Tag Archives: reading

Professional Wednesday: “Hidden Brain,” Perception, and Fiction

On a recent drive I began listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, with the brilliant Shankar Vedantam. I had listened to scattered episodes before, but never in a systematic way. But this was a long drive and I wound up listening to more than half a dozen episodes, each one fascinating, engaging, and informative. If you’re not familiar with the podcast, which focuses on topics related to psychology, neurobiology, and human behavior, you should check it out. It’s pretty amazing

During my drive, though, one episode in particular lodged in my thoughts, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what I do every day as a writer.

The episode, which first aired only a couple of weeks ago, is called “How to Really Know Another Person.” And the upshot of the discussion was that we can’t really know another person, that when it comes to sussing out the reactions and emotions of other people, we are, as a species, kind of inept.

When we write fiction, we present our stories from the viewpoint of our narrating or point of view characters. Sometimes we use just one point of view character. Sometimes we use several. But when we use more than one, we only switch point of view with a new scene or chapter. At any given moment in a story, we are limited to our narrating character’s perspective. We can know what they are thinking and feeling and remembering, but that’s all. The moment we start to give our readers access to the thoughts and emotions of several characters at once, we are violating point of view and falling into omniscient voice, which is out of favor in today’s literary market. The term used for this — not kindly, I might add — is “head-hopping.” It’s something we don’t want to do.

And so, in order to give our readers insights into the emotions and thoughts of actors other than our point of view characters, we have to rely on the observations and insights of the narrating character. Those characters might pick up on facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, subtleties of spoken conversation, and any number of other clues to keep readers in the know about the feelings, motivations, thoughts, and loyalties of the people the POV characters encounter. The narrators are our readers’ guides to all elements of our stories, and so their interpretations of these interactions are crucial to furthering our plots.

But now let’s return to the Hidden Brain podcast I heard. As Vedantam points out at the beginning of the episode, recent studies have shown that “many of the clues we use to read the minds of others, are suspect.” In other words, all those things I have my point of view characters picking up on, are, in reality, less than accurate. According to his guest on the program,Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, the best way for us to find out what others are thinking and how they are feeling is — surprise! — to ask them, and to make our questions as specific and focused as possible.

The problem with this, of course is that while this may make for better relationships in the real world, it makes for truly lousy fiction. If all the misunderstandings and intrigue and misdirection among our many characters were simply cleared up by heart-to-heart conversations, our novels would all be thirty pages long and boring as hell. More to the point, the solution offered by Doctor West — which, again, is probably really good advice for improving interactions in the real world — doesn’t account for the fact that many of our fictional relationships are adversarial. A character who asks forthright questions of a potential enemy probably isn’t going to get honest answers, at least not without making the exchanges seem incredibly contrived and unconvincing.

So what are we to do? The tools our POV characters rely on don’t really work. Should we have them habitually draw the wrong conclusions from their interactions with other characters? That is likely to tick off our readers before too long. An unreliable narrator is one thing. A buffoon is quite another.

Or do we assume that most of our readers don’t listen to the Hidden Brain, and that even if they do, what they want from us is a good story, rather than an accurate portrayal of the latest in psychological research?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this is the approach I recommend for others and also the one I intend to stick to myself. Let’s be honest: fiction is always an imperfect reflection of reality, and not just because of the magic systems and invented worlds we find in fantasy. As an example, our characters tend to be far more articulate than we are. If we wrote dialogue the way it sounds in the real world, it would be full of “um”s and “you know”s and “like”s and such. We would have a ton of spoken sentences that never quite get to the point or follow rules of grammar. Instead, the conversations we write for our characters sound the way we wish our real-world conversations sounded — witty, snappy, clear, natural.

In the same way, I will continue to allow my point of view characters to pick up on visual and aural clues as indicators of what others are thinking and feeling. Yes, after listening to the podcast, I may choose to have them get things wrong slightly more often. But my characters are not going to start asking questions of one another that are too frank to maintain suspense.

Sure, I want my stories to be believable. But I also want them to entertain.

Keep writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust me.

Keep writing.

Creative Wednesday: Books To Buy For The Writer In Your Life

‘Tis the season for giving, and for searching out gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list. Or, if YOU are the writer on your holiday shopping list, searching out gifts for yourself!

And so I thought I would share with you a list of some of the books on my bookshelves that I would recommend most strongly as presents for a writer. These are not novels, though I could probably make that sort of list as well. These are reference books, tools a writer might use in the crafting of their current work in progress. [That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my website, www.DavidBCoe.com, has a bookstore, from which you can purchase many of my novels!]

Reference booksThese are books I turn to again and again during the course of my work, and I expect the writer on your list will do the same. Not all of them are easy to find, but I assure you, they’re worth the effort. So here is a partial list:

1) Standard Reference Books: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition (the hardcover, bound in red); Roget’s International Thesaurus: Seventh Edition (organized thematically, not by alphabet — trust me); The Chicago Manual of Style: Seventeenth Edition (although if you were to get, say, the fifteenth edition instead, you might save some money and not really lose out on much).

These are all invaluable books. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes not only definitions and the like, but also dates for when the words in question entered the English language. This is a huge asset for writers of historical fiction or fantasies set in worlds analogous to historical eras in our world.

Roget’s Thesaurus, with the thematic index rather than an alphabetical or “dictionary form” organization, demands a little extra work from the writer. Looking up words is a two step process — check the index to find the precise meaning of the word you’re trying to replace, and then go to the indicated page. But the advantages of having entries grouped conceptually are huge, if difficult to articulate. Suffice it to say, I often wind up finding the right word not with my original search, but with a secondary one that begins with a related idea or concept.

And the Chicago Manual not only offers style and usage guidance for almost every imaginable writing circumstance, it also shows how to prepare and format manuscripts professionally, and how to copyedit and proofread (and how to read a copyeditor’s or proofer’s marks), among other things. Every writer should have a copy, and actually, now that I think of it, I need an updated version!

2) What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, Edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. I found this book used several years back after it was recommended to me by a friend, who happens to be a writer as well. Basically, the book provides you with the correct name for every part of every common object you can imagine. I used it just the other day, while writing a new Thieftaker story for the Noir anthology. I needed to know the name of the “u”-shaped arm of a padlock, the piece that swings open and closed to lock something. It’s called a shackle. I hadn’t remembered that, and would have spent way too much time looking for the word online had I not owned this book.

3) English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Like Merriam’s, this book provides the date for when common words entered the English lexicon. The added bonus that sets this book apart from the dictionary is its detailed index, which differentiates among various usages and meanings for the word in question. For instance, “lap” has an entry for the “lap” that a child sits on, and another for “lap” as a verb, as in a dog lapping up water, and still another for “lap,” as in an orbit around a track. Those usages entered the language at different times. This book gives a date for each. Handy, right?

4) The Cunningham Series of Magic Books. Scott Cunningham has written a series of books for magic practitioners that cover a wide array of topics. He has one on magical herbs and plants, another on gems and minerals, still another on oils, incense, and brews. He has books on Wicca and one on elemental magic, and others beyond these. I am not a practitioner, but I find the books immensely helpful when I am writing about magic, particularly for series that are set in our world, like the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books.

5) The HowDunIt series from Writer’s Digest. These books are meant for mystery writers and those who write police procedurals, but I believe they are also indispensable for writers of urban fantasy, horror, and even epic fantasy and science fiction. Available volumes touch on writing crime scenes, on writing about investigative procedures, on poisons, on murder forensics, on injuries and body trauma. I have seven of them, and I’ve used every one.

I could go on with more titles, but this is already a long post, and I have A LOT of books on my shelves. But here’s the thing: When it comes right down to it, there are no limits to the kind of books a writer might find valuable. I have history books, tourist guides to castles and cathedrals, an illustrated architecture book on a ninth century Frankish monastery, books on astronomy, books on weapons, books on military campaigns and tactics, a book on animal tracking, field guides to trees, flowers, edible plants, rocks, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and birds . . . SO many birds . . .

If you know a writer, and you happen to be glancing through the bargain bin at your local bookstore, chances are you can find something that person is going to love and find useful. Because — surprise! — writers love books.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ten Books You Should Read

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

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

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

In no particular order…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, I’ll end.

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

So keep writing, and keep reading.

Monday Musings: More Thoughts on the Pandemic

So, you’re tele-working now. Or you’re home with kids whose schools have closed. Or, like me, you’re just back from driving fifteen hours round trip to pick up your kid from a college that is closed for “two weeks,” but really indefinitely, until this clusterfuck of a pandemic is over.

Our routines seem so solid, so established. We take for granted that they will remain constant, that the foundations of our lives are sound. It’s disorienting to realize how fragile these things truly are. Think about it: On New Year’s Eve, none of us had ever heard of Covid-19; most of us didn’t even know there was a collection of pathogens known as coronavirus. That was the day when health officials in Wuhan Province, China, first reported a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases. The first case has since been dated back to November 17. But even that is only four months ago. And returning to December 31, most of us spent that night with friends and family, celebrating the New Year, unaware that THE dominant news story of 2020 was already underway.

Eleven weeks later, the world is a changed place. Hundreds of thousands ill, thousands dead. Who knows how high those numbers might climb? For many – too many – life will never be the same; for the rest of us, it will eventually return to normal, but the dislocations will be profound and unsettling.

Please allow me to pause here, and to be clear: None of what I am about to say is meant to in any way downplay the seriousness of the situation. For those most at risk – the immunocompromised, the older members of our communities, those who already have underlying medical issues – this is a matter of life and death. Others among us face huge economic hardships that most of us can’t even imagine. The most vulnerable among us – in physical terms AND economic terms – need our support, our love, our compassion, and the attention of our policy makers.

That said, placed in perspective, the disruptions the most fortunate among us – myself included – have endured thus far seem pretty minimal. We hope they will remain so. But in talking to my wife and my kids and other family members, in corresponding with friends and colleagues, I see already the toll taken by the sheer uncertainty of it all. That is another cost of the Trump Administration’s bungling response to the crisis. Yes, they have squandered precious time, and this WILL result in more sickness and, ultimately, more deaths. But even for those who will be fortunate enough to remain healthy, the cost in uncertainty and anxiety is significant.

I got really ticked off at myself the other day because I realized half the day was gone and I had accomplished nothing. I’m finding it hard to concentrate, to resist the temptation to check the news for the latest event to be called off or the next celebrity to announce that they Have It. And as I result I’m getting nothing done.

Which probably doesn’t matter right now. Do I really think publishers are immune to the economic dislocations impacting every other industry? Do I really expect them to be contracting new books or sticking to publication schedules for the ones already in production?

And this leads me to the next thought.

Have you read about the environmental impact of Covid-19? Economic activity has ground to a halt in China and Italy, among other places. And as a result carbon emissions are way, way down in those areas. Now, I am NOT celebrating this. We need to curb carbon output, but subjecting the world to a deadly pandemic is NOT the way to combat climate change.

My point is that many of us – even as we’re expected to “tele-work” (an inelegant phrase, by the way – surely we can do better) – are going to have time on our hands. We’re not going out as much. We’re probably not traveling. Professional conferences are on hold. We’re not going to movies or concerts or sporting events. We won’t be watching March Madness or the end of the professional basketball season or the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

So what will we be doing?

Last week, I went on a hike and took a bunch of photographs (if you haven’t already, check out last week’s Photo Friday post). I have a ton of books to read. Lately, I haven’t been playing my guitar nearly enough. It’s almost time for bird migration, which means more hikes. Yes, I’ll probably be watching TV and movies from home. All of us are going to be binging something, I’m sure. Yet, even the most dedicated bingers can’t spend ALL their time in front of the screen. Those of us who lament never having enough time to do all the stuff we’d like to… well, we finally have that time. It’s been imposed from without. It comes with anxiety-inducing social costs. But if ever there was a time to slow down and enjoy the simple things that modern life too often encourages us to ignore, this is it.

And that’s where I’ll leave you today. This is what I’m musing on this odd Monday. We are in a dark time, to be sure. I’m nervous, as I’m sure most of you are, about the economic and social and biological and political implications of the pandemic. There is plenty to fear. As with all things, though, there is also a flip side. I have thought for a long time that I would like to simplify elements of my life, but in my rush to be productive and to keep all of my professional and personal commitments, I have allowed that wish to fall by the wayside. Now, I have no choice in the matter. For good or for ill. As it were…

Wishing you a good week, whatever that means at this moment in history.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writers Read

I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

In last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post I tried to ease up on the old “truism” that writers have to write every day. This week, I address another truism (Spoiler Alert: notice the lack of quotation marks this time…): Writers have to be readers.

I will admit that I find this one so basic, so integral to all that it means to be a writer, that I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

To my mind, trying to be a professional writer without being a serious reader, is like trying to be a professional athlete without exercising. Except golf and NASCAR. Okay, bad analogy… But you get what I mean.

Seriously, though, we make our livings with the written word; we should be consumers of what we produce. And I expect that for most people this is not a burdensome idea. Generally speaking, those of us who care about words and language and storytelling are drawn to reading without need of being prompted.

That said, I have had people ask me what sorts of things I read and, perhaps more to the point, what sorts of things beginning writers ought to be reading.

The answer to the second question, for the most part, is “whatever you want.” Really. If you like epic fantasy and horror, read those. If you like mystery and urban fantasy and space opera, read those. If you like guitar magazines and books about photography (not that there’s anyone here who likes those things…) have at it. Read what you enjoy, what interests you. Just read.

Then again, if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you should be familiar with the genres AND forms in which you write. You should familiarize yourself with some of the classics of whatever sort of story you wish to write, and you should also be reading new work, to see where your chosen genre is headed. At the same time, you don’t have to read EVERYTHING in the field, or even every book or series considered a classic or a current trendsetter. We all have our preferences, we know what we like and what we don’t. There is a HUGE amount of material available to us and life is just too short to read books we don’t enjoy.

So, as a for instance: I have been writing epic fantasy off and on for close to twenty-five years. I started my career writing big fat high fantasies. By that time, I had read extensively in the genre – classics by Tolkien and Lewis and LeGuin, more recent books by Kerr, Donaldson, Kurtz, Brooks, Eddings, McCaffrey (though she considered herself a science fiction writer rather than a fantasist), Mary Stewart, and my favorite, Guy Gavriel Kay. And so I was familiar with the tropes. I knew which I wanted to avoid and which I wanted to build upon. I knew the story structure. I understood what was required in building worlds and magic systems.

When I decided to start working on urban fantasy, I read extensively in THAT genre, learning the tropes and narrative structures and character arcs that one finds in those books.

These are the reasons we read in our genres: because books and stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger conversation. They are, in a sense, contributions to a dialogue that will, we hope, continue long after we are gone. Trying to write without being familiar with the genre is not only an act of supreme arrogance, it is also a great way to wind up inadvertently writing something that is either too similar to someone else’s work or so far outside the realm of what readers expect that the books fall flat.

On the other hand, there are obvious omissions from my list of epic fantasy authors. I didn’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I didn’t read past the first book of Terry Goodkind’s series. I actually stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because the set-up was too similar in certain ways to my Winds of the Forelands books and I didn’t want to be accused of copying from George R.R. Martin. (A few people accused me of this anyway, but what can you do?)

The point is, we can read to learn our craft without having to treat that reading as a mandatory study list. Read. Read a lot. But choose books that you want to read. If you’re interested in writing short fiction, and are not as sure of yourself in short form work, pick up a couple of collections and/or anthologies. (What’s the difference? Collections are books of one author’s short fiction; anthologies have works by several different authors.) You couldn’t possibly read all the anthologies and collections out there, so choose the ones that sound interesting to you. (And yes, I can recommend a couple of titles…)

But if you want to write, you absolutely have to read. Yes, I’m going there. This is not negotiable. This is not one of those questions for which there are lots of different answers.

Writers read.

Period. Full stop.

Keep writing! (And reading!)

Monday Musings — Lessons in Rock and Roll

Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent…

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time.

As this is the first of my Monday Musings blog posts for 2020, I feel that I should explain that not all of my musings will be about writing. There are plenty of other topics out there, and I intend to explore a good many of them before the year is through.

For today, though, I am thinking about the craft of writing, and in a broader sense, about toiling in the arts.

I read every morning while I work out, sitting on my stationary bike, sweating away, a book in hand. And I mostly read fiction – generally speaking, I prefer novels to non-fiction books. In the past few months, however, for reasons I can’t really explain, I have been reading biographies and autobiographies of some of my rock and roll heroes. I started with Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, not because he is a particular favorite of mine – I like him fine, but I’m no fanatic – but because the book came highly recommended. I then moved to Graham Nash’s Wild Tales. I am currently reading Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a fascinating three-way biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, and next up in the queue is Timothy White’s biography of James Taylor, Long Ago and Far Away. I also recently read a magazine profile of Rod Stewart, who this year will turn 115. No, I’m sorry, that’s supposed to read 75…

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found shared patterns in the career paths of the artists in question, and analogous progressions in my own career. All of these artists suffered through periods of self-doubt early in their careers. Several of them dealt with what you and I might call imposter syndrome. Springsteen and Stewart in particular speak of it explicitly. (And let’s be honest: Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen are not guys we generally associate with failures of confidence…)

All of them enjoyed moments of stunning, even unexpected success fairly early in their professional lives (the phenomenon that was “Born To Run,” the amazing response to the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, the chart-topping rise of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and then all of them, after building for a while on these successes, suffered setbacks that forced them to reevaluate their art. Some of these setbacks were personal, some were self-inflicted. And some were commercial – a few of them had as much to do with changes in their industry as with something the artist him or herself did wrong. But all of them can point to moments when the public response to the work they did fell well short of their expectations and hopes.

All of them had to reinvent themselves in some way. All of them struggled at times to maintain commercial standing in the face of difficult developments in their private lives. None of their careers – NONE – followed a perfectly linear upward trajectory. Yet all of them persevered, fighting through the down times to achieve a second (and third and fourth…) artistic and commercial success. Because in the end, they loved their music. They couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but writing and singing and playing songs.

I suppose none of this is too unexpected. And I don’t expect that you need to have the lessons spelled out for you. Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent. There. I spelled them out for you anyway.

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time. It’s easy to look at the superstars we admire – in any art – and marvel at their amazing careers, ignoring the flops, the ventures that went nowhere. It’s easy to gloss over the ups and downs and assume that if they’re rich and famous, they never have to cope with doubt. And it’s easy to separate ourselves from the big stars, to tell ourselves that because we’re not rich and famous ourselves, we have nothing in common with those who are.

Thing is, none of it is true. They DID have flops. They DO grapple with doubt. And our pursuit of our art ISN’T all that different from their pursuit of theirs. We might not be as well known or as wealthy, but we have something to say, and we owe it to ourselves to keep speaking, to persist through the hard times, and to make ourselves heard. Not because it might make us millions or get us on the cover of Rolling Stone. But because, like our heroes, we love what we do.

The Virtual Tour Goes to the Library

I discovered worlds there. As a kid, I was fascinated by nature and the Apollo moon missions, and so I took out every book I could find on birds and mammals, rockets and space. Thanks to the librarian — I’ve forgotten her name, but I remember that she learned mine right away, and welcomed me every time I walked through the doors to the Children’s Room — I was introduced to the charming stories of Sterling North, and found countless books about baseball (another of my passions).

After a brief break, the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour resumes today with a post over at the Word Nerds Review site. Bethany and Stacie, who run the site, are both strong advocates for public libraries, and they asked me to write about what libraries have meant to me. It was an easy and joyful piece to write. You can find the post here.

Community and Genre, part 2, and Another Giveaway!

Surely there is room in this genre for quiet stories and loud ones, for the old-fashioned and the new-and-weird, for space opera and epic fantasy, for military SF and urban fantasy, for writers of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and gender identities. If you don’t want to read all of these stories, if you don’t want to follow all of these writers, you don’t have to. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.

But it is one thing to choose. It is something else entirely to dismiss. It is time that we as a community recognize the difference.

The day after the release of His Father’s Eyes, book II in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, I continue the 2015 Summer-of-Two-Releases Virtual Tour  with a couple of online appearances. The first, excerpted above, resumes the conversation on genre and community that I began two weeks ago at SFSignal. This new installment can be found here.

And later this afternoon, I will be back at Bitten By Books for a launch party celebrating yesterday’s release. We are giving away a $40.00 gift card to some lucky reader, and right now you can increase your chances of winning by RSVPing for the event here.