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.


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.


Gardner said...

Wow. I know this article had the impact you intended because my reading slowed and became much more deliberate. This is an illuminating piece, despite being about demons and darkness.

Thanks for this.

BTW, I finished Bitterwood. Loved it! Since you are posting about writing, maybe you could answer one question:

Did you always do POV changes as a break or did some editor request that mechanism?

Like Bitterwood, I have a climatic battle where the POV shifts. I think I manage it well enough without breaks - especially since the action is confined to a single room - but have considered adding breaks in the past. None of my test readers have complained about the POV shifts, but an editor might see an entirely different need...


James Maxey said...


Thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed Bitterwood. As to POV breaks, I will almost always use a scene break if I'm changing POV. This can result in some pretty short scenes sometimes, as in the final battles of Bitterwood. The scene breaks alert the reader that something has changed--either the setting, the time, or the POV. In Bitterwood, the quick jumping between POV characters through the series of short scenes helps propel the action. White space on the page makes the pages to by faster.

Skipping between POV wasn't something I instinctively did when I started writing, but I've learned to do it after years of feedback in critique groups. It would feel wierd not to now.

Still, starting a new scene when you switch POV isn't a rule that all writers follow. Dune is one of the most popular SF novels ever and it changes POV without scene breaks several times per chapter.

Bill Bittner said...

Great post and great advice. Except it was both boon and bane to my current manuscript.

My dilemna (at least in the light of your post) is since I've spent much of my life exorcising my demons, and believe I have little or none left, I fear my writing won't be as good as it could be.

I had a similar fundamentalist upbringing, and am currently an atheist. However, much of the anquish that my upbringing caused me only did so while I was still Christian.

Most of my anguish came from as follows: When you believe that a divine being is in charge of the universe, and bad things happen to you, you either believe that divine being doesn't like you, or you've been too bad for him to like you. Either way you're screwed.

Now that I have no such belief, things are much better. Although, like yourself, I do suffer from the realization that when I'm dead, I'm dead. Maybe I can channel that into a story. But not into the one I'm currently working on.

But, after some thinking, I did discover a demon that I could channel. My wife is often very sick and will have pretty extreme migraines. It breaks my heart every time it happens, and it makes me feel so helpless. And I found that that there was an opportunity to channel that experience into a situation in my story. And it really did help it alot.

Thanks a bunch. And best wishes on your writing.

James Maxey said...

Bill, I'm sorry to hear about your wife. I was involved for a several years with a woman named Laura who struggled with breast cancer, and I sympathize with the feeling of powerlessness that comes from wanting to help a loved one and learning that, in the end, there are just some things that can't be fixed.

I know what you mean about exorsizing your demons. In order to operate as a stable and functioning human being, you eventually have to make peace with the big questions of your life. But, the mere fact that you've been through the struggles means that you understand them, and can draw upon the things that have haunted you in order to find new ways to torment your characters. And, even better, you also know how you found your peace with the demons, which means you know how to guide your characters to a solution, giving them a satisfying story arc.