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.

—-

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.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas

Happily Ever After… but why? And to ultimately what end? Author Sarah Prineas considers this in Ash & Bramble, and she’s not the only one who asks.

SARAH PRINEAS:

The story of Ash & Bramble, which is more an exploded fairytale than a retelling, arose out of two Big Idea questions.

The first question came out of this experience I had back in grad school when I was reading a lot of Marxist theory and joined a student group that staged a sit-in to protest that the university basically relied on sweatshop labor to produce school-mascot t-shirts and hats and backpacks. What I learned was that our stuff comes from somewhere.  We don’t have fairy godmothers who wave their wands and new t-shirts appear, wallah!—even though shopping online can be like that. But no, an underpaid, overworked laborer somewhere far away from where you live probably made the clothes you are wearing right now. She made the clothes I am wearing right now, too (pajamas from Target).

That led me to wonder: there’s all this stuff in fairytales: a dancing slipper made of glass.  A poisoned apple. A sharpened spindle. A glass coffin. And of course, the gorgeous, glittering ball gowns.

So where do all of those story elements come from? Who makes it? I mean, there’s no amazon.com in Fairytalandia, and the stuff has to come from somewhere, right?

The logical conclusion is that the Godmother has a kind of fairytale version of a sweatshop, full of shoemakers, bakers-of-gingerbread, lace-makers, Jacks-of-all-trades, seamstresses…

My stitches march on, inevitable, a straggling, wandering line of foot soldiers, with here and there a casualty where I accidentally prick my finger on the needle and the tiny bead of blood is blotted by the cloth. My fingertips ache; my hands grow stiff. 

The seamstress of Ash & Bramble is the one person who dares look up from her work and ask, “what is all this stuff for?”

The answer is, it’s for Story. And this Story gains power every time it gets another Happily-Ever-After.  It’s the Godmother’s job to set stories up, to get the wheel turning by forcing people to play their designated roles, to provide the spindles, the glass slippers, the etcetera.

And our seamstress—her name is Pin, as far as she knows—to stop her from asking dangerous questions, the Godmother decides to put her into one of Story’s most powerful stories, Cinderella. According to Story, Pin is supposed to want the gorgeous gown, the prince, the insta-love, the marriage. Except for Pin, the glass slipper doesn’t quite fit, and she refuses to settle for one of Story’s pernicious happily-ever-afters.

She asks the second big question:

What if the Stories tell us?

And if they do, how can we escape?

—-

Ash & Bramble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Signed copies from Prairie Lights

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

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

There’s a new publisher called Serial Box, which has this wacky idea that maybe, just maybe, you’ll enjoy fiction in serialized form — stories with new, regular installments that keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happens next. It’s an idea that goes back to the times of Dickens and Dostoevsky, and seems ripe for a digital renaissance. In today’s Big Idea, Max Gladstone, one of the writers of Serial Box’s first series Bookburners, talks a bit about the series and why this story works well in this particular format.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Bookburners makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Consider: our world’s a small island in a sea of weirder stuff.  Sometimes monsters crawl up the beach from the water.  Sometimes springs and fountains of weirdness erupt from the sand.  People drown.  People get eaten.  People turn strange.  Of course there would be groups dedicated to managing the weirdness.  Not destroying it—how bloodthirsty can you get?  No, just—taking strange things and putting them in a box for a while.  Studying them.  Deploying top men.

All of which seems reasonable enough on the surface.  But, peer deeper.  Once weirdness is contained, studying it safely requires immense resources—and after containment, said weirdness isn’t, by definition, an urgent problem.  Your archive of the weird develops piles of barely catalogued cruft.  “Man-eating quarto, c. 1730, France.  Title unknown.”  You’re protecting people on the day to day—but you sit on top of vast resources that could transform the world.  If you just picked them up.  Used them.  Listened to them.

The archives whisper to you at night.

Bookburners is a supernatural procedural about agents working for the Vatican running around the world trying to save people from being murdered, possessed, transformed, and otherwise messed with by magic—if you like Warehouse 13, Shadow Unit, the X-Files, the Men in Black movies, odds are you’re ready to pick up what we’re putting down, dig what we’re shoveling, etc.  But the notion of “defending the earth from the scum of the multiverse” has always sat oddly with me.  Why hide the cool stuff?  Why not let things get crazy?

A few possible answers: “It’s for the public good.”  To which: I mean, possibly.  But our species doesn’t have a great history with people in power deciding what’s for the public good.  “People aren’t ready for this knowledge.”  Which seems a bit… disrespectful, to be honest, though, given human history of dealing with outsiders, it might be accurate.  “The cool stuff kills people.”  Hard to argue there—though humans do a fine job of killing themselves without magic.  That said I’m willing to allow there’s a difference between killing ourselves and being turned inside out by monsters.  “We’ve always done it that way.”

Fair enough.

Charles Stross has observed that organizations which outlive their founders tend to do so because their focus shifts from their original mission, to self-preservation.  The Men in Black, as an institution, care primarily about the upkeep of the Men in Black.  Which is not to say that individual Men in individual Black don’t care about protecting the earth from the scum of etc.  Or even about reforming the system of which they’re a part!  But systems are big, and change slowly.

We bear histories on our backs.  As we go to school, as we enter the world and make friends and vote and serve, we’re beneficiaries and victims both of an awful lot of choices, some of which—many of which—we’d have made differently.  Checking out is an option.  Pretending we can ignore history is another.  But history has a nasty tendency to hunt us down wherever we run, and rise from whatever grave in which we try to bury it.

Our main characters in Bookburners got into the fight for personal reasons—they’ve been hurt by magic; they’ve lost friends and family; they want to help people.  Some of them are more convinced the right approach to magic is locking it away; some aren’t.  They’re working within an organization that’s made a lot of decisions about how to manage magic in the world, some of which are more defensible, some less.  How can they deal with that?  Reform?  Revolution?  Doing the best they can from the inside?

The more I thought about this idea, the more I realized that what made Bookburners uncomfortable for me also made it valuable.  Sal and Grace and Liam and Menchú and Asanti are all making the same choices we all make, moment to moment—how to do things we care about in a complicated, and probably compromised, system.

This angle also makes Bookburners an ideal serial story, since serials support more expansive storytelling.  An episode can focus on one side of Our Heroes’ mission, pose one sort of moral question, while the next episode takes an entirely different tactic.  Having a room full of writers—Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Slatterly, and myself—contributing episodes also helps, since everyone has their own perspective on the characters and their compromises.  We talk these issues out among ourselves, and then, since we’re all storytellers, we rework those conversations on the page.

In Bookburners, we’re monster-punching our way to organizational change.

Join us for the ride.

—-

Bookburners: SerialBox.com|iTunes|Amazon|Kobo|Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the Serial Box site. Follow Max Gladstone on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Updraft is a world of cloud and bone, songs and silence, where danger hides on the wind and secrets bind a city. Author Fran Wilde is here to talk about the book, and about finding her voice in a wind tunnel.

FRAN WILDE:

Voice.

At its heart, Updraft is about speaking, about being heard, and — in turn — about hearing others; it is about challenging, vocally, secrets, assumptions, and established beliefs. It is about singing and memory; about argument and politics.

(Updraft is also about monsters, in case you’re worried that it’s all talk. Invisible monsters that you don’t see until their mouths open right in front of you in the sky. And it’s about gravity and wind. Two more kinds of monsters. But the big idea is voice.)

When I began to write Updraft, it was as a short story called “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” where two people battled for the right to speak.

… While flying.

… In a wind tunnel.

The short story was all action and eye-candy. Not just the human kind of action – I like building worlds, and “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” featured an entire world pre-crammed into five thousand words. I do that a lot. Gets crowded in there.

This story also had a number of questions left unanswered: what kind of society would set its citizens against each other like this? What are the real stakes, beyond this current challenge? Who the heck are these people, and where did that wind tunnel come from?

Answering those questions gave me Kirit Densira, a young woman still living with her birth family, and happy there. Kirit’s aspires to become a renowned trader — an important job in a city of towers of living bone that rise far above the clouds. But before she can do so, Kirit breaks a law, and must pay the consequences… even though she does everything in her power to get past them.

Answering the questions raised by the short story also gave me a city that utters discord in its own way, and a citizenry desperate to appease it.

There are many voices in Updraft, and I realized early on that there were many stories I could tell, from many different perspectives.

There’s the voice of the city. The voice of Laws and tradition. The voices of those the community has set aside. The voices of the dead.

I chose among characters one whose voice resonated — roughly — and who sometimes spoke out of turn; who learning the ins-and-outs of negotiation as we all have to, learning and re-learning.

For Updraft, I didn’t want an expert. I didn’t seek someone who knew their voice and could use it perfectly. I wanted rough-edged and reaching. Someone who thought they were prepared, that they knew all the right words, but who didn’t, not yet.

For that character to find strength in their voice, to learn to control that strength, to learn when to shout, and when to stay silent: That’s the Big Idea.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Stephanie Diaz

Next time you can, go look at the moon. Pretty innocuous, right? Not for Stephanie Diaz and her Extraction series of books, of which Evolution is the latest installment.

STEPHANIE DIAZ:

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having adventures in outer space. In fact, the first original words I remember writing were the lyrics of a short song: “Stephanie goes to outer space and all the way! Stephanie goes to outer space at dinner time.” I was six years old at the time, and I already knew I wanted to be an author. (Or an astronaut. But math proved to be too annoying of a subject for me.)

Now I’m twenty-two, and I still dream of someday boarding a space ship and traversing the outermost reaches of the galaxy. Yet in my first eighteen years of scribbling stories in notebooks and on school papers, it never occurred to me to try writing a science fiction story. I think I sort of figured I didn’t know enough science, or maybe I simply didn’t have an intriguing enough plot for a story set in space. Until the idea for the Extraction series (which ends with the upcoming Evolution) fell into my head.

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a dystopian novel. I’ve always loved exploring the dark side of humanity, the situations that lead individuals to make impossible choices of death and destruction. But with the market so flooded with dystopian works, I knew I needed something to help my story stand out from the rest. The Star Wars/Firefly geek inside me tugged me in the direction of space and galactic wars.

But it really all started with a moon.

Earth’s moon is pretty cool. It looks super lovely and it works with the sun to create ocean tides, which is great. But one day I started wondering how the world would be different if the moon had a bigger effect on our day-to-day lives—and not just any effect, but a deadly one.

What if the moon were poisonous?

And so Kiel was born, a planet somewhere out in the far-off reaches of the universe. A planet orbited by a giant moon with acid leaking off its surface and swirling down into the atmosphere of Kiel, threatening the lives of the planet’s citizens. Those citizens with more wealth and privilege were able to live in societies underground, while the unprivileged working class lived in concentration camps closer to the Surface, and fought to prove they deserved an escape. I dropped a spunky sixteen-year-old girl on the most dangerous part of the planet and wove the story around her, following her from her escape of one of the concentration camps to her realization that everything she thought she knew about her home world was wrong—including the dangers of the moon.

When I started writing Extraction, I honestly didn’t know where the story was going. But about halfway through I realized there was a twist in store that opened up the possibilities for sequels. See, I’d read other science fiction stories about planets where humans suffered from trauma due to the sun’s radiation, or where supernova exploded and led to an end of a civilization, but they were all a result of natural phenomena. I decided it would be most interesting if the poisonous moon in my story weren’t something natural at all, but a weapon of war. And hardly anyone on Kiel knows it.

The first and second books of the series, Extraction and Rebellion, explore the massive cover up in play on the planet Kiel, and follow Clementine’s attempts with a rebel group to sabotage the leader at the head of the cover up. In Evolution, the warriors behind the moon’s weaponization appear on the stage and the final showdown begins, complete with space ships and aliens and a galactic war on the scale I always wanted.

Extraction started with a poisonous moon. How the story ends…well, you’ll have to read Evolution to find out.

As for me, I’ll probably never get to board a space ship and have adventures on a planet far, far away, but the Extraction series let me have adventures through Clementine and the rest of her rebel crew. And that’s pretty shiny.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Zen Cho

Sugar for your tea? While you have both, Zen Cho is here to explain a little about their physical origins, and why they matter for her novel, Sorcerer to the Crown.

ZEN CHO:

When I started writing what was to become my first published novel, I’d already written two novels. I had to throw them away because they did not work. I was tired of launching upon a new project buoyed by optimism – this will be the one! – only to come crashing down when it turned out to suck.

So I decided to write a book that would definitely not work. At least I’d be prepared for the inevitable tragic end. I would take the Regency romance – a genre I love, exemplified by Georgette Heyer’s spectacularly entertaining novels – and use it to tell a story about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain. Also there would be magic. And dragons. And vampiresses who weren’t really vampiresses …

What do I mean about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain? When you read a Jane Austen novel (which you can’t really describe as a Regency romance, but is sort of a deity of the genre, influencing it but residing in a firmament above), or a true Regency romance like one of the classic Heyers, you enter what seems to be a hermetically sealed world. This is a world where the riots of poor men and agitations of politics are never mentioned save in passing; where the wars with France appear to impinge only slightly on the lives of the protagonists; and where the colonies might as well not exist, save insofar as they send back wealthy men to marry the heroines.

It is a world of balls, decorous visits, country pursuits, London intrigues, gossip, and a total absorption in the niceties of polite society. It is a partial view of the world as it was. It has influenced fantasy authors from Susanna Clarke to Kari Sperring, because, seen through modern eyes, it is as much a nice self-contained fantasy world as Middle-earth or Narnia.

But that self-contained quality is deceptive. The tea Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet drinks would have come from China via India. The sugar she puts in it would have been from plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Kashmiri shawls were a popular status item: Lizzy Bennet might not have been able to afford a dress made from them, which wealthier women wore, but she might have had a European-made replica.

I’ve obviously never been a slave or grown tea or woven a paisley shawl, but still, to someone from a former colony who grew up reading the books of authors like Austen and Heyer, these are interesting scraps of history to learn. I have always felt, with these books I love, like a ghost hanging around at the back of the room, peering interestedly at scenes, but conscious that I am out of place. To understand this history is to know that I always belonged in those books. I was a central part of the proceedings all along – whether that was a good thing or not.

Sorcerer to the Crown is about the sort of people whose labour and territory were exploited so that Lizzy Bennet could have her tea with sugar. Only it’s about those people benefiting from the resources of Empire – the wealth, the balls, the magic, the superiority complex, the self-serving imperial guilt. Protagonist Zacharias Wythe is Britain’s first black Sorcerer Royal and he is an emancipated slave. His counterpart, female magical prodigy Prunella Gentleman, is mixed race – one of her parents was Indian. They have their problems, but they both have OK lives, on the whole. It’s fantasy in more than one sense.

So that’s the big idea of the book: making visible what was invisible to a young me, reading Austen and Heyer in an ex-colony. But it’s also about balls, visits, intrigues, gossip, hijinks, and playing with the niceties of polite society. Plus dragons. (I haven’t explained why I included dragons, since the world is made up of people who need no explanation for dragons, and people who will never understand the need for dragons whether you explain it to them or not.)

And it is the book that worked, against all expectations. That is, it worked well enough to get me an agent and eventually a book deal. But whether it actually works is, of course, down to readers to decide.

—-

Sorcerer to the Crown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Cindy Pon

When Cindy Pon turned in her Big Idea for her novel Serpentine, she had titled it “A Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy,” with the notation “Maybe the titles of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.” Why would she think that? Read on for the explanation.

CINDY PON:

When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching, Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.

My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching, Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.

I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading–and reading a lot–it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!

I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.

It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.

Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.

When I began writing Serpentine, which will be published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.

I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.

  1. “Too many Asians”

My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.

  1. “Always the handmaid, never the princess”

I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.

  1. “Sisters before misters”

I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.

  1. “Different but not that different”

I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers  found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.

As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.

So I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to talk about Serpentine. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.

—-

Serpentine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|iTunes

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

The Big Idea: David Walton

And now, for your Labor Day delight, here’s David Walton and his book Supersymmetry, explaining how what appears like a detail in one book can become a big idea in the sequel.

DAVID WALTON:

It’s time to tie your mind in knots a second time . . .

Only five months ago, John was kind enough to let me chat here about the Big Idea for Superposition, my quantum physics murder mystery that came out in April.  I compared its mind-twisting layers to the film Inception, and described the real-life jury trial I was on (faked death! Russian mobsters!) that prompted the idea in the first place.  I told you about a technology based on the crazy properties of quantum physics that allowed objects to jump through walls, bullets to diffract, and people to exist in more than one place at a time.

But Superposition was a complete story, a stand-alone novel.  That Big Idea has already been told.  So why am I here, only five months later, telling you about a sequel?

Easy.  At the very end of Superposition, in the very last scene, I left behind an Idea.  The Idea was so fascinating to me, I couldn’t just leave it alone.  One of the characters—a teenage girl named Alessandra—ended the book split in two, with two alternate versions of herself alive at the same time.  It wasn’t a loose end, exactly.  It gave her a twin, a friend who could really understand her, something she had always wanted.  The story was complete.  I hadn’t intended to write a second book.  But I couldn’t let that idea go.

It’s something we can all relate to, at some level.  We wonder what would have happened to if we’d chosen a different school, a different job, a different spouse.  How would our lives be changed?  Would we even be the same person?

I wondered: What would it be like to grow up with a sister who was you, but not you?  A twin, of sorts, but one who, until the age of fourteen, had been the same person?  I imagined both Alessandras looking across the breakfast table every day and seeing the girl each would have been if her life had gone differently at just one point.  How would that affect how they viewed themselves?  Would they get along?  Memories are notoriously malleable . . . what if they started remembering things differently?  What kinds of different choices might they make?

And of course, the biggest question of all… what would happen if the probability wave resolved and they became one person again?

Supersymmetry begins fifteen years after the end of Superposition, when the girls—Alex and Sandra—are twenty-nine, leading two separate lives and following different careers.  Each of them secretly fears that the other is the “real” Alessandra, and that the wave collapse would mean her own annihilation.  Enter Ryan Oronzi, neurotic physicist, with a quantum technology that could make American soldiers invincible in the field.  Before long, the Secretary of Defense is assassinated, it’s Alex who’s holding the gun . . . and her sister is the only person in the world who might believe her.

The story stands alone, so even if you haven’t read Superposition, I hope you’ll give Supersymmetry a try!

—-

Supersymmetry – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powells | iTunes

Supersymmetry – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

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

The Big Idea: Bradley Beaulieu

If there’s a way to encapsulate the thoughts of Bradley Beaulieu with regard to his new novel Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, they might be: “Dying is easy. Tragedy is hard.” Learn what this means below.

BRADLEY BEAULIEU:
Years ago, like any new writer, I was working through ways I might portray tragedy and loss in my stories. Strengthening new muscles, as it were. To the young writer it may seem as though death itself is the ultimate tragedy, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the actual death isn’t what matters most. It’s the grief left behind, the feelings of loss and impotence and anger. What death leaves in its wake matters so much more than the death itself.

Like a prick from a dirty needle, tragedy can infect the tissue surrounding it, and this got me to thinking. What other types of loss might have the most impact on a reader? Like ticking off topics on a list, my mind worked through the most obvious. Betrayal. Personal failure. Drifting slowly but surely apart from someone you love. Robbing a child of the potential to be great.

Like so many, I’ve been affected by the events of 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, Arab Spring, the civil uprisings in Syria, and on and on. Society marches forward or backward on those events. They are the hinges of our history. But I cannot think of those larger events without also thinking of the terrible human loss wrapped inside them. I’m fully aware that I’ve grown up in a place where my way of life is protected. I can only wonder what it would be like to live in a place where so much that I take for granted is threatened.

That, in a nutshell, is what I wanted to explore in Twelve Kings, not merely individual or personal loss, but familial loss, societal loss, cultural loss. What grows in soil sown with so much grief? What pain might that new growth lead to? Are there things that might be saved even in terrible tragedy? Things that might be reborn? Is there joy to be found?

When I was first embarking on Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I had already decided it would be set in a vast desert, that there would be wandering tribes who sail every corner of the desert on sandships, that there would be a melting-pot metropolis ruled by twelve cruel kings. I also knew it was going to be a series, and I wanted a through-line to help guide me toward the end of the first book and beyond. I didn’t want it to be about only big canvas stuff, though. I wanted the larger events to be felt in a such a way that it speaks to the things we all share. Something recognizably human. I wanted, in other words, to marry the the broader, earth-shaking events with deeply personal ones.

The main character in Twelve Kings is a woman named Çeda. She loses her mother at a young age when she’s killed in vicious fashion by the twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai. Çeda vows revenge, but revenge is a short-lived thing if not fueled. Years later, now a pit fighter in Sharakhai’s seedy west end, Çeda finds that fuel in the form of riddles hidden in the book of poems her mother left her. They open the door to much larger secrets, secrets the kings tried to bury on the fateful night long ago when they made a dark bargain with the gods of the desert to secure their power. Their desperation to keep those secrets hidden gives hint to just how terrible that bargain was. And yet the kings have had centuries in which to alter history. It won’t be easy for Çeda to uncover the truth.

As the story moves on, Çeda’s initial thirst for revenge is replaced by a desire to uncover what was lost, and in this I finally felt like I’d found what I was looking for. Çeda’s hopes and fears became very personal for me in the writing of this tale, but I also broadened the lens to give some sense of scope to the things she’s playing with. It made the story so much brighter for me, and I hope it does for you too.

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Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rebecca Alexander

Writing can be an adventure or an escape, and it can also be a way of dealing with events around you, and to explore what they mean and do. Ask author Rebecca Alexander, author of The Secrets of Blood and Bone. She’ll tell you. And does, just below.

REBECCA ALEXANDER:

Ten years before I began working on the Secrets trilogy, I dealt with a number of personal losses, and death was a force of nature that I couldn’t understand.  I decided to explore the “big idea” of death through my writing. As a result, most of my main characters are poised on the edge of death, like people often are after desperate illness or trauma. Only in my books, that precarious state is actually connected to the magic of 16th century sorcerers like John Dee, Elizabeth Báthory and Edward Kelley, which modern day practitioners use to artificially extend their lives on “borrowed time.”

I started The Secrets of Life and Death (the first book in the trilogy) a dozen times, trying to find my central protagonist Jackdaw’s character. Jackdaw was balanced on that edge between death and the magic that keeps her alive, sustained by an ancient, bloody ritual but unable to truly live. She stayed in the shadows, afraid to get too close to anyone (besides her trusty wolf-dog) in case they found out about her past, and so in some ways it was as though she was already dead. Now, in The Secrets of Blood and Bone, she has decided to really live. She’s looking after Sadie, a feisty teenager, and she’s begun to fall in love with her scholarly friend Felix. In living a fuller life, her personality emerges to a much stronger degree than ever before.  I found I loved her loyalty and compassion, her warrior instinct. Felix is the brains of the group but Jackdaw’s the hero.

My ideas for the life-extending magic that Jackdaw and other’s use first sprung from my research into the Elizabethan alchemist Dr. John Dee. Dee was a remarkable intellectual, widely published in mathematics, astrology—and the ‘science’ of magic. As faith in religion had waned, the earliest books of science included what we would now think of as magic—alchemy, reanimating corpses and creating life. According to John Dee, he had succeeded in raising the spirits of the dead to tell him about the nature of death. I found John Dee’s necromancy experiments in his books about magic, which ultimately led me to his contemporary Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noble who is reputed to have killed dozens if not hundreds of young girls—all in order to push back ageing and death.

When Dee’s trickster associate Edward Kelley proved more interesting than Dee himself, I started writing from Kelley’s point of view, explaining the magical systems revealed from their channeling angels, as well as consulting many of the other sorcerers and alchemists in Europe.  They travelled through Poland and into Transylvania. Here the landscape was influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of my favorite books. In Eastern Europe at the time, death was difficult to define precisely—you were only completely dead when your corpse had a stake through its heart and your head was cut off.

The magic that evolved from Dee’s and others’ writings used sigils and signs, and mathematical equations that they believed evoked aspects of angels. They sought to save people who were dying, and if their magic worked I think people would still try to find that knowledge. In fact, wouldn’t pharmaceutical companies be interested (including the one run by a centuries-old Elizabeth Báthory)? By the time I wrote The Secrets of Blood and Bone I knew Jack, Sadie, and Felix well enough to test their relationships with each other and with the magic they’ve used, and to bring Edward Kelley face to face with the consequences of his actions in the first book. Re-animating the dead has consequences, for the revenant and those around them.

With The Secrets of Life and Death I played with the idea of being dead/undead at the same time, and in The Secrets of Blood and Bone I explore the idea that people could access a more savage, primal version of themselves as a way to fight against this binary and try to stay alive. Years ago, when my two surviving children and I fled to an island after a family disaster, the only house I could afford had a garden that was growing into the walls itself. That green, brooding inspection through every window of the house left a mark, and I re-invented the garden as a character.

When I wrote the trilogy, we were living in a house high up a hillside, surrounded by a couple of acres of wilderness filled with foxes, deer and badgers. Brambles grew under the back door and trees leaned in to the bedroom windows to tap leaves on the panes. The constant cawing of rooks, jackdaws and crows all made it into the book. They became the soundtrack to the story, very alive yet so associated with death.

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The Secrets of Blood and Bone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt.

The Big Idea: Adam Rakunas

Pineapple juice in paradise inspires science fiction! That’s the first thing you need to know about Windswept and its author Adam Rakunas. But if you would like to know more — and you do! — Rakunas goes into further detail below.

ADAM RAKUNAS:

It started with a bar.

I was in Hawaii to officiate a wedding, and I had arrived two hours before the rehearsal dinner was supposed to start. We were meeting in a hotel restaurant in Waikiki, and the open-roof bar had a marvelous view of the Pacific Ocean. It was also crammed to the gills with tourists, just like me. Well, not just like me, because I was wearing a suit. Everyone else wore shorts and sunburns, including the cover band and the bartenders.

I looked around, drinking my pineapple juice and wondering: where did everyone come from? Not just the tourists, but the people who worked at this hotel bar. What brought them here? What made them stay? What did they do to make ends meet?

That idea bumped into a story from Carrie Sundra, a college friend who grew up in the US Virgin Islands. When Carrie she was a kid, some tech company tried to set up shop in the VI. I can see the pitch meeting now: “The Islands are beautiful! Our workers will be so happy and productive, and we’ll be a roaring success!”

It was a not a success, roaring or otherwise. The workers were on Island Time, which meant they would get around to stuff when they got around to it. They weren’t lazy. They were just relaxed. The tech company was not relaxed, because it relied on things like schedules and deadlines and people getting to work when they were supposed to. After a year, they had to admit defeat and move to some place where they had a little more control over their employees. The people on the island shrugged and went back to their lives.

I kept rolling those thoughts together as the band murdered “Hotel California” and the bartender brought me more pineapple juice. If you lived in an amazing place, would you get anything done? What would motivate you beyond your basic needs? What would you do all day?

The answer hit me: you’d hustle until you didn’t have to.

And I don’t mean “hustle” as in “running scams” (even though some people would certainly find their calling in the time-honored tradition of ripping off suckers). I mean you would work like mad for a short period of time until you had earned enough to cover your nut. Then you’d travel or write a book or spend your days contemplating your navel, secure in the knowledge that you wouldn’t have to go back to work until you had to. If you were frugal, you could go months, maybe years, without having to seek gainful employment.

But you’d still like to have things like fresh food and clean water and the occasional untainted antibiotic. People need food and medicines, and those come from long supply chains that rely on a whole lot of people and expertise. Even if someone invents replicators and Med-O-Tron 3000s, those machines will need people to fix them. At least, until someone invents AIs to do all our work, though those AIs will probably also need someone to keep them in tune. Our level of civilization requires work, and someone’s got to do it. And that someone would probably want to spend as much free time as possible in a bar as nice as the one I was in, albeit one with much lower prices.

I pulled my phone and my battered Bluetooth keyboard out of my jacket and started writing about a woman who had left her rat race job to come to paradise, even though she still had to work. Everyone still had to work, because this was the broken-down future. The only way to get by was hustling. What was her hustle? What did she want? Who was she? What would she drink? I sipped more pineapple juice, and, by the time the dinner party arrived, I had met the character who would become Padma Mehta. Now it’s your turn.

—-

Windswept: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble|Mysterious Galaxy|Powell’s Books|Kobo|IndieBound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit the website of Padma Mehta’s former employer.

The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

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

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Joe Beernink

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

JOE BEERNINK:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere Wild – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

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

The Big Idea: Felicia Day

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

FELICIA DAY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Aliette De Bodard

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

ALIETTE DE BODARD:

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

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

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

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

Yup, that sounded about right.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Charlie Fletcher

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

CHARLIE FLETCHER:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think you get resistance…

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

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

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Linda Nagata

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

LINDA NAGATA:

Stories can be dangerous, demanding things.

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

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

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

Yeah…what does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Stephen Moore

 

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

STEPHEN MOORE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVID NABHAN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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