A pretty productive week. I'm ahead of my yearly goal once more, 81107 words as of week 8. A few more chapters for Dragonsgate made it into draft, plus some notes/essays/exploratory writing on The Stuff, the writing book I've got in development. When I conceived of The Stuff last year, I mainly envisioned collecting together a lot of my old blog posts on writing and adding a little new material. But, my writing about writing over the years was never focused on producing a single, comprehensible narrative to be read at a single sitting. So, I'm currently in a stage of writing best described as exploratory writing. I'm tacking a subject about some element of learning to write and writing some essays that will probably never be read by anyone, that exist solely for the purpose of me finding the voice that's going to work and the angle that's going to make my writing about the subject different from the thousands of other books already written about writing.
I do this a lot with novels as well. I'll write a first chapter of a potential new book, set it aside, then a few months later write a completely different first chapter with a different approach. For instance, right now I've got several chapters of a book called Squire that I'm intending to market toward younger readers than the mostly adult audience I've been focused on. I've written a few chapters with a first person voice, and a few with a third person voice. I've tried starting with a scenic introduction, where I first describe the small town where my hero grows up, and I've tried approaches that emphasize the family dynamics that exist between the character, his parents and his brother. So far none feels exactly right.
One bit of advice I normally give novice writers is that you should always write forward through a first draft, that turning back and starting again and again is going to doom you. But, the problem with any "rule" of writing is that making it simple usually makes it wrong. Yes, the vast majority of my novels follow the motto "never look back." If I get to chapter six and realize that my first three chapters are all wrong, I don't go back and rewrite, I just keep moving forward. But, it's also true that my books often involve a lot of false starts. Only, "false" makes them sound like they weren't the right approach. But often these abandoned first chapters are akin to an artist making pencil sketches of a book cover. There are different perspectives to be considered, different ways to shift the emphasis from one element to another. None of them are really the wrong approach. Any of the sketches, once turned into finished art, could be considered an attractive cover. But, when you have three or four alternatives to consider, one will usually stand out as just being more appealing than the others.
Exploratory writing is like sketching. Sometimes I'll write a chapter and it's perfect and I just plow forward, but sometimes I don't know if I've got the right voice and I need to try out alternatives until I feel confident that I've found the right approach.
Looking back and trying to remember the origins of each of my books, there are very few where my first take made it into print. Burn Baby Burn, Dragonseed, Covenant, Victory, Cinder, Hush, and Bitterwood are books where I think the first chapter I wrote wound up being the only first chapter I wrote. Dragonforge had a very different first chapter initially, a flashback telling the story of how Adam Bitterwood had survived. Greatshadow first existed as a novella where the narrator character, Stagger, didn't even exist. Witchbreaker, the third book in the Dragon Apocalypse, features a plot and characters that I was writing chapters about long, long before I wrote Greatshadow. The original point of view character wasn't Sorrow, but a rogue named Swift who later made it into the Dragon Apocalypse series as Brand Cooper. I also had another take where the POV character was a truthspeaker hunting Sorrow since she'd recently killed some knights while gaining her latest witch nail. That character doesn't appear at all in the final book.
No book in my catalogue changed more from initial draft to final draft than Dawn of Dragons. There my exploratory draft was an entire novel! I wrote a 50k first draft of the book with a protagonist who was a secret agent for the government, infiltrating a gang of ecoterrorists. It was dreadful. Then I wrote a completely unrelated short story called "Warp Monkey" featuring a weird homeless zombie dude named Alex Pure and realized that the concept was much too big for a short story and wound up tossing the first draft of Dawn of Dragons and starting fresh with Pure as a protagonist. The Dawn of Dragons that made it into print has sort of an odd, tangential character who pops up in the middle of the book, a fighter pilot who lands her jet in Atlantis and gets kind of an infodump on how Atlantis plans to serve mankind by destroying civilization as we know it to replace it with something better. That's cut and paste from my first run at the novel. It serves its purpose, but in retrospect I feel a little lazy for putting into the book. Those chapters were "good enough," but I wish I'd tossed them and replaced them with fresh material that better fit the flow of the book.
Now, I still feel that my "only move forward" rule is pretty solid once you're more than five or six chapters into a book. At that point, it's probably best to just finish the book and go back and write a new first chapter later. Bad Wizard fit that pattern. Chapter two was my original opening and it worked fine as a launching point for writing, but put way too much emphasis on minor characters who wouldn't do much to advance the novel. The prologue with Dorothy testing out her silver slippers after she finds them again is the first chapter of the book, but the last thing I wrote. Witchbreaker also opens with a first chapter that was written last. I suspect most readers notice that chapter two has much more of a first chapter vibe, basically reintroducing Sorrow and firmly establishing her plot goals. The new first chapter was required by symmetry. Stagger returns at the end of the book to play a major role in resolving the final conflict, so I felt like he also needed to be present in the first chapter to keep his intervention at the end from being completely deux ex machina. Here, I had to trade a stronger beginning for a stronger ending.
Every writer has their process. Maybe there are writers out there who never write a word that isn't going to make it into the final draft. But, I suspect I'm not alone in my "iceberg" approach. Every word that pops through the surface into visible publication is floating on a hidden mass of never published words and drafts. Many of my characters are secret Frankenstein monsters stitched together from three or four other characters who perished before making it into print. Plots I dreamed up for one book turn to vapor, only to solidify as the skeleton of a new novel.
If you're writing, you're writing. Nothing is ever truly wasted. I've written some horrible crap, clunky, lifeless, pointless, and absolutely necessary for me to find my way to the good stuff. If you never get lost, you're not really exploring, and you'll never find the treasures hidden in the darker reaches of your imagination.
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!