The Big Idea: Jeff Carlson
Where do you go in a book series when you’ve wiped out five billion people in the first book? Jeff Carlson knows, because Plague Zone is the third book in his acclaimed “Plague Year” series — and yet, as Carlson explains in this week’s Big Idea, all the thought-out plans of the author can (and perhaps should) take a backseat when inspiration comes, even from a most unexpected source.
As a writer, you face two big challenges with a series. First, each book needs to work as a stand-alone for anyone who’s new to your work. At the same time, it’s important to jump ahead with each installment, always racheting up the stakes.
I try not to mess around. The first book in the trilogy, Plague Year, opens with five billion dead as the remnants of humankind cling to mountaintops around the world because the runaway nanotech self-destructs at low air densities. So. That’s all good scary fun — but what do you do for an encore? It was tough enough to outdo myself with the second book, Plague War. How about a little romance? Politics. Bug swarms as big as small cities! Bwah HA ha ha ha!!!
But now what? In the course of the first two books, people on all sides of the war develop weaponized nanotech based on the original machine plague. This played naturally from the story. The surviving nations are desperate for food and land. They’re driven to use any advantage they can find, so it seemed obvious to continue in that direction.
Nanotech is impressive stuff. By the time the curtain opens in third book, it wouldn’t have been too incredible for my warring nations to be using next generation technologies to create supersoldiers with bulletproof skin and Wolverine bones. Heck, maybe they could turn invisible by bending the light with a zillion microscopic mirrors embedded in their uniforms. Levitation! The ability to go without food or water!
No, no, no, no, no.
One of my Big Ideas, ironically, was to keep Plague Zone “smaller” as far as the technology goes. I didn’t want to get that far ahead of myself. The first two books are plausible — if outlandish — and more disturbing because of it. Zone needed to fit well with the others and yet push the envelope, too, so I had to find a different way to up my game.
I came up with my best bad guy yet. I love smart bad guys. More to the point, this let me expand the scope of the story by another order of magnitude. Year is a fairly personal story. Most of its focus is on two survivors of the machine plague and their quest to defeat it. In War, the camera pulls back a little more. The global conflict that was in the background of Year explodes onto the stage in War as the U.S. is invaded by two foreign armies.
With Zone, I was finally able to personalize the enemy. The lion’s share of the narrative continues to be with Cam and Ruth and other favorites, but we also spend a good deal of time with a Chinese Elite Forces colonel with secrets and surprises of his own. Awesome!!! No matter where you live, you could probably hear me cackling like a demented witch stirring up a lovely pot of evil.
The second Big Idea came from a fan. This was the surprise ingredient. It fell into my lap more than two years ago at one of my very first book signings. I can only take credit for keeping my eyes and ears open, which, after all, is one of the main functions of being a writer.
My mother-in-law had given Plague Year to a friend of hers. Neither of these sensible family women, both German emigrants in their late sixties, are anyone you’d peg as readers of sci fi end-of-the-world novels, but mom-in-law was very proud of me and her friend thought it was interesting to know an author, so they both took a chance.
It turns out the friend is in a book club. Her name is Ingrid Wood. Ingrid’s spent a lifetime debating the intrinsic values of character in Michener and Irving and Auel, so I was pleased when she got my address from mom-in-law and wrote to say she’d really enjoyed her first-ever science fiction novel.
Ingrid came to my book signing armed with discussion points, which was hilarious. I was very nervous. This was a hometown event. Everyone brought friends. Picture me standing in front of a crowd of forty people just trying to keep my nerves down to a low rattle. I’d already worked up a spiel about real-life nanotechnology and breaking into publishing… and Ingrid kept interrupting with questions about the motivations of Character A or what Character B really meant in Chapter 7 when he recalled some long-lost tidbit from his childhood.
Man, I’m not writing The Joy Luck Club. I like to think my books are full of honest human drama and well-written, evocative moods and imagery — but they’re also big, fun, rock-and-roll thrillers loaded with gunfights and exploding helicopters. Yet she made my head explode with one perfect question.
At the time I was writing the sequel, War, and I thought I knew where I was headed with the third book to cap the trilogy. None of those plans went out the window. It was more like Ingrid crashed my party like a gang of bikers, bringing a whole new level of mayhem to my intentions.
It wouldn’t be right for me to give away too much about Plague Zone, so I have to play coy and give you a fake name.
What she said was: “What does Moe do after this book?”
Moe? Who’s Moe, you’re asking. Man? Woman? Is that a Zoe joke? I can’t tell you. Ingrid was right that I’d left a small thread hanging loose in Plague Year, but there are several characters who are left behind or lost or run away in one action sequence or another. Catastrophes are rarely neat. In my mind, that had been the end of Moe.
Now I stood there staring at Ingrid. What I was thinking was: “Holy jumbolee! What does Moe do after this book?”
Ingrid was disruptive and outspoken and nearly derailed my little event, but she had a killer instinct for storytelling. Those few words were exactly the fresh wrinkle I needed to make the story pop…
…so Moe is back, people. That’s the Big Twist Inside The Big Idea.
I hope you like it as much as I did.