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Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Guest Author Tina LeCount Myers on Writing a Series

Today I welcome to the blog my dear friend, Tina LeCount Myers. Tina and I met at a World Fantasy Convention a few years back and immediately fell into an easy friendship. I have since read her work and discovered without surprise that she is, in addition to being smart and funny and kind, a talented and skilled a storyteller. Please welcome her to the blog!


Tina LeCount MyersWhen I finished writing the first draft of The Song of All, I was convinced of two things:

1.) The Song of All was a stand-alone book.

2.) I was not a fantasy writer.

Over dinner, defeated, I confessed these two realizations to my husband. He, in his over-the-years-learned wisdom, asked me some insightful questions but let my definitive pronouncement stand. I was done.

At least I thought I was done. That very night, I went to bed and dreamed about what would become the next two novels in The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy. Luckily, somewhere around 3 AM, I realized what was happening. For the next 2 hours, I wrote by hand, by candlelight, trying to stay within my dream. By 5 AM, I had a rough plot outline and several key themes. It wasn’t pretty, but clearly this story had more to say.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount MyersOver the next several months, as I edited The Song of All and honed my query letter, I felt confident saying, “The Song of All is a stand-alone epic fantasy novel with series potential.” After all, I had an outline, a roster of characters, and some heartfelt themes. I knew where the story was going and where it would end up. But when the series sold based on the first book and I began to write the second book, I soon realized that, while I had read tons of books in series, I had little or no idea of how to write one. In my giddy state as a writer with a book contract, I didn’t let this fact stop me. I continued to write the story, knowing that I would need to rewrite it many times, confident that I would learn how to write a series.

I did learn how to write a series, it was a long, hard road—one that I wish I’d had more guidance for and one that continues. Overall, my take-away from writing a series is that this is not a place for “pantsing” (going by the seat of your pants). Rather, “plotting” is a de facto reality. That is not to say that your books will be all planned without any spontaneity, but an outline of the series should lean toward filling in as much as possible while leaving some blank places to surprise you as the author. I called The Legacy of Heavens a trilogy but who knows, maybe the series will go on from here, and the Muse and my publisher willing, I’ll have another series to work on in the near future. Until then, I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors be they stand-alone or with series potential.

Here are 5 things I wish I had done when I first started on my series:

Dreams of the Dark Sky, by Tina LeCount Myers1. Fully explore and flesh out the world-building. For some writers of science fiction and fantasy this might be obvious because world-building is their jam, but for other writers, who are more interested in themes or characters or plot, digging deep into world building might not be their first choice. Nevertheless, the better your understanding of how your world works (geography, socio-economic and political structures, cultural and legal norms, clothing, food, relationships, architecture, magic, etc) the easier it will be to see how the plot will unfold, where the themes might manifest, and how the characters will react.

2. Maps. Whether you love them or hate them, create them. This might be considered part of world-building, but it’s also about logistics and plotting. Even if you don’t plan to include maps in the books, make them for yourself and start right from the beginning, even if they’re rough. You will need to know the geography of your world. Where are the mountains, rivers, oceans, volcanoe   s, towns, and cities? What planets, asteroids, and galaxies exist in your world? To keep your characters moving you need to know the paths and the obstacles. Moreover, if you have a number of characters in movement, map it out so that when you are on book 5 of your series, referring to a military campaign that happened in book 2 of your series, you’ll know who’s where and doing what without going back and rereading book 2.

3. Detailed character lists. Sometimes characters come to us fully formed and that’s awesome, take advantage of that gift and make sure you write down all those details (physical traits, psychological quirks, emotional needs, etc) so that you can refer back to them as the plot continues. Sometimes, however, characters take shape or evolve the more you write about them. Here too, keeping detailed notes helps not only with character development but also continuity. Like world-building, the more you know about your characters, the more effectively you can use them.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount Myers4. Upping the stakes without jumping the shark. What keeps someone reading a series? Characters we love (so develop those characters) and the situations they find themselves in. As a reader, I fall in love with characters and want to know what happens to them as they face challenges, but if they face the same challenges over and over it can get boring​. I want them to learn and grow from their obstacles. As a writer, creating new challenges for growth can run the risk of going over the top. Killing off everyone that a character loves over a series definitely ups the stakes. But where does it leave your character? And where does it leave your reader? It is a balance between tension and emotional exhaustion, and something which I am still working on.

5. On a practical note, when working on a series try to set realistic timelines for publication. Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, having a clear understanding of the work involved is important. A 120K word book written in a year works out to 10K words a month, so 333 words a day or 500 words a day with weekends off. Sounds totally doable. And maybe not. Factor in life (work outside of writing, family, vacations, health, etc) and add in revisions, probably a couple, maybe creating and maintaining a website, writing blog posts, and marketing your work through a newsletter or social media. Suddenly, writing a book every 3 months or 6 or 9 or 12 might be too much. When you can, be realistic and kind to yourself when you set your deadlines for a series.

*****

Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, surfer, and gluestick artist. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina is the author of The Song of All, Dreams of the Dark Sky, and Breath of Gods (Books 1-3 of The Legacy of the Heavens series). Her work has also appeared in Literary Hub and Tor.com.

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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot.

For today’s Writing Tip, I would like to offer the first of what I expect will be an intermittent series world building posts. I love world building. Of all the things we speculative fiction writers get to do, it may be the one I think of as the most fun. It can involve a ton of research (which, for many of us, adds to the fun), but it is, at its core, an act of pure creation. It is that stage of writing a book when we get to play “let’s pretend,” sometimes for days, even weeks, at a time. What’s not to love?

There are lots of elements to world building, of course, but for today’s purposes, I want to talk about creating our magic systems.

To many, magic is the defining feature of fantasy stories, the one story element that sets what we do apart from the work of other writers. I’m not entirely sure I believe that (and it could be a topic for a fun bar conversation), but I do agree that for fantasies that include magic, developing a consistent and believable magic system is absolutely essential to the success of our narrative.

So, what are the most important ingredients of a good magic system?

Let me start here: Everything I’m about to say is just my opinion. These are the things that I strive to put into my magic systems. There are other ways to do this, and I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that if you don’t set up your magic with the properties I use in mine, you’re doing it wrong. So with every declarative statement I’m about to make, please insert a silent “In my opinion” or “To my way of thinking.”

I try to make my magic systems limited, costly, ordered, and realistic (to the extent that anything magical can be). I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot. In my opinion.

All of my magic system requirements are interlocked, but the first two in particular are closely related.

By limited, I mean just that. Magic can be powerful, it can be frightening. It can be wondrous. It should NOT be the answer to every problem our magic-wielding characters encounter. It can’t be omnipotent. At least not if I’m to keep to what I said above about not allowing magic to take over my story. So the first thing I like to do with my magic system is figure out specifically what magic can do. In the Thieftaker and Fearsson books, that has meant coming up with a partial list of spells, and giving all of them a similar amount of reach and impact. For the Winds of the Forelands series, it meant coming up with different categories of Qirsi magic – mists and winds, language of beasts, shattering, healing, etc. It’s not that every person’s magic is the same, or even that my list of abilities is necessarily comprehensive. Part of the fun of writing these books is discovering new flavors of magic as each series progresses. But in determining what most magics are like, I begin to define the boundaries of what magic can do and what it can’t.

Magics should be costly because even a relatively limited magic can take over a story if your magic-wielder can draw upon it over and over and over without consequence. By imposing a cost for magic – fatigue, blood loss, the shortening of one’s life (as in Winds of the Forelands) or the loss of years (as with the time travel in my Islevale Cycle) – I force my characters to use their magic strategically and, even more important, to rely on other qualities as they seek to overcome whatever problems I place in their paths. Magic without cost is empty, it’s boring. Any victories achieved with it will wind up feeling cheap and unearned, which we don’t want.

An ordered magic system is internally consistent. Limits that apply in one situation will, generally speaking, apply in all situations. The costs of magic are extracted from all. Sure, a more experienced or more powerful sorcerer/mage/conjurer/weremyste might deal with those costs better than others. There is nothing wrong with hierarchies. The problems arise when there is no rationale for discrepancies in what magic does for one person or another. Now, I will also say that quite often we set up our rules and costs and limits, only to introduce a villain who finds her way around those things. That’s fine, as long as we can explain within the logic of the system exactly what makes her exceptional. The fact that there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean that our hero knows all of those rules. By giving our villain this sort of advantage, we make her that much more dangerous, and we force our hero to find a way, within the rules, to overcome her foe’s powers. Our hero might have to learn something new, or find an innovative way to apply old rules. These are the sorts of conflicts I relish as a writer.

All of these structural elements are intended to make our magic systems as realistic as possible, but realism goes beyond them. Magic should seem to the reader to be as endemic to the worlds we create as air and water, as the cycle of days and seasons, as the oceans and deserts and forests we describe. It should be elemental, integral to the larger world. Just as gravity applies to all on our planet (until we find some way within the rules of physics to defy gravity), so should magic and its rules apply believably across the board in our worlds. This is why Thieftaker magic looks just like 18th century descriptions of witchcraft – I wanted my magic to blend with my historical world.

I’ll end this by returning to a point I raised early on: Magic is a plot device, something we use to make our work original and intriguing and fun, for us and for our readers. It is no replacement for good plotting and convincing character work. In fact, I’ll take this a step further: in most of my stories, at the end, magic will fail my characters. They will find themselves driven to the very limits of their magical abilities, and these talents will prove insufficient. In order to prevail, they will need to draw upon other qualities: wit, resourcefulness, courage, strength. Only by combining these other, more ordinary, human attributes with their magic, can they emerge triumphant. Because magic is not, cannot be, the most important thing. We are writing about people, first and foremost. And we want their victories to reflect who and what they are. It’s easy to write a magical victory. Writing a human victory – that’s the great challenge.

Keep writing! Hope to see many of you at Saga this weekend!

Monday Musings: The Social Side of Cons

At the end of this week, I will drive to Charlotte for the Saga Professional Development Conference, where I will be speaking over the weekend. It should be a fun event and I hope to see many of you there.

As I prepare for it, though, I realize that I left something out of my recent Monday Musings post on attending conventions. Clearly, we all want to glean from our conventions and conferences all that we can professionally. But there is another reason we attend these gatherings. I am looking forward to my panels and my workshop, but mostly I’m excited to spend time with my friends and colleagues, to reconnect with fellow writers who I don’t get to see nearly enough.

I live in a tiny town in the rural south. It’s a college town – good places to eat, lots of cultural opportunities, and a wonderful community of smart, interesting, socially-aware people. But I’m pretty much the only speculative fiction writer in the area. There are plenty of writers in town – and I spend time with several of them – but our genre is not well represented.

Moreover, writing is a solitary act (if you don’t count the clamor of voices in our heads). It’s easy to feel isolated in this profession, especially early in one’s career, when we haven’t yet had the chance to build a writing community.

And so when we attend conventions, conferences, and the like, of course we want to sell our books and stories, of course we want to connect with agents and editors who can help us further our careers. But we also want to build that community of colleagues and friends. I’ve been in the business for a quarter century, and I still find new friends at nearly every event I attend. I’m not particularly good at small talk, at being “social” on demand. To some degree I have to force myself. There is a part of me – almost always – that wants to retreat to my hotel room and watch TV, or read, or work, or take a nap. Any of those would be easier than making myself into Socialize Guy. And I did make a point in that previous post I mentioned about building in alone time when attending a convention. I believe that’s important.

The danger lies in retreating completely. As I said, writing is a solitary act. Many of us are drawn to it for just that reason. I love my work time, I enjoy being alone with my ideas, my creativity. That element of my job comes naturally to me. It’s the hobnobbing I struggle with.

Yet, I’m fortunate. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have lots of friends in the business. I already know many of the people I’ll be seeing this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited to catch up with them. Whatever social anxiety I have is helped by those long-standing friendships. I know that what I’m describing here is difficult, and even downright terrifying, for many people. And all I can say is, we’re really a friendly bunch, and we are more like you than you might think. Make the effort to step outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person.

Because as much as we all want to connect with an agent or get invited into an anthology, it is every bit as important to start building your community. And the truth is, I wouldn’t trade a single one of my dear friends for all the book contracts and anthology invites in the world.

Although, if you happen to be a movie agent, you should ignore that last line. Really. Call me!

Have a great week!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writers Read

I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

In last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post I tried to ease up on the old “truism” that writers have to write every day. This week, I address another truism (Spoiler Alert: notice the lack of quotation marks this time…): Writers have to be readers.

I will admit that I find this one so basic, so integral to all that it means to be a writer, that I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

To my mind, trying to be a professional writer without being a serious reader, is like trying to be a professional athlete without exercising. Except golf and NASCAR. Okay, bad analogy… But you get what I mean.

Seriously, though, we make our livings with the written word; we should be consumers of what we produce. And I expect that for most people this is not a burdensome idea. Generally speaking, those of us who care about words and language and storytelling are drawn to reading without need of being prompted.

That said, I have had people ask me what sorts of things I read and, perhaps more to the point, what sorts of things beginning writers ought to be reading.

The answer to the second question, for the most part, is “whatever you want.” Really. If you like epic fantasy and horror, read those. If you like mystery and urban fantasy and space opera, read those. If you like guitar magazines and books about photography (not that there’s anyone here who likes those things…) have at it. Read what you enjoy, what interests you. Just read.

Then again, if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you should be familiar with the genres AND forms in which you write. You should familiarize yourself with some of the classics of whatever sort of story you wish to write, and you should also be reading new work, to see where your chosen genre is headed. At the same time, you don’t have to read EVERYTHING in the field, or even every book or series considered a classic or a current trendsetter. We all have our preferences, we know what we like and what we don’t. There is a HUGE amount of material available to us and life is just too short to read books we don’t enjoy.

So, as a for instance: I have been writing epic fantasy off and on for close to twenty-five years. I started my career writing big fat high fantasies. By that time, I had read extensively in the genre – classics by Tolkien and Lewis and LeGuin, more recent books by Kerr, Donaldson, Kurtz, Brooks, Eddings, McCaffrey (though she considered herself a science fiction writer rather than a fantasist), Mary Stewart, and my favorite, Guy Gavriel Kay. And so I was familiar with the tropes. I knew which I wanted to avoid and which I wanted to build upon. I knew the story structure. I understood what was required in building worlds and magic systems.

When I decided to start working on urban fantasy, I read extensively in THAT genre, learning the tropes and narrative structures and character arcs that one finds in those books.

These are the reasons we read in our genres: because books and stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger conversation. They are, in a sense, contributions to a dialogue that will, we hope, continue long after we are gone. Trying to write without being familiar with the genre is not only an act of supreme arrogance, it is also a great way to wind up inadvertently writing something that is either too similar to someone else’s work or so far outside the realm of what readers expect that the books fall flat.

On the other hand, there are obvious omissions from my list of epic fantasy authors. I didn’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I didn’t read past the first book of Terry Goodkind’s series. I actually stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because the set-up was too similar in certain ways to my Winds of the Forelands books and I didn’t want to be accused of copying from George R.R. Martin. (A few people accused me of this anyway, but what can you do?)

The point is, we can read to learn our craft without having to treat that reading as a mandatory study list. Read. Read a lot. But choose books that you want to read. If you’re interested in writing short fiction, and are not as sure of yourself in short form work, pick up a couple of collections and/or anthologies. (What’s the difference? Collections are books of one author’s short fiction; anthologies have works by several different authors.) You couldn’t possibly read all the anthologies and collections out there, so choose the ones that sound interesting to you. (And yes, I can recommend a couple of titles…)

But if you want to write, you absolutely have to read. Yes, I’m going there. This is not negotiable. This is not one of those questions for which there are lots of different answers.

Writers read.

Period. Full stop.

Keep writing! (And reading!)

Writing-Tip Wednesday: On Writing Every Day

We’ve all heard it said — usually with authority and condescension and a certain righteous certainty.

A real writer writes every day.

If you want to be a professional writer, that’s what you have to do: Make it a habit, part of your daily routine.

It is even possible that such pronouncements have, in the past, crossed my lips. And I will say that most professionals I know do write each day, or very close to it. I write at least six days most weeks — I certainly work every weekday. And I would recommend that even those who have yet to make writing your profession make the effort to write as often as possible.

That said, let’s be clear about a few things.

First, when I said that I write every day, and that I work each weekday, that does not mean that I am always writing fiction on those days, or even always churning out pages of prose. “Writing” can mean research. Writing can mean blogging. It can mean updating my website or doing social media stuff. It can even mean, at times, staring out the window trying to work out my next plot point. Yes, when I am in the middle of a novel, I will write 10,000 or 12,000 words per week for weeks at a time. Usually I have some prose project or other underway and I will work on it steadily.

But “writing” can mean many things, can refer to different elements of my job. It doesn’t always mean “writing my book.”

Second, even if the only work we ever needed to do as writers was write our fiction, it still might not make sense for all of us to write daily. As I have said many, many time before, there is no single right way to do any of this. Some writers outline, others wing it. Some writers write in absolute silence, others like to have rock (or country or classical or jazz) blasting in the background. Some writers produce clean first drafts, others sneeze their books all over the proverbial page and spend the next six weeks cleaning up the mess in rewrites.

Some writers write every day. Some don’t. Some writers get burned out if they try to produce pages each day. Such writers are not doing it wrong. They’re not neglecting their art. They work a certain way at a certain pace. Full stop.

Third, life matters and sometimes it gets in the way. I know plenty of writers who would LOVE to write everyday, but simply can’t. It’s just not an option. Jobs, familial responsibilities, financial factors, the sheer enormity of emotional burdens and physical health problems — any one of these things can make writing on a regular basis impossible. Combine two or three of them, and time for writing becomes an almost unaffordable luxury. That doesn’t mean these people aren’t writers. It isn’t cause to question their commitment to their work in progress. It means that right now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, their writing output will be limited.

My point — and it is directed at myself as much as anyone — is that stating glibly that writers ought to write every day reflects the worst sort of arrogance and privilege. I GET to write every day. This is one of the great blessings in my life. I do this professionally, and I have the opportunity to give expression to my creative visions daily. Judging those who don’t have that same chance is pretty far off base.

Look, if you want to write, if you aspire to a career in fiction, and if you have the chance to write at least for some time each day, I would encourage you to do so. I would also encourage you to count your lucky stars that you can.

If you can’t, don’t get down on yourself and don’t let anyone (including me) tell you that somehow you’re neglecting your art or doing this wrong. You’re not.

And finally, if you’re in this position — wishing you could write more — consider keeping a journal, even if it just consists of typing an email to yourself in a moment’s free time with some scrap of an idea or a stray thought, or writing a few words in a notebook. You don’t have to Write Your Book. You can simply express yourself in the easiest, quickest, most convenient way possible. There are no rules to this, no single right way blah, blah, blah. You can’t do it wrong, because in this respect there is no wrong. There is only what we can do and what we want to do.

Best of luck. Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Self-Editing Techniques

We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others.

On Monday, I wrote about my recent editing experiences and the new challenges I’ve faced helping authors improve their work. Today I would like to continue in a somewhat similar vein with a post about self-editing.

Editing our own work can be incredibly difficult, but it is also a skill we can hone. Let me be absolutely clear, though: No matter how good we become at editing our own work, we still need outside editors. No one – NO ONE – is so good at writing and self-editing that they can get by without an editor. None of what I’m about to suggest is intended as a replacement for the editorial process. Rather, self-editing is a tool that will make subsequent editorial relationships easier and quicker. Every problem we catch on our own is one fewer we need to hash out with an editor. Put another way, the cleaner our manuscripts, the easier it is to navigate future edits and revisions.

So with those caveats firmly in place, let’s look at a few things we can do to improve our self-editing.

The biggest problem we’re likely to encounter in editing our own work is our familiarity with our stories and our writing. We know what we’re trying to say. We know the shapes of our narratives, and we also know our own voice and style. So our stories are likely to make sense to us, regardless of whether they make sense to others. Our prose is likely to be clear and coherent to us, even if it’s clunky or sloppy to others. As a for instance, have you ever omitted a key word from the sentence, and then read that sentence again and again and again, each time inserting the word in your own head so that you fail to realize that the word isn’t there on the page? Only when another reader comes along and says, “You know, you’re missing a word…” do we finally realize there’s a problem. In the same way, we can often come up with plot points that make perfect sense in our own thinking and remain utterly opaque to our readers.

Thus, the secret to successful self-editing lies in creating as much distance as possible between the writing process and the experience of reading our own work. We want the material to feel as fresh, as much like the work of another writer, as it can.

How do we do this? I like to create distance between the writing and editing experiences using several tools: time, format, medium.

Time is pretty simple, but let me back up briefly to say that I tend to write relatively polished drafts. That’s just the way I work. I want the wording of my first draft to be as close to the final version as possible, so I clean things up as I write. That said, though, once I finish a section of a draft, I don’t go back and edit until I complete the entire book. Any edits I think of along the way, I jot down in a separate file. And then I continue writing. As I said in a post a few weeks ago, I don’t retreat into edits because for me momentum is everything.

Once the manuscript is done, I stick it in a drawer (in a figurative sense) for at least four weeks. I prefer six. And yes, when planning my work schedule and juggling deadlines, I factor in this resting period. During the interim I work on other things, ideally something in a different world or series. That way, when I come back to the piece all those weeks later, it’s fresh. I won’t have forgotten it – that’s too much to ask. But it won’t be quite so familiar.

Format is a bit of an inconvenience, at least for me. I write at my computer. Everything. I can barely hand-write a shopping list anymore. And so I am used to looking at my manuscripts on a screen. Ideally, I then edit with a pencil on a paper copy of the book. Now, I understand that printing our manuscripts is a pain in the butt. It’s time-consuming, paper and ink are expensive, and there are environmental factors to consider. But the fact is, if I write on my computer and try to edit on the computer as well, I miss stuff. When I read the book on paper, I see things I would otherwise skim over. If you are in a position to print out your books I recommend doing so. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

Medium is easy, although you might want to do this one in the privacy of your own home. We write our books in relative silence (though I do often speak as I type, particularly with dialogue), and we can read and edit them that way as well. Or, we can read them aloud. I’ll admit that at this stage of my career, I rarely print out manuscripts. But I ALWAYS edit by reading aloud. I see the page differently when I treat it as a script, catching mistakes I’d otherwise miss. And more to the point, when I hear the book, even in my own voice, I become aware of things that might escape me in a silent read: clunky transitions, words and phrases I’ve overused, stilted dialogue, and a bunch of other problems. Seriously, reading a piece out loud might leave you hoarse and exhausted, but it’s invaluable as a self-editing tool.

There are other distancing techniques that can help as well. For instance, if you write every day in the same spot in your house or in a library or café, trying editing elsewhere. That change in venue can make a difference.

The point is, you want your writing experience and critical reading experience to have as little in common as possible. Anything that makes the manuscript feel fresh and unfamiliar will contribute to clearing your perspective. And that, in turn, will allow you to see and fix issues you might have missed.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Overcoming Distraction and Getting Started

The problem isn’t one of desire – I want to work, I want to be productive. Rather, the problem is one of inertia. A body – or in this case a creative mind – at rest will remain at rest; a creative mind in motion will remain in motion.

I’m trying to settle on a single idea for today’s Monday Musing, and I can’t. My thoughts are everywhere. They’re with family and friends, they’re in the impeachment hearings and in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’re in the non-fiction piece I’m writing, they’re in the anthology, they’re in an intriguing idea I have for a new novel, they’re in travel and music and birdwatching and photography.

I’m not even caffeinated…

This isn’t a new problem, of course. It’s actually, to my mind, one of the great challenges we face as writers – and artists and musicians and actors, doctors and lawyers, construction workers and luthiers, students and teachers, and pretty much any other profession we can think of. It’s easy to forget sometimes in today’s culture – a lot of what is said and done, a lot of what appears on our social media feeds and news alerts, seems to involve little or no forethought – but we are cerebral creatures. We spend a lot of our time locked in our own heads, trying to make sense of our thoughts and emotions.

That we are often distracted isn’t surprising. What’s actually remarkable is that we get anything done at all. The hardest thing for me to do each day is get started on my work. I love what I do, but almost invariably when I sit down to write my mind is on anything but writing.

So how do we focus our minds on the task at hand? How do we banish those other thoughts from our minds so that we can work?

Let me address that second question first, because the answer is pretty simple: we don’t. Or at least I don’t. I can’t simply forget about my family. I can’t easily set aside that ongoing dispute with the phone company, or the weekend plans we’re trying to finalize, or the photography project I have in mind that isn’t really work, but about which I’m equally passionate. And so I don’t even try.

It’s not a matter of ridding my mind of extraneous thoughts. That’s not possible. And so the relevant question is really the first one: How do we focus on the task at hand?

Part of the answer involves practice. I’ve been writing for more than twenty-five years, and I’ve learned to compartmentalize my thoughts to some degree. I can set aside my other problems and concerns for a time, and concentrate on the work. I can’t pretend those other things don’t exist, but I can try to relegate them to background noise for a time.

How?

There are a few tricks that work for me, all of them based on this simple truism: The problem isn’t one of desire – I want to work, I want to be productive. Rather, the problem is one of inertia. A body – or in this case a creative mind – at rest will remain at rest; a creative mind in motion will remain in motion. The task then is not to motivate, but rather to get going.

The first trick, taught to me by my wonderful graduate school adviser when I was writing my dissertation, is pretty basic. When I finish my work in the late afternoon or evening, I break off in the middle of a sentence. So the first thing I have to do when I sit down the following morning is finish that phrase. Immediately, I’m working. Some people accomplish the same thing by going back to read and polish what they wrote the day before. I don’t like to do that because I wind up retreating into revision, which doesn’t help me be productive today. Better for me to have that sentence to finish, so that I can get some forward momentum.

Sometimes, though, ending with an unfinished sentence isn’t practical. Sometimes we finish a day with by ending a chapter or section. In this case, I make notes in the document – what comes next, what is the very next thing I want to write. I only need to jot down a few words or phrases – that’s enough, and it does much the same thing as the unfinished phrase: It gives me an entry the next morning and allows me to start working.

A number of my writing colleagues do not listen to music when they work. Others can’t work without something on the stereo. I fall somewhere in between. I can write without music, and I do fine with music playing. But I’m pretty particular: I listen almost exclusively to instrumental music when I write – jazz, bluegrass, occasionally classical. And I choose a musical genre for each particular work (Thieftaker books and stories call for bluegrass; Fearsson stories demand jazz; Islevale flows best to classical.) And when I struggle to get going, music can help a lot. The appropriate music can put me in the necessary head space and move me past those distractions that hinder my process.

When all else fails, there is also surrender. I’m serious. Some distractions can’t be ignored. Some of them – often those relating to the people we love – are more important than work. And quite often, taking a half hour out of our work day to address issues that weigh on our minds can salvage the balance of the day, allowing us to be far more productive than if we had continued to brood.

So those are the techniques I use to get going with my writing. And look! I wrote a Monday Musings post. All I needed was something to get me moving…

Have a good week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!