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, April 28, 2019

Week 17: 8944 words

A decent week. Another chapter of Nobody Nowhere, plus a guest blog post (I'll let you know when it appears), plus two text interviews. Also some writing advice bits added to the growing pile of words that will one day be edited into my writing book The Stuff. 

When I first got the idea to do a writing book, I thought, hey, this is going to be easy. Back when I was Piedmont Laureate, I was teaching a lot of writing classes and writing a lot of articles about writing. So, I easily had a book length mass of words that could just be collected, or so I thought. My real challenge is trying to find my own unique twist on the genre of writing books.

One thing that drives me to write the fiction that I write is that I'm often writing in reaction to elements I don't like about the genres I'm writing in. When I started writing Bitterwood, I was in sort of an anti-magic mindset. I had grown up liking fantasy literature, but when I started writing Bitterwood I was at the peak of my atheist activism, and really wondered if the casual inclusion of magic in popular culture didn't prep people to accept the supernatural. Skeptics in most pop culture are always proven wrong. Ghosts are real, or angels do exist, or there really is a vampire next door. So, Bitterwood was my attempt to write the fantasy fiction I still pined for, but to do so without any supernatural or magical elements. Fantasy without the fantasy. How's that for a pitch to a publisher? But... it worked.

When I moved on to the Dragon Apocalypse, I was kind of reacting to my own attempts to de-magic fantasy, and decided to go over the top with the magical and mythical elements. But, even more, the books are a rebellion against a trend in fantasy that annoyed me, which was that so much fantasy was centered around royalty, and/or built around the notion of a "chosen one." So, while there is a princess hidden in in the Dragon Apocalypse, she embodies none of the usual traits of royalty. 99% of the time, a rebellious princess will find that duty calls, and she must reconcile her desire to be herself with her responsibilities as royalty. Dragon Apocalypse has none of that. Aside from the princess, you get through four books without meeting another member of a royal family. (Not counting the so called Queen of Witches, who is ruling over an empty kingdom of bones.) None of my heroes are "chosen ones," except, of course, for the actual chosen one, Numinous Pilgrim, and he's a dick.

Of course, readers probably never notice what my novels aren't about. But, for me, creativity is something of a rebellion. I'm not trying to write books that imitate books I've liked. I'm trying more to write books in genres that I once loved, but where I eventually came to see that the genre wasn't really giving me what I needed or wanted. I start to spot weaknesses, gaps, and blind spots in books I've already read. Then I think, you know, this could be done better, so I try to do it better.

Right now, with The Stuff, I'm trying to figure out what I'm rebelling against. I've got some low hanging fruit, bits of common advice on how to write well that I think actually cause people to write dreadfully. Like, show, don't tell. This is great advice for screen plays, but not as great for prose. There are lots of situations in writing novels and short stories where directly telling the reader important information is absolutely the most effective approach, while page after page of body language and facial expressions and cryptic conversations leave the reader more annoyed than intrigued.

But, even as I say this, I create my own rule, and that rule is almost certainly wrong. Some times showing instead of telling is the only thing that works, and it's magic.

Do what works. There! That's what all my writing advice comes down to. Which seems like, I dunno, kind of a skinny book.

I do think I've got some useful stuff to say about writing, but I'm still rooting around for the big, driving theme that's going to unify it all. When I finally have that, I suspect I'll be able to put the book together relatively swiftly. I easily have 80K words about writing already written. I just need the theme to tell me what goes in and what stays out.

This coming week should be a good one for writing fiction. This last week I was tied up with a lot of Library stuff. This week I've got a lot more time blocked off for butt in chair, focused on Nobody.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Week 16: 4905 words

Well, this week was a good lesson in why you shouldn't procrastinate. I got one chapter and some blogging done this week, then Friday kept piddling around intending to knock out another chapter, then thunderstorms came through and knocked out my power for most of the afternoon. I didn't get any writing done Saturday since I was in Wilmington for a con. (And some amazing pizza at a place called Slice of Life Pizzeria and Pub. It's easy to get complacent about pizza, since even mediocre pizza tastes pretty good. But Slice of Life was pretty much perfect. Amazing dough. I could have eaten a crust just by itself. But the toppings, sauce and cheese were absolutely in perfect ratios. I'm really happy this place is three hours away from my house since if it were nearby I'd likely be eating way, way too much pizza.) Anyway, excuses aside, I got in 4905 words and can look back and see the gaps in time of the last week I should have filled with writing.

I've been helping to organize the Hillsborough Comics Fair for my local library, plus helping design a flyer for the upcoming book sale, plus also organizing the Local Author Book Fair that's happening in September. I enjoy organizing events for the library, but it does always take up more time than I plan.

Still, the positive development this week was that the chapter I reported having lost last week showed up this week! Because I'm paranoid about losing stuff in the cloud, I'd actually cut and pasted the text to save it in a different file, then forgot I'd done so! So I was very relieved when I spotted the file on my hard drive this week.

I've now completed 10 chapters of Nobody Nowhere. The final book will likely be 25 chapters long, so I'm pretty far into it. The book starts with all the characters scattered in very different locations. I mean, two of the characters are on Mars, one's on a planet in another solar system, two are on a remote island on Earth, and four are in a completely different universe. Oh, and some of the characters have multiple versions, as the same characters living in different timelines run into one another. So, pulling all the characters into a common setting has been something of a challenge. But, now the characters are all positioned where I need them to be to interact with each other, and the rest of the book should have less jumping around between POVs and settings. Most of the rest of the book will just involve two different mashed up teams of characters pursuing a common goal with different motives. I like writing team ups, where the interplay of characters can really drive the story. Also, the next couple of chapters are pretty much big fight scenes, which are often fun to write.


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Hey! I did some covers!

Stephen Euin Cobb and I have been doing panels together at conventions since probably 2003. He's the guy behind "The Future and You" podcast and I always look forward to going to dinner with him each year at ConCarolinas. He's a big old science geek, and, as you might expect, when he does write science fiction, he writes it hard. I've read his novel Bones Burnt Black and feel like it's an underrated gem of the genre. There's a mechanic who's been thrown from the ship following an explosion of the fuel tank. She's in a suit leaking air, with her tether severed, and a head injury that's stripped out her memory of how she got stranded in the void. She has to figure out how to get back on to the ship, which is damaged and tumbling toward the sun. Oh, and there's a killer aboard the ship murdering the crew one by one. Even if they figure out who the killer is, it doesn't change the hard orbital equations that there's no way to avoid certain death once the crippled ship's new orbit takes them so close to the sun they're all going to be burnt to ash. To call this novel a page-turner is an understatement. 

Last year, I started talking to Stephen about it and seriously considered reprinting the book under the Word Balloon Books imprint I use for my own titles. In the end, I decided I should keep focused on my own publishing efforts, but by then I'd already been daydreaming about how I'd redesign the cover. So, here it is! (click on the links below the covers to be taken to Amazon)

Stephen has two more novels, and while I haven't read them, I learned enough about them that I went ahead and designed covers for them as well so that all three books would share as similar visual style.

These are the first covers I've ever designed for another author, but hopefully they won't be the last. My years of experience selling books directly at conventions has helped me learn what catches the eyes of potential readers when they see the book in print, but that also works as a tiny thumbnail on Amazon. So, if you're an artist looking for a cover designer, drop me a line! 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

10018 words for week 15

Didn't gain ground but at least I didn't lose ground, hitting my 10k for the week. A somewhat terse update this morning; I'm currently on site at Festival of Legends waiting for gates to open in 10 minutes. Sales yesterday at the Festival were very strong, but selling books outside during thunderstorm season is rough! Even with the tent blowing wind threatened the inventory several times. It's tough to sell stuff while they are under tarps. Still, this is definitely a dragon crazy crowd!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Week Fourteen Word Count Update: 2942

I normally post these on Sundays, but last Sunday I was literally too sick to get out of bed. Cheryl had been sick the week before, so I'd known I was in the crosshairs. As far as illness goes, if you absolutely must get sick, this was a fairly decent virus to get. No stomach issues, no sniffling, just a mild fever and complete exhaustion, so that pretty much all I could do Sunday and Monday was sleep around the clock.

Except for a cough, I'm mostly over it now, so this week I should be back on the word count wagon.

Last week was my worst word count of the year, 2942. But, really, that's not because I was getting sick, it's because I'd finished the first draft of Dragonsgate the week before and was mostly brain dead.

This week, I'm trying to get momentum going on Nobody Nowhere, but stumbled out of the gate when I discovered that I've lost the last chapter I finished. I wrote it on my chromebook offline while I was riding to an event with Cheryl. When we got to the event, I plainly recall signing in to wi-fi to make sure the chapter was saved to google drive. But, when I returned to google this week to download it, only the first two pages had been saved. I went back to my chromebook, and nothing. The other four pages I wrote have vanished.

In retrospect, going with a chromebook over a Windows laptop was a big mistake. My reasoning was that I now do 90% of all my writing in my office. I mean, all my life I dreamed of having my own writing office, and now that I do, I definitely want to make use of it. I've got a good desktop system, since I like typing on a big key board. I've also got a big monitor to make up for my poor eyesight. And, I like the modular nature of a desktop system. If I spill coffee on my keyboard, I haven't crippled the whole system. So, I didn't want to spend a lot of money on a laptop, and the chromebook was light, had a good monitor, and has amazing battery life. But, despite the promise that google docs will save your work when you're offline and update it later, I've found that my worries about losing work have come true. There are workarounds to save a local copy manually, but I've been spoiled by Windows to not worry about losing my work.

Anyway, gripe gripe, it's not the end of the world. I know what happens in the chapter I lost, have typed a few notes, and am already moving on. Still, it is frustrating.

Enough moaning. Time to finish another chapter of Nobody.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How Much Science Do You Need to Know the Write Science Fiction? Part Four: The Art of Babble

How much science do you need to know to write science fiction? So far my answers have been "a lot," and "not a lot, as long as you know a lot about science fiction." Today we get to a third option available to every author, which is to know absolutely nothing about science. 

This answer isn't going to make a lot of science teachers happy, nor will it make people who love well grounded hard science fiction very happy. Science fiction, for all of its attempt to ground itself in reality, is ultimately part of the larger umbrella of fantasy fiction. Fantasy takes place in a world not quite our own. This can be a fully magical fairy land, or it can be an alien planet. It can very closely resemble our world, but with vampires and wizards, or be our world transformed by some new technology, like an immortality pill. 

The greatest gift to every writer is the seemingly innate human ability to accept nearly any premise as true, no matter how contrary to reality it might sound. This is so common we're almost blind to it. Children from an early age demonstrate a remarkable ability to buy a premise while still understanding that the premise isn't real. No kid watching cartoons on television stops to give a second thought about why a bunch of dogs are talking and wearing shirts, nor do they expect their own family pets to start having conversations. The fact that some people can fly and punch through walls after donning a cape or mask is accepted without a lot of follow up questions. That there were times in history where dragons terrorized villages and wizards teamed up with knights to fight them doesn't raise any red flags. 

Novelists, playwrights, cartoonists, and puppeteers rely on this notion of "the willing suspension of disbelief." Readers enter into a novel, or a comic book, or a stage magician's performance agreeing to ignore their skepticism and allow the artist to present a new world where reality follows slightly different rules. In exchange, they expect to be rewarded with entertainment, and, in the very best art, with wisdom and wonder. 

What's remarkable is how easy it is for the audience to transition to this new reality. This is a world populated by intelligent rabbits, and one of them has to solve a murder mystery? Got it. Move on. Tell your story. 

You see this presentation of a wild premise a lot in comedic science fiction TV series, like Futurama or Rick and Morty. Here's a pill that will make you telepathic! This watch will let you jump back in time five minutes! That explosion has caused our minds to switch bodies! The audience will buy the bit and not worry about the underlying logic. Superhero shows on TV also run with this, often not trying to be comedic. "I got hit by a wave of dark matter and now I can talk to animals!" "I got injected with nanobots and accidentally de-aged into a baby!" "I caught an virus from an alien and my fever is letting me melt steel!" An utterly absurd idea about what would  happen if a radioactive spider bit a nerdy teen has been selling comic books for as long as I've been alive, and can still pack movie houses. 

It might sound like your audience will swallow anything you put before them, but this isn't quite true. They will accept nearly any alteration to reality you care to make, but with the following caveats: 

  1. The alteration to reality should be apparent very early on. If you write a book about an alien invasion, the readers will buy the premise if there's a UFO in the first chapter, or even a fleeting mention of one. If, in your thirty chapter novel, you wait until chapter twenty nine to mention that, oh, right, there are aliens and they're going to kidnap the hero's love interest, you will wind up with some very negative Amazon reviews. 
  2. The premise should possess an internal logic and the story should follow the rules you set up front. Let's say that you're writing a novel about a genius who's built a shrink ray. All through the book, he keeps getting small and navigating under doors and riding cockroaches and dodging getting stepped on. Then, in the final confrontation with the bad guy, he does nothing at all with his shrinking powers, but instead pulls out a pistol and shoots the bad guy in the head. Most readers would feel cheated. Or, let's say that your character has designed a sentient artificial intelligence that borders on omniscient. Now your character is famous as a master detective because he uses the computer to help interpret clues. Great! But if he never asks once the obvious question, "Say, who killed this guy?" and you don't explicitly give a reason why the computer can't answer that, most readers will feel like you've not treating them with much respect. 
  3. Know the commonly accepted "rules" of any premise you're recycling. Let's say you've come up with a science fictional explanation for vampires. But, your vampires aren't harmed by sunlight or even adverse to it. They don't need to drink blood, they can be killed by an ordinary bullet, and they can't fly or change shape. They don't even have pointy teeth! Calling a character lacking at least a few of these traits a vampire will likely not be well received by readers. 
Finally, the commonly used term to hide implausible technology beneath a sheen of science is "technobabble." You see it used a lot on television shows, and it's often cringeworthy. Scientific sounding words get tossed around to explain the essentially magical thing the writers need to happen. So, a supervillain is rampaging through the city, but the hero has built a device that can neutralize his powers: a neutrino ray! The writer might feel pretty clever. Neutralize and neutrino sound alike, one must have something to do with the other, right? Meanwhile, anyone who actually knows even a tiny bit about particle physics is on Twitter writing short, angry protests about scientific illiteracy. On the other hand, suppose your character needed to build goggles that would let him see into a bank vault. He can say with a straight face that his "neutrino goggles" can decode the "neutrino shadow" of the trillions of neutrinos streaming through the bank vault each second. It's still gibberish, but the fans of particle physics would appreciate the fact that you did at least get the part about the trillions of neutrinos passing through the vault each second right. 

In a way, we've come full circle. Yes, this is fiction. You can just make stuff up. But knowing what the words you're using really mean is part of the craft of writing. No matter what exotic technologies your imagination comes up with, there's probably some appropriate realm of science that relates to it at least tangentially. The more science  you know, the more authoritative you'll sound when you twist that science into pretzels to make it justify your story needs. Start studying!