Tag Archives: history

Monday Musings: Baseball, Opening Day, and Childhood Dreams

Baseball season opens this week. That might not seem like a big deal to you. And in truth, it’s far less of a big deal for me now than it used to be.

But once upon a time, Opening Day was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. It was the best day of the year that didn’t involve me getting presents. It was a day of possibility, of dreams deferred finally having their day in the sun. And, yes, quite often, it was also the day those dreams and possibilities were doused with icy water.

When I was a kid, baseball was everything to me. Sure, I had other interests, but I lived and died with the Yankees (mostly died, for the first twelve years of my life) and I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. I remember a first grade class assignment in which we were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves in whatever job we expected to do when we grew up, and then write a few sentences about that job. I drew myself playing center field for the Yankees.

I should pause here to say that I must have been truly delusional. I was a TERRIBLE baseball player as a kid. I was terrified of getting hit by the baseball. My little league at-bats were panic-inducing affairs that saw me swinging at any pitch within four or five feet of the plate so that I could strike out more quickly. The strikeout itself was a foregone conclusion, right? So why prolong the encounter and risk devastating physical injury? Every once in a while, I would screw up the courage NOT to swing and would manage a walk.

And as I trotted down to first base, marveling at the mere fact that I was still alive, my father would clap from the stands, calling “Nice going, Charlie [his nickname for me — he did, in fact, know my real name]! Walk’s as good as a hit!”

Kind, but untrue. Walks are great — on average, players who walk a lot help their teams far more than players who walk infrequently. Still, hits are better. There are stats to back this up. But I digress . . .

What about my fielding, you might ask. Well, I was already a birdwatcher by the time I was playing little league, and I spent a lot of time out in right field, watching for interesting fly-overs, and running after hit balls that were safely on the ground and decelerating, and therefore far less of a threat . . .

[I did get a little better as I grew older. I spent three summers at sleepaway camp when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, and during my last year there had a pretty good season. I batted over .300 — yes, I kept track; yes, I still remember — fielded well, and generally acquitted myself quite well. But I should also say that this was a camp for well-to-do Jewish kids. Not exactly the training ground for future Major Leaguers. The pitchers I faced were more likely to wind up as orthodontists than as professional athletes.]

And still, I insisted year after year that I would someday play for the Yankees. And not just at any position. I would play center field. The realm of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As I said: delusional. My parents tried, gently, to steer me away from this dream, pointing out that baseball players — and most professional athletes — had certain skills and attributes that I lacked. Like hand-eye coordination. And height.

Joe Morgan, 1974 Topps“Aha!!” I was able to reply. “What about Joe Morgan? Two time Most Valuable Player, perennial All-Star, World Series champion. He’s five foot seven!” Besides, I assured them. I didn’t expect or need to be six feet tall. I would be perfectly happy with five foot ten, like my hero, Roy White.

Amazingly, it was this statement that my father couldn’t abide. God bless him, he was willing to put up with my elephantine blind spot when it came to my playing ability. But me growing to be five foot ten? No. This was the bridge too far. “Charlie, I’m sorry. But you are never, ever going to be five foot ten . . .”

Spoiler alert: He was right.

I did eventually get over my baseball-playing dreams. Mostly. But baseball’s Opening Day still elicits from me a different sort of dream. “This is the year!” I tell myself, literally every year. “This is the year the Yankees will dominate the American League. The Mets will dominate the National League. The two will meet in an epic seven game World Series! I won’t even care which team wins!”

So maybe I’m still delusional.

But did you know that in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, both teams were just one year removed from last-place finishes in their respective divisions? True story. In 1969, the Miracle Mets won 100 games and the World Series, after spending their first seven years of existence at or near the basement of the National League.

And while we’re at it, did you know that Freddie Patek, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, three time All-Star, was only five foot five??

Anything can happen!

And that really is the point.

Look, baseball is no longer the game I worshiped as a child. Games have gotten too long and boring. Batters swing for the fences in every at-bat. Pitchers try to strike out every batter they face. The nuance and strategy that I loved — it all seems to be gone. And yet, with Opening Day approaching, I find myself dreaming of a season in which smart baseball returns, in which the obsession with power-hitting and power-pitching fades, and this amazing game returns to the subtle brilliance I remember so fondly.

Call me delusional.

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.

A Little News To Share!

So for the people in the little college town where I live, this is old news. But for the rest of you . . .

The former president of the university here (officially called the Vice Chancellor) has moved on to a new opportunity (it’s not really my place to say more, except that when the President of the United States asks you to serve, you serve . . .) Next in line for the university presidency is the University Provost, who happened to be my wife, Nancy. And so, I am thrilled to say that she is now acting president of the university, the first woman in the history of the school to assume the office. My sweetie has made a little bit of history. I could not be more proud.

Here is a photo of her presiding at the recent winter convocation. The red ermine robe is the traditional garb of the University Vice Chancellor.

Nancy at Winter Convocation

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!!

Monday Musings: The Pandemic Two Years On

Two years ago at this time, we were just starting to hear reports of a strange new disease first discovered in the Wuhan Province of China. We didn’t know much about it, and while doctors in China expressed concern about what they were seeing, most of us didn’t think much of it. China, I remember thinking, is a long way away. Whatever this illness is, it’s not likely to have a huge impact on my life.

The hubris. The foolishness. The ignorance. The innocence.

This Sunday morning, as I began thinking about this week’s post, I went back and read some of the Monday Musings I wrote in 2020, when we as a society were first coming to grips with Covid and its implications for our lives and our world. I returned to the topic again and again that year, lamenting the previous Administration’s bumbling response to the pandemic, and trying to make sense in real time of the changes being imposed upon us by something we didn’t yet fully understand.

As I read yesterday, some of what I found in those posts from 2020 struck me as eerily familiar. Almost from the very beginning a certain, too-large segment of our society refused to take any steps to combat the spread of the virus because the actions in question conflicted with their concept of “personal freedom,” of “liberty.” At the time this mostly meant objecting to mask-wearing, to restrictions on large social gatherings, to business closings that prevented people from eating out and going to sports events and shopping in malls.

Today, we fight many of the same battles, and, of course, we struggle with the added social conflicts over vaccines and vaccine mandates.

We worried then, as we do now, about school closures and remote learning, and their impact on children and families. We saw fatigue and desperation and grief battering health care workers, and we worried about the long-term impact their ordeal would have on our entire medical system. And we saw Covid and the public battles over how to deal with it being politicized, deepening the fracture lines in a nation already bitterly divided by politics and social strife.

In too many ways, nothing has changed. And in other ways, things have only gotten worse.

At the time, we believed children were somehow immune to Covid. We have since learned, tragically, how mistaken we were.

Early on, the CDC was projecting deaths from Covid in the U.S. would exceed 100,000 and might reach as high as a quarter of a million. The number of cases of the illness, we were told, might reach into the millions.

The innocence. The ignorance . . . .

Currently, as we weather the third major wave of Covid, our nation’s death toll stands at approximately 835,000. The total number of cases stands at about 60,000,000.

I wrote in one of my earliest 2020 posts about how I remained hopeful that when the pandemic had run its course, we would return to something approaching the normal life we once had known. I was thinking a couple of months, maybe six, maybe a year. Two years on, and I no longer have any illusions about “normal” and what that means. By midsummer in 2020, I understood how naïve I had been. Normal, as we once conceived it, was already gone. We now live in a Covid world. I expect it will forever be a part of our health-scape. Like flu. Like AIDS.

Pretty grim, right?

Except it’s not. Yes, I know, as often as not (or more) my optimistic takes on things turn out to be off base. And if this is another instance, so be it.

But we as a society have learned to live with flu. We get shots, and though the flu vaccines are imperfect year to year, because they are based on health professionals’ best guess as to what the coming season’s flu strain will look like, they generally perform quite well. AIDS was once a death sentence. It’s not anymore.

Over 245 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. Over 206 million are fully vaccinated. The numbers are growing. We must remain committed to fighting the wacky conspiracy theories and the misinformation, so that we can vaccinate millions more in the coming months. But compared to where we were a year ago, we are safer today because of the vaccines. Covid today is hitting hardest in counties with the lowest vaccination rates. Those who are getting sickest from Covid are those who haven’t had the shots. The vaccines work.

Omicron is hitting the country — and the world — hard right now. But it is demonstrably milder than the original strain and than Delta. My wife, who is a Stanford-trained biologist, tells me this is often the pattern with illnesses. They grow more contagious over time, but also less virulent. And there is an evolutionary explanation for this. The contagion grows, because like all living creatures viruses are driven to propagate, to ensure their own continued existence. And the virulence declines because a virus that kills its host has less chance of surviving and reproducing.

Moreover, while many of the problems we encountered with Covid in the earliest days of the pandemic have persisted over these two years, others have not. I wrote early on that I was so distracted by the pandemic and the accompanying social disruptions that I could barely work. I was desperate for normal interactions, for anything that felt familiar and safe. I had trouble remembering what day of the week it was.

As the pandemic has gone on, though, I have adjusted. I can keep track of the days better. I work every day at a pace very much like that which I maintained pre-pandemic. I don’t like Zoom very much, but I use it a lot and keep connected that way. I have attended many virtual conventions, and have taught workshops remotely. And I have gotten used to wearing my mask, to being with friends in open-air settings, to shopping online rather than in person, to cooking every night with Nancy rather than eating out once a week, or once every couple of weeks.

Is any of this ideal? Of course not. But neither is it such a hardship that I can’t cope. I still do believe we will come to some new way of living that feels closer to the old normal than where we are now. I no longer try to guess when that might happen. Because I can’t know. And because I am not as desperate for it as I was a couple of years ago.

I understand fully that I am privileged in this respect. For too many, the disruptions of the pandemic have been utterly devastating and have done permanent damage — physically, emotionally, economically. And I hope that as a society we will show compassion to those who have suffered most, and will help them rebuild their lives.

My point today, though, is that I believe this will be possible. Two years on, too much is the same. Too much has gotten worse. And yet so many of us have adjusted and are adjusting. It may not seem like it much of the time, but we are already building that “next normal.”

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Uncertainty, Optimism, and the New Year

I have been sitting in front of this screen for the better part of an hour, trying to write something for my opening Monday post of 2022. I am in no mood for prognosticating. With Covid still raging, and forty million Americans still stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated and bizarrely resistant to wearing masks, this doesn’t seem a time to be confident about anything, near-term or long-term.

I have no interest in reviewing the year just past. Any discussion of current political trends is likely to be irrelevant a month from now (and depressing for me and my like-minded friends in the interim . . .).

I also don’t wish to write about something frivolous (I have been enjoying this week’s Premier League soccer broadcasts and considered — briefly — writing about that).

I have written far too often about my personal struggles of the past year, and don’t wish to revisit them once again.

And, I realize as I write that last, I am reluctant to delve too much into my current emotional state. Because the truth is, I feel pretty good right now. Better than I have for much of the past year.

This will sound odd, but optimism scares me.

I come by my pessimism naturally. My mother could be terribly superstitious, and often didn’t like to give voice to her hope for good things, at least not without knocking on wood or something of the sort. I can be the same way. And on occasion in the past, when I’ve allowed myself to think positively, I’ve had bitter disappointments. None more devastating than this past year, when I dared feel some optimism in the winter, with The Former Guy having left office and the harsh winter Covid wave seemingly on the wane. Then our daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

And so saying I feel good right now scares me a little. The truth is, we don’t know what will happen with our daughter’s illness. Things look good right now, but with a disease like this, there are never guarantees. We as a nation don’t know what will happen with the pandemic. Things look dire right now, but if we can weather this wave, which seems likely to peak late this month, who knows? We also don’t know what will come of the anti-democratic rumblings and activities of the far right. I fear the worst, but hold out some hope that our system of government, which has seen so many crises over the past two hundred and forty years, will prove resilient.

Life’s uncertainty is a source of both wonder and terror for all of us. Good things come out of the blue, sometimes changing the course of our personal or professional existence. Disappointment and tragedy do the same. The hardest part of my emotional health journey over the past year has been coming to terms with that uncertainty and embracing it. Because we can’t know what will happen. Over the years, I’ve written so many characters in so many different stories in so many fantasy worlds, who have the power to glimpse the future, to judge people’s fates, or to see their own. Call it Divination, or The Sight, or Scrying — the power is a common trope in the realm of speculative fiction.

It is a power I am not sure I would want. I know, I just said that dealing with uncertainty has been difficult for me. But I also think knowing our future would rob us of something essentially human. Because while I have never been good at being optimistic, it is something I strive to be. I believe hope is the most human of emotions. Take away uncertainty, and we take away hope as well.

I will admit that my view on this isn’t entirely consistent. Would I like to know for certain, right now, that my daughter will forever be just fine? Of course. Would I want to know the opposite? No way in hell.

Embracing uncertainty means more than merely accepting what we can’t know. It means refusing to game out scenarios in our minds (something I do far too often, to my own detriment), resisting the tendency to give in to our worst fears, or to build up too much expectation for unrealistically rosy outcomes.

And so as I stand at the leading edge of this new year, I find myself unwilling to make predictions, or even to spell out with too much specificity what I want to see happen and what I don’t. Life comes at us fast, and the older I get, the harder it becomes to slow down the days, the seasons, the years.

But for the first time in my life, I am content to begin the new year saying to myself and to the world, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to us personally, professionally, politically, socially, culturally. I. Don’t. Know. And that’s okay. Today, I feel good. I’ll let you know about tomorrow when it gets here.

Have a good week. Have a good year.

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.