The Big Idea: Myke Cole

The Cover of Myke Cole's novel, The Armored Saint

For this Big Idea, author Myke Cole has some thoughts on how people find themselves governed and why — and how these thoughts have resonance for his latest work, The Armored Saint.


Nobody trusts the government.

The single greatest casualty of the political chaos of the past year is our faith in our institutions: from our police to our bureaucracy to our press, scandal after scandal after scandal shakes our foundations. In the vacuum that follows, we routinely bandy around words like “revolution,” and “fascism,” and “dictatorship,” turning to any port in a storm. Teen Vogue surges to the fore of political reportage. Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway flirt with providing healthcare, and we find ourselves leaning on social media to disseminate our numerous cris de coeur.

It’s frightening, but it’s also justified. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, in the US or the UK, nobody can be faulted for saying that their government hasn’t been doing a very good job. Nobody can be blamed for cocking an eyebrow or casting a skeptical glance when the authorities come to town. These authorities have routinely abused their power, routinely hyped fear of the other in order to gain more. Bigger and badder weapons, more pervasive and ruthless surveillance, less and less accountability.

Why should we trust them with anything, ever?

But the truth is always more complicated. And even the most passionate resister will admit, when pressed, that the government we despise isn’t always wrong. That the authorities do protect us from enemies who seek to harm us. And that it is possible to stand up to the institutions that smother us, only to find something much worse lurking in the background.

And that’s the big idea behind The Armored Saint.

Heloise Factor has grown up in a world where the priesthood of the divine Emperor, the Order, keeps the devils confined to hell. The Order pitilessly slaughters anyone who they suspect of harboring those wizards whose dabbling in forbidden arts might rip the veil that keeps our world separate from hell, and set the devils loose among us. Riding under the uncompromising mantra of “Suffer no wizard to live,” the Order burns entire villages, leaving nothing alive, if there is even the hint of wizardry. Countless innocents are routinely caught up in their unthinking crusade, and the world simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Heloise is raised with a mantra as chilling as the Order’s, “that’s just the way things are.”

But she is an extraordinary young woman and refuses to live like this. In her brave struggle, she forgets one important possibility.

Just because the Order is cruel and corrupt, doesn’t mean they are wrong.

The Armored Saint was conceived before the present political maelstrom was upon us, but it was absolutely written in the midst of it, and as with all of my work, it has pervaded the text. It grew from a book about a young woman finding herself and challenging a cruel and immutable system into a story grappling with the feeling of being cut adrift in a world where it seems nothing can be trusted, where consequences have consequences, and life is often a succession of choosing between bad or worse. 2018 reminds me that our lives are lived out in the midst of a cascade of choices going back generations, chickens all coming home to roost at once.

I think all authors identify with their protagonists to some extent, but it is amazing how deeply entwined I have felt with Heloise all through this journey, and how with each passing event, I feel her presence more keenly. Like all of us, she is wrestling with a world-gone-mad. And like all of us, she is never truly sure if the decisions she makes are the right ones—if she is seeing far enough down the chain of consequences.

Whether she has or she hasn’t, Heloise is amazing. I have been privileged to know her and tell her story. You’ll be meeting her soon, and I hope you love her as much as I do.


The Armored Saint: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Out For a Bit

Hey folks — taking a break for about ten days. I’ve scheduled a Big Idea post for next week, which you’ll see pop up, but otherwise I’ll be off the Internet entirely until the 25th at least, and probably not back here until the 27th or so. Be good to each other until I get back, okay? Thanks. See you later!

Whoops, I Forgot To Update Today, So Here, Have Some Music

It’s Petra Haden doing an acapella version of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” Enjoy.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I got the name for Haden’s Syndrome from her. She knows. I sent her a signed copy of Lock In.

Thoughts on Pixel Buds

A picture of my Pixel Bud earphones, in their carrying case.

Because apparently I’ve gone entirely over to the Google side of the force and will be getting “Pixel 4 Lyfe” tattooed somewhere on my body, I’ve acquired a pair of Pixel Buds, the Google-manufactured wireless earbuds that are designed to work specifically with the Google Pixel 2 line of phones (which I have), although I understand they will work like a regular pair bluetooth earbuds with other phones and Bluetooth-compatible devices. I’ve had these for a bit over a week now but have only really used them a lot in the last couple of days (my previous Pixel 2 met a bad end thanks to a tile floor, and I only paired these with the new Pixel 2 the other day). I have thoughts on them. Here they are.

1. The Pixel Buds were not rapturously reviewed in other places, and I think a major knock on them is that they’re very fiddly, i.e., they work in a very specific way and require you to conform to that way, rather than them conforming to you. And in fact, that’s pretty accurate, not the least because in order to charge the buds you have to put them in their carrying case, so if you lose the case, you’re pretty much boned. Also the touch-sensitive surfaces of the earbuds are super-twitchy, which can be really annoying until you develop muscle memory for how to insert and remove the buds from your ears and otherwise interact with them. They’re certainly the most high-maintenance pair of earbuds I’ve owned.

2. Is their high-maintenance nature worth it? If you’re getting them just to have a pair of wireless earbuds, probably not — there are cheaper and less (literally) touchy earbuds you can buy to pair to your phone and listen to music or make phone calls. But if you have a Pixel 2 (or Pixel 2 XL) phone, and you are excited by the idea of having Google Assistant right in your ear and doing things for you at the tap of an earbud (like play music, or look up something, or get walking directions, etc), then, sure, they’re nifty.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Google Assistant up in my ear, incidentally. As with many things relating to Google Assistant and Pixel-line products, I’m not sure that the various shortcuts to access it (squeezing the edge of your phone, the Pixel Bud ear press, the Pixelbook dedicated button) make it any more useful in a general sense than just looking something up via a Google search bar, especially because the Google search bar has voice recognition. It’s ostensibly nifty but in a practical sense I’m still looking for GA to really differentiate itself. That said, with the Pixel Buds you can keep your Pixel 2 in your pocket and direct it via the buds, and I suppose that’s not chopped liver.

3. One thing that is very nice about the Pixel Buds — if you have a Pixel 2 — is that it initially pairs with the phone simply by opening the holding case clamshell. It’s the easiest damn Bluetooth pairing I’ve ever done. With that said, in order to pair the buds to the second Pixel 2 after I unintentionally dashed the first phone on bathroom tiles, I had to do a factory reset (pressing a small button inside the case for fifteen seconds) otherwise the new phone wouldn’t find or pair with them. Once I did that, it was again super-simple to pair, but this was kind of a long way around, and I kind of had to figure it out myself. Something to keep in mind.

4. Another thing other reviewers were not in love with was the how the Pixel Buds fit in your ear with the help of cord loops that you adjust and then tuck into your ear folds. But that’s actually working pretty well for me. I guess maybe I have the right sort of ears for it (there are other earbuds that simply do not work for me — the kind that you stuff into your ear canal never work; they always, always fall out). I’ve walked around with the Pixel Buds in and they’ve stayed secure. You do have to readjust them every few times you put them in but that’s not difficult. I haven’t tried heavy exercise with them, but short of that they do just fine.

5. How do they sound? They sound good. The tone is pretty decent and they can get loud if you want them too. They’re not noise-cancelling and they sit outside your ear canal so you can still hear the outside world, which depending on your druthers may not be a great thing (but they get loud enough that you can drown out the outside world, too). Music sounds clear and fine, and the phone meeting I was on this morning was nice and clear in there. They work for their basic intended function.

6. The thing about the Pixel Buds needing to be in their case to charge isn’t my favorite not in the least because I’m almost guaranteed to lose that case at some point. On the other hand it means that the buds are almost always fully charged, and the case itself charges with a USB-C cord, as do the other Pixel products. When you have the Pixel Buds paired with a Pixel 2, the Bluetooth notification also tells you how much battery is left on the earbuds.

7. The major function that the Pixel Buds have that I’ve not tried is translation integration, on the reasoning that I’ve not spoken to anyone in anything other than English since I got them. I’m about to take a vacation to Mexico, and maybe if I don’t too feel dorky about it, I might try it there. The idea of someone speaking in their language and a (basic) translation coming out of my earbuds is gonna be very Babel Fish.

Overall: I like the Pixel Buds, but much of that is because they are in fact so well-integrated with the Pixel 2 and because I’ll willing to work with their inherent fiddliness. If you are as deep into the Google Pixel ecosystem as I clearly am, they are worth a look. If you’re not, maybe wait for the next iteration, or at least better integration with non-Pixel phones.

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.


There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.


The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Cover Reveal of The Consuming Fire Over at Verge

Yes! Go see it! Here’s the link. The artist is Sparth, i.e., the same artist who did such great work with the cover for The Collapsing Empire.

Plus there’s an interview with me there talking a bit about what’s going on in the book. No spoilers on specifics, but there’s a discussion on general themes (and also I have observations about human nature). You know you want to see me rant about people!

The New Guitar, and a Small Observation About Being a Dick

Most of you know I play a tenor guitar, which I like very much, but recently I decided I want to try playing a six-string guitar again, and went looking around for one that I thought I might like. Eventually I found one I thought I would like from a smallish company called Zager Guitars (and yes, for those of you of a certain age, that’s the Zager of Zager and Evans). The company makes acoustic guitars with a slightly lower action, closer to that of an electric guitar. Well, I like that in concept; one of my problems with six string guitars is I’m terrible at barre chords, so a lower action would be helpful. I checked reviews online and the company seemed to have a decent reputation, so I put in an order.

The guitar arrived a couple of days ago and so far I’ve been pleased. It has a nice sound, is indeed easy to play (I still suck at barre chords, alas) and generally speaking is providing me the enjoyment I hoped I would get from it. I’m still a terrible guitar player, but I’m playing terribly on a decent instrument, and that’s a start.

Tangentially, when I first got the guitar, I posted a picture of it on Twitter, and right out of the barrel someone sniffily criticized the guitar maker and said something along the line that I should have gotten a different guitar. Hot tip: Don’t be that sort of clueless dickhead out loud. One, it’s just rude. Two, if your first impulse when someone excitedly shows off their new instrument (or whatever) is to shit on it and them for getting it, the problem isn’t them, or the object in question, it’s you.

Three, even if what they got is something that’s not up to your standards for whatever reason, if they’re happy, than be happy for them, you jerk (there is a qualified exception here if they’re collecting, say, pro-Nazi paraphernalia or Mammy cookie jars or endangered animal hides or the like. If they’re doing it cluelessly, maybe clue them in gently. If they’re doing it with full cluefulness, maybe drop them off the holiday card list).

I should be clear this dude attempting a poop smear on my new guitar didn’t make me feel bad about my purchase. I researched and knew what I was buying and why, and to that regard have been perfectly happy with the guitar. It’s pretty much as I wanted and expected it to be. But it did annoy me that this was some grown-ass person’s first impulse. Be better than that, people. It’s not that hard to do.

New Books and ARCs, 2/9/18

Hey, it’s time for the book stack! These are the new books and ARCs that came into the Scalzi Compound this week. What’s speaking to you here? Tell us all in the comments!

10 Years of Big Ideas at Whatever

On January 22, 2008, the first “Big Idea” post went up here on Whatever, for Marcus Sakey’s At the City’s Edge. The latest one, for Sue Burke’s Semiosis, went up just this morning. All told, including the first and the most recent posts, 828 books have been featured in the Big Idea in a decade, and hundreds of authors (and some editors) have stopped by to talk about their latest books, and what motivated them to tell that book’s particular story, at that particular time. Most but not all have been speculative fiction authors — a few writers from other fiction genres have popped in, as well as a few non-fiction writers as well. We’ve even had at least one video game maker come along and talk about the ideas behind their work. Across ten years, it’s been a pretty cool ride.

(And I realize that last line reads like the next line is gonna be “And so it pains me to say the Big Idea is no more,” but don’t worry about that. It’s going to continue.)

I’m occasionally asked why I do the Big Idea feature here, and there are a few answers to that:

1. It was originally on an AOL-owned literary site called “Ficlets,” where I wrote and helped develop content, and doing a feature where writers talked about their new books seemed like a no-brainer for a site like that. When Ficlets closed up shop, I ported it over to Whatever, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

2. Here at Whatever, I basically consider it part of my “pay it forward” dues — I’ve done well and have been successful, in no small part because other writers were kind and helped me along the way. This is a thing I can do, that people seem to like doing, so I’m happy to do it and be useful to other writers.

3. Also, it’s easier to do than, say, doing interviews (which takes a reasonable amount of prep if you don’t want it to be canned and boring, and then takes a reasonable amount of post to make it ready for consumption), since the author does most of the work, and I just format, add links and put in an intro paragraph. It’s also better than doing reviews, because there’s no way I could review as many books as I do Big Idea, that is, if I still want to do my own writing.

4. Because they can be interesting as hell and I like reading about other authors’ processes and ideas, and this is my sneaky way of getting to do that on a regular basis.

5. Also because it serves as a way for me to find books I would want to read too, in my copious free time.

At one point I and a couple of friends intended to take the Big Idea concept further and spin it off into its own site. This happened just around the time I started getting really busy, and they also got really busy, and so it ended up that the Big Idea essays stayed here at Whatever (although I still own the proposed URL,; click on it and you’ll be taken to a scroll of Big Idea posts). Every once in a while I still think of spinning them off to their own site. Then I remember that my life is basically scheduled out through 2027 and I think they will stay here for a while longer.

And again, I plan on continuing to have them here for the foreseeable future, so long as authors still want to participate (I was once asked what happens if I give a writer a slot and they don’t turn in a piece. The answer is: Nothing happens to them. This is all voluntary. It’s not like I track them down and scream at them or anything. I just don’t run their piece).

I think it’s wild that it’s been ten years that the Big Idea has been here, doing its thing. It doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet, here we are, more than 800 books later. That’s pretty cool. Thank you to all the authors who have written about their big ideas, and to everyone here to keeps reading them.

On to the next decade.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.


Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.

Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.

Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.

Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.

Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.

Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.

The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.

Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?

Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.

So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?

So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?


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

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



The Pixel 2 is a tough little phone, but it turns out when you drop it from a decent height onto ceramic tile riiiiight on the corner, you may still have a problem or two. A thing to be aware of, folks.

Fortunately I procured a replacement Pixel 2, and with the transfer of the SIM card, everything was up and running painlessly — so painlessly, in fact, that I was a little surprised at how painless it was. I usually go into the local phone store to do all the transferring and so on and whatnot, and that takes time out of my day. But I did this one at home, and… well, no time at all. A lesson may have been learned here.

Another lesson learned: I had been resisting getting a case for the phone, because I quite liked the aluminum and glass aesthetic, and also because I liked the slimness of the naked phone. But clearly there’s a user issue — that dude is clumsy. So, case it is.

The Big Idea: Jasmine Gower

Image of the book Moonshine by Jasmine Gower.

Tedium: Sometimes it’s an excellent motivator. Author Jasmine Gower explains how, and how it helped her novel Moonshine come to life.


The appeal of fantasy is the satisfying escape into the truly impossible, unattainable adventures beyond the reach of even our most exciting moments in the real world. Fantasy provides an opportunity to bring magic and spectacle into our lives so, naturally, part of my upcoming fantasy novel Moonshine was inspired by perhaps the most unmagical thing that has ever happened to me.

I first conceived of the magical prohibition premise of my novel, Moonshine, way back in my high school days before setting aside the project for a number of years. While it was on hiatus, I studied the 1920s more in-depth, learning about the global reach of the flapper movement, the Lost Generation, early 20th century transgender activism, and the racism faced by legendary African American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Baby Esther.  A story about prohibition—magical or otherwise—has quite a bit of interesting history to draw upon, much of which goes ignored in favor of whitewashing and de-politicizing the events in the United States in the 1920s. (Strangely, TV and movies set during Prohibition rarely seem concerned with the motivations behind the Temperance Movement.)

After high school was also when I moved from my little agricultural hometown to Portland, Oregon, and in my daily life became exposed to the city’s historic 1930s brick architecture and horrible, soul-crushing gentrification. I learned about the histories of Portland’s immigrant communities, the college that fell into the river, and the little volcano located in the middle of the city. Modern-day Portland also provided its own fascinating and often horrifying inspiration for crafting a fantasy city of feminist activism, queer communities, dangerous ecology, and black market dealings. And while all of that ended up shaping Moonshine, for the story of Moonshine’s main character Daisy, nothing was quite as influential as my experience working a dull, repetitive, underpaid off-white-collar job right out of college.

It was a basic data entry position, completely unrelated to my English degree and nominally focused on processing workers comp claims, although in truth I didn’t (and still don’t entirely) understand the point of most of the work I did there. My employers must have been satisfied enough with my work, though, as a few months in they moved me from the dungeon-like concrete basement to the bright and airy second floor of our renovated art deco building. There, I was trained in a new task—auditing the work of overseas remote employees even more underpaid than me.

Once more, I was mystified as to the point of the task assigned me. It seemed that I was training the remote employees in my own job, which was strange given that my employer already had me to do my job. That had me on-edge, and I had never gotten on well with the rigid, chained-to-the-desk environment of that office. The tipping point, however, was when my manager threatened disciplinary action after I, following company procedure to the letter, called in sick for a single day after I had contracted scarlet fever. So, that was pretty much the end of that.

It wasn’t necessarily my worst job, but the particular badness of this job provided a compelling question: What does my place of employment even do? Or it would have been compelling, if the answer wasn’t almost definitely just “process workers comp claims and exploit employees,” but maybe for someone else it could have been a question with a more satisfying answer. Enter Daisy Dell, or an early concept of her, who got to be the surrogate in my “maybe my desk jockey job is secretly interesting” fantasies. Could the company be a front for a secret lab splicing superhero genes? Had they captured a werewolf for research on a highly volatile lycanthrope virus? Whatever it was, there was definitely weird science happening in the basement.

And that was when I remembered my magical prohibition concept from high school.

I suppose it stands to reason that the story I ended up writing was not informed necessarily by fantastical elements from my own life, which has a limited supply to pull from, but from the fantasy I built in my head to survive the mundanity. (There were fewer podcasts then, you see.) Daisy’s boring day job does indeed lead her to run afoul a magical moonshining operation, which turns out to be a stressful experience for her, but it was pretty damn fun for me during those long hours of data entry.

My job eventually led me somewhere, too, once I was on my path away from it. After the scarlet fever incident, I only stayed on long enough to cushion my savings to take a while off of work. And the day I was gone from that tedious, miserable day job? I started writing Moonshine.


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

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

Kirkus Review of Head On

It’s the first trade review of the book (and, in point of fact, the first review of the book, period), and it’s a good one, and calls Head On “Very clever, wonderfully satisfying fun.” There’s a pull quote for you. And it’s nice to have someone entirely uninvolved with the book give it a thumbs up.

The full review is here, although be warned that while there are no real spoilers, the review does go into detail about plot beats. So if you want to be entirely surprised, you might want to skip the full review for now.

Head On: Tour Schedule and Signed Pre-Orders via Subterranean Press

The Cover of Head On

Tor has announced my tour schedule on its site, and Subterranean Press has announced that if you order Head On from them, you’ll get it signed by me! Details for both below.

Tour: Here are the tour dates on (say that three times fast). The tour runs from April 17th through the 25th. For those of you too click-averse to click through, the cities on this tour are Ann Arbor, MI; Iowa City, IA; Roseville, MN; St. Louis, MO; New York, NY; and Washington, DC. Also, I will be attending the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in the middle of this tour, so you can add LA into that tour mix as well.

(Update: Added a date at the Troy-Miami County Public Library in Troy, Ohio on 4/30 at 6:30pm. For those of you in Dayton, Ohio area who want to see me this time around.)

The astute and/or those far too involved with the minutiae of my previous tours will note that this is a shorter tour than the last couple of tours I went out on. This is because a) not every tour needs to be five weeks long, thankfully, and b) I have another book coming out in October and I’m very likely to tour for that one as well, so we have the option (and luxury) of splitting up 2018’s book trek into two shorter jaunts. So if you don’t see your city on this trip, don’t panic; there’s a good chance of seeing me in October.

This time around we’re also hitting some cities I either haven’t been to on tour, or haven’t been to in a while. This is my first time in touring St. Louis, for example, and I haven’t done a tour stop in DC in a decade, which actually seems weird when I think about it.

Please note at least one event on this tour (the Strand in NYC) is a paid ticketed event; if you want to attend that event it makes sense to order your copy of the book there and pick it up when you come to see me (if you order it elsewhere, you have the option of getting a gift card for the store instead when you get the ticket). Check with the other stores to see what their policies are.

If you’re at/near the tour cities and you can’t make it to the event, you can still pre-order the book at the stores who are sponsoring my events, and I will sign and personalize them for you when I’m there and you can come pick up the book at your leisure.

But what if I’m not coming to your town? Well, two things: one, I’m signing tip-in sheets, so some first editions will be signed already. But if you want your book personalized and I’m not making a tour stop near you, here’s option two:

Subterranean Press: If you pre-order Head On via Subterranean Press, I will sign the book and you also have the option to have me personalize it as well (to you or to someone else if it is a gift). I’ll do that just before I set out on tour so you’ll get the book release week. I’ve done this with SubPress a couple times now, and it’s pretty easy way to get a personalized book from me into your hands or the hands of someone you like. Plus it gives me an excuse to see my pals at Subterranean Press, which is always a good thing in my book.

So: If I’m not coming to your town on tour this time, going through Subterranean is the easiest way to get a personalized copy of Head On. So get your order in with them soon!

More Head On news coming tomorrow —

New Books and ARCs, 2/2/18

The books and ARCs keep coming, and this week we have a very fine stack of them. See anything here that sends a thrill to your eyeballs? Let us know in the comments!

Attention: Book Name Change for The Widening Gyre

The Widening Gyre, the second book in the Interdependency series, is getting a name change to:

The Consuming Fire. 

Please note it for your records.

(Also note: The Last Emperox, which was formerly the tentative title of the second book of the Interdependency series, until I changed to The Widening Gyre, now The Consuming Fire, is now tentatively the title of the third book in the Interdependency series. Tentative, people.)

(Also, yes, there will be a third book in the series. It’s now a trilogy.)

Why did we change the title?

1. It’s conceptually a better fit for what I have going on in the book.

2. No one can agree on how to pronounce “gyre,” which I discovered listening to multiple people say the title back to me. It’s the same problem as the “gif” thing which by the way is pronounced with a hard g. Yes, I know the dictionary says “gyre” is pronounced with a “j” sound, but that’s what they say about “gif” as well, and that’s fucking wrong. Anyway, everyone knows how to pronounce “fire.”

Also I’ve seen the artwork for the cover and it’s amazing. I’ll let you know when there will be a cover reveal (we have to change the title on it first).

Also also, The Consuming Fire will be out October 16. Still.

Hmmm, I guess I should write more in that book now.


The Collapsing Empire and Don’t Live For Your Obituary on the Locus Recommended Reading List

Any year in which a work of mine makes it onto the Locus Recommended Reading List is a good one (for me, anyway). This year, I’m happy to say two made it: The Collapsing Empire and Don’t Live For Your Obituary, in the Science Fiction Novel and Non-Fiction categories, respectively. How cool is that? Answer: Pretty cool. Mind you, many many other excellent works are on the list as well this year, and indeed this is a very fine reading list if you’d like to know what made waves in speculative fiction in 2017. Here’s the full list for your perusal. Happy reading!

Talking About Writing Income, or Not

A question in email:

On Twitter, you’ve linked to Jim Hines and Kameron Hurley when they’ve talked about their writing income, and you used to talk about your own writing income in detail. Do you ever plan to do that again?

Probably not.

For context for those of you who have come in late, for a number of years I talked about what I make as a writer, and how I made it, in part because I think it’s useful to have writers talk about what they make and to share information. It demystifies the process and keeps publishers and editors asking for writing from underbidding. The more we all know, the better off we’ll all be (in the long run, he said, hopefully).

As time has gone on, I’ve talked about my writing income less. One significant reason is that I have become an outlier, financially speaking, and sharing that particular bit of information has less overall utility for most folks. Jim and Kameron, among others, are in the thick of it more than I am and I think have more relevant things to say to most jobbing/aspiring fiction writers about writing income than I do, which is why I point to them and recommend people read their thoughts on the topic.

(Also, and I want to be very clear about this because the risk of being seen as condescending here is oh so very high, I don’t want to suggest a great separation between Jim and Kameron and indeed most working novelists and myself in terms of quality of work. We’re all within hailing distance of each other, skillwise, and who you think is better is mostly a matter of personal taste. I’m a financial outlier for a number of reasons, and one of them, a big one, as I frequently remind people, is luck. I have been very lucky in my career.)

Another significant reason I talk less about it publicly is because Krissy prefers I don’t. I’m inclined to respect the wishes of my spouse, who I live with, and love, and who is effectively the chief financial officer of our homey little domestic corporation. I have this general rule that any time I want to discuss online something that affects Krissy or Athena directly, I check in with them to see if they’re okay with me talking about it. Why? Because it’s their life, too. I literally just now checked in with Krissy on whether she was comfortable with me talking about my current writing income, and she was “yeaaaah, no.” Which means I won’t.

The closest I’ll come to talking about my current income level here on the site is to note a) I’m in the 1%, b) this discussion in 2015, when I got my long Tor contract, and I noted in relatively non-specific terms what I’d been making leading up to the contract. Without going into it further, I will say my income since then has not gone down. It does fluctuate year to year, but possibly less than you might imagine, since we’ve designed things to keep income flowing to us on what passes for the regular basis for a writer. This (relatively) consistent flow of income is at least as important as the dollar amount, to be honest about it. It makes budgeting and tax planning a little more predicable than it might otherwise be.

That said, there’s certainly a chance for things to substantially change one way or another. If several of my books flop, in the long term that’s going to be stone on my income level. If the movie/TV stuff actually happens in a significant way, that’s going to be a rocket. Who knows? I don’t! Other than trying to keep writing good books that people hopefully want to read, there’s a lot that’s out of my hands. What we’ve done is to set things up so that if problems do happen (and they might), we see them far enough out to prepare. And if things go great? Great! We’re prepared for that too.

But essentially that’s where I am with talking raw income numbers at this point. If you were hoping for something more here, I’m not sorry to disappoint you, but I do hope you’ll understand. And as noted, with Jim and Kameron and others on the case, there are more useful discussions about writer income than I could do, based off my own numbers. As a community, we’re not lacking in disclosure. And I’ll talk about other things regarding writing and careers, never fear.

The Big Idea: David Mack

What makes a hero? It’s a question that author David Mack had to confront in his novel The Midnight Front. It’s also a question he gives some thought to here in his Big Idea essay.


Heroes are the ones who step up to take the hit for the rest of us.

I know it’s not a new idea in fiction or myth, not by a long shot. But it remains one of the most powerful and effective elements in storytelling. One of the most universal characteristics of characters who are considered to be inspiring or heroic is a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.

There are lots of ways for characters to be heroic; not all courage involves physical peril. It can take just as much bravery to charge into gunfire as it does to oppose public opinion armed with nothing more than one’s principles. Some might argue the latter action is the more difficult; to die is the pain of but a moment, but to become a pariah, to risk being cast out of one’s community in the name of what’s right and fair — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime.

Ideas such as these guided my thinking as I developed the story for my new epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front. My main character Cade starts out as an ordinary man, one who has no aspirations to heroism. To motivate him into joining the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program, I resorted to a well-worn trope: Nazi sorcerers murder his parents as collateral damage in an attack that is meant to slay Cade at the start of World War II.

What I soon realized, however, was that while revenge can be an understandable and even a relatable motivation for a main character, it is not a heroic one. At its heart, revenge is a selfish motive, one driven by a desire to repay pain with pain, loss with loss. Characters who live for revenge often tell themselves that they are seeking justice, but the truth is that most of them care only about their own pain or wounded egos, and on some level they hope that inflicting retribution upon the ones who wronged them will somehow exorcise their suffering.

But that’s not really how it works, no matter what Hollywood might like us to believe. I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, but even the best vengeance-driven characters tend to wind up as antiheroes: Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter (or Porter in Payback, my favorite filmed adaptation of Stark’s novel); William Munny in Unforgiven; Wilson in The Limey. Except for the pulpy goodness of Payback, these stories came to tragic conclusions.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one, and both Alejandro Murrietta and Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro — but in all three of those latter examples, our revenge-driven heroes learn before the end that they must fight for something more noble than assuaging their own pain. Montoya risks his life to save Westley; Alejandro puts the rescue of innocent lives ahead of his vengeance; and de la Vega knows that his true legacy lies not in his revenge, but in training a new Zorro to be a hero for the people.

Consequently, while I was willing to let revenge start Cade on his path in The Midnight Front, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make a hero of him. Because true heroism requires sacrifice.

My supporting characters teach that lesson to Cade by showing him what courage looks like. But it’s only after a taste of revenge leaves him feeling hollow that he realizes it is an empty raison d’etre. So it is that when Cade finds himself on a landing craft heading for Normandy on D-day, he understands at last that his parents don’t need and wouldn’t want to be avenged; they would want their son to honor them, by following a nobler path, a more difficult path. A hero’s path.

This is an old lesson that we watch heroes learn over and over again. In those moments when characters embrace their best selves during their darkest hours, we cannot help but be stirred:

  • when Tony Stark risks his life to stop the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers;
  • when the crew of Rogue One lay down their lives, one by one, to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebellion;
  • when Steve Rogers nose-dives the Hydra superbomber to save millions of lives at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger;
  • when Diana dares to charge alone across No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman;
  • when the reprogrammed Terminator tells John Connor to lower him into the molten steel to protect the future at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
  • when Spock goes into the reactor room at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;

…and, last but definitely not least,

  • when The Iron Giant flies toward his fateful rendezvous with a nuclear missile and defines his self-image with his final word: “Superman.”

These are the moments that define the heroes we love. The ones in which they’re asked to give their last full measures of courage and devotion, and they do so without hesitation or protest. In the end, this is what The Midnight Front is all about: teaching one man to take the fall — not for fame, fortune, or romantic love, but for one simple reason: because it’s the right thing to do.


The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

Meet Keith Johnson

A picture of Keith Johnson, teacher, and his 1980 sixth grade class.

Over on Twitter, some foolish person posted the following question, which I will replicate here with all grammatical confabulation intact, because it’s necessary for context:

As a straight male, how would u feel about your child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around 8hours a day !

This was my response:

As a straight male, the best teacher I ever had was a gay man. Among many other things, he taught me the difference between “there,” “their” and “they’re.” His name was Keith Johnson. I would have been absolutely delighted for my daughter to have known him. I sang at his funeral.

This tweet, boosted by folks like Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling and Nick Offerman, has now been seen by over three million people. So now I would like to tell you a little bit about Keith Johnson, the best teacher I ever had.

To begin, in 1980, when he was my sixth grade teacher, I had no idea he was gay. It was 1980, when bluntly it wasn’t safe for a teacher to be out (he may have been out to colleagues but I wasn’t aware of it if he was). Also I was eleven years old, and in that time and place, I wouldn’t really have known what it meant to be gay. Not that I hadn’t heard the word or ones like it, which we flung around as slurs — “that’s gay,” “don’t be a fag,” and the game we rather obliviously called “smear the queer,” in which someone caught a ball and then everyone else in the game tried to drive them into the ground. But I didn’t have a very good idea of why those were slurs, nor how those slurs would have been applied to Keith.

No, in that time and place, Keith was simply “Mr. Johnson” — not Keith Johnson, mind you, as the idea of calling a teacher by their first name elicited the sort of holy terror that convinced you that if you were to do so you would promptly burst into retributive flame. “Mr. Johnson” would do. It wasn’t until years later that I could even say “Keith” without feeling I stepped over some still-glowing, forbidden line.

Keith’s reputation preceded him. At Ben Lomond elementary’s “MGM” (“mentally gifted minors”) program, the upper grades went through Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Swirsky and Mr. Johnson, for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Even in fourth grade you heard about what a hardass Mr. Johnson was, how he didn’t suffer fools, and how if you got out of line, you were in for it. He was legendary in a way that elementary school teachers could be: Here was this fearsome leonine visage, and he was coming for you. Well, not coming for you exactly, but one day you would be in his class, and then you would feel his wrath. Sure, you get away with some things in Mrs. Swirsky’s class. But if you tried that in Mr. Johnson’s class? Principal’s office. Or worse.

Which, when you was finally ended up in Keith’s class, turned out to be only about 30% true. Certainly, Keith wanted you to pay attention, and if you weren’t, he had a boomy baritone voice which would snap you back into line. And if the entire class was lazy or inattentive, then Keith had a phrase that let us know we disappointed him on a fundamental level. “Boy, I’m telling you, some people,” he would say, loudly and with a slathering of reproach, and then would detail what some people would do, and it was clear that some people were foolish and silly and would eventually lead lives of regret and disappointment, and the genesis of those regretful lives would be now, in this moment, when we weren’t getting our history projects done in a timely way. And it would work, because obviously we didn’t want regretful, disappointing lives, but also because we didn’t want to disappoint Keith.

Because here was the thing about Keith. Fundamentally, he wasn’t frightening, or mean, or an indiscriminate hardass on eleven year old kids. He was in fact kind and attentive, and more to the point, he saw each of his students in the way teachers are supposed to, and the way the best of teachers do, seemingly by reflex. He saw us, and saw our quirks and flaws, where we needed encouragement and also what kind of encouragement we would need. He saw us as individuals and as a group, and while he always had the same educational goals year in and year out, it became clear he would get us to those goals in ways that we could get there.

Being seen by one’s teacher, as it turned out, was especially important to me in the sixth grade. My mother was having a bad divorce that left me, my mother and my sister briefly homeless and then shuttling around between houses for the rest of the year. There was little stability, emotionally or physically, in my home life, and it would have been easy — and understandable — for me to fall down a hole and not come out of it for a long time. I didn’t because as it happened a number of people stepped up to help save me. One of those was Keith, who in seeing me saw some of the possible paths of my future, and gently but with just the right amount of push, set me on those paths.

I’ll give you two examples. The first happened when Keith asked me to write a letter. Every year Keith had his class perform a play (my year it would be “Oliver!” in which I would play the Artful Dodger; I can still sing most of the songs from that play by heart). To pay for it, he would have the class run a small business selling doo-dads to other students and parents. We would do the whole nine yards, including registering the business with the city and issuing stock (and at the end of the year, paying off the stock with dividends, if any), and by naming officers of the corporation.

Among the things Keith had us do was publicity, and one day while explaining the concept of publicity to us, he said one of the things he wanted us to do was contact a local TV station and try to get them to do a segment on us for the five o’clock news — and as he was saying this, he turned to me directly, pointed at me, and said “and I want you to write the letter.” Why me? He told me later and privately it was because I wrote differently than everyone else in class and he thought I could make the argument in a way that would interest the news crew. Keith was the first person aside from my mother to see that writing was a thing I did — and the first person to say to me that it was a thing I could do well, in a way that set me apart. It would be a few years until I decided for myself to become a writer, but I never forgot that Keith saw it first in me.

(Also, he was right: I wrote the letter with his editorial guidance, sent it in to Channel 7 News, and then a couple of months later they called and wanted to do a segment on us. We did an extra run of doo-dads so they could see us in production, and then sold those for a nice profit. And that’s how we paid dividends on our stock that year.)

Another example I’ve detailed elsewhere, when Keith gave me a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, said to me I would enjoy it, and said to me it was one of his favorite books. For me, this wasn’t just a teacher suggesting a book, it was my teacher sharing a confidence that was for me alone. And again he was right — The Martian Chronicles is in many ways foundational to my understanding of a field that I would eventually come to write in. I can’t say I became a science fiction writer because Keith gave me Bradbury’s book. But I can say I believe he understood me well enough to believe that it was the right book at the right time for me. And it was.

When I left Keith’s class to middle school, I would still drop by after class to chat with him and catch up; he always seemed pleased that I would come to say hello. I wasn’t the only former student who would do that — others told me they did it as well — but perhaps I was the most persistent, keeping in touch through high school and then college and then in the early parts of my professional career. Somewhere in there I directly asked him if he were gay, because by that time, several years on, some rumors had begun to circulate among his former students. Keith by this time had retired from teaching and told me it was true, named his partner and seemed perfectly at peace with it, and with me knowing.

By this time Keith was also sick. He was one of the many gay men who contracted HIV in the early days, before it was well understood and before there was a good treatment regimen for the virus. It developed into AIDS and he died of it, as did hundreds of thousands of gay and other Americans (and as do thousands still do, even today). I went to his memorial service, as did a few other of his former students, and at his funeral, with the permission of his family and partner, I sang a song I wrote for him.

Keith Johnson was a teacher and I can’t claim that I was more special to him than the hundreds of other students who passed through his classroom over the couple of decades he taught. But I think that’s the point of him being one of the best teachers I’ve known: His skills and talents as a teacher were for everyone, and were there for every student who came through his class. I don’t think I’m alone in saying he was the best teacher I’ve had, and I’ve had some magnificent ones over the years. But he stands alone.

To go back to the original question of how I as a straight male would feel about a homosexual teacher with my child eight hours a day, the answer is: A homosexual teacher was my best teacher, was the right teacher for me at a critical time, and saw me when I could have been lost. It’s even possible that in his way Keith Johnson saved me at a time when I most needed saving, simply by being the teacher he was with each of his students. I would have loved to have been able to introduce my daughter, born after he died, to Keith, my teacher and my friend. And I would want my daughter, and for every child, to have a teacher like Keith — one who saw her, one who taught her, and one who helped make her more herself, as Keith did with me. How could one not wish that for one’s child?

And now you know a little more about Keith Johnson, at least from my perspective. He was my best teacher. His memory is a blessing.