I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005


The current issue of the SF and Fantasy Workshop newsletter has an interview by Hildy Silverman with editor John Ordover. Ordover is currently editor-in-chief of Phobos, and was formerly executive editor of the Star Trek fiction line for Pocket Books. It's an interesting interview on a number of points, talking about common mistakes writers make that get their manuscripts rejected within the first fifty pages, or even on the first page. Buried within the article, though, is this question: "When should a writer fight for his ideas and when should he relent?" Ordover answers: "Ideas are the least important part of a novel or story - the execution is the most important thing."

This is a pretty provocative statement. Ordover then goes on to give the example of Moby Dick, where he describes the driving idea as a "sea captain who is pissed off because a whale ate his foot." "Idea" is, I admit, a fuzzy word. If a layman asks an author, "Where do you get your ideas?" they typically mean, "How did you think up the premise of the story?" It's possible that Ordover is answering on the assumption that "idea" means "premise." But I'm not sure why an author would fight for a premise--it seems more like the sort of thing that is either accepted or rejected. Usually, if you change the premise, you change the entire story. The ideas of the story that an author would fight for seem to me to be the themes and opinions they've woven into the story. They are the big questions about life the author is hoping to answer, or at least ask artfully, through the work.

First, let me concede that, from a publisher and editors standpoint, when it comes to "big question" ideas, Ordover's probably right. A publishing house can take an existing property like Star Trek and crank out a dozen books a year by different authors and the ideas within the books don't influence sales. You very rarely run into people who say, "I read the latest Star Trek novel and it changed the way I look at the world. Ever since reading it, I've really been thinking about the way I live my own life." The selling points to these books are the formulas--settings people already love, featuring characters they already know, following plotlines that always return the major characters and settings back to the status quo. Perhaps some major character will change in some small way--Spock or Data may understand just a tiny bit more what it means to be human. Of course, come the next story, they've forgotten the lesson, but that's beside the point. From a pure money making point of view, ideas aren't terribly important. They are, at best, just another commodity that helps promote a book, and, at worst, annoying distractions that turn authors into pain-in-the-ass prima donas.

So, ideas aren't really important from the business side of publishing. Are they important to writers? Again, from a business perspective, probably not. There are very few authors who build careers around idea-driven books. Most rely on craftsmanship and formula to create satisfying reads. You don't read Stephen King looking for ideas or opinions that will expand your world-view. You read him because he's an expert craftsman with a proven track record of building stories with engaging characters, settings, and plots. This isn't a slam against King, or against the authors who write Star Trek novels, or against Ordover. After all, I'm a comic book junkie. Comic books are some of the most formulaic literature on the planet. I don't read them looking for ideas that are going to change my world view. I read them for entertainment, and feel I get my money's worth. Learning to write within formulas that sell is actually a remarkable artistic achievement. When I think about comic book authors, I'm astonished that anyone can write a story that always fits perfectly into the allotted 22 pages, month after month on an unforgiving deadline. To me, it demonstrates a mastery of an artistic form, the way a poet might master the form of a sonnet. The same can be said of TV sitcoms, or mystery novels, or romance novels, or any of a thousand other popular forms of writing that are looked down upon by literary snobs.

Still, there is something ironic about the Ordover's choice of Moby Dick as an example of why ideas aren't important. I would argue that Moby Dick is a perfect example of a story that endures because of the ideas within its pages, rather than simply because of its execution. We read the story 150 years after Melville penned it because of what the novel tells us about life's struggles, about doomed causes, about nature. Despite Moby Dick's skin color, this isn't a novel with set in a simple black and white world. Ahab is driven by such dark forces that he surrenders his soul, baptizing a harpoon in blood and devoting it to the devil. He pursues the whale with blind obsession and doesn't care who dies in his quest. Yet when the boy Pippin falls from a boat and loses his mind while drifting for hours in the vast, infinite ocean, Ahab shows great compassion and personally cares for the boy. Ahab is in pursuit of something greater than himself, and in the pursuit he becomes a greater force than those who surround him. The novel does have a virtuous character--Ahab's first mate, Starbucks. Starbucks is a devout Christian who provides the only voice of opposition to Ahab--yet, in the end, Starbucks, too vanishes into the sea. Virtuous or vile, pure or corrupt, no man is great enough to survive the inevitable collision with Moby Dick.

Perhaps I have a soft spot for doomed men who will sacrifice everything in blind pursuit of the unobtainable. I'm chasing after a career in writing fiction--a difficult goal that has led many men to a bad end on the rocks of financial disaster. But, deeper down, beyond chasing the career, I'm chasing something more. I'm chasing my own Moby Dick. I'm chasing after a book that will endure for centuries, a book that can change the world, or at least help explain the world. I want my ideas to still be debated long after I'm gone. This is the dream that keeps me coming back to the keyboard, time and time again. The pursuit not of immediate success, but of lasting greatness.

One final note. While writing this blog entry, I pulled up an internet article on Moby Dick to refresh my memory on character names. I didn't trust my memory that the boy who fell into the sea was named Pippin. I was paranoid that my pop-culture saturated brain was sneaking in the British kid from South Park. While looking through the list of characters in Moby Dick, I note that the description of the first mate Starbuck contains these observations: "Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal that lacks the capacity to understand such human concepts. Starbuck's Coffee is named after him."

Perhaps this is the way of all things. A great novel is written, and its eventual lasting legacy is a kudzu-like chain of coffee-shops. There's probably an idea for a novel there somewhere....

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