Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. (Click on the titles to be taken to Amazon.) My Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker. The fourth book in the series, Soulless, is still under construction, but, I swear, it will see the light of day! I've also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in my collection, There is No Wheel.

This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public.

Coming out in 2014 will be my Oz inspired novel Bad Wizard, published by Antimatter Press. I'm currently working hard to finish up another superhero novel, Cut Up Girl. Watch this space for news!


Monday, November 24, 2014

PUT DOWN THAT HOOK!

One bit of advice often offered to beginning authors is that you should open your story with a hook. I think this advice is responsible for millions of terrible beginnings, openings with overwrought action bits that wind up confusing the reader more than drawing him in. The story opens with a gun going off. It starts with a bang! Or, the story opens with the character dangling by his fingernails from a window ledge. Tension! Suspense! Spare me. It's not that such openings are always wrong, it's just that trying to open a story with suspense kills the best part of reading something suspenseful. You want the stakes to be rising with each page, as the machinery of the plot keeps clicking forward, cog by cog, until you know that when you turn the next page something will have to give. If you start your story at a moment of peril, where do you go from there? The tension either has to decline, or else ratchet up from such a high baseline that it creates unintended comedy.

Instead of a hook, what a writer really needs is a strategy. Anytime you sit down to write a story, you have several important things you want your reader to know quickly. Who is the story about? What's their problem? Why should anyone care? Where and when is the story taking place? If it's science fiction or fantasy, what are the rules the character has to obey in regards to commanding miracles?

What used to paralyze me when I was starting as a writer was the seeming impossibility of getting every important detail on to the first page. I remember one story I wrote about characters exploring an ice-cavern on Mars. It was kind of important to make sure the reader knew they were on Mars, instead of just a glacial cavern on Earth. So, I had to sprinkle in lots of references to Martian terrain, have the characters mention the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, talk about the gravity as compared to what they were used to, etc. I was so busy explaining that they were on Mars that I didn't really get around to explaining the family dynamics of the characters until a few pages later. The hero was a 12 year old boy who'd been born on Mars, and he was exploring the cavern with his mother, a long-term Martian colonist, and her new boyfriend, a colonist who'd arrived on planet only a few months prior. The tension between the son and the boyfriend is the emotional heart of the story, but someone reading the first page could be forgiven for missing that fact. On the other hand, if I tried opening the story with the son and the boyfriend squabbling and the mother trying to play peacemaker, the fact that the story was unfolding on Mars then seemed like arbitrary window dressing. Arguments like this happen in a million living rooms all around the world. Why does being on Mars make it different or special?

At this point, I'd like to tell you how I solved my dilemma: I wrote another story. I set that one aside after a dozen rewrites and moved on. Because, fundamentally, I didn't have an answer to the question of why being on Mars was vital to the story of their family dynamics. I was just using cut-and-paste plotting, taking a story that could be told anywhere and jamming into a setting I thought would be exotic. SF editors of better magazines are looking for stories that blend with their settings in such a way that they could only be told in their specific time and place.

Eventually, I became better at imagining stories that blended character, setting, and plot in insuperable relationships. But, I was still faced with the problem of how to get all my information on the page in a way that would draw readers in. Even today, I agonize about my openings, and they often wind up being the very last thing I write. This was definitely the case with my most recent novel, Bad Wizard. It originally opened with the current chapter one, with George "Grinder" Greer staggering his way through Washington, DC. I defaulted to this opening because Bad Wizard is set in a specific historical era, and Grinder seemed like a decent character to establish the time frame. I reveal he's a Civil War veteran, though he was a young teenager when he served. Now, he's a member of the Secret Service, protecting Oscar Diggs, the Secretary of War. Opening with Grinder gave me a character firmly grounded in our reality, so at the end of the chapter when he encounters Dorothy Gale and her magic slippers, the introduction of magic is a great way to close out that chapter and encourage the reader to turn to the next page. As an opening chapter, it had its merits. Alas, it was the wrong opening for the story.

So, the last scene I actually wrote for the book was the prologue, where Dorothy Gale is introduced in the first sentence. The book is mostly about Dorothy. The best possible strategy is to put her front and center on page one. Rather than put Dorothy in some sort of physical peril, I open with her at the funeral of her Aunt Em. We swiftly learn that her aunt and uncle have passed away, and Dorothy is now wondering what she will do now that her last relatives have passed away. She goes back to the farm lost in thought, and finds the local banker nailing a notice to her front door. The looks at the notice, and reads aloud the word that stands out. The last line of the first page is also the first line of dialogue in the book, a single word: "Foreclosed?"

Winged monkeys and witches can menace Dorothy in their own good time. For my opening, I'm counting on more readers being able to empathize with her real world problems. She's a poor Kansas farm girl about to be kicked out of her home. She's unhelpfully told she can probably find work in Topeka, but has no idea how she can get to Topeka and survive there. She has nothing of value to sell... until she remembers those strange silver slippers that were found next to her in the field after the tornado. Line by line, I guide the readers into Dorothy's world, first attempting to shape an emotional attachment by touching on a problem that most people can identify with. The life she knew is coming to an end against her will; what will she do next? Only after the emotional attachment is formed do I introduce the slippers, and reveal that Dorothy's reality is different from our own because of the existence of magic.

This is now a pretty common strategy for me. Every story is different, and every story will reveal how to tell it eventually. But, just glancing at my short story collection There is No Wheel, of the ten stories, five of them contain the name of the protagonist in the first sentence. Three of them have the protagonist's name as the very first word. Only one story has the name of another character appear before the protagonist. Most of the other stories are told in first person, so there's an "I" in the first sentence, and you might not know the name of the protagonist, but you swiftly gain a sense of who they are based on their unique voice. Only two of the stories open with the characters in any sort of near term peril. For the most part, I'm patient. Establish the character. Establish where and when they are. Clarity is my number one goal. The best hook of all is for your reader to quickly and easily grasp what's going on.

Of course, just saying who your character is and where they are at can be boring. What you need are telling details that reveal your character and your world indirectly. This is the opening to my short story "Echo of the Eye."

Kidd pumped quarter after quarter into the washer at the Laundromat. The humid air was thick with the smell of bleach and Tide. The water in the window of the machine began to turn pink. A career as a butcher had left Kidd unusually skilled at removing blood stains.


The reader will suspect that Kidd is the protagonist, since he's introduced first. The smell of bleach is a strong sensory connection, an aroma almost everyone will be familiar with, and a familiar scent can instantly link a reader to your world. The mention of a brand name establishes that the story is taking place in contemporary America. The water turning pink is meant to be slightly disturbing. Is it because of blood? The next line establishes that there is blood present, though it presents the benign explanation that Kidd is a butcher. And he must be a down to earth guy, doing his own laundry. Still... hopefully, the reader leaves the first paragraph feeling the possibility that something sinister has happened.

You probably won't find many writing books advising you to open a story with a character doing laundry. But, soap suds were the way to go with this particular tale. If you're having trouble finding the right opening for your story, try the direct approach. Introduce your character in the first sentence. Establish where they are at the moment the story starts, whether it's on a starship, in a living room, or out in a forest. Focus on a simple sensory detail, preferably at scent, taste, or texture, that will engage the core of the reader's brain. Give them an intriguing fact to close the paragraph, then move on. Your readers will follow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Win a print edition of Bad Wizard!

 
Yay! Goodreads is finally showing a listing for Bad Wizard, so I'm finally able to arrange a giveaway there! Now through November 15, Goodreads users can enter to win one of five signed copies of my latest novel. Just follow this link to enter, and good luck! 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bitterwood: The Complete Collection, Now in Print!

Behold! Bitterwood, the Complete Collection, is now available in print! I've had it available as an ebook for a while, but couldn't put out an assembled print edition while Solaris still had the paperback rights. Now that they've agreed to revert the rights, I'm finally gathering up the one giant story into one giant book. 
 

And when I say "giant book," it's not hyperbole. This thing is massive, just shy of half a million words long, in a 6"x9" trade paperback that's 800 pages long. This book isn't just good for your brain, it's good for your body, since you'll get a good workout just picking it up to read it. It contains all three of the core Bitterwood Trilogy novels, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed. Then, as a bonus, it contains an entire prequel novel, Dawn of Dragons, plus a bonus short story, "Tornado of Sparks," as well as an introductory essay explaining my creative process in designing my dragons called "Building a Better Dragon." All this for a mere $27 cover price (as opposed to $40 for buying all the individual titles in print). And, to sweeten the deal, Amazon is already selling the book at a discount, at $24.30. Of course, if you are actively opposed to giving money to Amazon, feel free to wander into the book store of your choice and ask then to order you a copy. This is the ISBN-10: 1502906422.

 
I'm not kidding about burning calories while reading this book. It's big! Big I tell you! For those of you who fear you're not up to the task of lifting such a monster, take heart. Starting next week, I'll be unveiling print editions of all the individual novels. Of course, only the Complete Collection will contain "Tornado of Sparks" and "Building a Better Dragon." Get yours today!



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I hate widows and orphans


I had hoped to spend October working on a new novel. Alas, there have been some rather dramatic turns of events unfolding in my publishing life during September that have forced me to switch from my writing hat to my publishing hat.
 
Bitterwood has sold as a paperback from Solaris books for seven years now, going through four printings. But, eventually I knew the day would come where the sales would dwindle to a point that further printings would be unlikely. On my last statement, Bitterwood's paperback sales had fallen enough that I made the decision to revert the rights and put out my own trade paperback editions available as print on demand books.
 
I'm kicking things off by releasing a complete collection of all four Bitterwood novels (the core trilogy plus Dawn of Dragons), plus "Tornado of Sparks," the short story set in that world, plus "Building a Better Dragon," an essay I wrote explaining how I designed my dragons to be different from the standard fantasy beasts yet still recognizable as dragons.
 
Bitterwood: the Complete Collection, is just a few words shy of half a million words of fiction. It's fitting into book 800 pages long. Formatting the book for print has proven... challenging. For starters, finding a font that was easily readable at the size needed to cram in all those words into 800 pages was a challenge. Garamond's small letters were too small, and Time's could be tweaked to fit, but there's something about Times that looks like a business report more than a work of literature. I finally settled on Goudy Old Style at 10 points with a line spacing of 11 points. This is somewhat dense, but still relatively easy on the eye. This summer, I read Don Quixote, a book with a similar word count, and it used a much smaller font, so I don't think anyone will get eye strain from the book. Still, it wasn't just a matter of pulling down and font menu and picking what looked good. I tested and printed sample chapters with easily a dozen font variations before making my final decision.
 
Designing for print entails a few steps you don't have to worry about in e-books. For starters, in print books most chapters start with dropped caps. These are the large bold letters at the start of a paragraph that hangs down the length of three lines. The complete collection has something like 150 chapters, so going through and dropping all the caps, then tweaking any weirdness that resulted, was time-consuming.
 
But, the real time sink is finding and fixing widows and orphans. If you don't work in printing, you may not be familiar with the term. Basically, a widow is the first line of a paragraph at the bottom of a page, and an orphan is a fragment of a sentence by itself at the top of the page. In the image below, you can see an example of both. The first page has a widow, the second page has an orphan.

 

 
In the next image, I've tweaked the spacing between fonts in in order to shift the text to avoid the widows and orphans. You can compress or expand the space between letters to tighten up or spread out a paragraph, but this is a tool you should use cautiously. As a rule, I only allowed myself to expand or contract text spacing by no more than .2 of a normal space. In other words, I could reduced the space between letters to about 80% of it's normal size, or spread it out to about 120%. Past this range, the text either looks cramped or stretched. If you look at the image above and below, you'll note that I've actually manipulated text on the previous page (not shown) in order to bring the text up two lines. Then, I've expanded the text in the first paragraph of Chapter 10 so that it takes up an extra line, resulting, I hope, in a more balanced page spread.


To say that this is tedious work is an understatement. But, I think I've finally got 99% of my widows and orphans on this massive document under control. There are a few places where I just couldn't figure out a way of fixing a widow without ruining another page, but for the most part I think I've wound up with a professional document.

So, I submitted my files last week and got the proof mailed to me this week. And... disaster! Something was wrong with the italics in Goudy Old Style. They looked fine on screen, but when they print, they print bold as well as italicized. So, I've had to try two other PDF makers before I finally found one that would create files where the italics printed properly. Foolishly, I approved the proof minutes after I got the printed copy, and it was only later as I was looking at it again, basking in the glow of how good the book looked, that I noticed the bold italics. This happened Friday. I've now uploaded the corrected files, but feel terrible that someone actually bought a copy of the book in the time between my approving the proof and finally noticing something was wrong. I feel terrible. It's not like the book is unreadable, but I've been in the business long enough to know that the proofing process should entail more than just quickly flipping through the pages and letting your mind see the book the way you think it should have printed, rather than the way it really printed.

Right now, the new files are still under review by Createspace. I'm hoping they'll be approved later today, or tomorrow at the latest. Then, I'll do a formal announcement that the book is available, and unveil the cover.

Now that I've got The Complete Collection formatted, it should be simple to peel out the individual books and get them prepped. The good news is, I can use a slightly larger font and let each book spread out to 250 pages instead of 200 each. The bad news is, when I change the font size, all my previous work on widows and orphans will be undone. Sigh.

Monday, September 29, 2014

THANK YOU TO MY WISE-READERS

Wise-reading differs from critiquing in a few significant ways. First, it’s not reciprocal. In critique groups, you critique the same people who’ll be critiquing you. Even in the fairest of groups, this creates bias. If a writer praised your last story, you might read his next story with the assumption that he’s a writer of great taste and overlook the story’s weaknesses. With wise-readers, I’ve seldom read anything they’ve written. I know they aren’t trying to influence my opinion of their work by saying kind things about my novel.

Second, wise-readers don’t offer solutions. They tell me what’s keeping them interested, as well as what’s boring them to tears. They don’t need to diagnose why. As the writer, it’s my duty to keep them immersed in my world. If they’re not engaged, it’s my duty to fix it.

A final difference between wise-readers and members of critique groups is the sheer volume of reading. A group might tackle two stories at a time, maybe twice a month, seldom needing to read more than 10,000 words per session. With my wise-readers, I throw four to six chapters a week at them and want feedback quickly. I’m not giving them pages of sparkling, polished prose. My second drafts are full of missing words and continuity glitches. Wise-readers breeze past all of these little frustrations and keep their eyes on the big picture. It’s a wonderful skill, and I’m fortunate to have worked with a terrific set of wise-readers on this project.

So, my heartfelt thanks go out to Susan Voss, Mark Barlow, James Marsh, Laurel Amberdine, Cathy Bollinger, and, of course, my lovely wife Cheryl Morgan Maxey. Bad Wizard is a better book because of their hard work and dedication. They waded through a lot of mangled prose and meandering scenes in pursuit of making this a better novel. I’m deeply grateful for their efforts.

And, of course, if you want to get your hands on their work as quickly as possible, Bad Wizard just happens to be available for preorder right now on Amazon!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bad Wizard: The Cover Revealed!

 

Jeremy Cavin's amazing cover revealed in its full glory. You should be able to click on the above image to see a higher resolution version of it. Bad Wizard is on track to be available for sale on October 1. If you're interested in reading the book prior to publication in order to review it, please email me at james(at)jamesmaxey.net. Line edits are still being finalized, but I can provide an advanced review copy in an electronic format of your choice. Advance readers will get rewarded with a Bad Wizard poster!
 
The story:
 
In 1894, Oscar Zoroaster Diggs walks into Topeka with every pocket of his suit stuffed full of high quality emeralds. Overnight he's the richest man in Kansas. With his winning smile and gift for gab, he's quickly befriended by the governor and appointed as one the state's US Senators. While in Washington, he befriends Theodore Roosevelt, and when Roosevelt becomes president, Diggs become the Secretary of War. Now, in 1904, he's overseeing the construction of a fleet of zeppelins to be used to spread democracy to the far corners of the earth.
 
One woman knows Diggs true goals, however. Her name is Dorothy Gale, a reporter for the Kansas Ear. She's hounding Diggs with articles showing him to be a corrupt conman. She has a talent for getting her hands on sensitive documents to expose his shady dealings, but so far Diggs hasn't been harmed by her charges of corruption. In her quest to expose the truth about Diggs, Dorothy is hampered by her inability to tell the full truth. She alone knows the truth of how Diggs acquired his fortune -- she met him ten years ago in Oz, where he ruled as the Wizard. She also knows his true purpose for building the fleet of airships -- he plans to return to Oz to rule once more. But she can't go to her editor and explain that Diggs is planning to invade an invisible sky island ruled by witches. Nor can she explain that she gets her sensitive documents not from connections in Washington, but by using her magic silver slippers to travel cross country in the blink of an eye.
 
Dorothy's plans to thwart Diggs are complicated when he kidnaps her to take back to Oz as insurance that the Scarecrow will hand over the throne of the Emerald City. When she escapes his clutches in Oz, she must navigate a dangerous magical landscape in order to rescue her the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion. But even when they are finally united, will they be too late to stop Diggs from conquering the Emerald City with his aerial navy?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad Wizard Cover Tease #3


Zooming out a bit further, full title banner can be seen, with Esau's wings serving as the "W" in Bad Wizard. The spires of a crystalline city are becoming apparent, and the fact that Esau is falling from a gray sky into a full color landscape reflects gives further hints to the setting.

This Sunday, I'll reveal the full cover online in all it's glory! If, by chance, you are near Hillsborough this Friday (August 29) and want to get your hands on a poster of the cover, come by Purple Crow Books during the Last Friday street festival between 6 and 8 pm. I'll be set up out front selling books and will have a limited number of posters on hand to give away. If you aren't in the Hillsborough area, don't despair! Everyone will have a shot at getting a free copy of the poster next month. Stay tuned for details!