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!

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Escape from Slush Mountain!

My wife and I have been reading short stories for a trio of themed anthologies. All told, we had about 500 submissions. This translated into roughly 1,000,000 words. Keep in mind that we're a small press just launching into anthologies, without any social media when we launched. We're offering a penny a word, not terrible for a small press, but a long way from pro rates. It's safe to extrapolate from this that if you're submitting to a more established market, or a higher paying market, your story may be in competition with a thousand others. The editors aren't looking at a slush pile. They're looking at a slush mountain. 

How can your story get to the top of that mountain? 

For the most part, we read stories in the order we received them, usually a month or more after we got it. Whatever was in your cover letter? We've forgotten it. There's really no point in a summary of your story, or a long and elaborate bio. By the time we reach your story, we're reading it completely fresh. If you're story 300 in a sequence of 500 stories, your work isn't only judged on its merits, but by whether it's standing out from all the stories we've already read, and by whether we think it's likely to be better than any of the 200 stories remaining. It's a pretty high bar!

However, plenty of submissions that jumped ahead of others in the queue simply because the title stood out. Beth Goder sent us a story for Rockets & Robots called "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem." I trusted "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem" to be one heck of a wild ride, and it was! I'm excited it's going to be in our book!  

For every "Dinosaur Portal Mayhem," we'd get five stories with titles like "The Journey." I don't think we actually got a story called "The Journey," but too many titles are essentially brown paper wrappers giving no hint at what's inside. Sometimes, these unassuming titles sit above great stories. Still, I recommend swinging for the fences with your title. Win over the editor by showing what you can do with just three or four words. 

That said, a good title is never enough to keep the editor engaged for long. The keys to keeping an editor reading past your first page is a sense of urgency. By urgency, I don't mean cliffhangers or action sequences. I mean that you aren't wasting a single word as your story opens. Every line is devoted to telling us who we're reading about, where they are, and setting up the problem soon to arise. The editor will notice that you've got a story you really want to tell. 

To find out if you've got this sort of urgent, information rich prose, circle every noun on your first page. If you can read your list of nouns out loud and have them hint at the story without any further context, you're on the right track. 

I just sold a story to Asimov's called "Lonely Hill."  The nouns in the first three sentences include Buck Heglund, North Carolina, RV, generator, and flying saucer. A person, a place, a problem. Person, place, and problem are the mirepoix of storytelling, the flavor base that supports the real meat of the story.  If you have a list of mushy, bland nouns--girl, room, chair--get yourself better ingredients. 

Person, place, problem. Dinosaur Portal Mayhem.  Follow this formula, and you've got a real shot at escaping from Slush Mountain. 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Word Balloon Books Middle Grade Anthologies

Note: Concept covers. Final covers to be revealed. 

My first ever independently published novel was Burn Baby Burn, which I released back in 2011, under my own imprint of Word Balloon Books. I've gone on to publish or republish 23 of my own books, and have built up a healthy portfolio of skills in book design and marketing. Now, it's time to put these skills to use for new audiences and new authors. I'm pleased to announce that in 2022, Word Balloon Books will be releasing three anthologies of fantasy and science fiction geared toward middle grade readers. 

The titles we currently have planned are Rockets & Robots, Paradoxical Pets, and Beware the Bugs. We're looking for stories appropriate for readers 10 and up. Violence, sex, and language should be G-rated. That said, we're open to challenging themes and topics. We're also open to reprints! Pay rates will be at least $.01 per word, but we're hoping to improve that. We have no firm word count limit, but under 3k is preferred. Child or teen protagonists also preferred. We're open to any solid story that fits into our overall themes. 

The initial deadline for all books is February 11, 2022, but that will likely be extended for two of the titles once we have enough submissions that we can determine which one we'll be publishing first. 

Email submission to submissions@inorbit.com. Please indicate which anthology you're submitting to, and if the story is previously published. 

More on the individual titles:

Rockets & Robots: These should be science fiction adventures set in the future, in outer space, or on alien worlds. No fantasy! 

Paradoxical Pets: Looking for stories about unusual pets. They might be aliens, ghosts, mythical creatures, robots, or just a dog or cat with some weird power. Fantasy or science fiction is fine. 

Beware the Bugs! Think of 1950s B-movies where giant ants terrorize cities. Or, Lord of the Rings, where hobbits battle enormous spiders. Either science fiction or fantasy is fine, the story just needs to feature some enormous creepy-crawly critter! 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Dragonsgate: Spirits and The Map of the Drowned City

After some delays caused by medical difficulties over the winter (COVID, followed by my gallbladder quitting my body without a two week notice), I finally buckled down and finished the first draft of Dragonsgate: Spirits. The book came together nicely once I got my momentum back. 

Now, I'm launching into the second draft! There are still many months of work ahead before I knit my crazy tangle of plotlines into a coherent tapestry, but I feel like the opening is tied together sufficiently to start showing it to people as as standalone novelette, The Map of the Drowned City. This is sort of the "secret origin" story for Elspeth Howell, Commander of the Salt Fleet, who was a bit of an enigma in the first book. Her actions had a huge impact on the plot, but there were no scenes from her point of view. In Dragonsgate: Spirits, we'll finally get inside her head and see what she wants and how she plans to get it. Even if you haven't read any of my previous work, The Map of the Drowned City is still a rousing tale of a young girl battling a monster during a quest for treasure. Good stuff!  You can read it free with a link in my next newsletter!

If you eager to read this, sign up here to be on my mailing list! If you haven't seen the newsletter by July 9, check your spam filter! 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Dragonsgate: Spirits update

The sequel to Dragonsgate: Devils is Dragonsgate: Spirits. Bitterwood and Nadala team up to journey through underspace to find Zeeky and Nadala's kidapped (dragonnapped?) drake. They wind up in a world that follows different rules than the reality they are used to, and are swept up in a battle between three powerful queens. 

Anza, meanwhile, continues her journey out west, encountering dragon species she's never fought before and finding remnants of human civilization that have found new ways to survive in the wasteland. 

Finally, Hex has finally accepted his responsibilities as king, and his first act is the abolition of slavery. But his fellow dragons aren't happy about this, and the rebels of Dragon Forge, now led by Elspeth Howell and her mysterious companion known as Surgeon, have their own plans for the balance of power between men and dragons. 

It's coming together! I'm technically only 11 chapters in, but some of these are ridiculously long and almost certain to be divided into multiple chapters, so I've probably got at least 14 chapters of material hammered out, with probably at least 20 or 25 to go! It's going to be epic! I promise it will be worth the wait!  

Friday, July 17, 2020

Hearts of Frost & Flame Audible Review Codes Still Available!

I'm pleased to announce a new release in partnership with master narrator Jake Urry, Hearts of Frost & Flame! This is actually one of two Omnibus collections we're called "Dragon Duologies." Hearts collects the previously released editions of Greatshadow and Hush, and the follow up, Hell & Back, will collect Witchbreaker and Cinder. Since you can now get two books for one credit, this is a great deal for Audible subscribers. But, hold on! I've got an even better deal than two for one! I need reviewers, so I'll be happy to send you a free code in exchange for you considering a review on Audible.

If you've read these books in print before but never listened to them in audio, this is a great chance to revisit the books. Jake Urry was born to voice Stagger, and really brings the book to life. Don't the shy! Start listening today by signing up to get a code here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Write! Daydream, Type, Profit, Repeat! Sample Chapter!

How to Be Original While Following Formulas

My favorite sandwich is a Reuben. Luckily, this is a pretty easy sandwich to find on menus anywhere I travel. When I'm on the road, I like to be adventurous, and if I see something really unique on the menu, I'll give it a shot. This is how I wound up eating a Belgian waffle covered in sausage gravy in a small restaurant in West Virginia. But, lots of times, the menus from state to state aren't all that varied. So, if I'm facing a page of fairly standard burgers and subs, and a Reuben is available, I'll give it a shot.

The standard recipe for a Reuben, if it's followed faithfully, makes a pretty awesome sandwich each time. It's basically five ingredients: Rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing. The best preparation is on a griddle with some butter. A toasted Reuben is unsatisfying, and a cold, uncooked Reuben is an abomination. Properly cooked, the rye provides a slightly bitter note, sauerkraut brings acidity, the corned beef gives it salt and fat, which are complimented by the sharpness of the cheese, and the Thousand Island dressing adds sweetness to contrast with the other flavors. It's fatty, salty, sour, and sweet all at once, with a nice protein kick from the corned beef. It makes my mouth happy.

Just to put you at ease, I haven't forgotten that this is a writing book. I promise I'm going somewhere with this.

Readers want originality, but spend most of their money on familiarity. It's the same reason I'd like to order a different sandwich in every city I visit, but wind up ordering the same sandwich again and again. If sandwiches were free, I'd be more daring. These days in a bar, sandwiches can be ten bucks a pop. I kind of want to know I'm going to be happy with what I order. The same impulse drives fiction purchases. Sure, in a perfect world, they'd read anything and everything. Alas, time and money are finite quantities. If you found a type of book you like, it makes sense to keep buying that type of book, as long as things stay fresh enough to keep you hungry for it.

This is one of the biggest challenges for a fiction writer who pursues a long-term career. Repeat readers get hooked a certain story formula. When Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he was following a formula established by Edgar Allan Poe. An eccentric genius solves baffling mysteries that thwart the best efforts of the police. There can be some variety; perhaps it's a murder, perhaps it's a stolen heirloom, perhaps someone has been kidnapped. The case will always be solved by the genius noticing small details others have missed, or else interpreting details correctly after the official investigators have leapt to the wrong conclusion from the same clues. In no case will the official investigators ever be allowed to solve the murder before the genius. They aren't even allowed to be useful except occasionally they'll be on hand to help take the criminal off to jail in the final scene. The criminal is always apprehended unless they are a mastermind who will serve as a foil in future stories, or sympathetic people who committed the crime for the best possible reason.

Subplots can exist. You might have a long running mystery about a crime that the detective failed to solve early in his or her career. You might have a love interest, or a series of them. Still, the formula of genius, oafs, clues, solution must predominate. If you break the formula, by just leaving out one of the ingredients, you'll have an unhappy reader.

Which happens with Reubens. Sometimes, I'll order a Reuben, and it's not on rye, but on whole wheat, or maybe sourdough. Neither are right, but they aren't necessarily a disaster. If any bread has been cooked on a griddle with a little butter it's going to taste pretty good. But, visually, the sandwich will be off. I can look at it and know that care wasn't taken in the preparation, that it was slapped together with whatever was on hand. If the bread is wrong, other things can be off. Sometimes, it's not corned beef, but roast beef. They might swap Swiss for provolone. Hey, they're both white cheeses, who's going to notice? I'll notice. The absolute worst "Reuben" I was ever served was on an Italian sub roll with no sauerkraut, just lettuce. I mean, at that point, why bother? Just tell me you can't make me a Reuben. I'll order something else.

The takeaway here is that breaking the recipe carelessly or thoughtlessly is going to disappoint me as an eater. Miss a vital ingredient in a story, and you're going to disappoint the reader.

Maybe you don't want to be a line cook, cranking out someone else’s recipe again and again. Maybe you've got all the steps down, but this isn't really your sandwich. The Reuben doesn't belong to you, no matter how well you execute it. You want to make a name for yourself, and improve upon what's already a perfect sandwich.

It can be done. I've eaten that sandwich. I was at a bar in Raleigh and spotted a "Far East Reuben" on the menu. The formula was a standard Reuben, except that the sauerkraut was swapped with kimchi. Brilliant! Kimchi and kraut are both fermented. They have the same underlying sourness, but kimchi adds hot peppers to the mix. Putting it onto the sandwich instead of ordinary kraut was genius! It respected the original recipe, while at the same time taking the sandwich in a new direction and making it especially rewarding. Whoever was behind that sandwich could break the formula because he or she understood the formula. They knew the role the kraut served, and found a substitute that fulfilled the original role and brought in something extra.

This is how you, as a writer, can express your creativity. Master the recipes, and understand the purpose of each story ingredient. Then, find a better ingredient to substitute. In my own case, I've twice created fantasy universes. A vital ingredient in any fantasy is the magic. Magic is the whole reason people pick up a fantasy novel. Magic serves to stimulate a reader’s sense of wonder. Magic also introduces a wild card into the plotting. Anything can happen! For my Bitterwood universe, the ingredient I chose to tweak was the magic. Instead of coming up with rules for a supernatural universe, I decided that all the magic was going to follow science fiction rules. Everything magical in the story could be explained by technology and chemistry and biology, with a touch of theoretical physics to spice things up. The science fiction still served the same purpose at magic, heightening the sense of wonder and building in the possibility of miraculous happenings that could provide unexpected plot twists. It also provided plausibility (I hope), and I'd like to think that some readers found themselves intrigued by some of the science fiction concepts and went on to learn more about reality, the way that watching shows like Star Trek inspired me to learn more about space.

After I wrote the Bitterwood books, I tossed out my own recipe and started fresh on the Dragon Apocalypse books. This time, magic would remain magical. What I substituted out instead was the cast. Traditional fantasies are built around certain character types. There's a great deal of variation, of course, but fantasy novels often put together teams of characters and you'll find people playing the roles of warriors, wizards or clerics, and rogues. I decided to swap out these traditional stereotypes for superheroes. Of course, no one in my Dragon Apocalypse books ever identifies themselves as a superhero, or would even know what the term meant. But all the characters have superpowers, most have code names, and most have costumes. By introducing characters who are physically invulnerable, or who fly, or who have super strength, I upped the stakes on the action, allowing me to write over-the-top action scenes that wouldn't have worked with ordinary human characters. Since many of my characters couldn't be harmed physically, that forced me to make most of the peril they faced be either internal or emotional. In sparing them physical pain, I was able to amplify mental pain.

It's yet another paradox of writing. You should love your characters and want what’s best for them. Usually, what's best for them is torment and suffering. A character not going through some sort of distress or turmoil is about as interesting as a cold Reuben.

Just as a chef needs to constantly analyze the food he enjoys to understand why it’s so satisfying, authors need to analyze the books they love and attempt to discern the ingredients, the purpose of these ingredients, and how they’ve been put together. Once you figure out the recipe for books of a given genre, you’ll understand which ingredients can be swapped and improved upon, so you can give your readers a book that is both what they wanted, and much more than they hoped for. 

Write! will be released in just two weeks! Order today! 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Dragonsgate: Devils Signed Copies!

With most of my conventions cancelled until 2021 at the earliest, and gathering restrictions keeping me for arranging for bookstore or library signings, I've decided to offer signed copies via mail. This is a nice, hefty book, 382 pages of story, that retails for $18 for the trade paperback edition. I'll sell it for the full $18, but won't charge additional for shipping if you live in the US and don't mind me shipping via postal media mail. I've got a limited quantity in stock but more on the way.

If you're interested, just fill out the form at this link!  I'll send you an online invoice when the book is ready to ship. If you aren't in the US and want a copy, go ahead and fill out the form and I'll get back to you with shipping costs.

I feel like I've been talking about the book non-stop for a few months now, but in case you're wondering, yes, this is a new novel set in the Bitterwood universe, yes, dragons do explore dungeons and fight dinosaurs, and yes, of course there's a moon-wizard. I promise it will be the best dragons versus dinosaurs novel you'll read all year!