The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor
Posted on December 5, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
Typing in a minefield: When Ryk E. Spoor took on his new novel Princess Holy Aura, that’s what he guessed he’d be doing. Why? And why did he decide to write it anyway? Read on for the answers.
RYK E. SPOOR:
I did not expect to write Princess Holy Aura.
“Hey, you’re the author, don’t you DECIDE what you write?”
Well, yeah, to an extent. But priority goes to what your publisher’s willing to PAY for, and when you have an average of 4 hours a week to write, that priority generally dominates.
Following my completion of Challenges of the Deeps (the third Arenaverse novel), I had no contracts for any solo novels. So I inquired as to whether they wanted to see any more from me, and they asked me to send them some outlines of things I proposed to do.
I sent them three outlines and two general concepts. One outline was for a crossover-fantasy trilogy titled The Spirit Warriors (which follows the adventures of five young people from Earth who we met for a short period of time in my Balanced Sword trilogy), one for a series titled “Players of Worlds” which would begin as apparent fantasy and slowly reveal its rather creepy science-fictional nature (what if your whole planet was someone else’s MMORPG setting, in real capsule summary), and the outline for The Ethical Magical Girl (which was later renamed to Princess Holy Aura). The two “concepts” were for The Door Reopened (a Narnia/Oz/Andre Norton magical crossover world finds it needs its heroes again… when they’re all grown up with kids and careers) and Adventurer’s Academy (epic fantasy world’s school for would-be heroes).
I was pretty sure that if Baen took any of these, it would be either Players of Worlds or The Spirit Warriors, and I was betting on Players of Worlds, as I’d actually worked out the general concept with my editor Tony a couple months previous. Maybe they’d ask instead for me to flesh out one of the two general concepts.
Instead, I got a contract for Princess Holy Aura… and immediately began metaphorically running around in circles panicking.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write this story. I did, very much so. As far as I knew, no one in the American book market had really tackled the mahou shoujo genre straight-on, and the setup I envisioned would allow me to really examine the assumptions of that genre and both deconstruct and reconstruct it in what I thought would be interesting ways. There was a lot of potential for fun, drama, action, and character in the concept, and I already could see the main characters and understand the general flow of the plot from the outline I had (although, as with pretty much any outline, the details of that outline wouldn’t survive contact with the actual writing of the book).
But there were – are – soooooo very many ways that I could write it badly, with badly possibly being “you offend people so badly that not only does THIS book tank, but your other books stop selling too”. I would be touching on some very volatile concepts – gender roles, personal identity, physical gender changes, friendships across both age and sex barriers, adult VS child rights to make dangerous choices, and a host of others, including the more mundane – but no less difficult – challenges of depicting people who were from vastly different backgrounds due to age and culture gaps than I, the author, would be very familiar with.
Princess Holy Aura is a novel-format take on the anime/manga subgenre of the magical girl warrior (mahou shoujo senshi). This is best known in the USA by the anime Sailor Moon, with some westernized versions including W.I.T.C.H., but with a huge history going back several decades. At its core, the mahou shoujo senshi story is of a young (usually ranging from 12 to 16, with some examples both older and younger) girl chosen/empowered to fight supernatural forces by some benevolent force (that’s often disguised as a cute animal mascot); often the first girl warrior is joined by others to form a group of four or five.
I’d originally conceived Princess Holy Aura simply from an amusing scene that I wrote up in a couple of pages, in which a 35 year old man is the one chosen to become Princess Holy Aura, the first of the five Apocalypse Maidens. The idea of a boy being chosen to become the magical girl isn’t unique; there are at least two or three anime that play with that idea, and several webcomics. However, my outline for the story took it in a very different direction. Not only was my protagonist starting as someone much older, but also I wanted to take the story seriously, even if there would be obviously amusing aspects to the events themselves.
But that opened up a potentially huge can of worms – a can that started looking bigger and bigger and bigger once I was committed to doing the story. Consider, please, some of these points:
- Steve Russ (the main character in his original form) was going to be changing not just age but sex. This can be a fairly challenging topic in and of itself, as you don’t want to just play this for laughs. Besides the obvious physical differences, body dysphoria (the feeling that there is something inherently wrong about the body you’re in) would be a major factor.
- The other Apocalypse Maidens were all going to be 14-15 year old girls in actuality.
- That meant that – in the form of an actual 14 year old girl – the protagonist would be spending a lot of time with other such girls.
- The general attitude of our society towards a 35 year old man who spends lots of time hanging around young teenage girls is, well, not usually positive. (and recent political events are not making that any easier of a concept!)
These are far from all the key points I had to deal with in just handling the character of Steve Russ/Holly Owen/Holy Aura. To make the book work, all these points, and the others, had to be addressed in a manner that made it reasonable.
That meant answering questions like “why choose Steve Russ at all, instead of another teenager (and why do the others end up teenagers anyway?”, “What makes Steve the right choice?”, “How does Holly Owen (Steve’s civilian-female alter ego) learn to interact with others of her putative age?”, and of course “how can you keep the other girl’s parents from killing Steve and his little magical guide Silvertail if and when they find out the truth?”
This in addition to the normal worldbuilding challenges like “who are Holy Aura’s adversaries?”, “How did this all get started, and why ‘magical girls’ anyway?”, and “how can there be these magical girls and stuff when the world’s otherwise mundane?”.
Even when you have answers to these questions, presenting those answers to the reader in a form that will convince them, ahh, there’s the rub. You can never be sure what will work, since as the author you know what you mean, but that mental state can’t be transferred to all your readers.
I think the first key element that made it possible to even partially tapdance my way through this minefield was clarifying and refining one of the key points of the novel and of the magic of the Maidens themselves: that it was strengthened by willing sacrifice of the participants, but sacrifice not in the simple sense of “I give away this thing”, but “I choose to take this responsibility, despite what it will cost me to do so”.
Specifically with respect to Steve and his initial vital decision, Steve isn’t just “giving up being a man”; that is, it is not “becoming a girl” that represents the sacrifice, so much as “letting go of your entire self-image” – being willing, in a very real sense, to give up your self in order to become another self who is needed. He must go beyond playing “Holly Owen” and “Princess Holy Aura”, and become them, make them real, in order to fully appreciate the powers, and demands, of her new form.
Similarly, the willingness of the other girls to risk themselves, and of their parents to accept the risks to their children – these are important sacrifices and acceptance of responsibility that in the world of Princess Holy Aura represent a huge amount of mystical power.
Still, to make all that work required another tightrope walk. The main character had to be a sufficiently good person that, as she lived as Holy Aura and made friendships with the other girls, the reader could believe that she (potentially still he) did not pose a threat to the others. The flip side of the coin was that Holly Owen and Steve Russ had to have flaws – issues with their lives and/or the events that surrounded them – sufficient to make them believably real. In addition, whatever I sketched out for Steve’s personality, habits, and adult friends and activities had to somehow jibe with the person that Holly would become; she had to be someone who could be understood as a development of Steve in some way, shape, or form.
AAaaaand I had to do all of this, and at least sketch out to an acceptable extent the characters surrounding Holly Owen – her friends (both those who become the other Maidens and those who don’t), the adversaries, and a few other mysteries. And do much of it early enough to let the story progress to the end.
The latter part turned out to require some changes from my original vision. In a standard mahou shoujo senshi series, each new girl gets added in their own adventure sequence, meaning that before you’ve assembled your whole team – and thus can start to address the real main challenges – you have four or five separate adventures, meetings, revelations, and so on.
I couldn’t possibly do that in one book and keep it even halfway manageable. Princess Holy Aura was already going to have a lot of front-loading of its world and mythology, just to let the readers keep up with what was going on, and I had the additional challenge that I didn’t (and still don’t) know if there would/will ever be sequels to the novel. Which meant I had to wrap up the main plotline, too.
The very nature of the mahou shoujo genre had one more challenge to address from the point of view of the kind of stories I usually write, and that is that such series are to a great extent not about the monsters of the week, but about the people and how their battles affect them. Unlike, say, Kyri Vantage (the central hero of my Balanced Sword trilogy) or Ariane Austin (from the Arenaverse novels), the young heroes of these series are not inherent risk-takers, not adult adventurers who have trained for a dangerous profession, living in some distant future world that’s alien and exciting to any reader; they’re ordinary students (or in the case of Steve, ordinary working man), living in a world very much like ours, thrust into utterly extraordinary circumstances.
More, in mahou shoujo the relationships of the main characters are an essential part of the nature of their success or failure against their opponents. Long before the recent My Little Pony made “Friendship is Magic” a byword, mahou shoujo series had made that the essence of their nature (in fact, you could easily argue that MLP:FiM is a mahou shoujo series). So Holly’s friendships and connections with the other girls had to be brought out and made believable.
I did do research (by talking to the appropriate people as well as doing online reading) to give me some insight into the mindset of those both younger than me and those from different walks of life; I do have a near-teenage daughter to serve as something of an inspiration, and some nieces who are far closer to high school age than I am (with about 40 years behind me since that time). But no matter how much research an author does, ultimately the characters, their behavior, their words, their existence comes from what the author knows, and they can’t easily (if at all) create an emotional connection unless they, themselves, can feel it. So I knew that making them believable and making them realistic/authentic might – probably would – be another balancing act.
So basically writing the book would be riding a unicycle on a high-wire over a minefield while juggling lit Molotov cocktails.
Of course, I had one – well, two – major advantages to bring to bear on this challenge. The first was that I had a contract – a legal obligation to write and finish this novel, or I’d suffer consequences (or, at the least, not get the money for the book). “…when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” as Samuel Johnson once wrote.
The second was that I had written books while worried about the outcome before. Not this kind of worry, true, but when I’d first tackled Boundary I’d been scared stiff of the sheer challenge before me of writing believable, worthwhile hard SF. And as I discussed in another Big Idea column, writing a sequel to Grand Central Arena and the challenge of somehow matching its sensawunda in Spheres of Influence kept me up more than a few nights.
So I sat down and started writing and reminded myself that in the end, I could only use the same principle I’d always written with: people are people. That applied to men and women and aliens, there was no reason that it shouldn’t apply even to magical mascots and teenage girls. The details would be different, but the basic motives and feelings? They shouldn’t change. I’d already touched on writing younger people in Castaway Planet and its sequel; all I had to do was just keep doing the same thing. Only, hopefully, better.
And sure enough, they started to speak to me. Not just Steve, but Holly Owen herself – the same person, yet utterly different, like Tip and Ozma – and Holly’s BFF Seika Cooper, Steve’s friend Dexter Armitage who also ends up Holly’s friend, artist Tierra MacKintor and basketball star Devika Kaur Weatherill, Cordelia Ingemar and Silvertail Heartseeker. I followed them through first meetings and frightening combats and shocking revelations that eventually brought them together.
Surprisingly, some side characters also came to life for me, especially OSC agent Dana Kisaragi – who got her own parallel short story “On-Site for the Apocalypse”. And I came to know the adversaries, maybe better than I wanted.
Was it a perilous journey, in terms of potentially creating an “Oh, no, Ryk Spoor, No!” situation? Naturally. And I had to accept that for at least some people, it probably would be exactly that. There’s no way not to “squick” some people with these subjects, not if you approach them honestly, and the nature of the story requires honesty.
So in the end, I strode right out into that minefield and juggled my flaming jars of gasoline while jumping on a trampoline. Because the only way to write the story was to write it straight, just like the characters – the people that I was going to meet – would want it told.
Princess Holy Aura: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.
Thanks for giving me another slot to blather on about my stuff! :)
Wow, based on this writeup I definitely am going to have to check this out.
I’m lucky enough to be in Ryk’s beta group. And when he explained this idea I just kinda scanned the minefield and thought “you got chutzpah, Ryk, you definitely got chutzpah.” But FWIW, I think he did a surprisingly graceful job of getting through the minefield without any explosions.
Jess: Yeah, it must have been amusing to watch that tapdance in slow-motion.
Ryk: Let’s just say I got practised at holding my breath. ;-)
I had an absolute blast reading it as an eARC. (G_D bless Baen for going with eBooks!) and have only one question: Sequel? Please?
Agreed. This one was probably your best yet Ryk. Even with the eARC, I’ve got the published version on my Christmas list.
I read the publicly available chapters at Baen. I thought they were very, very nice. That kind of fantasy is not particularly my thing, but the prose was good and the characterization first rate. Steve Russ, in particular, was extremely well written.
Starting from the end of the snippets, I powered through the rest of this in most of my spare time today. (tbh, I was shocked I finished it today) If anything I think the story gets better after the snippets end.
Also, I commented while reading the snippets that I hoped a certain briefing didn’t always go well, and I’d say the conference delivered enough of what I was hoping for.
I have to say I’m intrigued. Thanks for the writeup, I will definitely check this out in the near future.
Thanks all for the kind words!
Insofar as sequel, as with all things that depends on sales. If it sells enough…
I am about three quarters through the book and I have no idea what to say. On one hand its hard to put down, on the other I am constantly asking myself what the h-ll I am reading and why? Its hands down the weirdest book I have read in a couple of years, but in a good way. Keep up the good work!
I’m one of Ryk’s beta readers too, and it was very interesting, watching him work this out. Well worth reading. I think all of us betas were impressed at how well it came out, and we had fewer suggestions/criticisms then usual.
And do check out “Onsite for the Apocalypse,” which is free on the Baen site.
Mixerbrain: Thanks — that’s kinda my reaction to writing it, in some ways. :)
As Saintonge says, if you like it you should check out “On-Site for the Apocalypse” which tells the first 20 chapters or so from the point of view of Agent Kisaragi. It’s here: http://www.baen.com/onsiteapocalypse
Also a beta reader, nonetheless read the eARC and ordered the Paper-Copy as well.
Had a blast the whole time, rooting for the characters, enjoying their dilemnas but also, in particular, the honesty with which the whole challenge was brought to all the protagonists and their parents, due to Steven being a good guy.
Also… there was ONE scene which I found absolutely, totally, awesomely well done, namely, when Steven as Holly has to walk down a street at night (I shall skip the reasons) and can’t use his/her powers (I shall also skip the reasons) and realize that said street was quite safe to walk as a 30 something big guy but not so as a 15 something little girl.. It came out outstandingly well, and even tho it is a minor point in the story, it shows how good a writer Ryk is, as the scene really, really works on an awesome level of creepiness…
And as saintonge said, check the “On Site for the Apocalypse” on the Baen website and pray that Ryk gets a contract for a sequel. :)