toward journalism, where I had some better experiences. Sadly, though, that terrible first class pushed me away from writing fiction for a decade.

As I say, I was still thinking about a creative writing major as I began my sophomore year. But then I had a conversation with my mom and dad. Now, as I mentioned last week, my parents were very supportive of my writing. They were also my mom and dad and they worried a creative writing major would have little or no value in the real world. So they gently but persistently encouraged me to channel my interest in writing toward something more practical. Looking back, I am not sure how wise their advice was, but at the time, I found it compelling. I liked nice guitars and nice stereo equipment, and I had figured out that those things cost money . . .

I wound up choosing as my major American Studies, an interdisciplinary program combining (among other things) literature, political science, and history. I found these subjects and their intersections quite interesting, and, to my delight, I found as well that all my classes in the field were writing intensive. By the end of my second year at Brown, I was on the trajectory that would lead me to get my Ph.D. in history.

More on that as I continue this story next week.

But here are the most important things I would like you take away from this post. First, a badly run writing workshop, one in which critiques are done without sensitivity, without compassion, without pairing encouragement with criticism, can do irreparable harm to the aspirations of beginning writers. Dreams are powerful, but they can also be fragile. And just as last week’s post emphasized the importance of pedagogical excellence, this week’s ought to highlight the potential harm that can come of slipshod and lazy teaching.

Second, the literary prejudice that favors “literary” fiction over other sorts of storytelling is as poisonous as it is misguided. Writing is hard, whether our stories are about our world or another, whether they are firmly rooted in realism and “now” or imbued with magic and cast in different timelines. Quality work can be found in any genre; so can mediocrity. And lest we forget, some of the best and most important writing happening today is being done by writers in fantasy and science fiction. Ask N.K. Jemisin.

And third, stuff happens for a reason. I truly believe this. Yes, I was discouraged from writing fiction by a bad class and also by my parents’ overly developed sense of what was pragmatic. It would be easy for me to look at the changing trajectory of my life during my college years, and look as well at where I am now, and decide I had wasted that decade of my life when I didn’t write any fiction at all. But if I hadn’t gone to graduate school in history, I would have missed out on academic training that taught me so much about crafting prose, about doing research, about writing with discipline. If I hadn’t gone to grad school in history, where I developed a real interest in the American Colonial Era, I doubt I would have wound up writing the Thieftaker books. Most important, if I hadn’t gone to grad school, I never would have met Nancy and I wouldn’t have my two brilliant, beautiful daughters.

So maybe that class I hated so much was the best thing that ever happened to me.

More next Monday.

In the meantime, have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Write What You Know?

I remember a conversation with my father when I was a kid, about a friend of the family who was trying to make a second career for himself as a writer of fiction. His first novel had come out recently, and having already developed my own passion for writing stories, I was interested to know more about the book. I asked Dad how the book was and he told me, with some regret, because this really was a good friend, that it wasn’t very good. He blamed the book’s failings on the fact that our friend had strayed too far from his own experience in writing it. And then he repeated that age-old admonition for writers, “Write what you know.”

Now anyone who has read my blog entries or social media knows that I loved my dad — to the moon and back, as the children’s book says. I adored him. But I’ve understood for years now that this particular bit of received wisdom — “Write what you know” — is, at best, of questionable value. At worst, it is terribly limiting, particularly for authors of speculative fiction.

Or is it?

Let’s start with the obvious. If we take “write what you know” too literally, we can never write from the point of view of any character who is not like us. We can never set our stories in any world unlike our own. We can never place our characters in situations that we have not lived. Which, if you’re at all like me, leaves you with nothing but really boring stories to tell.

And I fear that my father, who was wonderful and well-meaning, but didn’t know a great deal about what it meant to write creatively, hewed a bit too closely to this limited and limiting interpretation of the old adage. For him, “write what you know” meant exactly that.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.The thing is, we writers do and must “write what we know.” But we understand that “what we know” does not equal “what we have lived.” Writing is all about emotion, about delving into the thoughts and feelings and visceral reactions of our point of view characters. I may not have ever traveled through time (for example), or investigated a murder in pre-Revolutionary Boston, or discovered that I possess supernatural powers and then been pursued by rogue government agents intent on killing my family and making me their weapon. (If you haven’t read Radiants, it’s really time you did.) But even if I haven’t done those things, I have lived the gamut of emotions my characters experience. I have known fear. I have been in love. I adore my children and have been frightened for them. I have been enraged. I have experienced physical pain and illness, exhaustion and hunger, desire and pleasure. I have known joy and confusion and shock, the thrill of ambition realized and the bitter disappointment of expectation thwarted. I can go on, but I think you get my point.The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)

As writers, we tell stories that range through time and place, that mine the very depths of our imaginations, that spin circumstance and situation into plots of complexity and innovation. But we connect with our audience through what our characters feel and experience, and what they, in turn, evoke from those who read their stories.

Put another way, “write what you know” proves to be quite valuable advice if we take it the right way, if we see it not as a limitation on our subject matter, but rather as an exhortation to delve deeper into the emotional and sensory content of our narratives.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)This is a topic to which I intend to return next week and in the weeks to come. Because when we start to think of “write what you know” as an invitation to think more about what our lives, despite their mundanity, have in common with the lives of our characters, we find new ways to enrich our storytelling and world building.

But for today, I leave you with this: The more you incorporate your emotional history into the character work you do, the more relatable your characters are apt to be. And then it won’t matter if they are Qirsi or weremystes, wizards or necromancers, vampires or vampire hunters. Their thoughts and feelings will resonate with your readers. And that, after all, is what we want.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Writing To Heal

Writing saved me this year.

I have been through a lot over the past 12 months, from dealing with the devastating reality of one of my kids having cancer, to coming to terms with my personal mental health issues, to dealing with some physical health issues of my own, to grappling with all the other shit all of us are dealing with these days — the pandemic, economic and social uncertainty, existential threats to our republic, etc., etc., etc.

To the extent that I’ve worked through these issues (and many of them remain works-in-progress), I have done so by drawing on a variety of resources. I have a wonderful support system that consists of family and friends (you know who you are; I am more grateful to you than I can say). I am in therapy. I take a lot of long walks. I birdwatch and play guitar and take photos.

And, of course, I write.

Soon after my daughter’s diagnosis, I threw myself into writing the second Radiants book, Invasives, which will be out early in 2022. The plot doesn’t really touch on the issues I was coping with in my life, but it is a powerful book, one that demanded I plumb the depths of my emotions and consider what it means to be part of a family, in all its definitions. Writing that book got me through the early days of our family crisis. The novel allowed me to channel my grief and fear into something productive, something other than my own bleak moods. I often say that my favorite among my own books is my most recent one, and there will continue to be truth in that long after Invasives is no longer my most recent. But this book will remain special to me for the rest of my life. How could it not?

After finishing the book, I turned to a new editing venture — a freelance editing business — in large part because I needed to keep busy and, at that time, had no idea what I wanted to write next. But I also continued something I began the day after we learned our daughter was ill.

I journaled.

That may not sound revelatory, and the truth is I have journaled off and on throughout my adult life. But journaling about my daughter and her illness, journaling about my emotional health issues, journaling about all the sources of fear and grief and rage and every other emotion I’ve encountered recently, has been a key element of my mental health regimen over the past year.

I don’t journal daily, and I try not to make journaling feel like homework, like something I have to do. But I have found that writing an entry a week works quite well for me. Sometimes I don’t have a lot to say and after a couple of pages I’m done. Other times, I can’t wait to get to the journal and before I know it I’ve written ten pages in the course of an hour or two. Always, though, I give myself room to roam in my writing sessions. I might come to the entry with things I want to jot down, but invariably I go in directions I couldn’t have anticipated. Often I write my way into epiphanies I likely would not have experienced if not for the journal. Sometimes thoughts that have come to me while I journal will, in turn, spark an idea for this blog. Sometimes, they will even creep into my fiction in subtle ways. But I journal for me, for my health and my clarity.

Last year, in my final Writing Wednesday post, I wrote a piece called “Why Do We Create?” In it, I wrote about my various creative endeavors and what I get out of each one. I was trying to make the point that we don’t have to write for profit, for professional advancement, in order for writing to be valuable and rewarding. Little did I know what awaited me in 2021.

And so with the year winding down, and with a new year and new challenges arrayed before us, I wanted to amend a bit what I wrote in last year’s post.

I write because I love it. I write because I have stories burning a hole in my chest waiting to be set free and characters in my mind who clamor for my attention, who are eager to have their stories told. I write as well because it is my profession. I make money doing it. I aspire to critical success, I hope for the respect of my writing colleagues, I wish to please my fans and gain a wider readership. And I write because the act of creation is a balm for the mind and the soul. I draw comfort from the mining of my emotions, from the process of chronicling my personal journey, my struggles and demons as well as my growth and realizations. And I take satisfaction in using the emotions of that journey to animate characters who have different issues in their lives, but whose emotions have the same weight and resonance as my own.

Put another way, I write to heal. To heal myself, and also, perhaps, if I am fortunate, to bring a modicum of healing to those who read my work or my blog, even as they struggle with their own crises and challenges.

I wish all of you a joyful, healthful, healing 2022. And I look forward to continuing our creative journey together.

Professional Wednesday: Stop Writing

Here’s some writing advice for today, three days before Christmas:

Stop trying to write and go spend time with someone you love.

I am all about BIC — put your Butt In the Chair. Writing, like exercise or playing a musical instrument, grows easier with practice and repetition. The more you write, the better your prose and storytelling will become, and the more productive you’ll be. So I often tell writers to write every day (though I am less dogmatic about this than I used to be).

But I will also say this: Sometimes we have to take time off. Write every day if you can. But once you’ve established the habit, be willing now and then to give yourself a day for other things. This year in particular, I am conscious of how precious friends and family are to us, of how many things in our lives are far more important than publications and word counts.

Yes, we have deadlines to make. For all I know, you’re reading this and thinking about submitting to Noir, or one of the other Zombies Need Brains anthologies. And yes, that deadline looms. December 31, 2021.

And still I say, turn off the computer and take time off to be with the people you love. You’ll make the deadline. You’ll put in a bit of extra work next week, and you’ll be okay. Give yourself the time. Take care of yourself. Share your day with others.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have people to see.

Wishing you and yours a magical holiday. Be well. Be safe. Be kind to one another.

Creative Wednesday: What the Beatles Documentary Teaches Us About Creativity

So it’s Creative Wednesday, and I am still thinking about the Beatles documentary. Specifically, I’m reflecting on something I mentioned in my Monday post — the creative energy that Paul McCartney brought to the “Get Back” sessions recorded 50 years ago. The truth is, all four of the Beatles brought to the recording studio their imagination and talent, but also a willingness to try anything and everything in pursuit of their next collaboration. There is, I believe, a lesson there for all who create.

There were these incredible moments in the documentary, when we heard the Fab Four working their way though the earliest iterations of “Get Back” and “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” As a viewer and a fan, I felt as though I was getting a glimpse of history, of the formation of something that would change the course of rock and roll’s development. As I said in the earlier post, I got chills.

There are also moments in these eight and half hours when the band is jamming — with varying degrees of success — to old rock and roll classics, or on tunes of their own that never really amounted to much. It would be quite a stretch to say that every musical endeavor documented in the film was successful. There are several cringe-worthy moments.

And that’s sort of the point. Creativity at its purest is a messy process. If we’re fortunate and good at what we do, our bursts of creative energy produce gems to be shaped and polished. But even the best artists in any field also produce stuff that isn’t all that good. Creativity demands not just ability and energy, but also courage and even shamelessness. At times, John and Paul are hacking around, shouting, goofing, laughing, pounding on their instruments, clearly not taking anything they’re doing too seriously. But even in their least serious moments, they are still working, searching for lyrics or licks that they can apply to the more focused versions of their songs.

They know some of it sounds crappy, and they don’t care. You can tell, because when it comes time to lay down a serious track, they no longer sound like four kids playing with electric guitars and drums and amplifiers. They suddenly sound like the damn Beatles. It’s startling sometimes how quickly and easily they go from slipshod and careless to clean and amazing.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything.

When we write, we need to be willing to take chances, to riff on an idea, to write something that may lead nowhere on the off chance that it will instead lead somewhere wonderful and inspired. I have a middle grade novel that I wrote a decade ago and that I love. Sadly, it never was really ready for prime time. My daughters loved it. Friends of my daughters who read it loved it, too. But it didn’t work on certain levels, and so it has sat on my hard drive all these years. Someday, I am sure, my grandkids will love it. And I’m okay with that.

Around the same time, I developed three characters for another novel I was thinking of writing. I worked out their dynamic, their backstories, their circumstances. But the novel idea never went anywhere and the characters remained homeless. Until this time last year, when I realized they were perfect for what I wanted to do with the second Radiants novel, Invasives. I wrote the book around them and the result is one of the best things I’ve ever written. (The book should be out in January 2022.)

I have stories that haven’t gone anywhere and never will, and others that haven’t taken shape yet. But I keep on trying, plugging away at ideas. Some pan out very well, others not to much. That’s the nature of the creative beast. As creators, we need to be fearless. We need to be willing to fail in order to succeed. That’s something I thought of again and again watching the Beatles play music for hours on end. Some of what they did worked brilliantly. Some of it sounded terrible. And through it all, they kept experimenting.

Let their example inspire you. Some jams go nowhere. Some songs fall flat. Same with stories and novels. That is part of being an artist. The sting of those disappointments lasts only as long as it takes us to try whatever is next.

Keep writing.

Professional Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

Islevale compositeA couple of years ago, I put the finishing touches on the third book of a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy called the Islevale Cycle. I loved the Islevale books then, and I remain incredibly proud of them today. I think they represent some of my finest work, and if you enjoy epic fantasy, OR time travel, OR (best of all) both, I recommend you pick the books up and give them a try. (The books are called Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.)

As much as I love them, though, I also have to admit that they nearly destroyed me. I have never struggled so much with any books, and I hope I never will again. Part of the problem was simply the ambition of the project. Sprawling epic fantasies are hard to write. One must weave together multiple plot threads and write from the perspectives of numerous point of view characters. Time travel is even harder to write, first because one must keep track of several time lines at once, second because any plot point is potentially reversible (If time traveling characters are unhappy with events, what’s to keep them from going back and changing them?), and third, because in my story I had more than one iteration of several characters existing simultaneously. (At one point in book 3, I had four or maybe five iterations of the same character inhabiting my world.)

As you might expect, combining the challenges of writing epic fantasy with the difficulties inherent in writing time travel only serves to compound all of those issues. These books would have been hard to write under any circumstance. But here’s the thing: For some reason, I could not outline any of the Islevale books. I don’t know why. To this day I remain mystified. But yeah, I had to write all three books without any advance outline beyond my vague sense of where the books needed to go. The books turned out really well, but the process was excruciating.

What is the point of this?

Well, once I finished the last Islevale novel and worked with the folks at Falstaff Books to shepherd it through production and publication, I needed a new project that would be Different, and Straight Forward, and Directed.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that next book turned out to be Radiants.

Radiants, a supernatural thriller, comes out from Belle Books on Friday (yes, THIS Friday) October 15th, and this “little” book, which I thought of as a sort of creative palate cleanser, has turned out to be far, far more.

Yes, it is different from the Islevale books, and it is quite directed. But it is deceptive in its “simplicity.” It is firmly rooted in our real world, and deals with social issues of weight and emotional power. It has fewer point of view characters and concentrates to a far greater degree on a single narrative thread. As a result, it is fast-paced. Like breakneck. And it includes some of the deepest, most satisfying character work I’ve done. (In fact, in this regard, I believe it might be exceeded by its sequel, Invasives, which will be out in another few months.)

So what makes Radiants a “supernatural thriller,” as oppose to a fantasy of some sort? Partly, it’s that pacing I mentioned, and partly it’s the real world setting and the fact that the speculative fiction element of the story is limited and very specific. And that was the appeal of writing the book. After creating a world whole-cloth for the Islevale series, I wanted to remain firmly fixed in our world for the new project. I wanted my characters to deal with issues that impact us in our day-to-day lives. I wanted them to speak as we do, to think and feel and interact as we do. In short, I wanted the story to be utterly relatable.

It would be easy to ascribe this to something pandemic-related — a need for normality, say, or some recognition that we don’t have to create an imagined world to come up with situations that are ________ . . . insert your preferred word here: Frightening? Disorienting? Surreal? As it happens, though, I completed my first draft of the book in February 2020, just before the current unpleasantness hit. [Invasives, the second Radiants book, is much more a reaction to the pandemic, as well as the personal difficulties my family and I have faced in recent months.]

Radiants really was a response to my creative needs at the time. No more, no less. It is the book I needed to write next. My lead characters presented themselves to me, along with their fraught and frantic circumstances, and I simply wrote. In this sense, Radiants might be the most organic book I’ve ever written. I had no marketing strategy for it; hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even know how to classify the story. I didn’t know if I was writing something for myself, for the sheer joy of it, or if it would turn out to be something I could sell and publish. I had a story to write and I wrote it.

For that reason alone, I love this book. And I am very hopeful that you will, too.

 

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Book shelfAs I mentioned in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have a teaching gig coming up. I’ll be leading a couple of critique workshops, and this Saturday, I’ll be giving a long talk on writing epic fantasy. This opportunity came my way because someone mentioned to a mutual friend that the people running the program needed an epic fantasist, and this person thought of me.

I’m flattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The thing is, though, I don’t necessarily think of myself as an epic fantasy author.

At Boskone a couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel about historical fantasy and others forms of historical fiction. In fact, I am usually on at least one history panel at just about every convention I attend, whether in-person or virtual.

I don’t necessarily think of myself as a historical fiction author, either.

I can go through this same formulation with media tie-in work, with urban fantasy, with novels and with short stories. I can even apply it to my blog posts. Am I a political blogger? An advice and instruction blogger for aspiring writers? A social critic? A commentator on the arts?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The writers I know who are happiest tend to be those who are least easily defined by genre speciality. I have one friend — many of you know him — who has written thrillers, epic fantasy, middle grade, YA, science fiction, something approaching horror. He’s excelled at everything he’s tried, and he’s been a bestseller in more than one section of the bookstore. I have another friend — and many of you know her — who says that if writers haven’t had to re-invent themselves at least two or three times, they’re just not trying.

I have published twenty-four books. My twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, and possibly my twenty-seventh, will be out this year. Of these, eleven are epic fantasy, nine are urban fantasy, with five — soon to be six — of the UFs also qualifying as historicals. Three more are a hybrid of epic fantasy and time travel. Two are tie-ins. And two of the books coming out this year are supernatural thrillers, a genre I’ve never tried before now. I can divide up my short fiction publications — I have somewhere between twenty-five and thirty — the same way. I’m all over the place.

And that’s just how I want it. I would get bored writing the same thing all the time. I like jumping from epic to historical to contemporary and back to epic again. The variety keeps every project fresh.

I see too many young writers trying to define themselves by subgenre. I think some do it because the industry encourages a certain level of pigeon-holing. If we enjoy some success in one area, the market responds by saying, “That’s great! Do it again, only better!”

I would encourage you all to resist that pressure. Certainly if you want to keep working for a time in the same world, with the same characters, do so. I can hardly fault anyone for that, having set eight novels in the Forelands/Southlands universe, and having turned Thieftaker into a franchise of both short fiction and novel-length works.

But I would also urge you to experiment, to try different sorts of stories, to challenge yourself to write something outside your comfort zone. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be publishing supernatural thrillers. Five years before that, I would have told you that I had no intention of ever attempting to write a time-travel story, much less a trilogy. Seriously. That shit will make your brain explode. And yet…

And yet, the time-travel novels of my Islevale Cycle might be the best books I’ve written. The thriller coming out this spring/summer is a book of which I’m deeply proud. The sequel, which I’m writing now, is taking me in all sorts of cool directions. I’m having a blast.

And that’s sort of the point. As I said in last week’s post about my new approach to writing, I am working with the goal of enjoying my work, of taking satisfaction in what I do. This remains a very difficult profession. So write for the joy of it. Stretch, push yourself, take chances. You’ll improve your story telling. You’ll hone your prose. Most important, you’ll have fun.

So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure. But I do have this science fiction idea I’ve been toying with. And a pair of contemporary fantasies based on Celtic mythology. And a middle grade book that I’d like to get back to. And… and… and…

Monday Musings: My Declaration of Creative Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where am I going with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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