Tag Archives: how to write

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.

Book shelfAs you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…

But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.

No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.

For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?

I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.

I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.

That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.

I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range.

Book shelfThis past weekend I gave a talk on world building for the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop. It was a lengthy talk, and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. But I did want to focus on one element of the topic, because I think it’s something writers of fantasy, of historical fiction, of science fiction, and of other sub-categories of speculative fiction lose sight of now and again.

When we build our worlds — and I include in this doing our research for historical settings — we actually have to construct our worlds twice. The first time, we do it for ourselves. We apply whatever techniques we use for such things, and we come up with histories, governing systems, economies, religions, social and cultural traditions, physical features for our land, climatic trends that influence everything from food production to troop movements, etc., etc., etc. We develop our magic systems, if our worlds have them, or perhaps technological developments if our books trend more toward science fiction. In short, we do everything one might expect in order to create a rich, complex, believable setting for our books and stories.

For me, this can be a lengthy process. I take my world building seriously, and I like to have most of the fundamentals in place before I begin to write. Naturally, I have to go back and fill in gaps after I’ve started putting words to “paper.” I find it nearly impossible to anticipate every question I might need to answer, every detail of my world I might need to develop. To this day, I still come up with new spells for Ethan Kaille to cast in the Thieftaker books. In fact, the upcoming novellas have an entirely new element of magick — one Ethan hasn’t faced before in a foe. So there’s that to look forward to…

My larger point, though, is this: Even after we have finished building our worlds and have turned to the writing of our novels, our world building is far from over.

Why?

Because while the world now exists for us, the writer, it remains entirely unrealized in the minds of our readers. And so now we have to construct it again, this time in a manner that is digestible and entertaining and unobtrusive, not to mention elegant, poetic, even exciting. We have to present all the necessary material — and not an ounce more — without slowing our narratives, without resorting to data-dumps or “As-you-know-Bob” moments, without violating the basic principles of point of view.

None of this is easy. But we come to this second instance of world building with certain advantages that we didn’t have the first time. Namely, we now possess an intimate understanding of our worlds. We have unraveled their mysteries, determined how societies function — or don’t — and, most importantly, decided which elements of all that work we did during the first world-build are most important to our stories.

That last is crucial. We will always — ALWAYS — know more about our worlds than our readers do. That’s as it should be. We have to know, to a ridiculous level of detail, our worlds’ histories and mythologies and landscapes. We absolutely do not have to convey all that information to our readers. To do so — and I say this with utmost sensitivity to the effort expended in that initial construction of the world — would bore the poor dears to an early demise. They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range. They don’t want to read a recitation of the Gerbilord’s Prayer in the original Quilmardian.

In all seriousness, I know the temptation. I understand pouring tons of work into a world and wanting to share every detail with our readers. But the fact is, we don’t need to reveal everything in order to justify the work we’ve done. Sometimes, sharing a single necessary detail can communicate the weight and volume of all that remains unseen.

And so this second instance of world building demands that we prioritize. We must decide what our readers have to know in any given moment, and then tell them that much and no more. If we can do so with fluency and grace and perhaps even wit, all the better.

But the point is this: Our initial building of the world is an exercise in excess. We want to figure out everything there is to know about our worlds. We seek every crumb of knowledge, so that we are fully prepared for the creation of our characters and narratives.

The second building of our world, the one for our readers, is an exercise in restraint, in determining what is necessary information, and what is superfluous. It’s not easy, but done correctly it will keep our readers coming back to our worlds again and again.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes, I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

Book shelfI am reading stories right now for a teaching gig I have coming up in early March. I’ll be running a critique workshop, and so I not only have to read and comment on the manuscripts, I also should take the opportunity to turn the issues I identify into writing lessons. Because the truth is, all the submissions seem to be from writers with limited experience, and all the submissions suffer from similar problems.

Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating any of the writers in the group. The problems I’m seeing are ones that editors found in my work when I was starting out. I don’t make these errors as often now — I’ve moved on to new mistakes. And when I’ve overcome this new set of problems, I have no doubt that I will find still newer ways to mess things up. This is the creative process — there’s a reason why authors should never stop relying on editors.

Back to the workshop manuscripts… Here is what I’m seeing: All of the writers have terrific ideas. Their worlds and magic systems are fresh and innovative and exciting. And their characters are compelling as well. Some of the writers need to work on staying in tight point of view and injecting emotion into their stories, but even on these fronts they’re doing fairly well.

The flaws I’m finding in their work are largely mechanical. Their story telling is good, but their prose is getting in the way of their narratives. Specifically, I’m seeing three trends again and again.

1) They are trying to do too much with each sentence. There are places in a manuscript where it is perfectly appropriate to use compound sentences, phrasings that rely on the connection of several clauses in order to express complex emotions. There are places where short declaratives work better. (See what I did there?) I have noticed, however, not just with this batch of manuscripts, but in other settings, going back years, that beginning writers are drawn to the complexities of longer phrases. It’s almost as if they feel that writing shorter sentences will expose them as newbies.

This isn’t the case. As my wonderful, talented, and wise friend, Faith Hunter, has pointed out, syntax and phrasing is to the written story what soundtracks are to movies. When the action ramps up in a movie, the music grows taut, staccato. When the action ramps up in written stories, phrases should become shorter, punchier. Thoughts should be pared to the bone. And even when the action isn’t necessarily at a fever pitch, it is fine to rely on short declaratives as well as longer sentences. Short phrases punctuate key passages, drawing attention to important moments. They are an invaluable tool. (See? Did it again.)

2) A related point: Beginning authors, including those whose manuscripts I’m reading now, often tie themselves (and their prose) in knots seeking clever phrases. Again and again, in my margin notes, I have tried to remind them that simpler is usually better. This is not to say that every phrase needs to be simple, that every sentence should be short and to the point. Stories written that way would bore an audience — books would read like grade school primers, which we don’t want.

But sometimes it’s clear that a writer has decided on a certain construction for a sentence, and even after that structure has become unwieldy, they continue to batter the phrasing into submission. I know I’ve done it. I have a rhythm in mind, and I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. Work! The problem is, by the time I’m done, the sentence is a mess. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. You may love the concept you had for that phrasing, but if it has turned into a struggle for you as you write it, chances are your readers will struggle with it too. Simple is better. Simple works. Try a different approach to the sentence. Shorten it. Or better yet, divide it into two (or three) sentences. Your readers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. The beleaguered instructor reading your manuscript for a workshop will thank you.

3) Finally, I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn into their scenes great swaths of world building information. They know better than to resort to full-blown data dumps, but they feel compelled to explain certain elements of their world in the moment, and they do so by overloading their sentences with background. The result, again, is sentences with too many clauses, too much information, and no flow.

In a sense this is a point of view issue. When characters are in the moment — whether they are deep in an important conversation, or facing an immediate threat to their own safety or that of people they care about — they are unlikely to pause to consider, say, the history of the city they’re in, or the anatomical differences between different species in the world.

It may be that this is important information. But writers need to ask themselves, “Is it crucial that my reader know all of this right now?” Chances are it’s not. If it is, anticipate that need and work at least some of the information in before the action heats up. Otherwise, save it for later. Either way, don’t try to heap all of the necessary info into a single serving, like an over-eager kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doing so only confuses readers and leaves syntax in shambles.

Write with purpose. Strive for concision. Remember that, more often than not, simple is better.

And keep at it.

Professional Wednesday: Placing Your Inciting Moment In the Right Spot

Generally speaking, writers — from beginners to professionals — know what it means to have an inciting moment for our stories. The inciting moment is the occurrence that sets in motion all the events that constitute our narrative — Luke Skywalker’s purchase of two droids from the junk hauler on Tatooine; the unannounced arrival of dwarves at Bilbo Baggins’ otherwise peaceful and respectable home in the Shire; the chance meeting at a masquerade of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from feuding families.

The inciting moment is not necessarily the beginning of conflict. Rebels have been battling the Galactic Empire for ages before Luke takes R2D2 to his uncle’s farm. Others have tried and failed to steal Smaug’s treasure before Gandalf employs Bilbo as a thief. And the Capulets and Montagues have hated each other for generations. Incitement is more than a beginning. It is the moment when a grander story meets our protagonist(s).

There is nothing revelatory in what I’m saying here. You’ve heard versions of it before. I have chosen to focus this week’s post on it, though, because while most of us understand inciting events, and can even identify them in the works of others, we often have trouble choosing exactly where to place them in our own work. And yes, I speak from personal experience.

I am in the process of plotting the second book in my new supernatural thriller series. I know what needs to happen, and I even know what the inciting moment looks like. I’m struggling, though, to get there, to figure out where to begin the story so that we arrive at that event both quickly enough and slowly enough. Weird, right? But here’s the thing: I want my inciting moment to hook the reader, but I also want it to happen naturally enough that the reader understands the stakes and already cares about my protagonist.

With the first book in the series, the inciting moment presented itself clearly and with perfect timing. Other moments in the narrative gave me some trouble, but not this one. The idea for the series and that first book came to me with the incitement fully formed. This second novel focuses on different characters and has a more complex plot. Hence some of the trouble I’m having.

But the truth is, lots of writers struggle to begin their stories — short fiction or novel-length — at precisely the correct moment. In editing anthologies, I have noticed again and again that writers of every experience level can miss the mark now and then. The most common error is to begin too early, giving readers far more lead-in than they need to acclimate themselves to the story background, characters, and setting. And that’s all right. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “You know, you could begin this story here, on page 3 [for example] and cut or greatly condense everything that has come before.”

Less frequently, authors will begin their stories too late in the narrative arc’s development. I actually believe this is a professional’s mistake. There is a golf truism, that professional golfers miss putts long, and novices miss them short. Novices are afraid to be aggressive and so leave their putts shy of the hole, while pros understand that a firm putt has a much better chance of going in; usually when they miss the ball winds up past the hole. In the same way, beginning writers are sometimes afraid of giving their readers too little information, and so they often start their stories way earlier than they need to. Professionals aren’t afraid to withhold a bit of information early on, understanding that keeping readers in a constant state of discovery is a great way to keep them engaged. As I say, though, occasionally this leads pros to start things a little too late in the arc.

This, then, is the dilemma I’m grappling with now. I know better than to give my readers too much information early on, but I don’t want to give them too little by rushing my inciting moment. I have no doubt that I’ll figure this out — even now, I feel like I’m circling in on the right solution. But with this new novel on my mind, and recent edits of stories that faced both problems fresh in my memory, I thought I would address the issue here.

So how do we time our inciting moments for maximum effect? That is a good question with, I am afraid, no easy, formulaic answer. The best response I can offer is this:

It should come early — chapter 1 if at all possible — but it doesn’t need to be on the first page or even the first five. We do not need to explain everything to our readers before the inciting event occurs. I cannot stress that enough. Go back to the examples I offered up front — Star Wars, The Hobbit, Romeo and Juliet. We as readers/audience still had plenty to learn after the inciting events. We knew the bare outlines of the underlying conflicts (far less than that, actually, in The Hobbit), but we didn’t have the all the details we would need to understand the rest of the story. And that’s as it should be. On the other hand, by the time the inciting event occurs, we want our readers to care — about our world and the people in it. We want them to have formed some attachment to our lead character. We want them to have some small stake in the events we’re setting in motion.

Yeah, I know: That’s pretty vague. The truth is, locating the inciting events in our stories takes practice and experience. Sometimes it takes some guesswork. But the good thing is, Beta readers and editors can help us fine-tune the timing.

And now, I am going to get back to the opening of my new novel. I’ll keep you informed as I make progress, and I am sure I will encounter other challenges that inspire additional posts.

Until then, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Lessons From A Recent Edit

As part of my new Professional Wednesday format, I intend to tie advice posts to issues I am encountering “in the moment” with my own work. And so, today, I share with you a few insights that grew out of an editorial note I received from the marvelous Debra Dixon on the supernatural thriller I’ve recently sold to Belle Books.

Writers, myself included, sometimes “make” things happen to our characters, either for good or for bad, that are essential for our storylines, but not necessarily convincing in the natural flow of events. Put another way, sometimes we contrive things to happen because we need them to happen. This is one of those writing pitfalls that brings to mind the old Tom Clancy quote: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Real life is filled with coincidences, with random occurrences the timing of which could not be better (or worse), with odd little quirks that make us stop to take note of how strange/funny/ fortunate/terrible (pick one or more) the world can be.

But when we put such things into our books or short fiction, they seem to lack authenticity. “That’s too convenient.” “No one will believe this.” “This feels contrived.”

In my thriller, I had my two young protagonists, having just been separated from their mother, taken in by a couple who wind up helping them at potentially great cost to themselves. The circumstances of their encounter with this couple made perfect sense. But as Debra pointed out, the mere fact that the couple were willing to help, despite the danger — well, that strained credulity just a bit. Not a lot. I was almost there. But the couple’s backstory needed… something to make their choice more understandable.

First of all, this is a GREAT editorial note. This is just the sort of thing a developmental editor is supposed to notice and bring to a writer’s attention. As a writer, the note is both helpful and, yes, a little frustrating. I had worked hard to make the interactions believable, and, as Debra said, I almost succeeded. That I hadn’t meant more work, and changes that might upset the flow of the book. That, at least, was my initial reaction. Something along the lines of, “Well, crap. She’s right.”

As it turned out, the fix I came up with, far from upsetting the flow, deepened the story and the interactions between my protags and these two people they meet in the midst of their adventure. The backstory of the couple feels richer now. There is a poignancy to the entire encounter that makes everything around it better. As you’ve probably sussed out by now, I’m not going to tell you what I did. You’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

But I can tell you HOW I did it, and I can share with you a few lessons I draw from making these revisions.

First the “how.” I needed to build into the couple’s backstory a trauma that was somewhat related to what my heroes were experiencing, but not so similar as to raise new believability flags. That was fairly easy — the lives of my heroes are quite different from those of this couple. By the same token, though, all of them are human. They love and feel, they experience loss and tragedy and injustice. There were actually several directions I could have gone, and I chose one that was neither the most obvious nor the most complicated. Which, I suppose is a lesson in and of itself: When developing backstory, particularly for secondary characters, strive for the somewhat unexpected, but keep things simple.

Once I had decided on an approach, I didn’t simply blurt it out. I meted out the information in dribs and drabs throughout the pages that followed. The couple are “on stage” for only two or three chapters total, but that gave me plenty of time to build in the information. I hinted at it early and had one of the characters make a cryptic reference that put the history at the heart of their decision even before I explained that history fully to my reader. Finally, when the emotional payoff seemed likely to be greatest, I wrote my reveal, working the information into an exchange that served as the final button to a key scene. So that would be lesson number two: Give out information to your readers on a need-to-know basis. Don’t resort to data dumps, and don’t feel that your reader has to know every detail up front. Sometimes a slow reveal can be far more satisfying to the reader than having all that knowledge from the start.

As I said, this was a great editorial note, and like all great bits of editorial feedback, it improved my novel. It forced me to rethink an essential narrative element, and in doing so it strengthened my plot AND my character work. Which makes lessons three, four, and five really easy: Trust your editor. Be open to constructive criticism. And look at the editorial/revision process not as a burden, but as an opportunity to make the story you love even better than it already is. As I’ve written before, edits are part of the business. Accepting feedback is part of being a professional.

So in the end, I wound up with a better book, a more powerful way of getting my protagonists the help they needed, and, most important, a deepened appreciation of and trust in my new editor. I also reminded myself that at times withholding information from my reader, at least in the short term, can heighten the impact of the revelation when it finally comes.

I hope you found this helpful.

Keep writing!

 

 

Professional Wednesday: Creativity and the Market

As a professional writer — as a professional in the arts — I take on several career roles. I am an artist, of course. I create. I am an editor, and not just in the traditional sense of editing the work of others, as I’m doing now for the Derelict anthology. I also have to edit myself. All the time. Anything I publish will face edits from another editor, but first my work has to get through my own editorial process, which is fairly rigorous.

I am also a business professional. I make career decisions on a weekly-if-not-daily basis, often in consultation with my agent, but not always. Most short fiction projects don’t involve an agent, and the same is true of some projects that I put out through small presses or that I might publish myself.

And, of course, I am responsible for a good deal of my own marketing and publicity. Maintaining this blog, and the websites on which it appears, keeping up with social media, etc. — all of this is time consuming and absolutely essential to my career.

Most of the time, I can fulfill each of these roles without my actions in one coming into conflict with my actions in another. Most of the time. But what about those few occasions when there are conflicts of a sort? What do I do then?

I’m often asked whether my publishers have pressured me to write a book a certain way in order to have more marketing appeal, or (related) whether I have ever had a publisher tell me to write a certain type of book. And the short answer is no. I have worked with many editors on my various series, and (as I mentioned last week) all of them have been very clear in saying that my books are, well, MY books. I retain final creative control over how the books are written. Editors may make suggestions designed to improve the book, but these are suggestions and in the end decisions about content are mine to make.

That said, though, I have throughout my career received suggestions that were designed to maximize the marketability of a book or series. Again, the decision has always been mine to make, but marketing suggestions often come with what we might call “implied incentives.”

“If you do it this way, you may well sell more books and make more money.”

Some of these choices are huge in scope. How huge? Well, when I first pitched the Thieftaker series, I envisioned it as an epic fantasy, set in an alternate world. My editor at the time suggested that turning it into a historical would make it more marketable, and, he added, if I did so Tor would be able to give me a bigger advance. He suggested I set the books in London. I didn’t want to do that, but once I started thinking about it as a historical, I hit on the idea of setting the series in Boston. And, as they say, the rest is history… [Rimshot]

At other times, the artistic/marketing choices are more subtle. And that brings us to the immediate inspiration for this post. I am starting the edits on a supernatural thriller that I have recently sold to a small press. The first book in the series is complete, and I love it. But I have been aware from the very start that the book will not be easy to market. It’s a thriller, intended for adults, but it has a teenaged protagonist and a few elements that convinced my agent we should market the book as a YA thriller. I wasn’t sure about this, but she was, so that was how we pitched it to publishers.

Well, a publisher bought the book, and the series, but like me, the publisher sees the book as an adult thriller and has asked me to make some changes that she feels will make the marketing of the book easier. Her initial suggestions struck me as too drastic, and so we talked and have reached a compromise that satisfies our shared marketing concerns while also preserving my original concept for the book and overall project.

And this is really the point of today’s post.

As an artist, I have in mind a plot, a set of characters, a setting, a tone and pace and voice for the book. I am committed to that initial vision, and certainly will follow it as I write and revise the first iteration. Once we transition from the creative impetus to the actual marketing of the book, though, the business side of my professional brain kicks in a little. I will not jettison my creative vision for money. Not ever. But I also will not — cannot — allow my adherence to a creative vision to undermine a book’s commercial viability. My goal as writer is to put out the best product I can, and to make a living. So, I will strive to find a balance between respecting my creative efforts and working with the publishing professionals who have agreed to put out my book, and who are skilled in the marketing side of the business.

Writing is my art. It’s my profession. It’s my source of income. I’m not interested in preserving my amateur status in order to make the literary Olympics. I want to write, and I want to make money doing it. In order to be satisfied, not only with my work, but also with the results of that work, I need to blend my roles and get the most out of each project — creatively and financially.

That’s what it means to be a professional.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesdays: Editors and Writers — The View From Both Sides

Right now, not for the first time, I find myself on both sides of the editorial process. On the one hand, I am co-editing the DERELICT anthology, reading submissions and starting to think about how authors might want to improve the stories that will be appearing in the collection. At the same time, I am starting to process editorial feedback on an upcoming novel that I’ve recently sold. As I have written before, the editor-author relationship is complex, sensitive, at times fraught. Working on both sides of it has taught me a great deal — about being a better a writer, and being a better editor.

I’ve written about this before from the writer’s side, focusing on the the following points: 1) Editors are our allies. The good ones, of which there are many, are interested in helping us make our stories or novels as great as they can be. 2) It’s never easy to hear criticism of our work, but it is essential to the creative process. Effective editors know how to present criticism in palatable ways so that we can use the feedback as it is intended. 3) When handled correctly on both sides — with sensitivity on the part of the editor and an open mind on the part of the writer — the revision process can be incredibly rewarding.

I have been editing for a far shorter time than I’ve been writing — three years versus, well, forever. But, of course, I come to my role as editor with more than a passing understanding of the process. In a sense, facing the difficulties of being an editor should be easy for me. From personal experience, I understand that authors don’t always respond well to critiques of our work. We can be resistant to making changes that steer our narratives away from our initial vision and suspicious of suggestions that the initial vision itself might be flawed in some fundamental way.

I have learned, though, that editors can be every bit as invested in the work as writers. Certainly editors form a different sort of attachment, but that doesn’t mean it lacks power, and it doesn’t mean editors are inured from frustrations of their own. I know that when I pour my energy into a piece, making notes and looking for solutions that will strengthen the narrative or clarify character motivation or punch up the prose, I find it deeply troubling, even hurtful when writers ignore my notes and recommendations.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that every single bit of feedback I offer as editor has to be acted upon and followed as I suggest. The writer in me rebels at the very notion of this. But I have seen writers ignore editorial feedback entirely, either because they feel they know better, or because they refuse to accept that their piece is anything less than perfect. That’s deeply frustrating.

The editor-writer relationship is built on trust and mutual respect. Writers have to trust that the editor wants the same thing they do — for the story in question to be as powerful and entertaining and affecting as possible. And they have to respect all that the editor brings to the process — experience with the written word, understanding of storytelling and its components, and the ability to discern where those components are working and where they’re not.

Editors have to trust that the writer made her decisions about wording, character arc, plotting, etc. with purpose, that she didn’t do these things haphazardly, but rather knew at every step how each phrase would contribute to her story. And they have to respect the sanctity of that vision I mentioned earlier, understanding that every change to the original document might pull it away — however incrementally — from the author’s artistic intent.

Writers and editors also have to keep in mind that neither party is perfect. Authors mess up. So do editors. Speaking as an author, I can tell you that no manuscript is perfect. Speaking as an editor, I can tell you that we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.

Ultimately, when both sides dig in, it falls to editors to surrender. I say this not because I’m a lifelong writer, but because it is the writer’s story. Her name is on it. She created it. And I say this because every decent editor I have ever worked with has said the same to me. “It’s your story.” With that in mind, though, I would advise every writer reading this to give careful consideration to all the feedback editors give you, even if ultimately you reject some of it. They didn’t offer their criticisms lightly. They saw and identified elements of the story that needed work, and even if you don’t follow exactly their prescription for fixing these things, you should consider how you might make changes that will address their concerns.

Trust and respect, and, most importantly, a shared desire to get the most out of a story idea. These are the foundations of the writer-editor relationship. Having worked extensively on both sides, I can tell you that when all three pillars are present, the relationship can be incredibly rewarding.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: A Ton of News, and Organizing My Time

Welcome to my new Wednesday blogging feature, Professional Wednesdays. As some of you may remember, back around Thanksgiving I asked you for advice on the future of my midweek posts. My Writing-Tip Wednesdays were well received throughout 2020, but by the end of the year I was struggling to come up with new advice topics. I became convinced that I couldn’t sustain that old format for another year without repeating myself.

What I suggested in that Thanksgiving week post was a new, related feature — Professional Wednesdays — that would combine a few disparate ideas: a professional journal discussing current projects and struggles and epiphanies; more generalized musings on the market, the craft, and others elements of creative life; a few advice posts, as I think of topics I failed to cover in 2020; and my responses to the storytelling components of books, movies, TV shows, and other artistic endeavors I encounter.

This catch-all idea for the blog received a lot of enthusiastic support from those of you who commented, and so here we are. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing with you all sorts of posts touching on professional issues, creativity, and “behind the scenes” looks at my own works-in-progress as they develop. I hope you enjoy this new approach to my Wednesday posts.

To start off 2021, I would like to share with you some news and how it relates to something I did on New Year’s Day — something I do every New Year’s Day.

Let’s start with the news. 2020 was a fairly quiet year for me professionally (no, THAT’S not news. Be patient…). I was pretty productive, especially given the circumstances, but the year was somewhat light on professional news. Until the very end of the year…

News item number 1: I have signed a contract for a pair of supernatural thrillers, the first of which I expect will be coming out late in 2021. The first book is written, but needs to be revised. The second book is in its conceptual phase. I expect to write it this spring. I am not ready to reveal who will be publishing the books except to say that it is a highly respected small press, a house I’ve wanted to work with for some time. Details to come as soon as the last of the “t”s and “i”s are crossed and dotted.

News item number 2: We have artwork for the Thieftaker novellas, and it now looks like the first of those novellas should be out sometime later this winter. And the artwork? It’s by Chris McGrath. Yep. The same Chris McGrath who did the artwork for all four of the original Thieftaker novels. It is magnificent.

News item number 3: Speaking of the original Thieftaker novels, we have gotten the rights reverted on the third and fourth Thieftakers, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. These are books that came out after my editor debacle at Tor, and as a result neither book ever received the TLC and attention it deserved. Well, Lore Seekers Press has reissued the books, with the original artwork, in ebook format and (forthcoming very soon) in trade paperback. If you have yet to read these novels, this is the time to get them, before the new Thieftaker novellas come out. They are among my favorites of all the novels in any series I’ve ever written. Dead Man’s Reach in particular might well be the best crafted novel I’ve ever done. Check them out. (A word about the links to the books: ONLY the Kindle versions are the reissues. The physical books listed on Amazon right now, are the old ones from Tor. You want to wait for the new trade paperbacks.)

News Item number 4: I will be teaching an online class in epic fantasy AND serving as a main workshop faculty member for the Futurescapes Writing Workshop in March.

News Item number 5: Submissions are now closed for Derelict, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. We received 340 stories for about five open slots, and will be reading stories this month making our final choices for the anthology. Derelict should be out late in the spring or early this summer.

So, yes, I suddenly have a lot going on, and I am so excited. The thing is, though, all of this stuff is happening quickly. The revised first book in the new supernatural thriller series is due March 1. The completed manuscript of the second book is due June 1. The Thieftaker novellas still need some final polishing and proofing. That should happen this month. My talks for Futurescapes need to be ready by early March, and the Derelict submissions need to be read before the end of January.

Which is why I spent part of New Year’s Day with a calendar — a paper wall calendar, something I can hang by my desk and see every day — breaking down week-by-week, at times day-by-day, what I need to do and when in order to meet my various deadlines. As I mentioned earlier, this is something I do at the beginning of every year, although some years it’s more necessary than others. I view New Year’s as a time to organize myself and set goals that are attainable. That last is key. Setting goals and having ambitions is great, but only if we don’t set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Setting too many goals can be overwhelming, especially if we’re unsure of how we’re going to meet them. By mapping out my time, breaking down my tasks into discreet tasks that I can fit into a work calendar, I convince myself that I can do all the things I want to AND I provide myself with a roadmap for success.

I recommend it.

I wish you all a successful and fulfilling 2021.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Why Do We Create?

I just reread my first post of the year, when I first discussed my weekly blogging plans, and my goals for the months to come. I closed the post with “Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.”

How did that work out…?

This is likely my last post of the year, and my final Writing-Tip Wednesday post before I shift Wednesdays to a slightly broader format. It’s also a slightly longer post than usual; I hope you’ll stick with it. I have posted about a vast array of topics over the past fifty-one weeks, and all of them have dealt with creativity in one way or another. At times, the creative elements of my posts have been explicit and obvious; at other times, when discussing the business and the state of the market, the connections have been less clear. But always it comes back to the act of creating, the process of harnessing the imagination in order to produce… something.

Creativity is integral to who I am, to the life I lead. I consider myself fortunate beyond words in this regard. And I’m not just talking about writing. If you follow my blog or my social media, then you know that I am also an avid photographer and a longtime musician, and I’m passionate about all of my creative endeavors. But I do each of these things for different reasons, and I think this speaks to something all writers ought to consider.

Why do we create?

I like to tell people that I wrote my first book when I was six. It wasn’t much of a book — a few sheets of paper on which I had scrawled a story and scribbled illustrations, sandwiched between a couple of pieces of colored construction paper and bound with yellow yarn. But it was, to my mind, as much a book as all the titles on my shelves. All through my childhood, there was nothing I enjoyed more in school than creative writing. Any opportunity we were given to sit quietly and write was, for me, like the most glorious sort of recess.

In junior high, my classmates and I were assigned to keep a creative journal. For an entire semester, we were to write every night — or as close to it as we could manage — and we were free to write whatever we wanted. I still have mine. I did write every night. I wrote short stories and poems and my reflections on the world as I saw it. I LOVED keeping that journal.

All through high school and college, I wrote. I saw the world through a writer’s eyes. Always, my first thought upon seeing a sunset, or enjoying a meal, or even dealing with emotional problems, was “How would I write this?”

My love of storytelling, of the creative alchemy we perform when converting emotion and sensation into words, still drives me, challenges me, fills me with joy and satisfaction (when it’s not frustrating me and making me want to chuck my computer through a window).

But, of course, my writing is also my job, and I have to think about it as such. That’s fine. I am so lucky to be able earn money doing what I love; I can hardly complain. At this point, though, I write to publish. Anything I work on for any amount of time, I expect to sell. If I don’t, then that piece of writing has…failed in some respect. That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s true. It also sounds mercenary, and that, I fear, is unavoidable. I can be passionate about my work, and also want to make money off of it. I make no apologies for that.

I feel quite differently about my photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have spent years studying photography, teaching myself techniques, making myself see my surroundings with an artist’s eye. I was drawn to photography early in life, in part, I have to admit, out of jealousy. My older brother, Jim, is a renowned and immensely talented painter. He was a bit of prodigy — his talent emerged in his early teens and as passionate as I am about writing, that’s how he continues to be about visual art. I wanted to creative images, too, but I have never been able to draw. Oh, I tried. But I’m terrible. There’s no other way to put it.

When I was thirteen, I asked for a camera, thinking that perhaps photography would offer me a path to visual artistic expression. My early efforts didn’t amount to much, and eventually I stopped trying. About fifteen years ago, though, I decided to try again. I dedicated myself to learning how to shoot, how to see, how to frame. The results have been deeply satisfying. I have sold a few photos and I’ve had work in local galleries. But while I have been pleased by these moments of public attention, I mostly capture images for myself. Nancy and I recently enlarged and framed several of my best images and they are now gracing the walls of our home. I have also produced a coffee-table photo book that I shared with just a few friends and family members. And my computer’s screen saver is a slide show of my best images.

I get as much joy out of seeing my own images in my house, in that book, on my computer, as I have from any sale of a photo. To be honest, I took nearly as much pride in hanging those images as I have in selling a new novel. I do it for me, and that’s enough.

And I feel still another sort of love and pride for my music. I have been playing guitar for more than forty years. I have always been able to sing, and for a while, in elementary school and junior high, I was content to express that talent in school musicals. But at some point I figured out that playing guitar might attract the notice of girls. (As it turns out, guitars weren’t enough. I also needed charm, height, and good looks, none of which I possessed. But hey, I learned to play guitar.)

I still love to play — for myself, for Nancy, occasionally for and with friends. Playing for my girls when they were young was truly a joy. I’ve never been very good at writing songs. I tried. I wrote a very few decent tunes in college, but I had a couple of friends who wrote amazing music, and my inability to craft songs as good as theirs, and as good as I thought mine should be as well, frustrated me. At some point, I stopped trying. Today, most of my playing is fairly derivative. I hear a song I like and I teach myself to play it. It’s fun. I get to recreate songs I admire, either for a small audience or for me. The truth is, though, I’m not adding much to the world’s music. I’m just another guy learning to play another James Taylor tune.

And so I ask again, why do we create?

I create stories for my livelihood. I create photos that are utterly original, but only for my friends, family, and me. I create music in order to pay homage to something I love, and to entertain myself.

I have tried throughout this year to gear my writing tips to writers of every ability level and every aspiration. Some of you won’t be satisfied with your writing until you’ve published a story, or a novel, or a series, or a bunch of series. I get that.

Some of you write because you want to craft the best story you can, and if you publish it, great. If you don’t, if the only people who read it are your friends and family, that’s okay, too. The process itself is the point. Your goal is to create the best piece you can.

And some of you take great joy in writing fan fiction, in writing homages to characters and storylines that you admire and want to be part of in some way. That’s great, too.

There is no single right answer to “Why do we create?” No matter where you fall on the continuum of creativity I’m describing here, you can learn to be a better writer, you can take satisfaction in the act of creation, and you can engage in that alchemy I mentioned earlier.

Because there is something truly magical in creativity — in the simple act of harnessing the imagination — something that has nothing at all to do with money or reviews.

I wish you joy and inspiration in all your endeavors.

And, of course, keep writing.