Tag Archives: writing business

Professional Wednesday (On Thursday): About Deadlines

Yes, this is a Professional Wednesday post, going up on a Thursday morning. And it’s about dealing with deadlines and professional obligations, which should give you some hint as to where this essay is going . . . .

I apologize for not getting my Wednesday post up on Wednesday. I would say it won’t happen again, but that would be dishonest. It’s rather likely to happen again at some point. Read on . . . .

Deadlines and obligations are part of any profession, but they seem to loom larger in the literary world than in most others. We writers tend to work in isolation. We don’t go to offices to ply our trade. We have few meetings. We don’t wind up on committees or task forces or action groups or anything of the sort. We have, essentially, one professional duty: We are expected to turn shit in on time. That’s a slight oversimplification. Yes, we have to compose lovely prose. We have to construct narratives, develop characters, create settings, tease out themes and moods and emotions and the like.

But in presenting our work to the outside world, in moving from the creative process to the marketing of our work, our responsibilities come down, largely, to deadlines. Deadlines for submission, for revisions, for copyedits, for proofs. And I don’t mean to downplay the challenges deadlines can present. Being able to create on demand is THE defining attribute of a professional artist. We don’t wait for the muse. We don’t create when the mood strikes us. We produce regularly, and often we do so on someone else’s schedule.

I have been on both sides of deadlines: I have written to them, and I have imposed them on writers sending material to me for editing. And so, I feel confident in discussing how to manage them and how to handle the conversation when we know we’re going to miss them.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The first deadline I missed was on my second novel, The Outlanders, the middle book of the LonTobyn Chronicles trilogy. And I had good excuses. Between the time I started writing the book, and the day the first draft of the manuscript was due to Tor, our first child was born, my mother died, my father died, and my siblings and I had to settle my father’s estate.

Being a first-time parent was glorious, but it consumed my days and disrupted my nights. Losing both my parents in quick succession was brutal, and the loss of my father hit me particularly hard. HIS father was still alive (my grandfather was over 100 at the time), and his mother had died in her nineties. We thought he would live forever. His death devastated us all.

With the deadline for The Outlanders approaching, I reached out to my editor at Tor Books and told him the book would be late. How late? I had no idea. I was stuck, an emotional wreck, and I didn’t know how to get unstuck. But I promised him I would get it done, if he could just be patient with me. He was, and I did.

That conversation was hard, but it was the right one to have. Looking back, however, I realize I should have initiated it months earlier. The first lesson of dealing with deadlines is this: As soon as we understand that we are going to miss a deadline, we need to alert our editors (and our agents, if we have representation). Missed deadlines impact our publishers as well as the other authors in the publishing queue with us and behind us. A deadline is an obligation with consequences beyond our own lives, and we owe it to the people doing business with us to be as honest and forward-looking as possible.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)Yes, sometimes we think we’re going to miss a deadline, and then we make it. And if we alert our publisher prematurely, we could lose our spot in the queue. So be it. That’s the price of acting professionally. When our older daughter first was diagnosed with cancer, I told my editor and my agent what had happened, and let them know I was probably going to be late with the novel I was writing. As it turned out, writing that book — Invasives, the second Radiants novel — was a wonderful escape, and I met my deadline. But I had given up my publishing spot and so the book was released later than I had hoped. It wasn’t that big a deal. As I say, the most important thing is be up front about the situation with those who need to know.

Sometimes, we fall behind on our writing not because of life events, but simply because we’re struggling with the story, with the writing itself. Again, communication is the key. In that case, we should reach out to our editor. Let them know we’re having trouble. It may be that a conversation with someone who knows the story, who understands what we’re trying to do with the characters, who might even have already published previous books in the series, will help us clarify our thinking and get us back on track and on schedule. At the very least, it will alert our editor to a potential problem with the upcoming deadline.

And sometimes we just bump up against the realities of the creative process: It doesn’t always conform to our scheduling and planning. Art can be messy and inefficient. In making our commitments, in accepting deadlines in the first place — and usually we have the opportunity to agree to a deadline or to ask for more (or less) time — we have to keep this reality in mind. We have to plan well. We have to avoid setting ourselves up for failure by agreeing to a more ambitious timeline than we are capable of meeting. Once we have have made our commitment, we have to budget our time and then stick to the calendar we’ve set.

In the end, there is really no secret or magic formula to any of this. We must be honest — with ourselves and with our colleagues. We have to do the work. And we have to anticipate problems before they arise.

Easy-peasy. Usually. Every once a while, missing a deadline can’t be helped. And then a Wednesday post goes up on a Thursday.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: The Twisted, Tortured Story of THE CHALICE WAR

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeMy “What matters?” series of posts will conclude next Monday, after a Monday Musings post this week that straddled the personal and professional a bit more than usual. In the meantime, I am using today’s Professional Wednesday post to begin pivoting toward the impending release of my new series, a contemporary urban fantasy that delves deeply into Celtic mythology. The series is called The Chalice War, and the first book is The Chalice War: Stone. It will be released within the next month or so, and will be followed soon after by the second book, The Chalice War: Cauldron, and the finale, The Chalice War: Sword.

In my experience, every new project has a story (no pun intended) and this one is no different. Back in the summer of 2009, I was in a bit of a career doldrums. Blood of the Southlands, my third epic fantasy series, was complete, and all but the third book had been released. The series had done well critically, but sales were a bit disappointing — a pattern I had encountered before and would again — and I was trying to figure out where to go next. I had pitched the first iteration of what would become the Thieftaker series to my agent, and she was trying to sell it to Tor Books. But, as always, the publishing world was moving at a snail’s pace, and I had nothing to do.

Within half a year, I would be working on the Robin Hood novelization and starting to convert Thieftaker from an epic fantasy to a historical urban fantasy. But for the moment, I was without a project.

And then an idea came to me — a sudden flash of insight into what would become a pivotal scene in Stone. I took the idea and ran with it. First, I read a ton of material on Celtic history and lore, taking copious notes and figuring out how I might create modern-day versions of the heroes and deities I was reading about. Then, my research complete (for the moment), I began to write the first draft of a contemporary urban fantasy.

I didn’t do much outlining, but rather allowed the novel to take me where it might. And boy did it take me to some interesting places. It started in an imagined bedroom community in northern Virginia, soon evolved into a cross-country trek on U.S. Interstate 40, and wound up on the Strip in Las Vegas. The Battle Furies — the Morrigan — showed up. Turns out, in addition to being goddesses who fed on strife and human suffering, who could turn themselves into a winged horse (Macha) and twin giant ravens (Badbh and Nemain), who drove armies to a killing frenzy and men to uncontrollable lust, they were also Vegas nightclub singers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I finished the book and showed it to my agent. She liked it a lot, but thought it needed work. She was right, of course. But by that time, I had signed the contracts for Robin Hood and the Thieftaker books. Not too long after, I finally sold the Fearsson series to Baen Books and so had that trilogy to get through.

But I never forgot my Celtic urban fantasy, or its heroes Marti and Kel. When I had some spare time, I went back and rewrote the book, incorporating revision notes from friends and from my agent with my own sense of what the book needed. I rewrote it a second time a couple of years later, and having some time, started work on a second volume, this one set in Australia (where my family and I lived in 2005-2006). I stalled out on that book about two-thirds of the way in, but I liked what I had. By then, though, I was deeply involved with the final Thieftaker books and the Fearsson series. And I was starting to have some ideas for what would become the Islevale trilogy.

The Celtic books languished in a virtual trunk, not forgotten, but ignored. I didn’t know how to end the second book. I knew the first book needed another rewrite. And I had no idea how to complete the trilogy.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)But I had been through this before. The first book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson went through at least half a dozen iterations between the first draft, written in 2005, and its eventually publication in 2014. I first came up with the basic concept for Invasives, the second Radiants book, in 2009. It sat on my computer desktop for more than ten years before I actually used it.

I revised Stone yet again, and in so doing, came up with an idea of how to complete the second novel. I rewrote what I had written of that novel, and this time got past whatever had held me back and managed to complete it. And in finishing that volume, I came up with an approach for the third book. It was daring, and quite different from the first two books, but it worked. I set that one in Ireland, and also in the Underrealm.

Finally, in 2021, I had a conversation with Deb Dixon, my marvelous editor at Bell Bridge Books. She asked me what I was thinking of writing next, and I said, “Well, I have this series I’ve been working on — a contemporary urban fantasy steeped in Celtic mythology . . . .”

Her response: “Yes, please.”

The moral of the story should be clear: Never, ever, give up on a project. Sometimes we’re not ready to write the ideas we have. Sometimes our imagination outstrips our creative abilities. At other times, our careers take us in other directions, and we’re not yet ready to pursue projects that we know we want to write eventually. And at still other times, our ideas come to us piecemeal. We can’t see the entire work, but we know there is something there worth writing.

All three of these things were true for me. On some level I knew what I wanted to do with the Celtic books back when I wrote that first iteration of Stone. But I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to do justice to the idea. I had other projects that were more fully formed and that I needed to work on in the moment. And so I did. And the idea for the trilogy took time to percolate.

In the end, these are books I love, stories I’m proud to see come to fruition. I look forward to sharing them with all of you.

Keep writing!!

Monday Musings: What Matters, Part IV — Money

Say you don’t need no diamond rings,
And I’ll be satisfied;
Tell me that you want the kind of things,
That money just can’t buy.
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney

We were bound to get to money eventually, right? For weeks now, I’ve been writing about the things that matter and those that don’t. It seemed inevitable that I would come to financial issues before long. And here we are.

Let me start with a spoiler. I am not going to tell you that money is unimportant, that what matters is what’s in your heart, what brings you joy. I’m not going to tell you to throw off the bonds of our Capitalist mindset and devote yourself entirely to your art. Money matters. You can’t eat what’s in your heart. You can’t use your art to keep warm and dry and safe. You can’t retire on dreams and professional contentment. Call it a necessary evil. Call it a source of comfort and pleasure. Call it whatever the hell you want. But don’t kid yourself: In this world, we all need money to get by.

My father struggled early in his professional life, at a time when my older siblings were kids, and he worried about finances quite a bit. Those worries contributed to an authoritarian streak in his parenting. Later, by the time I was growing up, he had established himself in the world of finance and was earning a healthy living. We weren’t truly wealthy — we had family friends who were, so we saw the lifestyle of the rich up close — but we were comfortably upper-middle-class. In my memory, we never worried about money. My dad was far more easy-going in those later years. When unexpected expenses arose, he would shrug and say, “It’s only money.” Which, of course, is an attitude born of privilege.

My brother Jim tells of going with my father to his office in lower Manhattan when Jim was just a kid. My father showed Jim where he worked and said something along the lines of, “I could have been one of those guys with a corner office and a lot of money, but I chose to be a husband and father instead.” That’s a paraphrasing, but a close one, and it is indicative of my dad’s priorities. Again, though, it’s also something one can only say from a place of comfort.

I’ve been rich, oh baby, I’ve been poor;
Been in love a couple of times before.
If I had to choose, you know, between the two,
I’d take both rich and in love; I ain’t no fool.
— Paul Barrere, Little Feat

My father’s example has guided me for much of my life. Yes, I want my books to sell. I want to make money as a writer, and I take advantage of opportunities as they come my way. But when my daughters were younger, I tried to prioritize family in choices between home life and profession. And I have always worked hard to make my books as clean and polished as possible, even when I’ve known that I might make more if I took less time on each project and squeezed out more publications every year.

As a result, I have enjoyed more critical success than commercial success, and at times, my sales performance has bothered me. Once, when I was lamenting another well-reviewed book that hadn’t sold very well, Nancy asked me, “Would you want it to be the other way around?”

The question brought me up short. “What?”

“Would you be happier if your sales were great, but your reviews were bad?”

It took me all of three seconds to answer. “No, I wouldn’t.”

“Then stop complaining.”

Wise woman.

At this point, you might be saying, “You know, for a guy who said he wouldn’t tell us money is unimportant, you sure seem to be telling us just that.”

To which I say, “Well, yes and no.”

Money matters, no doubt. I would like to be making more as a writer, and I’ve felt that way for much of my career. But money is not all that matters. Not by a long shot. For each of us there exists a balance — things we will do for a paycheck and things we won’t. I have the luxury of making choices that are similar to those my father made. Nancy earns a good living and she wants me to write with joy, with satisfaction in my work, and with respect for the boundaries we have placed between our professional lives and our private life. An approach born of privilege? Absolutely. And so I would never judge anyone who makes different choices, who emphasizes the commercial end of the profession. We all have to do what is right for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our goals and desires.

This is a Monday Musings post, but these closing graphs have the feel of a Professional Wednesday essay, and so allow me to offer a few bits of business advice. First, do not rush into any contract or business arrangement. Most of the people I have encountered in publishing are honest and care deeply about the written word. Most, but not all. Read your contracts before you sign, and ask questions, not just of the person you’re signing with, but of friends who know the law and the business. If you have any doubts about any provisions, don’t sign until those questions have been answered to your satisfaction.

Second, don’t give up your day job until you’re absolutely certain you can. I gave mine up many years ago, and so I am not really in a position to give such advice. The fact is, though, had I know as much then about the vicissitudes of the market as I know now, I might have followed a different course. This despite the fact that Nancy and I have never really wanted for much or had to worry about finances.

And third, remember that once your words are out there, there’s no taking them back. Take pride in your books and stories. Make them as good as can be. Long after the money from a specific book or story sale has been spent, the work itself will still be available for readers. In my opinion, you want those words to represent the best you have to offer at the moment you published them.

They toss around your latest golden egg,
Speculation — well, who’s to know,
If the next one in the nest,
Will glitter for them so.
— Joni Mitchell

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: Three Ways To Help Your Short Fiction Submission, and Three Ways To Doom It

The deadline for submissions to Artifice and Craft, the anthology I’m co-editing with Edmund Schubert for Zombies Need Brains, is ten days away. December 31. As of this writing, we are closing in on 400 submissions. The anthology will have a total of fourteen stories, seven of them from anchor authors. Meaning we can accept seven stories from all those submissions. We will likely wind up with about 500 subs — maybe more. They just pour in during the last week.

Noir, edited by David B. Coe and John Zakour, an anthology from Zombies Need BrainsSo far, we have received some very good stories. We have also received far, far more that won’t make the first cut. And so I thought I would go over again, briefly, the things that can make or break a story submission, at least for this editor.

To start, here are three things an author can do that might well doom their chances of having their story accepted.

1) Fail to follow the guidelines. I have said this before and will continue to say it until I’m blue in the face, because it sometimes seems I’m shouting into the wind. Every market for stories (and novels, too) has guidelines — GLs for short — that they want authors to follow. These are basics: acceptable fonts, line spacing, margins, etc., as well as presentation instructions, such as what information should appear on the first page and what a cover letter ought to say. Following GLs could not be easier. All one has to do is read them and then follow them. That’s it. And yet, you would be amazed at the number of submissions that don’t do this.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierWill I reject a story simply because it is single-spaced instead of double-spaced? No, I’m not quite that mean. But when reading a story, knowing I have literally dozens more waiting in the queue, I will only tolerate so many flaws before I reject it. Remember, I have 500 stories to choose from. I can and will find what I’m looking for. No story is ever perfect, so ask yourself, do you want to expend one of your flaws on formatting? Or do you want to present your story correctly so that I can judge it on its artistic merits? The answer seems self-evident to me.

2) Fail to write a story that’s on theme. Again, this would seem so obvious as to be silly. And yet . . . . ZNB anthologies are themed. All of them. And those themes are not suggestions, they’re requirements. The anthology’s theme is written out plainly in the call for submissions (along with the GLs). And yes, if a story isn’t right on theme I WILL reject it. It can be the best story ever, but if it’s not on theme, it will not be in the anthology. Period. Full stop.

3) Fail to write a full story. This one is a little less self-evident. The word limit for each submission is 7,500 words. The GLs don’t give a word minimum. But this is my fifth time editing an anthology and never have I given a top rating to any story that was shorter than, say, 2,500 to 3,000 words. It’s not that I’m imposing a minimum of my own. It’s just that these anthologies are not venues for flash fiction. That upper word limit of 7,500 words is sort of a hint telling you that we want to see story depth, character development and arc, narrative complexity. We want to see excellent ideas that are fully realized, and it is very hard to do that with flash fiction. Over the past couple of months, I have read too many pieces of fiction that offered great ideas, but didn’t do nearly enough with them.

Okay, so what three things can authors do to give themselves the best chance of having a story accepted?

DERELICT, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua Palmatier1) I abhor the cliché, but think outside the box. As Joshua Palmatier, owner and publisher of Zombies Need Brains, has said, don’t assume your first idea is your best idea. The most obvious ideas often come to us first, and if they’re obvious to us, they’re likely to be obvious to everyone. Make your story stand out by exploring the second or third idea, by looking for an idea that isn’t obvious but is rich with narrative possibility.

2) Write with emotion and passion. Too many of the stories I’ve read consist of dialogue and almost nothing else. Others take a kind of epistolary approach, by telling the story in the form of documents — court transcripts or product descriptions or something similar. Clever, but devoid of character development, and, as such, often devoid of emotion and tension as well. Stories need to touch our hearts. Clever is fun, but in the absence of passion, it’s probably not enough to gain acceptance to such a selective anthology. Delve into the emotions of your characters, because that is how you will reach the emotions of your readers.

3) Give us a twist or two. Just as your first idea might not be the most original, your most obvious narrative path might not be the most fruitful. Beware writing the pat ending, the contrived plot, the convenient “surprise.” Take your story in directions that make sense without being predictable. Yes, that can take work, but no one ever said this was going to be easy.

Best of luck with your submissions! And keep writing!

Monday Musings: Additional Thoughts On Writing and Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling lives. The conversation continues.

Have a great week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing!

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, my pull-back.

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

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

So . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With My Latest Editorial Feedback

I’ve written many times before about dealing with edits on a story or novel manuscript, and I don’t want to repeat myself any more than necessary. But I have just received feedback from my editor on the first book in my upcoming Celtic urban fantasy series, and I thought a return to this topic might prove helpful to some. Including me.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my expanded editorial responsibilities, and the ways in which doing more editing had made me a better writer, as well as the ways in which writing for more than twenty-five years had helped hone my editorial eye. I also mentioned that the best editors are those who help writers realize their creative visions without imposing the editors’ own, and that professional writers must learn to be open to editorial comments and to avoid defensiveness.

Neither of these things is easy to do.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)My editor at Belle Books is a woman named Debra Dixon, and she is a truly remarkable editor. This first book in the Celtic series is our third novel together, after Radiants and Invasives. In our time together, I have never once felt that her responses to my work were intrusive or unhelpful. With each book it’s been clear to me that her every observation, every criticism, every suggestion, is intended to help me tell my story with the greatest impact and in the most concise and effective prose. A writer can’t ask for more. This doesn’t mean I have agreed with every one of her comments. Now and then, I have felt strongly enough about one point or another to push back. And she’s fine with that. That’s how the editor-writer relationship is supposed to work, and she has always been crystal clear: In the end, my book is my book. But even when we have disagreed we have been clear on our shared goal: To make each book as good as it can be.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)My struggle right now is simply this: Her feedback on this first book is quite extensive and requires that I rethink some fundamental character issues and cut or change significantly several key early scenes. And she’s right about all this stuff. No doubt. This first book has been through several revisions already, and the second half of the book — really the last two-thirds of the book — just sings. I love it. She loves it. The first third is where the problems lie. To be honest, the first hundred (manuscript) pages of this book have always given me the most trouble. I wrote the initial iteration of the book more than a decade ago, and in some ways those early chapters still reflect too much the time in which they were written. They feel dated.

So I am rethinking the opening. Again.

In the weeks to come, I will likely rewrite most or all of those early chapters. Right now I am still struggling a bit to wrap my head around how, exactly, I am going to tackle those rewrites. This is a book I love, a book I have lived with for twelve years, a book I have worked and reworked and reworked again. I thought I was done with it. I thought it would be fine as written. I needed Deb to look it over and tell me all the ways it doesn’t work.

Now that she has done this, I can’t think about the book without cringing at all the flaws I missed, that I was willing to accept. Again, to be very, very clear, I do not disagree with any of Deb’s critiques of the novel. But this doesn’t mean they don’t pain me.

And that’s all right, too. Again, as I have said many times before, writers have to be open to editorial feedback. We have to understand that our first draft, or our second, or even our tenth, isn’t perfect. A book can always be improved. We don’t publish when our books are perfect. If we did, no book would ever be published. We publish when the book is as good as we fallible humans, working together, can make it.

What I don’t always mention when writing about editing and revisions, is this: I go through a complicated emotional process when dealing with an editor’s feedback. It starts with grief. I always feel a little hurt by the criticisms of my newest baby. I feel bruised and battered, sad and even a bit helpless. We love our books. We have worked so hard to make them as wonderful as they can be. Being told they need still more work, having all their faults and flaws pointed out to us — that kind of sucks. [Editor’s note: delete “kind of”]

Grief gives way to anger pretty quickly. It’s not that this hurts, although it does. No! It’s that [insert editor’s here] is just flat-out wrong! What they hell do they know? Okay a lot. But it’s not like they’ve been doing this for years and years! Okay, yes, they have. It’s not . . . It’s not . . .

It’s not them. It’s me. And my book.

Anger sluices away, and what’s left is resignation, recognition. All those problems the editor has identified? They’re real. They need our attention.

Which brings us to despair.

My book is terrible. Despite what my editor thinks, it can’t be saved. I should just give up now.

But, of course, we have no intention of giving up. We’ve written the damn book. If we’d intended to give up, we would have done it ages ago, when we were first struggling to write it. No, the only thing we can do is fix it, make it as good as it can possibly be, which was the entire point of submitting ourselves to the editorial process in the first place. And so at last we come to acceptance.

And at that point we are ready to begin revising.

I am somewhere between despair and acceptance right now. By the time you read this, I should be fully in acceptance and ready to begin revisions.

Because I’m a professional writer, and this is what we do.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: My Approach to Writing Book Reviews

All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel KayAfter publishing my review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvelous new book, All the Seas of the World (coming from Viking Press on May 17), the good people at Black Gate Magazine approached me about writing more reviews for them, something I am excited to do. So, going forward, in addition to being an author and editor, I will also be a reviewer.

In my discussions with the wonderful John O’Neill, Black Gate’s award-winning editor, I made it clear that I would write honest reviews on a spectrum ranging from “this is a pretty good book” to “this is the finest book I’ve ever read.” But I would not write any negative reviews. John agreed, telling me this was just the approach he was after. And yet to many, that might seem like an odd approach to reviewing books, and so I feel it’s a position that bears explaining.

I believe reviews are most valuable when they point readers in the direction of something they might enjoy. I understand there are certain publications — Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews come to mind — that are expected to review a wide range of books and distinguish the good from the bad. By necessity, such venues have to give some negative reviews. Indeed, early in my career I was on the receiving end of several such critiques. It’s part of the business. In a sense, with publications like those, the bad reviews actually lend legitimacy and weight to the good ones.

Black Gate Magazine, and other journals of its kind, are not like that. They do not review comprehensively. They pick out a few books in the genre and shine a spotlight on them. In effect, they say, “Hey, fantasy readers! Here are a couple of books you should check out, not to the exclusion of others necessarily, but simply because they are particularly good.” For a venue like Black Gate, writing and publishing a negative review would be gratuitous. It would be an act of singling out one book for disparagement and ridicule.

As I said to John during our discussion, I have no interest in hurting someone’s career. If he and his staff send me a book to review and I don’t like it, we will simply keep that opinion to ourselves. There’s no need to pan it; we just won’t be recommending it. Because the fact is, just because I don’t like a novel, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I’m only one reader. My not liking a book simply means . . . I didn’t like it. Period. Full stop.

I feel quite strongly about this, because I have been on the receiving end of a gratuitously scathing review.

Yes, I know: There are unwritten rules pertaining to writers and professional critiques of our books. Writers aren’t supposed to read our reviews. Newsflash: We do anyway. Writers are supposed to ignore bad reviews. It’s harder to do than you might imagine. If writers are going to read our reviews and not ignore them, we should internalize the good ones and shrug off the bad ones. That might be even harder than ignoring them.

And as it happens, the review in question was the perfect storm of ugliness. First, it was about a book I loved and know was good. Sure, it had flaws; show me a book that doesn’t. But it was a quality book and it certainly didn’t deserve the treatment it received. Second, the review was in a high profile publication. Lots of people saw it. Third, I have good reason to believe the reviewer, with whom I had a bit of history, was acting out of personal animus. The criticism was savage and it was presented in such a way as to be especially humiliating. I won’t say more than that.

Except this. The review hurt. It sent me into a professional tailspin that lasted months. That dark period is long since over, so I am not seeking sympathy. But at the time, it did some damage to my psyche and to my creative output. And there was no reason for it. They didn’t like the book. Fine. Then ignore it. Don’t give it the benefit of a positive spotlight.

They went further. Again, fine. That’s their choice.

I will take a different tack. If I like a book I will publish a review saying so. If I don’t, if for some reason the book doesn’t excite me, or it rubs me the wrong way, I will set it aside without public comment and move on to the next.

Other reviewers are, of course, free to take a different approach. I will not judge them. But I want to write reviews for the fun of it, for the satisfaction of sharing with others my perceptions of an entertaining or moving or thrilling reading experience. I’m not interested in hurting anyone.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: What We Can Learn About Writing From a Horny Bluebird

I got you with the title, didn’t I? I thought I might.

The horny bluebird in question lives in our yard and is so hopped up on testosterone, so eager to make himself THE player among breeding bluebirds in the area, that he has spent much of the spring attacking reflections of himself in a window downstairs and the driver’s side mirror on my Prius. The latter is the main target of his pugilistic outbursts. The mirror itself is marked with marks from bird’s beak, and the entire side of the car is dripped with bird poop. Charming, I know.

Every day for weeks he has attacked his own image, flailing at his reflection again and again and again, never seeming to tire of a battle he can’t hope to win. He is relentless, almost mindlessly so. The cute female bluebird making googly eyes at him (birds do that, you know) is HIS, and he will brook no competition for her affections. He will not surrender, no matter how many times he smacks his bill against something immovable and invincible.

Perhaps you can see forming here the beginnings of my theme for the post. But do I believe you should emulate or reject the bluebird’s behavior? Is it an example of folly, or admirable perseverance?

Both, actually.

On the one hand, I really do admire the bird’s tenacity. Sure, he’s a bit crazed, and he’s trying to drive off another “bird” that doesn’t actually exist. But he’s doing so with gusto. And the fact is, when it comes to dealing with the business side of a writing career, all of us need to be something of a horny bluebird. (Yeah, that is a line that might well haunt me for the rest of my career . . .)

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I would love to be a bestselling author. And with each new project I take on, I wonder if this might finally be the literary vehicle that gets me there. Thieftaker, Fearsson, the time travel books, the Radiants franchise. I had high hopes for all of them. All of them were critical successes. None of them has taken me to that next level commercially. So does that mean I should give up?

Of course not. I am now working on my Celtic urban fantasy, and I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t hold out the same hope for this series.

Nearly every writer, I believe, has goals they attack with similar ferocity and persistence. Some folks are looking for that first short story sale, and they keep sending out stories. Some are trying to sell a first novel. Others have done well with small presses but want desperately to break in with a New York publisher. I judge no one for their ambitions, just as I have no intention of abandoning my own.

Rather, I would encourage every writer reading this to keep up the fight. Yes, you may feel like a bird hammering away at its own reflection, but I truly believe the fight itself is worth waging. For me, at least, pursuing my goals no matter what keeps my work fresh, energizes me, and keeps a slight chip on my shoulder, which I think helps me maintain a necessary level of motivation. So battle on!

At the same time that I see value in the bluebird’s example for some business purposes, however, I think it is far less helpful in other contexts. And when I originally hit on this as a topic for today’s post, it was this aspect of the analogy that caught my imagination.

In my conversations with writers over the years, and in my observations as a professional in the business, I have seen too many aspiring authors doggedly clinging to their dreams for a single book or series idea that does not work and that is holding back their careers. They have a project they love, love, love, but simply cannot sell. And rather than move on to new story ideas, they revisit this one over and over. They edit and polish, tear it apart and rebuild it, get feedback from one beta reader after another, all in the belief that this time they’re going to get the story right and finally make the sale.

And I should add two points here. First, I also see the opposite: writers who become discouraged after only one or two rejections and give up on worthwhile projects that simply need a bit more love. There is a balance to be found. Working too long on a book or series that enjoys no success can stall a burgeoning career. Giving up too soon can cost a writer an opportunity they didn’t even know they had.

Second, I have doggedly stuck with projects for years, doing just the sort of repeated reworking I describe above, and eventually selling the books to a publisher. I did it with the Justis Fearsson books. I did it with the new Celtic series.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. CoeThe difference between what I did with those two projects and what I am telling you not to do is this: I kept working on these books, but I also moved ahead with other projects, so that I wouldn’t stall my career. Yes, I worked for six years on the first Fearsson book. But in that time, I also wrote the Thieftaker books and the Robin Hood novelization. This, by the way, is also the secret to finding that balance I mentioned. By all means, keep working on the one idea, but do so while simultaneously developing others. Don’t become so obsessed with the one challenge that you lose sight of all else.

As a general business strategy, I believe the reckless stubbornness of the bluebird can prove effective. But when applied with too much fervor to a single book idea, it can become a trap, one that keeps us from realizing our dreams.

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.