Tag Archives: Zombies Need Brains

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.

Professional Wednesdays: Editors and Writers — The View From Both Sides

Right now, not for the first time, I find myself on both sides of the editorial process. On the one hand, I am co-editing the DERELICT anthology, reading submissions and starting to think about how authors might want to improve the stories that will be appearing in the collection. At the same time, I am starting to process editorial feedback on an upcoming novel that I’ve recently sold. As I have written before, the editor-author relationship is complex, sensitive, at times fraught. Working on both sides of it has taught me a great deal — about being a better a writer, and being a better editor.

I’ve written about this before from the writer’s side, focusing on the the following points: 1) Editors are our allies. The good ones, of which there are many, are interested in helping us make our stories or novels as great as they can be. 2) It’s never easy to hear criticism of our work, but it is essential to the creative process. Effective editors know how to present criticism in palatable ways so that we can use the feedback as it is intended. 3) When handled correctly on both sides — with sensitivity on the part of the editor and an open mind on the part of the writer — the revision process can be incredibly rewarding.

I have been editing for a far shorter time than I’ve been writing — three years versus, well, forever. But, of course, I come to my role as editor with more than a passing understanding of the process. In a sense, facing the difficulties of being an editor should be easy for me. From personal experience, I understand that authors don’t always respond well to critiques of our work. We can be resistant to making changes that steer our narratives away from our initial vision and suspicious of suggestions that the initial vision itself might be flawed in some fundamental way.

I have learned, though, that editors can be every bit as invested in the work as writers. Certainly editors form a different sort of attachment, but that doesn’t mean it lacks power, and it doesn’t mean editors are inured from frustrations of their own. I know that when I pour my energy into a piece, making notes and looking for solutions that will strengthen the narrative or clarify character motivation or punch up the prose, I find it deeply troubling, even hurtful when writers ignore my notes and recommendations.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that every single bit of feedback I offer as editor has to be acted upon and followed as I suggest. The writer in me rebels at the very notion of this. But I have seen writers ignore editorial feedback entirely, either because they feel they know better, or because they refuse to accept that their piece is anything less than perfect. That’s deeply frustrating.

The editor-writer relationship is built on trust and mutual respect. Writers have to trust that the editor wants the same thing they do — for the story in question to be as powerful and entertaining and affecting as possible. And they have to respect all that the editor brings to the process — experience with the written word, understanding of storytelling and its components, and the ability to discern where those components are working and where they’re not.

Editors have to trust that the writer made her decisions about wording, character arc, plotting, etc. with purpose, that she didn’t do these things haphazardly, but rather knew at every step how each phrase would contribute to her story. And they have to respect the sanctity of that vision I mentioned earlier, understanding that every change to the original document might pull it away — however incrementally — from the author’s artistic intent.

Writers and editors also have to keep in mind that neither party is perfect. Authors mess up. So do editors. Speaking as an author, I can tell you that no manuscript is perfect. Speaking as an editor, I can tell you that we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.

Ultimately, when both sides dig in, it falls to editors to surrender. I say this not because I’m a lifelong writer, but because it is the writer’s story. Her name is on it. She created it. And I say this because every decent editor I have ever worked with has said the same to me. “It’s your story.” With that in mind, though, I would advise every writer reading this to give careful consideration to all the feedback editors give you, even if ultimately you reject some of it. They didn’t offer their criticisms lightly. They saw and identified elements of the story that needed work, and even if you don’t follow exactly their prescription for fixing these things, you should consider how you might make changes that will address their concerns.

Trust and respect, and, most importantly, a shared desire to get the most out of a story idea. These are the foundations of the writer-editor relationship. Having worked extensively on both sides, I can tell you that when all three pillars are present, the relationship can be incredibly rewarding.

Keep writing!

Professional Wednesday: A Ton of News, and Organizing My Time

Welcome to my new Wednesday blogging feature, Professional Wednesdays. As some of you may remember, back around Thanksgiving I asked you for advice on the future of my midweek posts. My Writing-Tip Wednesdays were well received throughout 2020, but by the end of the year I was struggling to come up with new advice topics. I became convinced that I couldn’t sustain that old format for another year without repeating myself.

What I suggested in that Thanksgiving week post was a new, related feature — Professional Wednesdays — that would combine a few disparate ideas: a professional journal discussing current projects and struggles and epiphanies; more generalized musings on the market, the craft, and others elements of creative life; a few advice posts, as I think of topics I failed to cover in 2020; and my responses to the storytelling components of books, movies, TV shows, and other artistic endeavors I encounter.

This catch-all idea for the blog received a lot of enthusiastic support from those of you who commented, and so here we are. In the coming months, I’ll be sharing with you all sorts of posts touching on professional issues, creativity, and “behind the scenes” looks at my own works-in-progress as they develop. I hope you enjoy this new approach to my Wednesday posts.

To start off 2021, I would like to share with you some news and how it relates to something I did on New Year’s Day — something I do every New Year’s Day.

Let’s start with the news. 2020 was a fairly quiet year for me professionally (no, THAT’S not news. Be patient…). I was pretty productive, especially given the circumstances, but the year was somewhat light on professional news. Until the very end of the year…

News item number 1: I have signed a contract for a pair of supernatural thrillers, the first of which I expect will be coming out late in 2021. The first book is written, but needs to be revised. The second book is in its conceptual phase. I expect to write it this spring. I am not ready to reveal who will be publishing the books except to say that it is a highly respected small press, a house I’ve wanted to work with for some time. Details to come as soon as the last of the “t”s and “i”s are crossed and dotted.

News item number 2: We have artwork for the Thieftaker novellas, and it now looks like the first of those novellas should be out sometime later this winter. And the artwork? It’s by Chris McGrath. Yep. The same Chris McGrath who did the artwork for all four of the original Thieftaker novels. It is magnificent.

News item number 3: Speaking of the original Thieftaker novels, we have gotten the rights reverted on the third and fourth Thieftakers, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. These are books that came out after my editor debacle at Tor, and as a result neither book ever received the TLC and attention it deserved. Well, Lore Seekers Press has reissued the books, with the original artwork, in ebook format and (forthcoming very soon) in trade paperback. If you have yet to read these novels, this is the time to get them, before the new Thieftaker novellas come out. They are among my favorites of all the novels in any series I’ve ever written. Dead Man’s Reach in particular might well be the best crafted novel I’ve ever done. Check them out. (A word about the links to the books: ONLY the Kindle versions are the reissues. The physical books listed on Amazon right now, are the old ones from Tor. You want to wait for the new trade paperbacks.)

News Item number 4: I will be teaching an online class in epic fantasy AND serving as a main workshop faculty member for the Futurescapes Writing Workshop in March.

News Item number 5: Submissions are now closed for Derelict, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. We received 340 stories for about five open slots, and will be reading stories this month making our final choices for the anthology. Derelict should be out late in the spring or early this summer.

So, yes, I suddenly have a lot going on, and I am so excited. The thing is, though, all of this stuff is happening quickly. The revised first book in the new supernatural thriller series is due March 1. The completed manuscript of the second book is due June 1. The Thieftaker novellas still need some final polishing and proofing. That should happen this month. My talks for Futurescapes need to be ready by early March, and the Derelict submissions need to be read before the end of January.

Which is why I spent part of New Year’s Day with a calendar — a paper wall calendar, something I can hang by my desk and see every day — breaking down week-by-week, at times day-by-day, what I need to do and when in order to meet my various deadlines. As I mentioned earlier, this is something I do at the beginning of every year, although some years it’s more necessary than others. I view New Year’s as a time to organize myself and set goals that are attainable. That last is key. Setting goals and having ambitions is great, but only if we don’t set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Setting too many goals can be overwhelming, especially if we’re unsure of how we’re going to meet them. By mapping out my time, breaking down my tasks into discreet tasks that I can fit into a work calendar, I convince myself that I can do all the things I want to AND I provide myself with a roadmap for success.

I recommend it.

I wish you all a successful and fulfilling 2021.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue Attribution Revisited

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

 

Back in the early spring — it feels like a hundred years ago now — I wrote a pair of Writing-Tip Wednesday posts about dialogue and dialogue attribution. The post about attribution was particularly involved and long, and, to my mind, was one of the best writing advice posts I wrote this whole year.

So why am I revisiting the topic now?

The short answer is it’s Joshua Palmatier’s fault.

Maybe I should give you the long answer.

I have just finished writing my short story for the DERELICT anthology, the collection of stories Joshua and I are co-editing for his imprint, Zombies Need Brains. That’s right: I’m editing the anthology (as David B. Coe) and writing a story for it as an anchor author (as D.B. Jackson). The story is set in my Thieftaker universe and it’s titled (for now) “The Wreck of the Sarah Mohr.”

Writing for an anthology I’m also editing is something I’ve done with the other anthologies I’ve edited for ZNB, and each year Joshua has been pleased with my stories, except with regard to my dialogue attribution. He doesn’t like dialogue tags — “he said,” “she asked,” etc. I mean, he really doesn’t like them. And so every year, he goes through my stories and marks a bunch of them that he’d like me to cut.

Fine.

But not this year. This year, with this story, I was determined to preempt his edits. As I said in my post back in April, I am not one of those writers/editors who feels that all writing tags ought to be cut. I believe good dialogue attribution demands a mix of simple attribution, use of mannerism, gesture, and description to indicate who is speaking, and a few lines of straight dialogue with no tags. (I do suggest you go back and read that attribution post from the spring.) But for this story, I tried to use as few tags as possible.

And I found that imposing this limitation improved my storytelling. I really hate it when Joshua is right, so this is hard for me to admit. But it’s the truth. In trying to avoid the use of direct dialogue tags, I had to find other ways to keep clear in my readers’ minds who is speaking at any given time. In part that meant finding different ways to describe what my characters are doing or feeling. That, though, can carry risks. Too much description of that sort can sound clunky, and overuse of character mannerisms can make them seem twitchy.

So, the other thing I did was trust my dialogue more. In effect, I allowed my characters to speak for themselves, and I trusted my reader to be able to follow the course of their interactions. Now, when I say I trusted my reader, I am quoting an old editor of mine who used to say that whenever he thought I was explaining too much. “Trust your reader to understand,” he would scrawl in the margin. And what he really meant was, “Trust yourself. You’ve done the work. You’ve introduced your characters and established your narrative. Trust in that work and stop slowing down to explain stuff.”

“Trust your reader” equals “Trust yourself.”

So with this story, I trusted myself.

Here is a quick sample from the story:

Kannice 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.

There is not a single dialogue tag in that exchange. Yet you should have been able to follow the entire conversation, knowing at all times who was speaking, and understanding as well the dynamics at play.

I would suggest that you give this a try as well. Write a scene, or a story, or a chapter, and try not to use a single direct dialogue tag. If you hate the way it comes out, so be it. But you might find, as I did, that it does unexpected things for your prose.

Look, I have not allowed Joshua to lure me to the dark side. I still believe there is a place for dialogue tags in our writing. And I do use a few in the course of this story. Nevertheless, in forcing myself to use as few of them as possible — to avoid “he said,” “she said,” “he asked,” “she asked,” whenever I could — I actually improved the flow of my story and made it more concise.

Which is good, because in spite of this I managed to go over the word limit just a little. I guess Joshua will ding me on that…

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Call For Stories, and Submission Advice Revisited!

I am co-editing a new Zombies Need Brains anthology with my friend, Joshua Palmatier, who is the founder and owner of Zombies Need Brains. Joshua is co-editing all three of the ZNB anthologies this year, which to my mind is totally nuts, but good for him.

The theme and title of our project for this year is DERELICT, and if you’re a writer, you should consider submitting. We are looking for stories about derelict ships (seafaring ships, space ships, even a good story about a derelict bus or truck or car could find its way into the collection). The stories should be speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, or horror) and they should be about 2,500-7,500 words long, though REALLY good stories that are shorter or a bit longer will be considered. You can find the guidelines for all three of this year’s anthologies at the ZNB website. ALWAYS read the GLs before submitting to any market.

With stories already arriving in good numbers, and the call for stories open until December 31st, I thought I would revisit some of the short fiction submission advice I offered earlier this year and late last year.

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. PalmatierAnd I’ll start with this: Joshua and I are generous readers. We will read an entire story, even when it’s pretty clear halfway in (or a quarter in…) that the story probably won’t make the cut. Your goal as a writer is to sell us a story, obviously. But really your goal is to make us consider your story on your terms. Here’s what I mean by that: We are expecting to get somewhere between 300 and 400 submissions, for a total of 6 or 7 slots. (Last year, for GALACTIC STEW, we received 409 and selected 7.) Read those sentences again; I’ll wait.

We have a lot of stories to read, and while we are eager to be blown away by something really good, we are also looking for reasons to reduce our pile of submissions to be read. If you send us a manuscript that doesn’t follow the theme, or that doesn’t follow the submission guidelines, or that is filled with typos and misspellings and grammatical issues, we are probably going to reject your story and move right on to the next. That’s just fact. So, you want to get all of that stuff right, so we can consider your story solely on its merits — your terms.

Now, it may be that your story is good but not as good as others, or it might be good but too similar to others we’ve read. We’ll reject stories, even fine ones, for a number of reasons. But by getting the simple stuff right, by turning in a solid, clean, professionally presented manuscript, you give yourself a better chance.

With that in mind…

— Read and follow the guidelines. Follow the formatting to the letter. There is nothing that bothers me more than being in the middle of a 10 hour day of reading slush and getting a single-spaced manuscript that I then have to format myself. In the same way, if the GLs say the story should be no longer than 7,500 words, don’t send us something that’s 10,000. Either edit it down to the word limit or submit something else.

— Edit and polish your story. Proofread it and then proofread it AGAIN. Don’t be in such a rush to get the story out that you neglect to get rid of that typo on page 6 or three instances of “your” that should have been “you’re.” Take pride in your work. Be professional.

— Pay attention to and follow the theme. Again, we’re looking for stories about derelict ships. That doesn’t mean we want a story in which a derelict is mentioned. The ship should be the essential element of the narrative. Without the derelict, your story should fall apart. Think of it like the instructions on a cooking show: “Make our theme the star of your dish…”

— Keep in mind the basic principles of good storytelling. A successful story has conflict, emotion, tension. Characters should be impacted by what takes place. If you have trouble identifying the protagonist and antagonist of your story, it may be that you have more work to do.

— This piece of advice is one I heard Joshua give at a conference last year: Chances are your first idea won’t be your best idea. Sometimes the first idea that comes to us is the one everyone will think of. A bit more digging and thinking might produce an idea that is more original and innovative. And that may well give you a better chance of making it into the anthology. Now, I will add that now and then, the first idea IS the best. But more often than not, a bit of thought and patience will be rewarded.

— Most important, understand that a rejection from this anthology is NOT a judgment on your ability as a writer, or even on the quality of your story. Remember those numbers I gave you earlier: 300-400 submissions for 6-7 slots. Our anthology is harder to get into than Harvard. We will absolutely be rejecting outstanding stories. That’s inevitable. So don’t take it too hard. Rejections are part of being a writer. View them as a step in a longer negotiation. If your story is rejected, take ten minutes to cry over it. Have a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of hot tea. And then figure out where you’re going to send the story next.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Goals Revisited Again, End of Year, and NaNo

That is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come.

First let me wish a peaceful, healthful Veterans Day to all who have served. Our deepest thanks to you and your families.

The year is winding down. Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and after that we have the sprint to the winter holidays and New Year’s. For those of us who still have a good deal to get done before the year is out, whether to meet external deadlines or self-imposed ones, time is slipping away at an alarming pace. And in my case, I haven’t been at my best the past several weeks and have not been nearly as productive as I would have liked. All of which leaves me feeling rushed and a little desperate to get stuff done.

Early in the year, I wrote a couple of posts about setting goals for myself. I’m a big believer in doing so, in setting out a professional agenda for my year, or at the very least for a block of months. Often as we near year’s end, I will go back and check on my goals to see how I’ve done. Not this year. This year has been too fraught, too filled with not just the unexpected, but the surreal. The goals I set for myself in January were upended by March. And that’s all right. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I want to be as productive as I can be, and with any luck I’ll get this, and this, and this finished.” That’s the sort of year I’ve had. I did what I could (the month of October excluded…) and I am poised for a productive year in 2021.

And in a sense, for me at least, that is what the last month or so of most years is about. I want to set myself up to be organized, motivated, productive, and successful in the year to come. The last several years, this one included, that has meant reading a ton of short fiction for the anthology I’m editing. For the third year in a row, I am co-editor (with Joshua Palmatier) of an upcoming Zombies Need Brains publication. This year’s anthology is called Derelict, and I have only just started reading submissions. These will make up the bulk of my workload through the end of December.

But I’m also finishing up a novel, and thinking about how to write the next one (the third in a trilogy). I am working on the production of the Thieftaker novellas, working out artwork and such with my publisher. I am preparing for the re-issue of the third and fourth Thieftaker novels, A Plunder of Souls and Dead Man’s Reach. And I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind. My goal for these last weeks of 2020, aside from reading as many short fiction submissions as I can, is to plot out that next novel, settle the production questions with the Thieftaker projects, and, I hope, figure out how one other project can fit in with these plans. As I have said, for the last month I’ve been less productive than I should have been. I want to turn that around before the year is out so that next year I can start fast and keep moving.

Which brings me to a question I have been asked many times. Readers want to know what I think of that November literary tradition known as NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month. For those not familiar with this, it is a now two-decades old tradition that sees writers trying to write a 50,000 word manuscript in the month of November. The idea is to get writers to write, to turn off their inner critic and put words to page, with the understanding that they will edit and polish when the month, and the manuscript, are done.

I have never done it. I’ve written 50,000 words in a month on several occasions, but usually these are words in the middle of a longer project. And I’ve been writing for long enough that, when things are going well, 50K a month is about my normal pace.

Even so, I’m not sure I’ve ever written 50K words for more than two months in a row. Usually one such month leaves me feeling a little spent. Writing so much in so little time isn’t easy. At least it isn’t for me. I know fellow professionals who write at that pace or faster all the time. Each of us has a process and a pace that comes naturally. Writing quickly isn’t for everyone. Which is kind of my point.

Look, if you do NaNoWriMo, that’s great. Good for you. I hope you find it satisfying and fun and helpful. I know many writers swear by it. They like the focused work period. They like the challenge. They like to feel that they’re working virtually alongside a community of like-minded writers and making their writing part of something bigger than themselves.

It’s not for me. And if a young writer came to me seeking advice, I would probably tell them not to do it. I would suggest that they focus instead on making of writing a daily or weekly habit, at a pace and under conditions that are sustainable for the long term. It’s not that I doubt November will prove productive for them. It’s that I worry about the effect of that sort of effort on December and January and the months to come. Again, if it works for you, or if it’s something you really want to try, by all means, go for it. Overall, though, being a productive, successful writer is about maintaining a steady pace for months, even years, at a time.

Which is why my year will end with me finishing some projects, laying the groundwork for others, and, of course, reading short story submissions. I will, as I usually do, start working out a task calendar for the coming year, prioritizing projects and allocating time to them. I actually find the process exciting. It’s a chance for me to visualize the coming work year and to imagine where my new projects might take me.

In the meantime, I have stuff to finish up before the ball drops.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Waiting…

[11/4 Edit:I went to bed last night thinking all was doom and gloom. This morning I see rays of hope. This isn’t over, and counting votes doesn’t happen according to ANYONE’S timetable. Hang in there folks. We are living in Interesting Times.]

I am writing this, as I do most of my Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, ahead of time, a couple of days before election day. Naturally, I have no idea what the world will look like Wednesday morning. I am at times deeply afraid; at other times I’m hopeful, even confident.

Whatever happens, though, I know that I will soon need to get back into my work rhythm. For so long, I have been too distracted to concentrate on my writing. I have forgiven myself for lost days and low word counts and procrastination. I haven’t even started to read through the submissions for Derelict, the anthology from Zombies Need Brains that I am co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The deadline is still more than eight weeks away, but already the submissions are piling up. It’s time for me to start reading through them.

I have a novel to finish, and projects that need shepherding toward release. I have stuff to do, and I am sick to death of being trapped in my own head, debilitated by my anxiety, obsessed with things I can’t control.

More, I remain uncertain as to how I will deal with these tasks and projects going forward. That comes, I suppose, from still being in the dark about how events will unfold.

But I know that one way or another, I have work to do. If the worst happens on Tuesday, I will still wake up Wednesday a writer and editor with stuff to get done. As I said in Monday’s post, this week will be one of brief, inadequate posts. A week from now, I hope to be able to tell you much more about where I am and what I’m doing to close out this year.

Until then, if you can, keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.