Tag Archives: writing life

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.

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part III — People and Relationships

We lost my older brother a bit over five years ago, and, as you might expect, in the aftermath of his death, my emotions were roiled and at times conflicted. Among other things, I was angry with him. Deeply, almost cripplingly angry. Why? Because in his youth he engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior, and one could draw a clear line from his poor choices early in life to the cause of his death at too young an age.

Bill and I were very close, despite the nearly fifteen years between us. When I was young, I worshipped him. Later, I saw his flaws more clearly, but I still adored him. His death clobbered me. I was devastated and for a while that devastation manifested, in part, as rage — at the loss, at the injustice, and, yes, at what I perceived as the needlessness of it all. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to hold on to the anger. I wanted to grieve for him properly, without the resentment. And I got there eventually. But it took years, and several long, painful conversations with my therapist.

In writing my “what matters” posts over the past couple of weeks, I have thought about this particular post a good deal. We may devote a good deal of our time to work, but most of us expend the bulk of our emotional energy — another finite personal resource — on our relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners, as well as with work colleagues.

In my first post of the new year, I wrote about a different set of anger issues that I have been trying to control in recent months. I honestly can’t discuss these publicly, but suffice it to say I know this anger is no more productive for me than was the anger I directed at my brother. In my view, anger is not always a negative emotion. Righteous anger can empower and even inspire. But simmering resentments tend to wear on us and drain us.

In the past couple of years, I have tried a different tactic — although clearly from what I’ve written here, I am still figuring all of this out. In my professional dealings, when I encounter people who are dishonest, disrespectful, disruptive, I cut them out of my life. It’s that simple. I have no patience anymore for the kind of people I’m referencing here. (And some of them, if they’re reading this, may well recognize themselves.)

This is harder to do in our personal lives. But often it’s every bit as necessary. Toxic interactions, abusive friends and family, interactions that leave us feeling badly about ourselves — no one needs this.

I have started this post with the negative, and that may have been a mistake. Because the truth is, personal relationships mean more to me than anything, beginning with my marriage and my relationships with my daughters. I love my extended family, I have many years-long friendships that I treasure deeply, and I am fortunate to have a number of professional friends and colleagues whom I respect and enjoy seeing at conventions and other events. And just as negative interactions leach away my emotional energy, these positive ones boost it. I know this, and no doubt you know it in your life as well. It’s intuitive. And yet, so many of us continue to engage with people who suck more out of our lives than they put into them.

As I discussed last week, we have limited time for all the things we want and need to do, day to day and week to week. Spending time with the people we love, the people we enjoy seeing, the people whose company enhances our lives — nothing matters more, in my view. But I would also say it’s very nearly as important to avoid those encounters that rob us of joy, of energy, of confidence. Sometimes they can’t be avoided. We can choose our friends, the saying goes; we can’t choose our family. And, I would add, we can’t choose our friends’ friends. Nor can many of us choose our co-workers and the people we interact with in parts of our lives over which we have less control.

We do have a choice, though, as to how we engage with the people around us. What matters, it seems to me, is continuing to feed the relationships that nourish us in return, and to set strict boundaries around those that don’t. As I say, we can’t avoid entirely the people who aren’t good to us or for us. But we can keep them at arm’s length. And, on those occasions when we have to interact at greater length or in greater depth than we would like, we can remind ourselves at every opportunity of our own worth, and of the histories that let us know a given person can’t be relied upon or shouldn’t be trusted.

I should add here that I don’t want my glib solutions to minimize the dangers of a truly abusive relationship. Extricating oneself from such situations is far more complex and difficult than I have made all of this sound. There are excellent resources available for those who find themselves in such circumstances, and if you are in an abusive relationship, please, please, please seek professional help.

We have limited time. We have limited emotional energy. We deserve to have as much time as possible with the people we love and who love us back for who we are. I believe devoting time and energy to those relationships should be at the very top of the list of things that matter in our lives.

Have a wonderful week.

Professional Wednesday: What Matters Professionally, part II

If you follow my blog at all, you know that in this month’s posts I have been asking the question “What matters?” in a number of personal and professional contexts. Last week, in my first Professional Wednesday post of the year, I focused on the big things that matter to us as professionals and aspiring professionals — our ambitions, our favorite projects, our goals, both immediate and longer term. This week, I would like to address the question from a different perspective.

When we’re working on a project, we tend to concern ourselves with different things at different times. Some of those things matter more than others, and I have noticed when working with new writers, that those with somewhat less experience often wind up worrying unnecessarily about issues that really don’t matter all that much in the greater scheme of things. And at the same time, they will often not give much thought to things that really ought to be foremost in their minds.

So I thought I would look at a few common issues and give some sense of how much, in my opinion, these things matter.

For instance . . . .

New writers tend to worry a great deal about being “scooped,” about having someone — in the worst instance, someone more famous and accomplished than they are — come up with the same concept for a story or novel, rendering their idea unmarketable. Does this sound familiar?

Stop worrying. This is, to my mind, a definite “doesn’t matter.” You will not be scooped. Some thirty-plus years ago, when I was in graduate school, my dissertation advisor told me something that has stuck with me ever since. I expressed to him my fear that someone else would publish a dissertation on my topic before I had a chance to finish. (This is a fear that plagues grad students even more than it does fiction writers.) And he said to me, “If you think you can be scooped, you’re thinking of your dissertation topic too narrowly,” meaning, essentially, that all good dissertations operate on multiple levels. They are works of complexity and personal creativity and thus cannot be duplicated by someone else.

Stories are the same. I edit themed anthologies. For our latest collection, Artifice and Craft, Edmund Schubert and I have received over 530 submissions, all of them born of the same prompt. And no two are the same. You and I could start with the exact same story premise, and within ten pages our books would diverge, because we all write from personal experience, from idiosyncratic emotions, from unique imaginations. You will not be scooped.

New writers also tend to worry a lot about genre and marketing, and I understand why. Certainly I have been guilty of telling young writers to come up with elevator pitches for their projects. “Know how to sell it,” I often say. “Know who your audience is going to be.” And I believe this is sound advice as one is revising their novel and getting ready to send it off to publishers and/or agents. Early on, though, as we are conceiving the novel and diving into that first draft, I would argue that marketing and audience identification are secondary to the creative process. Write your book. Write the story that makes your heart sing, that stirs your creative passion. The marketing stuff will wait — and ultimately will be easier if you write the book or story you love. Commercial imperatives should not guide your imagination. You’ll have plenty of time later to figure out how to sell the thing to readers. At the start, our greatest concerns should be character, plotting, setting, pacing, prose. Those are what matter.

What about those things that DO matter, but that tend to get short shrift from too many authors? I would encourage every author, regardless of experience level, to think about a few questions as they begin work on their novels and short stories. First, we should consider who we ought to use as our point of view characters. I like to ask myself, “Whose story is this?” and base my choice of POV character on the answer to that question. If I decide to use multiple points of view — a question closely related to “Who?” is “How many?” — I will ask myself at the beginning of each new chapter or section, “Who is the key person in this scene?” More often than not, that person will be my POV character for the passage. I have run across many scenes that are written from the perspective of someone who is, in my opinion, the wrong character to tell that part of the story. As a result, I, as a reader, don’t have access to the thoughts and emotions I want to read at a particular moment, which can be incredibly frustrating.

We should also ask ourselves,“Are we starting our story in the right place?” So often, I read manuscripts that open way too early in the narrative. For page after page, we get background information and little-to-no important action or emotional content. Or, less commonly, I see manuscripts that begin too late, AFTER what really ought to be the inciting event. Be sure you know where to begin your story — and consider the possibility that what SEEMS like the right spot early in the writing process, might ultimately prove to be less than optimal once you have a better sense of your story. Be willing and prepared to revise accordingly

Finally, we should constantly ask ourselves if the scene we’re writing — if every scene we write — serves the larger narrative. It’s not that we can’t pursue subplots and secondary narratives. Of course we can. They enrich and deepen our stories. But they should also serve the whole. We should strive for coherence, for interconnection among our various plot threads. A secondary story for its own sake will only confuse and annoy our readers, distracting them from the narratives that are most important.

More on “what matters” next week.

For now, keep writing!!

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part II — Time

Last week, I began a series of posts addressing the question “What matters?” My point in doing so was to focus on the simple fact that we have finite amounts of time, of energy (physical and emotional), and of the other personal resources we allocate to various parts of our lives on a daily basis. To be honest, I don’t know exactly where this conversation is going. I only know that it interested me when I started thinking about it, and I figured it might take the blog in an interesting direction.

I don’t expect to come up with a lot of answers in these posts. In a way, the questions are the more important element of the conversation. Ultimately whatever answers I might find, whatever choices I might make, will be idiosyncratic, tailored entirely to my life, my priorities, my needs and wants and obligations. Again, the questions and thought process are likely to be far more informative.

Today, I want to talk about time. I mentioned in a couple of paragraphs last Monday that for much of 2022 I had failed to make time for two pursuits that I care about a great deal. And I glibly stated that I wanted to make more of an effort to play music and take photos in this new year. Of course, it’s not that easy. Not by a long shot. I want to make clear up front that I am not complaining about any of what I’m about to discuss. I love my life. I know how fortunate I am. But time issues are not easy.

To state the obvious, time is finite. Time is immutable. Some of us may have more money than others. Some of us may have more energy than others. But we all are allotted the same amount of time each day, week, month, year. We can’t buy more. We can’t hoard it for a “rainy day.”

I write about time management a fair amount in my Professional Wednesday posts. But work time is only one variable in the equation, and, I would argue, far from the most important. I can pledge to myself that I will find more time for the things I enjoy doing, but where is that time going to come from? It’s all about choices, about deciding “what matters.”

Look at most people’s daily habits and it becomes clear that we spend the vast majority of our time doing two things: sleeping and working. Nancy and I tend to be early-to-bed, early-to-rise people; neither of us does well on too little sleep. We’re generally in bed by 10:30 or so each night, and we’re both up by 6:00 or 6:15 each morning. I devote the first two hours of my day to exercise — a workout and then a lengthy walk. I work for much of the day, only winding down when Nancy gets home from her job in the early evening. She generally has a bit more work to do after she gets home, and I take that time to tie up my loose ends from my work day. We have dinner, clean up, and then will generally watch an episode or two of something on TV before retiring. Rinse and repeat . . . .

The point I’m trying to make is this: There isn’t a whole lot of room in there for squeezing in the things I want to add to my day. I do take small breaks from my writing periodically. I could — and should — use those breaks to play a song or two on my guitar. Slotting in my music that way would likely get me to play a lot more over the course of a year. And I can (and sometimes do) take my camera with me on my morning walks. The places where I walk are quite beautiful. I could easily take photos then. These are not perfect solutions, but they help.

What about that TV time at the end of the day? Couldn’t I play music then?

Yes, I suppose watching television may not be the best use of my limited time. Except the hour or two we spend on the couch isn’t necessarily about the shows themselves. It’s about sitting with Nancy, unwinding together, sharing the experience, talking about the shows, the characters, the plot twists. We don’t get a lot of time together, and time with my sweetie matters to me. So watching TV together is a choice.

Weekends offer time for doing stuff as well. We always have errands on Saturdays and Sundays. We do our laundry. Nancy gardens. I write blog posts like this one. But yes, I can play music and maybe take photos on the weekends.

But I’ve yet to address the unexpected, or the things that we don’t schedule but have to do or want to do. Seeing friends, talking to our kids, visiting with our kids, going to doctor appointments, dealing with house issues, paying bills, shopping for groceries, going to a concert or play or movie, attending university functions, which has become a HUGE part of our lives since Nancy became acting president of the school. And I haven’t even mentioned travel — for work, which both of us have to do from time to time, and for pleasure, which we LOVE to do, but which can be quite disruptive to our routines.

What matters? What can we give up or shorten or stretch? I blithely give advice to new writers about finding time for writing in their lives. “Just an hour a day, enough to write five hundred or a thousand words, can put you on the path to writing professionally.” It’s true. But where the hell would I find a spare hour? I have no idea. And I don’t have small kids in the house. I don’t have pets. I don’t have a job other than writing and editing.

These choices are hard. They demand sacrifice. All of us are spread thin. None of us has tons of free time. I don’t want to sleep less, or exercise less. I don’t want to give up time with my spouse. I want more time with my daughters, not less. I don’t want to cut back on work. I enjoy my job and — oh, by the way — I enjoy getting paid. I want to travel and see friends and family; I don’t want to be a hermit or a shut-in. But I also want to play music, take pictures, birdwatch (I always take my binoculars on my morning walks, so I do birdwatch each day). These things are good for my mental and physical health as well.

What matters? The hard truth is that all of it does. And I have no doubt that when you look at your life, and try to figure out how you might fit in something new, be it writing or exercise or time for a new friend or romantic partner, you encounter the same problem. Each choice involves some sort of sacrifice.

I don’t know if this post has been helpful or interesting for any of you, but I find these issues fascinating. In any case, thanks for reading along. More to come in the weeks ahead

For now, have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: What Matters In Your Work? Part I

On Monday, I began what will be a series of posts on the things that matter to us, and the ways in which we can make them central to our lives. Not surprisingly, I think about this a great deal with respect to my writing. And I believe all of us, no matter where we are in our careers, can benefit from this sort of thinking.

As with the broader topic, I expect that the question “What matters?” will inform the next few Professional Wednesday posts. Today, I want to take on the question in its broadest sense.

At the start of each year, I spend some time mapping out the coming months, trying to make certain that I schedule my work for the year to come, the various projects I hope to complete, in a way that will maximize my productivity without setting myself up for failure by giving myself unrealistic deadlines or overly ambitious timetables for the completion of manuscripts. It’s a process I’ve written about a couple of times in the past month or so. (Find other posts here and here.)

Creating a work calendar for the year is about more than time management, though. It is also about prioritizing. It is about answering the question “What matters?”

We all have projects we care about and goals that stir our passions. For some, “what matters” is that novel we’ve been trying for years to finish. For others, “what matters” is finally getting that first professional sale, either of a book or a short story. And for others still, “what matters” may simply be finally making writing a daily or weekly habit — getting started on a road that may not reach its final destination this year, but that at least begins here and now.

Whatever your “what matters” might be, it should inform your planning for the coming year.

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeWhat matters to me? Professionally, for this coming year, a few things. I have a series debuting in February. I want to promote the hell out of it. I want to feel at the end of the release windows — the weeks immediately preceding and following the releases of the three books — that I have done all I could to make the series successful. I also have an old series that I want to re-release. I’ve been talking about doing this for several years now, and each year I have found other projects to take up my time and energy. But this series, Winds of the Forelands, is one about which I am passionate. This is the year I bring it out again. It matters to me. And I want to start something new, a series that will take me in a new direction, I have resisted starting it for a couple of years, I believe because I am intimidated by the magnitude of what I’m taking on. It’s time to get over my hesitation.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)What about you? I’m not merely asking what you wish to accomplish, though obviously that’s part of the equation. I’m asking as well what you care about. Sure, maybe you want to be published — or at least contracted — by year’s end. That’s a laudable goal. But what project will get you there? What story is burning brightest inside you? What work will bring you joy? What project is most likely to tap into your greatest creative passion? That ought to be part of the equation as well.

Our professional pursuits are not just about what ambitions we’ll realize. They’re also about what matters most to us as artists. Writing, like all acts of creation, is about more than sales and “success,” however we might define that word. Writing is an act of love. This business is too hard, too fickle, too cruel, to be approached solely as a bottom-line endeavor. Often, the truest satisfaction we can hope to draw from our work is the self-recognition of our own achievement. And ultimately, I would argue, our own pride and sense of accomplishment ought to be what matters most.

So as you begin 2023 — and I hope it is a year of accomplishment and satisfaction for all of you — ask yourself “What matters?” Because I guarantee you, if the work — the concept, the narrative, the characters, the settings — matters to you, that emotional connection to the project will show up in your writing. “What matters” is not just about warm and fuzzy feelings. Answering the question will point you toward the most powerful expression of your creative vision.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: What Matters? Part I

When I was a kid, I always had an Etch A Sketch. Honestly, I’m not sure why. I sucked at it. I didn’t have the patience or the dexterity to create anything of quality on that silver-gray screen. I tried often enough, but I couldn’t manage to draw much more than squiggles and odd shapes. Still, what I always loved about Etch A Sketch was the ease of starting over. Lift the screen, give it a hearty shake, and the slate was blank again, ready for my next attempt.

As it happens, that is also what I love about New Year’s. I have always seen the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to give my routine, my goals, my emotional approach to life a hearty shake, and build them again from scratch. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does capture the spirit of how I approach the holiday. Last year’s achievements and disappointments are done — I don’t want them to be either a source of discouragement or cause for complacency. I start each year with a blank screen. That’s the goal at least.

In the past, I made resolutions, an exercise I eventually decided was rather useless. Better, I decided, to set out goals and aspirations, to keep practices and habits that were working for me, and at least attempt to jettison those that weren’t. This may sound like semantics — what’s the difference between “resolutions” on the one hand and “goals and aspirations” on the other? To me, I guess, it’s the difference between attempting to draw something on paper with pen and ink, and making the attempt on an ever-erasable plastic screen.

With all this in mind, I begin today a series of posts that will span the next few weeks. The general idea of the posts is to answer a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: What matters to me?

Over the course of a year, or ten, or fifty, we pick up . . . stuff. I’m not speaking just of physical things — indeed, that sort of stuff is really the least of it. I’m referring to tasks; habits; pastimes and hobbies; ambitions and fears; passions, loves, and things we find repellent; professional goals and responsibilities; personal relationships; chores and obligations; etc. In short, anything and everything that consumes our time, feeds or saps our energy and our emotional strength, informs our decision-making at home or at work or in between. Everything.

As I say, this is going to take a few weeks to get through. But I think the exercise will be worthwhile for me and, I hope, informative and perhaps even inspiring for you.

Today, I begin with a big picture approach — the 10,000 foot view, as it were. And I do so by focusing on two examples of stuff.

As I take stock of 2022 and look forward to 2023, I see things in my life that I have neglected and others that I have focused on with too much intensity. I am a musician and a photographer. I take much joy in playing my guitars and taking my camera out into the field to capture images. That is, I usually do. As I reflect on the past year, which has been an emotionally challenging one, I find that I have neglected these hobbies. Too often over the past twelve months, I have gone days at a time without playing any music at all. I have gone weeks at a time without taking photos. And this is about more than leaving expensive equipment to gather dust. These pursuits feed my soul, allowing me to create in ways that are entirely separate from my profession. I need to do these things. I know I do. They keep me centered, happy; they bring me peace. My emotional health depends in part on my commitment to doing these things. Just as I wouldn’t go weeks without eating fresh fruits and vegetables, I also shouldn’t ignore my creative passions.

At the same time, I have allowed anger to creep into my everyday life. I harbor resentments — some personal, some professional, some related to circumstances that I’m really not at liberty to discuss publicly. And really, the roots of my anger are beside the point. Too often, as I take my morning walks, I find myself fixating on wrongs and the righteous anger I feel in response. I imagine finding and taking the opportunity to speak my mind to those who have hurt me or those I love. (That really is as far as my imaginings go. I’m not a violent person, but I know the power of words. And I know that I’m quite capable of cutting someone to the bone with a well-turned phrase.) The point, though, is that this anger, and these imagined conversations do me no good. They keep my focus on my grudges; they allow me to wallow in my bitterness.

Music and photography have been fundamental elements of my happiness for decades. Wouldn’t I be better off if I again found time to make those activities central to my daily existence? Of course I would.

Hostility toward those who have angered me matters far less to me than love for my family and my friends. Wouldn’t I be calmer, more content, if I focused my emotional energy on the latter? Of course I would.

What matters to me? What matters to you?

These are, I believe foundational questions. The things we care about — the things we love, the things from which we draw strength and joy — these are what define who we are and how we live. At least they ought to. As I navigate the coming year, I wish to be guided by those things that bring me happiness rather than those that take me to dark places.

Deceptively simple, right? And yet, it takes work and careful thought.

More in posts to come. For now, 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!

Friday Fun: Holiday Time!

So, what are you getting for the holidays?

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)What are you giving for the holidays?

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)May I suggest a book, or several books?

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)Yes, I know, this probably seems a little crass. But here’s the thing: Creators like me make our livings off the sale of our creations. It really is that simple. If our books (or music or art or whatever) don’t sell, we don’t earn.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)Now, many of you are probably saying at this point that you have already bought my books and, I hope, read and enjoyed them. That’s wonderful. Thank you. Truly.

The holidays, though, offer an opportunity to share with others the things that you have enjoyed. Maybe a relative or friend loves historical fiction. Turn them on to the Thieftaker books! Maybe someone you know and love enjoys thrillers — Radiants and Invasives might be just the books they’re looking for. Maybe you have a fan of time travel on your holiday gift list. The Islevale Cycle books are time travel blended with epic fantasy. Sounds perfect, right?

Someone else you know might be a huge fan of short fiction, in which case, I would recommend you to the Zombies Need Brains site for any number of speculative fiction anthologies.

And if you’ve already given my books to every person you know, terrific! Thank you so much much! May I introduce you to some friends of mine: Faith Hunter, A.J. Hartley, Milton Davis, Gerald Coleman, Nicole Kurtz, John Hartness, Edmund Schubert, Joshua Palmatier, Tamsin Silver, Stuart Jaffe, C.E. Murphy, J.D. Blackrose, Darin Kennedy, Patrick Dugan, Paige Christie, and so many others.

Creators all, with books to sell, books that make great gifts. Check them out.

And have a wonderful holiday.