Tag Archives: writing life

Professional Tuesday: The Creative Origins of RADIANTS

Islevale compositeA couple of years ago, I put the finishing touches on the third book of a time travel/epic fantasy trilogy called the Islevale Cycle. I loved the Islevale books then, and I remain incredibly proud of them today. I think they represent some of my finest work, and if you enjoy epic fantasy, OR time travel, OR (best of all) both, I recommend you pick the books up and give them a try. (The books are called Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.)

As much as I love them, though, I also have to admit that they nearly destroyed me. I have never struggled so much with any books, and I hope I never will again. Part of the problem was simply the ambition of the project. Sprawling epic fantasies are hard to write. One must weave together multiple plot threads and write from the perspectives of numerous point of view characters. Time travel is even harder to write, first because one must keep track of several time lines at once, second because any plot point is potentially reversible (If time traveling characters are unhappy with events, what’s to keep them from going back and changing them?), and third, because in my story I had more than one iteration of several characters existing simultaneously. (At one point in book 3, I had four or maybe five iterations of the same character inhabiting my world.)

As you might expect, combining the challenges of writing epic fantasy with the difficulties inherent in writing time travel only serves to compound all of those issues. These books would have been hard to write under any circumstance. But here’s the thing: For some reason, I could not outline any of the Islevale books. I don’t know why. To this day I remain mystified. But yeah, I had to write all three books without any advance outline beyond my vague sense of where the books needed to go. The books turned out really well, but the process was excruciating.

What is the point of this?

Well, once I finished the last Islevale novel and worked with the folks at Falstaff Books to shepherd it through production and publication, I needed a new project that would be Different, and Straight Forward, and Directed.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)And that next book turned out to be Radiants.

Radiants, a supernatural thriller, comes out from Belle Books on Friday (yes, THIS Friday) October 15th, and this “little” book, which I thought of as a sort of creative palate cleanser, has turned out to be far, far more.

Yes, it is different from the Islevale books, and it is quite directed. But it is deceptive in its “simplicity.” It is firmly rooted in our real world, and deals with social issues of weight and emotional power. It has fewer point of view characters and concentrates to a far greater degree on a single narrative thread. As a result, it is fast-paced. Like breakneck. And it includes some of the deepest, most satisfying character work I’ve done. (In fact, in this regard, I believe it might be exceeded by its sequel, Invasives, which will be out in another few months.)

So what makes Radiants a “supernatural thriller,” as oppose to a fantasy of some sort? Partly, it’s that pacing I mentioned, and partly it’s the real world setting and the fact that the speculative fiction element of the story is limited and very specific. And that was the appeal of writing the book. After creating a world whole-cloth for the Islevale series, I wanted to remain firmly fixed in our world for the new project. I wanted my characters to deal with issues that impact us in our day-to-day lives. I wanted them to speak as we do, to think and feel and interact as we do. In short, I wanted the story to be utterly relatable.

It would be easy to ascribe this to something pandemic-related — a need for normality, say, or some recognition that we don’t have to create an imagined world to come up with situations that are ________ . . . insert your preferred word here: Frightening? Disorienting? Surreal? As it happens, though, I completed my first draft of the book in February 2020, just before the current unpleasantness hit. [Invasives, the second Radiants book, is much more a reaction to the pandemic, as well as the personal difficulties my family and I have faced in recent months.]

Radiants really was a response to my creative needs at the time. No more, no less. It is the book I needed to write next. My lead characters presented themselves to me, along with their fraught and frantic circumstances, and I simply wrote. In this sense, Radiants might be the most organic book I’ve ever written. I had no marketing strategy for it; hell, for the longest time, I didn’t even know how to classify the story. I didn’t know if I was writing something for myself, for the sheer joy of it, or if it would turn out to be something I could sell and publish. I had a story to write and I wrote it.

For that reason alone, I love this book. And I am very hopeful that you will, too.

 

What’s Been Going On In My Life

As some of you may remember, back in March I pulled away for a time from all social media. And, as you may have noticed, even now my social media presence remains limited. I haven’t been blogging regularly. I haven’t been sending out my newsletter. I have been far less “chatty” than usual. And there is a reason for all of this.

In March, our older daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

The months since have been the longest and most difficult of my life, and our ordeal is far from over. She is undergoing treatment and has responded well so far. Her spirits are good — remarkably so. She is, as I already knew, one of the bravest, wisest, strongest, most positive people I’ve ever encountered. Even in this most difficult time, I am so very proud of her. And I know that her attitude has been and will continue to be a most potent weapon in her battle. That said, though, the cancer had progressed significantly before it was discovered and she still has a long road ahead of her. We are hopeful in the long-term — we believe we have every reason to be — but again, this is hard.

We are grappling with fear, uncertainty, the sadness that comes with knowing our child — yes, our adult child, but nevertheless — is suffering and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. We are grieving for all we’ve lost as a family. Not because we doubt that she’ll recover. But because, even after she is cancer-free, we will, all of us, live for the rest of our lives fearing a return of the illness. We as a family — not just Alex, not just Nancy and me, but also Erin, our beloved younger daughter — have lost our innocence in a way. We’ll never be the same.

There was a time, early on, when I was exchanging texts with my brother about one development or another, and I wrote something about “Alex’s oncologist.” And I had to pause to say to myself and to him, “Fuck, my daughter has an oncologist.” The past several months have been filled with moments like these. Times when I catch myself saying things no parent ever wants to say and thinking of things I never in my darkest dreams thought I would have to consider.

At times, work has been a balm, and I have been able to lose myself in my writing or the freelance editing I’ve been doing recently. At times, I can’t do anything at all. I have started therapy, which has been wonderful for me. I have continued to exercise and eat well. I have managed not to drink myself into oblivion even once, though I will admit to being tempted on more than one occasion. I sleep moderately well, but often wake up feeling utterly devastated and sick to my stomach. Nancy and I still manage to have fun when we can. We also take turns comforting each other. One day one of us will be okay and the other will be a wreck. The next day we’ve reversed roles.

Mostly, though, we move through life and work and quiet time feeling like we’re wearing those leaded bibs they use at the dentist’s office when you’re getting x-rays. Everything is weighed down. Everything is harder, more wearying. Our tempers are a bit more frayed. Even our best days are only so-so, and our worst days are bleak and seemingly endless.

Before now, I hadn’t wanted to make this sort of public pronouncement. I’m not entirely sure why. Alex has been very open about being sick and has made it clear to the rest of us that she doesn’t consider her illness a secret to be guarded. Maybe I feared “announcing” it would make it feel more real. Though honestly, I don’t know how it could be any more real. Maybe I just wanted to put off the exchanges of messages and comments that will inevitably follow a post like this one. Maybe I wanted to avoid the tears I’ve shed while writing this.

Whatever the reason, I felt that with everything else I’ve pulled back from this year, my cancellation of my appearance at DragonCon warranted an explanation. The fact is, even with all the precautions the convention has taken — and the con committee has been terrific in this regard — I fear exposing myself to the Delta Variant of Covid-19 in advance of a visit with our immunocompromised daughter. I am sorry to miss the convention. I am sorry to disappoint those of you who looked forward to seeing me there. I hope and plan to attend in 2022, when this latest surge in the pandemic is a distant memory, and our daughter is on the mend.

Many of you, I am sure, will want to help in some way. The fact is, there is not much anyone can do right now. I welcome and am grateful for your expressions of support and friendship. I would, however, ask two things of you: 1) Please respect our privacy. I have shared what’s going on with our family. I have no intention of filling in additional details. And 2) Please do not share your cancer stories with me. I know they are kindly meant, and I thank you for your good intentions. I also know they will do nothing to help me, and will in fact increase my anxiety.

Otherwise, I ask only that you spare a positive thought for my daughter, my family, and me.

Thank you so much for reading this. Take care of yourselves. Be kind to one another. Hug the people you love.

Some Thoughts on Release Day for “The Witch’s Storm”

"The Witch's Storm," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)Today is release day for “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in my new trilogy of Thieftaker novellas, The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. For more about the release, you can read the interview I did with Faith Hunter yesterday, which appeared here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). You can also find more information about the novellas here.

And you can buy “The Witch’s Curse” here!

Usually, release day posts are all about getting readers excited about our books or stories, “pumping up the volume,” as the expression goes. And certainly I want you all to be psyched about the Thieftaker releases — not just “The Witch’s Storm,” but also “The Cloud Prison,” which will be out in another four weeks or so, and “The Adams Gambit,” which comes out four weeks after that. The novellas turned out well, I think. I love the stories, I’ve enjoyed writing the new characters I’ve introduced, and I was thrilled to return to old character arcs — Ethan, Janna, Diver, Kannice, and, of course, Sephira Pryce.

"The Cloud Prison," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The fact is, though, as many of you already know, this release comes at a difficult time for my family and me. I have only recently returned to social media after a much-needed hiatus, and while I have adjusted to the new realities we face, they weigh on me still. And so I find myself in the position of wanting to be enthusiastic about the new stories, but also NOT wanting to be falsely positive and happy-go-lucky.

Look, it’s easy to gloss over this stuff. Plenty of writers deal with difficult times and manage nevertheless to put on a smile and sell their books. But I’ve been open about the simple truth that this is a hard time for us right now. I’ve been private about the exact circumstances, but I’ve been up front about the rest. And so it feels odd to pretend for this week that nothing is wrong, that I’m focused entirely on promoting the new project.

By the same token, I don’t want to wallow. I don’t want to be the guy who can’t take pleasure in the day-to-day because he’s too focused on His Problems.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)There is, of course, a larger point here. As I say, other writers deal with these questions, too. Really, all of us do. Part of being a professional in any field is being able to set aside the personal to meet our work obligations. We compartmentalize. Our emotions have their time and place, as do the qualities that make us good at our jobs. I am married to someone who excels at compartmentalizing. I am just okay at it. I can set aside my worries, fears, sadness, etc. and write for hours at a time. As long as I remain alone, in my office, with just my plot lines and worlds and characters, I’m fine.

This sort of thing, though — interacting with real people, whether remotely, virtually, or in person during times of crisis — gives me more trouble. I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I don’t like to put on a façade, and I’m not particularly skilled at doing so. That’s not a bad thing, per se. I like to think that I’m genuine. But it’s also not an unalloyed good. I think at times I would be happier, and more pleasant to be around, if I was better at setting aside my emotions temporarily.

We are, nearly all of us, struggling with one thing or another at any given moment. I know precious few people who are purely happy for any length of time, and those I have known who are tend to be blissfully lacking in self-awareness or compassion for others. Social media has a way of smoothing over the bumps and bruises life metes out, and making us all appear to be content, confident, stable, and thriving. But really my current struggles have much in common with things all of you are dealing with in your lives. Yes, the crisis impacting my family right now is particularly difficult, but I’m far from alone in that regard as well.

And so allow me to say that I wish all of you well, and that I appreciate the kindness and support so many of you have shown me in recent weeks and months.

Yes, I have a new novella out today, with two more on the way in the near future. I hope you’ll check them out. I won’t insult you by saying that reading the novellas will improve your lives, but they might be diverting for a time. Just as they were a ton of fun to write.

Best wishes,

David

Faith Hunter Interviews D.B. Jackson — “The Witch’s Storm,” part 2

Tomorrow, May 18, Lore Seekers Press will release a new Thieftaker novella, “The Witch’s Storm,” the first installment in a trilogy called The Loyalist Witch — Thieftaker, Fall 1770. Today (with my D.B. Jackson hat on) I sat down with my wonderful friend Faith Hunter to talk about the new project. Part I of the interview can be found at Faith’s blog. Part II of the interview can be found below.

*****
(Continued from the blog of Faith Hunter)

Faith: You know how much I love this series! How was it going back to the Thieftaker world after taking a hiatus from the books?

"The Witch's Storm," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)DBJ: Well, I suppose I should point out that while I haven’t written a Thieftaker novel in some time, I have been writing and publishing Thieftaker-universe short stories almost yearly since that last novel came out. But this was a far more demanding project and honestly, I enjoyed it immensely. I love these characters — not only Ethan, but also his nemesis, Sephira Pryce; his love, Kannice Lester; his mentor, Janna Windcatcher; his closest friend, Diver Jervis; and a host of historical figures including Samuel and John Adams, Joseph Warren, Stephen Greenleaf, and others. All of them are here in these new stories. But I have also brought in new characters: a new set of villains and some new allies as well. So for me as a writer, there was enough here that was familiar to make me feel like I was reconnecting with old friends, but there was also enough innovation for the plot lines and character interactions to feel fresh and exciting. I hope my readers agree!

Faith: Historical novels (especially with magic and mayhem and murder) have always made my heart pitter-patter. Tell us a bit about the history that forms the backdrop for the stories.

DBJ: There was a lot to work with actually. On the one hand, the trials of the soldiers and their captain were a huge deal. Think of all the big trials we’ve had in recent history — the way they captivate the public — and then magnify that about a hundred times. The Boston Massacre was a huge, huge deal throughout the colonies, but in Boston in particular. It’s easy to forget that the population of the city was only about 15,000 at this time. So while “only” five people died that night in March, chances are that if you lived in Boston, you’d had some contact with at least one of the victims. Add to that the fraught political climate of the time and you have a recipe for a lot of tension. Plus, as the title of the first novella suggests, right before the trial began, Boston was hit by a hurricane. Now, I have adopted the storm for my own narrative purposes and added a magical element. But the fact is, there was a ton going on, historically speaking, and I was able to work most of it into the novellas.

Faith: Do you have more Thieftaker stories in mind? Please say YES!!!

DBJ: Definitely. The fact is, I’m probably better known for Thieftaker than I am for anything else I’ve published, either as D.B. Jackson or as David B. Coe. My readers always seem to want more of Ethan’s adventures. And while I have drawn upon a lot of pre-Revolution history so far, there’s so much more to explore. Plus, I can take the story forward into the War for Independence itself. There’s really no end to what I can do with Ethan and company. So yes, given that there is some demand, and given how much I love to play in this universe, I have no doubt that I’ll be writing more novels, more novellas, more short stories. So stay tuned!

*****
D.B. Jackson is the pen name of fantasy author David B. Coe. He is the award-winning author of more than two dozen novels and as many short stories. His newest project is a trilogy of novellas that continues his Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. He has also written the Islevale Cycle, a time travel epic fantasy series that includes Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, and Time’s Assassin.

As David B. Coe, he is the author of epic fantasy — including the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicle — urban fantasy, and media tie-ins. In addition, he has co-edited three anthologies — Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, and Derelict (Zombies Need Brains, 2019, 2020, 2021).

David has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Stanford University. His books have been translated into a dozen languages. He and his family live on the Cumberland Plateau. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com/blog/
https://twitter.com/DBJacksonAuthor
https://www.facebook.com/DBJacksonAuthor/
http://www.facebook.com/david.b.coe

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yes, I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And keep at it.

Monday Musings: My Declaration of Creative Independence

Book shelfSo many professional issues on my mind today — I’m finding it hard to organize my thoughts into something coherent.

These remain hard times for creators. Writers, musicians and composers, visual artists of all sorts, actors and directors, dancers and choreographers. I could go on, but you get the point. The irony of art: it is considered a solitary endeavor, when in fact it is anything but. We all know the clichés of the lonely artist working in isolation, the writer holed up with her computer, tapping away at the keyboard, churning out her next story.

The truth is, though, art is decidedly communal. The act of creation is only the beginning. All art is interactive. Music must be heard. Paintings and photographs must be seen. Stories must be read. Because every song and book and painting has as many lives as there are people who experience it. Twenty people might read my book — or better yet, twenty thousand people might read it — and each would experience it their own way. Same with songs. Same with works of art. Creation is incomplete until it is received.

And so when a pandemic prevents that interaction between creation and audience, art suffers. So does the artist. I can write as many books in isolation as time allows. But until I know my book is being read by someone, I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything.

A dear friend posted a couple of times last week about writing in the COVID age. His first post touched on the slowness of the industry right now. Again, we writers can turn out new books, but if the publishing industry does nothing with them, we struggle to reach our readers. And right now, the publishing industry is the literary equivalent of a clogged sink. Nothing is flowing. So it wasn’t that surprising when, a couple of days later, this same friend shared an article about how hard it is to be productive right now. The dialectic between writer and reader is about far more than books sales. It is, as I indicated above, the way we complete the creative experience. When we know that our books are going nowhere, that they have no immediate hope of reaching audience, our motivation leaches away. And without motivation, we’re lost.

A couple of weekends ago, at Boskone, I moderated a panel on self-defining success. This is an important topic for me; I believe we must take satisfaction in our work on our terms. There is a difference, though, between, on the one hand, finding internal affirmation for our work and our careers, and, on the other, working in a vacuum.

So, where am I going with this?

I guess here: I will continue to write with an eye toward big-press publishing. I have not given up on “New York” entirely. But I am currently writing and editing for small presses. Working through an imprint I have developed with a couple of friends, I am bringing out my own work.

I am, in effect, declaring my independence. I am writing for myself, and for the audience I can reach. And I am worrying far less about what the imprint on the spines of my books says about my status as a writer.

A confession: A couple of years ago, after a disappointing stretch, a series of serious professional setbacks, and a particularly demoralizing experience at a convention, I was ready to quit. I’d had enough. I had been kicked, and kicked again, and kicked a third time. My ego had been brutalized. I didn’t want to write. I certainly didn’t want to deal with any more reversals like those I’d just experienced. I was done.

Except, obviously I wasn’t. I still had stories to tell. I still had characters in my head and heart who clamored for attention. I still had things to say. And while I thought I didn’t want to write anymore, I was wrong. Turns out, I can’t go more than a week or two without writing something. I get grumpy. I snarl and mope and brood and rant. Very, very unattractive. Nancy never says anything when I get this way. Not directly. But she’ll ask me, “So what are you working on today?” And the subtext of that question is, “When are you going to start behaving like an adult human again?”

It has taken me a while to reach the place I’m in now. It was a process, as fraught and difficult as the creation itself can be. But I’m here now. I have an idea of what success looks like, and it has far, far more to do with contentment and peace of mind than it used to. I have a sense of what my career will look like going forward, and while some of my old ambition remains, I am happy — eager even — to approach publication and editing and other professional pursuits in a way that preserves my emotional health and feeds the joy I derive from the simple act of telling stories.

Don’t worry. I have no intention of quitting. I have stories to tell, short form and long, and I have every intention of putting them in the hands of readers.

Because creation is communal. It is a never-ending conversation. And we’re all part of it.

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts After Virtual Boskone

Boskone was held this past weekend. Virtually, of course. It has quickly become one of my favorite conventions, and it was the only in-person convention I attended last year (not counting the SAGA professional workshop) before COVID shut down the con circuit.

If you’ve never heard of Boskone, I encourage you to look into it. It is everything a convention should be. The people who run it also happen to be the folks who put together the Dublin WorldCon a couple of years ago (that’s actually how I started attending Boskone). They know what they’re doing and they do it really, really well. The con is a great size — big enough to allow authors to reach a sizable fandom, but not so large that one feels lost amid teeming crowds. Boskone is attended by a large and diverse constellation of writers, editors, artists, and other creators. The panels are top-notch. People are friendly, but also professional.

The hotel, when the con is held as usual, is well-located and very nice. There’s great food within walking distance, and all of the great attractions of Boston, one of my favorite cities in the world, can be reached from the T stop, which is only a couple of blocks from the hotel.

None of us who know Boskone were surprised to find that the virtual version of the con was run with the same level of expertise, efficiency, and attention to detail that characterizes the real thing. My panels this weekend came off perfectly. The one I moderated, a great discussion on self-defining success, included incisive questions from our audience and a dedicated behind-the-scenes zoom host who kept us on task and on time.

Yes, I missed seeing my friends in person. I missed hanging out in the hotel bar and talking shop until the wee hours. I missed having dinner with friends and catching up with the family I have in the Boston area. I missed drinking Guinness at the nearby Legal Sea Foods!

But my experience with this con was not about loss and regret. As much as I would have preferred to be there, in person, with the friends I have missed for the past year, I was still able to reconnect with people, to find in our discussions the sense of community that makes conventions so special. And, I will admit, there was something quite nice about engaging in a spirited panel conversation for an hour, and then going downstairs to sip wine with my wife.

Look, COVID sucks. What it has done to our social lives sucks. The way it has circumvented travel and direct social interaction sucks. And I do not mean to make light in any way of the very real suffering of those who have contracted the virus, and of the hundreds of thousands in this country who have succumbed to it. We have suffered as a nation, as a global community. And that suffering is far from over.

Which is all the more reason to view virtual conventions and other inconveniences as just that: inconveniences and nothing more. Virtual Boskone was fun. Better by far to have had the experience than not. Did the virtual con replace the real one? Of course not. But it did for me what cons are supposed to do. It grounded me in my artistic community. It allowed me to catch up with a few friends, and meet some new people. It gave me an opportunity to connect with new fans. It left me feeling inspired and eager to continue my various projects.

And, as a bonus, it reminded me of something I too often forget in this time of pandemic: We are a resilient and resourceful species. Yes, there are obstacles in our path. But we have already found ways around many of them, and we are working to reach accommodation with COVID, if not victory over it.

This is all to the good.

Keep writing. And use the resources at your disposal to reach out to fellow artists. Make those connections. Don’t allow present circumstance to deny you that comfort and stimulation.