The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

Is being the chosen one all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and in this Big Idea for Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, author Jake Kerr has choice thoughts on being “chosen” and the choices the chosen ones (and their authors) might have.

JAKE KERR:

When you are writing a four book series, there is a lot of room to pursue ideas, both big and small, and in my Tommy Black series I’m taking full advantage of that. There are subtle things like all of the accurate historical elements I weave into the background, the fact that there is really no real bad guy in book one, and the morally complex role of magic. However, my biggest idea has to be that I’m doing my best to destroy the traditional “chosen one” coming-of-age genre trope. The consequences of that lead to a lot of interesting and fun things.

We’re all familiar with the chosen one—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and a wide range of heroes going back to the roots of the genre—the young boy who is given a special power or responsibility, and it his his destiny to use it for good. At the beginning of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, that’s exactly what happens—Tommy is given his grandfather’s magical staff, told that it is his family’s legacy and that he must somehow learn its power to follow in his famous grandfather’s footsteps.

In the process of going down that path, however, Tommy is confronted with several aspects of his legacy that he finds wrong and unacceptable. He decides to re-define it into him working against much of what his family had done in the past. He still has powerful magic, and he is still the chosen one. He has just decided to abandon the legacy part.

That’s all well and good and not entirely groundbreaking, but the events in book two, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, lead Tommy down a challenging new path—his power starts to become unstable with the unearthing of other magical artifacts and other “chosen ones” wielding them. The result is that his role as hero changes, as do the roles of his friends.

This was actually quite challenging to write. We want our heroes to be heroes, and when they are confronted with challenges, it is disappointing to have someone else save them. Creating a narrative where Tommy fails and yet isn’t a failure made me reconsider how I approach conflict within a novel. For example: Could I take away Tommy’s powers and still give him a chance to shine? How would I do that?

One strategy for dealing with that is to have another character that everyone is rooting for. Luckily for me, I have Naomi. She is Tommy Black’s best friend, and, like Hermione Granger, she is a hard-working and astonishingly skilled magician. Unlike Hermione, however, Naomi is all forward momentum, and as Tommy struggles with the unreliability of his powers, Naomi jumps in and saves the day on a number of occasions.

Cover artist M.S. Corley handled this dynamic perfectly. We have ominous Nazi magicians arrayed against Tommy and Naomi, but the one in front is Naomi. (Corley’s a master, by the way. I highly recommend you check out his work here.)

One of the recurring comments I’ve heard from young readers of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light has been, “I want to see more of Naomi” or “Please have Naomi do more with her magic.” It was as if there was this untapped desire by readers to give the sidekick or the young girl a turn in the spotlight. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

In my case, it is by design, and Naomi is the perfect character to fill that role. She loves magic so much and works so hard at it that she trusts it implicitly. As a result, she barrels ahead with utter faith in her abilities, overwhelming warships at sea, German army units with guns and mortars, and an elite squad of Nazi magicians. Of course that confidence is also a flaw, and that’s part of the fun—watching how the changing power dynamic between Tommy and Naomi is grounded in a foundation of mutual support and friendship. They help each other with their weaknesses.

As the series progresses, that’s really the big idea I am excited about pursuing—Tommy the Chosen One struggling with the knowledge that his true path may be to go back to being the normal boy he was when he started, and the girl whose life he saved growing into the role she has built for herself: a young woman with great power taking over as the true savior of the world. In fact, the fourth book of the Tommy Black series won’t have his name on the cover. It will have Naomi’s.

By the way, “big idea” sounds kind of deep and philosophical. That’s not bad, of course, but don’t forget that this is a fantasy action/adventure series set during World War 2. I have Nazi magicians for goodness’ sake. I want the Tommy Black books to be just as fun as the Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien books I read when I was twelve. If readers don’t walk away with a smile on their face, I’ve failed.

With that in mind, here is an excerpt from chapter twelve, where we see the above big idea happening, while the scene itself is exciting and fun.

In the end, I want Tommy to be a hero that readers cheer and root for, but not because he was chosen or because he received some magical legacy. I want him to be a hero because he’s a good person. And I want Naomi to be cheered as a hero, too, because she works harder than everyone else, and it has made her truly amazing.

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Tommy Black and the Staff of Light/Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo|Google|Apple|

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Eric James Stone

Welcome to the first Big Idea of 2016! And while the title of Eric James Stone’s novel promises that it will be Unforgettable, Stone asks an opposing question: If you wanted to make a character who was destined to be forgotten, how would you do it, science fictionally speaking?

ERIC JAMES STONE:

When I came up with the idea of a hero who couldn’t be remembered after he was gone, I needed an explanation for what caused that effect.

I’ve had several stories published in Analog Science Fiction & Fact, a market that offers mainly hard science fiction, so I can come up with scientifically rigorous explanations for various story elements. But Unforgettable was not intended to be hard science fiction — it was really more of a superhero novel, albeit with a rather weird superpower.

I toyed with a biological explanation involving pheromones, but eventually decided to use quantum physics.  I’ve always been fascinated by some of the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics, like superposition and wave function collapse. My wife is a high school physics teacher. Before we met for our first date, I told her she would recognize me because I would be wearing a tee-shirt with a physics joke on it. She said, “OK, but if it isn’t funny, I’m leaving.” The tee-shirt showed a wanted poster with a picture of a cat, and it read “Wanted: Dead & Alive — Schrödinger’s Cat.” (Fortunately, she found that funny enough that she didn’t leave.)

I figure most readers of this blog are familiar with the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment (or are capable of looking it up on Wikipedia), so I won’t detail it here. Suffice to say that before the experimenter opens the box, the cat exists in a superposition of aliveness and deadness. After the experimenter opens the box, the probability wave function collapses, and the experimenter sees either a dead cat or a live (and probably very annoyed) cat.

However — and this is where we go beyond the original thought experiment — outside the lab is the experimenter’s colleague. From the colleague’s point of view, the cat’s aliveness is still in superposition, but the experimenter’s mind could also be said to exist in a superposition of two possibilities: having seen a dead cat and having seen a live cat.

All of that is still within the realm of current theoretical physics. But to provide a theoretical basis for my hero’s superpower, I needed to take it one step further. I wondered, what if there were some sort of glitch, and the wave function for the experimenter’s mind collapsed to the version where the cat is dead, while the wave function for the cat itself collapsed to the version where the cat is alive?

Nat Morgan, the hero of my novel Unforgettable, is the personification of such a glitch: he exists in a superposition of being there and not being there, and once he’s gone the wave functions of the minds of everyone he’s met always collapse to the version in which he wasn’t there.

Once I had my theoretical explanation in place, I proceeded to work out the implications of Nat’s superpower. Figuring out the rules for what happened when he interacted with people helped me to develop scenes that showcased the rules, so the reader would come to understand them.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Erin M. Evans

The last Big Idea of the year! And a very interesting one too, as Erin M. Evans goes deep about what it takes to write in already-existing worlds, as she is doing with her novel Ashes of the Tyrant. Think it’s easy to write a tie-in novel? Think again.

ERIN M. EVANS:

I.

“If I had your job,” a writer friend of mine once declared, “I would lose my fucking mind.”

I had just finished describing a city I’d be using in my next book, Djerad Thymar, a hollow pyramid taller than Khufu’s, big enough to house 30,000+ people, and the only city described for a race in Dungeons & Dragons called the dragonborn. Given a series of new constraints, I needed a way for it to have been built in less than eighty years by people who only just got access to magic.  “A wizard did it” wouldn’t fly. “They worked real hard” wouldn’t either.

To some people, like my friend, that’s an intrusion, an impediment to their storytelling. To me, it’s a challenge I can’t help but accept.

Working with setting details you wouldn’t have chosen on your own is inevitability of tie-in fiction. Depending on what kind of media you’re tying in to the difference can be slight or stark. Role-playing games involve a lot of storytelling, a lot of backstory, so there’s often a lot to work with or around—but there are also a lot of cooks in this kitchen and they don’t always agree. Sometimes you get details that are there for the “cool visual” they provide. Sometimes you get hit with things there for mechanical reasons foremost—elves see secret doors because…someone should see secret doors! Sometimes there’s a hole where you’d expect to have answers and sometimes there are six books of background where you’d expect wiggle room.

Sometimes there’s this giant pyramid a bunch of dragon-people built because why not?

This works in a RPG game. It leaves room for the DM to shape the story they need to tell, for the players to find a niche for their characters. Here are the bones of a world. Build something around them.

You can’t always get by with just bones in a novel. It might be easier to lean on those sourcebooks, to only talk to the readers who play the game, but it’s not very satisfying. There’s such a lot of good story to be found between those immovable sourcebook details, and such a lot of inspiration in the contradictions that might otherwise make you lose your fucking mind.

And when it came to dragonborn, the shape around the bones was too wonderful to ignore.

II.

The first time I realized my degree was still good for something, I wrote a short treatise on orcish ritual scarification. I was editing a book for Wizards of the Coast called Sentinelspire by Mark Sehestedt. In it, Mark had created a tribe of orcs to live in the icy corner of the world he’d chosen, and given a half-orc character the ritual of cutting a mourning scar across his heart for his lost blood brother.

Except this is basically the Siberia of the world. Ritual scarification sends a message to the people we interact with: I have lost a comrade and a loved one.  Who’s he sending that message to if he’s bundled up against the cold all year long? (Mark moved the scar to his face and got a very poignant scene out of it).

Like most anthropology majors, I suspect, I thought for sure I was heading for academia. But an undiagnosed anxiety disorder pushed that dream out and out and out and by the time I had my brain back in relative order, I realized I didn’t want that life. But I still love it—and realizing all those books and studies and essays about ritual scarification and burial customs, proscriptions and purity and family structure, they’re all applicable to fantasy worlds. We’re social animals. We organize ourselves to perpetuate ourselves, and in those interactions lie so many of our truths and fears, our taboos and necessities, the pressures that quietly make each of us who we are.

Even if we’re elves. Or orcs. Or dragon-people.

Dragonborn are fairly new to the Forgotten Realms, mostly background players. So here was an excellent opportunity to flesh out those bones, which kicked the story into gear. For example, in the game, they were created by tyrannical dragons to be the perfect slaves, but they rose up and overthrew their far more powerful masters. Out of that, they were thrown into this new world by powerful magic and built a nation out of the rubble….and yet standard perception is they are friendly and curious and honor-bound to a fault.

Which makes sense, I figure, if non-dragonborn can’t read dragonborn facial expressions, if neither group understands the etiquette of the other, and if humans have no idea when a dragonborn is throwing shade, bless their hearts.

III.

From these two angles came the big idea of Ashes of the Tyrant, the fifth book of the Brimstone Angels saga.  In it, Farideh, my tiefling warlock, travels back to Djerad Thymar, the birthplace of her adopted father, Clanless Mehen. Mehen was exiled in his youth for reasons he doesn’t talk about, but now his father’s dead, the new matriarch of his clan wants him back. Mehen wants to be left alone, but at the same time he misses what he lost. For his daughters, Djerad Thymar is a puzzle—the place where all their family customs come from, but where they, as non-dragonborn, don’t belong.

This is a story about the past, about the way we mythologize the past, and what we can do to keep that from stymieing our future. A story about the roles our culture creates for us and how they harm or help, how we reshape ourselves or reshape our roles.  It’s a story about family—what we’re born with and what we build ourselves—and how these things ripple out into our communities.

Also it’s about a demon running around murdering people.

(Come on: it’s still a D&D novel. You build around the bones, after all.)

IV.

So how did the dragonborn build Djerad Thymar? Unfortunately, the answer spawned a major story point, so you’ll have to read Ashes of the Tyrant to find out.

—-

Ashes of the Tyrant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Lawrence M. Schoen

Here in the last week of December 2015 books are still coming out, and here’s a very interesting one indeed: Barsk, by Lawrence M. Schoen. For the Big Idea behind it, Schoen looks at memory, and what it has to do with you, me, and sentient elephant-like creatures on another planet.

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN:

I like to think there are lots of cool ideas in Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, from using prophecy to travel in time, to showcasing anguish via a character who cannot feel pain. It’s like I was saving up ideas to put them all in this book. But the biggest idea, the one that filters through all the others, is memory as a physical thing distinct from our bodies and yet bound by the laws of physics (even if I had to invent some of those laws myself).

I’ve been a cognitive psychologist for thirty years, complete with the terminal degree, a collection of peer-reviewed journal articles, and a towering stack of teaching evaluations to prove it. So bear with me a moment as I give you some background on a topic that fascinates me: memory.

Memory is more than just the place we put the stuff we later choose to call to mind. In part, because that stuff is actually a myriad kinds of things, that apparently get stored in different ways. Memory for faces is one type, and very different from memory for names. Ditto for the memory of how to do a thing (like riding a bicycle) and knowing what a thing is (ooh, look, that thing with handlebars and wheels, it’s a bicycle!). Memory for words obeys different rules than memory for sounds that are not words. I could go on and on like this for hours, but this isn’t my classroom and I don’t think John will let me give you all a test, so let’s move on.

My point is, psychologists have been carving up the memory pie since the late 19th century when Hermman Ebbinghaus kicked up a fuss looking at what affected his efforts to memorize nonsense syllables. For purposes of my Big Idea (and Barsk) though, I want to focus on two slices of that pie: what are typically called semantic memory and episodic memory.

Semantic memory is the stuff you know. It’s names and dates and facts that you can look up in an encyclopedia or google on your smartphone. It’s objective data. Whereas episodic memory is subjective; it’s your personal experience of something and includes not just the what of memory but also the who and the where and the how did you feel at the time. Knowing who John Scalzi is is semantic memory. Remembering the first time I met him at a Worldcon is episodic. The former type of memory is colorless, the latter is potentially filtered through all sorts of emotional and intellectual states-of-being present at the time the information was encoded, and prone to modification and embellishment each time it’s recalled. And because episodic memory is subjective, even if you were there, in the room at the same time, your memory of the event will be different from mine because we’re different people.

Consider for a moment that this kind of personal memory defines who we are as individuals; each of us is a unique organization of information, collections of experiences, that owe nothing to the basic physicality of our bodies or our longevity. To run with this idea, I only had to fudge a little bit and invent a new subatomic particle, which I named the nefshon, a “particle of personality.”

Imagine that every instant of your life you’re producing nefshons, representing every experience you have. Each particle is a cluster of information that tells your unique story at that moment in time. The people you shared that experience with also produced their own nefshons of the event. Now here’s the fun part: your memory of those people is made possible by sharing nefshons. You received some of theirs, and likewise parted with some of your own. Seen in this light, your identity is made up not just of your experiences but also contains pieces of everyone you’ve ever met.

That’s fine, but so what? Thanks for asking.

If who we are, if the essential thing that is you, is an elaborate and totally unique organization of information encoded on those subatomic particles — unreliant on your meat body —you transcend death. Breathing your last breath and joining the choir invisible does not mean the information that defined you is gone. Your nefshons don’t care about rigor mortis. At most, your being alive held them together in a common cluster, and your death just means they’ll disperse, much like other particles would. A handy analogy for this is starlight. The information contained in each of those points of lights has traveled vast spans of time and distance to reach you and be seen, even if the star they came from is long gone. Like those particles of light, each nefshon still possesses the information it did from its origin, unaffected by time or distance of the wetware from which it sprang.

In Barsk there is a drug that grants its users — let’s call them Speakers — the ability to perceive and manipulate nefshons, to reach out into the ether and summon the bits of information from a specific person. If a Speaker draws enough of your nefshons together, they combine to produce a simulacrum of the original you, one that has your knowledge and personality and in all respects is you, except for the minor fact that it lacks a physical body. My protagonist, Jorl, is one such individual, a historian who can actually conjure up figures out of history and speak to them, or more simply converse with his best friend whom he believes killed himself but won’t say why, and lo, we’re off and running with a major plot thread for the novel.

The Big Idea here is that we aren’t defined by our bodies but rather by our experiences, that each of us is a unique organization of information that transcends mere physicality. Considered in this way, death is not the end of us because it doesn’t unmake that organization. Moreover, like light from a distant star, the information of who we are still exists, just waiting for someone with the means of perceiving us as we spread out through the universe, each of us immortal, waiting to tell our story.

So, forget about aliens learning about us because they’ve watched our television transmissions; if they’ve worked out the technology they’re going to pass on reruns of Gilligan’s Island and zoom in on the highlights of your life. Whether it’s the awe and transformation of holding your child for the first time, or the warm memory of the day your grandfather came to visit and bought you that ice cream cone, or that night in the backseat of the limo after the junior prom when your world changed forever. All your memories will still be out there, long after you’re not.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The Big Idea: Carol Berg

How do you know you are you? And if you don’t know, are you really you at all? Carol Berg ponders those questions in her novel Ash and Silver, and in today’s Big Idea.

CAROL BERG:

There are many literary tropes that I love, especially those that characterize fantasy fiction. Mistaken identity, the innocent who discovers great power, the rogue who finds purpose, sentient dragons, magic as rare, the guide/advisor, shapeshifting, magical portals, the fae, the trickster, gods/saints/angels that are discovered to be real, even the occasional quest with a jewel at the end.

The word trope has a bad reputation, having taken on the burden of cliché, stereotype, and dry imitation. I’ve certainly thrown aside many a book because of yet another elf-dwarf-human road trip or another angst-ridden vampire or one more ever-snarky female cowboy/tank driver/longshorewoman who is really a pixie/ghoul/pond sprite with tattoos and a hunky male guardian angel.

But motifs, characters, plots, and metaphors evolve into tropes because we humans find them innately fascinating and deeply satisfying. What is more delicious for the kid in all of us than Platform 9 ¾ – a portal to a world of magic and adventure? What makes our heart ache like the visit to elfland and the irrevocable choice to stay – abandoning our human loves and homely pleasures – or to go home, relinquishing for all time the exquisite passions of magical life? See Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer for a brilliant example.

In my own writing, I consciously embrace certain tropes, but then do my best to embed them in layered worlds and complex characters, twisting them into something that will draw the reader onto unexpected paths into a deeper story. It’s part of my particular pleasure in writing fantasy.

Ash and Silver is told by a man who can’t remember his own name or anything of his own personal past. Yep, hero’s amnesia, one of my favorite tropes. (Remember that splendid case of amnesia that opens Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber?)

But don’t throw the book across the room yet, because Greenshank’s memory loss was not caused by a blow to the head or a car accident or mafia-delivered drugs, but was magically induced when he chose to accept sanctuary in a strict, secretive military order. Mind-altering magic doesn’t work in this world without the consent of the subject. But, of course, my hero can’t remember what circumstances would induce him, a mature man quite obviously untrained in military skills, to seek sanctuary in such a place or submit to such breakage. This question – along with the why – is the igniter for his story.

Magic that can remove, preserve, and restore memory provides wonderful grist for a fantasy writer’s mill. Simply obliterating all knowledge leaves us a character too ignorant to be interesting. Greenshank is well educated, and I need him to have access to his wide knowledge of the world, history, society, customs, his kingdom’s current war of succession and strange skewing of the seasons. But he can have no recollection of tutors, family, friends, lovers, preferences, biases, or the reasons behind the particular academic disciplines he finds most comfortable.

As hints of his past begin pummeling our hero, demanding his attention like hailstones out of the fog, (you knew that would happen) I had to tread carefully, scouring what I wrote for evidence that he knew more than he should, or felt, suspected, or deduced more than he should. Every scene presented choices. Should he feel sorrow at mentions of the family he can’t remember or only loss? When he meets a person from his past, is there any hint of recognition?  Do I want there to be?

Greenshank does know he is a sorcerer, and over two years has become a far more skilled one, because the Order of the Equites Cineré, Knights of the Ashes, fights with magic as well as sword, spear, and fist. But he has no idea of his own particular magical talent – his bent – or how he studied or practiced that talent in the twenty-something years he has forgotten. This implies a precise, almost surgical, excision of memory.

Herein lies the Big Idea or perhaps the Big Question. What part of us remains when our personal past is gone?

Do our experiences shape us as human beings? Undoubtedly. But if we yield the memory of them, do we somehow become someone different? Are we left adrift without the guidance of our growing? Do we lose the emotions connected with lost faces, forgotten relationships, and missing life, or do those somehow linger in our bones? Are our choices based solely on reason and our reactions on solid evidence, or are there resonances of old biases and yearnings still lurking inside?

Greenshank’s commanders at Fortress Evanide say they remove all personal memory so that their trainees can learn without boundaries or preconceptions.  So they can maintain the singular focus on the present that is necessary to survive, because the Order’s training is rigorous and mortally dangerous. Those who survive their years of training can choose to have their past restored and leave with honor (but no memory of the Order itself.)  But those who stay, those who choose to be invested as Knights of the Ashes, must relinquish their past lives forever. Going forward in service to the Order, each must continually forego all personal memory of the great deeds he does, as well. Thus, no glory. No accumulation of power or spoils of war. The new knight commits to a simple life of comradeship, skill, and just purpose. (Whatever could go wrong with that?)

As the writer, I had to shape answers to all these questions in the context of my story, creating a logical, consistent structure. Those answers led me in directions I never imagined. What began as a favorite trope, ripe for renewal, became the struggle at the very heart of Ash and Silver. In a single, chaotic conjunction of murder, politics, enchantment, history, love, family, grief, anger, and corruption, Greenshank discovers that the fate of the world depends on his identity – his ultimate decision about who he actually is and who he yearns to be.

—-

Ash and Silver: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Joseph Wallace

You might think of the end of the world as the end of it all… but as Joseph Wallace explains in this Big Idea for his novel Slavemakers, every end is also a beginning.

JOSEPH WALLACE:

Like a million other kids—probably a million other kids in Brooklyn alone—I always felt like I’d been born in the wrong era.

Sometimes, instead of being stuck in my never-changing neighborhood with its two-story homes and postage-stamp yards, I’d dream of being born a century or two in the future, giving me the chance to explore distant, uncharted worlds. (If P.S. 193 had offered a class whose final required surviving on a dangerous wilderness planet, like the school in Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky did, I would have been the first to sign up.)

More often, though, I didn’t yearn to travel forward but backward through time. I desperately wanted to be living a hundred years earlier, or two hundred, during the great Age of Sail. Back when world maps were filled with blank spaces and countries with long-forgotten names and blurry borders. Back when the huge empty oceans bore the legend “Here Be Monsters.”

It wasn’t that I wanted to discover a new territory, plant a flag, found a civilization. The opposite: I was desperate to escape my city home, with its squirrels and pigeons, so I could truly understand what it was like to be just one species among countless others, instead of always the arrogant alpha.

But I was too late. By the time I got to do the traveling I’d always dreamed of, the world was still beautiful…but far from limitless. The empty spaces had almost all been filled in. Even while wandering among the great herds of East Africa or in the Amazon rainforest, I always knew I wasn’t truly alone. I understood that the wilderness still existed only because my species hadn’t yet chosen to destroy and occupy it.

I’ve been a writer almost since I can remember. But it wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I realized I could visit the world I’d dreamed of, if not in real life, then at least in my writing. That’s how Slavemakers was born.

In my previous novel, Invasive Species, I created a scientifically plausible way to bring modern human society to an end. While most of the book takes place in a fictional present, Invasive Species’ epilogue leaps forward to twenty years after the apocalypse. A group of survivors is about to embark on the first great exploration of what they call the Next World…aboard a sailing ship modeled on those that plied the oceans during the Age of Sail.

To explore a world once again filled with empty places. Here Be Monsters.

When I finished writing that epilogue, I thought I was done. I had no intention of creating a follow-up novel. But then the thought started nagging at me: Why did my characters get to embark on an expedition to an unknown world, but I didn’t?

And, on that thought, the plot of Slavemakers presented itself to me. (All at once, whole, as I was in a car heading back from a visit to Cape Cod.) It’s science fiction, it’s a thriller, but at its heart it’s also something else: A book about learning to adapt to, and survive on, a planet we no longer dominate.

What would it feel like to watch nature reclaim what we’ve long considered “ours”? To witness evolution rush in to fill the gaps left behind by our near disappearance, just as it did after the extinction of the dinosaurs? And, most of all, to be born onto that planet, into the Next World, and to start afresh, without the prejudices and preconceptions that led to the apocalypse?

I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, and by now I understand the world I live in is the one I’m stuck with. But I don’t think it’s always going to be this way—our species is not going to come anywhere near the dinosaurs’ 165-million-year reign—and in Slavemakers I got to imagine what might happen next.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Molly Crabapple

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

MOLLY CRABAPPLE:

I’ve done a lot of jobs in my life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at the journalist, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Michael Livingston

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

MICHAEL LIVINGSTON:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is a Big Idea.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Martin Rose

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

MARTIN ROSE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aren’t we all?

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

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

MATT MIKALATOS:

My Big Idea crashed in my front yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

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

The Big Idea: William Shunn

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

WILLIAM SHUNN:

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

For terrorism.

In Canada, of all places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: James Renner

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

JAMES RENNER:

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

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

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

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

How crazy is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Lisa Goldstein

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

LISA GOLDSTEIN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Emma Newman

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

EMMA NEWMAN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Planetfall: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Kate Elliott

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

KATE ELLIOTT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Jason Denzel

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

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.