View From a Hotel Window, 10/17/18: Portland

It feels very Portland-y to me.

Also, this is the first photo from the TempPhone™, the phone I’m using for a couple of days until I can get my grubby little hands on a Pixel 3. The TempPhone is basically the cheapest phone they had at the Verizon store, which two generations back would have been a perfectly respectable little phone but now is, well, cheap. I needed a phone for things tomorrow. Let’s just say I’m not getting super-attached.

Tonight: Portland! I will be at the Clackamas Barnes and Noble at 7pm! Come on down and bring everyone you know, it will be more fun than possibly you will know what to do with.

Tomorrow: Los Angeles! I will be at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA at 7pm! It is one of the great urban bookstores! You will love it! And also I will be there. Come on down!

Housekeeping Notes, 10/17/18

Just a couple of brief things:

1. My phone’s hotspot was acting odd last night so I reset my phone to see if it would fix it. Not only didn’t it fix it, but the phone completely refused to turn back on. Various emergency procedures were enacted (including cursing, begging and bargaining) but to no avail. So I am currently without phone. Fortunately Verizon wireless stores are everywhere (including near my hotel in Portland today), so I’ll get this addressed, BUT for the short run you’ll likely not see pictures, etc from me, and once I leave the friendly confines of wifi I’m unlikely to be updating social media, etc. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

2. While I’m on tour (ie, basically for the next three weeks), I’ve made the executive decision not to make an effort to get caught up on what’s going on out in the world. I mean, I’ll be in airports so those damn TVs will be on, and I’m not going to turn my face away from newspapers or the occasional bit of news I get from other sources. But I’m not going looking for it either. My point is I’m unlikely, because of time and travel constraints, to delve too deeply into the news of the day until mid-November at least. Also, I’ve voted already and therefore feel I’ve earned a little break. Don’t expect much political/topical content here for a bit, is what I’m saying. (Mind you, I reserve the right to change my mind. But I probably won’t.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, either.

The Big Idea: Steven Erikson

Call Steven Erikson a radical, a rebel or just someone who watches too much TV, but the fact is: Right now, a particular trope of fiction has him fed up. And he’s doing something about it, as he explains in this Big Idea for his latest, Rejoice, A Knife the Heart.

STEVEN ERIKSON:

I have a confession. I watch a lot of television. When it’s not sports that I’m watching, it’s dramatic series, be they mainstream or Netflix or any of a number of available networks. And I go to films. A lot. Sometimes I wonder why I bother, since my disaffection grows. What’s bothering me about all these television shows, series, and all those films? In a lot of them (okay, in most of them), at some point, somewhere, a certain expression of power shows up. I’m not talking the superhero flicks here. I’m talking about something rather subtler, so commonplace we barely notice, even though it drives plot after plot.

It’s this: men with black sunglasses and wearing suits and driving black SUVs show up. They chase down the hero, truss them up and whisk them away. Or the hero escapes a few times, only to eventually confront whatever hidden hegemony is behind all the secrecy, and it’s the black-suits all getting gunned down in the white heat of righteous rage (because, really, who wouldn’t?).

Or: a SWAT team kicks in the door and basically does the same thing. Or maybe it’s a Special Forces squad. Or how about the classic combination: SWAT team and some guy in a lab coat wearing wire-rimmed glasses who’s always last to arrive.

The point is, time and again, some hidden authority barrels into the story, and we’re off and running. Now, for entertainment purposes, sure, it’s what we’re kind of used to these days: secret cabals of government/corporation/whatever are out there messing with the lives of innocent people, and the plot often boils down to an almost Western motif: the lone individual against corrupted nodes of concentrated, above-the-law power, be that a monomaniacal rancher, robber-baron, or the Illuminati.

Well, all of that leads me to a second confession: I am having a growing problem with authority. I am not so naïve as to not understand the notion of secrecy (or even privacy if one wants to swallow the illusion that corporations are people, at least legally, and that successful competition demands the hiding away of knowledge); and I get that nations play the same game. But, you see, film and television are showing us a world, and in that world anyone who has a secret will by default erect enormous organizations devoted to keeping that secret, and that organization must, of course, not only be heavily armed, but also justified in killing to defend that secret. Until the hero arrives to tear it all down.

When I watch the eponymous scene – that SWAT team charging in, faceless and guns bristling, to tie up and whisk our hero away – a small but steely voice in my head speaks to those anonymous soldiers: “What gives you the right to do this? See how you revel in your power to terrorize someone, hiding your humanity there behind your face-shield. See how readily you take orders, even when those orders can destroy the lives of your country’s own citizens. How eager must be your salutes to that great cold-eyed spider at the heart of the web, that the sovereignty of a single person should mean so little…”

Yeah, I know: Steve, take a breath. It’s only a silly show, after all. And we watch with nary a blink of the eye. This is the modern world, after all, one where abuse of power is so common we barely take notice of it. It’s just how it is, and Hollywood is simply reflecting that reality. Yeah, I get it.

I’d been meaning to write a First Contact novel for well over a decade. I’d made researching such a novel into a hobby. I had an inkling that I didn’t want to create a novel that sat easily within the sub-genre. I wanted to dismantle a few tropes, the first one being how so many First Contact stories involve, a priori, an Earth-based authority as humanity’s first point of contact: a secret Majestik-style cabal deep inside the government, the ubiquitous Men In Black; or an astronaut settled deep into the quasi-military realm of NASA; or a scientist (collected up by men in black suits wearing black sunglasses and driving big black SUVs) acting at the behest of the People in Power, and more crucially, that ET’s willing to play along.

Instead, and I think this qualifies as a Big Idea when it comes to First Contact SF, I wanted an ET arriving that then set about doing what it does, while utterly and completely ignoring the usual list of suspects (presidents, men-in-black, scientists, the military); and to then not only ignore them, but bring them down. An end to secrecy. An end to hidden power-blocks and all the vicious games they play to stay in power. Wake up, world, to a brand-new day.

Sometimes an idea for a novel only comes alive when two entirely disparate elements suddenly come together. That synergy is the fuel every writer looks for. It launches the rocket, does all the heavy lifting, and before you know it, you’re floating in orbit, looking down on the whole shebang.

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart is my thought-experiment, my ‘what if’ followed by ‘then what?’ Sometimes, the only way to kick back is through art. Anything else and suddenly the black SUV’s pull up outside your house and, well, you know the rest…

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

View From a Hotel Window, 10/16/18: Seattle

Running a little late because I got into room late! But very pretty. No parking lot, sorry.

Tonight: I’m at the University Bookstore at 7pm! If you hurry you can still make it!

Tomorrow: Portland, Oregon and I’m at the Clackamas Barnes & Noble! Come see me please! Bring everyone you know!

The Consuming Fire is Out and I’m On Tour!

Today’s the day! The Consuming Fire, the second book in the Interdependency series and the sequel to the Locus Award-winning and Hugo Award-nominated The Collapsing Empire, is now out in the United States and Canada (and the US edition available in other places in the world). The UK edition will be out on Thursday. The Consuming Fire is out in hardcover and ebook editions, and also in an audiobook edition narrated by Wil Wheaton.

You can get the book at your favorite local bookseller, and also online at the following retailers (among others): Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Books-a-Million|Google Play|iBooks|Indiebound|Kobo|Powell’s. The audiobook is available via Audible and Amazon.

The reviews for The Consuming Fire are in, and they’re pretty great: “Scalzi’s key players remain individually distinctive and delightfully outrageous… this novel sits perfectly in its second-book role, leaving the reader deeply invested in the developing story, with plenty left to tell,” said Publishers Weekly. Library Journal says it’s “another fast-paced romp through Scalzi’s imagination,” while Booklist says that “Scalzi writes, as
always, in a lively, occasionally flamboyant style, and his characters are, despite the fact that they live in
the far-flung future, as real and human as anyone you’d meet in the here and now. Scalzi once again
demonstrates why he is one of the most popular SF novelists currently writing.”

I’m supporting the book with a twelve-stop tour, starting this evening in Seattle. Here’s the whole tour itinerary. Also, here’s what I’ll be doing on tour. Please come see me on tour, and bring along every single person you’ve ever met in your life.

If you see me on tour, you can get a book signed by me. If you’re not going to be able to see me on tour, here’s how to get a signed book by me anyway.

I’m very proud of The Consuming Fire, and also, I really like it. This series has some of my favorite characters ever in it, and as a writer it’s just as much fun for me to visit them and see what they’re up to as I hope it is for you as a reader. I’ve enjoyed writing all the intrigue and interstellar politics and space battles. I think you’re going to enjoy reading them, and this book.

And before you ask: Yes, there will be another novel in the series. Oh, yes.

If you’re in Seattle, I will see you tonight! Portland, Oregon: You’re up for tomorrow!

Smudge: Very Tired and a Little Bit Stoned

Krissy and Smudge

As you can see from this photo. Krissy had gotten in close to pet him, and he just plain snuggled into her arms and started to nap. It’s adorable!

Why is Smudge tired and a little bit stoned? Because today he took a trip to the vet and was relieved of a couple of small things, namely, his testicles. He won’t miss them much, and in exchange we’ll get a cat who won’t spray and otherwise go looking for trouble (or as much trouble, in any event).

He’ll be fine tomorrow, and in the meantime we get to watch him stand were, wobbly, with an expression on his face that says “what just happened?” We’ll tell you later, Smudge. Get some rest for now.

The New Thing I’ll Be Doing This Tour: The Element of Chance

A picture of a ten-sided die

This upcoming book tour for The Consuming Fire (here’s the link to the schedule) will be the tenth(!) book tour I’ve done, and over the course of time I’ve developed a strategy for my events: I read from an upcoming work, I read something short and funny, and then I read a piece from Whatever, usually about writing but sometimes about other things. It’s a good strategy because it works, but it also means that every event on the tour is the same. From the point of view of the people who come to see me, that’s not a problem, because they’re usually only coming to see me once per tour. But for me, I think it would be fun to shake things up a little bit, to keep the tour fresh, and keep me on my toes.

So for this tour, here’s my current plan: I have created a list of ten different things I’m prepared to do/read/perform on this tour, and at each stop, I will take a ten-sided die and I will roll it three times. Whatever numbers the die lands on, I will do the corresponding thing on my list.

And what is this list? I’m glad you asked!

THE TEN THINGS SCALZI IS PREPARED TO DO ON TOUR

1. Read from an upcoming work

2. Read from someone else’s new work!

3. Read some juvenalia

4. Read from Whatever

5. Speak authoritatively and persuasively for several moments on a topic chosen by the audience (even if I don’t know anything about that topic)

6. Read something that will probably make me cry

7. Lead an audience sing-along of an 80s pop song (if someone brings a guitar or ukulele to the event)

8. Give a Mini-Clinic on how to write a novel in just (mumble mumble) weeks!

9. Read something funny

0. REVEAL THE MEANING OF LIFE

So what does this mean, exactly? Let break each down:

Read from an upcoming work: This one is simple: I’m writing new work all the time, and I’ll read from one of those.

Read from someone else’s new work: Hey, you know how musicians will sometimes cover songs from bands they like? This is me doing the same sort of thing — I’ll read an excerpt from a current work that I like from an author I think is cool. The piece I’ve chosen is also something I think I can perform well, so that will make it extra fun.

Read some juvenalia: I found a piece of writing I did when I was fifteen years old. I think it’s a piece that people will find amusing, not only for its total fifteen-year-oldness, but also because I think in it you can pretty easily see the connection to that kid and who I am today. It’s proto-Scalzi!

Read from Whatever: It’s the 20th anniversary of the Whatever this year, so I will read pieces from the site. I have a piece selected but depending how ambitious I am, I may read a different piece each time this one comes up. There’s a lot to choose from, after all.

Speak authoritatively and persuasively for several moments on a topic chosen by the audience (even if I don’t know anything about that topic): I’ll let the audience pick a topic and then I will discourse impressively about the topic, showing my knowledge of and confidence in the subject. Whether I actually know anything about that topic will be another matter entirely, of course. But if you ever wanted to see how well I can spontaneously bullshit, this would be the time!

Read something that will probably make me cry: So, I’m a crier and I will cry at a drop of the hat about lots of things. This does not usually come up on tour because I intentionally do not read things I know are likely to make me cry — but this time, I will. I will not guarantee I will cry, only that in the past, the pieces I’ll read from have made me cry. We all take our chances.

Lead an audience sing-along of an 80s pop song: At some point in the past people started showing up at tours with ukuleles, asking me to sing something. I point out that I play the ukulele terribly, and the response usually is “we know, that’s why it’s funny.” This time around, if someone brings an already tuned ukulele or guitar (I can play either equally well! Which is not well at all) to the event, I will additionally perform a song BUT THIS TIME I AM TAKING YOU ALL WITH ME, which is to say I will make you all sing along. You have been warned. Also, seriously, make sure the uke or guitar is tuned. Stopping to tune kills the momentum.

Give a Mini-Clinic on how to write a novel in just (mumble mumble) weeks! I wrote The Consuming Fire just a little more quickly than I usually write a novel, for various reasons, and if this topic pops up, I’ll talk about why that happened, how I did it, and what if anything about my writing process for this novel you can take away and use yourself (and what things you really, really shouldn’t do).

Read something funny: I wrote a short new piece of fiction exclusively for the tour! I think it’s funny! I’ll read it!

REVEAL THE MEANING OF LIFE: Because I know! Sort of! And I’ll share it! Maybe!

Plus: The usual Q&A part and of course the part where I sign books for people.

Because what I read and do at the event literally depends on the roll of a die, every stop on the tour will be different and even I can’t know what I’ll be doing at any stop. I think this will keep the events unpredictable and fun, and that’s a good thing (hopefully).

Caveats: If after trying it out a couple of times this d10 plan turns out to be awkward/terrible/unpopular, I reserve the right to fiddle with the formula and/or discard it entirely, because the actual point of these events is to make sure people come to them have a good time. Also, if for some reason it’s not possible to do one of the things on the list (for example, if no one brings a ukulele or a guitar), I’ll just re-roll OR just pick something else to do. Also also, if time/interest permits, I may do more than three things from the list (or do something not on the list at all). Finally, at the Austin, TX stop, I’m not doing any of these things because instead I will be in conversation with the awesome Victoria Schwab about writing and life in general. But that’s going to be pretty great on its own, so come see us anyway.

Sound like fun? Alternately, want to see my flail about horribly whilst doing these things? Then come on down and see me on tour! And please bring along everyone you’ve ever met. The more people, the better. See you soon!

How to Get Signed Copies of The Consuming Fire: The Informational Post

Want a copy of The Consuming Fire signed to you? You have numerous options, all good. Here they are:

1. Come see me on tour! Which starts tomorrow in Seattle and winds through a significant portion of the United States. Aside from being able to get your book signed, you’ll also get to see me read new stuff and otherwise try to be amusing for you. This is probably the easiest way to get a book signed, since I will be there, you will be there, and it’s the reason we’re both there.

If you’re not going to be able to get one of my events:

2. Order the book from one of the bookstores I’m going to be touring at. If you order before I get to the bookstore, then I will happily personalize your book as well as sign it. But even after I am gone, you can still probably get a signed book, because I’m likely to sign their remaining Scalzi stock. Call them and check!

3. Subterranean Press still has a limited number of signed Consuming Fire copies you can get. (update: all gone!)

4. Jay and Mary’s Book Center, my local indie bookstore, will also have signed copies available, once I go down to the store today to sign them (along with the rest of their Scalzi stock). With respect to Jay and Mary’s, in November I will also be doing my thing where I sign books for the holidays, so even if they sell out of signed Consuming Fires while I’m on tour, I’ll be going there again in just a few weeks to sign more stuff. So you can still order from them and I’ll still sign them! Eventually!

There, now you’re all caught up!

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

The thing about trilogies is that they always have that “middle chapter” — the one that has to do its own thing while serving the arc it’s in the middle of. Writing one is always a challenge, and Ryk E. Spoor is here today to tell you how he’s managed it with Demons of the Past: Revolution.

RYK E. SPOOR:

The Demons of the Past trilogy (Demons of the Past: REVELATION, REVOLUTION, and RETRIBUTION) is probably the most complex work I’ve yet written. To an extent this is because I’ve spent more time on it than anything else – the first draft, originally simply titled Psionic! was written in 1978 and I’ve updated, redrafted, and enlarged upon it for decades since. It takes place in the same writing multiverse as Paradigms Lost and the Balance Sword trilogy (Phoenix Rising, Phoenix in Shadow, and Phoenix Ascendant), and is one of the most personally important stories I’ve yet published. The trilogy is a complex game of strategy and manipulation with the only chance for the good guys to win really resting on three words sent from one person to the other – and even that only gives them a chance.

That setup occurred in the first book, Revelation (from Double Dragon Press). At the end of Revelation, the main viewpoint character, Captain Sasham Varan (formerly of the Reborn Empire) was a fugitive from his own Empire because he knew that the Prime Monitor – right hand of the Emperor – was a monster with hidden and malevolent intentions, as well as viciously hostile psionic allies hidden across the Empire. Varan’s only allies were the mysterious trader called The Eonwyl, the R’Thann scientist Sooovickalassa (often called “Vick”) whose unique process had made Varan a psionic, and astrophysicist and warrior Guvthor Hok Guvthor. Varan’s best friend Taelin Mel’Tasne – a high-placed member of the Five Families that helped guide the Empire – had received and, to his horror, understood Varan’s cryptic, three-word message “Please trust me”, leading Taelin and his brother Lukhas (high in Imperial Security) to formulate a very desperate plan indeed.

In Demons of the Past: REVOLUTION (from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press), both Varan’s group and Taelin’s have to come to an understanding of what they are dealing with, and how they can do so, all while Shagrath’s manipulations bring the Reborn Empire closer to the brink of a galaxy-destroying war.

The middle of a trilogy is always the hardest. In a prior Big Idea column, I discussed how I addressed some of those issues in Phoenix in Shadow, by essentially having a storyline for one of the major characters be concluded in that book, even if the true main plot couldn’t be resolved until the third book.

But I couldn’t use that approach for Demons of the Past: REVOLUTION. Unlike the Balanced Sword trilogy, the characters in Demons of the Past are all personally caught up in what is really one huge plot, which can be divided into three books based on the type of activity in each: Revelation is about recognizing the problems that are facing the characters; Revolution is about the characters coming to an understanding of those problems, their own capabilities and relationships, and how they must move forward; Retribution is about the characters taking that understanding and turning it into action. The separate character arcs are smaller, and contained within the overarching plot, in a way that prevents the admittedly more satisfying in-book resolution seen in Phoenix in Shadow.

Mechanically, Revolution is also the book where I had to make sure that all of the key clues to the actions the characters would take in the future were properly set up. The final confrontation in the third book is dependent on Varan and his friends pulling off a very carefully coordinated strategy, and. to be fair to the readers, all the aspects of that strategy must be set up in the three books, so that the reaction at the end is “Ohhh, yeah, that makes sense” rather than “what nether regions did the author pull THAT out of?”

To an extent, that meant that Demons of the Past as a whole had to be focused on the characters more than any other book I’ve written. Varan, the Eonwyl, Taelin, Guvthor, Sooovickalassa, and even Shagrath had to be not merely clearly different, but clearly defined in a way that would allow the readers to say “oh. That’s right, of course this character would have to act that way”, because the characters’ behavior, beliefs, and personalities ultimately determine the success or failure of the major action in the trilogy.

In a way, knowing the core purpose of the middle book, and the personalities involved, simplified the writing. I knew Varan’s group had to discover the nature of Shagrath’s allies the Kaital (the name they eventually learn), Shagrath’s true origin and name, and enough details about both to provide a foundation for defeating them. I also knew the characters themselves had to learn more about each other, and that key elements in that area were the Eonwyl’s secret past, the true history of the Thovians (Guvthor’s people) and of the R’Thann (Vick’s species), and Varan being threatened by a weakness (a phobia of Zchoradans and related species) that had been established early in the first book. In addition, we had to learn something about Taelin’s actions and plans, and about Shagrath’s true intentions, capabilities, and resources – and the latter should be terrifying indeed, or there’s not much tension to drive the book.

None of this, of course, offered the same type of closure as the ending of Phoenix in Shadow. There were some high dramatic points the book could end on, but all of them amounted to some form or another of cliffhanger. On occasion, I’ve referred to Demons of the Past as being “Star Wars, if Luke had gone on to the Academy and only learned how rotten the Empire was when he’d been in service for twenty years”. Revolution, then, is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy. It has to end with the characters in it deep, no matter what they’ve learned. It has to tell us what the magnitude and nature of the opposition is. And it has to leave the characters in a situation where they will be forced to act decisively.

Ultimately, the latter drove the decision. The title of the book – Revolution – refers to the fact that Varan must accept that to save even a part of the Reborn Empire he will have to place himself against what it has become, and be himself a revolutionary, willing to bring down the star nation that he loves and that was his home and source of pride. This brings him full-circle back to his very first adversaries – the Zchoradan Meld, the only other star nation that can begin to rival the Reborn Empire. Varan must face his phobia and his own patriotism and overcome both to plead for the aid of his own people’s long-time enemies.

That is, in many ways, the high (or low) point of the book, the understanding and acceptance of Varan of the course he must take, regardless of the personal cost. He must accept the consequences of his past confrontations with the Zchorada, and the propaganda that Shagrath has created to make Varan out to be a true monster, in order to convince his former enemies that they have – that they must have – a common cause.

And that must end in doubt, not certainty.

Taelin’s course, too, must be moved forward, and it struck me that it would be symmetry that he would do as Varan did, sending him a hidden message, but where Varan’s had been a message of subtle terror, Taelin’s would be one of hope – that also showed how fragile the hope could be.

In the end, I think I succeeded as well as I might have; the course for our heroes is clear, if fraught with perils of many sorts, and the dénouement of the entire trilogy is (mostly) set up, in its elements at least. I hope readers will agree, and follow Varan through to the final volume (coming next year), Demons of the Past: RETRIBUTION.

—-

Demons of the Past: Revolution: Amazon|Ring of Fire Press

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

 

It’s Woolly Bear Season

Woolly bear caterpillars, that is, which are apparently supposed to tell you by their pelt whether it’s supposed to be a warm or cold winter. This one suggests it will be a mildish winter, which I am perfectly fine with. However, there’s no actual scientific grounding, so, you know. Don’t blame the Woolly bear any more than the groundhog.

This particular Woolly bear was on my front porch; I relocated it before one of the cats tried to make a snack of it. I wish it good luck in becoming a tiger moth one day.

New Books and ARCs, 10/12/18

As we head into an increasingly autumn-like weekend here at the Scalzi Compound, here’s a slightly-larger-than-usual stack of new books and ARCs for you to peruse and contemplate. And if there’s anything here that rings your bell, tell us about it in the comments!

Father-Daughter Voting

It pleases me immensely that today I took Athena to the local board of elections office so that she could vote in her very first election ever. She was a couple of months too young to vote in 2016, so this was the first time she could do it. We both voted early because on election day, we’ll both be somewhere else: Athena will be at school, and I’ll be in France. Better to take care of it now and have it done than miss it, especially this election year.

I’m super proud of my daughter that she registered to vote and cast her ballot. Any one who follows elections will tell you that young people vote the least of any age demographic, a fact which I find weird, since they are the ones who will have to live the longest with the results of each election. I vote the very first time it was possible to do so (1988), and so it makes me happy that Athena has now done the same. It’s a tradition worth keeping up. Please encourage the young people you know and love to vote as well. It matters.

A Decade of WordPress Hosting (Or, This Year’s Annual Unsolicited Endorsement)

A decade ago this very week (on 10/10/08, in fact), Whatever moved from being self-hosted to being hosted on WordPress, and on its very fine VIP service. Lots of things have happened in the world and in my personal life since that switchover, but you know what hasn’t happened? Whatever being down or inaccessible for any real period of time. For a decade, and including some of the heaviest traffic days this site ever had, I’ve never had to worry if the site was going to go down, or be inaccessible, or be vulnerable to the short of BS attacks many sites fell prey to. After a couple of years of my site struggling with heavy traffic days, it was truly gratifying for the site to have a home that was, and has been, built to last.

This is why every year I remind people — without prompting from WordPress! This is all me! — that WordPress is a truly excellent hosting solution for blogs, and when you pair it with WordPress’ best-in-class blogging software (which has also been a delight this last decade), it’s a pretty powerful combination. I’ve been using the VIP hosting for all this time, but WordPress has several levels of service that are designed to fit your needs and budget, all of which, in my experience, are rock solid. I have never had cause to regret bringing Whatever over to WordPress. After a decade, that’s saying a lot.

So: WordPress! It’s great! I enthusiastically endorse it for all your Web site and blogging needs.

And to the folks at WordPress who might be reading this: Thanks for being awesome for this whole decade, and for giving Whatever a very fine home. You’re the best. Let’s keep at it.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Estep

Football, cooking smells and names — how do they all come together to be inspirations for an epic fantasy novel? Jennifer Estep knows how, and today she’s here to tell you how they combined for Kill the Queen.

JENNIFER ESTEP:

I tried to write epic fantasy for years—years!

In fact, the very first (unpublished) book I ever wrote way back in college was an epic fantasy. But even though I wrote a couple of them when I was first starting out, the genre just never quite clicked for me. So I moved on and started focusing on urban fantasy, along with young adult fantasy. But in the back of my mind, I promised myself that I would try my hand at adult epic fantasy again someday. As much as I loved reading works by David Eddings, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. Tolkien, I wanted to write my own books and tell the stories that I wanted to tell.

Now, thirty-some odd books later, my first published epic fantasy, Kill the Queen, is out. I’ve been pitching the book as Gladiator meets Game of Thrones with a kick-butt heroine. It’s a good description, but it’s not the “big” idea behind my book.

Truth be told, I don’t think there was just one “big” idea that inspired my book. No, to me, Kill the Queen is several “little”, disparate ideas that morphed into one story.

The first “little” idea that helped inspire the book was football. I love football, especially the NFL games. I participate in a couple of fantasy leagues, and my friends and I used to get together on Sunday afternoons to watch football and hold MeatFest—a cookout that featured inordinate amounts of meat, especially bacon.

About two years ago, I was watching a football game and listening to the announcers’ hyperbole about how the players were “weekend warriors” and “gladiators of the gridiron”. I had been thinking about trying to write an epic fantasy again, and I was searching for an idea. For some reason, the word “gladiators” resonated with me, and several “what-if” questions popped into my mind. What if I created a fantasy world where people cheered on gladiators/troupes the way they do football players/teams in our world? What if my heroine was forced to become a gladiator in order to survive? What if her gladiator training helped save her kingdom?

With those “what-if” questions swirling around in my mind, I came upon a second “little” idea—my family. My grandfather had several brothers and sisters, and as a result, I have dozens of cousins. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of our summer family reunions when we would all get together to eat, play games, and just hang out and catch up. What if my heroine, Evie, was part of a royal family and all her cousins were slaughtered during a massacre/coup? That would be a great way to start my book, as well as provide a lot of motivation for Evie to get revenge on the people responsible for the massacre.

One of the things I have a love/hate relationship with in epic fantasy is that you, as the writer, have to name every single thing in the book. The magic users, castles, kingdoms, rivers, cities, plants, animals. They all need names. After many false starts and stops, I finally decided to use Roman mythology (along with Norse mythology) as the basis for some of my names.

Why was this my third “little” idea? Well, I’ve always loved mythology, and I like to use names with meanings that tie in to my characters’ personalities, surroundings, and more. For example, in Kill the Queen, Bellona, my main gladiator kingdom, is named after a Roman war goddess. Plus, since I was writing about gladiators, using Roman mythology seemed like a good way to add another layer of subtle depth to my overall world building.

Sometimes, my “little” ideas are things that percolate in the back of my mind for a long, long time. Several years ago, I read an article talking about how the sense of smell is the least used sensory descriptor in books. As writers, we almost always describe what our characters see and hear, but we don’t necessarily talk about what they smell all that often. Oh, I thought when I read the article, it would be a fun writing challenge to include more smells in a book someday. Well, that someday finally arrived.

One of the first things I do when I start writing is think about my heroine’s magic/powers. For Kill the Queen, I wanted Evie to have a couple of different powers, including one that most people would think was a weak, useless ability, so I decided to give her an enhanced sense of smell. Most people scoff at Evie’s ability, but she can actually smell people’s emotions, which comes in handy. Plus, having a character with an enhanced sense of smell was something I haven’t done before, and it also played to one of my strengths as a writer. (More on that below.)

The fifth—and perhaps most important—“little” idea that helped shape Kill the Queen was my own writing strengths. Over the years, as I’ve written various books and stories, I’ve identified some of the things that I enjoy writing—action/fight scenes, strong heroines, and food talk. Whenever I’m contemplating writing something new, I often think about what characters, settings, and plots will really let me bring out my writing strengths. That’s what I did for Kill the Queen, and I think this is one of the things that finally helped me get over the hurdle of writing epic fantasy. Penning a gladiator-themed book let me incorporate several action/fight scenes, and Evie becomes both physically and mentally stronger as she progresses through her training. Plus, Evie works in the gladiators’ kitchen, and people’s emotions often smell like food to her—garlic guilt, cinnamon curiosity, and more.

A book doesn’t necessarily have to be one “big” idea. Sometimes, one or two or five (or more!) “little” ideas can all come together to create one story.

Happy writing and reading, everyone!

—-

Kill the Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Existential Loneliness of an Empty Carnival Ride

Which is, puzzlingly, not the name of some 70s prog rock album. Right now is the time for the annual Pumpkin Show in my town, during which people fill the streets, eat fair food, and ride the rides set up in the small town park. This is one of them. It looks very sad without people in it, and seems to be just waiting for a purpose, which from my point of view is to spin people around until they throw up. Maybe that’s just me. Apparently some people like it. I mostly just go to fairs for the food these days. Mmmmm… funnel cake.

October Flowers

I’ve been traveling today, to Michigan to sign a whole bunch of books, but saw these flowers and thought that they would be nice to share with all y’all. A little bit of color in your day, as it were. Hope you enjoy them.

The Consuming Fire Contest Winner + Notes One Week Out From Release

Hey! We’re one week out from The Consuming Fire officially being released and me starting my book tour! Let’s talk about these things!

1. First, congratulations to Shatle, who for the Consuming Fire contest yesterday correctly guessed (and was the only one to correctly guess) that the city I was thinking of was Kingman, Arizona. Kingman is called out in “Route 66,” of which there are many, many versions. Here’s Chuck Berry’s:

In the event that no one guessed Kingman, I had a backup in mind, also in Arizona: Winslow, made famous in the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” More than 40 of you picked that one. But Shatle had you all beat. Sorry.

2. The Consuming Fire is out next Tuesday, and people often ask what’s the best way to buy it: In hardcover, in eBook or as an audiobook. My answer is always the same: Get it in the version you prefer, because I get paid more or less the same for each, and also fundamentally I want you to be happy with your purchase. My publishers would be happy to have me get on the NYT bestseller list (and I wouldn’t mind, either), but the thing is at this point each format has its own NYT bestseller list (and there’s also a combined print/ebook list), so, honestly, again, pick the format you like, it all goes into the sales pile.

3. If you have no real preference in format, get it in hardcover, and also pre-order, or buy it in the first couple of days. That will make everyone happy. If you are waiting to pick up the book when I’m on tour, go ahead and pre-order the book now from the bookstore you’ll see me at — that way your sale still counts for the first week tally, and the bookstore will hold the book for you until I show up (I mean, or you can come pick it up from the bookstore any time before then, you don’t have to wait).

4. On this subject of purchasing books, If you are coming to see me on tour, please really do get the book from the bookstore you’ll see me at. It’s how you support that local bookstore and encourage them to bring in authors to do events. If you just can’t wait, and pick up the book prior to my event from somewhere else, when you’re at the event, please buy another book from the bookseller to show your support. It doesn’t even have to be one of mine! But bookstores need sales, and I need my events to do well for the bookstores. If neither happen, I stop being able to tour. So buy! Buy! Buy!

5. Speaking of the tour, here are all the tour dates this time around. All the events except Chicago’s are free, but some are ticketed (and some give priority to people who purchase the book at the store, another reason to get the book there), so click through to the venue Web site and get the details. If the information isn’t on the front page, check under “events”.

At the events I will: Read from upcoming work that no one else except the people who come to see me get to hear, sign books, answer questions, and otherwise attempt to be charming and amusing. As always, if someone brings an already tuned ukulele, I will play a song, poorly (strangely, this seems to be a popular part of the event; you people are weird). The exception to this will be in Texas, where I will be in conversation with the super-awesome Victoria Schwab, but that’s going to be very cool, I promise.

To pre-emptively answer some popular questions: Yes, I will usually sign more than the latest book but check with the venue for their signing policy; Yes, I will pose for pictures but please already have your camera ready to go (and again, this may be overridden by the venue); Yes, you can bring me gifts if you like (thank you!) but be aware that I am unlikely to travel with them (I will probably have the venue ship them home for me); No, I will probably not be able to hang out with you before or after the event because I am almost certainly already booked. Sorry. You’re awesome! Tours are just busy.

6. Please please please do come to see me on tour, and bring along every single person you know. It’ll be fun, I promise. I make an excellent performing monkey.

I think that’s it for now. If you have any questions, put them in the comments!

The Big Idea: Amy S. Foster

Why do writers write books? One reason is to figure out who our characters are, and who they need to become to be fully realized. Amy S. Foster explains the journey one of her characters makes, across a trilogy of books that ends with The Rift Coda.

AMY S. FOSTER:

Almost three years ago I wrote a post about the Big Idea I had for the first book in my series. My Big Idea was to create characters who sounded and acted like actual teenagers even though they were Super Soldiers guarding a doorway to the multiverse. It was a Big Idea, but it was not the Big Idea that would end up dominating the landscape of these novels.

I couldn’t have known when I created Ryn- a female, a girl warrior that I would run up against so much institutionalized sexism that in the beginning, I wasn’t even aware it was happening. But it did and it still is.

It was little things at first. ‘Why does Ryn care about boys?’ ‘Good story, but is she doing all of this to have sex?’ ‘Ryn is far too preoccupied with her love life. She’s a soldier.’ I was confused. Did I put too much romance in my novels? I mean sure, Ryn likes a boy but, that boy was always written as a device. He was an outsider. The voice of reason. He came into the situation and said ‘uhhh Great Big Super Important scientific discovery and teenagers are policing it? Really?’

The story started out with Ryn figuring out who was in control and why the people in charge were not only making teenagers into deadly killing machines but also interning immigrants from other Earths inside a village that while nice enough, was still a prison.

Soon enough I realized that Ryn’s journey was about much more than teens recognizing themselves in Ryn’s dialogue. I wanted teenage girls to recognize themselves in Ryn, period. But they weren’t and why would they?

Society tells us that women must choose between love and power. Girls aren’t supposed to be gun toting, hand to hand combat bosses, tactical genius’ AND be into boys (or other girls). Or their hair. Or clothes or make up or their feelings. How would a girl pick up the Rift Trilogy and be able to project herself into the role of Ryn if she has never seen a girl in real life be a fully realized female warrior? I’m not being extra about my feminism here. It was only this year, this month, that the first female candidates were able to be up for selection as a Navy Seal. And it’s not like the response has been positive. People are pissed. Pundits are complaining about standards slipping.

As I began to craft the final installment of the trilogy, the real Big Idea came to me. I need to help the world redefine what the female warrior archetype is. No, she is not a guy with boobs. She is a woman and she can lean into those singular attributes to make her a better warrior. Empathy, active listening, communication, admitting vulnerability- these skill sets will guarantee she is a superior soldier. They will also help establish that she is not a monster (I’m looking at you Joss Whedon/Black Widow) and therefore doesn’t have to be Asexual (Wonder Woman, you are hot, but I think we could have all used a little more time in that room with Chris Pine). Speaking of that- why is Diana the only child of the Amazons? Oh right, they are warriors- they can’t be mothers too (except why not though? Themyscara seems a fairly idyllic spot for raising a kid and they are incredibly maternal).

You see were I’m going with this. We don’t have a vast cadre of female warriors to choose from but the ones we do have are either virginal or non committal. They can have sex but not think about having a family. They can be creators but not destroyers. And so I had to make sure that Ryn embraced these parts of herself that she had been told by society made her weak. She had to learn to lead not from a hierarchal vantage, but from a more feminine non-linear one. She had to be okay with saying, what should I do here? And not worry about being perceived as incapable. Finally, she had to come to terms with the fact that she had feelings and those feelings weren’t getting in the way of her job and that in fact, they would make her better at it.

The more I speak about this at comic cons and write about it and do interviews, the more traction I get. I can see the change happening. Last week I got an email from a young girl who said she loved the book and was thinking about enlisting. She had never considered being a soldier before because she thought she was too emotional. She wrote that Ryn helped her understand that her empathy could actually do some good in the world.

If that’s not a Big Idea, I don’t know what is.

—-

The Rift Coda: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Win a Signed, Personalized Copy of The Consuming Fire

I got my author copies of The Consuming Fire! So now I’m going to give one away! Specifically, the one behind Smudge there. Also, I will sign it and personalize it to the winner or whomever they choose.

You want it? Here’s what you have to do:

I’m thinking of a city, in North America, featured in at least one (1) song that was a hit in the United States. Name the city. 

That’s it!

Now, the rules:

1. You may guess only one (1) city. Also (and obviously) one comment per person. Extra guesses and posts are disqualifying. When posting your comment, leave a valid email in the “email” field, otherwise I will not be able to reach you (I don’t make your email public and don’t use it otherwise). All comments other than those guessing a city will be deleted.

2. All guesses must be in by noon Eastern time on October 9, 2018.

3. In the event that more than one person guesses the city, I will tally up the number of people who correctly picked the city and ask Alexa to pick a random number between one and [number of people]. The person who corresponds to that number wins the book.

4. This contest is open to everyone around the world. I will cover shipping. However, if you live outside the US, it might take a while for the book to arrive to you. International shipping is weird.

5. I’ll pick the winner after the contest closes and contact that person by email for a shipping address. That winner will have the option for the book to be signed and personalized, to them or someone else.

And now, the hints:

1. The city currently exists and has people living in it.

2. The city’s name does not start with “X”.

3. The city is an incorporated city (or the equivalent in its country).

4. “North America” in this case can be understood to mean Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It does not include Central American or Caribbean nations (but may include cities in territories and islands possessed by Canada, the United States, and Mexico).

There you go.

Now make your guess, and good luck!

The Big Idea: D.B. Jackson

Think time travel is disorienting for the characters who use it? Think about the poor author who has to plot it! D.B. Jackson knows, and explains all the nitty-gritty details about it in this Big idea for Time’s Children.

D.B. JACKSON:

Anyone who has written a time travel novel knows that they can send an author ‘round the bend. Time travel is a plotting nightmare. It creates narrative holes big enough to accommodate a truck. It acts as a virtual eraser, a do-over generator, a distributor of endless mulligans. Even the most sound, well-considered plot point can be undermined by the simple question, “Well, why can’t one of our characters go back and prevent this?” Hermione Granger’s ill-advised flirtation with Time-Turners is just the tip of the iceberg. Time travel will make an author’s brain explode.

So, naturally, I have just published the first novel in a new time travel/epic fantasy series.

In Time’s Children, volume one in my Islevale Cycle, Tobias Doljan, a fifteen-year-old time traveler – or Walker in the parlance of my created world – is sent back fourteen years to prevent a catastrophic war. Upon arriving in the past, however, he barely escapes an assassination plot that claims the lives of his sovereign, the royal court, and all of the royal family except the sovereign’s infant daughter, the princess Sofya. Tobias, with the help of his friend and love, Mara, who follows him back through time, must protect Sofya from the assassins, reestablish the royal line, and correct the dark, spiraling misfuture that his journey through time has unleashed. The book is fraught, but it’s also fun. It has action and suspense, assassins and demons, and lots of different kinds of magic. Because the time travel wasn’t complicated enough.

Those of us who write fantasy and science fiction often build into our magic or tech systems costs and limitations that limit their reach. Otherwise we risk allowing these world building devices to take over our stories. This is how I sought to keep time travel from robbing my book of all its narrative tension.

Time Walkers are rare in my world – I don’t have lots of them running around Islevale, undoing one another’s efforts. They cannot Walk without magically “Bound” devices called chronofors, which are also rare, not to mention dear. Walkers can go into the past, and then return to their original time, but they can’t explore the future. As they journey through time, Walkers must endure the “between” a harrowing, airless expanse that lengthens the farther back one travels. Walkers can only carry their chronofors when they journey – no weapons, no tools, no money, no clothing. If a Walker meets herself in the past, she might go insane.

Finally, and most significantly, for every year Walkers go back, they age that much. If a Walker is twenty, and goes back one year, she arrives as a twenty-one-year-old. And after she returns to her time, she is twenty-two. So, yes, my brief plot synopsis omitted a key detail: Tobias and Mara begin as fifteen-year-olds. When they arrive in the past, they are twenty-nine-year-olds, though their emotions and intellects remain the same. They are, essentially, children in the bodies of adults. If they make it back to their own time, they will be forty-three.

And that could easily be the big idea of the book. Adding that cost to my magic system creates tremendous narrative tension, drives a good deal of my plotting, and powers my key character arcs. Certainly, it informs elements of what I think of as the crucial themes of my book. But the central premise – the emotional core – of Time’s Children is somewhat more nuanced.

Allow me to backtrack for a moment. Early on, when I was still building my world and conceptualizing the novel, I struggled with my plotting. I usually outline novels, and this one was giving me fits. I had a conversation with a friend, and mentioned the problems I was having, and she asked me a simple question (I’m paraphrasing a bit). “What matters to you most? Not about the book, but about your life, your world. What are you most passionate about? Because,” she said, “that’s what you should be writing about.”

It took me all of two seconds to come up with an answer to her question: family. My wife and my daughters, and the love and laughter we share, mean more to me than anything. As soon as I realized this, I knew what Time’s Children and the entire Islevale Cycle are about.

It’s not just that Tobias and Mara have given up so many years of their lives, and it’s not just that they find themselves trapped in a broken past, their bodies and minds seemingly out of sync. What matters is their response to this singular circumstance. Their future is lost to them, at least for now. Sofya is dependent on them for food, for shelter, for love, for her very existence. And Tobias, before Mara finds him, is overwhelmed by the responsibility foisted upon him. I’m a parent, and I remember that feeling. I remember holding my older daughter the day she was born, and feeling both this unbelievable wave of love, and this panicked sense that I was barely more than a kid myself (even though I wasn’t that young when she was born). How on earth was I supposed to be a father?

What I soon realized was, I had a partner in this. Nancy and I had been a couple, but now we were a family, and together we would get through whatever we had to.

That’s what Tobias and Mara find. The only way they can cope with all that has gone to hell since Tobias Walked back in time, is to create a family out of ruin. In their case, the “family” begins as a deception, a way to conceal Sofya’s identity and spirit her to safety. But as this book ends, and the series goes on, their family coheres into something more powerful and more real. It continues to be a façade, but it also informs their relationships. Out of tragedy and danger and loss, they create a refuge built on love and loyalty and devotion not just to one another, but to the greater unit they have formed.

This sounds heavy, I know. Again, these really are fun books. But at root, they are about creating and relying on family under the most trying of circumstances. And that’s the big idea.

—-

Time’s Children: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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