I said about all I can say so far about Hillsborough, NC author James Maxey’s latest novel, Witchbreaker, in my write-up for the book’s Christmas Day release. Luckily for us, Maxey has a bit more to say about its writing. You might think that after his previous 5 fantasy novels from Solaris Books (The Dragon Age trilogy: Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed; and the first two books in the Dragon Apocalypse: Greatshadow and Hush) and his superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn that he’d have the whole novel thing on autopilot. But! Maxey writes that it did take a while — and some effort and re-writing, then some more… — to find the right voice for Witchbreaker.
By James Maxey:
Witchbreaker is the third book in my Dragon Apocalypse series. My first two books were built around a first person narrator, a ghost named Stagger. Having a ghost tell the story was a wonderful narrative device for me. Stagger blended the advantages of being a nearly omniscient observer (since, as a ghost, he could watch the other characters in private moments without their knowledge) with the intimacy of a single character recounting the tale in his own unique voice.
But, you can only carry a good thing so far. Stagger had a story to tell, but his story came to the end in the second book. For the third book, I was switching to a new character. The second book, Hush, had introduced a young witch named Sorrow. I planned to use her as the protagonist for the next two books in the series, Witchbreaker and Soulless. She was an interesting contrast with Stagger. Stagger was laid back and not terribly ambitious, while Sorrow was hard-working and passionate about her goals. Stagger was kind hearted and didn’t want to hurt anyone, while Sorrow was hard and ruthless. She’s not sadistic or cruel, but she is definitely willing to kill for reasons beyond immediate self-defense, which was pretty much the only reason Stagger would resort to violence.
Since the first person voice had worked so well for me in the first two books, I started the third book trying to use Sorrow as a first person narrator. Alas, a few chapters into the first draft I realized this just wasn’t going to work out. Stagger had a self deprecating humor that made relating even the most serious events entertaining. Stagger was also introspective and full of doubts, so I could devote a lot of passages to him pondering the morality of events. Sorrow is a character who doesn’t laugh at herself. She also doesn’t have any doubts about whether her ends justify her means. She’s not stuffy; she’s willing to crack a joke or two, and she has a blunt honesty about her that makes her conversations with others interesting. But, she wasn’t warm, and after a few chapters I understood that she couldn’t tell the story with as much honesty and charm as Stagger had brought to his narration.
So, I decided to try rescuing Stagger as a narrator. He does play a role in the book, making three or four appearances along the course of the plot. He wasn’t central to the story, but he was an important player and could plausibly tell the story, simply admitting up front that he wasn’t personally a witness to all events, but that he didn’t feel like that should slow him down from delivering a good yarn. Alas, a few chapters of this felt false. There were logistical problems as well. The last chapter of the book has an event that, according to the plot, Stagger remains unaware of for a significant amount of time. It would be difficult to have him serve as a narrator aware of all the important plot details then suddenly have him ignorant of this one fact.
Third try: I attempted a hybrid approach. I started each chapter with a short first person excerpt from Sorrow’s journal. I’d already established in Hush that she kept such journals, and these excerpts allowed me to introduce a bit of her inner voice. Then, I’d switch to a more traditional third person limited point of view for the remainder of the chapter, jumping between the POV’s of a handful of characters. I’d used a similar device in Burn Baby Burn to good effect. But, ultimately, that was also a good argument not to use the same trick. Just because a structure was right for one book doesn’t make it right for another.
It was the third draft before I settled in on what seems like the most obvious approach: A limited third person point of view through the eyes of a single character, Sorrow, and no journal excerpts, save for a brief one I inserted in the natural course of a chapter. The third person POV is pretty common in fiction, probably the most common approach to a novel, but, curiously, this is the first novel where I’ve actually used it faithfully from beginning to end. All the Bitterwood novels are third person POV, but with the POV changing between a dozen different characters from chapter to chapter. Burn Baby Burn alternates between three different character POVs, and Nobody Gets the Girl is mostly told from a single POV, except for the prologue and epilogue, where I use an omniscient POV to recount elements of the larger story.
Getting Sorrow present for every important event in the book required some plotting acrobatics. The climatic final battle was especially challenging, since I have over a dozen characters taking part in the fight and had to choreograph it so that Sorrow could witness each significant event. I also had to give up scenes from the point of view of other characters, and possibly have made some of them more opaque as a result.
I could have saved myself a lot of grief just by changing Sorrow’s character. Her serious nature and lack of self doubt made her a poor narrator, but she is only a product of my imagination. There’s no reason I couldn’t have made her a chatty wise-cracker with a quip for every situation who could have recounted the story with ease and style. Except, of course, then she’d just be a female Stagger, and the back story that would have rendered her a charming narrator would also likely have destroyed her motivation for undertaking the quest that drives the novel. In the end, I had to adapt my story telling to my character, rather than trying to change my character to allow me to tell the story in a preferred style.
All writing is compromise. Every choice you make obliterates an infinite number of potentially better choices. Any story you tell will forever be haunted by the ghosts of the stories you chose not to tell. This isn’t a depressing situation for an artist, however. Twenty years have passed since I started my first novel, and back then I think I assumed that, twenty years later, I’d know how to write books. But, the reality is, with every new book I start, I really don’t know how to write it. The things I thought I knew after finishing my last book turn out to be of limited use on my next one. Unless you want to get trapped in the hell of writing the same book over and over, any new book is going to present new problems that require new skills developed through experimentation and further study of your craft. It can be frustrating to go into each book not having any clue how you’re going to write it, but, ultimately, that’s the challenge that keeps the whole process interesting.
James Maxey is the author of eight novels. Witchbreaker is available pretty much wherever books are sold.