Tag Archives: narrative

Professional Wednesday: Why Fantasy, Why Magic?

My oldest brother, Bill, who we lost several years ago, was an avid reader. He loved books of all sorts. Every year, he made a list of the National Book Award nominees — finalists and books on the long list — and read them all. He read fiction and non-fiction, his interests as reflected in the latter ranging from baseball to natural history to military history. He was a poet in his own right, and he revered literature of every stripe.

And yet . . .

He was always quite proud of my career, and he had a shelf among his many book cases that he reserved for my novels. But he felt on some level that I was wasting my ability by writing fantasy. Many times over the years, he suggested I try my hand at writing so-called literary fiction. Every time he did, I cringed just a little.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)The bias against genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Westerns, romance, etc.) among those who consider themselves devotees of “true” literature, is something I have encountered again and again throughout my career. Not surprisingly, I don’t believe it has any basis in reality. Fantasy (to address my speciality) like literary fiction, runs the gamut in terms of quality. One can find in all literary fields examples of brilliance and also of mediocrity. No genre has a monopoly on either. I write fantasy because I enjoy it, because I love to imbue my stories with magic, with phenomena I don’t encounter in my everyday life. I wasn’t shunted to this genre because I wasn’t good enough to write the other stuff. I don’t hide in my genre because I fear I can’t cut it in the world of “real” literature.

I said before that I cringed whenever my brother raised the issue with me. I also told him in no uncertain terms that I was writing what I enjoyed, and enjoying what I wrote, which remains true to this day. Writing fantasy demands that I create coherent, convincing magic systems. Often it requires the creation of entire alternate worlds, complete with their own histories and cultures, politics and religions, economies and social structures. These are not distractions from the fundamental elements of narrative — character development, plotting, pacing, clear and flowing prose, etc. Quite the contrary. These fantastical elements enhance those fundamentals and present unique and rewarding challenges.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.It’s not enough to create my worlds and magic systems. I have to explain them to my readers in a manner that is entirely natural and unobtrusive. And — my own preference — I also have to complete my stories and my character arcs in ways that utilize my fantasy elements without allowing them to take over my story telling. My heroes may possess magic, but in the end, I will always choose to have them prevail by drawing upon their native human qualities — their courage and resolve, their intelligence and creativity, their devotion to the people and places they love. Magic sets them apart and makes them interesting. It is often the hook the draws readers to my books. But those human attributes — those are the ones my real-world readers relate to. They form the bond between my readers and my characters. And so if those are the qualities that allow my characters to prevail in the end, then their triumphs will feel more personal and rewarding to my readers. It is the simplest sort of literary math.

I believe part of the bias against genre fiction is based in the erroneous belief that the trappings of these literary types — magic, imagined technology, romantic tension and conflict, the ticking clock of a murder investigation — somehow serve as substitutes for character development and good writing fundamentals. In truth, they are complements to solid narrative work. Genre fiction, when well done, has all that extra stuff we love AND great story telling.

I expect I am preaching to the choir a bit with this post. That’s okay. It’s not just those of us who write genre fiction who have to put up with the biases of others. Readers of our genres deal with the same sort of prejudices all the time. Fine. Those other people don’t know what they’re missing.

Plus, their book jackets aren’t nearly as cool as ours.

Keep writing. Keep reading.

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!

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

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

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

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

Let me start this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Placing Your Inciting Moment In the Right Spot

Generally speaking, writers — from beginners to professionals — know what it means to have an inciting moment for our stories. The inciting moment is the occurrence that sets in motion all the events that constitute our narrative — Luke Skywalker’s purchase of two droids from the junk hauler on Tatooine; the unannounced arrival of dwarves at Bilbo Baggins’ otherwise peaceful and respectable home in the Shire; the chance meeting at a masquerade of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from feuding families.

The inciting moment is not necessarily the beginning of conflict. Rebels have been battling the Galactic Empire for ages before Luke takes R2D2 to his uncle’s farm. Others have tried and failed to steal Smaug’s treasure before Gandalf employs Bilbo as a thief. And the Capulets and Montagues have hated each other for generations. Incitement is more than a beginning. It is the moment when a grander story meets our protagonist(s).

There is nothing revelatory in what I’m saying here. You’ve heard versions of it before. I have chosen to focus this week’s post on it, though, because while most of us understand inciting events, and can even identify them in the works of others, we often have trouble choosing exactly where to place them in our own work. And yes, I speak from personal experience.

I am in the process of plotting the second book in my new supernatural thriller series. I know what needs to happen, and I even know what the inciting moment looks like. I’m struggling, though, to get there, to figure out where to begin the story so that we arrive at that event both quickly enough and slowly enough. Weird, right? But here’s the thing: I want my inciting moment to hook the reader, but I also want it to happen naturally enough that the reader understands the stakes and already cares about my protagonist.

With the first book in the series, the inciting moment presented itself clearly and with perfect timing. Other moments in the narrative gave me some trouble, but not this one. The idea for the series and that first book came to me with the incitement fully formed. This second novel focuses on different characters and has a more complex plot. Hence some of the trouble I’m having.

But the truth is, lots of writers struggle to begin their stories — short fiction or novel-length — at precisely the correct moment. In editing anthologies, I have noticed again and again that writers of every experience level can miss the mark now and then. The most common error is to begin too early, giving readers far more lead-in than they need to acclimate themselves to the story background, characters, and setting. And that’s all right. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “You know, you could begin this story here, on page 3 [for example] and cut or greatly condense everything that has come before.”

Less frequently, authors will begin their stories too late in the narrative arc’s development. I actually believe this is a professional’s mistake. There is a golf truism, that professional golfers miss putts long, and novices miss them short. Novices are afraid to be aggressive and so leave their putts shy of the hole, while pros understand that a firm putt has a much better chance of going in; usually when they miss the ball winds up past the hole. In the same way, beginning writers are sometimes afraid of giving their readers too little information, and so they often start their stories way earlier than they need to. Professionals aren’t afraid to withhold a bit of information early on, understanding that keeping readers in a constant state of discovery is a great way to keep them engaged. As I say, though, occasionally this leads pros to start things a little too late in the arc.

This, then, is the dilemma I’m grappling with now. I know better than to give my readers too much information early on, but I don’t want to give them too little by rushing my inciting moment. I have no doubt that I’ll figure this out — even now, I feel like I’m circling in on the right solution. But with this new novel on my mind, and recent edits of stories that faced both problems fresh in my memory, I thought I would address the issue here.

So how do we time our inciting moments for maximum effect? That is a good question with, I am afraid, no easy, formulaic answer. The best response I can offer is this:

It should come early — chapter 1 if at all possible — but it doesn’t need to be on the first page or even the first five. We do not need to explain everything to our readers before the inciting event occurs. I cannot stress that enough. Go back to the examples I offered up front — Star Wars, The Hobbit, Romeo and Juliet. We as readers/audience still had plenty to learn after the inciting events. We knew the bare outlines of the underlying conflicts (far less than that, actually, in The Hobbit), but we didn’t have the all the details we would need to understand the rest of the story. And that’s as it should be. On the other hand, by the time the inciting event occurs, we want our readers to care — about our world and the people in it. We want them to have formed some attachment to our lead character. We want them to have some small stake in the events we’re setting in motion.

Yeah, I know: That’s pretty vague. The truth is, locating the inciting events in our stories takes practice and experience. Sometimes it takes some guesswork. But the good thing is, Beta readers and editors can help us fine-tune the timing.

And now, I am going to get back to the opening of my new novel. I’ll keep you informed as I make progress, and I am sure I will encounter other challenges that inspire additional posts.

Until then, keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

Early in the year — even before the pandemic hit — I wrote a post in which I basically said that all writers should read. There are certain “rules” about the profession that are actually negotiable — writers don’t really HAVE to write every day; we don’t HAVE to outline our books to be successful; some people like to write to music while others need absolute silence.

The reading thing, however, as I said at the time, is about as close to an ironclad rule as I can think of. If we want to learn the tropes of whatever genre we write in, we have to read. If we want to learn the craft of storytelling, and continue to hone that skill over a lifetime, we have to read. If we want to be informed and culturally literate citizens of the world, we have to read.

But what should we read? As an author with many friends in the business, I find that making recommendations can be tricky. I don’t wish to insult any of my colleagues with sins of omission. But there are certain books that I have read and not only enjoyed, but learned from. That’s what I’m after in this post. The following books have taught me something about narrative, about conveying story and emotion, about crafting prose. There are some unusual, even quirky, choices here. That comes with the prerogative of writing on my own blog. I hope you find this list helpful, informative, even inspirational.

In no particular order…

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Okay, for starters, it’s just a great book and the start of a remarkable series, a deserving winner of the Hugo (which was actually awarded to all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy). Her plotting is fabulous, her use of point of view innovative and striking. Jemisin has since been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. So, yeah, she basically rocks.

Slow River, by Nicola Griffith. This is an older novel, the 1996 winner of both the Nebula Award and the Lambda Literary Award. It’s a great story, and it makes use of point of view and voice so beautifully that I have used it for teaching on several occasions. Basically she uses three different voices for a single character, each representing different moments in her life. Brilliant.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is probably my favorite fantasy writer, and in recent years he has become a good friend, so I’m bending my own rule here, including the work of someone I know well. But I was a fanboy way before we became friends, so… He does a lot of things very well in all his books, but the world building in this particular book is breathtaking. He borrows extensively from history — he does in most of his books — but he also constructs his worlds with the care and skill of a watchmaker.

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin. The entire Earthsea Trilogy is one of my all-time favorite works of fiction, but this first volume especially is masterful. It’s a relatively short work, and originally received less attention than it deserved because it was classified, somewhat patronizingly, as “children’s literature.” The worldbuilding is gorgeous, the storytelling simultaneously spare and rich, the prose understated but flawless. Even if you’ve read it, give it another look

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. The first of a couple of non-genre novels. Stegner was not only a terrific writer, but also a passionate, outspoken environmentalist and a chronicler, through his fiction, of the development of the American West. In 1972, Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a master class in narrative. He basically tells two stories at once, one set in the present, one in the past. He blends them beautifully. And his prose is golden.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. Another exquisitely written novel of the American West. Kingsolver weaves together multiple narratives and employs several different points of view to tell her tale. It’s moving, sad, uplifting. Actually, writing about it makes me want to read it again…

Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, and then adapted the novel for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. He wrote Marathon Man, and then adapted it to the screen. And he wrote or adapted scripts for about twenty other movies you’ve heard of. In 1983, he published Adventures, which is part tell-all, part how-to. You don’t have to be an aspiring screen writer to learn from it. It is a treatise on creativity and the business of creation. It’s also entertaining as hell.

Five Seasons, by Roger Angell. Okay, this is, admittedly, a VERY quirky choice, but bear with me. Roger Angell, who recently turned 100 years old, is quite possibly the greatest baseball writer who has ever lived. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker from the 1960s through the first decade of this millennium. He has several collections of baseball essays, and Five Seasons is my personal favorite. But if you’re a baseball fan, you can’t go wrong with any of them — The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around the Park, Game Time. They’re all amazing. His descriptions of the game and the people he encounters are strikingly original and incredibly evocative. Even if you DON’T like baseball, you could learn from his work.

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Back to genre stuff for a moment. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, and it deserved them, along with every other honor it received. Terrific storytelling, powerful prose, mind-bending world building. This is the whole package.

Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short fiction. Another quirky choice. Hawthorne is, I believe, one of the more underrated of American writers. He was writing speculative fiction a century before anyone knew what the hell that was. His stories are haunting, strange, and memorable. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” might be my favorite short story. By anyone. Ever.

And with that, I’ll end.

Except to say, as I did back in February, that to be a writer is, by necessity, to be a reader as well. That is one of the joys what we do.

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

I have written about the holidays a good deal in the past few weeks, but I have yet to address holidays as a topic in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post.

Now, you’re first response to this might be, “Well, why would you?”

And my answer? “World building.”

Think about the holidays that mark our calendars. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur — these are events that reveal much about our faiths, about the histories and traditions of the religions that guide the lives of so many. Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day — these holidays carry meaning for our secular history, showing who and what we as a culture and society value year after year. Even Halloween and Groundhog Day, which are not holidays in any real sense of the word, offer glimpses into a pagan past that a small but significant part of our population still honors with celebrations marking Beltane, Samhain, Candlemas, the Solstices and Equinoxes.

Every culture and country has its special days, and every one of those special days comes with a story. Which is why the worlds we create for our novels and short fiction also need to have annual observances. Celebrations of this sort are something people do. They are one way of perpetuating the social norms and cultural touchstones that create communal identity. Holidays at their core, are all about story, about history and faith and tradition. And, as it happens, world building is about precisely the same things.

Seeds of Betrayal, by David B. Coe Weavers of War, by David B. CoeFor the Winds of the Forelands series (Rules of Ascension, Seeds of Betrayal, Bonds of Vengeance, Shapers of Darkness, Weavers of War) , I created what is without a doubt the most complex “calendar” I’ve ever undertaken for any project. For those of you not familiar with the world, I’ll give a very brief description. The world has two moons, Ilias and Panya, the Lovers, who chase each other across the sky. Each turn (month) has one night when both moons are full (the Night of Two Moons) and one night when both moons are dark (Pitch Night). Each turn is also named for a god or goddess, and so each Night of Two Moons and each Pitch Night has a special meaning.

For example, Adriel’s Turn (roughly equivalent to our May), is named for the goddess of fertility. According to lore, a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in her turn will last forever. A love consummated on Pitch Night will end in betrayal. Kebb’s Turn (roughly October) is named for the god of the hunt. People believe a successful hunt on the Night of Two Moons presages good hunting throughout the cold turns. Meat from a beast killed on Pitch Night is considered cursed and cannot be eaten. Each turn has similar legends, or in some cases actual phenomena: Pitch Night in Morna’s Turn (named for the goddess of thunder) is always a night of violent storms. The first killing frost in the Forelands almost always arrives on Pitch Night in Sivan’s Turn. Several Nights of Two Moons and several Pitch Nights are observed with prayer and/or gift giving.

These beliefs and traditions make for a much richer, more believable world. If my characters were to traipse through their year without any sort of holidays or occasions, readers might still be drawn in by the rest of my storytelling, but the world would feel flat, and far less interesting.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I did something similar for the Islevale Cycle novels (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, Time’s Assassin). In this world there are two primary deities, Kheraya (female) and Sipar (male), and the calendar is structured around them. It begins with the spring equinox — Kheraya’s Emergence, a day and night of enhanced magickal power and sensuality. The spring months are known as Kheraya’s Stirring, Kheraya’s Waking, Kheraya’s Ascent. The summer solstice is called Kheraya Ascendent, a day of feasts, celebration, and gift-giving. This is followed by the hot months of summer: Kheraya’s Descent, Fading, and Settling.

Sipar’s Emergence coincides with the autumn equinox, the pivot of the year, another day and night of sensuality and enhanced power. And then the pattern of the first half of the year repeats itself — Sipar’s Stirring, Sipar’s Waking, Sipar’s Ascent. These cooler months culminate in the solstice, called Sipar Ascendent, a day of fasting and contemplation. Finally, the year ends with the winter months: his Descent, Fading, and Settling.

In part, of course, I need a calendar for my worlds in order to organize my story. The Forelands books were sprawling and complex, with multiple narrative threads and point of view characters. I had to have a detailed calendar that allowed me to track all the stories and people. And with the Islevale books, which added time travel to the mix, I REALLY needed to know where and when I was in every chapter and on every page.

But my creative work on these calendars went far beyond what I would have required had I simply been interested in a utilitarian time structure. I wanted something that would enhance my storytelling, that would give my readers insights into these worlds and the people who inhabit them. Yes, they’re complex. That’s the fun part! That’s what made this element of my world building so exciting for me.

So as you think about the worlds you’re building, consider not only geography and climate, history and religion, weaponry and food. Think about holidays as well. Create a calendar that is completely endemic to your world. And then show your readers glimpses of it. You don’t have to let them see every detail. Likely that would be too much. It would drown out your story. Give your readers just enough to hint at all the great work you’ve done in the background. And take pride in knowing that you have taken one more step toward crafting a fully realized, intricate, living, breathing world.

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: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

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: How To Handle Profanity In Your Writing

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

It’s a Western, the creative child of the brilliant David Milch. It’s violent, brutally realistic, and absolutely the most profane thing I have ever watched, with the possible exception of the Academy Award-winning movie The Departed, (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan).

I would challenge anyone watching Deadwood to record a full minute of dialogue in any episode that does not include an f-bomb, or some other curse. Over the three full seasons the series ran I suppose it’s possible that a “clean” minute exists somewhere. I would be hard-pressed to find it. As you might expect, some viewers are put off by the profanity. Check out online reviews of the series and you’ll find lots of people who want nothing to do with it because of all the cursing, and plenty of others who recognize the excellence of the characters, the imagery, the plotting, but lament the explicit language.

And then there are viewers like me. I LOVE the profanity. I find it poetic, and I felt the same way about The Departed. I believe there is an art to writing works that depend so heavily on strong language. While some may dismiss the profanity in Deadwood or The Departed as gratuitous, I don’t believe it is. I have seen and read other works that DID have gratuitous profanity, and you can tell the difference. For my part, I have never tried to write something with this much strong language, but neither have I shied away from using curses in my writing.

Every author has their threshold for explicit language, just as every author has their threshold for violent and sexual content. Friends of mine pretty much refuse to use any profanity at all. Others throw in a ton. Either approach is fine, so long as the author can make it work. But authors should also understand that, as with sex and violence, they also have to be aware of the predilections of editors and publishers.

The default in publishing these days is that profanity is accepted. Publishers or short fiction markets that DON’T accept manuscripts with curse words in them will generally say so in their guidelines. And, of course, we all know we’re supposed to read and follow the guidelines before submitting any work anywhere, right? Right. At one time, YA markets were assumed to be profanity free, but that rule is less strict now. Still take extra care when submitting to YA markets and understand that while mild swearing might be accepted, stronger language, including f-bombs, might not be. Works aimed at middle grade readers and younger audiences should be entirely clean.

Beyond that, the key things to remember include the following:

1) Profanity for its own sake is not good writing. I generally avoid blanket statements like this one, but in this case it seems appropriate. Just as sex and violence for their own sake, without any narrative or character-related justification, can ruin a book or story, so can pointless swearing. When is profanity justified and how much of it should you use? That will vary from author to author, story to story, even scene to scene. Only you can decide what’s right. But as with things like gore or erotic content, you need to consider your audience AND the characters you’ve created, and then decide what is appropriate for both. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. I have been working on a trunk novel recently that includes what is far and away the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever written. But the sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book. I didn’t write it this way for a cheap thrill. I had a narrative purpose in mind. And that, I believe, should be the test for profanity as well.

2) Your setting also must be a factor in how you handle profanity. As D.B. Jackson, I write the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Throwing in a bunch of f-bombs to a Colonial setting simply would not work. No one would believe it – excessive profanity would yank my readers right out of my world, which I don’t want. I have also written several epic fantasy series set in alternate fantasy worlds. Some of these do have a bit of strong language, but only in contexts that feel appropriate to the world. To my mind, having a foul-mouthed character in most of my fantasy novels would feel wrong; it would seem too much like OUR world instead of my characters’ world. I know of some authors who deal with this by creating their own profanities for their fantasy worlds. They can then have foul-mouthed characters without offending readers or risking too much of a “real-world” feel to their books. I think that is a brilliant and elegant solution.

3) Finally, remember that despite extreme examples like Deadwood and The Departed, a little bit of profanity can go a long way. Think about it the way you might think of hot pepper in your cooking. Yes, there are some dishes that are meant to be REALLY spicy, and you might love dishes like that. For the most part, though, REALLY spicy appeals only to certain palettes. Most people like some heat in their food, but not so much that their eyes water. Profanity is much the same. Masterful writers can get away with extreme language. They can preserve the other flavors in spite of the “spice.” For most of us, a softer touch is often the better approach. Our audiences will likely be more comfortable with the occasional f-bomb and other curses, but not with page after page after page of strong language.

Put another way, you don’t have to be Puritanical, but you don’t have to be fucking rude, either.

Keep writing.