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, October 24, 2012

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.

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