Five Writing Mantras That Bear Repeating


Short but sweet, this post is brought to you compliments of special guest James Maxey. James has posted here on MW before, and if we’re lucky he’ll post again; he’s one of the smartest writers I know and he spends a lot of time thinking about what makes things work. I’ve learned quite a bit from listening to him and I know you will too, so without anymore blathering on my part, here’s James.


These are the most important truths of writing I’ve learned to date. At various points in the past, I’ve posted all these rules in various configurations, but, these are my writing mantras, and the whole point of a mantra is that it’s something you repeat:

1. The worst novel you put on paper is better than the best novel you have in your head.

Suppose you sit down and bang out a manuscript that is, in your judgment, utter crap. Guess what? Other people can read crap. They can go through your manuscript and tell you what they like and didn’t like. On the other hand, that golden, gleaming, perfect novel that exists only inside your skull is completely unreadable by anyone other than yourself.

2. Here. Now.

These words have saved me time and time again. When I get the most lost in a story it’s often because I can’t see the trees because of the forest. I’m getting distracted by the big picture, worried about whether I’m sharing enough information about what happened twenty years before the story began, or properly laying the groundwork for what will happen ten chapters from now. Screw the past and the future. When you sit down to write, focus on the immediate spot in time and space that your character occupies in the scene at hand. Make the moment concrete, and when it’s done, move on to the next one. Do this a couple of hundred times, and whoah, you’ve written a book!

3: To write a good novel, you must first write a bad novel.

First drafts aren’t supposed to be great all the way through. You’ve got to just slog ahead and write some stuff wrong so that you can later go back and write it right. Or, maybe you’ll never get it right; a bad novel is still priceless. I’ve written nine novels to date. I’ve sold and published four, two more will either be sold or published this year, and three of these will never be published because they aren’t at the level of craftmanship I now demand of myself. But, I couldn’t have written the six good novels if I hadn’t written the three bad ones. I had to write the bad novels A: so that I could prove to myself I had the discipline to finish the tasks I started B: so that I could inflict them upon critique groups that went on to give me useful advice on plotting, character development, style, pacing, dialogue, etc., and C: so that I could learn more about the types of stuff I was lousy at writing so that I could better understand the sort of stuff I was good at.

4: Never look back.

When writing my first novel, I kept getting caught in the trap of changing my mind about stuff I’d already written and going back and revising and reworking before I got to the end. Then, when I did get some forward momentum going, I’d change my mind on something and have to go back and revise again. It took me two damn years to finish that first book. I got better on my second and third books, gaining the willpower not to go back and revise while I was still writing, but lacking the willpower or wisdom to not go back and read what I’d already written, or to show what I’d already written to other people. By book four, I hit the formula that has worked for me on all subsequent books: I don’t show any of the novel to anyone until I’ve completed the first draft. I don’t even show it to myself; I forbid myself to go back and read the previously written chapters, since I can’t read without editing them. I’ve never reached the end of a book without gaining a dozen insights in the last three chapters about the kinds of stuff I should have put in my first three chapters to make the book feel like a closing circle. You aren’t going to know every thing that you have to include in your first chapter until you’ve written your last chapter. The surest, fastest way to get to that last chapter is just to keep pushing forward, keep working in your newer, better ideas as if you’ve been writing with them in mind all along, and keep that hunger to show the book to someone building until you write “the end.”

5. Little by little, the work gets done.

For the most part, when I set a word count goal for a week, I meet that goal. But, it’s also definitely not unheard of for me to blow a word count goal, sometimes severely. Inky black pools of despair open before me during these times as I wonder just what ever made me think I was any good at this game.

Almost always, I’m not missing my goal due to some internal barrier to creativity. I’m missing it because there are 1,000 things in this world that are more fun and/or vital to do in my “free” time. I’ll skip a night of writing because a friend wants to go out to dinner, or skip a Saturday because one of my neices is having a birthday party cookout and the whole family is invited. I’ll miss a Sunday afternoon in the spring because the sky is flawless blue and the air is a perfect 72 degrees and it’s been months since my girlfriend and I have gone bike riding.

So then I start feeling guilt. I’m skipping writing to go to dinner? I’m skipping writing to enjoy sunshine? Are these such rare events that I should toss aside my pursuit of art? Is the sun slated to stop shining tomorrow and this is my last chance ever to enjoy it? Well, maybe it is. Who knows? So when all my big blocks of the time disappear, for happy reasons or sad, I start making bargains. I take my laptop and type 500 words while my girlfriend drives us to Asheboro. I get up 10 minutes earlier than normal and type two foggy paragraphs. I sneak back to my room between panels at a science fiction con and type like a demon for 45 minutes. The more moments I steal, the easier it is to transition back into stealing hours.

Steal the moments.

Little by little the work gets done.


14 comments to Five Writing Mantras That Bear Repeating

  • These are great, James. Words to live by, or at least write by. I have little to add; I agree with every one of these.

    Great to see you here; looking forward to seeing you in person at one con or another.

  • Lance Barron

    Yes, really great. Especially, “Steal the moments.” That’s going to make a big difference.

  • Right on teh money, James. Thanks. Concise, helpful and specific. Love that.

  • LScribeHarris

    I just finished the rough draft of my third book last night, and this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m only just beginning to work out my own formula and, Lo and Behold! It’s quite similar to yours.

    I can’t show it to people too soon, because I’ll start worrying about how they’ll feel once I start twisting the story to my new perception. I still made this mistake with this book, but thankfully, my beta readers have either been slow on reading it, or have heard me talk about it so much that they know what I’ve changed as well as I do. Still. I found myself looking for feedback, and letting that keep me from pushing forward, so I will NOT be handing out any more of my rough drafts until they’re done. Probably.

    I can’t go back and revise, or I’ll get stuck in an endless cycle (did that with the first novel, which ended up getting rewritten from scratch and becoming the second novel). I managed to force myself through to the end this time, although I did reread quite a bit. Maybe the fourth novel will help take care of that…

    “Steal the Moments” is exactly what I do, and how I balance full-time work with writing. Lunch breaks are for plotting…

    Anyway, wonderful guest post! I hope to see more from James in the future. :)

  • James> great list! I have to say with #4, I find times when it is useful to go back. Usually when I sit down to write new stuff, I go back and read at least one chapter (or if I’m mid chapter, the opening of that chapter) so that I can remember what I’m doing. Even if I’ve got an outline I follow (and yeah, I’m a planner that way!) I’ll go back and read a chapter or two if only to find the voice again–esp. if I’m working on more than one thing at a time, or I’ve got substantial time between when I last wrote and when I am writing (see your #5 for that…heehee). I do totally agree that NOT editing that stuff if best. I usually can’t help fixing a typo here and there, but I don’t read it to edit. I read it to get back into the story.

    What I do tend to do is change my outline. So if I realize in Chapter 5 that something in chapter 3 needs to be different and that will have an effect on Chapters 6-9, I’ll make a note of change that needs to happen in 3, and then amend my outline to the new idea. I can’t remember who told me that strategy, ’cause I didn’t make it up on my own… but it does seem to work. That way I feel like I’m making forward progress, not stopping to go back over and over, but keeping track of the changes I know need to be done.

  • Ah, yes, #3 — I think this might be one of the hardest for beginning writers to learn and accept. And, frankly, they should be thankful that their first efforts don’t get published. I know a couple authors who have had every novel from the start get published, and while that’s wonderful on numerous fronts, it also means that all their development is on display for everyone to see. All their clunky sentences, naive plot choices, and silly mistakes that we all make are set down for all to enjoy over and over. Sometimes, it’s a good thing that my first several novels will never be seen.

  • Pea Faerie, I try to spare myself from having to go back to recapture a voice or a plot thread by use of a sixth mantra: Momentum Matters. For me, nothing will doom a project worse than taking off a week or two or three. The key to not losing the voice is to never be away from the project long enough to forget where you were. I don’t write every day, but once I start a novel I would say it’s a very rare 48 period that passes by without me writing at least a few hundred words.

    And, if I do forget a thread, or lose the voice, or can’t recall exactly where I was at… fine. So be it. It must not have been all that important anyway. Time to embrace rule two: Here. Now. Start a new scene at a new moment in time and space and just move forward. I don’t make a lot of notes on the stuff I change as I’m writing my first draft because, honestly, I might change it again. This might seem like a very haphazard way to write, but, somehow, it all works out. One specific example is a character named Anza who is a supporting character in my novel Dragonforge and goes on to be one of the major characters in Dragonseed. When I first brought her into the book, she was a bookish 12 year old boy, the son of Burke the Machinist. I imagined he’d be kind of a nerd, played both as a bit of comic relief but also as a deus ex machina force; the running joke would be that his father would be working on some new machine that he couldn’t make work, the son would come in and turn a screw, and the whole thing would spring to life. But, as the book was advancing, I had a scene where another character insulted Burke’s son, and I thought, you know, there would be much more sting to his animosity if Burke wasn’t training his son to make war machines, but was instead training his daughter. So, midway through the book, I stopped writing about a nerdy twelve year old boy and started writing about a nerdy twelve year old girl. Then, math intervened, and I was trying to mesh Burke’s backstory with that of Bitterwood, the major protag from my first novel, and realized that with the timeline I’d already established for Bitterwood, Burke had to have last met him almost twenty years ago. Anza would have been concieved not long after this, so now my 12 year old girl was closer to 19. And, Burke was evolving, becoming more of a thinker than a doer, so I realized that instead of being a hypercompetent mechanic, Anza was actually more useful as a hypercompetent warrior, the brawn to her father’s brains. I decided that her father had essentially programmed her like a machine, raising her to fight and kill without hesitation or remorse. Then, in the final stage of her evolution, I had a big fight scene where Anza silently appears, dispatches some bad guys for her father, then fades back into the shadows. I had so much fun writing her as the silent ninja type I decided that she’d be more interesting if she never spoke in the whole book. This was quite a decision, since some of my favorite conversations in the first draft had been between Burke and his young son/young daughter/adult daughter. But, it just felt right, and I think the rewritten conversations in the later drafts are far more interesting for her silence.

    I know this approach would drive some people absolutely crazy. A lot of writers want to have everything important about a book figured out before they start writing. Some people would probably be mortified that I would introduce a character without having firmly decided on his or her name, age, gender, personality, or capabilities. In the metaphorical automobile of the novel, some authors believe they should have the turn by turn directions programmed into the GPS before the vehicle is ever put into drive, and that when the do finally move forward, it should be with the hands at the ten and two position. I’m far more likely just to throw my book into gear and stomp on the gas. Full speed ahead, with the steering wheel and brakes treated as optional equipment! Once I’ve arrived, I’ll figure out where I am and announce, “This is exactly where I planned to be,” even if the car is upside down in a mall fountain, wheels spinning, a maisma of gasoline thick in the air. No one is ever hurt. It’s only a metaphor, after all. But, damn, the ride is a lot more fun.

  • Mikaela

    Oh yes. All of it.
    This sentence sums it up to me:

    ” I can edit a bad page, but not a blank page.” That’s what keeps me going.
    But, I have found that a part of my process is to step away. I write the first 10-15 k, and then I step away for 2-3 months. I work on other things. Then I tweak the outline, and lightly edit the pages I have written, before I really settle down to write the first draft.

    And all of my first drafts suck. Badly.
    I have also realised that I have to finish the second draft before I show it to someone else. :)

  • Amen.

    What a great set of mantras!

  • Unicorn

    Brilliant. Brilliant! Mantras to remember. Number Two is especially helpful to me; I get so tangled up in sub-plots and characters that at the end of stories, I crunch to a dead halt just before the big climactic scenes. So much needs to be all wrapped up that I get daunted and baulk. In the end I just need to dive into those last scenes and just write them, even if it means a character or two inexplicably disappear, they can always reappear in the rewrites.
    I’m also a bit of a planner, though most of the time I only outline mentally. But it does make for a much more interesting ride if a random character or plot point pops up out of the blue and suddenly turns the tables on everyone and everything in the story. I love those moments where the story is pottering slowly along somewhere in the middle and a highly exciting new character suddenly appears out of nowhere. That “What on [planet/world/dimension of choice] are you doing *here*? I meant you to be in the *other* story!” moment.
    Thanks for the post.

  • It’s been quite a few years since I’ve attempted to write a novel, and I’m guilty of every one of these points. I’ll be pinning this list somewhere visible for the next (successful) attempt.