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), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. 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. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This morning, I taught a class on creativity at the Orange County Library.

These are my class notes:

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
(And what to do when you find one.)

The Warm Up Exercise

The story of your morning:
You got up this morning and came to the library. Woo! Exciting stuff.

Rewind. Tell us about the amazing exciting thing that happened to you on the way here.

(in this exercise, the students were encouraged to tell elaborate fibs about their journey to class)

Part One:
How important are ideas?

The Paradox of Ideas

Truth #1:
Ideas are the key element of any story.

Truth #2:
Ideas barely matter at all with successful story telling.


When I say ideas are the key, I mean it in the sense that you already have a million stories locked inside you. Without the spark of an idea, you have no way of getting through the locks of your imagination to the treasures inside.
A good idea is absolutely meaningless if you don’t have the tools to develop your initial concept into a compelling story. Beginning writers often feel that a fresh, clever idea will be essential to breaking into publication. In reality, good execution of an old, even stale, idea is a far more certain path to publication. If you need evidence, go to Barnes and Noble and count the number of books about vampires.


Think about a favorite work of fiction.

What do you think was the central idea the creator wanted to convey?

Does the idea matter most to you, or the storytelling?

(In this exercise, the students think about the ideas behind favorite stories as well as the execution of those stories and see how they are or aren't connected.)

Part Two:
Creativity is a muscle.


The Dictionary Definition:
the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc

What it actually means in real life:
the ability to see the connections between things that most people don’t recognize as being connected related.

There are no wrong ways to get ideas.
There plenty of ways to avoid them, however. A passive approach to a creative life is likely to produce the same results as a passive approach to physical fitness. The mental muscles of your creativity must be exercised daily to stay trim. Generating ideas isn’t something that can be done only when you carve out a little extra time to do some thinking. It’s something that you must actively pursue at every opportunity.

How I personally gather ideas:
I steal them.
I constantly wage war upon my ignorance.
I keep a messy desk. Throw nothing away!
I look for the everything in anything.

An Exercise in Theft

First, a word about copyright and the public domain…

Pink Card = A famous character
Yellow card = A famous place, fictional if possible
Blue Card = A period of time
Green Card = Something with a strong smell

(For this exercise, students filled out their cards with the items above, then collaborated with their table mates to build a story from the combined items, for example
Robin Hood, the Emerald City, Chinese New Year, a bouquet of roses. )

On the Art of Lighting Candles in the Dark Void of Your Ignorance:

Before the end of the day, eat something you’ve never eaten before.
Before the end of the week, seek out some local culture that’s new to you.
Before the end of the month, read a book on a subject you know nothing about.
Before the end of the year, visit a state or city you’ve never visited.

You can only write what you know. What you know is limited only by your curiosity and drive.

Ideas Must Breed

A single idea is a sad thing. I suppose single ideas can sometimes give birth without mating with another idea, like some parthenogenetic lizard of literature. But, for most ideas to bear offspring, they must breed with other ideas.

Keep a journal of your ideas. Paper is the way to go! When you’re stuck, read your journal.

Talk with other writer. Don’t be afraid of having your ideas stolen! The more you give, the more you will receive.

Even if you can’t stand a messy desk, cultivate a messy mind. It’s important for the wildest, most unrelated concepts to bump into one another.

To write Greatshadow I had to know about: Jungles, volcanoes, oceans, casinos, biology, botany, religions, mythology, fishing, alcohol, cooking, anatomy, Eskimo lore, weaponry, whaling, dream symbolism, love, rejection, ambition, failure, life, death, and the correct verb to use to describe being thrown from a window.

The Everything in Anything

The most mundane object you can lay your hands upon is composed of the remnants of dead stars.

A cup of coffee contains within it the entire history of mankind.

It’s not just Kevin Bacon connected to everyone else in the world.

Writing is revelation.


? is like ?

Life. Death. Justice. Love. Family. America.

(Here, I passed out random objects like a toy bulldozer, a flashlight, an empty envelope, a package of crackers, a leaf, a seashell, a plastic dinosaur, etc. and asked students to explain how their objects were a metaphor for the concepts above.)

Part Three:
I have an idea!
Now what?

Ideas are nothing but flashes of light on the film of your mind. No one can see them until they are developed.

Once you have an idea, turning it into a story is easy! Wait, did I say easy? Because it’s actually kind of a pain. Turning an idea into a story requires many long hours with your butt in your chair fighting to put the concepts in your head onto paper.

But, even before you start writing, here’s a checklist you can follow to know if your idea is growing into a story or not.

A Simplified Checklist of Story Development:

Do I have a:

Check these boxes and you’re home free!


A literary character is a disembodied simulacrum of a human being.

To pass as a real person, he or she needs:
GOALS. Goals, goals, goals, goals, goals.

Optional but useful traits are:
Physical attributes
Symbolic elements (for instance, a meaningful name)
Distinctive speech patterns.


A literary setting is an figment of imagination that’s confused for a real place.

To aid this confusion, a setting should have:
Light – Noise – Scent - Texture

Optional but useful traits are:
Geography – Architecture - Culture
History - Weather - Cuisine

Two Tricks of the Trade:
Setting is back story.
A character’s body can also be a setting


A literary plot is a set of fixed, unchanging words that simulate the passage of time.

To create the illusion of movement through time, a plot needs:
A destination

Life is just one moment after another. A plot is one eventful moment after another. More importantly, a plot is one meaningful moment after another.

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