Tag Archives: publishing

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Understand Your Contracts

Today’s post won’t be overly long. It doesn’t need to be, as the advice is fairly straightforward.

One of the advantages of having an agent, beyond increased chances of selling our work to a traditional publisher, and increased access to secondary sales of media rights and translation rights, is that agents understand contracts. When I first entered the business, I didn’t know the first thing about them. I have learned over the course of my career, but I’ve been in publishing for twenty-five years. If I hadn’t learned it would be downright embarrassing.

The fact is, though, in today’s marketplace, finding an agent is harder than ever. And for many of us, it might not be absolutely necessary. Yes, those subsidiary sales are nice, but if our goal is simply publication here in the U.S., and if we’re willing to sign with a small press, we can do this without representation.

But here’s the thing: If we don’t have an agent, we need to educate ourselves on the meaning of contracts. Because no writer should ever sign a contract unless they understand and agree to every single clause.

Look, there are a lot of publishers out there. Small, large, and in between. And many of them — most of them, I would say — are decent, honest, and well-meaning. Many of them are also competent and capable of drawing up a contract that is comprehensive and legally sound. And the Venn Diagram that finds the overlap between those two groups probably includes a good number of publishers.

But it definitely doesn’t include all of them. There are some who are competent but untrustworthy. There are some who are honest but not so good with the legal words thing. There are some who are incompetent crooks, and there are some who probably mean well but simply have some wonky stuff in their business model.

Sadly, none of them come with signs attached telling us to which category they belong. It is up to us to read and understand the legal agreements we’re signing. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we get screwed later on.

Read your contracts line by line. Make notes of anything you don’t understand and ask questions. Ask other writers or editors or publishers you know. Ask that friend who happens to be a lawyer. Seek professional, paid legal advice if you need to. Yes, this last will cost you something on the front end, but you’ll be glad you did it. If you understand the contract but find some of the provisions not to your taste, bring those clauses to the attention of your publisher and try to negotiate a change.

Finally — and this might be the hardest bit of advice to follow — be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t budge. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. Getting a book offer is heady stuff. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment, to believe that this is the ONE opportunity that will ever come our way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we let this one go, we will regret it for the rest of our lives. And I can’t guarantee that’s not the case. But I can tell you these two things: 1) If one publisher thinks our book is publishable, chances are another will too, even if we have to wait a while; and 2) Signing a bad contract can absolutely be worse than signing no contract at all.

So understand your contracts. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand or don’t like. And be prepared to take your book elsewhere.

Keep writing.

Tuesday Musings: This is Why People Post Photos of Kittens…

I am having a bit of a “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all” moment right now. There are some things I would like to write about. I have a couple of rants percolating inside me. But no good will come of them. They are unlikely to make me feel better, and they are very likely to cause blowback.

I am back from LibertyCon, where I had a fun weekend. As always, I caught up with lots of old friends and made a few new ones. But I have to say that this year’s spring Con season, starting with JordanCon in April, and finishing with this weekend’s convention, has been more fraught than I would have liked. I won’t be heading to another professional event until DragonCon over Labor Day weekend, and I am deeply relieved to have a couple of months ahead of me without any conventions to attend.

A friend remarked to me over the weekend that everything in our corner of the publishing world feels more tense and dramatic than usual, and he’s right. Some of what has gone on is as serious as can be — issues of monumental importance. But some of it has resulted from the actions of opportunists seeking to turn the misfortune of others to their advantage. And some of it has been so childish as to defy comprehension. It’s like we have forgotten how to be adults, and are trapped in some God-awful episode of Star Trek in which aliens have caused all of us to regress and act like spoiled, self-centered teens. I don’t know if there ever was such an episode. There should have been. One more opportunity for William Shatner to over-emote . . .

Anyway, I could go on, but I am not willing to tread that road. As I say, it leads nowhere good.

This, I have come to realize, is why people post photos of kittens and puppies. Kittens and puppies are just what are needed in moments like these. Unfortunately, I have no puppies, and kittens make me sneeze.

But not so long ago, I posted about my new (at this point, new-ish) toy — my Sony RX10, superzoom camera. I have used it throughout the spring to take photos of birds and such, and I have accumulated quite a few good shots. And so I choose to fill today’s space with lovely images. This is not likely to make me feel much better, but I believe it will keep me from writing something stupid that will get me in trouble.

Prairie Warbler, by David B. Coe

My first image is of a Prairie Warbler, a bird that nests in this part of Tennessee. Warblers are notoriously difficult to photograph, largely because they’re hyperactive and usually prefer to hang out at neck-straining heights in the forest canopy. This one, though, proved quite cooperative.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, by David B. Coe

Next, I offer this male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, who, with eight or ten of his best friends, cleaned us out of sunflower seed in about an hour one late-April afternoon. They are exquisite birds, but voracious eaters.Prothonotary Warbler, by David B. Coe

This is another warbler — far more unusual than the Prairie. It is called a Prothonotary Warbler and it is one of my favorite birds. Like all warblers, they are tiny — maybe six inches tip of beak to tip of tail — but their call rings through boggy, forested areas like a clarion.

Carolina Satyr, by David B. Coe

I know: this is not a bird. But it is beautiful. It’s a Carolina Satyr, a woodland butterfly that is quite common around here.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, by David B. Coe

This Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been hanging out in our yard all spring, feasting on the sugar water Nancy puts out. We have at least two nesting pairs in the yard, and as the summer goes on and the young ones fledge and start to eat, the areas around the feeders turn into aerial war zones, with hummers buzzing everywhere, attacking one another, each trying to hog all the food.

Philadelphia Vireo, by David B. Coe

And finally, a Philadelphia Vireo, another unusual bird, one I only see occasionally. Some years I don’t find them at all. This year, I got lucky and saw several, including this cutie who allowed me to get a couple of good photos.

There! I feel better, don’t you? And I didn’t have to tick off anyone.

Enjoy the rest of your week.

Professional Wednesday: Listening To My Own Work

SPELL BLIND, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)About seven years ago, I received out of the blue, an email from the actor Bronson Pinchot, who is probably best known for playing the role of “Balki” in the sitcom Perfect Strangers. He was, by then, enjoying a successful career as a voice actor, and he was writing to me because he was about to return to the studio to begin recording his reading of the second Justis Fearsson book, His Father’s Eyes. He wanted to know what I had thought of his treatment of the first book in the series, Spell Blind, and if there were things I wanted him to do differently with the second book.

HIS FATHER'S EYES, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)I was thrilled to get the email, and also impressed by the care he was taking with my books. But I wasn’t really able to give him the feedback he was after. “I have heard great things about your performance from friends, as well as from online reviews,” I told him. “I’ve listened to the sample on the Audible site and very much like your take on the character’s voice. The truth is, though, I am incapable of listening to others read my work. It has nothing to do with your performance, or any one else’s, for that matter, and everything to do with hearing the flaws in my own writing, which I find excruciating.”

This prompted a reply from him that was as amusing as it was courteous. Saying we were “birds of a feather,” he admitted that he had never been able to watch any of his on-screen performances for much the same reason. And there we left it.

Fast forward to a couple of weekends ago, when I attended ConCarolinas. I have been thinking recently of returning to the Justis Fearsson series to write more books in that world. I loved those characters, and really enjoyed writing contemporary urban fantasy, and I have felt for some time now that there is more I can do with the storyline. But I need to re-familiarize myself with the existing works, and I have been eager to start going back through the books.

SHADOW'S BLADE, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)As it happens, I have from Audible the MP3 CD of the third and final book in the original trilogy, Shadow’s Blade. Since I also had in my immediate future two seven-hour drives, I thought I would go ahead and listen to the book. How bad could it be, right? Even if I hated what I heard (to reiterate, I wasn’t worried about Pinchot’s performance, but rather my writing), I could take solace in knowing that I was now seven years and at least eight novels more experienced than I was when I wrote the book.

I want to make clear here that prior to this, I had never, ever listened to one of my novels as an audiobook. Never. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Well, first of all, I loved Bronson Pinchot’s performance. His interpretation of most of the characters was spot-on. His pacing and mood and approach were terrific. I would be delighted to have him narrate more of my work in the future.

And I will also say that I enjoyed my own writing. I was far enough removed from the process of writing the book that I actually got caught up in the story, but was also familiar enough (still) with the book that I could anticipate key scenes and remember lines of which I was particularly fond at the time I wrote them. It was a little like rewatching a favorite movie, but more intimate.

Earlier today, I reached out to Bronson Pinchot, after all these years, and thanked him for his marvelous interpretation of the book. We had a very nice exchange; it turns out he has his own recording studio and business now, so if I want to hire him to do future books, I can.

But the larger point of this story is this: There is nothing wrong with pausing to take pride in our creative accomplishments. Were there passages in the book that I would write differently now? Absolutely. I noticed places where I could have trimmed, where I explained too much, where I should have left stuff unsaid, or presented the material differently. Overall, though, I was struck by how well the book held up. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed writing Justis Fearsson novels. And I was reminded as well that, generally speaking, I am pretty good at this writing thing.

I say that without fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit. Well, okay, I say it with just a little fear that it will sound like bragging or conceit . . . . But as I have suggested in previous Wednesday posts, writing is a difficult profession and if we don’t give ourselves a little credit now and then, an occasional pat on the back for a job well done, no one else is going to do it for us. I wrote a good book. Instead of finding the experience of listening to it excruciating, as I feared I might, I found it really fun and very satisfying. I wound up energized and even more eager to return to that world and write more Fearsson stories.

So, if you are feeling down about a current project, put it away for a while, work on something else, and then return to it and read it fresh. Or, if you are generally lacking in confidence right now, take a moment to go back and look at some old work that you’ve set aside for one reason or another. Sure, you might see elements of the storytelling and writing that need improving. But chances are you’ll also rediscover what you loved about the projects in the first place. And there is definitely value in that.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Dealing With the Slog, part I

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

Yes, I am a Pixar fan. Sue me. My kids were the perfect age for the magical first generation of Pixar movies — Toy Story (1 and 2); Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars (the first one) — and Nancy and I loved them, too.

But Dory’s little don’t-give-up song is more than cute and annoyingly catchy. It also offers a valuable lesson every writer should take to heart.

Today, I continue my “Most Important Lessons” feature, which I began a couple of months ago. In this installment I intend to give a few pointers about what we can do to keep ourselves moving forward in the middle of the slog that is novel-writing.

Because here’s the thing: We writers love to talk about the big events in our professional lives. We shout from the hilltops when we sign a contract or have a new book come out or complete a manuscript. Those are the golden moments, the ones we live for and love to celebrate. But, of course, those moments make up a teeny-tiny fragment of our professional lives. The achievements themselves are significant and worth marking, but they are fleeting and painfully brief. The vast majority of our time is spent working toward those milestones — slogging through the initial drafts of our books and stories, revising and reworking the manuscripts, marketing ourselves and our writing, developing new ideas, or maybe worrying about when we might have a new idea that’s worth a damn.

Of all of these, the first one — slogging through the initial draft of our manuscripts — might be the most difficult. I think it’s safe to say that’s the place where most nascent careers founder. And so that’s where I’m going to focus today.

How do we keep going? How do we avoid becoming one of those aspiring writers who has started ten books but finished none of them, or has started one passion project but stalled at about the 60% mark and cannot move forward from there?

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

1. Set and internalize your own deadlines. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and have sold several series to publishers large and small. That means I have often written to deadlines imposed upon me by my editors. But most writers in today’s market, even established professionals, have to write the first book in a series before they can sell the project, and so I have also written a lot of books that had no deadline, at least no official one (including Thieftaker, Spell Blind, Time’s Children, Radiants, and the first two books of the new Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on). The deadlines for those books are ones I gave myself. And I can tell you that writing to an external deadline is much easier than writing to a self-imposed one. When we miss an external deadline, we risk angering our editor, giving up our place in the publishing schedule, and even endangering our contract. When we miss a self-imposed deadline, there are essentially no consequences.

And so, we need to internalize our deadlines, to make them feel as real and absolute as the external ones. For me, the best way to do that is to map out my project schedule for an entire calendar year. “Jan. 1-April 15, work on Novel X. April 16-May 31, work on editing projects 1 and 2. June 1-September 15, work on Novel Y. Etc.” This way, missing that first deadline has the potential to set back my entire year. Suddenly, missing my own deadline puts something I care about at risk. These are still all artificial deadlines with artificial consequences, but the more I put at stake with each deadline, the more likely I am to take them seriously, which is the point.

2. Keep your deadlines realistic and achievable. Yeah, I know. That hypothetical calendar in the paragraph above includes two novels, each of which I’m writing in about 3 1/2 months. For me, at this stage of my career, that is realistic and achievable. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve written a lot of books and a lot of stories. You should not necessarily expect the same of yourself. When I first started, I took a good deal longer to complete each novel. When you make your deadlines, you need to be realistic about what you can get done, and you need to set your timetable accordingly. When we set deadlines that are unachievable, we set ourselves up for failure. The purpose of deadlines is to keep us on task and on schedule. The moment we miss our first deadline, that purpose is blown. We become discouraged. Our projects languish. Before we know it, our next deadline is shot as well, and suddenly we’re back where we don’t want to be, struggling to complete the novel we’ve already been working on for too long. So be realistic (and that includes factoring in travel, family and work obligations, and anything else that might slow you down). Set yourself up for success.

3. If necessary, divide large tasks into smaller, discreet, manageable ones. For some writers, the very notion of writing a novel can be intimidating. For these folks, nothing is scarier than typing “Chapter One” on a page. I get that. To this day, I am somewhat daunted each time I begin a new book. It’s a bit like painting the entire interior of our house. That seems like too huge a job to take on. But when we look at the big project as a series of more limited tasks, we remove some of that pressure. “I might be thinking of painting the entire house, but for now I’m just going to paint this room.”

I approach writing books the same way. I don’t fixate on the big project. I think in terms of chapters. How does the book start? What comes next? What do I need to do after that? And so on. I don’t tend to set deadlines for each chapter, because I write my chapters in one or two days. But again, that is something I can do now that I couldn’t have imagined when I began my career. So by all means, if it feels like it would be helpful, establish a schedule for your writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Set realistic, achievable deadlines for their completion and stick to the timetable.

This is already a long post, so I’m going to stop here for this week. Next week, dealing with the curse of the 60% stall!!

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Monday Musings: I’m Basically Ted from “How I Met Your Mother”

Are you familiar with the TV show How I Met Your Mother, which ran on CBS from 2005-2014? Ah, good! [Puts out hand.] Nice to meet you. I’m Ted.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it was a sitcom that featured Alyson Hannigan (“Willow” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Cobie Smulders, Jason Segel, Neil Patrick Harris, and Josh Radnor as “Ted.” The conceit of the series is that Ted (voiced in the opening narrative scenes by the late Bob Saget) is, at some point in the distant future, telling his teenage children the story of how he met their mom. Ted is a hopeless and hapless romantic, who goes through a long series of ill-fated relationships looking for The One, the person with whom he is destined to spend his life. It is an entertaining series, funny, poignant at times, and on occasion eloquent on the need to have faith, even in the midst of difficult times, that one’s dreams can be attained. You can stream it on Prime if you’re interested.

I say I’m “Ted” because for the longest time, throughout college and the early years of graduate school, I made many poor dating decisions based on my own epic quest to find The One. I wasn’t interested in casual dating. I wanted to fall in love, to meet the woman of my dreams. And so I pursued the wrong romances. I passed over opportunities to date people who probably would have been great companions for a while. Put another way, I took the whole thing way too seriously, and, more to the point, I made myself miserable doing so. I spent a lot of time alone, and sad about it. The two truly serious relationships I did have during this time ended badly, in part because I found myself thinking maybe they were my future. And so I grew too intense about the romances and placed too many expectations on my partners.

Why am I telling you this?

Wedding Day Photo 1Because eventually I did find The One, and I married her 31 years ago this week. (Our anniversary is Thursday.)

The funny thing is — and perhaps the predictable thing as well — when Nancy and I started dating, I thought I was making, at long last, a decision to live in the now instead of worrying about what was going to happen, about where the relationship was headed in the long run. I didn’t try to project out in my mind how things might go with respect to our possible lives together. I didn’t assume we had that kind of future. I had no expectations. And I also didn’t know, because Nancy hadn’t yet told me, that the moment she met me, she thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.”

Thank God I wasn’t aware of this. Because if I had been, I probably would have found some way to screw it all up.

To state the obvious, life is unpredictable. The Fates delight in messing with us, taking our plans and expectations and shaking them up like a snow globe. As I said, going in, I had no expectations about my relationship with Nancy. Within two weeks of our first date, I knew that I would spend my life with her. Within three months, we were living together. She was a thunderbolt in my life, and has been my love and my light ever since.

But as in love, so in life. Expectations and plans are good for things like AirBnB bookings and car rentals, project due dates and conference attendance. But for the stuff we can’t control, they can be a source of more stress than comfort, of more disappointment than direction. I found The One when I wasn’t looking for her. I have enjoyed my greatest triumphs and moments of joy professionally when working toward my goals without necessarily banking on my ambitions.

Thirty-one years ago at this time, Nancy and I were welcoming our first wedding guests to California (my brothers and their partners, and my parents). Over the next several days we had dinners, rehearsals, a wonderful Wedding Softball Game (Nancy, as the bride, never had to play in the field, and could bat for either team whenever the spirit moved her), and a glorious wedding day, complete with a civil ceremony in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford, that still resonates as one of the three happiest days of my life.

The point of Ted’s search for love in How I Met Your Mother is that all his setbacks and disappointments, while painful at the time, were actually carrying him inexorably toward his one true love. I like to think of my failed romances the same way. Yes, I made some poor decisions at the time, and I went through some spells of loneliness. But given how it all worked out, it was worth the pain. I am a very lucky man.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Giving Clueless Advice

This past week, I spent a good deal of time going through old magazines and books in my office trying to clear out some of the clutter. (More on that in Wednesday’s post.)

For years, I have subscribed to a nature photography magazine. Yes, it’s an actual paper magazine — I get an issue every month, and invariably each includes beautiful, glossy photographs — landscapes, portraits of wildlife, macro shots of plants or creatures — articles about different ways I might improve my craft (if only I had all the time in the world to devote to my cameras and lenses), and lots of advertisements for lots of equipment I can’t afford and don’t need. I look forward to every issue.

But one issue published a year or so ago had an article from a photographer who was trying to give advice to aspiring and amateur photographers about how they/we should deal with the pandemic. Since travel was hard just then, he said, we should concentrate on local sites, places we probably overlook on a day-to-day basis, but which might be beautiful in their own right, and thus might be worthy subjects for our next photographic outings. Great advice.

Except his example, based on where he lived, was Capitol Reef National Park, in Utah’s magnificent red rock country. THAT’S where he was going to take photos as a consolation for not being able to travel due to Covid restrictions. That’s a little like telling someone that since they can’t eat out in restaurants, they should settle for a home-cooked meal, like you do. And then revealing that your partner is a 3-star Michelin chef . . .

I somehow missed this article when the issue first appeared, and so got a good laugh out of it the other day.

But then I started thinking that for many people reading the advice I offer to budding writers, I might come off as equally out of touch.

Let me be clear. I don’t think ill of this writer, and I’m not sitting here thinking all the readers of my blog posts think ill of me. But I do think that for those of us who have achieved some success in a given field, it is often too easy to dispense advice, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how grounded in lived experience. I can suggest that writers experiment with this approach, or rethink that old habit, but the fact is sometimes the advice I give demands a commitment of time, or a certain amount of creative risk. And those sorts of practices are much easier for me to try than they might be for someone who doesn’t have a publishing history or a current contract for a book or trilogy.

Put another way, on some level I can’t help but write from a place of privilege and good fortune, and that may, at times, make me blind to the subtext of my advice and recommendations. So consider this a blanket apology for every time in the past I have given writing advice that I think sounds easy and basic, but that comes across as lacking in understanding or empathy for the experiences of writers at other levels. And consider it as well an apology for every time in the future when I do this again. Because I’m sure I will.

Don’t think for a moment I don’t know just how lucky I am to do what I do. And if in my eagerness to share advice or experience with you, I come across as clueless . . . well, as Nancy and the girls will tell you, it’s because sometimes I AM pretty clueless. But I love what I do. Twenty-five years-plus into this career, I still can’t quite believe I get to make up stories for a living. And I want that for others who have the same dreams I did when I typed “Chapter One” for the very first time.

I should also say that most of the advice I give in my writing posts is stuff I needed to hear in the early years of my career. I highlight mistakes I either used to make or still struggle with to this day. Sometimes I tell you to do things I am currently trying to make myself do. The wonderful thing about writing is that we can always improve. And the frustrating thing about writing is that we always need desperately to improve. We can start writing as young children and continue well into our dotage and still not learn all we need to about this magical craft.

And so I hope you will consider that when I offer advice and lessons on writing, I am there learning and striving right alongside you. Because I am certain I have yet to master beyond the capacity for further improvement any skill or practice about which I’ve written. We are, all of us, students of the written word, and we are still matriculating. How glorious is that?

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: My Approach to Writing Book Reviews

All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel KayAfter publishing my review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvelous new book, All the Seas of the World (coming from Viking Press on May 17), the good people at Black Gate Magazine approached me about writing more reviews for them, something I am excited to do. So, going forward, in addition to being an author and editor, I will also be a reviewer.

In my discussions with the wonderful John O’Neill, Black Gate’s award-winning editor, I made it clear that I would write honest reviews on a spectrum ranging from “this is a pretty good book” to “this is the finest book I’ve ever read.” But I would not write any negative reviews. John agreed, telling me this was just the approach he was after. And yet to many, that might seem like an odd approach to reviewing books, and so I feel it’s a position that bears explaining.

I believe reviews are most valuable when they point readers in the direction of something they might enjoy. I understand there are certain publications — Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews come to mind — that are expected to review a wide range of books and distinguish the good from the bad. By necessity, such venues have to give some negative reviews. Indeed, early in my career I was on the receiving end of several such critiques. It’s part of the business. In a sense, with publications like those, the bad reviews actually lend legitimacy and weight to the good ones.

Black Gate Magazine, and other journals of its kind, are not like that. They do not review comprehensively. They pick out a few books in the genre and shine a spotlight on them. In effect, they say, “Hey, fantasy readers! Here are a couple of books you should check out, not to the exclusion of others necessarily, but simply because they are particularly good.” For a venue like Black Gate, writing and publishing a negative review would be gratuitous. It would be an act of singling out one book for disparagement and ridicule.

As I said to John during our discussion, I have no interest in hurting someone’s career. If he and his staff send me a book to review and I don’t like it, we will simply keep that opinion to ourselves. There’s no need to pan it; we just won’t be recommending it. Because the fact is, just because I don’t like a novel, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’m only one reader. My not liking a book simply means . . . I didn’t like it. Period. Full stop.

I feel quite strongly about this, because I have been on the receiving end of a gratuitously scathing review.

Yes, I know: There are unwritten rules pertaining to writers and professional critiques of our books. Writers aren’t supposed to read our reviews. Newsflash: We do anyway. Writers are supposed to ignore bad reviews. It’s harder to do than you might imagine. If writers are going to read our reviews and not ignore them, we should internalize the good ones and shrug off the bad ones. That might be even harder than ignoring them.

And as it happens, the review in question was the perfect storm of ugliness. First, it was about a book I loved and know was good. Sure, it had flaws; show me a book that doesn’t. But it was a quality book and it certainly didn’t deserve the treatment it received. Second, the review was in a high profile publication. Lots of people saw it. Third, I have good reason to believe the reviewer, with whom I had a bit of history, was acting out of personal animus. The criticism was savage and it was presented in such a way as to be especially humiliating. I won’t say more than that.

Except this. The review hurt. It sent me into a professional tailspin that lasted months. That dark period is long since over, so I am not seeking sympathy. But at the time, it did some damage to my psyche and to my creative output. And there was no reason for it. They didn’t like the book. Fine. Then ignore it. Don’t give it the benefit of a positive spotlight.

They went further. Again, fine. That’s their choice.

I will take a different tack. If I like a book I will publish a review saying so. If I don’t, if for some reason the book doesn’t excite me, or it rubs me the wrong way, I will set it aside without public comment and move on to the next.

Other reviewers are, of course, free to take a different approach. I will not judge them. But I want to write reviews for the fun of it, for the satisfaction of sharing with others my perceptions of an entertaining or moving or thrilling reading experience. I’m not interested in hurting anyone.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Why Write? — Taking Another Swing

Other stories — fictions as well as legends based in truth — shape our languages and our ways of thinking, our imaginations and, yes, the stories we add to humanity’s opus. Every story we tell is, in a sense, a new entry in an ongoing dialogue among storytellers that goes back generations.

During one of the several writing panels I spoke on this past weekend at JordanCon, my fellow panelists and I painted a fairly bleak picture of the current state of the market for writers. Falling advances, shrinking publicity budgets, purges of editors at various publishing houses — the litany of alarming trends goes on and on. Contracting with a big-name New York publisher is becoming ever more difficult, leaving aspiring writers with fewer options outside of self-publishing, which remains a hard road for authors who don’t already have a prominent social media presence. And even for more established writers, myself included, small press publishing has become the more attractive and realistic option.

All of this means less money and more work, almost regardless of how much visibility and experience an author might have.

Which begs the question, why keep at it?

This is a question I have asked myself often over the course of a career that has seen its share of ups and downs. I am sure I have even addressed the issue in one way or another on this blog. But I feel the answer bears repeating.

I keep writing because I love to tell stories, and I still have ideas for novels and short fiction that speed my pulse and light my creative vision. I love to give voice to the myriad characters in my imagination who clamor for my attention. I love world building, discovering new places in which to set my narratives, building exciting histories (yes, I’m a history geek, and, for me, “exciting histories” is NOT an oxymoron . . .) constructing cool magic systems. I love it all. Stop writing? I might as well stop thinking.

More than that, though, storytelling is, to my mind, central to who we are as humans. Every holiday we celebrate, secular or faith-based, comes with a story. And when we share those tales of achievement, or triumph, or spiritualism with our children, we pass to them our shared values, our customs, our beliefs. Societies and cultures define themselves with their stories.

Other stories — fictions as well as legends based in truth — shape our languages and our ways of thinking, our imaginations and, yes, the stories we add to humanity’s opus. Every story we tell is, in a sense, a new entry in an ongoing dialogue among storytellers that goes back generations.

Depending upon who you ask, there are really only twenty types of stories. Or seven. Or three. And regardless of what number you agree with, I suppose there might be some truth to this notion. Stories can be categorized if the listing parameters are drawn loosely enough. Another way to look at it is that every story is different and there are as many stories as there are storytellers and ideas. I edit anthologies, and I have seen authors — literally hundreds of them — take a single theme and each create something utterly unique.

Three basic stories, or billions of them? I can go either way. But I believe with all my heart that every writer is engaged in that dialogue I mentioned a moment ago. Stories are embedded in culture, which in turn shapes each new story, which then informs the next generation of creators. Which suggests that we who write are engaged in an undertaking of near cosmic proportion, one that dwarfs the individual.

So is that why we write?

Maybe.

Or maybe we write because we’re writers and what else are we going to do with our days? Maybe we write because as hard as it might be, it’s still a way to make a living.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Yes, ridiculous. Don’t believe me? You should see my most recently royalty statement . . . [Rimshot]

I come back to how I began. I write because writing is what I love to do. I am profoundly grateful and unbelievably fortunate to have a spouse who loves me and supports me in all ways imaginable. And thus I am able to make a career of my passion. It is not always easy. I have, on more than one occasion over the past quarter century, considered giving up.

But for better or worse, this is what I do, what all of us writers do. And the eternal dialogue awaits our next entries.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: My Editing Journey

Earlier this week, in the closing entry to my “How I Started Writing” series, I had a kind of throwaway line about how I would likely spend more of 2022 editing the work of other people than writing my own fiction. By throwaway, I don’t mean untrue. I just didn’t give it much thought at the time.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierSince writing it, though, I have become sort of fixated on the idea. I am editing my fourth anthology, and already looking at the possibility of editing another. My freelance editing business is attracting a steady stream of clients — I’m booked through the spring and have had inquiries for slots later in the year.

I still identify as a writer. But these days, I am likely to add “and editor” to any description of what I do.

How the hell did this happen?

This is where I would usually insert some joke about crossing over to the Dark Side . . .

Editors and writers exist in an odd universe in which they are simultaneously involved in relationships of several sorts. They are mentor and student, with the editor helping the writer see things in their work they might otherwise miss. They are partners (ideally) working together to make the author’s manuscript as good as it can be and, quite often, doing their utmost to generate buzz around the book that will lead to sales and commercial success.

They also frequently find each other on opposite sides of a business relationship. Editors working for publishing houses are often responsible for making an offer on a book or series, and in those negotiations, writers and editors are not partners; they are, for lack of a better word, adversaries. Editors want contract terms that are as favorable to the publisher as possible. Writers seek to further their own interests. This is why agents play such a crucial role in the publishing business. It’s not just that agents know contracts and so can get writers better terms (though they do and can). Agents also take care of contract talks on behalf of writers so that writers and editors can (to some degree) preserve the good will so essential to a productive creative relationship.

Most writers I know — certainly the most knowledgeable and professionally savvy ones — understand that having a good editor, and being able to work well with that person, contributes enormously to their artistic and commercial success. Moreover, the opposite is also true: Having a poor relationship with one’s editor can be disastrous. And being stuck with an incompetent or hostile editor (yes, they exist) is even worse.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierI am not an acquiring editor. I do decide, along with my co-editor, whose stories will be in the anthologies I edit, so I suppose in that way I am determining the fate of submissions and, in a sense, “buying” manuscripts. But, for now at least, I don’t make decisions about the fate of novels, and so I don’t have to go toe-to-toe with agents. Good thing. They scare me. (Looking at you, Lucienne Diver.)

Most of what I do as an editor is focused on helping writers tease out the best story possible from the work they submit to me. My freelance work is all about this, which is one reason I enjoy it so much. Editing, in this sense, is not all that different from teaching, which I also enjoy immensely. I love the challenge of diagnosing manuscripts, figuring out what a story needs to shine even more than it already does. The best editors I have worked with are those who can make suggestions for improving my stories and novels without changing the nature of my storytelling or my prose. Again, without changing “the nature” of those things. It’s not that my work can’t be improved. On the contrary, nearly every editor I’ve worked with has made my work better with their input. But the best ones figure out how to do that while remaining true to my voice, my vision, my creative ambitions for the work in question. And that’s what I try to do when I edit.

I have had editors suggest changes to me that would have altered my work in ways I didn’t want, and I have resisted those changes. Thus, I always make clear to the writers I work with that my comments and edits are suggestions, nothing more. The story is theirs. My job is to point out all the ways in which I think the manuscript can be improved. But always it falls to the writer to decide what to do with that feedback.

And the best writers I know are those who can take creative criticism to heart without taking it personally. This is not easy to do. Early in my career, I was too sensitive, but even then I was also smart enough to delay my reactions to the edits I received. The second day, when I reread my editor’s comments, they stung a little less. And the third day, less than that. By the time I was ready to discuss the edits with my editor, I had whittled my objections to a relative few. Those I fought for, respectfully but firmly. The best editors I have had made their points, but ultimately respected my wishes.

I believe writing has made me a good editor. I know how it feels to be on the other side of the relationship, receiving that criticism. I know how to give feedback without wounding, and how to tailor my input to the vision of each author.

I also believe editing has made me a better writer. I now see many problems in my own work without needing to be told by a second reader — I can anticipate an editor’s comments. And I also am more cognizant than ever of the simple truth that my editors are my creative allies. They are doing their best to make me as good a writer as I can be.

So I embrace both roles. I have no intention of giving up writing for editing. Just as doing both jobs makes me more effective at both, I think at this point doing only one — either one — would leave me feeling unfulfilled.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, Epilogue

This week I conclude my series of posts on how I came to be a professional writer. You can read the previous posts before moving on with this one. We’ll wait. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

There! Now you’re all caught up. Feel better?

I’m calling this an Epilogue, because it seems foolish to go through every step of my career, when much of it has been fairly public and thus easy to trace through my publications, reviews of my work, con appearances, social media and the like, and my own blog posts about various experiences. Far more valuable, I believe, will be a discussion of a few key points about what I have learned in my twenty-five-plus years as a professional.

I’ll start with this. Recently, while giving a talk to the Apex Writer’s Group, I was asked what I know now about writing that I wish I had known from the start. My answer: I wish I had known then that career trajectories are not linear, they are not smooth, they are not simple. I have said a thousand and one times that writing is hard. A couple of weeks ago I went on a little rant about how we writers should handle adversity without just giving up on the whole thing. But the fact is, I have contemplated quitting more than once. My career followed a nice, upward trajectory for a time, but then, due both to circumstances beyond my control, and to poor decisions I made myself, my march toward bigger and better things halted, stumbled, took a few steps back. My sales numbers dipped. I reinvented myself. Things improved, but then more events I could not control (and a few I could) knocked me back again. Things seemed to be righting themselves and then they fell apart once more, this time through no fault of my own.

Yes, this is vague. Some of the stories that have impacted my career are not mine to tell. Others are, but they involve me casting light on questionable behavior and choices by others and I won’t go there. Another lesson: This — fantasy, writing, publishing — is a relatively small community and we need to be careful about the stories we tell, the actions of others we expose, the decisions we question publicly.

And really, the specifics are beside the point. Because what I’m talking about — the unpredictability of one’s writing fate — is something nearly all writers experience. I know precious few authors whose careers have followed a smooth, ever-rising trajectory. Most of us are knocked on our butts again and again and again.

What separates the professionals who enjoy long careers from those who don’t is the willingness of the former to get up off their rear ends each time they’re knocked down. As I said, I have contemplated giving up multiple times. But I never did quit.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonI am not the most talented writer I know. Not by a long shot. I am good. I believe that. My character work is strong. My world building is imaginative. My prose is clean and tight and it flows nicely. I write convincing, effective dialogue and I have a fine eye for detail. My plotting and pacing, which were once just okay, have gotten stronger over the years. I think writing the Thieftaker books — being forced to blend my fictional plots with real historical events — forced me to improve, and that improvement has shown up in the narratives of the Islevale and Radiants books.

But there are plenty of other writers who do all those things as well as I do if not better. I have been helped throughout my career, though, by a few other qualities. I am disciplined and productive. I work every weekday and at least one day on weekends. I consistently hit my word counts and meet my project goals. I never miss a deadline. I have developed a thick skin — mostly — and have learned not to take to heart criticism and rejections and bad reviews. (Mostly.) I am resilient. And, with effort and practice, I have learned to take to heart the advice I often give to self-define success.

I’m writing and editing for small presses now. I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to the bigger ones. I love my current publishers, and see little need to switch back to the high pressure relationships I once had with big-name houses. I’m writing books I love, and that is, I believe, a key to being successful as I define the word. I don’t expect any one project to make me a ton of money, and that’s okay. I’m happier in my career right now than I have ever been. Partly this is due to my enjoyment of my relatively new career as an editor. This year will see the release of my fourth co-edited anthology with Zombies Need Brains. And I will also continue to expand my freelance editing business. At this point, I expect I’ll spend more time in 2022 editing than writing.

This is not at all where I envisioned myself when I started my career. Back then, I was filled with dreams of bestselling books and a shelf (or two) filled with World Fantasy Awards. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did hope my commercial performance, which has always been a bit disappointing, would match my critical success, which has always been a point of pride. The fact is, though, the business today is greatly changed from where it was when I began. Back then no one had ever heard of e-books. I built myself a web page when my first book came out, and just having a web page conveyed more legitimacy than the publication itself. Seriously.

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

It is a changed world, and it is also now a much harder market. An ever-growing universe of authors are seeking the attention of a fairly static universe of readers, meaning sales for each writer are harder to come by. Advances are smaller if they’re offered at all. Many authors are working harder and harder just to maintain a level of income that is, nevertheless, lower than it used to be. Commercial success means something different now than it did when I began. I count as a triumph the mere fact that I continue to get writing contracts.

I once thought I would reach a point where I stopped worrying that my career would tank, forcing me to give it up as a full time profession. I was disabused of that notion early on by a writer who was very successful and who told me, “Oh, you never stop worrying.” And it’s true. I have been able to continue writing full-time because my partner in love and life has a good job that provides not just the bulk of our income, but also our health care and retirement funds.

The hard truth is, on some level my mother was right when she and I had our big fight about whether I should teach history or write fantasy. As a history professor I would have made a decent living. I would have had job security, retirement accounts, health benefits. And yes, that would have been success as defined a certain way.

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

Again, I find myself struck by my good fortune. Throughout my professional life, I have had the luxury of pursuing a career I love and choosing to define my success not just in terms of earnings, but also in terms of joy. It’s a cliché, but there is no way to put a price tag — or a royalty statement — on that.

Have a great week.