Tag Archives: Zombies Need Brains

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, Epilogue

This week I conclude my series of posts on how I came to be a professional writer. You can read the previous posts before moving on with this one. We’ll wait. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

There! Now you’re all caught up. Feel better?

I’m calling this an Epilogue, because it seems foolish to go through every step of my career, when much of it has been fairly public and thus easy to trace through my publications, reviews of my work, con appearances, social media and the like, and my own blog posts about various experiences. Far more valuable, I believe, will be a discussion of a few key points about what I have learned in my twenty-five-plus years as a professional.

I’ll start with this. Recently, while giving a talk to the Apex Writer’s Group, I was asked what I know now about writing that I wish I had known from the start. My answer: I wish I had known then that career trajectories are not linear, they are not smooth, they are not simple. I have said a thousand and one times that writing is hard. A couple of weeks ago I went on a little rant about how we writers should handle adversity without just giving up on the whole thing. But the fact is, I have contemplated quitting more than once. My career followed a nice, upward trajectory for a time, but then, due both to circumstances beyond my control, and to poor decisions I made myself, my march toward bigger and better things halted, stumbled, took a few steps back. My sales numbers dipped. I reinvented myself. Things improved, but then more events I could not control (and a few I could) knocked me back again. Things seemed to be righting themselves and then they fell apart once more, this time through no fault of my own.

Yes, this is vague. Some of the stories that have impacted my career are not mine to tell. Others are, but they involve me casting light on questionable behavior and choices by others and I won’t go there. Another lesson: This — fantasy, writing, publishing — is a relatively small community and we need to be careful about the stories we tell, the actions of others we expose, the decisions we question publicly.

And really, the specifics are beside the point. Because what I’m talking about — the unpredictability of one’s writing fate — is something nearly all writers experience. I know precious few authors whose careers have followed a smooth, ever-rising trajectory. Most of us are knocked on our butts again and again and again.

What separates the professionals who enjoy long careers from those who don’t is the willingness of the former to get up off their rear ends each time they’re knocked down. As I said, I have contemplated giving up multiple times. But I never did quit.

The Thieftaker Chronicles, by D.B. JacksonI am not the most talented writer I know. Not by a long shot. I am good. I believe that. My character work is strong. My world building is imaginative. My prose is clean and tight and it flows nicely. I write convincing, effective dialogue and I have a fine eye for detail. My plotting and pacing, which were once just okay, have gotten stronger over the years. I think writing the Thieftaker books — being forced to blend my fictional plots with real historical events — forced me to improve, and that improvement has shown up in the narratives of the Islevale and Radiants books.

But there are plenty of other writers who do all those things as well as I do if not better. I have been helped throughout my career, though, by a few other qualities. I am disciplined and productive. I work every weekday and at least one day on weekends. I consistently hit my word counts and meet my project goals. I never miss a deadline. I have developed a thick skin — mostly — and have learned not to take to heart criticism and rejections and bad reviews. (Mostly.) I am resilient. And, with effort and practice, I have learned to take to heart the advice I often give to self-define success.

I’m writing and editing for small presses now. I don’t know when or if I’ll go back to the bigger ones. I love my current publishers, and see little need to switch back to the high pressure relationships I once had with big-name houses. I’m writing books I love, and that is, I believe, a key to being successful as I define the word. I don’t expect any one project to make me a ton of money, and that’s okay. I’m happier in my career right now than I have ever been. Partly this is due to my enjoyment of my relatively new career as an editor. This year will see the release of my fourth co-edited anthology with Zombies Need Brains. And I will also continue to expand my freelance editing business. At this point, I expect I’ll spend more time in 2022 editing than writing.

This is not at all where I envisioned myself when I started my career. Back then, I was filled with dreams of bestselling books and a shelf (or two) filled with World Fantasy Awards. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But I did hope my commercial performance, which has always been a bit disappointing, would match my critical success, which has always been a point of pride. The fact is, though, the business today is greatly changed from where it was when I began. Back then no one had ever heard of e-books. I built myself a web page when my first book came out, and just having a web page conveyed more legitimacy than the publication itself. Seriously.

“I have a book out!”

“Meh.”

“I have a web page!”

Oooooooh! You have a web page!!”

It is a changed world, and it is also now a much harder market. An ever-growing universe of authors are seeking the attention of a fairly static universe of readers, meaning sales for each writer are harder to come by. Advances are smaller if they’re offered at all. Many authors are working harder and harder just to maintain a level of income that is, nevertheless, lower than it used to be. Commercial success means something different now than it did when I began. I count as a triumph the mere fact that I continue to get writing contracts.

I once thought I would reach a point where I stopped worrying that my career would tank, forcing me to give it up as a full time profession. I was disabused of that notion early on by a writer who was very successful and who told me, “Oh, you never stop worrying.” And it’s true. I have been able to continue writing full-time because my partner in love and life has a good job that provides not just the bulk of our income, but also our health care and retirement funds.

The hard truth is, on some level my mother was right when she and I had our big fight about whether I should teach history or write fantasy. As a history professor I would have made a decent living. I would have had job security, retirement accounts, health benefits. And yes, that would have been success as defined a certain way.

But I believe I also would have been miserable.

Again, I find myself struck by my good fortune. Throughout my professional life, I have had the luxury of pursuing a career I love and choosing to define my success not just in terms of earnings, but also in terms of joy. It’s a cliché, but there is no way to put a price tag — or a royalty statement — on that.

Have a great week.

Professional Wednesday: A Rant About Rejections and Quitting

Anthologies from Zombies Need BrainsAs many of you know, I am once again co-editing an anthology for Zombies Need Brains, Joshua Palmatier’s speculative fiction imprint. This is my fourth year as a co-editor, and each year Joshua follows pretty much the same approach to publishing his themed anthologies. Each collection has about fourteen story slots. He chooses a set of eight or so anchor authors for each volume and runs a Kickstarter to fund all the anthologies, using those anchor author names to attract support for the projects. Once the anthologies have funded (and Joshua has a remarkable success rate with his Kickstarters) he throws open the anthologies for general submissions, having reserved six story slots in each collection for non-anchor stories. He pays professional rates for the stories, and he puts out sleek, well-curated, well-edited books.

This year the three anthologies are Shattering the Glass Slipper, Brave New Worlds, and my anthology, Noir. Joshua is co-editing only one of the anthologies, a bit of a change from past years when he has nearly killed himself editing two or even all three of the books. We get literally hundreds of submissions for each anthology, making the selection of six (or five or seven) stories incredibly difficult.

As the publisher, Joshua takes it upon himself to send out acceptance letters and also rejections. Of course, he also handles the contracts and payments. His is a somewhat thankless job.

Most years, the rejection letters are met with either silence from the rejected authors, or, on occasion, with a “Thanks for considering me, maybe next time” note in return. This year was much the same. Except for one note he received:

In it the author said they had decided that if their story was rejected this time around, they would give up on submitting anywhere. And then they congratulated Joshua for killing their nascent writing career.

This is so wrong on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin.

First of all, Joshua is as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet. He doesn’t deserve this shit from anyone, much less a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business. (More on that in a moment)

I should also say that Joshua is a class act. He told his editors about the letter, but he didn’t tell us the author’s name or which anthology the story had been submitted to. I have no idea if I read the story. I do know there is a good chance Joshua had nothing to do with the story’s rejection. Even if the story in question was submitted to the anthology he’s co-editing, the rejection would have been a joint decision between Joshua and his editing partner. Mathematically speaking, it’s more likely that another pair of editors rejected the story. Joshua was simply delivering the bad news in his capacity as publisher.

But in a way, that ignores the galaxy of larger issues raised by this note. None of us editors is responsible for killing this person’s writing career. The author of the story is solely responsible for that. They are the one who chose to base their writing future on the fate of one story. They are the one who decided that one more rejection would be enough to make them give up. This was not a career murder. It was literary suicide.

A moment ago I called this person “a thin-skinned writer wannabe who doesn’t know anything about writing or the publishing business.” Maybe that sounds harsh. Too bad.

Writing is hard. Rejections are part of the business. I have been writing for more than a quarter century. I’ve published more than twenty-five novels and at least that many short stories. I have won awards, been a convention guest of honor multiple times, had fabulous reviews. And I still have my work rejected all the time. It. Is. Part. Of. The. Business. Yes, rejections suck. And upon receiving one I give myself a bit of time to be upset, angry, sad, whatever. An hour, maybe two. If it’s a big project and a publisher I really wanted to work with, I’ll give it a day. Then I pull up my big-boy panties and get back to work.

That’s what professional writers do. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer. You’ve been rejected. You’re still working. Good on you. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

Writing is not for the thin-skinned. Chances are, if a writer can’t take rejection, they can’t take criticism either. And if they can’t take criticism, they can’t work with an editor, which means they have no business being a writer in the first place.

The author of that obnoxious note has obviously not enjoyed much success as a writer. It’s pretty clear that this was the culmination of a string of rejections. I’m sorry for them. Truly. As I say, rejections suck and a bunch of them can be discouraging. And I can even see where, if these rejections have been spread over a span of several years, that could be enough to make this person give up. It’s almost enough to make me sympathetic. Almost. Because then we come back to the part where this person blames Joshua for ending their career.

Look, writing is not for everyone. Maybe you’re reading this having just been rejected yourself. Maybe you’re thinking of getting out of the business as well. I would say to you two things. First, try to remember that a rejection is not always a final judgment. Sometimes it’s a step in a creative negotiation, an indication that your story just needs a bit more work, a bit more polish, a tweak of a character or plot thread. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the quality of your story and everything to do with the other stories in the anthology and the particular slot in the collection the editors wish to fill.

And second, always remember that your reaction to rejection is a choice. You can choose to give up. You can choose to take it personally and flounce away. Or you can choose to see it as a challenge to improve your submission, or write a stronger tale next time around.

Whatever you choose, remember this: No one can make you quit but you.

Keep writing. Or don’t. But take responsibility for that choice.

Professional Wednesday: “Write What You Know,” part III — Know What You Write

For the last couple of weeks, I have written my Professional Wednesday essays about the old writing adage, “write what you know.” In my first post on the topic, I wrote about tapping into emotions and our reactions to experiences to get past the limiting implications of “write what you know.” Last week I focused on working into our stories the things we love in real life, be they areas of study, hobbies, or passions.

For this week’s post, my last (for now) about this subject, I build on something said by my good friend, editor and writer Joshua Palmatier, for whose publishing imprint, Zombies Need Brains, I’ve been doing anthology editing the past several years. The other day, he and I talked about this series of posts and he told me that when he hears “write what you know,” he thinks of genre. He takes the advice to mean that if writers want to write fantasy, they should read lots of fantasy and familiarize themselves with its traditions, its tropes, its major works, its newest trends. Same with writing mystery, or SF, or anything else. Writers should know the literary terrain before they start to write.

This makes a tremendous amount of sense to me, and adds a dimension to the “write what you know” conversation that I hadn’t considered.

Indeed, expanding on this, it seems to me that when we look at the old advice from this perspective we start to consider all sorts of things. Yes, genre. But also research. World building. Character. In this construction, “write what you know” can almost be turned around to read “know what you write.”

I discussed the Thieftaker books in last week’s post, and I mentioned how my love of U.S. history steered me toward setting the series in pre-Revolutionary Boston. But I failed to mention then that upon deciding to set the books in 1760s Boston, I then had to dive into literally months of research. Sure, I had read colonial era history for my Ph.D. exams, but I had never looked at the period the way I would need to in order to use it as a setting for a novel, much less several novels and more than a dozen pieces of short fiction. Ironically, as a fiction author I needed far more basic factual information about the city, about the time period, about the historical figures who would appear in my narratives, than I ever did as a doctoral candidate.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)The same is true of the worlds I build from scratch for my novels. My most recent foray into wholesale world building was the prep work I did for my Islevale Cycle, the time travel/epic fantasy books I wrote a few years ago. As with my Thieftaker research, my world building for the Islevale trilogy consumed months. I began (as I do with my research) with a series of questions about the world, things I knew I had to work out before I could write the books. How did the various magicks work? What were the relationships among the various island nations? Where did my characters fit into these dynamics? Etc.

“Write what we know/Know what you write” means having a sense from the beginning of a project of what the book ought to look like when it’s complete. I’m not suggesting that we have to outline (if outlining is your thing, great; if it’s not, that’s all right, too) or plan our narratives. But we should be able to visualize our worlds. We should know what sort of technology they have, what sorts of magic systems are at work. And we should know how we might market our stories — where they fit in the pantheon of whatever genre we’re writing.

Put another way, we need to be familiar with the work we’re about to do, both on a structural level and a publishing industry level. And we need this not because some guy with a blog said so, but because we want to sell our books. We want to interest agents and editors in them. We want to interest readers. And we don’t always have the luxury of waiting until the thing is finished to have these conversations. Again, I’m not saying we have to know everything that happens in the book ahead of time. I’m a dedicated outliner, and even I can’t do that. I am saying, though, that we should understand how to place our books in the marketplace. And we should know before we begin writing what world building we need to do, or what research we have to master, before we can tell the story we want to write.

Write what you know. Know what you write. As it turns out, the old advice makes a lot of sense in several different ways. It may not mean exactly what was intended when the phrase was first coined. But it still is valuable advice for today’s writer.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Stop Writing

Here’s some writing advice for today, three days before Christmas:

Stop trying to write and go spend time with someone you love.

I am all about BIC — put your Butt In the Chair. Writing, like exercise or playing a musical instrument, grows easier with practice and repetition. The more you write, the better your prose and storytelling will become, and the more productive you’ll be. So I often tell writers to write every day (though I am less dogmatic about this than I used to be).

But I will also say this: Sometimes we have to take time off. Write every day if you can. But once you’ve established the habit, be willing now and then to give yourself a day for other things. This year in particular, I am conscious of how precious friends and family are to us, of how many things in our lives are far more important than publications and word counts.

Yes, we have deadlines to make. For all I know, you’re reading this and thinking about submitting to Noir, or one of the other Zombies Need Brains anthologies. And yes, that deadline looms. December 31, 2021.

And still I say, turn off the computer and take time off to be with the people you love. You’ll make the deadline. You’ll put in a bit of extra work next week, and you’ll be okay. Give yourself the time. Take care of yourself. Share your day with others.

That’s it. That’s the post.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have people to see.

Wishing you and yours a magical holiday. Be well. Be safe. Be kind to one another.

Creative Wednesday: Books To Buy For The Writer In Your Life

‘Tis the season for giving, and for searching out gifts for the writer on your holiday shopping list. Or, if YOU are the writer on your holiday shopping list, searching out gifts for yourself!

And so I thought I would share with you a list of some of the books on my bookshelves that I would recommend most strongly as presents for a writer. These are not novels, though I could probably make that sort of list as well. These are reference books, tools a writer might use in the crafting of their current work in progress. [That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my website, www.DavidBCoe.com, has a bookstore, from which you can purchase many of my novels!]

Reference booksThese are books I turn to again and again during the course of my work, and I expect the writer on your list will do the same. Not all of them are easy to find, but I assure you, they’re worth the effort. So here is a partial list:

1) Standard Reference Books: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition (the hardcover, bound in red); Roget’s International Thesaurus: Seventh Edition (organized thematically, not by alphabet — trust me); The Chicago Manual of Style: Seventeenth Edition (although if you were to get, say, the fifteenth edition instead, you might save some money and not really lose out on much).

These are all invaluable books. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary includes not only definitions and the like, but also dates for when the words in question entered the English language. This is a huge asset for writers of historical fiction or fantasies set in worlds analogous to historical eras in our world.

Roget’s Thesaurus, with the thematic index rather than an alphabetical or “dictionary form” organization, demands a little extra work from the writer. Looking up words is a two step process — check the index to find the precise meaning of the word you’re trying to replace, and then go to the indicated page. But the advantages of having entries grouped conceptually are huge, if difficult to articulate. Suffice it to say, I often wind up finding the right word not with my original search, but with a secondary one that begins with a related idea or concept.

And the Chicago Manual not only offers style and usage guidance for almost every imaginable writing circumstance, it also shows how to prepare and format manuscripts professionally, and how to copyedit and proofread (and how to read a copyeditor’s or proofer’s marks), among other things. Every writer should have a copy, and actually, now that I think of it, I need an updated version!

2) What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects – From Paper Clips to Passenger Ships, Edited by Reginald Bragonier, Jr. and David Fisher. I found this book used several years back after it was recommended to me by a friend, who happens to be a writer as well. Basically, the book provides you with the correct name for every part of every common object you can imagine. I used it just the other day, while writing a new Thieftaker story for the Noir anthology. I needed to know the name of the “u”-shaped arm of a padlock, the piece that swings open and closed to lock something. It’s called a shackle. I hadn’t remembered that, and would have spent way too much time looking for the word online had I not owned this book.

3) English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Like Merriam’s, this book provides the date for when common words entered the English lexicon. The added bonus that sets this book apart from the dictionary is its detailed index, which differentiates among various usages and meanings for the word in question. For instance, “lap” has an entry for the “lap” that a child sits on, and another for “lap” as a verb, as in a dog lapping up water, and still another for “lap,” as in an orbit around a track. Those usages entered the language at different times. This book gives a date for each. Handy, right?

4) The Cunningham Series of Magic Books. Scott Cunningham has written a series of books for magic practitioners that cover a wide array of topics. He has one on magical herbs and plants, another on gems and minerals, still another on oils, incense, and brews. He has books on Wicca and one on elemental magic, and others beyond these. I am not a practitioner, but I find the books immensely helpful when I am writing about magic, particularly for series that are set in our world, like the Thieftaker and Justis Fearsson books.

5) The HowDunIt series from Writer’s Digest. These books are meant for mystery writers and those who write police procedurals, but I believe they are also indispensable for writers of urban fantasy, horror, and even epic fantasy and science fiction. Available volumes touch on writing crime scenes, on writing about investigative procedures, on poisons, on murder forensics, on injuries and body trauma. I have seven of them, and I’ve used every one.

I could go on with more titles, but this is already a long post, and I have A LOT of books on my shelves. But here’s the thing: When it comes right down to it, there are no limits to the kind of books a writer might find valuable. I have history books, tourist guides to castles and cathedrals, an illustrated architecture book on a ninth century Frankish monastery, books on astronomy, books on weapons, books on military campaigns and tactics, a book on animal tracking, field guides to trees, flowers, edible plants, rocks, butterflies, mammals, reptiles, and birds . . . SO many birds . . .

If you know a writer, and you happen to be glancing through the bargain bin at your local bookstore, chances are you can find something that person is going to love and find useful. Because — surprise! — writers love books.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: Submitting To Our Newest Anthologies

Thanksgiving is upon us, and the year is winding down. But for those of you who write and who are looking for publication opportunities, I want to point out that the open call for short story submissions for this year’s Zombie Need Brains anthologies — Brave New Worlds, Shattering the Glass Slipper, and, Noir (which I am co-editing with John Zakour) doesn’t end until December 31st. You still have plenty of time to submit stories to us.

As I have done in the past, I wanted to offer a post on things to do and consider when submitting short stories to any market, but ours in particular.

Let me start with the most obvious thing. ALL fiction markets — publishers, agencies, journals and magazines, as well as anthologies — have submission guidelines, known in the business as GLs. The guidelines for Zombies Need Brains anthologies can be found here.

GLs are called guidelines for a reason. They are not suggestions. They are not there for you to follow or ignore at your whim. They are requirements. If you ignore the guidelines — ANY of them — chances are your story will be rejected out of hand, without having been read. Why? you ask. Because editors are mean and arbitrary. Ha ha. Just a little editing humor for you there. Well, not really. We ARE mean and arbitrary. But we have good reasons for establishing GLs and wanting to see them followed.

Each anthology ZNB publishes begins with a set of anchor authors, writers you know, people with readerships, who have already agreed to write stories for the collection. Anchor stories usually account for seven or eight of the fourteen stories generally found in each anthology. The remaining stories, six or seven of them, are reserved for stories submitted through the open call.

DERELICT, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierLast year, I co-edited Derelict. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before, I co-edited Galactic Stew. We received more than four hundred stories. The year before that, I co-edited Temporally Deactivated. We received more than two-hundred and fifty stories. Again, these are submissions for a total of six or seven slots.

We have guidelines because reading all those stories, and looking for the ones that are of the highest quality AND that will fit the anthology, is hard work. And one thing that makes it easier is having all the stories look the same, with clear fonts, standard margins and spacing, and professional presentation. If the stories come in looking the same, if the stories are all easy to read, we can judge them strictly on the basis of their quality. And this is exactly what YOU want us to do. The last thing you want is for us to reject your story without ever reading it. Think about those odds I just gave you. Even with Temporally Deactivated, which received the fewest submissions of the three I have co-edited, we only accepted 2.5% of the stories we received. With the more recent volumes, the acceptance rate was under 2%. With all those submissions coming in, we are, of course, looking for great stories (more on that later), but we’re also looking for reasons to weed out submissions, to help us get through the piles of stories we have to read. You don’t want us to toss your story because you sent it in a difficult-to-read font, or because you single-spaced when you should have double-spaced. You want your presentation to be professional and correct. You want us to judge the story on its merits, on the great characters you’ve written, on your gorgeous prose, on your scintillating narrative.

GALACTIC STEW, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua PalmatierAlong similar lines, ZNB anthologies are themed, which means that all the stories are about something in particular. Galactic Stew was about food. Derelict was about abandoned or lost ships. Noir is about detectives, in SF, fantasy, horror, or paranormal settings, investigating mysteries. As with the GLs, anthology themes are not suggestions. We’re not saying “If you feel like writing about detectives, feel free, but we’ll take any story about anything.” We’re saying, “For this anthology, we want detective stories with a speculative fiction element.” I can’t tell you how many stories we get that have nothing at all to do with our theme. I CAN tell you that we reject every last one of them. If you send to a themed anthology open-call a story that is off theme, it will not be accepted. Ever. Full stop.

Okay, so what are we looking for? How do you write a story for us that has a chance of being accepted. First, let me say this: If your story is on theme, and if you followed the GLs, we might still reject your story, even if it’s good. Hell, even if it’s great. We always have stories we love that don’t make it in. Think about those numbers again: four hundred submissions; six or seven slots. There’s no way to avoid this sort of disappointment. So do not take a rejection as an indication that your story is bad. It may be that we had a similar story that was simply a shade better. Or it may be that your great story was too similar to an anchor author’s story. Or it may be that we had too many fantasy stories and needed an SF (or vice versa).

But to give yourself the best chance, you want to be creative, different, attention-catching. We’re looking for detective stories in a noir-voice, so we expect a certain number of tropes. But we want to see those tropes turned on their heads. We want unusual mysteries, populated with intriguing, non-traditional characters. We want beautiful, clean prose. We want stories that make us think, that grab our attention on page one and don’t let go until the final passage. We want stories with suspense, or with laugh-out-loud humor, or with emotional power, or, best of all, with all of these things.

This is vague, I realize. The things I’ve told you NOT to do, are much clearer and more concrete than the things I’m telling you TO do. Because the best stories are the ones we can’t possibly anticipate. Often, we don’t know specifically what we want until we see it. We want to be surprised, just as we want the readers who will eventually buy the anthology to be surprised. And so I can’t tell you exactly what to write. But if you’re passionate about the story, if in some way the twists and turns of your story surprised you while you were writing it, if you’ve got something that you believe is different from anything you’ve read before, chances are you’re on the right track.

Best of luck. Remember, the submission deadline is December 31.

Professional Wednesday: Work as Balm

Continuing this week’s theme of maintaining mental health through difficult times . . .

Back in March, when our daughter’s cancer was diagnosed, my first impulse was to put everything on pause. I contacted my editor and agent to let them know I was not going to be working for a while. I announced on my various social media platforms that I would be pulling back from them as well. I don’t know what I thought I would be busy with. I don’t know what I thought I would do to fill my days. But in that instant, I couldn’t imagine doing . . . anything.

I can’t say for certain if this was a good decision or a bad one. I did what I needed to do in that moment. I made time for myself to deal with something utterly devastating and unprecedented in my life, for the very reason I stated above. I didn’t know what I could do and what I couldn’t. And, being self-employed, I have the luxury of being able to clear my schedule when I need to.

I’ll pause here to say this is why paid family leave should be universal across the country. People deal with crises of this sort every day. The privileged few — people like me — shouldn’t be the only ones who can take the time to care for themselves and their loved ones in this way.

Of course, Nancy had work, and though her colleagues and boss would have understood had she taken time off, the truth is the nature of her position at the university, and the fact that the school was in the middle of implementing the Covid response she helped formulate, made this impossible. And so, perhaps not so surprisingly, after taking only a few days to be shellshocked and emotionally paralyzed, I got back to work as well.

RADIANTS, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Belle Books)I was in the middle of writing a book — Invasives, the sequel to Radiants — and I dove back in. It’s a book about family, as so many of my novels are, and about discovering powers within. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why I would find that particular story line comforting.

At the time, I wasn’t very far along in the book — maybe one-third of the way in. But with my reality frightening and sad, I threw myself into the story. Work became the place I went to escape my dread, my grief, my rage at the injustice of my kid’s illness. The emotions came with me, of course, but I was able to channel them into my characters, to turn them into narrative. That is the magic of creation, the alchemy that allows us to convert anguish into art. Each day, I couldn’t wait to get back to my book; I can’t remember a time when work has meant more to me. My haven, my outlet, my balm.

I finished the book in less than two months, which is pretty quick for me, and I knew immediately that I had written something special. I love all my books. Someone asked me just the other day what my favorite book is among those I’ve written, and I answered as I always do: the newest one. But in this case, it was especially true. Invasives is laden with emotional power and it is, to my mind, one of the best plotted books I’ve written. Often when I write, I have to fight off distractions. Not this time. With Invasives, writing was the distraction.

I was sad to finish the book — which was definitely new for me. Usually I celebrate finishing a novel. This time, I wondered how I would cope without the book to write. My child was still sick, still dealing with treatments and such. And I was still scared, still sad.

"The Adams Gambit," by D. B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)And so around that time, unsure of what to write next, I acted on an idea I’d had for several years. I hung out my virtual shingle as a freelance editor. Work came in quickly, and before I knew it I was editing a series for one friend, and talking to others about future editing projects. I also released the Thieftaker novellas. And prepared for the October release of Radiants. And started gearing up for the Kickstarter for Noir, the anthology I’m co-editing for Zombies Need Brains. And wrote a story for another anthology.

In other words, I worked the way I normally would. Yes, some days were harder than others. Some days I got nothing done at all. And part of working through this ordeal has been giving myself permission to have days where I do nothing more than spin my wheels. But more often than not, work has continued to offer me solace.

I’ve watched in awe as Nancy, who has even more on her plate than I do (elder care issues involving her parents and a job that is emotionally and mentally exhausting), has found the strength and discipline to be a loving, supportive mom, an attentive daughter, a skilled and focused professional, as well as a loving partner. She, too, has found refuge in her job.

Looking back, I feel a little foolish for having retreated from my professional life the way I did those first days after learning of my daughter’s diagnosis. From this vantage point, it appears rash, unnecessary. I feared that in some way my job would keep me from giving my full attention to my daughter’s health. I was right. The mistake I made was in thinking that would be a bad thing. Believe me, I spent a ton of time thinking about her, worrying about her, searching for ways I might ease her burden. But I couldn’t do that for every hour of every day, not without doing real damage to my own emotional and physical health.

Work saved me.

Now, I know each of us deals in unique ways with anxiety, fear, grief, and other emotions, and so I offer this post not as a prescription for others, but simply as a description of my experience. I hope that some of you find it helpful.

Monday Musings: Easing Back In

Dear Friends,

About five weeks ago, I announced on various platforms that I would be withdrawing from social media for a while, and would also be delaying the releases of some upcoming projects. My announcement prompted expressions of sympathy and friendship from so many of you and I am deeply grateful for the love and support I have received since then.

I am, at this point, beginning once more to dip my toes in the social media waters. The family health crisis that prompted my pull-back from various platforms continues and will be on-going for months to come. I ask for your patience, your understanding, and your respect of our privacy as we cope with the issues at hand. Nancy, our daughters, and I are fortunate in so many ways. We love each other, we communicate well, we support one another. We also have at our disposal resources — stable finances, excellent health coverage and health care, mental health support — that too many people in this country — in this world — don’t enjoy. And we have marvelous friends and loving extended family who are bolstering us and helping us in every manner possible. We will get through this.

In the meantime, as I have seen to my own emotional well-being, I have learned a great deal, confirming things I thought I knew about myself, and discovering other things that have surprised and even shocked me. I am 58 years old, and I am still growing and deepening my understanding of my own mind and emotional history.

One discovery that probably surprised me more than it should have is this: A quarter of a century plus into my literary career, the simple act of sitting down each day to write is still both a boon and a salve for my tender emotions. Day after day, I have immersed myself in my current world and narrative and character arcs. And not only has working been good for me, it has been gratifying. I can’t always tell while writing a book if the finished product is going to be any good. Often, I’ll finish my first draft and then start to read through the novel, expecting to be horrified, only to find instead that what I’ve got is decent. And it’s possible that with this book, since I think maybe it’s pretty good, I’ll read it through and find that it totally sucks.

But I don’t think so. I am enjoying it far too much. I am 80,000+ words in at this point, shooting for a finished product of 90-95K. I expect to complete draft number one by the end of this week.

As to my pending releases, I hope to release the first of the Thieftaker novellas, “The Witch’s Storm,” within the next six weeks or so. Two more novellas, “The Cloud Prison,” and “The Adams Gambit” will follow. I hope that RADIANTS, my new supernatural thriller, will be out sometime late this summer or early this fall. And I know that DERELICT, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I have co-edited with Joshua Palmatier, will be released late this spring or early in the summer.

In short, while my family and I are weathering a difficult stretch, life — professional and personal — must go on. I am not yet ready to resume my three-blog-posts-a-week social media regimen, nor do I expect to be as active on Facebook and Twitter as usual. And my plans in terms of convention appearances remain uncertain.

But I will be more visible in the weeks and months to come than I have been since mid-March. Again, I am grateful for your support, your patience, and, most of all, your continued friendship.

Be well, be kind to one another, and find joy in the love and companionship of the people who mean the most to you.

David

Creative Friday: Story Excerpt!

For today’s Creative Friday post, I offer a teaser from my short story, “The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr,” which will be appearing in the DERELICT anthology that I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier (to be published by Zombies Need Brains). The story is set in the Thieftaker universe and, of course, stars Ethan Kaille, my thieftaking, conjuring hero.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt!

 

“The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr,”
©2021 D.B. Jackson

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, 11 May 1767

Ethan Kaille limped northward on Treamount Street, newly earned coin jangling in his pocket, his mood far brighter than that of the grim men and women he passed on the damp, slush-covered lane. His jaw ached from a blow he’d taken from Nigel Billings, a blond-haired behemoth in the employ of Sephira Pryce, Boston’s most infamous thieftaker. He didn’t care. Nor did he mind the chill wind whipping across the city, or the low, dark clouds scudding overhead.

He had bested Sephira, collected his coin, and succeeded in delivering a punch or two to Nigel before putting the man to sleep with a conjuring. Now he was headed to the Dowsing Rod, the tavern owned and operated by his love, Kannice Lester, so that he might spend a bit of his hard-earned money on the finest chowder and Kent ale the city had to offer. All in all, a fine day.

Upon entering the tavern, he was greeted by the warmth of a grand fire in the great room hearth, and the aromas of bay and warm cream, roasted fish and baked bread. A few patrons stood at the bar drinking flips and ales, and others sat at tables near the fire, but the Dowser wouldn’t be full for another few hours.

Kelf Fingarin, Kannice’s hulking barman spotted Ethan as he walked in and had already filled a tankard for him when he reached the bar.

“Chowder, too, Ethan?”

“Aye, thanks. I’ll be at my usual table in the back.”

“Right. Kannice’ll be out shortly. She’ll want to see you.”

Ethan frowned. “That sounds ominous.”

“You had a visitor earlier. She can tell you more.”

More mysterious by the moment. Ethan set a shilling on the bar and carried his ale to the back. He hadn’t been seated long when Kannice emerged from the kitchen, accompanied by Kelf, a tureen of chowder held between them. She wore a deep blue gown, which brought out the pale azure of her eyes. Her cheeks were flushed, her auburn hair tied back, though as always a few strands flew free and fell over her brow.

Kelf said something to her and she glanced Ethan’s way, a smile on her lips. Matters couldn’t be all that dire.

The barman brought Ethan his chowder, while Kannice retreated to the kitchen again. She soon returned bearing rounds of bread, one of which she brought to his table. Placing it before him, she stooped and kissed him, her hair smelling faintly of lavender, a hint of whisky on her breath.

She sat in the chair adjacent to his. “I didn’t expect to see you here so early.”

“I had a good day.”

Her eyes fell to his jaw, which, no doubt, had already begun to darken. Ethan meant to heal himself before entering the tavern.

“Why do all your good days consist of beatings at the hands of Sephira Pryce’s ruffians?”

He grinned, winced. The skin around the bruise felt tight and tender. “In fairness, not all of them do. You and I have passed some very pleasant days without laying eyes on Sephira or her toughs. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

A reluctant smile crept over her features. “You found the gems you were seeking.”

“Aye, and was paid handsomely for their return.”

“And now you have a bit of coin to spend on me?”

“On you, on my rent, on the excellent chowders served here at the Dowsing Rod.”

“Well, I’d like a bit more spent on me.” She pulled from her bodice a folded scrap of paper, and held it out for him. When he reached for it, she pulled it back beyond reach. “Promise me.”

His smile returned. “I promise that all the coin—” He frowned. “Or at least most of the coin I make as a result of whatever you’ve scrawled on that parchment you’re holding, will be spent on you.”

Eyes narrowed, she handed him the paper. He unfolded it and read what was written in her neat, slanted hand.

James Hambly. Shipwreck. The Sarah Mohr. 7 tonight.

“Was it Mister Hambly himself who came?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice flattening. “Do you know him?”

“Not even by reputation. And the Sarah Mohr…”

“A ship, carrying goods in which he has a stake. He wouldn’t say more than that.” Her voice remained emotionless.

“You didn’t like him.”

She stared at her hands. “I barely spoke to him.”

“Kannice.”

“No, I didn’t like him.” She met his gaze. “He struck me as the sort of merchant who would have defied the non-importation agreements, and who cares only about the weight of his own purse. He said not a word about the ship’s crew. Only her cargo.”

“He came to a thieftaker. It’s my job to recover items, not sailors. And lest you forget, if I were a merchant, I might defy the agreements, too. It’s what Tories do.” He softened this last with a smile.

“Well, you’re not a merchant, and if I have anything to say about it, you won’t be a Tory for much longer.” She stood, then bent to kiss him again. “He’ll be back here at seven. If I’d known you were coming in so early, I’d have told him to arrive sooner.”

“No matter. Thank you.”

He ate his chowder and sipped his ale, trying to recall all that he had heard of James Hambly, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. The man lived in Newport or Providence—Ethan couldn’t remember which—and he had made a name for himself selling quality goods. He catered to the sort of clientele Sephira Pryce would have claimed as her own in her competition with Ethan: the prosperous and renowned. Likely, the goods lost with his ship would fetch a fair price, and that meant Ethan could demand a substantial fee for their recovery.

Why, though, would Hambly need him? Given the resources at his disposal, couldn’t he salvage the vessel and its contents on his own? And wasn’t this just the sort of job Sephira insisted should belong to her? Ethan’s jaw ached at the thought.

He finished his meal, and with hours left before the appointed time, left the Dowser for Boston’s waterfront. He hadn’t been at sea for many years, since his return from the prison plantation on Barbados where he served time for mutiny and lost part of his left foot to gangrene. Still, he knew a few men who worked the wharves, and had long been friendly with an old sea captain, Gavin Black, who, like Ethan, was a conjurer.

He learned little from the wharfmen with whom he spoke. They knew no more about Hambly than he did. His conversation with Gavin, however, proved more fruitful, though not particularly illuminating.

“Yeah, I know Hambly,” Gavin said, as he and Ethan strolled along Fish Street near Burrel’s Wharf. From his tone, Ethan gathered that he was no more fond of the merchant that Kannice had been. “I even transported cargo for him for a time. It’s been a few years now.”

“Is there a reason you stopped?”

Gavin glanced his way, his expression guarded. “I didn’t like what he had me carrying. I won’t say more than that.”

“Fair enough. Do you know anything about the Sarah Mohr?”

Surprise widened his eyes. “The Sarah Mohr is Lewis Gaine’s ship. Why, what’s happened to her?”

“Apparently she was wrecked. I don’t know where yet. When I learn more, I’ll let you know.”

“Thank you, Ethan. I’m grateful.” He hesitated. “As for the cargo I handled for Hambly—it was…” He shook his head. “I never should have agreed to it. It wasn’t illegal, but I’m ashamed nevertheless. I’m sorry for speaking to you the way I did.”

“You owe me no apologies.” Ethan halted and proffered a hand, which Gavin gripped. “Thank you for your time, Gavin. I’ll be in touch when I can.”

Ethan left him by the wharves and headed back to the Dowsing Rod. The last of the recent storm had moved through, and the sun hung low in the west, golden rays streaming through layers of thick, gray cloud. A stiff wind still blew, and the air had turned cold—winter’s last gasp.

The Dowsing Rod was far more crowded when Ethan returned. Still, Kannice spotted him as he entered and cast a glance toward a lone man seated at a table near the hearth. Hambly, Ethan assumed.

As he approached the table, the man glanced up, then stood. He was about Ethan’s height, with dark eyes in a square, handsome face. Flecks of silver salted a head of dark curls. He wore a dark blue suit. A tricorn hat, in far better condition than Ethan’s rested on the table beside a cup of Madeira.

“Mister Kaille?”

“Yes, sir. Mister Hambly, I assume.”

“That’s right.”

They shook hands, and at a gesture from the merchant Ethan lowered himself into the opposite chair.

“I won’t waste your time,” Hambly said. “I have it on authority that you’re good at your work, you’re honest, and you’re discreet. That last is most important to me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I also understand…” He faltered, looked around to see that no one was listening, and leaned in. “…That you are a man of diverse talents, if you catch my meaning.”

Indeed, Ethan did. Hambly needed help with something magickal, and someone had told him Ethan was a conjurer. No wonder he had chosen Ethan over Sephira. Ethan didn’t like the idea of strangers discussing his conjuring abilities. Spellers were still hanged as witches in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and Ethan had no desire to wind up with a noose around his neck.

On the other hand, his talents appeared to have earned him this job, whatever it might entail, so he couldn’t complain too much.

“How can I be of service, sir?”

This was all the confirmation Ethan intended to offer, and Hambly seemed to take it as such.

“I hired a ship to bring some goods up to Newport. Valuable goods.”

“The Sarah Mohr.”

“Just so. Unfortunately, the storm that battered the region over the past few days blew her off course, and rather than making port, she ran aground between Newport and here, on the shoal near Point Alderton.”

“South of Hull.”

“That’s right.”

“And where was she coming from?”

“She had followed the coastline north.”

This wasn’t exactly what Ethan asked.

Seeing his frown, Hambly hurried on. “Where she was coming from doesn’t matter. What’s important is that she beached. Several of her crew were injured. Some were killed.”

“And Captain Gaine?”

The merchant considered Ethan anew. “You’ve done your research. I suppose I should be impressed.” He straightened. “Gaine suffered a broken leg, and was borne to safety by the fittest among his crew. He should be fine. The ship itself is my primary concern.”

“She remains on the shoal?”

“For now. I fear a strong tide could pull her back out to sea, crewless and at the mercy of the surf. The night after tomorrow, the moon will be full. A spring tide could cost me dearly.”

“I believe I understand. But I’m curious as to why the uninjured crew can’t go back to salvage your cargo.”

“Forgive me, Mister Kaille, but you understand nothing.”

Ethan bristled. “Then, by all means, enlighten me.”

The merchant lifted a hand. “Forgive me. I phrased that poorly. But you see, I don’t need you to salvage the ship. As you say, Captain Gaine’s crew will see to that. Right now, though, they are being prevented from doing so.”

“Prevented? By what?”

He leaned in again. “Ghosts.”

 

Professional Wednesday: Creativity and the Market

As a professional writer — as a professional in the arts — I take on several career roles. I am an artist, of course. I create. I am an editor, and not just in the traditional sense of editing the work of others, as I’m doing now for the Derelict anthology. I also have to edit myself. All the time. Anything I publish will face edits from another editor, but first my work has to get through my own editorial process, which is fairly rigorous.

I am also a business professional. I make career decisions on a weekly-if-not-daily basis, often in consultation with my agent, but not always. Most short fiction projects don’t involve an agent, and the same is true of some projects that I put out through small presses or that I might publish myself.

And, of course, I am responsible for a good deal of my own marketing and publicity. Maintaining this blog, and the websites on which it appears, keeping up with social media, etc. — all of this is time consuming and absolutely essential to my career.

Most of the time, I can fulfill each of these roles without my actions in one coming into conflict with my actions in another. Most of the time. But what about those few occasions when there are conflicts of a sort? What do I do then?

I’m often asked whether my publishers have pressured me to write a book a certain way in order to have more marketing appeal, or (related) whether I have ever had a publisher tell me to write a certain type of book. And the short answer is no. I have worked with many editors on my various series, and (as I mentioned last week) all of them have been very clear in saying that my books are, well, MY books. I retain final creative control over how the books are written. Editors may make suggestions designed to improve the book, but these are suggestions and in the end decisions about content are mine to make.

That said, though, I have throughout my career received suggestions that were designed to maximize the marketability of a book or series. Again, the decision has always been mine to make, but marketing suggestions often come with what we might call “implied incentives.”

“If you do it this way, you may well sell more books and make more money.”

Some of these choices are huge in scope. How huge? Well, when I first pitched the Thieftaker series, I envisioned it as an epic fantasy, set in an alternate world. My editor at the time suggested that turning it into a historical would make it more marketable, and, he added, if I did so Tor would be able to give me a bigger advance. He suggested I set the books in London. I didn’t want to do that, but once I started thinking about it as a historical, I hit on the idea of setting the series in Boston. And, as they say, the rest is history… [Rimshot]

At other times, the artistic/marketing choices are more subtle. And that brings us to the immediate inspiration for this post. I am starting the edits on a supernatural thriller that I have recently sold to a small press. The first book in the series is complete, and I love it. But I have been aware from the very start that the book will not be easy to market. It’s a thriller, intended for adults, but it has a teenaged protagonist and a few elements that convinced my agent we should market the book as a YA thriller. I wasn’t sure about this, but she was, so that was how we pitched it to publishers.

Well, a publisher bought the book, and the series, but like me, the publisher sees the book as an adult thriller and has asked me to make some changes that she feels will make the marketing of the book easier. Her initial suggestions struck me as too drastic, and so we talked and have reached a compromise that satisfies our shared marketing concerns while also preserving my original concept for the book and overall project.

And this is really the point of today’s post.

As an artist, I have in mind a plot, a set of characters, a setting, a tone and pace and voice for the book. I am committed to that initial vision, and certainly will follow it as I write and revise the first iteration. Once we transition from the creative impetus to the actual marketing of the book, though, the business side of my professional brain kicks in a little. I will not jettison my creative vision for money. Not ever. But I also will not — cannot — allow my adherence to a creative vision to undermine a book’s commercial viability. My goal as writer is to put out the best product I can, and to make a living. So, I will strive to find a balance between respecting my creative efforts and working with the publishing professionals who have agreed to put out my book, and who are skilled in the marketing side of the business.

Writing is my art. It’s my profession. It’s my source of income. I’m not interested in preserving my amateur status in order to make the literary Olympics. I want to write, and I want to make money doing it. In order to be satisfied, not only with my work, but also with the results of that work, I need to blend my roles and get the most out of each project — creatively and financially.

That’s what it means to be a professional.

Keep writing.