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, January 23, 2011

The future of jobs

This weekend, about every third editorial I read was about what can and should be done by government to promote the creation of more jobs. One common theme among the articles was the seeming paradox that corporate profits are improving, but this isn't resulting in a new wave of hiring.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky radical (you may judge left wing or right wing), corporate profits are improving because corporations have figured out how to make and sell as many things as they used to using fewer people. Corporations don't have a mandate to create jobs; they have a mandate to create profits for stockholders. Employees are just a cost of doing business, and smart businesses cut costs wherever they can.

Some people are attracted to large corporations because they provide the illusion of job security. Microsoft or Fedex or even McDonald's look to be companies that will be around for the long haul, and it might seem like, once you get a job with a corporation that has been around decades and will last for decades, you can be assured your job will last.

But, it's big corporations who can be the most agressive when it comes to making the cuts needed to stay profitable. So you've got twenty years experience? Do you really turn out more work than the five part timers you could be replaced by for the cost of your salary and benefits? Or, having gotten secure in your job, are you actively making yourself replacable by taking for granted that you've found your niche in life?

I'm not writing this to condemn corporations as cruel or heartless, however. I'm writing more as a wake-up to the American worker. We can bemoan the fact that corporate CEO's take home multi-million dollar bonuses that could have been used to hire more workers, or we can accept that these are the facts of life in the new American century, and, really have been the facts for a good twenty or thirty years now.

The only way to ensure that you will never be fired is become your own employer. Develop your most profitable skills to the point that other people willingly pay you money to excersize those skills.

Self employment isn't easy. I'm writing this as someone who still has a job with a corporation, because, while I can concievably replace my salary with my own efforts, it's a much higher hurdle to replace my salary and my benefits. Health insurance is a huge expense. But, I know my goals, and the longer I strive, and the harder I work, the closer I get to reaching them.

One giant hassle of self-employment has been handling my taxes. I think I've done a fairly good job. As a writer, my revenues in a year come from fewer than a dozen sources, and my expenses aren't excessively difficult to keep track of. Still, the stress I feel every April when I mail off the taxes I owe always cause me to wonder if it's worth it. It's not like I've sat down and read our entire zillion page tax code. What if there's some odd sub-clause I'm missing and the next thing I know I'm in court defending myself because I didn't pay the 9x12 manilla envelope tax when I mailed off my last book contract?

So, returning to the question that started this column: What should government do to create more jobs for you? Nothing. It's up to us. This is still America. If we've reached the point where we can't pull themselves up by our own boot straps, we're done for. But, the government could do more to put us bootstrappers on equal footing. Corporations can deduct health insurance. Why can't I? Give the American people fairness, and we can't provide our own opportunities.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A few thoughts on politics and guns

The shooting of Gabriel Giffords has caused me to think about some of my basic assumptions. As a libertarian, I'm relatively pro-gun. I think the Supreme Court has things about right. The second ammendment does plainly guarantee that any citizen should have the right to own a gun, but doesn't prohibit reasonable laws regulating these arms. I firmly believe that 99% of gun owners are honest folks who would never dream of using a gun for aggressive violence.

But, having the right to own a gun for hunting, target practice, or self-defense is one thing. Owning a gun that will let you fire off thirty rounds into a crowd in a minute or so is a completely different matter.

Life isn't a Hollywood action movie. I can't think of many plausible situations where a person is likely to need a gun that fires off more than 5 or 6 rounds in order to defend themselves. I know it will never happen since the NRA opposes any restrictions on guns, but couldn't we slow the pace of these spree shootings that seem to happen almost yearly in the US simply by limiting the magazine sizes of guns? Six-shooters were good enough for cowboys. Let's make that the limit. Then, a spree killer has to stop and reload (or carry multiple guns, but if you're carrying five guns into a supermarket, maybe someone will notice before you get four feet away from the congresswoman).

Can anyone give me a sane argument why this would be an intolerable limit on our civil liberties?

Guns don't kill people. People kill people. And some people are bat-shit crazy and there's really no good way of filtering them out. When they do finally get their hands on a gun, let's make them reload.

Thought two: Hateful rhetoric and a culture of violence.

Blaming Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh for this shooting or for the rise of "hate speech" is more about hating Palin and Limbaugh than it is based on any sort of evidence or reason. Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that this violence was inevitable due to the harsh rhetoric of modern politics, but it makes me wonder if he's actually paying attention to history and the news.

The reality is, if you're under 25, you haven't seen a serious assassination attempt on a president, congressman, senator, or supreme court justice. You could argue that the president has better security these days, but congressmen aren't surrounded by squadrons of guards. US senators freely go jogging on the streets of DC without armed escorts. Supreme Court Justices don't wear bulletproof vests when they go grocery shopping. For all the talk of political violence, anyone half way paying attention has to see that we live in very peaceful times. As a people, we don't solve our political disagreements by gunning each other down in the streets.

Is political violence today worse than it was in the 60's and 70's? For all the talk that the Tea Party members are racist bastards driven to insanity by a black president, does no one remember that it was little more than 50 years ago when KKK members routinely lynched blacks and murdered civil rights advocates?

Even back in the 90s, it seemed like there was a spate of homegrown terrorists bombing abortion clinics and targeting federal buildings and mailing bombs to college campuses.

Maybe the increased security after 9-11 is the reason, or maybe we just started getting our violent rages out by playing video games, but it seems to me that we've had a remarkably civil and non-violent political discourse in our country for the last thirty years or so. I don't even think the shooting last weekend counts as political violence because the guy was obviously wacko. He didn't need Glenn Beck telling him to shoot people; he had that creepy little skull on that shrine in his back yard whispering what to do.

So, I'd like to say to the right wingers and the left wingers out there reading this: Thanks. Thanks for being decent folks and limiting your political action to name calling and shouting. I'm grateful that you haven't turned us into a place where we settle our differences with rifles instead of ballots. You're alright, my fellow Americans.

Unless you think that you need more than six bullets in your gun to defend yourself from a burgler. In which case you're just a jerk.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Five writing mantras that bear repeating

These are the most important truths of writing I've learned to date. At various points in the past, I've posted all these rules in various configurations, but, these are my writing mantras, and the whole point of a mantra is that it's something you repeat:

1. The worst novel you put on paper is better than the best novel you have in your head.

Suppose you sit down and bang out a manuscript that is, in your judgement, utter crap. Guess what? Other people can read crap. They can go through your manuscript and tell you what they like and didn't like. On the other hand, that golden, gleaming, perfect novel that exists only inside your skull is completely unreadable by anyone other than yourself.

2. Here. Now.

These words have saved me time and time again. When I get the most lost in a story it's often because I can't see the trees because of the forest. I'm getting distracted by the big picture, worried about whether I'm sharing enough information about what happened twenty years before the story began, or properly laying the groundwork for what will happen ten chapters from now. Screw the past and the future. When you sit down to write, focus on the immediate spot in time and space that your character occupies in the scene at hand. Make the moment concrete, and when it's done, move on to the next one. Do this a couple of hundred times, and whoah, you've written a book!

3: To write a good novel, you must first write a bad novel.

First drafts aren't supposed to be great all the way through. You've got to just slog ahead and write some stuff wrong so that you can later go back and write it right. Or, maybe you'll never get it right; a bad novel is still priceless. I've written nine novels to date. I've sold and published four, two more will either be sold or published this year, and three of these will never be published because they aren't at the level of craftmanship I now demand of myself. But, I couldn't have written the six good novels if I hadn't written the three bad ones. I had to write the bad novels A: so that I could prove to myself I had the discipline to finish the tasks I started B: so that I could inflict them upon critique groups that went on to give me useful advice on plotting, character development, style, pacing, dialogue, etc., and C: so that I could learn more about the types of stuff I was lousy at writing so that I could better understand the sort of stuff I was good at.

4: Never look back.

When writing my first novel, I kept getting caught in the trap of changing my mind about stuff I'd already written and going back and revising and reworking before I got to the end. Then, when I did get some forward momentum going, I'd change my mind on something and have to go back and revise again. It took me two damn years to finish that first book. I got better on my second and third books, gaining the willpower not to go back and revise while I was still writing, but lacking the willpower or wisdom to not go back and read what I'd already written, or to show what I'd already written to other people. By book four, I hit the formula that has worked for me on all subsequent books: I don't show any of the novel to anyone until I've completed the first draft. I don't even show it to myself; I forbid myself to go back and read the previously written chapters, since I can't read without editing them. I've never reached the end of a book without gaining a dozen insights in the last three chapters about the kinds of stuff I should have put in my first three chapters to make the book feel like a closing circle. You aren't going to know every thing that you have to include in your first chapter until you've written your last chapter. The surest, fastest way to get to that last chapter is just to keep pushing forward, keep working in your newer, better ideas as if you've been writing with them in mind all along, and keep that hunger to show the book to someone building until you write "the end."

5. Little by little, the work gets done.

For the most part, when I set a word count goal for a week, I meet that goal. But, it's also definitely not unheard of for me to blow a word count goal, sometimes severely. Inky black pools of despair open before me during these times as I wonder just what ever made me think I was any good at this game.

Almost always, I'm not missing my goal due to some internal barrier to creativity. I'm missing it because there are 1,000 things in this world that are more fun and/or vital to do in my "free" time. I'll skip a night of writing because a friend wants to go out to dinner, or skip a Saturday because one of my neices is having a birthday party cookout and the whole family is invited. I'll miss a Sunday afternoon in the spring because the sky is flawless blue and the air is a perfect 72 degrees and it's been months since my girlfriend and I have gone bike riding.

So then I start feeling guilt. I'm skipping writing to go to dinner? I'm skipping writing to enjoy sunshine? Are these such rare events that I should toss aside my pursuit of art? Is the sun slated to stop shining tomorrow and this is my last chance ever to enjoy it? Well, maybe it is. Who knows? So when all my big blocks of the time disappear, for happy reasons or sad, I start making bargains. I take my laptop and type 500 words while my girlfriend drives us to Asheboro. I get up 10 minutes earlier than normal and type two foggy paragraphs. I sneak back to my room between panels at a science fiction con and type like a demon for 45 minutes. The more moments I steal, the easier it is to transition back into stealing hours.

Steal the moments.

Little by little the work gets done.