Writing-Tip Wednesday: Plotting Or Not — Doing Away With a Dumb Debate

This is my forty-second Writing-Tip Wednesday post of the year, and somehow I have gotten through forty-one posts without addressing that age-old writing question, “Do I or do I not outline?” Or put another way, “Plotter or pantser?”

First, a word on nomenclature. “Pantsing” and “being a pantser,” as in “writing by the seat of one’s pants,” have come to be seen by some as demeaning and denigrating terms. As if those who plot, who outline their books and stories ahead of time, are creating “the right way,” as opposed to those who “write organically,” who are just sort of winging it. Frankly, I hate ALL of these terms, because I think all of them make assumptions about process that are unfair and unsupported. This, to be honest, is why I have avoided this particular topic for most of the year.

Having used the term “pantsing,” I am going to avoid it for the rest of this post. Because I do agree that it sounds demeaning. I am also going to avoid the word “organic” when describing how people write, because I don’t think it applies to one side of the debate any more than to the other. Even those books I have outlined extensively have come to me “organically.” Neither side owns the term.

Two hundred words into the post, and already I’m exhausted. The Outline vs. Don’t Outline debate is one that inspires a good deal of passion on both sides. I have seen discussions of the topic break down into ugly arguments. And I believe this is because many of us, myself included, have in the past been far too prescriptive in articulating our positions. Too often, we have said, “This is how I do it, because this is the way it’s supposed to be done.” Again, I have been guilty of this myself. For a long, long time, I have self-identified as someone who outlines, as a plotter. Thinking about that now, I’m reasonably sure that I have never actually been that writer.

You’ve heard me say this before, but it seems especially important to repeat it now: There is no single right way to do any of this.

Full stop. Period.

I have friends who outline in great detail. Their outlines are pages and pages long. I know of writers who outline to such a degree that writing the book basically consists of filling in description and dialogue in order to turn their outlines into finished novels.

And I also have friends who don’t outline at all. Not a bit. They have an idea, they sit themselves in front of a keyboard, and they start to compose.

Thieftaker Chronicles collageIslevale CompositeThen there are people like me. Some books, I outline in a good deal of detail. The Thieftaker novels demand preparation of this sort because I am tying together fictional and historical timelines, trying to make my story meld with established events. The Islevale books — time-travel epic fantasies — should have demanded similar planning. But for reasons I still have not fully grasped, all three books defied my efforts to outline. I simply couldn’t plot the books ahead of time. I tried for months (literally) to outline the first book, Time’s Children, and finally my wife said, “Maybe you just need to write it.” That’s what I did, and the result was a first draft that needed extensive reworking. When I began book II, Time’s Demon, I ran into the same problem. I didn’t even try to outline Time’s Assassin, the third and final volume. I knew it would be a waste of time. All three books needed extensive editing, more than I usually need to do. But they wound up being far and away the finest books I’ve written.

Yet, I wouldn’t want to write future books that way. The process for all three was tortuous and frustrating, and I know I don’t HAVE to suffer through that in order to write successful stories.

The truth is, like so many writers, I work on an ever-moving continuum between the extremes of creating hyper-detailed outlines and not outlining at all. With some projects, I lean one way, with other projects I lean the other way. Neither approach is right or better. As with so much else in this craft, we have to understand that the exigencies of each project will shape our process. Let’s go back a moment to the writer friends I spoke of earlier. Even the most detail-oriented outliners I know admit that their outlines change as they move through a novel, because almost invariably something happens in the book that surprises them and takes them away from their original vision. And even the most outline-adverse writers begin with ideas of where they intend to do with their characters, their setting, their narrative. They might not write it down and color-code it, but they have a sense of what path their story will follow.

This debate has, for too long, shed far more heat than light. I have yet to meet a pure outliner OR a pure non-outliner. And I know precious few writers who would say they write all their novels exactly the same way. We reinvent ourselves and our process each time we begin a new project.

So, my advice to you is to not worry about whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, or how others define your approach. Write your book. Plan it to the extent you wish to. Dive into it when you feel you’re ready. You can always pause to outline if you need to. And you can always crumple up or burn or shred the outline you’ve already done. It’s your book. It’s your process.

Keep writing.

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Monday Musings: Feeding Birds, How to Get Started

Earlier this year, in the midst of spring bird migration, I wrote about my lifelong love of birding. I shared with you what birding has meant to me over the course of my life, and at the end I made a half-hearted attempt to encourage those interested to start birdwatching.

The truth is, though, that’s a pretty heavy lift. I love birding and I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m pretty good at it. But for most people, finding the time in their lives for a new hobby, one with a fairly steep learning curve, can seem a bit intimidating. Fortunately, this time of year there’s an easy way into the hobby, one that helps the birds AND offers hours of entertainment.

To quote from Mary Poppins, “Feed the birds!” (“Feed the birds and what have you got?! Fat birds!”)

With the arrival of fall, usually around mid-October here on the Cumberland Plateau, I put out our various bird feeders and fill them with sunflower seeds and suet blocks. I have several feeders mounted on poles in the back yard, and often within a few hours of putting out seed for the first time, my feeders become an all-they-can-eat buffet for titmice, chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers, wrens, finches, sparrows, and others. From October until mid-spring, our yard is filled with birds darting to the feeders, taking a seed and flitting to a branch to break it open and have at the morsel inside.

You can find simple feeders in the garden sections of most home and hardware stores (Lowes has a decent selection) and even in the pet sections of most grocery stores. You can also find them online. Duncraft, Wild Birds Unlimited, Backyard Chirper, and BestNest.com all sell a wide variety. Some can be pretty pricey, but the truth is, the cheap ones often don’t last long. To my mind, the best feeders for those looking for something durable and low-maintenance are the No/No Steel Wire Mesh collapsible feeders. They hold black oil sunflower seed, which is popular with a wide variety of bird species, they’re tough (I have a couple and one is at least ten years old at this point) and won’t be chewed up and ruined by squirrels, and the larger ones hold a good amount of seed, so I only have to fill mine once a week or so.

I also have a small plastic satellite feeder (it is shaped like Saturn, with a small opening), which is nice because only small, acrobatic birds can access it. Due to its size, it runs out of food too quickly, but it attracts titmice, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches. Larger birds can’t perch on it.

Titmouse on Feeder, by David B. Coe

A Tufted Titmouse on my modified hopper feeder.

And I have a hopper feeder which basically looks like a small house. It’s made of wood and has one big compartment that I fill weekly. The feeder is mounted on a pole, and I have modified it slightly since buying it. I removed the cheap plastic sides that held the seed in place, and in their place attached metal mesh — also known as hardware cloth. I used a staple gun to set the mesh in place. The result is a more durable feeder that holds slightly more than it would have otherwise.

This feeder attracts everything from the smallest species — chickadees, wrens, titmice, finches, and wrens — to larger birds like woodpeckers, Cardinals, and Blue Jays. In the spring I often get flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks on the hopper feeder.

All my mounting poles are equipped with squirrel baffles, which do a decent, if not perfect, job of keeping the critters off the feeders. Don’t worry: the squirrels don’t starve. The dirty little secret of feeding our feathered friends is that birds are slobs. For every seed they get from a feeder, they often knock two or three to the ground. Squirrels get plenty of food just from the spillage, as do ground feeding birds like sparrows, juncos, and doves.

Wrens and Feeder, by David B. Coe

Carolina Wrens and a Carolina Chickadee on suet and seed feeders.

Finally, I also have a suet cage on one of my feeder poles. A suet cage is essentially a rectangular wire box that holds those suet cakes you can buy at grocery stores, hardware stores, and garden centers. The cakes are not perfect, but they’re cheap, they’re easy to load into the feeders, and the birds seem to like them. My brother, who lives far north of me, uses actual suet from the meat department of his grocery store. We can’t do that here in the Southeast. Even in winter, we have too many warmish days. The fat would turn rancid. The cakes are a good compromise. They attract a variety of woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, even the large, crested Pileated Woodpeckers — think Woody Woodpecker) as well as nuthatches, wrens, and others.

I should also mention that starting in April and continuing throughout the spring and summer, Nancy puts out hummingbird feeders in her garden. This is a more work intensive endeavor than seed feeding. She blends water and refined sugar at a ratio of about 3 1/2 to 1, boils it to make it safe and to fully dissolve the sugar, and then lets it cool before filling the feeders. She has to do this three or four times a week, sometimes more. We go through a lot of sugar (we buy two kinds of sugar during the warm months — sugar for baking and such, and cheap, store-brand “bird sugar” for the feeders), but we usually have at least two pairs of hummingbirds breeding in the yard. At times, we’ll have as many as ten or fifteen birds fighting for access to the feeders.

For more information on feeding birds, please visit All About Birds, the website of Cornell University’s marvelous ornithology lab. They are a great resource and do wonderful work protecting birds.

I wrote about this today, because our feeders have been up for about two weeks and already I have derived so much pleasure from all the birds hanging around in our backyard. Putting out feeders is great way to start learning about birds — keep a pair of binoculars and a simple field guide handy, and you’ll soon be identifying all of your hungry visitors. And, of course, you’ll also be helping the birds endure the cold months.

Wishing you a great week.

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Photo Friday: Reflections of Fall

Yesterday, I hiked out to a pair of lakes near our house — ones I have photographed several times before this year. I was hoping to find calm waters, interesting clouds, and a bit of fall color. I wasn’t disappointed.

Fall in the South is… different from what I’m used to. On the one hand, compared to the foliage I saw in my youth, living in New York and then in New England, the colors here are somewhat muted. We just don’t see the fiery reds and oranges that my brother boasts of in Upstate New York. On the other hand (there is ALWAYS an other hand), I also recall autumn in the north being fleeting, a moment of brisk air and clear skies and stunning leaves, which all too quickly gave way to the drear of winter.

Most years, that’s how spring is down here. It’s winter, then we get a couple of lovely warmish days and everything blooms, and then, too soon, it’s 85 degrees and humid. But fall in the south seems to last forever. It may not be as colorful, but we have week after week of cool nights, pleasant days, and brilliant blue skies. Certainly that has been the case this year. The lingering fall has offered some solace and pleasure in an otherwise difficult year.

In any case, I took a bunch of photos and these were, if not the absolute best, certainly representative of the most successful images. I hope you enjoy them.

Have a wonderful weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.

Foliage Reflections, Jackson Lake, by David B. Coe Foliage Reflections, Lake Dimmick (Wide Angle), by David B. Coe Foliage Reflections, Lake Dimmick, by David B. Coe

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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Real-World Influences On Our Fiction

It’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice.

I wrote the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series, in the mid-1990s. The first book, Children of Amarid, had been percolating in my head literally for more than a decade. It changed a bit as I wrote it, but it was a book I first imagined the summer before I started college.

The Outlanders, book I of the LonTobyn Chronicle, by David B. CoeThe second book, in contrast, was very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a couple of ways. In that book, The Outlanders, my heroes, Jaryd and Alayna are building a life together and starting a family, just as Nancy and I were starting our own family. When writing in book III, Eagle-Sage, about their young daughter, I drew extensively on our experience raising our first child. And in book II, when Niall lost his wife to cancer, I drew upon the experience of watching my father deal with my mother’s death.

So far, I’m sure none of this is very surprising. When we write, our life experiences shape our fiction — this is hardly the stuff of epiphany.

But looking at books II and III in the LonTobyn series, you can also see the influence of outside events, specifically national politics, on my narrative. I won’t bore you with a deep summary of the plot, but suffice it to say that the partisan rancor between Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress plays out in a split among the community of mages in Tobyn-Ser. I hadn’t intended this, of course, but I did realize at the time that real-world events were informing my fiction and I made a conscious decision to roll with it.

The next time something similar happened, I didn’t realize what had happened to my books until I was well into the series. I wrote Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book in 2000. In that series, a conspiracy among the magical Qirsi seeks to overthrow the non-magical Eandi courts. Not all Qirsi are involved in this movement, but prejudice against the magical race among the Eandi is already widespread, and, as the series progresses, fear of the conspiracy breeds deep fear, even paranoia among the ruling people.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I was still working on the second book, Seeds of Betrayal, when the 9/11 attacks took place, and I wrote books three, four, and five against the backdrop of the Patriot Act, the torture of terrorism suspects, the illegal imprisonment of suspects at Guantanamo, and the deep anti-Islam sentiments of the early and mid-2000s. The Qirsi conspiracy was part of my plan for the series all along, but by the time the books were done, I realized that, without intending to, I had written a post-9/11 allegory. Again, I didn’t go back and change anything. I chose to keep the books as they developed. But I will admit to having been caught off guard by the degree to which our world had intruded upon my concept for the books.

And this still happens to me. My agent and I are currently shopping a supernatural thriller that involves, in part, a government agency trying to separate children from their parent. I wonder where that idea came from…

This is, of course, a writing-tips post, and so I am supposed to offer advice. For a number of reasons, I will not tell you to avoid allowing the real-world to impinge upon your fiction. First of all, it’s almost impossible to do. Even if we’re writing in a medieval setting, as I was with the Forelands books, we can’t help but allow some of our world to seep in. Sometimes it manifests in subtle ways; sometimes, as with Winds of the Forelands, it profoundly shapes the finished product. Chances are, though, it’s going to be there in some form. Second, that real-world influence might wind up being a good thing. It may give your already compelling and exciting novel a resonance and relevance that it otherwise would have lacked. And finally, speaking as a historian, this is the reason students of history view contemporary fiction as primary source material. The influence of our world on our books will be edifying not only for current readers, but also for readers fifty or one hundred or five hundred years from now. That’s all to the good.

The advice I would offer, however, is to watch for these outside influences. Understand that you’re not writing in a vacuum. It may be that history’s impact on your work will do wonderful things for your story. Great. But including those elements ought to be a choice rather than an accident. Because it’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice. If you see your book going places that you didn’t intend and that you don’t like, you can do something about it. Again, the key is to be aware so you can make an informed choice.

We are subject to history’s arc, but we’re not helpless before it. We can allow our art to be shaped by the world around us, or we can make our art a refuge from that world. There is no single right way to do this (a good rule of thumb for assessing any writing advice). Watch for the influence of the outside world on your story, and make an informed decision as to how much of it you want reflected in the final product.

Best of luck, and keep writing.

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Monday Musings: How I’m Coping

I’ve written about politics and social issues a lot in recent weeks, and I want desperately to avoid doing so again this week. It’s not that I don’t have more to say. I do. But I feel as though I’d be going over familiar ground, raising the same objections to this Administration, calling attention to new outrages and failings that are simply echoes of the older ones I’ve already criticized. I am weary of outrage, sick to death of this campaign, ready to reclaim the emotional energy and brain space I’ve ceded to it for so many months.

There is more to life than this. I know there is, and recently, as I have pulled back from political websites and social media, I have been taking pleasure in the small things that I enjoy most. Here’s how I’m coping:

Music: Making music and listening to it. The former has been particularly rewarding because for a time earlier this year, a shoulder issue — terribly painful, basically untreatable except for physical therapy, but not truly serious — kept me from being able to play my guitars. I am happy to report that my shoulder, while not 100%, is much better. I’m playing again, learning new songs, building up strength in my arm and hand. Again, I’m not all the way there, but I’m playing again, and that gives me such pleasure.

I’m also listening a lot, mostly to old rock, even when I’m working. In the past, some of you know, I have strictly limited my work-time listening to instrumental music — jazz and bluegrass mostly. But somehow, right now, with all that’s going on in my head, I am able to work and listen to rock at the same time. I honestly don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.

Work: I’m getting work done on several projects, which is gratifying. I have been working on a pair of trunk novels, one that needed editing, and its sequel, which needed editing and an ending. I’m making good progress on those, but I am not pushing myself too hard, and that seems to be a good thing. I’m the first to admit that I am not at my best right now. So rather than beat myself up for not being efficient, I am accepting the limitations imposed by my current emotional state. I work when I can, and when the work doesn’t flow, I take care of other things, be they work-related or house-related or whatever.

I also have a novel that my agent and I are trying to sell and a set of Thieftaker novellas that are in production. And I have other projects at various stages of completion and readiness. On the one hand, I’m impatient for forward motion on all of them. At the same time, I understand that I can only do so much, and that the publishing world is moving even more slowly than usual. I am doing my best to be patient, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.

Getting outside: Fall has been brilliant this year here on the Cumberland Plateau. Shimmering, clear days, cool nights, stunning mornings. I have been birdwatching, savoring my morning walks, taking extra hikes later in the day, taking photos, and generally forcing myself to get away from my computer. Idle moments at my desk lead me to bad habits — social media, political sites, etc. In short, all the stuff I’m trying to avoid. To the extent possible, when the siren call of the web grows too strong, I escape it by going outside and doing something else.

Comfort food for the brain: Throughout the pandemic, I have found it hard to read. Except for political journalism, which, of course, I want no part of right now. The exception is old favorite novels by authors I love. So I’ve been re-reading the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, and have it in mind to read some other old works after that. They are comforting and comfortable, which I really need right now.

Along the same lines, I have been enjoying the television shows of Aaron Sorkin. Most of you probably know about The West Wing and The Newsroom, and I’ve been watching plenty of West Wing, happily retreating to a world in which Jed Bartlet is President. I have also been watching Sports Night, a short-lived half-hour comedy/drama that aired for two years before being cancelled. It was a terrific show about a sports show along the lines of ESPN’s Sportscenter. It was funny and poignant and smart, like all of Sorkin’s work. The network never knew what to do with the show. They tried a laugh track with it for a while, but that didn’t work. And by the time they figured out that they just needed to leave it alone, the show had been mired in a ratings slump for too long to be saved. If you can find the disks, I recommend it highly, particularly season 1.

Nancy: The one constant for me during this pandemic is that Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together. We have been cooking a lot, taking walks together, sipping whisky on the front porch as the sun goes down, and generally counting ourselves so very fortunate to have each other. There’s really not much more to say about this, but as I struggle to maintain my emotional health, I have to acknowledged that I would have broken a long time ago if not for her.

I know how lucky I am — lucky to play guitar, to have music at my disposal, to have a job I love, to have books to read and old DVDs to watch, to live in a place that is beautiful and that offers easy access to wilderness, to have a happy marriage. Please believe that I take none of this for granted. That wasn’t always the case, but this year has shown me the folly of doing so. I won’t fall prey to that particular mistake again.

I wish you health — emotional and physical — and I hope you have a wonderful week. See you Wednesday.

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Photo Friday: Photos and Friendship

Earlier this week, after working for much of the day, I went for a short hike with a dear friend of mine, a fellow photographer. It was late afternoon on a cool, crisp, exquisite day, and we went down off the bluff to a stream and small waterfall we’ve visited together several times before. The trees were starting to show some color, as were the downed leaves in the stream bed. We masked, of course, and we maintained proper social distance.

But after so long without seeing other people, it was a special treat to get out with my camera AND to do so with a close friend.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been struggling lately. I needed this day. I needed to remind myself that there is more to life than polls and Twitter rants, Covid fears and isolation. We all cope in different ways, and the truth is I am fortunate beyond reckoning. I have children I adore, a life partner who loves me and whom I love, a comfortable home, a job I enjoy, and friends near and far. I have little cause for complaint really. That doesn’t mean my struggles aren’t real, but it does mean that they will not defeat me.

Others are dealing with far greater problems. Maybe some of you. Please know that I wish you all the best, that there is still beauty and joy in the world, that we will emerge from this.

For now, I wish you a wonderful weekend. Stay safe, do something nice for yourself and your loved ones, be kind to one another. I’ll see you next week.

Morgan's Steep Cascade, Fall, by David B. Coe Morgan's Steep Stream, Fall, by David B. Coe

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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Descriptions and Point of View

Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

Not that long ago, I offered tips on writing scenes involving sex and violence, and essentially said that dealing with such encounters is almost entirely a matter of understanding and sticking to the point of view of our narrative character. These are the moments in which emotion, experience, and thought process are absolutely critical, and so for the scenes to work, we need to be completely rooted in the observations and feelings of our point of view characters.

I also offered this: “…Point of view is the place where character development meets plot, where emotion is introduced to our narratives, where our readers are given the emotional cues they need to experience our stories as we intend.”

With that in mind, I want to talk today about more general descriptive passages. Describing is something we writers do all the time. Whether we are telling our readers what another character looks like, or what kind of room our point of view characters have entered or what kind of smells or tastes or sensations they are experiencing, we are describing constantly. So getting it right is really important.

I love writing descriptions. Long before I became a professional writer, I knew I was destined for this line of work because I was constantly composing such passages in my head. I would see a sunset and think, “how would I write this?” I’d ask myself the same question upon tasting something exotic and new, or smelling something awful, or… whatever. During my career, I have written descriptions that still evoke pride when I go back to read them.

Always, though, what makes the descriptions work is not just powerful prose and precise word choice. As with those action scenes I’ve written about previously, descriptions of settings and people have to tap into character, into emotion and mind-set and motivation.

Let me put it this way, if we walk into a room we’ve never been in before, we’re going to notice different things about it depending upon our circumstances and how we feel about being there. If we’re relaxed — say, visiting the home of a friend, we might take time to notice the floors, the art on the wall, the framed photos of family arrayed around the room. If, on the other hand, we’ve been brought to a place against our will, we would be more inclined to look for ways out, for details that will tell us more about our “hosts” and their intentions. If we’re trained in such things, we might even look for objects we can turn into weapons or tools of escape.

In the same way, our impressions of someone new will yield very different responses depending on whether this person seems to be an adversary or a friend, a rival or a potential mate, a long lost sibling or a celebrity we’ve been hearing about all our lives.

Now, chances are that we, in the course of our lives, will not be in a position of being taken somewhere against our will. We will likely have few opportunities to meet celebrities and few occasions to encounter mortal enemies. Our characters on the other hand… Well, we do all sorts of shit to them, don’t we?

So when we write these descriptions from THEIR point of view, we need to take into consideration what they might be thinking and feeling, what they’re worried about, if anything, and what their goals are for the encounter that is about to take place. Description does not — cannot — take place in an emotional or circumstantial vacuum.

The other thing to keep in mind when writing description is the simple fact that we have five senses, not just one. We are highly visual creatures, and it’s all too easy to become so caught up in telling our readers how something looks that we neglect to mention how something sounds or feels or smells or tastes. Smells in particular are far too easy to overlook. Our sense of smell is unrefined compared to that of, say, dogs or cats or other hunting mammals. But smells can be among the most evocative of the senses. Aromas and scents can transport us, rekindling memories and emotions long buried. I still grow nostalgic for my childhood in New York and my college years in New England when I smell leaves burning in the fall. My adult daughters often remark upon arriving home for a visit that the scent of our house brings back some of their earliest memories. Taste can have a similar effect.

Again, you want to be true to the point of view of your narrator. All your readers’ sensory experiences should be colored by the emotions and exigencies of your characters. And your descriptions should involve as many of the senses as possible. Within reason, naturally. Your POV character doesn’t need to lick the walls and furniture in order to render a more complete sensory experience. That would just be weird. Unless, of course, you happen to be writing a new take on the Willy Wonka story, in which case have at it!

Keep writing!

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Monday Musings: Covid, Grief, and Lies

And yet, his first act upon returning to the White House was to make a Mussolini-esque appearance on his veranda and ostentatiously remove his face mask.

Last week’s Photo Friday post was about my brother’s memorial service, which took place three years ago this past weekend. As I said in the message that accompanied my image, it was an extraordinary event for those of us who knew and loved him. The phrase “celebration of life” is overused in this context, but that really is how my family and I felt about our time together. It was moving, comforting. We grieved, we laughed, we told stories, and we left on Sunday with the sense that we had said a proper goodbye.

At the time, as much as I drew peace and satisfaction from the celebration, I also took it for granted.

Latest estimates put the death toll from Covid-19 in the United States at just over 215,000. Most of the families who are losing loved ones to this menace, don’t have the opportunity to honor the victims of the disease as my family and I honored my brother. They are not granted the catharsis of a proper farewell.

Many of those who have been afflicted with Covid — the number in the United States currently stands at about 7.7 million — were and are denied the comfort of having friends and family with them to help them cope with the fear, the uncertainty, not to mention the symptoms themselves. Recently, one of our daughters was sickened with Covid. She is well now, thank goodness. Hers was a mild case, and, thus far, her recovery has been smooth and uncomplicated. But even so, I can tell you that those days when she was sick were excruciating for her mother and me. We’re hundreds of miles away from her and we couldn’t get to her. True, we couldn’t have done much for her even if we’d been nearby. But that’s almost beside the point. The isolation imposed upon us by the very nature of the virus, made it that much harder for all of us. We wanted to care for her, to offer what support we could. And though she dealt with it bravely — more than I would have — I’m sure she would have drawn comfort from our presence.

This disease is insidious. It’s not only highly contagious, it’s not only serious, damaging to a host of organs, and potentially deadly, it also has isolated us, exacting an emotional cost that is not easily measured, but is real nevertheless.

And that’s why the President’s cavalier attitude toward his own illness and the spread of Covid through the White House and the Administration’s allies is so infuriating. Just a week and half ago, he was airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital. While under treatment there, he was twice (as far as we know) given supplemental oxygen. He received experimental drug treatments, was given an extensive regimen of steroids, and was, no doubt, under the constant care of an army of doctors and nurses. I believe it’s safe to say that had every other Covid patient in the States been given similar attention, all 7.7 million of them, our death toll would be much, much lower than 215,000.

And yet, his first act upon returning to the White House was to make a Mussolini-esque appearance on his veranda and ostentatiously remove his face mask. In his first public statement during his convalescence, he told us not to fear Covid, not to let it “dominate us.” Days earlier, during a moment of honesty captured in a Tweet he posted while still at Walter Reed, he had referred to Covid as a “plague.” Once back at the White House, however, he seemed to forget his discomfort and his own apprehension. Once again, he peddled the fiction that Covid was little more than a glorified flu.

His motivations here, as in so much else, are completely transparent. If the disease is bad, then his failed response to it is inexcusable. If, on the other hand, Covid is not worthy of our alarm, the inadequacy of his actions over the past nine months is nothing serious. It is the most cynical sort of zero-sum political calculus.

Of course, he is as poor at math as he is at everything else. Which may be why he doesn’t understand what his foolish actions and pronouncements are doing to his poll numbers. The problem for him is that the American people know better. We have been living with fear of Covid for much of the year. We have seen neighbors and colleagues, friends and family taken ill. We have worried about them, cursed our inability to help them or offer the sort of solace and aid we wish we could. We have, many of us, been vigilant about social distancing, about washing our hands and sanitizing surfaces, and, yes, about wearing face masks when appropriate. In short, we have sacrificed too much and worked too hard to be taken in by his denials and lies.

Last week, during the Vice Presidential debate, Mike Pence, the President’s favorite cheerleader — or, if the image of him in sweater and skirt, his pallid hands gripping pompoms, is too much for you, his beloved lap-dog — tried to twist Kamala Harris’ criticism of the Administration’s Covid response into some sort of attack on the courage and fortitude of the American people. His attempt fell flat, as well it should. Harris understands, as does a solid majority of the country, that the Trump Administration and the public are not allies in this fight. The White House, led by Patient-Zero-in-Chief, is interested only in saving itself. It cut the rest of us loose long ago.

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Photo Friday: Three Years Ago This Weekend

Three years ago this weekend, we were in Massachusetts at Wachusett Meadow, a Massachusetts Audubon Society wildlife sanctuary, for a memorial service honoring my brother, Bill. This glorious site was one of his favorites in the world, and we dedicated a bench with a brass plaque commemorating him. He died earlier in 2017, but this weekend coincided with his birthday, and seemed the perfect time to say goodbye.

As you can see, it was a gorgeous fall day — cool, breezy, brilliantly sunny. This was at the height of autumn hawk migration, which Bill loved. He and his love, Sandy, used to come out to the sanctuary to watch for Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and other raptors. I had a sense all that morning as we prepared for the service, that Bill would find some way to make his presence felt during the day. I’m not usually prone to such thoughts. It was pretty uncharacteristic for me to believe such a thing.

But sure enough, as we concluded the service, a Cooper’s Hawk swooped over a nearby ridge and down to this lake where it began to circle and climb, its wings still, sun angling off its tail. I had held my emotions pretty much in check throughout the day, but seeing that hawk, feeling my brother’s… I don’t know, spirit, I guess, in its arrival, I fell to pieces. It was good for me, really. Cathartic.

It was a hard day, but a special one — a day I’ll never forget.

Have a good weekend all. Be kind to one another, hug those you love, and stay safe.

Wachusett Meadow Fall, by David B. Coe

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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Anatomy of a Rewrite

As I described in a recent Writing-tip Wednesday post, I have been working recently on a trunk series — a pair of books, the first two in a projected trilogy, that I initially wrote nearly ten years ago. I have returned to working on these books for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always loved the storylines, the characters, the relationships — these stories spoke to me when I wrote them, and have stayed with me in the years since. And second, in the midst of this emotionally challenging year, I have found it hard to create new worlds and projects. I’m not sure why, but there it is. On the other hand, polishing older work, or returning to old worlds for new stories, as I’ve done with Thieftaker, has been productive, rewarding, and even comforting.

In the previous post about trunk novels, I mentioned that while the first book in this series needed close line editing and little more, the second book was “a hot mess.” I’m now neck-deep in my edits of the second book and that impression still holds. The novel has tons of potential, but when I left off with it years ago, it had a number of significant flaws. Which, I suppose, is why it wound up in the proverbial trunk.

Many of us have novels that need work, projects that we’ve set aside, or even works-in-progress that we know have problems. I thought it might be helpful to give you a sense of how I am tackling this rewrite.

1) The Initial Read-through: I started by re-reading the two books in quick succession. I didn’t try to edit as I worked. I just wanted to remind myself of the current state of the novels — the content and the style. I made a few notes as I read, but mostly I approached them as a reader might.

2) The Line Edits: Yes, usually line edits are the last thing we do, after what is known in the business as a “developmental edit.” I chose to do the line edits first, even on the second book, which needs so much structural work. Why? Well, first because some of the prose was so rough that I couldn’t imagine revising the book and ignoring the problems. Those problems included passive constructions, overuse of “that” and past perfect constructions (using “had”), over-explaining, general wordiness, and “humorous” passages that fell flat. Second, I started with the line edits because doing these close revisions allowed me to study the narrative elements more closely and become more familiar with the structural problems I wished to address.

3) The Ruthless Cuts: This is a different editing task, but I actually did it while going through the line edits. There were elements of the story that just didn’t work as written. Unfortunately, at least one of them included some of the best written passages in the draft. Nevertheless, they had to go. I shortened one section of the book by 6,000 words, and cut a thousand from another scene as well. Overall, including scene cuts and general tightening of the prose, I have cut well over 12,000 words from the book. And what a difference this has made. The prose is concise and punchy, and the story flows far better than it did.

4) The Brainstorming: This is where I am now. The book currently stands at about 72,000 words. I can probably delete another thousand, but I’ve cut most of the fat from the manuscript. The story is better than it was, but it needs certain elements inserted along the way and it needs an ending. A good ending. Not the train wreck I was in the midst of writing when I gave up on it a decade ago. By now, though, having read it front-to-back twice, and having done my close edit of the writing, I am steeped in the story and ready to tackle the problems.

When I brainstorm, I tend to open a file in my word processor and type stream-of-consciousness, asking myself questions and answering them on the keyboard. That’s just my approach — your mileage may vary. The point is, I am considering how to work in key elements currently missing from the story. I am figuring out how to work in a new idea for a plot twist that occurred to me during the line edits. And I am keeping better track of all my plot threads, making certain that this ending ties everything up as it should.

5) The Implementation: When I start writing the new scenes, including my concluding chapters, I will create them in separate files. I do this because I find it freeing. It’s totally a mind-game. When I am writing a new book, I work in a single document from start to finish. But when revising, rather than mess with that original file, I not only make a working duplicate, I also create new files for big inserts and additions. That way even if the new scene turns out to be a disaster, the original manuscript is no worse off. Again, it’s something I do out of consideration for my own obsessiveness. And it works.

6) The Final Edit: When I have written and polished these new scenes and pasted them into the manuscript, I’ll then set the novel aside for a while. I’ll work on other projects — I have stories to read for the anthology I’m co-editing; I want to outline the third book in this series; and other stuff… After maybe five weeks, I’ll come back to this book and read it through again. I’ll do a final polish on the prose, but more important I’ll make certain the plot works and that the new narrative elements blend seamlessly with the old. When I’m satisfied, I’ll send both books, volumes one and two, to Beta readers. By then, I hope, I’ll be ready to write the concluding volume of this trilogy. I’ve been thinking about the characters and story for nearly ten years. It’s time I finished it.

I hope you’ve found this deep dive into my process helpful.

Keep writing!

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