Women Characters in The Human Division

Question in e-mail today asks, of my book The Human Division: “What’s up with every one of the side characters being women?” 

My first thought was: Huh, a reader finally e-mailed about that.

My second thought was: Huh, it took a year and a half before a reader e-mailed about that.

My third thought is: In fact, not every side (or featured) character in The Human Division is a woman. If you were to take a pencil and write down the name of every named character, you’d probably discover that roughly half of the named characters are women.

I did consciously decide to include women characters roughly at parity to male characters, for two reasons. One, in the Old Man’s War universe, there’s no reason not to — thanks to genetic engineering and social attitudes (and other things), the OMW universe is one where there is no reason not to have parity between the sexes in the events related in the books. Since there’s not, introducing a disparity would be inauthentic to the universe I created.

Two, regardless of the world I created, we live in a world in which women are underrepresented in the media, relative to the numbers they exist in the real world. I also think that’s inauthentic, and I don’t see why I would want to be a part of that. So, unless there is a compelling reason not to (see: The God Engines, in which the lack of representation of women is there as a tell about the culture), I’ve decided in general to replicate the parity of the sexes that exists in the real world into my fiction.

I didn’t make a huge deal about it when I was writing THD; I just reminded myself to write women characters. I also didn’t generally talk about making an effort at that parity after the book was published, because I didn’t think something as simple as accurately representing male/female ratios in the real world (and how they would logically be in the universe I created) was a big deal.

I was curious if anyone would notice. I think there was one review that noted it (in passing, not as a central feature), I was asked about it in one interview, and now I’ve gotten this one e-mail about it from a reader. And pretty much that’s it.

What does that mean? Well, you tell me. I like to think that generally speaking it means that people who read my books don’t think it’s a big deal that women are at parity to men in terms of characters. I’m good with that.

To those who do notice and think it’s weird or indicative of some political agenda they feel suspicious about: Meh, get used to it. It’s not going away anytime soon.

The Big Idea: A.J. Larrieu

Things have a cost. You buy a coffee, you pay the price for it. You stay up all night drinking, you pay for it with a hangover. But what cost comes from using magic — and how do you pay the price? A.J Larrieu is here to tell you how tallied the cost for her novel Twisted Miracles — and how that price affects her story.

A.J. LARRIEU:

I’ve always been drawn to speculative fiction that requires power to have a price. The price can come in different forms, but without it, the world just won’t feel real. In the Harry Potter books, one price of power is the training witches and wizards need to harness their innate abilities. In the Game of Thrones series, no one gets away without paying the “iron price,” and often paying more than they owe. Giving power a price creates natural balance in a fictional universe—and it makes things a lot more interesting.

The world of my debut novel, Twisted Miracles, is populated by shadowminds, humans with supernatural mental powers. They aren’t strictly telekinetic—they’re actually energy converters, able to use their minds to create motion, light or heat. This makes for some fascinating possibilities, but I knew I couldn’t let their powers be limitless. To make their gifts feel real, I had to understand how they worked. Not on a detailed level—it’s made-up magic, after all—but in a practical way. What’s possible, and what’s not?

I’m a scientist by training, so I began with one of the most fundamental, unbreakable laws of the universe, the First Law of Thermodynamics. It’s a famous one—simply put, it states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. As I move my fingers to type this post, I’m using energy I banked this morning in the form of peanut butter on toast and some disappointing strawberries.

I wanted the same general rule to apply to my converters. They can lift things with their minds, sure, but they can’t go around tossing SUVs like used tissues. If they don’t have the power to do it with their hands, they don’t have the power to do it with their brains. They have limits.

Of course, some of them can go beyond those limits. My heroine, Cass, can lift anything she wants, no matter how heavy, but that energy still has to come from somewhere. If she can’t find it in herself, her gift goes looking for it somewhere else, and the cost of stealing energy isn’t always one she’s prepared to pay.

It was this cost that led me to the thematic core of the story, the one I didn’t know about when I started writing. As it turns out, the big idea behind Twisted Miracles is a question: What are the limits of forgiveness? Cass’s dangerous gift has led her to do terrible things, some of them by accident, some of them not. Over the course of the story, she’s forced to make soul-rending choices about the price she’s willing to pay for justice. In the end, Cass’s journey is about learning how to live with her personal tab of decisions and mistakes—and learning that forgiveness might be the one thing in life without a price.

—-

Twisted Miracles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google|iBooks|Kobo

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

How I Keep Myself Amused on Long Flights, Part II: The Gremlining

(For those who missed the first in this series, posted almost a year ago (i.e., almost certainly on another long plane trip to Los Angeles), it’s here.)

How I Sold My Books

Over on Twitter, author Wesley Chu has been leading a discussion on how authors sell their books — whether by submitting the full manuscript, by submitting a partial, or by proposal. This lead me to think about how I sold my own books. So, for informational and educational purposes, this is how I’ve sold each of my books to their respective publishers. I’m going to divide these up into fiction and non-fiction categories, and list them (mostly) in order of publication.

Non-Fiction:

1. The Rough Guide to Money Online: Sold by my agent selling me to Rough Guides as a suitable author, them telling me what they wanted from the book, and me writing an outline that satisfied their needs.

2. The Rough Guide to the Universe: Sold via outline.

3. Book of the Dumb: Publisher wanted this particular book and wanted me to write it; we discussed what should be in it and I went off to write it. Note the publisher did not come to me out of the blue; I had contributed dozens of pieces for their “Uncle John’s” series of books by that point.

4. Book of the Dumb 2: Publisher: “Hey, let’s do a sequel.” Me: “Okay.”

5. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies: Sold via outline.

6. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Brief proposal (the material already existed).

7. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop Into a Coffee Shop: Book specifically of pieces on writing, spun off from Hate Mail and actually published first. I basically said, “Hey, would you like these as a separate book?” and Subterranean Press said yes.

8. 24 Frames Into the Future: I was the Guest of Honor at Boskone and NESFA, the organization that runs the con, likes to published a limited edition book from their guests. I pitched a book of my film columns; they said yes.

9. The Mallet of Loving Correction: Me, to Subterranean Press: “Hey, wanna do another Whatever collection?” SubPress: “Yup.” This proposal-to-acceptance process took roughly 15 minutes, making it the quickest I ever sold a book.

Fiction:

1. Old Man’s War: Wrote it, put it up on Web site, it was discovered by Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor, who made on offer on it.

2. Agent to the Stars: Wrote it, put it up on Web site, it was discovered by Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press, who made an offer on it.

3. The Ghost Brigades: Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “So, you should write a sequel to Old Man’s War.” Me: “Okay.”

4. The Android’s Dream: Part of a two-book deal I signed when I signed with Tor for Old Man’s War. Pitched it on the sentence “man solves diplomatic crises through the use of action scenes and snappy dialogue.” Patrick Nielsen Hayden said, more or less, “Sounds good, go write it.”

5. The Last Colony: Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “So, you should write a third book in the Old Man’s War series.” Me: “Okay.”

6. Zoe’s Tale: Me, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “This sequel I’m writing to The Android’s Dream isn’t working and I’m shelving it. Would you take another Old Man’s War book as compensation?” Patrick: “Why, yes. Could you write it kinda as a YA?” Me: “Sure.”

7. Metatropolis: Audible director Steve Feldberg wanted me to do an anthology; I fleshed out an idea with him, recruited the other authors, and acted as editor. Originally published in audio; Subterranean Press expressed interest in the limited hardcover rights; Tor asked for the paperback rights.

8. The God Engines: Me: “I want to write a dark fantasy in which really terrible things happen.” Bill Schafer: “Dude, sold.”

9. Fuzzy Nation: Wrote for my own amusement with no intention of selling it; my agent Ethan Ellenberg declared he could sell it and did, to Tor.

10. Redshirts: Me, to Patrick Nielsen Hayden: “Hey, I wrote this thing. Want it?” Patrick: “Why, yes.”

11. The Human Division: Tor wanted to experiment with online distribution; I’d been wanting to go back into the Old Man’s War universe. We agreed the two aims could work together. There was no proposal in terms of the content, but there was definitely a roadmap created by all the interested parties in terms of how the thing should work, theoretically. THD was in fact probably the most intentional and built-out, in term of design and distribution, of all the fiction books I’ve written to date.

12. Lock In: Brief proposal to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

13. The Human Division 2 (not actual title): I think we all just assumed this would happen; I don’t recall directly pitching it or being directly asked for it. Both Lock In and THD2 were part of a two book deal with Tor.

There’s additionally the novella I wrote earlier in the year which I’ve sold to Tor (e-book), SubPress (limited hardcover) and Audible (audio), the details of which I will announce a bit later. That one I wrote up and then offered up to each publisher; each then accepted it for publication.

In addition to all the books I have published (and THD2, which is not written but will be, soon), there are three projects I specced out to a greater or lesser extent but didn’t write. One was the sequel to The Android’s Dream, which I sold after the first book came out; that contract is unfulfilled to date. I plan to get around to it again at some point. Another was a two-book series which I sold on proposal; it was shelved when another very similar book became a bestseller and I didn’t want to appear to be cashing in on that book. The contracts in question were applied to Zoe’s Tale and Redshirts. The third was a YA proposal that I wrote at the request of the publisher; the proposal was accepted but we couldn’t come to terms financially, so there are no contracts to fulfill.

Looking at all the projects to date it’s clear I sell either on full manuscript or on proposal (with or without an outline). I have never sold a book on a partial manuscript, and it seems to me anecdotally that selling on a partial is an unusual circumstance, although I could be wrong on that (see the word “anecdotally”).

If I were advising someone on selling a first novel, I would suggest — and I believe most editors would back me up here — that you have the full manuscript in hand before you go shopping. Having a partial in hand when you are an unpublished author doesn’t suggest you know how to finish a novel, and for a publisher, having a finished novel is actually key. Yes, this means doing work without a guarantee of a sale, but, well. If publishers want to buy from partials, there are a lot of already-pubbed authors who they know can produce that they can worth with. So I would have the whole thing ready to go. It’s what I did, in any event.

Reminder to Everyone: I’ll Be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books This Saturday

The headline says it all — but specifically, I will be doing the following things:

1. At 2:30pm in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, I and producer Jon Shestack will be talking about taking Redshirts from page to screen, with the fabulous Pamela Ribon moderating. Expect this to be about Redshirts, but also very many other things, because when you get me and Pamie together on a panel, whooo boy. Basically I’m saying I expect this panel to be a ton of fun to listen to.

2. After the panel (i.e., about 3:30) I will be at a nearby signing tent, to sign books and such, probably for an hour or so.

3. If you miss the 3:30 signing because you had other places to be, I will be doing a second signing at 5pm at the Mysterious Galaxy tent, also for an hour or so. Come by to get something signed, or just to say hello.

Here’s the Festival Web site so you know what other cool things are going on. If you’re in or near LA, hope to see you there!

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Two things you need to know for today’s Big Idea: One, Elizabeth Bear is one of this generation’s best science fiction and fantasy authors, and Steles of the Sky is the latest in her acclaimed Eternal Sky series; Two, there’s a really big and awesome announcement in this Big Idea. Okay? Here you go, then:

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this guy, right? And he’s the youngest son of a branch of the royal family, but his older brother, the heir-apparent, is killed in battle with another branch of the line, and he nearly dies himself–

Oh.

Hmm.

…okay, I’m yanking your chain. That’s not the Big Idea here. That all actually happened before the beginning of the first book, Range of Ghosts, which I Big Ideaed about here.

Yes, it’s a pretty traditional setup. But I just might have gotten lucky and done something interesting with it this time.

Today, though–today I’m here to talk about the third and final book in the trilogy*, Steles of the Sky, which releases today.

The Big Idea here is… well, there are a lot of them. Humanoid tigers with an esoteric religion; occasional megafauna (possibly the name of our illustrious host’s next band); the unreliability of history (which is generally being written by a lot of different people with different agendas over the course of centuries); all the things women actually did in the premodern era…

Wait. Let’s talk about those last two things.

Every so often we hear the excuse that women have no place in epic fantasy stories because medieval women didn’t actually do anything. They were simply fungible objects, pumping out babies and keeping house.

Even if one were to ignore the exceptional women of history–the Hypatias and Hatshepsuts and Hildegards, the Eleanors and Aethelflaeds and Nzinga Mbandes, the Ching Shihs and Khutuluns and Tomoe Gozens–the women who, more or less, took on roles usually identified as masculine–one is left with women who spun, who wove, who ran households, who served as the supply chain managers for their male relatives’ armies, who participated in their husbands’ businesses and explorations–or took them over, after those husbands died–who, in general, performed enormous amounts of unpaid labor on their families’ behalves and got absolutely no credit for it.

Tycho Brahe said of his sister, Sophie Brahe Thott, that she had as fine a mind as any man. She’s worth reading about. She is very far from alone.

These women are often erased in history. They took their husbands’ names. They lived in societies that believed the only time a woman’s name should be recorded was when she was born, got married, gave birth, or died.

And they are often erased in literature, as well.

(It’s interesting to me that at least one review of Steles of the Sky so far has said that every major character other than the protagonist is female. This is not actually true–the points of view are about equally divided between women and men) but it does go to show that if you start approaching parity, people think the women are taking over.)

Even in modern fantasy literature, where we ought to know better. Where we have the scholarship and the knowledge of history not to erase the accomplishments of historical women by treating each and every one as an exception, a lone thing, and not part of a tradition.

Capable women are not the exception. But women who have managed to make such nuisances of themselves that they cannot entirely be erased from history–they are harder to find.

So I wanted to talk about some of those accomplishments. I wanted to show some epic women who were not warriors, not fireball-throwing sorcerers, and who still managed to have an impact. (There are some warriors and sorcerers too, of course.)

I wanted to remind myself, as a writer and a human being, that capable women are not the exception in history. That they should not be in literature, either.

Also, if awesome women aren’t enough for you, this book has an amazing Donato cover, and an equally amazing Ellisa Mitchell map.

*And–here’s the even bigger idea! (and way to bury the lede, Bear!), but I have an announcement to make.

*ahem*

There are going to be more Eternal Sky books!

While Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise a complete story arc in and of themselves, I can now reveal that Tor will be publishing at least three more books in this world. We came to an agreement late last month, and I can tell you this–here, exclusively:

This second trilogy, The Lotus Kingdoms, will follow the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–who become embroiled in the deadly interkingdom and interfamilial politics in a sweltering tropical land.

Look for them starting in 2017.

—-

Steles of the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Off to See Emmylou

(Warning: the video above starts abruptly with crowd noise, but is otherwise worth watching and listening to)

Emmylou Harris is touring to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Wrecking Ball, which is not only my favorite album of hers but may in fact be my favorite album, period, end of sentence, so I’m traveling today to catch her show. Bonus for me: Daniel Lanois is both performing with and opening for Harris, so I will also after about 25 years finally catch him live. Very excited for that.

But that means I’m not going to be here, because it will require travel, and then I will be spending time with the friend. In short: I’ll be out in the real world. Try to have fun on the Internets without me. I’ll be back tomorrow.

In the meantime, a question related to my activity today: In the comments, tell me of a particularly memorable concert that you’ve been to — not necessarily the best or worst, although either is fine, but one that stick in your memory for whatever reason. Because concerts can be memorable, can’t they.

Brendan Eich and Mozilla

Getting lots of requests in e-mail to share my thoughts about now-former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich resigning from the position after less than two weeks, in large part because of stakeholders being upset that Eich, in 2008, donated money to a successful initiative to ban same-sex marriages in California, which at the time were already legal.

All right. Some thoughts:

First, I think a lot of people are not entirely clear what the story is. One of the e-mails I got asked what I thought about Mr. Eich being fired for statements he made about same sex marriage in 2008. In fact, Mr. Eich was not fired, he resigned; the fomenting issue was not about statements he made, but a donation he gave for a political purpose.

Now, I recognize that the counter here is the suggestion that if Mr. Eich had not resigned he would have been fired, and that (if you’re the Supreme Court, at least) it’s looking more and more like donations are statements, etc. Nevertheless, for now, let’s say that when we have actual facts, we go with the actual facts. The actual facts are: Mr. Eich resigned, and it was his donation to support California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 that got this particular ball rolling.

Second, let’s recognize that Mozilla is in itself an unusual place, and the specific characteristics of that organization, of the things it creates, and of the community of developers it works with, has quite a lot to do with events as they unfolded (see this useful NY Times piece for further if brief elucidation). We should acknowledge this, and recognize that because of this, Mozilla may or may not be a good candidate for a wider prognostication of “what it all means.” In other words, no matter what your position, don’t freak out yet.

With those out of the way:

So, the board of a private company appoints someone as CEO, many of the stakeholders of the company (employees, outside developers, companies whose products are accessed by the other company’s products) object and decide to act in their own personal or private capacity to complain and/or boycott, and ultimately as a result — and without governmental intervention at any level — the CEO decides his presence in the position is not in the interest of the success and welfare of the private company and chooses to resign.

What’s the problem here?

I mean, isn’t this supposed to be how things work? Decisions made, a frank exchange of viewpoints by legitimately interested parties, choices selected with an eye toward the bottom line good of the company, and actions voluntarily taken by the person and people affected? With no governmental interference in any way? Is this not the very soul of laissez-faire capitalism?

But, but… Mr. Eich should be free to believe what he wants, and to contribute to any political cause he so chooses! Well, and so he is, and I would, as they say, defend to the death his right to do so. What he is not free from — and this is the thing which people seem to fall down on again and again — are the consequences of his actions. When you’re the CEO of a corporation where a large number of your stakeholders support same sex marriage, either for personal or professional reasons, your choice in the past to offer support to make such (at the time legal) marriages illegal is a legitimate issue for discussion. Additionally, your further choice not to speak on your current personal thoughts on the topic (whether or not you pledge your company to openness and diversity) is also a legitimate issue for discussion. If a CEO is not willing to accept that there are consequences to his or her past and current actions, they should not be a CEO. Being a CEO is fundamentally about there being consequences to your actions.

Let us posit another company. This company features stakeholders — employees, board members, vendors, users of the company’s product — who fervently believe the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights means that one should be able to buy and own any particular type of firearm one would choose to possess. Let’s say the board of this company hires a new CEO, even thought they know that CEO at one point in the not terribly distant past contributed money to make handgun ownership illegal in the city or state the company resides.

This doesn’t sit well with the stakeholders and they complain and some announce they will no longer support the company. The CEO responds by saying that his own personal beliefs will not keep the company from acting in a way consistent to the law as regards handguns, but refuses to comment on how — or indeed if — his beliefs regarding handgun ownership have changed.

Are stakeholders not right to be concerned that the CEO’s refusal to further elucidate their personal opinion will not directly affect the company and the company stakeholders? Would it not be reasonable thing to worry that the CEO’s past and present action might make it difficult to recruit new employees and vendors, most of whom in the relevant business sector having a clear and certain view regarding handguns and the Second Amendment — and one that opposes the CEO’s known actions? And if the CEO ultimately decides to depart from the position rather than to threaten his company’s standing in the field, would not this be seen as the correct thing for him to decide to do?

And also: Would it not be, again, the very soul of laissez-faire capitalism? That the issue was raised, discussed, taken action upon and dealt with, all within the scope of the company and its stakeholders, quickly and without intervention in any way by the government?

I think you may guess my answers to these all questions.

Regarding Brendan Eich himself: My understanding (which may be incorrect) was that he was initially reluctant to be considered as a CEO candidate. If that’s the case he probably wishes that he had followed that first impulse, as then he would still be CTO of Mozilla and any controversy about his 2008 donation regarding that position (as there was, by all indication) already baked in and dealt with. I think it’s clear that both he and the board underestimated the pushback from stakeholders about the donation and how it would affect Eich as CEO. I don’t know that it’s something they could have known until he was in the position. It’s something they know now, with regard to whom the next CEO may be.

John Scalzi, Award-Winning… Meteorologist?

No, I haven’t started a sideline business for when my writing career craters under me. There’s a John Scalzi (no relation, or at least no relation that doesn’t go back several generations), who works as a meteorologist for WWSB down in Sarasota, Florida, and he just won the “Best Weathercast” award from the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters. So that’s excellent for him! As I noted when I congratulated him on his Facebook fan page, the name “John Scalzi” always looks good on an award.

One day the two of us will meet and it will be confusing but fun for everyone involved.

In any event: Congratulations to John Scalzi, from John Scalzi.

 

A Series of Tweets Regarding My Own Personal Sexism

Apropos to a discussion on Twitter about this Slate article, a discussion of sexism, specifically, my own:

And then, the conversational addendums:

The Droid Maxx, Two Weeks In

I’m two weeks in to owning the Droid Maxx, and I gotta say that I love love love the thing, and the reason is almost entirely down to the battery life, which for me at least lives up to its advertised claim of lasting up to 48 hours. The acid test was me taking it to Emerald City Comicon and keeping it off a power tether from the moment I woke up until I put my head on the pillow. I simply never had to worry about how much battery life I had left. That’s literally the first time I could do that with a smart phone.

For those about to ask, I will note that I am not a “power” smartphone user, which is to say I don’t watch a lot of video or play many processor-intensive video games on it. I’m mostly text-based: I check Twitter and email, hit Facebook occasionally, cruise around the Web and read books, text every now and then and even (rarely) make a phone call. If I used the phone as a primary screen for Netflix and HBO Go, I could see possibly running out of juice at some point before midnight. But how I use the phone? Really, not a problem at all.

The phone is otherwise more than sufficient for what I use phones for — it pops up apps quickly, doesn’t get bogged down, processor-wise, and so far I haven’t once cursed at it, which may be a record for a smartphone. The screen is lovely (it’s not 1080p, which I understand some people hold against it, but it’s more than hi-def enough for me) and the no-touch commands Motorola and Google have baked into it work like a charm for me. My only real complaint is with the camera, which is inconsistent, particularly with auto-focus. But then I don’t think I’ve ever had a phone that has been more than barely adequate on that score, so I don’t really count it against it.

Also, while the five-inch screen is bright and lovely, I think I now know the maximum size I want my phone to be — I can only just get my thumb all the way across the screen while holding the phone with one hand. I can’t imagine wanting a larger phone. I mean, the thing is big enough as it is.

But really, again, for me what it comes down to is battery life, and this phone’s got it. Tons of it. Scads of it. The Droid Maxx is now my benchmark for that particular aspect of a smartphone. In the future, if a phone can’t match its battery longevity, I’m probably not going to get it. Likewise, if battery life is as much a consideration for you as it is for me, take a look at the Droid Maxx. So far, at least, I’ve been very happy with it.

The Big Idea: Geoff Rodkey

Some stories are easy. Others fight you, pretending to be one thing but then turning into something else entirely. Geoff Rodkey knows about the latter — for his Chronicles of Egg series, of which Blue Sea Burning is the final installment, he had to play his story like a marlin before reeling it in. Here he is to talk about how made it all work.

GEOFF RODKEY:

Crooked Pete was a pirate. And all the other pirates thought he was cursed, so they wouldn’t let him on board their ships.

In the end, the only job he could get was working as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant.

He didn’t like it much.

Then one day during the lunch shift, a lawyer came into the restaurant. He had a proposition for Pete, on behalf of a mysterious client…

Crooked Pete and his employment problems–not a Big Idea so much as a punch line–popped into my head one day for no apparent reason, and eventually became the inspiration for the Chronicles of Egg trilogy, the final volume of which, Blue Sea Burning, came out this week.

But while the series is full of a lot of things–adventure, comedy, mystery, romance, political intrigue, and a whole lot of mutilated pirates–one thing it DOESN’T have is a character named Crooked Pete.

Or a pirate-themed restaurant.

Or even a lawyer. (No, wait…there’s one lawyer. But it’s a different lawyer.)

Because in the two years I spent thinking about the story before I started writing it, all of those things fell away. As a character, Crooked Pete turned out to be a dead end. The island full of rival pirate crews who’d blacklisted him became too realistic (and economically primitive) to accommodate a restaurant, let alone a pirate-themed one.

And the mysterious client, who I’d initially envisioned as an obnoxious 13-year-old rich kid with a family that had recently disappeared under suspicious circumstances, leaving him in sole control of their island plantation and possessed of a manic grandiosity that led him to hire Crooked Pete as muscle in a clumsy attempt to intimidate people…well, at first, I thought that kid was going to be the main character.

But he was kind of an asshole.

So he became a hapless, dirt-poor kid with the unfortunate name of Egg, who bears no resemblance to the original rich kid except in his core predicament: that his family’s accidental disappearance was no accident…and the sinister forces behind it are plotting to kill him next, even though he has no idea why.

In the end, almost nothing survived of my original idea except the setting, the tone, and the intent: to write the kind of funny/thrilling/emotionally resonant story I wanted to read.

(The fact that The Chronicles of Egg wound up being marketed as middle grade seems to indicate that I have the literary taste of a sixth grader. I’m not sure what to say about that, except possibly “sixth graders have awesome taste.”)

In my experience, which includes film and TV as well as books, the best stories are often like this–whether they’re the product of a Big Idea or not, the end result can look very different from its original inspiration.

You start out with one thing. And it seems kind of cool, but it doesn’t quite work, or it’s too slender to support a story. And if you try to write it, it falls over dead.

So you put it aside. But there’s a core element that’s compelling enough that you can’t let it go. It keeps percolating in your mind, sometimes for years, slowly morphing into something that’s unrecognizable except for some basic DNA it shares with the original thing that inspired you.

And one day, something clicks, and you can finally start writing it.

This was true not just of the Egg books, but of the first screenplay I ever sold. It started out as an idea for a novel about a small-town English teacher in Indiana who gets put on trial, Socrates-style, for corrupting the young.

By the time I sold it as a screenplay five years later, it had become a story about a shady sports agent who arrives in a small town in Texas to recruit the high school’s star quarterback and, in a convoluted turn of events, winds up coaching the football team, loses the big game, and gets hung under the goal posts by an angry mob.

Which had nothing in common with the original idea except the arrival of a stranger in a small town who, by the end of Act Three, finds himself hanging from a rope. But it was a fun script. (The townspeople cut him down before he actually dies; it was a dark comedy, but it wasn’t THAT dark.)

Unfortunately, since it’s currently buried in the underground facility in the San Fernando Valley where Universal Pictures stores all their unproduced screenplays, nobody can read it.

But that’s not true of the Egg books! Now that Blue Sea Burning is out, all three of them are available. If you want to check them out, it’s best to start at the beginning, with Deadweather and Sunrise (here’s an excerpt, to catch you up).

It’s a fun read, even if it doesn’t actually contain a disgruntled pirate waiting tables in a pirate-themed restaurant.

—-

Blue Sea Burning: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

And Now, For No Particular Reason, a List of My Top Ten Favorite Coen Brothers Films

Because why not. Note I use the word “favorite,” not the word “best,” although I would argue for the movie in my number one position being, if not the best, at least in the top three.

1. Miller’s Crossing

2. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

3. Intolerable Cruelty

4. Raising Arizona

5. Barton Fink

6. The Hudsucker Proxy

7. Fargo

8. The Big Lebowski

9. True Grit

10. Burn After Reading

For those wondering what’s at the bottom: The Ladykillers. 

Discuss.

The Big Idea: Robin Riopelle

Our pasts shape us, build us and sometimes haunt us. So when part of our past is obscured from us, it creates a tension in our lives — the sort of tension that can, naturally enough, make for great stories. Robin Riopelle’s novel Deadroads looks at pasts, hidden and otherwise; Riopelle’s here to explain how they matter to her tale.

ROBIN RIOPELLE:

The Department of Motor Vehicles clerk was very helpful. “Would she have changed her name?” she asked me, peering at her computer screen. I nodded dumbly, elated and terrified.

I had been searching for years. My parents had given me my original paperwork; I had been Robin Riopelle for my first five days. I’d plied with wine the lawyer who had handled my adoption and he’d let slip my birth mother’s name. Deep in the stacks of the Toronto Reference Library, I had meticulously sifted through city directories, tracing her easily until 1983. Then, she’d vanished.

“She’s got a rural address now,” the clerk continued. “Here you go!” She tore the sheet of paper from the dot-matrix printer, and passed it over the partition. “Anything else I can do for you?”

I held the key to my past in my hand. Now what?

A character in my novel Deadroads faces the same dilemma, albeit via a demon rather than a nice smiley clerk at a government office. For that character, and for me, for anyone trying to make contact with their past, comes the moment of decision: Do I follow through? What the hell happens if I reach out into this unknown?

Reconciling the past with the present—or being unable to do it—is at the heart of a lot of fiction, my own included. Deadroads finds siblings reluctantly reuniting after a lengthy and possibly supernatural separation. I took that step into the unknown. I have now been in contact with my birth family for more than 20 years. I know how weird and wonderful—and awful and ferocious—getting in touch with the past can be.

Writer William Faulkner famously claimed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Almost all of us consider this big idea at some time or another. Our self-identity depends so much on what we know about our past, and when the story is muddy or missing bits, well—it’s the stuff of myth and legend.

Adoption in Euro-cultural fiction usually results in one of three outcomes: the happy adoption of an orphan; an unhappy reunion with a birth family; or a happy reunion, usually after the adoptive parents have conveniently expired. Rarely does the tale end with the adoptee having it all, with two sets of functioning parents.

Take the Old Testament hero, Moses. Set adrift in a basket, scooped up by a fetching Egyptian princess, raised as a pharaoh’s son. Moses is an adoptee who chooses birth family over adoptive family. There’s lambs’ blood on lintels and rains of frogs and a final, brutal, parting of seas.

If I gave you 30 seconds, you could probably come up with a healthy list of orphans/bastards/adoptees in Western pop culture: the “bad seed” or conversely, the “chosen one”—heroes and villains raised by people who aren’t their “true” parents, growing into their inevitable “destiny”. A cage match between biology and upbringing.

Some are stupendously messed up by separation and reunion such as the Greek king Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his birth father and marries his birth mother (yikes). For other characters, like Oliver Twist, adoption provides the double-rainbow happy ending. I swear to god, Charles Dickens is responsible for an entire orphanage of displaced literary children.

Some characters overcome murky starts to embrace their destiny, such as Luke Skywalker and sister Leia (complete with icky “romance”, which is an entire sub-genre for both tabloids and adoption researchers). I haven’t read ahead in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, so don’t spoil me, but I’m betting Jon Snow’s mother isn’t exactly a nobody. Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora is another puzzle, stymied by what he doesn’t know about his past.

In most of these cases, separation, discovery, and reunion drive the story, but there’s one striking similarity: The two sets of parents, birth and adoptive, rarely meet, and the adoptee doesn’t integrate them, either by choice or circumstance. Moses parts that sea, and doesn’t look back.

My experience tells me something else is more emotionally true: we are a fantastic mix of biology and circumstance, and we make our own destiny when we reconcile our divergent pasts.

In Deadroads, a sister reunites with her long-estranged family. It’s not easy for anyone. She doesn’t fit in. She’s grown up with a different worldview. There are ghosts, and disagreements about the best ways to deal with them.

Ghosts are nice, easy shorthand for “the past”. They are the chewy center of the unfinished business chocolate. Deadroads is full of them. The ghosts and demons haunting the now-grown children are an inheritance, the awful unclaimed baggage of parental misadventures. The problem of how to cope with this inheritance is what fuels the story.

As the characters in Deadroads struggle with both literal and figurative ghosts, they finally acknowledge that the past exists hand-in-hand with the present. When people ask me if I think adoption reunions are a good idea, I can only tell them what I know to be true for myself: by knowing both my families, I know myself better.

It’s what many literary heroes want, when you boil it right down: to discover who they truly are, and to know their place in the world.

—-

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

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

Twitter Thoughts, April 2014

I see a lot of people obsessing about Twitter these days, with particular emphasis on who one should follow, or not follow, and why. Occasionally these conversations touch on me, sometimes as an positive example, and sometimes not (such as the random person purporting to be a writer attempting to lecture me on not following everyone who follows me — he’s been blocked, because, really, fuck off, dude). So I thought it might be useful to offer up a few thoughts on how I use Twitter these days, and why.

Obvious note: This is what works for me, and may not work for you, etc, blah blah blah. As a general rule, please note that anyone who tells you that you are doing Twitter wrong is probably an asshole who you can ignore (exception: When you use Twitter specifically to troll and attack people. It is almost always you who are the asshole then, and you should probably fall down some stairs).

The salient rule for Twitter and any other social media is: Are you using it in a way that you enjoy and makes you happy? If the answer is “yes,” then keep doing it that way.

Now, then:

I use Twitter largely for three purposes, and they are, in roughly descending order of importance: to keep up with friends, to blather in short form about topics which interest and/or amuse me, and to inform both fans and overly-committed haters what I am up to, careerwise.

Although I use Twitter to keep up with friends, I am well aware that the vast majority of people who follow me are people who I don’t know, and who follow me because they are fans/interested in my work/decided I was amusing on Twitter — in other words, that for the majority of people who follow me, I am entertainment, to a greater or lesser degree (my friends may also be entertained by me, but that’s secondary).

This does have some bearing on my Twitter presence, and is also of value to me as someone who is in fact a professional entertainer of the writing sort. My twitter presence is largely a public-oriented performance; save when I am talking to a friend through a direct message, I am always aware there is an audience for my tweets, regardless of who I am speaking to and what I am saying. I suspect many of the people with whom I regularly chat on Twitter are also aware of this “public performance” aspect.

Does this make our Twitter chatting “inauthentic”? I don’t think so; it merely means we’re aware we’re in public and that when we’re having a conversation on Twitter, that people are listening in over our shoulders — and will feel free to comment or repeat what we’ve said to others.

As a result, when I am on Twitter, I do what I do here on the blog, which is to be “personable but not personal” — I have a voice that is familiar and friendly, and will share stuff I deem to be amusing or pertinent, but I will rarely if ever share anything from the sphere of topics I deem to be too personal. I don’t share everything, and have no interest in sharing everything — not everything needs to be shared to or known by people who I don’t, in fact, have any relationship other than that I exist as entertainment for them.

For all that I am aware of the public nature of my Twitter feed, and that for the large percentage of my followers I exist as entertainment, I don’t generally go out of my way to strategize the commercial application of my Twitter feed as a writer, i.e., how to convert every single follower into a paying customer of my books or whatever. The reasons for this are simple. One, that sort of thing bores the shit out of me. I have things I want to do with my life, but obsessing whether my Twitter feed is selling my work is not really one of them. Two, overthinking that sort of thing makes one’s Twitter feed boring, because you’re not doing it to enjoy it, you’re doing it to manipulate people. Three, I think a lot of the people who do spend too much of their time worrying about how their Twitter feed is working for them give off an unpleasant, metallic whiff of desperation, and why would I want to be or do that?

This is why the jerk who tried to upbraid me for not following everyone who follows me found his way into my block queue: What he was saying was YOU ARE NOT OPTIMIZING YOUR TWITTER FEED TO MAKE EVERYONE ON IT MARGINALLY FEEL MORE SPECIAL AND THUS MORE LIKELY TO BUY YOUR THINGS HOW DARE YOU SIR. And well, you know. That’s not how I use Twitter, nor is it how I want to use Twitter. My career has gotten along fine without having HOW WILL THIS MAKE YOU WANT TO BUY ALL MY THINGS as the guiding principle for every single human interaction I have, online or off. Seeing every other human being as a mark is no way to go through life. It’s tiring, it’s insulting, and it’s no fun on either side of that exchange.

In terms of who I follow on Twitter, it susses out something like this: People I know in the real world as friends or colleagues (I’d say about 90% of my follow list), friends of friends who I find to be particularly clever, who I (happily) then often later get to know in real life (about 8% or so), and the occasional person who I don’t know but of whom I am a fan of their work (the remainder).

Note that the vast majority of people I follow are people I actually know. That’s a personal choice; I’m interested in the goings-on of people who are friends. One reason for that is that my friends tend to be far-flung — or more accurately, as I live in rural Ohio, I am far flung from them. Another reason is that my friends are entertaining and I like playing with them on Twitter. A third reason is that while I have my own (small) list of people I follow because I am a fan, at the end of the day my primary interest is the people I know and care about because of my personal history with them.

(Now, as it happens, because of who I am and the circles in which I run, some of the people I am friends with happen to be notable to one degree or another, particularly in geek fields. However, I don’t follow them on Twitter because they are notable. I follow them because they are my friends. It’s a difference which may mean little, looking in from the outside, but means a fair bit from the inside.)

It’s theoretically possible for me to follow everyone who follows me, but then I would have a Twitter feed that that would be useless for what I want it to do, which is to keep me up to date with my friends and what they are doing. There are 319 people on my follow list now, and I have a hard time keeping up with all of them as it is. Moreover, and this sounds a little mean, but come on, we’re grownups here, just because someone is interested in following me on Twitter doesn’t mean I’ll be interested in following them. Because I usually don’t know them, nor am I a fan of them or their work. It doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful, interesting people with cool lives, etc. But I don’t know them, see. And that matters to me for my follow list.

This doesn’t mean I don’t interact with the people who follow me, or who directly address me on Twitter. I do a lot of both as people either respond to what I’ve written or want to ask me something. It’s fun and part of Twitter’s conversational style. But I think that’s to the point, here — you don’t need to follow someone to talk to them on Twitter. You just ping a comment to their handle. Follow who you want to; don’t follow the people you don’t. Simple enough.

On the flip side of following, there are the people I block or mute (“mute” being a function where they are not barred from following you or even responding to you, but you don’t see what they’re saying). I block real people rarely (as opposed to spambots, which I block all the time), but I do block, because some people are real shitheads and I don’t mind letting them know I think so.

I mostly mute people, because it’s quieter (people don’t know that they’re being muted) and because it’s flexible — the Twitter client I use, Janetter, allows you to mute people for times ranging from 30 minutes to forever. That’s useful when I post something contentious and someone follows up with something I find dumb; I (usually) put them in the timeout box for a day rather than snark at them, and the next time they comment to me, I’ve forgotten they annoyed me, which benefits both of us. There are some people I’ve permanently muted; I don’t miss them.

Muting is useful not only for people who annoy me, but for people I genuinely like but who are on a momentary hobby horse I don’t want cluttering up my follow feed. When that happens I’ll mute them for an hour or three while they rant and then later they are back to their usual selves. Or when two friends are being contentious to each other, I’ll sometimes mute them both for an hour, because watching my friends argue all over my Twitter feed is awkward. Muting them while they argue is the Twitter equivalent of seeing friends argue at a party and deciding to go into the next room and chat with other people, who are currently not arguing.

(Do people who follow me mute me? Oh, probably. I can be annoying on Twitter from time to time.)

As much time as I spend on Twitter, there’s no way for me to respond to everything, either on my Twitter feed or when people tweet at me. I can’t imagine how my friends who have substantially more followers than I manage it.

Twitter is a fast-moving stream, basically. I enjoy it — a lot — but I also know there’s only so much I can do with it. So I do with it what I enjoy, and which makes me happy. You should do the same, however that is for you. Again: Simple enough.