Paying It Forward Without Breaking the Bandwidth

THE LONG NIGHT OF THE RADIANT STAR – Jak and Stella’s midwinter holiday wedding – is out now!

Did anyone give you truly sound advice?

Did you have a mentor and if so how do you pay it forward without getting buried by requests?

I’ve been truly blessed in having numerous mentors and lovely, gracious people willing to give me advice. The one I’ll single out today is SFWA Past-President, Nebula-Award winner, and wonderful author of science fiction, sf mysteries, fantasy, and near future thrillers, Catherine Asaro. When I was shopping my first fantasy romance novel, sometime around 2008/2009, Catherine did me the huge favor of reading the book for me. I kept getting enthusiasm from agents and editors, and full manuscript requests, but they all came back with “no,” saying they didn’t know what to with the book or how to market it. I’d run out of ideas for how to revise the book so it would sell.

Catherine read it and said – the first person to say this to me – that the only “problem” was that I was writing cross-genre. She told me the story was good and that I was a good writer (things I desperately needed to hear), but that if I kept writing this fantasy + romance cross-genre, it would be like wading through hip-deep snow to succeed with it. She also told me she thought it was worth doing.

She was right on both counts.

As for paying it forward… I do that as much as I can. I volunteer to mentor through SFWA and other fundraisers. I offer advice in various arenas where I think people genuinely want to hear it. (Few things are more frustrating to me than putting energy into offering advice to people who don’t listen.) I have my podcast, First Cup of Coffee with Jeffe Kennedy, where I talk about writing and publishing (and other random thoughts). All of these venues allow me to control how much bandwidth I devote to mentoring others. In truth, I started my Author Coaching side business entirely so I’d have a way to charge money for my time and energy, when the bandwidth wasn’t enough.

That said, if you catch me in person at a con, I’m always happy to chat over an adult beverage. Offerings of chocolate are also acceptable!

When to Ditch Showing and Just Tell

Coming Soon! THE LONG NIGHT OF THE RADIANT STAR.

This is a novella in the Heirs of Magic series and occurs after THE STORM PRINCESS AND THE RAVEN KING. It’s Jak and Stella’s wedding on the longest night, the Feast of Moranu. I think I’ll release it on Monday, November 21, 2022. No preorder this time. I’ll post when it goes live!!

***

At long last, Jakral Konyngrr—lowly sailor, gambler, and sometime rogue—has won the heart and hand of Princess Stella of Avonlidgh. Never mind that Stella’s mother is determined to make their wedding the event of the century, he’s happy to endure any trial to marry the love of his life and his guiding star. Very soon they can sail away together into the rest of their lives. Unfortunately the wedding becomes delayed for several months, until midwinter.
Stella—sorceress, empath, and bearer of the mark of the Tala—has been through great trials. But nothing has tested her as sorely as her passionate and flamboyant mother planning their wedding. Even Jak’s steady love and companionship isn’t enough as Stella finds herself crumbling under the pressure of being snowbound in a castle with the press of so many minds and emotions. When she lashes out, she hits the worst possible target, jeopardizing her chances for happiness.
With several kingdoms and a former enemy empire bearing down on them, Jak and Stella’s wedding on the longest night of year might not happen at all… Unless they can create their own happy ever after.

***

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re talking about Telling vs. Showing, particularly we’re examining when some narrative exposition is needed.

It’s an interesting question, and one very much focused on genre fiction. Many of you know I began my writing career in creative nonfiction. For many years I wrote and sold essays. My first book was an essay collection. At no point in that time – in classes, in critique groups, in discussions with editors – did anyone bring up Telling vs. Showing. It was only after I began writing fantasy romance (etc.) that the concept was introduced to me. I had to learn not to use the narrative exposition that had worked so well for my creative nonfiction voice, but to “show” instead.

Why is this a thing?

The oft-cited example is attributed to Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” It turns out this exact quote is probably apocryphal. A passage from the article I linked to says:

In May, 1886, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

It’s salient to note that he’s talking about description here. When my genre-fiction editors and critique partners introduced the concept to me, they framed it as a way to deepen the point of view (POV). In genre fiction, in particular, readers love to be immersed in the characters and world, thus the incentive to deepen POV.

I worked diligently to learn to show, not tell.

Fast-forward to my current agent, the insightful and incisive Sarah Younger at Nancy Yost Literary Agency. One day, after reading one of my manuscripts we planned to take on submission to traditional publishing, she said, “Jeffe, I know you work really hard to show, not tell, but sometimes we just need a line or two telling us what the heck is going on.”

And she was right. I was so busy describing the glint of light on broken glass that I was failing to explain that this world had three moons.

In the end, as with all things, it comes down to balance. We need both in order to tell effective stories: immersive description and deep POV, along with some clear narrative exposition to ground the reader in the world.

I’m getting better at it!

The Intuitive Approach to Avoiding Writing Repetitive Scenes

Yesterday I took Kelly Robson on the mandatory-for-all-creatives pilgrimage to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio. This was my fourth time and as shimmeringly inspirational as the first time.

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is how to avoid writing repetitive scenes.

I confess not much springs to my mind on this topic, probably because I’m much more of an intuitive writer than an analytical one. Even in revision – arguably the most analytical phase of my process – I don’t pay a lot of attention to whether scenes are repetitive. I do notice repetitive information, or emotional exchanges that have happened before. But so far as analyzing for goal, motivation, and conflict (GMC) – which is where this topic seems to have sprung from, regarding questions to ask to cull out repetitive scenes – that’s just not how I think about story.

So, how DO I avoid repetitive scenes? I think it helps that I’m a linear writer. I write from beginning to end and thus the story trajectory is always in my mind. That’s part of holding the thread to me.

It also helps to approach the story from a character-driven perspective. This is part of what people are getting at with GMC – it’s an analytical lens on character. If you’re an intuitive writer, like me, you’ll want to be in the flow of the character’s thoughts, emotions, and personal journey. Sometimes they might regress, as our growth isn’t always linear, but those steps back before the moving forward again can be important to the story.

Finally, probably the most analytical I get, I look at each scene as I’m revising and pay attention to what it’s accomplishing in the overall story. What aspects of the plot is it advancing? What questions are being asked and answered in the scene? How does this deepen or strain the relationships between the characters. Occasionally I’ll have two scenes doing more or less the same thing, and then I might consolidate them – or tweak the later one to be adding something new and different.

One thing I think is really important to keep in mind – especially in the face of the GMC/analytical types, who tend toward making a clean (and therefore somewhat sterile) formula for the story structure, to my thinking – is that not every scene has to “advance the story.” This is especially true in genre writing/escapist fiction where some of the story is there for the sheer joy of it. There is nothing wrong with having parts of the story exist entirely for sensual delight. Even in the most rollicking plot, we sometimes need a bubble of space to breathe, to relax a moment, for the characters to remember what they’re fighting for.

In fact, don’t we all?

Jeffe’s Collaborations – Real and Imagined

I’m just loving these autumn/Halloween collages of the Czech translation of the Chronicles of Dasnaria books!

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re discussing collaborations – if we’ve done them and what our dream collabs would be.

I’ve never (quite) collaborated with another writer on actually composing a story. I added in that “quite” because my friend, Jim Sorenson, and I did start writing a book together. However, even though we wrote several chapters, our mutual agent (Sarah Younger at Nancy Yost Literary Agency) didn’t ever love what we came up with. Getting our voices to gel together was a challenge. We’ve talked about going back to the project, which I’d love to do someday. It’s definitely a different way of working though!

The collaborations I do regularly are anthologies! My bestie Grace Draven and I love to put together anthologies, either of stories from just the two of us, or with more writers. Our next project is THE WATERS AND THE WILD, an anthology that will include fae novellas from Grace, Dana Marton, Maria Vale, and myself. It will be out in late April, with a special print edition available for Apollycon attendees, and then available in ebook and regular print form after that. I’m very much looking forward to what everyone comes up with!

If I could collaborate with any writer, living or dead, it would’ve been Anne McCaffrey. I was too late to meet her and too slow in coming to writing fantasy to be one of the several writers privileged to write in her worlds. I would’ve LOVED to do that and, in one of the sliding doors versions of my life, I believe it totally happened.

 

What Jeffe Has to Have in Order to Write

Greetings from a gorgeous autumn in New Mexico!

This week at the SFF Seven we’re talking about preconditions – what must be true before you go to write.

I changed it from “sit to write” because I don’t sit – I work at a walking desk. So, that’s one thing for me, is that I’m happiest standing or walking to write. I’ve gotten so sitting to write doesn’t work very well. In fact, I’m super happy to have hit on a solution of a portable tripod and desktop to make a standing desk for a retreat I’m going on after Thanksgiving. I can stand to write! Perfect solution.

Otherwise…

It used to be that I had fairly elaborate rituals for getting into writing. I had LOTS of preconditions. I had to be sitting at a certain desk (not my work-from-home desk) at a specific time of day (morning) listening to a particular soundtrack (The Mission). I even had a favorite blue jersey dress I had to be wearing. When my husband, with considerable exasperation, pointed out that the dress had more holes than fabric, he countered my plaintive argument that I needed it, by saying “the writing comes from you, not the dress.”

That’s really stuck with me. I remind myself of that truth often.

(And I put the dress in the rag pile.)

All of those rituals helped me in the beginning, when I really needed help establishing a writing habit. But now I know they were just things to help me along. Because the writing comes from me.

The only precondition I have? Myself, present and accounted for.

FAMILIAR WINTER MAGIC Out Now!

FAMILIAR WINTER MAGIC is out in the world, available as a standalone! A print version is coming soon (hopefully today). This is the same novella that appeared in the FIRE OF THE FROST anthology, so if you’ve read that, you’ve read this. The novella takes place in the Bonds of Magic world and occurs concurrent with BRIGHT FAMILIAR and just before GREY MAGIC. If you’ve read the Bonds of Magic or Renegades of Magic books, this is Han and Iliana’s origin story.

That’s what’s on my mind today!

A Bridge Too Far: Taboos in Fiction

Thanks to all the wonderful readers for their enthusiastic reception of SHADOW WIZARD! Just because it’s so squee-worthy, here’s a fabulous Reddit Gush about the book. Made me very happy!

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re asking about limits. How far is too far in your writing? Is there anything you find taboo?

I think these are two different questions. I mean, they’re literally two different questions, but I think the consideration of what is “too far” for me vs. what I find taboo are not the same at all.

George R.R. Martin once told me about one of his favorite writing exercises to assign when he teaches workshops. He’d ask the students to write about the worst thing they ever did. Some, he said, were clearly fictionalizing. And others couldn’t seem to come up with anything that terrible – which he figured for another sort of denial. But the point of the exercise was to demonstrate that all people – and thus all characters – can do really awful things. I mulled this over, and the conversation has clearly stuck with me, and I’m pretty clear that I do have places I won’t go in my writing.

Some of the reactions to SHADOW WIZARD that I’ve seen remark on how awful some of the high houses in the Convocation are. In fact, some readers tap out on the world altogether, because it is so dark. I want to show in my work what absolute power does to people – it’s a recurring theme for me – so perhaps I’m not so different from GRRM in that perspective. I have shown sexual abuse to the point of rape on the page, so that’s clearly not too far for me. I won’t show the death of a child or an animal-friend, however. That’s just because it’s too much sorrow for me.

As far as taboos, however… I have a workshop I sometimes teach on writing sexual tension, and I delve heavily into taboos, especially as they apply to sex. In short, taboos exist in society for good reasons – they are instilled in us as children to protect our health (no dessert before dinner) and safety (don’t touch the hot stove) and later they come from our larger communities to protect us all (murder is wrong). Because taboos are so deeply ingrained in us, breaking them releases a huge amount of emotional and spiritual energy. It’s freeing to break taboos – which is why breaking sexual taboos (which often don’t exist for very good reasons) can be so healthy.

The great thing about fiction is you can break all the taboos you want to! It’s exhilarating for the writer and the reader. There’s a reason we love kick-ass characters who kill with glee and ease. That releases the same energy in us as breaking the murder taboo, but without social or personal consequences. So… is there anything taboo for me in fiction?

Probably not.

Jeffe and her Iconic Scene

 

SHADOW WIZARD releases tomorrow!! Preorder price of $4.99 will be good into tomorrow, then it goes up. (Along with my grocery bill, alas!) The audiobook is being recorded now and should be available in about 2 weeks.

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re asking: Do you have an iconic scene that inspires your writing?
I think most of my stories arise from certain pivotal images. For most every book I’ve written, I can almost certainly identify what the core image was. It’s more than visual, however, and feels more like a snippet of a moment: a character in a situation. For a long time I have had an iconic scene. I started drawing it when  was a little girl and it’s found its way into any number of stories over the years. I’ve never quite felt like I fully wrote the story of it, though it’s haunted me less recently, so maybe I’ve come close enough for it to leave me alone.
The scene:
A woman stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Waves rise in whitecaps, dashing themselves against the rocks below. A wind off the water blows back her hair and gown. She’s waiting…  Perhaps for an enemy to arrive on her shores? That’s my usual feeling. Sometimes a large wolfhound is with her. Sometimes I think she’s a sorceress, other times a queen.
If you’ve read a lot of my books, you’ll probably recognize ways that this scene appears in various forms. I might’ve finally worked it out of my system with the Forgotten Empires trilogy, although it still didn’t feel precisely like that iconic scene. Maybe I’ll wend my way back to it someday!
For the time-being, however, I’ve been in the marshes and woodlands with the denizens of the Renegades of Magic world. SHADOW WIZARD takes us to a new high house (if you’re familiar with the Bonds of Magic trilogy), and increasingly wild adventures. In this book, this snippet of a scene is one of my favorites:

She flung herself against him, embracing him with fierce tenacity, face buried against his neck, her chin digging rather sharply against his collarbone. For a slender, barely-there wraith, Seliah possessed a surprising amount of tensile strength. And she smelled of water in the moonlight, her tough, tense, thin little body vibrating with spiky silver magic, her breasts surprisingly—and distractingly—soft and full pressed against his chest. He couldn’t help a tiny fantasy of how it would feel to be buried inside that intensity, to have that passionate body surging against his, embracing and engulfing.

It’s never going to happen, he told himself firmly.

Are you sure? part of him whispered back slyly.

Yes. Ruthlessly banishing the image, he refused to touch her any more than he already had. Holding his hands out, even more awkward than ever, he kind of waved them around as he waited for the hug to end.

It didn’t. Instead she held on, a buzzing bundle of intoxicating magic and tempting woman. Jadren tried patting her back, thinking maybe that would satisfy her enough to encourage her to go away, but she only purred, snuggling closer, like a cat who’d found the one cat-hater in the room and had no greater goal in life than encamping on his lap forever.

Circles of Community – How Writer Friends Keep Me Going

A gratifying milestone for me – DARK WIZARD has passed 500 ratings on Amazon! And with a 4.3 overall average, too. I’m so thrilled by all the love this book and series has received.

I’ve been busy writing SHADOW WIZARD, the next book in this world (coming 9/29! available for preorder now), and so missed my usual Wednesday blog post. I’m making that up today, because I really did want to address this week’s topic at the SFF Seven. We’re talking about Writing Community and asking: do you have a writing community and if so (online, phone calls, zoom, in person) how do your interactions refill your creative well?

I’m so deeply grateful for my writing community! I have many different ones, from one-on-one friendships to large, professional organizations. Here’s a smattering of them and how they refill that well.

 

Friends

Just yesterday I had one of my monthly hour+ phone calls with writer bestie Grace Draven. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now. Aside from our other messaging via text and FB messenger, and quick calls, we set aside time to have longer conversations about our business strategy. These talks help us both clarify our priorities.

I get on Zoom daily with another writer bestie, Darynda Jones. We typically do three one-hour writing sprints with some chatting in between. Having that company while writing (even though we mute while actually working) gives me a sense of companionship, and the daily discussions of our writing keep us invigorated. We can also bounce ideas off of each other, from “what’s the word I’m trying to think of?” to “Help me solve this plot problem!”

I also have other writer besties I communicate with via email or social media, people I can call upon for insight or emergency beta reads. We don’t necessarily talk on a regular schedule, but knowing they’re out there is priceless.

 

Small Groups

I’m part of various smaller communities, from a private author group on Facebook, to a Fantasy Romance Discord, to the much larger Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) Discord. I love to dip in and out of these groups, answering questions and asking them, too. They’re fun and fantastic resources.

 

Professional Organizations

I already mentioned SFWA. As the current president of the organization, I get to interact with all kinds of creators, from newbie writers to names on the spines of books on my shelf. Getting to email with Neil Gaiman, have coffee with Catherine Asaro, or chat for a few hours with Jane Yolen are thrills I never quite get over. Feeling like a part of that larger community is validating for me on a critical level. I believe more in myself and in my work for having those associations.

 

Conferences

I just returned from WorldCon in Chicago – my first big conference since the COVID pandemic – and it brought home to me how wonderful these gatherings are. Conferences bring in so many different members of the reading, writing, and creating community that the cross-section of conversation is incredibly stimulating. More than the programming, just getting to be around other people who love the same stuff and sharing that excitement refills my creative well like nothing else. One of the great revelations of the pandemic for me was how much social stimulation I gain from conferences. I value them like never before.

I value all of my writing communities, and am so grateful for each and every one of you!

Jeffe’s Top Five Worldbuilding Tips

SHADOW WIZARD coming September 29, 2022! Preorder now!!

This week at the SFF Seven, we’re sharing our top five worldbuilding tips. Since I just returned from WorldCon in Chicago, where I gave a workshop on worldbuilding from a character-driven perspective, I’m going to cheat ever so slightly and pull from that.

1. All stories require worldbuilding

Even a story set in our contemporary world, written as realistically as possible, still requires worldbuilding because it’s impossible to to replicate the complexity of our world. You will always be picking and choosing relevant details. Choose wisely. (And see Tip #5.)

2. Don’t allow worldbuilding to be displacement activity for writing the actual story

Worldbuilding is fun! Writing is hard. It’s easy to spend tons of time on research and worldbuilding and kid yourself that it’s writing. It’s not. Don’t become the person with megabytes of maps and details and no actual text.

3. The world is yours to shape however you like – build it to challenge your characters

Story is about characters facing conflict. The world they live in creates external conflict for them and informs their internal conflict. Since you get to play deity here, build the world with challenging your characters in mind.

4. RPGs – role-playing games can distort your worldbuilding sense.

Many creatives learn worldbuilding from gaming, which can be a great exercise, but – as dedicated gamers have pointed out (I am not one) – game worlds often don’t make any internal sense. Use caution in emulating that model.

5. Use the iceberg model

While you should know – or discover – all about your world, most of that detail should be like the iceberg beneath the surface. Only the tip of all that knowledge should show up in the story. If you’ve done the work and your world is internally consistent, that tip of the iceberg will be representative of the rest.