Monday Musings: What Matters? Part V — Frivolity and the Importance of Things That Don’t Matter

For all of January, I have been writing about “what matters” and what doesn’t. I’ve written about this in terms of our personal lives and our professional ones. And I fear I have left readers with the impression that, in my opinion, all they do should be geared toward those things we decide do matter, that when it comes to allocating our personal time, our emotional energy, our intellectual focus, “what matters?” should guide all of our choices.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“What matters?” is, I believe, a useful question to ask ourselves. I remember back when I was in college, sitting on the green of Brown’s campus, talking to a friend, and thinking to myself, “I really have a shit-ton of work to do. Should I be here, or should I be in the library?” And yes, there were times when I realized the conversation I was having didn’t rate in terms of importance. In those moments, I confessed to having a lot to do, and went off to my lonely carrel in the library. At other times, though, I recall answering that silent question differently, certain that the conversation I was having mattered more than work did at the given moment. The work would get done, I knew. My friend needed me. Or I needed them.

And in the same vein, I know beyond doubt that sometimes the things that matter are, in fact, the things of little or no importance. An oxymoron? Maybe. But you know I’m right.

Yes, family and friends matter. Work matters. We should make time for those pursuits that enrich our lives and feed our souls or our bodies: photography, music, gardening, knitting, exercising, hiking, birdwatching, reading, dancing, attending theater or movies or concerts. We all have our interests and passions.

But we can also find value and entertainment and even peace is less lofty activities. Sometimes what we need is an hour or two of mindless television, or a good game (baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, whatever) to watch and cheer. Sometimes spending a half hour absorbed in a ridiculous video game is just the thing to clear our thoughts.

If we spend every minute of every day worrying about what matters and doing the things that are most important, we will burn ourselves out. At no time in the past several weeks, as I have written about the things that matter, have I meant to imply otherwise. As in all endeavors, we must find balance. I work daily. I devote time to my family, marriage, my parenting. I try to do the things I love, to make good use of as much of my time as I can. But I also know that some of that “good use” can be put to silly, meaningless stuff that I enjoy.

I have games on my phone that I play daily. (No, I won’t tell you which ones. That would be embarrassing . . . .) I listen to music, not because it enriches me (though it often does) but because it’s fun. Nancy and I have shows we love to watch, and yes, part of the joy lies in watching together. But part of the joy is also just losing ourselves in storylines that are amusing, or suspenseful, or exciting, or even trashy. (Looking at you, creators of The Crown . . . .) I love watching sports on television. Baseball, soccer, basketball — I can lose myself in a good game even if I don’t care too much about either team. I like watching golf, too, mostly because it takes me back to my youth, when I watched with my dad and he taught me all he knew about the game.

Early on in this series of posts, I wrote about managing our days, and looking for ways to maximize the time we spend on those things we deem important. I don’t mean to contradict that earlier post. I mean merely to counter it with a simple reality: We can’t allocate every moment to weighty endeavors. Life demands that we slow down now and then and give ourselves a break, whatever that might mean.

And so, as I wind down my series of “What matters?” posts, I urge you to ask the question when it seems appropriate, but also to give yourself a break now and again. Being directed is great. And on occasion, so is being frivolous. Because ultimately, what matters is that we’re well and whole.

Wishing you all the best, and a very fine week to come.

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Professional Wednesday: The Twisted, Tortured Story of THE CHALICE WAR

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeMy “What matters?” series of posts will conclude next Monday, after a Monday Musings post this week that straddled the personal and professional a bit more than usual. In the meantime, I am using today’s Professional Wednesday post to begin pivoting toward the impending release of my new series, a contemporary urban fantasy that delves deeply into Celtic mythology. The series is called The Chalice War, and the first book is The Chalice War: Stone. It will be released within the next month or so, and will be followed soon after by the second book, The Chalice War: Cauldron, and the finale, The Chalice War: Sword.

In my experience, every new project has a story (no pun intended) and this one is no different. Back in the summer of 2009, I was in a bit of a career doldrums. Blood of the Southlands, my third epic fantasy series, was complete, and all but the third book had been released. The series had done well critically, but sales were a bit disappointing — a pattern I had encountered before and would again — and I was trying to figure out where to go next. I had pitched the first iteration of what would become the Thieftaker series to my agent, and she was trying to sell it to Tor Books. But, as always, the publishing world was moving at a snail’s pace, and I had nothing to do.

Within half a year, I would be working on the Robin Hood novelization and starting to convert Thieftaker from an epic fantasy to a historical urban fantasy. But for the moment, I was without a project.

And then an idea came to me — a sudden flash of insight into what would become a pivotal scene in Stone. I took the idea and ran with it. First, I read a ton of material on Celtic history and lore, taking copious notes and figuring out how I might create modern-day versions of the heroes and deities I was reading about. Then, my research complete (for the moment), I began to write the first draft of a contemporary urban fantasy.

I didn’t do much outlining, but rather allowed the novel to take me where it might. And boy did it take me to some interesting places. It started in an imagined bedroom community in northern Virginia, soon evolved into a cross-country trek on U.S. Interstate 40, and wound up on the Strip in Las Vegas. The Battle Furies — the Morrigan — showed up. Turns out, in addition to being goddesses who fed on strife and human suffering, who could turn themselves into a winged horse (Macha) and twin giant ravens (Badbh and Nemain), who drove armies to a killing frenzy and men to uncontrollable lust, they were also Vegas nightclub singers.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)I finished the book and showed it to my agent. She liked it a lot, but thought it needed work. She was right, of course. But by that time, I had signed the contracts for Robin Hood and the Thieftaker books. Not too long after, I finally sold the Fearsson series to Baen Books and so had that trilogy to get through.

SPELL BLIND, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Alan Pollock)But I never forgot my Celtic urban fantasy, or its heroes Marti and Kel. When I had some spare time, I went back and rewrote the book, incorporating revision notes from friends and from my agent with my own sense of what the book needed. I rewrote it a second time a couple of years later, and having some time, started work on a second volume, this one set in Australia (where my family and I lived in 2005-2006). I stalled out on that book about two-thirds of the way in, but I liked what I had. By then, though, I was deeply involved with the final Thieftaker books and the Fearsson series. And I was starting to have some ideas for what would become the Islevale trilogy.

The Celtic books languished in a virtual trunk, not forgotten, but ignored. I didn’t know how to end the second book. I knew the first book needed another rewrite. And I had no idea how to complete the trilogy.

INVASIVES, by David B. CoeBut I had been through this before. The first book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson went through at least half a dozen iterations between the first draft, written in 2005, and its eventually publication in 2014. I first came up with the basic concept for Invasives, the second Radiants book, in 2009. It sat on my computer desktop for more than ten years before I actually used it.

I revised Stone yet again, and in so doing, came up with an idea of how to complete the second novel. I rewrote what I had written of that novel, and this time got past whatever had held me back and managed to complete it. And in finishing that volume, I came up with an approach for the third book. It was daring, and quite different from the first two books, but it worked. I set that one in Ireland, and also in the Underrealm.

Finally, in 2021, I had a conversation with Deb Dixon, my marvelous editor at Bell Bridge Books. She asked me what I was thinking of writing next, and I said, “Well, I have this series I’ve been working on — a contemporary urban fantasy steeped in Celtic mythology . . . .”

Her response: “Yes, please.”

The moral of the story should be clear: Never, ever, give up on a project. Sometimes we’re not ready to write the ideas we have. Sometimes our imagination outstrips our creative abilities. At other times, our careers take us in other directions, and we’re not yet ready to pursue projects that we know we want to write eventually. And at still other times, our ideas come to us piecemeal. We can’t see the entire work, but we know there is something there worth writing.

All three of these things were true for me. On some level I knew what I wanted to do with the Celtic books back when I wrote that first iteration of Stone. But I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to do justice to the idea. I had other projects that were more fully formed and that I needed to work on in the moment. And so I did. And the idea for the trilogy took time to percolate.

In the end, these are books I love, stories I’m proud to see come to fruition. I look forward to sharing them with all of you.

Keep writing!!

Posted in Bell Bridge Books, Business of publishing, Invasives, Islevale Cycle, Novels, Publishing, Radiants, The Chalice War, Thieftaker, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monday Musings: What Matters, Part IV — Money

Say you don’t need no diamond rings,
And I’ll be satisfied;
Tell me that you want the kind of things,
That money just can’t buy.
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney

We were bound to get to money eventually, right? For weeks now, I’ve been writing about the things that matter and those that don’t. It seemed inevitable that I would come to financial issues before long. And here we are.

Let me start with a spoiler. I am not going to tell you that money is unimportant, that what matters is what’s in your heart, what brings you joy. I’m not going to tell you to throw off the bonds of our Capitalist mindset and devote yourself entirely to your art. Money matters. You can’t eat what’s in your heart. You can’t use your art to keep warm and dry and safe. You can’t retire on dreams and professional contentment. Call it a necessary evil. Call it a source of comfort and pleasure. Call it whatever the hell you want. But don’t kid yourself: In this world, we all need money to get by.

My father struggled early in his professional life, at a time when my older siblings were kids, and he worried about finances quite a bit. Those worries contributed to an authoritarian streak in his parenting. Later, by the time I was growing up, he had established himself in the world of finance and was earning a healthy living. We weren’t truly wealthy — we had family friends who were, so we saw the lifestyle of the rich up close — but we were comfortably upper-middle-class. In my memory, we never worried about money. My dad was far more easy-going in those later years. When unexpected expenses arose, he would shrug and say, “It’s only money.” Which, of course, is an attitude born of privilege.

My brother Jim tells of going with my father to his office in lower Manhattan when Jim was just a kid. My father showed Jim where he worked and said something along the lines of, “I could have been one of those guys with a corner office and a lot of money, but I chose to be a husband and father instead.” That’s a paraphrasing, but a close one, and it is indicative of my dad’s priorities. Again, though, it’s also something one can only say from a place of comfort.

I’ve been rich, oh baby, I’ve been poor;
Been in love a couple of times before.
If I had to choose, you know, between the two,
I’d take both rich and in love; I ain’t no fool.
— Paul Barrere, Little Feat

My father’s example has guided me for much of my life. Yes, I want my books to sell. I want to make money as a writer, and I take advantage of opportunities as they come my way. But when my daughters were younger, I tried to prioritize family in choices between home life and profession. And I have always worked hard to make my books as clean and polished as possible, even when I’ve known that I might make more if I took less time on each project and squeezed out more publications every year.

As a result, I have enjoyed more critical success than commercial success, and at times, my sales performance has bothered me. Once, when I was lamenting another well-reviewed book that hadn’t sold very well, Nancy asked me, “Would you want it to be the other way around?”

The question brought me up short. “What?”

“Would you be happier if your sales were great, but your reviews were bad?”

It took me all of three seconds to answer. “No, I wouldn’t.”

“Then stop complaining.”

Wise woman.

At this point, you might be saying, “You know, for a guy who said he wouldn’t tell us money is unimportant, you sure seem to be telling us just that.”

To which I say, “Well, yes and no.”

Money matters, no doubt. I would like to be making more as a writer, and I’ve felt that way for much of my career. But money is not all that matters. Not by a long shot. For each of us there exists a balance — things we will do for a paycheck and things we won’t. I have the luxury of making choices that are similar to those my father made. Nancy earns a good living and she wants me to write with joy, with satisfaction in my work, and with respect for the boundaries we have placed between our professional lives and our private life. An approach born of privilege? Absolutely. And so I would never judge anyone who makes different choices, who emphasizes the commercial end of the profession. We all have to do what is right for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our goals and desires.

This is a Monday Musings post, but these closing graphs have the feel of a Professional Wednesday essay, and so allow me to offer a few bits of business advice. First, do not rush into any contract or business arrangement. Most of the people I have encountered in publishing are honest and care deeply about the written word. Most, but not all. Read your contracts before you sign, and ask questions, not just of the person you’re signing with, but of friends who know the law and the business. If you have any doubts about any provisions, don’t sign until those questions have been answered to your satisfaction.

Second, don’t give up your day job until you’re absolutely certain you can. I gave mine up many years ago, and so I am not really in a position to give such advice. The fact is, though, had I know as much then about the vicissitudes of the market as I know now, I might have followed a different course. This despite the fact that Nancy and I have never really wanted for much or had to worry about finances.

And third, remember that once your words are out there, there’s no taking them back. Take pride in your books and stories. Make them as good as can be. Long after the money from a specific book or story sale has been spent, the work itself will still be available for readers. In my opinion, you want those words to represent the best you have to offer at the moment you published them.

They toss around your latest golden egg,
Speculation — well, who’s to know,
If the next one in the nest,
Will glitter for them so.
— Joni Mitchell

Have a great week.

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Professional Wednesday: What Matters Professionally? Part III — Appearances

Continuing my series of posts about “what matters” in the realm of professional publishing, I thought I would focus today on what matters during our public appearances. Attending conventions and writers’ conferences and workshops is an important part of being a professional. At a time when it’s tougher than ever to sell books, there is no substitute for interacting with fans and hand-selling our novels and stories. For better or worse, once we’re published and we start to gain a readership, we become public figures, and that can be a tricky role at first.

Some of the things that matter are really common sense. Others are a bit less intuitive. Let’s walk through a few of them.

The most important thing we can do as professionals is comport ourselves with dignity, with courtesy, and with sensitivity. Let me illustrate what I mean with a counter-example. Last year, on the final day of one of the conventions I attended, I sat on a panel with a group of fellow writers. Our panel moderator walked in late, and then, as they sat down, proceeded to tell an ugly, homophobic joke. I kid you not. It was like this asshole had been transported from the 1980s — their joke was so out of line, so contrary to the spirit of the convention and our genre, I could hardly believe it. Sadly, a few people in the audience laughed. Most of us — audience and panelists alike — offered no response at all; the atmosphere in the room was heavy and awkward for the next hour.

Now, it goes without saying that none of us should do what this person did. But they also shouldn’t do what I did, which was to sit there, so shocked by the inappropriateness of the moderator’s behavior, that I didn’t speak up and tell the person off. I should have. I feel terrible that I didn’t. If even one person in the room was personally offended — or worse, made to feel less than they are — then I failed them, as did my fellow panelists. (I did report the person to the convention, and hopefully this person will comport themselves differently going forward.)

What matters more than anything as a professional at a convention or other event, I would argue, is doing what we can to create a safe, healthy, informative environment for attendees and for our fellow professionals. We do that by being open to questions from and conversations with fans. We do that by bringing our best to each panel or discussion in which we participate — being engaged and energetic, speaking to the subject, sharing our enthusiasm and passion. We do that by being respectful of our audiences in all their diversity and individuality. Guys, we do that by being respectful of those with whom we interact, by not speaking over people, by not dominating discussions — in short, by not being total guys. If you take away nothing else from this post, keep these things in mind.

Some people who attend cons as professionals dress in a certain way. I know some pros who love to cosplay and they bring elaborate costumes to every event. I know other pros who wear nice jeans or even dress pants, and neat shirts. I know a very few pros who dress office casual. And I know pros who wear jeans and T-shirts. Honestly, this is a “doesn’t matter” thing to me. The answer to “how should I dress?” really ought to be, “however you’re most comfortable.” I tend to wear nice jeans and a plain t-shirt or button down. I don’t dress up, but I also don’t want to look like I don’t care. That’s what works for me. But as I say, in my view, there is no right or wrong here.

When I attend conventions, I arrive on time to my panels and readings and such, and I go to any sort of convention-wide event that the convention indicates to me they want me to attend. Some conventions don’t care if pros attend the opening ceremony, for instance. Some care a great deal. I make certain I know which is which for each convention. I make myself available in between panels, and, if it seems appropriate, will put in appearances in the con suite or other such venue. As I pro, I am there on someone else’s dime, and I am aware at all times that the attending fans have paid to be there, have, in effect, paid to see me and to have me there.

But I also know that I can’t over-extend myself. Attending a convention as a pro means being “on” during our public time, and that takes energy. We need to take care of ourselves by retreating to our rooms now and then, by allowing ourselves to unwind with professional friends for meals or coffees or beers. And we must also be able to say, politely but firmly, “I would love to chat with you — let’s set up a time — but right now I am having a private conversation with X.” Conventions are work. I love them, but they are work. They are also opportunities to connect with our professional colleagues, to network with them, and to talk shop. Those things matter as much as our public responsibilities, and we have to allow ourselves to take advantage of those opportunities.

In short, when I attend events in my professional capacity, I do what I can to be a good person, to be available, but also to take care of myself by carving out down-time and time with the people I care about and want or need to see.

I hope that’s helpful as you attend your professional events.

Keep writing!

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Monday Musings: What Matters? Part III — People and Relationships

We lost my older brother a bit over five years ago, and, as you might expect, in the aftermath of his death, my emotions were roiled and at times conflicted. Among other things, I was angry with him. Deeply, almost cripplingly angry. Why? Because in his youth he engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior, and one could draw a clear line from his poor choices early in life to the cause of his death at too young an age.

Bill and I were very close, despite the nearly fifteen years between us. When I was young, I worshipped him. Later, I saw his flaws more clearly, but I still adored him. His death clobbered me. I was devastated and for a while that devastation manifested, in part, as rage — at the loss, at the injustice, and, yes, at what I perceived as the needlessness of it all. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to hold on to the anger. I wanted to grieve for him properly, without the resentment. And I got there eventually. But it took years, and several long, painful conversations with my therapist.

In writing my “what matters” posts over the past couple of weeks, I have thought about this particular post a good deal. We may devote a good deal of our time to work, but most of us expend the bulk of our emotional energy — another finite personal resource — on our relationships with friends, family members, and romantic partners, as well as with work colleagues.

In my first post of the new year, I wrote about a different set of anger issues that I have been trying to control in recent months. I honestly can’t discuss these publicly, but suffice it to say I know this anger is no more productive for me than was the anger I directed at my brother. In my view, anger is not always a negative emotion. Righteous anger can empower and even inspire. But simmering resentments tend to wear on us and drain us.

In the past couple of years, I have tried a different tactic — although clearly from what I’ve written here, I am still figuring all of this out. In my professional dealings, when I encounter people who are dishonest, disrespectful, disruptive, I cut them out of my life. It’s that simple. I have no patience anymore for the kind of people I’m referencing here. (And some of them, if they’re reading this, may well recognize themselves.)

This is harder to do in our personal lives. But often it’s every bit as necessary. Toxic interactions, abusive friends and family, interactions that leave us feeling badly about ourselves — no one needs this.

I have started this post with the negative, and that may have been a mistake. Because the truth is, personal relationships mean more to me than anything, beginning with my marriage and my relationships with my daughters. I love my extended family, I have many years-long friendships that I treasure deeply, and I am fortunate to have a number of professional friends and colleagues whom I respect and enjoy seeing at conventions and other events. And just as negative interactions leach away my emotional energy, these positive ones boost it. I know this, and no doubt you know it in your life as well. It’s intuitive. And yet, so many of us continue to engage with people who suck more out of our lives than they put into them.

As I discussed last week, we have limited time for all the things we want and need to do, day to day and week to week. Spending time with the people we love, the people we enjoy seeing, the people whose company enhances our lives — nothing matters more, in my view. But I would also say it’s very nearly as important to avoid those encounters that rob us of joy, of energy, of confidence. Sometimes they can’t be avoided. We can choose our friends, the saying goes; we can’t choose our family. And, I would add, we can’t choose our friends’ friends. Nor can many of us choose our co-workers and the people we interact with in parts of our lives over which we have less control.

We do have a choice, though, as to how we engage with the people around us. What matters, it seems to me, is continuing to feed the relationships that nourish us in return, and to set strict boundaries around those that don’t. As I say, we can’t avoid entirely the people who aren’t good to us or for us. But we can keep them at arm’s length. And, on those occasions when we have to interact at greater length or in greater depth than we would like, we can remind ourselves at every opportunity of our own worth, and of the histories that let us know a given person can’t be relied upon or shouldn’t be trusted.

I should add here that I don’t want my glib solutions to minimize the dangers of a truly abusive relationship. Extricating oneself from such situations is far more complex and difficult than I have made all of this sound. There are excellent resources available for those who find themselves in such circumstances, and if you are in an abusive relationship, please, please, please seek professional help.

We have limited time. We have limited emotional energy. We deserve to have as much time as possible with the people we love and who love us back for who we are. I believe devoting time and energy to those relationships should be at the very top of the list of things that matter in our lives.

Have a wonderful week.

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Professional Wednesday: What Matters Professionally, part II

If you follow my blog at all, you know that in this month’s posts I have been asking the question “What matters?” in a number of personal and professional contexts. Last week, in my first Professional Wednesday post of the year, I focused on the big things that matter to us as professionals and aspiring professionals — our ambitions, our favorite projects, our goals, both immediate and longer term. This week, I would like to address the question from a different perspective.

When we’re working on a project, we tend to concern ourselves with different things at different times. Some of those things matter more than others, and I have noticed when working with new writers, that those with somewhat less experience often wind up worrying unnecessarily about issues that really don’t matter all that much in the greater scheme of things. And at the same time, they will often not give much thought to things that really ought to be foremost in their minds.

So I thought I would look at a few common issues and give some sense of how much, in my opinion, these things matter.

For instance . . . .

New writers tend to worry a great deal about being “scooped,” about having someone — in the worst instance, someone more famous and accomplished than they are — come up with the same concept for a story or novel, rendering their idea unmarketable. Does this sound familiar?

Stop worrying. This is, to my mind, a definite “doesn’t matter.” You will not be scooped. Some thirty-plus years ago, when I was in graduate school, my dissertation advisor told me something that has stuck with me ever since. I expressed to him my fear that someone else would publish a dissertation on my topic before I had a chance to finish. (This is a fear that plagues grad students even more than it does fiction writers.) And he said to me, “If you think you can be scooped, you’re thinking of your dissertation topic too narrowly,” meaning, essentially, that all good dissertations operate on multiple levels. They are works of complexity and personal creativity and thus cannot be duplicated by someone else.

Stories are the same. I edit themed anthologies. For our latest collection, Artifice and Craft, Edmund Schubert and I have received over 530 submissions, all of them born of the same prompt. And no two are the same. You and I could start with the exact same story premise, and within ten pages our books would diverge, because we all write from personal experience, from idiosyncratic emotions, from unique imaginations. You will not be scooped.

New writers also tend to worry a lot about genre and marketing, and I understand why. Certainly I have been guilty of telling young writers to come up with elevator pitches for their projects. “Know how to sell it,” I often say. “Know who your audience is going to be.” And I believe this is sound advice as one is revising their novel and getting ready to send it off to publishers and/or agents. Early on, though, as we are conceiving the novel and diving into that first draft, I would argue that marketing and audience identification are secondary to the creative process. Write your book. Write the story that makes your heart sing, that stirs your creative passion. The marketing stuff will wait — and ultimately will be easier if you write the book or story you love. Commercial imperatives should not guide your imagination. You’ll have plenty of time later to figure out how to sell the thing to readers. At the start, our greatest concerns should be character, plotting, setting, pacing, prose. Those are what matter.

What about those things that DO matter, but that tend to get short shrift from too many authors? I would encourage every author, regardless of experience level, to think about a few questions as they begin work on their novels and short stories. First, we should consider who we ought to use as our point of view characters. I like to ask myself, “Whose story is this?” and base my choice of POV character on the answer to that question. If I decide to use multiple points of view — a question closely related to “Who?” is “How many?” — I will ask myself at the beginning of each new chapter or section, “Who is the key person in this scene?” More often than not, that person will be my POV character for the passage. I have run across many scenes that are written from the perspective of someone who is, in my opinion, the wrong character to tell that part of the story. As a result, I, as a reader, don’t have access to the thoughts and emotions I want to read at a particular moment, which can be incredibly frustrating.

We should also ask ourselves,“Are we starting our story in the right place?” So often, I read manuscripts that open way too early in the narrative. For page after page, we get background information and little-to-no important action or emotional content. Or, less commonly, I see manuscripts that begin too late, AFTER what really ought to be the inciting event. Be sure you know where to begin your story — and consider the possibility that what SEEMS like the right spot early in the writing process, might ultimately prove to be less than optimal once you have a better sense of your story. Be willing and prepared to revise accordingly

Finally, we should constantly ask ourselves if the scene we’re writing — if every scene we write — serves the larger narrative. It’s not that we can’t pursue subplots and secondary narratives. Of course we can. They enrich and deepen our stories. But they should also serve the whole. We should strive for coherence, for interconnection among our various plot threads. A secondary story for its own sake will only confuse and annoy our readers, distracting them from the narratives that are most important.

More on “what matters” next week.

For now, keep writing!!

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Monday Musings: What Matters? Part II — Time

Last week, I began a series of posts addressing the question “What matters?” My point in doing so was to focus on the simple fact that we have finite amounts of time, of energy (physical and emotional), and of the other personal resources we allocate to various parts of our lives on a daily basis. To be honest, I don’t know exactly where this conversation is going. I only know that it interested me when I started thinking about it, and I figured it might take the blog in an interesting direction.

I don’t expect to come up with a lot of answers in these posts. In a way, the questions are the more important element of the conversation. Ultimately whatever answers I might find, whatever choices I might make, will be idiosyncratic, tailored entirely to my life, my priorities, my needs and wants and obligations. Again, the questions and thought process are likely to be far more informative.

Today, I want to talk about time. I mentioned in a couple of paragraphs last Monday that for much of 2022 I had failed to make time for two pursuits that I care about a great deal. And I glibly stated that I wanted to make more of an effort to play music and take photos in this new year. Of course, it’s not that easy. Not by a long shot. I want to make clear up front that I am not complaining about any of what I’m about to discuss. I love my life. I know how fortunate I am. But time issues are not easy.

To state the obvious, time is finite. Time is immutable. Some of us may have more money than others. Some of us may have more energy than others. But we all are allotted the same amount of time each day, week, month, year. We can’t buy more. We can’t hoard it for a “rainy day.”

I write about time management a fair amount in my Professional Wednesday posts. But work time is only one variable in the equation, and, I would argue, far from the most important. I can pledge to myself that I will find more time for the things I enjoy doing, but where is that time going to come from? It’s all about choices, about deciding “what matters.”

Look at most people’s daily habits and it becomes clear that we spend the vast majority of our time doing two things: sleeping and working. Nancy and I tend to be early-to-bed, early-to-rise people; neither of us does well on too little sleep. We’re generally in bed by 10:30 or so each night, and we’re both up by 6:00 or 6:15 each morning. I devote the first two hours of my day to exercise — a workout and then a lengthy walk. I work for much of the day, only winding down when Nancy gets home from her job in the early evening. She generally has a bit more work to do after she gets home, and I take that time to tie up my loose ends from my work day. We have dinner, clean up, and then will generally watch an episode or two of something on TV before retiring. Rinse and repeat . . . .

The point I’m trying to make is this: There isn’t a whole lot of room in there for squeezing in the things I want to add to my day. I do take small breaks from my writing periodically. I could — and should — use those breaks to play a song or two on my guitar. Slotting in my music that way would likely get me to play a lot more over the course of a year. And I can (and sometimes do) take my camera with me on my morning walks. The places where I walk are quite beautiful. I could easily take photos then. These are not perfect solutions, but they help.

What about that TV time at the end of the day? Couldn’t I play music then?

Yes, I suppose watching television may not be the best use of my limited time. Except the hour or two we spend on the couch isn’t necessarily about the shows themselves. It’s about sitting with Nancy, unwinding together, sharing the experience, talking about the shows, the characters, the plot twists. We don’t get a lot of time together, and time with my sweetie matters to me. So watching TV together is a choice.

Weekends offer time for doing stuff as well. We always have errands on Saturdays and Sundays. We do our laundry. Nancy gardens. I write blog posts like this one. But yes, I can play music and maybe take photos on the weekends.

But I’ve yet to address the unexpected, or the things that we don’t schedule but have to do or want to do. Seeing friends, talking to our kids, visiting with our kids, going to doctor appointments, dealing with house issues, paying bills, shopping for groceries, going to a concert or play or movie, attending university functions, which has become a HUGE part of our lives since Nancy became acting president of the school. And I haven’t even mentioned travel — for work, which both of us have to do from time to time, and for pleasure, which we LOVE to do, but which can be quite disruptive to our routines.

What matters? What can we give up or shorten or stretch? I blithely give advice to new writers about finding time for writing in their lives. “Just an hour a day, enough to write five hundred or a thousand words, can put you on the path to writing professionally.” It’s true. But where the hell would I find a spare hour? I have no idea. And I don’t have small kids in the house. I don’t have pets. I don’t have a job other than writing and editing.

These choices are hard. They demand sacrifice. All of us are spread thin. None of us has tons of free time. I don’t want to sleep less, or exercise less. I don’t want to give up time with my spouse. I want more time with my daughters, not less. I don’t want to cut back on work. I enjoy my job and — oh, by the way — I enjoy getting paid. I want to travel and see friends and family; I don’t want to be a hermit or a shut-in. But I also want to play music, take pictures, birdwatch (I always take my binoculars on my morning walks, so I do birdwatch each day). These things are good for my mental and physical health as well.

What matters? The hard truth is that all of it does. And I have no doubt that when you look at your life, and try to figure out how you might fit in something new, be it writing or exercise or time for a new friend or romantic partner, you encounter the same problem. Each choice involves some sort of sacrifice.

I don’t know if this post has been helpful or interesting for any of you, but I find these issues fascinating. In any case, thanks for reading along. More to come in the weeks ahead

For now, have a great week.

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Professional Wednesday: What Matters In Your Work? Part I

On Monday, I began what will be a series of posts on the things that matter to us, and the ways in which we can make them central to our lives. Not surprisingly, I think about this a great deal with respect to my writing. And I believe all of us, no matter where we are in our careers, can benefit from this sort of thinking.

As with the broader topic, I expect that the question “What matters?” will inform the next few Professional Wednesday posts. Today, I want to take on the question in its broadest sense.

At the start of each year, I spend some time mapping out the coming months, trying to make certain that I schedule my work for the year to come, the various projects I hope to complete, in a way that will maximize my productivity without setting myself up for failure by giving myself unrealistic deadlines or overly ambitious timetables for the completion of manuscripts. It’s a process I’ve written about a couple of times in the past month or so. (Find other posts here and here.)

Creating a work calendar for the year is about more than time management, though. It is also about prioritizing. It is about answering the question “What matters?”

We all have projects we care about and goals that stir our passions. For some, “what matters” is that novel we’ve been trying for years to finish. For others, “what matters” is finally getting that first professional sale, either of a book or a short story. And for others still, “what matters” may simply be finally making writing a daily or weekly habit — getting started on a road that may not reach its final destination this year, but that at least begins here and now.

Whatever your “what matters” might be, it should inform your planning for the coming year.

The Chalice War-Stone, by David B. CoeWhat matters to me? Professionally, for this coming year, a few things. I have a series debuting in February. I want to promote the hell out of it. I want to feel at the end of the release windows — the weeks immediately preceding and following the releases of the three books — that I have done all I could to make the series successful. I also have an old series that I want to re-release. I’ve been talking about doing this for several years now, and each year I have found other projects to take up my time and energy. But this series, Winds of the Forelands, is one about which I am passionate. This is the year I bring it out again. It matters to me. And I want to start something new, a series that will take me in a new direction, I have resisted starting it for a couple of years, I believe because I am intimidated by the magnitude of what I’m taking on. It’s time to get over my hesitation.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)What about you? I’m not merely asking what you wish to accomplish, though obviously that’s part of the equation. I’m asking as well what you care about. Sure, maybe you want to be published — or at least contracted — by year’s end. That’s a laudable goal. But what project will get you there? What story is burning brightest inside you? What work will bring you joy? What project is most likely to tap into your greatest creative passion? That ought to be part of the equation as well.

Our professional pursuits are not just about what ambitions we’ll realize. They’re also about what matters most to us as artists. Writing, like all acts of creation, is about more than sales and “success,” however we might define that word. Writing is an act of love. This business is too hard, too fickle, too cruel, to be approached solely as a bottom-line endeavor. Often, the truest satisfaction we can hope to draw from our work is the self-recognition of our own achievement. And ultimately, I would argue, our own pride and sense of accomplishment ought to be what matters most.

So as you begin 2023 — and I hope it is a year of accomplishment and satisfaction for all of you — ask yourself “What matters?” Because I guarantee you, if the work — the concept, the narrative, the characters, the settings — matters to you, that emotional connection to the project will show up in your writing. “What matters” is not just about warm and fuzzy feelings. Answering the question will point you toward the most powerful expression of your creative vision.

Keep writing.

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Monday Musings: What Matters? Part I

When I was a kid, I always had an Etch A Sketch. Honestly, I’m not sure why. I sucked at it. I didn’t have the patience or the dexterity to create anything of quality on that silver-gray screen. I tried often enough, but I couldn’t manage to draw much more than squiggles and odd shapes. Still, what I always loved about Etch A Sketch was the ease of starting over. Lift the screen, give it a hearty shake, and the slate was blank again, ready for my next attempt.

As it happens, that is also what I love about New Year’s. I have always seen the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to give my routine, my goals, my emotional approach to life a hearty shake, and build them again from scratch. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does capture the spirit of how I approach the holiday. Last year’s achievements and disappointments are done — I don’t want them to be either a source of discouragement or cause for complacency. I start each year with a blank screen. That’s the goal at least.

In the past, I made resolutions, an exercise I eventually decided was rather useless. Better, I decided, to set out goals and aspirations, to keep practices and habits that were working for me, and at least attempt to jettison those that weren’t. This may sound like semantics — what’s the difference between “resolutions” on the one hand and “goals and aspirations” on the other? To me, I guess, it’s the difference between attempting to draw something on paper with pen and ink, and making the attempt on an ever-erasable plastic screen.

With all this in mind, I begin today a series of posts that will span the next few weeks. The general idea of the posts is to answer a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: What matters to me?

Over the course of a year, or ten, or fifty, we pick up . . . stuff. I’m not speaking just of physical things — indeed, that sort of stuff is really the least of it. I’m referring to tasks; habits; pastimes and hobbies; ambitions and fears; passions, loves, and things we find repellent; professional goals and responsibilities; personal relationships; chores and obligations; etc. In short, anything and everything that consumes our time, feeds or saps our energy and our emotional strength, informs our decision-making at home or at work or in between. Everything.

As I say, this is going to take a few weeks to get through. But I think the exercise will be worthwhile for me and, I hope, informative and perhaps even inspiring for you.

Today, I begin with a big picture approach — the 10,000 foot view, as it were. And I do so by focusing on two examples of stuff.

As I take stock of 2022 and look forward to 2023, I see things in my life that I have neglected and others that I have focused on with too much intensity. I am a musician and a photographer. I take much joy in playing my guitars and taking my camera out into the field to capture images. That is, I usually do. As I reflect on the past year, which has been an emotionally challenging one, I find that I have neglected these hobbies. Too often over the past twelve months, I have gone days at a time without playing any music at all. I have gone weeks at a time without taking photos. And this is about more than leaving expensive equipment to gather dust. These pursuits feed my soul, allowing me to create in ways that are entirely separate from my profession. I need to do these things. I know I do. They keep me centered, happy; they bring me peace. My emotional health depends in part on my commitment to doing these things. Just as I wouldn’t go weeks without eating fresh fruits and vegetables, I also shouldn’t ignore my creative passions.

At the same time, I have allowed anger to creep into my everyday life. I harbor resentments — some personal, some professional, some related to circumstances that I’m really not at liberty to discuss publicly. And really, the roots of my anger are beside the point. Too often, as I take my morning walks, I find myself fixating on wrongs and the righteous anger I feel in response. I imagine finding and taking the opportunity to speak my mind to those who have hurt me or those I love. (That really is as far as my imaginings go. I’m not a violent person, but I know the power of words. And I know that I’m quite capable of cutting someone to the bone with a well-turned phrase.) The point, though, is that this anger, and these imagined conversations do me no good. They keep my focus on my grudges; they allow me to wallow in my bitterness.

Music and photography have been fundamental elements of my happiness for decades. Wouldn’t I be better off if I again found time to make those activities central to my daily existence? Of course I would.

Hostility toward those who have angered me matters far less to me than love for my family and my friends. Wouldn’t I be calmer, more content, if I focused my emotional energy on the latter? Of course I would.

What matters to me? What matters to you?

These are, I believe foundational questions. The things we care about — the things we love, the things from which we draw strength and joy — these are what define who we are and how we live. At least they ought to. As I navigate the coming year, I wish to be guided by those things that bring me happiness rather than those that take me to dark places.

Deceptively simple, right? And yet, it takes work and careful thought.

More in posts to come. For now, have a great week.

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Monday Musings: Holiday Wishes

Girls tree holiday 22This will be brief. We have had our girls in for the holiday, though Winter Storm Elliott very nearly kept our younger daughter in Denver for the weekend. We have managed the cold and kept the house warm with fires in the fireplace and well-placed space heaters. We’ve enjoyed clam dip and cinnamon rolls, homemade soups and Indian-style butter salmon. We’ve even had a couple of meals out.

We’ve exchanged gifts, watched movies, talked and laughed and reminisced. We might even have imbibed a cocktail or two.

I said in a previous post that all I really wanted for the holiday was to be with Nancy and our daughters. That was my wish, and despite a once-in-a-generation weather event, and several cancelled flights, I eventually got exactly that. I am content.

I could say more, but honestly that’s all I feel any need to say.

Except that I hope your holiday brought you joy and laughter, good food and a cup/glass/flute of your favorite beverage, time with loved ones and perhaps a moment or two of solitude, if that was what you needed.

And I hope New Year’s Eve/Day, which, in my experience, tends to be a holiday that disappoints, is enjoyable, safe, and whatever else you hope it will be. I will not be posting on Wednesday, but will, of course, recommence the blog next Monday, January 2, 2023.

2023.

Okay, that’s just freaky.

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