The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

As many of you know, my first job out of college was as the film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper in (surprise!) Fresno, California. Fresno doesn’t have a sterling reputation in-state, but I have to tell you, I had a great time, and among other things, it’s where I met my wife. So when also-former-Fresno Bee writer Stephen H. Provost queried about Fresno Growing Up, I pretty much said, “bring it.” And thus he has. Hello, Fresno!

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

When Mr. Spock is your role model growing up, you don’t tend to think in terms of fate or destiny. Everything’s supposed to be logical. You know, as in traveling through time by boomeranging a starship around the sun at warp speed. As in visiting mirror universes, or hopping onto a “transporter” that scrambles your atoms and reassembled them in perfect precision hundreds of miles away.

Maybe life isn’t so logical after all. Maybe patterns can be scrambled and unscrambled again, and maybe we really can go back in time.

This would explain why I keep boomeranging back to my hometown, Fresno, the subject of my Big Idea book, “Fresno Growing Up.” At the age of 3, I spent a year in the land of kangaroos, Vegemite sandwiches and, yes, boomerangs, then back I flew to Fresno. There were six years in L.A. as a teenager, living next door to a major leaguer on one side and the assistant music director for the “Tonight Show” on the other, before I made another return trip. Then I graduated from college and moved down the road in world’s dairy capital, Tulare. Then, you guessed it, back again.

By that time, I’d spent a decade as a journalist, having entered the field because I figured it offered more security than being an author. I even spent 14 years working for my hometown newspaper, The Fresno Bee, before the recession left me out of a job and prepared to resume the author gig 30 years after my first stab at writing: a wannabe Tolkienesque great American novel that’s sitting in a shoebox somewhere.

Taking another shot at long-form writing was my first Big Idea. I churned out several CreateSpace books under a pen name (Stifyn Emrys) but, in the meantime, I found myself riding the boomerang again – right back into journalism. Talk about déjà vu. These days, I’m working for a newspaper that shares the same publisher as The Fresno Bee, and that’s even printed on the same press … in Fresno, of course. It’s as if my words are taken, via “transporter,” from California’s Central Coast and reassembled in my hometown, then “beamed” (actually trucked) back to San Luis Obispo County for public consumption.

It may not be Kauai or Tahiti, but the Central Coast is the next best thing, which explains why so many Fresnans end up here (it seemed like half the people I interviewed for my book about Fresno were actually residing here, not there).

Still, as I was basking in the cool endless summer on the California coast, strange as it may seem, I began to miss Fresno. Not so much the place I’d just left, but the place where I’d grown up – the Fresno of my youth. That’s when an idea started to take root. It started out as a small idea. Plenty of people had written stories of Fresno’s early history, but few had written about the Fresno I remembered – the quintessential mid-sized American city of the Baby Boom era.

Why not me? I thought. Why not attempt a little time travel? The endeavor took me through hundreds of old newspaper stories, books about the era and phone or email interviews with others who, like me, had lived the city’s story.

Instead of writing about founding fathers, politicians and esteemed ancestors, I wrote about the birth of the Top 40 Boss Radio format (yes, this happened in Fresno). I wrote about how Bank of America used the city as the test market for a newfangled plastic convenience called BankAmericard – the first national credit card and ancient ancestor of the modern Visa. There was a reason the powers that be at BofA chose Fresno for their grand experiment: It was smack-dab in the middle of California, the same way Peoria was at the heart of Middle America.

Fresno had its local celebrities (football letterman-turned-variety show king and pitchman extraordinaire Al Radka), its athletic heroes (big leaguers Tom Seaver, Jim Maloney and Gus Zernial), its clubs, hangouts and drive-ins. Every Friday night, kids would pile into their cars and cruise up and down the main drag in a ritual that, just up the road in Modesto, served as the blueprint for George Lucas’ breakthrough hit, “American Graffiti” and the nostalgia-heavy TV series “Happy Days” … which has now, itself, become a piece of nostalgia.

People love nostalgia; they love reminiscing, so I figured they might just love a nostalgic look back at their hometown during the era they had lived through. The small idea was starting to get a little bigger.

The original plan was just to publish “Fresno Growing Up” myself, as I had my other books. But as I thought about it, I realized that my “small idea” had already gotten too big for that. I’d taken scores of photos and had received permission to use a number of historical images. I couldn’t hope to do them justice in the confines of CreateSpace’s fine but limited format. So I pushed my way past the visions of rejection notices that were dancing in the mosh pit of my brain: I did some research, found a publisher I thought would do the topic justice, and fired off a query letter.

What I got back two weeks later was a slightly belated Christmas present expressing interest in the project – which the publisher proceeded to turn into the kind of work I could never have hoped to achieve on my own. The small idea that became a Big Idea was now a Big Reality.

In the process of it all, I managed to achieve a form of time travel without getting anywhere near a star. Turns out, it wasn’t science fiction at all; it was history. Eminently logical. Mr. Spock, I think, would have been proud.

—-

Fresno Growing Up: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Joe Beernink

You know what? You’re busy. Sometimes you miss things. Sometimes they’re important things. But in Nowhere Wild, author Joe Beernink posits what happens when you miss something really really really important.

JOE BEERNINK:

When I started writing what would become Nowhere Wild, I had one central theme in mind. What if civilization as we know it ended, and you didn’t know?

How could you not know civilization had ended? Were you in a coma? Well, that’s been done. Or maybe you were on a long trip to outer space, only to come back to a world devoid of life? That’s been done, too. A lot. But, what if the character, let’s call him Jake, has been in an location here on Earth which is so isolated, that he hasn’t even heard about the end of the world as we know it? What if that place wasn’t some remote desert island, or some deep jungle of South America? What if it were a place that regular people go to vacation—to get away from it all?

As it turns out, there are places right here in North America which are so isolated, where this might just occur. I spent a lot of my childhood reading about life in these types of harsh locations. Farley Mowat’s Lost in The Barrens, and Jack London’s Call of the Wild always top my list of books to give to people who want their kids to read great adventure stories. They’re written about a different time in history, but some of those remote places still exist, relatively untouched by man. To live there today, for most people, requires modern technology like airplanes and satellite radios. When those tethers to civilization go away, and go away suddenly, what would those people living there do?

What if Jake was in the wilds of Northern Manitoba when the world fell apart, and all he knew is that his ride home had never arrived and that no one would answer his calls for help?

That was the scenario I started with when I began the first draft of Nowhere Wild so long ago: a boy, alone in the woods, who knows exactly where he is, but doesn’t know where everyone else has gone. Besides the obvious physical challenges of survival–traversing hundreds of miles of bush, swamp and open water, finding shelter, food and water—Jake would have to deal with the emotional aspects of survival. Fear. Loneliness. Self-pity. Frustration.

As the author of this story, I often had to deal with the same emotional challenges: the fear that this story, one that begged me to be told, would never come together. The loneliness of spending months—years even—writing and rewriting the story until everything fell into place. The self-pity and frustration of having put myself in the position of writing a novel where there was but one character. No one for Jake to talk to. No conflict but Jake’s struggle against nature and his own body. Conflict of that sort is constant and relentless, but it can admittedly make for some slow reading.

In the earliest drafts of Nowhere Wild, I introduced a minor character in the last few chapters of the story. When I say minor, I mean really minor. Izzy had maybe five or six lines of dialog. But as it happens, everyone who read those early drafts wanted to know more about her. Where did she come from? How did she survive so long? They wanted her story told as well. At first I ignored those pleas. The story was about Jake and his struggles. But as more people read it, I realized that her story had to be told, not just for the mechanics of the book, but because her story, though much different than Jake’s, was also about survival.

What would Izzy do if she knew that society was gone, and there was nothing left to go back to, but that was still better than where she was?

That is Izzy’s struggle. She’s seen the worst of what happens after law and order disappear and society breaks down. She’s survived the initial struggle, and she’s not alone. But she’s not safe either. What if the one thing she knew could kill her, was the one thing she needed most to remain alive?

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Nowhere Wild – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | kobo| Powells | iTunes

Nowhere Wild – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook. 

The Big Idea: Felicia Day

Felicia Day is someone who for most geeks needs no introduction: Creator of The Guild, instigator of the Geek & Sundry video channel, television celebrity and of course a star of the immortal Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Now she has another descriptor to add to her title: New York Times best selling author, as her book You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) plopped onto non-fiction chart. That’s awesome, and she’s awesome, and here she is to chat with you — yes, you! — about her thoughts on the act of creating. Take it away, Felicia!

FELICIA DAY:

The whole point of creating is affecting other people.  (Effecting? Grammar sigh.)

I am plagued with perfection syndrome, anxiety and an acute self-consciousness that makes me convinced that I have a gob of mascara under my eye when I attend any public appearance. In general, hubris is something I avoid at all costs. (The internet helps reinforce it because someone is always willing to step up and tell you how much you suck. Thanks internet!) This reluctance to be braggy was a big hurdle for me to be able to get through writing my own memoir. I mean, talking about myself, TO myself for about year to complete the thing? Then recording the words aloud I wrote to myself ABOUT myself for the audio book?! Ugh. My constant inner monologue was, “Who the hell do you think you are, chickie?” But the thing that got me through was realizing that the point of creating is not about ourselves, it’s about everyone around us. How we change others in small ways or large with what we make. Basically, making stuff is not about you, damnit.

This is easy to say in theory, but hard to sink into the bones when you’re staring at a half-completed outline on your laptop and you don’t know how to finish it and there’s a deadline looming like a guillotine above your psyche. (And you’ve just stress-eaten a whole bag of Doritos Cool Ranch and your mouth smells like a trench.) Ego is a necessary first step in making things. There’s a story or a character in our heads that no one else in existence can tell, of a jaunty spaceship traveling through a universe or a hot highlander seducing a super mousey journalist. We’re the only one who can write that moors-seduction scene QUITE like we can, so let’s get to it! (Note to self, explore this Highlander idea, sounds hot.)

But after the initial seed is planted, all our emotional baggage arrives with a jolly, “Hey idiot, reality knocking!” to dry up the enthusiasm. Inhibitions show up. Second guesses. Procrastination-reading of five other works in a similar vein leads to crushing thoughts like, “He had a robot dog in his book, I can’t do that now or I’m a copycat! I have no other ideas. I’m the worst!” I went through it all. And it cost me weeks of my writing life. Yay! But as I plugged away and started to string together my life events, especially my love of connecting with people on the internet, I noticed a thread of where the joy of creating actually lay (lie? Double grammar sigh).

The satisfaction came from other people taking what I made, crushing it into their own a psychic ball and mashing around in their heads, only to come out later in a repurposed form for their own uses. Whether just to share “this made me laugh” in an internet comment, or spur them to create a whole world of their own, impulse sparked by what I’d shared. Channeling that feeling of helpfulness and joy of sharing allowed me to get through the writing road blocks a lot easier than it had been for me in the past. Because I reframed the way I thought about the material from all about ME, to all about US.

And I realized that’s the key to getting through the hard writer’s block times. It requires creating the way we did as kids. Back when we worked for weeks to create that perfect drawing for our dads to hang on the fridge, or built an elaborate Popsicle stick sculpture we couldn’t wait to give our grandmas. That joy of expressing ourselves FOR someone we love is so powerful. It overrides all the ego crap we’re plagued with that stops us up, that makes us put down the pencil or search YouTube for kitten videos instead of working.

If you’re blocked, the root of it is probably fear. I know I was for me. Of failing. Of being mocked. Of not immaculately conceiving the perfect tale on the first draft. This is why I never wrote those unicorn stories I wanted to as a teenager, or those angsty post-college ennui ones in my twenties. I couldn’t risk not knowing the perfect path to take in order to make myself look awesome. Now, I retroactively hate that I sabotaged myself like that, because I couldn’t realize that the things we create are just a deposit into our collective consciousness. Like a savings account for humanity. Fart jokes, political essays or deep contemplative novels, all of it should be considered our personal contribution to helping us understand each other better and changing each others’ brains in ways that wouldn’t have happened if we’d never spoken up.

So when you think about creating, focus on the idea of adding to the collective Borg consciousness, if only to get over your own road blocks and make it easier to get your voice out there. Seeing how the things we express give other people the tools to fertilize the gardens of their own minds is beautiful. It’s kind of the point of being alive. (Alternative theory: Tacos).

—-

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Hear excerpts on the book site. Read her blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Aliette De Bodard

Aliette De Bodard’s Big Idea piece for The House of Shattered Wings may have the best first line of any Big Idea piece yet. That’s all I’m going to say. Get to reading.

ALIETTE DE BODARD:

My novel didn’t come together until I nuked Paris.

After I finished Obsidian and Blood, my trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, I was a bit uncertain as to what to write. I finally settled on a urban fantasy set in Paris: I’d always wanted to tackle magic in a more modern setting, and Paris, as a city I’d lived in or around for years, felt like a natural candidate.

The novel, though, never really came alive for me.  I went through several drafts with increasing degrees of frustration–and finally realised that what I needed was better worldbuilding. My intended setting, of a 21st Century with magicians’ families fighting each other for power, had never really convinced me; because I felt, deep down, that the presence of magic should have a bigger effect on the city and its people.

At the same time, I was also taking the novel further back in time, to the 19th/early 20th Century, for a more old-fashioned feel. I was therefore reading a lot of books from that time period, all carefully set against the devastation wrought by WWI. And that’s when I realised that what I really needed was a magical equivalent of this–one whose effects wouldn’t so easily be shaken off. The kind of conflagration that still left the city devastated and bobby-trapped with spells, decades later. A war between factions that had grown too arrogant and powerful and tired of being at each other’s throats–except, of course, that even after the war they’d still be fighting each other on battlefields of intrigues and politics and magical influence…

Yup, that sounded about right.  

It turned out that nuking a city was harder than I’d thought. First, I needed a good idea of what life had been before the war: not only to assess what had been lost, but because my post-war society would be clinging to the idea of a golden age before the war, and modelling itself on its memories of it.

My pre-war society differed massively from the actual historical one, because it had Fallen angels–ageless and immortal beings who, with their talent for magic, naturally gravitated to positions of power. And it also had magical factions: the Houses, a quasi-feudal network of protections and obligations that turned into impregnable fortresses after the war. I imagined them as a loose cross between the Houses in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series and the Chaosian Houses in Zelazny’s Amber; and I spent a lot of time coming up with their various characteristics, from philosophy to coats of arms and major magicians (among which was Lucifer Morningstar, because where would be the fun of Fallen angels without him?)

Second, I needed a good idea of the geography of the city, past and present. There I was fortunate, because I could do most of my research by walking and going to local libraries. In particular, I decided that the major focus of the narration, House Silverspires, would hold Ile de la Cité, one of the islands in the centre of Paris. I had to research a bit, in order to get an idea of the lay of the land before I completely nuked said land. By the time I was done, most of the island’s monuments were destroyed, Notre-Dame was ruins open to the sky, and the neighbouring Seine had become a dark and dangerous river, whose tendrils would snatch the unwary from bridges and quays.  Fun times!

Once I was reasonably confident of my Ile de la Cité, I extended the devastation further, into the rest of Paris. Some areas would be under the sway of Houses and enjoy a modicum of safety and resources, and others would be Houseless–in varying degrees of distress and poverty, ranging from lower middle class to working class, to areas beset by gangs of roving, starving youths who fought for scraps of food and magic.

As I delved deeper into this new, odd and bleak world and its politics of survival,  understood immediately that I’d been entirely right: this was something I felt passionate about, something that came alive for me when I was writing about it and begged to be explored further with every new chapter. This was the book I really, badly needed to write.

And that is how I ended up writing The House of Shattered Wings, and setting it in a universe that felt much more engrossing to me than the one of my abortive urban fantasy. I hope I managed to get some of that fire across in the book!

—-

The House of Shattered Wings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Charlie Fletcher

How to suss out the intricacies of a new idea, not just for a story, but for an entire world? For Charlie Fletcher, author of the Oversight series, of which The Paradox is the latest installment, the answer was simple: Go for a walk.

CHARLIE FLETCHER:

The setting for The Oversight and The Paradox began with a fragment that I wrote in my notebook without entirely understanding why:

On the benefit of Mongrels, and the perils of Cold Iron”.

It’s a fine near-sentence, full of atmospheric period capitalizations and so on, but it’s also maddeningly opaque, and needed unpacking. So I did what writers do when ideas need to be nailed down. I whistled up my terrier Archie, and went for a long walk up the hill in the driving rain.

Of course there was rain. It was summer. This is Scotland.

I set off knowing one thing: I wanted to write an adult supernatural adventure set in early Victorian London. I like the period, I know the history and the terrain of the city, it’s a good and numinous place to hunt story.

What the generous host of this blog calls The Big Idea, I call True North because once I’ve found it I can always navigate my way through a story: it stops me getting frustratingly lost and instead allows me to get interestingly lost, which is quite a different thing altogether, being where the fun and serendipity happens.

In the world I was beginning to imagine there were two groups of people: those with supernatural abilities kept strong by keeping their blood ‘Pure, living hidden and apart from the other normal ‘natural majority. The Pure have freedom to roam where they will, as long as they obey ancient prohibitions – ‘Law and Lore’ that protects each side from harming the other. Being disinclined to mix, the Pure have usually always kept to the wild places.

As I walked through the rain wondering how to dramatise this – and maybe because I was watching my dog trot ahead of me it seemed logical that this unseen picket-line between the natural and the supernatural was best policed in an even-handed way by mongrels those with the blood of both sides in their veins. From this the idea of the ancient Free Company for the Oversight of London was born.

The Oversight have thus never been pure, and have always been imperfect. Theyre real and fallible, doing the best they can with inadequate tools and limited resources – just like the rest of us. But like Archie my terrier, who is of course mongrel to the bone, they’re resilient, scrappy, a little unpredictable and totally don’t know how to back off, even when they’re losing. They have all taken a vow to uphold Law and Lore to the death: hence the ‘benefit’ of Mongrels.

Having discovered I was going to tell the story through a kind of uncanny border patrol, I had to think about exactly what those inadequate tools were that they would use to try and enforce the balance they were sworn to. And that’s where Cold Iron suddenly made sense.

Amongst the strongest and most widespread articles of old folk belief is that you can escape the pursuit of supernatural entities by crossing running water, and that if none is nearby you can defend yourself with ‘Cold Iron, which they abhor.

This idea of Cold Iron as a sure talisman against the power of the supernatural made me understand why I wanted to write this story at this particular point in time: the 1840s mark the transition between the First and Second Industrial Revolution, iron production has leaped forward, steam power is perfected, and the onslaught of the railroad, spreading its web of iron across the virgin lands of the world is just starting to bite.

So, if the Pure have always been free to move wherever they will as long as they don’t prey on ‘normal’ people, what happens when the ‘normal’ start caging the landscape beneath a grid of uncrossable iron rail track, and cutting new canals of flowing water across the traditional trails, rendering them unpassable?

What in fact always happens when you get ancient treaties swept aside, and the old world realises it’s time to fight a last stand against the unthinking rapaciousness of modern?

I think you get resistance…

Writers tell you walking helps, and it does: I came off the hill with my True North, my Big Idea: history in flux, players in motion, unintended consequences – a reason to tell the story I was drawn to, and a question that hopefully resonates forward into our own world.

And speaking of the wider world, I also knew London was now just the place where it all begins…

—-

The Paradox: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Linda Nagata

In today’s Big Idea, Linda Nagata explains how short stories were the gateway to her “Red” series of novels, of which The Trials is the second. Short stories! Gotta keep an eye on ’em!

LINDA NAGATA:

Stories can be dangerous, demanding things.

The Trials is the middle book in a trilogy of military thrillers that took over my imagination. I had never planned to write a military novel—not until an alliance of small ideas infiltrated my subconscious and gained control, insisting that together, they were the Big Idea behind a new science fiction story world.

The first incursion came in the fall of 2012 when I was struggling to write a hard SF short story. The reason I was having so much trouble? This was a completely new story world, so everything about it had to be worked out: the state of the Earth, the level of technology, the extent of solar system exploration. All of this for a storyworld that I didn’t expect to revisit—until I found myself writing this odd bit of background about an AI antagonist known as “the Red.”

“…it bled through every aspect of life—a relentless tide of information and influence shepherding the thoughts and actions of billions along paths determined by its unknowable goals.”

Yeah…what does that even mean?

I wasn’t sure. Not at first. Nevertheless, I had a strong feeling I’d just found a key element of a new novel.

In fiction, AIs are often depicted as self-aware entities with relentless survival instincts and a hunger for power—a lot like people, just smarter and faster. But it’s narrow AI that’s used everywhere these days, non-sentient and focused on a specific task. Self-awareness is not expected, wanted, or required. So what if an AI of that sort—let’s say a marketing AI, one originally designed to gather data on individuals, to assess their wants, and to manipulate their behavior in ways both subtle and overt, simply evolved to do its task better?

I mean, we’re already on our way to that. I’m sure you’ve gone shopping online, only to be pursued around the web by whatever product you were looking at. If you have an Android phone, Google is certainly aware of where you are and often has a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for. Facebook presumes to know us well enough that its algorithms can decide what posts we want to see in our newsfeed. Amazon has our browsing, buying, and reviewing histories going back years.

The NSA may have a lot of cached data, but surely it’s the consumer programs that know us best—and when they chase us around with ads, they are trying to influence our behavior by matching us up with products we might want to buy. So in the classic science fiction tradition of “if this goes on…” I wondered what might happen if a marketing AI began to more overtly shape potential consumers. Instead of matching people up with a specific product, it begins to match them up with the life they would have chosen if only they’d had the opportunity—and the courage for it.

There is a special sort of excitement when I sense a novel coming on. I felt it as I finished up the short story (which you can read over at Lightspeed Magazine—it’s called “Nightside on Callisto”). But in the end this concept was just a nice bit of background. I didn’t have my Big Idea yet.

Then, several months later, I was ambushed by another short story.

(You see? Stories are dangerous. They are demanding. They mess with your head.)

“Through Your Eyes” (Asimov’s April/May 2013) is set in a very near-future New York City. It’s a tale of surveillance, civil rights, the corruption of corporate-controlled government, and the power of hidden cameras in the hands of citizens. Just like the earlier story, this one had a background element that intrigued me: the idea that the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about so many years ago has come to control US foreign policy, and war is a business decision.

This is another “If this goes on…” scenario. After all, the United States has been at war for a very long time, and is likely to continue to be at war on some scale for many more years to come. In a long-term market like that there is money to be made—a lot of money—and defense contractors stand to reap large profits.

Again, a nice bit of background, but still not the Big Idea I needed—until I put the two scenarios together: a paranoid defense contractor declares all-out war against an elusive, rogue AI with unknown goals. The two ideas combined in an explosive rush of writing that yielded the draft of a novel in only four months—record time, for me.

That was The Red: First Light, the story of US Army Lieutenant James Shelley, who finds himself a frontline player in a widening conflict that forces him to question who he’s really fighting for—and just how far a soldier’s duty will allow him to go.

As soon as The Red was done, I was faced with writing a sequel. I knew The Trials would open with Shelley and his squad of cyborged soldiers facing the consequences of the decisions made and the actions taken in the first book—even as they find themselves locked into the hero’s role.

And that, I realized, was the Big Idea behind The Trials.

In a world linked by cell networks, satellites, mass media, and surveillance, the subtle but far-reaching machinations of the Red have begun to turn the lives of individuals into real-life stories—some quietly heroic, and some harrowing, some that derail lives, and others that inspire.

I freely admit that I’m addicted to adventure stories, and I suspect many of you are too. Action, struggle, discovery, facing your fears, overcoming the odds, doing the right thing in the face of danger, in the service of others. It’s all great to read about.

But what if you found yourself caught up in one of those harrowing stories, actually confronted with the hero’s role? Would you want it? Would you take it, even knowing that your life was being manipulated—and that not all stories have happy endings? That’s the choice Shelley has to make. As the world is gradually redesigned by an entity no one understands, he has become an actor handed a plot whose end he can’t know.

So the Big Idea behind The Trials is that it’s telling a story about being caught within a story—and as we all know, stories are dangerous, demanding things.

—-

The Trials: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Stephen Moore

 

As a person with some infamous ancestors in his family tree (ever hear of John Wilkes Booth? Yeah, he’s an uncle), Stephen Moore’s Big Idea for Graynelore speaks to me in several ways. Read on to discover why.

STEPHEN MOORE:

When I talk about a big idea in relation to Graynelore I find myself looking back to the very start of the project. Not to the main themes, or the twisting plot. No. Rather, I want to tell you about the big idea that set the ball rolling, so to speak, and ultimately changed the very direction of my writing.

A few years ago I had a revealing conversation with my mother about her family roots and discovered something amazing: my ancestors include links to the infamous 16th Century Border Reivers.

Who? The Border Reivers were inhabitants of the English/Scottish Borderlands; family groups who considered theft, kidnap, blackmail, murder and deadly blood-feud as all part of their day job. While the crown heads of England and Scotland were engaged in an endless bloody conflict over sovereignty that reduced the borders to a virtual no-man’s-land, ordinary folk were effectively left to get by as best they could. And if that meant turning up on your neighbour’s doorstep and beating the hell out of them to take whatever little they possessed (up to and including their lives) then so be it! Reiving, as it became known, was very much a way of life for close on three hundred years. The Reivers even gifted the word bereaved to our dictionaries!

What’s my connection? My mother’s family name is Kerr, and they originally hailed from the Scottish Borders. Let’s be blunt. The Kerrs were notorious Reivers back in the day. Blood-feud a speciality! If one fact about them tickles me! Unusually, the Kerrs were left-handed. It meant they fought with their swords in their left hand and built their fortified tower houses with left-handed spirals to their staircases. It just so happens I’m also left handed. I like to think it’s in the blood.

I was instantly intrigued by my infamous ancestors. Right there and then, the big idea was born! What author worth their salt would not want to write about them? I only had to find the right tale to tell.

So, I took the historical world of the Border Reivers; their way of life, their society, their homes, their landscape, their goods and their chattels. In true Reiver fashion, I stole it all, misused and abused it and made it my own. (With my family links, I’m just a little bit proud of that.)

Mind you, if I’m claiming that as my big idea, there was an issue to overcome: I’m an author of fantasy, not historical fiction. To satisfy the writer-within-me I had to combine the two; fantasy with my own version of Reiver society the bedrock to stand it upon. I like to think of it as twisting history.

Where did my fantasy tale find its birth? I’ll tell you. One hot summer’s day I was sitting in a beautiful garden overlooking the Welsh coast. In the middle distance, out upon the sea, I could see the Isle of Lundy. There were warm currents of air rising off the sea, and as is the way on hot summer days, they slowly obscured the scene, until at last Lundy Isle disappeared. There was only the sea and the endless blue sky. Of course, it was a simple trick of the eye. But in that moment I knew I’d found the idea I was searching for. This wasn’t Lundy Isle at all, but the Faerie Isle. Sometimes there, sometimes not, ever moving…

And so began a long and winding journey of research and development that ultimately lead me to my novel, Graynelore. You might call it a Reiver faerie tale. But believe me, not a faerie tale as you know it.

At the outset I had to make one further inspired leap of faith. You see, up until this point, all of my books had been written for children; and I’ve been writing for almost twenty years! However, I knew that if I was going to write authentically about Reivers, the story might well be a faerie tale but it could not possibly be for children (for me, a big idea in itself!) A Reiver’s world is naturally brutal, sometimes cruel, and often graphically blunt. If I could pull it off, Graynelore had to be my first novel strictly for grown-ups. And so it is.
—-

Graynelore: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Kobo|iBookstore
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site and his blog.  Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: David Nabhan

Energy is on author David Nabhan’s mind, and in The Pilots of Borealis, it’s on the mind of a lot of his characters too. What do they all know about energy that you might not? The author explains below.

DAVID NABHAN:

The Pilots of Borealis is many things: a study in athleticism and strength, experiencing a world of the future that still trucks in the sins of the past, and survival, by any means necessary. However, what I hope to tackle in this novel, the concept that drove me to explore a world fueled by dwindling Helium-3 and sub-zero lunar dog-fighting, is actually an idea that’s existed since the day the universe exploded into being: energy, and the things people will do to have it and to keep it for themselves.

Historians always a make a point to describe what exactly wars are fought over: fertile fields and plains, mighty timberland, mineral-rich terrain, rivers and oceans and more. However, one thing I always found interesting is that there is never any focus on what goes into those resources after they’ve been conquered, accrued, or won; how many hours go into plowing a fertile field? How much lumber will a lush forest reveal? How many fish can one catch in a given day?

Having the resources isn’t enough; one must work the resources and tame the land, in order to show any yield for a given material. The human race had a rough yet intrinsic understanding of the ways the Earth had to be fashioned to provide life, first with muscle power, then beasts of burden, harnessing wind, water and gravitational power. The greatest empire of the ancient world, Rome, at its height conducted its business on the backs of five million slaves, watered its cities with thousands of miles of gravity-powered aqueducts, employed tens of thousands of water-wheels and wind capturing devices for flour and saw mills, hydraulic mining, marble quarrying, irrigation for farming, and for transportation by sea.

It is said that coal and the steam engine produced the Modern Age, and that’s hard to deny.  But there is nothing that altered the world as dramatically as the incredible changes wrought by petroleum. One gallon of gasoline contains energy equivalent to roughly three weeks of human labor. There is nothing else like it on Earth, liquid power to be transported at ease, shaped to fit any container, making it the most strategic material in the world.  

The Pilots of Borealis doesn’t take up the story here though. It picks up after the horrific wreckage of four Petroleum Wars. It’s the twenty-fifth century, and gasoline is useless and primitive.  Humans haven’t changed much, even though their civilizations now stretch out to Titan. And instead of clashing arms over earth-bound material, the sabers are now rattling for a resource that is running low, one that feeds the countless fusion reactors that make everything go, from the Alliances on Earth, to the Jovian Colonies and further: Helium-3. Infused into the regolith of the Moon, this rare commodity now spawns a ruthless death struggle between the great powers, desperate to protect what they consider is their rightful share.

And yet, the big idea here, the underlying conceit throughout all of The Pilots of Borealis, is actually that, regarding energy, we’re utterly clueless. For the human race to wring its hands about the next great energy crisis is tantamount to fish worrying about when and how they might die of thirst. They are awash in a sea of water, and we are just so, but in an unfathomably extensive ocean of energy; aware of it, yes, but unaware of how to tap into it.  

Our very universe was born in a blinding flash of pure energy. Before there was anything, there was light in its most ferociously radiant essence. The characters of Pilots of Borealis exist in this beautiful, light-filled universe, fighting over a dwindling resource when the real secret exists all around them. These characters strive, fight, prevail, succeed, fail—and sometimes die—without ever realizing the truth around them.

Ultimately, they must come to realize the nature of the universe in which they live, but only after paying a price that makes all previous choices pale in comparison. But what will they do with this knowledge? And how will they move forward, and survive in an ever-changing universe?

We are, indeed, children of the universe. But that universe is not one of just matter, but also one of pure energy, too. And I think that deserves some more thought, don’t you?

—-

Pilots of Borealis: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Lexie Dunne

So, your favorite superhero? Yeah, Lexie Dunne’s novel Supervillains Anonymous isn’t about them. Or your second favorite superhero. Or your third. Maybe your fifth? or seventh? Yup, that’s about right.

LEXIE DUNNE:

Gail Godwin is what I like to call mid-sized. Not physically—she’s so small that I’ve chucked every short joke in the book at her and will keep going until my editor tells me to stop—but power-wise. Superheroes Anonymous was Gail’s origin story, moving her from the villains’ favorite whipping girl to a hero in her own right. That was fun; I can understand why Hollywood’s rebooted Spider-man 47 times now. It’s addictive! But after the origin story, what if the hero you’re left with isn’t the bottom rung or the top level? What if she’s decidedly middle of the line? This was the fun playing field I got to discover in Supervillains Anonymous, my new sequel.

Caped crusaders come with some super-evident truths: heroes with great chins and an even greater thirst for justice, “smart” villains that somehow take nine steps when four would have been fine, loved ones kept in the dark for their own safety. And it’s not any different in the world of Superheroes and Supervillains Anonymous, which has its own Gawker-like site to track superpowered social activity. In superhero fiction, you’re either the underdog or you’re the alpha dog. That’s why we have seventeen or eighteen different Bats-man (Batmen?) comics and movies all going at the same time. We like ourselves a good Batman.

But when you put Gail on a team, she’s neither. Her powers are strong enough to make her dangerous, but not deadly. Somebody on her level gets one or two jazz hands moments in a battle and then is relegated to watching the main hero’s back. She’s not the Slayer—she’s a Scooby (but a cool Scooby like Willow, not like Xander). In an ensemble work, these mid-sized characters add great flavor, but it’s not often we’re put in their shoes for longer than the moment it takes to release an outstanding quip and make the money shot. I, on the other hand, found myself writing an entire book in this “moment.”

I would call it an accident, but it’s probably fate. In movies, I’m always more fascinated by the background of the shots than I am by the principal actors. My favorite characters show up for a couple of chapters around page 47 and leave with some hint of mystery still clinging to them. I wonder at the actuaries and cleaning crew that have to assess the rubble after the dust has settled. It’s viewing what’s typically a macro-level world with megalomaniacal villains through a micro lens, and it’s always been a favorite hobby. So Gail’s a perfect fit for me.

Aided by the super-element Mobium, she runs faster, hits harder, and banters more mightily than your average human, but she can’t fly and she’s not invincible. Definitely mid-sized, especially when you consider everybody around her. Her boyfriend can fly. Her mentor decimates buildings and breaks the speed of sound. If Gail wants to get across town in a single bound, it’s either be carried or give in and take the El. I discovered early on in my outlining stage that there was no feasible way for her to be the one fighting to the death atop a building, not with the calibre of villains I’d created for the world.

Her place is on the ground, surrounded by dirt and with pebbles wedged in her boots. She takes out the mooks. Luckily, for the sadist in me, what mooks lack in quality, they make up for in quantity. So the stakes might be considerably smaller, but they still exist (and they’re just as likely to vaporize her). She’s still got challenges facing her and she’s still enhanced. This is especially great for me because I really like beating her up and now I can do that even harder. And with great enhancements come a great chance of having a front row seat for the important bits of the final battle.

When I was coming up with this series, it would have been easily to level Gail up and make her one of the heavy hitters. Instead of instincts and honed muscles, the Mobium could have made her invincible, light as a feather, faster than a speeding train. But honestly, where’s the fun in that? We’ve got enough Supermen watching the earth from space. Give me more mid-sized heroes, outclassed by everybody around them, doing what they can to help. I want to spend more time in the trenches, looking up.

After all, that’s what you do with superheroes, isn’t it? You’re always looking up.

—-

Supervillains Anonymous: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin

If you’ve ever wondered how much thought goes into worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy, you’re going to love this Big Idea, in which N.K. Jemisin goes into detail about what it took to make the world of The Fifth Season real and believable. But worldbuilding is not enough to build a novel. Jemisin goes into that, too.

N.K. JEMISIN:

A few years back, I had a dream of a woman doing a Badass Power Walk towards me, with a mountain floating along behind her. I knew she was about my age — early forties, that is — and I could see that she wore dredlocs as I do, but it was very clear in the dream that she was not me. She was angry with me, in fact, because of something I’d done or hadn’t done, and if I didn’t find a way to appease her quickly, I knew she was going to throw that mountain at me. Why was she so pissed off? No idea. How was a mountain following her around like a geological puppy? She was controlling it through some unknown means. I woke up from this dream in a cold sweat — and fascinated. That was the moment the Broken Earth trilogy, of which The Fifth Season is book 1, was born.

I made some immediate assumptions about this woman and her world. First, that she wasn’t unique; there were others who had the ability to control mountains and everything associated with them (i.e. orogenesis). Second, that her anger wasn’t something recent or new.  You don’t toss around mountains over one bad day.  This woman had a lifetime’s worth of reasons to be angry — like being treated as a second-class citizen and having her hopes for the future crushed again and again.  But what kind of society would discriminate against such an obviously powerful person, and why?  The trilogy is my answer to that question.

Right away I faced two major challenges in trying to tell this story: the worldbuilding, and the voice.

Now, I love worldbuilding. I do it for fun and profit. The worldbuilding for TFS was more daunting than usual, though. See, in the Stillness (the sole supercontinent of The Fifth Season) extinction-level volcanic winters and other seismic disasters occur on a frequent basis. This meant I needed to learn a lot more about seismology, given that I’d never even felt an earthquake, or seen a volcano or a geyser, before I started researching this novel. (I was so excited when we had a quake in New York right after I started work on this novel! Even though at first I just thought the subway was unusually rumbly that day.)

More challenging was the fact that nothing in this world could resemble anything in our own world. Why should it? No society on Earth, outside of a few “preppers” and religious extremists, is designed for apocalyptic survival. Yet the people of the Stillness are biologically and culturally adapted for periods of extreme, rapid, hostile climate change. The can detect impending quakes through the use of special areas of the brainstem that we don’t possess, and one of their races prides itself on its acid-proof, ash-filtering hair type. To them, it’s normal to speak of six senses rather than five, and to consider a woman beautiful only if she’s at least six feet tall, at least a size 16, and looks like she can wrestle a bear. (At least.)

This was where the other challenge, the one of voice, kicked in: how could I immerse readers in such a fundamentally alien milieu? Doing that might be a staple of science fiction, but it’s rare — and not always welcome — in fantasy.

I experimented with test chapters and a proof-of-concept short story to get a feel for things before I settled into writing the novel. I picked different tenses, voices, characters, sounds and feels. First person felt too intimate, somehow. Past tense lacked impact. I like the immediacy of present tense; it can feel odd when you’re not used to it, but it’s surprisingly easy to adjust. (Psst: you just did.) Makes for some really visceral action scenes.

But there was one character for whom third person present tense never worked: Essun, my protagonist. The story starts in a moment of extreme trauma for her: she comes home from work one day to find that her son has been beaten to death by his own father. This is thankfully an experience that few readers will have had in real life, and yet it’s something that any reasonably empathetic human being can understand: that moment of almost surreal shock, the disbelief, the mental reeling. I needed a voice that could convey these feelings, which would underlie all of Essun’s actions throughout the trilogy — because that kind of trauma never really goes away. You just rebuild yourself around it.

What worked best was second person. I’ve always thought of second person as distancing; after all, it’s impossible for the reader to ever truly be “you”. Yet I’ve read some incredibly intimate second-person stories, and as I actually tried writing it for the first time, I found that it’s sort of amazing and powerful — both distancing and intimate at the same time. You can’t be this person, but you can understand her. It was perfect.

…Aaaaaand here I had an artistic panic attack. I liked what was developing, but was it even remotely salable? It’s been five years and I haven’t stopped hearing complaints from readers about the first-person that I used in the Inheritance Trilogy. SFF readers are remarkably quick to declare that they “just don’t do [person/tense]”. Or they’ll declare a story pretentious without ever having read it, simply because it’s written in a style they’re not used to. I wish I could say that I don’t care what those readers might think. In a fit of anxiety I showed those first few chapters and an outline to my editor and agent and said, “OK, is this worth something or is it a hot mess?” They must’ve decided it was worth something; I got a contract for the whole trilogy a few days later.

Now I guess I’ll see if readers think it’s worth something, too.

—-

The Fifth Season: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Amy K. Nichols

Robert Frost wrote about taking the road less traveled, but what if the roads were equally traveled, just… different? And you could, in a way, travel down more than one? Amy K. Nichols have given this scenario some thought in her Duplexity series, of which While You Were Gone is the second book. Here she is to tell you about it.

AMY K. NICHOLS:

Have you every wondered what your life would be like if you’d chosen that other career? If that first date had led to a second? If you hadn’t been able to avoid that accident? If the doctor’s diagnosis had been different?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, right? Now take it a step further.

What if there are parallel versions of you living out the paths you didn’t take? Even better, what if you could walk for a time in their shoes to see how your lives turned out?

This is the kind of stuff I love to think about. It’s also the Big Idea behind the Duplexity series (Now That You’re Here and While You Were Gone).

I didn’t set out to write books about parallel universes. As with many stories, this one sort of landed in my lap, or rather in a chair in a high school English class. I’d started writing what I thought was a short story about a teenage girl and her nerdy best friend. The story began with the girl waiting for class to start when suddenly this loser in the seat next to her woke up scared and confused, not sure where he was or how he got there. He did recognize her, though, which I found interesting. I was curious enough about the situation to keep writing. Before long I’d completed the manuscript that eventually became the first book in the Duplexity series, Now That You’re Here.

The story follows street-smart graffiti artist Danny Ogden. When an explosion causes him to jump to a parallel universe, he gets the chance to see the life his parallel self leads. He quickly discovers it’s one full of pain and disappointment. His parents are dead, his friends are criminals, and he’s a ruthless bully. Straight-A science student Eevee Solomon agrees to help him figure out how he got there and how to get him back home. When he develops feelings for Eevee, though, he isn’t so sure home is where he wants to be.

My agent sold the novel to Knopf as a two-book series, with the second book following the other Danny and Eevee in the parallel universe over the same timeline. That second book became While You Were Gone.

When the explosion occurs in the first book and Danny jumps to our world, his parallel self jumps to his world where suddenly he has the life of his dreams. His parents are alive. He has a cool best friend. Girls actually like him, including promising young artist Eevee Solomon. The society he lands in, though, is a police state on the brink of collapse. When he discovers his parallel self has secret ties to an underground anarchist group, he finds himself faced with the prospect of losing everything he loves all over again.

Writing Now That You’re Here and While You Were Gone gave me the chance to explore that thought experiment in fiction. It was an intersting opportunity. The process, however, wasn’t without its share of frustrations.

I’d originally written Now That You’re Here as a standalone and threw in a bunch of fun and crazy ideas about Danny’s parallel world. The surveillance state. Censorship. Arizona having an ocean. An uneasy truce between the US and Mexico. Then, years later, I got the book deal and suddenly all of those passing mentions became the worldbuilding of While You Were Gone. Also, because both books occur over the same three weeks in April, the second book’s timeline and structure were dictated by the events of Now That You’re Here. Plotting the second book was like fitting the pieces of an extremely difficult puzzle. Often I felt like a companion on Doctor Who, begging The Doctor to go back and change the past (aka book one) only to be told some events are fixed points in time (aka sent off to production) and can’t be changed. If only I’d had my own TARDIS!

Still, writing the Duplexity books was an exciting and satisfying ride, especially for a debut author. They gave me the chance to create multiple versions of the same characters in parallel worlds. They allowed me to explore fascinating concepts like wormholes, chaos theory, and teleportation. They also gave me a crash course in writing a series. Mostly though, they allowed me to play with those thought experiment questions I love so much. It’s unlikely I’ll ever trade places with my parallel self or see how my life would have played out had I made different choices. Watching Danny experience that, though, was the next best thing.

—-

While You Were Gone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

I could do a long introduction to Jim C. Hines‘ Big Idea piece on his novel Fable: Blood of Heroes, based on the popular series of games. Instead I will simply say, with some wonder: It has armored chickens in it. I’ll let Jim handle the rest.

JIM C. HINES:

Albion is a land with a long history, developed over the course of the Fable trilogy of games. The forthcoming Fable Legends is set several hundred years before the first game, during a time of great change.

As it turns out, human beings—and nonhuman beings, for that matter—don’t always handle change well.

When I sat down to write Blood of Heroes, the companion novel for Fable Legends, my job was to tell an original story introducing new Heroes in a much older Albion, and to do so in a way that experienced Fable players, players of Fable Legends, and readers utterly new to the franchise could all appreciate and enjoy. There’s plenty of action, battles with ghosts and redcaps and armored chickens, and a bit of political absurdity, all part of a larger scheme by a villain with major dental issues, but underlying everything is the tension of societal change.

The average citizen of Albion might live their entire life without ever venturing beyond the boundaries of their village. It’s dangerous out there in the wilderness! As one villager correctly notes, “Did you know that nearly a hundred percent of forest-related deaths take place outside of town?”

The average citizen of Albion isn’t terribly bright…

Into this world come men and women with mythical powers. Heroes, or so they claim. But what happens when ordinary, everyday townsfolk encounter such people for the first time? How do those in power respond? And why is it that every time a Hero comes along, chaos and property damage soon follow?

As an old evil awakens and begins to spread its influence, a would-be king sees these Heroes as an opportunity to make a name for himself, and he’ll be damned if he lets a minor inconvenience like his untimely death get in the way of his grand vision. A nearby mayor sees only a threat to his power. Will the people really accept him as their leader when there are others with so much more strength and power and magic?

Others simply refuse to believe. “Heroes? Pah. Nothing but a bedtime story, a fantasy. Like dragons and hygiene. We don’t want none of that stuff around these parts.”

So not only did my protagonists have to fight bad guys, they also had to navigate a society that was completely at odds over how to deal with them. One villager might denounce them as frauds, while the next becomes an instant and hardcore fanboy: “Excuse me, Mister Sterling, sir? Would you mind autographing my pig? It’s for my wife. She’s a big fan. Her name’s Bacon. The pig, I mean. Not my wife.”

The same conflicts play out within the protagonists themselves. They struggle to understand their powers and abilities, to figure out who they are and where they belong. Some, like the aforementioned Sterling, believe it’s their destiny to save the land and receive the glory and rewards that are their due. (And if said rewards happen to include a romp with the best-looking man or woman in town—or both!—so much the better.) Others struggle to hold on to their idealism in the face of doubt and cynicism and an unusually large number of things trying to kill them. Then there are those who are just in it for the gold to pay off their bar tab.

In some ways, it’s a lot like the writing community…

Blood of Heroes shows a world in flux. Albion has emerged from what’s known as The Pitch Black Ages (like the Dark Ages, only much, much darker), and is moving toward an Age of Heroes. In the long run, this could be a very good thing, at least for those who survive.

In the short term, it’s gonna be loud, messy, and ugly, full of backstabbing and nastiness and a disconcerting number of chickens.

If I did my job right, it should also be a great deal of fun.

—-

Blood of Heroes: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Read his blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Gary Whitta

“Go Big Or Go Home” — it’s an idea, all right, but it is a good idea? Or could a big idea be something on a smaller scale? Gary Whitta asked himself this question with his novel Abomination. What was his answer? It awaits you below.

GARY WHITTA: 

My big idea is actually a very small one. And in some ways it’s a reaction to a frustration that I’ve felt in my day job as a Hollywood screenwriter — and as an audience member — for quite some time. In recent years we’ve seen the rise in popularity of what I believe is a false conflation of stakes and scale, the idea that the grander a story is in terms of scope and scale, the more we’ll care about what’s at stake. This is why so many movie plots hinge on the fate of the entire world/galaxy/space-time continuum. IF I DONT DISARM THIS BOMB A MILLION PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE. Except it doesn’t work that way. Oftentimes the greater the scale of a story, the more the stakes become abstract, something foreign and hard to grapple with for the people living everyday lives who make up movie audiences.

Joseph Stalin, a chap I always like to quote when talking about popular entertainment, famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We understand intellectually that a million deaths is awful but we can’t really grasp the idea emotionally. Human beings don’t scale emotion that way; a million deaths doesn’t hit us a million times harder than a single one. So when a million faceless, anonymous lives are on the line in the plot of a movie or a novel, it doesn’t actually have that much of an impact on us. Coupled with the fact that we’ve seen this pulled a thousand times and more in movies particularly, we just kind of stop caring. James Cameron perhaps framed it best when he talked about his narrative approach with Titanic, a movie which I am led to understand was fairly successful. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, “I can’t make an audience care about two thousand people on a sinking ship, but I can make them care about two people.” By focusing his story on two characters, spending the first half of the movie getting to know them, he made the audience care about them when their lives were put in danger. The movie is epic in scale but the emotional stakes are actually very intimate. The rest is just background.

This is a lesson Hollywood still largely needs to learn. The fallacious idea that the bigger the action is, the more we’ll invest needs to go away. It’s sad to say, but Die Hard would not get made today in its current form. “Too small,” the executives would say. “What if the terrorists had nuclear bombs planted all over Los Angeles?” they’d helpfully suggest, as if that somehow is more potent than the simple story of John McClane, an everyman we like and care about, trying to survive against impossible odds while coming to realize that he needs to make things right with his estranged wife. Ditto Jurassic Park. “So these dinosaurs are just on one little island that’s mostly deserted? How can we make this BIGGER?” Well we just saw the answer with Jurassic World, a film that’s inferior to the original despite its far greater scale.

Though film is my first language as a writer, I chose to write my most recent story, Abomination, as a novel because I didn’t want to have to conform to these false ideas, or to see it inevitably subjected to them during a film development process. It is by design a small story, because as Cameron said, I believe it’s more emotionally affecting to tell an intimate story about a small group of characters with relatable emotions and goals than it is a vast, fate-of-the-world, “stake-tistical” epic. The structure of Abomination, which is about a medieval knight dealing with the human consequences of a battle against a plague of evil magic, doesn’t lend itself to a typical movie narrative template. Movies tend to escalate as the story goes on, with all the “biggest” action reserved for a climactic third act.

This is why so many modern movies end with massive battles, often so massive that we tend to lose track of what’s actually at stake and just stop caring. There is a big battle scene in Abomination, but it takes place about a third of the way through the story, and happens largely “off-screen”, referred to only in broad strokes. After that the story scales way down to focus on the characters, whose goals don’t have repercussions for anyone other than themselves. But if I’ve done my job right that matters to you because you’ve come to care about these people.

I think this is crucial, and it goes back to the idea that high stakes don’t require grand scale. Look at Little Miss Sunshine. What’s at stake there? Whether or not a little girl will win a regional talent contest? And yet we care deeply, because we care about those characters and so what’s important to them is important to us. My second-favorite Denzel movie, Man on Fire, also does this brilliantly. The whole first half of the movie is spent painstakingly establishing a relationship between a young girl and the man hired to protect her, drawing them gradually closer, caring more and more about one another — and in turn making us care about them — so that when they are violently torn apart, the fate of that little girl is all the stakes we need.

The author William Zinsser said, “Dare to tell the smallest of stories if you want to generate large emotions.” You’re damn right. And you do have to dare to do it, because the prevailing wisdom tells us that everything has to be bigger Bigger BIGGER for an audience to care. The reverse is true. Zero in on the lives of your characters and let them expand to fill your entire story. Reject quantity. Go small. The fate of the entire world may be at stake.

—-

Abomination: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ted Kosmatka

 

Hey, you know quantum physics? Ha! It’s a trick question, because no one truly knows quantum physics — at this point we know just enough to know how little we understand about what goes on down at that level. Which, as it happens, makes it fertile ground for fiction, as author Ted Kosmatka found out with his novel The Flicker Men.

TED KOSMATKA:

The electron leaves the gun at one tenth the speed of light. It travels as a probability wave, passing simultaneously through two slits carved in a piece of steel. On the far side, an interference pattern forms where the waves cross each other—and for just a moment, the math of the universe is laid bare before you. It’s all probability. Uncertainty. A schematic of what might be.

But bend and look close. There, you see it?

Now you’ve changed everything.

*

The big idea for The Flicker Men was actually a small idea. Quantum-sized, in fact. I was reading up on quantum mechanics, with its strange interaction between observer and phenomena, and I found myself wondering about the nature of observation in a quantum system. I mean, what, precisely, is an observer? Is consciousness required?

In the everyday world that we occupy, observers are fairly mundane, but in the realm of quantum mechanics, that shadowing half-world where light is both particle and a wave, the question of observation accrues fundamental importance and has far reaching implications for reality itself.

What if you used the principles of quantum mechanics to define, exactly, the parameters of observation? What if you found something you hadn’t expected? What if all observers weren’t created equal?

The Flicker Men is an expansion of my earlier short story “Divining Light,” originally published in Asimov’s magazine. For me, it all started with the famous double-slit experiment. For years I was obsessed with this simple, elegant experiment which demonstrates the wave/particle duality of light. They call it quantum weirdness, but that term always seemed too benign to me. It seemed more like quantum brokenness, like there was something fundamentally contradictory about the way our universe functions. Nobody would believe in quantum mechanics if there wasn’t such a consistent mountain of repeatable evidence for it. How can light be both a wave and a particle? How does a probability wave collapse into existence? And then there’s quantum entanglement to contend with—one electron linked to another, Einstein’s spooky action at a distance.

The two-slit experiment sits at the very heart of these questions and lays wide their contradictions. In order to believe in the double-slit experiment, you have to accept that the mere act of observing a quantum system can change it. Probability collapses when observed. Waves are transformed into particles; probability into fact. Reality, somehow, knows if someone is watching.

In the original short story “Divining Light,” I came up with a thought experiment that tackles the two-slit idea in a slightly different way. The experiment, with a subtle change, becomes a kind of test, and the results are open to some frightening interpretations. In the world of the novel, no one is ready for what is discovered.

After the original short story’s publication, I received a lot of mail asking where the real science in the story ended and the speculation began. The answer is somewhere in the middle, though I like to think of the entire novel as an extended thought experiment, each piece building on the logic that came before. In the novel, I explore the original premise further and delve into deeper implications about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.

I was a video game writer at Valve for more than five years and my time there gave me a new appreciation for the way our perceptions shape our understanding of the world around us.

I’ve always been a fan of ambitious stories with big, world-spanning arcs; and in a lot of ways, a physics thriller is an ideal platform for tackling the big questions.

The protagonist of The Flicker Men, Eric Argus, is a man haunted by his life’s work. He’s a promising young researcher who made a big splash in quantum mechanics at a young age, but now he’s burned out, fast approaching the end of his career, and wearing out his last chance.

Instead of focusing on new research, he turns instead to face what’s been haunting him. What should have been a dead end turns into an unsettling new chapter of his career. His experiment leads him to a discovery that shakes the foundations of modern physics and opens him up to dangers that he never knew existed.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle tells us that there’s a limit to what can be known, and thus the world is built at least partially on secrets. Eric and his fellow researchers learn an important lesson in the wake of their discovery. Behind every great secret are those who want it kept.

—-

The Flicker Men: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Stina Leicht

For her new novel Cold Iron, author Stina Leicht took inspiration in one of the genre’s foremost practicioners — but then gave that influence just a little twist. What’s the twist? A change of location.

STINA LEICHT:

About eighteen years ago, I happened upon an essay about the evils of Fantasy. In it, the author declared the whole genre to be inappropriate for Americans because it glorified feudalism. I was, I admit, taken aback by the audacity of that generalization. Largely because, well, Fantasy is a broad genre. It doesn’t only consist of stories about Joe Bob the lowly peasant farmer boy who finds the magic [sword/ring/stone] and goes off on an adventure with a mysterious [ranger/thief/wizard/bard/fighter] and thus, not only saves the kingdom from the [evil wizard/evil empire] but discovers he’s a long lost [prince/king/powerful wizard] who was foretold by the ancient [chronicles/fortuneteller.]

Fantasy outgrew that template sometime around 1986 with Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthology.[1] I’m pretty sure the likes of Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Emma Bull, and Midori Snyder weren’t writing about how glorious it was to be the king. Nonetheless, there was a time when that template was in force, and to be honest, that was what drove me out of Fantasy for a while. So, I understood where that came from… to a degree.

Just not in 1994.

At the same time, that essay made me think about Fantasy’s origins. J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of Fantasy, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a British author writing mythology for the British people. Of course, feudalism features heavily in his work. And that was when I asked myself the question that got me started writing Cold Iron: What would Fantasy look like if Tolkien had been American?

First, I set up my imaginary world in the end of the eighteenth century. North America existed before that, of course[2], but after some thought, I decided upon the late eighteenth century anyway.[3] Mind you, I didn’t restrict myself to that period. I wanted The Malorum Gates to be a secondary world fantasy. Middle Earth is. So, I pulled ideas and technology from a forty year period… say 1770 through 1810. In addition, Tolkien, although he was using medieval sources, chose to give his characters modern dialog. Therefore, I did too. Tolkien’s elves were primarily Finnish. So, my kainen are Scandinavian.

Tolkien also used Middle Earth to discuss the realities of war—realities that had deeply affected him, specifically World War I. For me, that meant dealing with themes from the Vietnam War.
I’m not, nor have I ever been a soldier. Still, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected. You see, I was a child when the Vietnam war played out on national television. It was on the news every night. I didn’t understand how much that affected me, a GenXer, until Hollywood began making films about the war. Frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of them because they brought on panic attacks. It was so bad that it wasn’t until 1995 that I could bring myself to watch Full Metal Jacket, and I still haven’t let myself see The Deerhunter. You don’t have to be a soldier to be affected by war. Being human is enough.

I’ve always been a bit of a hippy. I don’t believe that wars solve problems. I believe they create them.[5] Even as a child I was conflicted. I agreed with the protesters about ending Vietnam. However, I absolutely did not agree with how they often treated soldiers. Subsequently, Nels and Suvi, two of my main characters, live in a nation (Eledore) that claims to abhor war. The kainen of Eledore fear death. There are reasons for this, but it’d be spoiler-y for me to tell you why right now. Just understand they don’t even talk about death, not directly. They pretend everyone lives forever. Soldiers carry a death taint. Therefore, when Nels takes up weapons to defend himself and a few villagers from raiders, he’s made an outcast, and his sister assumes his place in the leadership of Eledore.

Oh, sure, there are certain tropes I couldn’t bring myself to give up on—as you can see. Epic Fantasy kind of has requirements or it doesn’t feellike Epic Fantasy. However, Eledore will one day be a democracy, and it will be repopulated with immigrants… eventually.

—————————

[1] Maybe even sooner than that.
[2] Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn sites solid evidence that there were millions of American native peoples living in North America long before the white man’s westward expansion. In fact, the smallpox epidemic of 1775-82 was to the North American native population what the Black Death of 1347-51 was to Europe. That epidemic was started by white men who spread the disease among the native peoples with the intent of wiping them out. Smallpox was America’s first venture into germ warfare. Manifest Destiny, my ass.
[3] Some people will tell you that the Fantasy genre is a moveable feast. Writers can steal anything from any culture that isn’t nailed down. I’m not one of those people. My research indicated that a large segment of the native people of America are not happy with their culture being used as source material by white writers.[4] Thus, I respectfully decided not to go there.
[4] Ah, cultural appropriation.
[5] Yet, a great deal of my chosen entertainment contains war and violence. Trust me, I think about that a lot.

The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Here’s the deal: Charles Stross is awesome and his books are awesome and his Laundry Files series in particular is a hell of a lot of fun. Now Charlie’s here to tell you about The Annihilation Score, the latest installment in the series. You’re gonna have fun. That is all.

CHARLES STROSS:

The other day (July 7th) was the launch day for “The Annihilation Score”, the sixth novel in the Laundry Files series. Magic is a side-effect of mathematics, Lovecraftian elder gods have noticed us using it and are coming to eat us, but don’t worry: Her Majesty’s Government has a plan for that. There are a lot of committee meetings involved …

I’ve been writing these stories for fifteen years, and while they started as a one-shot gag (a dot-com era hacker geek has fallen into a seedy 1960s British spy thriller: there are tentacles) over time they’ve developed into a complex world. They’ve also changed from a series of pastiches of spy thriller authors, to examinations of different aspects of the fantastic.

If we posit an underlying hard-SF(ish) cause behind various mythological entities — zombies, unicorns, vampires, Cthulhu — how would a government agency *really* handle them? And by “government agency” I’m not discussing the pop culture imagery of two-fisted agents confronting bad guys, but actual functioning (and occasionally dysfunctional) bureaucracies trying to digest the indigestible.

The springboard for “The Annihilation Score” is how the Police, Courts, and Home Office (the British interior ministry in charge of law and order) try to get a handle on a rapidly snowballing superhero problem.

Superheroes are heroic archetypes — the roots of the genre lie in the classical pantheons — the myths of the Roman, Greek, Norse, Ancient Egyptian (and, less commonly, Shinto and Hindu) cultures. Our cultural values are rather different from the classical early Iron age empires, but we still hunger for archetypes. Today we use superheroes to ask questions about human agency — with great power comes great responsibility, after all. But if you cut away the myth-making and archetypical trappings and boil them down to their pragmatic roots, as in *Watchmen*, you find yourself looking at unsavory vigilantes and lynch mob justice.

Superhero stories may be an assertion of human agency in modern fantasy and SF, but bureaucracies are all about the diffusion of responsibility and autonomy. Bureaucracies want interchangeability and impersonal procedures, not unique and irreplacable heroes. The reaction of a real world law enforcement bureaucracy to an outbreak of superheroes won’t be one of gratitude: it’ll be an attempt to bring the hammer down *fast* before the random vigilantes throw grit in the wheels of justice. The only job a bureaucracy can conceive of for a superhero involves wearing a Police uniform and doing it by the book …

… And that’s before we get to the knotty existential question of supervillainy. Most supervillain crime is routine aggro — assault, robbery, and ordinary street crime, only with the dial turned up to 11. After all, most police work is routine. Most crime is spontaneous disorder, and mindless with it. But there are exceptions, and how does a real police force deal with a real Mad Science supervillain?

Criminology is the study of the criminal mind. But the only criminal minds we have available to study are the incompetent ones — the ones who got caught. Successful criminals don’t get caught: they get themselves elected Prime Minister of Italy or Russia and pass laws granting themselves retroactive immunity. (“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”)

Mad Science is more than a matter of putting more amps into the thing on the slab while Igor keeps the kite flying in the thunderstorm: so mad science in the 21st century needs a mad science organization, with a budget, human resources, research assistants, and a monetization strategy. Successful mad science villains are by definition organizational geniuses with a business plan — which means they’re rare, terrifying, and a existential threat.

So let’s bring this thought experiment back into focus on the personal. If you’re Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien of the Laundry, teetering on the edge of a stress-induced nervous breakdown from one too many arguments with demons and tentacle monsters, being seconded to the Home Office to set up and run a new department *might* seem like a rest cure at first. But managing a small, tightly ffocusedPolice unit staffed by superheroes requires a rare combination of personal characteristics, including the ability to deal with unrealistic expectations from above and hero-sized egos from below. It’s almost inevitably going to be immensely stressful, and until you can train up a management team to shoulder some of the workload you’re on your own.

And that’s before a mad scientist calling himself Professor Freudstein robs the Bank of England and the National Library in rapid succession, then embarks on a plan to destabilize the government …

—-

The Annihilation Score: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

Time Travel! It’s a thing in science fiction. But after all this time, and time-travel stories, what is the thing about time travel that can still make it fresh for readers? In Time Salvager, author Wesley Chu thinks he’s got a wrinkle in time travel. What is it? Read on below.

WESLEY CHU:

Remember that classic 80s cartoon Voltron? That was one badass robot. Not the stupid Vehicle Voltron but the real deal Lion Force Voltron with primal roars and shit. The Big Idea for Time Salvager is like that, a bunch of bad ass lions forming Voltron, except there’s only two ideas (instead of five), no sword, and nothing is color coded. I’m Asian, so that has to count for extra Voltron points, right?

Let’s start with the first and obvious idea: time travel. Time travel stories that try to change history need to check themselves. I guarantee you, any scientist, real or fictional, who is developing time travel technology, knows about the butterfly effect and the consequences of changing history. So, why the hell would anyone mess with that? You mess with science, you get the horns. Trust me.

I mean, sure, killing Hitler or preventing Yoko Ono from breaking up the Beatles is all well and good, but have you really thought it through? We’ll give Yoko a pass. News flash, Sir Paul already debunked that little rumor.

Hitler, however, deserves killing. He deserves killing bad. Maybe more than any other asshole in history. We’re on the same page here. But, let’s say some dumb genius invents time travel with the express purpose of killing Hitler. He goes back and whacks twelve year old Adolf walking out of water coloring class.

Yay, Hitler’s dead. What happens next? The scientist doesn’t know. I sure as hell don’t. For all we know, the Third Reich happens anyway and instead of Hitler’s insatiable craving for St. Petersburg, they have a leader who reads a little Napoleonic history, looks at the map, and thinks, “Man, that’s a lot of land to cover. You know what? Maybe attacking Russia is a bad idea.”  Before you know it, we’re seventy years into the Thousand Year Reich. Well done, Mr. Scientist, well done. You just ruined the future for everyone.

So, if changing the past is too dangerous and we’re not here to kill Hitler, what is time traveling good for? Since the 1980s hold the answer to everything, I want you to remember Biff Tannen. He used a Grays Sports Almanac to win a crap-ton of money. Before you get excited, sorry, that counts as changing history. However, Biff had the right idea. The answer to the question is all about profit. How does a time traveler make it rain in the present by plundering the past?

Thankfully, I had one of those trippy Wayne’s World dream sequences. I was a time traveler on the Titanic, tasked with stealing the Hope Diamond. My job was to jump onto the ship, locate the rock, and get out as she was sinking so that any traces of my activities would be washed away (literally) when she went down.

I woke up, thinking, “I need to write this down five minutes ago.”

In a resource-starved dystopian future, what if the past is the primary source for power, technology, and materials? And what if the only way to safely retrieve these resources, without affecting the time line, was to jump back to the moment right before a disaster occurs so that the time traveler’s activities are easily ignored by the space time continuum?

Now, as much I’d love to ice Hitler, making fat stacks is a decent consolation prize. As I delved deeper into time travel profiteering, another idea from the darkest reaches of my psyche also crept to the top. This one wasn’t quite as romantic as Leo painting French girls.

I read an article about a South African photojournalist named Kevin Carter.  He took an iconic photo (warning: graphic) of a child during the Sudan Famine crawling toward an aid station. There was a vulture behind the child, just hopping along, waiting for him to die. At the time, Kevin thought it was his job to record the events, but not intervene. He took the picture and left. He won a Pulitzer and then, haunted by the things he saw, committed suicide a few months later. Some of the facts have been subsequently contested, but that was the version I read.

The more I explored the idea of these time travelers (or chronmen as I called them) jumping into the past to witness the last terrible moments of someone’s life, the more I saw Kevin Carters, people whose job gave them front row seats to terrible events but were unwilling to do anything about them. I began to wonder about that mental toll. How do they cope? What happens when they break?

In the end, the Big Idea for Time Salvager isn’t about time traveling or resources or saving the world (though the world does need saving). The Big Idea for Time Salvager is about coping, and how we deal with pain, sorrow, regret, and, hopefully, find the redemption Kevin Carter never did.

And, fuck it, we also kill some Nazis along the way.

Big idea Voltron, folks. We’ve formed the feet and legs; form arms and body; and you, dear reader, form the head. Let’s go, Voltron Force!

—-

Time Salvager: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: S.K. Dunstall

There’s what we know, and what we used to know — and sometimes the latter might be more valuable than the former. What does this have to do with the new novel, Linesman? S.K. Dunstall, the author(s), is ready to explain.

S.K. DUNSTALL: 

Two images—neither of which made it into Linesman —were precursors to this book.

In the first, we read about an early Comdex or Macworld exhibition where the first Apple Mac was on show. An old man stopped to look at the Mac. He picked up the mouse and moved it in front of the screen to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, nothing did, for this was an early generation trackball mouse that you had to roll along the desk.

The two young guys manning the booth laughed and laughed. For they ‘knew’ the complex, intricate, not-really-natural ways you had to move the mouse around on the desk to make something happen on the screen.

You know what? That old man had the last laugh, for nowadays we use touch screens, which is a lot closer to what he was trying than it is to moving a piece of plastic around perpendicular to the surface.

The second thing that inspired us was an article about old ways of healing which had fallen into disfavour but were coming back, because there was a scientific basis in their use and they worked.  Maggot therapy, where a diabetic woman’s heel became infected and she was close to having her foot amputated. The doctor went along with her request to use live maggots onto the infected skin to eat the necrotic flesh.  It saved her foot. Leeches, used as far back as Ancient Egypt, which are nowadays sometimes used to drain blood from limbs after reconstructive surgery, particularly in places were blood clots form easily.

It was the article on maggots that got us talking one night after dinner (we’d finished eating by then). The old techniques—like the maggots and leeches—are still dismissed by most medical practitioners. Humans don’t look back much. We like to look forward. Unfortunately, it means we lose a lot of knowledge that we once had.

Out of that dinner came one idea that stuck. How little we know and how much we have lost.

More, what if we didn’t know it to start with?

For example, we have no idea what the statues on Easter Island were built for. We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never know for certain. The only people who do know are the people who built them.

History is littered with artefacts we can only guess about.

Take it even further. What if the artefact wasn’t of human origin?

What if the first humans in space found an alien spaceship? A sentient alien spaceship?

Would they recognise it for what it was?

Probably not. Especially not if humans had been slowly expanding outwards on old generation ships that they had cannibalised over the years so they were nothing like the original ships.  They had lost contact with Earth a long time ago.  If the ship was abandoned, how were they to know it was alien? And how could the ship communicate with them, for it wasn’t built to interact with humans?

Going back to our Apple exhibition. Who is more likely to finally communicate with the ship? The two young guys who ‘knew’ that you had to roll the mouse along the table? Or the old man who waved the mouse in front of the screen?

Better yet, a child, still young enough not to question an alien ship talking to her, still young enough to listen when the ‘lines’ on the ship spoke to her.

That young girl was Gila Havortian, and she opened the way to the stars. Instead of travelling at sub-light speed, taking years to get to other worlds, humans learned to clone the lines of the alien ship and jump through the void to get from one place to another instantaneously. They gained instant communication within sectors of space.

Humanity expanded, and was still expanding five hundred years later.

But …

In five hundred years the initial knowledge of what the ship could do—small as it was—would be lost as people discover new ways to use the technology.  Like maggots as medicine, we find better ways to do things.

At the start of Linesman, line ships underpin the galactic economy.  The small number of humans who can ‘feel’ the lines and mend them are in high demand.  Especially the tens, who can fix the full set of ten lines.  Higher level linesmen are contracted to cartel houses and work from there.

Then humans find another alien ship.

Enter Ean, who came into the cartels late and is mostly self-taught. Even though he’s a certified ten, he is more akin to the old man holding the mouse up to the screen than he is to the young kids who ‘know’ what to do because they’ve been shown.

____

Linesman: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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The Big Idea: John G. Hartness

Sometimes the band breaks up and the members go solo — but is the resulting music triumphant or discordant? Ask John Hartness, because in In the Still of the Knight, the latest installment of his Black Knight Chronicles, the band breaks up, so to speak… and the tone changes.

JOHN G. HARTNESS:

What do you have when you lose everything? Who are you when there’s no one around? Are you as good as you think you are when your support network is gone and it’s all on you?

These are the questions I wanted to play with when I started working on In the Still of the Knight, the fifth book in my Black Knight Chronicles series. Over the first four books I built a pretty solid ensemble of protagonists, a good little team of X-Men (or Avengers, if you prefer), and now it was time to see if I had a Wolverine in the bunch. In other words, it was time to see if my protagonist, Jimmy Black, could stand alone and become the hero he needed to be.

Let’s back this up a little, because there’s some credit due that I need to give. I’m a big Kim Harrison fan. Her Hollows series was the first urban fantasy I read, and it dragged me deep into the genre and never let me go. In one of her books, she does exactly what I’m doing here – she breaks the band up to force her character to stand alone and become stronger. So it’s not like I’m doing anything terribly original. Hell, the WWE is doing the same thing right now with its champion, Seth Rollins. They’ve taken away a lot of his supporting characters to make him become (or appear to become) a stronger villain.

So I wanted to see what would happen if I took everything away from Jimmy. I’ve spent four books giving him a girlfriend, slowly building their relationship through all the troubles a poor vampire nerd has while trying to date a living cop in today’s world. Now I yank that away from him.

I’ve spent four books giving him a best friend that will stand by him through thick and thin, and you know that no matter how much they fight and bicker, these blood-sucking besties will have each other’s backs no matter what. Until Jimmy makes a decision that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and suddenly his best friend isn’t there anymore.

I’ve given him secondary characters that are willing to pitch in whenever they can – gone. I’ve given him connections to the local police force that he can use to solve crimes – gone. I’ve given him a tense but cordial working relationship with the city’s Master Vampire – gone. I’ve given him a human Jiminy Cricket, a conscience with legs to help keep him on the straight and narrow – gone.

And then I put him into a fight he can’t possibly win, and can’t afford to lose.

All of this to see what kind of character I’d truly crafted. Had I built someone strong enough to stand alone and take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? Or would he be unable to bear his fardles?

Of course, right about the time I really got rolling on the writing of the book, life decided to imitate art and I got far closer to Jimmy Black than I ever wanted to. A series of unfortunate events led me to leave two different jobs over the course of one year, so I spent about half of 2014 unemployed and looking. And let me tell you, unemployed at forty with a theater degree is not where you want to be.

While I was looking for work, and trying to work on the book, I was also dealing with my mother’s declining health. She battled Alzheimer’s and dementia for well over ten years, and at the beginning of last year, her health took a nosedive. On Labor Day, on the last day of DragonCon, I got the call that she had died.

I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I guess no matter how it happens, you’re never prepared, no matter how you intellectualize things. I found myself sitting at this computer the day after we buried my mother, staring at a screen and feeling very much like someone had done to me what I was doing to Jimmy Black. I felt like my whole reality had been stripped away, and that all that was left was the raw core of me.

Turns out that raw core can crank out some words. I finished the last 20,000 words in the book the month we buried my mother, and when I finally typed “The End,” I put my head down on the keyboard and wept.

Don’t do that, it types all kind of stupid letters at the end of your manuscript. Much better to close the laptop first.

Last year taught me that if you strip away all the extras, you find out who you really are. In the rewrites and edits of In the Still of the Knight, the amazing Deb Dixon worked with me to do that to this book. I’m pretty sure we’ve done that to this character. Over the course of early 2015, Deb and I took out the parts that were “too much John, not enough Jimmy,” and left me with a deeply personal book that still fits with the series and everything that’s come before.

Jimmy Black and I have run through the fires together, and we’ve come out tempered, hammered, and sharpened. I hope that you enjoy the forging process I put myself and my character through; I think it made a hell of a story.

—-

In the Still of the Knight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: P.W. Singer and August Cole

What happens when two authors with combined decades of experience working in and chronicling the defense industry attempt to plausibly devise a war scenario only a few years into the future? You might find the book has uncomfortable parallels with the real world. But of course, as P.W. Singer and August Cole might tell you about their book Ghost Fleet, perhaps that’s the point.

P.W. SINGER and AUGUST COLE:

The two of us didn’t meet until we were in our 30s, but both grew up on a similar diet of science fiction, technothrillers, and big sprawling novels. We’d prepare for summer vacation trips by getting a stack of books from the library, that might range from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War to William Gibson’s Count Zero and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. A classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read on the beach might then be followed by staying up late to cram in just one more chapter from Michael Crichton.

Both of us would go on to become professional writers in the non-fiction world: August as a journalist working the defense beat at places like The Wall Street Journal, and Peter writing books on topics like private military contractors, drones, and cybersecurity. It was this work in the real world of DC policy that we met, as August explored topics like the story of China hacking our fighter jet programs and Peter writing books on the ramifications of cybersecurity becoming a new realm of battle.

But when we decided to team up on a book exploring the future of war and technology, we kept coming back to this summer reading list we had in common. So we set out to write a book that wouldn’t just peer into the potential future, but also try to take readers back to that kind of experience.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, out on June 30, explores what would World War Three be like. The idea that the looming Cold War between the US and China/Russia could ever turn hot is fiction today, but a real risk in the years ahead. After Russian landgrabs in Ukraine, NATO is on its highest alert since the 1980s , while China’s regime newspaper declared “war is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. Indeed, a US Navy P-8 patrol plane was chased away from a Chinese military facility this month…which happens to be the opening scene in our “fiction” despite being written 18 months ago!

The structure of Ghost Fleet reflected this idea of returning to the books we enjoyed . Rather than following one character or a single story thread, the story  follows multiple characters and settings, akin to the structure of Red Storm Rising, World War Z or Game of Thrones. This allows us to cover more ground and play with more “what if’s?,”  as well treat the war itself as a character. But here also, there was a point  in this structure in how fiction can be useful in laying out the underlying truths: the novel lays out how a 21st century war between the great powers would be different than the wars of today. Battles will take place not just on the land, but also at sea and air (where US forces haven’t had to face off against a peer power since 1945), and in two new places since the last world war: space and cyberspace. So to tell the story of the war, you have to dance across the settings in a way beyond anyone character’s single journey.

But what makes Ghost Fleet perhaps something different is we’ve experimented with melding two classic book genres, the technothriller and the nonfiction book. Think of Ghost Fleet as a new kind of “novel,” where the story is backed by 400 endnotes that show how real it all is. Every technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction-seeming, is drawn from the real world. The realistic scenarios and moments that we hope will thrill and chill were actually built by using nonfiction research that included everything from unearthing DARPA contracts to sharing lessons from various Pentagon war-games that we organized. Moreover, we put facts to work for our fictions, including using the story to reveal real world concerns from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain US weapons have already been hacked. Similarly, we met with real people who would fight in such a war (from US Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and Anonymous hackers), which improved the realism but also let us really get to know our characters.

Even the name reflects this approach. “Ghost Fleet” has a cool, ominous sound to it, but it is actually the real nickname of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. These are the old Navy ships kept in mothballs in places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco, just in case we ever need them again; they are the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of retired planes kept in the desert. Those dusty warplanes get their day too in our book.

There is a real world policy question of just why we keep these old ships around, which connects to bigger issues of whether a world war could happen again? But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could it go badly enough that the US would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes? Answering these questions also led us down neat story and plot pathways that are often overlooked when planning for future conflict, like how would the old gear, and the old sailors who know them, relate (or not) to digital age warships and sailors?

It has been rewarding to see how people are reacting to the project so far, which we think reveals that the mix of fiction and nonfiction can be both entertaining and helpful in thinking about the unthinkable. We’ve been able to talk about the real world lessons from the novel with groups that range from 600 Navy officers at the Naval War College to the Defense Science Board, as well as share early versions with readers who range from 4 star Navy Admirals (for the military side) to one of the inventors of the Internet (for the technical side), to the writer of HBO Game of Thrones and producer of Hunger Games (for the entertainment side). The result is perhaps the strangest ever Venn diagram of blurbs and reviews, but hopefully one that entices people to check it out, whether they are a military officer looking for insights into the future, or someone just looking for a read with a beer in hand at the beach. Or maybe both.

So that’s our big, but also classic, idea: that you can enjoy a novel, but also find the fiction “useful.”

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Ghost Fleet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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