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.

That said, in a previous thread here on Whatever, someone made a comment that I think is worth thinking about:

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.

53 Comments on “Thoughts on Zoe’s Tale”

  1. Always nice to get a rundown of what to expect. Looking forward to it immensely. Now go and take a break. Watch the Superbowl (if you must. Heck, you’re probably watching as I type this.) Whatever you do, make sure it’s relaxing. Not like you need me telling you what to do, but you have earned it.

    And go Giants! (Just keeping up my lifelong tradition of rooting for the underdog.)

  2. And if you are hoping to reach out to teen readers, I hope that Tor has the good sense to get you to the next American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and/or California School Library Association (or other large state orgs) and/or Young Adult Library Services Association (part of ALA) conferences.

    Those are the people that will get your books into the hands of those readers.

  3. It will be nice to have another point on the continuity between “female victim” and “female kickass.’

    And I am utterly convinced that I would have the same trouble creating a teenaged male that you had creating a teenaged female. Hell, I’d probably have problems with the latter— some of my friends are convinced I just sort of skipped the teenaged mindset altogether. (Incidentally, Athena may be showing signs of doing that. I think it may be endemic to the science fiction crowd.)

  4. John, as usual, thanks for offering insight into your process and teasers on the results. I also think providing an in-road for teens into the OMW universe via another book other than the first one is sound. Teens, severally and individually, should welcome their OMW book-overlords.

    And keeping having fun, dude.

    Can’t wait for the release.

  5. Thanks for writing about the writing, John. I’m always intrigued about the writing process… and I applaud your efforts. I’m one of those who can’t help themselves. :)

    I look forwards to the book!

  6. Just curious John, but which of your books was/will be “designed to squeeze shekels out of a gullible audience”?

  7. Speaking as one of the gullible audience, you won’t squeeze any shekels out of me! I’m also a cheapskate freeloader who gets all of your titles from my excellent public library. They even have a drive through so that I don’t actually have to park and walk inside to pick up the books I’ve put on hold via their website.

  8. Heh. Given the number of friends of mine who write YA — and write excellently — I’d be loath to imply that YA is a lesser form of expression, particularly since I don’t believe it myself.

  9. Also just in time for my birthday, which is cool (now who can I coerce into buying it for me so I don’t have to lay down my shekels, decisions, decisions). OMW has neen a great series so far (though I actually prefer Android’s Dream and really wanna see what you do in the sequel to that, not so subtle hint), looking forward to seeing where you go with it.

    Being a wannabe myself it’s always nice to see people who’ve made it discuss how they’ve done it, which is one reason I’m constantly going through your archives. It’s good when someone who actually knows discusses both the business and creative side.

  10. Hi John,

    I just wanted to say congratulations on finishing Zoe’s Tale – I’ve introduced quite a few friends who enjoy Sci-Fi to your books, and gotten good responses back, and I will introduce my sister (12, currently) to Zoe’s Tale, because if it is anything like the Uglies/Pretties/Specials series it’ll be an instant hit with her. I look forward to reading it myself.

    It’s always interesting to watch how an author works, and Whatever is an incredible look into your (sometimes incomprehensible) head – yes, we’re reading your books AND your minds. Thank you for maintaining contact with your fans and being so accessible. :)

    Also, I’d just like to point out these two… uhm… typos belonging to the Canadian online book warehouses of and Chapters/Indigo.

    Might want to get your agent on this. Because “Zoe’s Tale” and “Toe’s Tale” would be two very different tales, I think. Unless she gets a legal name change somewhere inside the book?


  11. 1. Congratulations!

    2. Given what you’ve said about the PG language and so on, not only will my wife and I gobble up ZT as we have the others, but so will my 10 y.o. sci-fi-lovin’ daughter.

    (Bonus! — Should you so choose, you could meet *all three* of us when you come to Austin for ArmadilloCon — well, plus my son, who isn’t reading at the ZT level yet, but who *could* chat with you on the Star Wars / Transformers / Bionicles tip for an hour or six. He loves him some ‘splodey sci-fi storytelling.)

  12. It’s sad that the inclusion of a fuck or two would keep a book out of school libraries. Especially if that includes high school libraries. Do we get some hells and damns at least?

  13. Hi John;

    I read Old Man’s War for the first time last week, and loved it. I don’t know how many examples you get of “read the blog, so decided to read your books…” rather than the reverse, but you can increment the count by one.

    I had a comment I wasn’t sure where (or whether) to put, but then saw “because they’re thinking about the book, rather than being sucked into the story” above and figured this may not be inappropriate…

    There was one point in OMW when I personally got broken out of the narrative by a namecheck that made my brain go “Cool, shout-out to Moore, Neil and Dave” and simultaneously “Doh. Momentary reality incursion; so Scalzi’s a big comic fan?”.

    I wondered if the line’s intended as an in-continuity shout-out (in the way that Sagan etc. are) that my brain took the wrong way (possibly because I was already consiously “reading Scalzi’s book”), or an out-of-continuity in-joke? Or, of course, neither and I’m making it up.

    Congratulations on completing ZT…”The Ghost Brigade” arrived this morning. I figure if I read it real, real slow you can stay a book or two ahead and I’ll never run out ;)

  14. I’m working on a YA novel whose narrator is a 16-year-old girl and although my agent has read what I’ve written to-date and loves it, I confess to having difficulty locating and keeping her voice. And like you, I’m a 44-year-old man, so I can’t just go hang out with 16-year-old girls for any length of time. It’s tricky.

  15. @Diondi Tan

    Maybe Toe’s Tale is written by John Scalvi, and they actually spelled the author’s name wrong.

    It happens!

  16. Congratulations, John!

    I’m looking forward both to Zoe, and to seeing more of you at Whatever again.

  17. Russ @21,
    Don’t worry, Scalzi pimps enough worth while authors here that you’ll have more on your reading pile than you can get through.

    John, slow down a little. SOME of us have day jobs.

  18. You said you had to have a space battle because there was one on the cover. Since when do covers of SF novels have anything to do with the story? They certainly didn’t in the early 70s. (grin) The whole point of cool looking covers is that the cooler the cover looks, the better the book must be. It’s like a ratings system. But only for the cool kids who know the super sekrit code.

    Dr. Phil

  19. Yeah, but I have this thing about wanting my covers to be at least tangentially related to what’s going on in the book. Call me crazy.

  20. Congratulations, John! I’m looking forward to reading it.

    And Ron Hogan at # 12, after reading that link, I wanted to take a shower. Anyone who approaches YA literature the way that reviewer does, has no business reviewing YA novels–he knows zip about the genre. I wouldn’t trust his judgment.

  21. Looking forward to reading Zoe’s Tale. I believe I’ve now read all of your fiction, including your online version of Agent to the Stars. The Lost Colony lived up to your consisently high level of writing acumen.

    In my novel in progress, I’ve gotten to know the characters so well they “tell me” when my writing is off the mark. One of my major criticisms in writing is when an author does not do a good job of differentiating his/her characters. I’m proud to say my major characters all have distinctive voices.

  22. Years ago my wife sniffed at SF books because “They all have scantily clad young women on their covers.”

    I quickly corrected her. “Not all of them. Just the one’s that I buy.”

  23. Enjoy your gaming fun.
    While I can understand the profanity limiter to get into a high school library I have to wonder if these people have ever wondered how teenagers talk when their are no adults around. I know I knew all seven words and used them when I was a teen. Not to say that I had the mouth of a sailor but it wasn’t all that clean either. I can still taste the soap from when I failed to self censor around my parents.
    I also have to question the whole YA thing. Kids like a good story just as much as adults. Adults also like a good story YA or not. At least this one does. I still enjoy RAH’s YA stuff. But what the heck makes a story YA or not YA?
    Sort of reminds me of the art vs craft and the literature vs fiction. What makes one piece of work art instead of craft? Why is this piece of writing fiction while that one is called literature? It all seems pretty subjective to me.

  24. Mark Terry: “I’m working on a YA novel whose narrator is a 16-year-old girl”

    Hey, I just turned in a book with a 16 year old girl narrator. I’m sensing a literary movement: books with 16 year old girl narrators written by middle aged bald guys. We can call it As-if!punk.

  25. D’oh! They’re going over there with their friends. “when there are no adults around”

  26. Congratulations on finishing! I’m looking forward to reading it.

    One pernickity question:

    a new edit of Agent to the Stars (to update references in the story and to add a new author’s not)

    A new author’s not what? Old?

  27. Wow. That was my comment , missing “of” (sorry) and all, about female character kickassness. I am flattered that anybody, much less the author, took note. I think John understood the comment pretty much as it was intended, although I do want to state that I did not mean to suggest that I don’t like reading, or want to read about, women having action-packed adventures. I’m no less warm to male characters who never have any problems, tactical, moral or theatrical, with killing people, though that particular type is pretty much everywhere, all the time.

  28. Well, I know what he meant. I just wondered if a joke could be squeezed out of what he said before he fixed it.

    Alas, no.

  29. Maybe Toe’s Tale is written by John Scalvi, and they actually spelled the author’s name wrong.
    – Ari B. @ 23

    That’s a book at the bookstore that John Cleese was looking for in the Monty Python skit. You know, the one where they sell David Cqopperfield (silent q) by Darles Chickens.

  30. Looking forward to Zoe’s Tale. I was profoundly moved by The Sagan Diary, and I look forward to another “character study” I might relate to as well.

    Something leapt out at me.. “penning an intro essay to a book of Robert Heinlein television scripts”. Awesomely cool! I had recently looked at the number of Heinlein-penned TV shows and had wondered if they were collected anywhere. What I’d really love is a DVD of the shows themselves as a companion to the book!


  31. Salome:

    In this case most of the scripts were never produced. This is part of what makes the book interesting; these are lost stories (or adaptations of stories) that most Heinlein fans haven’t seen.

  32. I’m really pleased to hear that you’ve finished it. I’m really looking forward to reading it. I like to hear you talk about your process. I’m an easy person to write for. I’ll fall headfirst into a book, and not come up for air until it’s done. I won’t notice things like process, or repetitions, etc. but when I’m done, I like hearing about process because it adds a whole new dimension to what I’ve already read. I’ll go through the book so fast that fine details won’t be noticed, they’ll be in the subconscious until brought to my attention. Hearing you talk about process does that for me. Thank you.

  33. As a female teen reader, I personally feel that if people would give us more than #!%@ Weetzie Bat, Princess Diaries, and Babysitters Chronicles the world might be a better place. However, no one actually listens to me, and the only even remotely SF book the librarians have ever bothered to get is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Which is an excellent read, and a good stuff. But does it help? No. (Incidentally, my English teacher attempted to throw my copy of Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a trashcan, which tells you something.) Another thing that would help would be the wider circulation of the poster featuring Orlando Bloom holding a book with the letters READ emblazoned across the top of the poster.

  34. Incidentally, my English teacher attempted to throw my copy of Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a trashcan, which tells you something.

    Your English teacher has bad aim?

  35. Huh. When I was in high school (private girls’ school, no less), the librarian asked me which science fiction and fantasy books to buy, and I actually got Ender’s Game onto the summer reading list. No, really. For the whole school. I think the theme that year was something about understanding other cultures— and yes, they read the suggested books before putting them on the list.

    There are reasons I actually enjoyed high school, unlike 95% of the population.

  36. Congrats on finishing ZT, John!
    When is TLC coming out in paperback?

    Incidentally, my English teacher attempted to throw my copy of Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a trashcan
    *reels at the thought*

  37. John, you are a 30 something year old man, writing about a “16” year old girl. I am a 58 year old man who, by the grace of GOD has a couple of “Zoe’s” in his life, and did enjoy the adventure from that perspective. Thank you. I am giving the book to my “Zoe’s” to read. I’ll let them tell you, what they think. Lastly, the little girl story teller, is a refreshing perspective. You don’t think that the Generals ship could be “disabled” by yet another coup attempt? And that the Obin must come and take everyone to their world, for some time, to have the General and Zoe’s family to stratigize a come back? OK …..maybe too much. I did enjoy a family plot sci fi though. Good Job!

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