Tag Archives: ideas

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

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very Winnie-the-Pooh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

About JD Blackrose

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

Demon Kissed is out February 28th.

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of trilogy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part II

Put another way, I was driven . . . not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

With last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I began what I expect will be a multi-week conversation about the age-old writing advice, “Write what you know.” In that entry, I pointed out that “Write what you know” can be overly limiting, or, if thought of in the right way, can speak to exactly the sort of mining of our emotional experience that will enrich our narratives and character work.

Today, I would like to focus on “write what you know” as a tool in world building and plotting.

Let me start this way:

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)As many of you know, my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, had as its narrative core, a magic system in which mages formed psychic, magical bonds with birds of prey: hawks, owls, eagles. To this day, fans of the series mention those relationships between mages and their avian familiars, as the element of the books they enjoyed most.

What you may not know is that I have been an avid bird watcher for more than fifty years (yes, you read that right: 50 years), since I was a small boy.

Nearly all my readers are familiar with my Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Some of you may not know that I not only love history, I also studied it extensively and have a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford.

I’m not the only one who does this. I am a huge fan of the work of Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps you are as well. Maybe, you have read enough of his books to notice how many of his significant characters are physicians. As it happens, so was Kay’s father. He grew up in a household in which the study and practice of medicine were paramount.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. But I want to be equally clear about where I am NOT going. I didn’t come to the LonTobyn books, my first fiction venture, thinking “I have to ‘write what I know,’ and therefore I am going to create a world with a bird-based magic system.” Rather, I came up with the idea for the books organically. I love birds. I have always been fascinated by raptors. And at some point, it simply occurred to me that a magic system built around hawks and owls would be incredibly cool.

My choice with respect to the Thieftaker books was somewhat more deliberate. I originally conceived them as alternate-world fantasies. My editor at the time urged me to think about a historical approach instead, citing my history background. He suggested I set the books in London. And at that point I thought, “if I’m going to draw on my history background, why not do it right and set the books in the New World, whose history I know so well?”

Put another way, I was driven to write my books about hawks and about history not merely by the fact that I “know” these things, but rather by the fascination and passion that drove me to learn about them in the first place.

Again, I am far from unique in this regard. I know writers who love music and who have used it as the basis for their magic systems. I have a friend, whose family history is tied intimately to the devastation of Europe’s Jewish population by Nazism, who has written an incredibly powerful fantasy series set in Nazi-ravaged Europe. Another friend, who is a brilliant writer and editor, based her magic system literally on the written word, on the commitment of spells to vellum. And yet another friend, who is dyslexic, imparted that same trait to his lead character.

I don’t believe any of them “wrote what they know” to satisfy some arcane requirement of our profession. Rather, they came up with fiction ideas that reflected their loves and interests, their emotional pasts or that of their families, their very reality in all its complexity.

And there is no reason you can’t do the same. “Write what you know” doesn’t have to constrain us, nor does it necessarily force us in certain directions. It offers us opportunities. “Where do your ideas come from?” I’m asked this all the time, and always I respond the same way: Ideas are everywhere. We encounter them daily, though at the time we don’t always recognize the encounters for what they are. Robert Frost once said “An idea is a feat of association.” Our hobbies, our professions, our loves (and perhaps even our hates), our educational backgrounds, our family backgrounds, our emotional and physical battles and achievements — any and all of these can point us in the direction of a new story, a new character, a new world.

My point being that we don’t have to struggle to come up with ideas. Often they’re sitting right in front of us, waiting for that “feat of association,” that magical (pun intended) moment when “Where do your ideas come from?” meets “Write what you know.”

Keep writing!!

Professional Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

Islevale compositeA couple of years ago, I put the finishing touches on the third book of a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy called the Islevale Cycle. I loved the Islevale books then, and I remain incredibly proud of them today. I think they represent some of my finest work, and if you enjoy epic fantasy, OR time travel, OR (best of all) both, I recommend you pick the books up and give them a try. (The books are called Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.)

As much as I love them, though, I also have to admit that they nearly destroyed me. I have never struggled so much with any books, and I hope I never will again. Part of the problem was simply the ambition of the project. Sprawling epic fantasies are hard to write. One must weave together multiple plot threads and write from the perspectives of numerous point of view characters. Time travel is even harder to write, first because one must keep track of several time lines at once, second because any plot point is potentially reversible (If time traveling characters are unhappy with events, what’s to keep them from going back and changing them?), and third, because in my story I had more than one iteration of several characters existing simultaneously. (At one point in book 3, I had four or maybe five iterations of the same character inhabiting my world.)

As you might expect, combining the challenges of writing epic fantasy with the difficulties inherent in writing time travel only serves to compound all of those issues. These books would have been hard to write under any circumstance. But here’s the thing: For some reason, I could not outline any of the Islevale books. I don’t know why. To this day I remain mystified. But yeah, I had to write all three books without any advance outline beyond my vague sense of where the books needed to go. The books turned out really well, but the process was excruciating.

What is the point of this?

Well, once I finished the last Islevale novel and worked with the folks at Falstaff Books to shepherd it through production and publication, I needed a new project that would be Different, and Straight Forward, and Directed.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that next book turned out to be Radiants.

Radiants, a supernatural thriller, comes out from Belle Books on Friday (yes, THIS Friday) October 15th, and this “little” book, which I thought of as a sort of creative palate cleanser, has turned out to be far, far more.

Yes, it is different from the Islevale books, and it is quite directed. But it is deceptive in its “simplicity.” It is firmly rooted in our real world, and deals with social issues of weight and emotional power. It has fewer point of view characters and concentrates to a far greater degree on a single narrative thread. As a result, it is fast-paced. Like breakneck. And it includes some of the deepest, most satisfying character work I’ve done. (In fact, in this regard, I believe it might be exceeded by its sequel, Invasives, which will be out in another few months.)

So what makes Radiants a “supernatural thriller,” as oppose to a fantasy of some sort? Partly, it’s that pacing I mentioned, and partly it’s the real world setting and the fact that the speculative fiction element of the story is limited and very specific. And that was the appeal of writing the book. After creating a world whole-cloth for the Islevale series, I wanted to remain firmly fixed in our world for the new project. I wanted my characters to deal with issues that impact us in our day-to-day lives. I wanted them to speak as we do, to think and feel and interact as we do. In short, I wanted the story to be utterly relatable.

It would be easy to ascribe this to something pandemic-related — a need for normality, say, or some recognition that we don’t have to create an imagined world to come up with situations that are ________ . . . insert your preferred word here: Frightening? Disorienting? Surreal? As it happens, though, I completed my first draft of the book in February 2020, just before the current unpleasantness hit. [Invasives, the second Radiants book, is much more a reaction to the pandemic, as well as the personal difficulties my family and I have faced in recent months.]

Radiants really was a response to my creative needs at the time. No more, no less. It is the book I needed to write next. My lead characters presented themselves to me, along with their fraught and frantic circumstances, and I simply wrote. In this sense, Radiants might be the most organic book I’ve ever written. I had no marketing strategy for it; hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even know how to classify the story. I didn’t know if I was writing something for myself, for the sheer joy of it, or if it would turn out to be something I could sell and publish. I had a story to write and I wrote it.

For that reason alone, I love this book. And I am very hopeful that you will, too.

 

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Call For Stories, and Submission Advice Revisited!

I am co-editing a new Zombies Need Brains anthology with my friend, Joshua Palmatier, who is the founder and owner of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua is co-editing all three of the ZNB anthologies this year, which to my mind is totally nuts, but good for him.

The theme and title of our project for this year is DERELICT, and if you’re a writer, you should consider submitting. We are looking for stories about derelict ships (seafaring ships, space ships, even a good story about a derelict bus or truck or car could find its way into the collection). The stories should be speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, or horror) and they should be about 2,500-7,500 words long, though REALLY good stories that are shorter or a bit longer will be considered. You can find the guidelines for all three of this year’s anthologies at the ZNB website. ALWAYS read the GLs before submitting to any market.

With stories already arriving in good numbers, and the call for stories open until December 31st, I thought I would revisit some of the short fiction submission advice I offered earlier this year and late last year.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierAnd I’ll start with this: Joshua and I are generous readers. We will read an entire story, even when it’s pretty clear halfway in (or a quarter in…) that the story probably won’t make the cut. Your goal as a writer is to sell us a story, obviously. But really your goal is to make us consider your story on your terms. Here’s what I mean by that: We are expecting to get somewhere between 300 and 400 submissions, for a total of 6 or 7 slots. (Last year, for GALACTIC STEW, we received 409 and selected 7.) Read those sentences again; I’ll wait.

We have a lot of stories to read, and while we are eager to be blown away by something really good, we are also looking for reasons to reduce our pile of submissions to be read. If you send us a manuscript that doesn’t follow the theme, or that doesn’t follow the submission guidelines, or that is filled with typos and misspellings and grammatical issues, we are probably going to reject your story and move right on to the next. That’s just fact. So, you want to get all of that stuff right, so we can consider your story solely on its merits — your terms.

Now, it may be that your story is good but not as good as others, or it might be good but too similar to others we’ve read. We’ll reject stories, even fine ones, for a number of reasons. But by getting the simple stuff right, by turning in a solid, clean, professionally presented manuscript, you give yourself a better chance.

With that in mind…

— Read and follow the guidelines. Follow the formatting to the letter. There is nothing that bothers me more than being in the middle of a 10 hour day of reading slush and getting a single-spaced manuscript that I then have to format myself. In the same way, if the GLs say the story should be no longer than 7,500 words, don’t send us something that’s 10,000. Either edit it down to the word limit or submit something else.

— Edit and polish your story. Proofread it and then proofread it AGAIN. Don’t be in such a rush to get the story out that you neglect to get rid of that typo on page 6 or three instances of “your” that should have been “you’re.” Take pride in your work. Be professional.

— Pay attention to and follow the theme. Again, we’re looking for stories about derelict ships. That doesn’t mean we want a story in which a derelict is mentioned. The ship should be the essential element of the narrative. Without the derelict, your story should fall apart. Think of it like the instructions on a cooking show: “Make our theme the star of your dish…”

— Keep in mind the basic principles of good storytelling. A successful story has conflict, emotion, tension. Characters should be impacted by what takes place. If you have trouble identifying the protagonist and antagonist of your story, it may be that you have more work to do.

— This piece of advice is one I heard Joshua give at a conference last year: Chances are your first idea won’t be your best idea. Sometimes the first idea that comes to us is the one everyone will think of. A bit more digging and thinking might produce an idea that is more original and innovative. And that may well give you a better chance of making it into the anthology. Now, I will add that now and then, the first idea IS the best. But more often than not, a bit of thought and patience will be rewarded.

— Most important, understand that a rejection from this anthology is NOT a judgment on your ability as a writer, or even on the quality of your story. Remember those numbers I gave you earlier: 300-400 submissions for 6-7 slots. Our anthology is harder to get into than Harvard. We will absolutely be rejecting outstanding stories. That’s inevitable. So don’t take it too hard. Rejections are part of being a writer. View them as a step in a longer negotiation. If your story is rejected, take ten minutes to cry over it. Have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea. And then figure out where you’re going to send the story next.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Allure of the New Shiny

All of us who write have felt it. Many of us have given into it. Others have resisted. Personally, I’ve done both — with different projects and also within a single one. We loves it and we hates it, but always we must have a healthy respect for its power.

I speak, of course, of the allure of the New Shiny. The bane and grail, the procrastination and promise, the distraction and passion. The New Shiny is all these and more.

The first time I experienced it, I was in the process of outlining the SECOND LonTobyn book. Not the third and final book, but the second. Nancy had a conference in Birmingham, England and we made a trip of it, even though we were toting around our older daughter, Alex, who was all of three months old. Our travels took us to Wales, where we toured castle after castle. I fell in love with the countryside, became totally obsessed with the notion of writing castle intrigue, and started to imagine the books that would become my Winds of the Forelands tetralogy.

The problem was, I still had TWO books left to write in my first trilogy. As the Forelands began to take shape in my mind, as I grasped the myriad possibilities of a new world in which to write, LonTobyn seemed to shrink before my eyes. Compared to the Forelands, the LonTobyn world became small and ordinary. In reality, of course, it was neither. In fact, LonTobyn was a pretty good world, and those books not only sold well, but also won me an award and launched my career.

For weeks after we returned home, though, I spent hour upon hour building my world for the new series. The series that wasn’t contracted yet. The series no one had ever heard of. The series I absolutely WOULD NOT GET TO WRITE if I didn’t FINISH MY FIRST SERIES.

I don’t need to tell you that our minds are notoriously independent of our wills. The moment we tell ourselves not to think of, say, golden retriever puppies, golden retriever puppies become the only things we CAN think of. So telling ourselves not to think about our New Shinies is pretty much futile. More to the point, I’m not entirely certain we would want to banish them from our minds. The creative energy that comes with falling in love with a new world, a new concept, a new set of characters, can feed all our artistic endeavors. Why would we want to deny ourselves the power of that process?

At the same time, though, more often than not, the best thing we can do for our careers at any given moment is finish our current project. I learned a valuable skill when writing my first trilogy, with the Forelands concept lurking in my hind brain. I learned to compartmentalize my art. I continued to think about the Forelands books. As ideas occurred to me, I typed them out. But then I closed those files and went back to writing the LonTobyn books. I had no choice in the matter. I wanted to build a career, and I certainly didn’t want a reputation as a writer who failed to complete projects, or as someone who delivered books late. I allowed myself to brainstorm when I had the chance, but I forced myself to reach my daily word counts on the work-in-progress.

And I would suggest that when grappling with the New Shiny, you do much the same thing. Don’t stifle your creative impulses. Take the time to jot down every idea, to write out scenes that come to mind, or to create character sketches as the people in your new world present themselves to you. When you have set aside your WIP for the night or the weekend, let your mind run wild in New Shiny-land.

But do not sacrifice the work you’ve been struggling with, simply because the New Shiny is teasing you from the other side of your brain. Because here are a few things the New Shiny will never tell you. First, the idea might not pan out. I have many files on my computer that contain half-realized worlds, half-baked ideas, and half-formed narratives. The New Shiny can be fickle and undependable. Second, as wonderful as the New Shiny MIGHT prove to be, the work-in-progress is real, it is immediate, it deserves to be finished. It represents a tremendous amount of time, energy, and completed work. As I said before, finishing our current project is almost always the best thing we can do to advance our career. Third, and last, never forget this one essential truth: No matter how bored we might have grown with our current work, no matter how much of a slog those last chapters of the last book can prove to be, the current work-in-progress was once itself a New Shiny.

The next idea is always the most exciting. That doesn’t make it most important.

Keep writing!