Guesting today on the site is D.B. Jackson, also known as David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.
I come from a family of readers, and so, perhaps not too surprisingly, I also come from a family of writers. But the thing is, neither my father nor my mother was a writer; on the other hand all four of us kids have written professionally in some capacity, which is pretty remarkable. The common denominator for all of us was books. My parents’ house was filled with them; every shelf overflowed with paperbacks and hardcovers, novels and biographies. When I reached a certain age — maybe I was eight — my father set up my own set of bookshelves in my room, fixing brackets to the wall so that I could adjust the shelves as I needed. He had done the same thing for my three older siblings before me. It was a rite of passage in our house.
My parents instilled in all of us a reverence for the written word. They didn’t spoil us; they limited gifts of candy or toys to our birthdays and Christmas. But they were always willing to buy us books. Always. And the truth is, I’m much the same way with my kids.
I didn’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction early on, though eventually, with the help of a camp counsellor, I stumbled upon my first novel in the genre that would dominate my adult life. And I’ll get to that in a moment. But the first reading influences I remember were pretty standard kid fare. There were a series of books that I absolutely loved titled _____ Do the Strangest Things. Birds Do the Strangest Things, Fish Do the Strangest Things, Insects Do the Strangest Things, etc. They were essentially the written, kid-friendly equivalent of a David Attenborough nature special. I couldn’t get enough of them. I read every one of them, and then read them again. And again.
Though I remain a dedicated nature enthusiast, I don’t write natural history, and so it would be easy to assume that these books had little influence on my writing career. But I believe they had a much greater impact on me than one might imagine. They fed a deeply rooted intellectual curiosity and taught me — as my parents hoped they would — that books held answers, not only to all the questions swirling around in my young brain, but also to those questions I hadn’t yet thought to ask. I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that these books, and others like them, started me down the path to academia, which, in turn, steered me toward my writing career.
The other books that I remember gobbling up in my youth were the Hardy Boys mysteries written under the name Franklin W. Dixon. These were the Grosset and Dunlap re-imaginings of the series published initially in 1959 and popular through the 1960s and 1970s (which is when I was reading them). They weren’t great literature, they weren’t terribly challenging as kids’ reading went. But they were enormously fun. If Birds Do the Strangest Things, satisfied my burgeoning curiosity, these books fed my craving for adventure, danger, thrills — all the things my comfortable suburban childhood lacked.
And so, by the time I went off to sleep away camp for the summer as an eleven year-old, I was primed for a new kind of book that would be both engaging and exciting enough to allow me to move on from the Hardy Boys, which I was already starting to outgrow. Enter The Hobbit.
I didn’t actually encounter the book that summer. Instead, I tried out for a dramatized version of Tolkien’s novel. I had already discovered early in the summer that I had a flair for drama (no one who knows me now will be at all surprised) and when the opportunity came to audition for this newest production, I took full advantage. Yes, I was cast as Bilbo Baggins. It helped that I was short for my age . . .
I fell in love with the story, and more I was fascinated by the world revealed to me by the script. Elves, dwarves, wizards, dragons — what was not to love. It had never occurred to me that there were books like this waiting to be read; I certainly never dreamed that there were similar books written for adults that would allow me to pursue my new-found fascination with magical stories well past my childhood. But when the summer was over, I found the novel version of The Hobbit and devoured it. Then I read The Lord of the Rings, and after that Ursula LeGuin’s EarthSea Trilogy. By then, I was hooked on fantasy, and I have been ever since.
But I think it bears repeating that I’m not an author because of Tolkien. I wrote my first “book” when I was six; writing stories was always my favorite school activity. My early experiences with fantasy didn’t set me on the road to a career as a fantasy author; the sheer act of reading had taken care of that long before. The environment created by my parents and their exuberant love of all things book were the most formative forces in my childhood.
It would be pretty easy to imagine my own kids rebelling against my love of reading, which my wife shares. “Dad’s an author? Great. Hand me the remote.” But early on they discovered the same thing I did: Books are treasure boxes; they just beg to be opened. Their favorites have been the Magic Tree House and the Magic School Bus, Harry Potter and most recently the Hunger Games books. To be honest, I don’t care what titles they’re drawn to — as long as they’re reading, I’m happy. Sounds like something my Mom and Dad would have said.
Corey Redekop, whose site describes him as a “maker up of wordy thinglets,” does conscious and unconscious interviews with writers as well as reviewing for Quill and Quire, and my conscious interview is here. This would be the more serious one… he asks about portal fantasy, and the magic in Child of a Hidden Sea, and the legal thriller angle.
I have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.
Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:
There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.
To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!
I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.
We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.
But myths about writing? Those are universal.
The one that annoys me the most has several variations:
* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.
What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”
For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.
Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.
To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.
Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.
Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.
Cat Rambo and I met doing Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings at a bunch of conventions through the zero years, mostly Pacific Northwest events like Orycon and Norwescon. I’ve thus heard her read fantasy, horror and science fiction, and one of the things I admire most about her, besides her multi-genre range, is her ability to tell a story quickly that will cut right through all defenses and into the hearts of her audience.
Cat has a new collection of SF stories out… really, it’s more properly two collections. It’s called Near + Far and here’s the NEAR half of the cover:
Today on Off My Lawn, Cat’s tackling the difference between writer’s block and waiting for your Muse to come.
Ah, writer’s block. Writers in films certainly seem to suffer from it, whether it’s Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction or Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From the Train.
They can’t get started, the words don’t come. The muse is out to lunch, and has left no forwarding address.
I’ve got mixed feelings about such portrayals, because they make me feel guilty. Sure, I acknowledge there are valid sources of writer’s block: illness, mental trauma, general life upheaval. But the truth of the matter has always been that even when I’m languishing at the keyboard playing Bejeweled Blitz in an attempt to get my creative juices stirring, I still know: I could be writing, and should be.
Yes, writing that comes easily, breathlessly, spilling onto the page as though you were channeling Calliope herself, is sometimes wonderful. And the writing that comes with difficulty, as though you were scraping the words out of the top of your skull with a melon spoon, may not be great. But there are always words to write, even if they’re “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again.
Part of the my philosophy of writing grows out of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bone. For Goldberg, writing is the most important thing. It is the act of having written that matters, not what you’ve produced. And I agree, because the day after I’ve forced to write, it’s easier to do so, while the day I spent conquering the world in Civ 3 made me, if anything, less fit to write.
The blank page is scary. It’s a large and unguessable territory. It’s easier if you go in with a plan of action, a list of sights and scenes and senses you want to hit. But sometimes you have to trust yourself just to write and see what comes out. Because the brain gets bored with saying “I don’t know what to write” over and over again. It starts tossing out wild and entertaining notions, comes up with odd and unscripted moments. That’s often when you’re best in touch with that unknown side of you, that side that will never face you directly but will manifest best and most brightly in your writing. Learn to trust that hidden side to supply you with details you can excavate in rewriting. Learn to collaborate with yourself.
I don’t have the time or patience for writer’s block. Writing is what I do and unless I do it every day, I’m not happy with myself. Sure, some words are crap. But some are good, and the more I write, the better they are.
When I was at Hopkins, one of my teachers was Stephen Dixon, who had something like 14 or 15 books at the time. Whenever you talked to him in the hall, you knew what was going on in his head: “We could both be writing.” It was sobering how devoted to producing the text he was – in those pre-computer days, he just typed his manuscripts over and over, refining them with each pass, until he was done. Think of how much easier we have it now.
So yeah. Writer’s block? Maybe. I don’t want to offend anyone with categorical denunciations. Let’s just say sometimes it might be real – but sometimes it’s an excuse. And I just don’t have a lot of patience with that, anymore.
Near + Far is full of stories. I could have had twice as many in it. They’re stories that could have stayed in my head, much more perfect, elegant and beautifully realized than their actuality. Or I could do what I did: write them and get them out of the way, making room for more to come.