Thoughts on Zoe’s Tale
Per my usual thing of offering some post-writing thoughts on the latest books, some thoughts on Zoe’s Tale:
* First, it was the most difficult book I’ve had to write.
1. I wrote it from the point of view of a sixteen year old girl, which is something that I have never been, nor is it advisable for me now, as a 38-year-old man, to spend any appreciable amount of time in one’s company, unless I’m really hankerin’ for restraining orders. On top of that, this is not a static sixteen year old girl; I wanted to give the impression to the readers that the events of the book are having a profound effect on her and are, in essence, making her character’s voice mature through the course of the book. And on top of that, I wanted to be sure that Zoe reacted to her situation in ways that make sense — i.e., she can’t just be a Heinleinian “Competent Man” in cutesy gender camouflage. Think this is easy? Try it.
Or maybe all this is easy for you, but it wasn’t for me. The hardest thing was pegging Zoe’s voice to begin with. We have snippets of her in The Last Colony, but there’s really not a whole lot to go on. So I just kept writing the first chapter of the book over and over, trying to tweak the voice so it didn’t just sound like me pretending to be a girl. One key to this was letting women I trust read some of what I was writing; the first few attempts came back with general thumbs down, so I kept hacking away at it. I finally knew I was onto something when my wife came into the room with a chapter I had written and said, “yes. This is her.”
Now, whether I actually pulled off everything I’m attempting here with Zoe’s voice will be for other people to decide, and I know I’m going to spend the next day tweaking bits here and there before I finally send it off to Patrick. I will say this, however: once I “got” Zoe’s voice, if I ever got away from it, or had her say or do something that wasn’t authentic to her voice, I actually felt it go wrong, and would sort of rewind and do it again (and then my wife would check my math, so to speak). Of all the character’s I’ve written, you could say Zoe was the most assertive in letting me know who she was. Really, it was kind of a pain in the ass. But it does make the book better.
2. The book takes place in parallel time to the events of The Last Colony, which presents its own set of challenges. First, of course, there’s the problem that many of you already many of the plot points of the book; you read them in The Last Colony. Second, unless I wanted to be extraordinarily lazy (and I didn’t) I needed to make sure that even though the story takes place in the same timeframe as TLC, it doesn’t tell the same story as that book. Basically I went in with the idea that if I ended up recycling any of the scenes from TLC in ZT, I’ll have failed.
As it turns out, this was not realistic; some scenes in TLC are important enough to Zoe that they had to pop up again in ZT. But the good news is that having this dictum did keep the repeats down to a bare minimum. There are only two scenes in ZT that repeat dialogue that was used in TLC; it happened because I couldn’t not re-use the dialogue without substantially futzing with continuity. But the vast majority of the book is building out new things and exploring events that were hinted at in TLC but handwaved through because they weren’t at the heart of that book’s story, and thus, could not be gotten into.
I’m not going to get into detail about this — I want you to have something to look forward to when you read the book, you know — but I will say that some lingering reader questions from TLC will get addressed, and you will get to know rather a bit more about characters who are only barely sketched out in TLC. Chief among them is Gretchen Trujillo, Zoe’s best friend. In TLC pretty much all we know about Gretchen is that she’s Zoe’s friend; I’m happy to say she really comes into her own in ZT, as does Enzo, Zoe’s boyfriend. Hickory and Dickory also get much expanded roles, as they would have to, given their relationship with Zoe.
Basically, there’s so much new here that I’m personally satisfied that it’s not just a quickie rehash of TLC, designed to squeeze shekels out of a gullible audience (that would be you, my beloved readership). Again, other people will ultimately have to make the decision about whether I’m right about this. But I’m satisfied that I’m giving you a new experience for your entertainment dollar.
3. Even though the book take place in the Old Man’s War universe and in parallel time to TLC, the goal in the writing — as is the goal for each of the books I write — is to make it able to stand alone; that is, write it so that you don’t have to have read any of the previous OMW series books. At the same time, I have to make sure that the people who have read the previous books don’t get bored with me doing setup for the new readers.
I think I’m pretty good with this — I’ve done it with every other book in the series — but it doesn’t mean it’s actually easy to do. It’s actually getting harder, really. During the writing I had reference copies of all three previous books on hand just so I wouldn’t make a major continuity screwup. I think I managed it, and if I do have a continuity flub, I already have my excuse in place: It’s that Zoe remembers the events in question just a little bit differently than John Perry. Because, honestly, when was the last time you and anyone you know remembered an event exactly the same way? Hmmmm? Yes, yes, this is an excellent excuse for my failures as an author.
4. Finally, Tor and I have a marketing goal for Zoe’s Tale, which is that we wanted to make it accessible for teen readers. Note that “accessible for teen readers” is not precisely the same thing as “writing a Young Adult novel”; the audience I wrote ZT for is the one that is (or is like) the audience who have read other books in the series. At the same time, both Tor and I are aware that all the instances of the word “fuck” in the other books (for starters) are enough to keep the books out of some school libraries they might otherwise have been in; it would be a shame to have that happen in the OMW universe book that actually has a teenager as the main character. So part of my mission with this book was to write a story that would give the longtime fans everything they come to the OMW universe for, and at the same time leave open the door to younger readers. Again, a challenge.
(This is, also and incidentally, why we want to be sure ZT stands on its own; if our master plan works as intended, ZT will in fact be the first point of contact these younger readers have with this universe.)
So those are all the reasons why this book was hard to write. Doing just one of these things is tough enough; doing all four made my head hurt. Lots.
* And the irony is that if I actually pulled all of this off, you won’t notice any of it; you’ll just go “hey, that was a cool book” and start pestering me for another book. And you know what? This is fine. As a reader, I don’t think you should have to care about all this process crap; you should care whether the book is enjoyable to you. Sure, I’m telling you all this because you’re reading the Whatever and by implication, you might actually be interested in this stuff. But if someone’s reading the book and thinking to themselves, “wow, he must have really put a lot of effort into the main character’s voice,” then I’ve pretty much failed, because they’re thinking about the book, rather than being sucked into the story (note: writers, critics and lit academics are exempted from this; you guys really can’t help yourselves, I know).
* Fine, you say. I don’t give a squat about your process. Just tell me you blow shit up! Well, okay: Yes, things get blown up real good in the book, and there are some excellent action scenes and even a space battle (there had to be one — there’s one on the cover, after all), plus your usual assortment of assaults, attempted murders, explosions, knife fights with crazed aliens and what have you.
Sometimes I wish female characters in genre stuff came in varieties other than “kickass,” sort like when I wish female characters in serious contemporary literature came in varieties other than “diffident.”
I think this is an excellent point. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some kickass female characters (See: Jane Sagan), but one of the things I’m happy about is that Zoe isn’t just another point on the Cameron-Wheadon spectrum of female kickassery. As I think you’ll see.
* Generally speaking, I do think ZT is a bit different from the other books in the OMW series. This is intentional: ZT isn’t meant to be the fourth book of the increasingly mis-named OMW trilogy; it’s meant to be its own story within the OMW universe, following Zoe as she comes to grips with who she is and the universe she lives in. It’s more of a character study than anything else in the OMW universe to date, with the exception of “The Sagan Diary” (which is intentionally nothing but a character study).
Again: explosions and fights and action, yes. Snappy dialogue, yes. It’s all there. But there’s something new here, too. And the book lives up to its title.
* Speaking of Jane Saga, and John Perry, yes, you will see them both in ZT, but they’re strictly supporting characters. Because the title isn’t Zoe’s Tale but Actually About Jane and John. When I said I was done with them as lead characters I wasn’t kidding.
* So what’s up next for me? In the short run, a couple of days in which I do nothing but play video games! Go me. After that, February’s slate consists of (in no particular order) sending Tor a new edit of Agent to the Stars (to update references in the story and to add a new author’s note) for the book’s trade paperback release in November; writing some stuff for the upcoming Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader on Pennsylvania (yes, I still do stuff for them, because it’s fun to do and it pays well); penning an intro essay to a book of Robert Heinlein television scripts; whomping up a non-fiction book proposal; and writing a novella. And, well, of course, blathering here.
* As a final note, I do appreciate all of you being patient with me in the last couple of months as I basically hid while I wrestled with this book. As I said, it was a tough one to write, and really did require focus. I’m pleased to see you could all keep yourselves amused here without me, and that you understood why I couldn’t spend as much time here as I usually do. Thanks.
* Also, before you ask: August 19. Just in time, in fact, for my guest of honor appearance at ArmadilloCon. I’ll make sure there are copies in the dealer’s room. So now you’ll have a reason to go! If you can’t go, you can pre-order the book here. And we’ll miss you. Terribly.
And there you have it.