Tag Archives: how to write

Professional Wednesday: One Hot-Mess of a Writing Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Understand Your Contracts

Today’s post won’t be overly long. It doesn’t need to be, as the advice is fairly straightforward.

One of the advantages of having an agent, beyond increased chances of selling our work to a traditional publisher, and increased access to secondary sales of media rights and translation rights, is that agents understand contracts. When I first entered the business, I didn’t know the first thing about them. I have learned over the course of my career, but I’ve been in publishing for twenty-five years. If I hadn’t learned it would be downright embarrassing.

The fact is, though, in today’s marketplace, finding an agent is harder than ever. And for many of us, it might not be absolutely necessary. Yes, those subsidiary sales are nice, but if our goal is simply publication here in the U.S., and if we’re willing to sign with a small press, we can do this without representation.

But here’s the thing: If we don’t have an agent, we need to educate ourselves on the meaning of contracts. Because no writer should ever sign a contract unless they understand and agree to every single clause.

Look, there are a lot of publishers out there. Small, large, and in between. And many of them — most of them, I would say — are decent, honest, and well-meaning. Many of them are also competent and capable of drawing up a contract that is comprehensive and legally sound. And the Venn Diagram that finds the overlap between those two groups probably includes a good number of publishers.

But it definitely doesn’t include all of them. There are some who are competent but untrustworthy. There are some who are honest but not so good with the legal words thing. There are some who are incompetent crooks, and there are some who probably mean well but simply have some wonky stuff in their business model.

Sadly, none of them come with signs attached telling us to which category they belong. It is up to us to read and understand the legal agreements we’re signing. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we get screwed later on.

Read your contracts line by line. Make notes of anything you don’t understand and ask questions. Ask other writers or editors or publishers you know. Ask that friend who happens to be a lawyer. Seek professional, paid legal advice if you need to. Yes, this last will cost you something on the front end, but you’ll be glad you did it. If you understand the contract but find some of the provisions not to your taste, bring those clauses to the attention of your publisher and try to negotiate a change.

Finally — and this might be the hardest bit of advice to follow — be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t budge. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. Getting a book offer is heady stuff. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment, to believe that this is the ONE opportunity that will ever come our way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we let this one go, we will regret it for the rest of our lives. And I can’t guarantee that’s not the case. But I can tell you these two things: 1) If one publisher thinks our book is publishable, chances are another will too, even if we have to wait a while; and 2) Signing a bad contract can absolutely be worse than signing no contract at all.

So understand your contracts. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand or don’t like. And be prepared to take your book elsewhere.

Keep writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we address the 60% stall?

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!!

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

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: Roger Angell, 1920-2022

If you are not a baseball fan, and not a reader of The New Yorker, chances are the news of Roger Angell’s passing, at the age of 101, had little significance for you. But if you are familiar with his work, then you know we have lost a brilliant essayist, a keen observer of the human condition, and the greatest chronicler of baseball in the game’s history.

Angell’s achievements are legion, and others writing tributes to him can do a better job than I in summarizing his magnificent career. It is worth noting that he was the stepson of E.B. White, that he published articles and stories in the The New Yorker for a span of 76 years (that’s not a typo), and was for more than two decades the fiction editor at that august magazine. He was a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame AND the American Academy of Arts of Letters. No other writer — no other person — can claim membership in both.

He was, in short, far, far more than a baseball writer.

And yet, for me, his legacy will always be tied firmly to the game.

The Summer Game, by Roger AngellBeginning in 1962, and continuing through most of the next sixty years, Angell wrote about baseball, contributing articles to The New Yorker a couple of times each season, usually once during spring training, and once at the end of the World Series. Some seasons he added a mid-season essay. His articles were later collected in volumes — The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Once More Around the Park (1991). I own all of them, and have read them multiple times.

My mother was a dedicated subscriber to The New Yorker, and always had piles of them on her night table, because she could never quite keep up with all the reading. But whenever she received an issue containing a Roger Angell article, she would read it immediately so she could send it on to me, to my oldest brother, and to our sister. My father usually stole the magazine long enough to read the article as well. The appearance of an Angell piece was a family affair.

It wasn’t just that he wrote about a game we all loved. It was that he did so with poetry, with humor, and with the giddy appreciation of baseball’s unique grace only a fan can harbor and no writer, no matter how talented, can fake.

Writing in 1962, as the brand-new New York Mets franchise stumbled to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, he ruminated about their die-hard, stadium-filling fans:

It seemed statistically unlikely that there could be, even in New York, a forty- or fifty-thousand-man [sic] audience made up exclusively of born losers — leftover Landon voters, collectors of mongrel puppies, owners of stock in played-out gold mines — who had been waiting years for a suitably hopeless cause…
…This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try — antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

He described the daring base-running of the wonderful Willie Mays (“the best ballplayer anywhere”) this way:

He runs low to the ground, his shoulders swinging to his huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and lopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.

Wit, lyricism, and a fundamental understanding not just of how the game is played, but what it means to those of us who lack the talent to play at that level, but still identify with beloved teams and admired stars. Angell’s writing did more than reflect back at me my own passion for baseball. It deepened my understanding of the nuances of the sport.

More important in the long run, his work taught me about the craft to which I would devote the bulk of my life. His observations and descriptions challenged my preconceptions. I thought I knew baseball — I was a fanatic about the sport from an early age. But the game Angell described was more beautiful than the one I had seen up until that point. He made me look at it again, not as a fan, but as a storyteller. He inspired me to think like a writer, about baseball at first, but later about so much more. I read his first book when I was in junior high. His second when I was in high school. His third after I finished college. I grew up on his writing. The lessons I gleaned from his essays shaped my voice, even though I wasn’t writing about baseball at all.

Angell was born in 1920. He saw Ruth play, and Gehrig. He saw Mays and Aaron, Koufax and Gibson, Seaver and Jeter. He lived a long life filled with achievement and also with tragedy. And he wrote about it all. He continued to write pretty much to the end of his life, and I will miss his essays the way I miss watching Willie run. But his words remain, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, now is the perfect time to dive in.

Have a great week.

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.

Professional Wednesday: With Special Guest, E.C. Ambrose!

Today, I am delighted to welcome to the blog my dear friend, E.C. Ambrose (a.k.a. Elaine Isaak). Elaine and I have known each other for a long time, and she is one of the truly good people in this business. She is incredibly smart, funny, and deeply passionate about writing and our genre.

Her newest book, DRAKEMASTER, comes out from Guard Bridge Books on April 14!


Two Books with One Stone

by E. C. Ambrose

Drakemaster, by E.C. AmbroseOne of the great delights of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to leap into research and go bouncing off into every conceivable rabbit hole—er, to do a deep dive into a specific time, place or topic which will provide the backdrop for the story you have in mind. Unless you’re already a historical specialist in that area, doing the research is likely to consume a lot of time, attention, and other resources.

My approach to developing a novel idea tends to be pretty methodical. Sometimes, I trip across an engaging fact or historical moment that I want to explore and I’m able to use that as an immediate jumping off point for the more detailed research. Other times, I have a general enthusiasm for a topic that could be mined for fictional potential. Mostly what I’m looking for is moments of cultural instability, ideally with multiple cultures interacting, and rich layers of conflict that can propel a plot as well as inform character.

The genesis of DRAKEMASTER, my new historical fantasy novel, arose from my fascination with Mongolian history and culture, alongside an interest in early clockworks. The first gave me a general region I wanted to explore, but it was the second that allowed me to pinpoint exactly where and when the book would be set. Central Asia is a region both vast in scale, and deep in scope, so it would be easy to get lost in all of those aforementioned rabbit holes.

When I came across a reference in one of my early technology books to “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial” I had found my particular niche. The footnote refers to the court recorders of Song Dynasty China writing down very detailed horoscopes for imperial children, in order to determine who was most fit to succeed the emperor.

These horoscopes depended on a highly accurate astronomical clock built in Kaifeng around 1090 CE by the polymath known to us as Su Song. Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, fell to the Mongols during their southward sweep, but rebelled against the Khan in 1257. Conflicts aplenty! I had my very specific place and time to write into.

By this point in my research process, I had amassed quite a heap of books and references. It seemed sad to use all of that information to craft only the single book, even if it might grow into a series. What to do? The answer was to spin out the same body of research into a completely different book, one that would aim at a different market rather than compete with the fantasy novel.

In addition to my love of fantasy and science fiction, I also adore a good adventure novel, the kind that solves a puzzle which may span centuries and a thousand miles to uncover something extraordinary. I took what I had learned about Mongolian history, and in particular, the landscape-oriented tradition of Khoomei throat singing, and used it to envision a musical map created a long time ago, which would lead a contemporary team on a thrilling chase to locate a great prize, one of the greatest tombs never found: that of Genghis Khan. This project became The Mongol’s Coffin, the first of my Bone Guard archaeological adventure novels.

What’s the takeaway for the would-be historically inspired writer?

First, diligent pursuit of the specific. Rather than be overwhelmed by the sweep of history, or consumed by the “great men” who tend to dominate, look for the telling detail that might serve as the jumping off point for a different view.

Second, find an organizational system that works for you. You’ll need to return to this well throughout the project(s) so marking pages, keeping a bibliography, and making detailed notes about the stuff that most excites you will give you a good start. I am a spreadsheet fan, so I make a timeline for the period of the book and fill in all I can find, then have additional worksheets to cover specific topics.

Third, let your pre-writing brain go wild with the nuggets you discover. Extrapolate what they imply about conflict and character. For a fantasy, look for the gaps that might suggest magic or other fantastical elements. Don’t stop when you have one compelling idea for a book—see if there might be another book or two lurking just behind.

And above all, happy writing!

*****

E. C. Ambrose writes adventure novels inspired by research subjects like medieval surgery, ancient clockworks, and Byzantine mechanical wonders.  Published works include DRAKEMASTER (2022), the Dark Apostle Series, and the Bone Guard archaeological thrillers. Her next adventure will be an interactive superhero novel, Skystrike: Wings of Justice, for Choice of Games.

Learn more about the work of E. C. Ambrose on the author’s website

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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: Punctuating Our Stories (Not the Way You Think I Mean It)

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

We all know the line. Even people who haven’t seen Casablanca know the line. (And please, don’t get me started about not seeing Casablanca. I mean, sure, it’s dated, But it remains one of the greatest movies of all time. Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, and so many others. It has romance, intrigue, action, and it keeps you guessing right up to the stunning ending. See? This is why you shouldn’t get me started . . .) Anyway, the line. It is one of the great bits of closing dialogue in any movie ever made.

But it’s more than just clever. It is the perfect punctuation point for the film’s narrative. From that line, and those that come directly before it in the last minute or so of the film, we know everything we need to about what is next for our hero, Richard Blaine. We know that he’ll survive letting Ilsa go (yeah, I know: spoiler. Get over it. The movie was made, like, three centuries ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, that’s on you, not me). He’ll go on to join the French Resistance and fight the Nazis with Louis Renault by his side. And, very likely, he and Louis will be heroes in that effort.

What’s my point?

Simply this: Every story — certainly every novel — needs its own version of “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I’m doing a lot of editing these days, and I have seen several manuscripts that reach endings of a sort, but that fail to tie things up in a satisfying way. To be clear, I am not saying that every book needs a pat conclusion. We can leave some questions unanswered. We can hint at futures to come. My favorite fantasy novel of all time, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, ends with a prophesy that suggests fates for three men, but we are left to wonder which future is tied to which character. It works.

I am also not talking about the climax of your novel. That is something different — also important, obviously, but different.

What I am suggesting here, rather, is that we need to have some closure for our lead characters, AFTER the final battle/confrontation/major plot point. We need to see those characters in the aftermath of all to which we have subjected them, and we need to see them moving on (or not), healing (or not), finding peace or contentment or new purpose (or not). Yes, the details are vague. I would never think to tell any writer how content-wise to end their book. We each have a vision of what awaits our characters and that is intensely private.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)But at the very least, we need to see our main heroes grappling with what they have endured and setting their sights on what is next for them. We don’t need this for every character but we need it for the key ones. Ask yourself, “whose book is this?” For me, this is sometimes quite clear. With the Thieftaker books, every story is Ethan’s. And so I let my readers see Ethan settling back into life with Kannice and making a new, fragile peace with Sephira, or something like that. With other projects, though, “Whose book is this?” can be more complicated. In the Islevale books — my time travel/epic fantasy trilogy — I needed to tie off the loose ends of several plot threads: Tobias and Mara, Droë, and a few others. Each had their “Louis” moment at the end of the last book, and also some sense of closure at the ends of the first two volumes.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Why do I do this? Why am I suggesting you do it, too? Because while we are telling stories, our books are about more than plot, more than action and intrigue and suspense. Our books are about people. Not humans, necessarily, but people certainly. If we do our jobs as writers, our readers will be absorbed by our narratives, but more importantly, they will become attached to our characters. And they will want to see more than just the big moment when those characters prevail (or not). They will want to see a bit of what comes after.

So, I am suggesting that you decide which characters matter most to your story and therefore to your readers, and then give those characters (and your readers!!) a satisfying conclusion to their narrative and personal arcs. Let us see them post-conflict, post-finale. Give us a glimpse of what life has in store for them next. They have been our friends and companions for hundreds of pages. Maybe thousands. And while we can reread the story you’re finishing, the fact is we’re saying goodbye to them. We may never encounter them again. Or maybe we will, in which case you can hint at that. But we need . . . something.

J.R.R. Tolkien did not end The Lord of the Rings with the battle in front of the gates of Mordor. He didn’t end it with the scouring of the Shire, or even with Frodo and Bilbo sailing to the Grey Havens. He ended it with Sam returning home after bidding farewell to Frodo and saying, “Well, I’m back.” Because that is the point of the story: Our heroes may be leaving these shores, Aragorn may be king far, far away and Legolas and Gimli may be back with their people, but the Shire and Middle Earth endure and go on. And Sam is the best character to make that point.

Mastering the use of that sort of story punctuation is a key element of effective storytelling. I recommend you work on it.

Keep writing!