The Big Idea: Molly Crabapple

I’ve been an admirer of the art of Molly Crabapple from the moment I saw it — enough so that I commissioned a portrait of my daughter from her, and was honored to have her do a cover for one of my books. But there’s more to Molly Crabapple than her immense talent with pen and brush. She is equally adept with words, and in the last few years has become a unique, globe-traveling journalist, visiting political hotspots around the world and reporting with both words and art. Drawing Blood is a memoir that covers it all — and today, Crabapple explains why “all” is the important thing for her.


I’ve done a lot of jobs in my life.

I’ve painted pigs on the walls of the swankest nightclub in London, and hopelessly passed out chocolates to dieting fashion people, while wearing a high feather headdress on my head. I’ve painted myself white and stood very still at parties, posing as a human statue to earn tips. I’ve drawn kids. I’ve drawn cockaroaches. I once got paid by a conceptual artist to sneak up behind museum goers and whisper “This is the life” into their ears. I’ve been a model, a gogo dancer, an artist, a writer, a journalist, the founder of an international chain of art classes, the girl who paints people’s portraits on the street.

Perhaps the only occupation I haven’t tried is sleep.

I started this writing gig a little over three years ago.

It was a pursuit that took me all over the world, from refugee camps to extremely swank press parties for Donald Trump, where I saw the intricate architecture of his hair up close. Yes, loves, it baffles me as well. Maybe its where Cthulhu hides. While starting with personal essays, I turned later to journalism on prisons, refugees and conflict. Over the last two years, I wrote a book. It was very hard, in ways I never could have suspected.

The month before publication is the time in an author’s life when we must walk the road of The Shilldebeast. We must tell people about our book. About ourselves. We must distill ourselves into a single shining soundbyte, sleek enough for even a pundit to grasp. We must not just be branded, like cattle. We must be The Brand itself.

This simplicity was never my forte. My many jobs point to a taste for wild maximalism… as does the paint stained sequined chaos of my apartment, my wardrobe, my parties, my life.

While doing this little dance, I had a journalist come to my apartment — which is also my studio.

“What do you do???”, the journalist asked.

Now, the apartment is filled with half finished paintings, half drunk whisky bottles, half completed sketchbooks. All sorts of evidence of doing.

I looked at the journalist, confused.

“I mean, you write, you draw, what do you… do?” The journalist continued.

Then I got it. They wanted me to sum myself up with one word. I could not.

Monastic focus is a beautiful thing. There’s something wonderful in the simplicity, in the Japanese ceramic teacup, in the apt, exquisite line. But that perfection was not mine, and it never would be. I have always loved complexity and chaos.

I told the journalist that I was both an artist and writer. But, if I was speaking more deeply, I’d say the two were not really separable.

I’ve drawn since I was old enough to make a mess. I’ve been writing for one month and three years. Art taught me to write. It made me hunger to write because art was mute and vague and whispered where writing was explicit and talked. Art taught me a craftsman’s discipline, a lack of preciousness, a work ethic that brutalized me.

I do too much, maybe? Maybe that was the confusing part?

But the world is too much and this is my one life and yours too. I want to consume the world with greedy gulps, like that first glass of whiskey, when you want to start the night.

A month ago, I was at the Plaza Hotel. I’d been up all night, drinking all that whiskey, and now it was the dregs. It was a party just for women. I sat slumped next to some flax-haired writer who was writing a book that would be justly very big. We spoke about our work.

A half hour later, as I staggered out into the bleary New York street, I thought about how little boundaries mattered – especially in the face of love.

I wasn’t thinking about what we were — in terms of genre or discipline or job. I just knew I loved women. Specifically, women who are bad by virtue of their muchness. These too smart too sharp too strong too beautiful women who have spent the night toasting their own victories, then passed out in the dawn’s weak light, safe amongst each other. I loved them with a ferocious ache, and I wished them all the glory of this city.

If I have one unifying big idea, it might be to embrace that muchness. The world the critics the bosses the everything — they want to shape us into branded properties – serious or frivolous, intellectual or sexy, this or that. What they can never accept is that we are artists – those amoral aesthetic gluttons, who want only to learn and create on this vast, beautiful terrible earth.

My theory? Fuck this. Fuck limits. Fuck deciding this or that. Fuck anything that would confine you.

This is your one life. Life is too precious to cut off pieces of yourself.


Drawing Blood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Michael Livingston

In his debut novel The Shards of Heaven, author Michael Livingston is hunting some big game indeed. And possibly changing the course of history — and myth — in the bargain.


My Big Idea in The Shards of Heaven was to make mythic artifacts real — and that meant killing God.

Hold up! Put the pitchforks and torches down, folks. Let me explain.

No. As Inigo Montoya said, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I was one of the many millions who were enthralled by the call of Middle-earth as children, and as an adult I’ve followed Tolkien’s footsteps in becoming a professor of medieval studies. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how Tolkien designed his Middle-earth legendarium to function as a kind of mythic past to our myths — how The Hobbit, for instance, exists “behind” Beowulf.

It’s fascinating stuff. At the same time, it always bothered me how loosely Tolkien’s “mythology behind mythologies” fit into the real world. I can’t actually go to Minas Tirith, and that’s profoundly not cool.

So I set out, in the series that begins with The Shards of Heaven, to create a myth behind myths that would more closely tie to history. In so doing, I hoped I could also collapse the distinction between fantasy and history, which has always been too sharply drawn for my tastes anyway.

There are many twists and turns in the story that I put together for Shards — from the death of Caesar to the rise of his heirs, from the love of Antony and Cleopatra to the horrors of the battle of Actium — but that’s all plot and characters at the surface of the tale. The big stuff, what I like to think is the really juicy stuff, exists underneath all that. The big stuff is that mythology I built out of mythologies in order to explain those very mythologies, and the fantasy I wove into history to explain it all.

And the key to all that, it turned out, was killing God.

I mean, not that I really killed God. Not personally, anyway. That would be inconceivable. Deicide is decidedly above my pay grade. But it’s nevertheless true that within the mythology of the Shards my characters have declared Him, Her, or It to be dead, and that’s probably close enough to pulling the trigger in this case. (Whether or not my characters are actually correct in that declaration, of course, is something that awaits more books!)

Anyway, the plot premise of the series is this: everything history says about the rise of the Roman Empire is true … except it doesn’t tell us everything there is to say. Legendary artifacts of the ancient world — like the Trident of Poseidon and the Ark of the Covenant — are real, and they played a secret role in the shaping of the history we know. Fantasy is thus subsumed into “real” history (or vice versa, I suppose). And along the way, to make it all work — historically, philosophically, even existentially — God had to be real, and God had to die.

Why this is, how this is, and what this means … well, that’s a matter for some serious spoilers in The Shards of Heaven and in its sequels (book two comes out next year).

What I can say for certain is this: I really don’t think there’s any need for you to be gathering all that wood along with your torches. And all that gasoline … nope, I don’t think that’s necessary at all. Unless, well, if you’re going to burn books, please do start rolling the cameras. And call in the media, because that could be positively marvelous for sales.

Now that is a Big Idea.


The Shards of Heaven: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Martin Rose

The politics of modern life are difficult. Are they more difficult when monsters are thrown into the mix? For the answer to that question, we turn to Martin Rose, and My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart.


On the surface, My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart looks and seems like carefree pulp, disguised in the antique tropes of noir – complete with angst ridden anti-hero, the rabbit hole of conspiracy, the stock serial killer, and the shadow villain who must be stopped for the sake of humanity.

But I have played a wicked trick, dear Reader. Beneath the camouflage of My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart lurks a bigger idea, buried in the background – the corrosive effects of corruption and violence, and what these twin forces do to ordinary people. This idea lives and breathes in Vitus’s character as its most prominent form – a reformed zombie turned human. It is through the corruption of his governmental family that he is killed and remade into terrible shapes.

The monsters that populate my books are not supernatural forces that defy explanation, or exist in a vacuum we can shrug away as being “the way things are.” Instead, I struck upon the idea of monsters being man-made, an allegory for what nations do to otherwise good people when their violence becomes institutionalized and every day people become oppressed in the extreme, (such as political prisoners) from the old Soviet Union, to the recent Arab Spring and events in Egypt, to the United States and our policies involving rendition and torture.

When we draw citizens into a dragnet and punish them, we create monsters. We create them through violence and oppression, with an official seal of approval. The effect of covert government policies designed to maintain imperial power is a poisoning of the population at large – explicitly referenced by my opening quote from Chalmers Johnson, in which he explains the term we are all coming to know as “blowback.”

It seems there are few subjects so taboo as politics. Yet, people happily talk about monsters and superheroes on television and the movies. Here, the ground is rife with politics, disguised as mere entertainment. And after all, we need places where we can hang our hats and dream a little without worries dogging our every waking hour. The playground of story and imagination has always been a time-tested place to approach topics often too controversial to speak of in other environments. If anything, we love to talk politics – as long as we don’t know we are. In this way, we preserve polite company, but overlook the cost – a human cost in which we fail to look our monsters in the face and recognize they were once human – and we could easily be them, but for a twist of fate.

Writing that very quality is the hardest part. I tasked myself to make clear that the victims in my story are often accidental. They did not sin, they did not deserve the life they stumbled into. Villains come in degrees – we might know who pulled the trigger, but not who ordered the hit. Degrees of responsibility also come into play as I tried to make clear that we often find ourselves in untenable situations, held hostage by good intentions, by love and hope, only to have these qualities double back and bite us. We are all born with these potentials; and my characters explore them, striving to come to terms with the schism that exists between reality and desire.

Nothing is simple, everything is complex. The monsters are attempting to survive in a world that has betrayed them. The figures of authority are corrupted sociopaths, more dangerous than the monsters they created, and in between stands Vitus, who must make the hardest journey of all – to take an ethical accounting of himself, and come to realize the people he trusted are mere frauds, and those he felt certain were his adversaries, might be the only ones worth saving. Most of all, to look inside oneself and have the courage to recognize where one has failed and must martial the strength to do better.

It is not an accident, that in this installment, Vitus is restored to human form in the depths of a prison cell – we start from the humblest beginnings, and endeavor to climb through and journey back to the qualities that make us human – the sensitivity of feeling, the rediscovery of kindness, the vulnerability that is intrinsic to occupying a fragile, human body, and caring for others more than we care for ourselves.

While I make it clear that his biology plays an integral part in this process, being in a human body isn’t enough to qualify alone. It’s how he reacts to his environment – and how he treats it with more consideration, to care more for the people around him and learn to think of them first before himself, to understand fundamental empathy, even for those he must bring to justice – demonstrates his return to a human-centered space. And while he is far from perfect, he is ever learning.

Aren’t we all?


My Loaded Gun, My Lonely Heart: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

Sometimes the unexpected shows up right in front of you, and as Matt Mikalatos discovered in the writing of Sky Lantern, where it takes you from there can be equally unexpected.


My Big Idea crashed in my front yard.

On a rainy day last November, I found a flattened, burnt-out sky lantern on my driveway. Scrawled across it in magic marker were the words, “Love you, Dad. Miss you so much. Steph.”

Those eight words stabbed me in the heart. I spent the rest of the day turning it over in my mind, thinking about my own three daughters. I found myself on the verge of tears several times that day, thinking of my own kids sending a letter after my death, not expecting a reply.

If my daughters sent a note like that, and some father found it, I would want him to do something.

But what could I do? It’s not like she wrote her email address on the lantern. I didn’t know her last name and “Steph who sent a sky lantern” wasn’t much to go on.

Nevertheless, late that night I pounded out a letter to Steph on my laptop. I didn’t expect it would find her, but I did my best to tell her all the things I suspect most fathers want their children to know. That she was loved. That he was proud of her. That he wanted her to live a good life.

It was a small act of kindness, but there wasn’t much chance she would see it. I thought, best case scenario, maybe someone would remember it one day and show it to my daughters when they needed it.

The next morning I woke to notes from all over the world, as the letter went viral.

For weeks I received emails from people sharing about their dads: good, terrible, absent, dead or dying. I cried every morning reading the stories of kids who had lost their parents when they were young, or moms who were keeping the letter for their kids, so they could have something “from their dad.” A woman in Germany told me she carries the letter in her purse. A woman in Malaysia sent me pictures of the mandala she painted when her dad passed.

It was beautiful and powerful, this reminder of how much we all have in common, and how much pain and loss there is in our world. I was reminded, too, of the beauty in sharing our pain with one another, in acknowledging to one another that all is not as we would like it in the world, and that we wish things could be different. To know we are not alone eased our grief. We are not alone in this. To acknowledge one another’s grief and to say to one another, “You are worthy of love” is a small act of kindness, but it makes an enormous difference.

That’s the Big Idea: Small acts of kindness can make the world better. Remembering we are all human, and thus worthy of love and respect, can bring transformative beauty into the world. The things we have in common as human beings are greater than the things that separate us.

As for writing the book, in many ways it was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required being vulnerable in a way I hadn’t done before in print. I shared about loss, and grief, and love in the clearest, most honest terms I could and it was beautiful and painful and sometimes I couldn’t see the screen clearly as I typed. I felt completely wrung out when it was done.

Sky Lantern is the story of a small act of kindness. It’s about Steph, and how she found the letter and how we – people who are different in nearly every way it’s possible to be different – became good friends who care deeply about one another.

Writing Sky Lantern brought hope, love and joy into my life. I hope reading it will do the same for you!


Sky Lantern: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the book. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

(P.S. from the author: “If people are in the Portland Oregon area, the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s is hosting an author signing on November 20th at 7 pm! Steph is going to fly out for it, also.”)

The Big Idea: William Shunn

Author William Shunn has had something happen to him which it seems unlikely has ever happened to you, and that event is the cornerstone of his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist. But as Shunn learned, telling the story of that event was not merely a matter of reciting the facts.


I was arrested in 1987, when I was a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary.

For terrorism.

In Canada, of all places.

But even before that happened, I had the big idea to write about what it’s really like to be a missionary.

We probably all picture Mormon missionaries as an army of interchangeable young men in white shirts and ties, trudging endlessly from one porch to the next with a message and a holy book. Even growing up Mormon, this was pretty much how I envisioned mission life. It wasn’t until I turned nineteen and was pressed into service myself that I discovered a more colorful reality.

The missionaries I met were anything but homogeneous, and frequently anything but holy. Some were diligent and some were slackers. Some were pious, sure, but more were profane. There was gossip and brownnosing and backstabbing galore. A few of my colleagues seemed to be set on breaking every rule in our little white handbook, not mention a Commandment or two.

I was something of a sheltered kid up to this point, but I was also a budding science fiction writer. I’d attended the Clarion Workshop at Michigan State University only a year earlier. My reaction to the absurd truth of mission life was, inevitably, an intense desire to write about it.

What’s more, I wanted to write about it not in some roundabout, science-fictional way but as a straight first-person memoir. The missionary world would be alien enough to most readers to be interesting all on its own. Taking mental notes for my tell-all book was one of the ways I kept myself sane.

As I said, this was my big idea even before the ill-considered incident that landed me in jail. After I was free again, with a better story than I’d ever imagined, I was all the more eager to get my book underway. But as a faithful young Mormon, every time I tried to start it my worries about church discipline got in the way. After all, the memoir I envisioned wouldn’t exactly be a faith-promoting exercise.

It wasn’t until I was no longer so young and no longer so Mormon that I was finally able to get moving on a first draft of The Accidental Terrorist. The year was 1999. I set myself some ground rules. First, I couldn’t make anything up. Second, I couldn’t go out of my way to make myself look good. Third, I couldn’t poke fun at my younger self, no matter how stupidly I might think I’d behaved as a kid.

As a further challenge, I had to weave enough Mormon history and doctrine into the story that my criminal act would make sense, and not come across as the bad punchline to a worse joke. That’s what led directly to my next big idea—to braid my narrative together with the life story of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s larger-than-life founding prophet.

It’s tough to explain Mormonism without explaining Joseph Smith. It took a huge infusion of bravado to think I could even try, or that I could put our stories side-by-side without his overwhelming mine. It took even more chutzpah to draw parallels between our two lives, and to think that my experiences could illuminate his as much as his illuminated mine.

That was hard to pull off, but one thing was even harder—writing about myself with sufficient insight and compassion. Despite my best efforts, my earliest drafts dripped with condescension. I managed to write that out in later drafts, but my younger self was still often the butt of the joke. Real understanding continued to elude me.

It took sixteen years and the right editor to get me over that final hump. (A lot of therapy, too—any writer’s best friend.) My editor asked me all the tough, probing questions about emotions and motivations and expectations that I wasn’t sure how to ask myself. This was the spool of thread she armed me with before shoving me into the labyrinth to bring back some warm, bleeding answers.

Two drafts and six months later, we were both satisfied with the result. I’m glad I finally found the words to portray young Elder Shunn in an empathetic light because I owe that kid a lot. Beyond the obvious, he left me one foresightful gift which I only discovered as time was running out to choose a photograph for the book cover.

I stumbled across it while sifting through a box of mission mementos—a photograph of me in a white shirt, tie, and black missionary name tag. I’m posed at the edge of a burning wheat field, deep in thought. I hold a sheaf of tinder in my hand, as if I’ve just set the fire myself.

I’d forgotten this photo existed, but it was the perfect metaphor for my story. Looking at it, I got the eerie feeling that my younger self had been thinking ahead to this very moment and had sent me exactly what I needed.

Like I said, I owe that kid a lot. I owe that kid this book.


The Accidental Terrorist: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: James Renner

I’ve forgotten what I was going to say to introduce James Renner’s new novel. As the novel is called The Great Forgetting, perhaps this is appropriate. And did I really forget… or was I made to forget?


When I was a kid my father would take me camping at state parks around Ohio. Salt Fork. Pymatuning. Mohican. If you’ve never been, these parks all pretty much look the same: stark, concrete buildings for bathing and gutting fish in the middle of old-growth forests. I asked my dad, once, when the parks were built and he said after the war, meaning World War II.

But the parks looked older to me. I imagined they were hundreds, thousands of years old and that we had only forgotten when they were really constructed.

In college, I learned of a theory called “Phantom Time.”

The idea behind Phantom Time is that, at various moments in history, our great leaders rejiggered the calendar for their personal agendas. Some scholars believe Pope Sylvester II skipped over a hundred years in the official calendar just so that he could be Pope in 1000 A.D. A German historian, Heribert Illig, is convinced much of the Middle Ages never happened at all, specifically the years 614  – 911.

How crazy is that?

We assume the year is 2015. But if we skipped over hundreds of years because someone altered the official calendar, perhaps it’s only 1772. How about this – what if they didn’t always just skip ahead? What if some ruler in the distant past simply deleted historical record? An unaccounted for span of time. Perhaps it’s not 1772. Perhaps it’s really 2115.

It’s enough to make you paranoid, isn’t it?

That idea was the seed for my new novel, The Great Forgetting. In the book, I imagined a world in which the United States turned its back on Europe in World War II. The war was much bigger than what we were told, and raged on until 1964, when we finally defeated the Werhmacht as they pushed into New England. Billions died.

As America began to rebuild, a scientist came forward with an idea: we could forget that we let the Nazis win, if we really wanted to. A new history could be written. And we could reset the calendar. He had this idea for a giant machine that could rewrite our minds to accept a new, shared history in which we were heroes. That initiative was known as The Great Forgetting. We scrubbed 100 years of history from our records.

Eventually, a history teacher from Ohio uncovers the conspiracy. And he is faced with a choice: is it better to forget our mistakes or learn from them so that they’re never repeated?

It’s a heady idea. And maybe not so far fetched.

After all, who wouldn’t want to forget their worst mistake? And how powerful is that urge when it’s an entire country?

The Great Forgetting is available everywhere books are sold, November 10, 2015. Or is that 2115?


The Great Forgetting: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Lisa Goldstein

The writing was on the wall for Lisa Goldstein, whose chance encounter with a single scrawl led to the story behind her latest novel, Weighing Shadows. Let us take you back in time to that moment.


Practically the entire plot of Weighing Shadows came to me while I was sitting in my car in a parking lot. Someone had painted the word KORE on one wall of the lot, and I wondered, idly: What did that mean? Who had written it, and why? Kore is another name for Persephone, isn’t it? And then, because I write fiction and can’t help coming up with weird explanations for things: What if it was a sign intended for a secret society of goddess worshippers? What if those worshippers still existed, and had existed for thousands of years? What did they want, and why did they feel the need to hide themselves and communicate in code words?

I’d been thinking about writing a time-travel novel and how much fun I could have with it, and suddenly these two ideas converged. Now there was a time-traveling corporation from the future that tried to subtly nudge the course of history by changing one or two small things at a time, a corporation that had started by being idealistic and high-minded but that now supported the status quo as a way to hold onto power. And there was another group, this one clandestine, much less powerful and without access to time travel, that was trying to stop them. And the first break between the two happened in ancient Crete, where the corporation supported the patriarchal Greeks against the goddess-worshipping Cretans.

(Yeah, it’s a feminist book. Just go with it.)

Plot-lines grew like ivy, branched out, proliferated. Where else could I take my protagonists that dealt with these two world views, that of a power structure imposed from above versus one that grew organically? I’d always wanted to learn more about the Library of Alexandria — and wait, wasn’t there a famous woman mathematician who’d taught there? (There was indeed — Hypatia.) And what about troubadours, I’d always liked them… I could show some of the complexities of history, the stuff that didn’t fit into the sanitized version I’d been taught. And of course the more I researched those eras the more complex I found them.

The thing is, I didn’t want to write a novel. I’d just finished a book, The Uncertain Places, that had been extremely difficult to write, with lots of stops and false starts and dead ends. I wanted to write short stories, not because they’re easier — they aren’t — but because if they don’t work out it’s less painful to walk away from them. And yet this idea just wouldn’t leave me alone.

Anyone who’s ever written anything knows what happened next. I kept reading history books, telling myself that I was only doing research and not writing anything yet. A main character showed up, Ann, a woman who was happy to get out of her boring job and go work for the corporation but who started to question their purposes. Ann needed to be able to get into the company’s computer files, so I made her a hacker. She needed to blend in, to avoid suspicion, so I made her an orphan, someone who grew up in foster homes and learned not to make waves. (I also wanted her birth to be mysterious, so that while the corporation was checking out some of the origins of civilization she would be checking out her own origins as well.)

Before I knew it I’d started writing the thing. Well, it pretty much wrote itself actually — because I’d done so much research and thought about it for so long, and because it had arrived in almost one piece, it went faster than any book I’d ever written. It was a gift, really, something to be accepted gratefully. If only they were all that obliging.


Weighing Shadows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Emma Newman

Is there space within a genre of big ideas for a little thing called “characters”? Emma Newman sought to find out in her novel Planetfall. Here she is with a report on what she discovered.


Science-fiction is a genre of big ideas. When I think back to the science-fiction I have read and loved, it’s invariably the big idea that stays with me, rather than the characters (with the exception of The Sparrow). It has been my favourite genre since I was about 8 years old and discovered Trillions by Nicholas Fisk in a Cornish library, but when I became a writer, I didn’t write in the genre. In fact, my first proper publishing deal was for an urban fantasy series.

Looking back, I realise now that I was intimidated. Not only because the genre means so much to me, but also because somewhere along the way, I became convinced that there was no place for me. Not just because I’m a woman (that’s a whole other blog post altogether!), but because I’m an author who writes about characters first and foremost. I feared I would never come up with a science-fiction idea big enough, original enough or exciting enough to carve my place on that genre bookshelf.

Then I had an idea that wouldn’t let me go involving a character concept that I simply had to explore. For the first time – after writing six other novels – the protagonist arrived in my mind before anything else.

There was a big idea at the core of that character, but it’s not one I can talk about in any detail without spoiling the entire book, so I’m going to keep the details vague. Suffice it to say she has a mental illness and I wanted to explore her experience of it.

At this point, there was no setting, nor any plot, just the certain knowledge that I had to explore this character and her mental health. I researched the disorder she suffers from, consuming case study after case study – whilst my urban fantasy novels were being written and then sold and then published – and then I came across an article about an idea for building a moon base using 3-D printers and moon dust.

It was like a piñata had been struck and exploded in my brain. I suddenly knew that this character, who had been lurking all that time, lived on a distant colony built using 3-D printing technology and she was the engineer who maintained all the printers. I knew she was the one responsible for fixing everything, whilst hiding how broken she is herself. And she had a name: Renata Ghali, known as Ren.

Then I realised I had stumbled into the decision to write science-fiction. Set a book in a colony on an alien planet and there’s no getting away from it! I was filled with doubt. With the character at the core of the story, rather than a science-focused big idea, could I pull it off?

Then another article caught my attention, one about the idea of a ‘secondary genome’ and how we are slowly becoming aware of how much our health and the functioning of the human body is dependent on the bacteria within our gut. It sparked off another line of ideas about how humans could adapt to an alien environment.

Between the 3-D printing, the secondary genome and thoughts about how communication technology could develop, there was no stopping me. The doubts were soon subsumed by the ideas as more were folded into the mix; the tension between religious belief and scientific investigation, the need for ritual and faith, how secrets can eat away at us from within and how technology can facilitate community without solving the problem of isolation.

Planetfall was the hardest book I’ve written to date, feeling more like a careful excavation than a joyful tumbling through a first draft. Now I can stand back and say I have written a science fiction novel with the protagonist front and centre who is just as important as the plot and the science. It’s my hope that when people read it, they will be left with the memory of Ren as much as the ideas contained within the pages.


Planetfall: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Kate Elliott

Change always happens, but as Kate Elliott explains in this Big Idea for Black Wolves, the opening novel in a new fantasy trilogy, not all change happens at once.


For years I’ve hung on to a rotary dial phone, one that plugs into the wall jack and needs no power to run. We don’t use it; it sits in a drawer in case of emergency. My daughter grew up in the digital age. When she was ten years old she found the phone, studied it for the longest time, then turned to me and asked, “How does this work?”

Change interests me. It can come as a convulsive explosion, a social earthquake that shatters, or it can rise like a tide in such slow stages that you don’t realize you’re drowning until it covers your mouth and nose.

I’m typing this on a MacBook that weighs less than many a book. It has 8 GB of memory, which is nothing special until I recall that my first hard drive (external, of course) had the mind bogglingly large capacity (for the time) of 20 MB. That’s a massive difference, yet viewed from this side it can be easy to flatten all the amazing leaps and startling bounds of the span between that hard drive and this MacBook into a gently inevitable curve.

Change happens in every society, even the most hidebound. No empire rules for a thousand years, static and unchanging. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it fell in pieces, over centuries, and fragments still remain with us. Imperial China has a hugely complex history of ebb and flow and significant change across eras. Ancient Egypt only looks like a monolith if considered across a gap of thousands of years. The most borrowed-from setting for fantasy, the European Middle Ages, was not one thousand years of credulously ignorant peasants who toiled in the fields below stone castles ruled by feudal lords; it was a vibrant period of social and technological change taking place across a vast and complicated geographical region. Talk to me about Al-Zahrawi the “father of surgery,” or the introduction of the heavy plough and its role in agricultural and economic change, or how the spinning wheel (which comes from Asia) transformed aspects of domestic labor, or the rise of mercantile capitalism in the thriving urban centers of northwestern Europe.

With Black Wolves I specifically wanted to explore the idea of change in a fantasy landscape, how a culture can start taking a new shape and losing its old boundaries and customs piece by piece so that often people don’t notice it slipping away as meanwhile new contours take form. New technologies influence economy and politics. Religious beliefs shift. Social interactions develop with greater openness or freshly-imposed constraints. Experience becomes memory, and memory turns into a variety of histories, each of which give a different account of the past.

I chose to tie the larger thematic story of cultural change into a personal story of how, as we get older, we may be required by circumstances to look at the past and untangle how much of it is lies we have told ourselves and how much a truth we may not want to hear, especially truths about the people we love who may not be everything our golden memories make them out to be or who we may have misunderstood all along.

And let’s be honest: I wanted to write a book whose main character is a snarky older woman in a position of authority who has had enough of your shit. Interestingly, of my beta readers, it was only women who asked if I might consider making Dannarah more “likeable.” The male beta readers were all cool with her personality.

59-year-old Dannarah is one of an ensemble of five point of view characters. Black Wolves features my (trademark?) method of introducing seemingly disparate character threads and weaving them together as the larger plot unfolds until you see why they are all necessary and inevitable and how their stories tie together. Besides Dannarah, Black Wolves also features a 73-year-old retired soldier called back to duty, a good girl and a bad boy (no, they don’t become a couple), and a polymath. You will also find giant justice eagles, demons who walk in human form, and the all important answer  to the question of whether Ri Amarah men actually have horns hidden beneath the head wraps that cover their hair.

An early reader reviewed the book as “a murder mystery at the heart of a political thriller wrapped up in an epic fantasy setting.” Another called it “Jane Austen’s Persuasion meets Dragon Age.” A reviewer described it as “the epic fantasy for someone who loves ladies, politics, the word ‘cock’, and dudes constantly embarrassed by ladies.”

Probably it is a book I could only have written now, looking back at 27 years writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy and seeing how the field has changed while wondering how it will continue to change. The thing is: We can make informed guesses but we don’t truly know. We live in the constantly flowing waters of change because change permeates our lives, and we can drown, or we can fight it, or we can delight in the prospect of discovery of what’s next and the flowering of each new generation. I wanted to write a fantasy novel that reflects this universal aspect of human life and culture.


Black Wolves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Jason Denzel

In this Big Idea piece for Mystic, author Jason Denzel is about to tell you more about martial arts origin stories than you probably already knew. But don’t worry, it’s going somewhere — specifically, it’s going to tell you how his novel came about.


The Big Idea behind my debut novel, Mystic, is lineages.

Let me explain.

I know kung-fu. Or, more accurately, I study and practice Chinese martial arts. I was fortunate enough in my adult life to come across a studio in my hometown that focuses on a traditional form of Choy Li Fut, a very traditional form kung-fu. One of the first things you do as a student at this studio is to learn the names of the past masters, and the origin story of the system. Here’s how the origin story goes:

In nineteenth century China, a kid named Chan Heung learned Shaolin-style kung-fu from his uncle, Chan Yuen-Woo. By age fifteen, Chan Heung could defeat anybody in his village or the the neighboring ones. When he turned seventeen, his uncle, who could teach him no more, sent him to learn from from his own former master, Li Yau-San.  Young Chan Heung spent four more years soaking it up, quickly learning everything Li Yau-San could throw at him.

Amazed at the prodigy on his hands, the master sent Chan Heun to his former master, a man named Choy Fook, but better known as the Scarred Monk. But there were a few problems with this: first, nobody knew exactly where this master, the Scarred Monk, lived. And on top of that, local legend claimed he no longer taught kung-fu, having given it up for a life of solitude and meditation. Well, as you can imagine, Chan Heung had all sorts of great adventures tracking down his third master, and when he finally did, he had to do all the crazy things to convince him that he was a worthy student.

He succeeded in the end, and later in life he returned home and merged all he had learned into a new system, which he named for his three masters: Choy Fook, Li Yau-San, and his uncle Chan Yuen-Woo. The system lives on today: Choy-Li-Fut.  (His uncle insisted he not use his name in labeling his new martial arts system. So instead, Chan Heung used the term “Fut”, which is an honorific term for the Buddha.)

Stories like this fascinate me. The origin of Wing Chun–the kung-fu style Bruce Lee learned–is another good one. It’s named for a woman who learned the arts from another woman in order to defend herself from an especially douchey warlord. Even the legendary founders of the original kung-fu… the masters from pre-recorded history… are said to have originated in India, where they lived as reclusive monks in caves and meditated until the knowledge just came to them. These masters supposedly walked off their mountains, saw a need for teaching people, and decided to share their wisdom of self defense. So today, thousands of years later, here I am learning those same lessons every Wednesday and Friday night at a studio at my local stip mall.

Mystic is my take on telling a story similar to Chan Heung’s, or Wing Chun’s. Specifically, it’s about a young girl who defies her family, her society, and her culture’s traditions, to seek out and attempt to become an apprentice to the High Mystic living in the nearby woods. The book contain some familiar tropes you might expect from an apprentice tale, but it also has plenty of incident and unexpected happenings. For the setting, I chose a fantasy world that mixes Celtic and Indian traditions because they represent an interesting balance of Western and Eastern mystical ideas.

To be clear: this isn’t a kung-fu novel. Pomella, the protagonist, couldn’t throw a punch to save her life. (In fact, there are a few instances in her story where she’d benefit from knowing how to toss a good jab.) In place of martial arts, Pomella is seeking to learn to use the Myst, a pervasive energy that exists in all times and places. It’s a little like the Force, if you know what I mean.

Even though Mystic is classified as epic fantasy, the scale is intentionally limited. There are no marching armies. The fate of the world is not at stake. Instead, this is about a young girl having the courage to follow her dream. It’s about her seeking the master her heart is calling for so that she can fulfill the potential she knows she contains. There are stakes and consequences, but this particular novel won’t threaten all of this fantasy world’s existence.

I believe stories like this are worth sharing. The ideas behind them are timeless in a way. You can be the judge of whether you think Mystic is worthy of inclusion in that category. It’ll be followed up by two sequels: Mystic Dragon, and Mystic Skies. Perhaps those later books will contain marching armies and grander stakes. But one thing I will guarantee is that the entire trilogy will be filled with holy mountains, powerful masters, eager apprentices, and… okay, fine… maybe just a little bit of good ol’ kung-fu action now and then.

The past masters would be proud.


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

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

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Adam Christopher has written a novel called Made to Kill, which features a robot private investigator in an alternate noir Los Angeles. Yep, that’ll do. Here he is to talk about how it all came together.


Ideas, as they say, come easy. Big ideas, small ideas; ideas that stand on their own, ideas that need to coalesce with others to make something new. Sometimes ideas are obvious, sometimes they are not.

And sometimes an idea will come, not out of nowhere, exactly, but out of something else entirely.

Like the idea of a robot hit man, working in 1960s Hollywood. An idea that became my new novel, Made to Kill—in fact, the idea that spawned a whole trio of books, The LA Trilogy.

A couple of years ago, I sold a scary space opera called The Burning Dark to Tor Books, and as part of joining that fine stable of authors, I was sent a big questionnaire to answer. There were dozens of questions, but I only had to pick a handful, which would then go up on as a Pop Quiz at the End of the Universe, introducing me as a new Tor author.

As I read through the questions, one in particular intrigued me:

If you could find one previously undiscovered book by a non-living author, who would it be? Why?

The answer was immediately obvious: Raymond Chandler’s long-lost science fiction novel.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Chandler. I love crime and mystery fiction, old and new, but I have a particular affinity for what might be called the golden age of popular fiction, a period roughly from the 1920s to the 1940s which saw the birth of superhero comics, classic pulp science fiction, and what we would recognize as the modern detective story. Incredibly, during this period’s peak, reading fiction magazines was the number one leisure activity among adults in the United States. Pulp magazines devoted to detective and science fiction sold in the millions, each and every month. And sure, while a lot of it was of, shall we say, dubious quality, they were imbued with a spirit of adventure and excitement and really wild things, and from the pulp magazines came many writers who would define entire genres: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, HP Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett—and Raymond Chandler.

Chandler himself hated science fiction. Hated it. In 1953 he wrote to his agent, complaining about this genre—lamenting the fact that “they pay brisk money for this crap?”—and launching into a 150-word pastiche involving Aldebaran III, pink pretzels, and, amazingly, what appears to be a computer called Google. Of course, it’s pure nonsense, a throwaway to prove his point, but it’s Raymond Chandler nonsense. Even here, there is that rhythm, the cadence he is famous for.

If his agent ever answered, the reply has never been published. But it gave me a fun idea—clearly, secretly, Chandler really loved sci-fi. He sent that letter to fish for interest from his agent, having written a series of novels set in the near-future and starring a robot detective. Then he had a change of heart, and burned the manuscripts, not realizing that his housekeeper had saved them from the grate.
Raymond Chandler and robots. Wouldn’t that be pretty neat?

My editor, Paul Stevens, certainly thought so. Maybe he was joking, but when he read my questionnaire answers, he suggested that I write that long-lost Chandler story. I took him up on the challenge, and in July 2014, published Brisk Money, a novelette with a title borrowed from Chandler’s 1953 letter, written in a hardboiled, first-person style. Honestly, I didn’t know writing could be that much fun.

But it was only while I was actually writing that novelette that I realized my little idea had turned into a big one. As the story progressed, it turned out—much to my own surprise—that the electronic hero of the story, Raymond Electromatic, wasn’t really a robot detective.

He was a robot assassin.

In Brisk Money, we discover that while Ray is programmed to be a private eye, his supercomputer controller, Ada, has another idea. Ada’s prime directive is to generate a profit… and she works out that Ray can use his skills more lucratively as a hit man than as a gumshoe.

Suddenly, I had a whole new world waiting to be explored. This was 60’s Los Angeles, but in a skewed version of reality where the robot revolution had come and gone a decade earlier—mostly because people didn’t like robots, and certainly didn’t like them taking their jobs. As the last robot left, Ray uses the Electromatic Detective Agency as a front to hide his real work, knocking off people for, as they say, brisk money.

Except his activities have not gone entirely unnoticed…

From nowhere, I had not just a novelette, I had a whole novel—no, I had three novels. Brisk Money posed so many questions—what happened to the other robots? Why was the robot program really cancelled? What else is different in this world? And who are the agents tracking Ray’s every move?

Those were questions I was just desperate to know the answers to—and so did my editor. Without quite realizing it, I’d written a novelette and I found myself with a whole trilogy of novels, the first of which is Made to Kill. From out of nowhere, I had two characters—Ray and Ada—who had suddenly come to life, characters I fell in love with and I just knew I had to write more about.

Writing is a strange business—you can plan, you can set goals, have ambitions, work hard to achieve them. And sometimes that hard work pays off in ways you just don’t expect.

Like when a fun, throwaway answer to a standard pop quiz questions turns into a whole new adventure and a whole new world.


Made to Kill: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks

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

The Big Idea: Ellen Kushner

If you’re a fan of Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, then you’re going to be very happy with Tremontaine, a prequel serialized story that takes place in the same world, fifteen years earlier. Kushner, who is spearheading the novelization with co-writers Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Defner, Racheline Maltese and Patty Bryant, is here to talk about the world of her stories and everything that sprung up because of that world.


I did not intend to invent the “Fantasy of Manners.” I wasn’t even sure that  Swordspoint was fantasy.  I began my first novel in my 20s, when “fantasy” still meant either elegant little antique curiosities like Lud-in-the-Mist, or great big outdoor epics involving treks through forests, snow and maybe a big cave that imitated The Lord of the Rings. My friends and I devoured them all.

But great fantasy must tell a personal truth: that’s what gives it power.  Tolkien’s Mordor was forged by his time in the trenches of  the Somme, and his Shire by his rambles in the sweet English countryside.  In the 1980s, many of us aspiring fantasy writers lived in black leather jackets and blighted cities, paying low rent in formerly gorgeous housing now crummy, run down and cheap; architectural splendor still hanging by a thread, and keep your keys stuck between your knuckles when you walk home at night, in case anyone tries to mess with you.  We desired Middle Earth and Earthsea with a great desiring – but when we tried to write our own versions, it came up false. They were our dreams, but they’d been dreamt by someone else. That wasn’t our real world.

Our world had sweaty rock clubs, and the Pre-Raphaelite art revival, a poster in every dorm room.  It had Sarah Crewe in a garret telling stories to a starving servant girl, and pre-AIDS glamorous outlaw gay men; Richard Lester’s Beatles movies and his The Three Musketeers, and it had Oscar Wilde, and Georgette Heyer’s exquisite, hilarious social comedies set in her world of Edwardian-inflected
“Regency Romance” (famously called by Cynthia Heimel “Bertie Wooster for girls!”); it had those boon companions Rocky and Bullwinkle, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin,  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Butch and Sundance . . . and it had Angela Carter and Joanna Russ.

Put in a pot, heat, stir, type it up on fancy paper – and expect no one to buy your novel or understand why you’d written it.

I hedged Swordspoint ‘round with warnings that I was messing with tradition.  The fairy tale scene it opens with is a sham, concluding:

But there is no one behind the broken windows . . . No king rules them any more . . . And already this morning more than one drop of blood has been shed.

And then, just to be sure, I mocked my style before anyone else could do it, titling my book:  Swordspoint: a Melodrama of Manners.

I was afraid it really was a melodrama, see, or that it would be taken for one: that because I felt passionate about my characters and they felt passionate about everything – much as they try to hide it – and because my novel featured petty evil rather than grandeur, little human drawing room interactions instead of great outdoor battles, I had somehow gone over the edge of what was acceptable.  I was afraid the book wouldn’t sell.

And it didn’t, really. Many editors, both fantasy and mainstream, turned it down. When it was finally published by David Hartwell at Arbor House, it was a critical success; it got amazing blurbs like “it’s as if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn” (Gene Wolfe), it inspired heated debate on whether a “fantasy” with no magic could be considered fantasy at all . . . Swordspoint slowly grew as an underground classic, but I doubt it ever made any publisher much money.

I wasn’t the only such writer of my generation. I just happened to be the first to publish in what soon became a little genre all its own, with books written by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, Farren Miller and Elizabeth Willey and many, many more. We didn’t agree to do this; it just happened.

In 1826, Sir Walter Scott – the huge romantic sword-swinging fantastical historical novelist of his day – wrote in his journal:

[Jane Austen] ha[s] a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting . . . is denied to me.

We had, without meaning to, turned our backs on the Big Bow-wow, in favor of a sort of Chamber Fantasy, set not in an imagined middle-ages of armor and great halls, but in later periods, where wit and manners made or broke someone’s fate. Maybe because we’d been socialized in the 60s, we were fascinated with how that strange and alien thing, propriety, was like magic: learn its rules, and you’ll succeed in the grown-up world; break them, and you’d better be better than everyone else, or have powerful allies!

In 1991, my colleague Donald G. Keller decided to write a critical piece about us.  Instead of the term he initially used, which I disliked, I suggested he call the style “fantasy of manners”–which, when his piece came out, some wags quickly nicknamed manner-punk.

Now, of course, “Fantasy of Manners” is a recognized genre, even though people may disagree on its precise definition – which shifts with the tides of new novels and new influences, as it should.

And this is where I admit that I neither know nor care what Category my work fits into.  To me, a novel is a novel, and marketing is marketing, and the twain shall inevitably meet, and it has to be called something.  Although I yearned not to be ghettoized with my first novel, I realize now that I was insanely lucky to be published in genre.  The mainstream readers I lost because my work has Fantasy Cooties are nothing compared to the ones who devour the Riverside world and have an endless appetite for more; who still argue about what makes it fantasy (“the flavor!” someone once explained), readers who make drawings and write fanfic and even cosplay my characters.

Which is why I think the world is ready for Tremontaine – and why there are enough other authors I respect to join me in writing about my Swordspoint world.

The world of fantasy readers continues to get bigger – and less fussy about labels.  Even mainstream kids now grew up on the magic of Harry Potter – and on endless remakes of Jane Austen.  The world is a lot safer for us fantasists of manners than it was when our works were originally created.  I believe the existing fans will love Tremontaine, and will glory, as I do, in the opening up of my world to some of the sharp, funny, wise and insightful younger voices writing today. But it’s just as exciting for me to think that the groundwork has been laid, and that Fantasy of Manners has finally come into its own.


Tremontaine: Amazon|iTunes|Kobo|Serial Box

Read or listen to an excerpt. Visit Ellen Kushner’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Lila Bowen

The author of Wake of Vultures, Lila Bowen, does whatever the hell she wants (so does Delilah S. Dawson, who is Lila Bowen when she’s not being Delilah Dawson). And what the hell does she want to do now? Tell you her big idea for her book.


Did you ever see that episode of South Park in which Eric Cartman shouted, “WHATEVA. I’M AN OUT OF CONTROL TEEN. I DO WHAT I WANT!” while wearing a tube top on the Maury Povich show? That’s basically the Big Idea behind Wake of Vultures. Not just for the characters, though. For me, too. I spent most of my life pretending to be normal, playing it safe, and afraid to offend anyone, but this book demanded noncompliance.

See, I’ve always been the do-bee. The good girl. The Valedictorian. The polite, responsible kid who’s never smoked a cigarette. I’ve always wanted to do the right thing, to please the people in charge. That goes for writing, too. But Wake of Vultures taught me that you can still write a great book while taking enormous risks, having tons of fun, and shaking your butt in the face of the status quo.

The thing about publishing is that right up until your first book sells, you have enormous freedom. But once you’re under contract and making a career out of your writing, you’re expected to adhere to certain rules. Your books are edited and marketed and sometimes neutered to appeal to readers according to the current publishing climate, and your agent and editor are invested in your continued compliance. Suddenly, there are all these guidelines you have to follow—what genres are selling well, what’s good for your brand, what the reading populace will find pleasant.

And… blech.

So when I told my agent that I wanted to write a Weird West adventure with a half black, half native, cross-dressing, bisexual heroine, she had a lot of reservations.

Westerns aren’t selling. Paranormal isn’t selling. What genre is this? Is it YA or adult? Your main character has a lot going on and can be pretty rude. This reads like an episodic monster hunt. And did she really cut off that werewolf’s dong?


Wake of Vultures is the first book that I wrote knowing it probably wouldn’t sell. It’s the book that made me decide that if I was going to flip one table, I might as well flip ALL THE TABLES. It’s the only book for which I got the tattoo BEFORE the book sold.

That tattoo inspired the book cover, by the way.

It was exceptionally freeing and exciting, writing something that was actively discouraged. It felt less like an acquiescence and more like a dare. At any juncture where I stopped to consider, “Is this too much? Is this too weird? Will people get it? Will it sell?”, I went with my gut, muttering WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT. And my freedom allowed my main character, Nettie Lonesome, to take risks, too. She doesn’t follow the rules, and she doesn’t care if people like her or not. She’s here to kill what needs to die, not get a gold star for manners.

I was recently at an industry event, and a bookseller asked me what Wake was about. I gave my biggest smile and my elevator pitch: It’s Lonesome Dove meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a biracial, genderqueer heroine. The bookseller made a face—a face suggesting she wanted to vomit—and walked away. And I shrugged and muttered that same refrain in my head: YOU DON’T LIKE IT? WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT.

I believe in this story enough to offend people and risk failure, and that’s enormously empowering. If you recognize that the world is full of heroes who don’t fit into neat, normal little boxes, you’ll dig it. If you love Westerns but wish women in that era could be more than slaves and whores, you’ll dig it. If you’ve ever had someone look at you and tell you that you don’t deserve the destiny you crave because of what you look like or how you dress or who you love, and you’ve wanted to flip a table on them and ride off into the sunset, you’ll dig it. Wake of Vultures is all about bucking the binary.

That vomit-miming bookseller didn’t pick up a copy, but plenty of other people have. It has stars from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, not to mention 4.5 stars and a Top Pick rating from RT Book Reviews. My editor and publishing team believe in it. And it’s currently being passed around the band Gangstagrass, the creative geniuses behind the Justified theme song and the playlist I listened to writing and revising.

I always tell my writing students at LitReactor that they need to learn the rules before they break them. I’m glad I finally found a story worthy of my rebellion.

My suggestion: Find something you love enough to risk breaking the rules. Do it, hard. Then shake your butt and shout WHATEVA; I DO WHAT I WANT. I tell you now: It feels damn good.


Wake of Vultures: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


The Big Idea: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

In their novel Illuminae, authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff decided to break stuff. What stuff? And why? They’re here to explain.


The Big Idea behind Illuminae?

Break the idea of what a book could be.

Epistolary novels aren’t a new concept. The conceit of telling a story through documents—be they journals or letters or diary entries—has been around since pistols at dawn and pantaloons were all the rage. But there hadn’t been much science fiction that played with the epistolary structure, or expanded it beyond the traditional journal/diary/email format.

And that’s where we started with Illuminae, too: A science fiction mystery, set in a refugee fleet fleeing a collapsed world, in which two unlikely heroes stranded on two different ships would communicate via text and email. Even though we were told “editors don’t buy SciFi”, we thought it was a cool enough idea to tinker with, and our Hacker Grrl and Pilot Boy were enormous fun to write. But around 30 pages and quite a few drinks into our first draft, we came up with the thought that’d break Illuminae out of the mold, and maybe break the idea of what a book could be.

What if one of the narrators was a damaged artificial intelligence, whose worsening madness would alter the documents in the novel? What if the way this AI perceived events would change the visual nature of the files, and the fundamental design of the entire book? Imagine a dogfight in space, where the chaos of battle was communicated visually as well as verbally. The effects of a computer virus unfolding typographically in front of your eyes. A book which ceased to be a simple medium for the story, where the object in the reader’s hands became part of unravelling the mystery of what went on aboard this fleet?

“That’s so pants-on-head crazy it might work,” we said. So we pulled together a 130pg sample, with Jay utilizing the design skillz he’d learned during a misspent youth in advertising agencies, selling petrol guzzling monstrosities to undersexed men and toilet paper to anyone with a bottom. And fortunately we found an editor crazy enough to not only buy our pants-on-head crazy idea, but help us push the boundaries even further.

It was vital to us that the story came first—that any design elements would be used to augment to novel, rather than be used as a crutch for shoddy storytelling. So the creation of Illuminae really came in two phases.

The first, the actual, you know writing part. Co-authoring is a strange and awesome experience—two styles and two mindsets colliding on the page. But two heads always seems to trump one, at least in terms of devising fiendish ways in which to torture protagonists. And so we put our two heroes and their AI nemesis/saviour through every kind of disaster, turn and twist we could devise. Pursuing enemy ships. Virulent plagues. Command conspiracies. Murder and mayhem and mutagens, oh my. But in between all this chaos, we also found the chance to ask a few of the Big Questions. What is it to be human? What would you sacrifice to save the ones you love? What is the meaning of life, the nature of mortality, the reason for all this? Our little SciFi mystery/romance/thriller took us places we never expected, and in the end, stopped being all that little (the final copy clocks in at 600 pages).

The second phase was design, in which no idea was considered too left field or too crazy. We were writing an insane artificial intelligence, after all. Gravity goes out aboard the fleet? We’ll just have the typography float. Want to visually explore the nature of a nuclear explosion on an atomic level? 5 hours in photoshop and half a bottle of Jack Daniels and watch the magic happen. And again, this wasn’t a new idea; Alfred J Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination incorporated experimental typography alllll the way back in 1956. But no one had done it to the scale we were pushing. Nobody had pushed it this far. We’re not kidding around when we tell you Illuminae is like no book you’ve ever read before in your life.

And in the end, did we break the idea of what a book could be?

You can always click on the links below and see. Either way, it was a lot of fun to try.


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

Visit the book site. Visit the sites of Kaufman and Kristoff. Follow Kaufman on Twitter. Follow Kristoff on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

I could write a lot about Catherynne Valente and her new novel Radiance, but instead let me just say two words:

Space whales.

Space whales, people!


Radiance doesn’t have a big idea at its heart.

It has about six. It’s a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller. With space whales.

Over-egging the pudding, you say? Too many cooks going at the soup? Gilding that lily like it’s going to the prom? I say: grab your eggs and hold onto your lilies because I am cannonballing into that soup FULL SPEED AHEAD. It is the souping hour up in here and I’ve got a rocket-powered ladle ready to go.

The year is 1944. But not our 1944. No Blitz, no rationing, no Russian front—not yet, anyway. In fact, most of Earth is looking a little empty. The Solar System, however, is bustling, buzzing, bursting with human life. Each and every one of our familiar planets is inhabitable and inhabited, from the red swamps of Venus to the frozen neon streets of Uranus to the opium fields of Pluto. New industries and intrigues are everywhere—and the Moon is where they make movies. Silent movies, mostly, for the scions of the Edison family keep an iron grip on their sound and color patents. In the world of Radiance, Space exploration began around 1870, but film still streams along in black and white silence.

By the early 20th century, the solar neighborhood has become one big boomtown. But here and there, quietly, horribly, on these faraway worlds, colonies are vanishing, leaving little behind but a few shredded houses and shattered souls.

When Severin Unck, a documentary filmmaker, travels to Venus to uncover the truth behind the destroyed settlements, she loses half her crew to death and madness and disappears off the face of the planet. Radiance is the search for Severin. Her father, her lover, her stepmother, and her studio bossestravel the length and breadth of nine worlds to find her, but the only one with any hope is the the lone survivor of the lost Venusian village, a lost little boy grown to a bitter, angry man.

And that’s not even getting into the giant space whales who lactate a substance that everyone drinks and no one understands, the Plutonian buffalo, the Uranian porn theaters, the movie studios fighting IP wars with guns and tanks, or the murders, riots, money, gossip, sex, and celluloid secrets that are part and parcel of a frontier Solar System on the brink of colossal change.

Plus, there’s a musical number.

I’m not going to lie. This book is crazypants. I threw everything I had into it. Heart and soul and probably some cartilage and eyeball fluid, too. I wanted to write a melodrama about a wild, living and breathing and squabbling Solar System. I wanted to write a horror-romance about huge, elemental aliens. I wanted to write a non-linear postmodern SF novel that was also a page-turning thriller because I secretly always wanted to write a hardboiled noir murder mystery. I wanted to write a badass adventure about film patents. I wanted to write a book about movies. About seeing and being seen. About what the camera does to us when it never leaves our side. About who has the right to speak, and who has to buy it. About the meaning of science fiction in a science fictional universe. And through it all I wanted to write about a lost girl who didn’t come home. It all hangs together, I promise! I think. I hope. Because everything really is like that. Everything really is about a thousand things at once, all the time. All the lilies, and eggs, and soups, pouring into an ocean of story the size of Neptune.

Radiance is easily the most ambitious novel I’ve ever written. And I’m a pretty ambitious girl. It’s also my first adult novel in four years—which means I got to swear again! And make people shoot each other and hop into bed together! Oh, I’m just screamingly proud of it, my bouncing baby abomination. It’s a world that came into my head fully formed—cross a story about silent filmmakers with Golden Age SF pulp-style planets with huge Lovecraftian monsters and it just appeared, all squirmy with art deco tentacles and gin and black eyeliner. I wrote a short story called The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew in 2008. It took seven more years to become a good enough writer to get the rest of that world into a book. I just wasn’t good enough in 2008. I didn’t know how. It was too big for me. Here’s hoping I got big enough to do it right.

Full speed ahead.


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

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

The Big Idea: David Barnett

In today’s Big Idea for Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, author David Barnett admits to some of the things he doesn’t know… or didn’t, until he started writing this book.


One of the first things you get told as a writer is “write what you know”.

Which is a fine idea, out of which you will probably get precisely one book.

First novels are wonderful things, into which we pour everything, all our heartbreak and joy and love and hate and intimate knowledge of the internal combustion engine and the 1969 Football Association Challenge Cup Final.

They can be a cathartic experience. Sometimes they can actually be good novels. And on occasion, they can actually be published. But they’re a necessary step on the road to becoming a novelist, and once they’re done they free up the writer to do the stuff that’s really fun about writing books, and which no-one really tells you about.

I’m talking about writing what you don’t know.

The third book in my Gideon Smith series of alternate-history Victorian fantasies (oh, go on, then, call it steampunk if you want to – I’m feeling in expansive mood) is published today, via Tor in the US and Snowbooks in the UK. It’s called Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper and it’s absolutely stuffed to the gunwales with things I don’t know – or at least, I didn’t know before I started writing it.

If there’s one big idea in Mask of the Ripper, I suppose it would be identity, and whether we really are what we think ourselves to be and what other people tell us we should or shouldn’t be. This is explored in various ways – the (nominal) protagonist Gideon is stripped of his memory and set adrift in a riot-torn London of Christmas 1890; a major character is charged with murder and their identity which we have come to accept is revealed to be a carefully constructed fiction. Then there is Maria, the mechanical girl introduced in the first book, who is seeking some answers concerning her own place in the world.

But dancing around the big idea are lots and lots of little ideas, and these zephyrs which keep the main theme aloft are largely composed of things of which I knew nothing before writing the book, or at least knew very little.

It can be quite exciting. It’s pointing your airship at the bit of the map marked terra incognita, here be dragons, do not cross. It’s stretching your writerly muscles, rather than just chucking in the same old same old.

Thus, for Mask of the Ripper, I found myself learning all about the early days of research into DNA. It was quite important for me that the trial of the character on a murder charge featured this timeline’s first usage in criminal proceedings of DNA evidence. Only problem was, 1890 was a little early for this in reality.

So I had to find out when it all happened, fit it into my own alternate-history, and spend long hours chewing over often impenetrable essays so I could work out whether or not I could have what I wanted: a device or machine that would allow DNA samples to be tested in front of a Crown Court jury with rather dramatic results.

(The scientists among you will be throwing up their hands in horror; relax. This is fantasy. I got all of the science together, gave it a bit of a stir, then made some stuff up. It happens).

For another character, I needed some motivation that would put him in London’s sewers with a team of Thuggee assassins. I came up with the Great Famine of 1876-78 in India. The sub-continent at that time was, of course, under the control of the British Empire, both in reality and in Gideon Smith’s world. The British were building a great canal, a show of strength, a Victorian architectural and engineering marvel – but ultimately a folly. Hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the famine, and the British made it worse by putting them to work on the canal that would ultimately carry their rice and grain away from the starving masses and on to British dinner tables. So, yeah, motivation there.

And finally, I had Gloria Monday. Gloria is just a supporting character in the book, and I wish I could have made more of her. Gloria is a trans woman, another concept I had to bend to my steampunk will to make it fit into my timeline. I’m indebted to Cheryl Morgan, a writer an publisher who looked at my Gloria chapters and deemed them to be, if not wonderful, at least not as offensive as they could be.

Because as a white dude from the north of England, the chances are I’m going to have screwed that one up substantially. And fear of that almost made me not write Gloria.

But… write what you don’t know.

Why? Well, a writer who repeatedly dashes off novels that require no research or stretching of imagination and knowledge would, eventually, be doing their readers a disservice, I think.

Certainly, I would. If I wrote only what I know, or was comfortable with writing, it would make for very boring books in the long run, safe books, books that take no chances.

There’s always a risk with taking chances that you will offend, upset, just plain get it all wrong wrong wrong and piss everyone off.

Or you may get it completely right and be the toast of book-land.

Or, which is more likely, you may get it both right and wrong, but with a bit of a tailwind you might get it more right than wrong, have learned something in the process, and planted your flag in a tiny little bit of terra incognita… at least for you.


Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Amazon UK

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

The Big Idea: Laura Anne Gilman

You can’t always always get what you want — particularly if you’re not precisely sure what that is. In the writing of Silver on the Road, author Laura Anne Gilman had to ask herself what she wanted, and how she was going to go about getting it.


My big idea?  Apparently was asking how badly you can screw yourself over by not being clear about what you want.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Devil’s West was born in 2010, when I wrote “Crossroads,” telling the story of a marshal encountering two magicians in mid-battle.

I didn’t really have any sense of the world, then – just this sense of a vast, empty landscape where demon and magicians wandered, and the weapon of choice wasn’t a rifle or a knife, but sharpened wits.  But the feel of it was so powerful, I couldn’t leave it be. So I wrote a second story, “The Devil’s Jack,” and discovered that this was a divergent American West, where the devil held sway, and everyone within the Territory – some vague space west of the Mississippi – danced to his tune.  

Okay, that was interesting. Weird west?  At the time, it wasn’t a popular subgenre, but what the hell.

So I started a third story, focusing the events in a small town called Flood.  I learned that the devil is a saloon owner, playing cards for souls.  The majority of settlers come not from the east, but southwest, by way of Spanish-held Mexico. And the native tribes, under the Devil’s Agreement, have a slightly better hand – and no hesitation about playing it.   

And about 20,000 words in* I realized that my main characters –  a 16 year old saloon girl, and a lawyer-turned-wanderer – – were at the middle of something much larger than simply a weird west adventure.  I was, in effect, rewriting American expansionist history.

Well, then.  Go big or go home, right?

Except I didn’t want to write that story.  Nothing against big, sweeping, detail-oriented alternate histories… but I had wanted to tell a relatively intimate story of two people at very different points in their lives (starting out, and approaching a mid-life crisis), and how they come to terms with the power they’ve each been given.  

And now, here was this massive** canvas they were supposed to fill.

I may have panicked.

No, okay, I totally panicked.

Sauce for the characters, apparently, is also sauce for the creator: Be clear about what you want – because sometimes you get more than you’d planned.  I’d found myself in the middle of this incredible, colorful, deep-rooted world, and it wasn’t going away.

I think it took me about a month before I was able to approach the story again, this time far more cautiously.  How was I going to make peace between the story I wanted to tell, and the story lurking underneath?

Except… that’s all history is, isn’t it?  What we read a hundred years later are dry facts and dates, but the reality was real people trying desperately to dance on quicksand.  I could talk all I wanted about who the devil actually is, about the magic of the Territory, about the rules of the Devil’s Agreement and how it changes the interactions between immigrants and natives…. But at the gut, my big idea wasn’t about politics, but people, caught up in what will become history, but living the day-to-day, because that’s all we know how to do.

So I took a deep breath, and started telling Isobel and Gabriel’s story.  About the choices you make when you don’t have enough information, and the second chances you get to remake those choices.  

Dancing on quicksand, hoping they don’t drown.

And some magic, some monsters, a dust-mad magician, and the drive for power, both personal and political, that may get them all killed….

* At this point it also became clear to me that I was writing a novel, not a short story.  Whoops.

**Literally massive – the Territory is 530,000,000 acres (basically, the entirety of the Louisiana Purchase).


Silver on the Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ctein


What do you do when you have a great idea for a story, but it’s an idea that a little outside your usual remit as a writer? In the case of John Sandford and Ctein and their new novel Saturn Run, you take a tip from the Beatles: You get by with a little help from your friends.


Once upon a time…

… because all good stories begin that way …

John Sandford, a best-selling cop-thriller novelist, had an Idea for a mainstream science fiction novel (he’s an SF fan, but had never written any). Actually, he had two ideas, and one of them was nuts.

The first — What would happen if a starship entered the solar system and proceeded to entirely ignore us. Not, in and of itself a new idea; see Rendezvous with Rama. An unknown starship could be an incalculable threat or boon. We don’t know which, but we know how the story plays out: Humanity will unite in what is undeniably a common cause, as it has so many times in the past, and set out to investigate…

… Wait a minute. Rewind. Is this us we’re talking about? Because, y’know, history might suggest we’re not so good at this unification thing.

Right. There’d be a mad scramble, with every side trying to figure out how to gain advantage, because it would be really, really important that the Good Guys benefit from this and not the Bad Guys, a.k.a. Us vs. Them. It’d be a new space race––get to the aliens first (are there even aliens???), assess the threat, grab what goods are to be got, and make sure the Bad Guys don’t get any.

There are catches. The clock’s ticking down, so no leisurely decade-long mission plan. Design and construction have to be hurried. The ship needs to get to Saturn in less than half a year. Oh yeah, and this has to be done in secret.

The whole mission comes off on budget, on schedule, on point, and all goes well. Because, y’know, that’s just the kind of story that makes for a good thriller.

Suuure (insert maniacal authorial laughter here).

That Big Idea led to a Big Problem. How the hell do you get a ship to Saturn in under six months, not to mention building it in under two years? No “wantum mechanics” (Greg Benford’s wonderful term for totally-made-up science shit); it’s not much of a hard bolts-and-rivets thriller if people know you’re faking it. It wasn’t an unsolvable problem. John could research it. In his former life he was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and has written forty or so thrillers, so he knows research. It’d just take several years of his life to get himself fully up to speed, that’s all.

The hitch was, John’s steady gig is turning out two novels (plus change) each year like clockwork. His readers expect it. He can’t take off a couple of years to explore himself as an author. This led to John’s second Big Idea, the crazy one.

Why not write it jointly with his friend, me? We’re both professional authors, who’ve made good multi-decadal careers out of generating words for money. We’re both disciplined and know how to meet deadlines. I already knows a whole lot about science fiction, and those Physics/English degrees oughta be good for something. John figures I’ll be able to solve the Big Problem(s).

Except for one little detail, which made it a crazy idea. I’m strictly nonfiction. Never written fiction, never wanted to. We’ve discussed this. Still, nothing ventured. John rings up Ctein:

John: I have a proposition. Hear me out before you say no. That science fiction novel? It’s not happening. You should write it.

Ctein: I don’t do fiction. It’s way too much like work.

John: Yeah, yeah. Look, just think about it. I’ll send you what I’ve got so far. It’s not much. There’s no pressure; take as long as you like. It’s not going anywhere for me. If you want to try your hand at it, you’ll be pretty much writing the whole first draft on your own.

Ctein: You’re not making this sounding more attractive.

John: I’ll help when you need it. I’ll do the first rewrite, we’ll both polish it up, my agent will sell it, and we’ll split the money.

Ctein: Money’s OK. Working for it, not so much. ‘Sides, I’ve heard it’s the root of all evil. Well, some of it, anyway.

John: Lotsa money.

Ctein: All right… I’ll probably say no. Actually, I’m pretty certain I’ll say no.

John: Whatever. First thing is, we need a spaceship and we need one that can get built fast. I figure our future US will have a pretty decent space station…

Ctein: That won’t work. I don’t think there’s any good way to turn a space station into a spaceship.

John: You’ll figure something out.

End of phone call. I read over the files and went to bed. The next morning I thought, “Waitaminit, I know how to turn a space station into a spaceship.”

I was probably doomed at that point, but it took me months to come to terms with that.

Six months later, I had done everything a skilled and experienced professional non-fiction author could possibly do. The office was a hell of a lot cleaner. Heaping stacks of papers had been properly sorted and filed. Even the computer desktop was reorganized. It was either tell John to forget it, go after the bathroom tile with a toothbrush, because, damn, that grout was dirty…or start writing.

I opted for door number three.

Four days later I sent John a rewrite of his original first chapter plus a brand-new chapter of my own. One nail-biting day later, there was a short e-mail from John: “This is okay. We can work with this.”

From that halting beginning, we went on to write the saga of the great race between the United States Spaceship “Richard M. Nixon” and the Chinese “Celestial Odyssey.”

The funny thing is, John’s nutso Big Idea actually worked. It really is both of us in the book. We each wrote about two-thirds of what’s in the final version (large chunks got rewritten so many times by both of us that it would take a forensic librarian to figure out who wrote what).

And that, kids, is how some books get born.

P.S. Oh, yeah, really — the USS Richard M. Nixon.

Because? Bwahahahaha…


Saturn Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit John Sandford’s site. Visit Ctein’s site.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

Hey! Kameron Hurley’s fantastic Worldbreaker series has a new installment, Empire Ascendant! And she’s here to tell you about it! I’ve used up all the exclamation marks I’m allowed for the month now! Here’s Kameron!


What would you sacrifice, to save everything you’ve ever known or loved?

What happens when what you need to sacrifice is… everything you’ve ever known or loved?

It’s this question that plagues the heroes and villains of Empire Ascendant.

In the first book in this series, The Mirror Empire, rifts opened between parallel universes, and the people of the world called Raisa found their countries overrun by their own dopplegangers, each of them fleeing epic environmental and magical catastrophes on their own worlds. The catch? Your double can’t flee to an alternate world unless their counterpart on the other side – you – is already dead.

Cue the backstabbing.

While The Mirror Empire focused on bringing together our merry band of assassins and pacifists, rebels and blood mages, to face the coming threat, the big idea behind Empire Ascendant was to explore what would happen when a far superior hierarchical force finally confronted a small, pacifist country with no real central leadership.

My academic background is in the history of war and resistance, and I drew deeply on this when developing the series.

We know that a larger, more technologically advanced force has huge advantages over a smaller, less organized one. But history also has plenty of examples of what can happen when a larger force tries to overwhelm a small, passionate group of people on their home turf (Vietnam, Iraq, every war in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary War).  In Empire Ascendant I wanted to see how these overwhelmed societies would react, and chart what would end up being one world’s attempt to avert its own genocide.

What this means for the people in Empire Ascendant is that the tactics employed in this conflict must be more ruthless. The “rules” of war – whatever they may have been – are suspended or simply discarded. Wars of attrition rub off the façade of “just conflict” that we like to drape over the narrative of particular types of wars (especially those in which our own country is the aggressor), and reveal it for what it is: nasty, brutish, inhumane.

When you have everything to lose, you often find that you are tougher than you ever imagined. War is celebrated for this: go to war to learn what you’re really made of!  

But are you the hero, or the villain?

In Empire Ascendant, every character can be both.  

This is the story of your survival. And your destruction.


Empire Ascendant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ann Leckie

And now, for Ancillary Mercy, the third book of a trilogy that began with the ridiculously successful Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie ditches the usual “Big Idea” format for something else entirely. And why not!


So let’s be real. Ancillary Mercy is the concluding book of a trilogy. Trilogies are often (though of course not always) very large single works. So in a lot of ways the “big idea” of Ancillary Mercy is a logical extension of the big idea of Ancillary Justice. And really, if you haven’t read Justice yet, Mercy probably isn’t the best place for you to start. Though, you know, you can if you want to.

So instead of going over the AJ stuff again–what is a person? Who is anybody anyway?–I instead give you the Ancillary FAQ. These are all questions I’ve actually gotten (or oveheard) at one time or another.

Q: How can you possibly wrap the story up in one more volume? There’s too much going on; I don’t see how you could manage it.

A: The easiest way for me to answer that is to actually do it. Which I have, and you can see the answer for yourself wherever fine books are sold. Or at a library near you. I love libraries. They’re awesome.

Q: Will there be more books after this one?

A: There will be more books, and certainly more books in this universe, but not books about Breq. Nothing against her, I’ve had a lovely time these past three books, but it will be nice to do something different.

Q: What is it with you and tea?

A: I love tea! Tea is the most frequently consumed beverage on this planet, next to water. I can’t imagine we’d go far from our solar system without finding a way to take it with us. Also it’s partly a very respectful bow to C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series.

Q: There was not enough Seivarden in Sword. Will you be remedying this in Mercy?

A: I have to admit the strength of some readers’ affection for Seivarden caught me by surprise. I mean, I love her, of course, I made her. I just didn’t expect her to be quite so much of a favorite.

In answer to your question, I present two Wordles for you to compare. If you’re not familiar with Wordles, it’s a thing where you take a bunch of text–in this case two novels–and plug them in and you get a graphic where the most frequently used words are larger and the less used ones are smaller.

First, the Wordle for Ancillary Sword. Note the relative size of “Seivarden.” A little difficult to find, huh?

And now, the Wordle for Ancillary Mercy.

Q: I notice the word “translator” in that Mercy wordle. And that only reminds me that Translator Dlique was onstage for far too short a time in Sword, and now I am sad.

A: I myself was sad when I realized how short a time Translator Dlique would be onstage. But there really was no way around it.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently, and saying that I’d heard from some readers who were very unhappy with the all-too-brief appearance of Dlique, and she frowned at me and said, “But what about…oh, wait! They haven’t read Mercy yet!” And then she started laughing.

Q: I really think the second book ought to have been called Ancillary Mercy. There wasn’t a whole lot of “sword” in it. Why is the second one Sword and this one Mercy?

A: Originally the titles of the three books were going to be Justice of Toren, Sword of Atagaris, and Mercy of Kalr. My agent knew nothing of this–well, except the title of the first book–and thought Justice of Toren wasn’t a particularly fabulous title. He suggested Ancillary Justice and I agreed, pleased that my Justice/Sword/Mercy scheme could remain in place.
As often happens when I write–I gather this happens to lots of other writers as well–Sword of Atagaris ended up not being quite as prominent a character in the story as I’d originally planned. But I still didn’t want to switch the titles. For one thing, I think Justice/Sword/Mercy makes a better overall arc. For another, well, read the book.

Q: I’m really hankering for some Imperial Radch fan art. Is there any?

A: There sure is! And it’s fabulous.

Q: And fanfic? What’s your fanfic policy?

A: Fanfic is awesome. My fanfic policy is “I won’t read it, please don’t try to sell it, but otherwise you have fun.” And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, having people write fanfic of your book is right up there with winning awards.

Q: What sort of tea would the Radchaai drink? Is it like some kind of tea we have here on present-day Earth?

A: I’ve actually answered that question here.

Q: No, but seriously, Ann, at the end of Sword you left us with a damaged space station, a resentful and mutinous warship that has every reason to hate Breq, a mysterious ship on the other side of the Ghost Gate whose nature and motives we know almost nothing about, a civil war in progress, and possibly angry and very dangerous aliens going to turn up at some point–

A: That’s about the size of it, yes. And the only way to find out what happens next is to read it.


Ancillary Mercy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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