Tag Archives: writing advice

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Allure of the New Shiny

All of us who write have felt it. Many of us have given into it. Others have resisted. Personally, I’ve done both — with different projects and also within a single one. We loves it and we hates it, but always we must have a healthy respect for its power.

I speak, of course, of the allure of the New Shiny. The bane and grail, the procrastination and promise, the distraction and passion. The New Shiny is all these and more.

The first time I experienced it, I was in the process of outlining the SECOND LonTobyn book. Not the third and final book, but the second. Nancy had a conference in Birmingham, England and we made a trip of it, even though we were toting around our older daughter, Alex, who was all of three months old. Our travels took us to Wales, where we toured castle after castle. I fell in love with the countryside, became totally obsessed with the notion of writing castle intrigue, and started to imagine the books that would become my Winds of the Forelands tetralogy.

The problem was, I still had TWO books left to write in my first trilogy. As the Forelands began to take shape in my mind, as I grasped the myriad possibilities of a new world in which to write, LonTobyn seemed to shrink before my eyes. Compared to the Forelands, the LonTobyn world became small and ordinary. In reality, of course, it was neither. In fact, LonTobyn was a pretty good world, and those books not only sold well, but also won me an award and launched my career.

For weeks after we returned home, though, I spent hour upon hour building my world for the new series. The series that wasn’t contracted yet. The series no one had ever heard of. The series I absolutely WOULD NOT GET TO WRITE if I didn’t FINISH MY FIRST SERIES.

I don’t need to tell you that our minds are notoriously independent of our wills. The moment we tell ourselves not to think of, say, golden retriever puppies, golden retriever puppies become the only things we CAN think of. So telling ourselves not to think about our New Shinies is pretty much futile. More to the point, I’m not entirely certain we would want to banish them from our minds. The creative energy that comes with falling in love with a new world, a new concept, a new set of characters, can feed all our artistic endeavors. Why would we want to deny ourselves the power of that process?

At the same time, though, more often than not, the best thing we can do for our careers at any given moment is finish our current project. I learned a valuable skill when writing my first trilogy, with the Forelands concept lurking in my hind brain. I learned to compartmentalize my art. I continued to think about the Forelands books. As ideas occurred to me, I typed them out. But then I closed those files and went back to writing the LonTobyn books. I had no choice in the matter. I wanted to build a career, and I certainly didn’t want a reputation as a writer who failed to complete projects, or as someone who delivered books late. I allowed myself to brainstorm when I had the chance, but I forced myself to reach my daily word counts on the work-in-progress.

And I would suggest that when grappling with the New Shiny, you do much the same thing. Don’t stifle your creative impulses. Take the time to jot down every idea, to write out scenes that come to mind, or to create character sketches as the people in your new world present themselves to you. When you have set aside your WIP for the night or the weekend, let your mind run wild in New Shiny-land.

But do not sacrifice the work you’ve been struggling with, simply because the New Shiny is teasing you from the other side of your brain. Because here are a few things the New Shiny will never tell you. First, the idea might not pan out. I have many files on my computer that contain half-realized worlds, half-baked ideas, and half-formed narratives. The New Shiny can be fickle and undependable. Second, as wonderful as the New Shiny MIGHT prove to be, the work-in-progress is real, it is immediate, it deserves to be finished. It represents a tremendous amount of time, energy, and completed work. As I said before, finishing our current project is almost always the best thing we can do to advance our career. Third, and last, never forget this one essential truth: No matter how bored we might have grown with our current work, no matter how much of a slog those last chapters of the last book can prove to be, the current work-in-progress was once itself a New Shiny.

The next idea is always the most exciting. That doesn’t make it most important.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Defining Success

Islevale compositeAs you know at this point, we are in the midst of release week for Time’s Assassin, the third book in my epic fantasy/time travel series, The Islevale Cycle. For today’s writing tip, I am going to address a matter I’ve talked about before in conferences and workshops: defining success and balancing external disappointments with the satisfaction we ought to take in work well done.

To state the obvious, we want all of our books to succeed, to garner great reviews and sell like gangbusters. (And, with that in mind, you can order Time’s Assassin here. You can also get books I and II in the series at a special price. Here’s the link.) With few exceptions, our most recent efforts tend to be the ones we think are the best. That has certainly been the case with my work. Some series are more successful than others, but generally speaking, I have been most proud of whatever book I have completed most recently. The Islevale books are no exception to this. I love, love, love these books. All of them. And I think that Time’s Assassin is the finest concluding volume to a series I have ever written. I had creative goals for the book — things I wanted to accomplish with the narrative — and I feel that I achieved every one of them. I’m deeply proud of that.

Time's Assassin, book III of The Islevale Cycle, by D.B. Jackson (jacket art by Robyne Pomroy)The truth is, I have felt that way about all three volumes of this trilogy. The Islevale books were incredibly difficult to write. I knew going in that writing time travel would be really hard — as one friend told me, “It’ll make your brain explode.” So much can go wrong. We have to examine every plot point from every possible angle to make certain it holds up to logic, and to the simple reality that time travel gives us endless opportunities for do-overs. Put another way, every event in a time travel story is negotiable. Each one can be altered or reversed by the very plot devices on which our stories depend.

I have never struggled with a set of books so much. Part of the problem was, maybe due to the time travel, I could not outline the books. I’m a planner. I outline all my novels. Except these. And, early on, it showed. My wonderful agent, Lucienne Diver, tore apart the first draft of the first book, which I liked very much. And every criticism she had of the book was valid. I wound up cutting 40,000 words from that initial iteration and then writing scenes totaling 60,000 words to make it work. It was a brutal slog. But when I finished that new draft of Time’s Children, I knew I had written the best book of my career.

Time’s Children, by D.B. Jackson © Angry Robot. Art by Jan Weßbecher.I hoped that Time’s Demon, book II, would prove easier to write. It didn’t. This time, I did most of the cutting and adding on my own — I didn’t need anyone to point out most of the early flaws; I saw them for myself. Again, I couldn’t outline the book, but by the time the second volume was done, I had fallen in love with it as well. And so it went with book III, Time’s Assassin.

These books have also had a tangled history. The first book received terrific reviews — a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a designation as the Best Fantasy Novel of 2018 from Reviews and Robots, an Audie nomination — and sold well, too. The second book also received great reviews — and one high-profile poor one that stung. More, its release coincided with a turnover in management at Angry Robot, the original publisher. The book got lost in the transition and tanked. Angry Robot’s new editor apologized to me about this, but sales being what they were, she could not pick up the option on book three. Fortunately, John Hartness at Falstaff Books took the book on and made this week’s release possible. I’m grateful to him, and to all the great folks at Falstaff.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I frequently tell beginning writers that they need to self-define success, something which is really hard to do in this business. All too often we writers are forced by the nature of publishing to seek exterior affirmation for our work — reviews, sales, awards if we’re fortunate enough to win them. These are the things the industry values and so, naturally, they are the things we care about as well. The problem with this is, the industry is cruel and capricious. We all know of good, even great, books that go unnoticed and unacknowledged. We all have seen mediocrity rewarded with terrific sales and undeserved attention. And we know that this is true in the world beyond publishing as well. Life is not always fair.

With the books of the Islevale Cycle, I have been left with no choice but to heed my own advice: I have to self-define my success. I can lament that these books deserved a better fate than that which the industry offered, or I can draw satisfaction from what they have meant to me, personally. Because they mean a lot: The series in total was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on, and the final products represent the finest work I have done. Writing these books forced me to stretch as an artist — every book and story I write from here on out will be better because of this series. So, yeah, I wish the second book had sold better. I wish I hadn’t had to deal with the pain of being dropped by the first publisher. And I hope that the release of this third volume will build sales for all three books.

I said at the outset of this post that I LOVE the books. And it’s true. I love the characters, the setting, the magic system, the prose, the emotion, the twists and turns. And I am hopeful that you will love them, too. Not just because I want to sell some books — though, yeah, I do — but because I take pride in the work, and I want others to see what I’ve done. I’m like a little kid showing his latest scribble to everyone who’ll take time to look at it. And I’m okay with that. When we’re kids, self-defining success comes easily. It’s when we’re older, and more aware of the pitfalls of creative careers, that we lose sight.

Thanks, and keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Taking Stock Halfway Through 2020

As of today, July 1, we are halfway done with 2020.

Yeah, I know. It seems like this year has lasted a decade. And it seems like this year has flown. Time is unnervingly elastic right now, at least from my perspective. I have been distracted all year long — that’s how it feels. I can hardly believe that six months ago I hadn’t heard of Covid-19. I haven’t been at my best for so long now, I’m not entirely sure anymore what “my best” really means.

That said, I look back on the first six months of the year, and I see that I did, in fact, accomplish something. Quite a lot, actually.

•I’ve edited an anthology, reading through literally dozens of stories, choosing (in consultation with Joshua Palmatier, my co-editor) the ones we would be including in the final collection, and then editing and copyediting those.

•I’ve written and revised a short story for said anthology.

•I’ve written, revised, and then revised again a lengthy non-fiction piece.

•I’ve revised and copyedited TIME’S ASSASSIN, the third Islevale novel, which will be out from Falstaff Books on or about July 7.

•I’ve written the first drafts of three Thieftaker novellas, totaling just over 100,000 words.

•I’ve put out five issues of my newsletter, and will be coming out with number six very soon (I tend to take January off).

•I’ve posted Monday Musings, Wednesday Writing Tips, and Friday Photos, every week for the first twenty six weeks of the year.

All in all, not bad.

I know that I’ve done all of these things, because I keep a day journal in which I jot down, among other things, all of my professional activities. And I keep that journal for just this reason. Even in the best of times, it is so, so easy to convince ourselves that we’re not doing anything, that we’re just spinning our wheels and wasting our time. This is especially true now, in a period of sustained social crisis unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Our tension and apprehension and sense of being overwhelmed consumes all else, making it too easy to gloss over our accomplishments, whatever they may be.

Keeping a day journal is easy. You can do it electronically, or physically. I do everything electronically these days, except this. Each year, I buy a Sierra Club Engagement Calendar, and I use it to keep tabs on myself, writing down each day’s highlights before going to bed. I recommend it. It may be just the thing to help you keep track of all you’re getting done, despite your conviction that you’re not getting anything done at all. More than that, it can be a source of motivation. On some days, I wind up working harder than I would otherwise, because I don’t want to face that blank space in the evening with nothing productive to jot down.

I also want to say, at this, the turn of the year, that 2020 is far from over. Whatever you have gotten done so far, you have six more months in which to accomplish old goals or set and get started on new ones. It’s tempting to give in to the negative impulse: “The year’s already half gone. What’s the use?” I choose instead to look at it from the other side. “I still have half the year left to do X, Y, and Z.”

So I plan to keep the newsletters coming, to write my three blog posts each and every week. I have a release next week that I intend to promote. I hope to be editing a new anthology by the end of the year. I intend to revise and put out those three Thieftaker novellas before the year is finished. I have more edits to get done on the nonfiction piece. I have a new idea for a major project — I’m researching it now. I would love to have the first novel in that project finished before the end of the year. I have gotten the rights back to the third and fourth Thieftaker novels; I want to edit those and get them reissued this year. And more…

So, yeah, it’s July 1. Wow.

Now, back to work.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Reference Books

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post was about the computer apps I use most when researching, outlining, and writing books and stories. As promised, this week I want to look at what are probably  the most important writing tools I have: my reference books.

I use the internet a great deal when I’m writing. I look up a ton of stuff every day. But to my mind, there is no replacement for having the physical books, for being able to thumb through an index, or flip through pages on our way to the topic we’re after only to discover some tidbit of information we hadn’t known we wanted until the instant we found it.

So with that in mind, here are the books I use most often and recommend most enthusiastically.

Let’s start with the basics. Every writer should have a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand all the time. My dictionary of choice is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. My main reason for using it, beyond the fact that it is comprehensive and widely accepted, is that for every entry it gives the date when the word first entered the popular lexicon. That is invaluable for authors who write in historical periods or fantasy analogues to historical eras, and who wish to eliminate anachronistic words and phrases from their books.

My thesaurus of choice is Roget’s International Thesaurus (6th ed.). This is the really big one – over 1200 pages. It is organized conceptually, by category of word, with an alphabetical index. The advantage of this is that if we look up a word like “total” we get a lengthy listing of possible meanings. Do we want a synonym for “total” that means “amount” (noun) or “compute” (verb) or “whole” (adjective)?

The other general writing reference I use is The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the industry standard for all matters relating to grammar, punctuation, and usage. I have a slightly older edition. I believe the most current is the 18th.

Another word oriented reference I have and love is English Through the Ages, which further refines the historical dating of words. It has an extensive index in the back that distinguishes among different meanings of words. Take the word “spleen”: The body part was named before the 1300s, but “spleen” was not used as a synonym for “temper” until the 1600s. I love tidbits like that.

I write fantasy, and so I am a big fan of the Scott Cunningham books on magic. Titles on my shelves include: The Complete Books of Incense, Oils and Brews; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs; Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem, and Metal Magic; Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner; Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic; and Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic. I will admit that Cunningham offers his books as guides for people who actually believe in the various sorts of supernatural techniques and objects he describes. I don’t. But I find the books indispensable as reference guides.

I also write mysteries into my stories and books, and have therefore relied heavily on the Writer’s Digest “Howdunit” series of books on crime and policing. These books are designed specifically for writers, and so they offer incredibly valuable information in a format that is easily digestible. They are made to be reference books. Titles in my collection include the following: Police Procedural (investigative procedures); Scene of the Crime (crime scene techniques); Cause of Death (forensics); Body Trauma (wounds and injuries); Deadly Doses (on poisons); Just the Facts, Ma’am (general investigative techniques); and Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved. These are great books. Highly recommended.

I have several books on magical creatures and demons, all of them in encyclopedia format. Two of them are put out by W.W. Norton and written/edited by Carol Rose: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins and Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. I also have Demons and Demonology, by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (Checkmark Books); and The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John and Caitlin Matthews (Sterling Publishing).

I write about castles with some frequency and do my best to get all my architectural terminology right. I actually use two kids books on castles as my primary references: Castle, by David Macauley, and Castle: Cross Sections, by Stephen Biesty. I have supplemented these two books with small books that I have picked up at just about every castle I have ever visited while in Wales, Ireland, England, etc. These are basically self-guided tour brochures that give terminology and history and offer illustrations. Almost any castle gift shop will have one.

Another book I love is called What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships (edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher, Ballantine Books). This book gives you the name of every part of hundreds upon hundreds of objects, vehicles, architectural features, and more. It is out of print (as are many of the titles I have listed in this post) but can be found on used book sites, Ebay, etc.

I could go on, of course. I have dozens of books about the Revolutionary Era, all sorts of field guides, a book about animal tracking, books about baseball and history and weapons, about ancient Scotland and Ireland and Peru and Greece, about Civil War and World War II battles. I could go on and on. There is no rule for collecting reference books except to keep your eyes open. The bargain rack at your local Barnes and Noble can be a great place to collect helpful titles. So can flea markets and library sales. As I say, most of the titles I’ve shared with you here are out of print. But with a bit of legwork and digging you can find them and begin your own collection.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: My Favorite Computer Applications

A few weeks ago, in response to another plea on my part for suggestions of things you all would like to see covered in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, someone mentioned that they would appreciate my take on various writer tools and resources. This reader had in mind computer applications and the like, and I will cover a few of those today. But I also thought of book resources that I draw upon regularly, and that will be the topic next week’s post.

For this week, let’s begin with a couple of basics. The app on my computer that I use the most – and I mean by a long shot; it’s not even close – is my word processing software. I have always hated Microsoft Word. Always, always, always. And my antipathy for the program goes far beyond my visceral disdain for Clippy. I simply don’t like the way Word looks, the way it works, the way it “feels” when I’m writing. Early on, back when computers still had a sheen of novelty, I used WordPerfect and loved it. Today, I use a word processing software that is, to my mind, the closest thing to WordPerfect that one can find. It’s called Nisus Writer Pro. It has all the things you’d want a word processing app to have – including a dictionary and thesaurus and all the formatting bells and whistles. It saves files in Rich Text Format, but can also save them as .docs to be Microsoft compatible, and exports them as .pdfs to facilitate document sharing. It has Track Changes and Comments and both features are fully compatible with Word, so you can edit with others across platforms.

“How much does it cost?” you ask. This is the amazing part. It’s $65.00 new. The one catch is, it’s only available for Mac users. Sorry. But if you are a Mac user interested in an affordable, professional-level word processing app, this is the one for you.

My other favorite writing app is Scrivener. Scrivener is made by Literature and Latte and it sells for $49. It started as a Mac-only program, but it now comes in a Windows version as well. Same price.

Scrivener is like that amazing Swiss Army Knife you have that has twenty-seven gadgets on it. Chances are, you might only use seven or eight of them, but it’s nice to know that they’re all there if you need them. I use Scrivener for a few things, but I am fully aware that I have barely scratched the surface as to its capabilities. I tend to use it as an organizational tool, a place in which to create and store character sketches, setting descriptions, and general documents that serve as my conceptual framework for each book. I store all of my research in Scrivener – the app allows me to import web pages so that I don’t have to go hunting for them once I’ve found them.

I don’t use the Scrivener word processing feature because I’m picky and I like the look and feel of Nisus Writer Pro. But with Scrivener you can outline your book, write it, and then export it into various formats, including .doc, .rtf, .pdf, OpenOffice, epub, and Kindle format. Better still, you can write the book as a single document, OR you can write each chapter, or even each scene as a separate file. The advantage of that approach is that Scrivener then allows you to shuffle files around until you have found the perfect structure for your project. Pretty cool.

I also use Pages, the word processing app that comes with Mac computers. I don’t think much of it as a straight word processor, but I use it for my newsletter because its graphic features are incredibly easy to use. That would probably be the one place where Nisus falls flat. I know there are fairly strong graphic features in Nisus Writer Pro, but I have never found them intuitive or easy to use. Pages is weak in other ways, but it does make a nice newsletter (or party invitation, or flyer, or… etc.). And it interfaces seamlessly with iPhoto, allowing me to import images of my photographs and book jackets with ease.

As a bonus addition to this post, I would like to recommend an app to the photographers out there. I shoot in RAW format and I used to process my photographs with Adobe Lightroom. Then Adobe went to its monthly subscription payment structure, which totally pissed me off. So I did some research and settled on a new RAW image processor: DxO PhotoLab. I could devote an entire post to describing all that this app does, and perhaps at some point I will. For now, suffice it to say that there is literally nothing I want to do with my photos that I can’t do with PhotoLab. DxO has a comprehensive library of profiles that enable the app to automatically make camera and lens specific adjustments to each image. It literally has a profile for every combination of camera and lens made currently or in the past by most major manufacturers. It is as powerful as Lightroom, and in many ways far better. (For instance, I found that Lightroom washed the color out of my RAW images, forcing me to push the vibrancy and saturation in processing more than I would have liked. PhotoLab does a much better job of preserving the true color of the captured image.) It is not expensive as these things go – $129 for the basic program. $189 for a suite that includes two other useful apps.

So there you go. These are the creative programs I use most. I hope you find them helpful, too. Next week, my favorite book resources for writers!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Special Guest, Alma Alexander!

Today, I welcome my friend Alma Alexander to the blog to talk about her new novel, The Second Star. She has lots to say about the book, about writing in general, and about advice for beginning writers. Please welcome her to the site!

*****

The Second Star, by Alma Alexander1. As we begin, please tell us about The Second Star. What is it about? What are its major themes?

The Second Star tells the story of the crew of Earth’s first starship, lost for 200 years, found and returned home, still alive but badly damaged by the experience. As one of my characters said – six people went out to teh stars; more than 70 fractured souls returned.

There are several LARGE themes in here.

It’s a novel about the big eternal questions – about who or what God is; about our own immortal souls and their ‘salvation’; what it really means to be human; and whether it is possible to go out to where the monsters dwell and expect to come home again unchanged.

In the two centuries that have passed on the ground since my starship originally departed, the world didn’t stand still.

Global warming has affected the world dramatically (but it is background, here, and is not a major factor in the unfolding of events except for details embroidered in – like the fact that air travel is now a rare event, for instance). There have been historical
developments which have shaped the foundations of the ‘new’ world, two centuries hence. Some of those changes turned us backward as well as forward – and my tech is commensurate with that – I am not portraying full-on high-tech utopia here.

The six rescued crew members have literally aged only a handful of years in the duration of those two centuries, and when they are plunged back into their world… For the people on the ground – they’ve been the frogs in the pot all along, a pot which was simmering so that they didn’t notice the rise in temperature. For the returned ship crew, they’re very much frogs who have been thrust into boiling water without warning. For them, things HAVE changed. They have returned home, to the home world… but have they? Can they? That’s a huge theme thread running through the story – can you ever really ‘come home’ again?

Especially so if you return after a major and chaotic ‘first contact’ situation, a traumatic event for both the humans and the alien, resulting in a psychological crash involving the splintering into many different personalities. All of my characters return as multiples of
themselves. And dealing with that – and with the shattering aftereffects of that alien encounter – is the bones of the story.

It deals with science, and also with faith – about the things we hold holy, and the reasons we believe those things, and what happens if the rock we thought we were standing on crumbles beneath out feet.

It’s a big book. There’s a lot in it.

2. The story resonates so powerfully with what our world has been through in recent months — quarantines, fears of contagion. To what degree did you respond to events, and to what degree did you anticipate them?

The story was long written by the time the pandemic came roaring in. It might well be read differently by readers who have lived through/are living through quarantine conditions… but such “quarantine” as occurs in the book was neither a response to nor an
anticipation of what the year 2020 brought to our doorstep. In retrospect, if the thing wasn’t already done and imminent in terms of release… if I were writing it RIGHT NOW… it is entirely possible that I would have at least referenced the quarantine in terms of 2020, in this story’s distant past. As it is, I have to leave it to readers to do the necessary extrapolation.

3. Your lead character is, essentially, a a psychologist, and your narrative does a pretty deep dive into Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka Multiple Personality Disorder). Are you trained in psychology? What sort of research did you do as you prepared to write this?

I am not a trained psychologist but I AM a trained scientist, with a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology. I’ve already used that background in a much more focused manner, in my Were Chronicles books, where I posit an entirely plausible biological basis for Were
creatures and how they exist and what happens (genetically) to them as they change into their animal avatars. For Second Star, I did my usual research – but I probably took liberties with the subject matter because in our reality the so-called Multiple Personality Disorder arises from childhood trauma, abusive situations, a way to survive the unsurvivable. There is a precipitating event in my story, to be sure, but in THIS reality the precipitating event is both psychological and physical, in a very real sense. What that meant was that the syndrome would function in ways different from what current research into the area posited. I certainly don’t claim to be an authority – but I read up on a fascinating syndrome and then gave it the kind of shape thatmy story needed. In other words, if I may, Dammit Jim, I’m a storyteller not a psychologist…

4. From a craft perspective, what was the greatest challenge you faced while writing The Second Star, and how did you address it?

My six crewmembers from the lost-and-returned starship each came back carrying different fragments of personality – fragments which were just as real and ‘coherent’ as humans as their original personality might have been. The difficulty was that I was working in a written medium and all I had to work with was the words on a page – I could not rely on visual cues (except as described in those words, and I couldn’t do too much of THAT) – which meant that the personality ‘changes’ had to rely on changes of ‘voice’, as rendered through the written word. Sometimes writers do get envious of the ability of visual media to convey subtle changes through minor alterations of posture, through expression of face and eyes, through an actual AUDIBLE spoken voice which can ‘change’ as required – we have none of those luxuries, we rise or fall by power of word (and the reader’s imagination) alone. Doing a multiple personality book is HARD. Starting with keeping track of which personality is speaking at any given time, and adjusting voice and vocabulary for that personality, to trusting the reader, in the end, to ‘hear’ spoken words in the voice that you are trying to paint, and to differentiate – sometimes several times in the space of a single extended dialogue scene – between different personalities manifesting *in the same character*. As in, the reader knows that the character is speaking – there is only one mouth, only one set o f vocal cords, but they HAVE to hear the moment when one personalty flips into another, to hear that changed happen. Everything depends on that. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted to do in the written word…

5. You have written a broad spectrum of speculative fiction over the course of your career, and have made a name for yourself as a fantasy writer. Why this book at this time? Is this turn into more science fiction-based story telling a one-off, or do you plan to do more of this going forward?

Fantasy is still my primary milieu, as it were, but although this is my first serious ‘science fiction’ novel that doesn’t mean I haven’t dipped my toe in the genre before.

I did a science fantasy, so to speak, trilogy that is my Were Chronicles books (Random, Wolf, and Shifter) which posits a valid genetic basis for the existence and function of Were creatures in our universe; I did a science fiction novel with a humorous turn,
where time traveling androids take an entire SF con on a joyride to the moon (“AbductiCon”) – it’s my love letter to fandom and to conventions,I am something of a polymath when it comes to that. I am already in the planning stages of another more purely ‘science fiction’ novel, so The Second Star is probably not the last of its
kind. Watch my website for any further announcements…

6. In what ways has your artistic life changed with social-distancing, stay-at-home, and the rest? Has it impacted your creative process? Your output?

Becoming a primary caretaker of two loved family members who are high(er) risk for the Covid-19 scourge does take up a lot of time. I’m the chauffeur, I’m the grocery shopper, I’m everything that is necessary, and often that simply means shelving my ‘work’ and doing
whatever I need to do to fulfill my responsibilities there.

I’ve lost income – people who are themselves cash-strapped are less likely to seek out editorial work, for instance, which is what I do as a professional service, and I’ve also lost several people from my Patreon as they reduce non-essential spending in a time of uncertain income of their own. I’m also becoming prone to what has become known as the Pandemic Procrastination syndrome, and I find myself simply postponing things I have to do because there simply doesn’t seem to be any tearing hurry to do them right now. I have joined up with social media stuff that keeps me in touch with my tribe (there’s a ‘convention’ going on in Facebook – I don’t know I think it started in March sometime – and it’s still going strong – it’s a blast). Keeping in touch with friends through the computer screen is becoming New Normal, but maybe one day the real cons will return and we can all meet again. In the meantime…it’s a tough time.

7. Can you offer any advice to authors just starting their careers at this difficult time?

A jaded advice giver once said, “if there’s anything else that you want to be besides a writer… be that.” It’s not an easy choice. But as I tell people – if you don’t want to be a writer nobody can help you; if you do want to be a writer nobody can stop you. Things have slowed down but they have not stopped and neither should your vocation, if you truly have it. Write, not because you expect fame or fortune, but because you have to – listen to the voices inside your heart and your head – tell the stories that want to be told. Even if
the world ends tomorrow, those stories are important.

But don’t take the easy shortcuts. Don’t “publish” stuff that should never have been published, just because you can. If you do, make sure it’s edited, and that you present the best possible product that you are able to present. And do understand that when people don’t like your offering – and if nobody has ever disliked it you aren’t being read by enough people – they aren’t out to destroy YOU. Never forget that there is no such thing as universal acclaim. Write something else. Write something better. There is no way out except through – and if you make it through the thickets and the chasms and the booby traps I’ll see you on the other side.

*****

Alma (A.D.) Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. Find out more about Alma:

Website (www.AlmaAlexander.org)

Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AuthorAlmaAlexander/)

Twitter (https://twitter.com/AlmaAlexander)

Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/AlmaAlexander)

Writing-Tip Wednesday: “A Feat of Association”

Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

One of my favorite musicals of all time is West Side Story. The music is gorgeous, the story line heartrending, the action poignant, gripping, deliciously tragic. And of course, there is a reason the story works so well. It is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, with music and dancing added in. In place of family rivalry, we have gang violence. In place of the friar, we have Doc, the drugstore owner. In place of blades we have a pistol. But the story is just the same.

The legendary Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, used MacBeth as the inspiration for Throne of Blood, which he set in 16th century Japan. Later in his career, he would use King Lear as the creative inspiration for Ran, also set in Japan’s feudal period.

For those who prefer Disney films to foreign films, The Lion King is, essentially, Hamlet. Look it up.

Shakespeare, of course, is not the only source of adaptive creativity. Alex Bledsoe is a friend of mine and a fantastic writer. His Dark Jenny series is a fantasy/noir treatment of the King Arthur legends. “Jenny” is Guinevere. I recommend the books.

I have written about ideas before in this Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, and it seems I’m doing so again today. They are, as I have said, our bread and butter, the currency in which we do business. And I suppose I am focusing this time on adaptations because I have an idea for a new project, something utterly different from anything I’ve written before.

First of all, this new project is going to be science fiction rather than fantasy. If I had to classify it further, I would call it space opera. Why am I taking this on? I honestly couldn’t give you a reason beyond the obvious and most simple: When the story came to me – when I first imagined my narrative framework and my lead characters – it was in the form of an SF story. There were planets and interstellar ships and nebulas and cool shit like that. Who was I to argue?

Second, this project will take as its inspiration a set of classic books by one of my favorite authors. I am not ready to say who, or which books. I’ll just say that when the idea hit me, these books and the basic outlines of their plots came with it. I couldn’t tell you why. So now I’m reading. I’ll be reading for a while, since I envision a trilogy. And that’s fine, because I’m currently in the middle of writing another project.

This is supposed to be a writing-tip post, and so allow me to offer some advice in this regard: Coming up with new ideas is not always easy, and I have seen too many young writers beating themselves up because they think their idea for a book or story is too close to something else that has been done. Originality is important, no doubt. And I would certainly never tell any writer to copy the work of another. But to quote Robert Frost (who said this, or a form of it, more than once), “An idea is a feat of association.” Sometimes, originality lies not in the absolute novelty of what we come up with, but rather in the connections we make between two or more disparate influences.

My new idea is, on the face of it, not anything new. Space opera has been done a thousand and one times before. And obviously, if I am inspired by a work (or set of works) of classic literature, my narrative structure is not exactly breaking new ground, either. But I am certain that no one has thought to put these two elements together in this way. THAT is the originality, the novelty. That is what has me so jazzed about my “feat of association.”

Stay tuned.

And keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Single Point of View v. Multiple Point of View

If you know me, if you have been with me in panel discussions at conventions, if you have ever received any sort of writing advice from me, or even heard me give such advice to others, I need for you to sit down and prepare yourselves. What I’m about to tell you is shocking. For some of you, it may be more than you can handle. But we’re in this together and we will get through to a better place. I promise.

Ready? Here goes…

It is the last week of May – we are twenty-one weeks, twenty-one Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, into the year – and I have yet to write about point of view.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

Don’t worry, though. I’m going to make it up to you today. Who knows, I might even return to the subject in the weeks and months to come. I’m confident that, by the end of the year, you’ll be as tired of hearing me go on and on about point of view as you usually are. A bit of normality in a topsy-turvy world…

Point of view, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is, essentially, the narrative voice used to tell a story. And the initial choice of point of view for each project we write usually focuses on the relative advantages of writing in first person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “I,” “me,” “my”) versus writing in close third person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “she/he/they,” “hers/his/theirs”).

(Yes, there are other choices. One can write in what is known as omniscient POV, a challenging voice to use and master, because it demands that the narrator know what all characters are thinking and feeling WITHOUT resorting to what’s referred to as head-hopping. And one can write in second person point of view, in which the author writes the entire narrative in effect addressing the reader – “You walk into a bar and order your drink. Sounds and smells assault you from all sides…” Etc. Both of these are difficult, even risky choices for beginning writers.)

One day last week, though, I had a conversation with a writer friend (let’s call her “Haith Funter”) about the other choice we make when deciding on the narrative voice for our projects, and it is this element of point of view I wish to focus on today. Specifically, our conversation centered on whether Haith should consider using a single point of view character or multiple point of view characters for a future project she’s considering.

And being me, the moment she mentioned that she was grappling with this I launched into a lengthy (and unasked-for) recitation of the relative merits of each approach. A recitation I offer again here.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Let’s start with what I mean when I speak of multiple point of view characters. This is NOT an invitation to jump willy-nilly from character to character, sharing their thoughts, emotions, and sensations. That is called head-hopping, and it is considered poor writing. Rather, writing with multiple point of view characters means telling the story with several different narrators, each given her or his own chapters or chapter-sections in which to “tell” their part of the story. When we are in a given character’s point of view, we are privy only to her thoughts and emotions. In the next chapter, we might be privy to the thoughts of someone else in the story. This is an approach used to great effect by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin goes so far as to use his chapter headings to tell us who the point of view character is for that section of the story. Guy Gavriel Kay uses multiple point of view quite a bit – in Tigana, in his Fionavar Tapestry, in many of his more recent sweeping historical fantasies. I have used it in my epic fantasy series – The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, Blood of the Southlands, The Islevale Cycle.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterThis is in contrast with single character point of view, in which we have only one point of view character for the entire story (and that point of view can be either first or third person). Think of Haith’s Yane Jellowrock series, or my Thieftaker or Justis Fearsson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series, or even (for the most part) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

With both approaches, the point of view of each character is inviolate, meaning that your reader can learn nothing from a given character that the character her- or himself can’t know. The key is that this limitation means vastly different things in single POV on the one hand, and multiple character point of view on the other.

You might notice that the examples I give for each approach are distinctive. Granted, my examples are FAR from comprehensive, but they are instructive.

SPELL BLIND,  by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollack)For single character point of view we have essentially two kinds of books: urban fantasies that have a mystery element, and YA novels that concentrate as much on the lead character’s emotional development as on external factors. Single character POV tends to be intimate. Readers form a powerful attachment to the narrators of these books. And, of even greater importance, readers learn things about the narrative at the same time the characters do. Even in books that begin with our narrator looking back on past events, we are soon taken back in time so that this older narrative has a sense of immediacy. This is why single character POV works so well in mysteries. The reader gets information as the “detective” does. Discovery happens in real time, as it were.

My examples of multiple character POV books are almost all grand, sprawling epics of one sort or another. In part, this is because it can be more difficult to tell such stories from the vantage point of only one character. But more than that, the power of multiple POV lies in two simple facts.

First, because we are following several POV characters at once, we are drawn into a number of subplots. All of these are braided together in some way, contributing to the larger story line. And since we can leave one to pick up another, we almost always have several characters in danger, or creating danger, at any one time. Each shift from one POV character to another leaves one story hanging in order to pick up another. The shifts in narrator actually impart momentum to the story.

Second, in multiple POV, our readers always have more information than any one character. We see traps as they’re being laid, we see intrigue from all angles, we can recognize the perils for one character based upon the machinations of another. Rather than discovering things as our narrators do, our readers are almost always one step ahead of them. This knowledge creates anticipation, feeds expectation, some of which we can satisfy, some of which we might thwart, all of which ratchets up the narrative tension.

Different stories lend themselves to different point of view choices. I would never dream of telling anyone (not even Haith) what approach to use for their story. Chances are you’ll know what your story requires as soon as you begin to write it. But my hope is that a clearer understanding of the relative strengths and advantages of each option will make that choice a little easier.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ideas — Finding Them, Using Them

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

Back at the beginning of this calendar year, when I started the Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, I asked folks in my Facebook Group for ideas about what subjects I should cover. I have written about most, if not all, of the suggestions that came in at that time, so I would like to begin today’s post by renewing my call for suggestions. Please, if there is any topic you want me to cover, let me know and I’ll do my best to turn it into a Wednesday post.

Today, I would like to take on an amorphous topic: ideas. I am asked all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” And whenever I’m asked, I come up with some vague answer that goes something like, “Ideas come from everywhere. Writing, particularly writing speculative fiction, is an exercise in asking ‘What if?’ What if we put magic in this historical period? Or what if we take an island world with kingdoms and early flintlock technology and add time travel? Or what if we blend werewolf dynamics with detective-noir storylines and issues of mental health? “What if” is a powerful question, one that can take us to entirely new worlds.”

Or, in response to “Where do you get your ideas?” I might say, “Different stories come from different places. Sometimes I key in on a specific character and grow a story from there. Sometimes my imagination fixes on an element of a magic system, or some other worldbuilding element, and suddenly I’m plotting out three books. Sometimes I’ll visualize a scene – some key moment in a story I’m still discovering, and that’s the foundation for my next project.”

Both of those answers are true. Both of them reflect realities of my creative process.

But the truth is, in answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” I could just as easily say, “My ideas? Where do they come from? I have no fucking clue.”

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Ideas, many writers will tell you, are a dime a dozen. When I was just starting out in this business and still working on my very first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I worried that I would never have an idea for another project. When at last the idea for Winds of the Forelands came to me, I was both ecstatic and profoundly relieved. Today, my worry is not that I won’t have another idea; it’s that I won’t live long enough to write all the ideas I have. I’ve had people – folks who aren’t professional writers and who, frankly, have no sense of what the writing profession involves – say to me in all seriousness, “I have this great idea for a book. You should write it and we can split the royalties.” I usually say, with feigned politeness and more patience than I feel, “I have all the ideas I need, thanks. But it sounds like something you should write.” I WANT to say, “Dude, if you think coming up with some lame idea is half of what I do, you’re nuts.”

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

1. Don’t worry about where ideas come from. I won’t say it’s a stupid question, because it’s not. But the vague answers I offered above are about the best I can offer, and really the question is moot. Every idea has its own origin story, and no source of ideas is better or more valid than another.

2. Simple is okay. Been done before is okay. Even derivative can be okay. The other day I was listening to an NPR story about a new retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. This is a formula that has been done to death, and yet here is a new interpretation of it that sounds fresh and compelling and that is obviously marketable. The idea is a starting point; sometimes it’s a framework as well. Ultimately, though, your characters and voice and style will define the story. Your setting and plot devices will set your work apart. Originality is born in the creative process.

3. Ideas can’t be forced. Except when they can. Yeah, I know – really helpful. But both of those statements are true. Ideas come on their own time, by their own volition. They take us by surprise, inspiring us with their potency and novelty. It’s a great feeling. At the same time, though, we can brainstorm, hastening those ideas, forcing them to the surface. It takes patience, but it can be done. I like to ask myself questions (beyond “what if?”). I will often open a new blank document on my computer and just start typing stream of consciousness. This approach doesn’t always lead to a great story, but it certainly can. Try it.

4. Great ideas keep giving. Some ideas lead to career-defining projects. Some fizzle. It’s not always obvious from the outset which is which. What’s more, we can be blinded by the power of that moment of epiphany when the first inkling comes to us. The test, though, is how the idea builds. I find that the best ideas I’ve had beget new ideas, one after another. The visualization of a scene, say, quickly leads me to a character, or two. And those characters introduce me to a magic system. Which begins to shape my world. Get what I mean? If an idea comes to me, but then just sits there, like an imagined lump, spawning nothing else, chances are it’s not that great an idea after all.

Ideas are slippery. They lack form until we give it to them. They need to be written down, because they will abandon us if we don’t give them our full attention right away. And, of course, there is no guarantee that even the best idea will lead to a bestselling book. But ideas are also the currency of this business, the things for which we quest, and the foundations of all we do.

And so I wish you a never-ending series of wonderful, fruitful ideas. And if I have a really good one, I’ll share it with you and you can write it. We’ll split the earnings…

Keep writing!