Tag Archives: how to write

Professional Wednesday: Special Guest Joelle Presby

Joelle PresbyI first met Joelle Presby several years back at a convention, and I was struck straight off by a number of things. 1) She’s just plain nice. That’s certainly not unheard of in the publishing world, but it’s also not routine. Many people are in the game for themselves. Others pretend to me something other than what they are. Not Joelle. She is genuine, kind, funny. 2) She is also crazy smart. Read her bio. Read her post. She is SMART. And 3) Everyone I talked to at that convention who  was familiar with her work had come to the same conclusion: She was a rising star. A few years later, she continues to dazzle with the release of her first solo novel.

Please welcome to the blog Joelle Presby. [Cue wild applause.]

*****

Professional Wednesday: On Hope

By Joelle Presby

There are a number of ways storytellers transition from folks who write because they have to into folks who write because they have to and also have deadlines and readers buying their work. Like many writers, I think of my transition as special and unique.

I was solidly on the path to never being published, when I stumbled into an opportunity. I was writing my seventh rough draft novel with every intention of finishing it and immediately setting it aside to begin an eighth never-to-be-revised novel. Editing is a lot of work. And I’d let my hopes shrivel too much to sustain me through the grind of reviewing an entire novel’s flaws with a clear eye and rewriting it to make the words on the page fully match the story in my mind.

The re-birth of hope was all my husband Andy’s fault.

Debare Snake Launcher, by Joelle PresbyDebare Snake Launcher, by Joelle Presby (back cover)We were both naval officers in the nuclear power pipeline, trained in engineering and managing complex technical projects, but my degrees were in math and his were in physics and spacecraft design. I got sick (nothing terminal) and had to accept a medical discharge. But my next job required fewer hours, so I could write more. And we could attend science fiction conventions and meet up with authors as long as I did the arranging and accepted that Andy might be at sea. Conventions were a lot more fun when Andy came too. Science fiction authors tend to be significantly more interested in chatting with folks who have space craft engineering backgrounds than talking to another would-be writer who happens to have only a math and engineering background.

But my hope was shriveled, not gone.

When Andy Presby had regular meetings with David Weber to provide Honorverse tech continuity support, I came along. Mostly, I sat in a corner working on a new first draft, but it was fun to eavesdrop on some of the detailed discussions around revising nearly-finished drafts with an eye to incorporating newly postulated science and also not breaking the story world. I began to think just a little about editing my own work. I did and it was hard. So, mostly I wrote first drafts again. But my hope was growing.

Andy and eight friends formed the company BuNine in order to sign a contract with Baen Books to produce a fictional nonfiction encyclopedia of the Honorverse to be released on the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of ON BASILISK’S STATION (Honorverse book 1). The group started strong with Andy agreeing to a leadership role and a primary technical role for the many planned space craft articles. Then the US Navy sent Andy to a new job. He had almost no time. The work wasn’t getting done. I started getting calls. I knew how to be a project manager and I could write. My husband and our friends had made this commitment. I didn’t want them to fail. I didn’t want them to fail David Weber or Baen Books. I wrote bad articles and good ones. I poked Andy to get from him the ship specifications we absolutely needed. I revised the drafts and took editorial correction and revised again. It was hard, but not that hard. I did a lot of nonfiction writing for work, and for a day job, you don’t get to only do rough drafts. Besides, I told myself, this didn’t count. It wasn’t real writing.

But my confidence, my hope, my willingness to dare and try grew anyway.

I heard that Toni Weisskopf was interested in a short story to be published on Baen.com during the month that our project, now titled HOUSE OF STEEL: THE HONORVERSE COMPANION, released. My hope wasn’t big enough to send anything to Baen, but it was enough for me to write a very small Honorverse short story, revise it, and share it with my husband. He gave it to our friends who, without asking me, gave it to Sharon Rice-Weber who, without asking me, gave it to David Weber who, without asking me, gave it to Toni Weisskopf who wanted to buy it if… I would revise it.

The Baen.com story was well received by Honorverse fans. It led to an invite to write for the BEGINNINGS (Worlds of Honor 6) anthology. That success led to having my first published novel be a collaboration with David Weber: THE ROAD TO HELL (Multiverse #3). And then Baen gave me a contract to write a solo novel, which I had to revise. A lot. And it was worth it.

The revised version of my ninth rough draft novel a.k.a. my first published solo novel, THE DABARE SNAKE LAUNCHER, comes out November 1, 2022.

I still go to science fiction conventions and talk to writers, and I’ve learned I’m not as unique as I first thought. If you want to stay on the path to never publishing, it’s dangerous to keep writing.

Though if anyone has access to a time machine, please tell younger me that there is joy in getting the revisions right, and the satisfaction of reaching the last page on the final polish far, far exceeds typing “The End” for a mere rough draft.

Beware. Opportunity might be just around the corner. May you have enough hope to make the attempt.

And, as David B. Coe says, keep writing.

*****

Joelle Presby is a former U.S. Navy nuclear engineering officer and recovering corporate consultant who grew up in West Africa. Her first reader husband works for NASA, but he has yet to build her a space elevator. She does not admit to arranging a book deal through a quid pro quo arrangement with Mami-Wata.
 
Joelle began her writing career publishing in David Weber’s Honorverse and joined him as a cowriter for the Multiverse series with the novel, The Road To Hell. Over a dozen short stories later, she is releasing her first solo novel, , in November 2022.
 
She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.

Professional Wednesday: An Alternative to NaNoWriMo

First off, many thanks to those who offered feedback on last week’s post, in which I asked for input regarding what I might work on next. I appreciate your thoughts. The general consensus appears to be that there is no general consensus. Several people did express enthusiasm for more Thieftaker and more Justis Fearsson. A number were also interested in reading more in the Radiants supernatural thriller series, and a few fans from way back were excited to see an edited reissue of the Winds of the Forelands books. Others liked the idea of a new writing How-To as well as the space opera concept. Which is to say, there was at least some support for pretty much everything I’m currently considering, and that’s reassuring.

We are nearing the end of October, which means Halloween is almost here, elections are right around the corner, and NaNoWriMo is about to start. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month began in November 1999 as a challenge to writers to write 50,000 words in thirty days. The challenge has grown in popularity each year, and now engages literally hundreds of thousands of writers, including kids, in creative writing. NaNoWriMo is also a non-profit that promotes literacy and creativity.

In many ways, NaNo is a positive force in our industry. It fosters community, by bringing together writers of different backgrounds and abilities in a simultaneous effort to be creative on demand. And as I have said in this space again and again, part of being a professional writer is learning how to produce on demand, without “waiting for the muse,” or some such. I have heard many stories of people finally being motivated to write by NaNo, by the communal aspect of the challenge. Knowing others are making the effort at the same time enables some people to write the story that has been burning inside them for so, so long. I think that’s great.

And yet . . . . From the time NaNo first began, I have had some qualms about the concept and the structure. I have written 50,000 words in a month; I’ve done it a couple of times. I know some professionals who write far more than that in 30 days. It can be done, no doubt. And if the challenge and group dynamics of NaNo get your creative juices flowing, more power to you.

But what I remember about those occasional months during which I churned out 50,000 words is that I was unable to sustain the effort. Each time, during the month that followed, I struggled to write half as much. I was burnt out. I know some people have gone on to publish novels they began during a NaNo November. But I wonder how many NaNo participants still have novel fragments of 50,000 words (or 40,000, or 30,000) on their computers, gathering virtual dust. I wonder how many did NaNo only to find themselves unable to sustain the effort beyond the month in question.

As I said, professionals, myself included, can and do write half a novel in a month’s time, but most of us write slower than that. My brother is a visual artist, a painter. And he will occasionally engage in exercises that force him to paint quickly. There is something freeing about turning off the inner critic and just painting fast, to see how an image turns out. Just as there is something freeing about blocking out our inner editor and writing swiftly and in volume. Most of the time, though, my brother’s process looks nothing like that. And I can promise you my writing process — and that of most of my professional colleagues — bears little or no resemblance to NaNo.

Yes, NaNo can jumpstart the creative process for some people, but I would offer this: If instead of trying to write 50,000 words in thirty days, an aspiring writer were to try to write 500 words a day for 100 days, that writer would wind up with the same volume. Yes, it would take more time, but in the snail’s-pace world of publishing the difference between one month and three isn’t so great. Plus, I guarantee you, the 50,000 word manuscript produced over three months will be far, far cleaner than the NaNo manuscript and will require a good deal less editing, thus narrowing the time gap.

Most importantly, while NaNo will leave many writers exhausted and unprepared to follow up and finish the manuscript in question, the 500-word-a-day writer will have developed a habit, a creative routine that is both manageable and sustainable. More than likely, that writer will be able to increase their production over those three months and beyond.

I’m not looking for a fight here, and again, if NaNo works for you, go for it. Enjoy yourself. But if you have considered NaNo, wondering if you might finally kick off a writing career by trying it, I would encourage you to try the slow-and-steady approach instead. As a model, it is much closer to the professional experience than NaNo will ever be and, to my mind, it is more likely to produce a) clean prose, b) a coherent narrative, and c) a completed manuscript.

Whatever you decide, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Finishing a Book Actually Means More Work

As I mentioned last week, I have recently finished the third book in my new contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. This book, The Chalice Wars: Sword, will be out sometime fairly early in 2023. Book I, The Chalice Wars: Stone, is currently in production, and book II, The Chalice Wars: Cauldron, is with my editor. The art work for the first book should be ready soon. I’ll share it the moment I can. I’m excited about these books. They are filled with tension and suspense, but also with humor, and they are quite different from other work I’ve done. And I am proud to add that when this third volume is published, it will be my 30th book.

For today’s post, though, I want to focus on the mechanics of finishing a book, and precisely what that means for me in terms of work and process.

I know. It seems like finishing a novel should be fairly straightforward. We type “The End” and then we drink whisky. Right?

Turns out it’s not that easy.

First of all, I NEVER type “The End.” If we as authors have to tell our readers when a book has reached its end, we haven’t done a very good job with our ending. Just saying.

More to the point, finishing the first draft of a novel is just one step in a significantly longer process. Yes, it’s an important step, but it certainly does not mean the book is anywhere near “done.”

When I work on a book, I have a separate file open on my computer, which is usually called “[Book Title] Edit Notes.” This is a file filled with reminders to myself of things I need or want to change in the book. While writing my first draft I don’t want anything to stall my forward momentum. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Let me say that again. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Finishing a book is hard to do, and it is all too easy to retreat into edits and rewrites rather than move on toward those looming scenes we haven’t quite figured out how to write. It is also tempting, upon noticing in earlier chapters imperfections of prose or character or plotting, to fix them immediately, to make the manuscript as perfect as possible.

But here’s the thing: No first draft is ever going to be perfect. In fact, I would argue that no finished novel has ever been or ever will be perfect. That, though, is a conversation for another time. The point is, finish your book. It is much easier to edit a finished manuscript than it is to complete said manuscript in the first place. And so, when I think of changes that need to be made, I jot them down in a different file for later, thus preserving my momentum.

Fast forward to that glorious day when we actually finish the first draft. Well, now we have to deal with that file filled with edit notes. Working through my edits can take anywhere from one day to one week or even more, depending, obviously on how much work I’ve left for myself.

After I finish the edits, I next tackle my crutch words. Crutch words are verbal mannerisms unique to our writing, words or phrases that we tend to overuse or fall back on when in the midst of composing our stories. We all have them — I see them when editing the work of others, and I see them in my own rough drafts. I even see them in the published volumes of colleagues. My crutch words will be different from yours, which will be different from your writing-group buddy’s, which will be different from those of your favorite writer. But as I say, this is something all writers have to watch out for. I keep a running list of my crutch words in (another) word document on my computer desktop. And after completing any book or story, I work through this list, checking to see if I have overused any of the usual suspects. How do I know if I have overused them? I do a universal search of each word or phrase, which gives me a count of occurrences. And then I compare that number to the number of occurrences of the same word or phrase in several of my other completed, edited manuscripts, ones I know I have checked for crutch words. If the numbers are about the same, if figure I’m okay. If the number for the new book is a good deal higher, I have some work to do. Dealing with crutch words can be a slow, tedious process. It can take me several full days. Slow, tedious days . . . .

Finally, after seeing to my edits and getting my crutch words under control, I put the newly completed manuscript away for several weeks and start work on something else — short fiction, a new novel, editing projects. It doesn’t matter what. After about four to six weeks, depending on how soon the book is due, I pull out the manuscript again and read it through a couple of times start to finish, doing a full edit of the manuscript, looking for any and all problems — stylistic, narrative, structural, etc. Everything. Only after doing this, when I am convinced the manuscript is as good as I can make it at this time, do I send it on to my editor, or my agent, or my Beta readers. (At some point, I’ll have their suggested edits to deal with. And after that there will be copy edits and proofs. But that is part of the production process and is another subject entirely.)

By this time, of course, I’m in the middle of whatever project I’ve started next, so I’m no longer in the mood for celebrating the completion of the manuscript. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a wee dram of whisky. . . .

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: It’s All Connected

One more post about my teaching weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference . . . .

As I believe I mentioned last week, I taught four classes at the event. The topics were: point of view, character development, world building, and pacing/narrative arc. And something I noticed as I spoke at the event — something that had kind of escaped me during my preparation of the talks, probably because I worked on them over several weeks, rather than in a single compressed weekend — was the tremendous amount of overlap among the different subjects.

It makes sense that talks on character and point of view would have a lot in common. In fact, usually I combine the two, especially if I have more time or am teaching over the course of several sessions. But world building? Pacing? As it turns out, yep.

It’s all connected. Storytelling doesn’t care for siloing or creating artificial boundaries among various topics. Our writing is most effective when we accomplish several aims at once, when our character work reinforces our world building, which furthers our narratives, which strengthens our pacing, which ups the tension and sense of conflict, which helps us deepen our characters. And so the cycle goes on.

There is a theory about writing — an old editor of mine referred to it as Vernor’s Rule, because he first heard it from award-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge (who he also edited). Vernor’s Rule says the following: As writers, what we do can be categorized broadly in three ways — we develop character, we advance our plots, and we fill in background information. Yes, those are broad headings, but he’s essentially right. And according to Vernor’s Rule, at any given moment in our novels, in any given scene, we should be doing at least two, and preferably all three of those things simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, or, God forbid, none of those things, our manuscripts have stalled, and we need to fix the scene in question.

It’s a simple rule, and it fits in with the realization I had at the writers conference. We should strive to do many things at once with our writing, in part because we can do many things at once. Character arc and narrative arc (plotting) work together to build tension in our stories, and ideally we want them to peak at the same time, with our protagonists coming into their “power” (in whatever sense we care to have this happen) at the same time our plots are reaching their zeniths. Keeping our readers apprised of relevant background information is actually quite helpful in tracing character development AND in deepening our world building, which should bear directly on our narratives.

And really, that is the extent of what I had on my mind today. Writing conferences and convention panels and the like function best when we can break down writing into its component parts. Handling the subjects that way simplifies and clarifies. There is absolutely value in concentrating on individual topics — on character and setting and point of view and the rest. The danger is that we will come to think of these things as operating independently of one another. Because they don’t. Yes, by all means, study each one in turn. Learn all there is to learn about them. But then apply all you can learn in such a way as to blend them together, allowing your various story elements to coalesce into something that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where words on a page turn into living breathing people, into places that feel as real as our own world, and into stories that keep us turning the pages deep into the night.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and the Hardest Writing Topic to Teach (For Me)

This week I head to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. I’ll be teaching several workshops over the three days I’m there — a two-hour master class on “Point of View and Voice,” a ninety-minute class on “Character and Character Arc,” and two one-hour classes, one on “World Building” and one on “Pacing and Narrative Arc.” I always look forward to conferences like this one, in large part because I love to teach, and I love to talk about the craft of story telling.

Recently, some of you may recall, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in encouraging aspiring writers given the state of today’s literary market. I don’t believe teaching at the workshop contradicts or undermines what I wrote in that post. If students ask me about the business side of writing, I will be brutally honest with them. And even if they don’t ask the questions, I will not misrepresent the publishing industry or in any way downplay the difficulties currently faced by new writers.

Teaching writing, though, is always a service, always a worthwhile thing to do. Whether someone wishes to write professionally (despite the odds) or write as a hobby — or something in between — it can never hurt to hone those skills. I don’t ever intend to be a professional photographer or musician, but I am always looking to improve at both and would gladly attend photography workshops to learn new techniques. (Provided I can find the time and the money to do so — those workshops are spendy!) Put another way, if I can help any writer improve their skills and get more enjoyment out of their literary projects, I believe I have done a good thing.

I have taught on previous occasions all the topics I’ll be covering this weekend, and I can safely say that pacing and narrative arc are far and away the toughest to teach. Why? Because, they are somewhat amorphous topics. Point of view has definite categories and approaches. It has “rules” most writers tend to follow and most editors tend to look for. I have developed techniques and mechanisms for character development that I am more than happy share. And world building is a process with which I am very familiar and which can be broken down into component parts as a way of rationalizing a complex, sprawling endeavor.

Pacing, though, is all about feel, about instinct. I can talk about things I try to do myself, in my own work, but even those discussions tend to stray into the realm of analogies and metaphors, ways of describing something that defies description. A lot of what I have learned over the years about pacing and shaping narrative arc, has come out of trial and error, mistakes I made in one book or series and corrected in the next, or the one after that.

So why try to teach it? Because, quite honestly, despite the difficulties inherent in talking about a subject that is so hard to pin down — or perhaps because of those challenges — some of the best teaching sessions I’ve ever had focused on this subject. As the topic grows harder to discuss, I find, the classes on the topic grow increasingly interactive, until all in the room are working on ways to conceptualize and contextualize the conversation. In other words, it becomes a team effort, and that helps everyone in the room.

I plan to approach the class in three ways — one is conceptual, relying on those analogies I mentioned earlier; one is visual, using drawings to show how narrative arc ought to progress in a book and in a series; and one is pragmatic, focusing on those narrative mechanics that help us with pacing and that are easiest to discuss in concrete terms.

As I say, my past experiences with teaching pacing and narrative arc have generally been pretty good (and I just jinxed myself) so I am hoping this one will be, too.

The other thing I love about teaching at conferences like Hampton Roads is the opportunity to hang out with other industry professionals, and I believe the coming weekend will be especially fun, since two of my favorite people in the world, Edmund Schubert and John Hartness, will be there as well. In fact, Edmund is one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

So that’s what I have on tap for my end-of-week/weekend. I hope yours is great.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With My Latest Editorial Feedback

I’ve written many times before about dealing with edits on a story or novel manuscript, and I don’t want to repeat myself any more than necessary. But I have just received feedback from my editor on the first book in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series, and I thought a return to this topic might prove helpful to some. Including me.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my expanded editorial responsibilities, and the ways in which doing more editing had made me a better writer, as well as the ways in which writing for more than twenty-five years had helped hone my editorial eye. I also mentioned that the best editors are those who help writers realize their creative visions without imposing the editors’ own, and that professional writers must learn to be open to editorial comments and to avoid defensiveness.

Neither of these things is easy to do.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)My editor at Belle Books is a woman named Debra Dixon, and she is a truly remarkable editor. This first book in the Celtic series is our third novel together, after Radiants and Invasives. In our time together, I have never once felt that her responses to my work were intrusive or unhelpful. With each book it’s been clear to me that her every observation, every criticism, every suggestion, is intended to help me tell my story with the greatest impact and in the most concise and effective prose. A writer can’t ask for more. This doesn’t mean I have agreed with every one of her comments. Now and then, I have felt strongly enough about one point or another to push back. And she’s fine with that. That’s how the editor-writer relationship is supposed to work, and she has always been crystal clear: In the end, my book is my book. But even when we have disagreed we have been clear on our shared goal: To make each book as good as it can be.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)My struggle right now is simply this: Her feedback on this first book is quite extensive and requires that I rethink some fundamental character issues and cut or change significantly several key early scenes. And she’s right about all this stuff. No doubt. This first book has been through several revisions already, and the second half of the book — really the last two-thirds of the book — just sings. I love it. She loves it. The first third is where the problems lie. To be honest, the first hundred (manuscript) pages of this book have always given me the most trouble. I wrote the initial iteration of the book more than a decade ago, and in some ways those early chapters still reflect too much the time in which they were written. They feel dated.

So I am rethinking the opening. Again.

In the weeks to come, I will likely rewrite most or all of those early chapters. Right now I am still struggling a bit to wrap my head around how, exactly, I am going to tackle those rewrites. This is a book I love, a book I have lived with for twelve years, a book I have worked and reworked and reworked again. I thought I was done with it. I thought it would be fine as written. I needed Deb to look it over and tell me all the ways it doesn’t work.

Now that she has done this, I can’t think about the book without cringing at all the flaws I missed, that I was willing to accept. Again, to be very, very clear, I do not disagree with any of Deb’s critiques of the novel. But this doesn’t mean they don’t pain me.

And that’s all right, too. Again, as I have said many times before, writers have to be open to editorial feedback. We have to understand that our first draft, or our second, or even our tenth, isn’t perfect. A book can always be improved. We don’t publish when our books are perfect. If we did, no book would ever be published. We publish when the book is as good as we fallible humans, working together, can make it.

What I don’t always mention when writing about editing and revisions, is this: I go through a complicated emotional process when dealing with an editor’s feedback. It starts with grief. I always feel a little hurt by the criticisms of my newest baby. I feel bruised and battered, sad and even a bit helpless. We love our books. We have worked so hard to make them as wonderful as they can be. Being told they need still more work, having all their faults and flaws pointed out to us — that kind of sucks. [Editor’s note: delete “kind of”]

Grief gives way to anger pretty quickly. It’s not that this hurts, although it does. No! It’s that [insert editor’s here] is just flat-out wrong! What they hell do they know? Okay a lot. But it’s not like they’ve been doing this for years and years! Okay, yes, they have. It’s not . . . It’s not . . .

It’s not them. It’s me. And my book.

Anger sluices away, and what’s left is resignation, recognition. All those problems the editor has identified? They’re real. They need our attention.

Which brings us to despair.

My book is terrible. Despite what my editor thinks, it can’t be saved. I should just give up now.

But, of course, we have no intention of giving up. We’ve written the damn book. If we’d intended to give up, we would have done it ages ago, when we were first struggling to write it. No, the only thing we can do is fix it, make it as good as it can possibly be, which was the entire point of submitting ourselves to the editorial process in the first place. And so at last we come to acceptance.

And at that point we are ready to begin revising.

I am somewhere between despair and acceptance right now. By the time you read this, I should be fully in acceptance and ready to begin revisions.

Because I’m a professional writer, and this is what we do.

Keep writing.

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…