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!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fights, Perils, Barriers, and Annoyances: The art of the middle

So, I’m currently well past the halfway mark of the first draft of my tenth novel, Hush. When I started the book, I knew exactly how it began, since it starts just a week after my novel Greatshadow ends. At the end of that book, one of the surviving characters has made a vow to a dying friend to return a sacred weapon to a temple in a faraway homeland. The book starts with her gathering things she’ll need to make this trip. I also knew exactly how the book ends. The weapon needs to end up back in the hands of its rightful owners. So, I have a first chapter, that should be good for 5000 words. And I have a last chapter, good for another 5000 words. I’m under contract to turn in a novel approximately 110,000 words long. What the hell do I put into the middle 100,000 words?

I wish I could claim to have some systematic approach to logically filling in the giant gap between the beginning and the end of my books. My real approach is to just dive in and start making up stuff, then keep on making up stuff, then make up more stuff. So far, this approach has worked for me. But, somewhere around chapter 10 of Hush, I’d written two fight scenes back to back and I realized I couldn’t immediately use another fight scene. But, it was also too early just to have everyone settle down and talk about the weather for a chapter or two. What I needed, I thought, was a peril. I settled on the ship being damaged in the course of the last fight, and now it’s sinking. Once they saved the ship, there would be time for a talking scene. Then I’d throw in a big obstacle for my characters to get around. Then, it might be time for another fight. I realized as I was thinking through all the upcoming turns of events that I do have a few standard categories of events that my chapters follow. I don’t present these as formulas, but as a potentially useful tool for the next time you are writing a book and you’ve just had your characters jump out of the frying pan, escape the fire, and are now staring at a blank screen wondering, “Okay. Now what?”

1: Fights. Since I write action adventure fantasies, the first thing standing in my characters' ways are ordinarily other characters. While in a perfect world they could resolve their differences with a friendly smile and a handshake, in my books someone almost always winds up throwing a punch. Fights tend to be inherently interesting, and I sprinkle them liberally throughout my books, but too much of a good thing gets tiresome. So, when even I’m tired of my characters fighting, it’s time for:

2: Perils. The ship is sinking! The building's on fire! A tornado just picked up the house! Perils are obstacles that threaten the lives of the characters. They can't be solved by punching someone. Perils are handy in their neutrality. The same hurricane that is dashing your ship against the rocks is also scuttling the zombie pirate ships that were chasing you. Or the evil space tyrant who was going to delight in torturing your heroes flees in his escape capsule as the space station gets too close to the black hole.

3: Barriers. What you need to succeed is someplace you ain't, and getting to it won't be easy. The medicine you need to halt the zombie plague is in a locked bunker in Antartica, and you’re on the side of the road in the Arizona desert with an empty gas tank and no bars on your cell phone. Or, maybe the floor plans you need to get past the bank's security system are in a safe on the 99th floor, guarded by sharks with laser beams. Which leads to:

4: Puzzles. A subcategory of barriers. You've captured the Nazi attack plans, but they're in code. What's the key? They dying man's last words were a cryptic quote from Shakespeare's "Tempest." What was he trying to tell you? Puzzles can sometimes be large enough to last an entire book, but if you scatter smaller ones throughout your plot they are useful in demonstrating that your hero has virtues other than tough fists and a heart of gold.

5: Tests. Not SAT type problems, but moral tests. The mob boss has just called your cop hero into a private meeting. Call off the investigation, turn over the hard drive with the evidence, and whoah, where did this suitcase full of hundred dollar bills come from? Or, the lead vampire has just pulled off her hood and, gasp, it’s your own mother! You aren’t going to stake your own mom, are you?

6: Annoyances. Of course, if every problem your character faced was some life altering choice or unstoppable foe, you’d burn out your readers pretty quickly. Sometimes it’s out of the frying pan, into the fire, then back into the %$#&! frying pan because the hero dropped his damn car keys. Other times, the good guy is just about to charge into the demon lord's throne room when his kid sister taps him on the shoulder and asks what he’s doing. He was sure she'd been asleep when he slipped out the bedroom window!

7: Chats. No matter how gung ho your characters are, there are going to be scenes in your book where your characters do nothing but stand around and talk. Frequently, these scenes serve to advance the plot. After a fight, your heroes interrogate a captured guard and learns that the kidnapped princess is locked in the north tower. Now they talk through a plan on how to get her out. Later, they talk through what when wrong when they rescue not the princess, but her hairdresser. Stuff happens. People talk about it.

8: Respites and interludes. Finally, sometimes the world just gives you a break. Right in the middle of Greatshadow, I have a chapter where the characters meet the long lost grandfather of the narrator and are invited back to his jungle village to rest and recover from their wounds. The characters had just survived a long string of fights and perils, and it was a welcome break to have the characters sitting around debating philosophy while dining on an exotic jungle buffet of mystery fruits, raw snails, and katydids. I’ve made this a separate category from the previous one because other talking scenes can unfold while danger is imminent. With a respite, you and your readers can take a deep breath and relax for a moment and find out what your characters are like when they aren’t killing people. These peaceful scenes also help to establish a sense of what might be lost if Evil Triumphs.

Of course, all of these categories are amorphous, and frequently overlap in the course of a single scene. And despite the fact I’ve numbered them, I wouldn’t advise digging out your 8-sided dice from your D&D set and trying to plot a book by rolling random numbers. There’s an ebb and flow to these events that feels natural that you can only develop by actually writing. Still, if you do find yourself wondering “What comes next?” I hope this list helps jog your imagination.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hush 64770

Again, not 10k, but the middle act of the book is building nicely toward the pivot into the final act. I decided against introducing the new cast member as a major player, though I still may introduce him in the next chapter as someone with a role in future books. Going into the final third of the book, I'm going to stick with my core trio of protagonists. I think I've got more than enough material built around these three to keep me rolling to the 100k word mark, though at some point this week I actually need to sit down and write down all the major plot events remaining so that I can pace this thing correctly. Still, the muddled middle has been mostly slogged through. It's odd to think that I may be only one month away from being able to say, "Hey! I've written another book!"

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hush 57370

Just starting Chapter 14. Facing what may be the most critical choice I have left in the rest of the book: whether or not to introduce a new major cast member, or whether to stick with only the characters already in play. I've introduced more characters than I really need for this book, since I'm also laying groundwork for the next book, Sorrow, introducing characters that will carry on to play major roles there. But, I've also had the characters, many of whom are related, making reference to a brother who is now captain of a rival ship. I feel like I've laid the proper stepping stones that introducing this character at this point in the plot would certainly be acceptable, and I could potentially use him as a delivery device for a plot twist I'm pondering. On the other hand, I can just plow ahead with only the characters already on the set and treat my remaining plot as a puzzle, figuring out how to use the elements I've already put into play to solve the problems currently in play, even thought, at present, I feel that the problems and problem solvers are a wee bit mismatched. Both Greatshadow and Hush feature superpowered characters, but Greatshadow had characters who could slug it out with the Avengers or the JLA. The cast of Hush has superpowers from the B list roster of the Legion of Superheroes, when Mon-el and Ultra Boy are already out on a mission and the Suneater attacks and the only folks left in the clubhouse are Matter-Eater Lad, Bouncing Boy, and Shrinking Violet.

And if you really understand what I'm talking about here, you are a geek of the highest magnitude, a fellow member of my tribe, and I salute you.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hush 48918

I continue to eke out words at a pace well short of 10k despite my best efforts. But, I 'm trying to take comfort in the notion that quality does matter, and I feel like the last few chapters I've written have been much more polished than my typical first draft. Polished probably isn't the right word... developed is more on target. I'm having trouble shutting up my inner editor, which is costing me time, but I'm producing chapters that just feel more complete than my ordinarily sketchy first drafts. Hopefully this will result in a swifter second pass. And, I'm now on chapter 12, which doesn't suck for a book I just started six weeks ago.

Yet, I'm not content. I need a 15k week to come to me soon. Only then will I feel that the celestial clockwork is once again ticking as it should should.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Creative Process Interview + Ravencon Starts Today!

First news: Maya Lassiter, a writer who attended Orson Scott Card's Writer's Boot Camp with me ten years ago, has recently been interviewing writers about their creative processes. Where and when do you write? How much do you write at a time? Those sorts of questions. Perhaps since I've known her for a long time, I answered her questions with what may have been a little too much honesty. If you want the real deal insight into how my writing actually gets done, you can read about it at Mayaland.

Second news: I'm off to Ravencon for the weekend. I'll be on panels about ebooks, superheroes, and alien worlds, among other things. I'll also be going to Jonah Knight's concert on Saturday at 5pm, to get my latest fix of his eclectic paranormal modern folk music. If you're in Richmond, I can't think of any better way to spend this beautiful sunny weekend than to come spend hours in dimly lit hotel conference rooms talking about science and magic and books with hundreds of other geeks! That's not sarcasm, by the way. That really is my idea of a good time. What can I say? I'm a nerd. I'm comfortable in my own pale and flabby skin.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

There is No Wheel: I may write smut but I don't write fluff.

I may write smut but I don’t write fluff.

I wrote these words near the end of my essay announcing the release of “There is No Wheel.” I promised a future essay expanding on this thought. Welcome to the future.

Several weeks ago, while attending Mysticon in Roanoke, I went to dinner with Ed Schubert, editor of Intergalactic Medicine Show, and asked him if he’d be willing to write the introduction to There is No Wheel. He’s bought three out of four short stories I’ve sent him, and at cons he frequently uses my stories as an example of the sort of stuff he’d like to see more of in his in-box. I knew he was a fan of my work, but I also knew that the work I submit to IGMS represents only a sliver of what I write. I warned him that the collection would contain stories that would never fit IGMS’s PG13 guidelines, and wound up telling him about “Perhaps the Snail,” a story that should probably be rated PG45. It’s a story I have trouble discussing in public forums because, honestly, any description of the story is pornographic. If I were to list the behaviors engaged in by my young female protagonist, Devi, during the course of a story, it would look like the search tags attached to some dreary hard core web page. It’s the sort of story that I look at and ask, “Why on earth did I write such a thing?” Then, “Why on earth am I including it in my ‘best of’ collection?” And, “Why is it the last story in the collection, getting the final word, leaving this particular tale as the last story they will associate with the name James Maxey before they put the book down?”

The answer is simple. Most anthologies open and close with the stories the editor thinks are the strongest. I follow the same format with my collection. I’ve placed this story at the end because I think it forms a nice bookend with the opening tale, “To the East, a Bright Star.” Both stories break taboos. “To the East, a Bright Star” features illegal drug use in its closing scene that does not result in the drug users living poorer, less fulfilling, sadder lives. In fact, for one of the characters, the drug provides a sort of salvation in a syringe. “Perhaps the Snail” closes with people behaving downright dangerously, pursuing sexual gratification in circumstances that carries a high probability of getting them killed or maimed. The thing that both stories have in common is, only by taking my characters to such extreme environments am I able to have them understand what it is they need to understand. The point of the first story isn’t “drugs are fun!” The point of the first story is that after life has taken from you every last hope that you are the master of your own destiny, after every roll of the dice has come up against you and you have reached a point in life where shared morality and the judgment of others no longer limit your actions, there is still redemption to be found in being kind to someone else. In the last story, I systematically strip Devi of every illusion that she is smart, or wise, or important, of the very notion that her life has meaning. I have her stare into the abyss… and laugh as she understands what a wondrous, beautiful, trivial and fleeting thing that she is in the face of such nothingness. She exits the story young, dumb, fearless, and alive, and the better for it.

Sure, I write smut. But I don’t write fluff. I’m not portraying graphic sex and violence in the hopes that you’ll be amused or shocked or horrified or aroused for five minutes. In “Empire of Dreams and Miracles,” I criticize our present entertainment culture. As humans, we struggled to build a world in which our collective children would be safe, free of the fear of hunger, disease, poverty, even death. Having insulated them from all the great struggles of humanity, we now pour vast resources into keeping our children entertained and stimulated. What, exactly, are the great human values a teenager is supposed to learn playing Halo or whatever the hot game of the moment happens to be? There are people who write books and movies with no higher goal in mind than to cash in on this craving for stimulation. They are pleased to trot out gorier zombie death tides, raunchier were-wolf sex acts, grosser cannibal feasts. They pursue an elevated heart-beat, hoping to amuse you enough that you’ll tell your friends about your cool five minutes of entertainment.

I am not that writer. An average short story takes, what, ten minutes to read? Fifteen? I am not interested in such a trivial time in your skull. My goal is to claim space in your head for the rest of your life. Your fleeting amusement does not concern me. I want you to think. I want you to be awake at three in the morning five years from now, sitting all alone at a truck stop on some lonely highway, working on your third cup of coffee as you stare at your reflection in the window. When the waitress asks if you want another cup, you won’t understand the question at first, because you’ll be far away, thinking about Tony shooting up Esmerelda with the last of the morphine, thinking about Eric gazing into the cooler filled with moonshine and finding the pickled body of a cherub, wondering what really happened to Retaliator when he pulled that trigger. I want you to be thinking about that cab heading down the highway at the end of “Perhaps the Snail,” wondering if anyone ever grabs the wheel.

And I know, I know, I know how arrogant and pretentious it is to think that I, a verbose nerd with an strange affection for circus freaks and cannibals and perverts, dare to ask you, a reader, to let my words stand in the doorway of the mansion of your mind for a even five minutes, let alone have them carry in baggage and ask to stay for five years, or ten, or a lifetime. But, it would be even more insulting to assume that all you want when you start one of my stories is a few minutes of fluff. I work from the assumption that when you open the doors in your head, you’re actually hoping that a story will show up with a few bags, and that some of these bags might hold some answers about life, and even if you found the answers to be wrong, you could still work back to an all consuming question, which you could attempt to devour before it devoured you.

Do I reach this level of engagement on every story? I don’t know. Questions that I might struggle with for decades, others shrug off in an afternoon. But, I can at least promise that, with my Wheel stories, I at least was trying to engage. I may write smut, but I don’t write fluff.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hush, 41656. Also, Ravencon looms!

As expected, the logistics of dealing with my Mom's hospital stay took a chunk out of my writing, and I only finished one chapter. But, damn, what a chapter! I'm smack in the middle of one of those moments in a book where I've just kept piling woes upon woes on my protagonists, to the point that defeat is inescapable, because, I, as the writer, can't think of a damn single plausible way for them to escape it. Then, boom, one character rallies with a clever idea, and another character builds on it, then I remember a magical item whose powers are laid out in the first book that I've barely used at all the second book and realize, hey, this would be the perfect tool to pry open the old jaws o' doom.

One thing I've really got to stop and take of at this point is figuring out the *%#&! names of my supporting cast. I've got a family of Wanderers, basically gypsies who live their lives aboard ships instead of in wagons, and I've given the eight members of the family provisional names and some minor superpowers for each of them. But, I keep adjusting the powers, to the point that the names really aren't making much sense any more. For instance, the youngest boy of the family was named Gull and he could fly. But, I decided in this chapter that he didn't fly so much as have the power to swim through air as if it were water. It seems a minor distinction, but plays a small role in the plot, and makes more sense since the Wanderers were given their powers by mermaids, so I'm going to try to stick with aquatic themes. At first I just named all the boys after sharks and all the girls after spices, but now hardly any of the powers they've wound up with make sense when aligned with their names. Plus, I have to make sure the names I pick aren't too close to the other names I've already chosen for this book or for Greatshadow. Nothing is ever easy.

Next weekend, I'll be in Richmond for Ravencon. I'll post more about the panels I'll be on later this week. Stay tuned!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Variant cover suggested by Mr. Cavin

Mr. Cavin, who I trust on matters of design, suggested I add a black bar and reverse out my name so it wouldn't get lost in the background. A solid bar looked clunky, but I tried some wave filters and came up with this. I took out the word "stories" since it was mostly empty calories; people can read the description and discover it's a collection. It does seem nice to have my name more prominent. Anyone have any strong likes or dislikes to this version?