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.

JASON DENZEL:

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.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

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 Tor.com 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, Tor.com 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.

ELLEN KUSHNER:

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.

LILA BOWEN:

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?

My answer? YEAH SHE DID. WHATEVA. I DO WHAT I WANT.

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.

AMIE KAUFMAN and JAY KRISTOFF:

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!

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

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.

DAVID BARNETT:

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.

LAURA ANNE GILMAN:

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.

CTEIN:

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!

KAMERON HURLEY:

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!

ANN LECKIE:

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.

The Big Idea: David J. Peterson

Here’s a word for you: “Conlanger.” Do you know what one is? And what one does? And how they relate to some of your favorite fantasy and science fiction movies in the last several years? David J. Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention, will catch you up on all the details — and they’re very cool details, to be sure.

DAVID J. PETERSON:

I am a conlanger.

If this were the year 2000, one in every ten thousand or so people would know what that meant. Now in 2015, I’d say one in every four or so people have an idea what that means. That’s huge. And for those of us that are conlangers (or language creators, for the other three quarters), the notion that language creation is now a publicly discussed, if not understood, phenomenon is still surreal.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that conlanging as an activity was still quite obscure. The rise in notoriety of language creation wasn’t gradual, but exponential. Starting with James Cameron’s Avatar at the end of 2009, and followed closely by Game of Thrones in 2011, conlanging’s star has risen more dramatically in the past five years than it had in the previous 900.

The meteoric rise of conlanging coupled with a sea change in how we interact with the internet (younger folks especially) has left us with a strange reality. Scores of new would-be conlangers are coming to the craft specifically because of examples they’ve encountered in film and television in the past five years. Further, because of how they use the internet (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—essentially media sharing and microblogging platforms), they’re finding each other, and finding discussions of well-known conlangs, but aren’t finding the older crowd—the original conlanging community.

The reason is simple enough. The older conlanging groups are housed on e-mail–based listservs or phpBB bulletin boards—platforms that were hugely popular in the 90s and early 00s, but which don’t seem to enjoy a lot of use anymore. Additionally, most conlangs by older conlangers are presented on personal websites—often with hand-coded HTML and CSS—which are all but invisible now that webrings and link lists are passé.

Now don’t think for a moment I’m bemoaning the current state of the internet—far from it! Sharing/resharing has changed the world, and changed it for the better. Reddit has really filled the hole that the death of newspapers had left in my morning routine.

The problem lies not with new conlangers, but with the old guard—those that aren’t transitioning to the new internet. Unfortunately, it’s the new conlangers who are suffering for it.

Going back to the year 2000, I was a brand new conlanger who didn’t know anything about the craft or anyone else who created languages. After a year of fumbling in the dark with my first language I found the original conlanging community, and that’s where I learned everything I know today. That’s basically what everyone did back then: Found the community, listened in, shared, received critiques, and improved.

The best part was, as a community, we all got a lot better at creating languages. Whether it was a language for a fantasy novel one was working on, or a “what if” project to test the limits of our linguistic capacity, the projects that came out of that period were stellar. And it makes me sad to think that while conlanging is currently at its zenith, much of this work is more obscure than ever.

With The Art of Language Invention, my purpose was twofold. The first was to give the uninitiated a window into the world of conlanging: to see what it’s all about, to see the work that goes into creating a language, and, maybe, to see if it’s for them. The second, though, was to build a bridge between the original conlanging community and the conlangers to come.

Obviously, the most visible part of this bridge-building is sharing the conlanging strategies, tips, and tricks I’ve learned over the years and included in the book. These, of course, are not my own invention: they come from the education I gained as a member of the early conlang community. Beyond that, though, I wanted to advertise the fact that other conlangers have done great work, and they have a lot to share—and a lot to teach.

The reason this is so important to me is that I hold no illusions about the position I occupy in the world of conlanging and how I got there. I was fortunate to be born when I was born, and fortunate that, after creating my first language, I found the early conlang community. After putting in ten years learning how to create languages, I was fortunate to hear about the competition to create the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones (not all conlangers did), so when I got my shot, I worked my choyo off to get the job—not just because I wanted it (I did), but to honor those that helped to inform my understanding of the craft.

Because outside the accidents of history, I am one of the old conlangers. You can still see my old website with hand-coded HTML and CSS here (and, yes, I like those colors, and I’m not changing them!). Some of my old languages were just okay; some were pretty good. No one would have heard of them, though, just as few have heard of Kash, created by Roger Mills, who died this past September. He put a lot of work and a lot of love into that language, and it’s quite impressive (I love Kash’s reciprocative reduplication pattern). Work like this is worthy of study and admiration and deserves to be remembered.

So, since I got the opportunity to write a book on language creation—to write about the art that has been my passion for over a decade and is now my livelihood—it was my big idea to let everyone know exactly what’s behind some of the conlangs you hear and see on the big and small screen, and to acknowledge and celebrate the conlangers who came before me and helped me to become who I am today.

—-

The Art of Language Invention: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Poets: Can they change the world? And what kind of world would it be if they could? Ilana C. Myer poses this question in her Big Idea, for her novel Last Song Before Night.

ILANA C. MYER:

It began in a college class—long enough ago. The topic was poets in Celtic myth. The text was “Guaire’s Greedy Guests,” the tale of a man who suffers from guests for whom the term “imposition” is an understatement. The host must accede his guests’ every demand, is too scared to do otherwise, for one reason: they are poets. Poetry, in those myths, had power. With words they might bring any disaster on him they choose.

The idea of a terrifying poet is incredible to anyone who has lived in our world for five minutes. Even our Poet Laureate’s greatest power is, likely, to acquire a prestige position at a university. Yet here in Celtic myth was a different concept of the poet altogether. Kings sought the blessing of poets, feared them. A life might be transformed, or destroyed, through song.

There in that class was planted the seed of Last Song Before Night. I asked myself: What would it be like to live in a society where poets were powerful? Where they posed a threat even to the king?

Immediately I thought, first of all, as personalities they would be less like poets of our day and more like rock stars. The combination of charisma, skill, and societal clout would make someone larger than life. But they’d have the pitfalls of rock stars, too—the ego traps and rivalries that characterize the arts as a whole, especially near the top. And with such characters as protagonists, the conflicts must center first and foremost around questions of art: What it means, what it makes of us, how it connects us to the world. How through art we can craft illusions to hide from the truth of ourselves, or else discover it—at times in ways acutely painful.

When Last Song opens, poets are enjoying fame and wealth although their enchantments are long gone. They reap the rewards of being rock stars without the responsibilities of true power. Ultimately the protagonists will be forced to recover their lost enchantments in order to avert cataclysm—and this can only be done at great cost.

While Celtic myth provided inspiration, I was equally intrigued by the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, with their intricate codes of honor and problematic ideation of women. That I ended up writing the book while living in Jerusalem, a city of near-eternal summer and Middle Eastern culture, was an influence that crept in through the back door.

Beyond the influences of myth, place, and history, what shaped this story was an intense drive to create something even when there didn’t seem to be a point—everyone knows it’s hard as hell to get published. Dedicating years and making significant life choices around the completion of this book always seemed, in light of reality, a form of madness. Inevitably, the questions I was forced to ask myself over the years—why I was doing this, what art means to me—became an undercurrent in the writing.

I had hoped, starting out fresh out of college, that through the process I’d discover concrete  answers. I can say honestly that this didn’t happen, but what opened up to me instead was infinitely more valuable in the end. I am excited to share it with you.

—-

Last Song Before Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tade Thompson

For today’s Big Idea, Tade Thompson takes the immigrant experience, plus the problems that crop up when you tell a little lie at the wrong time, and puts them together for his novel Making Wolf. What do we find out? It’s here, below.

TADE THOMPSON:

Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever moved from one country to another, going back is always a fraught experience. Migration must be worth it, so when returning to the home country you must show off success either in terms of money or status, preferably both.

So what happens if you’re a lowly store detective, but you have to go home for a funeral? You lie. It’s harmless, right? Usually. But in my story the protagonist Weston pretends to be a homicide detective without attending to his audience. He’s kidnapped by a rebel faction and asked to solve a cold-case, a politically radioactive murder that nobody really wants solved unless the finger points at someone else.

What follows is a weird, violent and frightening journey through a country that has become unfamiliar and alien. The amateur sleuth is a time-honoured tradition in crime fiction, but it is usually voluntary. Weston has to solve a murder to keep himself alive. Then there’s Church, his guide in this journey, a personification of the chaos, who might just be responsible for executing Weston should he fail.

I had to create an alternative time line and an imaginary country because Making Wolf is based on aspects of my own childhood in Nigeria and I don’t want to offend individuals who may be identified. The way memory works tells us that what we think we remember is mostly fiction, so the Nigeria I think I’m remembering may no longer exist, or never have existed in the first place.

If I could not write about these matters, I’d have to make everything up, transforming people and places beyond recognition. My speculative fiction background kicked in and I threw worldbuilding at the problem. I created an alternative time line in which the Nigerian civil war had a different outcome, and I created a new country between Nigeria and Cameroun. I was good to go.

What I do remember accurately is the experience of danger, the pervasive paranoia and the constant negotiation of relationships with powerful people. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The threat of sexual violence was omnipresent, and if you threw a stone, you’d find a victim.

The ingredients were there for a noir narrative: a disconnected detective, a baffling milieu, an ambiguous relationship with the police force, a femme fatale, a murder, and a conspiracy. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were staples of my childhood literary diet, and it was fitting that Making Wolf emerged as first-person and gritty. Weston is not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, but they do share similar experiences and some DNA strands.

Speaking of DNA, the usual CSI techniques are not available in my narrative. It’s a brute-force investigation depending on leg work, brain power and dumb luck.

At its heart, crime fiction is about the social contract. We agree to live in peace with one another, and if someone comes along who won’t play nice, we sanction them. We use crime fiction to tell ourselves that no matter what happens, if someone breaks the contact, we will find the person and break them. This doesn’t happen all the time in real life, but we would like to believe it does, and so we tell ourselves stories about it.

Making Wolf is one of those stories.

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Making Wolf: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Douglas Sun

And now, just to shake things up, here’s a Big Idea about a video game — which is based on a book, so don’t panic, we’re not going too far afield. Today, Douglas Sun talks about some of the challenges of a adapting a literary work into a video game: Veiled Alliances.

DOUGLAS SUN: 

When it comes to adaptations of novels, it’s a given among readers that the movie won’t be as good as the book. The movie is going to leave out a lot of cool stuff, because it just won’t fit. Movies don’t have the same narrative flexibility and depth as novels. Games are great in and of themselves, but for most readers, it’s rare that you’ll find a one that’s as satisfying as the great (or even good) book on which it was based.

Kimberly Unger and I are working on a Big Idea dished out in small pieces, and our goal is to create adaptations that are just as cool as the book. We aren’t making movies as such. Instead, we’re going to use video game technology to combine the visceral power of moving images with the psychological and intellectual depth of literature. We call it our “subtext engine” — just as video games use a software engine to drive 3D animation, we’re using a software engine to create movies that will have the richness of books.

Our first step in testing this idea is the pilot episode of a 12-part adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s novella, Veiled Alliances. This 6-minute “appisode” is embedded in an app for tablets and smartphones that will house and play the remaining appisodes in the series. I’ll admit up front that it’s a test run, and it won’t have the full set of features that we eventually want to include. We’re still looking for the resources that we need to fully flesh out our vision.

But we know that using a video game engine to drive the animation will open up new features that don’t exist in conventional cinematic narrative. The action plays out in a fully three-dimensional environment and you’ll be able to interact with it. You’ll have the freedom to move the camera around, so that you can view the main action from any angle you want, or even just explore the background. Additional features will use sound effects, audio tracks (think mini-soliloquies that overlay the action, instead of stopping the action) and dynamic visual symbology. In its final form, the subtext engine will produce machinima, but richer and with more contextual depth than a typical machinima (or animation, for that matter).

You’ll be able to customize your experience, so that you can turn off or ignore features that don’t interest you. You can just watch the video straight through, with nothing fancy going on, if that’s what you want. But we think this cognitive multitasking will create a richer experience that you’re used to getting with visual narratives — one that captures the feel of literature more than any other graphic or cinematic form.

Veiled Alliances turned out to be a fortuitous vehicle for testing the subtext engine. Kevin J. Anderson allowed us access to this prequel to his Saga of Seven Suns series because our experiment in multilayered narrative interested him, and it’s a good fit. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the story — as a prequel, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that hangs over the characters’ hopes and dreams, and there’s a lot of intrigue, where characters conceal as much as they say to each other. This is particularly true of Chapter 14, which we chose to adapt for the pilot. In it, a prince of the Ildiran Empire and a colonial governor with responsibility for a group off human refugees, returns to his homeworld to discuss what is to be done about them, only to find that the Emperor (his father) and the heir-designate (his brother) have cold-blooded plans for this newly-discovered alien race. It’s one of those scenes where what the characters say only touches the surface of what they bring to the discussion.

In writing the script, I had to make the usual decisions that come with adapting prose fiction to a visual medium. Not every little action or line of dialogue made it in. But the subtext engine will allow us to take much (if not most) of what gets edited and work it in through the interactive features, so that everything that the characters and their world bring to the present narrative moment can co-exist as they do in novelistic storytelling.

The modern novel (and its sibling, the short story) is an extraordinarily supple artistic form. It combines showing and telling to capture how the human mind multitasks, regarding itself at the same time as it reaches outward in space and time to give context to the here-and-now with unique grace. Kimberly and I are familiar with video game engines because we’re both hardened game geeks and industry pros, but our backgrounds are also literary — we’re both English majors (I followed that path all the way to the tenure track at Cal State Los Angeles before leaving the academy), we both harbor dreams of writing the Great Futuristic American Novel, and so for both of us, literature is that first love you never forget. Working on the subtext engine and creating the Veiled Alliances app completes the circle for us, combining literature with machinima to bring out the strengths of both.

We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far, and excited about what we expect to accomplish in the future, given sufficient resources. Our adaptation of Veiled Alliances will be available in the iOS store and Google Play, and will work just fine on either tablets or smartphones. We’ll also put a playblast trailer on our YouTube channel. Check it out; let us know if you think we’re onto something.

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Veiled Alliances: Visit the game’s site.

The Big Idea: Christopher Barzak

For today’s Big Idea, Christopher Barzak takes you to the family farm and explains how a little bit of his own personal history informs his latest novel, Wonders of the Invisible World.

CHRISTOPHER BARZAK:

Wonders of the Invisible World was an attempt to save my family.

Which is a little ironic, because the protagonist of the novel—Aidan Lockwood—is also charged with the duty of saving his family. Specifically, he’s charged with the duty of saving them from an ancestral curse that has been brought upon them by a decidedly nasty act of hubris that his great-grandfather commits nearly a hundred years prior.

My attempt to save my family wasn’t so much to rescue us from an ancestral curse, so much as to rescue us, somehow, from the passage of time, from the way anyone’s family fades over time, as the shadow of mortality grows ever closer, until it eclipses not only individual lives, but the life of a family unit.

I was thirty years old when I began writing this novel. I’m forty now. In between the span of those ten years, I published two other novels and a collection of short stories. I moved to Japan to teach English. I earned an MFA while teaching full time at a university after I returned. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever clear away enough time and space for a continuous span of concentration I need to complete a novel. But I continued to work on multiple drafts of this book, because it was a story in which I was preserving details from the landscape of my childhood: my grandparents’ farm, where I grew up among a large, extended family that all made their homes either on the farm or nearby it.

No, Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t necessarily about my family. The Barzaks aren’t cursed like the Lockwood family is. But when I was thirty and began trying to write a novel that might capture some of the essence of my family life, it was because, at that point, every time I’d visit my family, I’d see another piece of our shared past fading away. I watched my grandfather unstring the barbed wire fences that outlined his various pastures and orchard. I saw the last tree standing in the orchard cut down. I watched as his remaining stock of cattle were sold off, and I watched as my grandparents’ farmhouse itself, well over a hundred years old now, begin to crumble around them before they themselves passed away in recent years.

The big idea for me was to capture the essence of a way of life, rural and agrarian, before it passed away completely. So the setting of Wonders of the Invisible World is largely based on my family home. The orchard, the creek that flows through it, the pastures and the cornfields. Even the farmhouse in which the Lockwood family lives. I’ve often used the places where I’ve lived for a long period of time as settings for my books, but this time it was more personal, acting as a totem of sorts as I wrote the book.

The big idea, though, that I wanted to capture for the reader, who has no interest in my personal connection to the story necessarily, was to capture the essence of the passage of time, of a young man—seventeen year old Aidan Lockwood—who discovers an ancestral family secret, and in the process of reclaiming memories of his own childhood that have been magically obscured by someone trying to protect him, discovers parts of himself that he’d never known before.

In a lot of ways, discovering one’s family history is a way of discovering yourself. So many things about the formation of our personalities and processes for thinking are determined, to some extent, by the families that create and shape us. Wonders of the Invisible World is a young adult novel, and in this way I felt like the plot I invented reflected, literally, the way a young adult begins to see the members of their family more clearly as they come of age. To see Mom and Dad as more than the role they play as parents. To see grandparents as people who have shaped their own parents. History, at least for me, only came alive as I became a late teenager; and in discovering more about my own family, I felt like I was discovering myself, my place within the story my family inhabits.

Ten years is a long time to work on a novel in stop and go fashion. It wasn’t ideal. It made me question the story every time I came back to it, when some small amount of time for that kind of work became available. I wrote three drafts, threw them all out. Started from scratch on a fourth, and finally found the shape of the story I needed to hold everything I wanted to address inside it. What was the key turning point? Realizing that in order to contain all of the bits and pieces I wanted in the story, I would have to make my protagonist suffer from a spell (a literal one) of forgetfulness, in order for the act of remembering to become a magical event in and of itself.

There are so many more bits of magic in this novel than those I’ve mentioned. There’s a white stag, the specter of a man in a black suit, harbingers of Death, a voice that comes from a dead apple tree, visions and dreams that come to Aidan Lockwood unbidden. It’s a personal story that pushes outward into the epic, encapsulating a hundred years of his family life. I’m not sure if I really did, in the end, manage to save my family by writing this book, much as I tried (perhaps pure memoir would be better for such an act), but I do know that Aidan Lockwood manages to save his. And after ten years of struggling with him throughout his journey, seeing this story contained in the bound pages of a book feels at least a little bit like redemption.

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Wonders of the Invisible World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Kent Davis

For his Big Idea piece today, Kent Davis explains how a mental image, and some experience writing role-playing games, ended up being the foundation for his novel A Riddle in Ruby.

KENT DAVIS:

I had this picture in my head. It clanked around, bumping into the furniture and leaving oil stains on all the brain-curtains. Certainly it wasn’t the most heroic of images, but it hung on, badgering and rattling and poking for days that turned into weeks.

A girl, shoulder-deep in a large whiskey barrel. The girl wears a battered tricorne hat, and the barrel stands atop articulated metal ostrich legs.

Yeah. Random. But somehow charming. And oddly compelling, too. Why a tricorne? Why a barrel? Who is this girl? And what’s the flippin’ deal with the metal ostrich legs? The picture clamored to be explained. It wanted to be lit up. So I tore it apart.

The battered tricorne beckoned first. I’ve always had a thing for the North American colonies, but in the time before the War of Independence. Like, half a century before. Holding for dear life onto the edge of the East coast, rife with both pluck and gumption, pocked with colonialist warts, watching the Age of Reason unfold from the continental kiddie table? That’s my jam. Frontier cultures have a special attraction for me—I live in Montana—and I love the idea that in earlier times the borders of the known world (at least for the Europeans) lay mere miles from isolated little settlements like Philadelphia or New Amsterdam.

Then came the barrel with legs—articulated, gawky, powered by means unknown! The whole contraption gave off more than a whiff of steampunk, but I didn’t want to give up the colonial feel, or the pluck, or the gumption. Besides, the story needed magic, and I was searching for something a bit more exotic than steam. I came to understand, however, that the necessary magic was not the pointy-hatted, wand-ridden, unicorns and elves kind. It required arcane mysteries suited to the beginning of the Enlightenment, practiced not by Gandalf or Glenda, but by the Bacons and Germains and Newtons of that historical moment. What if a kind of science that produced its own miracles could be the magic engine of the story? Like chemistry, for example?

I’m the co-creator of a tabletop RPG that sports a magic system for alchemy, where arcane scientists essentially nudge the laws of chemistry in spectacular and sometimes even miraculous ways. Stone walls change into glass. Frozen lakes puff into clouds of superheated steam. That sort of thing. What if this magic/science manifested in the setting? It would make for a very short walk to the land of antimony ostrich legs.

But this magic wouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It couldn’t help but change the course of history. The ripples spread, and more questions got answered. Applied chemystry—now sporting a sexy “y” instead of its conventional “i”—would quickly allow artisans to leap forward in their manipulation of materials to create great works of chemystral craft, pushing technology and manufacturing forward to levels only seen in our 1800s. Of course, that kind of change would topple all manner of political and economic dominoes, not to mention give rise to an array delectable bonuses: alchemycal automatons, clocklock pistols, cobalt gearbeasts. This nascent world suddenly began to offer up its own ideas! That’s when the dancing around the room began.

However, the final and arguably most important component of this Big Idea remained: the girl.

What kind of hero lives in this chem-driven and slightly batty world? I thought perhaps one built to fit a society on the brink of social revolutions: imperfect, a little bit odd, bold to the point of endangerment, gifted but a touch lost. A scrapper. Her name is Ruby Teach, and she is an apprentice thief, a smuggler’s daughter, and a repository of secrets. She’s thirteen, and she is not the Chosen One of high fantasy. No prophecies have been written about her. A noble lineage is hers neither in public nor in secret. She’s common. She bears a secret, true, but even it does not belong to her. This riddle makes her a sort of carrier. In her words, she’s the baggage.

But she has a mind and a will of her own, and when her world is turned upside down she takes action in courageous, reckless, and sometimes even ridiculous fashion. She acts. She does not wait to be told, and she often spurns the advice of those who think they know better. She wants to discover the truth for herself, even if it hurts. I tried to write a girl that my wife would have loved as a kid, and I tried to write a girl that I would have loved as a kid, one lost in the clanking tinker towns and forbidding frontier forests of the Chemystral Age. I hope your kids might love her, too.

Or you. I mean, you might like her. Sure. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?

So. The tricorne, the ostrich legs, and the girl. That image went the way of many big ideas: dissected, chopped up, and blended into an alchemycal stew far more exciting to me than the original.

By the way, the barrel shows up, too, but the when of it is a surprise. Ruby shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have secrets.

A Riddle in Ruby: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Seth Dickinson

In this Big Idea for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, author Seth Dickinson wants you to give up a cheer for the villain. Will you? I’ll let him try to convince you.

SETH DICKINSON:

My master plan would’ve changed the course of history! I put my life into this — I leveraged politicians, I conjured up shell corporations, I put puppets on every throne and agents in every council. I built something! I had a vision!

And they call you a hero. What did you do? You stumbled in at the last moment and broke everything.

If heroism means standing up for the status quo, then I’ll have no part of it. The world’s full of suffering. Someone must act.

#

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman trying to tear down a colonial empire, avenge her fathers, and liberate her home. The Masquerade wants to rule the world, so that they can fix it. Baru can’t beat them from the outside, killing them one by one with a sword the way Luke Skywalker or Aragorn might — unlike most evil empires, they’re smart people who take sensible precautions. Baru wouldn’t stand a chance against a single Masquerade marine.

Being surpassingly clever and excitingly ruthless, Baru decides to destroy the Masquerade from the inside. She’ll join their civil service, prove herself as a really awesome operative, and secure enough power to get what she wants. (She thinks Luke should do the same thing.)

Baru will, in short, become an evil overlord: a brilliant superspy plotting triple-cross operations right under the noses of her masters, conspiring to topple nations with banking schemes, daring heists, ornamental men, secret alliances, private armies, napalm, pirates, and the occasional sword duel, when absolutely necessary. An evil overlord working for good!

And man, was I excited to write an epic fantasy book about an overlord.

Do you have the same frustration with heroes that I do? They’re happy to sit around whuffling like a big fat seal until they get hit with an Inciting Event, and then the story has to convince them to go uncover the villain’s plan and stop him (usually him, alas) right in the nick of time.

But not the villain!

The villain’s the one who wants to change the world. The villain’s the one who constructs mountain lairs and secret cabals and schemes with threatening names and legions of snappily dressed goons. The villain gets to do stuff while the hero’s still scrambling around in confusion. Secret bank accounts! Strike teams! Blackmail! Disguise! Research into the forbidden arts! Dominating every conversation with radiant authority!

I don’t want to watch some lunk stumble his way to survival with swinging fists. I want to see — heck, I want to write about the character driving the action. The character who actually wants to be in this story. You can tell because she’s the one who woke up one day and said “I’m going to work really hard to change the world.”

If you want to protect how things are, get a hero. But if you want to change the world — if you want to shake the titanic, interlocked systems of civilization until they bend into a new and better shape — get an overlord.

And I do want to write about changing the world. The world’s not a good place yet. We should work hard to fix it, and that means working for change.

I wrote this book because I kept hearing an argument repeated: ‘a woman/a queer person/a person of color could never be the hero of a fantasy story. They’d be too oppressed to do anything. That’s just how things were.’

So Baru lives in a world where she’s targeted by awful oppression — racism towards people from her home island, sexism that denies her control over her own body, and homophobia that will see her maimed or killed if she makes a move on the wrong woman. Baru is the protagonist, and she refuses to be denied power and agency. Locked away in a Masquerade school? She’ll perform so well on the merit exams that they have to notice her. Exiled to a distant province as a mere accountant? She’ll take over the whole economy and dictate terms to royalty. Frozen out of government? She’ll build her own shadow government.

That’s the big idea in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: a protagonist who uses a villain’s tools for heroic endsBaru is a shark, an incorrigible bastard, a menace and a delight. She loves power. She’s going to get as much of it as she can.

She’s going to use that power to fix her world. And nothing — not even her own hopes and qualms — will stand in the way.

—-

The Traitor Baru Cormorant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Pamela Sargent

It’s no surprise that writers live in their own worlds, and occasionally let you see those worlds in our books. But as Pamela Sargent explains, with regard to her novel Season of the Cats, sometimes before we can let you visit our worlds, we have to… tidy up a bit.

PAMELA SARGENT:

By the time I conjured up the central idea for Season of the Cats, I had wrestled with a number of “big ideas” as a novelist, among them human immortality, the life and conquests of Genghis Khan, and the terraforming of Venus. Those undoubtedly qualify as big ideas, but the central situation in Season of the Cats concerns a somewhat dysfunctional early twenty-first century couple who have dreamed up an imaginary utopia of cats. Is that a big idea? Perhaps it is if that imagined world, appropriately dubbed Catalonia and consisting of a quite civilized feline society, leaks into the so-called “real” one and threatens the couple’s marriage, their sanity, and possibly their lives.

But when I first started playing with this novel, more than two decades of being a published writer, along with personal and professional setbacks, had led me into a deadly morass of self-doubt, burn-out, depression, and writer’s block. (The euphemistic terms for this state are “being on hiatus” and “lying fallow.”) The cure that I found for myself, partly by accident and partly through economic necessity, was writing on a smaller scale, concentrating mostly on short fiction and also honing my craft by collaborating on a few Star Trek novels with my partner in life, George Zebrowski. The rest of the cure, which came a little later, was writing the first part of what became Season of the Cats, with no idea of where the story was going or what, if anything, would come of it. I needed an escape during some dark times and a way of entertaining myself while trying to rediscover the joy and satisfaction the act of writing and shaping a story had once brought to me.

I began with the two central characters, Gena and Don, who lived in a place that resembled our former neighborhood, and their cat Vladimir, who was modeled on our beloved Spencer, a small long-haired tuxedo cat who lived a long and largely happy life of seventeen years before finally succumbing to kidney failure. I indulged myself in this cheery fable, making light of Gena and Don’s troubles in order to escape my own while having no idea of where the story was going or any thought of publication. Any writer knows that if a story doesn’t interest you, then it’s unlikely to interest any reader, but here I was so intent on entertaining myself that I had completely forgotten about any other reader. By the time it occurred to me that maybe, with a manuscript in hand, it might make sense to try to get the novel published, a couple of more objective readers had to give me the bad news, namely that the story I’d found so diverting was a self-indulgent and unappealing mess.

You can write and publish for a lifetime and still make mistakes, still have to relearn what you thought you already knew. I set this novel aside to write other work and returned to it later, always a good idea if a piece of writing isn’t working; the passage of time has a way of illuminating your earlier errors. And when I did my rewriting, I followed a method the late science fiction writer Frederik Pohl had recommended, which may sound drastic to anyone young enough to have never used a typewriter: Fred’s advice was to print out the text, destroy any electronic files, and begin rewriting with only your printed text as a guide. Otherwise, he told me, you get lazy and just do touch-ups instead of a complete overhaul.

He was right. My own overhaul, which involved several of these drastic rewrites, included reworking the plot, digging into the darker aspects of the story that I’d avoided before, among them an entity that threatens several of the main characters, and adding details, drawing on my own experience as a foot soldier in a local political campaign and at a disagreeable temporary day job, that yielded more interesting plot twists and more desperate situations for my characters. I was still entertaining myself but also keeping the reader in mind. As Fred also put it, “Your reader is some guy in Cleveland at three in the morning,” and that seems as useful an image of a reader as any. Figuratively speaking, we’ve all occasionally been that guy in Cleveland at three in the morning.

Like Gena and Don, I had lost control of my own imagined world and had to face my own struggle, which is obliquely reflected in the pages of Season of the Cats. Whether my characters win or lose their battle is for readers to discover.

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Season of the Cats: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Wildside Press

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Oh look, Here’s Greg Van Eekhout, wrapping up his terrific Daniel Blackland trilogy with Dragon Coast. Perhaps it will have dragons in it? And possibly a coast? Seems likely on both counts. Let’s have Greg give you a couple more specifics on it.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

Look, the title is Dragon Coast, there’s a dragon right on the cover, and the dragon’s in the very first paragraph of the book. Obviously, the big idea for the conclusion of my Daniel Blackland trilogy was this: Have fun.

To review, the first book, California Bones, is about Daniel Blackland, a young wizard-thief who gets his abilities by consuming the remains of magical creatures, such as griffins and basilisks and dragons. Because of family history and the politics of a magical Los Angeles, he finds himself constantly pitted against other osteomancers who want to eat him. At its spine, the book is a heist novel, but the flesh and blood is about created family, sacrifice, and exploitation, weird magic, and transforming familiar cityscapes. I had a fun time writing it.

The second novel, Pacific Fire, has Daniel acting as guardian to his arch enemy’s  magically generated clone, who’s trying to sabotage the bad guys’ weapon of mass destruction, a patchwork dragon. And, gosh, did I ever have a ball working on this book. We’re talking pizza-party level fun with a side of air hockey. Kish-kosh-kish! (Those are my air hockey noises.)

With the third novel, I found myself looking at the prospect of writing what might be my final story in this world and my last ride with these characters. So. What would be most fun?

Dragons. Dragons are fun. So Dragon Coast has a huge Pacific firedrake wreaking destruction across California.

Heists are fun. So someone steals the dragon and Daniel has to masquerade as the brother he killed and steal a powerful bone in front of the assembled aristocracy of Northern California, including the most powerful osteomancer in the world.

Shipping is fun, or so many readers have told me, so Max and Gabriel (Maxriel) are back.

For me, though, the most fun thing of all, the reason I wanted to write this book and the place I inevitably arrived at, was discovering who my characters are now, having spent two books fighting and adventuring and bantering and hating and loving and snacking. After hundreds of pages, how have their scars changed their bodies and brains and hearts? Who are they to each other, to their enemies, to themselves?

In Dragon Coast, Daniel’s pretending to be the brother he killed in the last book. That’s going to leave a mark. Gabriel Argent, the chief hydromancer who’s always been nervous about wielding power, has to decide if he wants control of a weapon of mass destruction. And his ever-loyal assistant, Max, has to decide if he’ll let him. Cassandra Morales has to decide if she’s willing to do unthinkable things and alienate her friends forever in order to save their lives. Someone has to pilot an out-of-control dragon from the inside and face an evil at the very nucleus of his being. And poor Moth has to learn how to make jewelry.

In short, the dragons and the heists are the conspicuous fun, but pushing the characters toward their ultimate ends was the most important fun. And with Dragon Coast, that was my big idea: Have the most fun ever. Kish-kosh-kish.

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Dragon Coast: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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