The Big Idea: Lara Zielin


Several years ago, author Lara Zielin took a trip to watch tornadoes. She was expecting storms, and she got them. Just not the ones she was expecting. Here she is to explain how that fateful, stormy trip relates to her latest book, The Waiting Sky.


I’ve told people part of what inspired The Waiting Sky —but not all of it.  I booked a tornado chase in 2004, I tell them, to see amazing weather and crazy storms. I paid an experienced guide to get me close to extreme weather, spending hours and hours on the road with strangers in the process. All of us were folded into a stale-smelling van, waiting until the moment the sky opened and the twister descended.

Only that never happened. Our group never saw an actual bona fide tornado. Some bad weather, sure. Never a twister, though.

But all that time on the road, all those miles between storms—that provided the inspiration for my main character, Jane, who leaves her alcoholic mom in Minnesota to chase tornadoes with her brother, a Ph.D. student studying meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. Jane winds up having to face her own internal storms, thanks to all the quiet moments storm chasing ironically provides. I mean, what else are you going to do besides look inside at your messed up life when you’re crossing from Kansas into Oklahoma?

What I’ve neglected to say in every version of this story—until now—is what storm had to face when I went to Tornado Alley. Because, you see, none of us storm chasers are really chasing literal storms. Not in my experience, anyway. All of us are running from something. All of us are looking for chaos in the clouds because better it’s there than in our own lives.

If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I was running from an unhappy marriage.

I was married right out of college to a good guy, a decent, hard-working guy, who just wasn’t…THE guy. And this truth—this unavoidable storm of honesty—descended on me in Tornado Alley. I think, when I went on that chase by myself in 2004, I still thought things were fine, just fine. I’m a Midwesterner, after all, and we are prone to impractical optimism.

And I probably could have eschewed the truth that I was unhappy—daily, hour after hour, week after week—if it wasn’t for Bradley. His name has been changed to protect…something. The last shred of dignity you have before you fall for someone in Tornado Alley, perhaps.

Because I did fall. Hard. Bradley was British and attractive and rich and, would you even believe it, into me. ME. The overweight, Midwestern, married girl who was on this trip alone—no friends, no husband, no tethers to the things that keep us from thinking that romances forged among storms last.

Bradley was the thing that made me realize that I went someplace hoping to see what would happen when the world was turned topsy-turvey—when twisters rip through barns and tear up hay fields—and found out instead that everything was already upside down. I was already in a tornado. I was already spinning. Bradley just made me see how far over the rainbow I’d already come.

When the chase ended, I knew I had to click my ruby-red slippers together and get home. However, suddenly I didn’t really want to go back. Because if I did, then I knew I had to bring the storm with me. Which is scary for about six thousand reasons. Does any woman want to go back to her normal, mundane life after admitting feeling insane attraction for someone who isn’t her husband?

But I did it. Except, I went back and created an EF-5-sized tornado of my own. I acknowledged how completely unhappy I was. I forced myself to admit that the magnetic attraction I felt for Bradley was less about him and more about me being desperate to find someone who would just—I don’t know, think I was cool or something. When was the last time my spouse and I had thought the other was a badass? Not in a long while, that’s for sure.

Not that this is a quick, easy thing, mind you. It took a while. And all that time, storms brewed and faded across the plains. Other chase teams caught tornadoes. They took pictures and posted them to websites. Me, I was chasing the most dangerous storm of my life and I had no pictures to show for it. No viral videos. Just lonely nights sleeping beside someone I no longer really knew.

So, look. This was my storm—and I found it because I went to go see funnel clouds and instead I encountered stillness. The quiet miles between storms forced me to really acknowledge what was going on in my life, as messed up as it was. Storms are funny things that way. My protagonist in The Waiting Sky goes through something similar. Though, if you ask me, you don’t need a tornado chase to acknowledge what’s really eating at you, what’s really tearing up your cornfields and ripping the siding off your house. Everyone has storms. It’s whether you face them that matters.


The Waiting Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Your Social Media Thought For the Day

It’s probably indicative of something that these days, if I want to have a thought of mine preserved for eternity, I put it on my blog; if I don’t care if I ever see it again, I put it on Twitter.


The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

It’s no surprise that authors love books. But it might surprise you, in the context of Libriomancer, Jim C. Hines‘ newest novel, how the author’s love of books so directly shaped this particular novel. Or, perhaps, knowing authors, it might not surprise you at all.


There are two truths at the heart of Libriomancer. First, books are magical. And second, magic is awesome.

The former should be evident to anyone who watched bookstores throughout the world prepare for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or saw schoolkids gathering together to talk about the new Hunger Games book. Older readers might recall the way The Lord of the Rings swept through the United States when it was first published in this country.

As I wrote about Isaac Vainio, he began to epitomize that love of books. He was the part of me that read every book he could get his hands on. Even before he discovered the art of libriomancy, Isaac read every book in the SF/F section in his northern Michigan library. And then he discovered interlibrary loans, and there was no turning back. Like so many of us, he explored Middle Earth and Narnia and Neverland. He traveled by warp drive and tesseract and TARDIS.

I made that love of stories the key to Isaac’s magic. It’s what allows him to do what so many of us have dreamed of, to reach into the pages and create the things described within. To use the daydreams and the fantasies of other readers, all layered together and bound to those books. Libriomancy can create anything from magical flaming spiders to disruptor pistols (perfect for use against vampires) to winged sandals to a laser sword from a galaxy far, far away whose official name we won’t use because I tried very hard not to get sued while writing the book.

What I love about this idea is the way it engages our sense of wonder. Our need to ask “What if…?” There are so many possibilities to magic. There are limits too, of course. Isaac can only create things that would fit through the pages, so there’s no real way to build a shuttlecraft and fly to the moon. There are dangers as well. Intelligent minds can’t handle the transition from fiction to reality, so if you pluck a Smurf from the pages, it’s going to end badly for everyone. And then there’s the risk of reaching into a book like Twilight and either accidentally or deliberately infecting yourself with vampire venom. Suddenly you have sparkling vampires running through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

But Isaac loves it all. He loves magic. He loves the potential. At one point, he encounters a manananggal, a creature who literally rips herself in half, allowing the upper part of her body to fly about in order hunt and feed on blood and organs and unborn children. Isaac’s reaction isn’t terror or disgust, but delight. He’s amazed by the magic that lets the manananggal separate and reconnect her body, and wonders how such power might be used for magical surgeries and other purposes.

Even when running for his life, a part of Isaac will always be studying and admiring the creature trying to kill him.

So much of what I read these days feels dark and grim. There’s nothing wrong with that, but after a while I start to ask myself what happened to the joy? What happened to the awe and hope and discovery? Libriomancer, and Isaac in particular, is my love letter to that sense of wonder. To the part of our imagination that says, “If I were Harry Potter, I’d don a spacesuit and apparate to Mars, just to see what’s out there!” The part that pretends to use the force every time the elevator doors open, because for that one moment, the magic can be real.

Where would we be without that drive to explore and discover? Without that need to poke sticks into the dark corners or tug at the frayed edges of what we think we know? Some of my favorite scenes in the book are when Isaac stumbles across magic he thought was impossible. Because even when that magic is trying to destroy him (which happens far more often than he likes), it proves that the universe is bigger than he knew, and nothing makes him happier.

There’s so much I enjoyed about writing this novel. I got to write Smudge the fire-spider again. I haven’t even mentioned my butt-kicking dryad, or the psychiatrist who fights an uphill battle trying to keep the libriomancers sane, or the kidnapping of Johannes Gutenberg, or the vampire day care center.

But one of the best parts was getting to share Isaac’s joy, to rediscover the love of books and magic, and to remember that it is indeed awesome. And if I can share that love with readers, I consider that to be every bit as magical as anything Isaac does.


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

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

Public Statement By the Readercon Convention Committee

There’s a new statement by the folks at Readercon about the recent events surrounding the harassment of Genevieve Valentine by Rene Walling. The new statement is here.

The short version of it: The convention committee has given Mr. Walling a lifetime ban, consistent with its current policy, and has apologized to Ms. Valentine and others regarding the previous decision. If you’ve had any interest in the events as they went along, it’s worth catching up on.

Wil Less Than Threes Curiosity, the Mars Lander

Hey, did you know that Wil Wheaton narrated a NASA video about the Mars lander that will (hopefully) set down on that planet’s surface less than a day from now? If not, now you do — and here it is.

Here’s a link to the video and other goodies on the NASA site.

Hey, Look, I’m on Sword & Laser This Week

Here’s the episode.

Incidentally, you might think that the laggy, six-frames a second thing I got going on that episode is due to a balky webcam, but the fact of the matter is that’s actually what happens to me when I have low blood sugar. For serious, man. It’s really annoying.

If you liked this episode of Sword and Laser, here’s their YouTube site for additional episodes. It’s part of that Geek & Sundry YouTube channel that also features Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton and other pals of mine. While you’re there, why not subscribe to them? They will love you for it.

The Big Idea: Meagan Spooner

Sometimes it’s nice when your iPod runs out of power. Meagan Spooner explains how a day without hers led to her thinking about the world in a whole new way, and led to her novel Skylark.


I don’t usually come up with settings first. For me the meat of any good story is in the characters, and that’s usually my way in. But with Skylark, the world came to me first, and in such a screaming torrent of “what ifs” that I had to pull my car over to the side of the road.

I’d been listening to an editorial piece on NPR about the energy crisis. That makes me sound all informed and intellectual, but the truth was that my iPod was out of batteries and it was the only radio station I’d bothered to program on my car’s presets. So while a voice in the background outlined plans for new solar endeavors, wind-driven energy farms, and corn-powered cars, my mind was free to wander. And because I am who I am, I ended up thinking magic. And that was the moment I had to stop driving and turn off the radio to concentrate, as my brain turned over a thousand different questions.

What if instead of electricity generated by coal, oil, nuclear reactors, and solar panels, technology was powered by magic? What if instead of circuitry and electronics, machines ran using clockwork wound by a “spring” of magic? What if the spark of life, the indefinable energy that makes us living, functioning beings, was something that could be tapped? What if the world evolved around the idea that people, not the planet’s resources, contained all the power we’d ever need?

And, perhaps most importantly: what would happen if the human race abused that resource, in this alternate world, as we’ve done in ours?

As I sat there in my car, bemusedly watching the traffic whizzing by, an entire civilization rose—and fell—in my imagination. I pictured huge, gangly transport machines, household servile automatons, flying novelties, city streets clogged with horseless carriages, all powered by magic. I pictured a society awash in luxury, always wanting the next invention, the newest fad, all the while draining civilization of the magic that kept it running. And then, playing the scenario out to its inevitable conclusion, I imagined being wars fought over the last, remaining dregs of power. I pictured a magical wasteland, twisted and destroyed by the warring factions’ efforts to horde the power for themselves.

I love imagining what happens after the end, so even more interesting to me than the rise and fall of this magic-based civilization were the last shards of humanity left behind—power-hungry, war-scarred, and desperate. And so the city in SKYLARK rose up in my mind, governed by the descendants of scientists clever enough to outlast the wars, existing under a dome to protect them from the magic wasteland outside. In this walled-off, precarious ecosystem, every resource would be balanced exactly. Each new child would be harvested of his or her magic as soon as they matured, so not a spark of power would go to waste. In this new, bleak existence I imagined that everyone would have to fulfill their roles with perfect efficiency, each person a tiny cog in the larger machine of the city. No room for error—no room for malfunctions.

Up until this point, it was like an intellectual exercise. I was just imagining this world for fun, with no intention to tell any kind of story, just letting my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. But then I discovered Lark, my main character. Because in a world where everyone’s lives depend on smooth efficiency, where your safety is purchased by the sacrifice of your magical energy, it was obvious to me whose story would be the most interesting to tell: the girl who fails.

I like writing about misfits, so I knew instantly that I had a story I wanted to write, not just a fun world to think about. Lark is older than the other unharvested kids, and as the years go by they pass her over again and again for the harvest without telling her why. The people around her consider her a freak, a dud, born without magical abilities—an unheard of anomaly. The novel begins with Lark’s discovery that not only does she have magic, but she has more than she knows what to do with. A fact which doesn’t escape the notice of the city’s architects—who have plans for her after all.

I like unlikely heroes. I like heroes who start off ordinary, no different from you or me, but are shaped by the world and by their choices. I like moral gray areas, and wrong decisions, and mistakes. I like characters who are afraid, because I know I’d be afraid if I were them—I like seeing characters who are afraid but who are taking action anyway, because that’s what I hope I’d do. I like watching characters become the people they’re meant to be. And that’s what gripped me so, lodged in my brain like a splinter. I knew who Lark was at the beginning of the book, but what I wanted so, so badly to see was who she’d become by the end of the story.

It was at this point in my thought process that I finally managed to pull my car back out onto the road and finish driving home. When I got there, I sat down and started writing, and I wrote every day until I finished the first draft a couple months later. It was the first time in years that I’d felt so seized by an idea. It was the first time I’d ever consistently and repeatedly raced home to my computer to write each day. It was also the first novel I’d ever finished.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, two years later, “what if?” What if I’d been on the road just half an hour later, and NPR was broadcasting something different? What I’d just forced my attention back to driving? What if I’d driven home in silence instead of turning on the radio? What if I hadn’t forgotten to charge my iPod, and I spent my drive home belting out Bad Romance and The Best of Queen?

The laws of probability, though, suggest that I’ve probably watched a thousand big ideas go sailing by without even noticing them. That we all have. But that ought to be an encouraging thought. What if there is an infinite supply of awesome ideas out there, waiting for the right person at the right time? To me, that’s a pretty cool “what if.”


Skylark: Indiebound | Powell’s | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository

Read the opening pages. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Educational Use of Whatever Posts

I get requests on and off from teachers and professors who want to use one or another of my posts in their classrooms. So this is another one of those “I’m putting it up here to point to later” posts.

In short:

If you are an educator and want to use one of the posts here in your classroom, for the instruction of your students, you may. You have my permission to copy and to distribute the post in an amount equal to the number of students in your the class(es) that you wish to use the piece for. This includes printed, photocopied or electronic distribution. Make sure that you credit me as the author and provide a URL (for printed matter) and/or a live link (for electronic distribution) to either the original piece on the site or to the site generally (“” or simply “”).

For classroom use there is no charge for use of my posts, but if you feel the need to compensate me or if your school for some reason does not allow you to use the work without compensation, then please make a charitable donation in my name to a charity dealing with hunger or literacy issues, with preference to those in your immediate community if possible.

Bear in mind that I do retain copyright in all my work here and unless otherwise noted, my work is not covered under a Creative Commons license. If you wish to use my work in a different manner, including in textbooks or other compilations/anthologies, please contact me directly. The contact information is here.

This permission is specifically for professional educators (i.e., you are paid to teach students), in a teaching environment. If you want to use one my posts for another purpose (church newsletter, therapy session, public speaking engagement), please contact me directly.

If you are a student and want to use one of the posts here as the basis for a school project, please see this previous entry.

Bear in mind that notwithstanding the specific permissions I note above, in the United States at least there is some leeway in how you may use my work under Fair Use. The permissions above are intended to be complementary to, not exclusive of, Fair Usage law of whatever country in which you live and work.

Hello, I Am Old

Just explained to the daughter that the “M” in MTV stood for music, and that when it started the station only played music videos. Her response: “Wow, that must have been cool.”

Yes. Yes it was.

Below, the first music video I ever saw on MTV.

If you can find a link to the first video you ever saw on MTV, put it in the comments. No Rick Rolls, please. Unless, you know, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was the first video you ever saw on MTV.

Shadow War’s Hugo Chances

I’ve been asked several times over the last few months if I thought “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue,” which has been nominated for a Hugo in the category of short story, had a chance of winning the category. My response has been that I would talk about it after the Hugo voting closed. Now the Hugo voting is closed, and here’s my thought as to whether the story will win:

No, I don’t think so. It’s a little weird and quirky and silly, and purpose-built to be an April Fool’s joke, and I think the combination of all those factors will ultimately work against it, coupled with the fact that there are several genuinely excellent works on the short story ballot this year. I’m happy to share the ballot with all of the nominees and will be happy to lose to any of them.

I was genuinely thrilled it was nominated, and when it was nominated, I decided that simply being on the ballot was an excellent reward for this particular story, and that it had been nominated for doing certain things well. I felt the same way when Zoe’s Tale was nominated for Best Novel; I was no illusions that on a ballot with works from Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross that I’d walk out with the rocket, but the nomination to me meant I was being acknowledged for getting something right (in that case, getting the voice of Zoe to be a believable one). With “Shadow War” I’m pretty sure I’m getting a tip of the hat for making a funny story that pokes at the genre affectionately rather than spitefully. Also, I think some people may have nominated the story just to mess with everyone’s heads. Which, you know, is fine, too, although in that case it’s one more reason for me not to exactly stress about its chances of winning.

That said, if it did win it wouldn’t be a travesty. As I’ve noted before, if you think writing a story that’s supposed to come across like it’s bad literature yet is still readable and stands on its own as a short story while at the same time formatted to work as a prologue chapter of a book that doesn’t actually exist is an easy thing to do, then by all means go ahead and do it. I’ll stand over here and watch. Oh, yeah, remember to make it funny. Because that’s not hard, either. It’s stunt writing, but stunt writing still needs to get the job done. The story works or it doesn’t, depending on personal taste, but on the level of structure and story telling, it gets over the bar well enough. I’m aware that some people seem disproportionately annoyed that the story got on the ballot, but some people seem disproportionately annoyed that I have a career at all, so: Oh, well. If the story wins, they will be annoyed further, I suppose. It’s not my problem.

In any event, I’m jazzed to have been nominated, not at all expecting to win, and will be delighted to be on stage at the Hugo ceremony (which I am the host for this year) when whoever does win gets to come up and take the trophy. They will have deserved it, and I’ll be very happy for them.

I will say this, however: Next year? I think this should get a nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.

A Trio of Caveats

Jezebel has linked in and reported on yesterday’s piece on Readercon, which is nice because it helps to widen the discussion of the issue, to which I came late and had a less than critical role in (again, here’s a good collection of posts about the event, most of which were written before I popped in with my thoughts).

Between the Readercon piece and the “Who gets to be a geek” piece I’m getting a lot of press and positive vibes in the last couple of days for being a decent guy , particularly when it comes to women in geekdom. I certainly appreciate it; I try to be a good guy and I try also to encourage others to be the same.

But for the sake of my own sense of proportion, I’d like to note some things, quickly.

1. I’m getting credit that doesn’t necessarily accrue to me, simply because I have a relatively big platform. In the case of the Readercon incident specifically, the reason I keep pointing back to that list of links is to note that lots of other people — staring with Genevieve Valentine, who was the one harassed — had been making noise about it for days. If anything, I offered signal boost to work already done.

2. I don’t mind attention (obviously) and I am delighted to boost the signal to help combat the basic misogynistic crap that women have to deal with in geekdom because holy buckets, we do seem to be having quite a public gout of it these days, don’t we. That said, it’s been noted, and not unfairly, that the fact that the attention on these topic increases when I, a guy, talk about them (I’m a guy! Did you know?) is ironic and indicative of a whole bunch of other things which would take a while to unpack. Some of that attention goes back to the aforementioned big platform, but some of it doesn’t, and that’s worth noting and discussing.

3. I’m happy to be getting credit for being a good guy, and I really do try to be a good guy. But, you know. I have shown my ass on the Internets (and elsewhere) before, and I probably will again; hopefully unintentionally and then I will then hopefully quickly apologize, but even so. I just want it out there that I’m aware that I’m a fallible person, will almost certainly experience fallibation in the future (“fallibation”: not a real word) and that makes me like everyone else. I also want it out there that I know getting credit for being a decent human being right now doesn’t mean that I’ve accrued a “Get Out of Jail” card if I’m a jackhole later. If you see me showing my ass, be sure to let me know. I don’t expect this will be a problem for most of you.

“To Sue The World,” Featuring Wil Wheaton + All of w00tstock 4.0

Hey, would you like to see me and Wil do “To Sue the World,” which we did at the Burbank Public Library, whilst I was on tour? Of course you do. Here you go.

Thanks to “pateachoux3” for recording and uploading that.

Also, if you go here, you’ll find the canonical w00tstock 4.0 version, featuring Pat Rothfuss, along with every other part of that particular show. Enjoy, you crazy kids!