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.

Acrobat at the Renaissance Festival, 10/7/18

Yes, the world is a flaming dumpster, but forget that for a tenth of a second and enjoy this picture of a talented acrobat performing on silks at a renaissance festival. It’s nice to appreciate someone who is good at their work, and sharing that work with a crowd.

What thing(s) did you take a moment to appreciate in the last week? Tell folks in the comments; I think it would probably be helpful to everyone.

(And if you haven’t taken a moment to appreciate something in the last week — today is a fine day to do so.)

The Big Idea: Julie E. Czerneda

Today in The Big Idea, Julie E. Czerneda tackles the subjects of time, memory, intelligence, friendship.. and slime. They all have a role in her novel, Search Image

JULIE E. CZERNEDA:

Twenty years ago, when my host, John Scalzi, started this amazing blog of his, my second novel was published by DAW Books. It concerned a character who was, well, a blob of well-intentioned blue goo, liable to explode under stress. Beholder’s Eye. What these things had in common? Two authors, each going where they hadn’t before, both to discover it was the best direction of all. 

I didn’t set out to write Esen-alit-Quar, Esen for short, Es in a hurry or between dear friends. I set out to study the evolution of animal communication, starting with chemical signals and their role in the reproductive behaviour of fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas). Though perhaps they were a sign of what was to enter my life. After all, fathead minnows develop a mucous-secreting pad on their heads, used to rub clean a spot under a rock suitable for eggs to be laid. There they’ll wait, hoping a female approves their choice.

Slime, and its function, thus mattered early to me.

I also, as a humble grad student, had the privilege assisting my prof with his animal behaviour classes. There was the expected amount of cage scrubbing, the unexpected need to capture pigeons (at -40C) from the rooftop, and, of course, the discovery hamsters lustfully slime the sides of their enclosures, requiring more scrubbing.

A trend might have started.

Not that I noticed. By day, I was thoroughly busy with biology. By night, when I’d moments, I played with ideas. A Thousand Words for Stranger and the Clan Chronicles series came from those fathead minnows and the evolution of secondary sexual characteristics. (Really. Ask me some time.)

Esen? She came from that behaviour class. I’d taught the difference between r and k strategists: the former living short lives with many offspring, the latter few offspring with longer lives. That idea I had? I designed a species to be the ultimate k strategist. To live the longest possible life, reproducing rarely if at all.

I jotted notes. Doodled. How to do this? What if a living thing had control of its structure at the molecular level, harnessing energy to dispense with aging cellular components? Interesting. My something would need the ability to store and recall—with absolute accuracy—itself, leading me to extrapolate a biochemical memory. (This was thirty years ago, so I’m delighted by recent discoveries in that field.) Where might you find such beings evolving? Where energy was widely dispersed, but available if you had the time to travel far enough. Ergo, space. They’d be very few, and reproduce, reluctantly, by fission not sex. I fine-tuned the notions, noting almost in passing my creations didn’t have to have any one shape.

Because they could have any that they “remembered.”

All of which was fun, but hardly a story. Fine, then. What would my semi-immortal (for I wasn’t creating gods, but organic life) creatures do with their vast life span?

There’s something you need to know about me. When I was playing with these ideas, it was a time (the late 70s, need I say more?) of innumerable science fiction plots about how awful immortality would be. Star Trek, for example. Movies, TV shows, and books galore.

I didn’t buy it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d sob appropriately over, say, a vampire’s broken heart as a beloved aged and died. But beyond that? I’ve never accepted the “inevitable boredom” premise. It’s not in me. I’m not bored. I don’t get bored.

I get curious.

Thus, so would my beings. And what in the universe would fuel their curiosity? All of us. Beings whose lives were mere flickers of comparative time. Whose continuity came not from shared memory, but new life. Who saw death coming and created art and civilization in response.

My ideas were grew positively yummy. My beings would be archivists, of a sort. They’d collect information about “ephemerals” as they’d call us. Store and share it, not as objects, but as biochemical memory. Who’d collect genetic information to transform themselves into the species they observed, the better to learn every aspect. There’d be, oh, five in total, four budded from an original parent who’d be the Senior Assimilator, able to pick and choose what to share with the rest.

You’ll notice I still didn’t have a story.

Ah, but then I thought: what would bring disruption and chaos to a secret group of ancient beings, full of knowledge of living and extinct intelligences?

The unintended, unplanned arrival of number six. Esen.

***

Here are the first words of Esen I ever wrote.

“We would be together as long as he lived.

“And after that, I would remember Paul Ragem, my first friend, until the hearts of stars grew cold.”

I wrote her first book knowing this was how it ended. Otherwise I’d no outline or plan, only to set Esen in motion and see what happened along the way. No, that’s not entirely true. I’d two intentions by this point. One, to use Esen’s unique perspective to have as much fun as possible with real biology, the odder the better—and slime was a major goal, trust me.

Two, as you may have guessed, was to have a story about friendship.

Another thing you should know about me. I believe our deepest, most meaningful relationships are those between friends. The people we’d do anything for, who’d do anything for us. Who require no payment, no promise for their actions. Who call after a decade, and you pick up where you left off without pause. (Yes, family can be friends, but not always. Partners too. Mine is.)

I distrust stories that diminish normal, ordinary friendship. You know the ones I mean: where friends are introduced only to be sacrificed to motivate the main character to do whatever they must. I dislike stories where any friendship worth having must lead to “benefits.” Again, don’t get me wrong, I love a good romance. I just don’t want the only relationship that’s significant, that moves the story, to be the happy couple’s. We’ve far more friends than lovers. (I’m going to assume anyone for whom this isn’t true hasn’t time to read this blog. Good luck with that.)

All of which brought me Esen. I wanted a science fiction story, to please myself for only I (I thought) would ever read it, about friendship. How it grows. What it looks like. Feels like. How better than have a lonely Human try to explain it to the most alien bit of blue blob imaginable?

How better than have her try—no matter how hard–to understand what none of her kind have before?

Not that writing Esen, and her friend Paul, was difficult. In fact, I found writing her irresistible. The problems they face, and she attempts to resolve, are biological. Different sense organs. Different life cycles. Aliens who physically can’t make the leap to mutual understanding without a bit of help from someone who can. Mostly. For the other idea I’d had from the start? When Esen assumes another form, she’s still herself. A unique individual of that species, and no other. It lets me create wonderful complications for her to solve. You see, Esen means well, but she’s not always graceful or wise. Being Youngest. Writing her earnest efforts makes me laugh. More importantly they gave me the courage, as a writer, to put into words what I find silly or touching or utterly vital.

***

Picking up the story of Esen and Paul after writing a dozen very different books was as easy for me as breathing, and as wonderful as discovering a path down to a new river on a crisp sunny spring morning. You see, I’ve never stopped collecting weird, real, biology to inflict upon her. I’ve never lost my joy at portraying her wide-eyed curiosity about everything alive, because I share it.

And I’ve never lost sight of the importance of friendship. Into the future we go!

—-

Search Image: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

View From a Hotel Window, 10/4/18: Minneapolis

The view is on a grid.

I’m here in town for a trade show, so unfortunately will not be doing public events, sorry. But I’m always happy to be in Minneapolis. It’s a lovely city, if twenty degree cooler than where I just left.

How is your Thursday?

The Big Idea: J. Lincoln Fenn

Living on an island means a different way of thinking about life — and death. J. Lincoln Fenn explains why, and how it made a difference for her latest novel, The Nightmarchers.

J. LINCOLN FENN:

I was driving the long, flat road from Kihei to Kahului, sugarcane fields and the distant rainforest mountains of Iao Valley to my left, listening to the public radio station and a fascinating discussion about the word ‘kanu’, which means two things in Hawaiian, ‘to bury’ (as in burying a corpse) and ‘to plant.’ When a family member was buried the spirit didn’t rise to a heaven or hell, eternally severed from the living, but remained on the island, inexorably linked to their descendants. The land and the ancestors were intertwined.

It makes sense because in many ways an island is a world unto itself. Resources are finite, and choices have consequences that can’t be mitigated. Be rude to someone at the pharmacy counter and rest assured you’ll run into their cousin at a PTA meeting. All the trash and garbage produced doesn’t go to some ‘out of sight, out of mind’ landfill—it’s a visible, ever-growing mound that everyone has to drive by. Set the sugarcane fields on fire to harvest the syrup, and ash called black snow falls on rich and poor alike. Things that can’t be changed must be accepted. “It is what it is.” Why would death be any different?

I thought about how different that is from the Western American idea of frontiers, and constant reinvention, the secrets that can be buried, the bloody conquests reframed as destiny. The idea that what we do here on Earth is ultimately irrelevant because we’re assured we’re the chosen people, with an eternal, separate paradise waiting in the sky. So not only do we think that we can dominate everything with impunity—from other cultures to genomes—we think it will have no real effect on our present, and future. We believe we can be severed from consequences and don’t have to acknowledge them.

This is our collective delusion.

Because the truth is, as one of my characters in The Nightmarchers says, “The things we bury have a way of digging their way out. They creep and clutch and bloom in our dark, shadowy places.”

We’re seeing those blooms everywhere. From institutionalized racism born of slavery, to the Western wildfires that cast smoke across the entire United States, to the gross machinations behind the Hollywood dream machine, all the things we tried to bury—mass genocide, toxins, sexism, racism and all the other ‘isms’—are growing, twisting, and cracking the foundational values of our culture.

We could very well be in for a grim harvest, at least in the short term.

But even as a horror writer I have to acknowledge another human propensity, which is our ability, in the face of great adversity, to drop ideologies and divisions with as little thought as a snake who sheds its skin. To exist in peace.

Not that it’s easy. Hawaii is one of the most culturally layered places I’ve ever lived, with a visceral pain born out of colonization, World War II, Japanese internment camps and a near continuous flow of immigration. Anger and clashes happen. But at the end of the day, if your car breaks down on the road, people will stop and help you push it out of the traffic. You’ll be an “Auntie” to children whether or not you’re related (or even know each other). One of the most poignant moments of my time there was going to an event about the struggle to reinstate Hawaii as a kingdom. It was standing room only—not many white people in attendance—and a Hawaiian teenager offered me his seat.

When I feel despair, I think of him.

And while the discussion about ‘kanu’ on the radio might have seemed like a small seed, it bloomed into this essay, and a novel that questions our fight to dominate a world that could be, if we only got out of the way, a real paradise, here and now. Whether we’re able to recognize our interconnectedness is irrelevant to the fact that we are. The world is an island, and nothing disappears into a void. Everything we bury grows, and all our ghosts linger, quietly watching.

—-

The Nightmarchers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

Meanwhile, This Song

From the movie A Star is Born, which comes out tomorrow. The song is surprisingly good — which seems like I’m damning Lady Gaga (who co-wrote it) with slight praise. I’m not meaning to minimize her talents at all (they’re pretty obvious at this point), but songs written for movies are often about something else than being a good song. This is a good song, and it seems to fit the movie. If I understand the story correctly, this is a song she wrote but Bradley Cooper’s character arranges with the intent of encouraging her to come onstage to sing it (and thus kickstart her path to stardom). Even in video you can see how that emotional interplay is working, and Gaga sells it perfectly. If the actual movie is as good as the moment the video covers, this is going to be a contender.