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, December 19, 2012

The Next Big Thing: Witchbreaker

Gail Z. Martin answered some questions about her next book on her blog last week and forwarded those questions on to other authors so they could have a crack at them. Since Witchbreaker hits stores next week, this seems like a good excuse to talk about it.

What’s the title of your next book?

Witchbreaker: Book Three of the Dragon Apocalypse
If you found yourself in a lift with a movie director you admire and had the chance to pitch your book to them, what would you say?

Witchbreaker is the story of Sorrow Stern, a young witch on a quest to find the legendary queen of witches, who forms an uneasy alliance with an amnesiac knight called Slate, who may or may not be Lord Stark Tower, the infamous Witchbreaker.

If this happened to your work, which actors would you choose to play your characters?

I never really think about my books as movies, so I haven’t given this a lot of thought. You would need a time machine to make this happen, but I would say that Sorrow would be well represented by a young Sinead O’Conner. Slate looks a bit like Robert Irvine from the Food Network. I’m sorry I don’t know more current celebrities. I go to maybe three movies a year, and usually two of them are animated.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Without naming names, some years ago I was romantically involved with a woman who had experienced a very traumatic event when she was young and saw how, decades later, those events had left her living in a very different world than most people. She was acutely aware of injustices that others were blind to. This had the negative affect of creating a sense of paranoia and isolation and a slow, seething anger that never quite went away. But, it also had the positive aspects of giving her a tremendous amount of empathy for the suffering of others, and a steely stubbornness to stand up for her beliefs and not whittle her values away with compromises that most of us make without a second thought because we don’t want to live our lives in a constant state of confrontation.

Sorrow’s character draws heavily from this mold. Her father was a judge who hung his own mother after she was accused of being a witch. Sorrow rebelled by becoming a witch herself, but her hatred isn’t directed directly at her father, it’s directed at the religious and political institutions that empowered him. So, Sorrow’s life mission is to overthrow that system. She’s one woman against the world, fighting to make it a better place even though everyone she meets keeps insisting that the world isn’t so bad. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for characters locked into a lifelong battle against forces more powerful than they will ever be.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A few months. I started the book around last Christmas and turned in the final draft in July. The last few years have been pretty productive for me. With Greatshadow coming out last January and Witchbreaker coming out in December, I’ll have written quickly enough to see three epic fantasy novels released in a single year. I don’t like to keep my reader’s waiting!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Terry Pratchett is the closest comparison, though my books are less overtly humorous and a bit more weighted toward action.

What makes this book uniquely yours, a reading experience that no other author could provide?

My Dragon Apocalypse novels are kind of their own little mini-genre, medieval superheroes in epic battles against dragons, with a carefully balanced blend of action, humor, romance, and philosophy. I write about the moral questions that fuel my curiosity, but do everything I can not to be preachy and to make sure that the plot moves forward on every single page. I try to take characters who are pretty difficult to like and lead the reader to a deep understanding of why they are who they are, so that even if you sometimes roll your eyes at their bad choices, you’re still left loving them. I won’t claim that no other author can do these things, since obviously they can. But, the way I mix these elements is fairly distinctive. I think that, even if my name were stripped from my novels, a reader could still recognize me by my style and my approach.

How has this book helped you grow as a writer?

In the past, most of my characters have been loners, since this is kind of the standard template for iconic heroes. Superman, Batman, Spiderman—all orphans who have secrets that keep them from fully connecting with other people. Sorrow certainly fits this mold, but I’ve surrounded her with a supporting cast called the Romers, who are a family of super-powered sailors. They love and support one another, though they have the same squabbles and tensions as any family. Some of the most heartwarming scenes in the book are about the way they relate to one another. This is the first book where I really talk about family in any meaningful way, and I think it gives the book a nice heart. The love and warmth that the Romers show one another is a good contrast for Sorrow’s much more cynical world view.

When will your book be available?
It hits bookstores December 26, so if you happen to receive a Barnes and Noble gift card the day before, keep me in mind. In fact, I’ve been told you won’t even need to wait that long. In theory, the ebook is going to be available on Christmas Day, though I still haven't seen any "preorder" buttons for the ebook yet.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

You know, it’s kind of tough to believe that I’ve answered these questions barely mentioning dragons, because this book is chock full of them. We see some elemental dragons from previous books: Hush, Greatshadow, Abyss, and Rott, and are introduced to some new ones: Abundant, the Dragon of Animal Life; Tempest, the Dragon of Storms; and Kragg, the Dragon of Stones. Hush is trying to persuade the other dragons to join her on a quest to destroy mankind as revenge for what happened to Glorious in the second novel, and the book builds to a big confrontation between all the primal dragons that decides the fate of the world… at least until the next book.

Since Gail was kind enough to pass these questions on to me, I've invited a couple of other authors to take a crack at them. So, next week, please check out the answers from Alex Granados as he talks about his novel Into the Cave at alexgranadoswrites.blogspot.com. Then, jump on over to John Brown's blog as he talks about his new thriller, Awful Intent.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Butt in Air

I've talked about the importance of "butt-in-chair" time if you want to be a writer. There's really no escaping the central reality that, if you want to write a novel, you'll probably be spending a couple of hundred hours sitting in front of your computer pressing keys. The more you keep your butt in the chair, the more you're going to produce. It's a pretty simple equation.

In November, I did pretty well at keeping my butt in my chair, cranking out 50k words on my new novel. Then I hit a wall. I made my way through the first 50k because I knew how the story began, and was able to introduce my three major characters, spend some time exploring the setting, and get in a few action scenes to establish the pace. Unfortunately, I really didn't know how the book ended, and now that I was done with all my introductions, I couldn't move forward because, without knowing how the book would end, any further typing I did would be directionless meandering.

I've been thinking about this book for at least a year, and completely immersed for over a month. My inability to figure out an endpoint was frustrating. I always have some idea of where my books are heading. But, every ending I could think of for this book was too direct. The hero beats the bad guy, the end. Yawn. I needed something a bit less clean.

So, it was time for "butt-in-air." Yesterday, I took a ten mile hike along the Eno, alone. I had my phone full of podcasts to listen to, but found the willpower never to start those up. Instead, I spent five hours in solitude and quiet, utterly bored for most of the journey. The Eno has some wonderful scenery, including a quarry lake with water like a mirror and the ruins of old farmhouses and mills emerging like memories from the hilly landscape. But, it also has lots and lots and lots of roots and rocks, so 90% of the hike isn't spent looking at the scenery, it's spent watching the leaf-strewn ground three feet in front of you so you don't break your ankle.

Under such conditions, the mind wanders. In the quietness, I could begin to hear my characters talking to one another. I could listen in and discover just what the heck it was they were planning on doing, and by the time I emerged from the woods, with sore feet and completely sodden with sweat, I had figured out a satisfying ending for my book. It may not be the final ending; I'm sure it will grow and mutate in the weeks ahead, as my endings always do. But, it's a destination, something I can look forward to reaching, the way I looked forward to reaching the lake when I was hiking.

All those hours of daydreaming will mean nothing if I don't have the willpower to sit down and keep typing. But, sometimes, to make the hours you spend with your butt in a chair count for something, you need to go as far away as you can, not just from your computer, but from your television, your books, even your friends and family, and hunt for the silence where you can finally hear your book.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Winter Tales, NaNo, Long Term Career Plans

I'm going to be at the main branch of the Orange County Library here in Hillsborough on December 13 at 6:00pm where I'll be joined by four other local authors for an event called "Winter Tales." Alex Granados, Mur Lafferty, Becca Gomez Farrell, Gray Rinehart and I will be reading original essays, stories, poems, and maybe even a song or two themed around the holiday season. Cookies and spiced cider will be served.

In other news, I made my NaNoWriMo goal and got to 50,600 words for the month of November. This might not look impressive compared to writing Burn Baby Burn in a week, but there was a time in my life when November would have been chock full of good excuses not to write. I had two different thanksgiving celebrations. We found a renter for Cheryl's old house and spent a lot of time cleaning out the shed there and doing other prep work. Among that work was discovering the furnace was shot, and having to shell out 4 grand getting a new one installed. This, on top of my transmission blowing out on my Scion XB, which turned into a $3000 repair that put my car out of commission for a week and led to a three days of shopping for a new car before I decided that the repair was my best choice both economically and because, honestly, I just like the features of my car more than the features of any other car I looked at. It's big enough to seat four comfortably, roomy enough that I can some peices of furniture in the back, has a flat roof that lets me cart my canoe around, and has all the audio features I want including bluetooth for my phone, a feature wierdly absent even as a factory option on the Honda Fit, which was my #1 contender for replacing the vehicle. Oh, and I still get about 30 miles to the gallon average, my minimum fuel economy target. If the new transmission gets me through one more year (which it's warrantied to do), I'm certain I'll come out ahead versus a new car with payments and a higher insurance premium and tax value.

Anyway, the point is, I had a LOT of distractions in November. When life throws $7000 in unexpected expenses at you in the space of a week, it gets tough to focus.

Future plans: I'll be working on the new novel through January, and hope to have the first draft finished before Witchbreaker is released on January 26. I'll probably immediately start in on the second draft, and hope to really step up my second draft production speed. In the past, my typical novel follows the pattern of 3 months for first draft, 2 for second, 1 for finishing drafts. I've done a lot to increase the speed of my first draft output, but haven't focused as much on sharpening my revision speed. This time, I'd really love to get the new book into my agent's hands in March instead of April.

After that, I'm planning on writing another superhero novel. I had been planning on writing a third book in the Nobody Gets the Girl series, and my do this yet, but, honestly, I'm a little burned out on sequels. Of the 8 novels I'll have in print come January, 5 are sequels. I really need to write a couple of books purely as stand alones in order to keep my creative muscles from getting flabby writing the same characters and setttings again and again.

That said, I do plan on writing the 4th Dragon Apocalypse book next year as well. It's going to be a monster of a book. I've never written a 200k word novel before, but I think I'm going to go for it with book 4. Honestly, I have enough story to make it book 4 and 5, but think it would be a creative challenge to wrap up everything in one truly epic fantasy. Updates will follow.

After these three books, I'm entertaining a project that's insanely ambitious. I'm giving serious thought to writing 12 short interlinking novels in one year. These books would all be in the 40-50k length and I would release them one a month as ebooks. I have plenty of time to talk myself out of such a crazy scheme, but, at the same time, I feel it's the obligation of any writer to keep pushing to try new and different things. Nothing will destroy a creative mind more than settling into a rut.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A few reviews and a NaNoWriMo update

37524 words to date on my NaNoWriMo novel. That's about 2500 words ahead of where I need to be in order to get out 50k words this month, though I'm about to lose three days to holiday travels. (Or, on a more positive spin, I'm about to gain three days to refill my imagination buffers thanks to the daydreaming potential of long car rides.)

The novel's working title is "War Upon the Heavens," though that will likely change. In my "How to Write Fast" columns I mentioned that I'm most motivated to write if I'm grappling with a big moral question. This book is built around a moral question I've had for a while: Why is the Wizard in the eponymous Wizard of Oz thought of as a benevolent figure? Yeah, he's charming when Dorothy and crew come back with the broom and Toto exposes him for a humbug. But, does being charasmatic erase the fact that, when Dorothy approached him for help, his first instinct was to send her off to get killed by the Wicked Witch of the West? Keep in mind that, in the books, Dorothy is 11 years old. Even if he didn't want to leave Oz, he could have thought of a safer way to get Dorothy out of his hair. "You may return home after you've read every book in the grand library of Oz!" But, even this would be a pretty rotten trick. Just as Scarecrow already had brains and Tin Man already had heart, the Wizard already had a balloon. The decent thing to do would have been to take her home the first time she asked.

Another open question from the original book: Now that he has the witch broom, what does he plan to do with it?

My book starts with the premise that the Wizard is a villain and that when he came back to earth with his pockets stuffed full of emeralds and a magical broom (is that a broomstick in your pocket, Mr. Diggs, or are you ... never mind), he immediately set about the task of making himself wealthy, famous, and powerful, having gotten a taste for being a ruler during his years in Oz. My book is set ten years after the first book, when Oscar Diggs (the Wizard's real name) has managed to trade his stolen emerald wealth and his gift for charming double talk into a career in politics. Dorothy, meanwhile, has grown up to become a reporter with the Topeka Ear, and devotes most of her career to exposing Diggs as a corrupt fraud. Oh, and unlike the original books, she still has the magic slippers.

There's a good bit of "unlike the original books" in my story. There were dozens of books in the Oz series and, bluntly, my story couldn't be told if I followed the continuity of the books, since the Wizard for the most part is a good guy in the later books (though there is a second inconvient fact, which is that he got rid of Ozma, the rightful heir to the throne of Oz, by giving her to a really bad witch named Mombi). Dorothy and her aunt and uncle wind up moving to Oz, where the magical properties of the place freeze her eternally at 11 years old. But, I'm guessing most readers know almost nothing about the later books, and probably are more familiar with the movie than the book, and might be surprised that the slippers are silver and might not know that the lion in the book was actually kind of a bad-ass carnivore.

I'm really happy with what I've written so far, though I'm still unclear on exactly how this book ends. Right now, I know enough of the story to bring the characters back to Oz, but I haven't really figured out how Dorothy beats the Wizard at the end, or even if she beats him. Maybe the book ends with Diggs still sitting on the emerald throne but it's all ultimately for the best. Or maybe the Lion just rips his throat out. I have options.

In the midst of all this writing, I haven't been doing much promoting. I have a December event I need to announce, but will save that for a different post. I also have a pair of reviews that appeared in the last few weeks, as the blog "Dab of Darkness" turns in back to back analysis of Greatshadow and Hush.  A highlight: This is one of those books that has all sorts of facial expressions crossing my features and the occasional ‘No Way!’ escaping out loud at the flying orca, or shape-shifting witch, or near-death of some beloved character. Truly, I was quite noisy while reading this book. If you are looking for the next excellent fantasy adventure read, pick up this series. I doubt you’d be disappointed.

Finally, I know I've been slack on posting updates here about my writing progress, but I have been posting updated word counts daily on Facebook. Look me up there if you haven't already. One can't have too many facebook friends.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

National Novel Writing Month--Back in the Saddle Again!

November is National Novel Writing month. I've never taken part in the event; as I understand it, the goal is to write at least 50k words of a novel during the month of November. I think there may me a website where some people post their progress; I'm skipping that in favor of my traditional weekly blog post of writing progress, though I may also do some daily updates on Facebook.

I'm somewhat nervous about taking on this task. As readers of my other blog know, I'm taking part in a weight loss challenge that ends in December and for the last two months I've shifted my obsession from writing to tracking every calorie I eat and exercising regularly. It's surprisingly time consuming to eat healthy. You can't just have an off night where you say "screw it" and pop a frozen pizza in the oven or bring home fried chicken from Bojangles. Cheryl and I are good cooks, but our old cooking style was heavy on bacon and butter and pasta. We've been expanding our talents, eating a diet heavy in non-starchy vegetables and lean meat. A lot of research and planning goes into each meal. To be honest, my head isn't really in a writing space, because instead of using my idle daydreaming time thinking of future books, I'm spending most of my idle daydream time imagining new ways to make cauliflower taste good.

So, I'm approaching the novel I'm starting tomorrow from something of a cold start. Unlike 90% of the novels I've finished, I really am not sure where this book ends. I've got a decent core cast worked out, a pretty awesome premise, and some cool ideas of what I need to work into the novel. I even have my big moral question I want to tackle, and some audacious concepts that are either going to make this novel one of the most interesting books I've written, or else an utter flop. My biggest problem is that I really haven't a clue how to handle the implications of my more daring ideas. I mean, sure, in the end, I know the bad guy needs to get beaten and the heroes must prevail, but it can't be one of my novels if the ending is that straightforward. I often muddle things by making it fuzzy as to who the heroes and villains are. Is Greatshadow a hero or a villain? How about Pit Geek and Sundancer? Or even Bitterwood? But, my new project has a pretty definite hero facing off against an unmistakable villain. Figuring out an ending that people won't see coming from ten chapters away is going to be a challenge.

This book is also a departure for me since it's not a superhero novel nor an epic fantasy. I suppose it will be marketed as steampunk, since there are zeppelins, but for the most part it will simply be a grand adventure. My characters will plunge into the unknown... and, starting tomorrow, so will I.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ten Tips for Writing Fast

Okay, I've adressed the why, where, when, and what of writing faster. In this last post, I'm going to focus on how to write fast.

1. Measure obsessively. You can't know how many words you currently write in a given time frame unless you count them and divide your count by the time you spent writing. Ug, I know, math. If you wanted to do math, you'd be an accountant, not a writer. But, if you want to increase the speed of your output, you need to know how many words you type on average in the first place. This won't be a number you can get just by sitting down and typing for a single hour. You'll need to collect data over weeks and months to get a good sense of your current speed. My hunch is, you'll notice that your speed is improving as you continue recording data, since the simple act of being aware of how quickly you can write will help you stay focused on putting out words, and help you avoid distractions like going on Wikipedia to find out what material they use to build blimp frames and realizing three hours later that you've not typed a word.

2. Set deadlines and treat them seriously. I've measured my own writing speed enough to know that I average 1000 words an hour. This means that, if I'm writing a 120,000 word fantasy novel, I need to spend 120 hours with butt in chair. My last contract called for me to turn in books every six months. Since I need half of that time for revision, this meant I had to write my first draft in three months. Since three months is roughly 12 weeks, this means I need to write 10,000 words a week, which means I need to set aside ten hours each week of butt-in-chair time. Ten hours is a surprisingly large amount of time to carve out of my life due to my day job, personal relationships, and simple daily chores. But, that means it's especially important to look ahead each week and schedule what hours you're going to be dedicating to writing. If you don't plan out these hours in advance, and guard them jealously, you'll never get anything done. Writing isn't just a hobby, it's work. If you have a day job, your spouse and children and friends understand that there are hours in the week when you go off to work for certain blocks of time and won't be available. You need to make sure they have the same attitude toward your writing hours, and the first step toward this is to make sure you have this attitude.

3. Tell the world about your goals and your progress. I announce my deadline for completing a draft on my blog and do a post every Sunday night saying how many words I wrote the previous week. Other people might announce these things on facebook or twitter. If you avoid the internet, tape a chart to your refrigerator for your family to see. If you announce your goals, you have more incentive to keep them. And, if your friends and family see constant, steady progress, they will begin to understand that this is something important to you, not just some temporary fad you're going through.

4. Write it wrong! Perfection is the biggest enemy of first drafts. You get confused about what a characters motives are, or aren't sure if some plot point is plausible, or just feel like the way you've describe the room the characters are standing is is boring and clunky. The temptation is to sit and work on a single paragraph for an hour until you get it right. Avoid this temptation. Writing isn't a performance art. If you're certain you just wrote the most tangled, inarticulate sentence ever recorded in the english language, don't worry about it. You get a second chance before you have to release the story into the wild. Even a third, fifth, and ninth chance, sometimes. If you saw one of my first drafts, you would find it littered with parenthesis that say (fix) or (look up) or (word). Because, sometimes I know that the paragraph I've just written is clunky. Or, I need to look up who was president in 1903. Or, I'm pretty sure I've just used the wrong word. (Higg bossum? That can't be right.) But, if I hop onto the internet or grab a dictionary, I know I'm likely to notice that I have an email, or be tempted to check what the weather is going to be this weekend, or get distracted by a headline telling me nuclear war has broken out. Once I'm locked in to the story, I need to stay in the story. I can address all my doubts and questions when I rewrite.

5. Never look back! Similar to item 4, but subtley different. In item 4, I want you to avoid the temptation of spending a lot of time getting what you are writing right now perfect. But, a second danger is the obsessive need to go back to stuff you've already written and tweak or fix it. For instance, perhaps in Chapter three, you realize that the reason your protagonist is so afraid of water is that he kept slipping into the toilet when he was potty training, but in the first chapter you said it was because he'd flipped his canoe over in summer camp, and you know feel like that was kind of lame. So, easy, all you need to do is go back to the first chapter and rewrite the paragraph where you revealed this information. Except, if you do this, you'll notice other stuff in the first chapter you want to change, and spend the two hour writing block you'd set aside to power through chapter three doing nothing but tinkering with chapter one. Then, a few weeks later, you're going to hear a story on All Things Considered about a teenager who gets attacked by a crocodile in her bathtub and you'll think, "Yes! That's the kind of back story that really will bring my character to life!" So now, you go back and change all the stuff you wrote about potty training, and have to go into every other chapter to make sure that you mention that your protagonist is missing his left hand because of the crocodile attack, but then you get caught up because you had a scene where he's talking to his friends in the bar while playing pinball, and you aren't sure if you can play pinball one handed, so you decide to go back and change his missing hand to a missing ear. Only, you've already mentioned, like, ten times that the character wears glasses, and contacts would probably make more sense for an earless man. Eventually, you're sick of the whole project because you've been working for a year and are just on chapter six. The best way around this is to not even look at what you've already written. Forward is the only direction on a first draft. You can't really be certain of everything you need in your first chapter until you've written the last chapter.

6. Here. Now. I've been writing for a long time, and even I get can get confused and unsure of how to start a scene or a chapter and wind up staring at a blank screen for ten minutes. My fix for this is pretty simple. Instead of thinking about everything I need to put into a scene or a chapter, I instead take a deep breath and think about the single moment in time and space that the character is occupying. Sometimes it's mundane; I've started scenes with characters getting out of bed and making breakfast. I've started scenes with a character going to a post office to check their mailbox. Sometimes, it's a bit less mundane. I start Greatshadow with the hero in mid-air after he's been thrown out of a high window and he's plunging toward the ground. The important thing is that you form a mental picture of your character, his surroundings, and what he's doing, and just start from there. Maybe you only spend 100 words describing what's going on, but once you've got 100 words on the page, the thousand that follow should flow more freely. And, if you get stuck: Here. Now.

7. Understand your power zones and steer toward them. Every writer has different things they are good at writing and other things they aren't so good at writing. Some authors have a gift for crafting a scene between a mother and a daughter that unfolds for a full chapter without a single word being spoken, yet you emerge from the scene feeling as if you know everything about the characters. I am not such a writer, and so I don't include many of these scenes in my books. I would just get bogged down trying to write them, and my readers would get bogged down trying to read them.

What I am good at are conversations and action scenes. Once I get two characters on the stage of my page, I can turn them loose and just record their conversation. Grabbing the closest novel I have at hand, Burn Baby Burn, I flipped to a random scene and found Pit Geek and Sunday discussing what might have happened to their former boss and debating what they should do with their lives now that he's probably dead. This fills up six pages, and I really think that the personalities of the characters show through. It's easy for me to write page after page of conversation because, if it's structured right, one thing naturally leads to another. One character asks a question, the other character answers, the first character comments on that answer, the second character objects, the first character asks a follow up question, and boom, boom, boom, back and forth, give and take, and before you know it I've got a couple of thousand words cranked out. Action scenes are have a similar flow: Character A shoots at Character B, who jumps into the river to get away, but Character A steals a motorboat go give chase, and but now Character B has crawled from the river on the other side and is flagging down passing cars, but when one stops it's Character A's henchmen, and suddenly there's ropes and ether involved and before I know it a dozen pages are behind me. Your particular power zones are likely to be different than mine. You may not even know what they are yet. You can't really discover them until you've written a lot. The more you write, the faster you'll learn.

8. Little by little, the work gets done. Sure, I love the days when I sit down and bang out an entire chapter in an afternoon. But, there are times when I don't have an full afternoon, or I'm just stuck, uncertain of what comes next, even after my little "here and now" trick. So, it's late at night, I know I have to be at work early in the morning, and I know that my energy levels are just too low to produce anything of value. The bargain I usually make with myself is to just open the file and write one more sentence. Sometimes, that one sentence sparks me to write more. Sometimes it doesn't. But, the next time I sit down to write, that's one sentence I've got behind me. A book contains a finite number of sentences, and that one sentence brings me a step closer to the final number. It's tiny, almost invisible progress, but it counts. A single raindrop doesn't hold much water. A lot of them together be a flood. The big things can't happen without the tiny things.

9. Don't let others read your first drafts. This is a very tough one for beginning writers to adhere to. You want to know if what you're writing is any good, or perhaps you know it's bad and are hoping someone can tell you why. Well, duh, it's bad because it's your first draft. Here are the arguments for not letting readers read your first drafts: First, the desire to have your work read is a tremendous mental pressure. You can use that pressure to motivate you to finish the damn book so that others can actually read it. If you have people read every chapter or scene you write while you're still writing, some of that pressure gets vented. Second, readers are a precious thing. Do not abuse them by showing them work you haven't polished through at least a second draft. Odds are, your earliest drafts are going to be read by people close to you, perhaps a spouse. If you put a raw draft into their hands, they will no doubt say nice things about it, but they may perhaps also suspect that you are so far from being a writer that this little phase you're going through will certainly pass soon. If you put something polished and competent in their hands, they're going to start believing, hey, you really are a writer, and will be more understanding and supportive of why they have to wash dishes and do laundry that night because you're going to be hunkered down writing.

10. Whenever possible, try not to run dry. There's a temptation, when the words are flowing, to write until you reach the end of a scene or chapter and stop there. Sometimes, you almost can't help it; you're just tapping out words in the heat of the moment and then suddenly your character will say the perfectly ironic comment that puts the whole chapter into perspective and you understand that this is where you stop. Even one more word will ruin the chapter.

But, there's other times when you've already put a couple of thousand words on the page and you'll reach a moment of great tension, when something big is about to happen. These are excellent times to walk away, because you know that when you sit down to write again the pump is already primed. There's a scene in the middle of Nobody Gets the Girl when a kid with a handgrenade runs toward the characters and pulls the pin. When I was writing, that's where I stopped for the day, with a live grenade waiting to go off. I had zero problems returning the the book the next night and picking up exactly where I'd left off. Not every book can be structured this way, of course. I'm certain there are many genres of literature where hand grenades play almost no role at all in the story. But, if you were writing a romance, you could stop just as the characters start to kiss. If you were writing a novel about a circus, you could stop the moment the elephant breaks his chains. It's a gimmick, but it's amazingly effective for making sure you can maintain momentum over the course of muliple writing sessions.

Using the word "gimmick" in the previous sentence leads me to the last point I want to get across in these essay. While there are a few gimmicks that might help increase the speed and quality of your output, the reality is that the only certain way to improve your skills is through years and years of practice. You will be a better writer five years from now than you are today, assuming you use those five years to keep writing and keep pushing yourself to get better and better. You need to keep two seemingly contradictory mindsets in your head at once. You need to both feel a sense of urgency toward your current project, a feeling that you need to get as many words on the pages as possible as quickly as  you can. But, at the same time you need to be patient and keep a long term view of your writing career beyond your current project. Right now, I'm focused on the novel I'm starting in November, and thinking of it several hours a day. But, I'm also thinking of the two novels I plan to write after this, another dragon novel and another superhero novel. I'm mentally cataloging the characters I want to explore and the big plot points I can build these books around. So, when I start one six months from now, I'll be ready.

But, even beyond my next two books, I spend a lot of time thinking about other possible books that I might work on over the next five years. It can take a while for my initial ideas to mature. My two most recent novels are books I first thought of in 2004 and 2007. If I had written those books immediately after thinking about them, they wouldn't have been as good as they turned out to be. I not only kept refining and improving my ideas, I kept refining and improving myself. Writing exercises the mind, and with enough exercise and a steady diet of good books and new experiences, your authorial brain will grow leaner, faster and stronger.

What to Write

Before I finally have my list of tips on "How to Write Fast," I'm going to tackle one more topic: What to Write. Because I think a fundamental stumbling block that stands in the way of some writers is that they just have nothing to say. Or, more accurately, they do have things to say, but either lack the courage to say them or they get so distracted by all the other elements that have to go into writing that they fail to push their stories across the threshold from entertainment to art.

It's certainly possible to crank out successful books and short stories that exist purely to entertain. And one there are dangers to any writer using his or her story for the sole purpose of making an argument. I actually enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but I'm the first to admit that the characters are either vile, one dimensional straw men or virtuous one dimensional supermen. You won't find a complex human character or a single line of dialogue that feels authentic anywhere in the pages of the book.

What you do find are big ideas that challenge the prevailing morality of our culture. Whether you like the book or not, Rand was plainly someone who thought at length about the problems she saw and wasn't afraid to take a stab at changing the world. Another writer who did the same thing, only much, much better, was John Steinbeck with Grapes of Wrath. Outrage drips off of every page of this book. Steinbeck is chronicling man's inhumanity with a cold and honest eye, and you'll find few straw men within the pages. Steinbeck writes much deeper characters driven by emotions like love and anger. Atlas Shrugged is a book of the head, while Grapes of Wrath is a book of the heart. Both stay in print to this day because, despite the fact that they books are diametrically opposed in their views of the world, both authors had the courage to take a stand.

Books don't have to examine political themes to be great. Moby Dick has nothing to do with politics, but is instead willing to look at the darkness inside us that can drive men both to madness and to greatness. A Christmas Carol is about the things that harden a man's heart and the possibility of redemption. The Wizard of Oz reminds us that we are often blind to our own true natures.

My earliest stories tended to be built around a twist ending or some gimmicky idea. The weatherman at the local news station with the completely precise forecasts? He's secretly Thor, god of thunder! The detective investigating the murder of his own wife? He's the killer! Yeah, yeah, whatever. It was a phase I had to go through. My writing didn't really take off until I moved past my twist endings and started thinking of most of my stories as being built around a moral question. So, my first professional short story sale, "Empire of Dreams and Miracles," raises the question of whether the certainty of death makes life more meaningful. My first sale to Asimov's, "To the East, a Bright Star," explores whether kindness makes sense in the absence of hope. My first published novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, keeps circling back to whether genuinely good intentions  are capable of corrupting a man even more deeply than bad intentions.

Some people don't want to tackle these sorts of questions because they worry they will come across as preachy. I definitely can point to my own body of work at stories that probably crossed the line from having an interesting theme into the realm of clunky propaganda. Other people are afraid to reveal their own true natures on the page. I was friends with an aspiring writer who kept sending me pretty boring stories. One day I was at his house and saw this big stack of paper and asked if it was a new project. He told me it was actually an old project, something he'd started but abandoned. He let me read it, and I was blown away by how good it was. It was the story of an unwed mother who gets forced into a loveless marriage with a man who isn't the father, and pretty much every line in that story felt real, both tragic and hopeful, with the most fleshed out characters I'd ever seen from this author. It tackled huge moral questions, both of some of the hypocrisy inherent in the different sexual expectations of men and women, and of the ethical lines that seem so clear in abstract but that blur beyond recognition once put to the test of real life. I asked why he'd abandoned it, and he told me that the story was based on his mother's life, and he could never publish it while she was alive. That was his choice, and a decent one, but he never got the chance to finish his book after she passed away because he died before her, with the greatest story he had inside him forever untold.

It's not just fear of offending a loved on that can hold a writer back. Fear of being judged also can push you away from telling the best stories you can. Perhaps you've got this great idea for a story and the hero you're imagining keeps insisting that he's gay. But you worry, if I write a story with a gay protagonist, will people think I'm gay? Or, perhaps, if you're not gay, you worry that you're going to get something wrong, and the character will feel false. There's also the risk that, if you're honest, you might learn things about yourself that you didn't really want to know. A friend of mine once pointed out that a lot of my stories are about a central character doing a terrible thing then having another important character forgive them even though they'd done nothing to earn that forgiveness. Once she pointed it out, it triggered a long chain of introspection that left me staring at my own worse sins and trying to judge whether I might be too eager to brush off the harm I'd done to others.

Writing great themes isn't just a matter of looking at the world and noticing things that trigger your outrage (or, a valid alternative approach, finding things you want to celebrate). Writing also requires a heroic level of honesty about yourself, where you constantly dig a little deeper into why you are who you are. Sometimes you'll discover things that shock you, even outrage you, while other times you'll find that you do have virtues and values that served you well when you faced your toughest chanllenges. You need to understand the origins of both your vices and your virtues if you really want to populate your stories with fully realized characters who aren't just puppets having their strings pulled by the plot.

The most frequently given advice for writing is, "Write what you know." To know what's inside your characters, you have to know what's inside yourself, and report your findings fearlessly. If you can do this, you'll always have something worth putting onto paper when you finally sit down to type. In my experience, writers block is never a problem when I actually have something I need to say.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Where and When to Write

The next topic I want to address in my "How to Write Fast" class is the issue of setting. Not the setting of your story, the setting of yourself in a time and place that are conducive to productivity.

Let me first get the disclaimer out of the way: There's no wrong time or place to write. If you have the power of focus that allows you to sit in a room with the television on and twitter streaming in a window on your computer while you're listening to the Dresden Dolls at full blast on headphones, well, more power to you. I also recognize that some people go to coffee shops to write in public while sipping expensive beverages and actually manage to crank out work. That's great, but, at the risk of offending those of you who actually do this, I suspect the yearning to write in public is an artifact of beginning authors seeking validation. Since so few people read your work, the temptation is to write in public so that other will witness it and say, "Wow, there's a writer!" At least, I know that was my motivation twenty years ago, when I used to lug my laptop to coffee shops. (And I mean lug. My first laptop weighed thirty pounds. Most of that was due to a battery the size of a shoe box that could power the device for upwards of twenty minutes. State of the art!)

But, my own experience is that I need a certain amount of silence to write. It's not always easy to hear the voices in my head, and a television playing in another room can be enough to pull my thoughts away. I currently write in a home office where I can sit upright at a desk and work on a full sized keyboard on a large, high quality monitor. It's nice that I can close the door and keep the cats out and feel a bit more focused. But, I've only used the office for writing my last book, Witchbreaker. Before this, I wrote mainly sitting in bed with my laptop balanced on books. I still use a pretty large laptop. For me, it's essential that I use close to a full sized key board, since I've got big hands.

I write more during the day than in the evenings, but this hasn't always been the case. I used to be the king of late night sessions, starting writing at 10 at night and going until 4 or 5 in the morning. The key reason I would write during those hours was that anyone else in the house would be asleep. I was also more able to get by on two or three hours of sleep when I was in my thirties. Now, I fade pretty quickly as the witching hour approaches.

These day I have a schedule that gets me home from work almost two hours before my wife gets home. That means that, if I'm disciplined, I can count on a full hour of productivity. My wife can testify that I'm also the king of turning "I'll wrap up in five more minutes" into three more hours of typing. When I'm "hot," and the words are flowing, I'm a big believer in getting as much on the page as possible while I'm inspired.

But, of course, I'm not always inspired. I would go so far as to say that I'm frequently not inspired when I sit down to write. My inspiration always comes when I can't make use of it, like when I'm in the shower or driving to work.

Luckily, there are three phases to writing, thinking, drafting, and rewriting. For drafting and rewriting, I have to have butt in chair. There are no short cuts or gimmicks that eliminate the reality that, if you want to write a lot of words, you have to sit and type a lot of hours.

Of course, you're probably so busy that you're questioning where those lots of hours are going to come from. The answer is that you have to make them. My schedule isn't an accident; I don't like getting up at 5:30 in the morning to get to work so that I can leave work earlier in the day than my wife does, but I negotiated working that schedule specifically to make sure I'd have some time with just me in the house. The other big pool of hours that a lot of people have that they are reluctant to let go of is their entertainment time. You probably wouldn't want to be a writer if you weren't an avid consumer of stories, in books, movies, television, even video games. I used to be an avid collector of comic books. I brought home a stack of about twenty books every Wednesday and spent all evening reading them. I quit cold turkey several years ago and have no regrets. I used to play a lot of video games. I'm kind of a computer geek; I enjoyed the stimulation and immersion you would get from a well designed fantasy role playing computer game. But, these games would eat up hours of time, so they had to go. I got rid of my TV at one point for the better part of a decade, and though I have one now I perversely stay away from shows I'm certain I would enjoy. When Heroes was on the air, friends kept telling me I'd love the show. I'm sure they were right! I'd also enjoy the new Dr. Who, Dexter, and the tv version of This American Life. The safest way of keeping myself from getting hooked and spending the twenty two hours it takes for a series to unfold is just never to watch a single episode. If you watch three hour-long dramas a week, over a season that's 66 hours that you could have been writing. If you can write 1000 words an hour, that's a respectable-sized novel.

Everyone's life is different, but, in my humble opinion, I think that if you're serious about writing, the minimum time you can devote to it in a week would be five hours. I manage to claw and scrape my way to ten hours usually, and when I start my next book in November, my goal is to shoot for fifteen.

Whoever, keep in mind that this is just the "butt in chair" part of writing. For every hour of writing I do, I probably spend at least two or three hours thinking about what I need to write. Luckily, this is what those inspired moments while you're driving or mowing the grass are for. When I drive to work, I normally listen to the radio. But, if I'm working on a new book, I usually drive with my radio off so I can be alone with my thoughts. My mind also is excellent at thinking up new aspects of a story while I'm in the shower. Basically, any activity that has my body doing a routine chore leaves my mind free to wander. Daydreaming is a key component of creativity, and boredom is highly fertile soil for daydreaming.

How do you capture these daydreams and turn them into stories? I've tried a lot of different things with mixed results. For driving, I've tried using voice recorders to make notes, but I find that tinkering with the recorder distracts me and throws me out of my imagination zone. I have used 3x5 notecards in the past to great effect; I would even (foolishly) write notes on a stack of cards I kept on my dashboard as I was driving. I kept notecards in my bathroom, and would lean out of my shower sopping wet to jot down cryptic thoughts like "radioactive Jerusalem," or "cyanide would solve this problem." I sometime stumble across one of these old stacks of cards and wonder what the hell I was possibly thinking at the time.

These days, I have two methods I use for recording my ideas. The first is that I normally travel with a notebook or legal pad. When we're going someplace, my wife usually drives and I often jot down things like a list of scenes I still need to write, or factual details I need to investigate. And then... I almost never read these notes again. By the time I'm back at the computer, I've usually figured my story out enough that I can just start typing and let the story go where it goes. All those hours I spent daydreaming about the story aren't wasted, they just fade in my mind and emerge when needed while I'm working. I feel like there's a Darwinian struggle for survival when I trust my ideas mostly to memory. The weaker ideas gets forgotten, while the stronger ones survive.

Twenty hours of daydreaming to produce ten hours of writing seems like a lot of time to carve out of a hectic life. And, it is! But, the daydreaming can take place while you're doing other stuff. Again, just ask Cheryl how far she's gotten into conversations about, I dunno, groceries before she realized that my brain is in story land. I can't count the number of times when a waitress has practically had to bang the table with her fist just to get me to realize she's asked me if I want more tea. My coworkers know that if I'm not making eye contact and actively acknowledging them, I'm just not listening. Would I like to be a little more engaged with my immediate surroundings? Sure. It's kind of scary when I sometimes realize that I've just driven an hour to my mother's house and have no memories at all of the journey because I've been letting my mind wander. I don't necessarily like that people I don't know might think I'm aloof and/or scatterbrained.

But, there's no way around it. If you want to write fiction, you have to daydream, or you won't have anything to write when you sit down. When and where do you daydream? Everywhere and every moment you can possibly get away with it. If your brain is properly stuffed with daydreams, you escape the trap of needing inspiration to write. Even if you aren't necessarily excited about it, you do have ideas in mind about where the story has to go next, and you can just plug away. The amazing thing is, the sessions when you just sit and slog out sentence after sentence to try to get a scene onto paper so you can move on to a part of the story you're more interested in very frequently turn into your best scenes. And even if what you write while you're not inspired is a dud, don't despair! Writing stuff the wrong way is just the beginning of the journey. Real magic can happen in the rewriting.

Coming up: What to write fast, leading into how to write fast!

Why to Write Fast

The first question I feel I should tackle in my "How to Write Fast Class" is a pretty fundamental one. Why should you want to write fast? What are the advantages? Are there costs and trade offs? Won't sitting down and banging out a thousand word in an hour whether you feel like writing or not lead you to hackery?

There's a myth perpetrated some by Hollywood and some by institutions of higher education that good writing should be a struggle. In the film "Throw Mama from the Train," Billy Crystal's character spends the whole movie agonizing over the first sentence of his novel, trying to figure out the word he needs to write. The night was moist. The night was humid. The night was sticky, etc. In literature classes, there's a tendency to glorify writers who spent twenty years struggling to build their magnum opus, treating each word like a dot of pigment in a pointillist painting.

Of course, many of the best loved writers in history were extremely prolific. Shakespeare left behind 38 plays and almost certainly wrote many more that are lost to history. Twain, Dickens, and Dostoevsky churned out words as if their lives depended on it... or, more accurately, their livelihoods. Isaac Asimov put out nearly 500 books in his lifetime. And all this before word processors, when authors still wrote long hand or tapped on typewriters that were prone to jamming and where correcting a single misspelled word was a laborious process. Leave out a word from a sentence, and you had to retype a whole page!

Today, the technology exists to let us produce work as fast as our brains can generate it. Of course, the second half of that sentence is the tricky part. Thinking of what to write and developing it sufficiently to be of any value once it's down on paper does take time. Writing for me is like working a sudoku. I know that I've got 81 different elements that have to go into the final product, and I know that there are ways I can put these elements down that will produce something that works, and other ways I can put them down that will create an incoherent muddle. So, one of the first keys to writing fast is to slow down and think--but that's the subject of another essay. For now, let's return to the question of why writing fast is advantageous:

  1. Practice makes perfect. It's true of learning to play the piano or hit a golf ball, and it's true for writing. You're going to be more fluent and polished when you are typing your second million words of fiction than when you were typing your first fifty thousand, assuming you're capable of learning from your mistakes and absorbing the feedback of others.
  2. Momentum matters. My first novel took me two years to write, and it's a mess. One reason it's a mess is that I would take off weeks between writing sessions, and during these weeks I'd second guess myself and think about how what I'd written could have been better. So, I'd go back and restart and rewrite from the beginning before moving forward. When I did move forward, I'd again think of new ideas that would force me to go back and make changes. Spending two months on a novel instead of two years helps eliminate the tweaking and tinkering that can keep a book from being finished. Because:
  3. Humans need deadlines. It's just in our nature. If you're not under contract for a book, you have no actual date certain when you need to have a project completed. This means that your book gets pushed aside for all the other things in your life that do have deadlines. The good news is, you don't need a contract to have a deadline. My writing really started improving once I joined the Writer's Group of the Triad and started going to meetings twice a month, once for a speculative fiction group, and once for a novel group. This meant I had two hard dates each month where it was expected I would turn in something, either a short story or another chapter or two or five of a novel. Later, I joined an online group that held a lot of writing contests among the members where we would have to write a story for Halloween or Valentine's Day or whatever. Eventually, I learned to make my own deadlines completely independent of other people. I would tell everyone I knew that I was going to finish a novel by a certain date, and I'd do it. Even today, when I'm writing my drafts, I announce on my blog what my benchmarks will be and keep a public log of whether I'm meeting those goals. Without a clock constantly ticking in the back of my head, I would never get anything done.
  4. Speaking of the clock in the back of my head, one reason I'm a faster writer in my late forties than I was in my late twenties is that I've become exquisitely aware of my own mortality. Yeah, I go to some pretty dark places in order to make myself write. I've had people close to me die in their thirties and forties, and most of the men in my family pass away in their early sixties. I've got a finite number of hours in my life in which to make works of art that will outlive me. I can  handle the thought of death a little easier if I think that my words might still be read after I'm gone.
  5. Speaking of being read, the faster you write, the faster people can read what you've written. Writing without being read is just authorial masturbation. You might be able to build the body of your story from the raw clay of your imagination, but you need a reader to breathe life into it. Maybe you have someone who reads  your chapter as you write them. Fine, but they still haven't read your novel until you've finished it.
  6. Permit me to bring up the unpleasant topic of economics. I know, I know, you should write for the pure joy of writing, without letting any thought of actually selling your work sully the process. But, if you should one day decide to sell writing in order to bring in a little extra income, you will quickly run into the first economic reality of writing: It's piecework. I come from a family with some experience in the textile industry. In a factory making pantyhose, you get paid not for how many hours you sat in front of a sewing machine, but for how many pairs of hose you sewed together over your shift.  Writers, alas, are pretty much paid by this model. You aren't paid for the hours you've spent writing. You're paid for the number of completed projects that an editor buys from you, at least until you pass a threshold where you also start earning money from royalties. There are a handful of writers who can produce one book every three or four years and sell well enough that they make a good living from it. But, most of the writers I know who are successful are also writers who are prolific, putting out a minimum of one novel a year, and often two or three, sometimes under multiple pen names.
  7. Finally, the one good thing about the piecework payment plan of writing is that, once you do start getting paid for your work, your confidence skyrockets. Until you start selling your writing, it's very difficult to gage whether or not your writing is any good. Your friends might enjoy it, but they probably get your in-jokes and are able to find your voice in the story. Other beginning writers might share critiques with you, but their critiques of your story often are thinly veiled critiques of their own struggles with writing. Editors aren't gods. They are certainly capable of buying horrible stories, and more than capable of allowing a brilliant story to sit in a slush pile nine months, then reject it because they didn't like the first line. But, while individual editors are something of a dice roll, if your work is any good and you get it in front of a dozen editors, something is going to notice it's worthy of publication. Once you make that first sale, you move from the realm of writer-wannabe to published author, and you start having more faith in your work. Your odds of making that first sale are vastly improved if you are sending out a dozen stories a year instead of one. Writing is a bit like being able to print your own lottery tickets. The more you play, the better your odds of winning.
So these are some of the reasons why you should write as much as you can as fast as you can. Are there costs to doing so? Of course. See reason number four. You have a finite number of hours in your life. You could crank out ten novels a year if you were a recluse living in a cabin in the woods who spent not a single moment of your day interacting with fellow human beings. Every hour you spend writing is an hour you're not spending with your spouse or your children or your friends. It's an hour you're not outside enjoying the sunshine. Ironically, the hours you spend writing are hours when you don't get to read, or watch movies, or go see Shakespeare performed. The more time you spend producing art, the less time you have available for consuming it.

I will grudgingly concede there's the risk of hackery if speed is your primary goal. We've all read authors who seem to keep writing the same book, caring less and less about quality with each iteration. But, a hack with a hundred pulp novels has far more readers than the tortured artist who can't get to the end of his first sentence without wiping the beaded sweat from his forehead. And, I suspect that most people interested in the topic of "How to Write Fast" are are long, long way from any danger of becoming hacks. If I do suddenly notice a proliferation of people writing ten novels a year, I suppose I can organize a class called "How to Write Slower." For now, it's just not something most writers need to worry about.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Write Fast -- Class this Weekend!

This Saturday I'll be teaching a class at the Orange County Library in Hillsborough from 10:30am to Noon. The class is called "How to Write Fast: Tips and Tricks for Blasting through Writer's Block and Jamming Out 10,000+ Words a Week." The subtitle kind of sums up the whole point of the class. I figured with National Novel Writing Month upon us, a lot of writers are going to make the attempt to complete a novel in November. As someone who has made it through a first draft of a novel in a week, I know that a novel in a month is a completely achievable goal, though I also recognize that writing that fast can quickly lead to a point of diminishing returns. 10,000 words a week has so far proven to be a good rate for me, a fast enough pace that I don't lose momentum, but not so insane that it takes all the joy out of writing.
I'll post some of my tips and tricks here in the next few days. If you live near the Triangle and are interested in coming to the class, it's free and open to all comers. We prefer preregistration, but the room I teach in at the library is spacious enough to accommodate a pretty large group. You can preregister by following this link. It's not just a good class, it's also a great way of meeting other writer's in training in the area and forming connections. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. (I did mention it was free, right?)

Burn Baby Burn Goodreads Giveaway!

To help spread the word about Burn Baby Burn, I've created a Goodreads Giveaway for the paperback edition of the book. I have five signed copies of the book ready to go to the lucky winners.  It's absolutely free to enter just by following this link. You have to be a member of Goodreads to enter, but, if you're an avid reader, joining Goodreads is a pretty smart move anyway. You can enter through October 29. I'll be mailing the books out by Halloween most likely, so you can have a copy of this hot book in hand as the chill November nights set in.

Picking the favorite novel I've written is kind of like picking a favorite child, but when I reread Burn Baby Burn in the course of prepping the paperback edition, I really think it's the novel I'm most satisfied with of anything I've written. When I'm writing for mainstream publishers, my novels have to fall within certain contractual word count ranges and the story I turn in is often constrained by the story I've pitched and sold before actually writing it. Since BBB was a labor of love that I intended to publish on my own, I feel like it's the kind of sharp, tight novel that I most enjoy reading. Some of my favorite novels, like The Grifters or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are pretty skinny, but most publishers demand longer word counts to have more shelf presense. I think my epic fantasy novels are pretty well done, but they usually have a dozen or more important characters, which can water down the impact of the characters I love the most. In Burn Baby Burn, the whole focus is on Pit Geek and Sundancer, two supervillains who are basically fighting the whole damn world. They are quintesential James Maxey characters--damaged idealists, smart and funny and a little insane. They are killers and outlaws not because they are wicked but because they are virtuous, willing to bear the scorn of others rather than compromising themselves. I feel for these characters very deeply, and I hope that comes through in the writing.

Oh! I should also mention that the first quarter of the book is available free to read online at Goodreads if you want to see what I'm talking about. The excerpt runs through Chapter Four, which chronicles the first bank robbery Pit and Sunny team up on. And if you can't wait until November to read the full book, don't forget it's available to download now for a mere $4.99 from your favorite ebook supplier.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Burn Baby Burn now available in paperback!

One year ago, I released Burn Baby Burn: A Supervillain Novel as my first ever direct to ebook self-published project. While I've released other ebooks, they were all of previously published material. This was the first time I ever took the gamble of releasing an entire novel completely on my own. I was working entirely without the safety net of a traditional publisher.

I'm happy to report that the gamble paid off. Before the end of this year, BBB revenue will probably exceed the money I made on the advance for Nobody Gets the Girl, and, if the Nobody track record is anything to go by, will still be earning me income ten years from now.

But, any time I talk about the book at cons or when I'm teaching classes at the library, I always run into people who say they'd like to read the book but don't read ebooks. I've finally remedied that situation by doing my first ever self published trade paperback. If I may say so myself, the book is kind of gorgeous. I have over a decade of typesetting and design experience in my day job, so I was able to put together a professional looking package that, frankly, looks a heck of a lot cooler than the ebook since I was able to use better fonts and can control the look of each page, versus ebooks where the book looks different on every device it opens on.

I decided to keep the price on this project low for a trade paperback, a mere $8.99. It's got a real ISBN and everything, so you can go into any bookstore and order a copy, though you probably are unlikely to find it on the shelves since I lack the sales team of a "real" publisher. But, the book is already available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in the Createspace e-store. For what it's worth, I get about a buck more in royalties from the last link, but know that a lot of people prefer to order lots of books at once from Amazon to get free shipping, so do what's best for your wallet.

If you feel lucky, I plan to do a Goodreads giveaway once the book shows up in their databanks. I also have three proof copies available if anyone would like one to review on the book site of their choice. These proof copies are slightly different from the final product... for one thing they have "proof" stamped on the last page, and I also changed the final body font to be a bit larger since my first font felt a tiny bit small to me. But, if you want one of these review copies, drop me a line at nobodynovelwriter@yahoo.com and I'll fling one your way.

Capclave Schedule

I'm heading for Capclave this weekend. It should be a great con, with John Scalzi and Nick Mamatas as guests of honor.

Friday 4:pm
Comic relief (Ends at: 4:55 pm)
Panelists: Doug Fratz, Larry Hodges, James Maxey (M), Lawrence M. Schoen
How much comic relief can you put in a book before it gets shifted into the humor category? Does humor hurt or enhance a serious novel? Does it throw you out of the story if you expect Song of Ice and Fire and get a line right out of Xanth? What are examples of writers who get it right/wrong?

Friday 11pm
Character abuse (Ends at: 11:55 pm)
Panelists: Meriah Lysistrata Crawford, Dave Klecha, James Maxey, Allen Wold (M)
Do your characters have human rights? You put them through hell, don’t they deserve a little love? Authors relate how they treat their characters and discuss what is the line between interesting development and abuse.

Saturday 9am
Doublespeak (Ends at: 10:55 am)
Panelists: James Maxey, James Morrow (M)
The proliferation of information beyond the control of any one authority is a good thing that can topple dictators and hold powerful corporations accountable. But, falsehoods can be spread just as easily as truth, and seemingly neutral, objective data can and is manipulated by people with political agendas. How are we to navigate the growing maze of truthiness that surrounds any subject?

Saturday 2pm
Publish or Perish? (Ends at: 2:55 pm)
Panelists: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Neil Clarke (M), Katie Hartlove, James Maxey, Sean Wallace
How is publishing changing in the Internet Age? What has caused the explosion of the small presses? Are publishers still adding value in selecting, editing, and proofing books or are authors better off self-publishing? Aside from Baen, are publishers doing anything to establish an identity and attract a consistent base of readers?

Saturday 3pm
Multiple Personalities (Ends at: 3:55 pm)
Panelists: Ron Garner (M), James Maxey, Alan Smale, Allen Wold
Introverts extroverts and creating a persona for public consumption. Many authors need to be in the public, even if they would prefer to be reclusive. How do you overcome your fears and hangups. Additionally, how much of your controversial beliefs should you share. Are ideals worth the loss of sales?

Then, a reading at 5, and the mass signing Saturday night. Nothing on Sunday.

By the way, consider this to be a pretty damn good schedule. I don't have anything scheduled during peak meal times, and am completely free Sunday. A big part of the fun of cons is hanging out with friends, so this schedule gives me plenty of free time.

If I could tweak anything, I would have preferred to moderate the Doublespeak panel. Not because I don't think James Morrow will do an great job, but because I think he's probably the more interesting guest between the two of us and I'd rather be asking him questions than having him ask me questions. I'm stunned only two of us volunteered for this panel. I really thought it was a very interesting topic. So interesting, in fact, I'm going to go do a blog post about it at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com right now. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tornado of Sparks... Free on Kindle!

Fans of the Bitterwood trilogy may not be aware that a short story featuring characters from the novels appeared in 2007 in the Solaris Book of New Fantasy. That anthology sold out and was never reprinted, nor was an ebook edition of the anthology ever released, meaning that the story, "Tornado of Sparks," has been stranded in limbo for years.

I'm happy to report that Tornado of Sparks is now available as a Kindle Select download for a mere 99 cents. What's more, the story will be available FREE on Amazon from October 1-3.

"Tornado of Sparks" is set fifteen years before war erupts between dragons and humans. The wizard dragon Vendevorex seeks a position in the court of the dragon-king Albekizan. In the course of demonstrating his powers to the king, Vendevorex discovers that the humans he just killed had an infant daughter, Jandra. Vendevorex is determined to deliver the baby to her only remaining relative, but his plans are complicated when the child winds up in the grasp of Zanzeroth, a dragon who hunts humans for sport.

This story is a perfect starting point for readers new to the Bitterwood trilogy. For readers who've already read the series, the story sheds new light on the early lives of many of the members of the core cast. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Upcoming events!

This Saturday, 9-15, I'll be doing a signing from Noon until 2 with fellow authors John Hartness and Stuarte Jaffe at Market City Comics and Games, 1110 W Green Drive, High Point, NC.

In October, I have three events:

Capclave, October 12-14 in Gaithersburg, MD

On October 20, I'll be doing a meet and greet with other Hillsborough authors at the Eno River Gallery in Hillsborough, NC from 10:00am to 11:00am.

Then, the following weekend, I'll be teaching a class at the main branch of the Orange County Library in Hillsborough from 10:30 to noon. The class is called, "How to Write Fast: Tips and Tricks for Blasting through Writer's Block and Jamming Out 10,000+ Words a Week."

Also, I currently plan to be selling books in front of Purple Crow during Last Fridays in Hillsborough on September 29, though I made those plans all the way back in June and should probably check back in with the owner to confirm this.

Whew! Busy days ahead!

Advice for young writers

I'm currently mentoring a high school student on writing, and one of his questions was what advice I might have for him on how to develop his writing over the next five years. I thought my answer might be of use to more than just him, so here's my advice to young writers: 
First, write a lot. Then write some more. Keep track of your word counts. When I'm working on a book, I try to produce 10K new words a week. Of course, this is followed by a lot of revision time, so my average word count for the year is far less than 10k a week. Still, I would consider any year where I haven't produced at least 100k of new writing to be a year of wasted opportunities. Writing fiction is a lot like trying to make a living buying lottery tickets. Odds are, most of the things you write won't pay much. But, the more you write, the greater the odds that something you produce going to bring a big payoff. The odds that you can write one book and make any substantial income from it are poor. Write ten books, and you really pull out from the pack.

Second, read what's being published today. One problem with formal English Literature studies is that classes tend to focus on books written decades or even centuries ago. Go to bookstores and study the new releases. Find out what magazines are actually in stores. Make note of who is publishing what. Various publishing houses have specific tastes; the line of books released by Baen is very different than the line of books released by Tor or Pyr. The short stories published in Analog would never see print in Realms of Fantasy, and vice versa. (Especially since Realms of Fantasy folded last year.) You'll need to look at http://www.ralan.com/ for current market information and search for webzines and anthologies that want this type of story. The markets change every month, so if you don't see an obvious market at first glance, don't despair. Sooner or later, a new market will come along.

Third, learn everything. Map out the boundaries of your ignorance and make a concerted effort to explore new intellectual frontiers. I have days when I wake up and think, wow, I really don't know anything about sailing a tall ship, or how salt winds up on my kitchen table, or the history of the Mayans. So I go and learn about all these esoteric and seemingly unrelated things. Sometimes, the information winds up in my writing. Most of the time, it doesn't. But I never know what obscure bit of trivia I might need to create a satisfying story. To write Greatshadow, I had to know about volcanoes and tidal waves, jungle flora and fauna, archeology, medieval fighting equipment, aboriginal cuisines, various religious traditions, political concepts like anarchy and theocracies, circuses, superheroes, fabrics, how books were made in the premodern era, mosaics, varieties of alcholic beverages, lots of things about different animals (since I have a character who's a shapeshifter), caves, the economy of fishing, Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology, palindromes, and psychology. And that's really not an exhaustive list. Facts are the most important fuel for imagination. The more you know, the more you can make up.

Finally, if you want to play the blues, then you gotta pay your dues. You've got to get out and experience the messier parts of life. Get your heart broken a time or two, and break a few of your own if you have the courage. Put yourself in situations where you don't feel safe or comfortable. If you find yourself in a position where all your friends thing the same way you do and share your values, then go out and find some different friends. Writing is a kind of craziness where you have to have a hundred different people in your head, and they can't all be nice people. And even nice people have dark secrets. Learn them. Earn your own. At the risk of being morbid, all good fiction is about pain and loss and alienation (which often lead to joy, wealth, and comraderie). You don't have to go out and intentionally create these feelings in yourself; they will seek you out. As a writer, your duty is to experience these things honestly and openly. As a writer, your duty is to gain empathy and insight into all of mankind.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Spent the weekend at what might be my last Dragon*con in Atlanta. If you're a geek and you've never been to this convention, you really don't understand what you're missing. This is 50,000 SF and Fantasy fans crammed into central Atlanta for a four day orgy of nerdiness. In fact, judging from the fact that many of the costumes consist of nothing but tape and body paint, it looks like many people are showing up for an orgy, period.
It's worth going just to look at the costumes, but there are excellent programming tracks as well, and dealer rooms that offer everything a fanboy heart might desire, rare comics, obscure games, black tee-shirts with clever captions, and steam-punk paraphenalia of all flavors.
This was my fourth or fifth visit to the con, but also possibly my last. The con is about as well organized as I can imagine, but there are just certain realities to packing so many people into a limited space. Walking from one side of the lobby to another can be an insane challenge, because everyone's stopping randomly to take pictures of costumed individuals who come to a halt in the middle of walkways because people ask to take their picture. At one point, I was trying to meet Cheryl in time for a panel, and it took me a half hour to travel from one hotel to the adjacent one. Again, I think the organizers do all they can, and there are lots of signs up saying not to stop in walkways for photos, but some of these people obviously spend all year working on thier costumes, and, by god, all their work pays off when people ask for their photos. I'm in no way being critical; I completely understand, and have even engaged in a bit of costuming myself. Still, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Moving through the dealer's rooms on Saturday is a bit like getting pushed along a cattle chute. I found myself thinking about how different things were from my early days of collecting comic books. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, I had to dig through boxes at a dozen flea markets if I wanted to put together a collection of some out of print series. Collecting was a challenge because comics weren't very popular, and old comics were generally left to rot in basements if they weren't outright used to line bird cages. There was a shortage of product because these things were only valuable to a few wierdos like myself. Now, rare comics are pretty much manufactured via limited print runs and treated like they are objects of solid gold. But, if you want one, the only real barrier is how much you are willing to pay. There are hundreds of people eager to sell you anything you desire. It's removed the thrill of the hunt from the game.
But, I'm probably just worn out. Dragon*con takes a lot out of me. Give me a few months and I'll forget the crowds and once again remember the sheer energy that comes from being surrounded by so many creative, smart people. Perhaps the lure will prove to be too strong in the end.
Scene from the tenth floor of the Marriot, looking down at lobby on Sunday afternoon during a lull in the crowds.

Lot's of Venture Bros costumes this year. From an obscure cult classic, it seems ready to really break out into the mainstream of geekdom. I predict a big budget VB movie before the end of the decade.

Hands down my favorite costumes. The little peanut shaped cutouts they stood on really sold this.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Besieged Winner!

Rowena Cory Daniells guest post about female villians definitely stirred up quite a debate! Rowena has selected a winner from all the responses and will be sending a free copy of Besieged to Mr. Cavin! I believe that this is a situation in which internet hipsters may celebrate by typing "w00t!" So, w00t!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Yesterday, I emailed Witchbreaker to Solaris! My brain is now officially mush!

While I'm waiting for my brain cells to recover enough for me to form fully devoloped thoughts again, here are some links for your amusement.

First, there was a feature article about me in my local paper almost a month ago that finally went live on their website. You can read the article here.

That same issue also saw a review of Hush, which is now online here.

And, speaking of Hush reviews, here's one at the Falcata Times and another at the Fantastical Librarian.

Finally, my wife Cheryl gets her time in the spotlight at Dark Cargo, where she gets reviewed on the ups and downs of being married to an author.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Powerful Women, Factual and Fictional - Guest Post by Rowena Cory Daniells

Rowena Cory Daniells is a fellow Solaris Fantasy author, whose new fantasy series The Outcast Chronicles is now hitting stores. I invited her to write a guest post (since, lord knows, I seem to be negligent in writing posts lately), and she's turned in thoughful essay on the shortage of female villians in fiction. At the end of the post, we're giving away a copy of her latest book! Read on:


I teach a unit on film and TV to university students. One of the things we discuss is characterisation and character archetypes. I can find examples of female heroes, (Ripley, it always comes back to Ripley!), but the hardest thing to find is a female villain. When I ask the students to name some, they come up with women who are the sidekicks to male villains, or they come up with Disney villains.

‘Stand alone’ female villains tend to be from children’s stories. (Does this mean that inside the home is the only place where a woman can be truly powerful?). The evil step-mother trope is probably based on truth. In the past, when many women died in childbirth, their children would be raised by a step-mother who, when resources were scarce, would favour her own genetic off-spring over the older children of another woman.

So why can’t the students name a female villain? These young males (average age 19) have told me it’s because they aren’t afraid of women due to females being physically weaker. The obvious response is, but what if you put a gun in her hand, surely this would negate the physical differences?

While a gun will kill in anyone’s hands, you come back to the person behind the trigger. You have to believe they are a threat to you and these young men couldn’t take a female villain seriously. Judging from the lack of female villains in mainstream media, it would seem most men can’t take a female villain seriously. (Does this mean they don’t feel threatened by women and, if so, does it mean deep-down they don’t regard women as equals?)

You could base a doctoral thesis on the questions this raises, but since I’m writing a light-hearted blog post I’ll move on and talk about the late 70s SF show,
Blake’s 7.

Supreme Commander Servalan...

This character had to be the sexiest and most menacing villain in any TV show. She made a deep impression on my young mind. Why? Because she was smart, powerful, ruthless and... feminine.

I understand it is possible to watch the Blake’s 7 episodes on you tube. I should really go back and re-watch them to see if she still has the same presence, thirty years later.

Why do we see so few powerful female characters in drama? If a woman is powerful she is often divorced from her femininity or crazed (and therefore pitiable).

In real life, there were women who wielded power but they were often born into aristocracy and they wielded power on behalf of an absent husband or son, or an under-age son, such as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was smart, but it helped that she was born into power, married two kings, produced many children — three sons who became kings, among them Richard the Lionheart — and lived to be eighty-two. (It is hard to make an impact on the world when you spend the majority of your adult life pregnant and die in childbirth at twenty-five).

When Richard the Lionheart inherited his throne from his father, he authorised his mother to rule England until he was ready to take over. Yet, when Eleanor was married to her first husband, the weak king of France, and she attempted to play a part in politics she was put in her place by the powerful men of the French court. *

This pattern of accepting a powerful woman if she is acting on behalf of son, but resenting her if she attempts to wield power on her own behalf or that of a weak husband can be seen in the Byzantium Empire, specifically during the hundred years between 1150 to 1250. Although empresses who ruled for their sons were still criticised by their male peers, the most severe criticism was reserved for Irene Doukaina and Euphrosyne Doukaina, who were ruling as wives rather than mothers.**

From this you can make the assumption that powerful men, feel threatened by a woman who ‘usurps’ their power, but will accept a powerful woman who is wielding power on behalf of a son.

Could it be that powerful men, resent powerful women?

There are always exceptions to the rule and not all powerful women came from privileged backgrounds. According to Hiskey, Ching Shih, the Pirate Queen started out as a prostitute and by the time she was thirty, she commanded a fleet of around 1,800 ships with: ‘70,000-80,000 pirates (about 17,000 male pirates directly under her control, the rest being other pirate groups who agreed to work with her group, then female pirates, children, spies, farmers enlisted to supply food, etc.); controlled nearly the entire Guangdong province directly; held a vast spy network within the Qing Dynasty; and dominated the South Chinese Sea.’

With such a vast network of people under her command, she formed a government and established laws. She defeated the Chinese Emperor’s armada, and evaded capture by the combined British and Portuguese navies. Then she negotiated with the Governor General of Canton and struck a deal. Most of her people received amnesty, while she walked away with a noble title and retired at the age of thirty-five. She must be one of the few pirates, male or female, to live out her days in wealth and security.

But Ching Shih would have to be an outlier, which brings us back to women and power, and powerful women in fiction.

In my new trilogy, The Outcast Chronicles, the pure-blood mystics all have a gift of some kind, but the women are more powerful than the men. Not only are the females more powerful, but their power is expressed in a different way and the nature of male-female power means they are drawn to each other. The mystics live in brotherhoods and sisterhoods, united for their own protection. Their society balances on a knife edge because the men resent the women and the women fear the men.

With this trilogy, I wanted to explore the ramifications of gifted people living amongst the non-gifted, True-men as they call themselves. Would those without power resent those with the gifts? We see the results of this discrimination and persecution through Sorne, the unwanted half-blood son of the True-man king.

I also wanted to explore how power would affect the individual mystic. There had to be limitations and consequences for using power. The gifts affect the way the mystics see the world and each other. Their society evolved rituals to recognise and contain power.

Most powerful of this generation is Imoshen, who has the gift of reading people’s motivations. The males hate her and even the women of her own sisterhood are wary of her. It is not until the True-man king besieges their city, that her gift makes Imoshen the natural choice to lead their people.

In this trilogy I explore the consequences of power for those with it and those without. I also explore the impact of the gender divide because I’m fascinated by these questions.

Rowena has a copy of Besieged to give-away. To enter, on the comments section, tell us who is your favourite powerful female (villain or hero) and why?

Catch up with Rowena on Twitter: rcdaniells
Rowena Cory Daniells

Catch up with Rowena at Goodreads!

Catch up with
Rowena on her blog

* For more information on Queen Eleanor see Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir.
** For more information on these women see Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium, edited by Liz James. It contains a series of essays on the topic. This section is drawn from Barbara Hill’s essay Imperial Women and the Ideology of Womanhood in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.