Big Idea

The Big Idea: Michelle Sagara

This Big Idea post made me tear up a little. It’s partly because I’m a parent. But it’s mostly because of how Michelle Sagara explains how the understanding and kindness of the very young informed her new book Silence.


This book is about its dedication:

This is for the girls:


With thanks, with gratitude, although admittedly they might not understand why.

I am, as I often do, getting ahead of myself.

When I set out to write my first YA novel, I wrote it on spec. This came about because my Luna editor asked if I happened to have a finished YA novel just lying around (this is almost an exact quote). As I had two books due that calendar year, I emphatically did not have any finished novels, mostly finished novels, or even partially finished novels on my figurative desk.

But I had an idea for one that I’d been mulling over for some time. It was even a contemporary, which meant I had some hope of writing a novel that was short (for me). I’ve always been drawn to stories about grief, loss, and the ways in which people deal with both. I wanted to write a ghost story, from the point of view of a young woman who had just lost the first love of her life.

So I sat down to write Silence. I had some idea of who the protagonist was, but I often discover nuances of character while writing. The prologue and the first chapter were exactly what I envisioned. The second chapter started in the same smooth vein.

And then chapter two took an abrupt detour, veering in a direction that I hadn’t planned. I wrote:

At 8:10, at precisely 8:10, the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be Michael,” her mother said.

You could set clocks by Michael. In the Hall household, they did; if Michael rang the doorbell and the clock didn’t say 8:10, someone changed it quickly, and only partly because Michael always looked at clocks, and began his quiet fidget if they didn’t show the time he expected them to show.

Books have tone. They have voice. And I realized, as I paused at the end of that last paragraph, that I was about to veer wildly off-tone if I continued; that my careful, little paranormal would have an entirely different feel.

But I also suddenly understood where this new book was going. I understood, at that moment, who Emma was, and what had kept her moving during the almost crippling months of grief.

I knew that if I wrote this unexpected book, I was no longer writing a book that would be guaranteed to speak to the market – if any book can be said to do that with certainty – but I wanted to write this book. Because I could see the dedication, from that point on.

Let me explain why. I’ve had some experience with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) as a parent. I’ve experienced the difficulties school can cause – even an incredibly supportive school, which we were lucky to have. I witnessed firsthand my oldest son’s inability to parse social cues, and to miss simple things like people saying “hi!” with enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that waned when he all but ignored them. He didn’t hear; they didn’t know he couldn’t.

We are terrified, as parents, for our children; we are terrified that they won’t fit in, they won’t find friends, they’ll be made fun of, they’ll be isolated. Because my oldest son was diagnosed ASD (Aspergers at the time) I was prepared for this, but not less terrified, and it broke my heart to know that my son was terribly lonely when I could see the children in his class trying very hard to make connections with him. If I was present, I could point them out – but I wasn’t going to be present for most of his school day.

He struggled through two years of kindergarten with some limited success, and then came the full day of grade one. And in grade one, he met the girls. Yes, those girls – the ones to whom the book is dedicated. The teacher treated my son as if his behaviour was normal for my son, and at six, children’s ideas of normative behaviour are very flexible. The girls took their cues from his teacher that year, and perhaps with a different teacher they would have picked up different cues. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: My son hated the noise of the stairwell and his class was on the third floor, so he was required to use the stairs. He almost always entered dead last, when the stairwell would be mostly empty. On this day, (half-way through the year) he was trudging up the stairs, and the stair monitor, a woman of middling years, shouted at him.

He failed to hear her, so she marched up the stairs and shouted in his ear. And he still failed to hear her; he pretty much tuned out all the noise until he left the stairwell. I started to approach the stair monitor to tell her as much, and stopped as a young girl with platinum blond hair caught her by the elbow.

“He can’t hear you, you know,” she told the woman. “He’s daydreaming. He always daydreams when he walks up the stairs.”

She was six years old. She was six years old and entirely fearless when it came to correcting a much older and much larger authority figure. And she had done so without prompting from anyone. My son, of course, didn’t even notice. But I did.

She was part of a group of friends, and they kept an eye out for my son. They also came to his birthday parties from grade one through grade six, although by that time three of them were no longer in the same school.

When my son was in grade three, we took karate together. Karate made us late, and one night there was a school open house, so we went directly from the dojo, in our gis, to the school. We entered his classroom and found two girls there, and my son approached one of them – in his karate outfit – and started to talk.

The other girl said, with a sneer, “As if we care about your stupid karate.” This is the type of reaction I feared, as a parent, especially given that ASD children can go on for an hour about any topic that engages their interest.

But the first girl turned to her friend and said, “Well, I do care.” And proceeded to talk with my son about his karate progress. She was, of course, one of the six.

Did they spend their whole days doing nothing but babysitting my son? No, of course not. They spent most of their time socializing with each other. But they continued to keep an eye out in all the little ways that made my son’s life easier. I’m not even certain, these many years later, that they would remember the incidents that I remember so clearly and so gratefully.

Michael appeared at Emma’s door at exactly 8:10 in the morning.

And I thought: Why not these girls? Books are written about shy outsiders or social outcasts all the time; books are written about mean girls just as frequently, and often books are a combination of these two extremes. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But why not these girls? Girls who were best friends and who supported each other (often by phone even in the early years) and who, while having lives entirely of their own also had the compassion to keep an eye on an awkward ASD child? It’s a paranormal, it’s contemporary, but why can’t the story be about girls like these?

Silence is that book.


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

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.


Because It Is About To Be Forwarded To Me a Million Times

Yes, I’ve seen this. And while my own position isn’t as extreme, I certainly sympathize.

From xkcd, of course.

For those who need it or haven’t seen it, my own position on Klout.


“Lowest Difficulty Setting” Now on Kotaku

Hey there! Wanted to comment on “Lowest Difficulty Setting” but missed before I closed up the comments? You’re in luck! Kotaku has reprinted the post, and their comments are open! Fire away!


Journey to Planet JoCo at

Over at, I’m part of a two-week festival of all things Jonathan Coulton, in a feature called “Journey to Planet Joco.” JoCo is starting a tour starting on June 1, and so I sat down to talk with him about those songs of his with a science fictional bent to them, a journey that culminates in a very special event: On May 29, we will debut a brand new song by Coulton. And this new song? It’s awesome (yes, I’ve heard it).

The first installment is up now, in which we talk about songwriting, story telling, and science fiction. You can hear an audio version of our interview or read a transcription. We’ll be talking every day through May 29th. Check it out and tell your friends. It’s as much fun as you can have with your ears.


“Lowest Difficulty Setting” Follow-Up

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve posted the “Lowest Difficulty Setting” piece, and it’s been fun and interesting watching the Intarweebs basically explode over it, especially the subclass of Straight White Males who cannot abide the idea that their lives play out on a fundamentally lower difficulty setting than everyone else’s, and have spun themselves up in tight, angry circles because I dared to suggest that they do. Those dudes are cracking me up, and also making me a little sad.

There have been some general classes of statement/questions about the piece both on the site and elsewhere on the Internet, that I would like to address, so I’ll do that here. Understand I am paraphrasing the questions/statements. In no particular order:

1. I fundamentally disagree with every single thing you said!

That’s fine. It happens.

2. Your metaphor/analogy is good, except for [insert thing that commenter finds not good about the metaphor/analogy]

Well, yes. Metaphors are not perfect; it’s why they’re metaphors and not the thing the metaphor describes. Likewise analogies break down. I thought the “lowest difficulty setting” description worked well enough for what I wanted to say, but I don’t think it’s perfect. “Perfect” wasn’t what I was aiming for. And of course, if you don’t think it’s the right metaphor/analogy, that’s fine. Please, make a different and better one — the more ways we can make a general point to people who need to understand that general point, the better chance they will listen.

3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.

Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. But they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are (note “inherent” here does not necessarily mean “immutable,” but that’s a conversation I’m not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.

4.I’m a straight white male and my life isn’t easy! My life sucks! Your “lowest difficulty setting” doesn’t account for that!

That’s actually fully accounted for in the entry. Go back and read it again.

This one’s a stand-in for all the complaints about the entry that come primarily either from not reading the entry, or not reading what was actually written in the entry in preference to a version of the entry that exists solely in that one person’s head, and which is not the entry I wrote. Please, gentlemen, read what is there, not what you think is there, or what you believe must be there because you know you already disagree with what I have to say, no matter what it is I am saying.

5. What about affirmative action (and/or other similar programs)? It just proves SWMs don’t have it easy anymore!

Asserting that programs designed to counteract decades of systematic discrimination are proof that Straight White Males are not operating on the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life is not the winning argument you apparently believe it is. I’ll let you try to figure out why that is on your own. Likewise, anecdotal examples of a straight white guy getting the short end of the stick in some manner do not suggest that, therefore, it’s hard out there for all straight white men all the time.

6. Your piece is racist and sexist.

This particular comment was lobbed at me primarily from aggrieved straight white males. Leaving aside entirely that the piece was neither, let me just say that I think it’s delightful that these straight white males are now engaged on issues of racism and sexism. It would be additionally delightful if they were engaged on issues of racism and sexism even when they did not feel it was being applied to them — say, for example,when it’s regarding people who historically have most often had to deal with racism and sexism (i.e., not white males). Keep at it, straight white males! You’re on the path now!

7. I feel this piece is an attack on straight white men.

You need to re-calibrate your definition of “attack,” then, because it’s depressingly (or hilariously) out of whack. Suggesting all straight white men should be defenstrated into a courtyard covered with spikes would be an attack. Noting that straight white men operate at the lowest difficulty setting in life is an observation.

Otherwise, in a general sense,  when people point out the things straight white men get on credit (or don’t have to deal with), the unspoken part of that is not “and that’s why we plan to burn all you bastards in a big screaming pile when the revolution comes,” it’s “hey, just so you know.” Because you should know. It’s not about blame, it’s about knowledge. Stop assuming it’s about blame. Paranoid and hypersensitive is no way to go through life.

8.  You did not lay out in exhaustive factual detail, with graphs and charts, your assertion that straight white men operate at the lowest difficulty setting in our culture.

Also generally lobbed at me by aggrieved straight white men. And indeed I did not. Also, when I write about tripping over my shoelaces and falling on my ass, I do not preface the comment with a comprehensive discussion of the theory of gravity. For two reasons: One, it’s not needed because for anyone but committed gravity-deniers, the theory of gravity is obvious and taken as read, and two, that’s not the focus of the entry. In the case of the “lowest difficulty setting” entry, I took what I see as the obvious advantages to being straight, white and male in our culture as read. One may of course argue with that assertion, and some did in the previous comment thread, but I have to say I’ve generally found those arguments to be less than compelling (see point six, above).

9. In your comment thread with the article, you censored people who disagreed with you.

I indeed malleted quite a few people in that comment thread. Most of them disagreed with me philosophically on the issue under discussion. They were also being assholes. They were malleted for the latter, not the former. Who gets to judge when someone’s being an asshole here? Why, I do. Because it’s my site. A quick look through the comment thread in question shows that quite a few people, who disagreed with my ideas to varying levels of strenuousness, had their comments posted unmolested. That’s because they were generally polite to others in the thread, did not lead with their asses, and their comments were not generally dripping with racism/sexism/condescension/stupidity. This is all covered in the comment policy, which is linked to on every page of the site.

Now, people may be upset that in addition to deleting people’s comments, I also mocked them when I deleted their comments. But, you know, when you show up on my site and decide to shit all over the carpet, I’m not going to be nice to you. Also, this.

10. I am never going to buy anything you write ever again.

I don’t care.

11. Not every straight white man thinks what you wrote is wrong.

Of course. Noting that some straight white men are having difficulty accepting the idea they operate on the lowest difficulty setting in life doesn’t mean that all straight white men do, or that any particular straight white men will experience said difficulties. Alternately, there are a lot of straight white men who think my premise is wrong to a greater or lesser extent, but who can express that disagreement cogently, and even forcefully, without additionally coming across as a five-year-old having a tantrum because he’s been told he has to share his toys. Straight white men, like any group, have all sorts of personalities.

12. You wrote the article and pointed out the straight white men live life on the lowest difficulty setting. Okay, fine. What do I/we do next?

Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it? What I’m doing is pointing out a thing. What you do with that thing is your decision.

That said, here’s what I do: recognize it, and work to make it so the more difficult settings in life becomes closer to the one I get to run through life on — by making those less difficult, mind you, not making mine more so.

(Update: Some final thoughts here.)


Things That Pretty Much Suck

My absence from the Internet was a bit longer than I had anticipated today, for one genuinely depressing reason: I left my travel bag in  the taxi that took me to my hotel from the airport, and that bag included my computer and some other stuff (including my car key). So my day was spent procuring alternate computing resources (say hello to my new cheap netbook) and generally being a bit pissed off.

Before you ask: I have no idea what cab it was that brought me in, its number or anything else. If anyone in the DC area can tell me which cab companies use black cabs (regular cars, not limos) I would be obliged. Otherwise, I’m pretty much stuck hoping the cabbie who drove me around remembers who I am or otherwise uses the various clues in the bag (the computer that has my name on it when one tries to log on, the books with my name on the cover, etc) to locate me. Whiile not assuming anything about my cabbie’s honesty, let’s just say I’m really expecting him to be a super sleuth, although I’d be happy to be wrong.

In any event: DC, I’m not feeling the love, I have to say. That is all.


Seriously, What the Hell

Over on Facebook, friends of mine from high school are taking pictures of this bumper sticker, which they allege to be finding out there in the world. The quote comes from something I said on the Alien Encounters TV show, about how even if we find out that aliens exist, we’re sooner or later going to have to get back to our lives, up to and including taking out the trash. So far four or five of them have posted the bumper sticker.

I have to say I’m suspicious about this. The quote is kind of random, I’m not anywhere near famous enough to warrant a bumper sticker, and this is exactly the sort of brain-messery that friends of mine would engage in; specifically, this is the sort of thing my friend Norm Carnick would likely mastermind, because apparently he’s got a lot of free time. The telling detail for me is that as far as I can recall it’s only high school friends and acquaintances that have reported seeing the thing.

All of which is to say I AM ON TO YOU MY HIGH SCHOOL SO-CALLED FRIENDS AND I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE BWA HA HA HA HAH HA unless of course these bumper stickers really do exist non-affiliated to my high school chums, in which case, seriously, what the Hell. I’m definitely not getting a percentage of the profits. I find the picture amusing, however.

Edit, 7:32am: The plot thickens. On eBay!


A Child’s Treasury of Deletions

Yesterday’s post garnered 800 comments before I put it to bed and I ended up deleting a record number of comments out of it, largely from presumably straight white men enraged at the idea their life doesn’t necessarily suck as much as other folks’ and/or because they ate lead paint chips as children and have impulse control issues (plus a couple from other, calmer folks following up on posts I later deleted, so theirs needed to be deleted too). Whatever the reason, I thought it would be fun to post a compendium of Malletings here for your enjoyment.

So without further ado: The Deletions of May 15, 2012!

Warning: Intemperate language follows.

[Deleted because inasmuch as the author of it admits to not reading the entry at all, anything he has to say will be aside the point for the thread — JS]

[Deleted for pointlessness. Did some site with exceptionally stupid readers just link in? — JS]

[Deleted because being a troll isn’t merit badge-worthy — JS]

[Deleted for garden variety racism, misogyny and assholishness — JS]

[Deleted for trollage — JS]

[Deleted because That Guy is a homophobic moron — JS]

[Deleted because Scorpius was already told he was off the thread — JS]

[Aaaand now Scorpius has earned a place in the moderation queue. Enjoy it, Scorpius! You’ll come out again when I decide you’re not trolling — JS]

[Further deleted because That Guy is nowhere as clever as he seems to believe he is — JS]

[Deleted because That Guy is tiresome — JS]

[Contentless troll deleted — JS]

[People who comment to tell me that they didn’t read get deleted! Because they’re jackassed trolls who have nothing to add to the conversation! — JS]

[Deleted for pointlessness — JS]

[Speaking as a white male, I have deleted the comment because of its abject stupidity — JS]

[Deleted for spittle-flinging assholishness — JS]

[Jackassed homophobia deleted — JS]

[Deleted for teh stupid — JS]

[Deleted for not being clever — JS]

[Deleted for being wrong — JS]

[Deleted for stupidity. Also, to the idiot white guy who posted this to see whether or not I would delete a comment by “beautiful strong black lesbian,” whose previous stupid comment I also deleted, nice try. — JS]

[Deleted because it’s responding to a post I deleted. Xopher, dude. Do you really think I was going to let that comment stay up? — JS]

[Name of commenter changed because pointlessly homophobic; comment deleted because 20 years of being a professional writer makes me laugh at this guy — JS]

[Jackassed assertion presented without shred of proof deleted — JS]

[pointless nonsense deleted — JS]

[Hey, you know what? Enough people responded to Don’s last stupidly sexist post that I didn’t want to delete it. But I can delete this stupidly sexist post! — JS]

[Deleted again for ridiculous misogyny. Don, consider a break from the thread, please — JS]

[Don, if you really have to ask how your posts are misogynistic, it’s probably for the best I’m deleting them as I go along — JS]

[Wow, I’m really getting tired of deleting misogyny in this thread — JS]

[Racist dipshittery deleted — JS]

[Hey, look! I’ve malleted this asshole twice! — JS]

Yes, yes. A busy day for the Mallet of Loving Correction, indeed.


Redshirts Back Cover, Library Journal Review, A Plea to Reviewers

We’re three weeks out from the release of Redshirts, and I just got my boxes o’ author copies, so now is a fine time, I think, to show you the back cover, which has lovely blurbs for the book from Joe Hill, Pat Rothfuss, Melinda Snodgrass and Lev Grossman. They are all very kind, and also what I love about each of these is that they bring home the point that, hey! This book is funny! This is actually important to me, for reasons I plan to go on about at length in a future entry. But in the meantime, thanks Joe and Pat and Melinda and Lev. Glad you liked it.

Also in the liking ledger: Library Journal, whose review I won’t quote at length (for reasons I’ll note in just a minute) but whose verdict on the book is thus:

[T]his humorous and thought-provoking novel should appeal to fans of sf (especially Star Trek devotees) who like a good laugh along with their big ideas and space action.


One note: The Library Journal review also has a honking big spoiler for the book, so I’d avoid the full review if you don’t want a major plot element revealed to you.

Which reminds me to note to other potential reviewers of the book: Hey, this is a book that can be spoiled. I’m certainly not going to tell you how to write your reviews — I’ve been a pro critic for two decades, and I know I don’t work for the people whose work I review, so why should you — but I will make the following plea: if you decide you need to make a spoiler, please please please mark it so readers don’t come to it unaware. I think it’s the correct balance between saying what you want to say and letting the reader come to the book with all its potential entertainment value intact. Thanks.


Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies.

So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word “privilege,” in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?

Being a white guy who likes women, here’s how I would do it:

Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Now, once you’ve selected the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, you still have to create a character, and how many points you get to start — and how they are apportioned — will make a difference. Initially the computer will tell you how many points you get and how they are divided up. If you start with 25 points, and your dump stat is wealth, well, then you may be kind of screwed. If you start with 250 points and your dump stat is charisma, well, then you’re probably fine. Be aware the computer makes it difficult to start with more than 30 points; people on higher difficulty settings generally start with even fewer than that.

As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up. If you start with fewer points and fewer of them in critical stat categories, or choose poorly regarding the skills you decide to level up on, then the game will still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.

Likewise, it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore.

And maybe at this point you say, hey, I like a challenge, I want to change my difficulty setting! Well, here’s the thing: In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun. And you say, okay, but what if I want to replay the game later on a higher difficulty setting, just to see what it’s like? Well, here’s the other thing about The Real World: You only get to play it once. So why make it more difficult than it has to be? Your goal is to win the game, not make it difficult.

Oh, and one other thing. Remember when I said that you could choose your difficulty setting in The Real World? Well, I lied. In fact, the computer chooses the difficulty setting for you. You don’t get a choice; you just get what gets given to you at the start of the game, and then you have to deal with it.

So that’s “Straight White Male” for you in The Real World (and also, in the real world): The lowest difficulty setting there is. All things being equal, and even when they are not, if the computer — or life — assigns you the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, then brother, you’ve caught a break.

(Update, 11:07 pm: The comment thread hit 800 comments by 11pm and I’ve turned it off, because now I’m going to sleep and tomorrow I travel, and this is the sort of comment thread that needs to be watched closely. I may turn it back on at some later point, but inasmuch as 800 comments already made it slow to load up, don’t necessarily count on it. But after 800 comments, most of what could be said has been, I think.)

(Update 2: Here’s a follow-up article addressing some common questions/comments regarding this piece.)

(Update 3: Some final thoughts here.)

(Update 4, 5/18/22: A ten-year retrospective on the piece is now up.)

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Garth Nix

Not every book has a predictable genesis. Indeed, A Confusion of Princes, the latest novel by Garth Nix, is one of those whose beginning is best described as a series of detours, resulting in a book. Come, walk with Nix as he retraces his steps to get to the published work.


I’m not sure any of my novels have any one big idea. I like the concept of a humongous idea striking suddenly, after months or possibly years of lying around doing not much at all, allied with the popular belief that post-lightning all you have to do is retreat to a darkened room and bash out the words, a kind of a minor bureaucratic tidy-up after the brilliance of the lightning bolt.

Maybe it does work like that for some writers. But for me the ideas are more like sparks of static electricity. Mostly small, and myriad, and occasionally annoying. They are also not random, but generated by the act of writing (in which I would include daydreaming, note-jotting and open-mouthed musing to say, the neighbourhood cat). The writing generates more ideas, in turn inspiring more writing, which generate more ideas and so on.

In the case of A Confusion of Princes, it would need the psychoprobe of classic science fiction to identify and separate all the ideas and the seeds for those ideas. This is because it took me a long time to write this book, while I was also writing other books, so I can’t remember. (To tell the truth, even when I write a book quickly I find it difficult to identify the genesis of any particular idea. Usually I just make something up that sounds plausible.)

It also got complicated because something unusual happened with A Confusion of Princes. Typically when writing a novel I start very thinly with a half-seen character and a clouded situation, and some ideas about the setting. I will then write a bit of prose that makes my initial thoughts more concrete, and leave it for a few months, sometimes longer. Occasionally, like a chef returning to a dish, I will drop back and stir things around, make some notes, maybe write a bit more. Six months or a year down the track I will write an outline for the rest of the book, an outline that I will not actually follow, but that I need to write in order to be able to depart from it later on. It is a zen outline, the act of writing it being of significance, rather than its content. When all that is done, I will write the book, a chapter at a time, revising backwards as I go along, until it is done.

With A Confusion of Princes I got sidetracked after the initial phase, in which I had written a prologue (which never made it into the book) and nothing else. It seemed an excellent idea back in 2007 that I should take that bit of prose, and the few notes of setting I had already worked out, and expand upon them to create the background for a massively-multiplayer online game that I was developing with my old friend and fellow game design lunatic, Phil Wallach, with whom I have worked on a number of overly-ambitious games. After all, I thought, the game would in due course help promote the book.

Over the next three years or so, Imperial Galaxy drank up vast amounts of our money, time and the imaginative energy that I would have otherwise invested in the novel, ultimately with what might charitably be called very limited success, possibly making it the most expensive and least-useful piece of marketing for a book ever. (But we enjoyed it, and if we could afford to, would do it again. Though I might keep the next game design separate from a novel in progress . . . )

But what of the ideas? This is after all, not a “Dumb Idea” piece, though some (i.e. my accountant) might think being diverted into the game was exactly that. What I set out to write was a book about power, and the corruption of power; the nature of Empires and rulers and the ruled; of growing up in a Galactic Empire; falling in love and the redemptive powers of being loved; and what it means to be human and superhuman, when being superhuman might also mean being subhuman or indeed non-human. I also wanted, as per usual, to write the kind of book I liked to read when I was 16 and 32 and 48 (right now), and in this case, I wanted to write a science fiction adventure with more than just the adventure, like the books I loved and still love by Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton, amongst others.

When I read one of the early reviews, in Kirkus Reviews, I thought perhaps I had managed to do that, at least for that reviewer, who finished their piece with the following: “Space battles! Political intrigue! Engineered warriors! Techno-wizardry! Assassins! Pirates! Rebels! Duels! Secrets, lies, sex and True Love!  What more can anybody ask for?”

Well, I guess you could also ask for a complete game based on the book. But lacking that, you can still play the beta version of a portion of a fragment of the game, at — where you too can be a Prince of the Empire.


A Confusion of Princes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author on Facebook. Follow him on Twitter.


BuzzFeed Catches Up With What I’ve Been Saying For a Couple of Years Now

Saladin Ahmed and Jonathan Coulton: Separated at birth.

Seriously, I know them both, and it’s uncanny. Although Saladin is the slightly more compact version. Even so.


“Being Poor” Excerpted in “The Rich and the Rest of Us”

I completely forgot about this until I saw a Tavis Smiley tweet about it this morning: My Whatever post “Being Poor,” which I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is excerpted in his and Cornel West’s new book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Which is, as you might expect, a book about poverty here in the United States.

You might ask, what payment did I get for this reprint? The answer: None at all. I am someone who very strongly believes in getting paid for his work, but in the case of this particular essay, it wasn’t written for pay, and when an opportunity for payment comes to me for it, I like to put my money where my mouth is regarding poverty. I requested that in exchange for the right to reprint the essay, that Mr. Smiley (whose people approached me with the request) donate the reprint sum to a charity dealing with poverty. Mr. Smiley (or his people) chose Feeding America, which helps provide food for those who need. That’s an organization whose goals I support, so well done him.

In any event, if you happen to pick up the book, see “Being Poor” and wonder if I know it is there: Yes, I do. It’s nice to see the essay still getting around and being part of the conversation about poverty here in the US.


Happy Mother’s Day, 2012

Look, it’s a picture of me, my mother, my sister Heather and my niece Ashley, from (I would guess) 1986 or so, and probably from around Mother’s Day. Today, everyone else in this picture has equal or greater amounts of hair except for me. Seems horribly unfair.

In any event, seems like a good picture to air again on Mother’s Day. If you’re a mom, I hope you’re having a good day. If you’re not a mom, it’s not a bad day so give a little appreciation to your mom, if she’s about and around.


The Winner of My Non-US Redshirts ARC Giveaway

Is “A-Jay” from Norway, who was the first to correctly guess that the monument I was thinking of was “The Motherland Calls,” in Volgograd, Russia. Seriously, that’s a badass statue, y’all.

A-Jay, send me your mailing address from the same e-mail address you used to comment from, and I’ll put your Redshirts ARC in the mail. Congrats!

And thanks, everyone not in the US who played.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Joseph Nassise

Zombies are the chocolate. World War I is the peanut butter. In By the Blood of Heroes, Joseph Nassise is the guy who puts them together. How does it taste?


I always swore I’d never write a zombie novel.

I mean, come on, seriously. Rotting corpses with minimal intelligence endlessly wandering around with a taste for human flesh? What’s the point? What kind of villain is that?

No, I wasn’t going to write a zombie novel. No way, no how. What I wanted to write was a Dirty Dozen kind of story, a near-suicide mission-behind-enemy-lines kind of thing, except I wanted my version to be set World War One instead of World War Two. I could add lots of steampunk gizmos and gadgets to give it a unique flavor as well.

But as I began to write, I realized that something was missing. My villain, the Baron Manfred von Richthofen, just wasn’t cutting it. He was too…average…and what I needed was a villain that made the reader sit up and take notice. I dug through my notes, looking for a hook that I could use to make him a bit more sinister in the overall scheme of things.

Noting that, historically speaking, Richthofen had been shot down and killed in April 1918, I asked myself how the war would have changed if that hadn’t happened. What if he had lived? What if he had continued to add to his amazing streak of victories, bringing his confirmed kills to well over his historical total of 82 enemy planes? Would that provide the oomph I needed?

I didn’t think so. But the pump had been primed and other ideas began to flow as a result. What if he’d been shot down but lived through it? Even better, what if he had died but then rose again to continue fighting?

My pulse kicked up and I knew I was on to something. Richthofen gets shot down but rises again, the undead enemy ace determined to win the war for the Kaiser. That sounded pretty cool; I could work with that.

I just needed to come up with a plausible reason for it.

The idea that Richthofen was a vampire occurred to me but was just as quickly discarded. After all, Kim Newman had already done that, and done it extremely well, in his classic The Bloody Red Baron. Besides, I was almost as tired of vampires as I was of zombies. Making Richthofen a werewolf wouldn’t work either; can you imagine him going through a Dog-Soldier-style transformation while in a wood and canvas biplane fourteen thousand feet in the air? Not a pretty sight.

Ghosts. Ghouls. Spectres. Warlocks. All were considered. All were just as quickly cast aside. Still, I knew I was on that right track. I could feel it. There had to be something…

Since I wasn’t having any luck, I decided to look at the problem from a different direction. Instead of worrying about what kind of undead creature to make Richthofen, I thought about the mechanism I needed to make him into whatever-it-was he was to become. I pictured him there in the middle of no man’s land, his Fokker triplane crumpled around him, his blood leaking into the earth. What was already on that battlefield that I could make use of?

Mud. Corpses. Rats. Barbed wire. Trenches. Gas.

Wait a minute, I thought. Gas.

A quick dig through the various books on my desk told me that the first use of poisoned gas on the Western Front was by the Germans during the Second Battle of Ypres. 5700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released toward the Allied lines at sunrise on April 22 and the yellow-green gas was so effective that it surprised even the German troops sent to follow up on the breakthrough it created.

I knew right then and there that I had my mechanism. What if the gas the Germans had invented had not been chlorine or mustard gas but had been corpse gas instead? What if the gas worked only on inert tissue, bringing the battlefield dead back as – dare I say it? – zombies? (Or, in the parlance of the story, shamblers.)

Everything fell together from that point forward. The gas would resurrect the dead, reinforcing the German army after every battle, promoting the Allies to begin burning the corpses of friend and foe alike in giant bonfires that filled the air with ash and soot. The swelling ranks would give the Germans the extra push they needed to force the Allies back almost all the way to Paris. The world would not just be fighting for freedom from tyranny but the very survival of the human race.

There was only one final detail to set it all in motion. What if one out of every ten thousand resurrected corpses came back with their faculties intact? Not just intact, but improved a hundred-fold? The newly resurrected dead would be smarter, faster, and able to withstand more pain and injury than a normal human being? What if Richthofen had died in that crash, only to rise again as one of these revenants? How would his increased drive and ambition, never mind loyalty to the homeland, impact that war around him?

And that, dear readers, is how I ended up writing not just a zombie book, but an entire series with zombies as a chief element despite my vow.


By The Blood Of Heroes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow him on Twitter.


Still Life With Cat, Fuzzy and Redshirts

This mostly to establish that my first finished hardcover copy of Redshirts has arrived at the house. It looks fantastic, I have to say. And no, you can’t have it. I only have the one. It goes to Krissy. Because she has First Copy Privileges. I think we can all agree that is how it should be.


Best Mutant Cookies Ever

What was waiting for me when I got in at 1am:

If you can’t read the note, it says: “Happy birthday!! We made you B-day cookies but mommy messed it up bad. The love is there. Mommy & Athena.”

That’s right! The secret ingredient is love! And, uh, maybe too much milk.

They still tasted excellent.

It’s nice to be home.



42 was a pretty good year for me, I have to say; I did some good work, made the acquaintance (or better acquaintance) of some excellent people, and got to see a bit of the world. Let’s see what 43 has in store.

In other news, today is my birthday and I am also doing an appearance at the Massachusetts Library Association and I am also traveling back home so I will be able to share at least a tiny sliver of today with the family. All of which is to say I am mostly taking the day off from here. See you tomorrow!


I’m Wrong Again and Happily So

I thought Obama was going to keep his distance on same-sex marriage through November.

I was wrong.

I’m at the airport and catching up on this as it develops; when I’m done I’ll possibly check in with further thoughts. But for now, I’ll just say: Good for him. Glad he came out.

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