Tag Archives: writing advice

Professional Wednesday: Write What You Know?

I remember a conversation with my father when I was a kid, about a friend of the family who was trying to make a second career for himself as a writer of fiction. His first novel had come out recently, and having already developed my own passion for writing stories, I was interested to know more about the book. I asked Dad how the book was and he told me, with some regret, because this really was a good friend, that it wasn’t very good. He blamed the book’s failings on the fact that our friend had strayed too far from his own experience in writing it. And then he repeated that age-old admonition for writers, “Write what you know.”

Now anyone who has read my blog entries or social media knows that I loved my dad — to the moon and back, as the children’s book says. I adored him. But I’ve understood for years now that this particular bit of received wisdom — “Write what you know” — is, at best, of questionable value. At worst, it is terribly limiting, particularly for authors of speculative fiction.

Or is it?

Let’s start with the obvious. If we take “write what you know” too literally, we can never write from the point of view of any character who is not like us. We can never set our stories in any world unlike our own. We can never place our characters in situations that we have not lived. Which, if you’re at all like me, leaves you with nothing but really boring stories to tell.

And I fear that my father, who was wonderful and well-meaning, but didn’t know a great deal about what it meant to write creatively, hewed a bit too closely to this limited and limiting interpretation of the old adage. For him, “write what you know” meant exactly that.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.The thing is, we writers do and must “write what we know.” But we understand that “what we know” does not equal “what we have lived.” Writing is all about emotion, about delving into the thoughts and feelings and visceral reactions of our point of view characters. I may not have ever traveled through time (for example), or investigated a murder in pre-Revolutionary Boston, or discovered that I possess supernatural powers and then been pursued by rogue government agents intent on killing my family and making me their weapon. (If you haven’t read Radiants, it’s really time you did.) But even if I haven’t done those things, I have lived the gamut of emotions my characters experience. I have known fear. I have been in love. I adore my children and have been frightened for them. I have been enraged. I have experienced physical pain and illness, exhaustion and hunger, desire and pleasure. I have known joy and confusion and shock, the thrill of ambition realized and the bitter disappointment of expectation thwarted. I can go on, but I think you get my point.The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)

As writers, we tell stories that range through time and place, that mine the very depths of our imaginations, that spin circumstance and situation into plots of complexity and innovation. But we connect with our audience through what our characters feel and experience, and what they, in turn, evoke from those who read their stories.

Put another way, “write what you know” proves to be quite valuable advice if we take it the right way, if we see it not as a limitation on our subject matter, but rather as an exhortation to delve deeper into the emotional and sensory content of our narratives.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)This is a topic to which I intend to return next week and in the weeks to come. Because when we start to think of “write what you know” as an invitation to think more about what our lives, despite their mundanity, have in common with the lives of our characters, we find new ways to enrich our storytelling and world building.

But for today, I leave you with this: The more you incorporate your emotional history into the character work you do, the more relatable your characters are apt to be. And then it won’t matter if they are Qirsi or weremystes, wizards or necromancers, vampires or vampire hunters. Their thoughts and feelings will resonate with your readers. And that, after all, is what we want.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Stop Writing

Here’s some writing advice for today, three days before Christmas:

Stop trying to write and go spend time with someone you love.

I am all about BIC — put your Butt In the Chair. Writing, like exercise or playing a musical instrument, grows easier with practice and repetition. The more you write, the better your prose and storytelling will become, and the more productive you’ll be. So I often tell writers to write every day (though I am less dogmatic about this than I used to be).

But I will also say this: Sometimes we have to take time off. Write every day if you can. But once you’ve established the habit, be willing now and then to give yourself a day for other things. This year in particular, I am conscious of how precious friends and family are to us, of how many things in our lives are far more important than publications and word counts.

Yes, we have deadlines to make. For all I know, you’re reading this and thinking about submitting to Noir, or one of the other Zombies Need Brains anthologies. And yes, that deadline looms. December 31, 2021.

And still I say, turn off the computer and take time off to be with the people you love. You’ll make the deadline. You’ll put in a bit of extra work next week, and you’ll be okay. Give yourself the time. Take care of yourself. Share your day with others.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have people to see.

Wishing you and yours a magical holiday. Be well. Be safe. Be kind to one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Creative Wednesday: What the Beatles Documentary Teaches Us About Creativity

So it’s Creative Wednesday, and I am still thinking about the Beatles documentary. Specifically, I’m reflecting on something I mentioned in my Monday post — the creative energy that Paul McCartney brought to the “Get Back” sessions recorded 50 years ago. The truth is, all four of the Beatles brought to the recording studio their imagination and talent, but also a willingness to try anything and everything in pursuit of their next collaboration. There is, I believe, a lesson there for all who create.

There were these incredible moments in the documentary, when we heard the Fab Four working their way though the earliest iterations of “Get Back” and “Let It Be,” “Across the Universe” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window.” As a viewer and a fan, I felt as though I was getting a glimpse of history, of the formation of something that would change the course of rock and roll’s development. As I said in the earlier post, I got chills.

There are also moments in these eight and half hours when the band is jamming — with varying degrees of success — to old rock and roll classics, or on tunes of their own that never really amounted to much. It would be quite a stretch to say that every musical endeavor documented in the film was successful. There are several cringe-worthy moments.

And that’s sort of the point. Creativity at its purest is a messy process. If we’re fortunate and good at what we do, our bursts of creative energy produce gems to be shaped and polished. But even the best artists in any field also produce stuff that isn’t all that good. Creativity demands not just ability and energy, but also courage and even shamelessness. At times, John and Paul are hacking around, shouting, goofing, laughing, pounding on their instruments, clearly not taking anything they’re doing too seriously. But even in their least serious moments, they are still working, searching for lyrics or licks that they can apply to the more focused versions of their songs.

They know some of it sounds crappy, and they don’t care. You can tell, because when it comes time to lay down a serious track, they no longer sound like four kids playing with electric guitars and drums and amplifiers. They suddenly sound like the damn Beatles. It’s startling sometimes how quickly and easily they go from slipshod and careless to clean and amazing.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything.

When we write, we need to be willing to take chances, to riff on an idea, to write something that may lead nowhere on the off chance that it will instead lead somewhere wonderful and inspired. I have a middle grade novel that I wrote a decade ago and that I love. Sadly, it never was really ready for prime time. My daughters loved it. Friends of my daughters who read it loved it, too. But it didn’t work on certain levels, and so it has sat on my hard drive all these years. Someday, I am sure, my grandkids will love it. And I’m okay with that.

Around the same time, I developed three characters for another novel I was thinking of writing. I worked out their dynamic, their backstories, their circumstances. But the novel idea never went anywhere and the characters remained homeless. Until this time last year, when I realized they were perfect for what I wanted to do with the second Radiants novel, Invasives. I wrote the book around them and the result is one of the best things I’ve ever written. (The book should be out in January 2022.)

I have stories that haven’t gone anywhere and never will, and others that haven’t taken shape yet. But I keep on trying, plugging away at ideas. Some pan out very well, others not to much. That’s the nature of the creative beast. As creators, we need to be fearless. We need to be willing to fail in order to succeed. That’s something I thought of again and again watching the Beatles play music for hours on end. Some of what they did worked brilliantly. Some of it sounded terrible. And through it all, they kept experimenting.

Let their example inspire you. Some jams go nowhere. Some songs fall flat. Same with stories and novels. That is part of being an artist. The sting of those disappointments lasts only as long as it takes us to try whatever is next.

Keep writing.

Creative Wednesday: Communicating Our World Building To Our Readers

Tomorrow night, I will be giving a talk on world building here at the university, in a themed residential house devoted to writing. The students from the house, at least those I’ve met so far, are earnest and passionate and serious about learning their craft. I’m looking forward to what I expect will be a fun and engaging evening.

For much of the evening, I will be answering questions and thus allowing the interests and concerns of the students to guide our discussion. I’ll open, however, with remarks on what I believe to be some of the keys to good world building. Some of these things I have covered in posts on this site — creating maps for our worlds, developing magic systems, building cultural and social traditions into our worlds through the creation of holidays, customs, and rites.

But I will also focus on the maintenance of our worlds. The feeding and caring of them, if you will. To my mind, one of the central elements of world building is putting all the work we do into practice.

What do I mean by this?

A couple of things, actually. First, I mean that the most important thing we do as writers who create worlds is convey the details of those worlds to our readers. The creation is the easy part. The hard part is sharing with our readers all of the cool things we’ve done, without resorting to data dumps and “as you know, Bob” moments. We want the communication of our world building to be seamless, invisible. We want the information we share to feel as natural as, well, every other part of our narrative. And so the descriptions and explanations of our worlds need to be doled out in ways that are consistent with point of view. Characters should not explain things, either in conversation or exposition, that they would not need to consider or discuss in that given moment. Put another way, if they have no reason to think or talk about these things other than to meet our needs as writers, then we have resorted to contrivance, and that’s not good writing. We need to be driven not by our narrative purposes, but rather by the exigencies faced by our characters. And so, world building needs to be conveyed in tiny increments, rather than in chunks, and it needs to be communicated, at least in part, through spoken language, with idioms and expressions and aphorisms and simple analogies that carry within them vital information.

Think of all the things we say in the course of everyday conversation that actually might give a stranger information about our world, our country, our faith traditions, our history. Elements of our landscape work their way into our speech as examples of grandeur or vastness or desolation or beauty. The same should be true of landscape features in our worlds. Figures from our history embody nobility, wisdom, generosity, courage, and also deception, betrayal, villainy. So should figures from the histories of our worlds. Tenets of faith become components of our social and cultural values, of our rituals and practices with respect to courtship and familial relationships. Faith should have a similar influence in our created worlds. I can go on, but I think you get the idea. We have to learn to write our worlds into our stories with the subtlety and pervasiveness of our own world’s insinuation into our language. That is how we communicate our world building without bludgeoning our readers with it.

And then the other element of this, the flip side of the same artistic coin, is making absolutely certain that expressions and analogies and all the rest, which might be reflective of our real, modern world, don’t creep into our writing in a way that contaminates our created worlds. We should avoid any figures of speech rooted in our traditions of faith, politics, history, culture, etc. We should avoid temporal anachronisms that might sound too modern for, say, our early-Renaissance-analogous created world. The last thing we wish to do as writers is create a world with painstaking care, only to undermine its credibility with conversations that sound more like something we might overhear in our local Starbucks.

As I say, I only have a short time at the beginning of tomorrow night’s event in which to present what I believe are key world building techniques. But to my mind the elements I have discussed here are so important that even if I had only half as much time, I would still work them in to my remarks.

Best of luck working on your worlds. Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Submitting To Our Newest Anthologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.

Book shelfAs you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…

But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.

No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.

For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?

I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.

I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.

That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.

I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Book shelfAs I mentioned in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have a teaching gig coming up. I’ll be leading a couple of critique workshops, and this Saturday, I’ll be giving a long talk on writing epic fantasy. This opportunity came my way because someone mentioned to a mutual friend that the people running the program needed an epic fantasist, and this person thought of me.

I’m flattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The thing is, though, I don’t necessarily think of myself as an epic fantasy author.

At Boskone a couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel about historical fantasy and others forms of historical fiction. In fact, I am usually on at least one history panel at just about every convention I attend, whether in-person or virtual.

I don’t necessarily think of myself as a historical fiction author, either.

I can go through this same formulation with media tie-in work, with urban fantasy, with novels and with short stories. I can even apply it to my blog posts. Am I a political blogger? An advice and instruction blogger for aspiring writers? A social critic? A commentator on the arts?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The writers I know who are happiest tend to be those who are least easily defined by genre speciality. I have one friend — many of you know him — who has written thrillers, epic fantasy, middle grade, YA, science fiction, something approaching horror. He’s excelled at everything he’s tried, and he’s been a bestseller in more than one section of the bookstore. I have another friend — and many of you know her — who says that if writers haven’t had to re-invent themselves at least two or three times, they’re just not trying.

I have published twenty-four books. My twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, and possibly my twenty-seventh, will be out this year. Of these, eleven are epic fantasy, nine are urban fantasy, with five — soon to be six — of the UFs also qualifying as historicals. Three more are a hybrid of epic fantasy and time travel. Two are tie-ins. And two of the books coming out this year are supernatural thrillers, a genre I’ve never tried before now. I can divide up my short fiction publications — I have somewhere between twenty-five and thirty — the same way. I’m all over the place.

And that’s just how I want it. I would get bored writing the same thing all the time. I like jumping from epic to historical to contemporary and back to epic again. The variety keeps every project fresh.

I see too many young writers trying to define themselves by subgenre. I think some do it because the industry encourages a certain level of pigeon-holing. If we enjoy some success in one area, the market responds by saying, “That’s great! Do it again, only better!”

I would encourage you all to resist that pressure. Certainly if you want to keep working for a time in the same world, with the same characters, do so. I can hardly fault anyone for that, having set eight novels in the Forelands/Southlands universe, and having turned Thieftaker into a franchise of both short fiction and novel-length works.

But I would also urge you to experiment, to try different sorts of stories, to challenge yourself to write something outside your comfort zone. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be publishing supernatural thrillers. Five years before that, I would have told you that I had no intention of ever attempting to write a time-travel story, much less a trilogy. Seriously. That shit will make your brain explode. And yet…

And yet, the time-travel novels of my Islevale Cycle might be the best books I’ve written. The thriller coming out this spring/summer is a book of which I’m deeply proud. The sequel, which I’m writing now, is taking me in all sorts of cool directions. I’m having a blast.

And that’s sort of the point. As I said in last week’s post about my new approach to writing, I am working with the goal of enjoying my work, of taking satisfaction in what I do. This remains a very difficult profession. So write for the joy of it. Stretch, push yourself, take chances. You’ll improve your story telling. You’ll hone your prose. Most important, you’ll have fun.

So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure. But I do have this science fiction idea I’ve been toying with. And a pair of contemporary fantasies based on Celtic mythology. And a middle grade book that I’d like to get back to. And… and… and…

Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

Book shelfI am reading stories right now for a teaching gig I have coming up in early March. I’ll be running a critique workshop, and so I not only have to read and comment on the manuscripts, I also should take the opportunity to turn the issues I identify into writing lessons. Because the truth is, all the submissions seem to be from writers with limited experience, and all the submissions suffer from similar problems.

Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating any of the writers in the group. The problems I’m seeing are ones that editors found in my work when I was starting out. I don’t make these errors as often now — I’ve moved on to new mistakes. And when I’ve overcome this new set of problems, I have no doubt that I will find still newer ways to mess things up. This is the creative process — there’s a reason why authors should never stop relying on editors.

Back to the workshop manuscripts… Here is what I’m seeing: All of the writers have terrific ideas. Their worlds and magic systems are fresh and innovative and exciting. And their characters are compelling as well. Some of the writers need to work on staying in tight point of view and injecting emotion into their stories, but even on these fronts they’re doing fairly well.

The flaws I’m finding in their work are largely mechanical. Their story telling is good, but their prose is getting in the way of their narratives. Specifically, I’m seeing three trends again and again.

1) They are trying to do too much with each sentence. There are places in a manuscript where it is perfectly appropriate to use compound sentences, phrasings that rely on the connection of several clauses in order to express complex emotions. There are places where short declaratives work better. (See what I did there?) I have noticed, however, not just with this batch of manuscripts, but in other settings, going back years, that beginning writers are drawn to the complexities of longer phrases. It’s almost as if they feel that writing shorter sentences will expose them as newbies.

This isn’t the case. As my wonderful, talented, and wise friend, Faith Hunter, has pointed out, syntax and phrasing is to the written story what soundtracks are to movies. When the action ramps up in a movie, the music grows taut, staccato. When the action ramps up in written stories, phrases should become shorter, punchier. Thoughts should be pared to the bone. And even when the action isn’t necessarily at a fever pitch, it is fine to rely on short declaratives as well as longer sentences. Short phrases punctuate key passages, drawing attention to important moments. They are an invaluable tool. (See? Did it again.)

2) A related point: Beginning authors, including those whose manuscripts I’m reading now, often tie themselves (and their prose) in knots seeking clever phrases. Again and again, in my margin notes, I have tried to remind them that simpler is usually better. This is not to say that every phrase needs to be simple, that every sentence should be short and to the point. Stories written that way would bore an audience — books would read like grade school primers, which we don’t want.

But sometimes it’s clear that a writer has decided on a certain construction for a sentence, and even after that structure has become unwieldy, they continue to batter the phrasing into submission. I know I’ve done it. I have a rhythm in mind, and I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. Work! The problem is, by the time I’m done, the sentence is a mess. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. You may love the concept you had for that phrasing, but if it has turned into a struggle for you as you write it, chances are your readers will struggle with it too. Simple is better. Simple works. Try a different approach to the sentence. Shorten it. Or better yet, divide it into two (or three) sentences. Your readers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. The beleaguered instructor reading your manuscript for a workshop will thank you.

3) Finally, I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn into their scenes great swaths of world building information. They know better than to resort to full-blown data dumps, but they feel compelled to explain certain elements of their world in the moment, and they do so by overloading their sentences with background. The result, again, is sentences with too many clauses, too much information, and no flow.

In a sense this is a point of view issue. When characters are in the moment — whether they are deep in an important conversation, or facing an immediate threat to their own safety or that of people they care about — they are unlikely to pause to consider, say, the history of the city they’re in, or the anatomical differences between different species in the world.

It may be that this is important information. But writers need to ask themselves, “Is it crucial that my reader know all of this right now?” Chances are it’s not. If it is, anticipate that need and work at least some of the information in before the action heats up. Otherwise, save it for later. Either way, don’t try to heap all of the necessary info into a single serving, like an over-eager kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doing so only confuses readers and leaves syntax in shambles.

Write with purpose. Strive for concision. Remember that, more often than not, simple is better.

And keep at it.