The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘epic fantasy

One of the writing highlights of the year for me was traveling to the State of Black Science Fiction Conference in June. The SOBSFC brought together creators from different mediums (e.g. filmmakers, comic book artists, writers, producers, scholars, etc.,) to converge, discuss and share about the world of sci-fi and the Black experience over the past two centuries. There were panels on everything from Afrofuturism in Arts and Culture to Black Southern Folklore in Horror Literature. It was a mind-blowing experience.

I got a chance to hear and meet new authors. One of these authors was Gerald L. Coleman. I first saw him on the panel, ‘The Pinnacles and Pitfalls of Self/Small Publishing’ talking about being a poet and speculative fiction writer. He also spoke about how important it was for writers of color to value their work and find audiences for their work outside of (or in addition to) what mainstream publishers are willing to publish.

I was intrigued by his ability to write both poetry and speculative fiction, so I spoke with him the next day, at his table. After an engaging conversation, I knew I wanted to invite him to the blog to inspire us and share his writing wisdom.

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Gerald Coleman is a philosopher, theologian, poet and author. His most recent poetry appears in, Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture Issue 13 (University of Kentucky Press), the anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems From The Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press), and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel Journal Vol. 18. He is also the author of the epic fantasy novel When Night Falls: Book One of The Three Gifts and poetry collections, the road is long and falling to earth. He is a co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets.

I’m delighted to welcome Gerald L. Coleman to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your recent book, When Night Falls. Why did you want to write this book?

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When Night Falls, in fact the entire Three Gifts Series, is my homage to the genre I love the most. Fantasy, and specifically Epic Fantasy, has been my favorite source of reading material since I left comic books and entered the world of literature. Now, I enjoy philosophy and theology immensely, seeing as how those were my main areas of interest in undergrad and graduate school. But there is nothing quite like epic fantasy. I first read Tolkein at the age of twelve and never turned back. Swords, magic, dragons, and heroes on an epic quest have entertained me for hours and hours. While other people were reading Pride and Prejudice, I was reading Elric of Melniboné. While they were reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I was reading Dragonriders or Pern. While my friends were deeply entrenched in A Tale of Two Cities, I was flipping the pages of The Faded Sun Trilogy. Now, don’t get me wrong, as an English and Philosophy double-major at the University of Kentucky, I had to read all that English and American Lit too. But I always made time to read Science Fiction and Fantasy. I knew by high school that I wanted to write. By college I knew I wanted to write in my favorite genre. But what made me want to write this particular epic fantasy series, with these characters, is all about what was missing while I was reading all that SF&F from the time I was a kid. And do you know what was missing in Middle Earth, Melniboné, Kutath, and every other SF&F setting? I was. Now, I don’t mean me specifically. I mean characters who looked like me. African Americans were, generally, non-existent in science fiction and fantasy. We weren’t in the ancient past, the far flung future, or the speculative imaginations of the writers and readers of the genre. It was as if we had never existed. While I thoroughly enjoyed what I was reading I was also, always, painfully aware of the added intellectual leap I had to make as a reader to identify with the heroes and villains in the stories I was consuming. So it was abundantly clear in my mind that when I sat down to write my epic fantasy series that my characters would be a real reflection of the actual world. You know, a world filled with black and brown people, as well as white, Asian, Indian, and others. The world I am writing is filled with beautiful, strong, intelligent, and heroic people of color and women. It had to be. I want readers to have what I never did. So, When Night Falls has all the elements you look for in great epic fantasy. There are swords, fantastical creatures, magic, heroes, villains, but with a real representation cast of characters that should make it fun for any person who picks it up.

 

-How did you get bitten by the ‘writing bug’? Did you always wish to become an author?

I knew by high school. Having read so much, and been so impacted – so entertained – by what I had read, it became increasingly clear to me that writing was something I really wanted to do. There are few things in the world like sitting down with a book and being transported to all kinds of wonderful, strange, and magical places. Having experienced that, it began to dawn on me that I wanted to do that for others.

 

– You’ve written two poetry collections and are a co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets. Poetry is clearly one of your loves. What keeps you coming back to the form of poetry for self-expression?

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Poetry was my entrée into writing. In high school, I began by writing love poems to girls I liked. By the time I reached college it evolved. As a freshman, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and that was a real sea change for me. It really began the process of my search for an understanding of what being an African American man meant and was going to mean for me. After that I consumed W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey, and every black intellectual I could get my hands on. I was already reading all the other stuff, by way of my university studies. Everyone from Plato, Aristotle, to Sartre and Derrida. But these other intellectuals, often left out the curriculum, were the real compass for me and my writing. My poetry changed and developed drastically. I still write about love. In fact, my latest poetry collection, falling to earth, is all about love, in all its forms. But the core heuristics of my poetry are about African American identity. And every time a black person is killed by police, or a black church is attacked or burned down, or the Supreme Court rules on issues like affirmative action, I am always brought back to poetry as a primary form of expression. I have also come to find that writing poetry and then speculative fiction, and then turning back to poetry, is a great way for me to stay sharp and keep the creative juices flowing.

 

-You have a graduate degree in theology.  Do you feel that training shapes the kinds of themes you take up in your creative work?

I do find that my expertise in philosophy and theology helps to shape and inform my writing. I think it’s one of the things that makes my writing unique. I avoid it being heavy-handed or showing up explicitly in my writing. I think that would be terrible for the story. But in elegant and efficient ways, it’s there, grounding the story, and making the narrative stronger, and denser. I think it works best if it’s there without you really seeing it.

 

-What excites you right now about writing in the genre of speculative fiction?

I think the fact that I, and other African American writers like myself, are creating a library of speculative work that cures what has always ailed the genre at large for so long. How can you truly have great science fiction and fantasy when you leave out most of the human race in your story? That we are writing entertaining and powerful stories where readers can actually see themselves as heroes and villains is, for me, the most exciting thing about the enterprise we have embarked upon. The ability to give tweens, teens, young adults, and adults, the kind of stories we used to comb the bookshelves for in book stores is both rewarding and exciting. I hope the SF&F reading community can see how exciting this time is in the genre.

 

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

Trust yourself. If you have a strong story and well-developed characters, then you can trust yourself to develop a story worth reading. Take chances with your story and write yourself in corners. Once you get there, then trust yourself to be able to write yourself out. I am working on book two in The Three Gifts Series right now (hopefully finishing in the next few months) and while I have the overarching narrative arc in mind I can’t allow myself to get caught up in all the intricacies of what I have yet to write. I have to focus on one chapter at a time and trust that I will be able to solve all the problems I create as I write. I think that makes for the most compelling stories. You can’t be afraid to create a difficult problem for your characters or your plot because you are worried you won’t be able to write a good resolution. Time and time again, I have trusted myself to think my way through those things and it always works out. The mind is an amazing tool and instrument. If you have fed it well it will always produce the results you need.

As an addendum, let me say this as well. Don’t rush. The worst thing you can do is let a deadline push you to write past some great writing. A chapter needs to marinate sometimes. And when you allow the story to develop at its own pace you will sometimes surprise yourself with what you are able create.

Finally, let me say thank you Michele for asking me to do this. It’s been great fun and I hope worthy of your interest and the interest of your readers!

 

Gerald L. Coleman writes both poetry and speculative fiction. He resides in Atlanta. Born and raised in Lexington, he did his undergraduate work in Philosophy and English at the University of Kentucky before completing a Master’s degree in Theology at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN.

He is a lover of espresso, Radical Orthodoxy, Wittgenstein, early mornings on the golf course, and Lexington in the fall. He is a co-founder of the Affrilachian Poets.

Visit him here.

 

 

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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.

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-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.

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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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