Tag Archives: Islevale Cycle

Professional Wednesday: Once More Unto The Breach — To Outline or Not, Redux

After attending DragonCon and speaking on panels about various aspects of writing, I have found myself thinking—yet again—about the age-old debate between those who outline their books and those who don’t. Or, between planners and pantsers, in the parlance of the discussion. And yes, I know those who write without an outline object to the term “pantsing.” (For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from the phrase “Flying [or in this case ‘writing’] by the seat of one’s pants.”)

I actually understand and sympathize with these objections to the term. As one who sometimes writes with an outline and sometimes without, I can say with confidence that I am no less a writer when in the midst of those projects that defy my efforts to outline ahead of time.

As I have said before, my creative process reinvents itself with each project I take on, often with each book. Some projects lend themselves to outlining and are better suited to a systematic approach to plotting. The Thieftaker books in particular are easy to outline. Indeed, when writing in the Thieftaker universe I feel outlining is absolutely essential. With each book and story, I seek to blend historical events with fictional ones, and keeping the two timelines—the imagined and the real—in sync, demands that I have plan things out with care.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)

On the other hand, I have written books that I could not outline at all, despite making every attempt to do so. Most notably, the three volumes of my Islevale Cycle (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin) simply would not submit themselves to any sort of advanced planning. They were like children, refusing to sit still long enough to be photographed.

I have also said before that to me the outlining thing is not so much a binary choice—outline in detail or write the books without any planning at all—as it is a continuum. Even the most dedicated “pantsers” I know have a good idea of where their books are headed. They just don’t like to be tied to a formal outline. In the same way, the most diligent outliners I know leave a great many details out of their outlines, allowing themselves to create in the moment, to preserve the energy that comes from writing organically. Each of us is a little bit planner, a little bit pantser, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll . . . .

(That is my first, and will be my only, Osmond reference EVER in this blog . . . .)

So why am I revisiting the outlining question this week? Because I am in the process of finishing the third volume in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series (which STILL needs a series name!!) and in the final weeks of writing the book, I have been outlining—perhaps it’s more accurate to say RE-outlining—the last ten chapters or so of the story.

And I’ve realized this is something I do a lot. Yes, I try to outline most books, but I almost never outline all the way to the end of the novel. Why? Because things change along the way. I can set out plot points for the first fifteen or twenty chapters of a book before I begin writing Chapter 1, but I know my story is going to shift along the way. Characters will do things that surprise me, that upset my best-laid plans. It’s inevitable. And, in fact, I welcome those kinds of narrative disruptions. When my characters start surprising me, it means they have become fully realized personalities in my head, which is always a good thing.

So, I might outline twenty chapters initially, but I almost always need to adjust my outlines starting at around chapter ten. And then I need to do it again at around chapter seventeen or eighteen. And then I need to do it yet again for the final five or ten chapters of the book.

Put another way, outlining is not simply a task I complete early on, before I start to write my book, and I never think of my outline as a static document. Rather outlining is a process, something I have to revisit several times along the way in order to keep up with the constant creative evolution of my narrative vision.

Because, like so many writers, I am a hybrid. I plan my stories and I also write organically. I adhere to an overarching concept and I adapt to an ever-changing plot line. I take comfort in having a roadmap for my novel and I draw energy from all the story ideas I discover along the way. As I say, my process changes with each project, but these things remain the same.

I like to say there is no single right way to do any of this. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to plot or you have to write organically. Find the balance that fits best with your creative style.

And, of course, 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: Punctuating Our Stories (Not the Way You Think I Mean It)

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

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

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

What’s my point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

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: Cover Art and Why It Matters

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Last week, I was able to share with you the incredible art work for my upcoming novel, Invasives, the second Radiants book, which will be out February 18. And because I’m mentioning the art here, I have yet another excuse to post the image, which I love and will share for even the most contrived of reasons . . .

I have been fortunate throughout my career to have some really outstanding art work grace the covers of my novels. It began with my very first book, Children of Amarid, which had a striking wrap-around cover from artist Romas Kukalis. Romas did terrific work on the other two LonTobyn books as well, and also on the third, fourth, and fifth books of my Winds of the Forelands series (Gary Ruddell did books one and two), and the three volumes of Blood of the Southlands.

Children of Amarid, art work by Romas KukalisFor the Thieftaker novels, Tor hired the incomparable Chris McGrath, who has also done the art for the Lore Seekers Press publications of Tales of the Thieftaker (the Thieftaker short story collection) and The Loyalist Witch.

And I have had amazing art for the Islevale Cycle books (Jan Weßbecher and Robyne Pomroy) and for the Radiants series (Debra Dixon). As I say, I’ve been astonishingly lucky.

But does it matter?

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’re told. And as a saying using the proverbial book as metaphor for others things in life, it makes lots of sense. But as a practical and literal (as well as literary) matter, it’s advice we ignore all the time. Of course we judge books by their covers. We do it every day, and one reason we do it is that publishers use cover art to signal genre, story-type, the age of a book’s intended readers, and even the possible series relationship between one book and another. We are programmed to judge books by their jacket art, and we have been for a long, long time.

The truth is, having cool jacket art can be a tremendous boost for a book. Need proof? Hang out by a bookseller’s table in the dealers’ room at the next convention you attend, and see which books shoppers ignore, which they linger over, and which they pick up and open. Covers matter. People are drawn to the Thieftaker books for several reasons. The blend of history, mystery, and magic helps. But few potential readers would know even that much about the books if not for the allure of those Chris McGrath covers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The thing to remember about artwork, though, is that it’s not enough for the covers to be eye-catching. They also need to tell a story — your story. The Thieftaker covers work because they convey the time period, they offer a suggestion of the mystery contained within, and they hint as well at magic, by always including that swirl of conjuring power in Ethan’s hand. The Islevale covers all have that golden timepiece in them, the chronofor, which enables my Walkers to move through time. All my traditional epic fantasy covers, from the LonTobyn books through the Forelands and Southlands series, convey a medieval fantasy vibe. Readers who see those books, even if they don’t know me or my work, will have an immediate sense of the stories contained within.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that’s what we want. Sure, part of what makes that Invasives cover work is the simple fact that it’s stunning. The eye, the flames, the lighting in the tunnel. It’s a terrific image. But it also tells you there is a supernatural story within. And while the tunnel “setting” is unusual, the presence of train tracks, wires, electric wiring, and even that loudspeaker in the upper left quadrant of the tunnel, combine to tell you the story takes place in our world (or something very much like it). And for those who have seen the cover of the first book in the series, Radiants, the eye and flames mark this new book as part of the same franchise. That’s effective packaging.

When I started in this business, and was writing for big publishing houses, I had relatively little input on my jacket art. Sometimes that was frustrating. Other times, it was fortuitous: I had an idea for the cover of the first Thieftaker book that was nothing like what Chris came up with. Thank God they didn’t listen to me.

In today’s publishing world, with so many authors self-publishing or working with small presses, which tend to be far more open to involving authors in these sorts of decisions, we have greater control over what our books look like. We also face challenges that didn’t exist back when I was starting out. Today, a cover doesn’t just need to look good in hand. It also needs to convey a sense of the story, genre, series, and audience age in thumbnail form. It doesn’t just need to stand out on a table in a bookstore. It also needs to compete with a dozen or three dozen other thumbnails on a single web page. Effective art is more important now than ever.

And yet, I don’t want to leave you with the sense that a great cover is the silver bullet for book marketing. Not even the coolest image can help you if the book within is poorly written or sloppily edited. Sure readers might fall for that once, sold on the book by the great image. But they won’t be fooled a second time.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)In the same vein, poor marketing practices by a publisher, even if inadvertent, can doom even the most beautiful book. I LOVE the art for Time’s Demon, the second Islevale novel. But the novel came out when the publisher was going through an intense reorganization. It got little or no marketing attention, and despite looking great and being in my view one of the best things I’ve written, it was pretty much the worst-selling book of my career.

Yes, art matters. Good art attracts readers and brands our books. But we still need to write the best story we can. And we still have to bust our butts marketing the book once it’s out.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part III — Know What You Write

For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.

For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.

Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”

I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.

“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.

Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.

Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Write What You Know?

I remember a conversation with my father when I was a kid, about a friend of the family who was trying to make a second career for himself as a writer of fiction. His first novel had come out recently, and having already developed my own passion for writing stories, I was interested to know more about the book. I asked Dad how the book was and he told me, with some regret, because this really was a good friend, that it wasn’t very good. He blamed the book’s failings on the fact that our friend had strayed too far from his own experience in writing it. And then he repeated that age-old admonition for writers, “Write what you know.”

Now anyone who has read my blog entries or social media knows that I loved my dad — to the moon and back, as the children’s book says. I adored him. But I’ve understood for years now that this particular bit of received wisdom — “Write what you know” — is, at best, of questionable value. At worst, it is terribly limiting, particularly for authors of speculative fiction.

Or is it?

Let’s start with the obvious. If we take “write what you know” too literally, we can never write from the point of view of any character who is not like us. We can never set our stories in any world unlike our own. We can never place our characters in situations that we have not lived. Which, if you’re at all like me, leaves you with nothing but really boring stories to tell.

And I fear that my father, who was wonderful and well-meaning, but didn’t know a great deal about what it meant to write creatively, hewed a bit too closely to this limited and limiting interpretation of the old adage. For him, “write what you know” meant exactly that.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.The thing is, we writers do and must “write what we know.” But we understand that “what we know” does not equal “what we have lived.” Writing is all about emotion, about delving into the thoughts and feelings and visceral reactions of our point of view characters. I may not have ever traveled through time (for example), or investigated a murder in pre-Revolutionary Boston, or discovered that I possess supernatural powers and then been pursued by rogue government agents intent on killing my family and making me their weapon. (If you haven’t read Radiants, it’s really time you did.) But even if I haven’t done those things, I have lived the gamut of emotions my characters experience. I have known fear. I have been in love. I adore my children and have been frightened for them. I have been enraged. I have experienced physical pain and illness, exhaustion and hunger, desire and pleasure. I have known joy and confusion and shock, the thrill of ambition realized and the bitter disappointment of expectation thwarted. I can go on, but I think you get my point.The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)

As writers, we tell stories that range through time and place, that mine the very depths of our imaginations, that spin circumstance and situation into plots of complexity and innovation. But we connect with our audience through what our characters feel and experience, and what they, in turn, evoke from those who read their stories.

Put another way, “write what you know” proves to be quite valuable advice if we take it the right way, if we see it not as a limitation on our subject matter, but rather as an exhortation to delve deeper into the emotional and sensory content of our narratives.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)This is a topic to which I intend to return next week and in the weeks to come. Because when we start to think of “write what you know” as an invitation to think more about what our lives, despite their mundanity, have in common with the lives of our characters, we find new ways to enrich our storytelling and world building.

But for today, I leave you with this: The more you incorporate your emotional history into the character work you do, the more relatable your characters are apt to be. And then it won’t matter if they are Qirsi or weremystes, wizards or necromancers, vampires or vampire hunters. Their thoughts and feelings will resonate with your readers. And that, after all, is what we want.

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: 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!