Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collection, There is No Wheel. In 2017, I'll be releasing a new superhero series, The Butterfly Cage. 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.




Monday, June 14, 2010

Greatshadow Lives. Also, Writing as a Method of Mapping Ignorance.

Last Friday, I passed an important milestone for my latest novel, Greatshadow. It will seem trivial perhaps, but that was the day when I finally put together a single word file with the title "Greatshadow.complete.doc." I now have an actual novel 113k words long. I began this project last July, but due to various false starts, I'll used August 1, 2009 as my official starting point. Since then, I've been writing and rewriting chapters. The first draft had about 20 chapters. I didn't show these chapters to anyone. This was the draft where the book was still raw and half formed. I had characters who had showed up to take part in the story who were still strangers to me, and I was fuzzy on details in setting, plotting, etc. But, the whole point of my first draft is to educate myself on the broadest extent of my ignorance. I start writing the book knowing there are certain things I don't know, but am blissfully unaware of many more things I don't know. By the time I get to the end of my first draft, I have a really good map of the deficiencies in my knowledge and imagination. For instance, in my first draft, I have a minor character named Aurora. She's an ice-ogress with a broad range of ice-related powers. She started as an enforcer for another character, the Black Swan, but beyond this, I didn't know much about her other than she was a tough guy with some cold-themed magic tricks. I thought she might be in one or two scenes, and that would be that.

But, a funny thing happened as I wrote the book. I had to introduce a magical weapon that could be a genuine threat to the dragon, and since he's a dragon of fire, it made sense that the weapon would also have a cold theme. How do I introduce the back story of the weapon? Suddenly, it's obvious: Aurora has a back story that links her to the weapon. So, now Aurora is along for the quest, an actual member of the team rather than just a passing cast member. But, I hadn't really developed her much in my imagination. She wasn't even a she when I started writing; she had started out as a tough male ogre, and I had only flipped her to female because I wanted a little gender diversity in a heavily male cast.

The more I used Aurora, the more questions I had about her. Had she ever been in love? How had an ice-ogre gotten to the tropics? Why was she putting up with some of the abuse certain other characters were heaping on her for not being human? The more I wrote her, the more I knew how much more I needed to write about her in the next draft.

So, draft two. This time, I've figured out what didn't know the first time and have to put it onto the page, often wiping out whole scenes and chapters built during my initial ignorance. This draft, I do show to readers, a special circle of critiquers who provide me with feedback and reaction as they read. As I read their reactions, I begin to build a map of a whole knew level of ignorance: My readers begin asking me questions that I don't know the answers to, and they are questions I would never have thought of myself. For instance, I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on a character known as Father Ver, but it turned out that my understanding was actually pretty two-dimensional, and I needed the reader reaction to prod me into thinking deeper about the character. And, I also discover that some stuff I put in just didn't work. There was a fight near the end of the book with a character named Wonowon. Wonowon fought by reflecting back each characters worst fears. I intended the name to be a reference to room 101 from 1984, where Big Brother took you to be confronted with the worst thing in the world. No one got it. Part of the confusion was that Wonowon only speaks in palindromes. "Murder for a jar of red rum," is an offer Wonowon makes to my narrator Stagger, an alcoholic who does worry that he would stoop to killing if he was thirsty enough for booze. I thought the mirror language was a nice touch, but it made the name all the more confusing, since the name was almost a palindrome, but not quite. So, after draft 3, the name has changed to Nowowon.

When I write the third draft, I now have a long list of reader questions that I have to answer. The result should be a book that answers every important questions. The questions I choose not to answer are framed as hints of future events, or else explicitly addressed as questions that no one in the book knows the answer to. The finished product is something very much like a novel.

But, of course, it's not. It's just a string of chapters. It doesn't truly feel like a book to me until I combine everything into one file. This is an important step for mainly psychological reasons. If someone wants to read the book, I can now just mail them a single file. But, there are some practical advantages to having everything put together. Some of my characters underwent name changes, since one of the things I'm ignorant on when I start a book is what my characters will actually be called. This time, I decided very late in the game to change a character name from "Stranger" to "Relic." Stranger was too generic, and, even worse, looked to much like Stagger, my narrator. Relic better captured the tone of the character, and provides a nice ironic twist at the end of the book when details of his true identity are unveiled. But, since "stranger" was a work I had used in non-naming contexts, I had to do a search and replace on the whole book where I examined every single usage of the word, rather than just trusting a universal search and replace. This was much easier to do with the novel assembled than it was chapter by chapter.

Now that I have a whole book, what next? I've already got the novel submitted to one publisher. I could just put it aside and wait for a response, but I still have more work to do. I'm going to set it aside for a week or so, then I'm going to read the whole book out loud in order to smooth out the prose and hunt for typos. Then, I'll send it to more friends for feedback and opinions, in case there's still something I'm missing that could make it a better book. And then, I'll probably start working on a sequel.

Before I do the sequel, however, I plan to make my dragon novels and Nobody Gets the Girl available on the Kindle platform. This will be be my first foray into e-publishing. I intend to document my adventures in converting and uploading the files here, so that others might benefit from my mistakes. Stay tuned.

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