Tag Archives: writing life

Professional Wednesday: In Which I Ask You, What Should I Write Next?

As I discussed at length in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have recently completed a first draft of the third book in my contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. The novel needs to sit for a while before I can do a final revise-and-polish and send it off to my editor — six weeks or so, I would think. And since the first book has not yet been copyedited and proofed, since the second book still needs to go through a round of revisions and then the entire production process, and since the third book is still wet behind the ears, I have plenty of work left to do on this series.

Thanks to the successful Kickstarter campaign Zombies Need Brains ran late in the summer, I also have a new anthology, Artifice and Craft, to co-edit with my good friend Edmund Schubert. We already have more than 150 submissions for the anthology, so that work is bound to keep me busy through the end of the year and well into 2023. I also have a short story to write for one of the other anthologies, and I have editing clients in my free-lance business queue.

But beyond the short story, which should only take me a week or two to complete, I have no idea what I am going to write next. None.

Yes, I have ideas. Many.

What are they? Funny you should ask.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)One idea is to write my next Thieftaker novel, either in the form of a trio of novellas, like I did with The Loyalist Witch, or as a simple novel. In the Thieftaker novel timeline, the Revolutionary War hasn’t even started yet. There is lots and lots more I can do with Ethan and Kannice and Sephira.

I have also considered going back to the Case Files of Justis Fearsson series, another contemporary urban fantasy that I began in the mid 2010s with Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. I LOVE these books and have missed writing in Justis Fearsson’s world. I have several ideas brewing for that world.His Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe

I have long wanted to return to my five book Winds of the Forelands series and the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, to revise and re-release those eight novels. They are among my best stories, and they have been out of print for far too long. I envision an “Author’s Edit” re-issue, along the lines of what I did with the LonTobyn Chronicle back in 2016.

INVASIVES, by David B. Coe (Jacket art courtesy of Belle Books)I want to write at least one more Radiants book. Actually, I would like to write several more. Radiants and Invasives are, to my mind, the two best books I’ve written to date, and I still would love to see these books gain come commercial traction so that I can justify writing more of them.

And then there are the new ideas . . .

I have one idea for a space opera series (yes, you read that right), set on a pair of terraformed planets. The plot involves intrigue, mystery, romance, and vengeance, and it is actually based on the work of a well-known, much-beloved, and for-now-secret 19th century novelist. I’m excited about this one. (Actually, I’m excited about all these ideas, which is why I’m considering them in the first place.)

I have a middle grade novel that I first wrote back in 2010 or so, when my kids were much younger. The idea still sings to me, though I know the book needs a good deal of work. But I love the concept and I adore the characters. And I think I would enjoy writing for kids.

My good friend A.J. Hartley has been trying for years to get me to write a non-fantasy, non-supernatural, straight-ahead thriller. He thinks I’d enjoy it. He thinks I’d be good at it. And I will admit I have some ideas percolating along these lines as well. Of all the projects I’m thinking about, this one probably has the most commercial potential, which is not the only consideration, but I do this for a living, so . . . .

And finally, I have considered taking all the Professional Wednesday and Writing Wednesday posts I have written since 2020 and collecting the best of them in a new writing how-to book. I have more than enough material, and I think some people would like to see the advice I have offered gathered in a single, convenient volume.

So there we are. Those are the things I’m thinking about right now. (I should add that I can’t guarantee I won’t have five more ideas tomorrow.)

What ideas appeal to you? Feel free to Tweet at me, or to comment in my Facebook Group! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

In the meantime, keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Finishing a Book Actually Means More Work

As I mentioned last week, I have recently finished the third book in my new contemporary Celtic urban fantasy, The Chalice Wars. This book, The Chalice Wars: Sword, will be out sometime fairly early in 2023. Book I, The Chalice Wars: Stone, is currently in production, and book II, The Chalice Wars: Cauldron, is with my editor. The art work for the first book should be ready soon. I’ll share it the moment I can. I’m excited about these books. They are filled with tension and suspense, but also with humor, and they are quite different from other work I’ve done. And I am proud to add that when this third volume is published, it will be my 30th book.

For today’s post, though, I want to focus on the mechanics of finishing a book, and precisely what that means for me in terms of work and process.

I know. It seems like finishing a novel should be fairly straightforward. We type “The End” and then we drink whisky. Right?

Turns out it’s not that easy.

First of all, I NEVER type “The End.” If we as authors have to tell our readers when a book has reached its end, we haven’t done a very good job with our ending. Just saying.

More to the point, finishing the first draft of a novel is just one step in a significantly longer process. Yes, it’s an important step, but it certainly does not mean the book is anywhere near “done.”

When I work on a book, I have a separate file open on my computer, which is usually called “[Book Title] Edit Notes.” This is a file filled with reminders to myself of things I need or want to change in the book. While writing my first draft I don’t want anything to stall my forward momentum. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Let me say that again. The most important thing we can do with a book draft is finish it. Finishing a book is hard to do, and it is all too easy to retreat into edits and rewrites rather than move on toward those looming scenes we haven’t quite figured out how to write. It is also tempting, upon noticing in earlier chapters imperfections of prose or character or plotting, to fix them immediately, to make the manuscript as perfect as possible.

But here’s the thing: No first draft is ever going to be perfect. In fact, I would argue that no finished novel has ever been or ever will be perfect. That, though, is a conversation for another time. The point is, finish your book. It is much easier to edit a finished manuscript than it is to complete said manuscript in the first place. And so, when I think of changes that need to be made, I jot them down in a different file for later, thus preserving my momentum.

Fast forward to that glorious day when we actually finish the first draft. Well, now we have to deal with that file filled with edit notes. Working through my edits can take anywhere from one day to one week or even more, depending, obviously on how much work I’ve left for myself.

After I finish the edits, I next tackle my crutch words. Crutch words are verbal mannerisms unique to our writing, words or phrases that we tend to overuse or fall back on when in the midst of composing our stories. We all have them — I see them when editing the work of others, and I see them in my own rough drafts. I even see them in the published volumes of colleagues. My crutch words will be different from yours, which will be different from your writing-group buddy’s, which will be different from those of your favorite writer. But as I say, this is something all writers have to watch out for. I keep a running list of my crutch words in (another) word document on my computer desktop. And after completing any book or story, I work through this list, checking to see if I have overused any of the usual suspects. How do I know if I have overused them? I do a universal search of each word or phrase, which gives me a count of occurrences. And then I compare that number to the number of occurrences of the same word or phrase in several of my other completed, edited manuscripts, ones I know I have checked for crutch words. If the numbers are about the same, if figure I’m okay. If the number for the new book is a good deal higher, I have some work to do. Dealing with crutch words can be a slow, tedious process. It can take me several full days. Slow, tedious days . . . .

Finally, after seeing to my edits and getting my crutch words under control, I put the newly completed manuscript away for several weeks and start work on something else — short fiction, a new novel, editing projects. It doesn’t matter what. After about four to six weeks, depending on how soon the book is due, I pull out the manuscript again and read it through a couple of times start to finish, doing a full edit of the manuscript, looking for any and all problems — stylistic, narrative, structural, etc. Everything. Only after doing this, when I am convinced the manuscript is as good as I can make it at this time, do I send it on to my editor, or my agent, or my Beta readers. (At some point, I’ll have their suggested edits to deal with. And after that there will be copy edits and proofs. But that is part of the production process and is another subject entirely.)

By this time, of course, I’m in the middle of whatever project I’ve started next, so I’m no longer in the mood for celebrating the completion of the manuscript. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a wee dram of whisky. . . .

Keep writing!

Creative Friday: Celtic Urban Fantasy Teaser!!

This week, I finished the first draft of the third and final book in my new project, a contemporary Celtic urban fantasy called The Chalice Wars. I have a lot to do with this newest manuscript still — I’ll discuss that in greater length in next week’s Professional Wednesday post.

But for today, as a way of celebrating the completion of this latest novel (which will be my 30th when it finds its way to print, later this year or — more likely — early in 2023), I thought I would share with you a bit of book one in the series. This is actually chapter 2 of The Chalice Wars: Stone

I expect it will be out in the next few months. Again, late this year or early next. For now, here’s a peek.

Enjoy!!

*****

Two drops of blood. One on the bottom stair, glistening on brick, red on red. The other on the cement landing by the front door.

The drops were small; she might easily have missed them, walked past and into the house without noticing. But having seen, she couldn’t look away, and she couldn’t take another step.

She stood rooted to the walkway, empty reusable grocery bags tucked under one arm, an oversized bottle of Australian Shiraz in the other hand, her bag slung over her shoulder. And she stared at the blood.

Alistar has cut himself, said a voice in her head. He’s cut himself while working in that damn garden of his.

To which a second voice—Alistar’s, usually so calm and reassuring—said, No, he’s dead. You need to get the hell out of here.

Blood, brick, the geraniums in the ceramic planters Alistar had placed on either side of the stairs. So much red today.

The front door was open behind the screen. Burl should have been there watching for her, tail wagging, tongue lolling happily. Or he might have been in the back garden with Alistar, in which case he should have come bounding around the corner of the house as soon as she pulled up.

She reached for the dog with her mind, with her magic. Nothing. This is what she felt at the store. This was what made her rush through the rest of her shopping, what drove her to flee the grocery store, leaving her half-full cart beside the check-out line. The sensation had been abrupt, final, like someone placed a wall between them.

Like someone had killed her conduit.

On that thought, she was moving again. Not inside, but to the back, the sweat on her palm making the bottle slick and unwieldy. At the corner of the house, she let the canvas bags drop to the ground. She kept hold of the wine; a weapon now.
As soon as she stepped into the backyard, she spotted Alistar.

He lay in the dirt between the slate patio and his bed of gladiolus. Even from a distance, she could see the blood that stained the front of his shirt, like a fan-shaped bib. She faltered a step, a choked sob escaping her, her stomach seizing into a fist. An instant later, she was at his side, knees cushioned in the rich black soil. A faint stench hung in the air, cloying, foul, the smell of rot, of disease, of death.

Alistar’s throat had been cut, ear to ear, the gash a ghoulish grin on his neck. His eyes, pale blue and once electric with wit and mischief and passion, were fixed on a clear sky, unseeing, lifeless. His midsection . . . . She couldn’t even look at that. Whatever killed him had feasted as well. She wanted to believe they waited until he was dead, but she knew better. A tear rolled down her cheek and she swiped at it. It landed like a raindrop on the slate, darkening the stone just beside Alistar’s hand.
His bloodied hand. One crimson-stained finger appeared to point at a dark scrawl on the patio. Letters in blood. A single word. Or part of one. “S-L-U-A—”

Not much, but enough.

“Oh, Alistar,” she whispered. But her heart hammered.

Now she understood where that terrible smell had come from.

Sluagh. Shadow demons. Winged, enormous, utterly without mercy. Fomhoire assassins.

Get the hell out of here!

His voice again, urgent and compelling.

First, though, she had to find Burl.

If a Sluagh did this, or more likely a trio of them—the old powers did things in threes or fours—Burl would be dead, too. They would sense the magic in him and assume he had been Alistar’s conduit. Forced to guess, she would say the poor dog was dead before Alistar knew what was coming.

She remained beside him for another moment, trying to reconcile the wreckage before her with her memories of the man she had loved. She never should have gone out. She was the one with a conduit, the one who had been maintaining their part of the network since the death of Alistar’s conduit two months ago. She should have stayed here and sent Alistar to the store. But he was so happy in his garden, and she was gone for such a short while.

It’s not your fault, and this is no time for blame. Go.

Leaving him seemed wrong. He deserved . . . more.

No. You have to go. And you have to take it with you.

She stood, gripped the wine bottle once more, and strode to the back door. It was open, of course. Burl lay sprawled on the kitchen tiles, his silky white fur matted with blood, his water dish overturned, the floor covered with a thin, dark pink mixture.

Tears again, a stream of them this time. How could she cry so for her dog, when she’d shed barely a tear for Alistar?

He wasn’t just a dog.

She felt more than grief. The stench of the Sluagh was thick in here. She gagged, biting back against the bile rising in her throat, and the terror clawing at her chest. Without a conduit, she was vulnerable, all but defenseless. Sidhe or no, she couldn’t cast much of anything without a source for the magic.
She swallowed hard, wiped her eyes again. Burl deserved to be buried, too. Losing either one of them would have been bad enough. But both?

She stepped over the dog, avoiding the stained water, and halted at the door to the dining room. Drops of blood trailed away from the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the living room. Toward the front door. She guessed they had come in from the front, killed the dog, gone back out the same way, and snuck up on Alistar from behind. Then they returned to the house and ransacked it, breaking and tearing nearly everything of value. Sluagh wouldn’t worry about leaving behind a trail of destruction, much less a splattering of blood. They were hunters, nothing more or less. They worried about the kill and whatever they’d been sent to find.

At last, terror kicked in. She hurried to the bedroom, knowing she couldn’t take much. There wasn’t time, and the Sluagh hadn’t left much intact. Clothes, photos, papers, books, music. Most of the furniture was Alistar’s and what belonged to her wouldn’t fit in her car.

Alistar had insisted they keep boxes in the attic and packing tape in the utility drawer, just in case there came a time when they would need to leave without delay. He had also paid the rent on a month-to-month basis; no lease.

“I want to be able to leave this place on an hour’s notice, and never look back,” he often said.

Hearing the words in her head once more, she muttered, “You were supposed to come with me, old man.”

She was packed in less than two hours, and had the car loaded before nightfall. But she waited until dusk to return to the garden for the one thing she couldn’t leave behind.
When it was dark enough, she went to the garage and retrieved the ancient wooden crate Alistar stored there. It must have weighed ten pounds empty. She carried it to the farthest end of his garden, took a spade from his shed, and removed the stone from its spot in the dirt.

“It should be packed in soil,” he’d told her at least two or three times. “And the crate should be nailed shut.”

On one occasion she laughed at him. “Why tell me all of this? You’ll be the one packing it. You never let me near that thing.”

He’d stared back at her, silent and grave and beautiful in the dying light of an autumn afternoon. Had he known it would come to this? Had he seen it?

She stared at the gaping hole she’d left in the dirt. They had hosted parties at the house, sat with friends on the patio, sipping wine and chatting deep into the night. No one ever noticed the stone, which was just as it had to be.

There was nothing striking about it. It was vaguely round, about the size of a honeydew melon, dull grey, with a few gleaming specs of mica and quartz. And with the spells she and Alistar had cast on it, its power was dampened. She shivered, as if someone ran a magical finger down her spine. The spells. They had cast them together, so that if one of them died, the spells would survive. He had seen this day coming.

Bastard. Brilliant bastard. More tears streamed down her cheeks. She went back to work.

The stone fit perfectly in the crate. She had created a nest of soil for it, leaving just enough room to sprinkle more dirt around it and over it. She sealed the crate, then retrieved the other stone from behind the shed. It looked much like the first; same color, shape, and size. She put it where Alistar’s stone had been, smoothed the dirt surrounding it.

She stood, lifted the crate with a grunted “Sonofabitch!” and staggered out to the car. There she wedged it into a space she had left unfilled in the far corner of the rear hatch. As an afterthought, she threw in the shovel, too. It had been Alistar’s, just like everything else in the garden shed. She slung coats and a few dresses over the stone, arranging and then rearranging until it all looked natural, like she was a slob, rather than someone trying to hide something.

When everything else was done, she went to the basement for the last of Alistar’s precautions. Somehow he had managed to buy or steal license plates from half a dozen states. On their own, the plates would have been of limited use, but he had also arranged to have new registration stickers sent each January from the state DMVs. She didn’t know how he did it, and he never bothered to tell her; it was just Alistar being Alistar. But she was smart enough—or maybe scared enough—to put a fresh set of plates on her car, and to take the others with her.

From now on, she would be from Maryland. Until she needed to be from somewhere else.

She tossed the old plates and the wrench into the back, and closed the hatch.

She needed to let the others know. Their part of the network was open now, exposed. In recent months she had sensed gaps, weaknesses in their web of magic that the Fomhoire might exploit. Now it was worse, and without her conduit there was no easy way for her to send a warning. All she could do was run, and hope she’d find an opportunity to tell them later.
It didn’t feel right. Alistar still lay in the garden, Burl in the kitchen.

Alistar had long been a prominent figure in the Sidhe community, which made her one as well. They had helped establish the network monitoring this part of the Sidhe world for Fomhoire incursions. That was reason enough for Fomhoire and their Sluagh friends to want Alistar and her dead. Not that they needed reasons to kill.

She sensed, though, that the Fomhoire were also after the stone, and she didn’t understand why. Alistar had never explained to her the stone’s significance. For years she had wanted him to tell her, but always he refused. Now she needed to know, and he was gone.

“That part wasn’t so brilliant, old man,” she whispered, peering through tears at the darkened house.

You’ll figure it out. Now, go!

She climbed into the car, and with one last glance toward her home, toward the gardens, she drove away.

Professional Wednesday: “Hidden Brain,” Perception, and Fiction

On a recent drive I began listening to the Hidden Brain podcast, with the brilliant Shankar Vedantam. I had listened to scattered episodes before, but never in a systematic way. But this was a long drive and I wound up listening to more than half a dozen episodes, each one fascinating, engaging, and informative. If you’re not familiar with the podcast, which focuses on topics related to psychology, neurobiology, and human behavior, you should check it out. It’s pretty amazing

During my drive, though, one episode in particular lodged in my thoughts, because it threatens to undermine a lot of what I do every day as a writer.

The episode, which first aired only a couple of weeks ago, is called “How to Really Know Another Person.” And the upshot of the discussion was that we can’t really know another person, that when it comes to sussing out the reactions and emotions of other people, we are, as a species, kind of inept.

When we write fiction, we present our stories from the viewpoint of our narrating or point of view characters. Sometimes we use just one point of view character. Sometimes we use several. But when we use more than one, we only switch point of view with a new scene or chapter. At any given moment in a story, we are limited to our narrating character’s perspective. We can know what they are thinking and feeling and remembering, but that’s all. The moment we start to give our readers access to the thoughts and emotions of several characters at once, we are violating point of view and falling into omniscient voice, which is out of favor in today’s literary market. The term used for this — not kindly, I might add — is “head-hopping.” It’s something we don’t want to do.

And so, in order to give our readers insights into the emotions and thoughts of actors other than our point of view characters, we have to rely on the observations and insights of the narrating character. Those characters might pick up on facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, subtleties of spoken conversation, and any number of other clues to keep readers in the know about the feelings, motivations, thoughts, and loyalties of the people the POV characters encounter. The narrators are our readers’ guides to all elements of our stories, and so their interpretations of these interactions are crucial to furthering our plots.

But now let’s return to the Hidden Brain podcast I heard. As Vedantam points out at the beginning of the episode, recent studies have shown that “many of the clues we use to read the minds of others, are suspect.” In other words, all those things I have my point of view characters picking up on, are, in reality, less than accurate. According to his guest on the program,Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, the best way for us to find out what others are thinking and how they are feeling is — surprise! — to ask them, and to make our questions as specific and focused as possible.

The problem with this, of course is that while this may make for better relationships in the real world, it makes for truly lousy fiction. If all the misunderstandings and intrigue and misdirection among our many characters were simply cleared up by heart-to-heart conversations, our novels would all be thirty pages long and boring as hell. More to the point, the solution offered by Doctor West — which, again, is probably really good advice for improving interactions in the real world — doesn’t account for the fact that many of our fictional relationships are adversarial. A character who asks forthright questions of a potential enemy probably isn’t going to get honest answers, at least not without making the exchanges seem incredibly contrived and unconvincing.

So what are we to do? The tools our POV characters rely on don’t really work. Should we have them habitually draw the wrong conclusions from their interactions with other characters? That is likely to tick off our readers before too long. An unreliable narrator is one thing. A buffoon is quite another.

Or do we assume that most of our readers don’t listen to the Hidden Brain, and that even if they do, what they want from us is a good story, rather than an accurate portrayal of the latest in psychological research?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this is the approach I recommend for others and also the one I intend to stick to myself. Let’s be honest: fiction is always an imperfect reflection of reality, and not just because of the magic systems and invented worlds we find in fantasy. As an example, our characters tend to be far more articulate than we are. If we wrote dialogue the way it sounds in the real world, it would be full of “um”s and “you know”s and “like”s and such. We would have a ton of spoken sentences that never quite get to the point or follow rules of grammar. Instead, the conversations we write for our characters sound the way we wish our real-world conversations sounded — witty, snappy, clear, natural.

In the same way, I will continue to allow my point of view characters to pick up on visual and aural clues as indicators of what others are thinking and feeling. Yes, after listening to the podcast, I may choose to have them get things wrong slightly more often. But my characters are not going to start asking questions of one another that are too frank to maintain suspense.

Sure, I want my stories to be believable. But I also want them to entertain.

Keep writing.

Monday Musings: The Wisdom and Love of Friends and Family

Many years ago — decades, in fact — in a rare moment of precocious insight, I wrote the following in my journal:

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends to remind us of who we are.”

Even at the time, I understood that I had, without any intention of doing so, stumbled upon some deep wisdom of my own. Because add to “the wisdom and love of friends” the words “and family,” and you have precisely the experience I have just enjoyed.

I have recently returned from an extended journey east and north, and I am feeling stronger than I have in some time, in large part because of the friends and family I encountered along the way. The trip began with Nancy and me attending a university event in Richmond, where she was the guest of honor and featured speaker. Seeing her excel at her job, watching her move among strangers with ease and poise, listening to her deliver remarks with the aplomb of a seasoned pro, brings me such joy and makes me so proud I can hardly find words to express the emotion. And so the trip began, as do all things in my life, with her, with us.

From there, as many of you already know, I went on to the Hampton Roads Writers Conference, which was well-run and professionally fulfilling. The highlights of the weekend, though, were the two evenings I spent hanging out with Edmund Schubert and John Hartness. Both nights, we talked business, we talked craft and market, we spoke of family, of life and friendships, we just shot the shit for hours. It was amazing.

I have spent too, too long, in my own head, dealing with uncertainties, with anxieties, with fear and grief, with my own emotional health issues as well as with the challenges life throws at so many of us. It wasn’t that these evenings with my friends made me forget all that other stuff. Rather, it was that these two amazing friends and I made room in our interactions for all that each of us is going through right now. We commiserated and supported, even as we also laughed and spoke of other things.

And that was a harbinger of the entire trip.

David and daughter AlexFrom Virginia Beach, I went to Brooklyn, where I spent two evenings with my older daughter. She looks beautiful, seems great, has a ton of energy, and was her normal, playful, thoughtful, intelligent, insightful, slightly acerbic self. Seeing her, having such amazing time with her, was reassuring to say the least.

I also spent an afternoon with two old friends from my high school and college years. We are, all of us, changed. How could we not be? But our affection for one another remains, as does our ability to joke and laugh one minute, and then shift gears into matters weighty and significant the next. Seeing them was a rare treat, one I have missed these many years.

I drove from Brooklyn to central New York State, where I stayed with my brother Jim, and his wife, Karen. They are two of Nancy and my favorite people in the world. Jim is my birdwatching partner and guru, not to mention my oldest and dearest friend in the world outside of Nancy and my girls. Karen, his wife of 35 years, is brilliant, witty, articulate, passionate about her work, and so much fun. She and I share affinities for good Scotch and teasing Jim. While I was there, we were joined for dinner one night by Jim and Karen’s daughter, Rachel, who is as terrific as her parents.

And while in the Albany area, I also saw my wonderful friends Alan and Karen. Alan was (along with our friend, Amy — more on her in a moment) my closest friend in college, my musical partner (also along with Amy), and my housemate. In the nearly forty years since college, he (and Karen, and Amy and her husband, Paul) has remained as caring and constant a friend as anyone could want.

I started home on Friday, driving into the wind and rain of Ian, and I stayed that night in the Charlottesville area with Amy and Paul. We drank Manhattans and ate pasta, they showed me photos from their son’s recent wedding, and we talked deep into the night. Or as deep as we of advanced middle age are capable of these days. Which is to say, not really that late at all. But it was a great evening.

The next day, I arrived home.

My trip lasted twelve days, and pretty much every one of them brought me to someone I care about, someone who knows and understands me, someone whose wisdom and love made for a special day or evening.

I am back home now, and I feel restored in some way. Yes, the anxieties and difficulties persist. Life continues to throw stuff in our paths, and much of what Nancy and I have struggled with for the past year and a half will continue to challenge us for a long time to come. But I feel more connected to where I come from, to the person I have long known myself to be. I am reminded that there is more to me than fear and sadness and struggle. There is strength as well, and worth and humor and, most important, the love of people I respect and admire.

“There is nothing like the wisdom and love of friends and family to remind us of who we are.”

Yes, maybe there is something trite to the thought. But at 22, when I wrote it, it felt like a valuable insight. And three and a half decades later, it still carries the weight of truth.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Additional Thoughts On Writing and Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling lives. The conversation continues.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: What To Tell Aspiring Writers About The Current Literary Market

If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion.

This past weekend, while at DragonCon, I spent a lot of time on writing panels, talking with other literary professionals in front of audiences made up largely of aspiring writers. We mostly discussed ways to improve various elements of our storytelling, but we spoke as well about the state of the current writing market, and the challenges of embarking on a literary career.

Reflecting on those conversations, it occurs to me that much of what we discussed warrants repetition and amplification in this venue.

This has been a summer of bad news for those of us who (try to) make our livings writing books. Book sales are down across the board this year. Barnes and Noble is rumored to be cutting back drastically on what books it will carry and market. The trial to determine the future of the proposed merger between Penguin-Random House and Simon & Schuster has revealed that book sales for the vast majority of volumes published each year are shockingly, depressingly low. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but if they’re not, that would only mean that publishers routinely mislead authors about their sales numbers, which would also be shocking and depressing. Lose lose.

I have neither the data nor the experience to state categorically that it has never been harder to be a professional writer, but I can say that right now the business outlook for our industry pretty much sucks.

Which has left me wondering — as I attend conventions and get ready to teach at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference — how can I mentor young writers when the market is so dauntingly hostile? I struggle with this nearly daily.

I have been in the business for a long time. I have literally dozens of publishing credits — as a novelist, as a short story writer, as an editor. I have awards to my name, a history of strong reviews, a reputation as a professional who hits his deadlines, turns in clean manuscripts, and is reasonably easy to work with. (Mostly.) And yet, I still get lots of rejections when I shop new projects. My advances are lower now than they were early in my career. My sales numbers have declined with those across the industry. Maintaining my career has never been harder — it feels like all my accomplishments and credits mean nothing at all.

Again, I question how I can, in good conscience, tell people, “Yes! Go forth! Write your books! Try to make a career for yourselves in this crazy, cruel, struggling business!”

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, and advise young me on the career choice I made back in the mid-1990s, would I tell him/me to embark on this career? Probably. But I have been extraordinarily fortunate in certain ways (and chronically unlucky in others), especially in that I have enjoyed the support of an incredible, generous, accomplished life partner. If I was doing this alone, without Nancy? No way in hell.

If that hypothetical time travel worked differently, and young me was starting now? I would probably advise him/me to find another career, or at the very least to approach this one very, very differently, to look upon writing as a paying hobby, not as a profession, and to keep his/my expectations quite low.

Throughout my career I have spoken often of the importance of loving what we do. And I mean it in several ways. On one level, love what we do means write for the love of it, because the payoffs of this profession, financial and emotional, can be slim and fleeting. On another level, love what we do means we must love the stories we write, and write the stories about which we’re passionate. The market is a moving target. Writing to the market is just about impossible. So we should write the stories that sing in our hearts, because that love will shine through in the final product, and we will enjoy the process more. Finally, love what we do means we must take satisfaction in the stories we produce, because often the artistic creation itself is the lone reward for a job well done.

Strangely, even in this current market — indeed, especially in this current market — “Love what we do” remains good advice. If we have to write — and I’ve always felt that writing is an imperative, something I do to tame the voices in my head, the stories burning in my heart — then we should do it to satisfy that passion. Writing because we think it’s just a good gig, a great way to make a few bucks? If that’s what you’re thinking, I suggest you go back and reread the opening graphs of this post.

As queasy as I might feel about encouraging young writers to go out and try to make a go of literary careers, I feel even worse saying, “No! Don’t do it! That way lies madness, not to mention bruised egos and poverty!” In a sense, there is no good option here.

And so I will continue on this middle course. I will continue to say the following: “Writing is hard. It’s always been hard. It’s even harder now. But it’s also a glorious journey through imagination and emotion and creation, a wondrous alchemy by which we take words and turn them into living, breathing characters and their fully realized lives. And here are some tips for doing that as effectively as possible . . . .”

Enjoy the rest of your week, and keep writing.

Monday Musings (On Tuesday): Back From DragonCon

I have spent this past weekend at DragonCon, catching up with friends, meeting new people, and returning an air of normalcy to my professional calendar. To be honest, I went into the weekend a bit reluctantly. I was excited to catch up with friends, but I was nervous about little things — Covid exposure at a convention attended by tens of thousands, and also just being back among so many people after a difficult year in which I have, to the extent possible, tended to avoid public activities.

As it turned out, being among people was fine. Not always easy, but definitely not as difficult as I feared. My friends know me well enough (and are thoughtful enough) to understand how to be supportive and sympathetic without being intrusive. And others . . . well, there’s no rule that says we have to bare our souls to all we meet, right? It’s okay sometimes to put on a smile and answer “How are you doing?” with the immediate truth rather than the longer-term assessment. “I’m good thanks [at this moment]. How are you?”

This all should be second nature, I know. People do this stuff all the time. But it’s not always easy to give ourselves room to be private when we’re in public spaces and situations. And as for the Covid exposure . . . Time (and antigen tests) will tell.

My panels — on writing, urban fantasy, high fantasy, alternate history — were fun. Good discussions and excellent work by our moderators. It was, as always, so great to talk shop with fellow pros and answer terrific questions from engaged, informed audiences. My reading was attended by a few fans, and the occasion allowed me the opportunity to try out the opening chapters from my latest project, the Celtic urban fantasy I’ve been writing about recently in this blog and on social media. I read from The Fugitive Stone, book I in the series. The chapters were very well-received.

In fact, I should say that every time I mentioned the Celtic series (which STILL needs a series name) the response from people was very positive. Interest, enthusiasm even, and lots of eager curiosity. I’m excited.

I missed home, of course. I am a homebody when it comes right down to it, and I would always rather be with Nancy than not. And at this point, I’m pretty exhausted. It’ll take me half the week to recover and settle back into work and routine. But it was worth it. DragonCons are ALWAYS worth it.

To my friends who were at the con — you know who you are — thank you for contributing to a great weekend. To those who attended the panels, as well as my reading and signing, thank you so much for taking time out of your con to listen and chat with us. We appreciate it more than you can know. Without you, there is no con. And finally, to the con organizers and track leaders, thank you so much for all you do. Your hard work and selfless efforts make possible everything that the rest of us enjoy so much.

Already looking forward to next year.

Professional Wednesday: Writing For a Themed Anthology . . . And My Story Idea Revealed!

With the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter well underway, and our pledges slowly creeping up on our ambitious funding goal (four anthologies instead of three this year, to mark ZNB’s 10th anniversary!), it is time for my yearly “Writing For a Themed Anthology” post. This post, though, has a bit of a twist, which I’ll share with you at the end of the essay.

This year, I am hoping (Kickstarter gods allowing) to co-edit Artifice and Craft, with my dear friend, Edmund R. Schubert. Edmund is an experienced editor, a fantastic writer, and one of my very favorite people in the world. He and I have been friends for a long, long time, and have worked together on many projects. He edited and contributed to How To Write Magical Words, the book on writing I co-wrote with A.J. Hartley, Faith Hunter, Stuart Jaffe, Misty Massey, and C.E. Murphy. He also edited a couple of my short stories when he was lead editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show. And I edited a story of his for Temporally Deactivated. We have, however, never co-edited before this. I’m excited.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierThis will be the fifth anthology I have edited for ZNB (after Temporally Deactivated, Galactic Stew, Derelict, and Noir). For each of them, we have had literally hundreds of submissions for about seven open slots. Getting a story into these anthologies is really hard. We editors have the luxury of being highly selective, because we have so many stories from which to choose.

I have found that no matter the theme, there are recurring categories of stories my co-editors and I tend to reject. The first category is fairly obvious, and encompasses the vast majority of rejections: Some stories just don’t work for one of several reasons. The writing might be too rough, the prose unclear and inelegant; the plot might be too hard to follow (or even indecipherable); or the character development might be weak. Put another way, some stories simply aren’t ready for publication. This is fairly self-evident. When reading slush, we expect to encounter a lot of stories that need too much work to be up to standard.

But then there are two other categories that are far more important for our discussion today.

A) Some stories we get are beautifully written and have really fine core ideas. But they fail to move beyond their conceptual strengths and delve into the emotional and narrative potential of those ideas. I can’t tell you how often we read stories like these, and it’s deeply frustrating. Yes, a themed anthology demands stories that have strong conceptual underpinnings. But the idea is only as good as the story it inspires. It’s not enough to show us the great idea. Authors need to develop those ideas, to give them meaning by building compelling characters and creating tension and suspense and all the other emotions that come through in effective storytelling. So if you submit a story, make sure you give us more than an idea. Give us a fully realized story.

B) Some stories we get are brilliantly written AND developed beyond the conceptual to dive into emotion and character arc and all the rest. But they’re not on theme. This year’s theme for our anthology, Artifice and Craft, is pretty simple. The story needs to have at its core some piece of art that has magical or supernatural qualities. It can be any kind of art, from a painting or sculpture, to a theatrical production or musical composition, to a piece of fine furniture or a piece of short fiction. It’s not enough to have the work of art in the story. It needs to be central to the plot, so that if the work of art were taken out, the entire story would collapse. We will make this clear in the call for submissions. And yet, I can guarantee you that we will receive dozens of stories that aren’t at all on theme, or that, for instance, feature a magical artist who creates great art (which is NOT on theme) or that mention a magical novel, but focus on a scheme to steal the book, rather than on the book itself. (Again, that is NOT on theme, because you could replace the book with, say, a diamond, and you’d have the same basic story.)

So make certain you are following the theme as it is described in the guidelines. Make sure you are doing more than just jotting down an idea, that you’re developing that idea with character work and emotion and tension and conflict and all the other good stuff we writers like to do. And then go to town! Because writing for anthologies is really fun.

Finally, allow me to share with you my own story idea. I am editing Artifice and Craft, but I am also an anchor author for Dragonesque, which will be edited by Joshua Palmatier and S.C. Butler. The theme of Dragonesque is dragon stories written from the point of view of the dragon. Fun, right?

So, the dragon in my story is going to a re-enactor, a dragon who does Renaissance Faires and such. Each weekend she allows herself to be “slain” by a knight, and in return she is paid in gold. Except, she’s getting tired of losing all the time, of letting herself be humiliated by these pretend knights. And during the weekend on which my story focuses, she decides to take matters into her own talons, as it were . . . .

Our Kickstarter is going well. We’re about 2/3 of the way to our funding goal. But if I’m going to write my dragon story, and if Edmund and I are going to find the best magical-work-of-art stories available, we first have to fund the anthologies. So if you want to read great short fiction, and/or if you want to have four new anthologies to which to submit your work, please consider supporting the project! Thanks so much!

Monday Musings: Taming My Inner Eeyore

The hard part of getting back into posting isn’t the first post. It’s the second, and the ones after that. In part, I retreated from social media six or seven weeks back because I couldn’t imagine carrying the emotional load I had shouldered while simultaneously producing essays about things that mattered less to me, which was pretty much everything else. At the same time, I also knew that I didn’t want to post every Monday about our family problems or my mental health issues. Nobody wants to read that guy week after week after week.

I touched on this a bit back in May, at a time when I was also struggling to come up with essay ideas for these Monday Musing entries.

So, what to do this time around . . . .

In truth, right now there is lots to write about. And the world is a far more promising place today than it was in May. Which makes this blogging thing a little easier. Consider:

Our former Felon-In-Chief is twisting slowly, slowly in the wind (that’s a Watergate reference, for those of you too young to remember), and I will admit that I’ve enjoyed watching him flop about like a hooked fish on a pier (yeah, I know, I’m mixing metaphors — deal with it), searching for any defense that might save his sorry ass. “The documents were planted! It’s a hoax.” “I declassified the documents ages ago.” (Quite a neat trick — knowing to declassify documents that would be planted on his property without his knowledge years later . . . .) “This is all legal under the Presidential Records Act.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

At the same time, our current President (legally and fairly elected) is having a summer to remember. Tumbling gas prices, inflation starting to come under control, continued historic strength in the job market, Democratic voters motivated and mobilized by the SCOTUS decision overturning Roe v. Wade, voters in ruby red Kansas rejecting an abortion ban, one piece of major legislation after another passed and signed into law, rising poll numbers, surprisingly strong Democratic performances in special elections. It all adds up to a changing political landscape, and the realization that November might not turn out the way most pundits were predicting only a few months ago.

On the other hand, drought and floods and fires serve as constant reminders that despite the passage of the climate change bill — a significant and laudable achievement for the Administration and Congress — our planet remains gravely at risk. With that in mind, I believe when historians look back on 2022 decades from now, they will identify as the most significant moment of the year this week’s decision by the California Air Resources Board to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered motor vehicles after 2035.

Yes, it’s only one state. Don’t let that fool you. If California were a sovereign nation, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world, behind only the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany. Alone it accounts for more than 1/7 of our country’s GDP, and its citizens own far more cars than do the residents of any other state. Where California goes, the automobile industry will have little choice but to follow.

At long last, someone in this country has stepped forward and said, “This way to climate sanity. Follow me.” I expect Gavin Newsom, California’s governor and a Democratic Presidential hopeful for 2024 or 2028, sees this as good politics, which is also telling.

Look, anyone who knows me well will tell you I have a lot more in common with Eeyore than I do with Pollyanna. I am all too aware of the threat Trumpism poses to our republic, of the damage the Supreme Court has done to our society and the further damage it could very well do in its next term, of the precarious state of our planet and the limited reach of even California’s dramatic actions this week.

I am also aware of the tough road that lies ahead for my family, for my older daughter in particular.

As a part-time essayist, I can choose to dwell on the negative, or, as the song goes, I can accentuate the positive. For now, I prefer to do the latter. My hope may prove audacious, fantastical even. But I embrace it anyway. I can also promise you I won’t always be able to do this. My inner Eeyore is strong and persistent. For now, though, he is quiescent, and I’m glad.

I wish you a week of hope, good health, and good tidings.