Tag Archives: creativity

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…

Monday Musings: Giving Clueless Advice

This past week, I spent a good deal of time going through old magazines and books in my office trying to clear out some of the clutter. (More on that in Wednesday’s post.)

For years, I have subscribed to a nature photography magazine. Yes, it’s an actual paper magazine — I get an issue every month, and invariably each includes beautiful, glossy photographs — landscapes, portraits of wildlife, macro shots of plants or creatures — articles about different ways I might improve my craft (if only I had all the time in the world to devote to my cameras and lenses), and lots of advertisements for lots of equipment I can’t afford and don’t need. I look forward to every issue.

But one issue published a year or so ago had an article from a photographer who was trying to give advice to aspiring and amateur photographers about how they/we should deal with the pandemic. Since travel was hard just then, he said, we should concentrate on local sites, places we probably overlook on a day-to-day basis, but which might be beautiful in their own right, and thus might be worthy subjects for our next photographic outings. Great advice.

Except his example, based on where he lived, was Capitol Reef National Park, in Utah’s magnificent red rock country. THAT’S where he was going to take photos as a consolation for not being able to travel due to Covid restrictions. That’s a little like telling someone that since they can’t eat out in restaurants, they should settle for a home-cooked meal, like you do. And then revealing that your partner is a 3-star Michelin chef . . .

I somehow missed this article when the issue first appeared, and so got a good laugh out of it the other day.

But then I started thinking that for many people reading the advice I offer to budding writers, I might come off as equally out of touch.

Let me be clear. I don’t think ill of this writer, and I’m not sitting here thinking all the readers of my blog posts think ill of me. But I do think that for those of us who have achieved some success in a given field, it is often too easy to dispense advice, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how grounded in lived experience. I can suggest that writers experiment with this approach, or rethink that old habit, but the fact is sometimes the advice I give demands a commitment of time, or a certain amount of creative risk. And those sorts of practices are much easier for me to try than they might be for someone who doesn’t have a publishing history or a current contract for a book or trilogy.

Put another way, on some level I can’t help but write from a place of privilege and good fortune, and that may, at times, make me blind to the subtext of my advice and recommendations. So consider this a blanket apology for every time in the past I have given writing advice that I think sounds easy and basic, but that comes across as lacking in understanding or empathy for the experiences of writers at other levels. And consider it as well an apology for every time in the future when I do this again. Because I’m sure I will.

Don’t think for a moment I don’t know just how lucky I am to do what I do. And if in my eagerness to share advice or experience with you, I come across as clueless . . . well, as Nancy and the girls will tell you, it’s because sometimes I AM pretty clueless. But I love what I do. Twenty-five years-plus into this career, I still can’t quite believe I get to make up stories for a living. And I want that for others who have the same dreams I did when I typed “Chapter One” for the very first time.

I should also say that most of the advice I give in my writing posts is stuff I needed to hear in the early years of my career. I highlight mistakes I either used to make or still struggle with to this day. Sometimes I tell you to do things I am currently trying to make myself do. The wonderful thing about writing is that we can always improve. And the frustrating thing about writing is that we always need desperately to improve. We can start writing as young children and continue well into our dotage and still not learn all we need to about this magical craft.

And so I hope you will consider that when I offer advice and lessons on writing, I am there learning and striving right alongside you. Because I am certain I have yet to master beyond the capacity for further improvement any skill or practice about which I’ve written. We are, all of us, students of the written word, and we are still matriculating. How glorious is that?

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Shutting Out the World

I have struggled some in recent weeks to come up with topics for my Monday Musings posts. One reason for this: I don’t want to overload readers with essays about family issues and mental health, though both are much in my thoughts these days. A second reason, I realized today, is that I have, in the interests of my own well-being, shut out current events from much of my thinking. If you look back through my posts in 2020 and early 2021, I wrote a lot about the state of the world and the state of our nation. This year, not so much.

It’s not that I have blocked out all news. I listen to NPR every morning. I check headlines daily. I have not stuck my head in the proverbial sand. But neither am I obsessing over world events right now.

And can you blame me?

Republicans are poised to take back both houses of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections. They have gerrymandered their way to disproportionate representation. They continue to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election. They attack the Administration and its progressive allies for rising energy and food prices, knowing full well that these are not the Administration’s fault. They exploit cultural conflicts over race and gender identity for their own cynical purposes, endangering the safety of Blacks, trans youth, educators, and medical professionals. And their tactics are working, so they have no incentive to stop.

Vladimir Putin is playing the most dangerous game of Russian Roulette since the Cuban Missile Crisis, moving the planet closer to global nuclear conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War. He and his generals are responsible for heinous war crimes — genocide, some would argue — in Ukraine. And despite fighting valiantly for their freedom, their homes, their families, their very lives, the Ukrainian army likely cannot hold out indefinitely. The end game will be hideous and horrifying.

The planet is dying. There is no softening that reality. It’s dying. The wildfire season has already begun in the Western U.S. — months earlier than usual — and it promises to be historically bad. Again.

Prices are rising, thanks to Putin’s war. And the stock market is tanking. Each month, we receive our brokerage statements, the latest figures on our retirement savings, and we file them away without looking at them. There’s nothing we can do, and we have no intention of getting out of the market, so . . . It’ll rebound eventually, right? Right??

But by all means, let’s all get our panties in a twist over yet another egotistical billionaire buying yet another social media platform.

Yeah, so this is why I have been avoiding current affairs topics in my Monday Musings posts. I don’t have the energy. I would never say I don’t care. I do. I care passionately. But I feel like there is nothing I can do that will make a significant difference. I can give to international aid organizations. And I do. I can give to environmental groups and to progressive candidates. And I do. I can drive a Prius and use LED bulbs and set the house thermostats with energy conservation in mind. I do all those things.

But like so many people — perhaps like you — I am weary. I have too much on my personal plate right now. Family crises, work deadlines, things I have to get done, things I want to do. Last weekend, while at a convention, I might have been exposed to Covid. I’ve taken a couple of tests this week, the most recent today. Both negative. I’m probably fine, thank goodness. I will admit, though — and I’m not proud of this — that a tiny part of me hoped the test would be positive, giving me an excuse to just stop and rest and do nothing.

In a way, this post has wound up being about current affairs after all. Because the truth is, I am far from alone in feeling the way I do. We as a society are exhausted. And that exhaustion manifests as both apathy and irascibility. Many of us want to shut out the world. And when we can’t, many of us turn to contentiousness, to behavior that serves only to deepen divides that are already too deep.

Spring is here. Our little corner of the Cumberland Plateau is exploding with color right now: the myriad greens of young leaves, the whites of Dogwoods, the pinks of Wild Azaleas, the brilliant reds and yellows and blues of migrating tanagers, warblers, and buntings.

Covid is less of a threat that it was this winter, and warmer temperatures should mitigate the dangers even more. The housing market is beginning to normalize, which might help calm inflation in the months to come.

Maybe the fire season will prove less destructive than feared. Maybe Putin’s war effort will continue to fall short of his ambitions, leading him to settle for a partial victory rather than total conquest. Maybe the midterms won’t be quite the bloodbath some anticipate.

The fact is, as bad as things seem right now, they could be worse. They could always be worse. And in the meantime, there is beauty in the world. In the colors of spring, in the love of family and friends, in creativity, in work well done, in down-time enjoyed.

And this, in the end, is why I have chosen to avoid a certain kind of post this year. Life has been hard, but it also continues to be good. As I age, I find myself gaining a level of perspective I lacked as a younger man, when I was a sky-is-falling kind of guy. I don’t want to focus on the bad and the hard and the tragic. That stuff is always there for us, if that’s where we want our minds to go. These days, I choose a different emphasis.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: I’m Stuck

My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

I feel stuck. Have for a while now. It’s nothing too alarming; I’ve been here before. But it is frustrating, and I am ready — past ready — to be, well, unstuck.

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently, and I enjoy that. It keeps my mind busy. It forces me to think creatively, to consider my craft while also making certain to respect the vision and voice of my client. But it’s not the same as writing.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)And when it comes to writing, I am in something of a rut. The last novel-length piece I wrote beginning to end was Invasives, the second Radiants book, which I completed (the first draft at least) eleven months ago. Eleven months!

I’ve written some short fiction since then. A Thieftaker story, a story for the Silence in the City anthology. I had to revise and polish Invasives, and I have done work on the new Celtic series I’ve recently sold. But the first two of those books were already written. I’ve been revising those, too. I’ve started book 3, but only just.

Noir, edited by David B. Coe and John Zakour, an anthology from Zombies Need BrainsMostly, as I say, I’ve been editing. My work. Other people’s work. The Noir anthology. I’ve been plenty busy, but I have not been as productive creatively as I would like. And I wonder if this is because of all the emotional pressure we (my family and I) have been under over the past year-plus.

Recently, I wrote a couple of what you might call audition chapters for a project I cannot talk about. (There was actually an NDA. I really can’t talk about it.) And I enjoyed that process. I had a tight deadline, a quick turnaround from when I got the information on what I needed to write to when the chapters were due. I met the deadline with ease, and was pleased with the results.

As I say, I’ve been here before. I’m not worried that I’ll never write again. At least not too worried.

I wonder, though, if there is a lesson in that experience with the sample chapters. Maybe what I need is a deadline, one that’s hard and fast and not too far away. Maybe I need that sort of kick in the pants to get going again. I’ve long said that when I go too long without writing, I get cranky.

Well, I’m cranky.

I don’t know if I’ll get the gig I auditioned for. I’m certainly not counting on it. But if I don’t, I need to make myself work on something else. According to the contract, that third Celtic book isn’t due for a long time, but I am thinking I should start writing it now. And I should set a hard deadline for myself, well before the actual due date. I have lots of editing projects looming, so I can easily justify forcing myself to write the book now and quickly.

I don’t know. I need to do something.

Creativity is a strange beast. Often it’s thought of as something that comes to us in sudden sparks of inspiration. It can’t be forced, we’re told. But when it strikes, the feeling is euphoric. And some of that is true some of the time.

Inspiration can be abrupt and unexpected, and those moments can be euphoria-inducing. The thing is though, if we want to make our living as creatives, we can’t afford to wait for the muse, or whatever, to strike. We have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, bills arriving in the mail each day. This is our job, damnit!

Which means creativity can be forced. Most times it has to be forced. I write pretty much every day. My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

What does this have to do with me being stuck? Honestly, I’m not certain; I’m working this out as I go. But I think the answer is this: Being stuck is as much a part of making a living as a creator as being inspired. It’s the back half of that shining coin. Fields need to lay fallow for a time before they can be productive again. Writers (and other artists) sometimes need to go through periods of creative dormancy before we can dive back into the projects we want to complete.

This is not an excuse. As I said earlier, I’m cranky. I want to be writing again. But I have also learned over the years that beating myself up because I’ve been unproductive accomplishes nothing. On some level, I believe, the creative brain knows what it needs. Just as a body can crave different sorts of food to meet nutritional needs, the artistic mind can seek out times of rest and times of activity.

I have been in the former for long enough, thank you very much. I am ready for the latter.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Confessions — The Ways In Which I Waste Work Time

I have shared some personal stuff in these posts in the past. Today’s post is the most private, the most embarrassing, the most revealing I’ve ever written.

Well, not really. But today, I confess to all of you, in front of God and everyone, how I waste time when I ought to be writing.

Let’s be honest, we all find ways to procrastinate and distract ourselves when we’re working, writers and non-writers alike. I also think, though, that writers in particular need to have ways to occupy the front parts of our brain, while the hind-brain works through plot points and character arcs and the like. (Go with it, people. My blog, my rules . . .) Certainly I need these things. And I resort to all sorts of stuff during the course of a day.

Confession #1: I play Bejeweled Blitz on my phone. I play it a lot, and I have been addicted to it for years. I have enough gold bars and coins piled up to make Warren Buffett envious. I have so many free gems wracked up that I could play for weeks straight, without pausing for meals or sleep, and never have to pay for a gem with any of those hoarded coins. It’s a bit of a sickness, actually. But I do enjoy it.

Confession #2: Bejeweled Blitz is not the only game on my phone. Not even close. I play Wordscapes, Crown Solitaire, Hearts, Spades. I don’t play them nearly as much as I play Blitz, but . . . well, let’s just say I don’t lack for entertainment options. And don’t get me started about Wordle.

Confession #3: I will, at least a couple of times each week, I look at guitars on various music store websites. Yes, I own three acoustic guitars, all of them very nice. Yes, I own an electric guitar. Also very nice. And yes, I covet more. I look at Reverb.com. I look at Musician’s Friend. I look at Sweetwater. I look at Music Zoo. I could go on, but I think you get the point. I never tire of looking at beautiful new guitars that I neither need, nor can afford.

Confession #4: Repeat last paragraph, and everywhere I mention “guitar” substitute “camera” or “lens,” and everywhere I mention a music store, substitute a camera dealer. I’m not proud of this.

Confession #5: I shop for other stuff, too. Books. CDs. Sometimes clothes or shoes. Sometimes gifts for other people. Not as often as I would like you to think. But I do look for stuff for others. Really.

Confession #6: This is really not a confession, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But I’m talking about procrastinating, so . . . I play guitar during my work day. It’s a good way to refocus, a nice break from sitting at the keyboard, a constructive use of time I might otherwise spend, oh, I don’t know, playing Bejeweled Blitz?

Confession #7: A lot of the online searches I do for the purposes of book research quickly morph into rabbit holes that have nothing to do with my stories and everything to do with wasting time and NOT writing. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard. Looking at you, every writer reading this post . . .

Confession #8: A lot of the online searches I do never had any connection to the book or story I’m working on in the first place. They were about birds or music or baseball or anything but the book or story I’m working on. I have a strong feeling I am not at all alone in this regard, either.

Confession #9: Email — blah, blah, blah. Facebook — blah, blah, blah. Twitter — blah, blah, blah. YouTube — blah, blah, blah. Etc. Ad infinitum. Social media is absolutely essential to self-promotion, to building our audiences and platforms. It is also the ultimate time-sink.

Confession #10: Sometimes when I am listening to music when I write, I’ll suddenly just HAVE to know who is playing rhythm guitar on this particular song. And then I will need to know what other albums this person played on and who he played with. And pretty soon it’s an hour later.

Confession #11: This is not a complete list . . .

In all seriousness, to procrastinate is human. It is, I believe, part of my creative process. I was actually serious earlier when talking about front-brain stuff and hind-brain stuff. I find these various things I do to distract myself are essential to my writing day. That’s not just a rationalization. I honestly believe these “wastes of time” enable me to be productive. And I AM productive, despite my distractions, which, I would say, proves my point.

And that mention of rationalizations reminds me of a line from a movie. I think I know which one. And IMDB is a really fun website, so I gotta go . . .

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Down Time Is Not Wasted Time — A Guest Post From JD Blackrose

My friend JD Blackrose has a new book coming out — Demon Kissed, a novel I was happy to blurb. Today she drops some writing wisdom on us. Read on!


JD BlackroseYou won’t get your best ideas sitting at your desk. You’ll get them in the shower. Or, when you’re driving your car, or taking a walk on a snowy day.

Unfortunately, the only things these three scenarios have in common is that you usually can’t write anything down. I’m willing to guess that authors lose more ideas to a lack of pen and paper than to anything else.

In an article on the website for the meditation app, Headspace, author Christine Yu reports that her cousin once gave her a waterproof notepad and pencil so when she got her best idea in the shower, she had a place to write it down. (I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it does. Google “Aquanotes.”)

Or do what I do and carry your phone with you. Type a few quick words into the Notes section of your phone at a red light. If you are a sophisticate, leave yourself a voice memo. In the shower or while chopping veggies, when you can’t just stop mid-suds or slice, yell to your partner, “Remind me about the pig with the swizzle stick,” or ask Siri to take a memo. Just saying it out loud should be enough to get you through a quick wash or salad.

It’s all good, and it is all valuable, because you’ll need those notes of inspiration later. How many times have you been raring to go, ready to write, only to sit in front of your computer and find your ideas have dried up?

Demon Kissed, by JD BlackroseIt’s happened to all of us. It happened to me writing my new book, Demon Kissed, and the next two in The Summoner’s Mark trilogy, coming from Bell Bridge Books.

Luckily, I had notes for inspiration, and I used them to get a handle on the main character and her voice. If I hadn’t had those stolen thumb-typed crib sheets, I wouldn’t have gotten a foothold on the story at all, or maybe I would have, but it would have been much later and my chance to pitch the books might have passed me by.

Writer A.A. Milne is often quoted as saying, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing.” This is accurate, but the full quote is, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you cannot hear, and not bothering.”

Very Winnie-the-Pooh.

As writers, we talk a lot about “butt-in-chair” practice. Get a certain number of words each day! Set aside one hour every single day! Write a story start to finish.

It’s all good advice, and yet, nonsense.

According to Yu’s article, problem solving through insight involves the right temporal lobe of the brain, while problem solving via a more active, analytical approach involves the frontal lobe. We literally are using our minds differently, and being in the shower, or exercising, or being in woods puts us in a state of rest and relaxation, ready to receive inspiration.

In other words, we need both. I do a lot of yoga and the title of this piece comes from an online yoga instructor who said, “Down time is not wasted time.” He’s absolutely correct, and though he was talking about yoga, it applies to our writing practice too. Spinning our wheels in front of the computer makes us cranky and defeated. It is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve, and when we do create words under those conditions, they are often stilted.

While I believe in creating a writing habit, something I’m going to write a book about soon, I also believe that writing time is not necessarily all about fingers on keyboard or pen in hand. You must pay attention to the other part of your brain and give it the space it needs to work.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, talks about the “Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt.” If this sounds like your inner voice, it is time to take a break and go for a stroll. Take notes or dictate into your phone, or dare to do nothing and not bother, like A.A. Milne. Come back to your writing later. The words might be there then.

*****

About JD Blackrose

JD Blackrose is the author of The Summoner’s Mark series from Bell Bridge Books, and The Soul Wars, The Devil’s Been Busy, and the Zombie Cosmetologist novellas from Falstaff Books, as well as numerous short stories, including “Welcome, Death” in the Jewish Book of Horror.

Demon Kissed is out February 28th.

Follow JD Blackrose on Twitter and Facebook
Visit the author’s website. Read an excerpt of Demon Kissed.
Purchase:  Indiebound | B&N | Amazon | Kobo

Monday Musings: About That Professional News I Mentioned Two Months Ago…

Screen shot of Facebook postNearly two months ago, early in the new year, I posted on social media that I had some exciting professional news I couldn’t share quite yet. I was thrilled, and wanted to let people know. But I also didn’t want to say anything before all the details had been settled. So I posted my little teaser, forgetting the one immutable rule of the publishing business: Things always happen slower than one thinks they will.

Well, I can finally make the announcement official. I have signed and sent the contracts, and they are (or soon will be) back in the hands of my publisher.

I have signed a contract for a new trilogy with Belle Books.

What kind of trilogy?

I’ll tell you, but first some brief background. (Sue me: I’m a writer, so I always build suspense, and I’m a historian, so I always fill in backstory . . .)

A little more than a decade ago, in the summer of 2011, I found myself with nothing to write. We (my agent and I) had sold the Thieftaker books to Tor, and had turned in the first volume, but was waiting on revision notes. The year before I’d finished my Blood of the Southlands series and had also published the Robin Hood novelization. We were shopping the Justis Fearsson series, but sensed that the first book needed more work. And, frankly, I was not yet in a state of mind to tackle another rewrite on that front.

And so, with nothing else to do, I started something new. When I named the file folder on my computer desktop, I just called it “NewUF” (new urban fantasy). The book remained untitled for a long time.

The scene I first envisioned (not the first scene in the story) centered around a woman who wakes up from a night she can barely remember with a wound she feels but can’t see. She stumbles to the shower, but the pain only increases. At last she finds herself picking at skin that looks normal but feels rough and scarred. And suddenly blood is cascading down her side. She doesn’t know or remember why.

A little weird, right? Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Some books take form clearly and sequentially. Some introduce themselves piecemeal, like a jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the scene I’d imagined, but working backward from it I filled out the character of this woman, I sculpted her world, which is basically our world with a magical twist, and I built other characters around her.

The result was a contemporary urban fantasy steeped in Celtic mythology: two women, a Sidhe sorcerer and her human conduit, fighting off shapeshifting Fomhoire demons and their allies from the Underrealm, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

It sounds grim, and it also sounds a bit like other books we’ve seen before. It’s neither. Yes, there is some serious shit going down throughout the book, but there is also humor and there are lots of unexpected twists in both the magical underpinnings of the story and the narrative itself.

I wrote the book in about three months. And then I set it aside. I had final edits to do on Thieftaker and I needed to get started on Thieves’ Quarry, the second book in that series. I loved this other book I’d written, but I knew it was part of a larger project, and I didn’t know yet what to do with the next books in the sequence.

Thieftaker and its sequel did well. We sold the Fearsson series. And abruptly, I had more than enough work to keep me busy for a few years. But I certainly never forgot about my Celtic series, and a few years later, when I pulled the book out of the proverbial drawer, I reworked it, taking into account my agent’s editorial comments from that first draft, and all that I had learned since while writing the Thieftaker and Fearsson books. A couple of years after that, I took it out again and edited it some more. And finding myself once more with a bit of time, I started work on the second volume.

This second book built on what I’d done in book one, but the plot stalled at the 2/3 mark (as books often do) and, with other work to get done — now on the Islevale series — I put it away again.

And on it went. I returned to these books again and again, polishing book one to a high shine, eventually completing and then polishing book two, and finally developing an idea for the third book in the trilogy. By then we’d reached the middle of 2021. I was working on the Radiants series with an incredible publisher and editor, and I decided it was finally time to bring these books out of the drawer they’d been in and present them for possible publication. Which brings us to this post.

We don’t always know what will happen with the stories and books we write. The first book in this new Celtic urban fantasy has, at this point, been through five or six iterations and countless edits. It wasn’t ready in 2011. Not even close. But I believed in the idea, and I knew that with work I could make it into a publishable novel.

Sure, I have other books and stories that have never gone anywhere and probably won’t. I also have ideas like this one that are still awaiting their time.

Never give up on a story you love. Maybe it’s not ready yet. Maybe you haven’t figured out how to end it or where to take subsequent volumes. Maybe you’re not sure what it needs, but you know it needs something. Stick with it. Work on other things as well. Sometimes we need to confront stubborn ideas and stories head on. Sometimes we need to set them aside and let them percolate while we write other characters in other worlds.

I don’t yet know what to call this new series. When I know, you’ll know. The first book is titled Stone Bound. I expect it will be out later in 2022 or early in 2023. The second book is called The Demon Cauldron.

Have a great week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

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

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

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

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

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

Have a great week.

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

Continuing my series on how I came to be a professional writer . . . (Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III)

When we left off last week, I had just received 1) an offer to teach history and 2) a phone call from an editor at Tor Books in which said editor expressed interest in buying my first novel. These two conversations occurred within twenty-four hours of each other, and in both cases, I was given the weekend to make up my mind before informing them of my decisions on Monday.

It was a fraught weekend, though less so than one might think. The most difficult part of it was a conversation I had with my mother, who argued strongly against giving up my history career to write fiction. The more she pushed, the harder I pushed back, not because I was being contrary, but because her adamancy and my response to it convinced me that I knew already what I wanted to do. It actually wasn’t a hard decision at all. If anything, I was troubled by how easy it was for me to choose.

I’d had my doubts about the history path for several years; the idea of accepting Colorado State’s job offer filled me with dread. Writing fantasy, on the other hand, had been my dream for half my life, and now, improbably, that dream was within reach. How could I turn my back on it?

My mom didn’t understand. She felt I was being irresponsible, immature, foolish. She said as much several times during that terribly difficult phone conversation, and the hard truth is, we hadn’t fully reconciled when she slipped into dementia less than a year later — a result of her cancer treatments. She died the following year.

I had several other conversations that weekend, but only one of them mattered.

I’ve said before that I have the World’s Best Spouse, and I mean it each time I say it. I know, though, that nearly every artist who has a life partner feels the same. A supportive, generous, patient, loving partner is, in my view, essential to creative success. I have been fortunate beyond words in this regard.

That weekend, after I hung up from my call with my mother, Nancy came into my office and essentially said, “Well, that sounded awful, but it also sounds like you’ve made up your mind.” When I asked if she thought I was making a mistake, she gave me an emphatic no. “I knew you before you started writing, and I know you now,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “I like you better now.”

Joking aside, to her mind, the decision was as clear cut as I thought it was. I was happy writing. I wouldn’t have been teaching history. We were in a good situation — she had a job she liked, our rent was low, we were saving money every month, we didn’t yet have kids. If ever there was a time for me to pursue a writing career, this was it. We agreed that if in five years it seemed things weren’t going well, we could rethink our plans. But for right then, this was a chance we could afford to take.

On that Monday, I made two phone calls, one to Fort Collins, Colorado, and one to New York City. For better or worse, I was now a professional writer.

In subsequent months, as we shared with friends and family what had happened, and what we had decided, the overwhelming response I got was “Wow, you are so courageous! You’re following your dream!”

I didn’t feel courageous. I felt like I had taken the easy path, like I had done something irresponsible, that I had cheated in some way. Maybe it was the residue of the conversation with my mom. Maybe it was some outdated sense of what adults — particularly adult men — are supposed to do. Dreams are for kids. Playing make-believe, writing stories about magic — these are frivolous, immature pursuits.

I feel silly typing this. I know better now. Writing is hard work. Like any creative venture, it can be a soul-tearing struggle, and as a business it demands near-constant promotion, strategic thinking, discipline, resilience, a thick skin, and an openness to criticism. I had some sense of this even then. And yet the doubts remained.

A few months later, in mid-summer, while Nancy and I were in Idaho visiting her parents, I had a conversation with her father. He was, and continues to be, in his ninetieth year, a man of wisdom and compassion. He sensed that I was still struggling to find peace with the choice I’d made. And he told me about when he first left the navy and decided he was going to move West and become a farmer. All of his navy buddies thought he was nuts, but he was determined.

“So I bought a cow,” he told me. He wanted to run a dairy, and he knew if he owned a cow, he would feel one step closer to that aspiration. More, he’d feel like he was a real farmer. “That’s kind of what you have to do,” he said. “You need to start thinking of yourself as a writer, instead of as a guy who gave up history and is trying to write.”

That simple distinction made all the difference in the world.

My first novel came out in May 1997. Neither of my parents lived to see the book in print. But my father was alive as the book went to production. He saw how proud and excited I was, and I think he shared in those emotions, despite having been as skeptical as my mom early on. Children of Amarid did well. The hardcover garnered some nice reviews despite a small print run. The paperback went through six or seven printings.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The Outlanders, my second book, may well be the most significant of all the books I’ve published. I knew I had it in me to write one book. But when I finished The Outlanders, and realized it was even better than CofA, I knew I was more than a guy who could write a novel. I was an author. And when Children of Amarid and The Outlanders together were given the Crawford Fantasy Award by the IAFA (International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts), for best fantasy by a new writer, I knew I would have a professional career beyond that first series.

As I’ve said before in this series of posts, I was incredibly fortunate to find my way to a writing career. I benefited from privilege, from luck, from the unstinting support of a loving partner. I don’t quite know what the lesson is this week. Not all of us face as stark a choice as I did. I know myself well enough to understand that I could not have taken the history job and also written fiction (my mother’s solution). It was a tenure-track job. I would have had a full teaching load and also would have been under immediate pressure to revise and publish my dissertation, do academic committee work, and get started on my next scholarly book. Add to that the time commitments of marriage and starting a family, and at the very least I would have been postponing my writing career for another decade or more. I didn’t want that.

But I’m not so naïve as to say, “So everyone should just follow their dreams, consequences be damned.” I will say, though, that if you love to write — or paint, or play music, or dance, or sculpt, or take photos — following your dream ought to be the goal. Maybe you’ll have to balance your artistic ambitions with the pragmatism of a day job. Maybe you’ll need to be patient for a year or two. Whatever path you find, I assure you the sacrifices are worth it. Few things in life match the joy of waking each morning to a workday that consists of doing what you love.

Next Monday, my final thoughts on my path to a writing career.

In the meantime, have a great week.

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

Today I continue my series of posts on how I got started in writing. (If you want to catch up, you can find the first post here, and the second post here.) The subtitle of this collection of posts is “A Case Study of Dubious Worth,” and today we really begin to delve into the dubious side of things. So read on, and prepare to disregard everything I have to say . . .

When we left off last week, I was in college still, having abandoned my plans to major in creative writing, because of A) a crappy experience in a creative writing course, B) my parents’ rather trenchant observation about the lack of earning power for Brown graduates with BAs in creative writing. I graduated with my degree in American Studies, worked briefly for a political consultant I’d interned with the previous summer, and applied to Ph.D. programs in U.S. history. I loved the subject and thought I could satisfy my passion for writing by being a historian.

I was wrong.

Yeah, I know: spoiler.

I could take you through my grad school experience, which was hard, but also rich with amazing people, academic challenges and epiphanies, and the beginning of the love relationship that would shape the rest of my life. But here are the salient points. First, writing history wasn’t my calling. Yes, I love the act of writing. But it turns out I also love creating characters and plot lines and even imaginary worlds. And apparently you can’t do that with history and expect to get tenure. Who knew? Second, while writing my dissertation was not at all like writing fiction, I did learn a tremendous amount from the process, because, once again, I had a fantastic teacher. My advisor at Stanford was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy. He was a remarkable, exacting mentor whose high standards and generous feedback improved immensely my prose and narrative skills.

I knew before finishing my degree that I was on the wrong professional path, but I felt stuck — I had devoted years of my life to getting my Ph.D. How could I change course now? — and I was determined to complete my doctorate no matter what. So finish it I did, in May 1993. I figured I would apply for academic jobs in the coming academic year (1993-94) and see how I felt about whatever offers I received.

By this time, Nancy and I were married, and she had taken a job teaching biology at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee. Soon after I completed my degree, she said something to me that changed the trajectory of my life. “Since the day I met you,” she told me, “you’ve talked about wanting to write a novel. The first history jobs won’t be posted until the fall. You have all summer. Why don’t you try writing and see if you enjoy it?”

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I did just that. I started with some short stories that have never since seen the light of day, but which helped me to shape the contours of my world and its history. Then I began work on the novel, and by September had completed the first five chapters of what would eventually be Children of Amarid, my first published novel. I gave the manuscript to a friend of the family who had been a publisher, and he agreed to act as my agent, operating under standard agenting fees. He sent those five chapters and an outline of the rest of the book to various fantasy publishers.

In the meantime, I began my history job search and found a listing for a tenure track position at Colorado State University teaching U.S. environmental history. I took the listing to Nancy and said, “This is my job. This is the one I’m going to get.” It was a perfect fit, and Colorado was a place we’d dreamed of living. If I was destined to teach history, this was the job for me.

And sure enough, I interviewed for the position at that year’s American Historical Association Conference, had an on-campus interview early in 1994, and on a Thursday in March received a call from the chair of the history department, who offered me the job.

Again, this was my perfect history job. I should have leapt at the offer. But the thought of doing so made me nauseous. For the past several months, even as I applied for history jobs, my thoughts had been on that manuscript floating around the halls of New York’s big fantasy publishing houses. That was the future I wanted. That was my dream.

I asked the chairman of the Colorado State history department if I could have until Monday to give him an answer. He said yes, reluctantly.

The next day — yes, that’s right: the next day — I got a call from an editor at Tor Books. He had read my chapters and wanted to buy the publishing rights to Children of Amarid.

And for this week, I’m going to stop there, with my 31-year-old self contemplating this improbable confluence of my two professional paths. We’ll pick up the story next week with the decision I faced that fateful weekend.

In the meantime, a few points to emphasize. As I said, this is the part of my story where the dubious worth of my experience really becomes obvious. The industry has changed so very much in the past thirty years. My friend who served as my agent was not licensed in that capacity. He was a publishing bigwig. People in the industry knew his name. And he and his wife were my parents’ dearest friends in the world. I was SO lucky in this regard. Having an agent at all was a huge advantage — having HIM for my agent was even better. I’m not sure that in today’s world that sort of informal arrangement would even be tolerated.

Moreover, in today’s publishing world there is also no way in hell that I could sell a novel based on five chapters and an outline. It’s laughable even to contemplate. I was a first time novelist with no fiction credits to his name. Yes, I had completed my Ph.D. and so could point to that as proof that I was capable of writing a book-length manuscript. But that hardly qualified me as a novelist.

As it happened, though, the Tor editor who read my chapters had recently bought and edited a book called Wizard’s First Rule, by Terry Goodkind, which was a runaway bestseller. After that, Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, told my editor that he was free to buy the next book he found that he thought had potential. My editor had once worked for my agent and so the next book to land on the editor’s desk was mine. He liked it, thought it could be good. But if Goodkind’s book hadn’t struck gold, he might not have been free to make the offer on Children of Amarid. If my agent had known a different editor, that person might not have had the freedom to take a chance on an inexperienced unknown like me. And yes, it also bears mentioning that every person in this little story — the agent, the editor, the publisher, the bestseller, and the young writer — was a white man. I was helped enormously by my privilege and that of the people around me.

All this by way of saying that I was fortunate beyond words in every respect.

Don’t get me wrong: That first book was good, as were the volumes of the LonTobyn Chronicle that came after. They were strong enough to eventually win the Crawford Award as the best fantasy series by a new author. Despite my lack of experience, I knew how to write, how to tell a story, how to create compelling characters.

But my career path was charmed, and I trod it at a time when it was far easier to break into the business.

Next week, I’ll trace the early growth of my writing career. In the meantime, have a great week.