David B. Coe and The Dark-Eyes War

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Today, we welcome David B. Coe, as guest to MW. Yes. I am posting. About David. The paperback edition of The
Dark-Eyes’ War
the final volume of his Blood of the Southlands trilogy (The Sorcerers’ Plague, volume I; The Horsemen’s Gambit, volume II) was released yesterday by TOR, and if you haven’t read David’s epic fantasy, you are in for a treat.

FH:  As this site is geared mostly to writers, let’s start with the writing aspect of the series. David, Tell us how you plotted this book, both to stand alone and to make it fit into the series.

DBC:  Okay, first of all, thanks for letting me intrude upon your usual posting day, Faith. It’s nice — albeit strange — to be here as a guest rather than as a regular.  The Dark-Eyes’ War was a challenging book to plot for a couple of reasons.  First, as you point out in the question, in writing any book within an extended story arc we have to be careful to satisfy those readers who have been with the series from the beginning while at the same time making the story line accessible to readers who are coming to the book without knowing any of the background.  That can be tough, particularly with the final book in the sequence. 

I believe, though, that key is to plot for dedicated readers and write for newbies.  What do I mean?  Well, by the time book three rolls around, the plot is pretty much rolling around. In the case of the Southlands book, we’ve already had a plague sweep across the land, weakening the Qirsi sorcerers who have been essentially at war
with the Eandi for a millennium.  The Eandi, sensing an opportunity to undo hundreds of years of military failures, have launched an invasion against Qirsi lands.  War is at hand, and to slow things down here would make no sense at all.  On the other hand, there are ways to introduce crucial plot points with subtle explanations that will quickly bring a new reader up to speed.  Clearly, I want to avoid data-dumps — they will turn off new readers and established fans alike.  But the fact is that with extended story-arcs, especially ones with several plot threads, even those returning readers will appreciate a sentence or two to remind them of who is who and what their circumstances are.

Plot for the old readers, write for the newbies.  It works.

FH:  Wow. Okay, for your fans who are interested in the series and for the writers here, share with us the differences between story arcs and true serials. You know – a quick tutorial.

DBC:  Sure. A quick tutorial.  Okay, an extended story arc is to true serial as the first Star Wars trilogy is to the Indiana Jones movies.  Extended story arc is essentially a single story told over several volumes, while a true serial is a series of stand alone stories with recurring characters.  Now, it’s not always that easy to tell the two apart.  Each volume in one of my extended story-arcs tends to have something that at least resembles a satisfying ending.  I want my readers to finish each volume of the story arc feeling that they have accomplished something, that the book has moved them measurably closer to the conclusion of the tale.  And I know that while your Jane Yellowrock books are volumes in a true serial, there is definitely a sense of continuity to them, a sense that Jane is growing and changing with each volume.  But that’s basically the difference between them.  Examples of extended story arcs include not only my books, but also Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.  True serials include not only your books, but also Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, and Catie Murphy’s Joanne Walker series.

FH:  I’ve written a few series now, and it’s a different mindset and different skill set from writing stand alones. Tell us some of the challenges of writing a third book in a 3-book extended story arc.

DBC:  I think the hardest thing about the final book of any story-arc (I’ve now written two “Book Threes” and one “Book Five”) is tying up all the loose ends in a way that leaves readers truly satisfied.  Now that probably sounds familiar, since it’s the goal of writing any book, be it a volume in a story-arc, or a stand alone.  The thing is, though, that with story-arcs the tale tends to be bigger, more sprawling.  The Southlands books had several distinct story lines, and each one had a hero (or, in the case of at least one of them, an anti-hero).  I moved each one along with its own pacing, its own twists and turns.  But I needed for all of them to hit their peaks at around the same time, and I needed for each to end in a way that was going to leave my readers feeling that what was supposed to happen had, in fact, happened.  At the same time, I also had to prioritize the stories to some extent.  I had to know which was the most important, which had to end to the tale.  And I needed to present each conclusion in a certain order, so that the impact of each felt right.  It’s a fine balance, and there is really no
way to “teach” it.  It’s something that varies with every new project; to a certain degree it’s a matter of trial and
error.

FH:  David, lately, you have been writing historical/urban fantasy under the name DB Jackson. Tell us some of the differences between writing epic alternate world and urban. I know it sounds weird, but when I write medical thrillers, I feel like the part of my brain that is engaged in the process is different from when I write urban fantasy.  Did your mind/brain have to change the way it worked? And, while I’m dumping questions at you, is writing in different genres all a matter of voice for you, or is it also pacing and subject matter?

DBC:  I absolutely know what you mean.  Writing in a historical setting was a completely different experience, in part because I felt that I was treading on ground that didn’t “belong” to me the way my own epic fantasy worlds do.  I had dual responsibilities in a way — one to plot and character and magic system, etc., and one to the real history that I was borrowing for my books.  So that was very different.  I had to think about my books more systematically, and I had to blend my setting with my narrative and the magical elements of my “worldbuilding” with far more care.

I also found that writing urban fantasy (not only the D.B. Jackson Thieftaker books, but also some other urban fantasies I’ve been working on) presented different challenges and different payoffs as well.  The challenges mostly involved making my writing leaner.  Each Southland book came in at about 140,000 words.  My urban
fantasies are running around 100,000 to 110,000.  That’s a significant difference.  Now in part this reflects the fact that urban fantasy tends to have fewer point-of-view characters and fewer plot threads, so the actual structure of the story lends itself to (relative) brevity.  When I write UF my plotting becomes more directed, my pacing quickens.  But it is also a matter of voice, as your final question suggests.  Even writing in the historical setting, I found that there was a certain “noir” quality to my writing.  I was writing urban with a mystery twist, and so that Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler/Mickey Spillane terseness crept into my work a bit.

FH:  Okay – what now? What are you working that is a new shiny?

DBC:  Well, I have a bunch of projects underway right now.  I’m writing short fiction in the Thieftaker universe, trying to publish a few stories (either in competitive markets or as freebies on the D.B, Jackson website  in advance of the July 2012 release of Thieftaker.  I also am working on the other urban fantasies I mentioned in my answer to the previous question.  I have two UF manuscripts that need to be reworked, so I’ll have some revisions to do in the new year.  I have a middle grade book that also needs to be revised, so I’ll be working on that at some point.  I plan to pitch two more Thieftaker books early in 2012.  And I have an idea for a pretty dark epic fantasy that has just started forming in the last week or two.  I expect that before long I’ll be working on that, as well.

FH:  Thanks, David. Now, all you readers, go buy a book!

DBC:  Thank you, Faith.  This was fun!

The Dark-Eyes War: “This is a book about ancient prejudice and the tragic consequences of one woman’s twisted quest for vengeance.  It is about magic darkened by an age-old curse and turned to purposes for which it was never intended.  And finally it is about the redemptive power of sacrifice, of forgiveness, of the recognition that
no feud, not even a blood war, can or should last forever.”

Faith Hunter
www.faithhunter.net

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9 comments to David B. Coe and The Dark-Eyes War

  • […] other news, two of my authors are talking to each other (imagine that!) over at Magical Words today, in case you want to stop in and say “hey” or hear a bit about plotting for a single […]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    “plot for dedicated readers and write for newbies” – this seems like a great piece of advice for a lot of different situations. Certainly, as a reader, if I’m reading a book with lots of POV characters, little reminder phrases just as we jump back to a set of characters can be really helpful and is probably something I should keep in mind in my own WIP.

    Question about big fantasy works vs urban fantasy: Many UF stick with only one POV character, so, while shorter, actually allow that character more screen time than one of several POV characters in a high fantasy volume. Do you therefore feel that a HF character almost *requires* the extended story arc / multiple volumes to experience a comparable amount of character development/evolution, or is the UF character development itself limited by a larger number of action sequences, and (usually) shorter time frame, etc… As a reader, I often feel like multiple books in an UF true serial are more required for me to feel like I know a character, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that might be. (sorry that was rambly)

  • Hep, thanks for the comment and the question. I see the multiple POV character approach in big epic fantasy series as being a crucial element in plotting. Multi-strand plots just need more sets of eyes through which to see all the action and subplots. But you raise interesting points about what that does for character development versus a single POV urban fantasy. I tend to think that UF characters and their voices are better developed, in large part because they don’t share the stage with other characters. Certainly when I’m writing a UF character — Ethan Kaille in my Thieftaker books, or the POV characters in my other projects — I feel that I have a better, deeper sense of who they are and what makes them tick. So yes, I suppose that with a multi-book series, those additional volumes (which are also somewhat longer) tend to allow me to delve into my POV characters in ways I wouldn’t if I had to get to know all of them in a single volume. As to the phenomenon you’re finding — that you’re actually not connecting with UF characters as quickly as one might expect, I’m not sure how to explain that, except to say that regardless of subgenre, some authors excel at character work, and some not so much. Hope that’s at least somewhat helpful.

  • Dedicated readers and newbies? I’d be happy with just one dedicated reader who wasn’t my mum 🙂 She always tells me everything I write is fantastic and she can’t wait for the next one.

    This was interesting because I’m in the middle of writing a book that would fit in the serial/series hybrid category and I’m definitely struggling to make the book a single unit while also keeping the over arching story strong. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll read the Southlands series.

  • Thanks for the comment, John. Finding that balance can be incredibly hard, but also deeply rewarding when at last you succeed. I would never claim to be the authority on such things, but it is my professional opinion that you should read the Southlands books…. 🙂

  • David, I really appreciate what you have to say here about extended story arcs, because that’s my main project right now. Having finished the first manuscript (of 3) with a “satisfying ending” (IMHO), I’ve been struggling to plot that out for the annoying middle book. Thank you for putting it into words!

  • Thank you, Laura. Glad you found this helpful. Best of luck with that middle book — those are always the hardest to plot.

  • Fascinating stuff, David, esp that remark about plotting for the oldies and writing for the newbies. Best of luck with the book!