Posts Tagged ‘James Maxey’

Writing update: 5/16/11 – outlines & writing vividly

Posted in News - updates on books, events, appearances, etc., On Writing  by John Brown on May 16th, 2011

Finished chapter 5 of CURSE last Saturday. Huzzah!

The writing is a blast, even though it still requires work. Along those lines, I’ve been meaning for some time to write up the techniques and principles I use when drafting.  So I think I’m going to do a semi-regular post on a weekly basis where I share these tidbits as I run into them. It will be kind of like director commentary, although I’ll have to be careful not to toss out any spoilers.

This week I’ll talk about using chapter outlines and writing vividly. 

Bullet Outlines & Chapter Outlines

Up to this draft, what I’ve done is work from a bullet outline.  Each bullet is a short statement of what needs to occur.  Sometimes it’s very general about the story arc–presentation of the problem, struggle, and resolution.  Sometimes it’s a very specific step.  Sometimes it includes cryptic notes.  For example, here are some bullets for SERVANT:

  1. Talen goes to village, they suspect him
  2. Talen runs, sabin catches him by his hair and pulls him back, field stone size of liver. Plant idea of him catching Hatchlings
  3. Woods back home, freaked
  4. Father is not as concerned, strange, sends him out to field–Talen starts to think about catching the Hatchlings himself

As you can see, it gives me a roadmap (which often changes) so I’m not starting from nothing when I open up my chapter document.  But it’s very general.  When using this, I often have to use a number of takes to get the scene written because those first takes are me imagining the scene. In fact, my first take is usually a sketch of the scene with me blocking out my goals for the scene and how I expect the events to occur. However, in this last go at CURSE I wrote a chapter outline.  It took me about 25 hours, and the outline for CURSE ran 32 pages. I’ve pasted the first two chapters below.  You can see they’re still mostly in summary, but they represent the initial sketch of what’s going to happen.   

1.               The Village of Plum – TALEN

It’s past midnight, behind enemy lines. A thin moon hangs in the sky. Talen, Sugar, River, and five of Shim’s best soldiers crouch in the black shadows of the tree line running along the road to the village of Plum (Sugar’s former village), watching for soldiers or a village guard.

Talen jokes with Sugar, telling her he wanted a dance tonight, not a sneak behind enemy lines, even if it was in the dark. He’s more than half serious. As they’ve worked together over the last three months since the battle in the cave, he’s become attracted to her.

Also during those three months, the clans of the New Lands split into two factions. Five clans, led by the Fir-Noy, believed Shim, the leader of the Shoka clan, was being controlled by sleth. The remaining four clans followed Shim. The Fir-Noy faction immediately took up arms, initially to protect themselves, but they soon began talking about ridding the land of the sleth curse. Tensions rose, and in a series of altercations a number of people on both sides were killed. Now both factions have mobilized forces to establish pickets and patrols along a border between them.

A few days ago, Argoth received word from his spies that something was afoot in the Fir-Noy clan, as if they were preparing for a strike. Futhermore, they’ve decided to excavate the grounds about Sugar’s old house. Argoth knows Purity had her own cache of weaves under the hearth of her old home, the location of which she revealed to Sugar just before she died. Argoth has begun to train up an army of dreadmen for Shim. But he’s stretched thin. He needs all the lore he can get. So he’s sent Sugar and the others to retrieve the items before they’re lost. They’ve come on the evening of the annual apple dance festival, hoping the Fir-Noy would be less vigilant. So far, they’ve been right. In fact, Talen begins to feel like it’s been a little too easy.

As Talen and the others prepare to move forward, Sugar puts her hand on Talen’s arm. He can feel Sugar’s Fire and soul, and her touch only enflames his desire for both. He’s alarmed by this intensity, and finds it hard to focus, so he moves his arm away.

“You’re going to give me a boost up,” she says.

Up ahead in front of the Fir-Noy village stands a thick timber pole probably 11 feet high. Fastened to the top of that pole is what looks to be a skull.

“You brought us round the wrong side,” Talen says. Their objective was the ash ruins of Sugar’s burned out house, not this pole. 

“You can’t think we’d come all this way, and I’d leave without it.”

It’s her father’s skull. The only thing of his that remains. Talen, not wanting contact, motions at one of the taller soldiers with them. “He’d be taller.”

“Come on,” Sugar says and moves forward in a crouch. They move out of the shadows and into the moonlight, watching the village. Sugar climbs up on Talen’s shoulders and cuts loose the bonds holding her father’s skull. The whole time Talen’s desires make the experience uncomfortable.

Once Sugar has the skull safely in her sack, the group keeps to the deeper night shadows of the tree line and moves around the edges of the village fields until they come to a ditch. Along the way, one of the soldiers touches Talen, and he feels that same overpowering desire. Something is not right inside of him. He knows it. But there’s nothing to do about it now as they follow the ditch to the ash ruins of Sugar’s house.

Sugar and Talen sneak over to the hearth of the burned out home. River and the five Shoka soldiers take up watch. Soon Sugar finds the secret cache, but as she’s removing the items, they hear a sound come from one of the surrounding houses. Talen and the others stop and listen. Suddenly Fir-Noy soldiers burst out of the door. They overwhelm one of Shim’s soldiers and rush straight for the others.

Talen and the others turn to run, but Fir-Noy soldiers begin to pour out of four other houses. Then a Fir-Noy dreadman emerges and shouts it’s the boy that’s wanted. They can slaughter all the rest. It’s clear these soldiers were waiting for them, but there’s no way they could have know Talen and the others were coming, unless they were betrayed. 

2.               Hue & Cry – SUGAR

Sugar stuffs the last item in the secret cache into her sack and rises. The Fir-Noy are shouting, but River charges a gap in the quickly forming mob. She fights ferociously. The others race after her, Sugar and another soldier bringing up the rear. Sugar and the others are multiplied, but they’re not fast enough to avoid the soldiers completely, and Sugar is forced to fight and kick to break her way through. When she finally does break past the men, she finds she and the last soldier have been separated from the others and there’s no way to immediately join back up.

Sugar and the soldier run, but he’s wounded. He tells Sugar to run on without him. She refuses, then a company of Fir-Noy round the corner of a house. The soldier turns to face them and tells her once again to run. In her mind’s eye, Sugar sees the same situation unfolding before her as when the mob came after her mother and da. She ran then and regretted watching her father get butchered. She isn’t going to run now. Besides, she’s multiplied. So instead of running, she rushes over to the soldier and, with lore-given strength, picks him up, puts him over her shoulders, and, despite his protests, speeds away.

Sugar knows she won’t be able to outdistance her pursuers like this, but she also knows the villager Stout keeps a horse in the barn just ahead. She turns the corner on the barn, puts the soldier down, and tells him to get the horse. Then she darts back out into view of the soldiers following and leads them away. She glances back and sees the soldier slip into the barn. It’s the best she could do for him. If he can get on Stout’s horse, he’ll have a chance to escape.

Sugar looks to see how she might join back up with Talen and the others, but it’s impossible now. And while most of the Fir-Noy soldiers chased after Talen and the others, a good number are chasing her. Furthermore, others in the village are coming out of their homes. She speeds past them. All over the village dogs begin to bark, but she hears one cluster that sends fear down her spine. The villager Solem keeps a pack of prize-winning sight hounds. He emerges from a barn with his pack on a leash.

“There!” a man shouts. The barking of Solem’s dogs rises in pitch.

Sugar increases her speed then hears Solem. “Stu, boys! Take her. Get the wretch!”

The dogs shoot out after her.

So how has it worked?

So far it’s worked very well. Having that initial sketch done means I take a lot less time finishing each chapter.  However, it doesn’t change the general drafting process for me:

  1. The chapters still change as I write. I find cooler ways to accomplish what I need. I also run into things I haven’t imagined yet and have to invent them. For example, on chapter 2 when Sugar is having issues, I realized I didn’t know exactly where the houses lay in the village, so I had to sketch that. It presented opportunities and images.  For example, I thought about the Fir-Noy bowmen being on the roofs. I hadn’t imagined that before, but it was so cool to me, I had to put it in.  Then I felt I wanted Talen and her to huddle together at first. I had to run through a few options about how that played out before I found one that felt right.  
  2. I still find I need to sketch out my goals for the chapters and an initial blocking of what happens. This is much shorter than it’s been on previous drafts, but I still find it helpful. Blocking scenes helps.  This is me just figuring out where everyone is and how they move. Sketching this first helps me write faster.
  3. I still have to do takes, although I move through them more quickly.  

 As you can see, I find the sketch/draft method incredibly helpful.  Just like a painter, I sketch out what I’m thinking of painting. That might require a few sketches where I add in more details.  Then I switch over and begin to paint.


Writing Vividly

On another note, I read “Stories are made out of scenes; Scenes are made out of nouns” by author James Maxey again. I really like this essay. Everyone is always talking about verbs, but nouns are such powerhouses.

Speaking of which, here is the opening to Maxey’s “To The East, A Bright Star” which was published in Asimov’s.  It has one of my favorite beginnings. And part of the reason is what Maxey talks about with nouns.


There was a shark in the kitchen. The shark wasn’t huge, maybe four feet long, gliding across the linoleum toward the refrigerator. Tony stood motionless in the knee-deep water of the dining room. The Wolfman said that the only sharks that came in this far were bull sharks, which were highly aggressive. Tony leaned forward cautiously and shut the door to the kitchen. He’d known the exact time and date of his death for most of his adult life. With only hours to go, he wasn’t about to let the shark do something ironic.  

Tony waded back to the living room. Here in the coolest part of the house, always shaded, he kept his most valuable possession in an ice-chest stashed beneath the stairs. He pulled away the wooden panel and retrieved the red plastic cooler. Inside was his cigar box, wrapped in plastic bags. He took the box, grabbed one of the jugs of rainwater cooling in the corner, and headed up the stairs to the bathroom. He climbed out the window above the tub onto the low sloping roof over the back porch.

This all reminds me of Swain’s thoughts on bringing the material to life, which I thought Maxey did so well in those paragraphs.

Few of us read voluntarily about the primer-level doings of Dick and Jane.  Simplicity is a virtue in writing, true; but never the primary virtue.

What is?


How about brevity?

It’s important too.  Within reason.

Within reason?

Who, just learning this business, knows where or when or how to be brief? In the wrong place, brevity can destroy you.


As in the case of simplicity, brevity is never the heart of the issue. Vividness is.

How do you write vividly?

You present the story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch–these are the common denominators of human experience; these are the evidence that men believe.

Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business.

Your two key tools are nouns and verbs.

(p25 Techniques of the Selling Writer)

Of course, there’s more–the telling detail, metaphor, working memory overload, details from the point of view. But it all plays into being vivid.


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Positive Review from James Maxey on Orson Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show

Posted in News - updates on books, events, appearances, etc.  by John Brown on October 22nd, 2009
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James Maxey is a writer I admire. For his work ethic. For the quality of his prose. For his imagination. His story “To Know All Things That Are In The Earth” is one of my favorites. So you can be sure I was pleased to find and read this today.

I will say, in utter candor, that Servant of a Dark God is a work that truly stands out from other fantasy books on the market. What makes this book work so well is that it’s a story about family first, and a fantasy adventure second. Full review.

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Books for Breasts!

Posted in Zing  by John Brown on June 25th, 2009
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James Maxey loved met and loved a woman named Laura. She told him she had breast cancer. He didn’t care. Later when the disease advanced, he offered to marry her. She turned him down, but not because she didn’t love him back. The disease progressed.

His posts about this experience are tender and poignant. When you read them you will rejoice. You will sorrow. And you will think about life.

He begins like this:

She was dying when I met her. We met through online personal ads, and she wrote me saying that she liked the philosophy I had sprinkled through my post. I don’t even recall what it said, really–something about finding humor and hope even in down times, I think. And she told me she’d been through some down times. She’d fought breast cancer, her husband had left her when she was diagnosed with the disease. This might send other people into a spiral of despair and self-pity that they could never pull out of. But, she hadn’t surrendered to her worries and woes. She bested them, and went on to live a terrific life. She had gotten a butterfly tattoo–it was her symbol of transformation. The time of her cancer and her divorce were when she had been drawn into her cocoon. But she’d emerged with wings.

Here are the five I would read. They’re short. So take some time. Savor them.

  1. Laura Kathleen Herrmann
  2.  Laura and the Flowers
  3. Laura’s Snow
  4. Cancer on the Comics Page
  5. One Year

When you finish, you might then want receive a free book of his in exchange for a donation (of any size; yes, even for just one buck), to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation. To make a donation vist his Books for Breast webpage.

Then live and love while the sun shines. And be glad.

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“The Only Law of Literature” by James Maxey

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on April 21st, 2009
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You already know how I feel about writerly rules. So when I read James Maxey’s “The Only Law of Literature,” I had to share it.

I want to quote the whole thing here. But I’ll resist and quote only the conclusion.

[In response to critiquing stories that don’t work for you] All the literary analysis of writing techniques, of style, of world building, of creating characters–it all has it’s place, but it’s almost completely useless as a guide to writing a good book. You are never going to be able to think or study or analyze your way into writing a book that people love.

There is only one law of good literature: Write what you’d love to read.

Not what you have read and loved. What you love, but haven’t yet read.

To quote myself from the Impish Idea thread:

Every thing you write should be a love story. Not a romance. But a story written because you loved it.

Follow your passion. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone. Fill your book with the stuff that makes your heart race and leave out the stuff that bores you. If you don’t make it into print, at least you’ll have a book you can look at with pride as being truly your own.

Once you’ve learned this secret, everything else falls into place.

Go read the whole post.

It’s important to learn craft. You cannot get away from it. But craft is only useful as a tool to tell this cool, wonderful, poignant, amazing thing we’ve invented and discovered.


I hate mission statements, but…

Posted in On Writing  by John Brown on October 19th, 2008
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Stephen R. Covey (or is it Lex Luthor?)

Stephen R. Covey (or is it Lex Luthor?)

First of all, if I could look like Stephen R. Covey does in that picture, I would shave my head and never look back. Holy moly, I love that picture. But that’s not why I’m writing.

James Maxey is a writer who I respect and whose comments on the boards of Codex Writers often make me think or laugh. He recently started a thread about writing mission statements.


I groaned when I first read the title of his topic. I know first-hand how useful goals are. I know how vital it is to identify what’s vital in any endeavor. Heck, I’m a Covey-lover through and through.

But every mission statement I’ve seen has either been useless corporate toilet paper (because they’re printed on stuff that’s too stiff and rigid to be of any help in the bathroom) or it’s a personal artifact that has a six week half life, after which it turns into something like that singing fish you bought and can’t for the life of you figure out why or where to put it now that you realize you could have eaten a steak for just as much money and the pleasure would have lasted longer.

And yet consciously thinking about how you want to live is so powerful. I think the corporate world ruined the term for me. I cannot bring myself to write a “mission statement.” I know what I want to do in my various roles in life. I know how I want to live. But I cannot use that label. Alas.

So here’s my “what I want to do” as far as writing is concerned. It’s not crisp and clean. And if I had to write it again, it would come out differently. But it has the gist.


I want to make people fall in love like I did when I first watched the Sound of Music–that sweet, pure yearning. And when they’re out of love, I want them to see a way back.

Every once in a while I want the ground to shift under the feet of my readers like it shifted under mine when I first watched Les Miserables with Anthony Perkin.

I want them to laugh.

I want to give them the wonder and adventure that was given me when I read the Hobbit.

I want them, at least once, to shout in triumph.

I want to share my delight in people who are fascinating, flawed, salt-of-the-earth, odd, funny, strong or a hundred other wonderful things, but who show some courage, a little or a lot.

I want readers to weep at the hope of redemption. I want them to despair at loss.

I want the sun to shine. I want the world to crack.

And when my readers are done, when the book’s closed and they sit back, I want the story and people to linger, I want my readers to want to go back. I want them to feel it was, not only a surge of living, but a good thing to have once been lost in the pages of my book.

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