Tag Archives: writing tips

Professional Wednesday: It’s All Connected

One more post about my teaching weekend at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference . . . .

As I believe I mentioned last week, I taught four classes at the event. The topics were: point of view, character development, world building, and pacing/narrative arc. And something I noticed as I spoke at the event — something that had kind of escaped me during my preparation of the talks, probably because I worked on them over several weeks, rather than in a single compressed weekend — was the tremendous amount of overlap among the different subjects.

It makes sense that talks on character and point of view would have a lot in common. In fact, usually I combine the two, especially if I have more time or am teaching over the course of several sessions. But world building? Pacing? As it turns out, yep.

It’s all connected. Storytelling doesn’t care for siloing or creating artificial boundaries among various topics. Our writing is most effective when we accomplish several aims at once, when our character work reinforces our world building, which furthers our narratives, which strengthens our pacing, which ups the tension and sense of conflict, which helps us deepen our characters. And so the cycle goes on.

There is a theory about writing — an old editor of mine referred to it as Vernor’s Rule, because he first heard it from award-winning science fiction author Vernor Vinge (who he also edited). Vernor’s Rule says the following: As writers, what we do can be categorized broadly in three ways — we develop character, we advance our plots, and we fill in background information. Yes, those are broad headings, but he’s essentially right. And according to Vernor’s Rule, at any given moment in our novels, in any given scene, we should be doing at least two, and preferably all three of those things simultaneously. If we’re only doing one, or, God forbid, none of those things, our manuscripts have stalled, and we need to fix the scene in question.

It’s a simple rule, and it fits in with the realization I had at the writers conference. We should strive to do many things at once with our writing, in part because we can do many things at once. Character arc and narrative arc (plotting) work together to build tension in our stories, and ideally we want them to peak at the same time, with our protagonists coming into their “power” (in whatever sense we care to have this happen) at the same time our plots are reaching their zeniths. Keeping our readers apprised of relevant background information is actually quite helpful in tracing character development AND in deepening our world building, which should bear directly on our narratives.

And really, that is the extent of what I had on my mind today. Writing conferences and convention panels and the like function best when we can break down writing into its component parts. Handling the subjects that way simplifies and clarifies. There is absolutely value in concentrating on individual topics — on character and setting and point of view and the rest. The danger is that we will come to think of these things as operating independently of one another. Because they don’t. Yes, by all means, study each one in turn. Learn all there is to learn about them. But then apply all you can learn in such a way as to blend them together, allowing your various story elements to coalesce into something that is far, far greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where the magic happens. That’s where words on a page turn into living breathing people, into places that feel as real as our own world, and into stories that keep us turning the pages deep into the night.

Keep writing.

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.

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With My Latest Editorial Feedback

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

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

Neither of these things is easy to do.

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

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

So I am rethinking the opening. Again.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not them. It’s me. And my book.

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

Which brings us to despair.

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

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

And at that point we are ready to begin revising.

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

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

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: One Hot-Mess of a Writing Post

Dispensing writing advice when one is struggling a bit with one’s own work can be somewhat strange. Just ask . . . well, me.

I am more than 50,000 words into my current work-in-progress, the third book in my Celtic urban fantasy. (No, you haven’t missed any releases. Book I is in production and should be out later this year or early in 2023.) Some days, the writing comes smoothly and other days it’s a struggle. And, of course, I am closing in on the dreaded 60% mark, so at that point all bets will be off.

Over the past few years, I’ve offered advice on dealing with a whole host of problems. Stuck at 60%? Distracted? Unable to get started? Unsure of how to finish? Check the archives of this blog. Chances are, I’ve got some post somewhere that tells you how I have addressed the issue. All the posts are well-meaning. Some of them might even have helped someone somewhere at some point.

Sometimes, though, there is no cure. Sometimes the only way past the struggle is through the struggle.

I am not at my best right now, for any number of reasons. And I am doing all I can to write despite distractions small and large, personal and national, serious and foolish. Writing, though, is messy. Writing is not one smooth, free-flowing creative process that starts when we type “Chapter One” and completes itself when we type “The end.” (And just an aside here: Writers shouldn’t have to type “The end.” If we need to tell our readers when the story has ended, we haven’t done a very good job ending it. Just saying.)

Writing, as I have said too many times before, is really hard. Writing is fits and starts. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. It’s write, revise, delete, write some more, delete some more, write some more, revise some more, etc., etc., etc.

And here’s the thing. Or here are the two things. First, anyone who has ever devoted any meaningful portion of their life to writing knows this already. And second, everyone who has ever known this, has promptly forgotten it the moment they start their next book.

Because we want it to be free-flowing, smooth, easy, linear. We want it to be painless. And why wouldn’t we? Who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book and I hope it comes within a hair’s breadth of killing me?” Then again, who in their right mind says, “I’m going to write a book…?”

But I digress.

In all seriousness, we want the process to be simple, and so we forget what it’s like to be in the throes of creating. Every book I have written has been a struggle at one point or another. Some are worse than others, but every one has its moments. I’ll struggle with plot points, argue with my characters, second-guess my world building. I’ll doubt that the book is any good, I’ll question whether I can even finish it, I’ll go through periods, sometimes weeks long, when I have to force myself just to sit down in front of my computer. Because I. Don’t. Want. To. Write.

Until I do again. And then all is well with the world, and the book seems pretty good. Better than that. It’s very good. Hell it’s one of my best — maybe even THE best thing I’ve ever done. And it will only ever be eclipsed by the next one.

Put another way, writers are head-cases. I know I am. And there’s a reason my writer friends are my writer friends, if you know what I mean.

You may be surprised to learn that there really is advice embedded in this hot-mess of a post. It’s simply this: Keep working. Writing is a battle, like any creative endeavor, like any endeavor at all that is worth pursuing. It frustrates us and exhausts us. It challenges us by striking at those places where we’re most vulnerable — our confidence, our sense of self-worth, our ability to stare failure in the eye and say, “Not today, motherfucker.” But that’s also the beauty of it. If it was easy, finishing a book wouldn’t feel so damn good. And it will feel good. Because you will finish your book.

Wishing you smooth-flowing prose, fast-moving plots, and characters who surprise and delight you.

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Understand Your Contracts

Today’s post won’t be overly long. It doesn’t need to be, as the advice is fairly straightforward.

One of the advantages of having an agent, beyond increased chances of selling our work to a traditional publisher, and increased access to secondary sales of media rights and translation rights, is that agents understand contracts. When I first entered the business, I didn’t know the first thing about them. I have learned over the course of my career, but I’ve been in publishing for twenty-five years. If I hadn’t learned it would be downright embarrassing.

The fact is, though, in today’s marketplace, finding an agent is harder than ever. And for many of us, it might not be absolutely necessary. Yes, those subsidiary sales are nice, but if our goal is simply publication here in the U.S., and if we’re willing to sign with a small press, we can do this without representation.

But here’s the thing: If we don’t have an agent, we need to educate ourselves on the meaning of contracts. Because no writer should ever sign a contract unless they understand and agree to every single clause.

Look, there are a lot of publishers out there. Small, large, and in between. And many of them — most of them, I would say — are decent, honest, and well-meaning. Many of them are also competent and capable of drawing up a contract that is comprehensive and legally sound. And the Venn Diagram that finds the overlap between those two groups probably includes a good number of publishers.

But it definitely doesn’t include all of them. There are some who are competent but untrustworthy. There are some who are honest but not so good with the legal words thing. There are some who are incompetent crooks, and there are some who probably mean well but simply have some wonky stuff in their business model.

Sadly, none of them come with signs attached telling us to which category they belong. It is up to us to read and understand the legal agreements we’re signing. If we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we get screwed later on.

Read your contracts line by line. Make notes of anything you don’t understand and ask questions. Ask other writers or editors or publishers you know. Ask that friend who happens to be a lawyer. Seek professional, paid legal advice if you need to. Yes, this last will cost you something on the front end, but you’ll be glad you did it. If you understand the contract but find some of the provisions not to your taste, bring those clauses to the attention of your publisher and try to negotiate a change.

Finally — and this might be the hardest bit of advice to follow — be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t budge. Believe me, I know how difficult that can be. Getting a book offer is heady stuff. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment, to believe that this is the ONE opportunity that will ever come our way. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if we let this one go, we will regret it for the rest of our lives. And I can’t guarantee that’s not the case. But I can tell you these two things: 1) If one publisher thinks our book is publishable, chances are another will too, even if we have to wait a while; and 2) Signing a bad contract can absolutely be worse than signing no contract at all.

So understand your contracts. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand or don’t like. And be prepared to take your book elsewhere.

Keep writing.

Professional Wednesday: Dealing With the Slog, part II — The 60% Stall

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Many years back, while I was working on one of the middle books in my Winds of the Forelands quintet, my second series, I came downstairs after a particularly frustrating day of writing and started whining to Nancy about my manuscript. It was terrible, I told her. There was no story there, no way to complete the narrative I’d begun. The book was a disaster, and I might well have to scrap the whole thing.

To which she said, mildly, “Ah. You’re at the 60% point?”

The question brought me up short, because that’s exactly where I was. And prompted by her remark, I realized something obvious to her that I’d missed up until then: To that point in my career, every book I’d written had stalled at the 60% mark.

Last week, I began a new “Most Important Lessons” feature that focused on “Dealing With the Slog.” The first post focused on meeting our self-imposed deadlines. Today’s installment will discuss how to address the 60% Stall.

I would love to tell you that as my career has progressed, I have moved past this problem, but I’d be lying. I don’t stall at 60% with every book, but I do run into problems at that point in most manuscripts. It seems to be endemic to my process. And I’m certainly not the only writer who does. The more I talk about the problem, the more I realize it’s fairly common.

The problem as it presents itself to me can be boiled down this way: When I begin a novel, I know what the main conflicts are, and I have a clear understanding of the obstacles I intend to throw in the path of my protagonist(s). And I also have a good sense of how I want my story to end. Quite often, though, as I write my story, certain elements change. I often alter plot points as I write them. My characters assert themselves in subtle ways, developing their own personalities and wills, and forcing me to rethink their arcs.

So those obstacles as I have written them are not quite the same as what I envisioned originally. On the other hand, the ending, as I imagined it, remains largely unchanged. And thus the path between the crisis point for my protagonists and the end point I want them to reach has to change as well. And the pivot point, the moment when we shift from doing all sorts of nasty stuff to our heroes to beginning to have them fight back and turn the tide, usually starts at about the 60% mark. Yes, shit still goes wrong after that. I’m not saying the last third of the novel has to be a golden time for the protagonist. Far from it. But, for me at least, 60% is when things begin to turn.

How do we address the 60% stall?

First, let me tell you what I don’t do. I don’t panic. I don’t rant and rave. I don’t freak out. Not anymore. Not since Nancy pointed out to me that this is something I go through with most of my books. Plot holes happen. The book as we planned it — whether we outline in detail or write by the seat of our pants — doesn’t always look exactly like the book as we write it. And that’s okay. There is still a story here worth telling. There is still a path between where we are at 59% and where we wish to be on the last page. Breathe. Calm down. It’s going to be all right.

The second thing I try to do is assess the deviations between what I’ve written and what I had in mind originally. Quite often, the answer to overcoming the Stall lies in those differences. Maybe (for instance) we have introduced a new character we hadn’t planned on including, and that person’s presence has set up this narrative disconnect. Most likely, that means the character in question needs to figure into the new narrative path leading us from where we are to where we need to be. Or maybe we have added a key plot twist we hadn’t anticipated originally. Again, if that’s the case, chances are our new solution needs to address the consequences of this twist.

The third thing I consider is whether I need to A) change the ending I’d had in mind, B) add an element in the final 40% to deal with the new conditions I’ve created, or C) go back and edit out some of the changes I have allowed to creep into the first 60%. Choice C) is almost always my least favorite option. Why? Because I have written the book as I have thus far for a reason. If I have strayed from my original, pre-writing vision, it’s because new stuff came to me organically, as I wrote. And generally — not always, but most of the time — I find that my organic decisions are my best decisions.

Finally, and most important, I keep writing. I keep moving forward. Even if my (temporary) solution to navigating past the Stall is flawed, I always, ALWAYS believe it is better to keep pushing through. The alternatives are to give up entirely (unthinkable!!) or to retreat into rewrites and try to fix the problem that way, which in my opinion makes the Stall harder to overcome. Every completed manuscript will require editing, and it may well be that after completing the first draft, setting it aside for a while, and then starting the revision process, we will discover solutions to our narrative issues that weren’t obvious when we were in the middle of writing.

The important thing to remember is this: The 60% Stall is not a death knell for our story. It is a temporary setback. It is not cause for panic, but rather for reflection, for brainstorming, for creative thinking about our narrative.

Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Most Important Lessons — Dealing With the Slog, part I

Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming
Just keep swimming…

Yes, I am a Pixar fan. Sue me. My kids were the perfect age for the magical first generation of Pixar movies — Toy Story (1 and 2); Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars (the first one) — and Nancy and I loved them, too.

But Dory’s little don’t-give-up song is more than cute and annoyingly catchy. It also offers a valuable lesson every writer should take to heart.

Today, I continue my “Most Important Lessons” feature, which I began a couple of months ago. In this installment I intend to give a few pointers about what we can do to keep ourselves moving forward in the middle of the slog that is novel-writing.

Because here’s the thing: We writers love to talk about the big events in our professional lives. We shout from the hilltops when we sign a contract or have a new book come out or complete a manuscript. Those are the golden moments, the ones we live for and love to celebrate. But, of course, those moments make up a teeny-tiny fragment of our professional lives. The achievements themselves are significant and worth marking, but they are fleeting and painfully brief. The vast majority of our time is spent working toward those milestones — slogging through the initial drafts of our books and stories, revising and reworking the manuscripts, marketing ourselves and our writing, developing new ideas, or maybe worrying about when we might have a new idea that’s worth a damn.

Of all of these, the first one — slogging through the initial draft of our manuscripts — might be the most difficult. I think it’s safe to say that’s the place where most nascent careers founder. And so that’s where I’m going to focus today.

How do we keep going? How do we avoid becoming one of those aspiring writers who has started ten books but finished none of them, or has started one passion project but stalled at about the 60% mark and cannot move forward from there?

Here are some strategies I have used over the years.

1. Set and internalize your own deadlines. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career, and have sold several series to publishers large and small. That means I have often written to deadlines imposed upon me by my editors. But most writers in today’s market, even established professionals, have to write the first book in a series before they can sell the project, and so I have also written a lot of books that had no deadline, at least no official one (including Thieftaker, Spell Blind, Time’s Children, Radiants, and the first two books of the new Celtic urban fantasy I’m working on). The deadlines for those books are ones I gave myself. And I can tell you that writing to an external deadline is much easier than writing to a self-imposed one. When we miss an external deadline, we risk angering our editor, giving up our place in the publishing schedule, and even endangering our contract. When we miss a self-imposed deadline, there are essentially no consequences.

And so, we need to internalize our deadlines, to make them feel as real and absolute as the external ones. For me, the best way to do that is to map out my project schedule for an entire calendar year. “Jan. 1-April 15, work on Novel X. April 16-May 31, work on editing projects 1 and 2. June 1-September 15, work on Novel Y. Etc.” This way, missing that first deadline has the potential to set back my entire year. Suddenly, missing my own deadline puts something I care about at risk. These are still all artificial deadlines with artificial consequences, but the more I put at stake with each deadline, the more likely I am to take them seriously, which is the point.

2. Keep your deadlines realistic and achievable. Yeah, I know. That hypothetical calendar in the paragraph above includes two novels, each of which I’m writing in about 3 1/2 months. For me, at this stage of my career, that is realistic and achievable. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve written a lot of books and a lot of stories. You should not necessarily expect the same of yourself. When I first started, I took a good deal longer to complete each novel. When you make your deadlines, you need to be realistic about what you can get done, and you need to set your timetable accordingly. When we set deadlines that are unachievable, we set ourselves up for failure. The purpose of deadlines is to keep us on task and on schedule. The moment we miss our first deadline, that purpose is blown. We become discouraged. Our projects languish. Before we know it, our next deadline is shot as well, and suddenly we’re back where we don’t want to be, struggling to complete the novel we’ve already been working on for too long. So be realistic (and that includes factoring in travel, family and work obligations, and anything else that might slow you down). Set yourself up for success.

3. If necessary, divide large tasks into smaller, discreet, manageable ones. For some writers, the very notion of writing a novel can be intimidating. For these folks, nothing is scarier than typing “Chapter One” on a page. I get that. To this day, I am somewhat daunted each time I begin a new book. It’s a bit like painting the entire interior of our house. That seems like too huge a job to take on. But when we look at the big project as a series of more limited tasks, we remove some of that pressure. “I might be thinking of painting the entire house, but for now I’m just going to paint this room.”

I approach writing books the same way. I don’t fixate on the big project. I think in terms of chapters. How does the book start? What comes next? What do I need to do after that? And so on. I don’t tend to set deadlines for each chapter, because I write my chapters in one or two days. But again, that is something I can do now that I couldn’t have imagined when I began my career. So by all means, if it feels like it would be helpful, establish a schedule for your writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Set realistic, achievable deadlines for their completion and stick to the timetable.

This is already a long post, so I’m going to stop here for this week. Next week, dealing with the curse of the 60% stall!!

Until then . . .

Just keep writing
Just keep writing
Just keep writing…

Professional Wednesday: Tending To Our Work Space

About a month ago, I wrote a Professional Wednesday post about how I was somewhat stuck creatively. I felt stagnant, unable to kick myself into motion when it came to writing new material. Then, about a week ago, I posted a very, very brief excerpt from my current work-in-progress on social media, along with a comment about how much fun I am having with this new book.

It’s not that I now find myself “unstuck,” and it’s not that I was lying about having fun with the latest project. I have been in a place recently where both things are true. I still feel that I’m struggling to be as productive creatively as I would like to be, and I also have been enjoying the small amount of writing I have managed to get done.

Late last week, though, I stumbled on a possible cause for my sluggish work pace.

It might have been last Wednesday — I walked into my office, feeling ready to work, and as I entered the room, I felt all the air go out of me. The space was a complete wreck. It was cluttered and messy and filled with too much stuff that I neither needed nor wanted.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. This was months, even years of accumulated crap finally intruding enough upon my consciousness to make me take note of it. Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it, if you know what I mean. I became aware of it, and then I could hardly get myself to think about anything else. Everywhere I looked, there was a jumble of junk waiting to be dealt with.

And so began several days of throwing out, cleaning up, rearranging, and neatening. I went through bookshelves and donated close to one hundred volumes to a local library. I went through collections of old magazines, clipping articles I wanted to keep and recycling the rest — enough to clear two complete shelves. I vacuumed and straightened and tossed stuff away. I was brutal, keeping only those things I really thought I would need/want going forward.

Mostly, I carved through all that mess and junk, recreating my office. Don’t get me wrong: to the average person walking into the office off the street, it would still look cluttered. I still have lots of crystals and geodes on my shelves, next to photos of my family and various small gifts given to me over the years by Nancy and the girls. But compared to how bad it was, it’s now pretty Spartan. Most important, I am left with a work space that feels clean and efficient and work-ready.

That last is really the point. When I mentioned to Nancy, during a break in my work on Saturday, how refreshing it felt to throw stuff away and reclaim my space, she reminded me that while she was still teaching, before her administrative duties claimed what was left of her spare time, she used to clean out her office at the end of every school year. That was the only way she could be productive with her research during the summer months. I had the sense she had been wondering for some time how I could possibly function in what my office had become . . .

Obviously, I don’t know yet if my cleaner, sparser office will result in greater productivity. Time will tell. But as I write this, I am already enjoying my surroundings and looking forward to diving back into the WIP, which I find promising.

So, if you are stuck with your work right now — if you’re distracted, if retreating to your writing nook is not yielding the sort of productivity you’re used to, maybe you need to pause and take a look around. Is your space as functional and comfortable as you would like it to be? Is the clutter around you cluttering your thoughts as well? Is it time to reinvigorate your creativity with a spring cleaning? Or, even if things in your work world aren’t as messy as they were in mine, is it possible that just rearranging the space might help stimulate your writing mind?

Our work environments are hugely important and also incredibly easy to take for granted. As I said early, the entropy that tends to envelop such spaces doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual process, one that can sneak up on us. It snuck up on me, until finally I couldn’t help but notice. Maybe it’s done the same to you.

If so, you know what you have to do.

Get cleaning! And then, keep writing!!

Office image
My office.
Office image
Yeah, I know. But it looked even worse before…

Monday Musings: Giving Clueless Advice

This past week, I spent a good deal of time going through old magazines and books in my office trying to clear out some of the clutter. (More on that in Wednesday’s post.)

For years, I have subscribed to a nature photography magazine. Yes, it’s an actual paper magazine — I get an issue every month, and invariably each includes beautiful, glossy photographs — landscapes, portraits of wildlife, macro shots of plants or creatures — articles about different ways I might improve my craft (if only I had all the time in the world to devote to my cameras and lenses), and lots of advertisements for lots of equipment I can’t afford and don’t need. I look forward to every issue.

But one issue published a year or so ago had an article from a photographer who was trying to give advice to aspiring and amateur photographers about how they/we should deal with the pandemic. Since travel was hard just then, he said, we should concentrate on local sites, places we probably overlook on a day-to-day basis, but which might be beautiful in their own right, and thus might be worthy subjects for our next photographic outings. Great advice.

Except his example, based on where he lived, was Capitol Reef National Park, in Utah’s magnificent red rock country. THAT’S where he was going to take photos as a consolation for not being able to travel due to Covid restrictions. That’s a little like telling someone that since they can’t eat out in restaurants, they should settle for a home-cooked meal, like you do. And then revealing that your partner is a 3-star Michelin chef . . .

I somehow missed this article when the issue first appeared, and so got a good laugh out of it the other day.

But then I started thinking that for many people reading the advice I offer to budding writers, I might come off as equally out of touch.

Let me be clear. I don’t think ill of this writer, and I’m not sitting here thinking all the readers of my blog posts think ill of me. But I do think that for those of us who have achieved some success in a given field, it is often too easy to dispense advice, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how grounded in lived experience. I can suggest that writers experiment with this approach, or rethink that old habit, but the fact is sometimes the advice I give demands a commitment of time, or a certain amount of creative risk. And those sorts of practices are much easier for me to try than they might be for someone who doesn’t have a publishing history or a current contract for a book or trilogy.

Put another way, on some level I can’t help but write from a place of privilege and good fortune, and that may, at times, make me blind to the subtext of my advice and recommendations. So consider this a blanket apology for every time in the past I have given writing advice that I think sounds easy and basic, but that comes across as lacking in understanding or empathy for the experiences of writers at other levels. And consider it as well an apology for every time in the future when I do this again. Because I’m sure I will.

Don’t think for a moment I don’t know just how lucky I am to do what I do. And if in my eagerness to share advice or experience with you, I come across as clueless . . . well, as Nancy and the girls will tell you, it’s because sometimes I AM pretty clueless. But I love what I do. Twenty-five years-plus into this career, I still can’t quite believe I get to make up stories for a living. And I want that for others who have the same dreams I did when I typed “Chapter One” for the very first time.

I should also say that most of the advice I give in my writing posts is stuff I needed to hear in the early years of my career. I highlight mistakes I either used to make or still struggle with to this day. Sometimes I tell you to do things I am currently trying to make myself do. The wonderful thing about writing is that we can always improve. And the frustrating thing about writing is that we always need desperately to improve. We can start writing as young children and continue well into our dotage and still not learn all we need to about this magical craft.

And so I hope you will consider that when I offer advice and lessons on writing, I am there learning and striving right alongside you. Because I am certain I have yet to master beyond the capacity for further improvement any skill or practice about which I’ve written. We are, all of us, students of the written word, and we are still matriculating. How glorious is that?

Have a great week.

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

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

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

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

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

Both, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So endeth the lesson of the horny bluebird.

Keep writing.