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, March 29, 2008

Humans in Politics

Time for another political post. When I started this blog, I was writing about politics every other post, and now I can go months without visiting the subject. Part of the reason is, I gave my opinions early on about the big debates that never go away in politics--abortion, death penalty, gay rights, global warming, health care--and my opinions haven't altered much, so why repeat myself? This is why I could never be a talk show host or pundit. I have the potential to grow bored with repeating myself, while people like Rush Limbaugh make a living by essentially offering the same opinions day after day after day.

But, of course, the real people who have to repeat themselves well past the point that any normal person would grow insane are politicians, and especially presidential candidates. Obama, Clinton, McCain, and the dozen others already forgotten all had a stump speech that they had to deliver a hundred times or more. I can only imagine there's a point where it passes into surreality for them, where it starts to feel like the movie Groundhog Day, where the hero is trapped in living the same day over and over.

Which leads me to a few opinions on some recent candidate scandals that just don't seem all that scandalous to me:

1. Snipergate: Hillary got caught lying. A flat-out, no holds barred, no debate possible lie. She tells an exciting story about running for the cars under sniper fire; video of the event shows her walking off the plane and getting handed flowers. And I've now read pundits who say that this and other lies point to serious personality defects, and possible mental illness. But, this is nonsense. Ordinary people do stuff like this all the time. We routinely exagerate and embellish stories on retelling. A two pound shark caught in the surf at Myrtle Beach grows over time to a twenty pound shark caught in Cuba by reaching into the water and grabbing its tailfin and yanking it into the boat. Well, perhaps I exagerate about the degree which stories get exagerated. But, still, I sometimes listen to stories my friends tell, or to stories my family tell, or even stories that I tell, and find myself marveling at how the stories where I thought I knew what the fairly mundane facts were become, over the course of years, much more gripping and compelling tales with a few edits. Hillary isn't mentally ill for embellishing her story. She is, however, dumb as a rock not to know that someone was going to drag out the videotape.

2. Preachergate: So Obama was friends for twenty years with a crazy, racist fanatic. He sat in the pews, he took his kids to hear the lunitic, he publicy praised the man. Now, a segment of the population is outraged--OUTRAGED!--by Obama's failure to denounce this fool. But, look, just chill, okay? I'm not going to judge any man by the words of another man. I thought it was classless for Obama to drag his grandmother into this debate, but I know what he meant. You have people in your life you grow close to that say things that embarass you, but you stick by them anyway because a person is more than just the five minutes of videotape of the most shocking things they said over twenty years. I was once closely associated with a person who, from time to time, would say things in public that just made me cringe. I'm going to be very careful here; I'm not even going to identify this person by gender--which means I'm going to use the gramatical consruction "they" to refer to them, sorry--I don't have their permission to talk about them, and I don't want to hold a friend up to public scorn. But, this person used to complain loudly about people who were trying to take the confederate flag down from public places. "It's our heritage!" they'd argue. Yeah, I'd think, a heritage of slavery and radical Christianity. If you ever read the constitution that the CFA intended to operate other, you would want to take up arms and fight for the Union, because it absolutely did NOT guarantee religious freedom, but instead stated bluntly that the CFA would be Christian. My friend wasn't a Christian, so revering the Confederate flag made no sense to me whatsoever. I was also baffled by claims of reverse racism. White people were discriminated against in the workplace. It's the law of the land! Doesn't anyone care about the plight of the poor white person? To which I would argue, if you're a white person in America and you can't go out and do whatever you want to do with your life, it's not the government that's holding you back. Take a quick glance at any place where powerful people gather--oh my god! White people! I don't care what the law of the land is: if you can't achieve your life goals here in America today, you aren't going to make it tomorrow if the supreme court suddenly waves its magic wand and POOF, affirmative action vanishes. (For the record, I don't think this is only true of white people... no matter what your skin color or gender, the real obstacles to most people's advancement are internal, not external.)

So, I knew someone who was racist in my judgment. Did I kick them to the curb as some sort of inhuman scum? No. Because this was, like, 1% of thier total personality. And, honestly, unless you listened to them when they got onto this subject, you would never have known. It wasn't like in thier daily life they were going around shouting racial epithats. I honestly don't think on an individual level they cared what color their friends, coworkers, dentists or presidents were.

If we had to go through this world rejecting the friendship of everyone who holds a politically incorrect or politically unpopular opinion, we'd all live very lonely lives. If anything, this preachergate scandal made me like Obama more. He could have pulled the full Judas and abandoned his preacher to the angry mobs. But he stood by a friend--I admire that.

3: Century-gate: So, a popular line of attack about McCain lately is that he's advocating the US being in Iraq for 100 years. Shocking just shocking. But, we've been in Japan and Germany for well over half a century. We have a history of not bringing out boys back home once we've fought a war. Still a century is a bit extreme, isn't it? Nope. We fought the Spanish-American War all the way back in 1898. We set up a little base in Cuba at a place called Guantanamo Bay. And guess where we still have troops stationed 110 years later? America is the house-guest that doesn't know when to leave. A century from now while we're still in Iraq, I'm guessing we'll be past the bicentenial for our occupation of Cuba. Of course, these bases are of vital strategic importance. If we hadn't had a long term presense in Cuba, lord knows what could have happened. The whole island could have gone communist if not for our vigilance!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Getting through the Mushy Middle

Codexwriters.com is currently having a novelwriting contest. One of the cool elements of the contest is that the writers earn "badges" as they make progress. They get a badge for writing more than 2000 words in a day, for instance, or if they make it 3 weeks in a row completing a chapter a week. I'm not taking part in the contest, but looking over the rules, I got badge envy! And the badge that really resonated with me was one for pushing on through the "Mushy Middle."

The Mushy Middle is something almost all novelists have faced. I've been involved with critique groups and networking with other writers since the mid-nineties, and the experience seems to be a familiar one. It's easy to start a novel, and get three or five or seven chapters into it. Then, frequently, the whole thing bogs down. The initial enthusiasm for the project wanes as some of the realities of writing a book begin to hit home. The first reality is, books don't write themselves. If you're a beginning novelist, this frequently comes as a shock. I was like many novice novelists years ago, writing mainly when I was inspired to write. Inspiration can carry you through early chapters. But, inspiration as an intellectual state is fleeting. If you can hold on to the feeling for more than a few hours you're lucky. Some folks can hold onto inspiration for weeks, perhaps. But, it seldom lasts the duration of a full scale novel, which can't be written in weeks, but is instead a project lasting months, even years. At some point, enthusiasm fades on any project, and this is where many beginning writers falter. I, personally, can't count how many novels I started in the 1990's only to abandon them in the quicksands of the Mushy Middles.

Yet, I eventually learned to get past them. I haven't quite yet reached the point of learning to revel in the Mushy Middles, but perhaps that day will come. In the meantime, I have two primary tools that carry me through.

The main thing that helps me get through the mushy middle is a deadline. The mushy middle is why my first three novels were all multi-year projects. I'd start them, then lose interest. Then, a few months later, I'd get an idea on what to do next in the abandoned novel, and return to the project, write a few more chapters, then lose interest again. I consider myself very fortunate to have completed one book, let alone three, using this start and stop method. On my fourth novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, I set myself a very firm 45 day deadline to write the first draft of whole book. I was active with the Odyssey critique group back then, so I set it up as a challenge with a few other participants, then posted almost daily updates of my progress. (The challenge came in early November 2000 that we would all complete a fresh novel before the "real" new millinium of January 1, 2001.) Since I had put out the challenge, and since a score or more people were following my progress, I felt like I had no choice but to slog on when I hit the sections where I was completely lost. And I discovered something interesting: Even though I felt like I was writing meandering, disjointed crap at the time, when I finally read the book a year later I discovered that some of my most random chapters were actually pretty good. (I wrote with the motto "never look back," so I never reread the chapters as I produced them.) There's a chapter five or six chapters into the book where I remember being completely stuck. I'm writing a superhero novel, with all these plot twists and hidden revelations and high stakes battles, and suddenly my mental batteries were all drained and I had no clue what these people and all their fantastic powers were supposed to do next. So, I had them go to the mall to go shopping. Only, instead of actually shopping, one of them uses her superpowers to steal stuff, trivial things like cinimon buns. When I wrote it, I was pretty positive my novel had run completely off the tracks. Now, I look at it as a great character building scene.

Dragonforge went the same way. All the teen chapters were written in the complete absense of inspiration. I spent months certain that my writing career was over, because unlike Nobody, this book was already slated for publication on a set date. I worried thousands of readers would read hit those chapters and just abandon the book, and never read me again. After the first draft, I still wasn't fully happy with those chapters... but, luckily, I had a second draft! A do-over. So I did a lot of them over. Then, after my wise-readers, I got to do them over again, and by draft three I was happy with the middle of my book.

So far my experience has been that plowing on even when my imagination is empty and my clever meter is sitting on zero always produces fruitful results. One of two things always happens:

1: I write something good while thinking I'm writing drivel.There's a scene in Dragonforge where Graxen and Nadala, two young dragons who are attracted to each other, meet in secret because the plot required them to meet each other again and fall in love at this point in the book. I had no clue what they were supposed to say to each other. In my outline, I had imagined I'd have Graxen spout romantic dialogue worthy of Romeo and Juliet, but instead when I reached the scene, all that came out was awkward, choppy dialogue. I slogged through, certain I'd throw it out later and write something better. But, when I went back on draft two, the awkward, choppy dialogue between the two characters felt exactly right, conveying thier true feelings better than the flowery, Hallmark card dialogue I thought I needed to make the scene come to life. Sometimes, writing when I'm not feeling clever manages to produce some of my most honest and heartfelt writing.

2. I write drivel while I think I'm writing drivel. Fortunately, drivel on the page is much, much better than nothing on the page. I can edit drivel. I can twist and tweak it, I can chop it out completely and write what I should have written, or I can discover that, while the scene I wrote might not be great literature, with a little polish and elbow grease it becomes perfectly functional prose. It moves the characters from point A to point B, or it has them pick up a plot key they need to put into a plot lock. While the dream is for every page in one of my novels to be brilliant prose that must have secretly flowed from an angel's pen, the reality is that sometimes good enough is good enough. As long as the story moves forward, I'm confident the reader will stay with me.

So, my two secrets for getting through are deadlines, even arbitrary ones, and experience. I've learned after completing seven novels that the Mushy Middles can be overcome just by sitting down and typing, and sitting down and typing, and sitting down and typing again, until you've finally slogged through them.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A God Paradox

I was reading in Discover some theories that might make it possible to explore the question of what existed before the Big Bang. There are three models that I won't get into to any great degree here, mainly because, I'll confess, I can follow high level theoretical physics only to a certain degree and then I admit, I honestly don't have a clue what's being discussed. As I science fiction writer, I only have to understand them enough to present higher level physics in a plausible way to readers who have no idea whether I'm right or wrong in what I'm talking about. One of the theories plays into the Bitterwood books--it's the notion that there's a higher dimensional space that an infinite number of universes float through. From time to time, these universes smash into each other in the higher dimension and the energy generated from the collision produces a big bang that forms a new universe. There are two upsides to this theory. First, it means that universes exists as part of an endless cycle of creation and recreation--the big bang isn't a beginning, just part of an ongoing process. The amazing thing about this theory, unlike a zillion other "before the universe began" theories, is that it's testable. If our universe was generated by the collision of other universes, the theory predits gravity waves that would still be detectable. We don't yet have the technology to detect gravity waves (which are also predicted by relativity), but this is mainly an engineering problem and one day we will, and can confirm or refute the evidence for this theory. A third upside to the theory is that I can play with this higher dimension "outside" of space by calling it "underspace" and letting my characters travel through it in fiction. I'm sure any competent scientist can explain why this is an absurd premise, but they can write their own novels.

The article introduced the idea of what happened before the Big Bang by discussing a monk who asks his monk-boss (this probably isn't the actual title the church uses), "What was God doing before he created the earth?" The monk-boss answers, "Designing hell for those who ask too many questions." This reminded me of a paradox that used to bug me when I was a kid in church.

If I asked how long God had been around, I was assured it was forever. God's timeline was infinite, stretching into forever both forward and backward. But, this creates a paradox: How long did God wait before he created the world? Forever. Which is the mental equivilent of saying he never got around to creating the world. You can imagine how this provided a certain level of consternation to me when I was ten.

Of course, the same paradox exists in the colliding universe theory... how much time passed before they collided? Eternity. But, with the colliding universe theory, new worlds are being made all the time, for no reason at all, just random collisions. With the God theory, nothing but God existed forever, then he made a planet and a universe for it to float in, then he's going to destroy it all and everyone will live forever in heaven or hell. So, there's a forever before the earth, a few thousand years of earth, followed by a forever without the earth, not by chance, but due to the willful decisions of an omniscient being. Somehow the intentionality provides a dividing line in my mind. One premise strikes me as plausible, while the other strikes me as absurd, even though they effectively provide the same results.

I'm writing this from Stellarcon in High Point, by the way, sitting in a lobby through which klingons, pirates, stormtroopers, and multiple Darth Vaders are wandering. Perhaps it's this strangely surreal setting that has launched my current round of odd musings...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Heretic Pride

Long time readers of my blog know I'm a big fan of the Mountain Goats... the band, not the animal. They just put out a new album last month, and it's the first album in ages that doesn't have a unifying theme. The last album, Get Lonely, was an album full of songs about an emotionally crippled man, possibly homeless, who spends a lot of time on the edges of society before finally offing himself in the final track. Before that, the Sunset Tree explored John Darnielle's personal story of his relationship with his abusive stepfather. We Shall All Be Healed was the story of a bunch of tweakers (meth users), and the whole trend of "theme" albums was really launched by Tallahassee, where John shed the low-fi sound of his earlier albums for higher production values as he told the story of an unhappy couple who stayed together only by staying drunk. Each of these albums were full of songs that were best understood in the context of the other songs, and everything worked together to form one overall story arc.

With Heretic Pride, the unifying theme is gone, but the ghosts of these previous albums live on. As I listen to this album, I keep finding myself plugging the songs into the story lines of earlier works.

"Sax Rohmer #1" would fit quite neatly onto the Tallahassee album; it's all about things decaying and spinning out of control as "every moment leads toward it's own sad end," yet the narrator insists in the chorus, "I am coming home to you with my own blood in my mouth." It easily fits into what John refers to as his "alpha" series, songs about a drunken dysfunctional couple.

"San Bernidino" reminds me of We Shall All Be Healed both musically and lyrically, while "Autoclave" reminds me of The Sunset Tree --"I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam and no one in her right mind would make my heart her home."

I wasn't a huge fan of Get Lonely, but my favorite track on Heretic Pride, "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" would be perfectly at home on that album with it's narrator telling a girl in a bathroom who has obviously just survived some horrible experience:

"Stay formless,

It's an odd song that seems to offer hope in the fact that a human life is a rather ephemeral thing; our worst moments drift off into time little remembered or mourned, so there's no point for us to let them weigh us down. It's almost as if our very insignificance is a key to a type of holiness. Or, perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Of course, one reason I've been a fan of the Mountain Goats through a string of over ten albums is that John's songs possess that marvelous quality of seeming to be full of meaning--they reward listening and relistening in a way that lesser artist can't quite achieve. I've probably listened to The Coroner's Gambit album well over a hundred times, and every time I always seem to find some new poetic key that unfolds a new message. I listen to the mountain goats with the same faithful ferver that some men read the Bible.

Still, as much as I love the mountain goats, I was willing to pan their last album as mopey and overly produced. Hopefully my willingness to give them a thumbs down will give extra weight to the thumbs up I'm giving Heretic Pride. I've been listening to it non-stop since I picked it up last week, and I have a feeling that the next mix album I make of MG material will be heavy with tracks from Heretic Pride. As I type this, I'm listening to track 8, "Lovecraft in Brooklyn." What other songwriter could pull of a climax to a song like this?

Woke up afraid of my own shadow,
like, genuinely afraid.
Headed for the pawnshop
to buy myself a switchblade.
Someday something's coming
from way out beyond the stars
to kill us while we stand here;
it will store our brains in mason jars.
And then the girl behind the counter asks "How do you feel today?"
and I say "I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn!"

Ah, good stuff. And I can't think of any other album this song fits on. Ultimately, it's songs like this that really pull Heretic Pride over the line into greatness.