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!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Space Opera versus Epic Fantasy

I was on a panel about epic fantasy at Illogicon last weekend that left me thinking a bit about parallels the genres of space opera and epic fantasy. If you're unfamiliar with the terms, space opera is the genre that probably springs to mind in most movie goers when they hear the term "science fiction." Star Trek and Star Wars would fit in this mold, big adventure stories with space ships zooming around the galaxy, but where the science part of the science fiction equation isn't terribly faithful to reality. Lots of things exist not because they make technological sense, but because the creators want every day items to be "futuristic." So, instead of characters fighting with a sword, they fight with a light saber. Instead of travelling city streets in a car, you ride on hover bikes. Space ships don't worry about g-forces and orbits, you just press a few buttons and zoom to wherever you need to be.

Epic fantasy is the genre most of my novels have been published in. In general, epic fantasy is set in a pseudo-medieval setting with traditions drawn from European history. Magic plays a role, and usually fantastical creatures like dragons and ogres are present.

The parallel that struck me last weekend is that both genres seemed to be built around a disappointment with reality. Actual space travel is slow and difficult and unlikely to take us anywhere we'll find exotic alien kingdoms where humans can display their innate superiority. Space opera is the romance of the future stripped clean of facts. One of the founding works of science fiction spelled out in rather gruesome detail why we'll never have Trek-like adventures on other worlds. In War of the Worlds, HG Wells realized that, if aliens ever came here, they'd have no built in resistance to our microbes, and would pretty quickly find themselves digested and putrefied by bacteria. But the flip side of this is also true: If we ever went to a biologically active alien world, we'd have to be completely encased in suits that protected us from the environment. It's not just that we couldn't have Kirkian trysts with buxom alien ladies because we'd risk space cooties. We couldn't breathe the air or drink the water of any world with a biosphere. The thing that would make it interesting to visit would also guarantee it would be fatal to visit. (With a few caveats; it's possible we'd find a world where the biology isn't built around water and carbon, and microbes that went after silicon and ammonia beings might be uninterested in us. But such landscapes would almost certainly be fatal to us in other ways.)

Space opera is a genre that yearns for a future that can never be.

But, epic fantasy is a genre that seems to yearn for a past that never was. Our own history is full of dramatic tales of intrigue between kings and priests and explorers. But, all the magical creatures of our fairy tales just turned out to be, well, fairy tales. There were no dragons to slay, no witches turning princes into toads, no wizards building golems to defend their cities.  Since our own history has failed us, we now construct these fantasy histories. We know they aren't our real past, but writers earn bonus points from making their worlds "realistic," and integrating as much historical detail as the story will bear.

None of this is a slam against space opera or epic fantasy. Escapism is a perfectly legitimate use of art. I, for one, have been quite content writing about dragon-centric ecosystems, and hope that readers have found these excursions enjoyable. Still, it will be interesting to see if I can make use of these insights in designing future novels.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Accidental Gods: Did a fast first draft hurt me?

Last Sunday, I finished the second draft of Accidental Gods. To say that the rewrite was something of a struggle is an understatement. This was really more like draft 2.5, since I started a second draft, got pretty far into it, then abandoned it to go back to the start and try again.

Except for my earliest novels, I don't think I've ever changed a book so much between first and second drafts. I wrote my 60k first draft in a mere 4 days back in July, banging out the words in a white hot fire of creative inspiration. Of those 60k words, I doubt that more that 15k have survived into the second draft.

It's really left me wondering, was my fast first draft a mistake? Would I have created a more useable collection of words if I'd slowed down and wrote a draft at my more usual 10k words a week pace?

The main thing I need to remind myself is that throwing out a bunch of words doesn't mean I've wasted the time or energy it took to write them. Throwing out words is, I would argue, one of the most important skills of a writer. I think I'd be far more nervous about a second draft where I kept 90% of what I wrote in my first draft than one where I kept 25%.  I think that would be evidence I wasn't approaching the material as objectively as possible. Also, a too perfect first draft would be a hint that the story might be coming too much from my brain and not enough from my heart. I've written enough that I'm perfectly capable of producing an acceptable book by following formulas. I think any experienced writer has templates for what constitutes a successful book in the back of his head, and there's a risk to just filling in these templates, turning the art of writing into going down a list and checking off boxes. Protagonist 1 needs traits A, B, and C to be likable, Love Interest needs traits D and E for tension, Antagonist brings F and G to the book, they meet, they have misunderstandings, there's a couple of fights, the tension builds, there's a moment of victory, a moment where the misunderstandings fall away and all is right with the world, and, boom, you have a book that looks and reads just like a real book, despite lacking any genuine soul.

What I got from that fast, messy, and mostly unusable first draft was a soul for my book. The characters weren't flowing into templates. They were surprising me and shocking me, going in directions that took them far outside the boundaries of the plot I'd mapped in advance. Writing fast kept me from weighing out whether their actions were logical or even plausible. And, that's useful, because, as near as I can tell, very few people live their lives in a fashion that shows much respect for logic or plausibility. People make terrible, self defeating choices. They respond to unexpected events in unexpected ways. If I don't get such things into my books, then I'm just writing about puppets.

So, my fast first draft was where I learned who my characters actually were. My second draft involved trying to build a framework around these characters that would allow the reader to follow their evolution without getting bored. Unlike previous books I've tackled, this book shows a character growing year after year from around the age of 12 to around the age of 23. That provided me with some big challenges, the biggest one being a sense of immediacy. In most of my previous books, events unfold quickly. It's easy to keep a sense of tension and urgency, as one thing just piles atop another thing. With this new book, years pass between some chapters. I can't use as many cliffhangers to keep readers turning pages. And, in a lot of my books, I only have to establish the central character and his or her goals once. This time, her goals change and evolve. She's a slightly different person at every phase of her life, and sometimes that person isn't really likeable. (For instance, she spends several of her teen years in an institution and is pretty sullen and moody. Deservedly so, but this is a phase of her life where she's utterly devoid of optimism and hope, and optimism and hope are some of the character traits that earn the most reader loyalty.) I'm having to reintroduce the character again and again throughout the book. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I'm pretty happy with the solutions I came up with in the latest draft, and already have an even better overarching concept for revealing the character's inner life in the next draft.

In the end, absent a time machine, I guess I'll never really know if I would have a better book at this stage if I'd slowed down on my first draft. As I've said before, every book is haunted by the ghosts of the books it might have been. Fortunately, with a third draft in my near future, it's not too late to listen to those ghosts, to heed their omens and glean wisdom from their secrets, and move forward with the faith that, when this book is finally done. it will STAND ASTRIDE THE LITERARY WORLD LIKE A COLOSSUS! Or, at a minimum, that it at least won't embarrass me.