The Big Idea: Adam Christopher
Adam Christopher tried to resist writing The Age Atomic, a followup to his novel The Empire State, but the power of sequels compelled him! Aaaand that’s today’s gratuitous Exorcist reference. Read the rest of this entry now. The power of suggestion compels you!
To be honest, I never really thought I would be a writer of sequels. Don’t ask me why, but when I started taking this writing thing seriously, many years ago, I thought sequels and series were not for me. My favourite author, Stephen King, is – Dark Tower and Doctor Sleep aside – the master of the standalone novel. The young King had a lot of ideas and he burned through them at a remarkable pace in the late 70s/early 80s. If it was good enough for him, my novice writer mind whispered, it was good enough for me. I’m naturally impatient. Done, done and on to the next one, as the song goes.
Of course, I was also totally wrong. Stephen King might write standalone novels but they’re nearly all linked by location and by events, sometimes in very subtle ways. And I was fooling myself, too – as a TV junkie, a lot of the writing I love is part of series – Doctor Who, Justified, Person of Interest, Firefly, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, and so on – television is all about story arcs and the continuation of theme across multiple, linked adventures. And comics. Boy, comics are in my blood, and yet I totally failed to see what was right in front of me in four-colour glory.
Okay. You get the point. One of the great things about a writing life is that it’s one of constant learning and development; evolution, if you will.
So let’s cut a long story short: I wrote a sequel and called it The Age Atomic. It’s a sequel to my debut novel, Empire State.
The big idea for The Age Atomic was a simple one: I wanted to write a 50s-tinged SF story about atomic robots, because that kind of pulpy, old-fashioned concept just sounds so gosh-darned cool. But it wasn’t going to be a sequel to anything and it didn’t get any further than that, just another idea to file away for a future project.
Around the same time, notes on the atomic robot idea still fresh in my mind, and all the while firmly telling myself that sequels were not my bag, I was interviewed by fellow author Chuck Wendig about Empire State – that conversation appears in the back of the book as a little bonus feature, and in it, you’ll see that Chuck asks me if I’d consider doing a sequel.
Well, I said, scrambling for an answer. Sure. Why not. I mean, the world of the book is bigger than I expected – in Empire State we’re presented with a very specific setting with its own rules… but what if those rules were wrong? What if there was more beyond the perpetual fog that surrounds the city of the Empire State, more than anyone suspected, including the characters in the story and, frankly, including me?
There was my sequel. I’ve found that each of my novels has, so far, been shaped by a single moment of realization where everything comes together and – eureka! I suddenly know I have something.
As soon as the interview with Chuck was done, I started making notes, combining my idea for a book about atomic robots with detective Rad Bradley, the hero of Empire State, discovering there was more to his little pocket dimension than he knew. Much like the first book, a dozen separate notions and concepts that I’d had floating around forever coalesced into something entirely new. As a fan of New York history, I had plenty of weird and wonderful real-life things – people, places, streets, even a strange car and a cigarette-smoking robot – to add in, as I did with the first book.
I learned a lot about writing The Age Atomic, too. I was writing a sequel but I still wanted it to be a standalone novel, enough of a new adventure, independent of Empire State, that someone who hadn’t read the first book would still be able to pick up and enjoy and, crucially, understand. But I’d never written a sequel before – although I’d read plenty, actually figuring out how a successful one works was a different kettle of fish entirely. How much backstory did I need? Did I need to recap anything, and how could I re-establish the world and the characters without falling into the “As you know, Bob” trap of exposition?
Writing The Age Atomic, with its mix of pulp detective noir and Silver Age science fiction, was a heck of a lot of fun, and a very valuable exercise, personally. It taught me about how to write a sequel and how to look at story and characters over a longer arc than just a single novel. Readers love sequels and series because they love characters and want to find out what happens to them next, whether it’s over the turn of the next page or in the first chapter of the next book. Characters are the heart of story; without them, you have nothing.
The Age Atomic changed the way I look at story and character, and I’m very glad I wrote it – and I’m very glad Chuck and I had that chat!