Tag Archives: John Hartness

Monday Musings: Additional Thoughts On Writing and Teaching

After a wonderful weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Workshop (kudos to Lauran Strait and all those who helped her make the conference such a success), I am reminded again of why I love to teach writing, to talk about craft and the business in such a setting.

As with so many things in the literary world and publishing business, no one is going to get wealthy teaching at writing workshops. Don’t get me wrong: Those of us listed as presenters for the event were housed, fed, and paid honoraria for our time. The conference charges its attendees a reasonable amount for all that they offer, and they do not in any way take advantage of their instructors. But I can also tell you that I worked hard on my talks beforehand, preparing them with care so that my presentations would take full advantage of the time I was allotted. I know for certain that my fellow presenters did the same. And then we spent the weekend giving our talks and speaking formally and informally with the conference attendees. If we were to take the time to calculate what we earned for all our work on a per hour basis . . . Well, let’s not go there.

In this way, as I mentioned, writing workshops are a lot like other elements of professional writing. If I were to figure my novel writing earnings on a per hour or per word basis, if I were to do the same with my editing work— But no. That way lies madness.

The greater point is that the vast majority of us who write DON’T think in those terms. Because while we do get paid, and we would, all of us, love to earn more as writers than we do, we don’t do it for the money. We do it for the love of the written word.

And so it follows that I don’t teach at writing conferences for the money, though it is nice to be paid, and shown in that small way that our time and effort and expertise are valued, I teach writing because I love to talk with fellow writing professionals and those who hope to be professionals at some point, about what we do. Edmund R. Schubert, my dear friend and colleague, gave a terrific keynote address at Hampton Roads and he expressed this idea so well. He compared it to churchgoers who speak of being spiritually fed (or not) by a sermon or sanctuary service. And he quoted a pastor who said that if one goes to church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) just looking to be fed, without looking for ways to feed others, they are missing the point.

I go to writing conferences hoping that my talks will “feed” those who listen, creatively, intellectually, professionally. But I also go to them because I know that the give-and-take of a writing session will feed me in turn. I will come away inspired, filled with a deeper appreciation and understanding of my craft. As I did this past weekend at Hampton Roads.

My time with Edmund and also John Hartness, who was there as well, as a presenter and book dealer, fed my need to hang with old friends who share my passion for and frustration with this crazy business. My conversations with fellow presenters I hadn’t known before this weekend offered me new perspectives on the writing industry and new friends who I look forward to seeing again at future events. And my interaction with the attending students, a diverse group who varied widely in age, writing level, life experience, and creative aspiration, filled me with renewed enthusiasm for the ongoing “conversation” in which all storytellers engage.

Yes, in recent posts I have lamented the state of the literary market. But writing is not going away. Storytelling is not going away. One need only experience first-hand the passion of these up-and-coming writers, who are not doing it for the money, who are struggling and working and honing their craft without having yet earned much of anything from their creative endeavors, to know that the future of our craft is not about the troubles in New York publishing. It is about the next generation of writers and their collective voice. And the generation after that one. And so on.

The publishing behemoths in New York can change, or at least make the attempt. They can cut advances, and shake up their staffs, and look to the mammoth booksellers with trepidation, wondering what their next pronouncement might mean for the bottom line. But readers still want a great story. Small booksellers still market books because they love literature. Small presses still publish great stories knowing that they are putting something positive and powerful into the world, even if their profit margins are, well, marginal. And writers of all levels still write the tales that burn in their hearts, and give voice to the characters they encounter in their ever-active imaginations.

Storytelling lives. The conversation continues.

Have a great week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Crutch Words — Finding Them and Limiting Them

Last week, John Hartness, my good friend and the owner and editor at Falstaff Books, posted on Facebook about something he was seeing while editing manuscripts. Many of his writers were starting too many lines of dialogue with, “So…” As John said in the post, “We do this in real life, and it does sounds realistic, but most of us (myself 100% included) are using it too often, and it doesn’t work as well on the page as it does in real live conversation.”

What I found especially interesting about John’s post was the response to it. Writer after writer (including me) confessed to relying on all sorts of repeating words and phrases — what we in the industry call “crutch words.”

I use “So…” a bit, though not that much. On the other hand, lately my editors and I have noticed that I start way too many lines of dialogue with “Well…” As with “So…” it is something lots of us do in actual conversations, but on the page it becomes intrusive and repetitive.

I have lots of other crutch words, too, but honestly I’m reluctant to share them with you, because I don’t want you looking for them while reading my books and stories. Once you start doing this, it can totally ruin a work of fiction for you.

Suffice it to say, all of us have verbal tics that show up in our prose — words we overuse, approaches to dialogue that occur again and again, mannerisms we give to our characters that repeat themselves throughout our stories. Sometimes they are the result of habit. I know that in my case they often are a product of laziness — I need a gesture or a spoken word, and rather than pausing to come up with something different and unexpected, I throw in a standby. Moreover, even as we work to eliminate some crutches from our writing vocabularies, new ones creep in. (For me, “Well…” didn’t used to be a problem, and I’m not entirely sure when it showed up.)

So how do we deal with this issue?

First, understand that this doesn’t make you a bad writer. All writers from beginners to seasoned professionals grapple with crutch words. Don’t let yours undermine your confidence.

The key, of course, is to identify your wording habits and control them. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. When you ask people to read your manuscripts, by all means ask them to look for plotting problems, and character inconsistencies, and all the other narrative problems we writers sometimes face. But also ask them to keep an eye out for overused words and phrases. If and when they find some, start a list and keep that list around for future projects.

If you don’t have Beta readers, or don’t want to wait for outside feedback, try reading your books and stories aloud. This is one of those problems that we can gloss over all too easily when reading through a manuscript. But if we read the work out loud, and thus hear the story as well as see it, we are more likely to recognize those annoying repetitions. Again, as we find them, we should add them to our list.

Once we start to develop a bank of overused words, we can use the search function in our word processing software to find all instances of a given word or phrase and look for ways to replace some of the offending passages with something else. Remember, you don’t need to eliminate every “So…” occurrence (or whatever crutch you happen to be looking for at a particular time). The idea is to use the word/phrase in moderation.

How many instances is too many? A good question, and the truth is I don’t have a great answer. I might use as a yardstick one of my completed books, one I believe is well-written, polished, and relatively free of crutch words. If the new book has way more “Well…”s (for instance) than that old one, I assume there’s a problem and I try to fix it. If the numbers in the new book are about the same as, or lower than, the older yardstick, I move on to the next crutch. I will confess that my running list of crutch words/phrases has probably 50 entries. Maybe more. Some I’ve managed to control and eliminate as problems. Others, not so much. And, as I said before, I’m always adding new ones.

Finally, keep in mind that most readers don’t notice our crutches nearly as much as we do, or as a good editor might. Chances are one or two verbal mannerisms are going to sneak by our attempts to limit them and will wind up in the published version of our book. Don’t worry too much about that. Make sure the word is on your list, so you can address the issue in subsequent manuscripts, and then move on.

So, best of luck.

Well, 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.