Welcome!

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.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

...and a happy new year!

Another Christmas rolls around, and I find myself happy at the thought that, starting tomorrow, I can once again listen to the news or read a newspaper without some prominent article reminding me about the plight of the unfornate at Christmas. As an atheist, I don't celebrate Christmas, and usually just try to keep a low profile and enjoy it, if not celebrate it. I'm happy other people find happiness in the day, I recognize it's good for the economy, and I'm not one to complain about a paid day off. Plus, I like eggnog, and this is the only time of the year most stores carry it.

But, one thing I've gotten weary of over the years is the nagging, scolding tone of the news this time of year. It's become such a cliche that, when the holiday rolls around, reporters go out in search of the most miserable people they can find in order to remind us of the less fortunate at christmas. Sometimes, there's a happy spin to it--a mystery donor gives some poor kid a kidney or something, or some comunity group chips in to buy a homeless man a christmas tree.

Just once, I'd like to see a reporter stand in front of a mansion and deliver us a story reminding us that christmas also comes to the more fortunate among us. A heartwarming story about a man who gives his teenage son a sport car that costs more than the GNP of Bali, or perhaps his own professional baseball team. A christmas morning where the children run outside and find actual reindeer from Lapland have been flown in by their father on his private freight helicoptor, along with three feet of snow and new snowmobiles, even though they live in Miami. That would be a Christmas story I haven't read before.

Ah well. I can dream.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Things Edmund Schubert Knows About Writing

Ed Schubert has started producing his articles on writing now. Check out his Sideshow Freaks blog for a variety of interesting topics. I particularly liked this point from his article on using metaphors:

Another advantage of using metaphors, similes, and analogies is this: they help people remember your keys points. By using one of these comparative devices, you are subliminally telling people (by placing extra emphasis on it) what your most important points are.

This is a very good point, with the counterpoint being that there are times where you will deliberately be toning down your writing, keeping it simple and free of metaphors, just so when you reach the point you most want the reader to carry away, the sudden elevation of language will have the intended impact. I've read stories where practically every paragraph has some sort of simile in it, and I find such stories almost unreadable. It's like watching a movie where all the extras are in the background waving their arms and shouting "look here!" while the main actors are trying to deliver their dialogue.

Anyway, you can read more of his excellent advice here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One more thing Lisa Shearin knows about writing...

I hope to update my blog soon! I've been in a real time crunch, getting the second draft of DRAGONFORGE onto paper. (Well, onto magnetic particles on my hard drive, actually.) I'm done with that draft, and now comes draft three! Still, I've got a lot of time off coming soon, and plenty of stuff to talk about here and at my Bitterwood blog.

In the meantime, check out Lisa Shearin's latest blog posts in the "Things I know about writing series." In fact, it's worth checking out her whole blog. Lots of interesting insights into her experiences as a novelist.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

You gotta want it bad

Lisa Shearin is live with her second article about writing, You Gotta Want It Bad.

From the article:

Some authors are literal overnight successes -- they hit pay dirt and even the "big time" with the first book they've ever written. We've seen their stories -- six- and seven-figure advances, press coverage out the wazoo; heck, sometimes even Oprah.

Then there's me -- and 99.99% of writers. The first book we have published isn't our first or second. Mine was my third.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Five things Lisa Shearin has learned about writing

Novelist Lisa Shearin has posted the first of her writing articles based on my challenge. She starts with an article on how to approach your novel in managable chunks. I particularly liked this thought:

"Some people are intimidated away from writing a book because they think we authors have the whole book in our heads when we start. Heck, most of us don't have the whole book in our heads when we finish."

Read the whole article at her blog here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Five things Andy Remic has learned about writing

In my last post, I challenged four other authors to blog about five things they've learned about writing. The first of these articles is now live at the blog of Andy Remic, author of War Machine. His article includes this seasonally appropriate bit of advice on plotting: Your story should be like a Christmas tree. You’ve got your central plotline, the trunk, which starts at the base with lots of different branches arcing away, so maybe A needs to find B, take it to C and destroy it with Z. From this trunk, as the novel progresses, secondary plotlines evolve and are completed, all branching from the main plotline; as you reach the end of the novel, the secondary plotlines must be shorter and shorter, as the pace increases, and then you reach the glittering star- or the climax- of the story J. Check out the whole article at Wired, Weird, and Wonderful.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

You Never Write Alone

Most fiction writers write alone. Sure, you might occasionally go out to a coffee shop with a laptop or a notepad and scribble down a few lines. Yet, for the most part, writing requires an active concentration and a certain amount of stillness to allow you to hear the unspoken words inside you. Even if you are sitting in the coffee shop writing your stories, it’s a good bet you’ve tuned out all the voices and distractions around you. When you are writing, there is nothing in the world but you and your words as they seep out one by one.

I remember hanging out with my artist friend Eric Buchanan in his studio in the years after college. He would paint while a half dozen friends came by. Everyone would sit around chatting and Eric would talk but keep painting. I was very envious. I cannot imagine carrying on a conversation while writing. Harlan Ellison may sit in the windows of book stores and write short stories, but writing isn’t going to be a public event for most authors.

Yet, the title of this article is, “You Never Write Alone.” Kind of at odds with my opening paragraphs, yes? So what do I mean?

Two things: First, and most importantly, all fiction writers must learn that there is one more person involved in the creative process other than themselves and their fictional cast. That unseen person is the reader. The sooner you become aware of the reader’s presence, the better your writing will be.

One eye-opening thing that happened to me at Odyssey ten years ago was the response I was getting from a room full of twenty people. Some of the readers in the room seemed to get me, and liked my stories. But, the majority always seemed to miss some point I was making. They were confused by the character’s motivations, or bewildered by the setting, or just couldn’t follow the leaps of logic in the plot. I could read my own story and have all these things make sense, but I was failing to put what I knew about the characters and the setting onto the page in a clear and easily grasped way that readers could understand.

Looking back, I believe my biggest problems were that I was trying to be coy, or subtle, or clever with my writing. I had an innate fear of simplicity and directness. Subtlety and cleverness are fine qualities for a writer to strive for, but they are also pitfalls that many a fine story has fallen into. One bit of advice I read years ago was, “Never be afraid to be too obvious.” It’s advice I try to follow. If you are too obvious, an editor can understand what you are saying, see that it’s worth saying, and tell you, “You’re being too obvious here. Tone it down.” If you are being too subtle, however, you aren’t going to get feedback telling you what it is that the editor doesn’t get. It may be you’ve placed a very subtle clue to your character’s motivations on page three of your thirty page manuscript. So subtle that the editor doesn’t get it, and ten pages into your story decides that your characters are behaving in a random and unconvincing fashion and simply moves on to the next story.

It is vital to understand that you are writing to be read. You don’t need to talk down or pander to your unseen reader, but you shouldn’t be afraid to offer them any help you can in order to understand your story as quickly as possible. College literature classes have skewed many young writers because they expose writers to stories that require footnotes and multiple readings to understand, and hold this up as the pinnacle of fine writing. But, most readers in the wild, outside the confines of a classroom, aren’t looking for a novel they have to read multiple times to fathom. They want a story where they know who the characters are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they are doing it. Get all this onto the page as directly as possible and you will have a larger pool of potential readers than if you purposefully craft prose that is obscure, arcane, and downright unintelligible.

Of course, it may be that you wish to target fans of the downright unintelligible, as James Joyce did with Finegan’s Wake or Burroughs’s did with Naked Lunch. You are free to choose the unseen reader you most want to engage. If that unseen reader is a literature professor, there’s no shame in that.

My unseen reader has changed over the years. It began as a teacher, then a college professor—they were being paid to read my writing when I was a student, and I wanted to write stories that pleased them. Then, my unseen writers started to include close friends. Of course, my friends often knew what the story was about because I talked to them about the writing it before I ever wrote it. My unseen reader expanded when I joined the Writer’s Group of the Triad in Greensboro. Suddenly, strangers were reading my writing, and I was getting very different feedback than I had from my friends.

The more people who read my work, the more I found myself adjusting my writing strategies. I kept honing my style to fix the points that readers kept stumbling over. I began making my plots more linear. And, I kept building my circle of readers. While with the WGOT, I’m guessing 50 people over the years read my words and gave me feedback. Oddyssey added another 20 people to this, then maybe 20 more in the online critique group that followed. I later went to boot camp, which added another 15 readers to my circle, and began posting stories on Zoetrope.com and roped in another 30 or 40 readers. Codexwriters.com added dozens more.

Now, when I write, I may be sitting alone in a room, but I have the comments, criticisms, and kind words of about 200 people echoing in my ears. I cannot possibly name them all here, but I maintain strict POV within scenes because Rick Fisher used to catch each and every time I didn’t. Elizabeth Lustig used to hand back my pages to me filled with red ink. I still find myself in the middle of fifty words sentences from time to time and try to imagine how she would fix it. I remember Harlan Ellison delivering a scathing critique of one of my stories because I’d been purposefully obscure in the opening paragraph. He told me I wasn’t good enough to pull it off and he was right; his words still push me to strive for clarity. Suanne Warr wrote a blog post about Bitterwood where she said she’d found the multiple POV’s distracting. I thought it was a good point, so I made the choice to limit the number of POV characters in Dragon Forge to only a half dozen or so before I got too far into it.

Currently, as I rewrite Dragon Forge, I keep sending out chapters to a fairly large group of people. Some have read Bitterwood, some haven’t. Feedback I got from my live critique group of Alex Wilson, Suanne Warr, William Ferrus, Mike Jasper and Jud Nirenberg has already reshaped the draft I’ve been sending to my second draft readers of Laurel Amberdine, Cathy Bollinger, Ada Brown, Guy Stewart, and Oliver Dale. Slowly a consensus is building as to what’s working and what isn’t, and soon I’ll be starting a third draft where I try to address their concerns and put in more of the stuff they liked.

While the individual reader feedback still resonates with me, it’s the collective reader I write for—and that collective reader just gets better the more people I get feedback from. Now that I’m published, I get have the advantage of having my stories reviewed and blogged about. I check Amazon all the time to see if some new feedback has been posted on my books.

For the beginning author, your best source of feedback is other writers in training. They are all over the internet. Unless you are the world’s least competent googler, you can find something that suits your needs pretty quickly. You can probably also find a live critique group in your area that meets frequently. If you live in the Research Triangle Area and are looking for a group, let me know. We’ve got open slots in the one I attend.

The key, I think, is not to get locked into just one group. You want feedback from as varied a population as possible. If the same five or six people keep reading your work, you will have a harder time moving forward than you will if fifty or sixty people read your work. And when I say, “your work,” I don’t mean one story. To grow as a writer, you need to write a lot of stories, and have them read by a lot of people. Your goal here is to allow your style to develop over a body of work, not to keep revising the same story a dozen times based on the feedback of a dozen people.

Finally, there is one final important presence in the life of writers—their peers. It’s vital, if you are a new writer, to get out and talk to other new writers who are blazing their own paths to success. Some people will say that you should go and get the advice of old pros. While I found advice from Orson Scott Card and Harlan Ellison helpful, I also realized that so many of the bridges they crossed to reach success have long since burned. If you are at the beginning of your career, it’s useful to talk to other writers near the beginning of their careers. They are going to often have more realistic and practical advice than authors who’ve had years to build a fan base.

Speaking of the realistic and practical advice of my peers, I’ve sent out a challenge to some of them to see if they would be interested in sharing their wisdom, and several have graciously stepped up to the plate. So, in the coming weeks, check out the blogs of Lisa Shearin, author of the fantasy series that launched with Magic Lost, Trouble Found; Edmund Schubert, editor of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show; Ken Scholes, author of a five book fantasy series from Tor; and Andy Remic, author of War Machine and many other fine tales of future combat. I’ve hung out with most of these people at cons or other events, and think you’ll find their insights illuminating.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Embrace your demons

This is perhaps the most presumptuous of these five essays. My first three articles were mostly a collection of writing techniques--build your story out of scenes, recognize the value of writing a bad story, and learn to write your first drafts quickly. This time, I'm not going to talk about how to write as much as I'm going to talk about why to write and what to write about. The why and what questions are going to be answered differently by everyone. Everybody is going to have slightly different reasons why they write. And, there is no "wrong" subject to write about. Anything you want to put on paper is fair game.

Still, I feel like any writer is going to benefit from pausing for a moment to consider why they are writing what they are writing. You can be a very talented writer with a real flare for poetic prose, but if you are only picking trivial subjects to write about, you might find your career going nowhere.

My earliest attempts to write SF and Fantasy showed some technical promise. I could plot; I could write dialogue; I had good instincts for writing action and knowing how to draw the reader along from one event to the next. But, all of those early stories feel hollow to me now. They are mostly "nifty idea" stories. Wouldn't it be nifty if all reality was computer generated? Wouldn't it be nifty if the Greek gods were working at the local television station? Wouldn't it be nifty to find life on Mars? In retrospect, these weren't the most original ideas, though I don't know that originality is as big a selling point as beginning writers may think it is. But, the real problem I see with these stories when I look at them now is that they are, for the most part, shallow. I don't feel anything when I read them. Writing them took no emotional effort, and I wasn't risking revealing anything about myself by writing any of these stories.

One thing that used to worry me as a beginning writer was the question, "Are people going to think I'm writing about myself?" My protagonists were a fairly shallow bunch because their problems were surface problems: How to I find the murderer? How do I fix my space ship? My characters didn't possess any deep emotional problems. One thing that used to hold me back was the question, "What if my mother reads this?"

After I had written some of these shallow stories, Orson Scott Card visited the writer's group I was a member of and said something that I thought was profound. He said that the people who wrote stories only because they wanted to be writers weren't likely to accomplish much. He thought that the really good writers were people who were writing as if they were on some higher mission--they were trying to change the world with their words. This was eye-opening, and I felt like he'd really pegged me. I was writing mainly because I wanted to be a writer. I wasn't trying to change the world with my stories.

In the following years, I decided I would start writing protagonists who championed aspects of my world views. My stories took on a decidedly political slant, reflecting my libertarian leanings. I also started writing stories that were atheist manifestos, ridiculing every aspect of religion.

Those stories sucked, for the most part. They weren't as petty as my earliest writing, but they were still shallow. They were intellectual arguments pounded into something roughly resembling fiction. I was putting my opinions out there so the world could benefit from my wisdom, but the stories were still insufferably trivial. I was writing about things I spent a lot of time thinking about, but my stories didn't have any heart.

Then, in 1998, I went to Odyssey and ran into the buzz saw that is Harlan Ellison. Harlan tosses out critiques like they were hand-grenades. I left Odyssey convinced that no one would ever want to read my little political and religious diatribes. I came home certain I had no talent, and that no word I ever wrote would be published.

It was the single most important event on my path to becoming a writer. In the aftermath of hurricane Ellison, my writing portfolio looked like New Orleans after Katrina. Everything I'd written before, three novels and about 50 short stories, had been blown over. I didn't think anything could be salvaged. Yet, after a few weeks, I found that I wanted to write more stories. I knew I would never sell them. The new ideas I was having were twisted and unmarketable but I didn't care. I was having this vision of a guy running around a flooded city looking for the perfect place to shoot up heroin and die. Another idea I had was of a city of immortals where life had become so utterly meaningless that people had to commit atrocious acts such as rape and murder just to feel the slightest emotion. Another story I had in mind had a terrorist protagonist; it made perfect sense in his world to change things by blowing up a truck in a busy location. I don't think I could have written these stories before Odyssey. I was still invested then in writing stories I could sell, even though I wasn't, you know, selling them. But, post Odyssey, I figured, what the hell. My Mom isn't going to be reading these stories because they aren't going to ever be published.

I don't expect readers here to be familiar with every short story I've ever published, but all of those dark and disturbing visions went on to become my earliest professional sales. Before Odyssey, I had been writing stories for the intellectual challenge. After I had surrendered hope of publication, I began writing stories for the same reason some people pick at scabs. I was no longer writing about my beliefs. I was writing stories about my demons. I was writing about subjects that made me uncomfortable, ideas that kept me awake at night. Before, I wrote stories about atheism. Now, I was writing about that haunting feeling I sometimes get late at night when I know with all my heart that I'm going to die and I will simply vanish from this world and nothing waits on the other side. Or, worse: something does wait on the other side.

I'm a man who has suffered through two divorces and lost a third love to cancer. So, again and again, I write about love, despite my inner fears that people will read these stories and think, "Wow, no wonder women leave him." As a boy, I witnessed the casting out of demons in my fundamentalist church, and remember the preacher warning how the demons might try to get into us if our faith wasn't strong enough. I reached down and found this terror when I wrote "Eater," a story about demon possession (as yet unpublished). The horror the hero feels as his own soul is pushed out through his pores originated in my nightmares thirty plus years ago.

I don't purposefully set out to offend, disturb, or shock with my writing. Yet, I find that my most powerful writing comes when I turn my stories over to the demons within me and let them create scenarios that disturb, offend, and shock me.

An ex-wife once recommended that I seek therapy to deal with the emotional trauma of my fundamentalist upbringing. It's possible that there might be lasting psychological damage from telling a ten year old he's at risk of demon possession, or telling a twelve year old that he is permanently and irrevocably damned. To which I can only say, "Thank God for lasting psychological damage!"

The worst things that have ever happened to me become the soil in which the best stories I've ever written have grown. I've been lucky enough not to banish the devils that visit me in the dark moments; I've learned to embrace them, to kiss them on the lips in gratitude for the stories they bring me.

Your angels may bring you pleasant dreams, but it's your demons that will bring you art.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Momentum Matters!

Momentum matters in two ways.

First, momentum is important in drafting a story. Nothing has killed more of the stories I’ve started than simply stopping in the middle, then ignoring the story for a few days. Days turn into weeks, then into months, and before I know it, I won’t remember why I ever wanted to write that particular story in the first place. My hard drive is littered with these aborted stories. I write a few pages, setting up the characters and plot, maybe even finish the opening scene. Then, I’ll get stuck. I won’t know what happens next. Sometimes I’ll have doubts about the characters I’ve chosen. Once I know I wasn’t happy with my knowledge of a setting and went to a library and got a book about the city, then never came back to the story after I read the book.
One could make the argument that it makes sense to abandon works where you’ve lost enthusiasm for the characters or lost faith in the premise. The story may not have been worth wasting your time on anyway. This is, bluntly, a load of hooey.

Every good story I’ve ever written passed through a phase where it was a bad story. (See the previous article.) Especially on a novel, it would require almost superhuman skill to sit and type out 120,000 words and not have moments of severe doubt and second guessing. My advice: Never look back. Keep typing. Press ahead as quickly as you can, moving the story forward. You will never really know what the first chapter of your book should be until you’ve written the last chapter. First drafts aren’t the time to worry about the fact that your characters are inconsistent, or that your plot has holes, or that your characters aren’t able to speak in anything but clich├ęs. Or rather, it is a good time to worry about it, but it’s not the best time to go back to try to fix it. Keep moving forward. Make note of what you want to change. Fix it in the second draft.

For instance, in Dragon Forge, I have a character named Burke the Machinist. The first time he appeared, he had an unnamed teenage son. A few chapters later, I thought the son would be more interesting if he was actually a she, so I made her his daughter disguised as a boy so she could join him on the frontline of the battle. Later in the story, though, I fleshed out Burke's back story and decided that the events of his life required his daughter to be older, probably 19. Also, the daughter had gotten bolder and more assertive as I wrote her, so it no longer seemed realistic she would fight in disguise. She’d just be herself and let others think whatever they wanted to about a woman fighting on the front lines. Then, very late in the story, I wrote a scene where Anza, the daughter, moved through an entire scene without saying a word, communicating only with gestures. It was so fun writing her communications with the other characters without having her speak, I decided that was going to be a permanent part of her character. Making her mute set her apart from the other cast members, and gave her an extra air of mystery. Now, as I rewrite the book, I'm enjoying the challenge of making the scenes where she had conversations with her father unfold her end being conveyed only in body language.

If I had gone back and revised previous chapters every time I reimagined her character, I would never have finished my first draft. Anza changed from little more than a prop at the start of the book to a fully formed supporting protagonist at the end. I make these changes all the time as I’m writing. I just write the later chapters of the first draft as if the early chapters already have the important information about the character in it.

I generally don’t show people my first drafts until I’ve written the last word. That’s almost always true with short stories. I occasionally share chapters from novels as I move forward, but not often. On my first drafts, I don’t even stop to reread the chapter I just wrote before moving on to the next one. Rereading is only going to lead to rewriting. It’s more important for me to get two or three chapters out in a week than it is to spend to or three weeks working to make a chapter sparkle.

This flips in the drafts I send to publishers, of course. Two or three weeks is a long time to spend on a chapter, but on my current rewrite of Dragon Forge I’m spending a fair amount of time on each chapter before I move on to the next. I reread each chapter three or four times—and before I turn it into Solaris, I’ll be reading it three or four more times and tweaking and sharpening each pass.

In the rewrite phase, I think walking away from the project for a while is actually useful. But, you aren’t going to get to the rewrite phase if you don’t get that first draft phase behind you. Momentum matters!

A second way that momentum matters, of course, is in your actual story telling. I’ve read a lot of unpublished novels by my peers over the years. For me, the single biggest problem that sucks the life out of most novels is when I reach a point in the book where I just don’t feel like the story is going anywhere. The characters are meandering around aimlessly. I’m not sure what they want or how they are working to get it. I get bored and start asking questions. After a few more pages, I’ve asked enough questions that I doubt the skill of the author and no longer trust them to finish the story in a satisfying matter.

This may not be a problem in all literary endeavors. Naked Lunch certainly doesn’t care about maintaining a feeling that the story is moving forward. Neither does Winesburg, Ohio or James Joyce’s Ulysses. Still, if you are an author looking to break into print for the first time, especially in SF or fantasy, a lack of forward progress in the story can be fatal. The people reading your story in the slush pile won’t muddle through more than a few pages where nothing important is happening. If the beginning of your book was gripping, maybe you have a little buffer. Perhaps you’ll get a chapter or two of leeway where you story doesn’t progress in any meaningful way. But, why take that risk?

Not every novel needs to be a page turner, and you certainly don’t have to make each chapter end in a cliffhanger. When I say a novel needs to feel as if it’s moving forward, it doesn’t have to be action propelling the book. A conversation where the characters learn more about each other can advance the story. A long and detailed setting description can advance the story. Even a long monologue on the meaning of life can advance the story. And, at the risk of being contradictory, all three of these things could also sap every last bit of forward momentum in your tale if handled clumsily.

How will you know if your protagonist’s ten page monologue on the absence of God is fascinating or boring? Write a lot of stories. Get them critiqued. Eventually, after you’ve had a few hundred thousand words critiqued by a couple of hundred people, you’ll know what's working and what’s not. However, this is getting into the subject of my fifth article in this series, so I’ll wrap up here. One secret to maintaining momentum is knowing when to stop!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story

This second bit of writing advice may also be obvious, but my personal experience tells me not everybody gets it. When I say that the best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story, I mean it in two ways.

First, beginning writers are often too easily discouraged. I've had writers come to a writer's group and witnessed their faces fall as they were told that their plot was implausible, their characters were all worn out stereotypes, and their dialogue read like it had been written by someone who had never actually heard English spoken before. They came to the meeting thinking they would be praised for their amazing talent, and left utterly discouraged. Many people never return to critique groups after their first critique.

Now, I've been to some critique groups where there have been rules in place that always require members to say at least one thing positive about a story. (You really know how to use an exclamation mark!) Personally, I think this is a silly rule. A true writer isn't going to be permanently discouraged by a savage critique. I actually felt something approaching elation on my first truly harsh critique. I knew, in my heart, that my first novel wasn't very good. The plot veered all over the place, it had passages of dialogue where characters would break into two or three page monologues, and my characters were little more than names and brief physical descriptions. My friends mostly told me it was pretty good; but one friend named Ken Ward told me it read like it had been written by someone who had never read a novel. He pointed out the places where the characters acted dumb. He wrote snarky notes in the margins when I slipped into cliches. He expressed exasperation with the clumsy scene jumps and the passages that just didn't seem to even belong in the book at all. I confess, I was depressed at how much work lay ahead of me if I was going to fix that novel. But, I was happy to now have a clear catalogue of my most grating writing mistakes. As it turned out, I didn't try to fix that book. I decided I'd tackle a new book, one that avoided some of the structural pitfalls of the first--i.e., I had a plot in mind when I started the second book, and at least one character with an actual life story and motivation to drive things along.

And that second book still sucked! Seriously, I didn't know what the hell I was doing. But, I went to the critique groups, I patiently listened to the catalogue of new mistakes I was making, then, a year later, I started my third book--Bitterwood, which, roughly a decade later, made it into bookstores.

Writing is the only art form I know where people approach it with the notion that their first time out they are going to succeed. I don't think people sit down at pianos and expect to compose a melody the first time they touch the keys. Moving to sports, I can't believe that many people bowl in the high 200s their very first game. In all other areas of life, you start bad and you get better with practice. Writing is no different. It's not a waste of your time to write a bad novel. Writing a bad novel teaches you things; you discover you have the discipline to actually sit and type out 60,000 words or more, for instance. Even writing a bad novel, you are going to be thinking about how your characters interact with one another. You're going to (I hope) be writing dialogue, and describing settings, and figuring out motives. You may do some of these things well, you may do some of these things painfully bad. Let people read it, find out what you're good at and what your bad at, then write a second book that keeps the good stuff and improves the bad stuff. And if this book sucks but you love writing, write a third bad book, then a fourth one. There is no human activity that doesn't improve with practice and experience. You are going to be a better writer by the time you reach your fifth novel than you were when you wrote your first one. (Though there may be a point of diminishing returns; that's perhaps a subject for a different essay, however.)

The second way in which the key to writing a good story is to write a bad story is this: Much of the real craft of writing comes in rewriting. People who read my first drafts are probably fairly shocked at the contrast between my unpolished writing and my published works. I can read through and tweak a story a dozen times, and every time find new things to tweak or chop or expand upon. These revising passes are where my writing really comes to life. My rewrites are like a sculptor adding increasingly fine and polished details onto his carving of a human face. But, before I can do this fine detail work, I first need a block of rough marble to get to work on. This is my first draft.

First drafts are the act of creating something from nothing. I pull characters, settings, conflicts, and dialogue out of the black box of the mind and constantly stop and wonder "What the hell was this doing in there?" I used to write only when I had inspiration; if I didn't feel like I had a brilliant idea, I would just do something else. This is a dangerous pitfall you must learn to avoid if you want to be a truly productive writer. To be truly productive, you must be able to sit down on a regular basis and crank out a story even if you don't know what that story is going to be. Set arbitrary deadlines, tell yourself you're going to have a story completed by your birthday, or New Years, or some other date that seems significant to you and just start typing. Let yourself meander. Let your characters be stereotypes, and your plot twists be worn out ones, if that's what it takes to get the words onto the page. You have to get that first draft out of you with your internal critic holding his tongue. Let yourself write a draft you'd be embarrassed to show anyone. Then, revise it to a point where you're no longer embarrassed. Then, let people read it. Then, revise it again. Repeat the cycle until you are happy, or until you decide it's time to just set this particular story aside and move on.

I wrap up here, since it's time for me to return to my own rewriting now, the second draft of Dragon Forge. That book had an interesting history that I've never revealed before now. I'm calling what I'm working on my second draft; in reality, it's probably much closer to my fourth draft. My first draft was roughly a year ago; I wrote a 20 or 30 page outline for a Bitterwood sequel set seven years after the events of the first book. Bitterwood wasn't in it; it followed the adventures of a more adult Jandra and a teenage Zeeky, mostly. But, the outline wasn't one I was thrilled about. It was lacking something; in the end, I realized that the main thing it was lacking was a tormented character. Bitterwood was interesting to write because Bitterwood, the man, is so miserable. His darkness fascinated me as an author, and my sequel didn't have that underlying darkness in it. So, I trashed it and wrote a second outline, this one closer to 50 pages. This outline was set only a few weeks after the first book, and still had Bitterwood slinking around in a bad mood. Jandra, who was a well adjusted adult in my first outline, is still dealing with the repercussions of events in the first book; she's not exactly a dark character, but she does have some ghosts haunting her. And, I envisioned a new dragon character, Graxen, who would be a young, angsty yet likable protagonist and who, as a new character, would serve as a good gateway character for new readers. He solved a problem I felt bogged down my first outline--so much of the story depended on backstory I worried it would alienate people picking up the book who hadn't read the first book.

So, my second outline was really my second draft; it was just the story told in the broadest way, without actual scenes. My first draft was really my third pass at the story--the first one where I wrote out scenes and dialogue, but my third time of thinking out the character motivations, plot twists, etc. Now, I'm polishing the book further, and most of my readers right now are responding positively. No one ever saw that lifeless first outline, but I couldn't be writing the good story I'm writing now if I hadn't written that bad outline and figured out what it was missing. Some good drafts do occasionally spring out of me on the first try, but for the most part my good stories stand triumphantly atop the bones of the bad stories that preceeded them.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stories are made out of scenes; scenes are made out of nouns

This post may fall into the category of "pretty darn obvious." Still, I've been participating in writer's groups and critique circles for fifteen years at this point, and I've read a LOT of unpublished and unpublishable writing. Heck, the majority of stories I've written are unpublished and unpublishable.

The number one problem I've encountered over the years in reading unpublished stories is a pretty simple one: I get to the bottom of the first or second page and I don't have a clue what is going on. Often, I get to the end of the first sentence and know that I'm in for a rough ride. Writing fiction isn't exactly the same as writing a lead paragraph for a newspaper article, but some of the principles are the same. If I'm reading your story, I want to know the following things as quickly as artistically possible: Who is your lead character? Where is she at this moment? What is her problem?

Yet, again and again, I pick up stories where these simple bits of information remains elusive. One common pitfall is the first person voice. The story starts off with someone telling the story: "I was sitting in the chair thinking about my grandmother, etc, etc." Time and again, I'll be two or three pages into the story and find that the only thing I know about the narrator is that he or she calls herself "I" a lot. I won't know her name, I won't be certain of her sex, her age is a mystery, I'm unclear as to what time period she's living in, and, while I sometimes have learned her back story, I have no picture of where she is in the here and now.

A few years ago, I figured out that one quality my writing possessed that people were responding to was a sense of immediacy. I wasn't interested in the character's long and complex history so much as I was interested in what their immediate problem was. I could write a good moment in a character's life, and people responded to it. On the other hand, when I would write fuzzy, sceneless prose with backstories and flashbacks, I would lose readers. So, I printed out in large, bold letters these two words:

HERE
NOW
I taped these to the walls above my computer and have tried to abide by them ever since. I never write without being able to answer the question, "Where is my character? What is happening to him now?" Even if the scene is one where a lot of backstory will be revealed, this backstory is revealed in the frame work of a scene. One of my most successful stories, "Final Flight of the Blue Bee," the first story I ever sold reprint rights to and foreign rights to, has a tremendous amount of story that happens forty years before the current story. The present story is taking place in New York City. The action is unfolding in a hotel room, then atop the Empire State Building. To reveal the back story, however, I didn't use the typical flashbacks where the character slips into memory. I simply cut between two parallel storylines. In my odd numbered scenes, the events of the present day unfolded. In my even numbered scenes, the events of the past unfolded--but they unfolded in moments that had immediacy. They took place in specific locations, with a specific set of characters, and were written as if they were unfolding now. The reader had no problem, hopefully, shifting gears between the past and present. Keeping all the events immediate and specific helped keep the reader engaged. If I had fallen into a memory based flashback, or into a page long speeches explaining the past, I would have risked losing the reader.
So, it seems very simple and obvious, right? Build your story out of scenes. Each scene unfolds in a definitive place, in a specific timeframe, to identifiable characters. Each scene exists to accomplish something--we get introduced to an important character; we learn a clue to the mystery; we discover a terrible secret; we get to see a character tested by conflict, either internal or external. In my novel Bitterwood, I can tell you what any given scene was meant to do. The scenes existed to give the reader a piece of information they needed to understand the plot, the settings, or the characters (often all these things at once). If you don't know what you are trying to accomplish in a scene, then the scene may not belong in your story.
Which isn't to say there isn't room in fiction for sidetracks and diversions and meanderings; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite novels, and it's almost nothing but diversions and meanderings. But, the strange places that book takes us to work because Hunter Thompson was a masterful enough writer to actually take us places. While he can go off on rambles about history or politics or drugs, these things occur in the context of his here and now.
As long as I've brought Hunter Thompson to the party, we can use him to move into my next point: Scenes are made out of nouns. The opening line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Brilliant! In one sentence with very simple language he's introduced his setting to us--the desert near Barstow--and his problem--he's tripping on drugs. As the page unfolds, he describes his convertible as a Great Red Shark. He talks about bats swooping down from the sky. Images form in your mind as you read--the attorney in the car next to him pours beer onto his chest to facilitate the tanning process. He builds a here and now that intrigues us in his first few hundred words--then swings into a quick bit of backstory explaining how they got into this situation. But, he doesn't use the backstory until he's already hooked us with his setting and characters. We want to read the backstory because the front story is so fascinating.
When you study Thompson's style, it's built of very simple words. Nothing on the first page is going to send anyone running for a dictionary; we may not all know where Barstow is, but we know it's in a desert, and since "Las Vegas" is in the title we can figure it's taking place in the American Southwest. Later he introduces us to a rather formidable catalogue of drugs the two men are carrying; a few of these exotic items might throw a reader, but they are exotic in the best possible way--we know from the context that they are drugs, and the fact that they aren't all familiar drugs gives us insight that these are hard core users on a far different level from your friendly neighborhood pothead.
Hunter Thomson is writing his novel in first person, which provides a special challenge. We know a little bit about the characters from their immediate situation, but the first person voice means he's talking to you as if you already know who he is, and you don't. So, he does a very simple yet brilliant thing: He has the characters pick up a hitchhiker, then they introduce themselves to this new character, providing a formal introduction to the reader. We learn their names, their jobs, their mission, and quick summaries of their world view. Simple, straightforward, and completely effective. I've never read a critique of this novel that complained about the rather naked storytelling device of introducing the hitchhiker as a way of getting this information onto the page. The fact is, it's information the reader wants. He tells it to us in an engaging fashion. And when the plot device of the hitchhiker has fulfilled its usefulness, the hitchhiker runs off into the desert and plays no further significant role in the book.
On the first draft of this post and the previous post, I wrote that "scenes are made from words." Which is true in a very broad sense; every word is important. Your choice of verbs and adjectives are vital. But, I revised "words" to "nouns" as my essay developed. It's nouns that truly paint the pictures in people's heads. And not just any nouns--you want concrete nouns all over your page. Words like love, justice, god, and antidisestablishmentarianism are all nouns, and may all be important things to write about, but they don't build scenes. You build your scenes out of concrete elements, things your characters can touch and taste and feel and see. Your story may be about the absence of God from the universe, but your scene should be full of things like cigars or pines or elephants or t-bone steaks.
Time and again I've read the advice that writers can punch up their style by avoiding the verb "to be," and choosing verbs with a lot of action. But, let's return to Thompson: His opening sentence has three verbs: were, began, take. His verbs are almost invisible in order to let the nouns take center stage and build the scene. Would the opening be improved in any way by more active verbs? "We zoomed toward Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs gripped us." Ug. Save your action verbs for actual action. Don't be afraid to let your nouns do the heavy lifting.
Here's a simple exercise: Grab your favorite book, go to the first page, and circle all the nouns you see. Good, scenes are built out of familiar, quickly grasped, specific nouns. Thompson first talks about the bats swooping around the car--the juxtaposition of bats and car is interesting to our mental eye. Then, he gets specific about the car--a huge red Chevy convertible. He gives the car a name--the Great Red Shark. If you were to erase all the words on the page but the nouns, you would still have a good chance of building the scene in your mind--drugs, desert, bats, beer, convertible, highway. I'm guessing that your favorite novel will possess the same quality--strip it down to the nouns, and the nouns tell you who, what, when, where. Good nouns are like flashbulbs, popping in the darkness of the mind, lighting up a picture. Here's a trashcan, here's pizza cheese stuck to a cardboard box, here's a raccoon.
I'm sure there are exceptions. The only nouns on the first page of your favorite novel might be utterly bland--man, woman, building, city. And it may be that you are a brilliant enough story teller that you can draw readers into your world even with generic language. But, I would challenge you to think about how much more story you can wring out of the right nouns.
So, here's a second exercise: How much story can you get out of four nouns?
Take "man, woman, building, city" and replace them with more evocative nouns.
"Cop, nurse, Superdome, New Orleans" There are hints here. I can see a story taking shape.
"Shuttle pilot, astronaut, launch pad, Cape Canaveral" Hmm. Throw in a diaper, and you've got something.
"Cowboy, princess, sushi bar, Havana"--Okay, perhaps the story isn't obvious, but you've at least got my attention.
One last note on nouns: I find that one effective tool is to mix something sinister or strange with something fairly mundane. My first sale to Asimov's starts: "There was a shark in the kitchen." It's the juxtaposition of the dangerous thing--the shark--with a familiar setting--a kitchen--the makes the mind sit up and pay attention. A skull in a graveyard is okay; a skull on the coffee table is better. A lion in the zoo provokes a yawn; a lion in a laundromat opens the eyes. A giant lizard attacking Tokyo creates interest; a giant lizard reading to a kindergarten class demands explanation.
Scenes. Nouns. Here. Now. Go write something.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Five things I've learned about writing

I had a 12 hour drive back from World Fantasy and spent a good chunk of that time thinking about writing; not just my immediate projects, but larger lessons I've drawn from my experience to date. Much of this has been prompted by my dinner with fellow Odyssey grads. I'm returning to Odyssey next year as a lecturer, speaking on the subject of style, and I was trying to work out things I would say on the subject but kept spinning out into larger issues. So, in the spirit of the "five things few people know about me" posts I did back in February, I'm going to do a series called "Five things I've Learned About Writing." I'll flesh out all these topics in the coming weeks, and may refine or alter my list. But, right now, five things I think I know about writing that I don't think I fully understood when I went to Odyssey ten years ago would be:

1. Stories are made out of scenes. Scenes are made out of nouns.
2. The best way to write a good story is to first write a bad story.
3. Momentum matters!
4. Embrace your demons.
5. You never write alone.

Some of this probably seems pretty obvious, especially #1. But, I'm constantly discovering really simple things about writing that just shock me that I didn't figure them out years ago.

More soon. Right now, I must get another chapter of Dragon Forge behind me. Because of #3.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sci-Fi Chick Winners, and off to World Fantasy

The contest is over at Sci-Fi Chick, and I'm heading out right now to send a signed copy to a winner named Asara. See other winners at Sci-Fi Chick. And, of course, you should check out her blog on a daily basis for other interviews and giveaways. Her site rocks!

Asara is also a blogger. Check out her musings over at Asara's Mental Meanderings.

I'm off to World Fantasy after I stop at the post office. I can't believe how rapidy this week as flying past. I also can't believe I'll be driving when I should be home giving out candy! I have a panel at the con Sunday at 11, Ghost Stories without Ghosts. If you're at the con, come on by.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Too much soup


With the weather finally turning cold, I went to the grocery store Thursday night and bought all the ingredients for chicken soup, the main ingredient, of course, being a chicken. But, it takes a fair amount of water to cook a whole chicken. So, I wound up with with enough soup to feed a dozen people. This is a pretty common problem when you're single--ingredients usually come in family size.
I suppose I could invite friends over for a party or something, but chicken soup doesn't really seem like a party food. For that, I would go with chili. And. there's just something about certain cold evenings that demand chicken soup; nothing else is going to quite fit into that soup shaped hole in your brain to bring you warmth.
Still, I've been eating soup for three straight days now. When is summer getting here again?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dona Nova store now online!

The classiest things in my house are the paintings on my wall by Dona Nova. Dona is one of my heroes, dedicating her life to art and continually producing work that astonishes me. Now, she's just launched a new online store at www.cafepress.com/donanova. Go, check it out post haste. Having her stuff hanging on your wall instantly makes you smarter, funnier, and hipper. Before I hung "angel of the dinosaurs" in my office, I was just a redneck who could type fast. Now, I'm still a redneck who can type fast, but I strangers who visit my house are left pondering the possibility that I might, just possibly, be smarter than I look. You too, can now enjoy this benefit. Shop till you drop!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sci-Fi chick interview and giveaway.

An interview of yours truly went live today over at the Sci Fi Chick. Tomorrow, she's announcing a drawing for a free autographed copy of Bitterwood. In the interview, I give the most details I've given to date about the plot line of Dragon Forge. I'm planning to lock myself in the house all weekend to get as close to the end of the book as humanly possible. I'm not even planning to sleep. I wonder what a case of that Red Bull stuff costs? Nah, Red Bull isn't my style, to be honest. I'm a southern guy. I'll just brew up a gallon or so of iced tea for the needed buzz, enhanced by impending deadline panic!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cancer on the Comics Page

For the last several months, the comic strip "Funky Winkerbean" has been treading into territory that arguably doesn't belong on the comics page. "Funky Winkerbean" is a soap opera strip where the characters age and change, and, as of tomorrow, where one of the character's dies. The character of Lisa Moore battled breast cancer back in 1999; she survived the disease then, but her cancer returned and the series has chronicled her long slow decline.

It's been a tough series for me to follow. The way he draws Lisa Moore as the disease steals her away is disturbingly accurate, and it's impossible for me to turn to the comics pages these days without suddenly finding myself plunged into memories of Laura's losing battle with cancer.

Ironically, Laura herself faithfully read Funky Winkerbean, and thought that Tom Batiuk, the cartoonist, had a sadistic streak a mile long. Over the years, he's dumped every imaginable trauma onto his characters. When Lisa's cancer returned in the months before Laura died, Laura predicted that Lisa was doomed. She read the strip due to the same morbid force that makes people stare at car wrecks.

I find myself wondering if this strip is appropriate for the comic pages. In a graphic novel, sure, this storyline would be fine. But, in the Raleigh paper, this thing is sitting right there with Get Fuzzy, Dilbert, Jump Start, and Garfield. Do readers looking for their daily lagsana joke deserve to be shown the ravages of cancer a quarter inch away? I'm usually reading the strip at lunch. It's tough to be faced with these memories and emotions when I'm really just trying to chill out and catch a little peace before plunging back into work again.

Still, on the whole, I admire the artist for having the courage to follow the story to its grim conclusion. He's not shied away from the horror of dying, but he's not been completely one sided with it either. Lisa made jokes and found moments of joy and happiness in recent weeks, and there was one strip in particular that resonated with me--when they have to put a hospital bed in the living room because she can't walk up the stair any more, she says, "So. This is the new normal." I felt that often as Laura got sicker. We'd reach these little plateau's where she'd dipped into a life threatening condition, only to recover to a less endangered state, though still always having lost a little more strength, a little more hope.

So, tomorrow I'll read the strip, and I'll think of Laura. Mr. Batiuk will have told an important story, and I salute him for the skill and sensitivity he's shown with the story. Still, I hope he refrains from inflicting further disease and death upon his characters going forth. I won't complain if he does a whole year of lasagna jokes.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Petty and cruel dictator

One of the bigger political stories of the week was the visit to the US by Iranian prez Ahmadinijad. The university that invited him to speak denounced him as a petty and cruel dictator. And, there is a long list of evidence that Iran is run by cruel dictators--but no evidence it's run by Ahmadinijad. A dictator has the power to issue dictates. In Iran that power rests in religious leaders who decide that teenage girls will be stoned to death for getting knocked up, or who make it possible for Ahmadinijad to assert there are no gays in Iran--since if anyone is caught with homosexual tendencies there, they are put to death. Ahmadinijad is just a puppet. The only power he really wields is the power to give speaches and the power to decide whether or not to wear a tie. If the plane he flew over on had fallen from they sky, it wouldn't have altered the governance of Iran in the least.

The most thought provoking thing about his visit for me, however, was the counter-question: can anyone imagine George Bush going to Iran to speak to a college class where he'd face hostile questioning and an audience that would openly laugh at him? Which then led me to this question: Can anyone imagine George Bush going to an American university to speak to an audience that could ask him questions that weren't approved in advance?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Noah's Ark

Among the news sites I like to visit, the most conservative site hands down is World Net Daily. They make the Drudgereport look positively left wing in most of their editorial positions. Most WND stories are written from a decidely fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. Peel away the veneer of most liberal causes, they believe, and you will find Satan's fingerprints. This is especially true of science that runs contrary to the Bible. It's a rare week that WND doesn't run some headline trumpeting the overthrow of Darwinism due to new incontrovertible evidence that God alone is responsible for creating all species, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old.

I actually enjoy reading the occassional stabs at overthrowing Darwin and/or all modern astronomy, geology, and physics. I find it makes for a nice thought experiment to involve in the sort of magical thinking that fundamentalists engage in. It's useful for a science fiction and fantasy writer to occassionally stop and ask: What if everything we know is wrong? What if the moon really is made of cheese and we don't know it because the moon landing was faked? In fact, all stories about space travel is faked because the rockets always crash into the crystal sphere that the stars are painted on? We don't need satellites to bounce the TV signals around the world--we just bounce the signals off the sphere? And why haven't the scientists told us this? Why the charade? Because the devil has gotten his fingers into all our politicians, scientists, and teachers and encourages them to twist the truth so as to spread doubt among the ever dwindling pool of the faithful.

Of course, most fundamentalists don't believe in crystal spheres. However, one thing that fundamentalists do believe in passionately is Noah's Ark. They believe the world was completely submerged by flood waters approximately 4000 years ago because God was angry. Every living thing you see now has descended in a few thousand years from the descendants of Noah and the two of every kind of animal that wound up on the ark. It's a pretty hard and fast test: If you doubt this story, you doubt the inerrent word of God. You have to believe in the Ark if you are a "true" Christian (as defined by the WND gang).

This was brought to mind by a recent story at WND called, "Did Noah's Flood Spark Global Warming?" The gist of the story is that a scientist named John Baumgardner, a scientist, says, "Yep! All the evidence points to the fact that the world is still warming up after being cooled by the global flood." It's a pretty daring article for WND, because it argues that global warming is real, and normally it's treated as just a lot of hoodoo meant to trick people into adopting Satanism and communism. But, thanks to a little mental acrobatics, now fundamentalists can accept global warming--but evidence that the world is warming is now just evidence of the litteral truth of the Bible. A long held belief of fundamentalists is that the ultimate evidence of the truth of Noah's Ark is still out there--the Ark itself, hidden in the snows of Mount Arrarat, occasionally photographed by plane or satellite. Perhaps if global warming melts off the snow, they'll be able to find the ark a little easier.

It's interesting the hold that Noah's Ark has on certain people, but this definitely isn't a mindset limited to Christians. I've met my fair share of Goth's, for instance, who take it as an article of faith that vampires are real. Or, if not real now, it actually describes the symptoms of some blood transmitted disease that was once common but is seldom seen now. There are also plenty of people convinced that aliens visit the earth, either in the ancient past, or out among us now.

It's interesting how some fairy tales we here in childhood we learn to recognize as fairy tales, while others, like the UFO myths, persist among some individuals throughout their lives. The world still has its flat-earthers, too, and I think the world is slightly better for their presense. I sometimes hope to one day find an otherwise ordinary person who believes in the reality of, say, the three little pigs. After all, pigs are mammals, and mammals have been proven to have the ability to evolve language, so there's nothing impossible about a talking pig. Some mammals evolve bipedelism and tool use, so it's plausible that a small group of mutant talking pigs could also learn to walk around and use tools to build houses. And, it also makes perfect sense that the pigs wouldn't be very good at their carpentry efforts, and might build structures that wouldn't be very stable, and might even blow down in the slightest breeze. It doesn't violate any laws of physics. Really, it could happen. Probably has, if you think about it enough, given the sheer number of pigs that have existed. And, no doubt the talking, home-constructing pigs made quite an impression on their neighbors, which is why their legend has passed down through so many generations. Now, all I need is a good research grant, and I bet I can even track down archeological evidence of the building sites of the pig's houses.

Unless all that got washed away in the flood.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Off to Dragon con

i've inched my way down the eastern seaboard
i am coming to Atlanta again
yeah i came to the gates of the fabled pink city
hungry, and tired, and mad as all hell
swing low sweet jewel-encrusted chariot
make me young again make me well

Jaipur--the Mountain Goats, the opening song on "The Coroner's Gambit."

I love it when my life and John Darnielle's lyrics overlap, which is a disturbing thing, when I think about it, given that his lyrics are frequently so dark and sinister. But, I feel truly blessed as a human being in knowing that I have found my life's soundtrack artist and it didn't turn out to be something like, I dunno, Fleetwood Mac or some other tripe. Finding your soundtrack artist is a bit like finding true love. I remember how lost and alone I could sometimes feel, back in the eighties and nineties when my soundtrack was full of REM and U2 and I kept feeling this hunger, this nagging suspicion that there must be something more to life. I could never be faithful to my old soundtrack artists. The idea of growing old with, say, Thomas Dolby or even the Pogues is absurd. They were merely youthful flings. I didn't know any better. But I feel like I'm going to be listening to the Mountain Goats fifty years from now, when the world is a post apocolyptic wasteland and I'm stumbling through the rubble singing, "I am the white sky high over Tripoli... I am the landmine hidden in the sand. "

Hmm. I've digressed wildy from what I sat down to type, which is that I'm about to leave for a six hour drive to dragoncon. Ah well. These things happen.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Naked Monkeys

Last week, fellow Codexian Helena Bell asked, “Just curious: how did the monkey thing start?”

To those unfamiliar with my larger body of work, the question might come across as a non sequitur, or perhaps as some sort of prod designed to push me into a rant about evolution versus creationism. However, readers who’ve been following my writing for a while have started to notice a trend: There are a lot of monkeys in my stories.

It’s time for confession. Some writers use booze or drugs to loosen themselves up to allow the words to flow onto the page. Some writers are blessed with deeply traumatic childhoods or serious mental illnesses that allow them to sit and scribble out prose with such ease and beauty they seem to be channeling the voices of angels. Then there are unlucky writers such as myself who had the misfortune to be raised by kind parents in stable environments. Robbed of the writer’s birthright of mental trauma, we muddle along as best we can, praying we will one day discover some secret magic formula that allows us to compete with our more twisted brethren.

About ten years ago, at the Odyssey Fantasy Writers workshop, I found that magic in the word “monkey.” I was starting a story called “Earl Billings and the Angels of the Lord” when I wrote that Earl was angry because his daughter’s social studies textbook had an Incan monkey god on the cover. Earl wasn’t paying good tax dollars so that his daughter could go get brainwashed into some damn monkey cult, and so he had decided that the only sensible response was to buy a bunch of propane tanks and… well, I won’t get into the details here. The point is, when I reread the sentence with the phrase “Incan monkey god,” I suddenly had the revelation that it was nearly impossible to write a boring sentence with the word monkey in it. (Go ahead and try it yourself in the comments section if you feel up to the challenge.)

Now, when I sit down to start a story and find myself stuck, I ask, “How can I get a monkey in here?” Once I figure it out, I’m fine I got into Orson Scott Card’s Writers Boot Camp with a writing sample from “Little Guilt Thing Goin’ On” that included the phrase "gilded monkey skull." That story later was published at Abyss and Apex. When pressed to write a story in a single night at Boot Camp, I crafted a tale about a man shouting at invisible monkeys. (“Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath”--it saw print in the Modern Magic anthology.) I've written a long list of stories where the word "monkey" appears on the first page. The monkeys are seldom anything other than props, and frequently vanish after the initial scene, but the little nugget of monkey holds readers sufficiently to get them to the second page, by which point the plot and character are kicking in.
I acknowledge this monkey thing is just a crutch. I frequently use monkeys in stories I have to write in very tight turnarounds. Sometimes I use a monkey to get me typing on the first draft, then cut the creature out on the second pass. Monkeys aren't my only crutch, by the way, or even my most successful one. I've also discovered that scenes are much more fascinating if at least one person is naked. So, “Pentacle on His Forehead, Lizard on His Breath”-naked black magic. “To Know All Things That Are In The Earth”-naked angels. “Little Guilt Thing Going On”-naked preacher and naked demoness. “To the East a Bright Star”-protagonist rescues a naked woman. Bitterwood-naked people all over the first chapter, and not one of the dragons wears pants.

As far as sales go, I've earned more money from naked people than monkeys. It's not even close. I’ve also tried writing stories about naked monkeys, and they just never earn me a dime. Although, “Naked Monkeys” strikes me as a good title for a story. No one will be surprised if one day, I write it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tidbits

Wow, 16 days without a post here. What can I say? I've been furiously typing away on the new novel, plus setting up multiple promotional events for Bitterwood. See the sidebar for a link to the dates and places. Also, I put my house on the market and have been tinkering with it, fixing a dozen small items. I had it professionally cleaned the the other day. I don't know what they did to the fixtures in the shower to make them shine like they do, but the first time I pulled the shower curtain back I wished I had been wearing sunglasses it was so bright. Also nice: Being able to sit on my couch in dark pants and not stand up covered in cat hair.

So far, the house has only had a few showings. I'm pretty sure my decision to sell caused the recent collapse of the mortgage market... that's just how these things go. Fortunately, this time I'm not under any real pressure to get out of the house quickly. If I have to wait things out until the housing market improves, I can. I have a feeling Hillsborough is going to really boom next year when the Weaver St. Market opens downtown.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Trinoccon!

This weekend I'll be a guest at Trinoccon in Raleigh.

Here's my schedule:

Fri. 6 PM, Ballroom I: MOD Age & Longevity in SF
Fri. 8 PM, Ballroom I: Meet the Guests
Sat. 11 AM, Oakwood: Reading (w/ Kessel)
Sat. noon, Ballroom I: MOD Politics in SF
Sat. 1 PM, Ballroom I: Religion/Spirituality in SF
Sat. 5 PM, Dealers: Signing (w/ Wold)Sun. noon,
Ballroom I: Building Bridges

I'm reading at the same time as GOH George R.R. Martin, so I may be playing to an empty room. Still, I'm anticipating it being a fun con. I'm on panels about politics AND religion. Chairs may be thrown. Good times.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Deadstock

So, in my earlier post about Readercon, I mentioned meeting Jeffrey Thomas, author of Deadstock, and a fellow member of the Solaris writing stable. During the meeting, I was worried he might ask me what I'd thought of his book, since I'd mentioned to him a while back that I'd bought a copy... only, I never got around to reading it, even though I knew I'd be seeing him.

Part of the reason was, I'd read part of the prologue of the book and found it difficult to get into. It's mostly following a character wandering around a futuristic cityscape looking for his girlfriend, but it didn't engage me all that much because the prologue doesn't contain any dialogue, except for one brief line from memory. Also, the prologue just had the feel that it was being written about a throw away character. I knew from what I'd read about the book that the protagonist was a shape-shifting detective named Jeremy Stake, and plainly this character wasn't him. So, I lost interest after the first five or six pages.

Fortunately, on the plane back from Readercon, I had the book in the top of my backpack and pulled it out, figuring I'd give it one more shot. I skipped the prologue and started on Chapter One. WOW! It was like an entirely different book. Suddenly, I understood how he'd gotten a blurb from China Mieville on the cover. Once Stake enters the book and the dialogue starts, the book comes to life. Stake is a great vehicle for conversations--he suffers from "confused flesh," a mutation that causes him to start looking like a person that he's looking at, so, when he talks to people, he slowly starts looking like them, causing a range of reactions from freaked out to fascinated. The other characters reveal hidden parts of themselves as they react to him--it's really quite a masterful device for bringing the supporting cast to life.

The other real strength of the book is the sheer scope of imagination Thomas throws onto each page. Nifty SF gadgets like Ouji phones, marketed to teenage girls... the phones ring when a damned soul comes on line, the the girls tease and taunt them. It's so disturbingly wrong, and yet so precisely right that you buy the idea instantly. At another point, he's walking through a factory where there are these legless, headless cows floating in tanks... nutrients are pumped in through a tube where the neck should be, and waste is sucked from the other end. It's the ultimate in factory farming, and if anyone has ever visited a commericial chicken farm you will recognize the idea as one corporate farmers would embrace in a heartbeat. Thomas makes you keenly aware that any advance in technology that can improve human life is also just as likely to get twisted around and warped into something that perverts human life. It's a fairly bleak vision, but it doesn't come across as depressing, as the sheer weirdness and creepiness of the images he throws out are simply fascinating.

The plot is terrific once it's underway, with a growing sense of inevitable doom. I honestly felt the possibility as I was starting the final chapter that no one--not even Stake--was going to get out of this novel alive. He kills off characters that I was certain he'd never kill.

One minor gripe with the novel is that Stake doesn't have much of a personal tie to the actual plot line. He's only involved with the other characters because he's been hired to be involved... in fact, there's even a line of dialogue near the end where his employer asks Stake why he cares enough to face the danger he's about to face and Stake answers, "Because you're paying me to." Yet, in a way, Stakes lack of personal involvement turns him into an objective camera through which we observe the rest of the story. The coolness saves the novel from slipping into melodrama as some really horrible things start happening to other characters.

All in all, it's a darn fine read.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

I feel as if I've done my job

Pat Esden on her live journal has provided one of my favorite quotes about Bitterwood yet, and she hasn't even read the book! She attended my reading at Readercon and writes on her blog: James Maxey read the beginning of his novel “Bitterwood”. It was great and convinced me to move the novel higher up in my stack of summer reading—and gave me a craving for barbequed dragon tongue.

Really, that's pretty much what I consider the key to engaging writing... leaving the readers with cravings. It's been twenty years since I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Aiule (I'm sure I just misspelled her name). Yet, I can still recall vividly her descriptions of the food the cave men gathered, all the fresh green sprouts and pungent roots and giant fish. I remember going to a salad bar and loading up on bean sprouts and bamboo shoots and thinking, "a caveman would enjoy this salad." (Though I'm not sure they had ranch dressing.)

I said in my recent Solaris interview that my first goal as a writer was to entertain the reader. I also said I tried to make my writing thought-provoking. I left out my other important goal--make the reader hungry. A useful goal to remind myself of now, since I'm well underway with my next novel for Solaris. I've finished four chapters and am almost 17,000 words into the project. I'm leaving on vacation this week, and hope to get through at least two more chapters, perhaps even a third. I'm guessing there will be a feast in there somewhere.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Readercon 2007

First, some pictures, then some words:
Sunshine, me, and Cavin
Elaine Isaak and me

Me and Nick Mamatas


Me and Jeffrey Thomas


Last weekend I went to Readercon near Boston. I went there with Joy Marchand and she's already posted her report of the con on her blog, complete with photos, so be sure to check out her report here. I'm in some of the photos, and so are many Codexians.

On the side of this page, you'll see a link on the Bitterwood blog that says "Bitterwood Live!" This is an MP3 of my reading from Bitterwood at Readercon. I'm pretty happy with the reading... not too many stutters, and the sound quality isn't bad at all. It's short, only about 6 minutes. I find I get better audience response at readings if I read from multiple short items rather than trying to slog through one long one. I'm still debating whether or not to post my reading of Cherry Red Rocket Ship from the con. It was a good reading, and the audience is laughing at most of the places I want them to be laughing. Alas, the story is unpublished, and I don't want to risk it's future publishability by making the recording available before it sees print. On the other hand, it's short, so selling it isn't going to translate into a great big pile of cash. (Not that long short stories translate into great big piles of cash either.) So, maybe I will post it. If anyone wants to hear it, respond to this post. If even two or three people want it, I'll put it up. If no one's interested, I'll keep it to myself.



The best part of the con, of course, was getting to meet friends and fellow authors. I got to hang out with Jeremy Cavin and Sunshine Ison, old friends of mine from when I lived in Greensboro. A link to Mr. Cavin's blog may be found on the side of this page.



I also got to meet Nick Mamatas, author of the brilliant new novel Under My Roof. Joy bought a copy and I got to read a bit of it and look forward to getting my hands on my own copy. It's the story of a family that builds a nuclear bomb, hides it in a lawn gnome on their front yard, then declares independence from the US. It's only a matter of time before this is a major motion picture.



Joy's blog shows a lot of my fellow codexians at dinner, but one who couldn't make it to the dinner (because she was, like, 11 months pregnant or something) was Elaine Isaak. Elaine is also a fellow Odfellow. She's published two novels and we share space in Prime Codex.



Also at the con was Jeffrey Thomas, who's blog is on the links on the sidebar, and who is author of the critically acclaimed SF novel Deadstock. I started reading it on my plane ride home and it's terrific. The prologue is a bit of a slow start, but once the protagonist hits the page in the first chapter the book really catches fire. The dialogue is sharp and subtle. What really makes this book stand out so far, though, is the way Jeffrey will introduce fantastic SF gadgets, then show instantly how humans will warp and subvert these gadgets. For instance, there's something called ouiji phones. Scientistic researching other dimensions have found a link to the land of ghosts, and have built a technology to allow you to call there and speak to the dead. But the device isn't used to hold reassuring chats with lost loved ones. Instead, the device is popular among teenage school girls who like to get tormented souls on the line and then tease and taunt them about their deadness. Equally horrifying are the dolls the girls carry as status symbols. They are bioengineered creatures bred to be cute and helpless, with only stubs from arms, tiny mouths, big eyes, and feeble minds. The horror element in this book doesn't come from the ghosts and monsters, but from what human children do to ghosts and monsters. Highly recommended.



Finally, over on the Solaris Blog you'll find a photo of me with Solaris editors Christian Dunn and George Mann.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Return to Odyssey, with pictures

My trip back to Odyssey yesterday is something of a blur for me. Sometimes I remember public events I take part in clearly, but other times I'll be hit with an adreneline rush that during the event that leaves me wondering long afterwards what, exactly, I might have said. Fortunately, while I'm foggy on what I said and can't report the details, I do have photos!



Here I am with Joy Marchand, who provided transportation for me yesterday and is also responsible for that silly grin on my face being a more or less permanent feature these days. Joy and I have known each other for years as fellow authors. I first read her work when she won WOTF and have long admired her writing style. We've been anthology mates before, sharing space in last year's Modern Magic anthology. She wrote me back in February after I posted the "Five Things Few People Know About Me" blogs. After that, we started swapping flirty emails, which led to phone calls, and now to full blown dating, despite the fact that she lives in Massachusetts and I live in North Carolina.



Speaking of anthology mates, the guy in the photo above is Eric James Stone, fellow Codexian, fellow Phobos award winner, fellow Boot Camp alumni, and soon to be fellow Odyssey grad. We share space in the anthology he's holding up, Prime Codex, which continues to recieve glowing reviews. Eric is also the person who sent me the "Five Things Few People Know About Me" challenge, so he gets partial credit for Joy and I getting together. What a weirdly interconnected world we live in.

After the discussion, I signed books. Lots and lots of books. Fortunately, I had just purchased a fresh inkpen for the event. Note to IRS: I kept the receipt for the pen. So far this year, I've been really good about keeping receipts.


Finally, here's me signing a book. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the person in the blue jacket. Perhaps she'll read the blog and be kind enough to post her name for me. The woman behind her is Jeanne Cavelos, leader of the workshop. Jeanne is a terrific writing instructor. Many Odfellows have gone on to publish novels, me included. Hopefully you'll one day be reading the novels of this years grads. (And, if you'll pardon a repeat plug, you can already read the words of Eric James Stone, not just in Prime Codex but in many other fine publications. See his blog for a more complete list of his stories.)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Return to Odyssey

I attended the Odyssey Fantasy Writer's Workshop as a student back in 1998. Tomorrow, I'm going back to talk to this year's class as someone who has managed to build at least a modest career out of fiction.

As a result, I find myself in an introspective mood, thinking about what I've learned in the intervening nine years, trying to figure out if I have any useful advice for the current batch of students.

While advice from me may not be as valuable as advice from J. K. Rowling, I do have one nuggets I can share with the class:

The worst book you put onto paper is more valuable than the best book you keep in your head. Twice in my life, I've found myself in positions where I've been asked to show my work on short notice. The first time, Keith Olexa, the editor at Phobos, called me up to tell me I'd won a Phobos Award and asked if I'd written any novels. The year before I'd written "Nobody Gets the Girl." The novel at the time was short, only 55K words long. And, the ending was just dumb, nothing at all like the published ending. Before I sent it to him, I tacked on a new ending that was even worse, in which Rail Blade gets killed when the World Trade Towers fell on 9-11. A few months later, Keith called me back and said they wanted to publish the book, but the ending really needed to change. Knowledge that the book would see print proved a powerful creative force and I was able to arrive at the published ending, which I'm still quite proud of.

The second time, of course, came about when Nadia Cornier went from being an intern with an agency to being a full agent, if she could build a portfolio of clients. When this news reached me via the Codex boards, I was able to send her "Bitterwood," but a much shorter, less developed work than what is seeing print today. Still, while I look back on that version now as being amazingly devoid of setting details and shockingly thin on character development for the supporting cast, it still had the plot, pacing, theme, and energy that the final book has.

Can I write better novels than Bitterwood and Nobody? I think I can. I've got one book in my head that I think may be the book that turns me into a household name. Unfortunately, you can't read this book. I can't show it to an editor, and I've never been able to share more than a brief outline with my agent. It's a book I always feel I need to do just a little more research to write. It's a book I've become intimidated by. And, as a result, my perfect, fantastic book has never been read by anyone, while the good-but-could-be-better books I've published have been (or will be) read by thousands of people.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The jockey lot lives!

My name appeared in the Independent Weekly in an article about the closing of the Jockey Lot. They quoted me toward the end of the article talking about the exotic nature of the place, and how you could take a five minute drive and suddenly find yourself in a South American country. Apparently, even though the buildings are closed, the action is still hot in the tents outside. I seldom went into the sheds anyway. The tents are where the good stuff could be found.

Also, I just posted to my Bitterwood blog an article called "Building a Better Dragon." If you ever worried that playing D&D as a teen will doom you to an adulthood of geekiness, this article should remove all doubt.

Finally, Solaris has just posted an interview with me on their features page. I would like to assure my mother should she read it that I make reference to dirty pictures on the internet purely in jest, and I've never, ever, I promise, used my computer for such a disgusting practice.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dragon sightings...

Dragons have been sighted here in North Carolina.



First, there's this photo, taken right here in Hillsborough.

This isn't a trick photo. When Joy Marchand visited last month, we were taking some photographs of the water tower in Hillsborough that looks like a UFO (below), and by chance happened to get a snap of this oddly draconian looking creature as well.





Then, of course, there are dragons in my living room and in bookstores. Check out my Bitterwood blog for more.