Tag Archives: short fiction

Professional Wednesday: Special Guest Joelle Presby

Joelle PresbyI first met Joelle Presby several years back at a convention, and I was struck straight off by a number of things. 1) She’s just plain nice. That’s certainly not unheard of in the publishing world, but it’s also not routine. Many people are in the game for themselves. Others pretend to me something other than what they are. Not Joelle. She is genuine, kind, funny. 2) She is also crazy smart. Read her bio. Read her post. She is SMART. And 3) Everyone I talked to at that convention who  was familiar with her work had come to the same conclusion: She was a rising star. A few years later, she continues to dazzle with the release of her first solo novel.

Please welcome to the blog Joelle Presby. [Cue wild applause.]

*****

Professional Wednesday: On Hope

By Joelle Presby

There are a number of ways storytellers transition from folks who write because they have to into folks who write because they have to and also have deadlines and readers buying their work. Like many writers, I think of my transition as special and unique.

I was solidly on the path to never being published, when I stumbled into an opportunity. I was writing my seventh rough draft novel with every intention of finishing it and immediately setting it aside to begin an eighth never-to-be-revised novel. Editing is a lot of work. And I’d let my hopes shrivel too much to sustain me through the grind of reviewing an entire novel’s flaws with a clear eye and rewriting it to make the words on the page fully match the story in my mind.

The re-birth of hope was all my husband Andy’s fault.

Debare Snake Launcher, by Joelle PresbyDebare Snake Launcher, by Joelle Presby (back cover)We were both naval officers in the nuclear power pipeline, trained in engineering and managing complex technical projects, but my degrees were in math and his were in physics and spacecraft design. I got sick (nothing terminal) and had to accept a medical discharge. But my next job required fewer hours, so I could write more. And we could attend science fiction conventions and meet up with authors as long as I did the arranging and accepted that Andy might be at sea. Conventions were a lot more fun when Andy came too. Science fiction authors tend to be significantly more interested in chatting with folks who have space craft engineering backgrounds than talking to another would-be writer who happens to have only a math and engineering background.

But my hope was shriveled, not gone.

When Andy Presby had regular meetings with David Weber to provide Honorverse tech continuity support, I came along. Mostly, I sat in a corner working on a new first draft, but it was fun to eavesdrop on some of the detailed discussions around revising nearly-finished drafts with an eye to incorporating newly postulated science and also not breaking the story world. I began to think just a little about editing my own work. I did and it was hard. So, mostly I wrote first drafts again. But my hope was growing.

Andy and eight friends formed the company BuNine in order to sign a contract with Baen Books to produce a fictional nonfiction encyclopedia of the Honorverse to be released on the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of ON BASILISK’S STATION (Honorverse book 1). The group started strong with Andy agreeing to a leadership role and a primary technical role for the many planned space craft articles. Then the US Navy sent Andy to a new job. He had almost no time. The work wasn’t getting done. I started getting calls. I knew how to be a project manager and I could write. My husband and our friends had made this commitment. I didn’t want them to fail. I didn’t want them to fail David Weber or Baen Books. I wrote bad articles and good ones. I poked Andy to get from him the ship specifications we absolutely needed. I revised the drafts and took editorial correction and revised again. It was hard, but not that hard. I did a lot of nonfiction writing for work, and for a day job, you don’t get to only do rough drafts. Besides, I told myself, this didn’t count. It wasn’t real writing.

But my confidence, my hope, my willingness to dare and try grew anyway.

I heard that Toni Weisskopf was interested in a short story to be published on Baen.com during the month that our project, now titled HOUSE OF STEEL: THE HONORVERSE COMPANION, released. My hope wasn’t big enough to send anything to Baen, but it was enough for me to write a very small Honorverse short story, revise it, and share it with my husband. He gave it to our friends who, without asking me, gave it to Sharon Rice-Weber who, without asking me, gave it to David Weber who, without asking me, gave it to Toni Weisskopf who wanted to buy it if… I would revise it.

The Baen.com story was well received by Honorverse fans. It led to an invite to write for the BEGINNINGS (Worlds of Honor 6) anthology. That success led to having my first published novel be a collaboration with David Weber: THE ROAD TO HELL (Multiverse #3). And then Baen gave me a contract to write a solo novel, which I had to revise. A lot. And it was worth it.

The revised version of my ninth rough draft novel a.k.a. my first published solo novel, THE DABARE SNAKE LAUNCHER, comes out November 1, 2022.

I still go to science fiction conventions and talk to writers, and I’ve learned I’m not as unique as I first thought. If you want to stay on the path to never publishing, it’s dangerous to keep writing.

Though if anyone has access to a time machine, please tell younger me that there is joy in getting the revisions right, and the satisfaction of reaching the last page on the final polish far, far exceeds typing “The End” for a mere rough draft.

Beware. Opportunity might be just around the corner. May you have enough hope to make the attempt.

And, as David B. Coe says, keep writing.

*****

Joelle Presby is a former U.S. Navy nuclear engineering officer and recovering corporate consultant who grew up in West Africa. Her first reader husband works for NASA, but he has yet to build her a space elevator. She does not admit to arranging a book deal through a quid pro quo arrangement with Mami-Wata.
 
Joelle began her writing career publishing in David Weber’s Honorverse and joined him as a cowriter for the Multiverse series with the novel, The Road To Hell. Over a dozen short stories later, she is releasing her first solo novel, , in November 2022.
 
She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.

Professional Wednesday: Writing For a Themed Anthology . . . And My Story Idea Revealed!

With the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter well underway, and our pledges slowly creeping up on our ambitious funding goal (four anthologies instead of three this year, to mark ZNB’s 10th anniversary!), it is time for my yearly “Writing For a Themed Anthology” post. This post, though, has a bit of a twist, which I’ll share with you at the end of the essay.

This year, I am hoping (Kickstarter gods allowing) to co-edit Artifice and Craft, with my dear friend, Edmund R. Schubert. Edmund is an experienced editor, a fantastic writer, and one of my very favorite people in the world. He and I have been friends for a long, long time, and have worked together on many projects. He edited and contributed to How To Write Magical Words, the book on writing I co-wrote with A.J. Hartley, Faith Hunter, Stuart Jaffe, Misty Massey, and C.E. Murphy. He also edited a couple of my short stories when he was lead editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show. And I edited a story of his for Temporally Deactivated. We have, however, never co-edited before this. I’m excited.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierThis will be the fifth anthology I have edited for ZNB (after Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, Derelict, and Noir). For each of them, we have had literally hundreds of submissions for about seven open slots. Getting a story into these anthologies is really hard. We editors have the luxury of being highly selective, because we have so many stories from which to choose.

I have found that no matter the theme, there are recurring categories of stories my co-editors and I tend to reject. The first category is fairly obvious, and encompasses the vast majority of rejections: Some stories just don’t work for one of several reasons. The writing might be too rough, the prose unclear and inelegant; the plot might be too hard to follow (or even indecipherable); or the character development might be weak. Put another way, some stories simply aren’t ready for publication. This is fairly self-evident. When reading slush, we expect to encounter a lot of stories that need too much work to be up to standard.

But then there are two other categories that are far more important for our discussion today.

A) Some stories we get are beautifully written and have really fine core ideas. But they fail to move beyond their conceptual strengths and delve into the emotional and narrative potential of those ideas. I can’t tell you how often we read stories like these, and it’s deeply frustrating. Yes, a themed anthology demands stories that have strong conceptual underpinnings. But the idea is only as good as the story it inspires. It’s not enough to show us the great idea. Authors need to develop those ideas, to give them meaning by building compelling characters and creating tension and suspense and all the other emotions that come through in effective storytelling. So if you submit a story, make sure you give us more than an idea. Give us a fully realized story.

B) Some stories we get are brilliantly written AND developed beyond the conceptual to dive into emotion and character arc and all the rest. But they’re not on theme. This year’s theme for our anthology, Artifice and Craft, is pretty simple. The story needs to have at its core some piece of art that has magical or supernatural qualities. It can be any kind of art, from a painting or sculpture, to a theatrical production or musical composition, to a piece of fine furniture or a piece of short fiction. It’s not enough to have the work of art in the story. It needs to be central to the plot, so that if the work of art were taken out, the entire story would collapse. We will make this clear in the call for submissions. And yet, I can guarantee you that we will receive dozens of stories that aren’t at all on theme, or that, for instance, feature a magical artist who creates great art (which is NOT on theme) or that mention a magical novel, but focus on a scheme to steal the book, rather than on the book itself. (Again, that is NOT on theme, because you could replace the book with, say, a diamond, and you’d have the same basic story.)

So make certain you are following the theme as it is described in the guidelines. Make sure you are doing more than just jotting down an idea, that you’re developing that idea with character work and emotion and tension and conflict and all the other good stuff we writers like to do. And then go to town! Because writing for anthologies is really fun.

Finally, allow me to share with you my own story idea. I am editing Artifice and Craft, but I am also an anchor author for Dragonesque, which will be edited by Joshua Palmatier and S.C. Butler. The theme of Dragonesque is dragon stories written from the point of view of the dragon. Fun, right?

So, the dragon in my story is going to a re-enactor, a dragon who does Renaissance Faires and such. Each weekend she allows herself to be “slain” by a knight, and in return she is paid in gold. Except, she’s getting tired of losing all the time, of letting herself be humiliated by these pretend knights. And during the weekend on which my story focuses, she decides to take matters into her own talons, as it were . . . .

Our Kickstarter is going well. We’re about 2/3 of the way to our funding goal. But if I’m going to write my dragon story, and if Edmund and I are going to find the best magical-work-of-art stories available, we first have to fund the anthologies. So if you want to read great short fiction, and/or if you want to have four new anthologies to which to submit your work, please consider supporting the project! Thanks so much!

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: I’m Stuck

My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

I feel stuck. Have for a while now. It’s nothing too alarming; I’ve been here before. But it is frustrating, and I am ready — past ready — to be, well, unstuck.

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently, and I enjoy that. It keeps my mind busy. It forces me to think creatively, to consider my craft while also making certain to respect the vision and voice of my client. But it’s not the same as writing.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)And when it comes to writing, I am in something of a rut. The last novel-length piece I wrote beginning to end was Invasives, the second Radiants book, which I completed (the first draft at least) eleven months ago. Eleven months!

I’ve written some short fiction since then. A Thieftaker story, a story for the Silence in the City anthology. I had to revise and polish Invasives, and I have done work on the new Celtic series I’ve recently sold. But the first two of those books were already written. I’ve been revising those, too. I’ve started book 3, but only just.

Noir, edited by David B. Coe and John Zakour, an anthology from Zombies Need BrainsMostly, as I say, I’ve been editing. My work. Other people’s work. The Noir anthology. I’ve been plenty busy, but I have not been as productive creatively as I would like. And I wonder if this is because of all the emotional pressure we (my family and I) have been under over the past year-plus.

Recently, I wrote a couple of what you might call audition chapters for a project I cannot talk about. (There was actually an NDA. I really can’t talk about it.) And I enjoyed that process. I had a tight deadline, a quick turnaround from when I got the information on what I needed to write to when the chapters were due. I met the deadline with ease, and was pleased with the results.

As I say, I’ve been here before. I’m not worried that I’ll never write again. At least not too worried.

I wonder, though, if there is a lesson in that experience with the sample chapters. Maybe what I need is a deadline, one that’s hard and fast and not too far away. Maybe I need that sort of kick in the pants to get going again. I’ve long said that when I go too long without writing, I get cranky.

Well, I’m cranky.

I don’t know if I’ll get the gig I auditioned for. I’m certainly not counting on it. But if I don’t, I need to make myself work on something else. According to the contract, that third Celtic book isn’t due for a long time, but I am thinking I should start writing it now. And I should set a hard deadline for myself, well before the actual due date. I have lots of editing projects looming, so I can easily justify forcing myself to write the book now and quickly.

I don’t know. I need to do something.

Creativity is a strange beast. Often it’s thought of as something that comes to us in sudden sparks of inspiration. It can’t be forced, we’re told. But when it strikes, the feeling is euphoric. And some of that is true some of the time.

Inspiration can be abrupt and unexpected, and those moments can be euphoria-inducing. The thing is though, if we want to make our living as creatives, we can’t afford to wait for the muse, or whatever, to strike. We have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, bills arriving in the mail each day. This is our job, damnit!

Which means creativity can be forced. Most times it has to be forced. I write pretty much every day. My muse, on the other hand, is a peripatetic tramp who can’t be counted on to show up at any given time on any given day. If I had to wait for that bastard to show in order to write something, I’d still be working on my first novel.

What does this have to do with me being stuck? Honestly, I’m not certain; I’m working this out as I go. But I think the answer is this: Being stuck is as much a part of making a living as a creator as being inspired. It’s the back half of that shining coin. Fields need to lay fallow for a time before they can be productive again. Writers (and other artists) sometimes need to go through periods of creative dormancy before we can dive back into the projects we want to complete.

This is not an excuse. As I said earlier, I’m cranky. I want to be writing again. But I have also learned over the years that beating myself up because I’ve been unproductive accomplishes nothing. On some level, I believe, the creative brain knows what it needs. Just as a body can crave different sorts of food to meet nutritional needs, the artistic mind can seek out times of rest and times of activity.

I have been in the former for long enough, thank you very much. I am ready for the latter.

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.

Professional Wednesday: A Rant About Rejections and Quitting

Anthologies from Zombies Need BrainsAs many of you know, I am once again co-editing an anthology for Zombies Need Brains, Joshua Palmatier’s speculative fiction imprint. This is my fourth year as a co-editor, and each year Joshua follows pretty much the same approach to publishing his themed anthologies. Each collection has about fourteen story slots. He chooses a set of eight or so anchor authors for each volume and runs a Kickstarter to fund all the anthologies, using those anchor author names to attract support for the projects. Once the anthologies have funded (and Joshua has a remarkable success rate with his Kickstarters) he throws open the anthologies for general submissions, having reserved six story slots in each collection for non-anchor stories. He pays professional rates for the stories, and he puts out sleek, well-curated, well-edited books.

This year the three anthologies are Shattering the Glass Slipper, Brave New Worlds, and my anthology, Noir. Joshua is co-editing only one of the anthologies, a bit of a change from past years when he has nearly killed himself editing two or even all three of the books. We get literally hundreds of submissions for each anthology, making the selection of six (or five or seven) stories incredibly difficult.

As the publisher, Joshua takes it upon himself to send out acceptance letters and also rejections. Of course, he also handles the contracts and payments. His is a somewhat thankless job.

Most years, the rejection letters are met with either silence from the rejected authors, or, on occasion, with a “Thanks for considering me, maybe next time” note in return. This year was much the same. Except for one note he received:

In it the author said they had decided that if their story was rejected this time around, they would give up on submitting anywhere. And then they congratulated Joshua for killing their nascent writing career.

This is so wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, Joshua is as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet. He doesn’t deserve this shit from anyone, much less a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business. (More on that in a moment)

I should also say that Joshua is a class act. He told his editors about the letter, but he didn’t tell us the author’s name or which anthology the story had been submitted to. I have no idea if I read the story. I do know there is a good chance Joshua had nothing to do with the story’s rejection. Even if the story in question was submitted to the anthology he’s co-editing, the rejection would have been a joint decision between Joshua and his editing partner. Mathematically speaking, it’s more likely that another pair of editors rejected the story. Joshua was simply delivering the bad news in his capacity as publisher.

But in a way, that ignores the galaxy of larger issues raised by this note. None of us editors is responsible for killing this person’s writing career. The author of the story is solely responsible for that. They are the one who chose to base their writing future on the fate of one story. They are the one who decided that one more rejection would be enough to make them give up. This was not a career murder. It was literary suicide.

A moment ago I called this person “a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business.” Maybe that sounds harsh. Too bad.

Writing is hard. Rejections are part of the business. I have been writing for more than a quarter century. I’ve published more than twenty-five novels and at least that many short stories. I have won awards, been a convention guest of honor multiple times, had fabulous reviews. And I still have my work rejected all the time. It. Is. Part. Of. The. Business. Yes, rejections suck. And upon receiving one I give myself a bit of time to be upset, angry, sad, whatever. An hour, maybe two. If it’s a big project and a publisher I really wanted to work with, I’ll give it a day. Then I pull up my big-boy panties and get back to work.

That’s what professional writers do. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer. You’ve been rejected. You’re still working. Good on you. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Writing is not for the thin-skinned. Chances are, if a writer can’t take rejection, they can’t take criticism either. And if they can’t take criticism, they can’t work with an editor, which means they have no business being a writer in the first place.

The author of that obnoxious note has obviously not enjoyed much success as a writer. It’s pretty clear that this was the culmination of a string of rejections. I’m sorry for them. Truly. As I say, rejections suck and a bunch of them can be discouraging. And I can even see where, if these rejections have been spread over a span of several years, that could be enough to make this person give up. It’s almost enough to make me sympathetic. Almost. Because then we come back to the part where this person blames Joshua for ending their career.

Look, writing is not for everyone. Maybe you’re reading this having just been rejected yourself. Maybe you’re thinking of getting out of the business as well. I would say to you two things. First, try to remember that a rejection is not always a final judgment. Sometimes it’s a step in a creative negotiation, an indication that your story just needs a bit more work, a bit more polish, a tweak of a character or plot thread. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of your story and everything to do with the other stories in the anthology and the particular slot in the collection the editors wish to fill.

And second, always remember that your reaction to rejection is a choice. You can choose to give up. You can choose to take it personally and flounce away. Or you can choose to see it as a challenge to improve your submission, or write a stronger tale next time around.

Whatever you choose, remember this: No one can make you quit but you.

Keep writing. Or don’t. But take responsibility for that choice.

Professional Wednesday: Submitting To Our Newest Anthologies

Thanksgiving is upon us, and the year is winding down. But for those of you who write and who are looking for publication opportunities, I want to point out that the open call for short story submissions for this year’s Zombie Need Brains anthologies — Brave New Worlds, Shattering the Glass Slipper, and, Noir (which I am co-editing with John Zakour) doesn’t end until December 31st. You still have plenty of time to submit stories to us.

As I have done in the past, I wanted to offer a post on things to do and consider when submitting short stories to any market, but ours in particular.

Let me start with the most obvious thing. ALL fiction markets — publishers, agencies, journals and magazines, as well as anthologies — have submission guidelines, known in the business as GLs. The guidelines for Zombies Need Brains anthologies can be found here.

GLs are called guidelines for a reason. They are not suggestions. They are not there for you to follow or ignore at your whim. They are requirements. If you ignore the guidelines — ANY of them — chances are your story will be rejected out of hand, without having been read. Why? you ask. Because editors are mean and arbitrary. Ha ha. Just a little editing humor for you there. Well, not really. We ARE mean and arbitrary. But we have good reasons for establishing GLs and wanting to see them followed.

Each anthology ZNB publishes begins with a set of anchor authors, writers you know, people with readerships, who have already agreed to write stories for the collection. Anchor stories usually account for seven or eight of the fourteen stories generally found in each anthology. The remaining stories, six or seven of them, are reserved for stories submitted through the open call.

DERELICT, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierLast year, I co-edited Derelict. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before, I co-edited Galactic Stew. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before that, I co-edited Temporally Deactivated. We received more than two-hundred and fifty stories. Again, these are submissions for a total of six or seven slots.

We have guidelines because reading all those stories, and looking for the ones that are of the highest quality AND that will fit the anthology, is hard work. And one thing that makes it easier is having all the stories look the same, with clear fonts, standard margins and spacing, and professional presentation. If the stories come in looking the same, if the stories are all easy to read, we can judge them strictly on the basis of their quality. And this is exactly what YOU want us to do. The last thing you want is for us to reject your story without ever reading it. Think about those odds I just gave you. Even with Temporally Deactivated, which received the fewest submissions of the three I have co-edited, we only accepted 2.5% of the stories we received. With the more recent volumes, the acceptance rate was under 2%. With all those submissions coming in, we are, of course, looking for great stories (more on that later), but we’re also looking for reasons to weed out submissions, to help us get through the piles of stories we have to read. You don’t want us to toss your story because you sent it in a difficult-to-read font, or because you single-spaced when you should have double-spaced. You want your presentation to be professional and correct. You want us to judge the story on its merits, on the great characters you’ve written, on your gorgeous prose, on your scintillating narrative.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierAlong similar lines, ZNB anthologies are themed, which means that all the stories are about something in particular. Galactic Stew was about food. Derelict was about abandoned or lost ships. Noir is about detectives, in SF, fantasy, horror, or paranormal settings, investigating mysteries. As with the GLs, anthology themes are not suggestions. We’re not saying “If you feel like writing about detectives, feel free, but we’ll take any story about anything.” We’re saying, “For this anthology, we want detective stories with a speculative fiction element.” I can’t tell you how many stories we get that have nothing at all to do with our theme. I CAN tell you that we reject every last one of them. If you send to a themed anthology open-call a story that is off theme, it will not be accepted. Ever. Full stop.

Okay, so what are we looking for? How do you write a story for us that has a chance of being accepted. First, let me say this: If your story is on theme, and if you followed the GLs, we might still reject your story, even if it’s good. Hell, even if it’s great. We always have stories we love that don’t make it in. Think about those numbers again: four hundred submissions; six or seven slots. There’s no way to avoid this sort of disappointment. So do not take a rejection as an indication that your story is bad. It may be that we had a similar story that was simply a shade better. Or it may be that your great story was too similar to an anchor author’s story. Or it may be that we had too many fantasy stories and needed an SF (or vice versa).

But to give yourself the best chance, you want to be creative, different, attention-catching. We’re looking for detective stories in a noir-voice, so we expect a certain number of tropes. But we want to see those tropes turned on their heads. We want unusual mysteries, populated with intriguing, non-traditional characters. We want beautiful, clean prose. We want stories that make us think, that grab our attention on page one and don’t let go until the final passage. We want stories with suspense, or with laugh-out-loud humor, or with emotional power, or, best of all, with all of these things.

This is vague, I realize. The things I’ve told you NOT to do, are much clearer and more concrete than the things I’m telling you TO do. Because the best stories are the ones we can’t possibly anticipate. Often, we don’t know specifically what we want until we see it. We want to be surprised, just as we want the readers who will eventually buy the anthology to be surprised. And so I can’t tell you exactly what to write. But if you’re passionate about the story, if in some way the twists and turns of your story surprised you while you were writing it, if you’ve got something that you believe is different from anything you’ve read before, chances are you’re on the right track.

Best of luck. Remember, the submission deadline is December 31.

Some Thoughts on Release Day for “The Witch’s Storm”

"The Witch's Storm," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)Today is release day for “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in my new trilogy of Thieftaker novellas, The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. For more about the release, you can read the interview I did with Faith Hunter yesterday, which appeared here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). You can also find more information about the novellas here.

And you can buy “The Witch’s Curse” here!

Usually, release day posts are all about getting readers excited about our books or stories, “pumping up the volume,” as the expression goes. And certainly I want you all to be psyched about the Thieftaker releases — not just “The Witch’s Storm,” but also “The Cloud Prison,” which will be out in another four weeks or so, and “The Adams Gambit,” which comes out four weeks after that. The novellas turned out well, I think. I love the stories, I’ve enjoyed writing the new characters I’ve introduced, and I was thrilled to return to old character arcs — Ethan, Janna, Diver, Kannice, and, of course, Sephira Pryce.

"The Cloud Prison," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The fact is, though, as many of you already know, this release comes at a difficult time for my family and me. I have only recently returned to social media after a much-needed hiatus, and while I have adjusted to the new realities we face, they weigh on me still. And so I find myself in the position of wanting to be enthusiastic about the new stories, but also NOT wanting to be falsely positive and happy-go-lucky.

Look, it’s easy to gloss over this stuff. Plenty of writers deal with difficult times and manage nevertheless to put on a smile and sell their books. But I’ve been open about the simple truth that this is a hard time for us right now. I’ve been private about the exact circumstances, but I’ve been up front about the rest. And so it feels odd to pretend for this week that nothing is wrong, that I’m focused entirely on promoting the new project.

By the same token, I don’t want to wallow. I don’t want to be the guy who can’t take pleasure in the day-to-day because he’s too focused on His Problems.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)There is, of course, a larger point here. As I say, other writers deal with these questions, too. Really, all of us do. Part of being a professional in any field is being able to set aside the personal to meet our work obligations. We compartmentalize. Our emotions have their time and place, as do the qualities that make us good at our jobs. I am married to someone who excels at compartmentalizing. I am just okay at it. I can set aside my worries, fears, sadness, etc. and write for hours at a time. As long as I remain alone, in my office, with just my plot lines and worlds and characters, I’m fine.

This sort of thing, though — interacting with real people, whether remotely, virtually, or in person during times of crisis — gives me more trouble. I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I don’t like to put on a façade, and I’m not particularly skilled at doing so. That’s not a bad thing, per se. I like to think that I’m genuine. But it’s also not an unalloyed good. I think at times I would be happier, and more pleasant to be around, if I was better at setting aside my emotions temporarily.

We are, nearly all of us, struggling with one thing or another at any given moment. I know precious few people who are purely happy for any length of time, and those I have known who are tend to be blissfully lacking in self-awareness or compassion for others. Social media has a way of smoothing over the bumps and bruises life metes out, and making us all appear to be content, confident, stable, and thriving. But really my current struggles have much in common with things all of you are dealing with in your lives. Yes, the crisis impacting my family right now is particularly difficult, but I’m far from alone in that regard as well.

And so allow me to say that I wish all of you well, and that I appreciate the kindness and support so many of you have shown me in recent weeks and months.

Yes, I have a new novella out today, with two more on the way in the near future. I hope you’ll check them out. I won’t insult you by saying that reading the novellas will improve your lives, but they might be diverting for a time. Just as they were a ton of fun to write.

Best wishes,

David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing.