James Maxey attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 1998. He’s gone on to publish stories in a score of magazines and anthologies, and eight novels to date. His currently available novels are the superhero tales Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn, and two fantasy series, the Dragon Age trilogy of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, and the Dragon Apocalypse series that debuted in 2012 with Greatshadow, Hush, and the soon to be released Witchbreaker. For more information on his writing, visit dragonprophet.blogspot.com.
I never sold the first novel I wrote. I worked on it for over two years, tweaking and polishing and redrafting. I probably tossed out and rewrote the first chapter at least a half dozen times. From a prose standpoint, it doesn’t suck. I had a good feel for building scenes, and there’s enough action to create the illusion of forward momentum. Unfortunately, taken as a whole, it’s now easy to see there were serious structural flaws. My protagonist doesn’t really do anything meaningful to drive the plot. He’s just in the middle of a long chain of unlikely coincidences. My villain is charismatic and creepy, but his actions have no real logic behind them. He enjoys hurting people, but I never really gave him a satisfying motive. An even larger problem is that the book doesn’t know what it wants to be. The first part of the novel is a character study, the middle part of the book is a crime novel, and the last third of the book is pretentious literary fiction that deliberately ignores what little plot there was that came before it.
Writing that book taught me many important lessons. First, I learned that I did possess the discipline needed to place my butt in a chair and type week after week until I’d produced a novel length manuscript. Second, I learned that a manuscript needed more than sixty thousand words and a title to make it a real novel. Third, I learned that my close friends were overly protective of my feelings, willing to tell me that what I was writing was really good when it actually stank. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned when to give up and move on. There’s a crude but honest saying that applies to bad stories: You can’t polish a turd.
This didn’t stop me from going on and writing another deeply flawed novel, plus dozens of seriously defective short stories. Luckily, each of these proved valuable in moving my writing and storytelling skills forward. For the vast majority of them, I went through multiple drafts trying to get them right before calling it quits and focusing on a new project. Sticking with a project long enough to improve your skills is vital. The danger is getting stuck. If you’ve met other self-identified writers, chances are you’ve met one who’s been working on the same story for a decade or more. There’s a point where stubborn dedication becomes a trap.
These days, I sell almost everything I write. This is partly because I’ve gotten better at writing. More importantly, I’ve gotten better at not writing. I don’t waste my time starting a story unless I’m confident it’s going to find a home. Rather than writing iffy stories and waiting for editors to pass on them, I’ve gotten very good at rejecting my own weak ideas before I ever start typing. It’s possible that by ruthlessly winnowing my own fledgling ideas, I’m preventing some ugly ducklings from growing into swans. On the other hand, my current career goal is to produce two novels a year. In fact, in the space between August 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012, I’ll have written three novels and produced a sample chapter and a pitch for a fourth. With this schedule, I don’t have time to waste on projects of dubious viability.
While I rely mostly on instinct in choosing which books to write, these instincts have been honed by years of practice. If I had a list of formal criteria I use in deciding to embrace a project, it would look something like this:
Is there a market for this story?
I used to reject ideas because I felt like they’d been done before. Did the world really need another zombie tale? Aren’t people sick of dragons by now? There’s a reason some of these ideas seem a little familiar. Readers keep reading them, editors keep buying them, and Barnes and Noble keeps displaying them prominently in their stores. Your odds of getting published are much higher if you’re writing a book that fits into an established category.
Do I have something new to say?
Just because you’ve decided to write about vampires or teen wizards or alien planets doesn’t mean you have to produce something trite or clichéd. In all my novels, I take a familiar category—dragons, for instance—then figure out how to twist the concepts to make them mine. With my Bitterwood novels, I took a scientific approach to world building to produce a fantasy series that obeyed science fiction rules. With my current Dragon Apocalypse series, I’m using the backdrop of myth to explore very real questions about man’s relationship to the natural world. I never write about dragons just to be writing about dragons.
Is there symmetry?
I don’t know if other writers worry much about this, but these days I never start writing if I don’t have an end in mind. One thing that’s important to me is that I can look at the shape of a story and see that its main thread comes full circle. Without revealing spoilers, in the first scene of my novel Greatshadow, a character is falling from a great height. Since the book started with a character falling, the book ends with a character flying. I doubt that readers are even aware that the beginning and end are mirrors of each other, but once I saw the overarching structure, I knew the book would work. There are certainly other viable approaches to a novel, but once I find the symmetry, I’ve found the edges of the jigsaw puzzle that is my tale. Even if I haven’t figured out all the stuff in the middle, I have enough of a picture to move ahead.
Do I want to read this story?
Remember the first question? The answer to “is there a market” has been greatly muddied by the advent of self-published ebooks. Last year I wrote a novel called Burn Baby Burn about two supervillians on a crime spree. I wrote it knowing that I was unlikely to find a mainstream publisher, but also knowing from my experience with an earlier superhero novel, Nobody Gets the Girl, that superhero ebooks sold reasonably well. I could have skipped Burn Baby Burn to get a head start on another epic fantasy. But, I wrote it not just because I thought I could make money, but because I really wanted to read the finished book. No one else had stepped up to write the damn thing for me, so I did it myself. In the end, you are your ultimate fan. You’re never wasting time if you’re writing a book you can’t wait to read.
When I first started self-pubbing in parallel with my traditional career, I was surprised at my success and eager to get more material into the market. One candidate in my back catalog was a novella that had been published several years ago. It wasn’t the best thing I’d ever written, but it was good enough to have been published the first time around. I whipped up a cover, tightened up the prose, and put it online… for all of three days. Then I yanked it. Why? Because the novella was hard science fiction, and all my other ebooks were either about dragons or superheroes. While the novella was a decent coming-of-age space adventure, it didn’t really fit my “brand.” I worried that people might read my other books, become a fan, then read this story and find it less interesting. One mediocre story can be enough to cool the passions an otherwise enthusiastic reader. Judging the story as objectively as possible, it was merely an okay story. Not bad, but not great. So, it’s no longer for sale, and I’m not going to waste another moment trying to spice it up. You think getting rejected by a publisher is rough? Wait until you reject your own finished manuscript!
In the end, one dividing line between the professional and the amateur writer is developing that instinct for setting aside work that isn’t up to par. Sometimes, it takes a dozen drafts to figure out that a story should never be shown to the world. Often, you know the truth ten minutes after you reach the end of a first draft. With enough practice, you’re able to reject a flawed story before you ever type a word. It sounds like a certain recipe for low self esteem, but trust me, you won’t believe how much time this opens up to work on good material.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.