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.


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.


Gardner said...

I directing my critique group here. These articles are excellent for authors of all skill levels!

Thanks James!

James Maxey said...

You're welcome! These articles are helpful for me as well. It never hurts to stop and try to organize the things you've learned into coherent units. Writing these essays helps me know what I know, if that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I love this work; I have a lot to learn from it as a young writer

James Maxey said...

Ewanfoh, I appreciate the encouragement!