Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.

Book ShelfAs you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…

But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.

No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.

For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?

I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.

I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.

That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.

I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.

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Monday Musings: Writing Scared

It often takes me some time to settle on a topic for my Monday Musings post. Some weeks one issue or another is such an obvious choice that composing the post is easy. Other weeks I can struggle with the choice for a couple of days. To be honest, there is a part of me that wants to use this week’s essay to rant and rail against the ridiculousness of Daylight Savings, but that’s the lost hour of sleep speaking…

The truth is, I am troubled by a new calculus that has crept into my writing process: I find myself trying to anticipate the potential blowback I might receive from various subjects. I am, at times, writing scared. And that bothers me.

Now, no one who knows me, or who reads this blog, is likely to mistake me for a shrinking violet. I voice my opinions with passion. Usually. Certainly, I pulled no punches during and after the recent election. I believed our former President represented a fundamental threat to the integrity of our democratic republic, and I wrote accordingly. I make no apology for that.

I have touched on other issues over the past year — race, climate change, Covid denial — and I intend to keep advocating for the things I believe in.

The fact is, though, there are also issues I avoid, not because my opinions are so extreme — they’re really not — but because they are nevertheless likely to provoke extremists. I am reluctant to put myself in the crosshairs — figuratively and literally — of those on the Right by jumping up and down with too much vehemence on the questions that get them most exercised. I am reluctant to incur the wrath of my friends on the Left, with whom I agree often on issues, but less frequently on tactics. I am all too aware of the simple truth that with some subject matter, regardless of our intentions, we are likely to push someone somewhere too far.

We are living in an era of emotional inflammation. We are, all of us, a bit more irritable, a bit more sensitive, a bit more liable to fly off the handle at slight provocation. I know too many people who have stepped in the proverbial hornet’s nest without intending to, without even knowing the danger existed on whatever the inciting topic might have been. I have seen them swarmed by hyper-conservatives who berate and insult and cast wild, ugly, false accusations that are hurtful and damaging despite their lack of actual substance. I have seen others summarily judged and blacklisted by too many progressives who only a day before counted the people in question as allies.

I have seen people threatened by actors on both sides, and while many of those threats are made in the heat of the moment and probably do not promise real physical danger, who knows? And who wants to take that chance?

I’m not willing to assume the burdens that come with Being Controversial. I have a life to live, a career to maintain, a family to keep safe. Why would I want to put any of that at risk?

The problem with that thinking, though, is that it allows the bullies to win. It gives too much power to those at the fringes — the loudest, the most virulent, the least deserving of such influence.

And so I’m torn. A society like ours thrives on information, on diverse opinions, on healthy, productive debate. Many of the ills we see in today’s America exist because these things have grown scarce. We can’t agree on simple facts. We refuse to tolerate opinions that differ from our own. We’re shouting at volumes that preclude an honest exchange of viewpoints. I want to write what’s on my mind. I make my living writing fiction, but I engage with the world through my beliefs and my ability to articulate them. I enjoy a good political argument. I like it when something I write in this space fosters discussion among those I consider friends and colleagues.

Being afraid of that dynamic is relatively new for me, and entirely unwelcome.

I have no answers today. As I grope in the dark for some sort of meaningful conclusion to this piece, I wonder if I’m a fool to post it, if I’m inviting just the sort of backlash I seek to avoid.

John Milton called opinions “knowledge in the making.” We are richest as a people, as a body politic, as a society, when reasoned discussion and informed beliefs are not just tolerated but encouraged, when those who are fortunate enough to have a platform, of whatever reach and scope, are unafraid to avail themselves of it. I want to live up to that ideal.

Sadly, the state of our nation makes doing so all but impossible. We need to do better.

Which is why I will post this, consequences be damned.

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Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range.

Book ShelfThis past weekend I gave a talk on world building for the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop. It was a lengthy talk, and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. But I did want to focus on one element of the topic, because I think it’s something writers of fantasy, of historical fiction, of science fiction, and of other sub-categories of speculative fiction lose sight of now and again.

When we build our worlds — and I include in this doing our research for historical settings — we actually have to construct our worlds twice. The first time, we do it for ourselves. We apply whatever techniques we use for such things, and we come up with histories, governing systems, economies, religions, social and cultural traditions, physical features for our land, climatic trends that influence everything from food production to troop movements, etc., etc., etc. We develop our magic systems, if our worlds have them, or perhaps technological developments if our books trend more toward science fiction. In short, we do everything one might expect in order to create a rich, complex, believable setting for our books and stories.

For me, this can be a lengthy process. I take my world building seriously, and I like to have most of the fundamentals in place before I begin to write. Naturally, I have to go back and fill in gaps after I’ve started putting words to “paper.” I find it nearly impossible to anticipate every question I might need to answer, every detail of my world I might need to develop. To this day, I still come up with new spells for Ethan Kaille to cast in the Thieftaker books. In fact, the upcoming novellas have an entirely new element of magick — one Ethan hasn’t faced before in a foe. So there’s that to look forward to…

My larger point, though, is this: Even after we have finished building our worlds and have turned to the writing of our novels, our world building is far from over.

Why?

Because while the world now exists for us, the writer, it remains entirely unrealized in the minds of our readers. And so now we have to construct it again, this time in a manner that is digestible and entertaining and unobtrusive, not to mention elegant, poetic, even exciting. We have to present all the necessary material — and not an ounce more — without slowing our narratives, without resorting to data-dumps or “As-you-know-Bob” moments, without violating the basic principles of point of view.

None of this is easy. But we come to this second instance of world building with certain advantages that we didn’t have the first time. Namely, we now possess an intimate understanding of our worlds. We have unraveled their mysteries, determined how societies function — or don’t — and, most importantly, decided which elements of all that work we did during the first world-build are most important to our stories.

That last is crucial. We will always — ALWAYS — know more about our worlds than our readers do. That’s as it should be. We have to know, to a ridiculous level of detail, our worlds’ histories and mythologies and landscapes. We absolutely do not have to convey all that information to our readers. To do so — and I say this with utmost sensitivity to the effort expended in that initial construction of the world — would bore the poor dears to an early demise. They don’t care that the twelfth king of Hamsterdom was Belchamiethius IV, known to his subjects as “Conquerer of the Exercise Wheel.” They don’t need to know the names of each mountain peak in the Twelve Dunce Cap Range. They don’t want to read a recitation of the Gerbilord’s Prayer in the original Quilmardian.

In all seriousness, I know the temptation. I understand pouring tons of work into a world and wanting to share every detail with our readers. But the fact is, we don’t need to reveal everything in order to justify the work we’ve done. Sometimes, sharing a single necessary detail can communicate the weight and volume of all that remains unseen.

And so this second instance of world building demands that we prioritize. We must decide what our readers have to know in any given moment, and then tell them that much and no more. If we can do so with fluency and grace and perhaps even wit, all the better.

But the point is this: Our initial building of the world is an exercise in excess. We want to figure out everything there is to know about our worlds. We seek every crumb of knowledge, so that we are fully prepared for the creation of our characters and narratives.

The second building of our world, the one for our readers, is an exercise in restraint, in determining what is necessary information, and what is superfluous. It’s not easy, but done correctly it will keep our readers coming back to our worlds again and again.

Keep writing.

Posted in Ethan Kaille, History, Novels, Reading, Research, Thieftaker, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Professional Wednesday: The Two World-Builds

Monday Musings: A Paean to the “Shuffle” Command

Let’s begin with the obvious: Everything that’s old is great, and new stuff sucks. It’s important to get that out of the way before we move on. I mean who are we kidding? The way things were when we were young — well, not so much “we” as “I” — the way things were when I was young? That’s how it should all be now. Progress is bad. Innovation is bad. Technology ruins everything and the world was a better place before people invented all that stuff. By which I mean, anything that hadn’t yet been invented when I turned 21.

Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling StonesMusic isn’t meant to be sold song by song. We’re supposed to buy albums. We’re supposed to put up with the bad songs in order to enjoy the good ones. That makes the listening experience better. For every “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” we should have to endure a “Doctor Robert.” For every “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” we should have to suffer through a “You Gotta Move.” It’s only fair. No one is entitled to a perfect listening experience, and songwriters deserve the chance to have their crappy songs heard alongside the good ones. This is America, damnit!

And don’t get me started on CDs versus LPs. What ever happened to the art of piecing together a two-sided album, of figuring out the proper song order so as to make those horrible, vinyl-wasting tunes that we hated as hard to avoid as possible? I mean sure LPs warped and skipped, and got scratched, making them all but unbearable after a year or two of solid use, but that’s a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having to interrupt a pot-induced haze to get up, walk to the stereo, and turn the record over.

Songs are meant to occur in a certain order. That’s how God intended it. And by God, I mean Mick Jagger. Or John Lennon. Or Joni Mitchell. Or David Crosby. Or Aretha Franklin. Or James Taylor. You know. God. As day follows night and spring follows winter, “You Can Call Me Al” is meant to come after “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Except not really, because that album came out after my twenty-first birthday. But never mind that.

The point is, albums set the order of songs and never shall they exist in any other configuration.

Except for mix tapes.

Okay, I confess. Back when I still listened to LPs (Kids, ask your parents. And get the hell off my lawn…) I made mix tapes all the time. I loved the idea of cutting out those songs I didn’t enjoy. I loved the idea of putting my favorite songs from any number of artists and any number of albums in one collection and being able to listen to all of them together. I loved listening to a new mix tape, of savoring the lingering surprise of the next tune from a completely different source.

Sadly, even in my pot-smoking days that surprise lasted for all of two or three listens. After that, the mix tapes became too familiar, taking on the wearisome predictability of the albums from which I’d culled the songs in the first place. As Rob Gordon (the John Cusack character in High Fidelity) says, “the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” But even the best made mix can’t save us from the fact that we remember and anticipate.

Enter the “shuffle” command on our phones and computers.

That stuff I said before, about everything new sucking? I didn’t mean this. And that part about all technology after the mid 1980s ruining the world? I might not have meant that, either. And the stuff I said about how great LPs were — that was total bullshit. Not that a case can’t be made. I mean, cell phones and computers and the constant presence of social media and “connectivity” in our daily lives — there’s a lot there to dislike.

But the shuffle command makes all of it worthwhile. Hitting “shuffle” is like putting in the ultimate mix tape. Every song is one we want to hear. Every transition is a surprise. Every listening experience is destined to be different.

Nirvana.

The state of being. Not the band. They definitely came on the scene after my twenty-first birthday…

The other night, Nancy and I were cooking dinner, and we had my iPhone on shuffle. (iPhones are okay. They were invented way before I turned 21. Really. I promise. Same with Bluetooth speakers like the one we were using. I swear.) And, quite seriously, I was struck that evening, after the fourth or fifth excellent song in a row, by the absurd amount of pleasure I derive from the shuffle feature. Ridiculous, I know. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. The planet is melting. American democracy is on life-support. But I can listen to a collection of Eagles tunes without fear of hearing “Chug All Night.”

It doesn’t get better than that.

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Creative Friday: My Brother the Artist

For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha's Vineyard, October 2017

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha’s Vineyard, October 2017

For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.

And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.

His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…

We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.

But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.

Happy birthday, Bro. Love you.

"Pond Light; Sun Dance" by James Coe

“Pond Light; Sun Dance” by James Coe

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Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Book ShelfAs I mentioned in last week’s Professional Wednesday post, I have a teaching gig coming up. I’ll be leading a couple of critique workshops, and this Saturday, I’ll be giving a long talk on writing epic fantasy. This opportunity came my way because someone mentioned to a mutual friend that the people running the program needed an epic fantasist, and this person thought of me.

I’m flattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The thing is, though, I don’t necessarily think of myself as an epic fantasy author.

At Boskone a couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel about historical fantasy and others forms of historical fiction. In fact, I am usually on at least one history panel at just about every convention I attend, whether in-person or virtual.

I don’t necessarily think of myself as a historical fiction author, either.

I can go through this same formulation with media tie-in work, with urban fantasy, with novels and with short stories. I can even apply it to my blog posts. Am I a political blogger? An advice and instruction blogger for aspiring writers? A social critic? A commentator on the arts?

Yes. Yes, I am.

The writers I know who are happiest tend to be those who are least easily defined by genre speciality. I have one friend — many of you know him — who has written thrillers, epic fantasy, middle grade, YA, science fiction, something approaching horror. He’s excelled at everything he’s tried, and he’s been a bestseller in more than one section of the bookstore. I have another friend — and many of you know her — who says that if writers haven’t had to re-invent themselves at least two or three times, they’re just not trying.

I have published twenty-four books. My twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, and possibly my twenty-seventh, will be out this year. Of these, eleven are epic fantasy, nine are urban fantasy, with five — soon to be six — of the UFs also qualifying as historicals. Three more are a hybrid of epic fantasy and time travel. Two are tie-ins. And two of the books coming out this year are supernatural thrillers, a genre I’ve never tried before now. I can divide up my short fiction publications — I have somewhere between twenty-five and thirty — the same way. I’m all over the place.

And that’s just how I want it. I would get bored writing the same thing all the time. I like jumping from epic to historical to contemporary and back to epic again. The variety keeps every project fresh.

I see too many young writers trying to define themselves by subgenre. I think some do it because the industry encourages a certain level of pigeon-holing. If we enjoy some success in one area, the market responds by saying, “That’s great! Do it again, only better!”

I would encourage you all to resist that pressure. Certainly if you want to keep working for a time in the same world, with the same characters, do so. I can hardly fault anyone for that, having set eight novels in the Forelands/Southlands universe, and having turned Thieftaker into a franchise of both short fiction and novel-length works.

But I would also urge you to experiment, to try different sorts of stories, to challenge yourself to write something outside your comfort zone. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be publishing supernatural thrillers. Five years before that, I would have told you that I had no intention of ever attempting to write a time-travel story, much less a trilogy. Seriously. That shit will make your brain explode. And yet…

And yet, the time-travel novels of my Islevale Cycle might be the best books I’ve written. The thriller coming out this spring/summer is a book of which I’m deeply proud. The sequel, which I’m writing now, is taking me in all sorts of cool directions. I’m having a blast.

And that’s sort of the point. As I said in last week’s post about my new approach to writing, I am working with the goal of enjoying my work, of taking satisfaction in what I do. This remains a very difficult profession. So write for the joy of it. Stretch, push yourself, take chances. You’ll improve your story telling. You’ll hone your prose. Most important, you’ll have fun.

So what’s next? I’m not entirely sure. But I do have this science fiction idea I’ve been toying with. And a pair of contemporary fantasies based on Celtic mythology. And a middle grade book that I’d like to get back to. And… and… and…

Posted in Business of publishing, Fantasy, Friendship, Islevale Cycle, Novels, Publishing, Short Fiction, Thieftaker, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Professional Wednesday: Writing All Sorts of Stuff

Creative Friday: Rime and Mist

Late last week, after days of snow and freezing temperatures, we finally had a much needed thaw. But before the thaw began, I took a Friday morning walk out to Jackson Lake, a spot I have visited often in the past year. I hadn’t planned to go, but something in the light, and in the scent of the air, told me I had to. I grabbed my camera and monopod, and hurried through the woods behind our house. I am so very glad I did.

The trees around the lake were rimed with frost, and a mist drifted through the surrounding forest and across the water’s surface, lending a ghostly cast to the entire scene. I was in photographer’s heaven. I took a lot of photos, some okay, some pretty memorable. Here are a couple of the best.

I don’t expect that we’re quite done with winter here on the Cumberland Plateau. But this past week had a springlike feel, and it may be that magically frosty mornings like this one are finished, at least for a number of months. I suppose we’ll see.

I wish you a magical weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.Jackson Lake with Frost and Mist, by David B. CoeJackson Lake with Frost and Mist II, by David B. Coe

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Professional Wednesdays: Lessons From Manuscript Critiques — Simple Is Better

I am reading stories right now for a teaching gig I have coming up in early March. I’ll be running a critique workshop, and so I not only have to read and comment on the manuscripts, I also should take the opportunity to turn the issues I identify into writing lessons. Because the truth is, all the submissions seem to be from writers with limited experience, and all the submissions suffer from similar problems.

Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating any of the writers in the group. The problems I’m seeing are ones that editors found in my work when I was starting out. I don’t make these errors as often now — I’ve moved on to new mistakes. And when I’ve overcome this new set of problems, I have no doubt that I will find still newer ways to mess things up. This is the creative process — there’s a reason why authors should never stop relying on editors.

Back to the workshop manuscripts… Here is what I’m seeing: All of the writers have terrific ideas. Their worlds and magic systems are fresh and innovative and exciting. And their characters are compelling as well. Some of the writers need to work on staying in tight point of view and injecting emotion into their stories, but even on these fronts they’re doing fairly well.

The flaws I’m finding in their work are largely mechanical. Their story telling is good, but their prose is getting in the way of their narratives. Specifically, I’m seeing three trends again and again.

1) They are trying to do too much with each sentence. There are places in a manuscript where it is perfectly appropriate to use compound sentences, phrasings that rely on the connection of several clauses in order to express complex emotions. There are places where short declaratives work better. (See what I did there?) I have noticed, however, not just with this batch of manuscripts, but in other settings, going back years, that beginning writers are drawn to the complexities of longer phrases. It’s almost as if they feel that writing shorter sentences will expose them as newbies.

This isn’t the case. As my wonderful, talented, and wise friend, Faith Hunter, has pointed out, syntax and phrasing is to the written story what soundtracks are to movies. When the action ramps up in a movie, the music grows taut, staccato. When the action ramps up in written stories, phrases should become shorter, punchier. Thoughts should be pared to the bone. And even when the action isn’t necessarily at a fever pitch, it is fine to rely on short declaratives as well as longer sentences. Short phrases punctuate key passages, drawing attention to important moments. They are an invaluable tool. (See? Did it again.)

2) A related point: Beginning authors, including those whose manuscripts I’m reading now, often tie themselves (and their prose) in knots seeking clever phrases. Again and again, in my margin notes, I have tried to remind them that simpler is usually better. This is not to say that every phrase needs to be simple, that every sentence should be short and to the point. Stories written that way would bore an audience — books would read like grade school primers, which we don’t want.

But sometimes it’s clear that a writer has decided on a certain construction for a sentence, and even after that structure has become unwieldy, they continue to batter the phrasing into submission. I know I’ve done it. I have a rhythm in mind, and I. Am. Going. To. Make. It. Work! The problem is, by the time I’m done, the sentence is a mess. This is a “kill your darlings” moment. You may love the concept you had for that phrasing, but if it has turned into a struggle for you as you write it, chances are your readers will struggle with it too. Simple is better. Simple works. Try a different approach to the sentence. Shorten it. Or better yet, divide it into two (or three) sentences. Your readers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. The beleaguered instructor reading your manuscript for a workshop will thank you.

3) Finally, I see a lot of writers trying to shoehorn into their scenes great swaths of world building information. They know better than to resort to full-blown data dumps, but they feel compelled to explain certain elements of their world in the moment, and they do so by overloading their sentences with background. The result, again, is sentences with too many clauses, too much information, and no flow.

In a sense this is a point of view issue. When characters are in the moment — whether they are deep in an important conversation, or facing an immediate threat to their own safety or that of people they care about — they are unlikely to pause to consider, say, the history of the city they’re in, or the anatomical differences between different species in the world.

It may be that this is important information. But writers need to ask themselves, “Is it crucial that my reader know all of this right now?” Chances are it’s not. If it is, anticipate that need and work at least some of the information in before the action heats up. Otherwise, save it for later. Either way, don’t try to heap all of the necessary info into a single serving, like an over-eager kid at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Doing so only confuses readers and leaves syntax in shambles.

Write with purpose. Strive for concision. Remember that, more often than not, simple is better.

And keep at it.

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Monday Musings: My Declaration of Creative Independence

So many professional issues on my mind today — I’m finding it hard to organize my thoughts into something coherent.

These remain hard times for creators. Writers, musicians and composers, visual artists of all sorts, actors and directors, dancers and choreographers. I could go on, but you get the point. The irony of art: it is considered a solitary endeavor, when in fact it is anything but. We all know the clichés of the lonely artist working in isolation, the writer holed up with her computer, tapping away at the keyboard, churning out her next story.

The truth is, though, art is decidedly communal. The act of creation is only the beginning. All art is interactive. Music must be heard. Paintings and photographs must be seen. Stories must be read. Because every song and book and painting has as many lives as there are people who experience it. Twenty people might read my book — or better yet, twenty thousand people might read it — and each would experience it their own way. Same with songs. Same with works of art. Creation is incomplete until it is received.

And so when a pandemic prevents that interaction between creation and audience, art suffers. So does the artist. I can write as many books in isolation as time allows. But until I know my book is being read by someone, I don’t feel that I’ve accomplished anything.

A dear friend posted a couple of times last week about writing in the COVID age. His first post touched on the slowness of the industry right now. Again, we writers can turn out new books, but if the publishing industry does nothing with them, we struggle to reach our readers. And right now, the publishing industry is the literary equivalent of a clogged sink. Nothing is flowing. So it wasn’t that surprising when, a couple of days later, this same friend shared an article about how hard it is to be productive right now. The dialectic between writer and reader is about far more than books sales. It is, as I indicated above, the way we complete the creative experience. When we know that our books are going nowhere, that they have no immediate hope of reaching audience, our motivation leaches away. And without motivation, we’re lost.

A couple of weekends ago, at Boskone, I moderated a panel on self-defining success. This is an important topic for me; I believe we must take satisfaction in our work on our terms. There is a difference, though, between, on the one hand, finding internal affirmation for our work and our careers, and, on the other, working in a vacuum.

So, where am I going with this?

I guess here: I will continue to write with an eye toward big-press publishing. I have not given up on “New York” entirely. But I am currently writing and editing for small presses. Working through an imprint I have developed with a couple of friends, I am bringing out my own work.

I am, in effect, declaring my independence. I am writing for myself, and for the audience I can reach. And I am worrying far less about what the imprint on the spines of my books says about my status as a writer.

A confession: A couple of years ago, after a disappointing stretch, a series of serious professional setbacks, and a particularly demoralizing experience at a convention, I was ready to quit. I’d had enough. I had been kicked, and kicked again, and kicked a third time. My ego had been brutalized. I didn’t want to write. I certainly didn’t want to deal with any more reversals like those I’d just experienced. I was done.

Except, obviously I wasn’t. I still had stories to tell. I still had characters in my head and heart who clamored for attention. I still had things to say. And while I thought I didn’t want to write anymore, I was wrong. Turns out, I can’t go more than a week or two without writing something. I get grumpy. I snarl and mope and brood and rant. Very, very unattractive. Nancy never says anything when I get this way. Not directly. But she’ll ask me, “So what are you working on today?” And the subtext of that question is, “When are you going to start behaving like an adult human again?”

It has taken me a while to reach the place I’m in now. It was a process, as fraught and difficult as the creation itself can be. But I’m here now. I have an idea of what success looks like, and it has far, far more to do with contentment and peace of mind than it used to. I have a sense of what my career will look like going forward, and while some of my old ambition remains, I am happy — eager even — to approach publication and editing and other professional pursuits in a way that preserves my emotional health and feeds the joy I derive from the simple act of telling stories.

Don’t worry. I have no intention of quitting. I have stories to tell, short form and long, and I have every intention of putting them in the hands of readers.

Because creation is communal. It is a never-ending conversation. And we’re all part of it.

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Creative Friday: SITTIN’ IN Fifty (!) Years Later

Sittin In, Loggins and MessinaFor this week’s Creative Friday post, I’m doing something a little different, and writing about someone else’s creativity.

Lately, I have been on a kick of going back to old music that I once loved but lost touch with along the way. Some of it I have tried to rediscover only to find that it’s really not all that good and ought to have stayed lost. But a few of the albums I have gone back to have surprised me with their quality. One of them is an old classic: Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s Sittin’ In.

Actually, the album is officially credited “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina.” When they started together in 1971, Loggins was a young singer/songwriter at the start of a promising career, and Messina was already a rock veteran, having enjoyed success in Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Messina was brought in to produce a Loggins solo album, but wound up contributing songs and arrangements, not to mention guitar work and lots of vocals. In the end, they released the album as a duet. Over the next five years, before their somewhat messy break-up in 1976, they went on to release six studio albums and a live album. After the break-up they fulfilled some contractual obligations with another live album and a couple of greatest hits releases.

They’re probably best known for an old-time rock tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a song I never cared for all that much. And several of their later albums sold better than the first. But to my mind, Sittin’ In was the best album they put out.

It includes a couple of beautiful and popular ballads. Loggins wrote “Danny’s Song” to celebrate the birth of his brother’s son. This is one of those songs that no one knows by title, but everyone recognizes. The chorus has been sung by crowds in college coffee houses for nearly fifty years. “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey/And everything will bring a chain of love…”

“House at a Pooh Corner” is a lovely-if-saccharine-sweet homage to childhood, and another coffee house favorite.

But where the album really shines is in its up-tempo numbers, which combine the exuberance of straight-ahead 70s rock, with the instrumentation of country. “Nobody But You,” which opens the album, is one of my favorite songs of all time. By anyone. From the opening guitar lick, to the tidy, tasteful finish, the song simply soars.

“Back To Georgia” begins what was once the B side of the album with similar energy and power. The centerpiece of that second side is the smoky “Same Old Wine,” which could well have been written today:

Well we give them the election,
That keeps filling our heads full of lies;
Can we trust in new directions,
When their promises are in disguise?
Well someday the truth will catch up
I just hope it don’t catch us all by surprise.

The album also includes “Vahevala,” a calypso-influenced song that was the biggest hit on the album. It remains catchy and affecting, though fifty years on, some of the lyrics are, let’s say, problematic. A tight three-song medley on the old A side ends with the soulful “Peace of Mind,” and Loggins’ piano ballad, “Rock and Roll Mood,” completes the collection. There really isn’t a bad track here. I can’t say that about too many albums.

Without a doubt, part of Sittin’ In’s appeal for me lies in nostalgia. This is an album I listened to throughout my adolescence and well into my college years. It carries some wonderful memories, as well as some more poignant ones. But as I said before, I have been listening to lots of albums from that part of my life, and some of them don’t hold up well at all.

This one does.

If you don’t know it, you should check it out. If, like me, you had it once, but lost touch with the music, give it another listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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

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