The Big Idea: Tom Merritt

Sometimes, as a fan, you hope your a new book or show or album from your favorite creative people will give you the experience you want. But sometimes it doesn’t. What then? If you’re Tom Merritt, you use that as an inspiration to create a novel. Here’s Merritt now to talk about how his book Pilot X came out of a moment that wasn’t.

TOM MERRITT:

When I was 18 I went off to college, hours from the only house I ever lived in, barely knowing anyone, and scared to death. When I was 23 I moved to Texas with my then-girlfriend, leaving everything in my home state behind, and scared to death. When I was 29, the girlfriend no longer with me, I moved to San Francisco alone, barely knowing anyone, in a job I wasn’t sure I knew how to do, scared to death.

We’ve all felt alone and we’ve all made decisions that felt too big for us. What do we do when there doesn’t seem to be a right decision? Knowing someone else who’s faced the same thing helps, even if that person is fictional.

In 2006, Doctor Who returned to TV. I was captivated by Christopher Eccleston’s lonely, haunted portrayal of the Doctor. I loved that he was the last of the time lords, sole survivor of a time war, driven mad by what he had to do, and running from that past.

When the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who promised to show us the moment that made him that way, when he had to destroy his own people to end a war, I got very excited. Finally, we would see the moment that drove a good man to make an impossible decision.

But that’s not what I got. I enjoyed the episode, don’t get me wrong—it was fun and thrilling in all the right ways. But it didn’t deliver the big moment I was expecting, at least not in the way I wanted.

What should a good person do when faced with a choice between the survival of the universe, and the survival of their own people? How could you live with yourself if you had to destroy everything you knew, to save a universe? Those were the questions I wanted to see explored.

Those questions haunted me for a year.

So, I wrote several pieces of a story about a timeship pilot who had to face that moment. I created a character who did not want fame, did not seek power, but just wanted to do what he enjoyed: flying his ship. Events beyond his control thrust him into a situation where he, and only he, could decide the fate of the universe. He would have to destroy his whole culture and orphan himself or watch everything in existence burn.

I didn’t want any easy outs for him either, so I created strict rules of time travel. If I made it possible to go back in time and assassinate the folks who caused everything to go bad, it would be a short story. Even if our hero didn’t do it, somebody else would have. Besides, I don’t think time travel would work like that.

I think time travel is rigid. If you could go back in time, the effects of everything you did in the past should already be felt in your present. Headache-inducing, I know. Suffice it to say you can’t change the past. What you did in the past already happened. Trying to change the past would be like trying to escape a planet’s gravity—you can’t do it by ordinary means like jumping or even flying. It takes a lot of energy and explosions. Of course, with sufficiently powerful and advanced technology it might still be possible.

I also didn’t want to rip off Doctor Who. The comparisons were close enough as it was. Sure, I was going to have a time traveler, a ship, and race of time travelers, but that was it. No Earth, no companions (I made the ship the companion) no sonic screwdriver, no Daleks, et cetera. The main character is never a doctor, and not a madman in a box. Jelly babies and fezzes do not once make an appearance. There is, however, pie.

All that scene setting, all that character creation, all that work on the mechanics of time travel, served to make one moment inescapable. Pilot X must face the heart-breaking moment when he must destroy everything he knows, to save everything but himself, then try to live with the consequences.

Why does that situation appeal to me so much? I think it has to do with those moments in our life when we have to break with the past. When it feels like we must leave everything behind and no matter what we do, some part of our self will be destroyed. Maybe it’s a metaphor for growing up. When we leave home for the first time we end our childhood. We can’t keep it. We can try to cling to it but it won’t be childhood any more. Or, we can leave it behind and set off to make ourselves something new.

My growing up (if it’s even done) took a long time and I traveled far from home often on my own. I know that feeling of having to leave everything behind and starting over. Granted, I never had to destroy a people or save a universe, but I have felt events force me into making big decisions and then had to face the consequences of those decisions alone. That’s what I saw in the Doctor. That’s what I put into Pilot X.

My hope is that I captured a bit of what I felt back in 2006.

—-

Pilot X: Amazon|Audible|Barnes & Noble

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

Still Life With Author Copies and Cat, Plus Audiobook News

While I was on the JoCo Cruise, the US and UK editions of The Collapsing Empire arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Here they are, with cat for scale.

Also, there’s this tweet from last night:

And if you’re asking, “Gee, isn’t the audiobook out next week?” the answer is indeed it is! Wil would have done the narration last week, but he was on the JoCo Cruise too, with me, and on which we discussed the book while lounging on the Lido deck, as one would. Which is to say we knew this well ahead of time and scheduled everything to move quickly this week. Don’t panic, we meant to do this.

Also, it’s eight days before release date here in the US, ten days in the UK. Still enough time to pre-order your copy (via your favorite local or online retailers) so you can have your copy on the day it comes out.

Also remember that I’ll soon be on tour, with Lexington, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Richmond, Nashville, Austin, Houston, Dallas and Chicago on the first leg. If you live in one of those towns, you should come see me! I’ll be reading new stuff that no one else gets to see or hear probably for a year or so. Lots of bragging rights going on there. Plus I’ll sign your books and stuff. You know, like you do. Or at least, like I do.

Eight days! I’m really excited.

The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

It’s Thursday! No, not the date (it’s still Monday, sorry about that), but the novel, written by Jake Kerr. And in it, Kerr attempts an update on a classic, if dated, fantasy novel. How hard could it be, right? Well

JAKE KERR:

So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.

That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.

I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.

The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.

It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year.

Updating the story wasn’t the hard part. With its surreal nature and the themes of deception and truth, I immediately knew that I wanted to use some kind of virtual reality framework. I’m also a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and two of his common themes are favorites of mine: What is reality? And what does it mean to be human?

Specifically, I thought of another favorite novel of mine—Dick’s Time Out of Joint, a fifties era paperback that centers on the protagonist living in a world that isn’t what it seems. Taking The Man Who was Thursday and moving it to a virtual reality setting where it’s hard to tell what is real and who is who they say they are while adding AIs who may or may not be considered human seemed like a perfect way to update Chesterton’s tale.

Easy, right? I even mirrored the scenes and chapters.

There was only one problem: It didn’t work.

My first draft was awful. I had stayed too true to Chesterton’s dialogue, and it sounded quaint and anachronistic. I had stripped out nearly all the exposition, and that left threadbare scenes. I had followed the plot so closely that some of the scenes that made sense in 1908 were absurd in a virtual reality setting.

What I thought would be easy was suddenly looking like a formidable challenge.

My friend Matt Mikalatos (who wrote the afterword) basically said I had written “too G. K. Chesterton and not enough Jake Kerr.”

While I grumbled about the hard work ahead of me, the more important concern was that the more I changed, the less I was staying true to the original novel. Yet if I didn’t make significant changes, many of the problematic things I wanted to fix would remain.

I’ve written homages before (namely “The Old Equations” and its thematic tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”), but this was an adaptation. I needed to keep the connection to the original source alive and clear.

So I waded in with what I hoped was a scalpel and not a machete.

I knew I had to keep the plot, including the sparse and thin scenes without the exposition. I also wanted to mirror the chapter structure to make it feel as close to Chesterton’s novel as possible. Beyond that, however, I realized I had to make significant changes.

I had originally intended to have fun and keep as much of Chesterton’s dialogue as possible and overlay it on the SF setting. I loved the idea, but it just didn’t work. So the first thing I did was re-do practically every line of dialogue. I worked hard to keep some, but only if it made sense. After I finished, I had a much more readable and contemporary-sounding novel. While I didn’t keep the words themselves, I worked hard to keep the spirit of the them.

Now Chesterton’s plot is fantastic and truly one of the best of all time, with twists that build on twists. The trouble was that it is limited by 1908 technology, with trains and pistols and slow travel on horseback. I ended up dramatically changing some scenes, including a tense race against the clock. Chesterton based the scene on the arrival of a train. I had it based on a server pending a maintenance lockdown.

As I noted earlier, Chesterton filled a lot of scenes with expositional philosophical musing. While perfect for his novel, it simply doesn’t work in a contemporary SF novel. So I had to actually flesh out a lot of scenes with action that are only described or mentioned in passing by Chesterton. This happens in the opening chapter when Gabby Simm meets Lucian. For Chesterton it was a philosophical meeting of poets. I added a scene-specific goal for Lucian with Gabby narrating with snark.

I also couldn’t ignore the opposite point-of-view of updating a book—the demands of contemporary genre conventions. You can’t simply adapt a book to a new setting, you need to apply the setting to the book. For example, much of my book is set on a fantasy virtual reality server like Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online. How could I set a thriller in such a setting without having a virtual reality fantasy battle, complete with a castle, spells, NPC warriors, traps, and unique magical items? I made the battle fit within Chesterton’s plot, but it is new and gives the book the contemporary feel it requires.

The final piece was the biggest challenge for me. Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.

At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.

Earlier I wrote: Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? The answer turned out to be very hard. I’m not exaggerating in saying that each chapter of Thursday took about as long to write as two chapters in a book that I would create from my own imagination. It was, in no uncertain terms, a significant time commitment. I do believe it was worth it, however. Even if readers hate my book, maybe the spark will be there for them to search for Chesterton. I wouldn’t mind that at all.

—-

Thursday: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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

The JoCo Cruise 2017 Final Concert Photoset

How I spent my first post-JoCo Cruise Sunday afternoon: One, weaving slightly, because I still do not have my land legs back, and two, going through the roughly one thousand photos I took of the JoCo Cruise 2017 final concert to bring you all a curated selection of highlights and portraits of the performers as they did their thing. If you were there, you can relive the moment. If you weren’t there, well, I think it’s an argument for why you should consider going on the JoCo Cruise next year.

Here’s the link to the Flickr album. Enjoy!

Back From JoCo Cruise

And we had a lovely time. Probably a longer write-up later, and definitely more pictures, but for now please enjoy this picture of Krissy having a windy day moment. She seems to be okay with it.

The Big Idea: Cat Sparks

In today’s Big Idea for her novel Lotus Blue, Australian author Cat Sparks talks about the enduring power of stupidity, and what it takes to save the world from it… or not.

CAT SPARKS:

I’ve been a fan of science fiction – in particular, post-apocalyptic narratives – since I was a child. Unsurprising that I eventually turned my hand to writing a novel set in a landscape created by the dismantling of long-term, sane, evidence-based civilization. If a lifelong interest in sci fi has taught me anything, it’s that the genre, at its best, serves as a kind of cultural decoder, telling us what we fear and feel about changes to the here and now.

As much as I loved the fictional and filmic apocalyptic landscapes of adolescence, they never really worried me. They weren’t serious real-life threats because I thought, nobody could ever be that stupid. Had I been paying more attention at school, I might have noticed human history groaning with the weighty burdens of stupidity, from the Treaty of Versailles to whoever cut down that last tree on Easter Island.

One week out from Trump’s inauguration, George Orwell’s 1984 became the best-selling book on Amazon.com. Back in 1948, Orwell was writing satire about the deficiencies and dangerous leanings of his own era. We’re not quite living in Orwell’s future, despite Newspeak cutting closer and closer to the internet’s linguistic bone. North Korea under Kim Jong-un is more aligned with Orwell’s dystopic vision.

My home continent Australia is a vast, inhospitable place with its 24 million residents mostly clinging around its more comfortable coastal fringe. Our mixed market economy relies on agriculture and service sectors, plus mining exports: iron ore, gold, uranium, coal, and liquefied natural gas. And don’t forget tourism: all those lovely golden beaches. Our greatest tourist attraction – the Great Barrier Reef – is bleaching and being killed off as I type.

Future Australia is the landscape of Lotus Blue. Australia got cut off – it’s its own world now. There are no countries, only towns and tribes. Weakened governments, desperate for new solutions to unsolvable problems in an increasingly fragmenting and uncaring international climate, sold off the country’s “useless”, inhospitable interior to anyone who’d pay, granting the buyers carte blanche to do anything they wanted with it, no questions asked.

Such a move is not without historical precedent. In the 50s and 60s the Australian Government permitted the British to test nuclear bombs in our deserts, regardless of the long-term consequences, most famously at Maralinga in South Australia. The indigenous people were shuffled off their traditional lands, and suffered health issues as a result of radiation, as did Australian service personnel, many of whose children died young or were born with severe deformities.

As if that weren’t bad enough, today, Australia is considering importing 3000 tons a year of other countries’ nuclear waste, planning to bury it in the outback — out of sight and out of mind. It’s clear that the government just wants the money and is incredibly short-sighted for the long-term health of our continent and the world. Even worse is the Queensland government’s approval of the infrastructure for a coal mine that will threaten the Great Barrier Reef with massive and continual dredging and dumping – all for an industry with an admittedly limited lifespan.

The real world seems particularly awash with stupid right now: alarming reserves of poorly stored biological toxins, development of lethal autonomous weapons systems against advice from science and industry leaders, a mindboggling denial to accept that manmade climate change is real. A collective refusal by too many governments to rehome the millions of refugees displaced by violent events beyond their control. People across the globe voting against their own best interests for things such as affordable healthcare, public education, environmental regulations and other vital social services. Voting against human rights and equality — or even worse, not bothering to vote at all, believing the future is not our concern or responsibility.

Lotus Blue is set in the future of a world that didn’t listen; a world in which reasonable self-interest and planetary concern was abandoned in favor of short-term profits for the elite. Humans lost control of the deadly, autonomous machines they had invented, as the oceans got warmer and the weather got wilder, the air got hotter and seas rose high, destroying homes, devastating agriculture and resulting in mass transience. A man-made, whole world of stupid.

Everything in the novel is extrapolated from genuine science, technology and current events. Fancifully embroidered, sure, but none of it came out of pure imagination.

We have never known so many ways and means of stupid. There have never been more of us and we have never demanded more from our environment than we do now. The fanciful, perpetual motion machine known as late stage capitalism stands as the greatest stupid in our arsenal, pushing the planet beyond the threshold of sustainability.

Today, eight individual men hold the same wealth as half the planet’s population. Silicon Valley and NYC super rich are reportedly building luxury bunkers and buying up ‘safe haven’ real estate as that doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight. As if any kind of bunker could protect them from the kind of darkness achieved when the lights go out on civilization itself.

In Lotus Blue, we meet the descendants of those bunkered, nervous rich — the powers-that-were, who ignored humanitarian and science-based concerns and kept up their high-grade exploitations until there was nothing left to dig up, farm or sell. Nothing but a vast, toxic expanse crawling with semi-sentient quasi-military hardware left over from other people’s experiments and skirmishes.

Against all odds, some of the hardy, abandoned surface-dwelling poor adapted and survived. Lotus Blue’s protagonist is a girl who discovers her unwelcome connection to the landscape’s deadly past. She must learn to use her resourcefulness to fight for and save the future from even greater stupid.

Which, let’s face it, we’re all going to have to do eventually. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

—-

Lotus Blue: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Outta Here

About to get on a plane to go to where I will get on a boat to be with a couple thousand other nerds. Not planning to be on the Internet whilst at sea. Definitely not reading the news. Please don’t blow up the planet while I’m away. Most times I’ve said that before it was a joke. Less of a joke this year, alas.

There’s a Big Idea piece scheduled for next week, but otherwise it’ll be pretty sparse here; at most I’ll post taunting pictures of gorgeous Pacific sunsets or such. Fortunately there’s the whole rest of the Internet for you to see! Go see it! Otherwise, be back in the real world in about a week.

Later!

The Big Idea: Jack Cheng

As someone who knows the joy of naming a character after a particular astronomer and popularizer of science, I’m delighted that Jack Cheng continues in this tradition with his novel See You in the Cosmos. In his Big Idea, Cheng talks about how our mutual brain crush inspired his story.

JACK CHENG:

I remember the exact moment it happened. I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, hanging out in my younger brother’s room, when I saw on his shelf a copy of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. I remembered an episode of a podcast I’d heard years before, in which Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, talked about how the two fell in love as they worked to gather sounds for the Voyager Golden Record. When I woke up the next morning, it was there, like the remnants of a dream: A story about a boy and his dog trying to launch a golden iPod into space, with his own sounds—his own record of life on Earth.

Very quickly I had the idea to tell the story using the iPod itself. The novel would be written as transcriptions of the recordings my main character, Alex, was making for intelligent beings millions of light-years away. But I hadn’t yet realized the implications of the choice. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a choice at the time. It was just the MacGyvering that you do as an author—you try to make full use of what’s already in the story. And this story had a golden iPod bound for the far reaches of space.

As I worked on the novel, I began to notice strange entanglements between Alex’s quest to launch his rocket and my own quest to write the book. I saw how his devotion to his task came from his very human desire to connect with others, and to understand his family’s history and circumstances. The setting was inspired by a solo road trip I’d taken in the Southwestern U.S. in the summer of 2013, but it wasn’t until after spending time with Alex that I remembered one of the main reasons for the trip in the first place: So I could, at the very end, retrace a Greyhound bus ride my father had taken from LA to Detroit when he first arrived in this country.

I found myself again and again in Alex’s story. It seemed even to mirror the very acts of writing, reading, and publishing. Alex embarks on his mission alone—save for his dog—but he eventually comes to meet people who support him and become a kind of found family. And wasn’t this also the journey of an author? Of moving from the solitary experience of writing the first drafts to getting feedback from trusted early readers, to working with agents and editors and so on, until the team around him or her becomes its own kind of found family? Even the book’s opening line—Who are you?—took on new meaning for me. Not only was it the question that Alex was asking of the recipients of his message, and the question he was asking of his father he never knew, it was also, I realized, the question a reader asks of a main character at the beginning of every novel. It was the question that I was asking of my reader, across the vast ocean of fictional space-time. Who are you?

That initial choice to tell the story on the iPod, it turned out, was indeed the Big Idea. Not just because it was a clever and interesting way to tell a story, but because it placed both the myself and the reader on Alex’s Earth and simultaneously away from it—far away—as the eventual recipients of his message. And with this vast distance comes, I think, a deep empathy; when you put yourself in the mind of someone so far away, and then look back on yourself from that person’s perspective—like Carl Sagan encouraged us to do when he described Earth as a “pale blue dot”—you end up seeing the things you have in common with your fellow human beings. You end up seeing your own story in the story of another. And their story in yours.

—-

See You in the Cosmos: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs

I’ve got a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs for today, because apparently March is like that. There’s some fabulous stuff in here — what grabs you? Tell us in the comments!

Asus c302ca Update

You’ll recall that last week I got a new laptop, the Asus c302ca, a 2-in-1 Chromebook; some of you wanted an update from me to let you know whether I thought it was a good investment.

My answer: Yes, I think so. With the caveat that it’s a $500 Chromebook and not $1000+ Windows or Mac rig, and thus one’s expectations should be set accordingly, I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve used it primarily for browsing and writing and within the scope of those two activities it’s done everything I’ve asked it to do without complaint; its processor (an Intel m3) would be pokey on a more intensive rig but zooms along here. The touchscreen is sharp and pretty and perfectly responsive in tablet mode, and the keyboard is, to me, very nice, with the layout the right size and the keys with just about the right amount of travel. This is a very comfortable machine for me.

I’ll note there are things I haven’t tried to do with this machine, in particular photoediting, which is a thing I do on my desktop. I’ll also note that I didn’t get this laptop for photoediting, and if I had I would have been silly. Again: Chromebook, and be aware of the limitations there. But within those limitations, it’s pretty great. I have no hesitation taking this along when I travel, which is a good thing as I have a pretty serious book tour coming up in a couple of weeks.

So, yes, if you’re in the market for a light-to-medium duty laptop for not a whole lot of money, then this is a pretty sharp choice, and I can recommend it.

March/April Big Idea Housekeeping Notes

Which are:

March Big Idea slots have been filled. If you asked for a March Big Idea slot and have not heard from me, sorry, full up.

April Big Idea slots will be filled probably in the week of March 12. If you’re waiting on a response for an April Big Idea slot, don’t panic! Wait a couple of weeks. Thanks.

The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

When Chuck Wendig is not drinking Febreeze smoothies or arguing with people about their burrito choices, he writes books! For example: Thunderbird, the newest entry in his Miriam Black series. In today’s Big Idea, Chuck talks about what it took to extend the series into new territory… and how the real world might have caught up with it along the way.

CHUCK WENDIG:

I’ll preface this by saying: I had no idea what was coming.

Two years ago, I wrote the fourth book in my Miriam Black series: Thunderbird. In it, Miriam seeks to end the curse that causes her see how people are going to die, but that path cuts straight through a right-wing militia nesting in Arizona.

It’s a militia, but it’s also a cult of personality, run in part by a charismatic man and his psychic wife. They have visions of an America in ruins, left so in part by those “others” who come across the border or from overseas. They also distrust their own government—these people are paranoid, driven by visions of a new world order or state-sponsored super-flu or other forms of impossible control. They want to break it all down. Blow it all up. They want to heal the divide by eradicating the other side in a civil war that proves their version of justice. They have weapons. They have bombs. They’re going to kill people to—in their minds—save people. And then they have visions of taking over the government that they destroy.

The book comes out this week, and suddenly it seems hopelessly naive. It now seems like a thing less out of fiction – or, at least, less a thing at the fringes and the margins – and is now a very real infection slithering right to the heart of American life and discourse. It’s gone off the pages. It’s gone off the rails. Here we are, in thrall to a cult of personality who sees enemies everywhere, who imagines threats that aren’t real, who seems to distrust the government even as it takes it over. It’s a group that claims that it wants to heal the divide, but its mechanism to do so again seems to be to create unity by destroying those would disagree.

Well, shit.

At the time, I thought, I’m going to talk about this thing, this sickness forming in the roots of the tree, and I was stupid enough to think that’s where it would stay. Trapped in those pages like a prisoner behind paper walls. But here we are. The big idea, the bad idea, has taken over. It’s escaped the prison. It’s gone beyond just the roots—it’s in the trunk of the tree and in the soil around us. I didn’t think the ideas I put forth in the book would become mainstream, in a way. I didn’t know we would climb so high only to fall back so far, so fast, to a broken world.

The Miriam books have always posited a broken world, of course. The characters contained within – save maybe one or two – are never really good people, they’re all just varying shades of bad. Some are bad because they are made that way, some are bad because it serves them. Some are bad because they’re as broken as the world around them, some are bad because they want to break the world further. There’s bad, then there’s real bad, and sometimes, there’s downright motherfucking evil.

I try to look at the book now, long after I wrote it, as it’s coming out onto bookshelves in a world whose own special horrors have exceeded the story’s own in many ways, and now I’m forced to find a different big idea contained within, one that maybe seeks to find hope in the hellmouth. And I’m forced to look at Miriam herself, because though she’s by no means a good person, she still tries to be better. Her capacity to do the right thing when surrounded by wrong is something noble. Her drive to be better even when she knows she’s easily one of the worst people in the room gives me a weird kind of hope. And the fact that even in all the darkness, the book still lets in rays of light—grimy light, light that flickers, but still light that clarifies and chases away shadows—well, I find that hopeful, too.

And sure, it’s just a book. It’s just a story. But like I said, sometimes the things inside books find a way outside the books. Sometimes they were never really the realm of fiction. Sometimes stories know things and tell us things even before we’re really aware of them. So that’s what I’m hoping is happening here. Maybe Thunderbird is showing us not only the reality of the darkness, but also that there’s a way through, too, toward the light. Maybe the big idea is that no matter how bad it gets, we can always make it better.

—-

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

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

Chuck, I Am Your Father: Another Bit of Twitter Nonsense Featuring Me and Chuck Wendig

Previously (featuring baby seal burritos).

Also Chuck’s new book Thunderbird is out, maybe go buy it or something, whatever, I’m not your dad.

The Big Idea: Erika Lewis

Ghosts! How do they play a role in the genesis of Erika Lewis‘ new novel, Game of Shadows? Lewis is about to tell you. You’ll just have to imagine her telling you, in the dark, with a flashlight illuminating her face from under her chin…

ERIKA LEWIS:

It all started when I was seven. I remember how cold the graveyard felt in the middle of that hot and sticky summer day. Not the entire yard, mind you, but one particular spot. The marker said his name, which I can’t remember, and his age, which I can’t forget. He was seven when he died. Seven. And he died fighting in the Civil War. That’s when it happened. The gentle wave of a little hand that wasn’t really there. Or was it? I ran that day. Scared of what I saw. But that moment was enough to keep me curious for the rest of my life. Did the boy have something he wanted to say? Was that why he was still in that graveyard so long after he’d died? Obviously, I believe in ghosts. Could that incident have been a figment of my imagination? Maybe…

I lost my stepfather when I was seventeen. We were close but I hardly saw him the year he died. So much time spent in and out of hospitals. We never got to say too much, and there were things left unsaid after he was gone. And I wondered if he, like the little boy in the graveyard, would ever wave at me. Or whisper in my ear, letting me know that he was still around, hearing me tell him the things I never got to say, like thank you for being there when others weren’t. But he didn’t. And at seventeen, I stopped believing…for a little while.

Larger than life, my grandmother was my hero. She made life look easy, even when it wasn’t. She never minded a midnight call during my turbulent college years when I needed to bend her ear. She was always there. Always up! The woman never slept until after 3 a.m. After I moved to California, and she became ill, I knew she didn’t have long. I had visited, but she was so sick, it was hard for her to talk. Then one morning, a few months later, before dawn, I knew her soul was moving on. How did I know? Because she told me. Do you know that feeling between sleep and awake, when you don’t know if you’re dreaming or hearing voices? Maybe that’s just me. I doubt it though. That was the last time I saw her, well, heard her. She said, “Lovey,” that’s what she called me, “I have to go now. I want you to know I love you and am so proud of you.” Me, being me, asked, “Is Grandpa here?” Grandma giggled. She did this from time to time, not often, but every once in a while, particularly when she talked about my grandfather who had died when I was eight. So she giggled and said, “oh yes, he’s over there. See? The one with the sexy legs.” Seriously. Sexy legs. God, I loved her.

As you can see The Big Idea behind Game of Shadows was something percolating for a long time. An emotional journey that felt like it needed to start from where we all did, in our youth. Right in the middle of those golden years when you feel invincible. Unbreakable. A time in your life when you never think that anything bad could happen—especially to you. After all, when you’re young, it could never be you who had something left to say, and now can’t, right?

Ethan Makkai is a freshman at Venice High School. He’s in that sweet spot, feeling immortal, but he has something that grounds him. Ethan can see ghosts. He knows life goes on in some form or fashion. Life and death is the ultimate great divide, but is it when you can still talk to those you’ve lost? Can still feel their presence blanketing you, giving you warmth and comfort when you need it them most? Ethan Makkai’s life is touched by death all the time. But it isn’t until he’s dying that he realizes what death would mean, that there would be things left unsaid—by him.

In bringing Game of Shadows to life, I wanted to combine Ethan’s personal story with something else that I found incredibly interesting: Irish Celtic mythology. During the first cycle of Ireland’s history, the Mythological Cycle, bards passed on legends of tragic heroes and great loves. A time when the Tuatha De Danann, the gods and goddesses, walked the Emerald Isle, and their seat of power was at the Hill of Tara, not far from Dublin. It’s still there. You can wander through it if you like. I don’t recommend getting too close to the hawthorn trees through, not without a fairy offering! Anyway, in the legends, when the Tuatha De Danann lost the war with the Milesians, the humans, they departed through the mounds to the Otherworld. But I always wondered: what ever happened to the mythical races and magical Druids that lived in Ireland with them? Well, that’s when I got to thinking. Maybe they’re still here…

TARA

Welcome to Tara, a hidden continent where, post losing the war, the Irish god of the sea sailed their kind, and magically hid the lands so humankind could never, ever find them…

I spent a few years writing, and researching, then writing some more, and then researching some more. I wanted the lands to feel unique, but also connected to what I love so much about the Irish myths, and about Ireland itself. In building out the realms, the landscape, the inhabitants, and magical rules in this new Tara, it all had to be tied to their ancient past, and yet different, brought into present day.

After making the biggest mistake of his life that allows his mother to be kidnapped, Ethan Makkai leaves Los Angeles, the only home he’s ever known, on mission to get her back or die trying. In an epic journey through unfamiliar lands Ethan must rescue his mother before a murdering sorcerer can kill her. He is the quintessential reluctant hero. Not that he’s unwilling to do whatever it takes to save Caitríona Makkai from her terrible fate, but rather unwilling to take on his new destiny, a destiny shaped by the fact that he can see ghosts…

It’s rather amusing in a chilling kind of way that The Big Idea for this story all started with the simple wave of a ghost-boy’s hand that may, or may not have been in that graveyard at all… but it did!

—-

Game of Shadows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

My Brain is Apparently a Fallow Field Today, So Here, Have a Chvrches Video

It’s animated! I know you like animated stuff.

Today in Portraiture

Today I decided I was going to make an actual effort to get some mileage out of the prime lens (50mm 1.8f) I got with my dSLR. So I did a little portraiture. Here are the results.

Result: Acceptable!

New Books and ARCs, 2/24/17

Already the last weekend of February — yikes! Fortunately here is a fine stack of new books and ARCs to help ease us into March. What here would you want to read next? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Jake Bible

What’s in a name? Sometimes, as Jake Bible relates about his new novel Stone Cold Bastards, there’s quite a lot there indeed.

JAKE BIBLE:

Stone Cold Bastards.

I have no idea the exact date or what influence triggered the name to pop into my head, but I do know I was in bed, it was late, and I had just turned out the light.

Stone Cold Bastards.

I switched the light back on and grabbed my phone to jot it down before I forgot it. My wife didn’t even ask why the light was back on; she was used to me taking random notes at random times on my phone. It’s part of being a writer’s spouse, just like me running last minute, random errands for her is part of being a public school teacher’s spouse. These things happen.

No clue what the novel was going to be about or even if it would become a novel. I have about 200+ titles/ideas/notes on my iPhone that I doubt I’ll ever get to in my lifetime, so there was a distinct possibility that SCB would amount to nothing.

Except that’s not what happened.

On March 16th, 2013 I jotted down a quick description “Like The Dirty Dozen meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Omen”.

Damn. That’s one serious mashup right there.

A day later I wrote “Old school, crack military team of gargoyles holds a Sanctuary against a Demon Siege”.

What the hell is an “old school, crack military team of gargoyles”? Were gargoyles in the military? And what’s up with capitalizing “Demon Siege”? My brain is weird.

I eventually fleshed it out some more and added the idea to my pitch sheet. Pitch sheet? Yep. Like I said above, over 200+ notes on my iPhone. I take the ones that refuse to let go of my mind and I add them to a pitch sheet. This is something I can email to publishers if I ever get asked “So, what ideas do you have?” Best to be prepared when opportunity knocks and all that jazz.

I was pretty stoked about this idea and constantly pitched it to publishers. It was gonna be a throwback to the old military movies of the late sixties and early seventies. You know, the ones with the misfit band of soldiers that have to come together and save the day while also sacrificing themselves because, hey, misfits die, it’s what they do.

Except I write genre fiction, so I switched out the human soldiers for gargoyles come to life when the End of Days shows up. I also switched out Nazis for demons. Well, humans possessed by demons. I wanted flesh and blood. I wanted a body count. I needed human bodies that could get hacked and slashed and shot and clubbed and crushed and just completely obliterated by some seriously badass stone fists.

I was in love with the entire idea.

Publishers weren’t.

I pitched it to five or six different publishers and they all passed.

Until I found Bell Bridge Books. They got my pitch sheet and to my complete surprise, Stone Cold Bastards was at the top of the list of what they would like me to write. Holy snack crackers! The Bastards’ time had finally come! Three years after I had originally come up with the idea.

Man, I was ready to get to the writing. Three years of those Bastards in my head meant I knew exactly what I wanted to write. And when I sat down to write the novel, it flowed so easily.

The gargoyles came to life when the Gates of Hell opened. There was a Sanctuary where the last humans left on Earth were being protected. Lots of action, violence, intrigue, snark, and blood. It was perfect.

Except it wasn’t. There is a reason editors exist. A big reason.

You see, I had been so focused on the gargoyles, and creating these badasses made of stone that would fit the title, that I forgot about why they were there in the first place: to protect the last humans. And, man, my human characters? They sucked.

Generic, cardboard cutouts. Unlikable. Boring. I gave the reader zero reason to care at all whether they lived or died. It didn’t matter how much ass the gargoyles kicked if the reason for kicking ass was to save a bunch of losers. The demons had more humanity than the actual humans.

Time to fix that!

I fleshed out the humans, I gave them souls, I gave them lives that readers cared about. I wove relationships and friendships into the story. I brought the gargoyles and the humans closer together. Stone hearts warmed as flesh hearts began to beat like they should have from the beginning. I not only gave the gargoyles a reason to care, but I gave the readers a reason to care.

Which is my job. I should have seen that from the start, but it’s hard when you have a burning idea and that idea eclipses everything else. A killer title. Gargoyles come to life. Demons to kill. End of Days. Except none of it worked without humanity at the core.

A couple more passes and the novel was done. And it was so much more than what I had hoped.

I had set out to write a novel steeped in pulp fiction with a seventies grindhouse ethos, but in the end I had a contemporary fantasy that not only had all of those elements, it had depth and heart and soul. I’ll admit that I grew a little teary when I re-read the ending.

Now it’s out in the wild. The Bastards have been set free.

In a way, so have I.

All because of a title.

All because of Stone Cold Bastards.

—-

Stone Cold Bastards: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The New Laptop, February 2017 Edition

A couple of months ago I realized I was going to need a new laptop; the Dell XPS 12 I have, while still working perfectly well while plugged in, will only last for a couple of hours on battery — this is what happens to old laptops. I have a Chromebook Flip, which I actually really like, but it’s tiny (a 10-inch screen and a smaller-than-usual keyboard), and while it’s fine for short trips where I don’t have to do much writing, if I do have to write anything longer than an email or a short blog post, my hands get cramped quickly. What I really wanted was a another Chromebook Flip, just slightly larger.

Well, and that’s exactly what I ended up getting. The new laptop is the Asus Chromebook Flip c302, which has a 12.5 inch 1080p screen, a full-sized, backlit keyboard (which is actually hugely important to me), a relatively hefty processor for a Chromebook, good battery life and the ability to fold back into tablet format, all for $500. Like all Chromebooks, it’s largely dependent on one having a full-time connection to the Internet, but the one thing I really always need — a word processing program, here represented by Google Docs — is available offline too, so that’s fine. Also it like its smaller predecessor has the ability to run Android apps, many of which can also be used offline at this point. In short, it’s going to be able to do what I need it to do, nearly all of the time.

I did for a fair amount of time agonize between getting this or the new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, which is roughly the same size as this and also has a tablet mode, but also has a more substantial processor and of course the ability to run Windows programs, including Word and Photoshop, both of which I use quite a lot. The deciding factors for me were twofold: One, the way I use my laptops typically doesn’t run toward using heavy-duty programs anyway (if I’m not using Photoshop, for example, I’m editing my photos on my phone, not my laptop), and two, this is two to three times cheaper, depending on which XPS configuration I got. I like that, not only because I’m cheap but because, having once had lost a fairly expensive laptop at the airport, and then (once I recovered it) having it stolen from me at another airport, I’m more comfortable traveling with a computer that I can afford to lose, or accidentally drop, or have eaten by bears, or whatever.

The Chromebook’s general need to be always connected was a drawback five years ago but honestly isn’t much of an issue now. My phone has a mobile hotspot so as long as I’m in the US it’s not like I ever don’t have a connection, and wifi is ubiquitous enough that you really have to go out of your way not to have it (and anyway, as noted above, the one thing I always need has an offline mode). In short, this is a computer that makes sense for how I work today.

Having now had it for a few hours, my general impression of it is pretty positive: The screen is pretty and bright (and 1080p is honestly perfectly acceptable in a screen this size), the keyboard is sufficiently large and easy to type on, and I’ve written pay copy on it, so it’s literally already paid for itself. If you’re a Chromebook fan, I can definitely recommend it (I’ll note I was considering between the c302 and the new Samsung Chromebook Plus, which spec-wise is very close to this computer, at around the same price. But the Samsung apparently doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, and that was the dealbreaker for me).

So, look! My new computer. If you see me on tour next month, you’ll see it too. Be sure to say hello to it.

The Expanding Tour is Expanding: Santa Fe, NM and Southfield, MI

My tour for The Collapsing Empire is already pretty long, taking place as it does over five weeks — and now it’s about to get longer! Because I’m showing up at two new places:

Monday, April 17
Jean Cocteau Cinema
Santa Fe, NM

and

Friday, April 28-Sunday, April 30
Penguicon
Southfield, MI

The Santa Fe stop is very definitely a formal stop for the tour and will include me having a chat with George RR Martin, of whom you may have heard. The Southfield stop at this point is far less formal; depending on whether there is space for me on programming, it may just end up being me hanging out in the lobby bar and signing books for people who wander by. Nevertheless, I will be there (and happy to sign books). So if you were planning to attend Penguicon already: Hey, bonus! If you weren’t already planning to attend Penguicon, well, maybe you should (P.S.: Cory Doctorow, with whom I will have shared the last few dates of my tour, is a Penguicon Guest of Honor this year, so there’s that too).

Beyond that, we’re in the process firming up additional dates via other conventions, book fairs and book festivals. I’ll let you know when those dates are confirmed and public knowledge.

Here’s the official tour page with all the current dates. Hope to see you out there!