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.


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Faking It, Fifteen Years Later

On the codex forum, a question about what elements of the writer's craft I possessed from the start. Did I have some inate gift for dialogue, plotting, characters, or style, even from the start?

Alas, I understood almost nothing intuitively and have pretty much had to work at everything. One of my more brutal friends read my first novel fifteen years ago and asked, in his critique, "Have you even read a novel?" My plots meandered; my characters were clich├ęs; my dialogues were duds. Also, I had no idea how to use a semi-colon.

Still, I did have three things going for me:

1. A masochistic streak. Harsh criticism did little to discourage me. Indeed, I cherished the most savage assaults on my skills.

2. A complete ignorance of the financial rewards of writing. I started this game never having met an actual fiction writer, and was under the horrible misconception that it was possible to write one novel then quit your day job. Actually, that is possible... but it's also possible to win the lottery, or have wealthy relatives you've never heard of pass away and leave you their fortunes. By the time I learned the truth about the likely money to be made by fiction writers, it was too late; I was hooked on writing.

3. A lack of any other talent. I can't sing, play an instrument, dance, paint, sculpt, or act. So, in my early years, I drifted toward writing as my claim to some sort of creative ability simply because it seemed like the easiest talent to fake. A decade and a half later, I'm still winging it. I don't think I'm any more talented than I used to be; I simply have a better bag of fakery tricks.

These are the things I think I'm good at faking:

1. Sucking. I've learned to write openings that suck the reader in like a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Once in the grip of the suction, a reader will be pulled along the twists and turns of the plot like a dust clump navigating the vacuum cleaner hose. In the end, the reader inevitably smacks into the inescapable conclusion, as the dust is caught in the bag. So, when people tell me my writing sucks, I smile and say, "Thank you. How kind."

2. Lying authoritatively. My entire career as a science fiction writer is built on the fact that most people know even less than I do about science. So, if I write that Einstein's theory of relativity states that if a spaceship is traveling at 99.9% of the speed of light, then all the crew has to do is jump vigorously forward in order to land in an alternate reality, readers of Analog will roll their eyes, and the editor might, in fact, vomit. But, the vast bulk of the remaining reading public has no idea whether this is true or not, and sooner or later the old school editors who know a thing about science pass away and are replaced by English majors. As long as I don't smirk when I present my "jump drive," enough readers will buy into it that the story can then move along to the stuff readers really care about; i.e. characters killing each other in creative ways, or some sort of odd sex. Sometimes these can be combined.

3. Symmetry. Since I started with a list of three things I had going for me when I started writing, it is aesthetically pleasant to end with three items. So, here is the third item. Fifteen years ago, I might have awkwardly presented only two, or, garishly, gone over the line into four.

And that's it. Everything I know about writing, fifteen years on. I never claimed to be a fast learner.


Luc said...

I was hoping you were going to post that here, James. Thanks for saving me the effort of suggesting it.

Of course, the thread is now dead: you're a hard act to follow. But then, celebrating our strengths is a waste of good writing time. Bah!

(Actually, I think it's very difficult to effectively judge one's own writing strengths, which was one reason I enjoyed your response so thoroughly.)

James Maxey said...

Yeah, some posts are a no-brainer. I plan to submit this to the WGOT newsletter as well.