Tag Archives: publishing business

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Book shelfAs I mentioned in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have a teaching gig coming up. I’ll be leading a couple of critique workshops, and this Saturday, I’ll be giving a long talk on writing epic fantasy. This opportunity came my way because someone mentioned to a mutual friend that the people running the program needed an epic fantasist, and this person thought of me.

I’m flattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The thing is, though, I don’t necessarily think of myself as an epic fantasy author.

At Boskone a couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel about historical fantasy and others forms of historical fiction. In fact, I am usually on at least one history panel at just about every convention I attend, whether in-person or virtual.

I don’t necessarily think of myself as a historical fiction author, either.

I can go through this same formulation with media tie-in work, with urban fantasy, with novels and with short stories. I can even apply it to my blog posts. Am I a political blogger? An advice and instruction blogger for aspiring writers? A social critic? A commentator on the arts?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The writers I know who are happiest tend to be those who are least easily defined by genre speciality. I have one friend — many of you know him — who has written thrillers, epic fantasy, middle grade, YA, science fiction, something approaching horror. He’s excelled at everything he’s tried, and he’s been a bestseller in more than one section of the bookstore. I have another friend — and many of you know her — who says that if writers haven’t had to re-invent themselves at least two or three times, they’re just not trying.

I have published twenty-four books. My twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, and possibly my twenty-seventh, will be out this year. Of these, eleven are epic fantasy, nine are urban fantasy, with five — soon to be six — of the UFs also qualifying as historicals. Three more are a hybrid of epic fantasy and time travel. Two are tie-ins. And two of the books coming out this year are supernatural thrillers, a genre I’ve never tried before now. I can divide up my short fiction publications — I have somewhere between twenty-five and thirty — the same way. I’m all over the place.

And that’s just how I want it. I would get bored writing the same thing all the time. I like jumping from epic to historical to contemporary and back to epic again. The variety keeps every project fresh.

I see too many young writers trying to define themselves by subgenre. I think some do it because the industry encourages a certain level of pigeon-holing. If we enjoy some success in one area, the market responds by saying, “That’s great! Do it again, only better!”

I would encourage you all to resist that pressure. Certainly if you want to keep working for a time in the same world, with the same characters, do so. I can hardly fault anyone for that, having set eight novels in the Forelands/Southlands universe, and having turned Thieftaker into a franchise of both short fiction and novel-length works.

But I would also urge you to experiment, to try different sorts of stories, to challenge yourself to write something outside your comfort zone. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be publishing supernatural thrillers. Five years before that, I would have told you that I had no intention of ever attempting to write a time-travel story, much less a trilogy. Seriously. That shit will make your brain explode. And yet…

And yet, the time-travel novels of my Islevale Cycle might be the best books I’ve written. The thriller coming out this spring/summer is a book of which I’m deeply proud. The sequel, which I’m writing now, is taking me in all sorts of cool directions. I’m having a blast.

And that’s sort of the point. As I said in last week’s post about my new approach to writing, I am working with the goal of enjoying my work, of taking satisfaction in what I do. This remains a very difficult profession. So write for the joy of it. Stretch, push yourself, take chances. You’ll improve your story telling. You’ll hone your prose. Most important, you’ll have fun.

So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure. But I do have this science fiction idea I’ve been toying with. And a pair of contemporary fantasies based on Celtic mythology. And a middle grade book that I’d like to get back to. And… and… and…

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: Rethinking the Digital Revolution

I’m a dinosaur. I have been in this business for more than a quarter century. My first book was published during the Clinton Administration. I could list for you all the celebrities born since that first publication, but I’ve never heard of any of them…

To state the obvious, the business has changed in the time I’ve been a professional writer. Hell, the entire world has changed. Some of the transitions specific to publishing have been for the better, some have not. And, to make all of this a bit stranger, many of the biggest changes fall into both those categories.

Lately, I find myself thinking about the democratization of the arts facilitated by the digital revolution, trying to balance the good with the not-so-good.

Example 1: A dear friend of mine, one of my musical partners from college, has been recording and performing music for years. He does covers, he writes his own material. Prior to the pandemic, he performed regularly in the area around his home in the Northeast. Since the onset of COVID, he has done a series of online concerts and has also produced videos of himself playing — again, his own tunes and covers of songs by others. His music always — ALWAYS — sounds amazing. Not only is he incredibly talented, he has also mastered the technology at his disposal. The result is great music with astonishing production values.

Without digital technology, without the ability to turn his basement into both a recording studio and a performance space, he couldn’t manage to do any of this. Of course, he is hardly alone in this regard. Musicians around the world can now record and produce their own music, reaching audiences that they never would have found twenty years ago. And it is hard for me to look at this as anything but an unalloyed good. Major recording studios should not be the only arbiters of what you and I get to hear. Once upon a time, they were, but not anymore. As a musician myself, and as a fan of music in general, I’m pleased by this.

Example 2: As most of you know, I am an avid photographer. I specialize in nature photography — landscapes and close-up work — but I also have done a good deal of urban photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have also been, for years and years, a collector of photography books, and I have a small collection of photo prints by other artists, as well as many of my own enlarged images, framed, and hung on the walls of my home.

I have a high quality digital camera and I have several applications on my computer that allow me to process my photos to a fine degree. Once upon a time, when I first got into this hobby and was still shooting film, I was very much at the mercy of the photo labs that developed my pictures. I couldn’t control the production of each image the way, say, Ansel Adams did in his darkroom. Only with the advent of digital technology, have I gained access to the tools I need to develop my photos precisely as I wish to. At this point, I can produce professional quality images. My best photos, the ones on my walls as well as those in the one coffee table photography book I have created, can stand alongside the best images by some of my favorite professional photographers.

As with the musical example, given how much joy I derive from my photography and my ability to produce images with such quality results, I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a positive historical development.

Except…

Example 3: In my capacity as a writer, I have seen the impact of the digital revolution on my own profession. Yes, more and more authors can now reach readers. Authors who might otherwise have never had a chance to get past the gatekeepers at major publishing houses, can now put their stories within reach of audiences that crave what they offer. This means that unconventional, risk-taking stories can now be told and sold. It means that diverse voices now have an outlet for their work. Authors of any race, of any gender identity, of any sexual orientation, of any religious or cultural background, now have an easier time making themselves heard. I welcome all of these changes.

But those of us who are familiar with the publishing business also know that the democratization of publishing has not been an unalloyed good. Yes, eloquent voices who for too long were excluded from mainstream publishing are now reaching audiences. But there are also too many books being produced that require substantial editing, but aren’t getting any. There are too many authors now being published who weren’t excluded from the field because they were innovative or speaking from underrepresented groups — they were excluded because they had not yet mastered the rudiments of writing prose and creating narrative.

I know lots of young, talented authors — of different genders, races, cultural traditions — who are deserving of success in publishing, but who can’t make themselves heard in the new marketplace, because that market is already flooded with stories, many of them of questionable quality. Because I know the publishing world so well, I understand the nuances of these new dynamics, the good and the bad.

And I find myself reconsidering all that I said before about music and photography. I don’t know those industries the way I know the literary world, but I have to imagine that musicians and photographers face the same struggles and frustrations writers do. I do have a friend who is a professional photographer. He is successful, having worked for years for National Geographic and other prestigious publications. I know the fact that amateur photographers like me can now make our work look “professional” has made his business harder to maintain. I have no doubt that many professional musicians face similar challenges. So all the confidence I expressed earlier in this piece, about how the opening up of technologies in music and photography to everyone is nothing but good — that now strikes me as ill-considered, a reflection of my ignorance.

I have no answers. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what questions I’m asking. I simply know that the artistic world has changed thanks to digital technology and the opening of artistic industries to everyone from the most advanced professional to the laziest weekend hobbyist. Lots of good has come of this. But for those who make their livings in the arts, these changes, taking place on a historic scale, present new and daunting challenges as well.

Tuesday Special Announcement

So, I have been sitting on this for a little while, but at this point the contracts are signed, the editorial process is well underway, and discussions of marketing have begun. Which means I can now make the official announcement.

My new supernatural thriller, RADIANTS, and its as-yet-untitled sequel, will be published by Belle Books! The books will appear under the David B. Coe byline.

Woot!!

I am very excited and will keep all of you informed as publication dates are firmed up, cover art is developed, and the time for teasers approaches.

Professional Wednesday: Creativity and the Market

As a professional writer — as a professional in the arts — I take on several career roles. I am an artist, of course. I create. I am an editor, and not just in the traditional sense of editing the work of others, as I’m doing now for the Derelict anthology. I also have to edit myself. All the time. Anything I publish will face edits from another editor, but first my work has to get through my own editorial process, which is fairly rigorous.

I am also a business professional. I make career decisions on a weekly-if-not-daily basis, often in consultation with my agent, but not always. Most short fiction projects don’t involve an agent, and the same is true of some projects that I put out through small presses or that I might publish myself.

And, of course, I am responsible for a good deal of my own marketing and publicity. Maintaining this blog, and the websites on which it appears, keeping up with social media, etc. — all of this is time consuming and absolutely essential to my career.

Most of the time, I can fulfill each of these roles without my actions in one coming into conflict with my actions in another. Most of the time. But what about those few occasions when there are conflicts of a sort? What do I do then?

I’m often asked whether my publishers have pressured me to write a book a certain way in order to have more marketing appeal, or (related) whether I have ever had a publisher tell me to write a certain type of book. And the short answer is no. I have worked with many editors on my various series, and (as I mentioned last week) all of them have been very clear in saying that my books are, well, MY books. I retain final creative control over how the books are written. Editors may make suggestions designed to improve the book, but these are suggestions and in the end decisions about content are mine to make.

That said, though, I have throughout my career received suggestions that were designed to maximize the marketability of a book or series. Again, the decision has always been mine to make, but marketing suggestions often come with what we might call “implied incentives.”

“If you do it this way, you may well sell more books and make more money.”

Some of these choices are huge in scope. How huge? Well, when I first pitched the Thieftaker series, I envisioned it as an epic fantasy, set in an alternate world. My editor at the time suggested that turning it into a historical would make it more marketable, and, he added, if I did so Tor would be able to give me a bigger advance. He suggested I set the books in London. I didn’t want to do that, but once I started thinking about it as a historical, I hit on the idea of setting the series in Boston. And, as they say, the rest is history… [Rimshot]

At other times, the artistic/marketing choices are more subtle. And that brings us to the immediate inspiration for this post. I am starting the edits on a supernatural thriller that I have recently sold to a small press. The first book in the series is complete, and I love it. But I have been aware from the very start that the book will not be easy to market. It’s a thriller, intended for adults, but it has a teenaged protagonist and a few elements that convinced my agent we should market the book as a YA thriller. I wasn’t sure about this, but she was, so that was how we pitched it to publishers.

Well, a publisher bought the book, and the series, but like me, the publisher sees the book as an adult thriller and has asked me to make some changes that she feels will make the marketing of the book easier. Her initial suggestions struck me as too drastic, and so we talked and have reached a compromise that satisfies our shared marketing concerns while also preserving my original concept for the book and overall project.

And this is really the point of today’s post.

As an artist, I have in mind a plot, a set of characters, a setting, a tone and pace and voice for the book. I am committed to that initial vision, and certainly will follow it as I write and revise the first iteration. Once we transition from the creative impetus to the actual marketing of the book, though, the business side of my professional brain kicks in a little. I will not jettison my creative vision for money. Not ever. But I also will not — cannot — allow my adherence to a creative vision to undermine a book’s commercial viability. My goal as writer is to put out the best product I can, and to make a living. So, I will strive to find a balance between respecting my creative efforts and working with the publishing professionals who have agreed to put out my book, and who are skilled in the marketing side of the business.

Writing is my art. It’s my profession. It’s my source of income. I’m not interested in preserving my amateur status in order to make the literary Olympics. I want to write, and I want to make money doing it. In order to be satisfied, not only with my work, but also with the results of that work, I need to blend my roles and get the most out of each project — creatively and financially.

That’s what it means to be a professional.

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: On Blogging

So, at the risk of going full-on meta, I would like to post today about blogging — the value and costs of maintaining a blog, the secrets of keeping the blog fresh for you and for your readers.

When I got into the writing business, personal and professional websites were just starting to pop up. I remember my editor asking me at one point, shortly before the release of my first novel, if I had a website. He was pleased when I told him I did — some of his writers had been resistant. I also remember people in my little town being more impressed that I had a website than with the fact that I was about to be published for the first time.

“My first book’s about to come out.”

“Nice. Good for you.”

“And I have a website.”

“Oooooohhhhhh!!! You have a website??!!”

Seriously.

A few years later, weblogs became trendy, and my editor, agent, and publicist were all over me to start blogging. Soon everyone had a blog, and drawing attention to any one particular blog proved ever more difficult. But the accepted industry wisdom stated that writers who wanted to be successful, who wanted to develop and keep a substantial fanbase, needed to blog. Putting out books and publicizing them on our websites was no longer enough. Now we needed to generate original content on a regular — some said daily! — basis.

This lasted about until Facebook became the thing late in the first decade of the new millennium. With the advent of social media, blogs started to appear cumbersome, overly formal, and not nearly immediate enough.

And yet today, with the age of social media in full swing and not going anywhere anytime soon, some of the wisdom generated in those early years of web access remain true. A writer can’t survive without a website. And blogging remains a viable way to reach readers.

After allowing my blog to lag for a time, I have recommitted myself to it this year, and I’ve been pleased with the results. I didn’t want to post everyday. That would have been overwhelming and it would have quickly turned blogging into a burden, a commitment I resented. I didn’t want that. But I wanted to generate content, for my readers and for myself. I wanted to have a structured schedule that would keep me on task and that would bring readers to my site on a regular basis. But, I wondered, what should I write about?

Even before Covid-19 and the protests that have swept across the country, I had a sense that this would be a year worth chronicling. The election alone promised to make it such. And so I knew that one day a week, I wanted to have the freedom to write about whatever I chose.

I also was looking forward to a couple of writing events this year (the SAGA conference in early March, and another in August that was cancelled due to the pandemic) and so I thought it would make sense for me to offer writing advice once a week. A lot of my social media followers are launching writing careers of their own. This gave me a chance to pay it forward by helping them.

And finally, I had lamented last year that I didn’t pursue my passion for photography with enough discipline. With my Photo Friday feature, I hoped to force myself to pull out my camera more, to demand of myself that I do this thing I love, and share the results publicly.

I’m glad I did all of it. I have been able to chronicle this remarkable year, for myself and for my readers. I have put together what I think is a nice collection of writing-tip posts. And so far I have a good set of photos for the year. Moreover, traffic at my website has gone up between 100 and 200 percent since 2020 began. Not bad.

So, is blogging for you?

Let me start with this: The most important thing new writers can do to boost their careers is write their stories and books. If your time is limited, if you’re already struggling to find opportunities to work on the material you wish to publish, this might not be the time to start blogging. Concentrate on your writing and on your social media platforms, which ought to be far less time consuming.

I don’t recommend blogging for the sake of blogging. I spend a substantial amount of time on the posts I write, and already I’m thinking about ways I can change things up for next year. I want to keep the experience fresh. As I’ve said, I generate content for my readers, but I also committed to this for myself. I wanted to do it. I’ve enjoyed doing it. But it’s a lot of work. I feel the pressure of having to generate new content for three posts a week. Maintaining the blog in this way has not impacted my fiction writing productivity. Not yet. I can see, though, how it might.

One of the keys to successful blogging is posting something original on a regular and predictable basis. My readers know at this point to expect posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Anything I offer beyond that is gravy. But I wouldn’t want to miss a day and let down those who follow my posts. If you want to blog, you should find a schedule that works for you. Even if you post only once a week, doing so regularly, and drawing readers’ attention to that weekly post, could be enough to gain some traffic at your site.

And, of course, that is the goal. I want readers to enjoy my posts. But I also want them at my site, where they can explore a bit and learn about my books. This is, among other things, a business venture.

I have also found it helpful to blog thematically. A number of my readers look forward to my writing tips. Others like the photos, and still others tune in for whatever rant I might put up on Mondays. My readers know what to expect, which, I believe, keeps them coming back. And, since I know what’s expected of me for each post, I find the essays easier to write. It’s no coincidence that week in and week out, the Monday posts are the most challenging to craft, because my “topic” for them is relatively amorphous.

In the end, only you can decide if maintaining a regular blog makes sense. Don’t let yourself be pressured into it by others who say you must do it to build an audience. Plenty of authors don’t blog, and many others only do so occasionally. The most important questions to ask yourself are, 1) Do I want to do this? 2) Do I have time to do this without sacrificing my productivity? And 3) Do I have something to say that will keep my readers and me engaged?

Best of luck. And 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.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Let’s Talk Trunk Novels

A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects.

Let me tell you about my trunk novels. Not all of them – that would take a while. But I have two in particular, the first two books of what I once thought might be a three- or four-book series, that I have been working on for the past week or so.

Many of us have trunk novels and don’t even know it. For those unfamiliar with the term, a trunk novel is a book – complete or partial – that we worked on for a time and then put away, for any number of reasons. The idea is, we shove them in a trunk somewhere – metaphorical? Metaphysical? – and try to forget about them.

Sometimes we put these projects away because we can’t sell them. Sometimes, we are so convinced that the books are deeply, deeply flawed, that we don’t even try to sell them. Sometimes we get feedback on the books – suggestions for revisions – that we’re unwilling or at least not ready to implement. Sometimes we write something, but the market is not right at that moment for the book in question.

I put these books away for several of those reasons. I LOVE the first book, but the market wasn’t right for it. And while I thought it had some great moments, I also knew that it needed serious revision. The prose needed tightening. It had too much exposition, which was slowing down sections that should have been punchy and concise. The second book… well, the second book was a hot mess. Again, I liked elements of it, loved certain passages and plot twists. But I never did figure out the ending. I knew it needed to be torn apart and put back together and I had neither the patience to undertake such a massive rewrite nor a concrete vision of what I wanted the book to look like.

I wrote these books several years back, and around the time I might have forced myself to tackle the revisions, we sold the Justis Fearsson series. Into the proverbial trunk they went. I got them out a couple of years later, but then we sold the Islevale novels and I shut the lid on the trunk once more.

Now, though, with the Thieftaker novellas in edits, with other projects lurking but failing to excite me, I have opened the trunk once more and taken out the books, determined this time to do something with them. My old impressions of the novels remain intact. I still love the first book, but see serious problems with the writing and the excess exposition. And I still see potential in the second book, but it remains a train wreck.

What are the books about? Well, they’re sort of a blend of Celtic fantasy and urban fantasy. Hence the marketing issues. Urban fantasy is well past its peak, and Celtic stories have long since flooded the market. There is no strong demand for either. That doesn’t mean, though, that there won’t be again. Or that my readers wouldn’t be interested in new novels, even if they are not on the cutting edge of what New York publishing considers “hot” and “trendy.” Self-publishing and small press publishing make it easier than ever to bypass the marketing gatekeepers and reach our readers.

Because, while the books need work (I’m about 20% through the revisions on book I), they are engaging and fun. I love my characters, I love the magic. I love the snark in the dialogue and the relationship between my two heroes (both women, one looking to rebuild her life, one bored to tears with hers). There is lots here to like. And the books might make a very nice premium for readers if I wind up creating a Patreon.

These posts are supposed to include tips for those of you trying to establish yourself as writers, and so here goes:

Chances are, you have trunk novels, too, even if you didn’t know them by that name. As writers we ought never to throw anything away. Yes, there are books and stories in my trunk that are irretrievably bad, that will never, ever see the light of day. But there are others that, despite their flaws or lack of market viability at a given time, represent quality work. I’d wager you have books like those, as well.

Don’t give up on those books. I know plenty of people who have sold trunk novels five or ten or even fifteen years after they first wrote them. A good idea remains such, regardless of the market and our inability to execute that idea when first it comes to us. Sometimes we need to grow into the ambition of certain projects. Sometimes it just takes time to figure out where a story ought to have gone.

And in the meantime, reading those old stories and books can tell us things about ourselves as writers. We can see our own growth, recognizing the mistakes and shortcomings of things our younger selves did. And we can also see, from the distance of years, with fresh eyes, the raw potential and effective moments of stories we soured on long ago. Those insights have value in and of themselves, even if we decide in the end that those trunk stories still belong… well, in the trunk.

Do you have trunk stories and books? Might it be time to dig them out and take a look?

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: How Are You Doing? How Am I Doing?

How are you holding up?

No, really. I’m asking. I’m asking you, and I’ve been asking myself over the past week or so.

This is a remarkable time we’re living through. Obviously, I don’t mean remarkable as in “This is great!” But remarkable as in, “We’ll be talking about this, and recovering from this, for years to come.” It is fraught and troubling and disorienting and challenging and, well, insert your own adjective here. I tend to be a news junkie; I rarely tune out the world. But I know many people who do, who prefer to keep politics and social issues in the background except for those moments – Election Day, for instance – when they feel they need to tune in.

Right now, though, we are living the news on a daily basis. There is no escaping it. There seems to be no distance between the world and our lives. There’s a direct line from those Covid maps on CNN and MSNBC and the cloth masks we put on to shop or go to the bank. Nor does it help that the Administration, which has failed utterly to develop a strategy for combatting the pandemic is, nevertheless, more than happy to exploit it in the most cynical ways possible for political gain.

But I have addressed those issues in past Monday Musings, and I’m sure I’ll do so again in future ones. Today, I’m focused more on the personal costs.

How am I doing? Thanks for asking. As I say, this is something I’ve been asking myself recently.

I’ll start with this: In all ways that matter I’m fine. My family and I have been fortunate so far and have avoided the virus. I am also fortunate in that I’m self-employed and have resources to fall back on even as the publishing industry has ground to a halt. I’m white, upper-middle class, and I live in a relatively isolated area. For those who are non-white, who lack financial security, who live in cities or crowded suburbs, all of this is far, far worse.

That said, I find that I’m struggling. I miss my kids, who I haven’t been able to see in months because of Covid concerns. Our older daughter is supposed to come pick up our old car tomorrow – our first time seeing her since December – but even this visit will be brief (just the evening) and distanced. Our other daughter we haven’t seen since March, and even that is far too long. I also miss my brother and his family, who we likely would have seen at some point this summer or fall.

I honestly don’t mind masking at all, but I miss seeing people – friends and even strangers. I miss going to a restaurant or bar. I miss travel. Problems of privilege, I know, but I’m being honest here. I really miss conventions – hanging out with friends, talking shop with fellow writers, interacting with fans. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Calgary for a writing festival. A couple of weeks from now I am supposed to be in Atlanta for DragonCon, a highlight of my professional year. I work alone, and most of the time I enjoy delving into my imagination each day. That’s my job. These days, though, it feels particularly lonely.

I walk every day, but I miss my more vigorous workouts at the gym. And because I’m dealing with an unrelated medical issue that is affecting my shoulder, I have had to cut way back on my home workouts as well, which I find deeply frustrating, even depressing.

Mostly, I am weary of thinking about the pandemic, about the politics of the pandemic, about the logistical gymnastics we all have to go through for even the most mundane of errands because of the pandemic. This is exhausting – and way more so for those who have compromised immune systems and/or belong to at-risk groups. It would be terrifying if we had no health insurance, or lacked faith in the medical professionals in our area. Again, I recognize that I am very fortunate.

(And this, by the way, is what makes the Trump Administration’s mail-system machinations and its blindly foolish insistence on opening schools — just to name two of its worst offenses — so insidious. We are, all of us, dealing with heightened emotions, tensions, apprehensions. I can hardly imagine being the parent of school-aged children and, on top of everything else, worrying now about sending them to school.)

I get mad at myself when I am less productive in my work than I would like to be, or when I let everyday chores slide. The truth is, I should be cutting myself a bit of slack. We all should. The stress induced by this particular moment in history in unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. To my mind, it is rivaled only by the aftermath of 9/11.

I am, in the end, tired of it all. And I’m tired of whining about it. But for all of us who care, who take the threat as seriously as it merits, this is hard. I have no answers, no wisdom to dispense. As I said, I’m struggling, too. I do believe life will get better. I won’t say I expect us to go back to the old normal, but I expect the new normal – whatever that looks like – to be far more enjoyable than this.

Until then, please know that I am wishing all of you good health, simple joys, moments of peace and laughter and love. Stay well, be safe, take good care of one another. We will get through this.