Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Five tricks for writing a novel in a week

Okay, so I wrote a novel in a week. Now that I’ve had a week away from that task, here are a few key tricks that made it possible:

1. To capture lightning in a jar, bring a jar.

I had a stack of note cards filled with significant plot points for Burn Baby Burn. By the end of chapter one, I’d rendered half of them useless. But, while my efforts at outlining in advance weren’t terribly useful in the details, I did happen to create a structure that I maintained throughout the writing. I realized, based on my rough outline, that the book would unfold in four major acts. In part one, I’d introduce my supervillain protagonists and have them go on a crime spree. In part two, a team of superheroes would come after them. Part three would involve the supervillains trying to escape by finding sanctuary in a foreign country that had no extradition treaty with the US. In part four, the heroes would come after them anyway, and the resulting battle would place the world in danger. For reasons of simple symmetry, I decided that each of my four major acts would be built out of four chapters, and the target length for the chapters would be four thousand words. This would produce a novel sixty-four thousand words long.

By keeping this structure in mind, I never had moments where the immensity of the project overwhelmed me. I could just focus on the development of my current four chapter arc. Breaking the story telling down into these manageable components was a key factor in making me feel as if the work confronting me wasn’t particularly formidable. Deciding on the structure provided edges for the jigsaw puzzle of story I was going to assemble.

2. Now what? Then what? Then what?

This one is so simple I’m almost embarrassed to put it on the list. But, lots of times during the week I was writing Burn Baby Burn, I’d run my imagination dry. I couldn’t keep typing because I didn’t know what would happen next. On most of my previous novels, if I reached this point, I could just walk away and come back another day. By the third day of BBB, I was walking away, then waiting for twenty minutes while my brain answered the question, “Now what?” Then I’d go back and write the one event I’d imagined, and be stuck again. On days 4-7, I got past the horrible sensation of constantly running dry on ideas by walking away, thinking, “Now what?” and then, before I would go back to write, I’d figure out the next two “Then whats?” It worked! Thinking three events ahead is actually a rather modest goal, but it reduced the demoralizing moments when my imagination felt empty.

3. It can’t be that easy.

Another really obvious one, but probably the most important thought I had all week. It was fairly early in the book when I finally had the good guys face off with the bad guys. I was really happy to reach this chapter, since I’d already figured out how the bag guys would escape. So, I just cranked out the whole fight as I imagined it… and had 1000 words. Eek! I’d planned to fill a whole chapter with the fight! So, just when it looks like the heroes are thwarted and the bad guys are getting away, oh no! The toughest superhero, who’d had to run off to take an wounded civilian to a hospital, races back onto the scene. The fight continues! They run over him with a truck. He shakes it off! Etc., etc. The key thing to take away is that, for the rest of the book, any time I’d get a good idea for getting my protags out of a jam, I’d figure out how this good idea would go horribly wrong. It creates much more suspenseful action scenes, and, more importantly, it gets more words onto the page.

4. Never look back.

This is advice I always offer for first drafts: Never stop to read what you’re writing. If you’re writing fast, you’ll be making mistakes, and the temptation will be to stop and fix the mistakes. This will kill momentum. Obviously, correcting your errors and polishing your prose is key to producing a professional manuscript. But, the first draft isn’t the time to do this. The only thing you need to focus on is what comes next.

5. Take your foot off of the brake.

The most perverse fear a writer can possess is this one: “What am I revealing about myself?” If you’re dragging fifty thousand words out of your brain in a short period of time, it’s almost impossible to pull them out with out snagging a good bit of yourself. My characters, being human beings, have lusts and fears and crazy beliefs. Scrape aside the thin film of fiction, and you find my lusts and fears and crazy beliefs. But, I’m writing a book about people who can fly, or are bulletproof. I’m firmly in territory where an average person might justifiably think, “Well, that will never happen.” Fancy lies will catch people’s attention, but can only hold it for so long. Eventually, you have to put something true on the page. But putting true things on the page is risky. In order to function in society, most people spend the majority of time not being open and truthful. There are categories of things we regard as private and don’t want the world to know about us. But, in fiction, readers want to see these private moments. You could follow the safe route and simply recycle fictional private moments you’ve seen in movies or read in books. Plenty of writers do. You simply write cautiously, advancing carefully across the most dangerous terrain, your foot on the brake. But, when I was writing Burn Baby Burn, I didn’t have time to search my mental catalog for appropriate fictional moments to mimic. I just had to take my foot off the brake and write what I knew. What I really knew.

Was it worth it? I think so. I suppose readers will be the ultimate judges.


Anonymous said...

Some great tips on fast writing, James! I'm going to start collecting notes and ideas on how to structure them and maybe I'll give it a shot! Although maybe I will also give myself a little longer, since my fast-writing experiments have been pretty dismal until now. *g*

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Ruth! Don't be discouraged if your fast writing attempts don't pan out. I've certainly crashed and burned in the past on far less ambitious attempts than this one. But, stubbornly moving forward even if experience tells you it won't work should probably be item six on my list.

Anonymous said...

Just found this through John Brown's blog, and just wanted to stop by and say this is AMAZING. Thanks for sharing your method!

James Maxey said...


Dixon Leavitt said...

Thanks for sharing this. Makes me want to give it a try. Couldn't help but be liberating.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Dixon. Go for it! Though, while the possiblity of liberation is there, I will also say that the risks of failure weighed heavily on me before I started. The book I wrote turn out to be pretty good. But if I'd failed to write it, or it had turned out to be unreadable trash, I wonder how I would have reacted. Like many artists, I am constantly battling with self-doubts. If I'd failed at my goal, I hate to think of the pits of doubt I'd still be sunk in. But, still, it was totally worth the risk.

sassoutjay said...

I just started a book now and like most writers, I have written useless drafts and ideas, not being able to finish them. But this actually makes me determined to try and complete a work that I love!

sassoutjay said...

This encourages me to actually finish a draft of the book I recently started without being distracted by new ideas

James Maxey said...

Thanks, Sassoutjay!

You know what's funny, just this morning I'm typing up notes for my voice narrator on the audio edition of Burn Baby Burn, the novel I'd just finished when I wrote this blog post. I listened to the final three chapters last night. I think it's still the best superhero novel I've written, and I think the final tip on my list, "Take your foot off the brake," is the reason why.

A lot of my superhero fiction has absurdist, surreal elements that exist because I find them entertaining, but also because they're relatively "safe" to write. No one is going to imagine I'm basing a battle between an invulnerable man and a giant robotic ostrich on personal experience. But I kept getting choked up listening to Burn Baby Burn in the final chapters when Sunday's been told that her powers have been killing her and she's only got a few weeks left to live.

I was writing this a few years after I'd lost a partner to cancer, and was far enough removed from the event that I didn't feel ghoulish putting some of my personal experience onto the page, yet still close enough that those feelings hadn't been completely edited into trite life lessons. Sunday almost goes through the classic five stages of grief in reverse order when confronted with her own mortality, at first peacefully accepting the idea that she's going to die, then going through an anger and denial phase during her final battle where she really fights against the idea that she has any limits or any reason to fear death, followed by her final words which so frightened and filled with despair after every mask of toughness or defiance or courage has fallen away. It's such a flip from the more traditional portrayals of the death of a protagonist, where they bravely accept their final fate. You know, no matter how tough you are, there shouldn't be any shame attached to feeling terrified when death is unavoidable. I'm glad I didn't edit out that despair.

Rereading this post has also inspired me to try to do another novel in a week later this year. I've got a few good candidates for such a project, two short books with first person narrators that are each only loosely connected to my existing novels, which means I won't have continuity chains dragging me down. Now I just need to finish the two books I'm currently working on and find an open week on my calendar.