Tag Archives: short fiction

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

I have written about the holidays a good deal in the past few weeks, but I have yet to address holidays as a topic in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post.

Now, you’re first response to this might be, “Well, why would you?”

And my answer? “World building.”

Think about the holidays that mark our calendars. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur — these are events that reveal much about our faiths, about the histories and traditions of the religions that guide the lives of so many. Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day — these holidays carry meaning for our secular history, showing who and what we as a culture and society value year after year. Even Halloween and Groundhog Day, which are not holidays in any real sense of the word, offer glimpses into a pagan past that a small but significant part of our population still honors with celebrations marking Beltane, Samhain, Candlemas, the Solstices and Equinoxes.

Every culture and country has its special days, and every one of those special days comes with a story. Which is why the worlds we create for our novels and short fiction also need to have annual observances. Celebrations of this sort are something people do. They are one way of perpetuating the social norms and cultural touchstones that create communal identity. Holidays at their core, are all about story, about history and faith and tradition. And, as it happens, world building is about precisely the same things.

Seeds of Betrayal, by David B. Coe Weavers of War, by David B. CoeFor the Winds of the Forelands series (Rules of Ascension, Seeds of Betrayal, Bonds of Vengeance, Shapers of Darkness, Weavers of War) , I created what is without a doubt the most complex “calendar” I’ve ever undertaken for any project. For those of you not familiar with the world, I’ll give a very brief description. The world has two moons, Ilias and Panya, the Lovers, who chase each other across the sky. Each turn (month) has one night when both moons are full (the Night of Two Moons) and one night when both moons are dark (Pitch Night). Each turn is also named for a god or goddess, and so each Night of Two Moons and each Pitch Night has a special meaning.

For example, Adriel’s Turn (roughly equivalent to our May), is named for the goddess of fertility. According to lore, a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in her turn will last forever. A love consummated on Pitch Night will end in betrayal. Kebb’s Turn (roughly October) is named for the god of the hunt. People believe a successful hunt on the Night of Two Moons presages good hunting throughout the cold turns. Meat from a beast killed on Pitch Night is considered cursed and cannot be eaten. Each turn has similar legends, or in some cases actual phenomena: Pitch Night in Morna’s Turn (named for the goddess of thunder) is always a night of violent storms. The first killing frost in the Forelands almost always arrives on Pitch Night in Sivan’s Turn. Several Nights of Two Moons and several Pitch Nights are observed with prayer and/or gift giving.

These beliefs and traditions make for a much richer, more believable world. If my characters were to traipse through their year without any sort of holidays or occasions, readers might still be drawn in by the rest of my storytelling, but the world would feel flat, and far less interesting.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I did something similar for the Islevale Cycle novels (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, Time’s Assassin). In this world there are two primary deities, Kheraya (female) and Sipar (male), and the calendar is structured around them. It begins with the spring equinox — Kheraya’s Emergence, a day and night of enhanced magickal power and sensuality. The spring months are known as Kheraya’s Stirring, Kheraya’s Waking, Kheraya’s Ascent. The summer solstice is called Kheraya Ascendent, a day of feasts, celebration, and gift-giving. This is followed by the hot months of summer: Kheraya’s Descent, Fading, and Settling.

Sipar’s Emergence coincides with the autumn equinox, the pivot of the year, another day and night of sensuality and enhanced power. And then the pattern of the first half of the year repeats itself — Sipar’s Stirring, Sipar’s Waking, Sipar’s Ascent. These cooler months culminate in the solstice, called Sipar Ascendent, a day of fasting and contemplation. Finally, the year ends with the winter months: his Descent, Fading, and Settling.

In part, of course, I need a calendar for my worlds in order to organize my story. The Forelands books were sprawling and complex, with multiple narrative threads and point of view characters. I had to have a detailed calendar that allowed me to track all the stories and people. And with the Islevale books, which added time travel to the mix, I REALLY needed to know where and when I was in every chapter and on every page.

But my creative work on these calendars went far beyond what I would have required had I simply been interested in a utilitarian time structure. I wanted something that would enhance my storytelling, that would give my readers insights into these worlds and the people who inhabit them. Yes, they’re complex. That’s the fun part! That’s what made this element of my world building so exciting for me.

So as you think about the worlds you’re building, consider not only geography and climate, history and religion, weaponry and food. Think about holidays as well. Create a calendar that is completely endemic to your world. And then show your readers glimpses of it. You don’t have to let them see every detail. Likely that would be too much. It would drown out your story. Give your readers just enough to hint at all the great work you’ve done in the background. And take pride in knowing that you have taken one more step toward crafting a fully realized, intricate, living, breathing world.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Call For Stories, and Submission Advice Revisited!

I am co-editing a new Zombies Need Brains anthology with my friend, Joshua Palmatier, who is the founder and owner of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua is co-editing all three of the ZNB anthologies this year, which to my mind is totally nuts, but good for him.

The theme and title of our project for this year is DERELICT, and if you’re a writer, you should consider submitting. We are looking for stories about derelict ships (seafaring ships, space ships, even a good story about a derelict bus or truck or car could find its way into the collection). The stories should be speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, or horror) and they should be about 2,500-7,500 words long, though REALLY good stories that are shorter or a bit longer will be considered. You can find the guidelines for all three of this year’s anthologies at the ZNB website. ALWAYS read the GLs before submitting to any market.

With stories already arriving in good numbers, and the call for stories open until December 31st, I thought I would revisit some of the short fiction submission advice I offered earlier this year and late last year.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierAnd I’ll start with this: Joshua and I are generous readers. We will read an entire story, even when it’s pretty clear halfway in (or a quarter in…) that the story probably won’t make the cut. Your goal as a writer is to sell us a story, obviously. But really your goal is to make us consider your story on your terms. Here’s what I mean by that: We are expecting to get somewhere between 300 and 400 submissions, for a total of 6 or 7 slots. (Last year, for GALACTIC STEW, we received 409 and selected 7.) Read those sentences again; I’ll wait.

We have a lot of stories to read, and while we are eager to be blown away by something really good, we are also looking for reasons to reduce our pile of submissions to be read. If you send us a manuscript that doesn’t follow the theme, or that doesn’t follow the submission guidelines, or that is filled with typos and misspellings and grammatical issues, we are probably going to reject your story and move right on to the next. That’s just fact. So, you want to get all of that stuff right, so we can consider your story solely on its merits — your terms.

Now, it may be that your story is good but not as good as others, or it might be good but too similar to others we’ve read. We’ll reject stories, even fine ones, for a number of reasons. But by getting the simple stuff right, by turning in a solid, clean, professionally presented manuscript, you give yourself a better chance.

With that in mind…

— Read and follow the guidelines. Follow the formatting to the letter. There is nothing that bothers me more than being in the middle of a 10 hour day of reading slush and getting a single-spaced manuscript that I then have to format myself. In the same way, if the GLs say the story should be no longer than 7,500 words, don’t send us something that’s 10,000. Either edit it down to the word limit or submit something else.

— Edit and polish your story. Proofread it and then proofread it AGAIN. Don’t be in such a rush to get the story out that you neglect to get rid of that typo on page 6 or three instances of “your” that should have been “you’re.” Take pride in your work. Be professional.

— Pay attention to and follow the theme. Again, we’re looking for stories about derelict ships. That doesn’t mean we want a story in which a derelict is mentioned. The ship should be the essential element of the narrative. Without the derelict, your story should fall apart. Think of it like the instructions on a cooking show: “Make our theme the star of your dish…”

— Keep in mind the basic principles of good storytelling. A successful story has conflict, emotion, tension. Characters should be impacted by what takes place. If you have trouble identifying the protagonist and antagonist of your story, it may be that you have more work to do.

— This piece of advice is one I heard Joshua give at a conference last year: Chances are your first idea won’t be your best idea. Sometimes the first idea that comes to us is the one everyone will think of. A bit more digging and thinking might produce an idea that is more original and innovative. And that may well give you a better chance of making it into the anthology. Now, I will add that now and then, the first idea IS the best. But more often than not, a bit of thought and patience will be rewarded.

— Most important, understand that a rejection from this anthology is NOT a judgment on your ability as a writer, or even on the quality of your story. Remember those numbers I gave you earlier: 300-400 submissions for 6-7 slots. Our anthology is harder to get into than Harvard. We will absolutely be rejecting outstanding stories. That’s inevitable. So don’t take it too hard. Rejections are part of being a writer. View them as a step in a longer negotiation. If your story is rejected, take ten minutes to cry over it. Have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea. And then figure out where you’re going to send the story next.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Goals Revisited Again, End of Year, and NaNo

That is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come.

First let me wish a peaceful, healthful Veterans Day to all who have served. Our deepest thanks to you and your families.

The year is winding down. Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and after that we have the sprint to the winter holidays and New Year’s. For those of us who still have a good deal to get done before the year is out, whether to meet external deadlines or self-imposed ones, time is slipping away at an alarming pace. And in my case, I haven’t been at my best the past several weeks and have not been nearly as productive as I would have liked. All of which leaves me feeling rushed and a little desperate to get stuff done.

Early in the year, I wrote a couple of posts about setting goals for myself. I’m a big believer in doing so, in setting out a professional agenda for my year, or at the very least for a block of months. Often as we near year’s end, I will go back and check on my goals to see how I’ve done. Not this year. This year has been too fraught, too filled with not just the unexpected, but the surreal. The goals I set for myself in January were upended by March. And that’s all right. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I want to be as productive as I can be, and with any luck I’ll get this, and this, and this finished.” That’s the sort of year I’ve had. I did what I could (the month of October excluded…) and I am poised for a productive year in 2021.

And in a sense, for me at least, that is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come. The last several years, this one included, that has meant reading a ton of short fiction for the anthology I’m editing. For the third year in a row, I am co-editor (with Joshua Palmatier) of an upcoming Zombies Need Brains publication. This year’s anthology is called Derelict, and I have only just started reading submissions. These will make up the bulk of my workload through the end of December.

But I’m also finishing up a novel, and thinking about how to write the next one (the third in a trilogy). I am working on the production of the Thieftaker novellas, working out artwork and such with my publisher. I am preparing for the re-issue of the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. And I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind. My goal for these last weeks of 2020, aside from reading as many short fiction submissions as I can, is to plot out that next novel, settle the production questions with the Thieftaker projects, and, I hope, figure out how one other project can fit in with these plans. As I have said, for the last month I’ve been less productive than I should have been. I want to turn that around before the year is out so that next year I can start fast and keep moving.

Which brings me to a question I have been asked many times. Readers want to know what I think of that November literary tradition known as NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this, it is a now two-decades old tradition that sees writers trying to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the month of November. The idea is to get writers to write, to turn off their inner critic and put words to page, with the understanding that they will edit and polish when the month, and the manuscript, are done.

I have never done it. I’ve written 50,000 words in a month on several occasions, but usually these are words in the middle of a longer project. And I’ve been writing for long enough that, when things are going well, 50K a month is about my normal pace.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever written 50K words for more than two months in a row. Usually one such month leaves me feeling a little spent. Writing so much in so little time isn’t easy. At least it isn’t for me. I know fellow professionals who write at that pace or faster all the time. Each of us has a process and a pace that comes naturally. Writing quickly isn’t for everyone. Which is kind of my point.

Look, if you do NaNoWriMo, that’s great. Good for you. I hope you find it satisfying and fun and helpful. I know many writers swear by it. They like the focused work period. They like the challenge. They like to feel that they’re working virtually alongside a community of like-minded writers and making their writing part of something bigger than themselves.

It’s not for me. And if a young writer came to me seeking advice, I would probably tell them not to do it. I would suggest that they focus instead on making of writing a daily or weekly habit, at a pace and under conditions that are sustainable for the long term. It’s not that I doubt November will prove productive for them. It’s that I worry about the effect of that sort of effort on December and January and the months to come. Again, if it works for you, or if it’s something you really want to try, by all means, go for it. Overall, though, being a productive, successful writer is about maintaining a steady pace for months, even years, at a time.

Which is why my year will end with me finishing some projects, laying the groundwork for others, and, of course, reading short story submissions. I will, as I usually do, start working out a task calendar for the coming year, prioritizing projects and allocating time to them. I actually find the process exciting. It’s a chance for me to visualize the coming work year and to imagine where my new projects might take me.

In the meantime, I have stuff to finish up before the ball drops.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: How To Handle Profanity In Your Writing

Have you watched the HBO series Deadwood?

It’s a Western, the creative child of the brilliant David Milch. It’s violent, brutally realistic, and absolutely the most profane thing I have ever watched, with the possible exception of the Academy Award-winning movie The Departed, (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by William Monahan).

I would challenge anyone watching Deadwood to record a full minute of dialogue in any episode that does not include an f-bomb, or some other curse. Over the three full seasons the series ran I suppose it’s possible that a “clean” minute exists somewhere. I would be hard-pressed to find it. As you might expect, some viewers are put off by the profanity. Check out online reviews of the series and you’ll find lots of people who want nothing to do with it because of all the cursing, and plenty of others who recognize the excellence of the characters, the imagery, the plotting, but lament the explicit language.

And then there are viewers like me. I LOVE the profanity. I find it poetic, and I felt the same way about The Departed. I believe there is an art to writing works that depend so heavily on strong language. While some may dismiss the profanity in Deadwood or The Departed as gratuitous, I don’t believe it is. I have seen and read other works that DID have gratuitous profanity, and you can tell the difference. For my part, I have never tried to write something with this much strong language, but neither have I shied away from using curses in my writing.

Every author has their threshold for explicit language, just as every author has their threshold for violent and sexual content. Friends of mine pretty much refuse to use any profanity at all. Others throw in a ton. Either approach is fine, so long as the author can make it work. But authors should also understand that, as with sex and violence, they also have to be aware of the predilections of editors and publishers.

The default in publishing these days is that profanity is accepted. Publishers or short fiction markets that DON’T accept manuscripts with curse words in them will generally say so in their guidelines. And, of course, we all know we’re supposed to read and follow the guidelines before submitting any work anywhere, right? Right. At one time, YA markets were assumed to be profanity free, but that rule is less strict now. Still take extra care when submitting to YA markets and understand that while mild swearing might be accepted, stronger language, including f-bombs, might not be. Works aimed at middle grade readers and younger audiences should be entirely clean.

Beyond that, the key things to remember include the following:

1) Profanity for its own sake is not good writing. I generally avoid blanket statements like this one, but in this case it seems appropriate. Just as sex and violence for their own sake, without any narrative or character-related justification, can ruin a book or story, so can pointless swearing. When is profanity justified and how much of it should you use? That will vary from author to author, story to story, even scene to scene. Only you can decide what’s right. But as with things like gore or erotic content, you need to consider your audience AND the characters you’ve created, and then decide what is appropriate for both. Beta readers can be enormously helpful in this regard. I have been working on a trunk novel recently that includes what is far and away the most explicit sex scene I’ve ever written. But the sexual encounter is essential to both my character’s journey and my plot and, therefore, it warrants the attention and detail it’s given in the book. I didn’t write it this way for a cheap thrill. I had a narrative purpose in mind. And that, I believe, should be the test for profanity as well.

2) Your setting also must be a factor in how you handle profanity. As D.B. Jackson, I write the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Throwing in a bunch of f-bombs to a Colonial setting simply would not work. No one would believe it – excessive profanity would yank my readers right out of my world, which I don’t want. I have also written several epic fantasy series set in alternate fantasy worlds. Some of these do have a bit of strong language, but only in contexts that feel appropriate to the world. To my mind, having a foul-mouthed character in most of my fantasy novels would feel wrong; it would seem too much like OUR world instead of my characters’ world. I know of some authors who deal with this by creating their own profanities for their fantasy worlds. They can then have foul-mouthed characters without offending readers or risking too much of a “real-world” feel to their books. I think that is a brilliant and elegant solution.

3) Finally, remember that despite extreme examples like Deadwood and The Departed, a little bit of profanity can go a long way. Think about it the way you might think of hot pepper in your cooking. Yes, there are some dishes that are meant to be REALLY spicy, and you might love dishes like that. For the most part, though, REALLY spicy appeals only to certain palettes. Most people like some heat in their food, but not so much that their eyes water. Profanity is much the same. Masterful writers can get away with extreme language. They can preserve the other flavors in spite of the “spice.” For most of us, a softer touch is often the better approach. Our audiences will likely be more comfortable with the occasional f-bomb and other curses, but not with page after page after page of strong language.

Put another way, you don’t have to be Puritanical, but you don’t have to be fucking rude, either.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

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!)

Writing Tip Wednesday: I Suck At Titles, So Let Me Offer Some Advice…

I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

The other day I asked the folks in my Facebook group (the David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson Facebook Group – you can join here) to suggest possible topics for the Writing Tip Wednesday feature on my blog. I will be taking suggestions for as long as you all want to offer them, so again, if you want to join the group, the link is here. (Too much?)

People responded with several suggestions (finding agents, marshaling ideas into a coherent story, using a pseudonym – all of these sound good to me and all of them will eventually work their way into posts), but one that seemed to get some traction related to coming up with titles for novels and short stories.

I found this somewhat amusing, because I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

I tend to think that titling a novel and titling a short story are quite different. For one thing, with a novel we have more to work with. To my mind, it’s just easier to find the right turn of phrase for a 100,000 word project, than it is for one that’s only, say, 6,000 words. More, quite often our novels are connected to a series of books, and together the franchise can yield an effective title pattern. (The Harry Potter books are an obvious example.) Short story titles can be more difficult.

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

A title, whether for a novel or a shorter piece, should be as simple as possible. It should be memorable, or if not, at least easy to remember (and those are two separate things). It should tell the reader something about the story, but not so much that it either gives away key information or depends on the reader understanding details he or she can’t possibly know. Keep your titles short, avoid words or phrases that are unique to your made-up world or that are likely to be unfamiliar. Obviously there are exceptions to this. (My very first book was called Children of Amarid, which turned out to be a crappy title, because, A) no one knew who Amarid was, and B) everyone assumed (incorrectly) that it was a book for kids. And yet the book did well commercially and critically. So, what the hell do I know?

The Hunger Games is a great title for a book, particularly for the first in a franchise. Simple words that are put together in a way that is both intriguing and memorable. The title captures the essence of the book, introducing a fundamental element of the plotting that will remain central throughout the entire series.

I believe my best titles were those I used in the Thieftaker series. I knew I was writing a sequence of books and I knew as well that I was introducing many readers to a profession that was somewhat different for our genre. And so calling the first book Thieftaker allowed me to present the series concept right out of the gate, kind of like a musical act titling their first album eponymously. For the second book, since I was still building series momentum, I wanted a title that related back to the first in some way. And since I had Ethan both hunting for a thief and being hunted by one, I went with Thieves’ Quarry.

By the time I was working on book 3, I thought another “Thief” title would feel hokey, and so was ready to go with something different. My first choice, City of Shades, was TERRIBLE. Shades is another word for ghosts, and, yes, ghosts figure prominently in the story, but still… Yuck. Then I started thinking about my villain, who was a sea captain, almost a pirate. When the final title, A Plunder of Souls, came to me, I knew I had a winner. Again, simple words – unlike “shades” there is no word there that can be misinterpreted. But the words were memorable, evocative, and unusual, especially taken together. Same with the fourth title, Dead Man’s Reach, which sounds ominous and atmospheric, but also evokes the image of a body of water (continuing the nautical theme).

When I work on short story titles, of course, I don’t have to worry as much about a franchise. Yes, I write stories in universes first created in novels (Thieftaker, Fearsson, Islevale) but we don’t market short fiction the same way. Which means that those guidelines I mentioned earlier are even more important for short story titles: keep them simple, make them easy to remember, make them relevant to the story, and avoid words and phrases that are likely to trip up readers. For instance, a couple of years ago I wrote a Thieftaker story for the Razor’s Edge anthology. The story had intrigue, a historical battle, magic, and a villain, a woman who could conjure and who wears a green gown. I could have named the story any number of things, but I went with simple: “The Woman in Green.” She is key to the story, the title is easy to recall and not at all confusing, and there is, to my mind, something slightly mysterious about presenting her in that way.

A few more things to remember about titles. First, they can’t be copyrighted. You can use a title that you have seen elsewhere, and someone can use your title if it fits their story. This also means that there is no harm in using a memorable phrase, say from a nursery rhyme or idiom, as a title. Plenty of people do. (I’ve long thought James Patterson’s use of “Along came a spider” was brilliant.) That said, once I find a title, I do an Amazon search, because though different works can have the same titles, I prefer to have as few duplicates with my titles as possible, and I really don’t want to name my book after something that has been released in the last year or two. Also, keep in mind the genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you might want to avoid titles that sound like science fiction. If you’re writing military SF, you probably don’t want to use a title that sounds like a Regency romance. (Although, as with everything else, there are exceptions. Irony can be fun.) And finally, as with all “rules” about writing. There are as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules themselves. As I say, my very first book had what I would now consider a terrible title, and it did very well. For every Hunger Games or American Gods, there is a The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and lots of them do just fine.

In the end you need a title that speaks to you, that captures what you were after as you wrote. Some of my titles (His Father’s Eyes, for instance) come to me in mere moments. Others, like A Plunder of Souls, I struggle with with months. Ask friends what they think of your title. Ask them what sort of book comes to mind when they hear it. And understand that in the end, a publisher might change your title. It’s never happened to me, but it does happen. Because ultimately titles are part of marketing, and many of us authors really, really suck at that…

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Submissions

Welcome to the first of my 2020 Writing Tip Wednesdays (name still very much negotiable…). Every Wednesday, I intend to post a tip for writers about some element of the craft or business of writing. I don’t really have in mind any long-term structure for this feature – at least to begin with. I’ll probably be ranging somewhat randomly from one topic to the next. And I will be soliciting your input on what you’d like to hear about in these Wednesday posts.

For this week, though, I am thinking about short fiction, mostly because I am reading stories for the Zombies Need Brains anthology, Galactic Stew, which I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. In particular, I am thinking about the way in which stories ought to be submitted to editors for consideration, in terms of both appearance and content. Bear with me if you’ve heard some of this before.

Let me begin with this: Joshua and I received 409 submissions for this anthology. Our plan is to accept six stories (the other eight in the anthology are to be written by our anchor authors). Again, six stories will be selected from 409. Think about that for a moment. It is harder to get into our anthology than it is for a high school senior to get into Harvard. And so you want to give your story the very best chance of being selected, and that means a couple of things. Yes, naturally you want to write the best story you can. But you also don’t want to disadvantage your entry by failing to follow our submission guidelines or by presenting your work in a manner that is less than professional. So with that in mind, a few tips:

1) Follow the submission guidelines. If you have been to a convention I’m attending, you’ve probably heard me say this before, because it’s that important. Every anthology, every magazine (paper or online), every publishing house, every representational agency – EVERY market – has guidelines. Your job as writer is find them and follow them to the letter. Do not assume that the guidelines for one market apply to all. Chances are they don’t. ALWAYS check the guidelines. Always follow them. If by some chance you find the one market in the world that doesn’t have guidelines, then I recommend that at the very least you follow standard manuscript format: one inch margins all around: 12 point font, preferably Times New Roman; double-spacing; indenting at the beginning of each paragraph; headers containing page number, your last name, and the title of the story; .doc or .docx format (NOT .pdf). These are basics; they should be second nature. This is how professionals present their work.

2) Word count matters. In part this means that if we say “no longer than 7,500 words,” you probably shouldn’t send us a 9,000 word story, even if it is the greatest piece of short fiction since “The Lottery.” But it also means think about how long your story should be at minimum. Many sites will help with this, offering a word range, or, as with the Zombies Need Brains site, specifying an average length of story (in this case, 6,000). Still, even without such information, the upper word count limit should give some indication of desired length. If a market says they want stories no longer than, for instance, 7,500 words, that is likely an indication that they are not looking for flash fiction. Often publishers are trying to produce something (a book or magazine issue) of a certain length, and so they might well have in mind a page count, a word count, an approximate size for the project. For this reason, unless markets specifically ask for flash fiction, or very brief pieces of short fiction, a story that is only 500 or 1000 words long, probably is not going to make the cut.

3) Theme matters. Sometimes. Not all anthologies are themed. Sometimes editors are simply looking for the best stories they can find. At other times (as with the Zombies Need Brains anthologies) theme is everything. For anthologies like these, you want your stories to embrace the stated theme fully. It is usually not enough simply to have a passing mention of, say, food (the theme for Galactic Stew); it needs to be the focus of the story. To give a theme-appropriate analogy, it’s like on a cooking show, when the host tells you it’s not enough simply to use your basket ingredients. Rather you need to make those ingredients the star of whatever dish you’re making. In the same way, the theme should be central to your story.

4) When working with a theme, your first story idea might not be your best idea. This bit of advice I borrow from my co-editor, Joshua Palmatier, who offered it during a panel we shared at RoberCon in Binghamton back in September. This tidbit works on a number of levels: To begin, quite often, the first idea you come up with as you grapple with a theme is going to be the most obvious idea, not only to you, but to everyone who intends to submit. So, again using the food anthology as an example, if you write about, say, poisoning (which is actually an approach we urged people to avoid, but stick with me for the purposes of the example), it’s possible – likely even – that your story will be competing against dozens of poisoning stories. Yes, yours might be the best of them, but chances are we’re only going to take one, so you’re potentially putting yourself at a disadvantage. But also, don’t settle for the first idea works in a deeper way. Sometimes the most obvious idea is also the least interesting. The best stories we’ve seen have been those that surprise us, despite the fact that we’ve read literally hundreds of offerings. The more you think, the more you delve into the possibilities presented by the theme, the greater the chance that you’re going to discover something truly creative and unique. And that, after all, is your goal.

5) And finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if your story isn’t accepted. Did I mention that we received 409 submissions? These days, with so many people hoping to publish and so few markets available, editors and agents everywhere are inundated with stories (or manuscripts, or queries). It’s a tough market, and rejection, while painful, is not the same as judgment. A rejection does not mean your story sucks. It means that for this market, at this moment, the story is not what the editors or publishers or agents are looking for. And that’s ALL it means. The story might well be perfect for the next market to which you submit. Keep trying. If, after a while, the story still hasn’t sold, try another story, and maybe share this one with Beta readers who can offer constructive feedback. But do not freak out, and do not lose hope or get down on yourself. As I have said before, rejection is not the final word; it is simply a step in a long-term negotiation.

Best of luck to all of you. Keep writing!

A New Quick-Tip Tuesday Post!

With that in mind, I would like to suggest that you use the idea of the narrative theme to stir your imagination.

It can be really hard to come up with an idea on demand for just a generic a story. On the other hand, it can be much easier to come up with a story idea with a little bit more of a hint. In other words, create your own prompts.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words. This week’s unsolicited, free, you-get-what-you-pay-for advice is on the subject of story ideas. I hope you find it useful.

Keep writing!

Free Fiction From D.B. Jackson and Faith Hunter!

Earlier this year, my wonderful friend Faith Hunter and I released “Water Witch,” a short story that combined her Jane Yellowrock world with the historical world I created for the Thieftaker Chronicles. Earlier this week, we embarked on a new collaboration,  a serialized short story again bringing together Hannah Everhart and Ethan Kaille. The first installment appeared in Faith’s newsletter, the second in mine.

Today, for one time only, we are re-releasing the installments on our websites, so that those interested can get a taste of our story. However, all subsequent installments will only be available on our newsletters. So, you need to sign up to receive them.

You can sign up for Faith’s newsletter here.

And you can sign up for mine here.

*****

“Explosion on King’s Street”

Hannah followed the sound of footsteps down the narrow alleyway, keeping far enough back that the man she tracked was only shadows and echoing footsteps on the cold, clear morning air. Ethan would be most unhappy with her for following the tough — Nap, he was called — but she had overheard Sephira Pryce, the self-proclaimed Empress of the South End, when she sent her man to pick up a payment from Lieutenant Patterson. Patterson owed Ethan a half crown and hadn’t paid, and Sephira had been known to steal Ethan’s payment from time to time.

The byway narrowed and Hannah slowed, holding her skirts close to keep from brushing them against the barrels and crates stacked along the wall of the Bunch of Grapes Tavern. A hen and her clutch pecked at spoiled food on the muddy side street and the protective fowl cocked her head and spread her wings to make herself bigger, a challenge to the intruder. Hannah wondered how her prey got by without the bird making a ruckus.

From ahead, Hannah heard a sharp click, metal against metal. The earth heaved. The world tumbled around her. Slamming her back and down. She sat up, her ears ringing. Debris was everywhere and smoke—sharp and acrid—hung on the air. People came from the nearby shops and from the tavern.

There had been an explosion, she realized, and her wits were addled, as much as her ears were deaf.

The chicken and her clutch were gone.
***
Ethan had just arrived at the tavern and put in an order for ale when the bomb went off. The force of the blast hammered him against the bar and peppered the back of his coat with shards of glass. He managed to keep his feet, but his ears rang and acrid smoke burned his lungs.

He thought he heard whispers, realized that these were shouts and groans barely penetrating his abused ears. Determined to reach the street, and to help others do the same, he waded through the hazed air, past the twisted, splintered remains of what had been tables and chairs. The bloodied and wounded, too numerous to count, lay strewn across the tavern floor. Ethan saw at least two men who appeared to be dead. He bent, lifted one of the injured, an older gentleman bearing a bloody gash on his arm and several on his face and neck. Together, they stumbled out onto King Street.

The carnage within the tavern was replicated here. Wounded littered the street, blood stained the cobblestones. In the middle of the lane, sat the source of the explosion: a black chaise, its roof gone, its interior little more than a smoking carcass. Whoever left it had taken time to unhitch the horse from its harness — a small mercy. But the carriage stood precisely between the Bunch of Grapes and the British Coffee House, one a Whig establishment, the other Tory.

Which had been the intended target?

The question should have been enough to occupy his mind. But at that moment he saw a figure stumble from a nearby alley, her steps unsteady, a dazed expression on her freckled face. Hannah Everhart. What, in the name of all that was holy, could she be doing here in the midst of this madness?