Tag Archives: Islevale Cycle

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Plotting Or Not — Doing Away With a Dumb Debate

This is my forty-second Writing-Tip Wednesday post of the year, and somehow I have gotten through forty-one posts without addressing that age-old writing question, “Do I or do I not outline?” Or put another way, “Plotter or pantser?”

First, a word on nomenclature. “Pantsing” and “being a pantser,” as in “writing by the seat of one’s pants,” have come to be seen by some as demeaning and denigrating terms. As if those who plot, who outline their books and stories ahead of time, are creating “the right way,” as opposed to those who “write organically,” who are just sort of winging it. Frankly, I hate ALL of these terms, because I think all of them make assumptions about process that are unfair and unsupported. This, to be honest, is why I have avoided this particular topic for most of the year.

Having used the term “pantsing,” I am going to avoid it for the rest of this post. Because I do agree that it sounds demeaning. I am also going to avoid the word “organic” when describing how people write, because I don’t think it applies to one side of the debate any more than to the other. Even those books I have outlined extensively have come to me “organically.” Neither side owns the term.

Two hundred words into the post, and already I’m exhausted. The Outline vs. Don’t Outline debate is one that inspires a good deal of passion on both sides. I have seen discussions of the topic break down into ugly arguments. And I believe this is because many of us, myself included, have in the past been far too prescriptive in articulating our positions. Too often, we have said, “This is how I do it, because this is the way it’s supposed to be done.” Again, I have been guilty of this myself. For a long, long time, I have self-identified as someone who outlines, as a plotter. Thinking about that now, I’m reasonably sure that I have never actually been that writer.

You’ve heard me say this before, but it seems especially important to repeat it now: There is no single right way to do any of this.

Full stop. Period.

I have friends who outline in great detail. Their outlines are pages and pages long. I know of writers who outline to such a degree that writing the book basically consists of filling in description and dialogue in order to turn their outlines into finished novels.

And I also have friends who don’t outline at all. Not a bit. They have an idea, they sit themselves in front of a keyboard, and they start to compose.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonThen there are people like me. Some books, I outline in a good deal of detail. The Thieftaker novels demand preparation of this sort because I am tying together fictional and historical timelines, trying to make my story meld with established events. The Islevale books — time-travel epic fantasies — should have demanded similar planning. But for reasons I still have not fully grasped, all three books defied my efforts to outline. I simply couldn’t plot the books ahead of time. I tried for months (literally) to outline the first book, Time’s Children, and finally my wife said, “Maybe you just need to write it.” Islevale compositeThat’s what I did, and the result was a first draft that needed extensive reworking. When I began book II, Time’s Demon, I ran into the same problem. I didn’t even try to outline Time’s Assassin, the third and final volume. I knew it would be a waste of time. All three books needed extensive editing, more than I usually need to do. But they wound up being far and away the finest books I’ve written.

Yet, I wouldn’t want to write future books that way. The process for all three was tortuous and frustrating, and I know I don’t HAVE to suffer through that in order to write successful stories.

The truth is, like so many writers, I work on an ever-moving continuum between the extremes of creating hyper-detailed outlines and not outlining at all. With some projects, I lean one way, with other projects I lean the other way. Neither approach is right or better. As with so much else in this craft, we have to understand that the exigencies of each project will shape our process. Let’s go back a moment to the writer friends I spoke of earlier. Even the most detail-oriented outliners I know admit that their outlines change as they move through a novel, because almost invariably something happens in the book that surprises them and takes them away from their original vision. And even the most outline-adverse writers begin with ideas of where they intend to do with their characters, their setting, their narrative. They might not write it down and color-code it, but they have a sense of what path their story will follow.

This debate has, for too long, shed far more heat than light. I have yet to meet a pure outliner OR a pure non-outliner. And I know precious few writers who would say they write all their novels exactly the same way. We reinvent ourselves and our process each time we begin a new project.

So, my advice to you is to not worry about whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, or how others define your approach. Write your book. Plan it to the extent you wish to. Dive into it when you feel you’re ready. You can always pause to outline if you need to. And you can always crumple up or burn or shred the outline you’ve already done. It’s your book. It’s your process.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Let’s Talk Trunk Novels

A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects.

Let me tell you about my trunk novels. Not all of them – that would take a while. But I have two in particular, the first two books of what I once thought might be a three- or four-book series, that I have been working on for the past week or so.

Many of us have trunk novels and don’t even know it. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trunk novel is a book – complete or partial – that we worked on for a time and then put away, for any number of reasons. The idea is, we shove them in a trunk somewhere – metaphorical? Metaphysical? – and try to forget about them.

Sometimes we put these projects away because we can’t sell them. Sometimes, we are so convinced that the books are deeply, deeply flawed, that we don’t even try to sell them. Sometimes we get feedback on the books – suggestions for revisions – that we’re unwilling or at least not ready to implement. Sometimes we write something, but the market is not right at that moment for the book in question.

I put these books away for several of those reasons. I LOVE the first book, but the market wasn’t right for it. And while I thought it had some great moments, I also knew that it needed serious revision. The prose needed tightening. It had too much exposition, which was slowing down sections that should have been punchy and concise. The second book… well, the second book was a hot mess. Again, I liked elements of it, loved certain passages and plot twists. But I never did figure out the ending. I knew it needed to be torn apart and put back together and I had neither the patience to undertake such a massive rewrite nor a concrete vision of what I wanted the book to look like.

I wrote these books several years back, and around the time I might have forced myself to tackle the revisions, we sold the Justis Fearsson series. Into the proverbial trunk they went. I got them out a couple of years later, but then we sold the Islevale novels and I shut the lid on the trunk once more.

Now, though, with the Thieftaker novellas in edits, with other projects lurking but failing to excite me, I have opened the trunk once more and taken out the books, determined this time to do something with them. My old impressions of the novels remain intact. I still love the first book, but see serious problems with the writing and the excess exposition. And I still see potential in the second book, but it remains a train wreck.

What are the books about? Well, they’re sort of a blend of Celtic fantasy and urban fantasy. Hence the marketing issues. Urban fantasy is well past its peak, and Celtic stories have long since flooded the market. There is no strong demand for either. That doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be again. Or that my readers wouldn’t be interested in new novels, even if they are not on the cutting edge of what New York publishing considers “hot” and “trendy.” Self-publishing and small press publishing make it easier than ever to bypass the marketing gatekeepers and reach our readers.

Because, while the books need work (I’m about 20% through the revisions on book I), they are engaging and fun. I love my characters, I love the magic. I love the snark in the dialogue and the relationship between my two heroes (both women, one looking to rebuild her life, one bored to tears with hers). There is lots here to like. And the books might make a very nice premium for readers if I wind up creating a Patreon.

These posts are supposed to include tips for those of you trying to establish yourself as writers, and so here goes:

Chances are, you have trunk novels, too, even if you didn’t know them by that name. As writers we ought never to throw anything away. Yes, there are books and stories in my trunk that are irretrievably bad, that will never, ever see the light of day. But there are others that, despite their flaws or lack of market viability at a given time, represent quality work. I’d wager you have books like those, as well.

Don’t give up on those books. I know plenty of people who have sold trunk novels five or ten or even fifteen years after they first wrote them. A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out where a story ought to have gone.

And in the meantime, reading those old stories and books can tell us things about ourselves as writers. We can see our own growth, recognizing the mistakes and shortcomings of things our younger selves did. And we can also see, from the distance of years, with fresh eyes, the raw potential and effective moments of stories we soured on long ago. Those insights have value in and of themselves, even if we decide in the end that those trunk stories still belong… well, in the trunk.

Do you have trunk stories and books? Might it be time to dig them out and take a look?

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.

Release Day Interview: David B. Coe Interviews D.B. Jackson!

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)Release week continues with a special Tuesday interview post! Yes, that’s right: I am going to interview… Myself!!

Today, I am pleased to welcome author D.B. Jackson to the blog. D.B. has a new novel out this week. Time’s Assassin, the third volume in his critically acclaimed Islevale Cycle, will be released on Tuesday, July 7, by Falstaff Books. (Order it here.  Buy the first two books in the series at a special price here.)

David: D.B., welcome to the blog, and may I say that you are even better looking in person than you are in your pictures.

D.B.: Nice, starting right off with full-on conceited creeper. Way to hold your audience…

David: Why don’t you start by telling us about Time’s Assassin?

D.B.: Well, that’s a lazy-ass question. It’s not like you haven’t read the book….

Fine. Time’s Assassin is the concluding volume of the Islevale Cycle, my time travel, epic fantasy series. The Islevale books tell the story of Tobias Doljan and Mara Lijar, fifteen-year-old Walkers, time travelers, who go back in time to stop a war. But they’re trapped in the past and forced to protect and care for the infant daughter of an assassinated royal. The catch to all this is that time travel in my world exacts a price: For every year they go back in time, they age that amount. So they went back fourteen years, which means that they arrive in the past as twenty-nine year-olds, but with the thoughts and emotions of teenagers. They are pursued by assassins, caught up in castle intrigue, and have to match wits with a host of Ancients, as my demons are called. There’s a lot going on, and in this volume, all the story arcs come together.

David: It sounds interesting!

D.B.: Well… I’m glad you think so. If I couldn’t win you over, I was going to have a lot of trouble getting anyone else to care…

David: What made you decide to take on time travel?

Islevale compositeD.B.: Hubris, foolishness, self-loathing: take your pick. Time travel is so difficult. I love these books, and I’m very proud of them, but I hope never to write another time travel novel. The allure of time-travel lies in the narrative possibilities, the complications, the twists and turns. And it’s all there. But those attractions are also the biggest problems. No plot point is certain. Every event is, potentially, subject to a do-over. When we mess with time, we take away the guaranteed permanence of everything we do to and with our characters. That’s why I had to make the price of my time travel magic so steep. Because if it costs nothing to travel across time, then the time travel itself takes over the story and makes everything transitory. At least with the time travel exacting such a cost, I can limit this somewhat. And even so, once my characters made it to the past, I had to take steps to ensure that they couldn’t Walk through time again, at least for a while.

David: Islevale is yet another world of your own creation. Tell us a bit about it.

D.B.: Islevale is a world of oceans and islands, a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea. The Earthsea trilogy was one of my very favorite fantasy series when I was young — it’s one of the works that inspired me to write — and so I meant the world as an homage to Le Guin and to those books.

If I had to place Islevale in a period analogous to some historical era of our world, I would probably choose the early Renaissance. That’s the technology level. And, like many fantasy worlds, Islevale is inhabited by a diverse population of humans and also by other sorts of creatures. Specifically, humans share the world with the Ancients, different races of what the humans, in their ignorance, call demons. These are magical beings with their own customs and ancient forms of commerce and culture. They were enormous fun to write.

David: So, you are actually a pseudonym. What’s that like?

D.B.: Excuse me?

David: You’re a pseudonym. A pen name. You don’t really exist. You’re just the alter ego of a real, well-established author. So I’m just wondering—

D.B.: I knew you were going to do this.

David: What?

D.B.: You know what. Pulling the whole “I’m real, you’re not” thing. That is so typical of you corporeal types. You think our readers give a flying fart about which one of us is “real”?

David: Just for the record, I am.

D.B.: I know! But what I’m saying is, it doesn’t matter. We share a newsletter and a Facebook page—

David: Maintained by yours truly.

D.B.: —And a lot of our audience likes books by both of us. Moreover, Mister Real Guy, I’d be careful about who you call the “real established author.” Would you care to compare reviews?

David: [Clearing throat] Why don’t you tell us what you’re working on now?

D.B.: Yeah, I thought so.

I’ve just finished working on a set of three novellas set in the Thieftaker universe. These will be released one at a time in ebook format later this year, and then the three together will be published in a printed omnibus. And, speaking of Thieftaker, our agent and I have recently gotten back the rights to the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach, which had been hard to find. We will be re-issuing these in trade paperback later this year or early next year.

David: Well, that sounds great. I wish you — us, really — every success with Time’s Assassin and the rest of the Islevale books, as well as with the upcoming Thieftaker releases. Best of luck to you.

D.B.: Thank you. And to you. [Sotto voce] Pinhead…

Monday Musings: On New Releases and All That Comes With Them

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)It is release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle, and so that will be the focus of my posts this week. And I’d like to kick off the week with some musings about new releases and the excitement and anxiety that comes with them.

Release days are odd. Even today, with the marketplace changed and production times for books shortened by digital advances and the movement toward smaller presses and self-publishing, the actual day a book drops seems to be removed from time — an irony given that, in this instance, the release is a time travel story. Producing a book takes months, and while the rest of the world sees Time’s Assassin as my newest work, I know it’s not. Since completing the submitted draft of this book, I have written short stories, a non-fiction piece, several novellas, and a full-length novel. I’m currently reading and worldbuilding in preparation for another multi-volume project. In other words, my mind has moved on from Islevale. Talking and writing about this book feels like a journey to a different time.

To be clear, it’s not a journey I mind making. I love the Islevale books; I believe they’re the best novels I’ve published. They’re just not the focus of my professional life the way they were when I was neck-deep in writing them. And that’s a bit of a problem. The fact is, the success of Time’s Assassin and the two volumes that came before it will have a huge impact on everything I do after. Sadly, that’s how publishing works. We are only as successful commercially — and, to a lesser degree, critically — as our most recent work. This is why even perennial bestsellers still worry about each new release. They sweat the reviews and pore over their sales numbers.

We want to take satisfaction in the publication itself (more on this in Wednesday’s post) and to some degree we do. Certainly we should. Writing a book is no small feat. Completing a series is an accomplishment that deserves a moment’s reflection. I still get a thrill out of seeing the jacket art for a new book, or holding the printed novel in my hands for the first time. I have a bookcase next to my desk that holds a copy of every novel I’ve published, every anthology in which I’ve placed a short story or which I’ve edited. Two shelves are full; I’m about to start filling a third. I’m proud of that.

That said, I’m already invested in other projects. I want this release to go well, but my creative energy is focused elsewhere. I don’t mean for that to sound jaded. This is, I believe, as it should be. It’s not just the allure of the New Shiny — though that is real, and worth exploring in a future Writing-Tip Wednesday post. Looking beyond the current release is, to my mind, a natural expression of all that we love about our profession. Yes, completing a book feels great. And yes, starting a new novel can be daunting.

For authors, though, as for all artists working in all forms, creation is a constant. We work on the next project because we have ideas that demand attention, and because we believe with all our hearts that as much as we might love the thing we’ve just finished and are currently promoting, we know that we can do even better.

So, we worry about the sales and the critics. We do what we can to promote the new release.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)…And allow me take a moment to urge you get a copy of Time’s Assassin. (You can order it here.) It is, I believe, a wonderful conclusion to a series I adore. If you haven’t yet read Time’s Children and Time’s Demon, now is the time. The three books are out. There will be no more in this world. And they are as good as any work I’ve ever done. And now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…

But I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Even if the reviews for Time’s Assassin suck, and even if we don’t sell a single copy (neither of which I anticipate), I’m still going to work on the new projects. I am a writer. This is what I do.

Creativity is its own reward. At least it should be. Sometimes things get a bit more complicated than that, a phenomenon I’ll address on Wednesday.

Today, though, I intend to enjoy having my mind in two projects at once, two worlds at once. I am deeply proud of my new release. I hope you’ll buy it and I hope you enjoy it. AND I am incredibly excited about my new projects. I can’t wait for you to see them.

Enjoy your week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Taking Stock Halfway Through 2020

As of today, July 1, we are halfway done with 2020.

Yeah, I know. It seems like this year has lasted a decade. And it seems like this year has flown. Time is unnervingly elastic right now, at least from my perspective. I have been distracted all year long — that’s how it feels. I can hardly believe that six months ago I hadn’t heard of Covid-19. I haven’t been at my best for so long now, I’m not entirely sure anymore what “my best” really means.

That said, I look back on the first six months of the year, and I see that I did, in fact, accomplish something. Quite a lot, actually.

•I’ve edited an anthology, reading through literally dozens of stories, choosing (in consultation with Joshua Palmatier, my co-editor) the ones we would be including in the final collection, and then editing and copyediting those.

•I’ve written and revised a short story for said anthology.

•I’ve written, revised, and then revised again a lengthy non-fiction piece.

•I’ve revised and copyedited TIME’S ASSASSIN, the third Islevale novel, which will be out from Falstaff Books on or about July 7.

•I’ve written the first drafts of three Thieftaker novellas, totaling just over 100,000 words.

•I’ve put out five issues of my newsletter, and will be coming out with number six very soon (I tend to take January off).

•I’ve posted Monday Musings, Wednesday Writing Tips, and Friday Photos, every week for the first twenty six weeks of the year.

All in all, not bad.

I know that I’ve done all of these things, because I keep a day journal in which I jot down, among other things, all of my professional activities. And I keep that journal for just this reason. Even in the best of times, it is so, so easy to convince ourselves that we’re not doing anything, that we’re just spinning our wheels and wasting our time. This is especially true now, in a period of sustained social crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Our tension and apprehension and sense of being overwhelmed consumes all else, making it too easy to gloss over our accomplishments, whatever they may be.

Keeping a day journal is easy. You can do it electronically, or physically. I do everything electronically these days, except this. Each year, I buy a Sierra Club Engagement Calendar, and I use it to keep tabs on myself, writing down each day’s highlights before going to bed. I recommend it. It may be just the thing to help you keep track of all you’re getting done, despite your conviction that you’re not getting anything done at all. More than that, it can be a source of motivation. On some days, I wind up working harder than I would otherwise, because I don’t want to face that blank space in the evening with nothing productive to jot down.

I also want to say, at this, the turn of the year, that 2020 is far from over. Whatever you have gotten done so far, you have six more months in which to accomplish old goals or set and get started on new ones. It’s tempting to give in to the negative impulse: “The year’s already half gone. What’s the use?” I choose instead to look at it from the other side. “I still have half the year left to do X, Y, and Z.”

So I plan to keep the newsletters coming, to write my three blog posts each and every week. I have a release next week that I intend to promote. I hope to be editing a new anthology by the end of the year. I intend to revise and put out those three Thieftaker novellas before the year is finished. I have more edits to get done on the nonfiction piece. I have a new idea for a major project — I’m researching it now. I would love to have the first novel in that project finished before the end of the year. I have gotten the rights back to the third and fourth Thieftaker novels; I want to edit those and get them reissued this year. And more…

So, yeah, it’s July 1. Wow.

Now, back to work.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Single Point of View v. Multiple Point of View

If you know me, if you have been with me in panel discussions at conventions, if you have ever received any sort of writing advice from me, or even heard me give such advice to others, I need for you to sit down and prepare yourselves. What I’m about to tell you is shocking. For some of you, it may be more than you can handle. But we’re in this together and we will get through to a better place. I promise.

Ready? Here goes…

It is the last week of May – we are twenty-one weeks, twenty-one Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, into the year – and I have yet to write about point of view.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

Don’t worry, though. I’m going to make it up to you today. Who knows, I might even return to the subject in the weeks and months to come. I’m confident that, by the end of the year, you’ll be as tired of hearing me go on and on about point of view as you usually are. A bit of normality in a topsy-turvy world…

Point of view, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is, essentially, the narrative voice used to tell a story. And the initial choice of point of view for each project we write usually focuses on the relative advantages of writing in first person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “I,” “me,” “my”) versus writing in close third person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “she/he/they,” “hers/his/theirs”).

(Yes, there are other choices. One can write in what is known as omniscient POV, a challenging voice to use and master, because it demands that the narrator know what all characters are thinking and feeling WITHOUT resorting to what’s referred to as head-hopping. And one can write in second person point of view, in which the author writes the entire narrative in effect addressing the reader – “You walk into a bar and order your drink. Sounds and smells assault you from all sides…” Etc. Both of these are difficult, even risky choices for beginning writers.)

One day last week, though, I had a conversation with a writer friend (let’s call her “Haith Funter”) about the other choice we make when deciding on the narrative voice for our projects, and it is this element of point of view I wish to focus on today. Specifically, our conversation centered on whether Haith should consider using a single point of view character or multiple point of view characters for a future project she’s considering.

And being me, the moment she mentioned that she was grappling with this I launched into a lengthy (and unasked-for) recitation of the relative merits of each approach. A recitation I offer again here.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Let’s start with what I mean when I speak of multiple point of view characters. This is NOT an invitation to jump willy-nilly from character to character, sharing their thoughts, emotions, and sensations. That is called head-hopping, and it is considered poor writing. Rather, writing with multiple point of view characters means telling the story with several different narrators, each given her or his own chapters or chapter-sections in which to “tell” their part of the story. When we are in a given character’s point of view, we are privy only to her thoughts and emotions. In the next chapter, we might be privy to the thoughts of someone else in the story. This is an approach used to great effect by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin goes so far as to use his chapter headings to tell us who the point of view character is for that section of the story. Guy Gavriel Kay uses multiple point of view quite a bit – in Tigana, in his Fionavar Tapestry, in many of his more recent sweeping historical fantasies. I have used it in my epic fantasy series – The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, Blood of the Southlands, The Islevale Cycle.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterThis is in contrast with single character point of view, in which we have only one point of view character for the entire story (and that point of view can be either first or third person). Think of Haith’s Yane Jellowrock series, or my Thieftaker or Justis Fearsson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series, or even (for the most part) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

With both approaches, the point of view of each character is inviolate, meaning that your reader can learn nothing from a given character that the character her- or himself can’t know. The key is that this limitation means vastly different things in single POV on the one hand, and multiple character point of view on the other.

You might notice that the examples I give for each approach are distinctive. Granted, my examples are FAR from comprehensive, but they are instructive.

SPELL BLIND,  by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollack)For single character point of view we have essentially two kinds of books: urban fantasies that have a mystery element, and YA novels that concentrate as much on the lead character’s emotional development as on external factors. Single character POV tends to be intimate. Readers form a powerful attachment to the narrators of these books. And, of even greater importance, readers learn things about the narrative at the same time the characters do. Even in books that begin with our narrator looking back on past events, we are soon taken back in time so that this older narrative has a sense of immediacy. This is why single character POV works so well in mysteries. The reader gets information as the “detective” does. Discovery happens in real time, as it were.

My examples of multiple character POV books are almost all grand, sprawling epics of one sort or another. In part, this is because it can be more difficult to tell such stories from the vantage point of only one character. But more than that, the power of multiple POV lies in two simple facts.

First, because we are following several POV characters at once, we are drawn into a number of subplots. All of these are braided together in some way, contributing to the larger story line. And since we can leave one to pick up another, we almost always have several characters in danger, or creating danger, at any one time. Each shift from one POV character to another leaves one story hanging in order to pick up another. The shifts in narrator actually impart momentum to the story.

Second, in multiple POV, our readers always have more information than any one character. We see traps as they’re being laid, we see intrigue from all angles, we can recognize the perils for one character based upon the machinations of another. Rather than discovering things as our narrators do, our readers are almost always one step ahead of them. This knowledge creates anticipation, feeds expectation, some of which we can satisfy, some of which we might thwart, all of which ratchets up the narrative tension.

Different stories lend themselves to different point of view choices. I would never dream of telling anyone (not even Haith) what approach to use for their story. Chances are you’ll know what your story requires as soon as you begin to write it. But my hope is that a clearer understanding of the relative strengths and advantages of each option will make that choice a little easier.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, part II — Attribution

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post began a two part series on dialogue with some advice on the writing of the actual “spoken” words we put in the mouths of our characters. Today, I follow that up with a discussion of dialogue attribution. This is a very long post, which includes lengthy excerpts from my work that should serve to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. I hope you’ll stick with it to the end.

Identifying the speaker in written conversations is one of the most difficult things we do as writers. It seems so simple, right? All we’re trying to do is tell the reader who said what. And yet it is so easy to do this poorly. Part of the problem is that, as with the dialogue itself, everything we try to do in this regard must strike a balance. Too heavy a hand, and our dialogue tags sound clunky. Too light a hand, and our readers lose track of who is speaking. Take too limited an approach and the tags start to sound boring and repetitive.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. Our daughters loved them and Nancy and I wound up enjoying them immensely as well. We have read the entire series multiple times and listened to them on audiobook during many a family roadtrip. I think J.K. Rowling does many things very, very well as both a writer and a storyteller. But in listening to her books on audio and I came to realize that her dialogue attribution is terrible. Why? Because it is unimaginative and repetitious. She resorts to “said Harry,” “said Hermione,” “said Ron,” with almost every line.

So how do we avoid that?

Let’s start by defining some terms. Dialogue tags are words we use as direct attribution – “he said,” “she asked.” Said-bookisms are dialogue tags run amok. They are direct attribution but with more descriptive verbs – “he hissed,” “she growled,” “he averred,” “she opined,” “he remarked,” “she exclaimed,” etc. At times, I will speak of using action, emotion, or mannerism to identify the speaker. By this I mean starting a paragraph with, say, “Kannice brushed a strand of hair from her brow,” before having her speak. And finally unattributed dialogue is simply a line of dialogue that has no other sort of identifier except the spoken words themselves.

In these definitions, we see three broad approaches to identifying the speakers in our written conversations. We can use dialogue tags. We can use action and mannerisms. We can let the spoken words stand alone and unattributed.

When it comes to using these various approaches, there are several schools of thought. I have writer friends who swear that we should NEVER use direct tags of any sort. No “said”s, no “asked”s, and certainly no “hissed”s or “opined”s. And I should add here that said-bookisms are generally frowned upon in all segments of the market these days. They are considered “telling” rather than “showing,” and thus seen as evidence of bad writing. The things said-bookisms might tell us are better conveyed with context, with the spoken dialogue itself, and with other descriptive tools. Some people are VERY strict in their rejection of said-bookisms and the like. I’m not. In addition to “said” and “asked” I will use a few words that convey volume (“whispered,” “called,” “muttered,” “shouted”) and sometimes one or two that supply context and rhythm (“went on” or “added”). I am VERY sparing in my use of these words. Mostly, when I use tags, it’s “said” and “asked.”

There are also benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches. Dialogue tags offer the most clarity, but, as with the Harry Potter books, they can be boring, even pedestrian. Unattributed dialogue flows most smoothly and can be very dramatic and fast-paced when used well. But after a few lines, readers have to start counting back to figure out who is saying what. (And as mentioned last week, we SHOULD NOT deal with this by having characters call one another by name with any frequency.) Finally, using mannerism, emotion, and action can be an elegant way of identifying the speaker, one that also adds details and emotional cues that tell the reader a lot. But overuse of them makes our characters seem unnaturally twitchy; mannerisms can quickly turn into tics, which we don’t want.

With all of that in mind, it probably won’t surprise any of you to learn that I suggest using a mix of the three techniques of attribution. Some lines, I feel, should be attributed directly. Some should stand on their own without attribution. And in some cases the speaker should be identified in some other way – facial expression, gesture, action, etc. By way of example, here is a passage from Time’s Demon, the second Islevale Cycle book. This is the scene in which the Tirribin, Droë first encounters the Arrokad, Qiyed:

Water ran down his body as he stepped from the surf and halted in front of her.

“There is a price to be paid for summoning my kind, even for one such as you, cousin.”

“I know. What price?”

“We shall decide, you and I. Why have you summoned me?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came. Instead, to her shame, she burst into tears. For some time, too long, she could not speak for her sobbing. The Arrokad regarded her, unmoving and apparently unmoved.

When at last she found her voice, she apologized.

“What is your name, cousin?”

“I am Droënalka. Most call me Droë.” She would have expected a human or another Tirribin to reciprocate, but such conventions did not apply to the Most Ancient Ones. Either he would tell her his name or wouldn’t. His to choose.

“Do you seek a boon, Droë of the Tirribin? Is this why you summoned me?”

She hesitated before nodding.

“I see. That, too, carries a cost.”

“I know that,” she said, wearying of being spoken to as if she knew nothing. “I’m Tirribin. I understand the commerce of summons and boon.”

A canny smile revealed gleaming sharp teeth. “Better. That is the spirit I expect when treating with Tirribin. I had begun to think you simple.”

“That’s rude.” But his teasing made her feel better, more like herself.

“Yes, I suppose it is. I am Qiyed. You showed great restraint in not asking. I know how much your kind care about etiquette.”

Her cheeks warmed.

“Tell me more of this boon you seek.”

“I– I don’t know how.”

“That is intriguing, but I do not wish to remain on this strand for long.” Lightning flashed, and thunder followed, sooner than she had expected. “A storm comes, and I long to swim with it.” Another sly grin. “Have you ever done this?”

“No.”

“Would you care to?”

She reflected with distaste on her swim from the ship. “I don’t think so, no.”

“Very well. Quickly then.”

Where to begin?

“There is a Walker. I’m told I knew him when he trained in the palace at Trevynisle.”

“You have come from the northern isles?” he asked, surprise in the question.

“Yes.”

“And what does that mean: ‘I’m told I knew him’?”

“He traveled back in time, and created this misfuture we’re in now. The humans have fought over Hayncalde in Daerjen. One supremacy has given way to another.”

“I knew nothing of this.”

She canted her head. “Payment for my summons?”

He bared his teeth again. “Clever, cousin.” He considered this. “Done. That part of your debt to me is paid in full. Go on.”

As you can see here, I use a lot of dialogue to establish their relationship, and I blend direct attribution with emotion and gesture, while also leaving a few lines to stand for themselves, without any tag or other cue as to who is speaking. And yet, we never lose track of the conversation. Clearly, this becomes more difficult when we introduce a third character (and a fourth or fifth or sixth). The more people in the scene, the more often we need to identify the speaker.

Here is a second scene, this one among three characters, one a woman who has Walked through time and met herself in the past, at the expense of her sanity, and the other two the Tirribin siblings, Maeli and Teelo.

At a stirring of the wind, she caught the fetor of decay and she glanced around again. The smell dissipated as swiftly as it had come.

“I suppose I should be on my way,” she said, after the silence had lengthened uncomfortably.

“I can’t tell what it is,” the girl said in a voice both childlike and knowing. “Can you?”

The boy shook his head. “Not at all. At least not beyond the obvious.”

“Its years are all–”

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why are you talking about me that way?”

“We’re having a conversation,” the girl told her, as haughty as a court noble. “And you’re interrupting. That’s rude.”

She had to smile. “Isn’t it just as rude to talk about someone in their presence, as if they aren’t there?”

The two shared a look, worry in their ghostly eyes.

“Yes, it is,” the girl said, chastened. “Please forgive us.”

“Children shouldn’t be out alone in the streets. You should go home”

The girl hid her mouth with a thin hand, her laughter as clear and musical as the splash of a brook. “We’re not children. You should know that.”

She stared at one and then the other, puzzled now. If not children… Were they creations of her mind, symptoms of her madness? She thought she understood the depths of this Walking induced insanity. What if she was wrong, and it continued to worsen? What if these two marked the beginning of a slide into hallucination?

“You’ve confused it,” the boy said. “Maybe it doesn’t know as much as we hoped.”

She scowled. “Stop referring to me as ‘it.’”

“What else would we call you?”

“‘She,’ of course.”

He shook his head. “You’re not a she, are you? You’re not really anything at all.”

“I don’t–”

“We tasted your years when you were still on the sand,” the girl said. “That’s why we called for you. We sensed the confusion in you, and we wanted to know exactly what you are. But you don’t know yourself.”

We tasted…

“You’re Tirribin,” she said, drawing on a memory from so long ago, it could have been a different life. She took a step back from them. “That’s why…” She stopped herself from mentioning the smell. “Why you could taste my years from so great a distance.”

The girl glowered, appearing to know what Lenna intended to say.

“That’s right,” the boy said. “We’re Tirribin.” To his sister, he said, “Maybe she knows more than we thought.”

Suspicion lingered in the girl’s glare. “I’m not so sure. You don’t need to fear us,” she said, a rasp underlying the words. “Your years are muddied. We wouldn’t feed on you any more than a human would drink sea water. It would do more harm than good.”

“Why? What’s wrong with them?” She feared their answer.

“Don’t you know?”

Of course she did. Tirribin didn’t prey on Walkers because their years were less pure. She remembered a time demon explaining this to her when she was a child in Windhome. Before a boy died and another was sent away. Now she was here, fourteen years out of her time, twelve days out of another, half-mad from having met herself. Whose years could be less pure than hers?

“Yes,” she said. “I know. But that doesn’t make me less than human, and it doesn’t excuse you calling me ‘it.’”

“You’re a creature outside of time,” the girl said with relish. “There are too many of you, and your years are beyond repair.” She made a small gesture, indicating the lane and the houses. “You bear little resemblance to the humans I sense around me.”

“Maeli…”

The girl rounded on the other demon. “Don’t tell me I’m being rude. She was going to say something about the way we smell. Humans do that a lot, and I grow tired of it.”

“What should I do?” Lenna asked, drawing their attention once more.

The girl laughed again, the sound uglier than before. “Do?”

“Don’t you intend to help me? Isn’t that why you called to me?”

“We’re Tirribin. We’re predators, and while your years would be disgusting to us, that doesn’t make you more than prey.”

The boy frowned but held his tongue.

“And even if that weren’t so, there would be no helping you. You are what you are, and can’t be changed or redeemed. You didn’t exist before today. I can tell. Yet you have all these years. Confused, corrupted, but years nevertheless. We didn’t call you here to help. We called to see you. We sensed you, and we wanted to see what sort of being could have such years.” The girl raked her up and down with her gaze. “Honestly, I thought you would be more interesting than you are. You seem no different from other humans.”

“Then maybe you’re wrong about me.”

The Tirribin shook her head. “I’m not.”

The process is trickier here, because of the number of characters, but still I have done my best to use all the techniques at my disposal in a way that keeps the narrative flowing and keeps the speakers clear in the minds of readers.

A few other points and then I will end what is already a very long post: First, punctuating and formatting dialogue is a little complicated. Pay attention to how I have done so in these examples and keep in mind that whenever you change who is speaking or reacting, you need to start a new paragraph. Also remember that things like laughter or sighs are NOT dialogue tags. They are actions/mannerisms. You can’t say, “‘That’s funny,’ he laughed.” But you can say, “‘That’s funny.’ He laughed.” See the difference?

Finally, remember this: Writing dialogue is fun, just as reading it is fun. It’s also hard and takes some time to master. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It took me a while to get to where I feel comfortable using a variety of techniques to attribute my lines of dialogue. You’ll get there as well. For now, your priorities should be remaining true to your characters’ voices and being totally clear about who is speaking. I find that it’s easier to remove tags and other identifiers than it is to put more in, so I always err on the side of clarity, knowing that I can clean things up in revisions.

Best of luck with this, and keep writing!