Tag Archives: Joshua Palmatier

Professional Wednesday: A Ton of News, and Organizing My Time

Welcome to my new Wednesday blogging feature, Professional Wednesdays. As some of you may remember, back around Thanksgiving I asked you for advice on the future of my midweek posts. My Writing-Tip Wednesdays were well received throughout 2020, but by the end of the year I was struggling to come up with new advice topics. I became convinced that I couldn’t sustain that old format for another year without repeating myself.

What I suggested in that Thanksgiving week post was a new, related feature — Professional Wednesdays — that would combine a few disparate ideas: a professional journal discussing current projects and struggles and epiphanies; more generalized musings on the market, the craft, and others elements of creative life; a few advice posts, as I think of topics I failed to cover in 2020; and my responses to the storytelling components of books, movies, TV shows, and other artistic endeavors I encounter.

This catch-all idea for the blog received a lot of enthusiastic support from those of you who commented, and so here we are. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing with you all sorts of posts touching on professional issues, creativity, and “behind the scenes” looks at my own works-in-progress as they develop. I hope you enjoy this new approach to my Wednesday posts.

To start off 2021, I would like to share with you some news and how it relates to something I did on New Year’s Day — something I do every New Year’s Day.

Let’s start with the news. 2020 was a fairly quiet year for me professionally (no, THAT’S not news. Be patient…). I was pretty productive, especially given the circumstances, but the year was somewhat light on professional news. Until the very end of the year…

News item number 1: I have signed a contract for a pair of supernatural thrillers, the first of which I expect will be coming out late in 2021. The first book is written, but needs to be revised. The second book is in its conceptual phase. I expect to write it this spring. I am not ready to reveal who will be publishing the books except to say that it is a highly respected small press, a house I’ve wanted to work with for some time. Details to come as soon as the last of the “t”s and “i”s are crossed and dotted.

News item number 2: We have artwork for the Thieftaker novellas, and it now looks like the first of those novellas should be out sometime later this winter. And the artwork? It’s by Chris McGrath. Yep. The same Chris McGrath who did the artwork for all four of the original Thieftaker novels. It is magnificent.

News item number 3: Speaking of the original Thieftaker novels, we have gotten the rights reverted on the third and fourth Thieftakers, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. These are books that came out after my editor debacle at Tor, and as a result neither book ever received the TLC and attention it deserved. Well, Lore Seekers Press has reissued the books, with the original artwork, in ebook format and (forthcoming very soon) in trade paperback. If you have yet to read these novels, this is the time to get them, before the new Thieftaker novellas come out. They are among my favorites of all the novels in any series I’ve ever written. Dead Man’s Reach in particular might well be the best crafted novel I’ve ever done. Check them out. (A word about the links to the books: ONLY the Kindle versions are the reissues. The physical books listed on Amazon right now, are the old ones from Tor. You want to wait for the new trade paperbacks.)

News Item number 4: I will be teaching an online class in epic fantasy AND serving as a main workshop faculty member for the Futurescapes Writing Workshop in March.

News Item number 5: Submissions are now closed for Derelict, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. We received 340 stories for about five open slots, and will be reading stories this month making our final choices for the anthology. Derelict should be out late in the spring or early this summer.

So, yes, I suddenly have a lot going on, and I am so excited. The thing is, though, all of this stuff is happening quickly. The revised first book in the new supernatural thriller series is due March 1. The completed manuscript of the second book is due June 1. The Thieftaker novellas still need some final polishing and proofing. That should happen this month. My talks for Futurescapes need to be ready by early March, and the Derelict submissions need to be read before the end of January.

Which is why I spent part of New Year’s Day with a calendar — a paper wall calendar, something I can hang by my desk and see every day — breaking down week-by-week, at times day-by-day, what I need to do and when in order to meet my various deadlines. As I mentioned earlier, this is something I do at the beginning of every year, although some years it’s more necessary than others. I view New Year’s as a time to organize myself and set goals that are attainable. That last is key. Setting goals and having ambitions is great, but only if we don’t set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Setting too many goals can be overwhelming, especially if we’re unsure of how we’re going to meet them. By mapping out my time, breaking down my tasks into discreet tasks that I can fit into a work calendar, I convince myself that I can do all the things I want to AND I provide myself with a roadmap for success.

I recommend it.

I wish you all a successful and fulfilling 2021.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue Attribution Revisited

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

 

Back in the early spring — it feels like a hundred years ago now — I wrote a pair of Writing-Tip Wednesday posts about dialogue and dialogue attribution. The post about attribution was particularly involved and long, and, to my mind, was one of the best writing advice posts I wrote this whole year.

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

I have just finished writing my short story for the DERELICT anthology, the collection of stories Joshua and I are co-editing for his imprint, Zombies Need Brains. That’s right: I’m editing the anthology (as David B. Coe) and writing a story for it as an anchor author (as D.B. Jackson). The story is set in my Thieftaker universe and it’s titled (for now) “The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr.”

Writing for an anthology I’m also editing is something I’ve done with the other anthologies I’ve edited for ZNB, and each year Joshua has been pleased with my stories, except with regard to my dialogue attribution. He doesn’t like dialogue tags — “he said,” “she asked,” etc. I mean, he really doesn’t like them. And so every year, he goes through my stories and marks a bunch of them that he’d like me to cut.

Fine.

But not this year. This year, with this story, I was determined to preempt his edits. As I said in my post back in April, I am not one of those writers/editors who feels that all writing tags ought to be cut. I believe good dialogue attribution demands a mix of simple attribution, use of mannerism, gesture, and description to indicate who is speaking, and a few lines of straight dialogue with no tags. (I do suggest you go back and read that attribution post from the spring.) But for this story, I tried to use as few tags as possible.

And I found that imposing this limitation improved my storytelling. I really hate it when Joshua is right, so this is hard for me to admit. But it’s the truth. In trying to avoid the use of direct dialogue tags, I had to find other ways to keep clear in my readers’ minds who is speaking at any given time. In part that meant finding different ways to describe what my characters are doing or feeling. That, though, can carry risks. Too much description of that sort can sound clunky, and overuse of character mannerisms can make them seem twitchy.

So, the other thing I did was trust my dialogue more. In effect, I allowed my characters to speak for themselves, and I trusted my reader to be able to follow the course of their interactions. Now, when I say I trusted my reader, I am quoting an old editor of mine who used to say that whenever he thought I was explaining too much. “Trust your reader to understand,” he would scrawl in the margin. And what he really meant was, “Trust yourself. You’ve done the work. You’ve introduced your characters and established your narrative. Trust in that work and stop slowing down to explain stuff.”

“Trust your reader” equals “Trust yourself.”

So with this story, I trusted myself.

Here is a quick sample from the story:

Kannice sat in the chair adjacent to his. “I didn’t expect to see you here so early.”

“I had a good day.”

Her eyes fell to his jaw, which, no doubt, had already begun to darken. Ethan meant to heal himself before entering the tavern.

“Why do all your good days consist of beatings at the hands of Sephira Pryce’s ruffians?”

He grinned, winced. The skin around the bruise felt tight and tender. “In fairness, not all of them do. You and I have passed some very pleasant days without laying eyes on Sephira or her toughs. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

A reluctant smile crept over her features. “You found the gems you were seeking.”

“Aye, and was paid handsomely for their return.”

“And now you have a bit of coin to spend on me?”

“On you, on my rent, on the excellent chowders served here at the Dowsing Rod.”

“Well, I’d like a bit more spent on me.” She pulled from her bodice a folded scrap of paper, and held it out for him. When he reached for it, she pulled it back beyond reach. “Promise me.”

His smile returned. “I promise that all the coin—” He frowned. “Or at least most of the coin I make as a result of whatever you’ve scrawled on that parchment you’re holding, will be spent on you.”

Eyes narrowed, she handed him the paper. He unfolded it and read what was written in her neat, slanted hand.

There is not a single dialogue tag in that exchange. Yet you should have been able to follow the entire conversation, knowing at all times who was speaking, and understanding as well the dynamics at play.

I would suggest that you give this a try as well. Write a scene, or a story, or a chapter, and try not to use a single direct dialogue tag. If you hate the way it comes out, so be it. But you might find, as I did, that it does unexpected things for your prose.

Look, I have not allowed Joshua to lure me to the dark side. I still believe there is a place for dialogue tags in our writing. And I do use a few in the course of this story. Nevertheless, in forcing myself to use as few of them as possible — to avoid “he said,” “she said,” “he asked,” “she asked,” whenever I could — I actually improved the flow of my story and made it more concise.

Which is good, because in spite of this I managed to go over the word limit just a little. I guess Joshua will ding me on that…

Keep writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that in mind…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Goals Revisited Again, End of Year, and NaNo

That is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come.

First let me wish a peaceful, healthful Veterans Day to all who have served. Our deepest thanks to you and your families.

The year is winding down. Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and after that we have the sprint to the winter holidays and New Year’s. For those of us who still have a good deal to get done before the year is out, whether to meet external deadlines or self-imposed ones, time is slipping away at an alarming pace. And in my case, I haven’t been at my best the past several weeks and have not been nearly as productive as I would have liked. All of which leaves me feeling rushed and a little desperate to get stuff done.

Early in the year, I wrote a couple of posts about setting goals for myself. I’m a big believer in doing so, in setting out a professional agenda for my year, or at the very least for a block of months. Often as we near year’s end, I will go back and check on my goals to see how I’ve done. Not this year. This year has been too fraught, too filled with not just the unexpected, but the surreal. The goals I set for myself in January were upended by March. And that’s all right. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I want to be as productive as I can be, and with any luck I’ll get this, and this, and this finished.” That’s the sort of year I’ve had. I did what I could (the month of October excluded…) and I am poised for a productive year in 2021.

And in a sense, for me at least, that is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come. The last several years, this one included, that has meant reading a ton of short fiction for the anthology I’m editing. For the third year in a row, I am co-editor (with Joshua Palmatier) of an upcoming Zombies Need Brains publication. This year’s anthology is called Derelict, and I have only just started reading submissions. These will make up the bulk of my workload through the end of December.

But I’m also finishing up a novel, and thinking about how to write the next one (the third in a trilogy). I am working on the production of the Thieftaker novellas, working out artwork and such with my publisher. I am preparing for the re-issue of the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. And I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind. My goal for these last weeks of 2020, aside from reading as many short fiction submissions as I can, is to plot out that next novel, settle the production questions with the Thieftaker projects, and, I hope, figure out how one other project can fit in with these plans. As I have said, for the last month I’ve been less productive than I should have been. I want to turn that around before the year is out so that next year I can start fast and keep moving.

Which brings me to a question I have been asked many times. Readers want to know what I think of that November literary tradition known as NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this, it is a now two-decades old tradition that sees writers trying to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the month of November. The idea is to get writers to write, to turn off their inner critic and put words to page, with the understanding that they will edit and polish when the month, and the manuscript, are done.

I have never done it. I’ve written 50,000 words in a month on several occasions, but usually these are words in the middle of a longer project. And I’ve been writing for long enough that, when things are going well, 50K a month is about my normal pace.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever written 50K words for more than two months in a row. Usually one such month leaves me feeling a little spent. Writing so much in so little time isn’t easy. At least it isn’t for me. I know fellow professionals who write at that pace or faster all the time. Each of us has a process and a pace that comes naturally. Writing quickly isn’t for everyone. Which is kind of my point.

Look, if you do NaNoWriMo, that’s great. Good for you. I hope you find it satisfying and fun and helpful. I know many writers swear by it. They like the focused work period. They like the challenge. They like to feel that they’re working virtually alongside a community of like-minded writers and making their writing part of something bigger than themselves.

It’s not for me. And if a young writer came to me seeking advice, I would probably tell them not to do it. I would suggest that they focus instead on making of writing a daily or weekly habit, at a pace and under conditions that are sustainable for the long term. It’s not that I doubt November will prove productive for them. It’s that I worry about the effect of that sort of effort on December and January and the months to come. Again, if it works for you, or if it’s something you really want to try, by all means, go for it. Overall, though, being a productive, successful writer is about maintaining a steady pace for months, even years, at a time.

Which is why my year will end with me finishing some projects, laying the groundwork for others, and, of course, reading short story submissions. I will, as I usually do, start working out a task calendar for the coming year, prioritizing projects and allocating time to them. I actually find the process exciting. It’s a chance for me to visualize the coming work year and to imagine where my new projects might take me.

In the meantime, I have stuff to finish up before the ball drops.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Waiting…

[11/4 Edit:I went to bed last night thinking all was doom and gloom. This morning I see rays of hope. This isn’t over, and counting votes doesn’t happen according to ANYONE’S timetable. Hang in there folks. We are living in Interesting Times.]

I am writing this, as I do most of my Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, ahead of time, a couple of days before election day. Naturally, I have no idea what the world will look like Wednesday morning. I am at times deeply afraid; at other times I’m hopeful, even confident.

Whatever happens, though, I know that I will soon need to get back into my work rhythm. For so long, I have been too distracted to concentrate on my writing. I have forgiven myself for lost days and low word counts and procrastination. I haven’t even started to read through the submissions for Derelict, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The deadline is still more than eight weeks away, but already the submissions are piling up. It’s time for me to start reading through them.

I have a novel to finish, and projects that need shepherding toward release. I have stuff to do, and I am sick to death of being trapped in my own head, debilitated by my anxiety, obsessed with things I can’t control.

More, I remain uncertain as to how I will deal with these tasks and projects going forward. That comes, I suppose, from still being in the dark about how events will unfold.

But I know that one way or another, I have work to do. If the worst happens on Tuesday, I will still wake up Wednesday a writer and editor with stuff to get done. As I said in Monday’s post, this week will be one of brief, inadequate posts. A week from now, I hope to be able to tell you much more about where I am and what I’m doing to close out this year.

Until then, if you can, keep writing.

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

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

Hence today’s post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Monday Musings: Learning to be an Editor

I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I am coediting an anthology, Galactic Stew, with my friend Joshua Palmatier. (The anthology will be out from Zombies Need Brains this summer.)

Joshua and I are done reading slush for the anthology and have selected those stories that will appear in the collection. Now we are on to the actual editing of the individual stories. I’m still relatively new to editing. Stew will be my second anthology, after last year’s Temporally Deactivated (also from Zombies Need Brains, also coedited with Joshua). I am still learning about the process, still gaining confidence in myself. Over the years, I have become pretty good at editing my own work (though NEVER to the exclusion of having outside editors), but editing the work of others is different, and challenging in unique ways.

The edits Joshua and I do on these stories is a combination of developmental editing and line editing. For those unfamiliar with the terms, a brief pair of definitions: Developmental editing focuses on improving story elements and larger narrative issues. Edits of this sort address structure, pacing, character arc, and a host of other matters relating to storytelling. Line edits, on the other hand, deal with issues of prose, syntax, concision, clarity, word choice, etc. It is, in a way, smaller in scope than developmental editing, though it is no less important to the ultimate success of the story.

For me, as a newcomer to editing, the challenge of both line editing and developmental editing does not lie in spotting the things that need fixing. I’m pretty good at diagnosing both narrative trouble spots and problematic wording. Over the years, I’ve had tons of practice, having found plenty of both in my own work.

Rather, the hardest part of editing for me has been trying to help authors fix problems in their stories while preserving their intent and their voice. The best editors I’ve worked with over the course of my writing career are those who help me make my work as strong as possible without making it any less my work. Identifying problems remains roughly the same, whether the issues are in my stories or the stories of others. Sure, it’s possible that a “problem” I see in another author’s fiction might be something they intended to do. The fact is, though, if it doesn’t work, it still needs to be fixed.

And that’s the hard part: coming up with solutions that remain true to the author’s overall intent, finding alternate wording that will fit seamlessly with the author’s style and approach, suggesting changes and fixes that make the story, as conceived, as good as it can be.

I’m still learning to do this well. It takes practice. It demands that I ask myself again and again if the change I’m suggesting is in keeping with the author’s vision and intent. The author-editor relationship is built on trust, and, speaking now as an author, I can say with confidence that nothing undermines that trust faster than the sense that the editor’s comments are making my story into something I don’t want it to be.

Receiving editorial feedback is always hard. As I’ve said before, just once I would love for an editor to come back to me with one of my manuscripts and say, “David this is perfect; don’t change a word.” But that’s never going to happen. I have never seen a perfect published book, much less a perfect manuscript. I’ve certainly never written either. Let’s be frank: It sucks having the flaws of our creative efforts pointed out to us. That, though, is the job of an editor. They/we don’t identify problems to be cruel, or to show how smart we are, or to engage in one-upmanship.

They/we do it to help authors realize the fullest potential of their stories and books. That may sound trite, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s true. And early in what I hope will be my continuing growth as an editor, I am learning to do this.

Wishing you all a great week.

Writing Tip Wednesday: The Nature of Conflict

When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.

One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.

Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.

I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.

And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.

Right? Right.

Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.

And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.

Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.

The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”

No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Submissions

Welcome to the first of my 2020 Writing Tip Wednesdays (name still very much negotiable…). Every Wednesday, I intend to post a tip for writers about some element of the craft or business of writing. I don’t really have in mind any long-term structure for this feature – at least to begin with. I’ll probably be ranging somewhat randomly from one topic to the next. And I will be soliciting your input on what you’d like to hear about in these Wednesday posts.

For this week, though, I am thinking about short fiction, mostly because I am reading stories for the Zombies Need Brains anthology, Galactic Stew, which I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. In particular, I am thinking about the way in which stories ought to be submitted to editors for consideration, in terms of both appearance and content. Bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.

Let me begin with this: Joshua and I received 409 submissions for this anthology. Our plan is to accept six stories (the other eight in the anthology are to be written by our anchor authors). Again, six stories will be selected from 409. Think about that for a moment. It is harder to get into our anthology than it is for a high school senior to get into Harvard. And so you want to give your story the very best chance of being selected, and that means a couple of things. Yes, naturally you want to write the best story you can. But you also don’t want to disadvantage your entry by failing to follow our submission guidelines or by presenting your work in a manner that is less than professional. So with that in mind, a few tips:

1) Follow the submission guidelines. If you have been to a convention I’m attending, you’ve probably heard me say this before, because it’s that important. Every anthology, every magazine (paper or online), every publishing house, every representational agency – EVERY market – has guidelines. Your job as writer is find them and follow them to the letter. Do not assume that the guidelines for one market apply to all. Chances are they don’t. ALWAYS check the guidelines. Always follow them. If by some chance you find the one market in the world that doesn’t have guidelines, then I recommend that at the very least you follow standard manuscript format: one inch margins all around: 12 point font, preferably Times New Roman; double-spacing; indenting at the beginning of each paragraph; headers containing page number, your last name, and the title of the story; .doc or .docx format (NOT .pdf). These are basics; they should be second nature. This is how professionals present their work.

2) Word count matters. In part this means that if we say “no longer than 7,500 words,” you probably shouldn’t send us a 9,000 word story, even if it is the greatest piece of short fiction since “The Lottery.” But it also means think about how long your story should be at minimum. Many sites will help with this, offering a word range, or, as with the Zombies Need Brains site, specifying an average length of story (in this case, 6,000). Still, even without such information, the upper word count limit should give some indication of desired length. If a market says they want stories no longer than, for instance, 7,500 words, that is likely an indication that they are not looking for flash fiction. Often publishers are trying to produce something (a book or magazine issue) of a certain length, and so they might well have in mind a page count, a word count, an approximate size for the project. For this reason, unless markets specifically ask for flash fiction, or very brief pieces of short fiction, a story that is only 500 or 1000 words long, probably is not going to make the cut.

3) Theme matters. Sometimes. Not all anthologies are themed. Sometimes editors are simply looking for the best stories they can find. At other times (as with the Zombies Need Brains anthologies) theme is everything. For anthologies like these, you want your stories to embrace the stated theme fully. It is usually not enough simply to have a passing mention of, say, food (the theme for Galactic Stew); it needs to be the focus of the story. To give a theme-appropriate analogy, it’s like on a cooking show, when the host tells you it’s not enough simply to use your basket ingredients. Rather you need to make those ingredients the star of whatever dish you’re making. In the same way, the theme should be central to your story.

4) When working with a theme, your first story idea might not be your best idea. This bit of advice I borrow from my co-editor, Joshua Palmatier, who offered it during a panel we shared at RoberCon in Binghamton back in September. This tidbit works on a number of levels: To begin, quite often, the first idea you come up with as you grapple with a theme is going to be the most obvious idea, not only to you, but to everyone who intends to submit. So, again using the food anthology as an example, if you write about, say, poisoning (which is actually an approach we urged people to avoid, but stick with me for the purposes of the example), it’s possible – likely even – that your story will be competing against dozens of poisoning stories. Yes, yours might be the best of them, but chances are we’re only going to take one, so you’re potentially putting yourself at a disadvantage. But also, don’t settle for the first idea works in a deeper way. Sometimes the most obvious idea is also the least interesting. The best stories we’ve seen have been those that surprise us, despite the fact that we’ve read literally hundreds of offerings. The more you think, the more you delve into the possibilities presented by the theme, the greater the chance that you’re going to discover something truly creative and unique. And that, after all, is your goal.

5) And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if your story isn’t accepted. Did I mention that we received 409 submissions? These days, with so many people hoping to publish and so few markets available, editors and agents everywhere are inundated with stories (or manuscripts, or queries). It’s a tough market, and rejection, while painful, is not the same as judgment. A rejection does not mean your story sucks. It means that for this market, at this moment, the story is not what the editors or publishers or agents are looking for. And that’s ALL it means. The story might well be perfect for the next market to which you submit. Keep trying. If, after a while, the story still hasn’t sold, try another story, and maybe share this one with Beta readers who can offer constructive feedback. But do not freak out, and do not lose hope or get down on yourself. As I have said before, rejection is not the final word; it is simply a step in a long-term negotiation.

Best of luck to all of you. Keep writing!

TIME’S DEMON Blog Tour, So Far

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time’s Demon, the second volume in The Islevale Cycle, my time travel/epic fantasy series (written as D.B. Jackson), came out last week. The reviews have been very nice, with SFFWorld saying that the book is “about as perfect a second book in a series as a reader could hope to have.” I have been blogging about the book a lot, and thought I would take advantage of this small lull in the blog tour to give you a review of where I have been so far. Below you will find a list of my appearances to date for the release. As I make more stops on the tour, I will alert you to those as well. In the meantime, I hope you will take a few moments to check out these posts and interviews. Thanks, and enjoy!

*****

Black Gate Magazine, a post about my writing inspirations

[Earlier in May, I wrote for Black Gate a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago. And Black Gate also published a “Future Treasures” preview of Time’s Demon.]

PaulSemel.com, an interview with Paul

My Life, My Books, My Escape, an interview with D.J.

Civilian Reader, a post about the challenge of middle books

A Refuge From Life, an interview with Will

Joshua Palmatier’s blog, a post about imposter syndrome

Stephen Leigh’s blog, a post about plotting or not plotting

Marie Brennan’s blog, a post in her Spark of Life feature

Faith Hunter’s blog, an excerpt from Time’s Demon

Alma Alexander’s blog, an interview with Alma