An Editor’s Commandments

Misty MasseyMisty Massey

I stayed up Saturday night live-streaming the Hugo Award ceremony. (Well, okay, technically I watched 2/3 of it, since I was editing stories for The Weird Wild West until past 11 pm) It was an entertaining event – David Gerrold and Tananarive Due were delightful together, and there’s nothing that isn’t made more fun by the inclusion of a Dalek.  I can’t imagine that anyone, at this point, hasn’t at least heard the basic results – No Awards for most of the literary categories, and Best Novel going to The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (and announced by Dr Kjel Lindgren direct from the International Space Station – how cool is that???) Honestly, if you want to hear what more-informed people have to say about the situation, feel free to go search it out on the googlewebs, because Sunday was the Day of the Hugo Post-Game Wrapup, and really, anything I might try to talk about here would just be repetitious.

So today, I’m changing the subject.  Instead of talking about the Hugos, like everyone else, I’m going to talk about editing.  I mentioned before that I spent half the weekend editing my portion of the stories for our upcoming anthology, The Weird Wild West.  (Emily and Margaret and I split them evenly between us.  See, we’re all about the teamwork around here!)  The requested stories are all from experienced, previously published authors, who know how to turn in crazy-clean copy the first time, and the slush pieces we chose were also of that needs-very-little-editing stripe.  Still, there were suggestions and changes that we wanted to offer, things that we all hope our authors will not balk at when their edited versions are returned for revision.  As I was working, I started thinking about John’s post from Friday and the things I see too, too often, so I decided to share my own Editor’s Commandments.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

1. Thou shalt always send thy work to thy editor DOUBLE-SPACED.
For thy editor is a nearsighted middle-aged woman with an astigmatism. Have pity on her.

2. Thou shalt not confuse thy characters’ points of view in a single paragraph.
If thy cowboy wizard is speaking with his apprentice, please start a new paragraph as the conversation progresses so that thy editor knows who’s talking when.

3. Thou shalt only invite as many characters to the party as the story needeth.
Honestly, if the fourteen townsfolk aren’t going to be involved in driving the plot forward, do not confuse thy editor by naming them all.

4. Thou shalt take care to avoid using the same word over and over (and over) again.
The English language is rich and varied. Don’t limit yourself to one descriptor in five sentences running.  Don’t tell me your character walked across the room and walked across the street and walked into the saloon when instead he can stride across the room and stroll across the street and dance into the saloon.

5. Thou shalt not share every bit of thy research in the space of a single short story.
If thy editor has to stop and look up what the heck a sameha is before she can understand what the cowboy wizard is trying to do, rest assured some of your readers will, too.  Trouble is, they may not bother looking it up, but instead may flip over to the next story in the queue.

6. Thou shalt be patient and cooperative with thy editor.
For lo, she maketh suggestions, not pronouncements from on high.  If you disagree with her suggestions, you have the right to explain why.  At the same time, she sees your story without the eyes of love that you wear, so give her thoughts some time to roll around in your head before you fuss at her.

Oops, looks like I dropped the other tablet with the rest of the commandments on it.  I’d love to hear from other readers who’ve edited a story or ten.  What’d I miss?

Rude truths about publishing and writing – Part 347

John G. Hartness

There’s a lot of great information around this site. There are even a couple of other places on the interwebs where you can get some honest information from people who know what they’re talking about. And all of them have given out this information in some form or another at some point. So there should be a lot of “yeah, I’ve heard this before.”

Well, listen this time, for shit’s sake.

I’ve been wearing my editor’s hat a lot the past couple of weeks, working on a couple of novels that I’ve agreed to provide some developmental editing on, and working through short story edits for an as-yet-unnamed anthology that I’m releasing through Dark Oak early next year. So I’ve been seeing a lot of the stuff that we’ve talked about before, and it drives me a little crazy. So here are some pet peeves that may not get you rejected, but will irritate the piss out of an editor. And to those of you who I am working with, NONE of this is targeted at one person. Because if I’ve said “kill your adverbs” once I’ve said it a million times.

1) Seriously, kill your adverbs. It’s not just something people say, it’s a damn truth in writing. Adverbs weaken prose. If you need something to describe your verb, why didn’t you just use a better verb? Instead of “she breathed heavily,” you could have her gasp or pant. Instead of him “touching her face lightly,” he could brush, graze, caress, fondle or stroke. So before you send off your next submission, make a CTRL+F search for “ly” and see how many of those words you can destroy just by using better verbs. Your editor will thank you and you will be more likely to sell the story or book.

2) By all the gods and everything that anyone has ever held holy, please gain a true understanding of passive voice. Then don’t ever use it. I’m sure that he was bothered by his memories of the tragic incident. but not only is that clunky-ass piece of sentence a weak verb, it is also passive voice. His memories haunted him every night when he lay awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what should have been. Better verb, more active voice, tighter prose. The more examples of the verb “to be” that you can excise from your prose, the better your writing will be. Sometimes you just have to say “he was old.” But it’s so much better to say that the years marched across his forehead like a Roman legion of wrinkles headed to war with his grey thicket of eyebrows. So get rid of passive voice and the verb “to be.” You’ll find your prose tighter and more explosive.

3) DO SOMETHING. There are certain instant rejections, and we tagged a couple of folks for some of these at our last Live Action Slush Reading at Congregate. Dreams, waking up, looking in a mirror, all of these will get your shit round-filed post haste. So will a half-page introductory paragraph that’s nothing more than an info-dump. I’ll figure out who your character is through their actions and dialogue, I don’t need a paragraph telling me that they are the son of a Jedi who went over to the dark side. Let all of that information get dispersed organically through action and conversation, and leave the news reporting to CNN.

4) This is the hard one, because it goes against some of what you have to believe to be even a moderately successful writer, but trust me that it’s true. YOU ARE NOT A SPECIAL MOTHER-LOVIN’ SNOWFLAKE. Yes, you can come up with corner cases and limited examples where passive voice, adverbs, “to be” and long info-dumpy descriptions work. You can certainly show me bestsellers that blow these rules all the time. And the sad fact is – you are not them, you are not a rock star, you are not a bestseller, and you are not a shiny unicorn farting rainbows and pissing glitter all over the universe. You are one of thousands of very talented burgeoning writers in the US alone, and you haven’t built up the credibility or equity with a publisher or editor to get away with breaking the rules. George R. R. Martin can do things almost no one in writing can do, because he’s friggin’ GRRM. When you’ve sold as many books as he has, you’ll get that leeway. Until then, cut out the friggin’ adverbs.

This has all been dropped on you with plenty of snark (as usual), but also in love. Do this stuff, and it’ll help you move further along your publishing journey. And get you closer to the point in your career where you can do whatever you want.


John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 

David B. Coe: Creating a Nemesis For Our Protagonist


David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonMy friend Mary Robinette Kowal has hosted me on her website several times for a feature she calls “My Favorite Bit.” This is a chance for authors to win over potential readers by writing about their absolute favorite part of their new work — a character they love, a plot twist that makes them all warm and fuzzy inside . . . You get the idea. I’ve written several of these for Mary in the past; I didn’t want to trouble her for yet another spot on her blog this summer, but I thought I would borrow her idea (with attribution, obviously) for today’s post.

His Father’s Eyes, the second book in The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, has been out now for a bit over two weeks. If you have purchased a copy, thank you. If you have not, please do. It’s a really good book. Seriously, I love this book, and I think you’ll enjoy it too. And if you’ve already read it, please consider posting a review of it over at Amazon. Reviews help — good, bad, or indifferent, they help.

As I said, I love this book. What do I love about it? Well, in part, it’s simply a matter of what it represents to me. As some of you may remember, the first book in the series, Spell Blind, had a pretty tortured history. I sold it once, only to have the publisher that bought it go out of business. And when we tried to sell it again, we couldn’t. I came to realize that the book was fundamentally flawed, and so I tore it down, rebuilt it, then rebuilt it again, and one more time. Eventually, of course, we did sell it, along with its sequels to Baen Books, and the rest you know.

But the thing is, I poured so much creative energy and emotion into writing and fixing that first book, I wasn’t entirely certain what to do with the subsequent volumes, and a part of me wondered if I could write another Fearsson novel. When I not only managed to write this second novel, but to write something that I love even more than that first book (about which I’m quite passionate), I was really thrilled. So, I suppose you could say that my favorite part of this book is its very existence.

His Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollock)That’s a little lame, though. So let me be a bit more specific. One of the things that the first book did not do — because it wasn’t necessary to the plot — was to set up a nemesis for Jay Fearsson who would outlast the narrative of this particular novel. I mean someone like Leo Pellisier in Faith’s Jane Yellowrock novels, or Sephira Pryce in the Thieftaker Chronicles, or the rival powers in C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator series: a character who represents both danger and opportunity for the protagonist, someone who challenges my hero, who threatens him, but who also relates to his darker side.

As I say, there was no room in the first book for such a character. But in the second there is. His name is Jacinto Amaya, and he is a crime lord and runecrafter who hires Jay to look into a mystery that lies at the heart of all that happens in this second novel. He is ruthless and charming, calculating and brilliant. He lives his life both within the law and outside of it. Jay is genuinely afraid of him; when he was a cop, he wanted to put the guy behind bars. But he also finds him to be a valuable ally and a generous, though dangerous friend.

Their interactions have been tremendous fun to write, in part because Jacinto is every bit the conjurer Jay is. They spar constantly, though Jay understands that if he truly manages to tick the guy off, Amaya could say a single word to one of his henchmen and Jay would never be heard from again. The point is, the tension between them adds a key element to Jay’s world. Jacinto can do things for him that no one else can. He has resources that lie outside the law and that are funded by his vast criminal empire. And, since he is a runecrafter, he can help Jay with magical opponents as well. But Jacinto expects certain considerations in return for his help, and Jay is not always comfortable with the things Amaya expects him to do. For Jay, befriending the man is a bit like adopting a rattlesnake as a pet. Whatever comfort he can draw from their friendship, is more than offset by the perils that come with it.

The duality of their relationship made Jay’s world much more interesting for me as a writer, and, I hope, for my readers as well. Sometimes we need to challenge our protagonists with secondary characters who complicate their lives, even if they do so under the guise of friendship.

Have you given your protagonists similarly challenging characters with whom to interact? If not, do you think that doing so might help you with your WIP? Think about it.


David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, came out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two 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.

Traditional Publishing, Self-Publishing and the Pro Writer

Gail Z. Martin

Shadow GardenOnce upon a time, not long ago, there was ‘real’ publishing and vanity publishing. ‘Real’ publishing paid the author, and authors paid the vanity publisher. The lines were clear. Few self-published books made it across the threshold into legitimacy. Self-publishing carried a stigma, regardless of how well-written.

My, how things have changed.

Blame or credit ebooks and print-on-demand for creating a seismic shift in how books are created. Ebooks removed the cost barriers for self-publishers, because with a good cover and interior design, a self-published book could look just as good as one from a big publishing house. Print-on-demand meant that do-it-yourselfers no longer had to pay exorbitant prices to get a minimum print run. And with Amazon willing to carry self-published books and the demise of many brick-and-mortar bookstores, the final objection—not being able to get distribution to bookstores—vanished.

It took a while before professional writers, authors who had made a name for themselves with big traditional publishers, made the bestseller lists and won awards ventured into self-publishing. Partly from fear of the whiff of stigma, and partly from fear of publisher discord, professional writers let the indies and the newbies scope out the territory, work out the bugs, and reap some of the initial rewards. Then, like a claim jumper, when the risks and payoffs were known, pro writers (myself included) got into the game.

Why would a writer with publishing contracts for big publishers venture into self-publishing? I can think of several.

An author may want to pursue a project that his/her current publisher isn’t interested in backing. In this case, the author has the alternative of shopping the project to other publishers (always a hassle), or doing it himself.

Continuing a series the publisher has discontinued is another reason pro authors self-publish. The sales volume required to make a profit for a big publisher is a lot larger than the sales volume that will turn a nice chunk of change for a self-published author. Authors with an established fan base and reputation may elect to write the last book or two of a long-running series to satisfy readers, and today’s self-publishing options make that both feasible and potentially profitable.

Resurrection DayWriting extra stories that happen before, in-between, and after existing traditionally published books might present a way to make fans happy and provide an extra stream of income. I do this with my Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures series of short stories,  my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short fiction and the new steampunk stories and novellas I write with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. These ebook shorts provide additional exploits of favorite characters and present an inexpensive way for new readers to try me out, while developing content that does not violate existing contracts.

Bringing reverted-rights books back into print is a big incentive for authors with long careers to get into self-publishing. Back in the day, giving you back your rights to a book after the author no longer sold enough copies to be profitable was a bitter joke. Now, authors can and do bring beloved out-of-print titles back to life with ebook and print-on-demand versions. I’ve had top authors tell me that they are now seeing income from fiction that hasn’t generated revenue since the 1960s.

Pursuing a pet theme or collaboration is yet another reason pro authors turn to self-publishing. Genre writing is a small club, and many pros know each other. Sometimes anthology projects or shared world ideas are born over drinks in a bar, and pursued because it sounds like fun. In such a case, the authors/editor may elect to self-publish to avoid contract conflicts with rival publishers and to speed the project on its way.

What’s clearly emerging is a new professional writing career track, one that is likely to include traditional publishing, small press and self-publishing streams of income. On the plus side for readers, they benefit from seeing more output from their favorite authors, and the resurgence of hard-to-find old titles brought back to life. Authors benefit from creating multiple streams of income, making them a little less dependent should a publisher choose not to renew a contract or make an offer on a proposal. And I suspect that publishers also benefit, because they have a tendency to cherry-pick successful indie projects and offer contracts once the concept is proven and risk is reduced.

Welcome to the brave new world of publishing!

Copy and Line Editing

Melissa Gilbert

I need a line editor for that title…yikes. But, I couldn’t come up with anything better, so there it stays.

Two weeks ago, I talked about what a proofreader does. Today, I am going to go one and two steps up and talk about copy editing and line editing.

The simple explanation is that copy editing is proofreading on steroids, and line editing is detailed developmental editing.

That doesn’t help much, so here’s a picture.

Editing Graphic

I’ve been working as a freelance editor for about a year and a half, and one thing that I have realized is that some (a lot?) of folks think these are all interchangeable terms. They’re all editing, right? No, they’re not. They’re completely different things, even though they sometimes bleed into one another. The lovely picture above shows the process your shiny, hot-off-the-keyboard manuscript will go through as it moves through the editing process. First, it will go to a developmental editor, then a line editor, then a copy editor, and then a proofreader. As you saw last time, I am starting at the end and working backward because that’s my preference of favored activities. And because I can.

Let’s get on with it.

 Copy Editing

A copy editor is the last step before the manuscript gets formatted and goes to a proofreader.

The copy editor does much of the same things that a proofreader does when it comes to spelling, typos, word choice, etc. However, a copy editor’s job is also to make sure that the manuscript is technically sound. Copy editors are masters of grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and usage. They have often worked extensively with the Chicago Manual of Style or the in-house style guide of their publishing house. (Side note: if you’re looking for a freelance editor and the person you’re checking out hasn’t heard of the CMoS, run.)

A copy editor will also ensure that the manuscript is consistent throughout using a style sheet. Whereas a proofreader may or may not use a style sheet, the copy editor certainly should. Many times when I am working with an author who doesn’t already have a style sheet, I create one as I go through the manuscript.

A style sheet will tell the copy editor many things.

  • How are things being spelled? (Example: theater or theatre)
  • How are names spelled? (Example: Sara or Sarah)
  • Information about each character (Example: Does Sarah have brown hair or blonde?)
  • What is the layout of a room? Does the kitchen move halfway through?
  • If another language is being used, what is the correct spelling? (Example: Faith uses a lot of Cherokee names and phrases in her Jane Yellowrock books, so I’d imagine her editor’s style sheet has a list of what those things mean and how they’re supposed to be spelled.)

That’s just an idea of what might show up on a style sheet. Of course, it will vary depending on the genre, the complexity of the story, and the setting. A fictional world would probably need documented information about currency, hierarchies, customs, and that sort of thing.

Sounds like fun, right? It is! (Don’t judge me.)

Line Editing

A line editor will likely do many of the things that a copy editor does in regards to fixing typos, misspellings, and inconsistencies. But, that’s not their main objective.  A line editor is the language person. They’re the person who makes sure that the language fits the story and enchants the reader. They’re the ones who make it so that you’re transported out of the black text on the white page and into the world hidden within the book. They help make dialogue sound authentic. They help with word choice to fit the setting, time period, character, mood, etc.

Basically, a line editor takes a good story and breathes life into it. Look at it this way: if you skip this step and go directly to copy editing, you could have a technically perfect manuscript that’s dull, boring, and clunky. Just because it’s right doesn’t mean it’s good.

Here are some of the things a line editor may look for:

  • Repeated words
  • Redundancies
  • Places where the prose could be tightened or the dialogue more authentic
  • Shifts in voice, mood, or tone
  • Places where the description doesn’t paint a clear picture
  • Cliches, vague words, purple prose
  • Transitions
  • Awkward phrasing
  • Tangents or digressions

Line editing is probably the most detailed of all the different types of edit. It’s where the story goes from good to amazing. It is where every single word it touched, examined, held up to the light, and evaluated.

Now, line editing and copy editing can be done together, but if you want the best edit possible, you should probably have different people do these tasks, or if the same person is doing the tasks, take some time between reads.

Tamsin talked a while back about sending Mark of the Necromancer through three rounds of edits with different people. First, she had a developmental and line edit, then she sent it to me for a copy edit, and then she had a proofreader go over it. That’s a good thing.

In two weeks, I will be back with the last in this series of posts. We will talk about developmental or “heavy” editing!


The Book of Your Heart

John G. Hartness

Queen of Kats 1 cover

Before I get to my topic, here’s a most shameless of plugs. It’s my birthday, and I want you to buy yourself a present. Buy a book! Preferably one from one of the folks here at MW, and God knows that gives you plenty to choose from. I’ve provided an image and link to my latest, but go pick up something from one of us – me, David, Faith, Gail, Misty, Emily, Tamsin. Melissa – we’ve all got work out there, and as a gift to me, I want you to buy yourself something pretty. And enjoy! Here’s a link to my latest release – Queen of Kats, Part I


It’s THE book.

You know the one I’m talking about. It’s your novel. It’s your Water for Chocolate, your American Gods, your Beloved. It’s the book that will change the way people look at books, at writing, at you. It’s the book you’ve had rolling around in your head since you were a kid. You’ve written it, and re-written it, and polished it over and over again, and once it hits bookstore shelves it’s going to change the world for the better.

And you should never, ever send it to anyone.

I end up speaking to a lot of new writer, up-and-coming writers, and wannabe writers. And one thing I hear a lot is “I’m almost finished with my book. I’ve worked on it for the last ten years, and it’s almost done. What should I do with it?”

My answer is almost always the same – finish it, wrap it in silk, put it in a cedar box so it will smell nice forever, then put it under your bed and never show it to anyone. Then go write a book you can sell. Come back to me when you have a project you love but haven’t invested half your life into, and we’ll talk about publishing.

I can see their faces in front of me even now. The smile as they assume that because I’m a fairly funny guy that I’m joking. Then the raised eyebrow as the get the hint that I might not be joking. Then the crushing disappointment that I didn’t ask to see the copy that we both know is in their backpack right now. Then the anger that I would even suggest that their book might not make it to the top of the bestseller lists. Then the determination that I’m an idiot and know nothing about writing or publishing, and that they’ll show me.

I shit you not, it’s like I’m the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of publishing (and for the record, I got Kübler-Ross right the first time, even with the dot thingies over the “u,” but had to look up the “Elisabeth”).

I have a very good reason for telling new writers never to show anyone their Great American Novel, and it has nothing to do with me losing sales to them. I firmly believe that publishing is not a zero-sum game, and that every book bought doesn’t mean one fewer book bought from me, it just means another book was bought, so perhaps a new junkie was created. A rising tide of sales lifts all boats, so the last thing I want is fewer books in the market.

But the really, absolutely last thing I want is for some novice writer to stop writing because they got their heart broken over their first book. And that’s why I tell people never to shop the book of their heart. Certainly not as your first book. Because the publishing industry is heartless and sometimes cruel, and I don’t want to see you die creatively because your first novel sucks donkey butt.

The other reason I tell people not to shop the book of their heart is because it probably sucks donkey butt.

And because they’ve wasted a boatload of time on it! I mean, FFS, people, what the hell are you spending ten years working on if your last name isn’t Rothfuss? Look at the level of productivity we’re talking about on this site – we are cranking some words, folks! Tamsin has a couple new releases this year, David has two new novels in the past fifteen minutes, I poop out a novella every time a car backfires in my neighborhood, Melissa has several new novellas out, Faith is working two different series at a time, and Gail has more new releases than I do! The only thing we’ve been working on for a decade has been our careers! And for some of us (me), I haven’t even been working on a writing career that long! Ten years ago I thought I was a lighting designer and a journalist! Or a theatre producer!

Oh yeah, and everybody’s first novel sucks donkey butt. Mine certainly did. The Chosen is a decent story, and with a lot of ruthless hard work and bleeding from the eyeballs, wallet and fingertips, I turned it into a good novel. But it suuuuuuucked at first. But you know what? I figured it would. It was the first thing I’d ever written over 10,000 words long. I started writing it as an exercise just to see if I could write anything longer than 1,000-word blog articles and short stories. So when it came time to edit the book and work on it, I could handle the criticism.

Because I was detached and professional about it. And sure, you can find me one or two corner cases where people can be dispassionate about the book of their heart, but you know as well as I do that it’s about as common as being able to find an editor worth hiring that you share DNA or fluids with. It’s pretty rare.

These delicate flowers, these novels of the heart, they’re something special. They tie to moments that are critical in the author’s life, and I hate to see that get beaten up through the publishing process. And novice writers haven’t found their armor yet, not most of them. You guys have an edge, because you read this site, and it gives you no-BS talk about the business, so you know what to expect. But no matter how many times we’ve done this, the more we put ourselves out there, the more fear there is. There’s a scene in In the Still of the Knight that I wrote just after we buried my mom (like, seriously, that night). And the scene is pretty raw emotionally, for the characters and for me as a writer. I was nervous sending that scene to my editor, and that book was already sold! Publishing is tough, and editors and publishers neither know nor care that you lost your job the week you wrote that chapter, or that the events in the novel actually happened to you, or any of that. They only want to make the best book they can make, to make the most money possible. Your heart and soul are tangential to the process.

And that’s why I tell people to take care of that book, to maybe come back to it after they’ve got a few other books out there. To take another look at it after they’ve sold a couple manuscripts and are able to see it more coldly, like a publisher would. Because then, once they don’t have too many dreams wrapped up in those words, then maybe they can make one or two come true.


John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 

David B. Coe: Openings Again — Breaking Down HIS FATHER’S EYES


David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonHis Father's Eyes, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollock)It’s been a bit over a week since the release of His Father’s Eyes, the second book in The Case Files of Justis Fearsson. I suppose I should know how the book is doing, but I really don’t. I’ve been camping for the past few days, cut off from the rest of the world, enjoying some solitude and this unbelievably gorgeous Montana wilderness. But now I’m in Calgary, Canada for a convention and writing workshop. I have internet access again, so I’m sure I’ll be checking my Amazon numbers soon enough . . .

A few weeks ago, around the time of the release of Dead Man’s Reach, I broke down the opening paragraphs of that fourth Thieftaker novel, to give you some sense of what I was trying to accomplish on the first page of the book. It was a fairly standard start — effective and, I think, nicely written — but not all that different from past Thieftaker openings.

I’d like to do something similar today with the first few paragraphs of His Father’s Eyes, as a way of contrasting this opening with that other. You’ll see immediately that the first page of this book is very different. The opening is the least conventional of any I’ve ever written. In fact, it breaks many of the rules I usually encourage aspiring writers to follow. There is no real action, the voice and point of view are not those that will narrate the bulk of the book. Some readers might even find these opening paragraphs confusing.

Faith, Misty, and I have done “Live Action Slush” at several conventions in recent years. This is an exercise in which audience members submit the first page of something they’ve written. We listen as the openings are read, and raise our hands when we hear something that would keep us from representing or buying the piece if we were agents or editors. If the opening for this book were submitted anonymously for Live Action Slush, I’m not at all sure it would make it through without being rejected by everyone on the panel.

And yet, the first chapter of His Father’s Eyes is, in my view, the best bit of writing I’ve ever done. It is absolutely the perfect beginning for this particular book. Let’s take a look at it and I’ll explain why:

It burns and burns and burns, a pain he can’t salve, a fire he can’t extinguish. White, yellow, red, orange. Shades of pale blue sometimes, but then white again. Always white. White hot. Pure white. White for wedding gowns and babies’ diapers and clean sheets on a crib. White. Like blank paper. And then it burns. Brown giving way to black, which comes from the yellow and orange and red and pale blue; flame creeping like spilled blood, spreading like a stain.

The land rolls downward from his chair, baked and dry, empty. But also full, if only one knows how to look at it. The rising swirls of red dirt. Red-tailed hawks wheeling on splayed wings. Jack rabbits and coyotes, watchful and tense, death and survival hanging between them.

The sky is too clear — not a cloud, nothing to break the monotony of blue so bright it makes his eyes tear. Except low, to the east, where the blue mingles with brown, like dirty, worn jeans.

That’s how he is. Muddied. Clouded. Enveloped in a haze. He feels the hot wind moving over his skin, and he waits for it to clear the air around him. But it never does; instead, dust stings his eyes, and grit crunches between his teeth like slivers of glass. He wants a cup of water, but his legs feel leaden and the trailer seems so far. So he sits, shielding his eyes with a shaking hand, listening to the flapping of the tarp over his head.

His Father’s Eyes is about Jay Fearsson’s insane father, and here we are in his head, experiencing his confusion, his jumbled memories, the odd, uncomfortable images that flash through his mind. The burning is both key to the narrative that will follow and a play on one of the themes established in the first book: the association of heat, aridity, burning, etc. with evil; and water, coolness, healing, etc. with good.

There is also some bait and hook here. What’s burning? Who is this person who is associating white hot flame with marriage, with child-rearing, with a spreading bloodstain?

In the second graph, the imagery solidifies a bit, and at this point readers of the first book will probably realize that they are in the point of view of Jay’s father. The key phrase in this passage comes right in the middle: “Jack rabbits and coyotes, watchful and tense, death and survival hanging between them.” Prey and predator: We are left to wonder, although not with much uncertainty, which one this person believes he is. That phrase makes the rest of the imagery in the graph, which might otherwise sound merely poetic, something more ominous. Again, the word uncomfortable comes to mind.

With the third paragraph, we complete the journey from the abstract to the immediate, the anonymous to the specific. There is no longer any doubt as to the identity of the narrator. More, he himself has been dragged back to the present, to his discomfort (the heat and grit), his need (water, the shelter of the trailer), his fear (the shaking hand).

This may all sound abstract. I’m okay with that. Clearly this is a very different sort of opening from what I shared with you last month. I’m not as concerned with establishing setting and character.  Why? Because unlike Colonial Boston — the setting for the Thieftaker novels — the setting for the Fearsson books is more atmospheric than plot specific. And because, while Fearsson’s father is central to this story, he is not my primary point of view character. As I said, this is an unconventional opening.

Yet, think about what it does accomplish: It draws readers in, not with information, but with questions, with hints and feints. It is filled with tension, and that tension hints at conflict. And believe it or not, that very first graph, which is so odd and so jumbled, actually introduces a key element of my plotting: the magical assault on Jay’s father.

I wouldn’t break the rules this way with every book opening. I probably wouldn’t do it with the first book of a series. But every now and then it’s fun to shake things up a little. And as long as I still remember the basics — bait and hook, introduce tension, hint at conflict — the unconventional can be effective.


David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, came out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two 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.