I have the honor, of hosting a Q & A with James Maxwell, the bestselling author. I have personally been a huge fan ever since i read The Evermen Saga.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on, if any?
I suppose that for me leaving Australia and going to England was a literary pilgrimage – even now, England is still one of my favourite countries to explore and always brings out the side of me that loves medieval fantasy. To know what I’m talking about, first think about Australia, where I grew up (after moving there from New Zealand aged 7).
In terms of European settlement Australia is a young country. It’s quite flat and generally hot and arid. There are some beautiful trees, like eucalyptus, paperbarks and banksias, and a variety of incredible animals: koala, kangaroo, wombat, kookaburra…
Now think about a childhood spent reading fantasy novels from authors like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. If you remember, those books are full of descriptions of trees and animals. Tolkien would tell me about forests of oak and cedar, beech and elm. C.S. Lewis made characters out of badgers and hedgehogs, beavers and deer.
I had no idea what any of those things looked like! I had never seen a deer, or a majestic oak tree. I had never seen snow. I had never seen a mountain. I had never seen a real, jaw-dropping castle.
It didn’t take long, living and traveling in England, to see all those things and more. Since I’ve lived in London, perhaps because I feel like I’ve got such amazing treasure within a short distance (by Australian terms), I haven’t been able to stop going from castle to castle, medieval town to mountain village, all across Europe. Any place with history sucks me in. Aha! So that’s what it feels like to sail the Mediterranean under the starry eyes of mythical monsters, or to stand on the battlements of a Moorish castle.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I can still remember crying my little eyes out when Frodo and Sam parted ways at the end of The Lord of the Rings. They had been through so much together! How could they part ways? I just couldn’t understand it. I think I resented Bilbo for taking Frodo away. I got it that Frodo cared about Bilbo, a lot, but I thought that his bond with Samwise Gamgee was much stronger.
It was probably my first experience of a tragic ending, something that didn’t go the way that I thought it would (and should). In hindsight, it was very clever. A great book fires on all emotional cylinders.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
In my opinion, some of the worst offenders in terms of publishing ethics provide services for self-published authors, promising results in exchange for cash up front and a percentage of royalties. Sometimes these scammers call themselves a platform, other times an independent publisher.
It’s a win-lose situation. The service provider gets a quick profit as well as potential upside, in the very low probability that the author’s books take off. The author takes all the risk and contributes his or her time (many months of writing), savings (in exchange for dubious or non-existent editing and marketing), and even chances of seeing a decent pay day (due to the signing away of rights in perpetuity).
Probably the worst thing about it is the way that someone’s hopes and dreams are taken advantage of.
What would you recommend today regarding publishing? The traditional way or go down the self-publishing way?
I think it’s very, very dependent on personality and pre-existing strengths and weaknesses. I have a background in software development and sometimes my clients worked within the marketing side of the web. So I was very familiar with things like click-through-rates, A/B testing, email marketing, landing pages, SEO, text formatting (helps with book conversion), and graphic design (helps with covers). I was also happy to live on not much money in a country where that was possible, and to write full time while I did what I could to grow my audience.
So from one point of view, starting off in self-publishing made sense for me. But from another point of view, there are a lot of reasons why I’m very happy that I now have a publisher. I’m a perfectionist when it comes to writing and I love working with quality editors who help me improve my skills. I joined the social media party a bit late and it doesn’t come natural to me. I like writing much, much more than promoting myself.
If I were giving a friend advice I would ask some questions. Is the city you live in connected in some way to the publishing industry? How do you feel about face to face networking at events? Do you have any publishing “cred” such as a job in the industry, awards, or prior publication?
Here are some more. How do you feel about the idea of writing two or more books per year, for several years? Do you have a well-paid job that you could never bring yourself to leave? Does the idea of quitting your job but also having very little spending money fill you with joy or dread? How do you feel about spending many hours on the Internet, learning about unfamiliar, highly-technical subjects, in addition to your writing? Are you someone who likes having your hand held and being given clear goals, or someone who likes autonomy?
Hopefully it’s clear the kinds of answers that might lead to a certain path.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
After a day’s writing I always feel like something has been emptied out that needs refilling. It’s not an unpleasant feeling, it’s just the result of pouring out a lot of emotion onto the page. I always aim to put my characters through a rollercoaster of threat and excitement, tragedy and love.
The worst sin I think a writer can commit is for the reader to not feel anything or to be bored. Developing intensity means putting yourself into your character’s shoes and highlighting the strong emotions that the situations you have created invoke. I’m always the most drained after writing a scene where emotions are running high. Often I’ll write less per day on things like climaxes, resolutions, or the death of a beloved character, because I simply run out and by returning the next day I can more ably do the story justice.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Giving up too early. Not enough practice. Being too eager to get your work out there. Not understanding the three key drivers of any narrative – motivation, obstacle, and conflict – and how they work together. Lack of knowledge of your subgenre. Being afraid. Taking criticism too personally. Not taking criticism on board at all. The list goes on!
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
I’d say it hurts. I think writing actually suits a self-critical, self-reflective temperament – most writers are introverts after all – but with a kernel of self-belief mixed in, which is required to develop an attitude of persistence and that much-needed thick skin.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Do you mean what can get in the way of my writing? If so, then it’s probably the duties of RL (real life). I can’t juggle too many balls at once. If I’m heavily into writing a new book and I have to move house at the same time, or there’s something important happening with my family, it’s really hard to maintain focus on my story.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I try to write the story that *I* would like to read. There are certain things that I love to be in books, so I put them in my books. I aim to be as original as possible, but originality is a funny thing. There are certain elements that appear in stories again and again (particularly in fantasy) and there’s kind of a reason for it. We want to see a character from an Ordinary World leave everything they know to explore the Wider World. We want to see a character experience maximum growth, so often he or she begins as a young person coming-of-age. I don’t mind any of this, and I think readers expect it to a point. The key is to deliver the story in a way that’s different, whether that’s with an original world, a unique character, a cool magic system, or a combination. I have a lot of fun coming up with my ideas. I always hope that readers find my stories fresh and original.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
You’ve said “writer” as a generic job title, and so yes, sure, there are plenty of books out there where the message that’s being communicated isn’t strongly related to the reader experiencing emotion. But could this hypothetical emotionless person be a fantasy writer? I don’t think so.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Most of the other writers I’m close to work with my publisher, 47North. We connect at events and share stories over a drink. We don’t talk craft much but we talk a lot about process. For example one my author friends and I were discussing outlines, and whether you can over-plan or under-plan a book.
It was nice to realise we had independently come to the same conclusions. Yes, you can over-plan – what happens when you do is that in the moment of writing, because your scene is already mapped out in excruciating detail, your mind isn’t creatively stimulated into coming up with fresh ideas and the writing itself comes out bland and unexciting. But you can also under-plan – and the editing process takes far longer as you untangle plot threads and you get headaches as you work to put your story onto the proper path.
We both – independently – came up with a ratio of 80/20. So if you’re writing a 100,000 word book, and you have a 20,000 word outline, then that’s about right.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I write multi-volume series, so obviously I want the books within a series to be connected to one another. Not only do I want each book to have an arc, I also want the entire series to have an arc, so that the problem hinted at in the first book is only resolved in the final volume.
From one series to the other, I do have some elements that I will always include. My books will always be speculative. I enjoy having both male and female characters, and the stronger the better. The story will always be epic. The world will be detailed and unique.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
They say it takes 10,000 hours to become skilled at anything. Start young.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
My process didn’t change much – I’d already been working in a certain way for a few years. I use critiquing less and beta readers more, mainly because a novel is just too long to do something as fine-grained as a critic group. Perhaps the biggest change is that I used to live in a tiny London flat that was too small for me to work in, so I used to spend a hell of a lot of time in libraries and cafes. Since being published I’ve been able to move to a larger place, and I now have a home office which is nice.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I recently retired the laptop that I wrote my first eight novels on. Every word, all on the same machine. In the end the only reason I retired it was because the battery was going and it was the kind of laptop where you can’t replace the battery. I was really sad to see it go!
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I can’t think of any specific authors, but I used to think non-fiction books were boring. Now, more than half of what I read is non-fiction. I never struggle to find something new I want to learn more about.
What did you do with your first advance?
I paid my tax, paid off some debts, and lived off it. It wasn’t huge, but that’s not a bad thing because at that time my cost of living was quite low and the advance earned out quickly, which meant that soon I was getting regular royalties.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I went to a young writer’s retreat when I was eleven, which was an extremely formative experience for me. I remember that for one of the exercises, the adults – published writers – sat us all in a circle around a huge tree. The question they asked was: describe this tree; what kind of tree is it?
Of course, being quite young, we said things like “tall” and “green” and “leafy”. They persisted, and asked what kind of personality the tree had. What impression did it give? Is it “proud”? Is it “stern”? Is it “unyielding, mighty and indomitable”? Is it “angry”?
It sounds simple but it opened my eyes to the power of language. Adjectives are a great place to start. Anthropomorphising is a useful technique. A tree can be looming overhead, shaking and trembling, threatening those below with branches like gnarled arms. Cool.
What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to?
It might be a strange recommendation but one of the few magazines I read regularly is The Economist. We’re in an age when writing for the web has led to a decline in the quality of grammar and spelling, and The Economist stands out for bucking the trend. They produce a writing style guide that anyone can buy and keep as a reference. A lot of fiction writers could do benefit from adhering to it.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. It’s a wonderful historical fiction romp set in one of my favorite periods – the 17th century. Characters include Isaac Newton, Peter the Great, and a brilliant rogue called Jack.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
I don’t want the reader to have to do anything except enjoy the story. If I’m being too obtuse or technical, that’s my fault. If I have a plot element that isn’t clear or executed properly, that’s also my fault.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I have a few friends and former colleagues who ended up in my novels. They got an explanation that it’s not really *them* – and free books.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Three or four. At this stage, I haven’t abandoned them, I’ve just put them down for a while. Sometimes you get to a certain point (a couple of them are 100,000 words+) when you realise that the arc isn’t doing what you wanted it to. It’s not surprising that it can happen close to the ending. Endings are really important and need to work.
What does literary success look like to you?
Interesting question. I think it comes in many shapes and forms. Literary acknowledgment for writing a book that’s perceived as an esteemed work of art would be great for the recipient. Movie adaptation would be exciting if it happened to you. Sales and good reviews are the clearest metric. I think I would like to look back, after decades of writing, and see that I’ve produced dozens of well-received books. I’m in this for the long haul.
What’s the best way to market your books?
It pays to play to your strengths. If you’re the type who is a great networker in person – then do that, and do a lot of it. Some people are really good with online ads, and love geeking out over A/B conversions and click-through-rates. Others might enjoy engaging online, posting regularly and seeing the likes and retweets they get. Some people might be best kept from the public due to an antagonistic personality! It’s impossible to come up with one approach that’s the best for everyone, unless it’s to write quality stories.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
If I research too much, writing notes etc., then I might be tempted to dump all that research into a story and I think that would have negative consequences for the reader. Like I said earlier, I read a lot of non-fiction, and much of it is related to ideas I might like to use in a story one day, but I don’t highlight or keep notes or anything like that. I just find what interests me, as in, something I could bring into conversation at a dinner party. Perhaps that could be a test: if I can throw something I’ve learned into a dinner party and not be boring, then it might be worth throwing it into a story.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Not particularly, no. That doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. I probably take it too seriously if anything. I believe in the power of the written word and I believe stories can touch us deeply. The word “spiritual” doesn’t feel right, however.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Maybe it’s not as difficult as one thinks – men and women are clearly quite similar, if we’re able to write characters of the opposite sex. There’s a lot of debate out there about “strong female characters”. A lot of writers seem to think the key is to put a man in a woman’s body. I don’t think that works. Clearly men and women are different. The difficulty is to find ways of showing a woman’s strength without resorting to physical force or aggression – that’s the easy route, and it’s wrong.
How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
I don’t think I could ever be a part time writer. For all of my books, even the first one, I didn’t have a job while I wrote. I lived off savings in parts of the world where you don’t need much money to get by. For the first book, I lived in Thailand and learned to go without nights out, television, Internet access, dairy products (Thai’s aren’t that keen on milk and cheese)… in fact, pretty much all Western food. It wasn’t a bad life at all. I swam in the sea every day. I spent weekends snorkeling coral reefs. I developed a chilli addiction. I wrote a book.
How many hours a day do you write?
I start in the morning and finish in the evening, with a long walk in the middle of the day to clear my head and let my mind come to terms with what’s going on in the story. It ends up at around six to seven hours a day. I’ve had periods when I wrote 10,000 words a day, day after day, but I don’t want to do that anymore, and I don’t think writing so much helps the story.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
I write characters of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly, but my main characters are often somewhere between eighteen and twenty-two. I don’t think of it as a period of *my* life that I’m writing about, however, I think of it more as a period that many people have experienced. At that cusp of real adulthood so much changes. It’s a really exciting time. You’re expected to take on serious responsibility for the first time, yet you still have freedom to get out there and do things.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Perhaps I did, when I first started reading books about writing. Some good ones I’ve encountered are On Writing by Stephen King, Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver, and How To Write Damn Good Fiction by James N. Frey. It comes as something of a revelation when you realise and understand that fiction has rules, a lot of them, and that our minds are looking for certain things from the books we read. I was of course a keen reader before I was a writer, but it wasn’t until I dedicated myself to this profession that I began to learn how much craft goes into it.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I haven’t written about anyone who actually lived, but if I did, I would simply try to make sure nothing jars with the reader’s expectations for the character. For example, I wouldn’t have Winston Churchill as anything but a distinguished gent who speaks well and loves his food. It jars too much to have Churchill as a jazz musician or a devil worshipper. What’s the point? Other than that, within the realm of the character, all bets are off. I don’t have much to say about the ethics of writing historical figures, probably because as a fantasy writer I haven’t given it too much thought.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I sit there staring at the screen and sound out syllables until something comes to mind. You just know when you’ve got a name that works versus one that doesn’t. A big brute might be called Borg, an impish thief might be Timkin. Try switching those round and it doesn’t work.
For The Evermen Saga, I had strong feelings about each nation’s characteristics, and tried to use matching word sounds depending on where someone was from. Take the names of some people from Altura: Miro, Rogan, Bartolo, Brandon, Tessolar, Evora, Devon, Leopold… I tried to make an “O” sound feature if I could. Some characters from Halaran are Amelia, Legasa, Luca, Marcus, Varana – “A” sounds there. I did this for all nine nations, which was a lot of fun.
The names from The Shifting Tides are mostly Greek and Persian in origin, so I was a bit more restricted. I spent a lot of time trawling lists of historical names. Fortunately, we carry a lot of names through to the present, like Chloe, Sophia, Amos, and Nikolas.
The most important thing for me is that the name suits the character and can be pronounced. I’m not a fan of fantasy names where the author insists you say Cvmthron or whatever a certain way that isn’t clear from the spelling.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I was a software developer in my old life, but it’s a young man’s game to an extent, particularly with technology moving as fast as it is. You end up knowing all this stuff that’s become irrelevant. I might have moved on to more of a management role, but it’s more likely that I would have continued to live somewhere cheap while I wrote novels.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
In the early days I read them more than I do now. The thing is, if someone points out a problem I agree with, I want to do something about it, but having a publisher I can’t just edit the manuscript and upload a new version. The best I can do with bad ones is learn what I did that didn’t work and try not to do it again next time.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
There are some intricacies that only attentive readers will connect, but nothing I would call a secret. I do know some things about the origins of the Evermen that no one else knows.
What was your hardest scene to write?
I had a tough time writing the scene in Silver Road where Chloe’s magical powers are awakened by a lonely hermit. Usually in a scene like that, the character goes along with it and probably wants to become a wizard, but in this case Chloe just wanted to get away from a man she comes to realise is not a good guy. I rewrote the scene several times to make it workable.
Do you Google yourself?
I don’t have a huge presence online so there wouldn’t be much point. I post things on my author page on Facebook and I have a Twitter account I rarely use. I don’t have time to write as much as I do and also use the web for fun.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
I’m firmly fixed on the idea that nothing will make me a better writer than the act of writing. It’s impossible for me to imagine someone waving a magic wand and suddenly I’m “better”. You put in a lot of work, you make mistakes, you learn.
What are your favorite literary journals, If any?
I think you would have to give me a literary journal for me to know what one looked like!
What is your favorite childhood book?
The Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton. Absolute magic.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
I tend to come up with the story I want to write first, and then it can be difficult to work out the title of the book and the short pitch you might give to the publisher or your readers. I should do it the other way round, and think of a great title first (I do admire a good title), but then I might not be writing what I want to write about, which is the most important thing of all. Sometimes, with a lot of thinking, you can get it all worked out together. I had Enchantress’s title already decided for about ten years.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
My wife is incredibly supportive and I dedicate all my books to her. Writers need solitude but life can get in the way and strong support makes all the difference. My wife and I have just had our first child, so we’ll see how that goes!
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
My life as a young person had a lot of ups and downs. I moved around a lot, went to many different schools, and left home at eighteen. There are difficulties in there that I won’t go into, but it all contributed to that thing called life experience. I wouldn’t change any of it, just like I wouldn’t change the financial crisis and the way it pushed me into following my dream of becoming a writer. The one thing I wouldn’t do is change how many books I read when I was young. Maybe I could have read even more?
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Somewhere between four and six months, depending on what’s going on in my life outside writing. A book one takes longer than a book two because of the idea generation, world building, and character building. A finale takes longer than the prior book because I think endings are important and I put in extra effort.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
It’s early days so I can’t even give you a title (I have one but you never know I might change it). What I’m writing is an epic fantasy set in a frontier world, a wasteland where danger is always present. A mystery is built into the world, something that the characters will need to solve in order to survive. It’s going to be a trilogy and I’m writing the three books back to back.