The Practice of Creativity

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I’ve missed bringing you awesome author interviews this year, so I’m glad to share this new one with you!

Last June, I met Paige L. Christie on a panel at my first ConCarolinas. We were on a panel that I had pitched about ‘Mothers and Daughters’ and how their relationships are portrayed in speculative media. I had heard of Paige’s Legends of Arnan series and my curiosity was piqued as it was described as an epic fantasy with Western elements and feminist sensibilities. Or, as one reviewer on Amazon described it as, “a feminist Western with dragons”. The panel was fabulous and Paige and I quickly realized we had many overlapping interests. My plan was to invite her for an Author Q&A in 2019. The best laid plans…

Fast forward a year. Paige and I got reconnected through the lovely fact that we both have stories in the recently released Witches, Warriors and Wise Women anthology (by Prospective Press, same publisher as her epic fantasy series) and were on a virtual panel together promoting the book.

Paige L. Christie is author of The Legacies of Arnan fantasy series: Draigon Weather (2017), Wing Wind (2018), Long Light (2019), and the forthcoming Storm Forge (2020). As a believer in the power of words, Paige tells stories that are both entertaining and thoughtful. Especially of interest are tales that speak to women and open a space where adventure and fantasy are not all about happy endings. When she isn’t writing, she teaches belly dancing, is director of a non-profit, and runs a wine shop. She is a proud, founding member of the Blazing Lioness Writers, a small group of badass women, writing badass books.

It’s wonderful that Paige could join us to talk about her most recent novel, Long Light.  I’m so delighted to welcome Paige L. Christie to The Practice of Creativity.

 

 

Tell us about your new book, Long Light? This is the third book in your series that began with Draigon Weather. What’s in store for readers?

When I finished Draigon Weather, I realized that one of the minor characters, Kilras Dorn, was much more vital to the overall story than I initially anticipated. Much to my publisher’s dismay, I announced that the series would not be 3 books but rather 4 books. Long Light is Kilras’s story, from his childhood right up to the moment that ends the second book. Basically, I wrote Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, and am now writing Book 4. Oh the tribulations of being a ‘pantser’.

-When we were on panel together, you mentioned that you came to writing late in life (although you always had a desire to write). What are the gifts of pursuing a writing career later in life? What are the challenges, if any?

I actually started writing when I was 7 years old, and majored in writing and editing for my undergraduate degree. I’ve spent my whole life writing, but somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I was incapable of writing a novel, and that even if I did manage it, no one would be interested in reading it. So I did not complete my first novel until 2015, when I was 44 years old. The gift of this was that I had almost 4 decades of secret writing practice and had developed a strong, unique voice in that time period. The challenge is carrying a lot of guilt about ‘time wasted’, which, while pointless, weighs on me. I wish I’d had faith in myself and my writing sooner. But on the other hand, Draigon Weather could not have been written any sooner in my life. It’s a mixed bag. I’m just grateful that I got my act together at last!

-You take some delight, I think in mashing up and subverting genres. Your series is an epic fantasy that has a Western feel. What does genre mean to you?

Genre tells me where to find a book in a bookstore. It also lays out some expectations for long-time readers. People who read mysteries expect certain and different things than people who read horror or modern literature or fantasy or romance. Genre is basically a set of expectations mutually agreed upon by publishers, authors, and readers. Those expectations are based in resonance and shared history – and it’s really fun to ride those things to a place the reader does not expect.

 -How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I wrote the first draft of Draigon Weather in 4 months, then spent the next 18 months re-drafting and editing until it was in good enough shape to put out into the world. Wing Wind and Long Light both took about 2 years each to get into shape. The final book in the series is taking longest of all, mostly because the 2020 Pandemic has shorted-out my creative side. Overall, I can usually create a draft in 4-7 months, and then I nitpick for a year to get it where I want it.

-What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? Why?

What comes to mind for me is not a novel, but a series The Wars of Light and Shadow series by Janny Wurts. It is by far the most epic and intense thing I have ever read, and I think it gets over-looked because it is 1) a massive series written by a woman and people make ridiculous assumptions about what that means 2) uses such rich language and depth of detail that it demands a lot of the reader, and we live in a time when people want instant gratification. As a fan of intense character and world building, and a lover of complex, gorgeous use of language, the very things that freak people out are what attract me to these books. That and the fact that every time I think I know exactly what is going to happen next, I’m wrong! I simply adore these books.

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

This is a tough question because there’s no one-size writing advice for every human. I’d say never get to a point where you think you know it all. Always remain a student of craft. Read widely, seek advice, study books you like and figure out why you like those books, then try new techniques and styles until you find what works for you. Start writing and know that as long as you keep writing, you’ll get better!

Some craft books I recommend:

  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight V. Swain
  • Steering the Craft– Ursula K. LeGuin

Paige L. Christie is a short story writer and novelist. She possesses an uncanny knowledge of myths, archetypes and mystical worlds, and is a true student of fantasy, science fiction, history. It is her deep interest in folklore, as well as intersection of Middle Eastern and North African cultures that originally piqued her interest in the exploration of the influence of different societies, which became the foundation of her novels. Find out more about her here.

Her third novel in the Legends of Arnan series, Long Light, is available everywhere online.

Your invitation still stands, click here to get your ‘Ten Ways to Keep Connected to Your Writing Self during COVID-19’.

I’ve always thought that it’s pretty cool that I live in a region of the state (known as ‘the Piedmont’), that names a Laureate each year. James Maxey, the current Piedmont Laureate is the first speculative fiction writer ever chosen to hold that title. His announcement received lots of buzz and many writers and fans of speculative fiction delighted in the news.

James Maxey is the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. His Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker with a fourth one in the works.  He has also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in the collection, There is No Wheel.

He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with a strong emphasis on character growth and world building. He deals with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds. Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition, from the highly personal—love, hate, grief, anger, faith and hope—to larger societal issues, like the balance between individual freedoms and social order.

I met James last month at the NC Comicon. We had a fantastic discussion about the writing life. I bought his book Greatshadow and have fallen in love with the characters and the unique narrative structure he uses. I encourage you to check out his work as this month Greatshadow is free and his Bitterwood series is only 99 cents!

I’d never met any writer who also had the duties of a laureate and found myself curious about all kinds of things: What does the Piedmont Laureate do? What had been the best and most difficult parts of the year for James? What kind of reception did he receive as a speculative fiction author?

In the midst of his busy end-of-the year schedule, James graciously agreed to an interview. I’m delighted to welcome James Maxey to The Practice of Creativity.

 

-Tell us what it is like being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate.

The Piedmont Laureate is chosen each year by the United Arts Council, the Durham Arts Council, the Raleigh Arts Commission, and the Orange County Arts Commission. The mission of the Laureate is to promote reading and writing, and each one is chosen to represent a particular genre or form of writing. My focus as Piedmont Laureate was speculative fiction, a broad label covering fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, superheroes and many more genres set in worlds not quite our own. I write about these things because I read about these things.

As Piedmont Laureate, I’ve taught several writing workshops, some focused on speculative fiction, others with a broader focus on writing in general. I’ve also led several discussions at libraries and museums, and done readings at Mordecai House, Burwell School, and libraries. It’s been a crazy busy year. I’ve lost count, but I think I’m close to 30 events for the year. It’s definitely kept me busy.

600_JamesMaxey

-You’re the first (but hopefully not the last), Piedmont Laureate that primarily writes speculative fiction. Do you think that your selection, in part, represents an increasing literary respect for speculative fiction?

Hmm. I’m going to parse your question carefully and say that there is definitely an increasing cultural respect for speculative fiction. You’d have to be blind not to see that the box office each year is dominated by movies with a speculative fiction theme, and some of the biggest publishing success stories of the last twenty years have come from the speculative fiction domains. You also see the same themes now making big inroads on television.

That said, I still think there’s some literary snobbishness in regards to speculative fiction. One common prejudice I encounter all the time is the notion that speculative fiction is mainly for kids. There’s also a wide perception in the literary establishment that the genres are kind of trashy, valuing sensation over thoughtfulness. And, I’m sad to say, that’s probably true. 95% of published speculative fiction is trashy. But, how does that make it any different than any other subset of literature? 95% of everything is crap. Still, it does bug me that the undeniably great work that gets done in the genres doesn’t get more respect. When I spoke at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences about science fiction back in October, someone in the audience made a comment that it seemed like science fiction was all about concepts, and not much attention was paid to characters. I think this is a pretty common notion. In the marketing materials for my own books, the first thing that gets pitched is the big idea behind the book, with the characters not mentioned until the second line. In fact, looking at the publisher’s blurb on the back of my novel Bitterwood, it’s the third line before my title character is mentioned! People who actually dive into my work will find it full of unique characters with rich backgrounds and complicated personalities. To develop my protagonist Stagger in my novel Greatshadow, I detailed his family history all the way back to his great-grandfather, showing how choices made almost a century before his birth shaped the type of man Stagger was going to become. The fact that my novels have dragons on the cover doesn’t mean that I haven’t put character development first.

-What have you most enjoyed about being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate?

The best part of being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate is that I’ve got to meet and talk with a lot of nerds. When I was growing up, liking comic books, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc. was a pretty sure way of getting yourself branded a nerd and isolated from the rest of the pack. But once computers started infiltrating themselves into our day to day lives back in the mid-eighties, it seems like nerds have gone from social pariahs to a dominating force in popular culture. When I was a teenager, wearing a Superman shirt to high school would have marked me as a loser. Go to Target or Walmart today, and at least half the shirts have superhero logos on them.

Before this year, most of my public events have been at science fiction conventions, and I still assumed that speculative fiction was a modest subset of the culture despite what I was seeing in Walmart. But doing events this year at libraries, the Sertoma Arts Center, Museums, and historical sites like Mordecai House and Burwell School, I’ve discovered nerds everywhere. The nerd stereotype that I fit into in my teens—young, male, white, skinny, and socially awkward—has been completely blasted away. At the NC Comicon where we met, the room seemed evenly split between male and female, and was far more diverse in age and race than Hollywood would have you believe. Nerds unite!

-How has being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate changed your writing schedule and/or relationship to writing?

Definitely, for worse and for better. The worse is the fact that, in 2015, I haven’t actually done much writing. I’ve produced about 100,000 words of new fiction this year, a pretty low ebb. For much of the last ten years, the second I finished one novel I’ve dived into another. Going months without actively working on something leaves me feeling uneasy. It turns out, not writing books is actually a lot easier than writing them. It’s kind of terrifying to discover that I can enjoy my life just fine without constantly being hunched over my keyboard. The best thing is that I’ve had a little time to step back and think about what I’ve accomplished with my writing, and what I still want to accomplish. A dozen books into my career (counting books written but not yet published), I found myself wondering if I was just repeating myself. If you look at my characters Sorrow in Witchbreaker and Sunday in Burn Baby Burn, they both have fairly similar goals and personalities (though vastly different moralities, once you dig deeply into their motivations). In last year’s Bad Wizard, I found myself returning again to some of the faith versus reason themes I’d already explored in my Bitterwood saga. Fortunately, this last year I’ve given a lot of thought to books I’ve read that I consider to be truly great. It’s helped me recognize that there are still huge philosophical questions that interest me that I haven’t tackled in depth yet, and also helped me think about how I can really swing for the fences in the books I have yet to write.

I’m going into 2016 with the goal of writing 366,000 words. I’ll actually be teaching a workshop at the Orange County Library on January 9 called “366: Your Most Productive Year of Writing Ever,” where I’ll be showing how I’m setting my goals and the time management tools I’ll be using to meet them, plus some tricks I’ve learned over the years to help me write even on the days when I feel utterly uninspired and uncreative. (Anyone interested in this free workshop can email me at james@jamesmaxey.net for details or to sign up.)

-What are you working on right now?

Back in the spring, before the bulk of my Laureate duties kicked in, I wrote the first draft of my final Dragon Apocalypse book, Cinder. Rewriting it and getting it out before X-Con in May is my first priority. After that, I plan to write a superhero novel called Big Ape. It’s a companion book for an unpublished novel I wrote a few years ago called Cut Up Girl. The two novels will cover the same years of story from the perspective of two different fledgling superheroes. Some of the plot points intersect, though each book can be read alone without requiring the other to make sense. But, if you do read both books, a fuller picture of the world and both characters will emerge. I think Cut Up Girl is a great book, with a story unlike anything else you’ve likely seen in a superhero adventure. But Big Ape is the book I’m really excited about. Since it stars a character who is half-human, half-chimpanzee, I plan to really dig down into just how much human nature is actually animal nature, and do what I can to search for what it is that truly defines being human. The character is also utterly isolated, neither fully man nor animal, stranded between two worlds he feels he can never fully be part of. Working through this existential loneliness will, I hope, give this book a powerful emotional weight.

If a reader wants to try your work, what do you recommend?

If a reader wants to get a taste of my work for free, through the end of the year my novel Greatshadow is available as a free ebook. Greatshadow is one of my personal favorite books, featuring what I think is my best love story, some of my best humor, and a cast of quirky and unique characters. And, did I mention it’s free?

However, while I love Greatshadow, there’s no question that my most popular books by far are the four novels of my Bitterwood saga, now collected in a single volume as Bitterwood: the Complete Collection. The collection is also my best reviewed work. As of this morning on Amazon, it’s got 15 reviews, and 14 of them are 5 stars, with a single four star review in there, because there’s no pleasing everyone.

bitterwood

And, for the month of December, Bitterwood: The Complete Collection, is available as an ebook for only 99 cents at most major ebook retailers. I think people respond well to the entire series because it does tell a truly epic story of a war between dragons and mankind. It features my most troubled protagonist in the character of Bitterwood, and a huge cast of other great characters, both human and dragon, as they struggle to survive in a world descending into anarchy. And, whenever people come up to me at cons and tell me what they enjoyed about the books, they always mention the dragon Blasphet, who is probably the single best villain I’ve ever managed to create. He’s so enthusiastic in his wickedness that he completely takes over the book every time he’s on the scene. Usually my antagonists are under the illusion that they’re the true hero of the book. Blasphet knows he’s the villain, and just runs with it.

-Would you share with us your best writing tip?

Momentum matters. Going back to my last answer, the biggest trap beginning authors can fall into is to write only when you feel inspired. If you practiced piano only when you felt inspired, would you ever master the piano? If you only went out and ran when you felt inspired, would you ever build the endurance and mental stamina needed to run a marathon? A key thing to understand is that any time you sit down to write, you aren’t working only on the story or chapter in front of you. You’re working on your entire career. If you want to “make it” as a writer, odds are you will write millions of words over the course of decades, maybe tens of millions. To get there, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair and slog out the words on days when you’re tired, or a little sick, or worried about your family or your job. You’ve got to keep tapping the keyboard when you are certain you are writing the worst sentences ever recorded onto a hard drive, when you hate every last character in your novel and can think of not one original idea for where you’re taking the plot. Because, you know what? Writing is where the magic happens. You can sit around daydreaming all you want, but until you start typing, you don’t actually know what’s going to emerge. Again and again I’ve discovered that, as I’m slogging through something I don’t want to write, something will spark and the next thing I know I’m on fire. I start out telling myself I can quit for the night if I make to 500 words, and the next thing I know it’s 3 a.m. and I’ve got 5000 words that just sparkle.

 

James Maxey’s mother warned him that reading all those comic books would warp his mind. She was right. Now an adult who can’t stop daydreaming, James is unsuited for decent work and ekes out a pittance writing down demented fantasies about masked women, fiery dragons, and monkeys. Oh god, so many monkeys.

In an effort to figure out how Superman could fly, James read books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking. Turns out, Superman probably wasn’t based on any factual information. Who would have guessed? Realizing it was possible to write science fiction without being constrained by the actual rules of science proved liberating for James, and led to the pseudo-science fiction of the Bitterwood series, superhero novels like Nobody Gets the Girl, the secondary world fantasy of the Dragon Apocalypse series and the steam-punk visions of Bad Wizard.

James is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with Author in Residence Harlan Ellison, as well as a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.

James lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his lovely and patient wife Cheryl and too many cats. For more information about James and his writing, visit jamesmaxey.net.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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