Tag Archives: novels

Monday Musings: My Favorite Hidden Gems

Not so very long ago, I wrote a post on some of my favorite things. I thought I would follow up on that with a post about a few things I love that I consider “hidden gems,” things I have found along the way with which a large number of people might not be familiar.

So buckle in and enjoy a brief spin through the backwaters of my artistic and entertainment tastes.

Hidden Gem novels: I have a couple of recommendations in this regard, as it happens, both of them by people I know. The first series comes from fantasy author Lynn Flewelling. Her Tamir Trilogy (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle’s Queen) is one I have recommended before, but I love, love, love it, and I think others will as well. It is haunting, thrilling, and romantic, but it also bends our expectations when it comes to gender and the roles imposed upon girls and women. Brilliant stuff.

I also love C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator Trilogy (Heart of Stone, House of Cards, Hands of Flame). These are urban fantasies set in New York City, but they are unlike any UF I’ve read before or since. They’re exciting and romantic (yes, I admit it: I like romantic plots), with a magical element that is utterly fascinating and entirely captivating. I love these books.

Americanization of Emily promo posterHidden Gem movies: Two entries here, too, both of them idiosyncratic. But that’s the point, right? The first is a film from 1964 called The Americanization of Emily. It is a war movie set during World War II, but it will turn your expectations upside down as it rejects normal images of heroism and wartime valor. The cast is great — Julie Andrews in the title role is terrific. She’s worldly, sassy, and a long, long way from Mary Poppins and Fräulein Maria. James Garner, a favorite of mine, is her love interest, and is not at all the usual romantic lead. James Coburn and Melvyn Douglas are strong in supporting roles.

The second film is 1992’s Passion Fish, starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, and Angela Bassett. Written and directed by John Sayles, Passion Fish tells the story of a spoiled soap opera star who is paralyzed in a car wreck and returns to her childhood home in the bayou, intent on drinking her way into an early grave. What she discovers at home changes her life. It sounds hokey and depressing. It’s neither. Trust me on this. It’s wonderful, and the performances are phenomenal.

Hidden Gem music: I’m a big fan of acoustic instrumental music and I have a couple of recommendations along these lines. The first is an album I know I have mentioned on this blog before, but it’s been some time. The album is called Skip, Hop, and Wobble. The musicians are Jerry Douglas on dobro, Russ Barenberg on guitar, and Edgar Meyer on stand-up bass. The music is bluegrass inspired, but it has little of the twang that some object to in bluegrass. Rather, the tunes are by turns lyrical, humorous, and toe-tapping. I have a lot of bluegrass, a lot of instrumental music. This album is unique. I can think of nothing else like it.

The second album I would classify as Scottish folk music. Some might call it Celtic, but I tend to think of Celtic music as specifically Irish. Tomato, to-mah-to. Anyway, the album is called Highlander’s Farewell, and it features Alasdair Fraser on fiddle and Natalie Haas on cello. The music is evocative and gorgeous. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Scotland.

Finally, a third recommendation. Alison Brown is an amazing crossover musician. She plays banjo and has been a session player for bluegrass stars like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss. But she also has a band of her own, the Alison Brown Quartet, which includes her husband, bass player Garry West. They play an amazing form of bluegrass-jazz that is completely addicting. I recommend you start with the album Replay.

Hidden Gem TV: Many of you know I am a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and many of you share that passion. Before he started work on that classic, though, he was show-runner for a short-lived series called Sports Night. It’s about a late-night sports show similar to ESPN’s Sports Center, but for a third-place network. Like all of Sorkin’s shows Sports Night is funny, poignant, intelligent, and filled with marvelous dialogue and terrific acting. It aired on ABC, and they didn’t know what to do with it. They marketed it as a romantic comedy and even added a laugh-track, which is really too bad. It was far too smart a show for the network, and they managed to kill it in two seasons. But those seasons are great, and you can find it on one of the streaming services. Easy to binge, and so, so good.

And with that, I will stop, although I reserve the right to return to this theme in future posts.

In the meantime, have a great week!

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Trust Yourself, Trust Your Reader

Today, I’m introducing a new feature for my Professional Wednesday posts: “Most Important Lessons.”

We are coming up on the 28th anniversary of the start of my career (which I trace to the offer I received from Tor Books on Children of Amarid, my first novel). To mark the occasion, I thought about doing a “lessons I’ve learned” post. I quickly realized, though, that I could write 20,000 words on that and still not exhaust the topic. Better then, to begin this series of essays, which I will return to periodically, as I think of key lessons that I’ve learned about the business and craft of writing.

I’ve chosen to start with today’s lesson — “Trust Yourself, Trust Your Reader” — because it’s one I’ve found myself repeating to writers a lot as I edit short stories for the Noir anthology and novel length projects that come to me through my freelance editing business.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Honestly, I think “trust yourself” is good advice for life in general, but for me, with respect to writing, it has a specific implication. It’s something I heard a lot from my first editor when I was working on my earliest series — the LonTobyn Chronicle and Winds of the Forelands.

Writers, and in particular less experienced writers, have a tendency to tell readers too much. Sometimes this manifests in data dumps, where we give way more information about our worlds or our characters than is necessary. And yes, that can be a problem. I have no doubt that in future “Most Important Lessons” posts, I will cover world building, character, and ways to avoid data dumps.

For today’s purposes, though, I refer to a different sort of writing problem that can be solved simply by trusting our readers and trusting ourselves. As I said, writers often tell readers too much. We explain things — plot points, narrative situations, personality traits. And then we tell them again. And again. And as we build to our key narrative moments, we give that information yet again, wanting to make certain that our readers are set up for the resolutions we’re about to provide.

There are several problems with doing this. First, it tends to make our writing repetitive, wordy, and slow. Nobody wants to read the same information over and over. It’s boring; worse, it’s annoying. Second, it forces us to hit the brakes at those moments when we should be most eager to keep things moving. If we’re explaining stuff as we approach the climactic scenes in our stories, we are undermining our pacing, weakening our storytelling, robbing our stories of tension and suspense. And third, we are denying our readers the pleasure of making connections on their own. We are, in a way, being like that guy in the movie theater revealing key moments in the film right before they happen on screen. And everyone hates that guy.

We have to trust that our readers have retained the things we’ve told them. We have to trust that they are following along as we fill in backstory, set up our key plot points, and build our character arcs and narrative arcs. We have to trust that they are right there with us as we move through our plots.

In other words, we have to trust that we have done our jobs as writers.

Trusting our readers means trusting ourselves. Readers are smart. They pay attention. They read our stories and books because they want to. Sure, sometimes they miss things. Sometimes they skim when they ought to be paying attention. As a reader myself, I know that I am not always as attentive as I ought to be. But I also know that when I sense I’ve missed something important, I go back and reread the sections in question. Your readers will do the same.

Trust that you have engaged them with your plot lines and characters. Trust that you have given them the information they need to follow along, and have built your stories the way you ought to. Trust that they are following the path you’ve blazed for them.

“But,” you say, “what if I haven’t done those things? Isn’t it better to be certain, to tell them more than they need to know, so that I can be absolutely sure they get it?”

It would seem that way, wouldn’t it? But that’s where trust comes in. Sure, there is a balance to be found. We don’t want to give our readers too much, but we don’t want them to have too little, either. And the vast majority of us fear the latter far more than the former. We shouldn’t. Again, readers are pretty smart. If the information is in the book, they’ll make use of it. Better, then, to trust, to say, “It’s in there. I’ve done what I could, what I had to. I am going to trust that I did enough.”

Yes, the first time or two, we might need to revise and give another hint here or there. But generally speaking, when we trust our readers — when we trust ourselves — we avoid far more problems than we create.

Trust me.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Throw Nothing Away — A Writing Lesson Courtesy of INVASIVES

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)February has begun, Punxsutawney Phil has done his schtick, and time seems to be moving at breakneck speed. In a little over two weeks, Invasives, the second Radiants book, will be released by Belle Books.

Like Radiants, this is a supernatural thriller. This time, though, I have set my thriller in New York City, and a good deal of the story takes place in the New York subway tunnels. My lead characters are a trio of homeless, runaway teens — Mako, Bat, and, my main protagonist, Drowse. They live off what they can make by scrounging and, yes, stealing, and they take shelter in a house built of cardboard and shower curtains, tape and rope and plastic ties.

Bat is blind. He comes from money, but had to leave his home. When the book opens, we don’t know why.

Mako was involved in gang activity for a time, but eventually went straight. Or tried. Did I mention they have to steal?

Drowse ran away from a terrible home situation. She turned tricks for a time. Ran drug money. Now she’s trying to hold their small “family” together and survive in the Below. And, as it happens, she’s a Radiant, whose power is invaluable to their business.

But her abilities, and the business they do, have now attracted the notice of some of the most powerful people in New York’s financial world. They want something Drowse has, and they are willing to do anything, kill anyone, to get it.

Intrigued? I hope so. I love, love, love this book. Yes, I know, I say that about all my books when they come out. Because it’s true.

Invasives, though, is special to me in a couple of ways.

First, this is the book I was writing when we first got my daughter’s cancer diagnosis last March. At first, I put my writing on hold. I could barely function. I could barely think. How the hell was I supposed to write a novel? Well, as it turned out, writing this book was just what I needed. It is a fraught narrative, filled with suspense and tension. It focuses on these three characters, on their love for one another, on their bonds, and the forces trying to tear them apart. It wasn’t about cancer at all, and that was a good thing. But the story gave me an outlet for all the emotions churning inside me. As I have said before, I could not have gotten through the ordeal of last spring and summer without this novel.

And second, Drowse, Mako, and Bat were with me, lurking in my imagination, for more than a decade before I finally started work on this book. I had the idea for them, for their circumstances and relationships, long before I knew what story to build around them. I knew only that I loved the characters, and their dynamic. I had one idea for a novel, but I could never quite figure out the storyline, the world, the ending. I did write a kick-ass opening chapter for it, though.

Then, two years ago, I began writing the first Radiants book, and as I thought about subsequent volumes, Drowse and her friends popped back into my head. This was their story. Finally. This was the perfect world in which to place them. I even was able to use an updated version of that opening chapter.

I have said before, half in earnest, half in jest, that writers are packrats. We keep everything. Or at least we should. When I figured out that Drowse et al. would be the perfect protagonists for my second Radiants book, I knew just where to find the original character sketches, the original opening chapter, the original storyline for their caper. Because even that wound up factoring in to the creation of Invasives.

I never lost faith in the groundwork I did for their story all those years ago. I knew there was a novel there, somewhere. It was just a matter of placing it.

That happens to me a lot, and I know it happens to other authors as well. Sometimes we have an idea, and we are ready immediately to write and publish it. Other times, stories and characters take a while to steep, like good, strong tea. For ten years, Drowse, Mako, and Bat waited in a file on my computer desktop. It wasn’t that the original idea was bad or lacking in some way. It just wasn’t ready. Or rather, I wasn’t yet ready to write it in a way that did justice to the power of the original notion.

And that made the final realization of their tale in this novel all the more satisfying.

Keep writing. And don’t throw any idea away!

Monday Musings: Showing 2021 The Door

A year ago, as 2020 was winding down and the nation was exhausted from months of lockdowns and economic devastation, from a disturbingly divisive Presidential campaign, and from the anti-democratic rantings and tantrums of our then Sore-Loser-In-Chief, I wrote a Monday Musings post about the year that had been, and the year I thought and hoped would be coming.

I closed last year’s post with this: “But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.”

This is why I don’t gamble more. I really, really suck at prognostication. [Early in 2020, I closed out my first post of the year by saying I hoped that year would be “your best year yet.” Wowza.]

Six days into 2021, a group of terrorists posing as “patriots” stormed the Capitol building, the seat of the American republic, in an attempt to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 Presidential election. Six people died.¹

So much for the “new normal.”

The pandemic proved far more stubborn than many anticipated, its resurgences fueled by the Delta and (recently) Omicron variants. Too many Americans have refused to be vaccinated. Too many still resist wearing masks. And so the virus has had ample opportunity to mutate, to grow more transmissible and more adept at evading the protections offered by the vaccines. (A silver lining: Maybe this will convince some people that evolution is real . . . Or maybe not . . .) We enter 2022 in the midst of a spike in cases that could prove to be the worst yet numerically, even as this newest strain of the virus appears to be somewhat less virulent than those that preceded it.

And, on a personal note, our family was beset in March with a terrifying health crisis that dominated much of our year, leaving us exhausted and emotionally spent, even as we celebrate quietly what has so far been a promising outcome.

In short, 2021 has been for us, and I know for many of you as well, anything but the bounce-back year we were anticipating.

So, where do we go from here? How do we say goodbye (or perhaps good riddance) to this year without setting ourselves up for another disappointment in the year to come?

Honestly, I’m not certain. The truth is, pretty much every year brings joys, be they large or small, and every year brings its share of tragedies and crises. Some years may be better than others on balance, but they all bring a mix of emotions. 2021 has been just about the hardest year of my life, and yet it has also seen the graduation of our younger daughter from college, a wonderful professional opportunity for Nancy (more on that in the weeks to come), and several publications for me as well as the auspicious beginning of a new freelance editing venture. Even our older daughter, who faced illness and grueling treatments, had an excellent work year and some memorable travel experiences with friends.

We are, all of us, resilient, as individuals and as a social community. It may not always seem that way, and certainly ominous clouds loom on our social/political horizon. Anti-vaccine misinformation is literally killing people across the country, just as continued lies about the 2020 election threaten the very existence of our democratic republic. We have a long way to go in so many respects. But I suppose, despite everything, and notwithstanding last year’s utterly useless predictions about 2021, I remain an optimist at heart.

It feels strange to say this, because I suffer from anxiety, and too often allow myself to spiral into negative thinking. But somehow my anxiety and my basic optimism coexist. I’m sure 2022 will bring its share of trials and calamities. I live with a Stanford-trained biologist, so I’m not so naïve as to think that Covid is going away anytime soon.

Yet, I also believe 2022 is going to be better than the past two years have been. I suppose on some level I have to believe this, for my own sanity. And so without making bold predictions, and without any illusions as to how foolish I might feel a year from now, reading back through this post, I look forward to the coming year. I welcome it.

And I say to 2021, “Don’t let the door hit your butt on your way out…”

—-
¹ Two insurrectionists died of heart attacks. One was shot and killed. A Capitol police officer died that day of a stroke after sustaining injuries and being sprayed with chemicals by those trying to breach police lines. And two more officers committed suicide within a week of the insurrection.

Professional Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

Islevale compositeA couple of years ago, I put the finishing touches on the third book of a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy called the Islevale Cycle. I loved the Islevale books then, and I remain incredibly proud of them today. I think they represent some of my finest work, and if you enjoy epic fantasy, OR time travel, OR (best of all) both, I recommend you pick the books up and give them a try. (The books are called Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.)

As much as I love them, though, I also have to admit that they nearly destroyed me. I have never struggled so much with any books, and I hope I never will again. Part of the problem was simply the ambition of the project. Sprawling epic fantasies are hard to write. One must weave together multiple plot threads and write from the perspectives of numerous point of view characters. Time travel is even harder to write, first because one must keep track of several time lines at once, second because any plot point is potentially reversible (If time traveling characters are unhappy with events, what’s to keep them from going back and changing them?), and third, because in my story I had more than one iteration of several characters existing simultaneously. (At one point in book 3, I had four or maybe five iterations of the same character inhabiting my world.)

As you might expect, combining the challenges of writing epic fantasy with the difficulties inherent in writing time travel only serves to compound all of those issues. These books would have been hard to write under any circumstance. But here’s the thing: For some reason, I could not outline any of the Islevale books. I don’t know why. To this day I remain mystified. But yeah, I had to write all three books without any advance outline beyond my vague sense of where the books needed to go. The books turned out really well, but the process was excruciating.

What is the point of this?

Well, once I finished the last Islevale novel and worked with the folks at Falstaff Books to shepherd it through production and publication, I needed a new project that would be Different, and Straight Forward, and Directed.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that next book turned out to be Radiants.

Radiants, a supernatural thriller, comes out from Belle Books on Friday (yes, THIS Friday) October 15th, and this “little” book, which I thought of as a sort of creative palate cleanser, has turned out to be far, far more.

Yes, it is different from the Islevale books, and it is quite directed. But it is deceptive in its “simplicity.” It is firmly rooted in our real world, and deals with social issues of weight and emotional power. It has fewer point of view characters and concentrates to a far greater degree on a single narrative thread. As a result, it is fast-paced. Like breakneck. And it includes some of the deepest, most satisfying character work I’ve done. (In fact, in this regard, I believe it might be exceeded by its sequel, Invasives, which will be out in another few months.)

So what makes Radiants a “supernatural thriller,” as oppose to a fantasy of some sort? Partly, it’s that pacing I mentioned, and partly it’s the real world setting and the fact that the speculative fiction element of the story is limited and very specific. And that was the appeal of writing the book. After creating a world whole-cloth for the Islevale series, I wanted to remain firmly fixed in our world for the new project. I wanted my characters to deal with issues that impact us in our day-to-day lives. I wanted them to speak as we do, to think and feel and interact as we do. In short, I wanted the story to be utterly relatable.

It would be easy to ascribe this to something pandemic-related — a need for normality, say, or some recognition that we don’t have to create an imagined world to come up with situations that are ________ . . . insert your preferred word here: Frightening? Disorienting? Surreal? As it happens, though, I completed my first draft of the book in February 2020, just before the current unpleasantness hit. [Invasives, the second Radiants book, is much more a reaction to the pandemic, as well as the personal difficulties my family and I have faced in recent months.]

Radiants really was a response to my creative needs at the time. No more, no less. It is the book I needed to write next. My lead characters presented themselves to me, along with their fraught and frantic circumstances, and I simply wrote. In this sense, Radiants might be the most organic book I’ve ever written. I had no marketing strategy for it; hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even know how to classify the story. I didn’t know if I was writing something for myself, for the sheer joy of it, or if it would turn out to be something I could sell and publish. I had a story to write and I wrote it.

For that reason alone, I love this book. And I am very hopeful that you will, too.

 

Faith Hunter Interviews D.B. Jackson — “The Witch’s Storm,” part 2

Tomorrow, May 18, Lore Seekers Press will release a new Thieftaker novella, “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in a trilogy called The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. Today (with my D.B. Jackson hat on) I sat down with my wonderful friend Faith Hunter to talk about the new project. Part I of the interview can be found at Faith’s blog. Part II of the interview can be found below.

*****
(Continued from the blog of Faith Hunter)

Faith: You know how much I love this series! How was it going back to the Thieftaker world after taking a hiatus from the books?

"The Witch's Storm," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)DBJ: Well, I suppose I should point out that while I haven’t written a Thieftaker novel in some time, I have been writing and publishing Thieftaker-universe short stories almost yearly since that last novel came out. But this was a far more demanding project and honestly, I enjoyed it immensely. I love these characters — not only Ethan, but also his nemesis, Sephira Pryce; his love, Kannice Lester; his mentor, Janna Windcatcher; his closest friend, Diver Jervis; and a host of historical figures including Samuel and John Adams, Joseph Warren, Stephen Greenleaf, and others. All of them are here in these new stories. But I have also brought in new characters: a new set of villains and some new allies as well. So for me as a writer, there was enough here that was familiar to make me feel like I was reconnecting with old friends, but there was also enough innovation for the plot lines and character interactions to feel fresh and exciting. I hope my readers agree!

Faith: Historical novels (especially with magic and mayhem and murder) have always made my heart pitter-patter. Tell us a bit about the history that forms the backdrop for the stories.

DBJ: There was a lot to work with actually. On the one hand, the trials of the soldiers and their captain were a huge deal. Think of all the big trials we’ve had in recent history — the way they captivate the public — and then magnify that about a hundred times. The Boston Massacre was a huge, huge deal throughout the colonies, but in Boston in particular. It’s easy to forget that the population of the city was only about 15,000 at this time. So while “only” five people died that night in March, chances are that if you lived in Boston, you’d had some contact with at least one of the victims. Add to that the fraught political climate of the time and you have a recipe for a lot of tension. Plus, as the title of the first novella suggests, right before the trial began, Boston was hit by a hurricane. Now, I have adopted the storm for my own narrative purposes and added a magical element. But the fact is, there was a ton going on, historically speaking, and I was able to work most of it into the novellas.

Faith: Do you have more Thieftaker stories in mind? Please say YES!!!

DBJ: Definitely. The fact is, I’m probably better known for Thieftaker than I am for anything else I’ve published, either as D.B. Jackson or as David B. Coe. My readers always seem to want more of Ethan’s adventures. And while I have drawn upon a lot of pre-Revolution history so far, there’s so much more to explore. Plus, I can take the story forward into the War for Independence itself. There’s really no end to what I can do with Ethan and company. So yes, given that there is some demand, and given how much I love to play in this universe, I have no doubt that I’ll be writing more novels, more novellas, more short stories. So stay tuned!

*****
D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. His newest project is a trilogy of novellas that continues his Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.

As David B. Coe, he is the author of epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins. In addition, he has co-edited three anthologies — Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, and Derelict (Zombies Need Brains, 2019, 2020, 2021).

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com/blog/
https://twitter.com/DBJacksonAuthor
https://www.facebook.com/DBJacksonAuthor/
http://www.facebook.com/david.b.coe

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range.

Book shelfThis past weekend I gave a talk on world building for the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop. It was a lengthy talk, and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. But I did want to focus on one element of the topic, because I think it’s something writers of fantasy, of historical fiction, of science fiction, and of other sub-categories of speculative fiction lose sight of now and again.

When we build our worlds — and I include in this doing our research for historical settings — we actually have to construct our worlds twice. The first time, we do it for ourselves. We apply whatever techniques we use for such things, and we come up with histories, governing systems, economies, religions, social and cultural traditions, physical features for our land, climatic trends that influence everything from food production to troop movements, etc., etc., etc. We develop our magic systems, if our worlds have them, or perhaps technological developments if our books trend more toward science fiction. In short, we do everything one might expect in order to create a rich, complex, believable setting for our books and stories.

For me, this can be a lengthy process. I take my world building seriously, and I like to have most of the fundamentals in place before I begin to write. Naturally, I have to go back and fill in gaps after I’ve started putting words to “paper.” I find it nearly impossible to anticipate every question I might need to answer, every detail of my world I might need to develop. To this day, I still come up with new spells for Ethan Kaille to cast in the Thieftaker books. In fact, the upcoming novellas have an entirely new element of magick — one Ethan hasn’t faced before in a foe. So there’s that to look forward to…

My larger point, though, is this: Even after we have finished building our worlds and have turned to the writing of our novels, our world building is far from over.

Why?

Because while the world now exists for us, the writer, it remains entirely unrealized in the minds of our readers. And so now we have to construct it again, this time in a manner that is digestible and entertaining and unobtrusive, not to mention elegant, poetic, even exciting. We have to present all the necessary material — and not an ounce more — without slowing our narratives, without resorting to data-dumps or “As-you-know-Bob” moments, without violating the basic principles of point of view.

None of this is easy. But we come to this second instance of world building with certain advantages that we didn’t have the first time. Namely, we now possess an intimate understanding of our worlds. We have unraveled their mysteries, determined how societies function — or don’t — and, most importantly, decided which elements of all that work we did during the first world-build are most important to our stories.

That last is crucial. We will always — ALWAYS — know more about our worlds than our readers do. That’s as it should be. We have to know, to a ridiculous level of detail, our worlds’ histories and mythologies and landscapes. We absolutely do not have to convey all that information to our readers. To do so — and I say this with utmost sensitivity to the effort expended in that initial construction of the world — would bore the poor dears to an early demise. They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range. They don’t want to read a recitation of the Gerbilord’s Prayer in the original Quilmardian.

In all seriousness, I know the temptation. I understand pouring tons of work into a world and wanting to share every detail with our readers. But the fact is, we don’t need to reveal everything in order to justify the work we’ve done. Sometimes, sharing a single necessary detail can communicate the weight and volume of all that remains unseen.

And so this second instance of world building demands that we prioritize. We must decide what our readers have to know in any given moment, and then tell them that much and no more. If we can do so with fluency and grace and perhaps even wit, all the better.

But the point is this: Our initial building of the world is an exercise in excess. We want to figure out everything there is to know about our worlds. We seek every crumb of knowledge, so that we are fully prepared for the creation of our characters and narratives.

The second building of our world, the one for our readers, is an exercise in restraint, in determining what is necessary information, and what is superfluous. It’s not easy, but done correctly it will keep our readers coming back to our worlds again and again.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: My Declaration of Creative Independence

Book shelfSo many professional issues on my mind today — I’m finding it hard to organize my thoughts into something coherent.

These remain hard times for creators. Writers, musicians and composers, visual artists of all sorts, actors and directors, dancers and choreographers. I could go on, but you get the point. The irony of art: it is considered a solitary endeavor, when in fact it is anything but. We all know the clichés of the lonely artist working in isolation, the writer holed up with her computer, tapping away at the keyboard, churning out her next story.

The truth is, though, art is decidedly communal. The act of creation is only the beginning. All art is interactive. Music must be heard. Paintings and photographs must be seen. Stories must be read. Because every song and book and painting has as many lives as there are people who experience it. Twenty people might read my book — or better yet, twenty thousand people might read it — and each would experience it their own way. Same with songs. Same with works of art. Creation is incomplete until it is received.

And so when a pandemic prevents that interaction between creation and audience, art suffers. So does the artist. I can write as many books in isolation as time allows. But until I know my book is being read by someone, I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything.

A dear friend posted a couple of times last week about writing in the COVID age. His first post touched on the slowness of the industry right now. Again, we writers can turn out new books, but if the publishing industry does nothing with them, we struggle to reach our readers. And right now, the publishing industry is the literary equivalent of a clogged sink. Nothing is flowing. So it wasn’t that surprising when, a couple of days later, this same friend shared an article about how hard it is to be productive right now. The dialectic between writer and reader is about far more than books sales. It is, as I indicated above, the way we complete the creative experience. When we know that our books are going nowhere, that they have no immediate hope of reaching audience, our motivation leaches away. And without motivation, we’re lost.

A couple of weekends ago, at Boskone, I moderated a panel on self-defining success. This is an important topic for me; I believe we must take satisfaction in our work on our terms. There is a difference, though, between, on the one hand, finding internal affirmation for our work and our careers, and, on the other, working in a vacuum.

So, where am I going with this?

I guess here: I will continue to write with an eye toward big-press publishing. I have not given up on “New York” entirely. But I am currently writing and editing for small presses. Working through an imprint I have developed with a couple of friends, I am bringing out my own work.

I am, in effect, declaring my independence. I am writing for myself, and for the audience I can reach. And I am worrying far less about what the imprint on the spines of my books says about my status as a writer.

A confession: A couple of years ago, after a disappointing stretch, a series of serious professional setbacks, and a particularly demoralizing experience at a convention, I was ready to quit. I’d had enough. I had been kicked, and kicked again, and kicked a third time. My ego had been brutalized. I didn’t want to write. I certainly didn’t want to deal with any more reversals like those I’d just experienced. I was done.

Except, obviously I wasn’t. I still had stories to tell. I still had characters in my head and heart who clamored for attention. I still had things to say. And while I thought I didn’t want to write anymore, I was wrong. Turns out, I can’t go more than a week or two without writing something. I get grumpy. I snarl and mope and brood and rant. Very, very unattractive. Nancy never says anything when I get this way. Not directly. But she’ll ask me, “So what are you working on today?” And the subtext of that question is, “When are you going to start behaving like an adult human again?”

It has taken me a while to reach the place I’m in now. It was a process, as fraught and difficult as the creation itself can be. But I’m here now. I have an idea of what success looks like, and it has far, far more to do with contentment and peace of mind than it used to. I have a sense of what my career will look like going forward, and while some of my old ambition remains, I am happy — eager even — to approach publication and editing and other professional pursuits in a way that preserves my emotional health and feeds the joy I derive from the simple act of telling stories.

Don’t worry. I have no intention of quitting. I have stories to tell, short form and long, and I have every intention of putting them in the hands of readers.

Because creation is communal. It is a never-ending conversation. And we’re all part of it.

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!

Professional Wednesday: Lessons From A Recent Edit

As part of my new Professional Wednesday format, I intend to tie advice posts to issues I am encountering “in the moment” with my own work. And so, today, I share with you a few insights that grew out of an editorial note I received from the marvelous Debra Dixon on the supernatural thriller I’ve recently sold to Belle Books.

Writers, myself included, sometimes “make” things happen to our characters, either for good or for bad, that are essential for our storylines, but not necessarily convincing in the natural flow of events. Put another way, sometimes we contrive things to happen because we need them to happen. This is one of those writing pitfalls that brings to mind the old Tom Clancy quote: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Real life is filled with coincidences, with random occurrences the timing of which could not be better (or worse), with odd little quirks that make us stop to take note of how strange/funny/ fortunate/terrible (pick one or more) the world can be.

But when we put such things into our books or short fiction, they seem to lack authenticity. “That’s too convenient.” “No one will believe this.” “This feels contrived.”

In my thriller, I had my two young protagonists, having just been separated from their mother, taken in by a couple who wind up helping them at potentially great cost to themselves. The circumstances of their encounter with this couple made perfect sense. But as Debra pointed out, the mere fact that the couple were willing to help, despite the danger — well, that strained credulity just a bit. Not a lot. I was almost there. But the couple’s backstory needed… something to make their choice more understandable.

First of all, this is a GREAT editorial note. This is just the sort of thing a developmental editor is supposed to notice and bring to a writer’s attention. As a writer, the note is both helpful and, yes, a little frustrating. I had worked hard to make the interactions believable, and, as Debra said, I almost succeeded. That I hadn’t meant more work, and changes that might upset the flow of the book. That, at least, was my initial reaction. Something along the lines of, “Well, crap. She’s right.”

As it turned out, the fix I came up with, far from upsetting the flow, deepened the story and the interactions between my protags and these two people they meet in the midst of their adventure. The backstory of the couple feels richer now. There is a poignancy to the entire encounter that makes everything around it better. As you’ve probably sussed out by now, I’m not going to tell you what I did. You’ll have to read the book when it comes out.

But I can tell you HOW I did it, and I can share with you a few lessons I draw from making these revisions.

First the “how.” I needed to build into the couple’s backstory a trauma that was somewhat related to what my heroes were experiencing, but not so similar as to raise new believability flags. That was fairly easy — the lives of my heroes are quite different from those of this couple. By the same token, though, all of them are human. They love and feel, they experience loss and tragedy and injustice. There were actually several directions I could have gone, and I chose one that was neither the most obvious nor the most complicated. Which, I suppose is a lesson in and of itself: When developing backstory, particularly for secondary characters, strive for the somewhat unexpected, but keep things simple.

Once I had decided on an approach, I didn’t simply blurt it out. I meted out the information in dribs and drabs throughout the pages that followed. The couple are “on stage” for only two or three chapters total, but that gave me plenty of time to build in the information. I hinted at it early and had one of the characters make a cryptic reference that put the history at the heart of their decision even before I explained that history fully to my reader. Finally, when the emotional payoff seemed likely to be greatest, I wrote my reveal, working the information into an exchange that served as the final button to a key scene. So that would be lesson number two: Give out information to your readers on a need-to-know basis. Don’t resort to data dumps, and don’t feel that your reader has to know every detail up front. Sometimes a slow reveal can be far more satisfying to the reader than having all that knowledge from the start.

As I said, this was a great editorial note, and like all great bits of editorial feedback, it improved my novel. It forced me to rethink an essential narrative element, and in doing so it strengthened my plot AND my character work. Which makes lessons three, four, and five really easy: Trust your editor. Be open to constructive criticism. And look at the editorial/revision process not as a burden, but as an opportunity to make the story you love even better than it already is. As I’ve written before, edits are part of the business. Accepting feedback is part of being a professional.

So in the end, I wound up with a better book, a more powerful way of getting my protagonists the help they needed, and, most important, a deepened appreciation of and trust in my new editor. I also reminded myself that at times withholding information from my reader, at least in the short term, can heighten the impact of the revelation when it finally comes.

I hope you found this helpful.

Keep writing!