The Big Idea: Marcus Sakey

Hey look, The Big Idea is back — this is a feature in which authors of newly-released books tell you a little bit about one of the big ideas in their book, and how they managed to work with it as they wrote their book. This feature used to be on Ficlets, but since I don’t work there anymore, I’m bringing it here. One less link for you to click through.

(For you authors editors and publicist who are wondering how you can get in on this action, I’ll be posting a new “how to” entry soon. Until then, just check out my publicity guidelines.)

To inaugurate the Whatever run of The Big Idea, we have At the City’s Edge, by crime novelist Marcus Sakey. Sakey made a huge critical splash with his first book The Blade Itself (“Sakey’s brilliant debut is a must-read,” said Publishers Weekly in a starred review), and seems well on the way to repeating the trick with City (“just as good as Sakey’s stellar debut,” says Library Journal).

Today Sakey reveals what he defines as a big idea — it’s not the one sentence you can pitch a movie with — and how that big idea grew from a wacky, nutty idea: Doing research on the city of Chicago, in the city itself. I know! Research? Who does that anymore? Apparently, Marcus Sakey. Good on him.


I don’t have big ideas.

Really, I don’t, not in the Hollywood “high concept” way, not in an a-ha! moment way. You know:

“A-ha! What if scientists extracted DNA from prehistoric insects and cloned dinosaurs that ran amok?”

or, “A-ha! What if a disgruntled cop rigged a bus to blow up if it dropped below a certain speed?”

or, “A-ha! What if an unloved orphan discovered he was actually a powerful wizard responsible for saving the world?”

I wish I did have big ideas. That last one especially. Man do I wish I’d had that one.

What I have instead is a string of little ideas. Observations about a situation, bits of dialogue, a flash of character. Incomplete notions rather than perfectly formed a-ha! moments.

For example, when I began writing AT THE CITY’S EDGE, I had only a vague idea of the story I would tell. I knew that I wanted to write a book that was political without being partisan. I wanted to talk about greed and ambition and self-interest, and about how ancient those qualities are, how little has changed since wars were fought with sticks. And I also wanted to ride around dangerous neighborhoods wearing a bulletproof vest.

My wife loves that last part.

Anyway, I took those bits and about a dozen others, and I started rubbing them up against each other in the hope that something would spark. I read memoirs of the current war—there are some wonderful books out there, visceral and personal and timely—and researched the way that we treat our soldiers on their return. I pestered cops in four cities, interviewing them about street gangs and urban blight. I rode with Chicago’s Gang Intelligence Unit, the CIA of the CPD, through a world I’d never known existed.

And somewhere along the way, my snarl of small ideas knotted into a big one.

I would write a book about a soldier. A regular soldier, not Rambo, just a guy who went to Iraq, had some rough experiences, and ended up discharged. And when he got home, lost and confused and hurting, he would find himself in the middle of another war. A war in his neighborhood that bore a lot of similarities to the one he’d left. A war between seemingly implacable forces, with regular folk caught in between—some of them people he loved.


Of course, it took me a couple of months to get there. I lost a lot of sleep, drove my wife crazy, and made some false starts. But that seems to be the way the process works for me. I can’t go in with a big idea. I have to unearth it as I go. And there’s something I have come to love about that fact, a process of discovery that keeps things fresh and exciting.

But I still wish I’d thought of that thing about the orphaned wizard.

Read an excerpt of At the City’s Edge here. Marcus Sakey is also on tour soon — see if he’s coming to your town.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Marcus Sakey”

  1. I read “The Blade Itself” when it came out and was very impressed, so I am looking forward to this. Sakey might be considered up there with Pellecanos and Lehane very soon.

    Somewhat strangely, the next book I read was also called “The Blade Itself” which was also a promising debut published around the same time, but this one a fantasy by Joe Abercrombie. I wonder who accidentally stole more sales from the other by distracted people rushing through an Amazon purchase.

  2. Hey Marcus, good luck with the book.

    I wish I’d had the orphan wizard idea, too. Oh well.

    I think the small ideas is a lot like building the wall of China. Y’know, a brick at a time. Ya just need to make sure they’re GOOD bricks, though.

  3. Sounds like Mr. Sakey is of the Edison school of thought. “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

  4. Unlike Aplomb, I’d never heard of Sakey’s book with this title, and thought that Scalzi had really misspelled “Joe Abercrombie” (especially since I just put the second book by Abercrombie on my wishlist today).

  5. I like what Sakey says about the a-ha big ideas. My favorite books and movies defy the one-sentence hollywood pitch. To borrow a line from the intelligent design crowd, they have an irreducible complexity. When I try to summarize my favorites to recommend them to friends, I usually end up frustrated, telling them, “you just have to read it, ok?”

  6. Hey folks! Thanks for reading, and thanks to John for having me.

    I found it hysterical–and deeply odd–that there was another book named THE BLADE ITSELF released about the same time. The title is a reference to a Homer quote, so it’s that we have the same weird brain. Hopefully not too many people were confused, but the other TBI is very good, so even if they chose the book they didn’t mean, they didn’t lose.

    Aplomb, thanks very much for the kind words–much appreciated.

    Rembrant, you got it–at least for me. I do keep waiting for that perfectly formed story idea to land in my lap, but so far, no go.

    Mark, thanks! You doing any cons this year?

    Matthew, I hear that, brother. Funny thing is that once I do figure out what I’m trying to say, it’s really helpful to reduce it to a one-sentence pitch–it clarifies my thought process. For example, the one-liner for this one is, “A discharged soldier returns from Iraq to find a similar war raging in his Chicago neighborhood.”

    The getting there, well, that took awhile.

    Cheers all, and thanks again.

  7. Marcus,
    I assume the other book of the same name is the one by Joe Abercrombie. I agree – it’s very good. Now I have to read yours.

  8. I’m in the same boat with the name confusion, but it’s cool–I have two more books on my “must read” list, that just happen to have the same name. And it’s a very cool name, I might add.

    Thanks, Marcus, for the post!

  9. I liked the sample on your website enough to add your books to my wish list. I also dug your “read this suckas” list, you managed to make a few sales for some other authors. Love me some book pimpage.

  10. Marcus,

    We meet at last.

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the REAL Blade Itself. I must send you an ARC of my latest effort, in which an unloved orphan discovers he is actually a powerful wizard responsible for saving the world.

    It is called: “At the Edge of the City.”

    Sometimes I don’t know where the ideas come from…

    Best of luck with the new book, man.

  11. Joe, you actually just made me spit water on my keyboard. And thus our rivalry deepens… ;)

    Thanks for the good wishes, brother. Nice to “meet” at last.

    And Clay, thanks! Hope you enjoy.

  12. I just wanted to pass along that Marcus Sakey gave an awesome interview on our site on Monday. He was really funny, easy to listen to, and very insightful about quite a lot of unexpected things. Sort of Yoda or Zen insightful. Great interview, archived on blogtalkradio’s Coffee with an Author and on the home page for

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