Just finished chapter nine of Dragonsgate, bringing me to 45014 words on the first draft.
At this point, the two major plots are well under way, though the biggest, most difficult problem the characters are going to face still hasn't been introduced or even hinted at. Structurally this is a problem I'll need to address in the second draft by writing some scenes that are going on outside the awareness of my core POV characters of Bitterwood and Burke. So far, only one chapter has been told from a dragon's POV, which is a very different from the previous Bitterwood books. Of course, in the previous Bitterwood books, I had humans and dragons with close bonds. Jandra's relationship with Vendevorex and Hex was an important part of her character. Shandrazel negotiating with Pet in Dragonforge also gave me a lot of character scenes where dragons and humans had reasons to be together. This time, I'm missing a human/dragon friendship or partnership to work around--so far. The dragons have a lot more to do in the second half of the book.
I feel pretty good about the pace I'm writing the book. Finishing the first draft by the end of the month is still vaguely possible, though I suspect mid-November is a more realistic goal.
Right now, the thing I'm least satisfied with are the emotional plot lines. In the previous books, Jandra really provided the emotional heart of the books, and a lot of the other characters were mostly static as she changed and grew. The great thing about Jandra was that she could make mistakes and have doubts. The problem with using Bitterwood as the actual protagonist of a Bitterwood novel is that he's competent and certain. He's haunted by his past, yes, but I've established him as someone who doesn't agonize over his options before he takes action, and as someone who doesn't waste a lot of time second guessing what he could or should have done. I've got a slowly building subplot for him that will lead him to an emotional revelation, but it's tricky. If I bring it to the forefront, readers will likely guess my plans for him. If I leave it slowly building in the background, his later epiphany might look forced. Oh well. That's why there's first drafts.
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!
Monday, October 8, 2018
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
The current Mike "MEZ" Phillips cover.
The original cover
Most of my titles have been available for the last few years via a company called CreateSpace. They were already owned by Amazon by the time I started doing business with them. Amazon is now phasing them out and will be handling all printing through Kindle Direct Publishing. Today, I transferred all my titles from the old website to the KDP dashboard, a relatively pain free process. Afterwards, I went back to CreateSpace and printed off five years of sales and purchase data in case it suddenly disappears one CreateSpace is completely gone.
I'm always looking at my sales data, of course. Maybe a little too obsessively. I mean, in traditional publishing, you go six months without seeing sales data. Now, I look at sales maybe six times a day. Which is crazy. But that's another essay.
This essay is about something surprising I discovered when I pulled all my CreateSpace sales data. In ebooks, my dragon stuff is far and away outsells my superhero titles. But it turns out that as far as what people order online in print editions, my supervillain novel Burn Baby Burn has had the best cumulative total of any of my print on demand books, beating out Bitterwood: the Complete Collection by forty total sales over it's lifetime, not a giant win, but, still, I was surprised. Burn Baby Burn has never been a best seller. It usually only logs single digit sales in the paperback version every month, but the every month part is important. Over the long haul, it's earned more than I got as an advance for either of the first two novels I sold to traditional publishers.
This is important to me because Burn Baby Burn was the first title I didn't even try to shop to a publisher or agent. It was too quirky to pitch, and had too much personal meaning for me not to write it. A traditional publisher would likely have taken the book out of print years ago. But the fact that it keeps selling is rewarding. Some books just need time to find their readers. I'm glad I came into publishing at a time when a quirky title like this had a chance at life. I'm also glad it opened a career path to me I didn't even dream of fifteen years ago when I first saw one of my books in a bookstore.
If you've never read it or even heard of it, you're missing out on a pretty special book. It's a Bonnie and Clyde love story between two supervillains on a crime spree. Neither Pit Geek nor Sundancer are particularly lovable. They kill a lot of people during the book, and Sundancer feels like a bit of an underachiever for not killing even more. Anyone can write a love story about lovable people. The fact that Pit Geek and Sundancer are so damaged and dangerous makes the way that love changes them during the book particularly meaningful. And Sundancer is dying of cancer, facing her mortality. Pit Geek is trying to come to terms with her looming death. It's sometimes hard for me to reread. I put a lot of my own emotional journey into these pages.
Also talking chimps. It's not all gloomy. In fact, it's pretty funny from end to end. It has possibly my favorite opening line of any of my novels: "Sunday Jiminez was fifteen when she killed her first nun." Also my favorite closing line: "He'd gotten out alive." The stuff in between is pretty swell as well. Seriously. Check it out. Wait, don't check it out. Buy it!
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
With a new Bitterwood book coming soon, I thought this would be a good time to post a bestiary of the various races you encounter in the novels:
Sun-dragons are the lords of the realm, possessing forty-foot wingspans and long, toothy jaws that can bite a man in half. Sun-dragons are adorned with crimson scales tipped with highlights of orange and yellow that give them a fiery appearance. Wispy feathers around their snouts give the illusion that they breathe smoke. Though gifted with natural weaponry and a tough, scaly hide, sun-dragons are intelligent tool-users who recognize the value of using spears and armor to enhance their already formidable combat skills. Politically, sun-dragons are traditionally organized under an all-powerful king, who, by rights, owns all property within the kingdom. A close network of other sun-dragons, often related to the king, manage individual abodes within the kingdom. The current “king” is Hex, the only surviving son of the old king Albekizan. Hex is a political radical with anarchist leanings, and as a result of his refusal to perform the duties of a king, the sun-dragon political structures are currently in great disarray.
Half the size of sun-dragons, sky-dragons are a race devoted to scholarship. Most male sky-dragons dwell at colleges built around large libraries. Their leaders are known as biologians, a position that is part priest, part librarian, and part scientist. Most male sky-dragons distain combat, but a few are selected to either serve in the king’s elite aerial guard, or if they show a talent for brutality, become part of the ranks of slave-catchers than keep human slaves compliant. Sky-dragons practice strict segregation of the sexes. The females of the species dwell on an island fortress known as the Nest, defended by fierce warriors known as valkyries. The scholars among the females tend to focus on more practical disciplines than their male counterparts, and are particularly well known for their talents as engineers.
Wingless creatures, earth-dragons are humanoids with turtle-beaked faces and broad, muscular bodies. They are much stronger than men, but also much slower. As a race, they have few valuable skills beyond their enthusiasm for hitting things. This makes them excellent soldiers and decent blacksmiths. Except for the rare periods of time when earth-dragons are in heat, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two sexes of earth-dragon. They are the only dragon species to lay eggs instead of producing live birth. Very rarely, some earth-dragons are born with a chameleon mutation that allows them to blend into their surroundings. These mutant dragons are also smarter and faster than their brethren and are usually recruited to become assassins for the dragon king, serving in a greatly feared unit known as the Black Silence.
Humans live in the margins of dragon society as slaves, pets, and prey. The sun-dragons tolerate their existence primarily because of mankind’s natural talent for farming; the labor of humans keeps the bellies of dragons full. Humans are generally peaceful and harmless in small, isolated groups, but quick to war with other tribes. Recently, a prophet named Ragnar united many of the men in the kingdom into a rebel army. The rebellion successfully seized the town of Dragon Forge, and a man named Burke is using the town’s foundries to create new weapons that may forever alter the balance of power between man and dragon… assuming the humans can resist their natural urges to go to war with themselves.
Fifty-foot long copper colored serpents with fourteen pairs of legs, long-wyrms are ferocious carnivores, and, fortunately, exceedingly rare.
Often used as beasts of burden, great-lizards are twenty food long reptiles that closely resemble giant iguanas with a more upright stance.
The product of centuries of careful breeding, ox-dogs are the largest canine species ever to exist, standing nearly six feet high at the shoulder. Despite their fearsome build, most are docile in temperament, though earth-dragons often train them for hunting and have taught some to have an appetite for human flesh.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
Bad news: It’s more difficult than ever to make a living as a writer.
There aren’t many writers bringing home big wads of cash. As in many creative industries, there are a few big earners at the top, outnumbered a thousand to one by people at the bottom who earn very little. With so many writers at the bottom eager to see their book in a book store, publishers can pay relatively trivial amounts to new authors. Many give up on traditional publishing and try self-publishing. Unfortunately, so many are desperate to find readers that they often give away their work. The ease of self-publishing creates a huge pool of new books competing for the attention of a limited pool of readers, and we’ve trained many of those readers to think a fair price to pay for a book is nothing.
Good news: It’s easier than ever to make a living as a writer!
There are two key revolutions in the publishing world that make it easier to pursue either a traditional publishing path or a self-publishing career. Traditional publishers used to be concentrated in a few major cities, and New York is still home to many big name publishers. Meeting the editors for these publisher or the agents who worked with them meant travelling to conventions and hoping to schmooze at a party or introduce oneself on an elevator. Social media has changed all this. I’m acquainted online with dozens of professionals in the industry and we respond to each other’s posts all the time. If I send an editor I have a relationship with online something to take a look at, they’ll probably read it in a more positive light than something from a complete stranger. Also, social media has revolutionized the spread of publishing information. There was a time you had to subscribe to trade magazines to get news about new imprints at publishing houses, or get the names of newly hired editors, or learn what anthologies were open to submissions. Now, this information is freely available to anyone who cares to look for it.
But an even bigger transformation in the industry is the self-publishing revolution. It used to be that getting your book into print meant getting past the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses. Today, Amazon has thrown the gate wide open. As a self-publisher you have free access to the digital shelves of the largest bookstore that’s ever existed. And Amazon isn’t the only platform. Google, Apple, Nook, Kobo, and other stores are also open to your content. Ebooks have a low initial cost to take live, and even print books are easy to print and sell thanks to print on demand platforms like Createspace. Turning your book into an audio book isn’t terribly difficult and expands your potential audience. On many of these platforms, your audience isn’t limited to America. Each month, I see revenue from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, India, and even occasional sales from places where English isn’t the primary language, like Japan and Germany. A great thing about these online sales is that most of the platforms pay generous royalties, have easy to follow accounting that lets you see your sales data updated each day, and direct deposit the income you’ve earned on a monthly basis. With traditional publishing, you often go six months between paychecks, assuming you ever earn out your advances. Unless your electric bill only comes every six months, the monthly revenue stream is a welcome change from the traditional model.
Finally, with self-publishing, you never need to let a book go out of print. There’s a concept known as the long tail. For a newly released book, you make most of your money in the first few months it’s in print, then sales start to decline. With traditional publishers, once your book falls below a certain threshold of sales, they’ll remainder what books they have less and take the book out of print. Your revenue for that book comes to an end. With self-publishing, your books keep earning small amounts of money year after year. It adds up. It might not sound impressive that I have some old titles that only earn me ten or twenty dollars a month, but I can look at my sales data and see that some of these books have earned a thousand dollars or more long after the point where a traditional publisher would have taken it out of print. With enough titles in print, a self-published author can cobble together something approaching a steady income. Not a flamboyant, extravagant income, but long before I was earning enough to leave behind my day job I passed through years where I was earning at least a hundred bucks each month. If you’re in an economic class where an extra hundred bucks a month won’t make a difference in your life, congratulations! For many struggling writers, though, that hundred bucks a month makes them hungry for more.
Bad news: The world is full of far more talented writers than you can ever hope to be.
Wow. That’s a bummer. But it’s something you’ll need to learn to live with. I write epic fantasy, but I don’t have a lot of hope that one day I’ll be praised as better than Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I also write humorous science fiction, but have yet to read a review saying how much funnier my stuff is than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t know that I’ll ever write a book as tight and disturbing as Jim Thomson’s The Grifters, or as full of madness and truth and poetry as Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I can list you a hundred classic novels that fill me both with admiration and despair. It’s not just classics. Every year, great books by new authors win awards and critical acclaim and turn their authors into legends in literary circles. I admire great books. I cherish them as the highest art form mankind has yet created. But that same love of literature often leaves me feeling like I’m coming up short. Maybe I’m never going to write a book that changes the world. Maybe I’m always going to be a pale shadow compared to these towering titans of literature. Maybe my chosen genres of dragons and superheroes keep me from my full potential, and make me more of an entertainer than a true author.
More bad news: The world is full of writers who are much worse than you. Many produce best-sellers, sign movie deals, and fill auditoriums with fans when they go on tour.
For me, this is even harder to deal with than seeing great writers getting the attention they deserve. Seeing hacks win acclaim and earn fortunes leaves me wondering if success isn’t all luck, or, if it’s not luck, if I’m just so isolated from my own culture that I’ll never understand what it takes to write a popular book.
Good News: You’re more than talented enough to write stories people will find important.
After my novel Bitterwood was released, I got a fan letter. It was from a twelve year old boy who loved my book but was wondering whether or not I believed in God. He could see all the religious imagery I was drawing into my work. Some of my characters quote the Bible outright, and others make allusions to Biblical tales. But, the book also features a prophet named Hezekiah who is something of a monster who preaches a very violent, dark, Old Testament ideology that allows him to kill in the name of the Lord. I could sense a subtext in his letter. Since he was young but familiar with the Bible, he was probably from a religious family. But the way he asked the question made me think he had doubt, and my book had likely contributed to those doubts. And that one fan letter to this day does more to keep me writing than anything else. I have no idea where that young fan arrived at philosophically, but it was plain that my book was something he’d actually thought about. I can point to books I read when I was young that changed my whole world view. Not all of these were classics. I had a taste for cheesy science fiction novels that would now be dismissed as pulp. I don’t even recall the many of the titles or the authors. But these books still changed me, opening up a love of science and a love of adventure, and not just the adventures you find on a page. Stories about people travelling to other planets inspired me to want to go out and explore my own planet. And many of these stories made heroes of smart, knowledgeable people. Engineers, chemists, historians, linguists… they all have their roles to play in the spread of human civilization among the stars and it made me admire such people. I can assure you, a lot of these books were dreadful. To take a well-known example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a beloved classic still widely read. I think it’s about as poorly written as a novel can get. The characters are wooden, the plot meandering, the pacing atrocious, the dialogue stiff and inhuman. But, despite my dislike of the book, I have many well-read, intelligent friends I respect who count it among their favorite novels.
Ultimately, believing in the worthiness of your fiction is going to take a little faith. Strive to write the best book you can. Brace yourself to the indifference of roughly seven billion fellow inhabitants of the planet. Trust that somewhere out there is your reader, the one person who is going to pick up your book at the right moment in her life and absolutely cherish every word.
Bad news: Learning to write well takes years of practice.
No one expects to sit down at a piano the first time and play a beautiful melody. Learning any musical instrument is going to require years of plinking and clunking and off-tempo faltering that will only in the most superficial way resemble a song.
The same is true of writing a novel. You’re going to have false starts. You’re going to write characters no one has any reason to like, pursuing goals no one understands, across pages filled with prose that not everyone will be able to untangle. Maybe a few geniuses escape this harsh reality, but the vast majority of mankind must write a lot of crap before they become merely competent at writing a book. And, like a musical instrument, you can’t learn just how to write that one book. A pianist can’t learn to press the keys for just one song. There are scales to learn, musical theory to absorb, and a whole separate written language of musical notation that must be mastered.
To write a novel well, you’ve got to learn to craft realistic characters. You’ve got to engineer a compelling plot. You’ll need to ground your characters in a specific setting. Your writing style needs to be comprehensible. And you’ll need something worth saying, some theme or moral that breathes life into the piece and elevates it above a rote reporting of the events of your character’s life. All of these things take work to master. Sometimes you’ll need years to finally figure out how to handle all of these elements.
Good News: You've already had years of practice.
You started learning to write before you were born. There is strong evidence that during the last two months of gestation babies can hear their mother’s voice in the womb and learn to recognize the patterns of language. You mastered your native tongue at a very early age, and while you might not have understood all the subtleties and niceties of language, you knew it well enough to laugh at puns, understand riddles, and grasp metaphorical speech. If your mother ever told you your room looked like a pig sty, odds are you didn’t take her literally. It’s quite likely you had never even seen an actual pig sty, but still grasped her meaning.
You have a long term fluency with metaphorical and symbolic language. You also likely were learning stories before you could even read, and making up your own stories well before you went to school.
As far as characters go, well, you know people. And, you know yourself. While there are a few tips and tricks I’ll get to in a different essay about how to create interesting characters, the heart and soul of character creation is simply knowing yourself, understanding your own wants and desires, your strengths and weaknesses, and the origins of these traits. You also need empathy, the ability and desire to not just understand other people, but to feel like they feel. You likely mastered this at a very early age.
As for setting, you have never spent a moment of your life separated from one. You’re always somewhere. Even if you don’t want to set your story where you are at this moment, you’ll be surprised at how much fictional detail you can draw from your immediate surroundings and your own travels.
As for having something important to say, you’ve been on the planet for a while. You’ve learned stuff. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve gotten angry at some injustice or other, and wonder why the rest of the world isn’t equally angry. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve discovered beautiful things, and want to tell everyone about this beauty.
You’ve been training to be a writer from the day you were born. All those boring writing assignments you did in school… you were a pianist practicing your scales. You’ve got every skill you need to write a good book simply by virtue of having lived a life. What makes writing a novel hard is the difference between knowing how to catch a ball and knowing how to juggle chainsaws. You have to take simple skills and use them all at once, in a way that looks effortless. Sometimes, you’ll gaze at a chainsaw juggler and feel envious that he’s only keeping three chainsaws in the air, while you’re trying to juggle ten major characters, three plot thread, and five different settings. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. On the positive side, there’s very little risk of having your fingers chopped off. You’ve chosen wisely in pursuing novel writing over chainsaw juggling, I think. That choice was first step toward greatness!
Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Good writing is primarily a result of knowing what words to leave off the page.
A good analogy can be found in the composition of a photograph. Below are two photos of the same shell:
In the first photo, I haven’t really taken the time to frame the shell properly. I didn’t even get my finger out of the frame! Your eyes are drawn to the shell since it’s in the center of the frame, but the image is cluttered by the presence of the second shell, and the background is cluttered. The oddly askew chair and the big yellow pool float are out of focus, but this somehow only makes them more distracting as your eye tries to piece together what it’s seeing. Finally, there’s not a lot of contrast between the shell and the background. It’s pretty much the same color as the fence behind it.
In the second photo, I’ve changed the angle of the shot and have a vastly simplified background. I’ve gotten closer and cropped the image to remove unwanted objects. The new angle means most of the background is lightly colored, making the darker shell stand out. I’ve done some manipulation of the image to oversaturate the colors, making a shell that looked gray at first glance into something far more complex, with tones of blue, brown, and ivory.
Of course, this isn’t an article about taking photos. It’s an article about writing well. When you’re working on a novel, the sheer amount of information you need to convey to the reader can feel overwhelming. You might be balancing a dozen important characters, all with backstories, their own goals, and distinct personalities. You’ve got a setting to convey. There’s the characters immediate location, but there’s also a larger world and a place in the history of that world. You’re also conveying motion. Even if your characters aren’t moving, hopefully your plot is moving forward. Every paragraph needs to feel like it’s bringing the story a little bit closer to a conclusion.
Given all the things you need to convey, the real art of writing is to treat every page as a carefully composed photograph. What are you wanting the readers to see? Of all the different story elements present, which one do you want them to focus on? What on this page do you want them to remember so that the next page makes sense?
Simplicity is the secret of clarity, and clarity is the key to readers engaging with your book.
Let’s say you’re writing a story in which your character is going to shoot someone. In the first chapter, you show your protagonist loading her gun and putting it into her purse. You go into a crazy amount of detail on the gun to make sure it’s memorable, since it’s important to the plot, and wind up spending three pages telling us the manufacturer of the gun, where she bought it, why she likes this particular gun, and close with a brief history of gunpowder. Then, in every following chapter, you have moments where she looks into her purse and contemplates the gun. Most readers will find this annoying, heavy-handed, and won’t be terribly surprised by your plot twist seventeen chapters later when she shoots her boss.
On the flip side, let’s say you devote a single mention of her putting a gun into her purse in the first chapter. Then she never thinks about the gun again until she pulls it out and shoots her boss seventeen chapters later. Most readers will have forgotten the gun and feel like its appearance in the story is completely random.
Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot, where you’ve given enough detail that the reader will sense that the gun is important but not so much detail that they grow frustrated at how obvious you’re being.
Let’s go back to your protagonist’s purse: When she opens her purse, you might be tempted to describe the entire contents of her purse, or you might be tempted to just tell us she has a purse and not say another word about it. Personally, I think it would be a wasted opportunity not to describe a few things in her purse, since you might be telling us a lot about her character and backstory with just a few choice details. If we see a key to a BMW, it might hint at her economic status. A wad of coupons for basic stuff like peanut butter might point us in a different direction for her finances. A pacifier could clue us in that she’s a mother. If there’s a can of pepper spray next to the gun, we might deduce she’s really worried about her self-defense. Perhaps she’s been a crime victim in the past. Or, maybe she’s got three clips of bullets. Self-defense no longer seems to be her primary plan for the gun. Not tossing in telling details is a wasted opportunity. Describing every last scrap of clutter in her purse would bore the readers.
If you aren’t confident how much detail to include in a scene, my advice is to err on the side of over-telling, especially during a first draft. If an editor or someone in your critique group reads your story and you’ve overexplained something, they can tell you what to cut. If you leave out too much, they’ll just feel lost and unsure of what you’re trying to say. It’s much easier to tell a reader what he needs to cut than to tell him what he needs to add.
A final thought: If you’re a person who admires literature enough to want to try your hand writing a novel, you very likely have a broad vocabulary and an appreciation for ambitious prose that tells a story full of subtlety and nuance. It may be that you only want people with similar vocabularies and the same appreciation of nuance to enjoy your work. This is admirable. But I will also say there is a pretty large audience of people who enjoy books written in a simple, straightforward style, with stories that make them feel clear emotions. They want to feel your hero’s heartbreak, loss, and worries, and rally around your characters courage, cleverness, and triumphs. I spent far too many years afraid to write an obvious emotion. It took time for me to be comfortable writing that being in love feels swell, that being cheated on by a lover feels lousy, and that losing a friend to death feels like the end of the world. These sentiments didn’t strike me as original or fresh. Some truths will never get worn out. You might be worried that what you’ve written isn’t complicated or complex enough. As long as you’re writing from a place of honesty and experience, readers will respond to it. There’s no idea so simple that there’s no longer a market of people willing to listen to it. If you doubt this, tune into any radio station and see how many songs in an hour use the world “love.”
Friday, August 3, 2018
Some of the most common questions I hear when I’m doing events are about time management. I’m frequently asked how many hours a day I write. Another common question is how long it takes me to write a book. Perhaps the most common obstacle new writers worry about is that they just can’t find time to write.
I get it. You probably have a job that you work forty hours a week. Assuming you care about your health, you’re likely sleeping fifty-six hours a week and exercising at least three or four. If you care about your mental health, you have relationships. Your family deserves your time and attention, and life without friends would be unbearable. All these people demand a slice of your time, and deserve it far more than a computer screen opened to a blank page. Finally, it’s important to relax and to be entertained. An evening set aside to read a book, a night spent going out to dinner, a movie marathon on the weekends, or taking a few minutes here and there to play a game on your phone are good ways to relieve stress. You can’t be “on” all the time.
Of course, by the time you’ve done your work, given time to friends and family, relaxed and entertained yourself, you find that, hmm, another week has gone by and you haven’t written a single page.
When I was in my twenties, I was working on a novel and progress was slow. I used to daydream about how much I could write if writing was my whole job. I fantasized that I’d publish a single book, it would make me financially secure enough to quit my day job, and after that it would be smooth sailing as I cranked out book after book. In other words, I was caught in a fantasy that seduces a lot of beginning authors: One day, when I’m a writer, I’ll have time to write.
And that’s bullshit. Take my word on this: Right now, you have the same amount of time available to write a book as everyone else. All those demands on your time are demands every other writer faces. What’s more, fantasizing that at some future date you’ll have more time to write is a rather feeble hope. I felt so busy and rushed in my twenties, but when I got into my thirties I wondered where all my free time had gone, and felt like all my new responsibilities were overwhelming. In my forties, I could look back and see just how few responsibilities I really had when I was thirty. As I’m writing this I’m in my fifties, and I’ve got demands on my time I didn’t even imagine a decade ago. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’ll never have more time available to you than you have at this moment. This is self-evidently true. Your life is an hourglass. The sand grains are pouring through, and there’s no way of turning the glass back over. Demands on your time will increase each year, especially if you’re a smart, capable, and responsible person. The more you’ve done, the more you get asked to do. You will never, ever, reaching that mythical state of finding time to write.
The solution: Make time to write. It’s that simple. There are things you need to give up so you can keep your butt in your chair and type. There are other things you need to stop doing so you can daydream and let your imagination run wild.
I obviously can’t address your life specifics, but a few of the things I gave up in order to write were gaming and television. Like a lot of young men, I used to have a pretty extensive collection of video games. And, because I’m a geek, I loved games that didn’t require a screen, stuff like D&D, Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, and just plain old spades and rummy and hearts. I ran weekly game nights and spent a lot of time designing campaigns and painting miniature armies. All the time, I kept thinking of myself as a writer, even though I really was piddling along and writing maybe a chapter a month. It took me two or three years to write a book, but speed isn’t everything, is it? I mean, taking time to get stuff right is a good thing.
But I wasn’t taking time to get stuff right. I was taking time to second guess myself. When I would go a week or more between sitting down to write, I’d lose momentum. Passion for my project would diminish. Worse, I’d change my mind about what I’d already written because I was giving the ideas time to grow and mutate. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it meant I kept restarting the same projects again and again to incorporate new ideas for characters, settings, and plot points.
Good writing requires momentum. A first draft should be a project of weeks, not years, if it’s to feel coherent and whole. My first book took me three years to finish and it was a mess. My second I worked on for two years, and my third took about the same time. None were ready for publication, and with my glacial pace of writing, I was constantly wondering whether I should put them aside and start with a new, better idea, or keep slogging away at a manuscript I no longer cared about. Then, I stumbled into something that changed my writing forever: A deadline. A completely arbitrary one. It was November of 2000. I was one of those calendar snobs who insisted that the new millennium didn’t actually being until January 1, 2001. And as part of a conversation with some other novice writers, we decided to challenge ourselves with writing the first new novel of the millennium. We’d start books on November 15, and type “the end” at midnight on December 31. I thought it was a pretty crazy goal. At that point I seldom finished short stories in a month and a half, let alone a whole book. But, I agreed to the challenge and just started writing. I knew I needed 1500 words a day to finish a novel by the deadline, which meant I needed about two hours each night. Two hours each night is about what I spent watching television. So, no television until I finished my words for the night. When weekends came around I normally met up with friends and gamed. Since I was working on my book, I went to hang out with my friends but took my laptop. I sat in the corner and wrote while they played video games, and from time to time we’d all take breaks and talk. I gave up gaming without giving up my friends.
I was worried about whether I’d be able to keep up the pace for a month and a half, but made an interesting discovery. Since I was writing every day, when I’d sit down to write the previous session’s work was still fresh in my mind. I developed a habit of stopping my chapters a line or two before they reached the end. That way, when I sat down the next day, I already knew the first hundred words or so I’d be typing, and once you’ve typed your first hundred, your second hundred flows more easily, and after a half hour or so you’re so absorbed you’ll just keep writing without effort. Momentum mattered!
I know writers who have built a career out of writing 1000 words of first draft a day, every day. I’m not one of those writers. I still spend a lot of weeks and months between projects when I’m not writing first drafts. I also tend to binge on first drafts, going a few days producing nothing then sitting down for an eight hour word-a-thon where I crank out several chapters in a row.
Where do I find eight hours in a row? For years, I made the time by only working four days a week at my day job. Where I worked, there were certain shifts that were hard to keep filled. I told my boss I’d work these hard to fill spots on the schedule permanently, but in exchange I’d only be working four days. He took the deal. So, I’d work Sunday and Monday, have Tuesday and Wednesday off, then work Thursday and Friday. This cut my income, but on my mid-week days I was home when all my friends and family were working, so I could really focus on producing work. My goal with this schedule was to get out 10,000 words a week, and for the most part I met that goal. 10,000 words a week seems to be my most comfortable pace. I write a lot of epic fantasy novels about 120,000 words long. So, it takes me about three months to produce a first draft, two months to polish a second draft, and another month to finish a third draft. All further drafts are normally stuff I squeeze in here and there because I’ve already moved on to another project.
These days, I no longer have a day job. I’ve got over fifteen books in print and it’s enough of a back catalogue to keep revenue trickling in while I’m working on new stuff. I still find it hard to write much more than ten hours each week. Part of it is due to my transition to self-publishing. As I’ll discuss in later posts, the publishing aspect of being an indy author can easily devour every moment you choose to put into it. This isn’t wasted time, and in fact it’s essential if you want to have a career, but every moment you spend on the business side is a moment that gets stolen from the creative side. Another reason I only write ten hours a week is that, every now and then, I’ve attempted more and found it unsustainable.
I once walked into my day job and was told I didn’t need to show up for work the follow week. They’d discovered a code violation in the building and had to shut down to rewire the whole workplace. I went home wondering if I could write a book in a week. It turns out, yes. That book was Burn Baby Burn, and I consider it one of my best novels. It required very little rewriting because it flowed out so coherently and there was very little I needed to revise. I would get up each morning at 7 and write until 7 in the evening. A week later, I had a book. I also had back aches, sore hands, and memory problems. Writing so much so quickly almost literally emptied out my brain. I felt like I was in a mental fog for weeks afterward. Then, I did it to myself again! I took a new job, and had a week off between my old job and my new one. This time, I wanted to try a new strategy. I spent four alternating days writing, with a daily goal of 15,000 words. And it worked! A complete manuscript in four working days. And … it wasn’t as good as Burn Baby Burn. It wasn’t terrible, it just needed a lot of rewriting. Because of the pace I was writing, I didn’t have time to second guess my choices at certain moments where the plot could go one way or another. That had worked out well with Burn Baby Burn, but with the new novel, I reached the end and realized that the book I finished wasn’t the book I’d begun. It was actually a better book than my initial vision, but the second draft required me tossing out easily half of the original manuscript and starting fresh. And, again, I finished that writing marathon with the same physical symptoms. My back hurt, my legs were numb, and my hands took a month to feel normal again. A mental fog once more descended over me and made it hard to concentrate for a long time. I’ve heard other writers complain about “writer’s brain,” where the ability to concentrate on things in the real world is difficult after you’ve spent a lot of time deep in your imagination. You wind up going through the paces of your ordinary life like a zombie, not quite all there. It doesn’t affect everyone, but for me it’s a serious obstacle.
I’m not saying I’ll never attempt another week long writing marathon, but I’m also comfortable just plodding along with my 10,000 words a week.
So, to answer the questions succinctly:
How many hours a week do I write? Between zero and sixty, but my goal is ten. There is no one correct answer for how many hours a week you need to write if you want to be a writer. Write as much as you can, always try to write a little more, and never be content. The haunting, nagging fear that you aren’t doing enough is great motivation.
How long does it take to write the first draft of a book? Between several years and a few days. Don’t get discouraged if you’ve been working on a project for what feels like forever. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, they’ll read the book in a matter of hours. The length of time you took to create the book will be invisible to them. Working on a book for years might mean you’ve taken the time to craft a timeless masterwork, or it might mean you’re just flailing around on something that never feels finished because of underlying flaws. Banging out a book in under a month might mean you’re a hack throwing valueless words on a page in desperate attempt to grab a few dollars, or it might mean you’ve captured lightning in a bottle and are writing the most important story you’ll ever tell.
How do I find the time to write? By cutting back on entertainment, like gaming and television. I often have to choose between consuming art and creating it. Since a person can’t live without art, focus on consuming the art you’re trying to perfect, and read widely. When the universe throws time at you, like my unexpected week off, pounce.
Finally, one thing I haven’t talked about yet is writing time that doesn’t involve putting your butt in the chair and typing. Carve out time in your life to daydream. On your drive back and forth to work, turn off your car radio and let your mind wander. I had the benefit of being really bored at my day job a lot of the time, and was able to imagine whole scenes that went into my books while I was being paid for pretending to focus on something else. Now that I work from home, I spend a fair amount of time exercising. I go out kayaking for hours, and do 20+ mile bike rides a few times a week. Both require only a moderate amount of attention once I’m in motion, giving me time to think about my books. Or, if I’ve been writing a lot and am lost in a writer’s fog, being out in nature helps pull be back to reality. Even just going out for a walk alone is good for the body and the mind. Time you set aside to exercise doesn’t have to subtract from time you spend writing novels. If anything, it can be the time you’re devoting to mining your imagination, hunting for the precious words that will finally make it to the page.
Wednesday, August 1, 2018
I meet a lot of people who want to be writers.
I also meet a lot of people who’ve written a few things and would like to see them published.
And, I meet writers who’ve actually published a few things, but feel lost on how to get anyone to read their work or, more importantly, how to make money from their books.
For the next few articles I’ll be blogging about these things, moving from the general to the specific.
First, the big, usually unspoken question that haunts many, many authors: Am I a real writer?
I’ve never met a writer at any stage of their career that wasn’t haunted by self-doubt. If you’ve never written a novel, you wonder how you can possibly call yourself a writer when you haven’t produced a finished manuscript. You can’t finish the novel unless you write it, but how can you write it if you aren’t a real writer?
Or, you’ve written your novel. Maybe even a few novels. No one outside your circle of friends has read them. You polish and polish, but never feel like the book you’ve written is good enough to get sent out to a publisher. A real writer would already have their manuscript in the mail, right? (And, yes, I know that “in the mail” is something of an archaic phrase. When I started in this business you still sent paper manuscripts via postage.)
So, maybe you’ve actually hit the “send” button and submitted your manuscript to publishers, only to get silence and form letters in return. Sure, you’ve strung together 80,000 words in a more or less coherent fashion. But does that really make you a writer? If you’re not good enough to interest an editor maybe you’re not good enough, period. You’ve seen horrible, unoriginal, poorly written books make it into bookstores. What are you lacking? Why are these hacks selling books and getting reviews on Amazon while you’re watching the pages of your calendar fly away, movie style, as each unpublished year brings you and your work closer to oblivion.
Then, success! You’ve published a book! And nobody reads it. You have three friends who review it on Amazon, your sales ranking is a seven digit number, and now, finally, you have the evidence to prove what you’ve always secretly suspected: You’re no good at this. If you were any good at all, word of mouth and positive reviews would have driven you to at least moderate success. The silence that greets your book is the final nail in the coffin of your dream of being a writer. You suck at this. Time to give up.
But, wait! You’ve actually had a few people buy your book. You’ve got reviews from total strangers on Amazon. Some were glowing, some were harsh. You’re a real writer! But, wow, you’re not selling nearly enough books to be a real, real writer. You can’t break the top 10,000 on Amazon. Your name has never been on a New York Times bestseller list. For that matter, you’ve never been reviewed in any publication you actually read. No daytime TV shows have invited you on. NPR hasn’t booked you for Fresh Air. Oprah’s people aren't speaking to your people, if you have people. When you tell people you’re a writer you confront again and again the reality that they’ve never heard of you or your book.
Then: Success! You actually do creep onto a bestseller list. You’ve been interviewed by newspapers! You’ve talked about your book on the radio! Your book is popular! For maybe two months. Then it’s forgotten, swept aside by the deluge of new books demanding space and attention. To keep feeling like a writer, you need a new book, but what if your last book was your best book? What if lightning is never going to strike again? Good thing you didn’t quit your day job. Sure, you’re a writer, but you just don’t have what it takes to make a career out of it. Maybe you think your work is good, but you don’t have the type of personality that you need to promote yourself aggressively. You don’t have time to keep up with all the social media platforms. And you wrote your first book because you believed in it. Now you think you can maybe make a little money writing a sequel, but is it right to do it just for the money? Doesn’t that make you a hack instead of a real writer?
I promise you that the most successful writer you’ve ever heard of was haunted by these same self-doubts. Success only raises the bar. I’ve met plenty of authors who had one giant bestseller twenty years ago. They’ve put out a dozen other books since then, but it’s still that one book that everyone talks about. All their hard work and experience have never duplicated that first beloved hit, even though, by their own judgment, some of their later books were better written. Maybe it wasn’t talent or hard work or superior quality that made that early book break out. Maybe it was just luck, the right book at the right time, and the same level of success might never come again.
Self-doubt is an author’s most valuable asset. If you ever vanquished it, you would have no need to ever learn anything new. You would have no reason to work harder to improve your writing, and no reason to work on any of the other skills you need to be a professional writer, the marketing, the accounting, the networking, and the never-ending struggle to keep abreast of a publishing world in constant turmoil.
The key is that this self-doubt needs to be matched with an almost equal measure of self-confidence, even arrogance. You have to believe that your words and your stories are important. You have to be able to read your own books and think, wow, I love this author! I can’t wait to read more by them! You have to be eager to encounter the potential reader who’s never heard of you and who couldn’t care less about your book and explain why your book is worth their time and energy.
Now some hard truth. The odds of making a really good living as a fiction writer are kind of low. All art is difficult to make a living at, in some ways because we undervalue art, but also because it’s not truly a rare commodity. The month you’re ready to release your book to the world, 10,000 other writers are going to take their shot as well. It’s hard to rise above the noise of so many voices crying for attention at once. On the plus side, the sheer number of books in this world can be taken as a reassurance. People write books all the time. You can too. This ain’t rocket surgery. It’s daydreaming, typing, and a tiny measure of organizational skills. I promise you can write all the books you’d like.
But if you are doing it to make money, sorry. Your odds of making a living that can provide you not just food, clothing, and shelter, but also healthcare and retirement funds are fairly low. But not everyone who can play guitar is going to wind up a Nashville superstar. They can still play songs they enjoy playing. And the fact that there are a million other people with guitars who can play just as well or better is no reason to put the guitar in the closet. The same is true with writing. I’ve written some books that have sold well. I’ve written others that might has well have been printed in invisible ink given how few people read them. In the end, though, the true measure of a novelist is this: Are you writing books you enjoy reading? If you are, you’re a writer. You are your most important audience.
And if you still hold out hope of making some money, I’ll let you in on the secret. That can be done as well, but it’s not guaranteed and it’s not easy. Still, the good news about those 10,000 other writers who released their first book the same day you did is that 9,900 aren’t going to write a second book. An even smaller number is going to write their tenth book. With patience, persistence, hard work and, yes, a bit of luck, you can beat the odds and make a reasonable income from writing.
In future posts, I’ll provide more specifics, and a path to slog toward success. Until then, go write something!
Thursday, June 14, 2018
Aliens have stolen the moon! Fortunately, Golden Victory leads the Lawful Legion into outer space to save the day. But, back on Earth, Screaming Jenny is trying to solve the mystery of her fractured memories, a quest that leads her to break a dangerous supervillain out of prison. The dark secrets she discovers will change the world forever, and may mean the end of the Lawful Legion.
So, this all sounds pretty dire, and while the stakes are higher in this novel than in any of the previous Lawless books, I also think this might be the funniest of the three. There's so many different characters playing off one another that almost every page gets at least one funny line. Putting the dialogue in the scenes together was sort of like building a spoken word jigsaw puzzle. In the first draft, I'd reach the end of a chapter, feel pretty good about it, then realize, crap, Anyman was in the same room the whole time and didn't have a single word of dialogue. But, that's why you write second drafts, then third drafts, then fourth drafts, then start wondering why the hell you put yourself through this again and again and again. Then you read it one last time and find that somehow it's all come together and reads like a real book and everything, and the jigsaw puzzle dialogue has magically become an actual scene where the plot gets advanced and the various characters shine through.
While the novel is named after Golden Victory, it's really a team effort, and the story is balanced among several characters. And, while I've mentioned the humor, it's a pretty dark novel in a lot of ways, as some of the characters have disturbing back stories. You don't take up the hobby of skulking in alleys and beating up muggers if you've come from a happy, healthy, well adjusted family. In other words, it's a James Maxey novel, a blend of the bizarre, the comic, the tragic, and the romantic. I hope you'll enjoy it.
Grab your copy here!
Friday, May 11, 2018
I've finished my second draft of Victory! Twenty costumed adventurers battling to decide the fate of the moon! Action! Humor! Romance! This book is going to have it all. To whet your appetite, here's a list of the major players:
Lawful Legion Roll Call
Golden Victory – Super strength, super speed, invulnerability, enhanced senses. Real identity Simon Palmer, small town newspaper editor. Fights evil to follow the golden rule.
Retaliator – Martial arts expert and master detective. Real identity Eric Gray, attorney. Fights crime to solve the mystery of his father’s death.
Anyman – Can use his teleporter to transform into any member of the Lawful Legion. Real identity, Harper Li, inventor. Became a superhero to impress a waitress.
Doppelganger/Echo – Can create explosive clones by cutting off an arm. Real identity Valentine Summer, lottery winner. Joined the Legion to avenge her own death.
Big Ape – Half man, half ape, super strength and toughness. Real identity Harry Moreau, unemployed. Became a superhero because of limited job opportunities for man/ape hybrids.
Screaming Jenny – Can set things on fire by cussing at them. Real identity Jenny Sanchez, hacker. Fights crime because she was brainwashed to do so.
Nimble – Rubberized body, nearly indestructible. Real identity Niko North. Fights to avenge the death of her parents.
Atomahawk – Living atomic reactor wearing high tech armor. Real identity John Niache. Fights out of patriotic duty.
Blue Bee II – Enhanced strength, endurance, senses. Can communicate with bees. Real identity Honey Dunn, attorney. Started fighting crime after the first Blue Bee saved her life.
Smash Lass – Super strength, invulnerability. Real identity Mica Dyson, heiress. Joined the Legion to be a good role model for others.
Prodigy – Possesses the ability to learn any skill after seeing it done once, genius. Real identity Janice Vaughn, graduate student. Joined the legion because she felt it was the most logical use of her peerless intellect.
Arc – A living dynamo, lightning boots, enhanced vision. Real identity Roy Richmond, electrical engineer. Helped found the legion as a way to do the most good for the most people.
Lt. Laser – A being of coherent light. Real Identity Seymour Kemp, retired astronaut. Uses his powers in service to his country.
The Bad Guys
The Spectacular Spelunker – Stalactite gun, mole-dozer, cavemen. Real identity Ringo Phelps. Steals stuff because he likes stuff.
Chem Queen – Total control over body chemistry, ability to create exotic chemical compounds from elements at hand. Real identity Cherry Bloom. Eco-terrorist because she hates the corporations that poisoned her.
Heinrich Sterngeist – A former Nazi rocket man who stole a flying saucer he was studying at area 51 and built an alien empire. Seeks to cement galactic alliance by leading a united alien plan to take over the earth.
The Prime Mover – Tech genius, mob boss, master warlock. Real identity unknown. Doomsday afficianado.
The Four Horsemen of the Prime Mover:
War – A fallen angel possessing an alien mercenary outfitted with neutron star armor.
Pestilence – A cloud of virulent airborne diseases enclosed in a humanoid force field.
Famine – The ghost of an Irish peasant. His touch brings instant starvation.
Death – A demon possessing a futuristic android composed of self-replicating nanites. Can kill anyone instantly by saying their name.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
So, for over a year now, I've been plotting out a new trilogy featuring these characters called Dragons Gate. I kept thinking of scenes where the novel had to begin, but a lot of these scenes felt more like epilogues to the previous novels rather than fresh beginnings. They served as a bridge between the two series, but I worried that the new book might suffer if I spent the first third of the book recounting backstories. So, over the rest of the year, I'll be presenting a series of novelettes, novellas, and short stories collectively called "Dragons Gate: Preludes & Omens." Right now, I've got at least three planned, Hunted, telling the story of Graxen and Nadala, Haunted, following up on Bitterwood's attempt at a new life as a farmer, and Hurt, focusing on Anza. I've got faint inklings for a fourth story as well, but it's still in development, so I'm not quite ready to announce it, and may yet decide to integrate it into the larger trilogy.
The first of the Dragons Gate: Preludes & Omens stories, Hunted, is now available on Kindle. At the end of DragonForge, the sky-dragons Graxen and Nadala fly off, and their fate is never addressed in Dragonseed. This picks up their story several months later. Nadala is pregnant and no longer able to safely fly. They're lost in the Cursed Mountains, looking for shelter in the face of an impending storm. Worst of all, Graxen isn't a great hunter, and now that Nadala is grounded their food is running out. All that's standing between them and starvation is a stag Graxen has spotted at the edge of a forest. What he doesn't know is that as he's hunting the stag, something a lot more dangerous than a dragon is hunting him.
I was nervous about writing characters I hadn't written in so long, but the second I started typing it was like welcoming old friends back into my life. Any worries I had about committing myself to a new epic fantasy trilogy instantly vanished to be replaced with enthusiasm. I can't wait to write these books because I can't wait to read them!
And now, you don't have to wait to get started with the first story in the new series. Read it today on Kindle! And, if you want to read future Dragons Gate: Prelude & Omens stories for free, sign up for my newsletter! Subscribers to my newsletter will be sent links for free downloads for the tales before they go on sale on Amazon. Free and early not enough for you? Send me an email if you want to be a beta reader for future tales.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
It took two weeks longer than I'd expected, but Victory: Lawless Book Three now has a complete first draft! I finished the draft last Thursday. I'm taking a break from the book this week as I head out of state to attend a wedding this weekend, but will dive into the second draft next week. I still have a not impossible hope of finishing this in time to be selling copies at ConCarolinas the first weekend in June, but I really need to see how well the next draft cleans up. I'd rather take an extra few weeks to get this perfect rather than just getting it "good enough" in order to hit an arbitrary deadline. On the other hand, I have nearly six weeks before the con, which is a pretty decent chunk of time to get this right.
I'm also happy to say that, now that I've written book three, I feel there's plenty of material still to explore and already have the first broad ideas of what's going to go into book four.
Want to be one of the first to find out more about future books in the series? Sign up for my newsletter!
Thursday, March 22, 2018
Victory: Lawless Book Three is progressing nicely. Subscribers to my email newsletter got the first peek at the cover last week and a link to a preview chapter. If you're not a subscriber yet, drop me a line at nobodynovelwriter (at) yahoo (dot) com to sign up!
Anyway, this is the cover as it currently stands. I may yet tweak Golden Victory's costume to give it a little more flair. The original version has a big red "V" on his back that I ultimately decided against. But I may yet give him a different color collar and wrist bands. Still, you get the basic concept.
Anyway, this is the cover as it currently stands. I may yet tweak Golden Victory's costume to give it a little more flair. The original version has a big red "V" on his back that I ultimately decided against. But I may yet give him a different color collar and wrist bands. Still, you get the basic concept.
Despite having Golden Victory on the cover, the book isn't really about him. It continues the story of Big Ape and Cut Up Girl and places a spotlight on Screaming Jenny. She's left the Lawful Legion on medical leave. Her mind and memories have been messed up both by government brainwashing and by a telepathic supervillain who altered her personality back in the first book. Now, she's struggling to sort out what her real memories are and discovering they are even more disturbing than her false ones. If she's ever to find peace, she has to learn the whole truth about her past, even though uncovering these truths reveals a dark and dangerous secret that Golden Victory would rather leave hidden.
I'm currently still slogging through the first draft. I'd hoped to finish before the end of March, but the story keeps growing on me. The problem with having a team called the Lawful Legion is that it kind of implies the team has a lot of members. I've probably mentioned over a dozen team members in previous books, and in this book a lot of them take part in the plot, which is making my nerd heart happy, but man it's a lot of work to give a dozen characters back stories and meaningful arcs and keep the flow of the story moving forward. If I had a time machine, I'd go back ten years in time and tell my younger self, "Name the team of respected heroes the Cosmic Quartet. You'll only have to come up with four origin stories!"
Also, if I had a time machine, I could jump forward two months and read the final book so I'd have some clue how all this ends. I mean, I know how the main plot thread should wrap up, but there's also a love triangle thing going on as a major subplot and I still don't have a clue whose heart I'm going to break in the final chapter. I also need to find a way to resolve Jenny's emotional pain without trivializing it or making it feel like the peace she finds is a peace everyone in similar pain can find. Ultimately, her arc is about living with trauma. The necessities of story telling require a victory. The practical experience of my own life is that some times there is no victory, only survival.
Ah well. It wouldn't be any fun to write if the stories were easy to tell. Forward!
Friday, February 9, 2018
Big Ape Chapter One
“My name is Harry Moreau. You probably know me as Big Ape, from the Lawful Legion. You’ve never heard my real story.”
I thought I’d be nervous, telling the truth. I had a lot of lies to unravel, and no short, easy answers to explain my path to becoming an internationally famous superhero, and definitely no simple explanation for why I was throwing it all away. Luckily, there were no TV cameras, so I started talking like I knew everyone in the room, even though one of them was that paparazzi jerk I almost killed a few months ago. I tried not to make eye contact with him, both because he’s paparazzi scum and because losing my temper and trashing his car wasn’t one of my finer moments. It was odd speaking to an almost empty room. Lawful Legion press conferences are always packed. Not that I actually got to speak at those events. Golden Victory usually spoke for the team, or sometimes Tempo before we learned the truth about him. When I was Sock Monkey, I’d occasionally jump in with some quip or goofy comment, anything to boost sales of my action figures. Since I changed into Big Ape, I mostly stand behind my teammates looking menacing. Not that I’m trying to look menacing, but I’m an 800 pound, nine foot tall man-ape with six inch fangs. I look menacing sitting on a park bench eating an ice cream cone. But with this handful of reporters and Val and Jenny at my side, I loosened up. By the end of the night even the paparazzi guy was laughing at my wisecracks.
After the press conference, we went to dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Val couldn’t keep her eyes off her phone. She used the be the vigilante known as Cut Up Girl and her tell-all book, The Butterfly Cage, was moving up the Amazon rankings, having sold over a hundred copies since the press conference. Since she'd only sold a few dozen copies before the press conference, maybe that nerd with the superhero blog who’d talked to us had some pull after all. As we ate, Val got a call inviting her onto a local television show the following morning.
Jenny said, “That’s great,” but her tone sounded less than thrilled. Maybe she was worried about the fallout. Our teammates in the Lawful Legion weren’t going to be happy we’d spilled the beans on the Butterfly House. Of course, it might have been something else that kept Jenny from being happy for Val. Jenny was clingy all during dinner, much more than if we’d been eating on our own. Jenny and I had broken up not too long ago and only got back together after we did a mission with Cut Up Girl. Jenny’s always been jealous of Valentine, even though I’ve explained that Val’s more like a sister, not a rival love interest. Jenny isn’t big on public displays of affection, so the way she kept stroking my hands and batting her eyelashes at me had everything to do with making sure Val knew I was off limits. Luckily Val seemed too wrapped up worrying about whether anyone would read her book to notice.
We finished up. I opened my fortune cookie. Time in nature heals the soul.
“Talk about a fortune cookie misfire,” I said, showing the slip to Jenny. I’m a human-chimp hybrid conceived in a petri dish by a mad scientist. I’m about as far removed from nature as a living thing can get. The only jungles I felt comfortable in were ones made of concrete. Any time I’ve been surrounded by fields or forests, I’ve wound up with fleas. My soul was just going to have to suck it up.
Val seemed subdued as we stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. As we said our good-byes, a passing driver rear-ended the car in front of him. I’m present for a lot of fender benders. Apparently, I’m distracting, even in the tailored suit I had freshly dry-cleaned for the press conference.
“We should hit a bar to celebrate,” I said, not really wanting to leave Val alone, though I couldn’t say exactly why. My teammates weren’t going to be happy with her revealing the truth about the Butterfly House, but they were good guys. It’s not like they’d send goons around to break her kneecaps for spilling the beans. “There’s a nightclub just a few blocks away and they’ve got a private room in the back. We should head there for a few drinks to celebrate.”
“I don’t drink anymore,” said Val.
“Cut Up Girl’s stopped drinking?” said Jenny, her eyes growing wide. “You buried the lede. Even CNN would have showed up for that press conference.”
I kept my facial expression neutral. Jenny hates it when I take Val’s side. Luckily, Val didn’t look offended.
“You think so?” she asked. “If it helps draw attention to my book, maybe I’ll throw it out in the interview tomorrow.” She sighed as she looked around her. “There was a time not so long ago I couldn’t walk in public without reporters hounding me. I really need a sixteenth minute of fame. Not because I want to be famous, but because the truth needs to get out.”
“It will,” I said.
“Do you think I should wear my old costume?” Val said, chewing a nail.
Jenny rolled her eyes. “There are more dignified ways of getting attention than showing off your cleavage.”
“That’s the usual opinion of flat-chested women,” said Val, giving her a withering gaze.
I jumped in before things got really nasty and said, “Don’t worry about publicity! I promise you The Butterfly Cage will be the most talked about book in the world tomorrow. And if you’re not drinking, let’s do something else to celebrate. Milkshakes, maybe?”
“Not if she’s planning to get into her costume again,” said Jenny.
Val threw her hands in the air. “What the fuck is your problem? I know your whole superpower is verbal abuse, but what the hell did I do to make you hate me?”
“I’ll tell you what you did,” Jenny growled, poking Val in the chest with a finger. With lightning reflexes, I grabbed them both by the arms and pulled them apart before they started throwing punches, but that didn’t stop Jenny from unloading. “I never wanted to be a superhero. When I finally did agree, I thought at least I’d get some respect! But you came along with your painted-on costume and sex tapes and public drunkenness and dragged down the image of every female superhero out there.”
“I dragged down the image?” Val shouted. “She-Devil’s been fighting crime in a bikini since before I was born. And Nimble’s costume is two strips of fucking electrical tape! What the hell do you care what people think about superheroes? You’re part of the covert team! Before today, no one even knew you were part of the Legion. You don’t even have a costume!”
“These are all excellent topics for discussion,” I said, coolly. “But perhaps not at this moment, and definitely not in public. There’s a tachyon tube on the roof of the Sheraton. Let’s head back to Florida and have a nice, calm talk. We’ve got some powerful people angry with us. The last thing we need is to be fighting one another.”
“You’re inviting her back to my house?” asked Jenny.
“You’re always telling me it’s our house,” I said.
Jenny glared at me, then broke free of my grasp. “Fine. You’re right. It’s safer there.”
“I don’t recall agreeing to come along,” said Val.
“If we go back to your place your dog will go crazy again,” I said.
“Wait,” said Jenny. “You’ve been to her place?”
“Yes,” I said. “The Retaliator sent me to tell Val about her father.” I turned to Val. “What’s it going to be, your place or ours?”
“I guess we’ll go to Florida,” said Val. “But first I need to go home and walk Bullet. He’s been cooped up all day.”
“Bullet’s your dog?” asked Jenny. She didn’t sound as hostile. Jenny has a thing for animals. I mean, duh, she’s dating me.
“He’s a Chihuahua,” I said. “Cute, but he wants to kill me anytime I’m near him.”
“So you’ve been to her place more than once?”
“Bullet used to belong to Rose Rifle,” I explained.
“You never told me she had a dog,” said Jenny, her hostility ebbing even more. I felt a stirring of hope. My life would be a thousand times easier if Jenny stopped being jealous of Val. I love Jenny, but her trust issues wear me out. She’s accused me of having a crush on She-Devil, and says I’m constantly ogling Nimble, but, come on. Nimble’s costume always looks like she’s about one stretch away from exposing an interesting body part. Jenny’s jealousy of my teammates is nothing compared to her fears that I might choose Val over her if given the chance. Val’s been my best friend a long time. In addition to our shared history at the Butterfly House, then fighting together on the Red Line, we have the weird connection that both of us are the offspring of supervillains. Her Dad turned out to be Professor Power, the big time drug lord, and my mom is Anastasia Moreau, the maker of man/animal hybrids. We have a lot in common, and, sure, there was a time in my life my brotherly love might have grown into something romantic.
Unfortunately, Valentine got wrapped up in all those scandals and her life fell apart just as I started getting my life together. There’s ten thousand reasons we could never have worked as a couple, even if I still count Val as my best friend. Jenny hates my emotional closeness to Val, so I seldom talk about anything Val and I do together. Of course, the less I talk about Val, the more certain Jenny is I’m doing stuff behind her back. What if, all along, I could have made Jenny like Val by telling her about Bullet?
Val pulled out her phone and said, “It’s a good hike back to my place, but Uber can have a car here in a couple of minutes.”
“Cars aren’t really an option for me anymore,” I said. Where does an 800 pound gorilla sit? Anyplace he wants, except inside a car. “You two get a lift and I’ll take the rooftop route. I’ll probably beat you there.”
To my relief, Jenny didn’t protest the idea of riding along with Val. Bullet to the rescue!
I gave Jenny a kiss on the cheek, then dropped to all fours and raced toward a tall palm tree planted in front of the hotel. It swayed beneath my weight, but made for a good springboard to launch me across the street to grab the edge of a brick building. I made it to the roof two seconds later. The reboot drug that changed me from Sock Monkey into King Kong’s little brother had also boosted my strength, speed and agility. It’s kind of a superhero cliché that we like to race across the skyline, leaping from roof to roof, but it helps me avoid crowds. In the denser parts of LA it’s easy to make good time. Most of the roofs are about the same height and the streets aren’t all that wide. You can pretty much travel in a straight line, while cars have to zig zag through a maze of some of the worst traffic on the planet. I wasn’t surprised when I reached the balcony of Val’s apartment and found that they hadn’t made it there yet.
I was surprised when Bullet threw himself against the sliding glass door to the balcony, teeth bared, barking and snarling with wild eyes. I should have expected it, but it still caught me off guard. Once my heartbeat returned to normal, I did the mature, sensible thing and flipped the little bastard twin birds. I went to the edge of the balcony to watch the street and wait for Jenny and Val.
Alone with my thoughts, I had to wonder what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Val, Jenny, and myself were all former residents of a place called the Butterfly House. It’s a government facility that rounds up children who manifest potentially dangerous powers, then trains them to use those powers for good as members of the Lawful Legion. The thing is, the government really doesn’t want to turn these dangerous people loose in the world without being absolutely certain they’ll be good guys. So part of the training is a highly sophisticated brainwashing. There’s a psychic on staff who helps guide each graduate of the Butterfly House through virtual realities where old memories and personalities get overwritten with memories and motives that make the graduates more heroic. Since kids who arrive at the Butterfly House have been kidnapped and imprisoned by Big Brother, and often traumatized from having their powers harm or kill their loved ones, nobody who graduates from the Butterfly House even remembers it exists.
Val and I remembered only because we escaped before we reached the brainwashing portion of our training, which can’t be done until your late teens, since the brain is busy rewiring itself unpredictably during puberty. Jenny went through the mind-wipe, but her fake memories were overwritten by even faker memories by a villain named the Victorian. When his psychic influence over her was taken away, her real memories seeped through.
Honestly, I don’t know if the Butterfly House program is good or bad, a pragmatic necessity or an Orwellian overreaction. Since older, wiser Legionnaires like Golden Victory give the program two thumbs up, I kept my mouth shut. Val felt differently, I guess, and that’s why she wrote her book. I couldn’t turn my back on her, even if it means the end of my career with the Legion. From the balcony, I heard music thumping from a nightclub down the block. If I wasn’t going to draw a salary from the Legion anymore, I wondered if they might be hiring bouncers.
Speaking of bouncers, I was drawn from my reverie when I spotted a guy with a classic bouncer build lurking in the alley across the street. I mean, it was textbook lurking, the most obvious lurking I’ve ever seen. He stood next to a dumpster in the shadows of the alley, his face concealed by a gray hoodie. No one voluntarily hangs out next to a dumpster just to enjoy in the atmosphere. He was watching the front of Val’s building. Since Val was the most famous person who lived here, he had to be waiting for her. I could tell his eyes were firmly on street level and he hadn’t spotted me five stories up. I climbed onto the balcony ledge and crouched, getting ready to jump across the street. I wanted to drop in behind him and have a little chat before the girls arrived.
Of course, at that exact second, a RAV4 pulled up to the curb in front of the door. Val and Jenny stepped out, both smiling. I was happy to see they were getting along. I wasn’t happy to see the big guy in the hoodie step out from behind the dumpster and start running toward the girls.
“Watch out!” I shouted, leaping down.
Val and Jenny both looked up toward my voice.
The big guy moved with inhuman speed, covering the distance to Val faster than I could fall. He grabbed her by the neck just as I hit the ground. I wasted no time grabbing his free arm and jerking him away. Val fell like a limp doll in the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t turn to make sure she wasn’t seriously hurt before the dude drove his elbow into my throat with a force that damn near tore my head off. I stumbled backward, clutching my throat, staggering toward the dumpster. A big, meaty fist flew toward my chin. Next thing I knew I was flat on my back, blinking stars from my eyes.
“Hello, Harry,” said a deep, familiar voice as the big guy pulled back his hood to reveal a bald head covered with scars. I recognized him instantly.
“McGruber?” The word left my lips in a strained wheeze. My windpipe felt like it had been flattened.
“You didn’t think dropping me from a helicopter would kill me, did you?”
“I kind of hoped it might, sure,” I admitted, punctuating my statement with a coughing fit.
“You made a laughingstock of me by escaping. I’ve been planning to get even for a long time. My superiors told me not to touch the two of you. Said it wasn’t my job to get revenge. But there’s some things you do just for pleasure.”
I rolled over, trying to get up. The ground shook as he launched himself into the air. He landed with his full weight on the back of my skull, crunching my face into the filthy pavement next to the dumpster. My skull’s pretty tough, but McGruber was probably strong enough to crack it.
Rather than waste his time trying to get through my thick skull, McGruber knelt and placed his hands on both sides of my head. One swift twist and he’d snap my neck. Suddenly, his hands went slack as I heard Jenny cursing a blue streak. The stink of the dumpster gave way to the acrid smell of smoke as his hoodie caught fire.
His weight left my back as he took a step toward Jenny. From some inner reserve of strength, I grabbed him by the ankle before he reached her. He responded by turning around and kicking me in face. The world exploded into a swirl of bright sparks.
When my vision cleared, I found myself staring up into McGruber’s junk. Every last stitch of his clothing had been burnt off by Jenny’s pyrokinetic cursing. Jenny had jumped onto his shoulders from behind, grunting as she stabbed at his eyes with her switchblade. The Jenny I know most of the time is gentle and quiet and shy. Sharing space in her skull is a psycho-rage machine who scares the bejesus out of me.
I’d seen McGruber shrug of a rifle shot to the eyes, so Jenny’s switchblade was merely annoying him. He finally caught her by the arm. I drew a deep breath, certain he was about to tear her in two, but instead he threw her. She went flying out of the alley, landing hard in the street. As she rolled, tires squealed and a Hyundai skidded to a halt inches from her head.
McGruber moved toward her, fists clenched. I made it to my knees and growled, “Touch her and you’re dead.”
He looked back and nodded. “Good luck with that.” He kept walking.
I came up screaming at the top of my lungs, fighting through pain and blurred vision. He turned well before I reached him, drawing back his fist to put me down again. This time, I knew better than to lead with my face. I planted my hands against the pavement and flipped, driving my feet into his gut. It was like kicking a brick wall, but even brick walls give way to wrecking balls. He staggered backward, folding as he clenched his belly. I bounced to my feet and clocked him with my left fist, then my right, tearing skin from my knuckles with each blow. His head snapped from side to side, but he didn’t drop. When I swung at him again, he caught my fist and squeezed. I sucked in air as bones cracked. Christ, he was strong, but he was also bleeding. I’d bloodied his nose. He might be bulletproof, but he wasn’t Golden Victory. He could be hurt.
Jenny jumped onto his back again, shouting curses directly into his ear. I wasn’t sure if she could actually set his brains on fire, but he gasped and spun around fast, shaking her off. When he stopped, reddish brown liquid dripped from his ear. I thought it was blood, but my nose quickly puzzled out the odor of molten earwax. That had to hurt like hell but wasn’t going to stop him. Still, in the span of seconds while he was shaking his head trying to get the burning fluid out of his ear, I spotted a manhole cover next to me. Growing up, I developed my own fighting style, ape-fu. It’s a cute name for fighting dirty. I bite, eye-gouge, and bludgeon my opponents with any blunt instrument that’s handy. All that matters is that at the end of the fight I’m standing and they’re down for the count.
A manhole cover was heavy and hard enough to do some damage. My fingers were too thick to fit into the holes, so I punched the ground beside it, bloodying my knuckles further. The shock of the blow caused the manhole cover to jump enough for me to grab the edge. I lifted it, pleased with the heft. It easily weighed seventy pounds, maybe a hundred.
I wasn’t stupid enough to throw it at McGruber and let him catch it and use it against me. Instead I gripped it with both hands above my head and charged. He braced himself, legs spread wide, ready to block the blow, when Jenny came up dead center behind him and kicked him in the nuts. Jenny’s footwear of choice is steel toed work boots, so he felt it enough to take his eyes off me for half a second.
I brought the disk down with everything I had, catching him on the eyebrow. He staggered backward, dazed, until Jenny thrust her leg behind his ankle and he fell to his back. I was on him a second later, smashing his head again and again with the disk. He fought back, landing blows to my chest and face, but I was so hyped up I shrugged them off. A sense of panic began to grow as the manhole cover bent. What did it take to knock this fucker out?
About the ninth time I hit him there was a sickening crack. His forehead sort of dented in, causing his eyes to bulge. His arms dropped to his sides, limp.
I rolled off him, panting, my arms like lead.
“Val,” I whispered, forcing myself to rise again.
I found her on the sidewalk where she’d fallen. She was completely still, face down on the pavement. It didn’t even look like she was breathing.
“Val?” I said, my voice on the edge of a sob.
I knelt beside her and touched her hair. She didn’t react at all. I turned her over. She was utterly limp, her face pale, her eyes half open, unfocused. My senses are much sharper than a humans, but I still pressed my ear against her chest to confirm what I could already hear. She wasn’t breathing. Her heart had stopped. McGruber had broken her neck. Or… or had… when I’d grabbed him, did I…?
In the distance, I heard sirens screaming. My mind was locking up, refusing to believe what I was seeing. How could Val be dead? How could this have happened just as she was finally getting her life back together?
Jenny put her hand on my shoulder. I looked around. A crowd had formed outside the bar across the street. Everyone had out phones, capturing the moment on video. I felt the rising urge to yell at them, to chase them away. Couldn’t Val even die without being hounded by cameras? But I didn’t yell. I didn’t even move. I could only sit there, holding her, shaking my head slowly. Even in death, Cut Up Girl was once more about to go viral.
Is Cut Up Girl really dead? Will Harry face any consequences for beating a guy to death in front of witnesses? Yeah, life's about to suck for Harry. Read all about it his fight to clear his name, a journey that leads to Harry commanding an army of animal men in a battle against an army of robotic dinosaurs. Nothing's ever easy. Except for clicking this link to order BIG APE: LAWLESS BOOK TWO today!