The Big Idea: Edward Willett

Edward Willett’s Big Idea post for his new novel The Cityborn references John Calvin, so allow me to suggest that you were predestined to find it and read it. But Willett might argue with me on that, as you will read (of your own free will!) below.

EDWARD WILLETT:

Some novels are born with big ideas, others have big ideas thrust upon them.

The latter was the case with The Cityborn, my new stand-alone science fiction novel from DAW Books: I was a good 60,000 words into it before I realized what I it was really about.

Now, I’m not new at this. The Cityborn is (to my own astonishment) my eighth novel for DAW. (Better yet, it’s under my own name—my last four books were written under pseudonyms, Magebane as Lee Arthur Chane and the Masks of Aygrima trilogy as E.C. Blake). But every book is different, and this was one where the writing process turned out to be as much one of discovery as it was of ex nihilo creation.

Oh, I had good science fiction premise, a fast-moving plot, interesting characters, and a (I hope) fascinating setting. I’d had the idea for the book, I just hadn’t discovered the big idea within the book.

Books can be born many different ways. The Cityborn began with a striking image: that of a young man scavenging for survival on a giant trash heap, outside a great city.

My process for building a novel from such an idea is similar to that of an oyster crafting a pearl around a piece of grit. I ask myself questions: “Why did that rubbish heap form? How big is it? What kind of city created it? Who lives there? Why are some of them reduced to scavenging? Who rules this city, and why do they allow this to continue?” My answers to those questions gave me the skeleton of my story. In The Cityborn’s case, it looks like this:

The metal City towers at the centre of the mountain-ringed Heartland. It straddles the Canyon, filled almost to the brim with centuries’ worth of rubbish and waste, a gigantic trash heap known as the Middens. The City is stratified and authoritarian, ruled by with an iron fist by the First Officer, in the name of the semi-mythical Captain. Armed Provosts enforce the First Officer’s decrees.

The Officers, the ruling class, live in luxury on the Eleventh and Twelfth Tiers, while the poor live hand-to-mouth on the First and Second Tiers. (The middle classes live…wait for it!…in the middle Tiers. Clever, huh?) Criminals and other outcasts fight for survival in the Middens, where the City’s law does not extend and vicious gangs rule.

The young man from my initial vision, Danyl, has been raised in the Middens by an old scavenger, who claims to have found him abandoned as a baby. Meanwhile, Alania, ward of a cold, distant Officer, lives on Twelfth, a pampered prisoner, never permitted to explore the City or the surrounding Heartland.

The plot gets cracking when Alania, fleeing from an unexpected attack on Twelfth, plunges into the Middens—and into Danyl’s life. Suddenly, the Provosts are after both of them, and they don’t know why. As they are pursued down the Canyon, into the Heartland, to the mountains of the north and back again, they learn secrets about who and what they are…and the actions they take in response will determine the fate of the City and everyone who lives there.

That last vague cover-blurb sentence is where I found the Big Idea that grew out of the “little idea” that provided the plot. It came to me in a literal epiphany, one morning while I was writing in Atlantis Coffee in downtown Regina (a favorite haunt of mine; it’s at the corner of Hamilton Street and Victoria Avenue, should you ever be in town and want to check it out. Tell them I sent you).

You see, the reason everyone is chasing Alania and Danyl is that both of them were literally designed to fill an important role within the City: predestined, in a way even John Calvin never dreamed of. Every day of their lives, until they come unexpectedly together, they were being unknowingly guided toward fates determined for them from infancy.

Even after they meet, throwing the proverbial monkey wrench into the machinations of their secret manipulators, they find it almost impossible to deviate from a path they had no say in choosing, whose destination they hate but may not be able to avoid.

The big idea at the heart of The Cityborn, then, is a question: can individuals break the chains forged by the circumstances of their birth, the way they are raised, the expectations and restrictions placed upon them by their society? Can they deviate from their preordained path in life?

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read my other books that my answer to that question was a resounding “Yes!” The value of individuals, the importance of individual liberty (and individual responsibility), is a theme that runs through all my stories, as characters struggle to do what’s right (as they see it) despite the cost, however often they stumble and fail along the way, even if it means renouncing everything they once believed to be true.

Danyl and Alania make difficult choices. They make bad decisions that sometimes make things worse, not better. But they also fight: fight against the fate imposed upon them by those who created and nurtured them, against the chains placed on them by the society into which they were born.

They act, in short, as individuals free to make choices and take action. In the process, they change their world.

Just as, perhaps, we can.

That, it seems to me, is a pretty Big Idea.

—-

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

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

 

Today’s Very Quick Writing Tip

Written yourself into a corner? Go take a shower.

No, seriously. Whenever I write myself into a corner (like, for example, yesterday), I go and take a long shower. And whilst I am standing there doing nothing other than having water spritzing onto my head and body, my brain works the problem. And more often than not, comes up with a solution.

(It doesn’t have to be a shower. It can be housecleaning, or going on a long drive, and basically any activity that keeps you busy while you brain has nothing else to do but work the problem. You get the idea.)

I suspect I’ve said this before, and that other writers and creators have said similar things. But inasmuch as I just used it again, and it worked, I thought I’d mention it again.

Also, uh, hello. Busy writing, I am. It’s not a bad way to live. Hope your Friday is going well.

 

The Big Idea: Sarah Beth Durst

Be warned: in today’s Big Idea post for The Reluctant Queen, author Sarah Beth Durst gets a little… bloody.

SARAH BETH DURST:

This book was born in blood.

Seriously.

I had just arrived at a writing retreat in the Poconos.  Beautiful place.  Every writer was given an adorable wood cabin nestled beneath pine trees.  I was walking up to mine, reveling in the bird song, marveling at the wildflowers, anticipating frolicking with bunnies and deer… and I tripped and fell flat on my face.  Cut my lip.  Tasted blood.  And had the idea that become this series:

Bloodthirsty nature spirits.

The Reluctant Queen is Book Two of The Queens of Renthia, an epic fantasy series set in a world filled with nature spirits.  But these aren’t your sweet pastoral sprites.  These spirits want to kill all humans.  And only certain women — the queens — have the power to control them.

So that was my Big Idea for the world.  I created a gorgeous land filled with towering trees (think Lothlorien or Endor-size trees, with cities nestled in the branches), mountains so tall they pierce the sky, and endless glaciers.  Thanks to the overabundance of nature spirits, it’s a beautiful utopia… except for the constant danger of imminent death.  Given my lack of survival skills, I’d probably last about five minutes before I was ripped apart and eaten.

But that’s not the only Big Idea that went into making this book.  For me, it takes two Big Ideas to birth a book, one for the world and one for the characters — the collision of those two ideas is what propels me from “huh, that’s cool” to “ooh, I want to write that!”  (Side note for any beginning writers out there: one trick that I like for coming up with ideas is to make a list of Things You Think Are Awesome, pluck two items off the list, ram them together, and off you go.)

For this book, there was an idea that I’d been toying with for some time: exploring the concept of the reluctant hero.  The reluctant hero has a rich history in fantasy literature, which makes it wonderful fodder for ripping apart and creating something new.

One of the things that I love about writing fantasy is that there’s such a wealth of history to it.  You’re writing in conversation with hundreds of years of storytelling tradition — and because of this, readers come with a ton of expectations… which means that you as a writer have the marvelously fun chance to either fulfill or subvert those expectations.  Or both!

In The Reluctant Queen, I wanted to write a book in which a character was reluctant to use her power for a very good reason — in other words, not because she’s insecure or shy or lacks an understand of the situation, but because she’s examined the facts and come to the conclusion that using her power would be profoundly stupid.

Naelin is a woodswoman from a remote village who has immense power, but if she uses it, she runs the very real risk of leaving her two small children motherless.  Or worse, causing their deaths by drawing the spirits to them.  She’d rather let the world burn than endanger her children.

At their heart, these books are about power: who has it, who wants it, what you do with it, and what it does with you. The Reluctant Queen continues the story of Daleina (whose tale began in The Queen of Blood) and introduces Naelin — two women with very different approaches to the power they wield.  Together, they are responsible for the fate of their land.

I had (and am having!) such an immensely fun time writing these books.  It’s been an immersive experience, ziplining through the trees and flying on the backs of air spirits.  I’m so very, very excited to share this world and these characters with you!

Welcome to Renthia!  Just watch out for the trees.  They bite.

—-

The Reluctant Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: In Search of Lost Time

 

Got time for a Big Idea? Karen Heuler’s involves time itself — that having and getting of it, and what both mean for her latest work, In Search of Lost Time.

KAREN HEULER:

I started taking piano lesson in my mid-thirties because I fell in love with Chopin’s Preludes and I wanted to play them. I got a cheap piano (there are such things) and started taking lessons. But there was a strange thing going on. I couldn’t learn as fast as I wanted to. I wanted to play piano, but I didn’t want to lose time doing so.

Who wants to lose time? Who has enough time?

There’s a line from Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” that I often think of:

But at my back I always hear

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near

Time does indeed seem to be the quintessential Big Idea, the white noise behind all we do. Time happens without our consent, it happens without our noticing. We can do things in the fullness of time, or we can run out of time, or we can allocate time, but there’s never enough. Time is, in fact, our alternate reality. Had we used our time differently, we would have been different.  But there’s only so much time and there’s only so much we can do with it.

But what if we had more time? What if, in fact, we could purchase time? What would you do if you could use someone else’s time, no skin off your teeth, no tipping the hourglass even further? What would you do?

I hope you’d have a moral dilemma there. Yes, we all want to live and our urge to save ourselves overwhelms our urge to save others. But if you could dip here and there—a few minutes, say, from everyone on earth—would you do it? A few minutes? Who would miss a few minutes?

In my latest book, In Search of Lost Time, my main character has the ability to steal time, and possibly also the resources to get it to the people who need those minutes the most—the dying, for instance. To complicate matters, some people know she can steal time. And there’s a market for it. Of course there’s a market for it—time is the most valuable commodity there is. You can go for days without food or water, but not without time.

The sticky part, of course, is that you can’t get more time this way without taking it away from someone else. She’s not a saint but she’s not a murderer either. The underground knows who she is, as do some people who are running out of their own time. Who will she help, and how does the whole thing work, anyway? She’s new to it all. But there just might be someone who knows what to do about this strange ability she has, how to figure out a strategy for the most valuable thing there is. Can she avoid getting even more involved?

But enough about her. What would you do? If the world were starving but you could grab a few grains of rice from everyone else in order to survive, would you do it? Is just a little bit of theft really theft at all? Would you share what you stole—and how? How would you choose who to save?

These questions aren’t answerable for us; they merely let us look at the decisions we do make by looking at the choices we could make. And, by the way, those grains of time or rice don’t just come to you; you have to gather them. You have to see who you’re taking them from. The Big Idea gets personal.

What would you do?

—-

In Search of Lost Time: Amazon|Aqueduct Press

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

How People Get to Whatever, 2017 Midyear Report

This is going to be a blog stats nerdery report, so you can skip it entirely if this sort of thing bores you.

At the halfway point of 2017, Whatever is on track to have the lowest number of direct site visits of any year since 2008, which is the year the site started being hosted by WordPress VIP. If current visitorship levels continue, the site will end up with around 4 million visits for the year. That number is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also considerably off the eight million visits the site got in 2012, the highest-traffic year of the site.

So what’s going on this year that’s bringing the traffic down? I think there are a number of things going on.

The first chunk of things has to do with me. I’ve written comparatively less here this year than in other years, and there’s a pretty direct correlation between the number of posts and the number of visits. Write fewer posts and you’ll get fewer visits. This year there are have been 230 posts to date (231 with this one); in 2012 I posted 848 posts total, which means probably twice as many posts that year at this point than this.

Also this year I’ve had no post really “break out” yet — the massively-shared post that boosts readership at the site. Again, in 2012, I had a stack of those: the “Straight White Male” post, but also “A Fan Letter to Conservative Politicians,” “A Self-Made Man Looks at How He Made It” and “Who Gets to Be a Geek?” and a few others. Those are things you can’t plan for — you can try to make something viral, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work — and you just take them as they come. This year has had some widely shared posts, but nothing on that sort of scale.

Finally in this category, and largely explaining the first two, this year my focus has been elsewhere a lot of the year to date. Offline, I’ve been touring and traveling heavily, primarily to promote The Collapsing Empire, and working on writing Head On and doing a few other projects. All of those leave less time for writing longer-form thoughts here. This factor also means Twitter is in many ways more congenial to my schedule — it’s easier to dip in and out of when I have a snarky thought, which as most of you know is pretty often. Plus there is some stuff that I would write here that I now write over at the Los Angeles Times, because they pay me money for that, and I like money, and also the larger audience a major newspaper provides, online and off.

Basically that last point is: Hey, I got busy with paid and promotional work! Which was and is always the goal. But it also means longer posts here are often the first to get cut in the list of “things to do today.” Not always — sometimes I just have to say something — but usually.

So those are the reasons relating to me directly. Now for some of the things not relating to me directly:

First up, the general collapse of blogs, which has been happening for a couple of years now, really seems to have accelerated in the last year. I notice this anecdotally, first in that the number of personal blogs referring visitors to the site has dropped significantly, and secondly in that when I do the occasional Google search on “Scalzi,” filtering for the last 24 hours of references, very very few blogs show up anymore; its mostly book reviews and sites masquerading as pirate media servers in order to give the unwary a virus.

Now, if I’m writing fewer posts (and fewer long-term posts), there’ll be a drop because of that anyway, but I have a more stable metric for this stuff as well: The Big Idea posts, which I post regularly even when I don’t otherwise post, and which have stable (and nice!) visitor stats. Two years ago, a good number of personal blogs would link into Whatever to note Big Idea posts; this year, again, very few. Basically Twitter and Facebook have largely completed their digestion of the blogosphere at this point. This is also reflected in my stats: The two largest referrers to the site are these two. But there’s no way to parse out in my site stats where on either site the links originate. From a site stats point of view, they’re both black boxes.

(Which, incidentally, makes me sad. Back in my day, you could find a lot of interesting people and sites just by combing through your site stats and seeing who was linking to you, or by doing the occasional ego search. These days, again, the results are either opaque or just plain junk. There’s not a lot of there there anymore.)

So basically fewer people are getting to Whatever through the ways they used to. But — and here’s an salient point — I don’t think the content of the site is overall getting fewer readers, because there are other ways they read it now without directly visiting the site. For example, Whatever has (as of this very moment) 28,342 people who follow the site via WordPress, which means they see the posts not on the site, but through an RSS-like feed which they can scroll through. Whatever has another 12K or so subscribers via Feedly last I checked, and a couple thousand at least who get posts emailed to them. So that’s 40K+ people who get whatever I write here without ever having to come to the site unless they want to comment.

Then there’s stuff like Google’s AMP initiative, which, if you click a Whatever result on Google while you’re on a mobile device, presents you with an alternate “streamlined” mobile-friendly version of the post rather than taking you directly to the site (which, I will note, already presents a mobile-friendly version of the site). Those readers aren’t captured on my site stats either, as far as I can tell.

What this means, basically, is that for 2017, there’s something like 9+ million potential visits to writing on Whatever that aren’t being registered in the site stats (I say “potential” since not every post sent out via WordPress or Feedly is going to be read by an individual subscriber). Which is significant! And also suggests, again, that the issue is not fewer people having access to the writing on Whatever, but me not having access to the full numbers (or, more accurately, meaningful numbers). This is another example of how the Web has changed substantially, even in just a few years.

What does this mean for Whatever? Honestly, not too much. I don’t rely on Whatever for income, so the visitor stats, while they’re interesting for me (I mean, obviously), don’t have on effect on how I run the site. I don’t have to post clickbait-y pieces to drive traffic, and depending on my whim, I can post six pieces a day or none. Once again, “Whatever” exactly describes what the site is about; it’s whatever I have on my mind, how I wish to present it, when I have the time to do so.

On a personal level, I admit that this diffusion of Whatever readership is annoying to me; I liked it better when I had a better idea just how many people were reading my stuff at any one time, rather than having to guess. I’m kind of a stats nerd, it seems. I suppose if I wanted to splash out a lot of money and time I could probably find a stats program out there that could interface with everything and give me a more accurate picture, but: Money and time. I don’t really want to spend either.

And anyway, as much as I enjoy Twitter and other social media, sometimes I just want to write at length, and this is the place for that. The occasional tweetstorm (i.e., chaining multiple tweets on a subject together) is fine, but honestly if you’re going to write at length, just write a friggin’ blog post and link people into it. Also, and again, I own this site. Long after Twitter or Facebook is a memory, as long as I pay for this site, it’s here to stay.

So: However you’re reading this, thanks. I’m glad you are. Let’s keep going through 2017.

The Big Idea: Martha Wells

All good things come to an end, and for The Harbors of the Sun, the last book in Martha Wells’ Raksura series, the author takes a look at how she got here, and what the series, and the journey of writing it, has meant to her.

MARTHA WELLS:

After four novels, and two novella collections, The Harbors of the Sun is the last book in the Books of the Raksura series.

It’s fitting that The Harbors of the Sun is about the end of a journey, because it’s been a long road to its publication. The first book in the series, The Cloud Roads, came out in 2011, after taking two years to find a publisher. It was the book of my heart, a book that in many ways I had always wanted to write.

But at first, nobody seemed to want to publish a book with no humans in it, where the main characters were matriarchal bisexual polyamorous flying shapeshifting lizard-lion-bee people. Go figure!

I always felt that despite having non-human protagonists, the themes of the series were universal. Like finding a family and a home and protecting it against outside attack and environmental pressure. Learning to trust when suspicion, paranoia, and pretending to be anything other than what you are have been your main survival traits. Learning to fit into a complex society and web of relationships that seem almost impossible to understand. How hard it is to leave your past behind. Plus there’s a lot of adventures and exploration and flying and people-eating monsters; who wouldn’t want to read about that?

I put a lot of my own feelings of isolation into the story. I’d been a weird, lonely kid who grew up as an SF/F fan at a time when nobody else I knew liked or cared about it. I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder and possibility, of strange worlds with no boundaries, that I felt while looking at old books with pulp covers in the SF/F corner of the public library. (The corner that I was too young to look at yet but it was their own fault for putting the children’s section next to it.) After years of trying, I felt like I had captured that feeling with the Raksura.

Then finally, despite everything stacked against it, The Cloud Roads was published, and then The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths, and the two novella collections. And even though I had gotten the Indigo Cloud Court settled in the Reaches and (mostly) happy, I still wanted to explore more of the Three Worlds with these characters. I wanted Moon and Jade and the others to go on an adventure outside the relative safety of the colony trees, and to explore the conflict between the Raksura and the predatory Fell.

In many ways, the Raksura didn’t know very much about their world. I wanted to take the characters and the reader on a journey to find out more. I wanted to push the boundaries as far as I could. And that idea became The Edge of Worlds and The Harbors of the Sun.

So, it’s been a long journey to get to The Harbors of the Sun, the end of the story of Moon, Jade, and the Indigo Cloud Court. This is the most I’ve ever written in one world, and it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to these characters. These are still the books of my heart, and the books I always wanted to write, ever since I was that little kid in the public library.

—-

The Harbors of the Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

I Wrote 5500 Words on the Novel Today and My Brain is Mush, So Here Is a Picture of a Cat

Mush, I tell you! But the kitty is pretty.

In Which I Trespass Against Dan Wells at Denver Comic Con, and He Exacts His Fitting Revenge, a Tale Told in Two Tweets

That’s fair. 

In other news, at the airport to be on my way home. Thanks, Denver Comic Con and all who attended, for a fabulous time.

View From a Hotel Window, 6/30/17: Denver

I actually took this photo on the 29th, local time (which it still is when I post this), but because Whatever is on Eastern time, it’ll show up as the 30th. Time zones! They are freaky.

In any event, after some delay, I am now in Denver, in my hotel room, which I think is larger than my first apartment, and nicer, too.

There was one silver lining to the plane delay: I flew into Denver during the sunset, and it looked like this:

Yes, that’ll do.

Now to get some room service and sleep, hopefully in that order.

The Big Idea: Jean Marie Bauhaus

First books in a series are often easy to write — fresh ideas, new characters, cool situations. What about the second books, where you have to continue with the rules you already set out? How do you keep it fresh for the readers, and the author? It’s a question Jean Marie Bauhaus confronts in her new novel, Kindred Spirits.

JEAN MARIE BAUHAUS:

Sometimes ideas come easy. For example, walking out of a movie theater many moons ago after having seen The Grudge, I had the thought that if being violently murdered can turn someone into a murderous vengeful spirit, then what about the spirits of the people murdered by said vengeful spirit? Wouldn’t they want vengeance, too? What if instead of taking their anger out on innocent people they instead turned on the ghost that killed them in the first place? That idea stuck with me and eventually grew into the plot of my debut novel, Restless Spirits.

When it came to writing a sequel, however, nothing was so easy or clear cut. Kindred Spirits actually took me years to write because although there were a few things I knew for certain, none of those things added up to a story. I knew, for instance, that the spotlight would shift from the first book’s ghostly protagonist to her living sister, medium Chris Wilson. I knew that Chris would purchase and move into the haunted house featured in the first book, where her sister’s spirit still resides. And I knew that living with her overprotective big sister’s ghost would prove to be complicated, and also pretty annoying.

I also knew that I wanted the second book to stand on its own two legs, to be a self-contained story that could be understood and enjoyed without needing to have read its predecessor. This seemed like a tall order.

Despite knowing these details, a story didn’t start to take shape until I conceived of an antagonist who not only didn’t believe in Chris’s abilities but also had the power to seriously complicate her life. That character became Derek Brandt, a cynical TV crime reporter who believes he has a duty to expose Chris as a fraud. Which leads to the question: what would Big Sis do to someone who went after Chris in such a way?

The answer: haunt him, of course. At which point hijinks would ensue.

But that still wasn’t a story. It was only a starting point. Things didn’t really start to come together until I sat myself down and asked myself, what is the central idea of this story?

Restless Spirits developed along the theme that love is a powerful force that gives good people the strength to do what’s necessary to overcome evil, so powerful that it outlasts even death.

It occurred to me that here I had an opportunity to explore the flip side of that idea–that love can be twisted into a destructive force by twisted, broken people, used as both an impetus and an excuse for evil actions. With that central idea in place, other characters quickly came into being and their motivations and goals became clear. Derek Brandt, as it turned out, had good reason for his cynicism and distrust of Chris Wilson and her ilk. He also had a brother, whose unsolved murder became the central plot.

Finally, I had a story to tell.

That story turned out to be quite the mashup. One part ghost story, one part romantic comedy and one part murder mystery with a dash of thriller, served with a liberal sprinkling of a Gilmore Girls-esque relationship between sisters who won’t even let death come between them.

The romance and comedy came naturally, as did the darker supernatural and suspense aspects of the book. As someone who grew up bouncing back and forth between the likes of Lucy Maude Montgomery and Stephen King, I tend to have a wide range of sensibilities that creeps into my writing.

The mystery part, however, challenged me and took me places that as a writer I never expected to go. It turns out that writing a mystery doesn’t simply involve deciding who the killer is and then planting clues for your protagonist to follow like bread crumbs. You also have to do so in such a way that doesn’t make the killer’s identity completely obvious to the reader–which is harder to do than it sounds. Giving the killer layers, with sympathetic motives that make him or her seem like a human being and not a Disney villain, was also a concern.

I think I managed to pull it off, but that’s up to the reader to decide. At any rate, whereas the first book is a love story at its core, so too is this one, but it’s as much a story about how love can become corrupted as it is about its power to heal wounds, overcome darkness and make forgiveness possible. Whether it does one or the other ultimately comes down to the condition of the soul who’s driven by it.

—-

Kindred Spirits: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

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

Administrative Note: All July Big Ideas Scheduled

If you were waiting to hear if you were scheduled for July and have not heard from me, a) Sorry, b) Yup, they’re all scheduled.

Still taking queries for August.

My Denver Comic Con Schedule

Hey! I’m going to Denver Comic Con this weekend! I’ll be on panels and signing books! Here is my schedule!

Panels:

Laughter in the Face of Disaster (Friday 6/30 11AM Room 407),

Military Scifi an Institution (Friday 6/30 3PM DCCP4 – Keystone City Room),

Fight the Power! Fiction for Political Change (Friday 6/30 4:30PM Room 402),

The Writing Process of Best Sellers (Saturday 7/1 12PM Room 407),

The Hardness Scale – Is Fiction Better Squishy or Solid? (Saturday 7/1 3PM Room 407),

Economics, Value and Motivating Your Character (Sunday 7/2 11AM Room 407).

Signings:

Friday 6/30 from 1PM-2:50PM at Tattered Cover Signing Booth 2,

Saturday 7/1 from  10:30AM-11:50PM at the Tattered Cover Signing Booth,

Sunday 7/2 from 2PM-4PM at Tattered Cover Signing Booth 2.

Come see me!

Also, thanks to Sisters in Geek, who collected up this information in this article on my and other authors’ schedules, so I didn’t have to. You’re the best, Sisters in Geek!

New Books and ARCs, 6/27/17

We interrupt this Tuesday afternoon to bring this fresh stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here is a book you would like in your possession? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Desirina Boskovich

Memory and language: Two concepts that Desirinia Boskovich had in mind for her novella Never Now Always. And now, here she is, to remember to you, in words, why they were important to her story.

DESIRINA BOSKOVICH:

There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic scenes that loom large for us because they connect in some deeper way with our own buried nightmares and past traumas.

For me one of those moments is in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, where every single day, bound to that chair, the prince remembers how much he’s forgotten. Fleetingly, he understands he’s a prisoner and also that he can do nothing about it, imprisoned equally by his own enchanted brain.

I was just six or seven when I read this and the horror of it simply overwhelmed me and then infiltrated me: that moment when you know, and simultaneously know the knowledge won’t last.

I think it terrifies me because the vulnerability and powerlessness of that moment is so crushing and absolute.

In Never Now Always, I set out to explore the terror of that moment. And also to face it and conquer it, putting my characters in the same predicament, yet giving them tools to fight.

So the story centers on Lolo, a child who finds herself trapped in a mysterious labyrinth under the supervision of a horde of voiceless alien Caretakers. She is surrounded by many other children, but none of them know how they ended up there, or what happened before. And as the Caretakers subject the children to psychological experiments focused on trauma and memory, their ability to form short-term memories is limited, too. Everything they learn, or think they learn, just slips between their fingers like water.

Then Lolo hits on the concept of writing — scrawling drawings and pictographs as simply as possible, designed to represent these fleeting pieces of story to her future self. Hoping that she stays the same, that her perception persists enough from day to day that when she sees those scribblings later, she’ll still know what they mean.

For me, as the writer of the novella, it was more complicated. The deeper I got into the story, the more I realized how truly challenging it would be to tell a story where the mechanics of narrative are broken, where one thing doesn’t always lead to another and pieces of story don’t necessarily add up.

In some ways every scene felt like a first scene. There are gaps in this story, and continuity errors.

But I also realized that while I wanted my reader to feel somewhat disoriented, I could not let them remain as disoriented as the characters, because that would really not be an enjoyable story to read.

So I also ended up depending heavily on language to do the work — I tried to anchor everything in touch and taste and feelings, always in the present tense, a language reinvented for children whose sense of time is confined to a narrow slice of perpetual now. Everything that’s happening to them is happening in the immediate, and the present is the only moment that matters.

And in that perpetual now is where I think my characters — and I, myself — find redemption and solace. Because love is deeper than language. Because my dog doesn’t need to remember all the days of his life with me to know that with me he’s loved and safe and home; “yesterday” and “tomorrow” don’t actually mean anything. As always, my dog is wiser than I am. So I gave Lolo a dog, too, to help her figure it out.

In the end, the story returns to the one idea I find most comforting: that in this world and the next, life after life, we always make our way back to protect those who’ve protected us, and to be reunited with the souls we’ve loved.

I hope it’s true.

—-

Never Now Always: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Harry Potter and the Initially Dismissive But Ultimately Appreciative Fan

The first time I personally encountered Harry Potter was not long after the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, came out. I was 30 and my daughter was an infant, so in neither case were these particular Scalzis the target demographic for the books, but by that time the buzz (and sales) of the series were pretty significant. So one day in the airport, while I was browsing in a bookstore, I picked up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and opened it up near the end, to the part where Dobby the House Elf is given a sock.

I read it for a few pages to get the sense of Rowling’s style, and then put the book back on the shelf and thought, “well, okay, that’s not for me.” Why not for me? In this case, it was something about the writing of that particular scene. I could see how all the pieces fit together, and I could see how it was working, and I could also see that all of it seemed pitched to someone who wasn’t me, 30-year-old John Scalzi. This didn’t mean it wasn’t a good book or the right book for someone else; by the age of thirty I had gathered enough wisdom (and, dare I say it, humility) to recognize that “not for me” was not the same as “not for anyone.” But I didn’t feel the click that made me want to keep reading. Evidently, Harry Potter was not for me.

And that was okay! There is a lot of stuff in the common culture that is not for me, particularly when it’s pitched to people who are younger or older than I am. Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries are not for me, just like My Three Sons or Dark Shadows were not for me. Emerson Lake and Palmer was not for me, nor was N*Sync, nor is Ariana Grande. Doctor Who’s first iteration was not for me and I have to admit I’m only passably interested in the current version. I could be here for days with a list of all the things that are not for me. Again, which is fine! There are lots of things that I decided are for me. I was happy with them.

And so with Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, whose niche in my mind I pretty much figured had been occupied by Will Stanton and Meg Murry, and Susan Cooper and Madeleine L’Engle. I didn’t worry too much about whether Kids These Days were reading The Dark is Rising or the Wrinkle in Time series, for the same reason I didn’t worry too much if today’s kids were really into Tears for Fears or the Go-Gos, to name but two bands whose discographies were pertinent to my teenage years. Every generation finds their storytellers, in literature and music and art in general. I was okay letting J.K. Rowling and her stories belong to the generation of young people after mine. Yes, I know, very gracious of me.

But as it turns out neither Harry Potter nor J.K. Rowling were done with me. First, of course, it turned out that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley (and Rowling) weren’t Tears for Fears; they were the Beatles. And like the Beatles they weren’t just popular. They materially changed common culture — for a start, because they also changed the industry that they came out of, and the work of everyone in their field, who either responded to them or were influenced by them. Now, one may, like me, decide a phenomenon like that isn’t for you, but when literally(!) the world is changing to deal with and make room for that phenomenon, you still have to acknowledge that it’s there and work with it, or at least around it. Particularly when and if, like me, it comes out of the fields (in this case publishing and writing) you hope to be in, and in my case were eventually part of.

Second, I found another way in to Rowling’s wizarding world: through the movies, which were for me in a way that I, from that snippet of the second book, assumed the books were not. In retrospect this is not at all surprising — I was a professional film critic for several years, and I’ve written two books on film, and, as anyone who has ever read my novels can tell you, the storytelling structure of film is a huge influence on my storytelling in prose. My professional and creative interest in film helped that version of Harry Potter’s story speak to me.

(And in point of fact this is not the first time I had found the film/TV version of a story working better for me. I’ve written in detail about how I think the Peter Jackson’s take on The Lord of the Rings is better — or at least better for me, in terms of story presentation — than the Tolkien books; likewise I am deeper into the Game of Thrones universe through the TV series than I was through the books. In all these cases, I’m not suggesting the prose version has failed in some way and the films “fix” them. They obviously work for millions of people. More to the point, different media allow creators to do different things, and reach different people. As was the case here.)

Having gotten through the door with the series via film was a good thing, because as it turned out Harry Potter is for me — which is to say that I find the world that Rowling created to be deep and thoughtful and interesting in ways I didn’t expect. And because it’s interesting and engaging to me as someone who approached it as an adult, I understand better why it’s so very deeply affecting for the readers who literally grew up in tandem with Harry and Hermione and Ron and all the rest of the students at Hogwarts. They aren’t just characters to them, any more than Will Stanton or Meg Murry were just characters to me. They were and are contemporaries and friends. Harry Potter’s Hogwarts year had several million students in it. It’s a miracle they all fit in the dining hall.

One way or another, lightly or deeply, it’s turned out Harry Potter is for more people than I would have expected, all those years ago. This is one reason why 20 years after the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we’re getting the sort of retrospectives on the series that Sgt. Pepper’s got 20 years down the road from its release, and why, just like everyone knew which Beatle was their favorite, now everyone knows which Hogwarts house they’d personally be sorted into, or would want to be.

(Personal moment here: I assumed I was a Ravenclaw, because come on, but then went to the Pottermore site and was sorted into Gryffindor, which annoyed me but on reflection I realized was correct, damn it. Also, re: the Beatles, John is Slytherin, Paul is Gryffindor, George is Ravenclaw and Ringo is so very Hufflepuff. Fight me on this).

This is not to say the Potterverse is perfect or that J.K. Rowling is infallable as a writer or human. It’s not and she’s not. But then again, none of the universes I’ve written are perfect, and I sure as hell am not infallible, either. Fictional universes don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be a space people want to explore and keep exploring, year after year. I can’t say that I know Rowling to any great extent — we’ve exchanged pleasantries on Twitter, which I try not to let her know I’ve geeked out about — but I do admire her, as a writer and a worldbuilder, and as someone who has decided that she needs to be engaged in our world and time. From her public persona at least, it’s no great surprise that Harry and Hermione and Ron came out of her brain, or that she created such great antagonists for them. I think she sees what the world can run downhill toward, and how quickly that can happen, and that people need to stand against that, and stand with each other as they do so.

Which is another reason I’m glad that I found Harry Potter is for me, and for millions of other people. We need that now in 2017. I need it now. There’s very little chance J.K. Rowling knew, 20 years ago, that her books and her characters would be needed like this today. But I hope she knows it now, today and every day.

Why My Wife is Amazing, Part 73,592

Conversation between me and Krissy yesterday:

Me: With all this bullshit around health care, and the possibility of pre-existing conditions and insurance caps coming back, we should probably look into supplemental insurance.

Krissy: I got us supplemental insurance years ago.

Me: You did?

Krissy: Yes. I even have policies for very specific things.

Me: Like what?

Krissy: I have an insurance policy on your hands.

Me: My hands?

Krissy: You’re a writer. You use your hands. If something happens to your hands, it’s a problem. We’ll need to pay for someone for you to dictate to.

Me: You’ve insured my hands.

Krissy: Yes.

Me: I’m not going to lie. That’s literally the sexiest thing you’ve said to me this whole damn month.

Stars and Fireflies, 6/24/17

I finally got out the tripod, and it makes a difference. This is one you’ll want to see the big version of.

Interview, of Me, in Iowa, In Which I Talk About Writing

Gotta be honest, I had entirely forgotten I’d done this interview last year when I was in Iowa City for a book festival. But eventually it all came back to me. Also, it’s a pretty good interview. Enjoy.

In Which I Announce My Plan to Hide From the News Until Head On Is Done

Hey, did you know I’m currently writing a novel? I am! It’s called Head On, and it’s coming out in ten months. Also, it’s not done yet, and the deadline is real soon now. I need to make some real progress on it in the next few weeks or else my editor will give me highly disapproving looks. Which would be no good. My problem is that whenever I make any real progress and take a break to see what’s going on in the news, it looks like this:

 

And, well. That’s not great for my focus.

The world is not going to stop being like this anytime in the near future, alas, but I still need to get my work done, and soon.

So: From now until the book is done, my plan is to avoid the news as much as possible, and also, to the extent I do see news, to avoid writing about it in any significant detail. Tweets? Maybe. 1,000+ word posts here? Probably not.

Note that I’m going to fail in avoiding the news entirely — I live in the world, and next week I’ll be at Denver Comic Con, which means that at the very least in the airport CNN is going to come at me, and anyway whichever way the Senate plan to murder the ACA falls out, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna know about it. Be that as it may I’m going to make an effort to keep as much of it out of my brain as possible.

Incidentally, yes, just in case you were wondering, this is confirmation that at least one of your favorite writers — me! — finds it hard to get work done in these days of the world being on fire. “The art of the Trump era is going to be so lit!” people have said. Dudes, when you’re worried about friends losing access to health care and American democracy being dug out from below because the general GOP attitude to the immense corruption and bigotry of the Trump administration is “lol, as long as we get to kick the poor,” just to list two things about 2017, the creative process is harder to get into, and stay inside of. I’m not the only one I know who is dealing with this right now.

But the work still needs to get done — and not just for you folks. I like getting caught up in my work. It feels good when the writing is moving along.

So, again: News break.

This doesn’t necessarily mean fewer Whatever posts over the next few weeks, since I’ll have July Big Idea pieces and other posts in the pipeline. It does mean the posts that show up probably won’t touch much on world/national news or politics.

I mean, I hope they won’t. But I also know this is a thing, especially with me:

So. I will try to be strong.

Also, when the book is done, oh, how I shall opine.

In the meantime, I don’t suspect you will have difficulty finding other opinions on news and political events. It’s called “the Internet.” You may have heard of it.