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 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.


Janci said...

There is a downside to this, also. Sometimes I hate writing first drafts, because I have the voices of a hundred people in my head telling me how bad bad BAD my writing is and how I ought to know better. It gets very noisy, and sometimes I have to walk away from the keyboard to get them all to shut up.

But in all, I think its been an asset. My writing is better, even if it is more painful to produce.

James Maxey said...

Well, maybe you've been hanging out with the wrong hundred people! Seriously, someone telling you your writing is bad, period, isn't of much use to you. Someone saying that your dialogue is unnatural or robotic, though, can provide you with a guidepost to work harder on that aspect of your writing.

And of course, there's plenty of times when 9 people are going to tell you something you just wrote is bad, and 1 person is going to tell you that the very same thing is brilliant, and every now and then you have to pick to make that 1 reader happy over the 9. You're never going to make everyone happy; the legions of readers who gobble down the "Left Behind" series probably don't overlap much with the legions of people who go out and by Laura K. Hamilton novels. Figuring out who you are writing for and why they are reading you is a very important leap for any writer to make.

Janci said...

Perhaps I misspoke. My readers never tell me that my writing is bad. They tell me what is wrong with it. I have very astute readers.

But when I'm writing a first draft, I don't need to fix every little thing that is wrong with it, or I will never get through the novel. So I don't need the voices in my head harping on all the little bits of criticism. And even when it's good criticism, my inner self-editor sometimes decides that it means I suck.

Even good criticism, at the wrong moment in the composition process, can be debilitating.

nomadshan said...

This post really sang to me. I'm revising a manuscript and discovering how much of story in my head isn't apparent on the page. And I've definitely been too coy in dealing out clues to the story's mysteries. I'm writing middle grade, so I picture my reader as a 10-yr-old boy who'd rather be playing on his Xbox. It's a challenge to engage him.

James Maxey said...

Thanks Nomadshan. You're a trooper going after 10 year old boys as readers. It's definitely a tough demographic. You would essentially have to write a book that their mother would never buy for them. The ultimate book title that would catch the attention of a 10 year old boy: The Farting Ninja.

(I just checked Amazon. I can't believe that isn't already a real book.)