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, August 31, 2008

How to be a Writer

How to be a writer:
Step one: Write book.

Step two: Go fishing.

Yesterday, I finished step one. I started Dragonseed, the third Dragon Age novel, back in February, though I immediately came down with the flu after chapter one, so my real start was actually more like March. I finished the first draft in early June, the second draft in early August, and have spent the rest of August reading the book out loud polishing the prose to make it sound natural to my ear. This last week I've been tweaking, trimming some spots, beefing up others, doing tedious searches for words I know I sometimes overuse. Then: poof. At some point yesterday, I realized I was done. I cannot at present make the book any better than it already is on my own, so it's time to but it into my editor's hands and let him take a crack at it. Not that I think there will be much cracking. It may be that I'm too close to judge, but this book feels tight to me.
Yesterday, after I finished the book I went to Walmart and browsed through their fishing department and I spotted something I hadn't seen in a while: Mepps spinners. I learned the magic of Mepps when I was a teenager in Mississippi, and fished with them religiously when I moved to NC. Then, I stopped fishing for about a decade and when I picked it up again I remembered using spinners, but was a little vague on the exact brand. I tried a bunch and never had any luck. But, yesterday, my eyes fell on a Mepp's rooster tail and instantly I knew it was the spinner I'd used 30 years ago. I bought two, then drove over to the Eno and tested it out. Bam! I caught fish right and left. Actually, that was it: two fish, a small bass to the right of a small waterfall and a nice sized blue gill to the left of it. But, it was a nice test. I'd already made dinner plans so I had to stop fishing and go get ready for that.
Driving home last night, a storm passed through the area. I woke up this morning certain that fish were biting. So, again I went down to the river, cast with the Mepps, and wham, first cast, first bass. Second cast, second bass. Then it slowed down for a bit, but I caught two more bass over the next half hour. They were about 10" to 14" long. I threw back the smallest two and decided I had more than enough fish to make a big batch of ceviche.
Here is a picture of my catch, in its deconstructed ceviche form:

I'm certain that other writers have other rituals to recharge their souls, but for me, fishing is a transcendent activity, a perfect restorative for mind, body, and spirit. There's nothing quite like looking at a swirling eddy of water and thinking, "I bet there's a fish there," then sinking your lure directly into the bulls eye of the current and seeing your rod bend two seconds later. Life is fantastic and magical.

For one of my favorite stories about the healing power of fishing, I highly recommend listening to "the Test" by Scott Carrier. You can listen to this story at the This American Life archives. This whole show is terrific... nothing Scott Carrier has ever recorded is boring.

By now, my ceviche should have finished marinating. Lunch time!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Single Issue Voter

I've been wrapped up in the final draft of Dragonseed during a time when there's been a lot of developments in the political world. I'm someone who takes pride in knowing what's going on in national politics, although at some point my motivation for following the news slipped from wanting to understand the world to wanting to be able to get the jokes on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.

Due to my deadline, I haven't watched a minute of the Democrat's convention, nor did I take time to listen to McCain's announcement of Veep. I didn't even watch John Edwards creepy confession of infidelity, despite the fact that he's from NC and despite the fact that I have personal experience both with unfaithful spouses and cancer stricken partners. And, really, what is there to debate about the whole Edward's thing? Other than whether or not we made a mistake by getting rid of the stocks we used to lock people into on the public square so we could pelt them with rotting vegtables?

The Edward's thing did lead me to realize a very subtle distinction in public moral attitudes that I don't think I was aware of before. It's scandalous, though not always ruinous, for a politician to cheat on a spouse and stay with that spouse. On the other hand, if a politician cheats on a spouse, then dumps them and marries the new object of his affection, it's no big deal. McCain pays no price for cheating on his first wife because he dumped her. I think that American's are open to the storyline that someone can be married then meet someone new and fall in love, but are less forgiving of politicians who are just out chasing tail. Or maybe none of it matters anymore.

But I'm getting sidetracked. The title of this post is "Single Issue Voter," and it's my announcement that for the first time ever I'm giving serious consideration to not voting for president this time. I usually vote Libertarian, but I don't think I can vote for Bob Barr. This has almost nothing to do with logic... I just dislike the man personally. He flip-flopped on so many issues in order to become a Libertarian that I think it's legitimate to wonder about his sincerity. He now says marriage law should be left to the states, but in congress he was one of the authors of the Defense of Marriage act. I just feel like it's creepy for a man who's had three wives to be legislating anyone's morality. Finally, there's just something deeply disturbing about the fact that his mustache is a different color than his hair.

So, I may not vote in this election because as the years have gone by, I've drifted into the stance of being a single issue voter. The only issue I care about at the moment is the Federal debt. I have strong opinions on a zillion other issues, but the Federal debt is the monster issue that is eating up every other issue on the table. Our shared debt has turned us into a nation that is borrowing money in order to pay the interest on the money it's already borrowed. If a family household reaches the point where it's using credit cards to make payments on other credit cards, any intelligent person would agree that family is in serious trouble, and the first is most sensible advice you would give that family would be STOP BUYING STUFF YOU CAN'T AFFORD! Both Obama and McCain are running on platforms of tax cuts while at the same time talking about new spending, either military or domestic. Both of them make vague, laughable projections that sometime around the end of 8 years in office, their budgets will finally balance and they'll leave office with the nation poised for a new golden age.

Either McCain and Obama are idiots, or they are opportunistic sleazes who understand the problem but are instead committed to telling American's what they think American's want to hear: Everything's going fine! We'll give you more and take less! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

I talked to someone at dinner the other night who supports Obama and believes that Obama really does intend to balance the budget with higher taxes, and that he's only talking about tax cuts right now so that he can make it into office. I've heard a few Republican's say similar things about McCain, that they think he'll be a deficit hawk and be much more agressive with spending cuts than he lets on. There's something embarassing, I think, in supporting a candidate because you know in your secret heart that he agrees with you, and his public positions are just lies to appease the masses.

Even the libertarian position on the deficit/debt is a joke. They believe you can cut government services enough to get rid of taxes once and for all! Utopia! But, our debt is so large, you could stop all spending. Everything. No social security, no congressional salaries, no military... and you still couldn't pay off the public debt.

Not all debt is evil, of course. I've gone into debt to buy my house and my car. Debt is a useful tool for making big purchases. But, all the debt I've taken on, I have a plan and a budget to pay off. The US plan for debt at the moment is... keep borrowing more!

So, I will support the first candidate who obeys the law of holes: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. How can you stop digging? 1. Freeze spending until we are back in the black. The country didn't fall apart at our present level of public spending this year. We can probably survive on the same level of spending next year, and the year after. 2. Stop cutting taxes. We actually collect a seriously impressive amount of money each year. And, we survived this year at our present level of taxation. It won't kill us to put up with it for another year or two. Since our present spending and taxation produce deficits, we wouldn't have a balanced budget, although due to economic growth we would eventually get there. After we stopped actively making the problem worse with tax-cutting and increased spending, we could then tinker at the edges to get us into the black. And then, this is important: We can't just balance the budget, we need to begin to run surplusses and keep running them for decades to pay down our debt.

Find me one politician who has a serious plan to stop digging, and I'll give him or her my vote.

Now, back to Dragonseed!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I just couldn't keep quiet!

Okay, so two columns back I announced I wouldn't be posting any columns here in August because of the deadline for Dragonseed. But, yesterday I was doing my morning wake-up browse of the internet and stumbled onto an editorial by Dennis Prager, a talk show host. He's written an article arguing for the neccessity of God, as opposed to the existence of God. It's basically a list of 14 reasons why, if we assume there is a God, we are better off than if we assume there isn't.

You can read his whole article here. Unfortunately, the article didn't have a comment field beneath it. I don't want to violate any copyright by cutting and pasting his 14 point here to argue with them one by one.

Some of them, I don't argue. Some sound like pretty good arguments for atheism, starting with his first item:

Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."

I'm perfectly comfortable with the notion that good and evil do not exist in some form that transcends humanity. Once I stopped attempting to divine the wishes of an invisible judge who will weigh the value of my life after I die, my life became a bit less stressful.

But, moving on, there was one point that was made that really made my eyes pop open:

Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.

I dislike the use of the word "tragic," but aside from that, I agree with the basic thrust. However, the alternative seems to be this: Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is a God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and afterward all but a tiny handful will be punished with everlasting torment.

To me, the first statement seems far more acceptable than the second. We live, we suffer, we die--but at least God isn't eating popcorn while watching kids starving or getting abused or coming down with cancer. The human condition seems to me to be exactly the same level of suffering with or without God--only, if you do presume the existence of God, you're left wondering why he hates you and what you've done to deserve the tornado that just wiped out your house.

One last point that also got my goat: If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.

This was closely related to the moral argument that eventually drove me into atheism. Because, according to the teachings of my church, there was no path to God but through Jesus. So, being kind wouldn't save you. Being an innocent victim of torture or murder wouldn't save you. And, if a murderer repented on death row for killing and raping some Buddhist hippie, that murderer was going to heaven to live it up while the woman he killed was going to spend all of eternity in a pit of eternal flame suffering far worse agonies than mere rape. In my church, Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler did have the same fates--they were both going to hell, since Catholics weren't really Christians. Ghandi was going to hell. John Lennon, hell. Every native American born before Christians reached the America's... hell bound. Unborn babies aborted in China were heavenbound, since sin didn't pass on until you were born, but all their commie mommies and daddies... off to hell! God doesn't care if you're a good mother or an axe-murderer. If you aren't born again, you burn. And, he doesn't really grade the sins... Hitler is going to suffer in the same hell that Ted Kennedy is going to for voting against the Iraq war (or whatever).

Anyway, sorry to break the silence with a rant, but I just couldn't let these two arguments pass. Now, back to Dragonseed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dona Nova at Golden Belt

I took a break from my writing marathon on Friday night to go see my friend Dona Nova's new studio at Golden Belt in Durham. It occurs to me that this gives me the opportunity to sneak in a five-thousand word blog post, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

I worry that my cell phone photos may not do justice to the intesity of color and depth Dona manages to achieve in her work. If you look at the painting immediately below the penguins above, you'll see a yellow and purple abstract that looks like just a bunch of swirls. But, when you are actually standing right in front of it, these swirls all create an illusion of depth and you feel as if you are staring at something organic. I took a close up of this painting from about three inches away:

Dona's art works at a distance, but also rewards people who are willing to put their noses a few inches away from the canvas.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A last post on writing before a month long break...

Sorry for the lackluster post rate lately. I'm posting more frequently at my dragon blog these days as I work to promote Dragonforge. The prospects of more heavy posting in August look dim. I've got to turn in the third Bitterwood book, Dragonseed, at the end of August. I'm still working on the second draft, and am probably going to wind up with only three weeks to finish the final draft. That means I'll need to be reading aloud and polishing 10 chapters each week. Eek! I'm not complaining. Getting that immersed in a writing project is actually pretty close to my dream life. But, it definitely means a fall off in blogging until the book is turned in.

So, since it may be a month before I get back to this blog with a substantial post, I figured I'd toss out a bit of writing advice that crystalized for me just this week. Many writers struggle with backstories for their characters. How to get all the information in about what has gone before is a challenge, and leads to the dreaded writing technique known as infodumping. So, here's a different way of thinking about backstory that may be of use: Turn your backstory into setting details.

For instance, if you were to visit my house, a halfway careful observer would figure out a lot of my personal backstory just by looking at my walls. It would probably be fairly simple to deduce that I'm a writer, given that I have covers of my books framed and displayed in my living room, as well as a shelf there with a copy of every anthology I've ever been published in, as well as all three of my novels, including ARCs. Oh, also some posters from bookstore signings. You would also find a photo of Laura prominently displayed in my living room; since there's no woman living with me, you might guess it's a girlfriend, but if you dug around a little you'd find the obituary I keep in the white table in the living room. There's also picture frame on my bookshelf that opens into a small photo album; it would be simple to deduce what had happened to Laura by following the sequence of photo there.

When you are crafting scenes, remember that characters aren't just sitting around in their houses or cars or workplaces... they are sitting in the middle of their backstories. If you carefully focus the camera of your prose upon the right details of the setting, you will reveal things about the character's past. A key example of this from Dragonforge would be the second chapter, when Graxen and the Matriarch are speaking in the thread room. There are tapestries on the walls that tell the entire racial history of the sky-dragons. I don't describe the history page after page, but I do describe the tapestries enough to bring it to life in the reader's mind, and the presence of the tapestries serves at key moments in the conversations as jumping off points for talking about backstory without it seeming infodumpy. It's natural that they should briefly discuss Vendevorex, for instance, because there's a blackboard where the Matriarch updates her genealogical notes and Vendevorex's name is written on the board in bold letters and surrounded by question marks. The matriarch doesn't know his origins, and it's her job to know everyone's origins... and we can learn this because of the setting detail that invites this explanation. And, we also get a very brief summary of the conclusion of Vendevorex's storyline from the first novel. Again, it doesn't feel like a naked infodump because it flows from the setting.

So tie your setting and backstory together whenever possible. It makes both richer.

More posts on writing will be coming next month!