Tag Archives: writing advice

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

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

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

And my answer? “World building.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Whither This Blog? I Need Your Help

I’m taking a break from dispensing advice for this week — well, mostly: Don’t eat too much, take a walk after your Thanksgiving meal, and never, ever pick the Lions to win on Thanksgiving Day.

Instead, I am seeking advice from you. At the beginning of 2020, I decided that I was going to be more intentional about blogging. Monday Musings, Writing-Tip Wednesdays, and Photo Fridays were the result. I haven’t missed a post all year long, and, more to the point, I have enjoyed blogging. It has allowed me to chronicle this terrible, remarkable, consequential year. It has forced me to take photos more regularly. And it has allowed me to offer what I hope has been helpful writing advice.

The thing is, I’m not sure what to do about blogging in 2021. I intend to continue the Monday Musings feature. I’m sure there will be plenty to chronicle in the year to come, and while the balance of the posts will likely skew less to the political than it has this year, I have no doubt that I’ll have plenty of material. Likewise, the Friday feature will probably continue in some similar form. I got a great response to the musical post I did a few weeks ago, and so I might mix in more of that in the new year. And I might post a couple of short readings as well. So rather than limiting myself to Photo Fridays, I might expand it to Creative Fridays. But in a loose way, I’ll keep it going. At least that’s my thinking. I would welcome feedback on this.

Mostly, though, I need your help with Wednesdays. The truth is, I am just about out of topics for Writing-Tip Wednesdays. There are a few more things I can do that will get me through the rest of this year. But there is no way I can sustain the feature for all of 2021, much less in years beyond, at least not without repeating myself conspicuously. And so I would love to know what you would like to see in my Wednesday feature. I am happy to keep the focus on writing — the craft and the business. I’m just not certain how to do that.

One thing I have thought of is keeping a sort of professional journal — keeping track of the things I do to complete and market and promote my work. This would no doubt lead to lessons, advice, insights into the craft and business, etc. But I fear it would be terribly boring for you.

I could also use Wednesdays for professional musings — something like the Monday posts, but focused entirely on writing issues. I’m not entirely convinced that I can fill this space week after week with that, but it’s possible. I can certainly see where thoughts on writing might be helpful or illustrative, even if they’re not “how-to” in orientation. But again, I don’t know if this would be interesting for my readers.

I could also blend different ideas, add in a how-to post here and there if something comes to me that I haven’t yet covered, add in as well book recommendations or observations on storytelling I’m experiencing in movies, TV, books, articles, etc. In other words, have a sort of catch-all “Professional Wednesdays” that covers a host of stuff. The trouble I foresee with this is simply that I will, each week, be scrambling to think of SOMETHING I can do for my Wednesday posts. Not necessarily much fun for me. On the other hand, with a more open format for Wednesdays, maybe I’ll find that it’s easier to think of topics. I honestly don’t know.

It doesn’t help that none of us has any idea what 2021 is going to look like in terms of travel, conventions, the marketplace, etc. Another year of limitations and isolation like this one, and I could see all of these Wednesday ideas running out of steam pretty quickly.

So, what do you all think? Do you like any of the ideas I’ve offered here? Am I missing something obvious that you think would make for an interesting feature? If so, PLEASE tell me what it is.

I really do want to keep the Monday-Wednesday-Friday structure going. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve seen a dramatic uptick in traffic on my sites. And I’ve enjoyed the responses my posts have evoked from all of you.

But I need your help to keep it going. So please comment on my Facebook page or my FB group, or on my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to your advice and input. Thanks!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Waiting…

[11/4 Edit:I went to bed last night thinking all was doom and gloom. This morning I see rays of hope. This isn’t over, and counting votes doesn’t happen according to ANYONE’S timetable. Hang in there folks. We are living in Interesting Times.]

I am writing this, as I do most of my Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, ahead of time, a couple of days before election day. Naturally, I have no idea what the world will look like Wednesday morning. I am at times deeply afraid; at other times I’m hopeful, even confident.

Whatever happens, though, I know that I will soon need to get back into my work rhythm. For so long, I have been too distracted to concentrate on my writing. I have forgiven myself for lost days and low word counts and procrastination. I haven’t even started to read through the submissions for Derelict, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The deadline is still more than eight weeks away, but already the submissions are piling up. It’s time for me to start reading through them.

I have a novel to finish, and projects that need shepherding toward release. I have stuff to do, and I am sick to death of being trapped in my own head, debilitated by my anxiety, obsessed with things I can’t control.

More, I remain uncertain as to how I will deal with these tasks and projects going forward. That comes, I suppose, from still being in the dark about how events will unfold.

But I know that one way or another, I have work to do. If the worst happens on Tuesday, I will still wake up Wednesday a writer and editor with stuff to get done. As I said in Monday’s post, this week will be one of brief, inadequate posts. A week from now, I hope to be able to tell you much more about where I am and what I’m doing to close out this year.

Until then, if you can, keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Plotting Or Not — Doing Away With a Dumb Debate

This is my forty-second Writing-Tip Wednesday post of the year, and somehow I have gotten through forty-one posts without addressing that age-old writing question, “Do I or do I not outline?” Or put another way, “Plotter or pantser?”

First, a word on nomenclature. “Pantsing” and “being a pantser,” as in “writing by the seat of one’s pants,” have come to be seen by some as demeaning and denigrating terms. As if those who plot, who outline their books and stories ahead of time, are creating “the right way,” as opposed to those who “write organically,” who are just sort of winging it. Frankly, I hate ALL of these terms, because I think all of them make assumptions about process that are unfair and unsupported. This, to be honest, is why I have avoided this particular topic for most of the year.

Having used the term “pantsing,” I am going to avoid it for the rest of this post. Because I do agree that it sounds demeaning. I am also going to avoid the word “organic” when describing how people write, because I don’t think it applies to one side of the debate any more than to the other. Even those books I have outlined extensively have come to me “organically.” Neither side owns the term.

Two hundred words into the post, and already I’m exhausted. The Outline vs. Don’t Outline debate is one that inspires a good deal of passion on both sides. I have seen discussions of the topic break down into ugly arguments. And I believe this is because many of us, myself included, have in the past been far too prescriptive in articulating our positions. Too often, we have said, “This is how I do it, because this is the way it’s supposed to be done.” Again, I have been guilty of this myself. For a long, long time, I have self-identified as someone who outlines, as a plotter. Thinking about that now, I’m reasonably sure that I have never actually been that writer.

You’ve heard me say this before, but it seems especially important to repeat it now: There is no single right way to do any of this.

Full stop. Period.

I have friends who outline in great detail. Their outlines are pages and pages long. I know of writers who outline to such a degree that writing the book basically consists of filling in description and dialogue in order to turn their outlines into finished novels.

And I also have friends who don’t outline at all. Not a bit. They have an idea, they sit themselves in front of a keyboard, and they start to compose.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonThen there are people like me. Some books, I outline in a good deal of detail. The Thieftaker novels demand preparation of this sort because I am tying together fictional and historical timelines, trying to make my story meld with established events. The Islevale books — time-travel epic fantasies — should have demanded similar planning. But for reasons I still have not fully grasped, all three books defied my efforts to outline. I simply couldn’t plot the books ahead of time. I tried for months (literally) to outline the first book, Time’s Children, and finally my wife said, “Maybe you just need to write it.” Islevale compositeThat’s what I did, and the result was a first draft that needed extensive reworking. When I began book II, Time’s Demon, I ran into the same problem. I didn’t even try to outline Time’s Assassin, the third and final volume. I knew it would be a waste of time. All three books needed extensive editing, more than I usually need to do. But they wound up being far and away the finest books I’ve written.

Yet, I wouldn’t want to write future books that way. The process for all three was tortuous and frustrating, and I know I don’t HAVE to suffer through that in order to write successful stories.

The truth is, like so many writers, I work on an ever-moving continuum between the extremes of creating hyper-detailed outlines and not outlining at all. With some projects, I lean one way, with other projects I lean the other way. Neither approach is right or better. As with so much else in this craft, we have to understand that the exigencies of each project will shape our process. Let’s go back a moment to the writer friends I spoke of earlier. Even the most detail-oriented outliners I know admit that their outlines change as they move through a novel, because almost invariably something happens in the book that surprises them and takes them away from their original vision. And even the most outline-adverse writers begin with ideas of where they intend to do with their characters, their setting, their narrative. They might not write it down and color-code it, but they have a sense of what path their story will follow.

This debate has, for too long, shed far more heat than light. I have yet to meet a pure outliner OR a pure non-outliner. And I know precious few writers who would say they write all their novels exactly the same way. We reinvent ourselves and our process each time we begin a new project.

So, my advice to you is to not worry about whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, or how others define your approach. Write your book. Plan it to the extent you wish to. Dive into it when you feel you’re ready. You can always pause to outline if you need to. And you can always crumple up or burn or shred the outline you’ve already done. It’s your book. It’s your process.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Real-World Influences On Our Fiction

It’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice.

I wrote the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series, in the mid-1990s. The first book, Children of Amarid, had been percolating in my head literally for more than a decade. It changed a bit as I wrote it, but it was a book I first imagined the summer before I started college.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The second book, in contrast, was very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a couple of ways. In that book, The Outlanders, my heroes, Jaryd and Alayna are building a life together and starting a family, just as Nancy and I were starting our own family. When writing in book III, Eagle-Sage, about their young daughter, I drew extensively on our experience raising our first child. And in book II, when Niall lost his wife to cancer, I drew upon the experience of watching my father deal with my mother’s death.

So far, I’m sure none of this is very surprising. When we write, our life experiences shape our fiction — this is hardly the stuff of epiphany.

But looking at books II and III in the LonTobyn series, you can also see the influence of outside events, specifically national politics, on my narrative. I won’t bore you with a deep summary of the plot, but suffice it to say that the partisan rancor between Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress plays out in a split among the community of mages in Tobyn-Ser. I hadn’t intended this, of course, but I did realize at the time that real-world events were informing my fiction and I made a conscious decision to roll with it.

The next time something similar happened, I didn’t realize what had happened to my books until I was well into the series. I wrote Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book in 2000. In that series, a conspiracy among the magical Qirsi seeks to overthrow the non-magical Eandi courts. Not all Qirsi are involved in this movement, but prejudice against the magical race among the Eandi is already widespread, and, as the series progresses, fear of the conspiracy breeds deep fear, even paranoia among the ruling people.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I was still working on the second book, Seeds of Betrayal, when the 9/11 attacks took place, and I wrote books three, four, and five against the backdrop of the Patriot Act, the torture of terrorism suspects, the illegal imprisonment of suspects at Guantanamo, and the deep anti-Islam sentiments of the early and mid-2000s. The Qirsi conspiracy was part of my plan for the series all along, but by the time the books were done, I realized that, without intending to, I had written a post-9/11 allegory. Again, I didn’t go back and change anything. I chose to keep the books as they developed. But I will admit to having been caught off guard by the degree to which our world had intruded upon my concept for the books.

And this still happens to me. My agent and I are currently shopping a supernatural thriller that involves, in part, a government agency trying to separate children from their parent. I wonder where that idea came from…

This is, of course, a writing-tips post, and so I am supposed to offer advice. For a number of reasons, I will not tell you to avoid allowing the real-world to impinge upon your fiction. First of all, it’s almost impossible to do. Even if we’re writing in a medieval setting, as I was with the Forelands books, we can’t help but allow some of our world to seep in. Sometimes it manifests in subtle ways; sometimes, as with Winds of the Forelands, it profoundly shapes the finished product. Chances are, though, it’s going to be there in some form. Second, that real-world influence might wind up being a good thing. It may give your already compelling and exciting novel a resonance and relevance that it otherwise would have lacked. And finally, speaking as a historian, this is the reason students of history view contemporary fiction as primary source material. The influence of our world on our books will be edifying not only for current readers, but also for readers fifty or one hundred or five hundred years from now. That’s all to the good.

The advice I would offer, however, is to watch for these outside influences. Understand that you’re not writing in a vacuum. It may be that history’s impact on your work will do wonderful things for your story. Great. But including those elements ought to be a choice rather than an accident. Because it’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice. If you see your book going places that you didn’t intend and that you don’t like, you can do something about it. Again, the key is to be aware so you can make an informed choice.

We are subject to history’s arc, but we’re not helpless before it. We can allow our art to be shaped by the world around us, or we can make our art a refuge from that world. There is no single right way to do this (a good rule of thumb for assessing any writing advice). Watch for the influence of the outside world on your story, and make an informed decision as to how much of it you want reflected in the final product.

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Descriptions and Point of View

Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

Not that long ago, I offered tips on writing scenes involving sex and violence, and essentially said that dealing with such encounters is almost entirely a matter of understanding and sticking to the point of view of our narrative character. These are the moments in which emotion, experience, and thought process are absolutely critical, and so for the scenes to work, we need to be completely rooted in the observations and feelings of our point of view characters.

I also offered this: “…Point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend.”

With that in mind, I want to talk today about more general descriptive passages. Describing is something we writers do all the time. Whether we are telling our readers what another character looks like, or what kind of room our point of view characters have entered or what kind of smells or tastes or sensations they are experiencing, we are describing constantly. So getting it right is really important.

I love writing descriptions. Long before I became a professional writer, I knew I was destined for this line of work because I was constantly composing such passages in my head. I would see a sunset and think, “how would I write this?” I’d ask myself the same question upon tasting something exotic and new, or smelling something awful, or… whatever. During my career, I have written descriptions that still evoke pride when I go back to read them.

Always, though, what makes the descriptions work is not just powerful prose and precise word choice. As with those action scenes I’ve written about previously, descriptions of settings and people have to tap into character, into emotion and mind-set and motivation.

Let me put it this way, if we walk into a room we’ve never been in before, we’re going to notice different things about it depending upon our circumstances and how we feel about being there. If we’re relaxed — say, visiting the home of a friend, we might take time to notice the floors, the art on the wall, the framed photos of family arrayed around the room. If, on the other hand, we’ve been brought to a place against our will, we would be more inclined to look for ways out, for details that will tell us more about our “hosts” and their intentions. If we’re trained in such things, we might even look for objects we can turn into weapons or tools of escape.

In the same way, our impressions of someone new will yield very different responses depending on whether this person seems to be an adversary or a friend, a rival or a potential mate, a long lost sibling or a celebrity we’ve been hearing about all our lives.

Now, chances are that we, in the course of our lives, will not be in a position of being taken somewhere against our will. We will likely have few opportunities to meet celebrities and few occasions to encounter mortal enemies. Our characters on the other hand… Well, we do all sorts of shit to them, don’t we?

So when we write these descriptions from THEIR point of view, we need to take into consideration what they might be thinking and feeling, what they’re worried about, if anything, and what their goals are for the encounter that is about to take place. Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

The other thing to keep in mind when writing description is the simple fact that we have five senses, not just one. We are highly visual creatures, and it’s all too easy to become so caught up in telling our readers how something looks that we neglect to mention how something sounds or feels or smells or tastes. Smells in particular are far too easy to overlook. Our sense of smell is unrefined compared to that of, say, dogs or cats or other hunting mammals. But smells can be among the most evocative of the senses. Aromas and scents can transport us, rekindling memories and emotions long buried. I still grow nostalgic for my childhood in New York and my college years in New England when I smell leaves burning in the fall. My adult daughters often remark upon arriving home for a visit that the scent of our house brings back some of their earliest memories. Taste can have a similar effect.

Again, you want to be true to the point of view of your narrator. All your readers’ sensory experiences should be colored by the emotions and exigencies of your characters. And your descriptions should involve as many of the senses as possible. Within reason, naturally. Your POV character doesn’t need to lick the walls and furniture in order to render a more complete sensory experience. That would just be weird. Unless, of course, you happen to be writing a new take on the Willy Wonka story, in which case have at it!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Anatomy of a Rewrite

As I described in a recent Writing-tip Wednesday post, I have been working recently on a trunk series — a pair of books, the first two in a projected trilogy, that I initially wrote nearly ten years ago. I have returned to working on these books for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always loved the storylines, the characters, the relationships — these stories spoke to me when I wrote them, and have stayed with me in the years since. And second, in the midst of this emotionally challenging year, I have found it hard to create new worlds and projects. I’m not sure why, but there it is. On the other hand, polishing older work, or returning to old worlds for new stories, as I’ve done with Thieftaker, has been productive, rewarding, and even comforting.

In the previous post about trunk novels, I mentioned that while the first book in this series needed close line editing and little more, the second book was “a hot mess.” I’m now neck-deep in my edits of the second book and that impression still holds. The novel has tons of potential, but when I left off with it years ago, it had a number of significant flaws. Which, I suppose, is why it wound up in the proverbial trunk.

Many of us have novels that need work, projects that we’ve set aside, or even works-in-progress that we know have problems. I thought it might be helpful to give you a sense of how I am tackling this rewrite.

1) The Initial Read-through: I started by re-reading the two books in quick succession. I didn’t try to edit as I worked. I just wanted to remind myself of the current state of the novels — the content and the style. I made a few notes as I read, but mostly I approached them as a reader might.

2) The Line Edits: Yes, usually line edits are the last thing we do, after what is known in the business as a “developmental edit.” I chose to do the line edits first, even on the second book, which needs so much structural work. Why? Well, first because some of the prose was so rough that I couldn’t imagine revising the book and ignoring the problems. Those problems included passive constructions, overuse of “that” and past perfect constructions (using “had”), over-explaining, general wordiness, and “humorous” passages that fell flat. Second, I started with the line edits because doing these close revisions allowed me to study the narrative elements more closely and become more familiar with the structural problems I wished to address.

3) The Ruthless Cuts: This is a different editing task, but I actually did it while going through the line edits. There were elements of the story that just didn’t work as written. Unfortunately, at least one of them included some of the best written passages in the draft. Nevertheless, they had to go. I shortened one section of the book by 6,000 words, and cut a thousand from another scene as well. Overall, including scene cuts and general tightening of the prose, I have cut well over 12,000 words from the book. And what a difference this has made. The prose is concise and punchy, and the story flows far better than it did.

4) The Brainstorming: This is where I am now. The book currently stands at about 72,000 words. I can probably delete another thousand, but I’ve cut most of the fat from the manuscript. The story is better than it was, but it needs certain elements inserted along the way and it needs an ending. A good ending. Not the train wreck I was in the midst of writing when I gave up on it a decade ago. By now, though, having read it front-to-back twice, and having done my close edit of the writing, I am steeped in the story and ready to tackle the problems.

When I brainstorm, I tend to open a file in my word processor and type stream-of-consciousness, asking myself questions and answering them on the keyboard. That’s just my approach — your mileage may vary. The point is, I am considering how to work in key elements currently missing from the story. I am figuring out how to work in a new idea for a plot twist that occurred to me during the line edits. And I am keeping better track of all my plot threads, making certain that this ending ties everything up as it should.

5) The Implementation: When I start writing the new scenes, including my concluding chapters, I will create them in separate files. I do this because I find it freeing. It’s totally a mind-game. When I am writing a new book, I work in a single document from start to finish. But when revising, rather than mess with that original file, I not only make a working duplicate, I also create new files for big inserts and additions. That way even if the new scene turns out to be a disaster, the original manuscript is no worse off. Again, it’s something I do out of consideration for my own obsessiveness. And it works.

6) The Final Edit: When I have written and polished these new scenes and pasted them into the manuscript, I’ll then set the novel aside for a while. I’ll work on other projects — I have stories to read for the anthology I’m co-editing; I want to outline the third book in this series; and other stuff… After maybe five weeks, I’ll come back to this book and read it through again. I’ll do a final polish on the prose, but more important I’ll make certain the plot works and that the new narrative elements blend seamlessly with the old. When I’m satisfied, I’ll send both books, volumes one and two, to Beta readers. By then, I hope, I’ll be ready to write the concluding volume of this trilogy. I’ve been thinking about the characters and story for nearly ten years. It’s time I finished it.

I hope you’ve found this deep dive into my process helpful.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “Pitch Inside”

In the mid-1980s, my favorite baseball player on the planet was a young pitcher for the New York Mets named Dwight Gooden. Gooden had a meteoric career that was shortened by injuries and chronic drug abuse. But for the first two and a half years of his career, from the beginning of his rookie season in 1984 to mid-season in 1986, he was one of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. He was only 20 years old when he entered the league, but already he had outstanding velocity, a monster curveball, pinpoint control, and uncommon poise for a player so young.

Why am I starting a writing-tip post with a discussion of Dwight Gooden? Read on…

At the time of his great success, New York Magazine ran a profile of him and a teammate (an equally young, equally talented, equally troubled outfielder named Darryl Strawberry). In the profile there was a picture of Gooden in uniform and you could see scrawled on the underside of the visor of his baseball cap the words “Pitch inside.”

Pitching inside is, quite often, the best way to get hitters out, particularly if the pitcher in question happens to have great velocity and control. When pitched inside, hitters can’t extend their arms fully and thus can’t generate as much power in their swing. Usually. The problem with pitching inside is that if the pitcher doesn’t have quite enough velocity, or if he misses his intended target by even an inch or two, his offering becomes very hittable, often resulting in massive home runs, or at the very least, crisp base hits.

Pitchers can do okay for a while pitching hitters away, but they become great when they take on that risk and throw the ball inside.

High risk, high reward.

Writers need to take risks as well. We can tell a decent story playing it safe, but we flourish when we take chances, when we explore bold ideas for our stories, or create stunningly original worlds, or develop plots that are destined to surprise and captivate our readers.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)My first book, Children of Amarid, was a fairly standard epic fantasy, though it had the seeds of more within the nuances of its plot. It was my second novel, though, The Outlanders, that convinced me I could succeed as a writer. The reason was, that second book was different. It introduced a technological, crime-ridden world unlike anything I’d ever tried writing. It created an unusual dynamic among three of my lead characters — two of the characters, who were allies, spoke different languages, and they had to rely on the third for translation. But neither of them trusted that third character.

I struggled with that book far, far more than I had with the first, and I think my struggles were symptomatic of factors that helped the book succeed. It was an ambitious project. It forced me to grow as an artist. Nothing felt familiar or pat, and so the finished product read as something fresh and exciting and innovative. As I say, the first book was fine, but the series won the Crawford Award because of The Outlanders.

It’s easy to advise you to take chances, to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Turning that advice into instruction in the form of concrete steps is more difficult. Every story is different, every project presents its own challenges.

Still, I can say this: It’s easy to grow attached to one particular franchise, one particularly world and set of characters and style of story. Certainly I have written a good deal in the Thieftaker world, and will soon be coming out with new work about Ethan Kaille, Sephira Pryce, et al. The fact is, though, each time I have moved on to a new project, I have tried (admittedly with varying degrees of success) to challenge myself, to force myself to grow.

After the LonTobyn books, I moved to Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands, which demanded far more sophisticated world building and character work. After those, I turned to Thieftaker, adding historical and mystery elements to my storytelling and limiting my point of view to a single character. I also started working on the Justis Fearsson books, which explored mental health issues and were my first forays into writing in a contemporary setting. Then I took on the Islevale books, time travel/epic fantasies that presented the most difficult plotting issues I’ve ever faced.

We can also challenge ourselves within a particular franchise by shaking up the formula, by changing our approach to plotting, or taking characters and character relationships in new and unexpected directions.

The point is, if we challenge ourselves, if we remind ourselves to “pitch inside,” we will breathe new life into our work, grow as artists, and, likely, have more fun.

Keep writing!