Tag Archives: writing

Professional Wednesday: It’s All Connected

One more post about my teaching weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference . . . .

As I believe I mentioned last week, I taught four classes at the event. The topics were: point of view, character development, world building, and pacing/narrative arc. And something I noticed as I spoke at the event — something that had kind of escaped me during my preparation of the talks, probably because I worked on them over several weeks, rather than in a single compressed weekend — was the tremendous amount of overlap among the different subjects.

It makes sense that talks on character and point of view would have a lot in common. In fact, usually I combine the two, especially if I have more time or am teaching over the course of several sessions. But world building? Pacing? As it turns out, yep.

It’s all connected. Storytelling doesn’t care for siloing or creating artificial boundaries among various topics. Our writing is most effective when we accomplish several aims at once, when our character work reinforces our world building, which furthers our narratives, which strengthens our pacing, which ups the tension and sense of conflict, which helps us deepen our characters. And so the cycle goes on.

There is a theory about writing — an old editor of mine referred to it as Vernor’s Rule, because he first heard it from award-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge (who he also edited). Vernor’s Rule says the following: As writers, what we do can be categorized broadly in three ways — we develop character, we advance our plots, and we fill in background information. Yes, those are broad headings, but he’s essentially right. And according to Vernor’s Rule, at any given moment in our novels, in any given scene, we should be doing at least two, and preferably all three of those things simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, or, God forbid, none of those things, our manuscripts have stalled, and we need to fix the scene in question.

It’s a simple rule, and it fits in with the realization I had at the writers conference. We should strive to do many things at once with our writing, in part because we can do many things at once. Character arc and narrative arc (plotting) work together to build tension in our stories, and ideally we want them to peak at the same time, with our protagonists coming into their “power” (in whatever sense we care to have this happen) at the same time our plots are reaching their zeniths. Keeping our readers apprised of relevant background information is actually quite helpful in tracing character development AND in deepening our world building, which should bear directly on our narratives.

And really, that is the extent of what I had on my mind today. Writing conferences and convention panels and the like function best when we can break down writing into its component parts. Handling the subjects that way simplifies and clarifies. There is absolutely value in concentrating on individual topics — on character and setting and point of view and the rest. The danger is that we will come to think of these things as operating independently of one another. Because they don’t. Yes, by all means, study each one in turn. Learn all there is to learn about them. But then apply all you can learn in such a way as to blend them together, allowing your various story elements to coalesce into something that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where words on a page turn into living breathing people, into places that feel as real as our own world, and into stories that keep us turning the pages deep into the night.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: Additional Thoughts On Writing and Teaching

After a wonderful weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Workshop (kudos to Lauran Strait and all those who helped her make the conference such a success), I am reminded again of why I love to teach writing, to talk about craft and the business in such a setting.

As with so many things in the literary world and publishing business, no one is going to get wealthy teaching at writing workshops. Don’t get me wrong: Those of us listed as presenters for the event were housed, fed, and paid honoraria for our time. The conference charges its attendees a reasonable amount for all that they offer, and they do not in any way take advantage of their instructors. But I can also tell you that I worked hard on my talks beforehand, preparing them with care so that my presentations would take full advantage of the time I was allotted. I know for certain that my fellow presenters did the same. And then we spent the weekend giving our talks and speaking formally and informally with the conference attendees. If we were to take the time to calculate what we earned for all our work on a per hour basis . . . Well, let’s not go there.

In this way, as I mentioned, writing workshops are a lot like other elements of professional writing. If I were to figure my novel writing earnings on a per hour or per word basis, if I were to do the same with my editing work— But no. That way lies madness.

The greater point is that the vast majority of us who write DON’T think in those terms. Because while we do get paid, and we would, all of us, love to earn more as writers than we do, we don’t do it for the money. We do it for the love of the written word.

And so it follows that I don’t teach at writing conferences for the money, though it is nice to be paid, and shown in that small way that our time and effort and expertise are valued, I teach writing because I love to talk with fellow writing professionals and those who hope to be professionals at some point, about what we do. Edmund R. Schubert, my dear friend and colleague, gave a terrific keynote address at Hampton Roads and he expressed this idea so well. He compared it to churchgoers who speak of being spiritually fed (or not) by a sermon or sanctuary service. And he quoted a pastor who said that if one goes to church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) just looking to be fed, without looking for ways to feed others, they are missing the point.

I go to writing conferences hoping that my talks will “feed” those who listen, creatively, intellectually, professionally. But I also go to them because I know that the give-and-take of a writing session will feed me in turn. I will come away inspired, filled with a deeper appreciation and understanding of my craft. As I did this past weekend at Hampton Roads.

My time with Edmund and also John Hartness, who was there as well, as a presenter and book dealer, fed my need to hang with old friends who share my passion for and frustration with this crazy business. My conversations with fellow presenters I hadn’t known before this weekend offered me new perspectives on the writing industry and new friends who I look forward to seeing again at future events. And my interaction with the attending students, a diverse group who varied widely in age, writing level, life experience, and creative aspiration, filled me with renewed enthusiasm for the ongoing “conversation” in which all storytellers engage.

Yes, in recent posts I have lamented the state of the literary market. But writing is not going away. Storytelling is not going away. One need only experience first-hand the passion of these up-and-coming writers, who are not doing it for the money, who are struggling and working and honing their craft without having yet earned much of anything from their creative endeavors, to know that the future of our craft is not about the troubles in New York publishing. It is about the next generation of writers and their collective voice. And the generation after that one. And so on.

The publishing behemoths in New York can change, or at least make the attempt. They can cut advances, and shake up their staffs, and look to the mammoth booksellers with trepidation, wondering what their next pronouncement might mean for the bottom line. But readers still want a great story. Small booksellers still market books because they love literature. Small presses still publish great stories knowing that they are putting something positive and powerful into the world, even if their profit margins are, well, marginal. And writers of all levels still write the tales that burn in their hearts, and give voice to the characters they encounter in their ever-active imaginations.

Storytelling lives. The conversation continues.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Hampton Roads Writers Conference, and the Hardest Writing Topic to Teach (For Me)

This week I head to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach. I’ll be teaching several workshops over the three days I’m there — a two-hour master class on “Point of View and Voice,” a ninety-minute class on “Character and Character Arc,” and two one-hour classes, one on “World Building” and one on “Pacing and Narrative Arc.” I always look forward to conferences like this one, in large part because I love to teach, and I love to talk about the craft of story telling.

Recently, some of you may recall, I wrote about the difficulties inherent in encouraging aspiring writers given the state of today’s literary market. I don’t believe teaching at the workshop contradicts or undermines what I wrote in that post. If students ask me about the business side of writing, I will be brutally honest with them. And even if they don’t ask the questions, I will not misrepresent the publishing industry or in any way downplay the difficulties currently faced by new writers.

Teaching writing, though, is always a service, always a worthwhile thing to do. Whether someone wishes to write professionally (despite the odds) or write as a hobby — or something in between — it can never hurt to hone those skills. I don’t ever intend to be a professional photographer or musician, but I am always looking to improve at both and would gladly attend photography workshops to learn new techniques. (Provided I can find the time and the money to do so — those workshops are spendy!) Put another way, if I can help any writer improve their skills and get more enjoyment out of their literary projects, I believe I have done a good thing.

I have taught on previous occasions all the topics I’ll be covering this weekend, and I can safely say that pacing and narrative arc are far and away the toughest to teach. Why? Because, they are somewhat amorphous topics. Point of view has definite categories and approaches. It has “rules” most writers tend to follow and most editors tend to look for. I have developed techniques and mechanisms for character development that I am more than happy share. And world building is a process with which I am very familiar and which can be broken down into component parts as a way of rationalizing a complex, sprawling endeavor.

Pacing, though, is all about feel, about instinct. I can talk about things I try to do myself, in my own work, but even those discussions tend to stray into the realm of analogies and metaphors, ways of describing something that defies description. A lot of what I have learned over the years about pacing and shaping narrative arc, has come out of trial and error, mistakes I made in one book or series and corrected in the next, or the one after that.

So why try to teach it? Because, quite honestly, despite the difficulties inherent in talking about a subject that is so hard to pin down — or perhaps because of those challenges — some of the best teaching sessions I’ve ever had focused on this subject. As the topic grows harder to discuss, I find, the classes on the topic grow increasingly interactive, until all in the room are working on ways to conceptualize and contextualize the conversation. In other words, it becomes a team effort, and that helps everyone in the room.

I plan to approach the class in three ways — one is conceptual, relying on those analogies I mentioned earlier; one is visual, using drawings to show how narrative arc ought to progress in a book and in a series; and one is pragmatic, focusing on those narrative mechanics that help us with pacing and that are easiest to discuss in concrete terms.

As I say, my past experiences with teaching pacing and narrative arc have generally been pretty good (and I just jinxed myself) so I am hoping this one will be, too.

The other thing I love about teaching at conferences like Hampton Roads is the opportunity to hang out with other industry professionals, and I believe the coming weekend will be especially fun, since two of my favorite people in the world, Edmund Schubert and John Hartness, will be there as well. In fact, Edmund is one of the conference’s keynote speakers.

So that’s what I have on tap for my end-of-week/weekend. I hope yours is great.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Once More Unto The Breach — To Outline or Not, Redux

After attending DragonCon and speaking on panels about various aspects of writing, I have found myself thinking—yet again—about the age-old debate between those who outline their books and those who don’t. Or, between planners and pantsers, in the parlance of the discussion. And yes, I know those who write without an outline object to the term “pantsing.” (For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from the phrase “Flying [or in this case ‘writing’] by the seat of one’s pants.”)

I actually understand and sympathize with these objections to the term. As one who sometimes writes with an outline and sometimes without, I can say with confidence that I am no less a writer when in the midst of those projects that defy my efforts to outline ahead of time.

As I have said before, my creative process reinvents itself with each project I take on, often with each book. Some projects lend themselves to outlining and are better suited to a systematic approach to plotting. The Thieftaker books in particular are easy to outline. Indeed, when writing in the Thieftaker universe I feel outlining is absolutely essential. With each book and story, I seek to blend historical events with fictional ones, and keeping the two timelines—the imagined and the real—in sync, demands that I have plan things out with care.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)

On the other hand, I have written books that I could not outline at all, despite making every attempt to do so. Most notably, the three volumes of my Islevale Cycle (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin) simply would not submit themselves to any sort of advanced planning. They were like children, refusing to sit still long enough to be photographed.

I have also said before that to me the outlining thing is not so much a binary choice—outline in detail or write the books without any planning at all—as it is a continuum. Even the most dedicated “pantsers” I know have a good idea of where their books are headed. They just don’t like to be tied to a formal outline. In the same way, the most diligent outliners I know leave a great many details out of their outlines, allowing themselves to create in the moment, to preserve the energy that comes from writing organically. Each of us is a little bit planner, a little bit pantser, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll . . . .

(That is my first, and will be my only, Osmond reference EVER in this blog . . . .)

So why am I revisiting the outlining question this week? Because I am in the process of finishing the third volume in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series (which STILL needs a series name!!) and in the final weeks of writing the book, I have been outlining—perhaps it’s more accurate to say RE-outlining—the last ten chapters or so of the story.

And I’ve realized this is something I do a lot. Yes, I try to outline most books, but I almost never outline all the way to the end of the novel. Why? Because things change along the way. I can set out plot points for the first fifteen or twenty chapters of a book before I begin writing Chapter 1, but I know my story is going to shift along the way. Characters will do things that surprise me, that upset my best-laid plans. It’s inevitable. And, in fact, I welcome those kinds of narrative disruptions. When my characters start surprising me, it means they have become fully realized personalities in my head, which is always a good thing.

So, I might outline twenty chapters initially, but I almost always need to adjust my outlines starting at around chapter ten. And then I need to do it again at around chapter seventeen or eighteen. And then I need to do it yet again for the final five or ten chapters of the book.

Put another way, outlining is not simply a task I complete early on, before I start to write my book, and I never think of my outline as a static document. Rather outlining is a process, something I have to revisit several times along the way in order to keep up with the constant creative evolution of my narrative vision.

Because, like so many writers, I am a hybrid. I plan my stories and I also write organically. I adhere to an overarching concept and I adapt to an ever-changing plot line. I take comfort in having a roadmap for my novel and I draw energy from all the story ideas I discover along the way. As I say, my process changes with each project, but these things remain the same.

I like to say there is no single right way to do any of this. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to plot or you have to write organically. Find the balance that fits best with your creative style.

And, of course, keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: What To Tell Aspiring Writers About The Current Literary Market

If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion.

This past weekend, while at DragonCon, I spent a lot of time on writing panels, talking with other literary professionals in front of audiences made up largely of aspiring writers. We mostly discussed ways to improve various elements of our storytelling, but we spoke as well about the state of the current writing market, and the challenges of embarking on a literary career.

Reflecting on those conversations, it occurs to me that much of what we discussed warrants repetition and amplification in this venue.

This has been a summer of bad news for those of us who (try to) make our livings writing books. Book sales are down across the board this year. Barnes and Noble is rumored to be cutting back drastically on what books it will carry and market. The trial to determine the future of the proposed merger between Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster has revealed that book sales for the vast majority of volumes published each year are shockingly, depressingly low. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but if they’re not, that would only mean that publishers routinely mislead authors about their sales numbers, which would also be shocking and depressing. Lose lose.

I have neither the data nor the experience to state categorically that it has never been harder to be a professional writer, but I can say that right now the business outlook for our industry pretty much sucks.

Which has left me wondering — as I attend conventions and get ready to teach at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference — how can I mentor young writers when the market is so dauntingly hostile? I struggle with this nearly daily.

I have been in the business for a long time. I have literally dozens of publishing credits — as a novelist, as a short story writer, as an editor. I have awards to my name, a history of strong reviews, a reputation as a professional who hits his deadlines, turns in clean manuscripts, and is reasonably easy to work with. (Mostly.) And yet, I still get lots of rejections when I shop new projects. My advances are lower now than they were early in my career. My sales numbers have declined with those across the industry. Maintaining my career has never been harder — it feels like all my accomplishments and credits mean nothing at all.

Again, I question how I can, in good conscience, tell people, “Yes! Go forth! Write your books! Try to make a career for yourselves in this crazy, cruel, struggling business!”

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and advise young me on the career choice I made back in the mid-1990s, would I tell him/me to embark on this career? Probably. But I have been extraordinarily fortunate in certain ways (and chronically unlucky in others), especially in that I have enjoyed the support of an incredible, generous, accomplished life partner. If I was doing this alone, without Nancy? No way in hell.

If that hypothetical time travel worked differently, and young me was starting now? I would probably advise him/me to find another career, or at the very least to approach this one very, very differently, to look upon writing as a paying hobby, not as a profession, and to keep his/my expectations quite low.

Throughout my career I have spoken often of the importance of loving what we do. And I mean it in several ways. On one level, love what we do means write for the love of it, because the payoffs of this profession, financial and emotional, can be slim and fleeting. On another level, love what we do means we must love the stories we write, and write the stories about which we’re passionate. The market is a moving target. Writing to the market is just about impossible. So we should write the stories that sing in our hearts, because that love will shine through in the final product, and we will enjoy the process more. Finally, love what we do means we must take satisfaction in the stories we produce, because often the artistic creation itself is the lone reward for a job well done.

Strangely, even in this current market — indeed, especially in this current market — “Love what we do” remains good advice. If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion. Writing because we think it’s just a good gig, a great way to make a few bucks? If that’s what you’re thinking, I suggest you go back and reread the opening graphs of this post.

As queasy as I might feel about encouraging young writers to go out and try to make a go of literary careers, I feel even worse saying, “No! Don’t do it! That way lies madness, not to mention bruised egos and poverty!” In a sense, there is no good option here.

And so I will continue on this middle course. I will continue to say the following: “Writing is hard. It’s always been hard. It’s even harder now. But it’s also a glorious journey through imagination and emotion and creation, a wondrous alchemy by which we take words and turn them into living, breathing characters and their fully realized lives. And here are some tips for doing that as effectively as possible . . . .”

Enjoy the rest of your week, and keep writing.

Monday Musings (On Tuesday): Back From DragonCon

I have spent this past weekend at DragonCon, catching up with friends, meeting new people, and returning an air of normalcy to my professional calendar. To be honest, I went into the weekend a bit reluctantly. I was excited to catch up with friends, but I was nervous about little things — Covid exposure at a convention attended by tens of thousands, and also just being back among so many people after a difficult year in which I have, to the extent possible, tended to avoid public activities.

As it turned out, being among people was fine. Not always easy, but definitely not as difficult as I feared. My friends know me well enough (and are thoughtful enough) to understand how to be supportive and sympathetic without being intrusive. And others . . . well, there’s no rule that says we have to bare our souls to all we meet, right? It’s okay sometimes to put on a smile and answer “How are you doing?” with the immediate truth rather than the longer-term assessment. “I’m good thanks [at this moment]. How are you?”

This all should be second nature, I know. People do this stuff all the time. But it’s not always easy to give ourselves room to be private when we’re in public spaces and situations. And as for the Covid exposure . . . Time (and antigen tests) will tell.

My panels — on writing, urban fantasy, high fantasy, alternate history — were fun. Good discussions and excellent work by our moderators. It was, as always, so great to talk shop with fellow pros and answer terrific questions from engaged, informed audiences. My reading was attended by a few fans, and the occasion allowed me the opportunity to try out the opening chapters from my latest project, the Celtic urban fantasy I’ve been writing about recently in this blog and on social media. I read from The Fugitive Stone, book I in the series. The chapters were very well-received.

In fact, I should say that every time I mentioned the Celtic series (which STILL needs a series name) the response from people was very positive. Interest, enthusiasm even, and lots of eager curiosity. I’m excited.

I missed home, of course. I am a homebody when it comes right down to it, and I would always rather be with Nancy than not. And at this point, I’m pretty exhausted. It’ll take me half the week to recover and settle back into work and routine. But it was worth it. DragonCons are ALWAYS worth it.

To my friends who were at the con — you know who you are — thank you for contributing to a great weekend. To those who attended the panels, as well as my reading and signing, thank you so much for taking time out of your con to listen and chat with us. We appreciate it more than you can know. Without you, there is no con. And finally, to the con organizers and track leaders, thank you so much for all you do. Your hard work and selfless efforts make possible everything that the rest of us enjoy so much.

Already looking forward to next year.

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!

Monday Musings: Taming My Inner Eeyore

The hard part of getting back into posting isn’t the first post. It’s the second, and the ones after that. In part, I retreated from social media six or seven weeks back because I couldn’t imagine carrying the emotional load I had shouldered while simultaneously producing essays about things that mattered less to me, which was pretty much everything else. At the same time, I also knew that I didn’t want to post every Monday about our family problems or my mental health issues. Nobody wants to read that guy week after week after week.

I touched on this a bit back in May, at a time when I was also struggling to come up with essay ideas for these Monday Musing entries.

So, what to do this time around . . . .

In truth, right now there is lots to write about. And the world is a far more promising place today than it was in May. Which makes this blogging thing a little easier. Consider:

Our former Felon-In-Chief is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind (that’s a Watergate reference, for those of you too young to remember), and I will admit that I’ve enjoyed watching him flop about like a hooked fish on a pier (yeah, I know, I’m mixing metaphors — deal with it), searching for any defense that might save his sorry ass. “The documents were planted! It’s a hoax.” “I declassified the documents ages ago.” (Quite a neat trick — knowing to declassify documents that would be planted on his property without his knowledge years later . . . .) “This is all legal under the Presidential Records Act.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

At the same time, our current President (legally and fairly elected) is having a summer to remember. Tumbling gas prices, inflation starting to come under control, continued historic strength in the job market, Democratic voters motivated and mobilized by the SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voters in ruby red Kansas rejecting an abortion ban, one piece of major legislation after another passed and signed into law, rising poll numbers, surprisingly strong Democratic performances in special elections. It all adds up to a changing political landscape, and the realization that November might not turn out the way most pundits were predicting only a few months ago.

On the other hand, drought and floods and fires serve as constant reminders that despite the passage of the climate change bill — a significant and laudable achievement for the Administration and Congress — our planet remains gravely at risk. With that in mind, I believe when historians look back on 2022 decades from now, they will identify as the most significant moment of the year this week’s decision by the California Air Resources Board to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered motor vehicles after 2035.

Yes, it’s only one state. Don’t let that fool you. If California were a sovereign nation, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world, behind only the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany. Alone it accounts for more than 1/7 of our country’s GDP, and its citizens own far more cars than do the residents of any other state. Where California goes, the automobile industry will have little choice but to follow.

At long last, someone in this country has stepped forward and said, “This way to climate sanity. Follow me.” I expect Gavin Newsom, California’s governor and a Democratic Presidential hopeful for 2024 or 2028, sees this as good politics, which is also telling.

Look, anyone who knows me well will tell you I have a lot more in common with Eeyore than I do with Pollyanna. I am all too aware of the threat Trumpism poses to our republic, of the damage the Supreme Court has done to our society and the further damage it could very well do in its next term, of the precarious state of our planet and the limited reach of even California’s dramatic actions this week.

I am also aware of the tough road that lies ahead for my family, for my older daughter in particular.

As a part-time essayist, I can choose to dwell on the negative, or, as the song goes, I can accentuate the positive. For now, I prefer to do the latter. My hope may prove audacious, fantastical even. But I embrace it anyway. I can also promise you I won’t always be able to do this. My inner Eeyore is strong and persistent. For now, though, he is quiescent, and I’m glad.

I wish you a week of hope, good health, and good tidings.

Professional Wednesday: Writing Through — A #HoldOnToTheLight Post

#HoldOnToTheLightAfter running away from social media for six weeks, and ignoring publicity opportunities and the like, I feel a little funny offering any professional advice to anyone on anything. Which, I realize, is entirely wrong-headed.

Sometimes the stuff we write is completely divorced from our real lives, but more often than not, we draw upon personal experience and knowledge for our character work, our world building, our plotting, and our dialogue. Here’s a passage that is a case in point. It’s from The Fugitive Stone, the first book in the Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on.

“One of the insidious things about anxiety and depression—about all mental health problems, really—is the false sense that we’re the only ones who are like this. That we’re broken, and everyone else is ‘normal’”—she put air-quotes around the word—“whatever the hell that means. After all this time, you’d think I’d know better.”

The truth is, lots of writers struggle every day with problems and emotional issues that are at least as difficult as mine. Many have it worse than I do. I know this, and yet I still have to fight the tendency to think I’m the only one, that I’m messed up and everyone else is fine. There’s a little voice in my head that whispers shit like that to me all the time. I hate that fucking voice.

As I have mentioned here before, I find work to be a balm, a welcome distraction, a place I can go where my worries and griefs recede and I am free to create and thus escape for a short while. Sure, the stuff I’m avoiding is there waiting for me when I step out of my office, but the respite is the thing. It helps. Being productive, getting work done, helps me feel . . . [here’s that word again] normal.

There is no secret sauce to this. I can’t give advice on how others might find the same thing to be true with their work. Everyone suffers from mental illness in unique ways. Everyone’s challenges manifest differently. I know how fortunate I am to be able to work and produce and find solace in doing so. I know it’s not a path open to everyone.

But I will say this: Last year, when our daughter first received her cancer diagnosis, I gave up on everything, at least at first. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to function. I called my agent and my editor and I told them both I was stepping back from all professional activities. I wouldn’t be blogging or posting to social media, I wouldn’t be attending conventions, I couldn’t imagine trying to write anything, and so I was going to stop working on the book I was writing at the time. I usually hit my deadlines, but that was one I was certain I would miss.

It didn’t take me long, though, to understand that sitting around worrying about my [adult] child and grieving for the terrible changes imposed upon our family by her diagnosis were poor activities with which to fill each day. I needed to do something that made me feel alive, that reminded there was more to my life than her illness.

This was in the spring of 2021, and the first day I tried to write was pretty much a disaster. I barely got anything written, and I’m not sure I kept a word of it. But the mere act of sitting down at my computer to work felt familiar and, thus, reassuring. I did it again the next day, and the one after that. By the end of that week, I had managed to write more than 7000 words — not close to my usual pace, but not bad at all. The weeks that followed were even more productive.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)In the end, I hit my deadline. More, the book I wrote that spring, Invasives, the second Radiants novel, turned out better than I ever could have imagined. I love the book, not only because I think it’s good, but because it saved me. It got me through that terrible spring and early summer.

I guess what I’m saying is this: We are all coping with something. Life is hard. Life throws obstacles in our paths all the time. Life is a book and we are its protagonists, and just as we writers love to rain shit down on our characters, life rains shit down on us. My tendency, when the shitstorms grow too wild, is to run and hide. I did it in March of 2021. I did it again just a month or so ago, when our daughter suffered a setback in her fight with cancer.

But in 2021, and again this summer, I found that work helped.

Work might not be the answer for you. Maybe knitting is. Maybe photography is. Maybe music or birdwatching, cooking or cleaning, painting or gardening, reading or watching old movies. It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is recognizing that something might help, that looking beyond the pain might well be just what you need.

Be well. Take care of yourself and the ones you love.

Monday Musings: Wading Back In (and Why I Left)

Yes, I’m back, dipping my toes cautiously into the social media waters, gauging my mental state. I have a lot going on professionally right now, and I need to write about it, to boost the signal (as the market phrase would have it), to shout it from the virtual rooftops.

And so, I’m venturing back out into the digital world. But you, who have put up with me disappearing now and again, deserve a bit of an explanation for my sudden withdrawal back in early July.

The short version is this: Our older daughter, who has been battling cancer since March 2021, had an unexpected setback. “Unexpected” as in out of the blue. All (or at least almost all) the indicators had been looking pretty good, pointing toward slow but measurable progress. And then one scan — a formality, dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s — came back with unambiguously bad results. Bad.

We were devastated, and I needed time. As it happened, at that point in the summer, Nancy and I were preparing for a long stretch of travel, and I would have needed to write several weeks worth of blog posts in advance and schedule them for our time away. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to write a bunch of happy, chatty posts when I was shattered.

Hence, my pull-back.

Our daughter is back in chemotherapy. We’ll find out before too long whether it is working as we hope or if her doctors will need to try something else. In the meantime, she is doing remarkably well. The side-effects of this particular drug are, mercifully, not too terrible. She is working as usual on non-treatment days. She is seeing friends, going to parties, having fun. She is a wonder. A force of nature. Her courage and strength and resilience and determination humble me. I am embarrassed by my own fragility. But I’m a parent and my kid is sick and I can’t do a damn thing to make it all better. Isn’t that what dads are supposed to do? Make it all better? I feel helpless.

But given all she is doing for herself, how can I do any less than step back into the world, be a professional, and live my life as best I can?

So . . . .

I am currently working on my new contemporary Celtic urban fantasy. I have recently revised the first book, The Fugitive Stone, and am now about to submit for editorial feedback the second book, The Demon Cauldron. The third book, The Lost Sword, is about two-thirds written. I’ll be resuming work on it soon.

The Kickstarter for the new set of Zombies Need Brains anthologies is live and it needs your support! We have four anthologies in this year’s set, including Dragonesque, an anthology of stories from the dragon’s point of view, for which I will be writing a story, and Artifice and Craft, an anthology of stories about magical or supernatural works of art that I am editing with my wonderful friend, Edmund R. Schubert. We are halfway to our funding goal, but that leaves us with some fundraising distance to travel in the three weeks we have left. Please, please, please help us out.

I am also continuing to edit on a freelance basis, as I have been for about a year now.

And I am preparing for a couple of upcoming professional events. I will be a guest at this year’s DragonCon, my first appearance at the con since 2018. I can’t wait to get back to our genre’s version of Mardi Gras — it’s always a highlight of my professional year, and it’s been too long. DragonCon takes place in Atlanta, the first weekend of September.

And later in September, I will be an instructor at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, leading workshops on Point of View, Character Development and Character Arc, World Building, and Pacing and Narrative Arc.

Busy times. Difficult times. But I think that’s true for all of us. We all struggle. We all find ways to cope, to overcome, or at least to distract and scrape by.

I mentioned our travel — Nancy and I went to Colorado, where we had a wonderful visit with our younger daughter and her partner. From there, we went to Boise, to see Nancy’s family. And finally, we spent nearly a week in the area around Bozeman, hiking every day, looking at birds and butterflies, the brilliant hues of wildflowers and mountain vistas that stole our breath. Maybe I’ll post a few photos in the weeks to come.

Thank you for your understanding when I needed to step away from social media. Thank you for the warm, welcoming embrace of your friendship as I return. Going forward, I will try to do better.