What I Learned While Working On My Newest Book

I have recently completed work on a new book called How To Write Magical Words:  A Writer’s Companion.  The book grew out of the Magical Words writing blog that I maintain with several fellow fantasy authors, including Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, A.J. Hartley, and Stuart Jaffe.  Fellow SFNovelists writer C.E. Murphy was, along with Faith, Misty, and me, a founding member of Magical Words, and the book includes essays by all of us who are or were regular contributors to the site.  It also includes essays by our editor, the wonderful Edmund Schubert.  Here is a mock-up of the jacket art.  The book will be released in December, just in time for the holidays.

Writing a “How-To” about any artistic endeavor is challenging, to say the least.  I have been writing professionally for fifteen years and have published a dozen books and many short stories.  But I am still growing as a writer, still learning my craft.  Writing about writing, and reading through the essays of my co-authors, proved to be incredibly instructive.  And so I thought I would share with you today a few things that I learned while working on the Writer’s Companion.

1.  I have a whole lot more to learn about writing:  That may seem obvious, particularly if you’ve read my books [Rimshot...], but it’s easy to forget.  I often am struck at conventions by the confidence with which authors with only a single publication credit to their name, sit on a panel and all but declare themselves experts on writing and publishing.  I remember doing the same thing myself, when I first broke into the business.  I don’t do it anymore.   The more experienced the author in such situations, the more nuanced their comments, and the more humble their demeanor.  I think that the more we learn about writing, the more we see all that we have yet to master.  The day I stop learning about what it means to write will be the day I stop writing.

2.  There is no single right way to do any of this:  Our book includes essays from seven of us, and while certain themes wend their way through the entire collection, the variety of opinions, approaches, and methods is incredible.  Even the most important elements of my process might be utterly foreign and nonsensical to my colleagues, and vise versa.  And that’s okay.  Creative process should be as idiosyncratic as the art it produces.  Just as I wouldn’t want my books to be like anyone else’s, so I shouldn’t expect my approach to writing to mirror that of my friends.

3.  A corollary to number 2 — There is no set career path that guarantees success:  I sold my first novel on five chapters and an outline, having never previously sold a single piece of fiction, long or short.  This is not because I was better than anyone else, but rather because I was lucky, and because I got my start fifteen years ago when the market wasn’t so tight and such things were possible.  Faith sold her first novel from a slush pile and went on to become a bestseller.  Stuart got his start selling short stories.  Tons of them.  Really good ones.  He’s working on his first novel now.  Just as creative process varies from person to person, so does the business path.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you CAN’T succeed a certain way.  That’s not to say that there aren’t some paths that are safer and more likely to lead to success than others.  And we make plenty of business related recommendations in the book.  But none of it is etched in stone; none of it carries the weight of absolute certainty.

4.  The people who succeed at writing work hard at it:  Another point that might seem obvious at first, but actually isn’t.  We all want to be inspired, to follow our muse, to be carried off on the power of a story or character idea, to jump into that magical book that “writes itself.”  But really, it all comes down to putting our butts in the chair and doing the work.  Writing books is hard.  Really hard.  Anyone who tells you otherwise probably has never written one.  This is one of the reasons why I object to the term “writer’s block.”  The very idea of writer’s block presupposes that writing should come easily, that a book should constantly flow.  Those who have written understand that in fact writing is about fits and starts, false paths and revisions.  What some people call “writer’s block” I call “writing.”  It’s not supposed to be easy.  If it was, everyone would do it.

5.  The people who are happiest with their writing careers write for the love of it:  Don’t get me wrong:  I want to be successful.  I want my books to sell, to win awards, to make money.  Lots of money, if possible.  But while I try my hardest to market what I write, I don’t write for the market and I don’t write to make money.  I write because I love it.  I write because I have stories and characters and settings percolating inside my head all the time, and because if I didn’t write already I’d have to start.  I write even though the business drives me nuts, even though I earn far less as an author than I would doing just about anything else I might have tried.  I write even though those fits and starts I mentioned earlier make me want to tear out my hair (which is already thinning, thank you very much).  In fact, you might say that I write because as much as I am frustrated by the process, I am also challenged by it, and revel in that challenge.  And this, I know, is something I share with my colleagues at Magical Words, and, I would imagine, my colleagues here at SFNovelists, too.

So, those are a few of the things I learned from working on the book.  If you’ll pardon the shameless self-promotion, I hope that you’ll pick up a copy of How To Write Magical Words.  Maybe you’ll find something helpful in its pages, too.

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Erika Holt

    This post really hits home with me, David, and it made me smile. You are a kind, generous, and humble mentor to up-and-comers, and I feel very lucky to have met you.

    This book will be high on my must-read list!

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Coe, thanks for the insight. One question regarding career paths. How many false starts (I DID IT, IT SOLD/I didn’t do it, it didn’t sell) did you/anyone here have?

    I just experienced my first false-start and I’m weirdly ambivalent about the experience. I’m interested in hearing from others who had/lost a sale, a ?-book deal, or in my case an agent.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Elias, I was fortunate in that I didn’t have a false start early in my career. I have had one later on, involving a book that I sold to a smaller press that then went belly up. And more to the point, while I didn’t have a false start, plenty of other people have. That sort of thing is not at all uncommon in this business. Publishing is strange and quirky and at times really, really dispiriting. People lose agents (or find out they never had one when they thought they did) or have deals fall through all the time. Keep doing the work and don’t lose hope. The fact that you had an agent at all means that you’re moving in the right direction. Take that from the experience and keep moving forward. Best of luck.

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’m always curious about the paths/experiences authors have in the pursuit.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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