The Big Idea: Stephen Cox
How do you write a book that reaches past its target audience, to readers that have never tried your genre before? According to author Stephen Cox, you have to lean into the things that make it genre defying in the first place. Follow along in his Big Idea to see how he does this in his newest book, Our Child of Two Worlds.
Taking time for the feelings
I’d decided to write a Ray Bradbury pastiche for Halloween. The set-up came in a glorious rush – the year of Woodstock and the moon landings. A small town in the golden light of a north-eastern fall, Joan Baez was singing Farewell Angelina on the record player, and Molly was sewing her son Cory’s Halloween costume against the clock. He was so excited and so in the way, that she’d locked her bedroom door to finish it. Cory looked extraordinary – he had purple face tentacles – and he was unique – the only one of his people on Earth. Molly and husband Gene could only keep Cory safe by keeping him a secret… How deeply and how desperately they loved him, and he them, for in all their pasts lay tragedy and sorrow. Cory loved the day of disguises because it was a chance for him to play out among the other children.
The short story came as gloriously rich and as fast as a writer can hope. It brought so many questions, I soon knew it was a novel, and when I finished the first messy draft, I thought it could be two. Our Child of The Stars was science fiction, of course. It was a First Contact story, about how naïve, effervescent Cory loves Earth but sees clearly human folly, violence, and greed. There was plenty of danger. It was just as much a story about the joys and costs of parenthood, and how it feels to be a child. It spoke of difference, idealism, decency, and hope.
Here was the thing, the Big Idea. How do I write all this? The danger was it could have felt too emotional and domestic for the SFF reader and too weird for the mainstream reader. Like Cory tasting Earth’s pleasures, I wanted it all – Hollywood sweep and intimate focus.
I drifted away from scifi for some years because I often found it emotionally unsatisfying. Many intelligent people won’t read it. Yet, it’s never been true that scifi doesn’t do feelings and relationships, some of it always has, and more so in the last twenty years. With the naivety of the new writer, I decided I would try to reach both sorts of readers. How?
Claire North writes stunning books with SFF premises, successfully sold to broader audiences. At a con Q+A she gave me this insight. It’s about taking time. The SFF reader understands that if your character’s family is eaten by demons, they will be angry and sad. A mainstream reader, she said, will often need those feelings to be more fully expressed and longer pondered on.
Molly and Cory were already written with a foot well down on the emotion pedal. I landed a wise agent, who said in effect that speculative elements took more ‘bandwidth’ for a mainstream reader. Therefore, I needed to write the rest as straightforwardly as I could. Fewer POVs, largely using close third; explicitly placing the when and where of each chapter; less hopping around in time; and yes, leaning into its emotional side. As far as possible, the story was about and told through the family. Some great stuff had to be cut.
I knew that chapter one must show you that Molly and Gene love Cory, and he them, to prepare you for seeing his difference. Then I take you back to Gene and Molly’s fairy-tale courtship, the love and hope in that marriage, and how it is tested almost to destruction. This could have been backstory but It’s not time wasted, because we believe in them, we know who they are, we’re invested. We see this world looks just like ours. Then Cory comes, sole survivor of a disaster in space, and they must make some daring decisions.
One story was indeed two books. The national press, bloggers, and readers across genres were warm to the first one – several knew no book like it. A few scifi reviewers found it too emotional, but usually said that was a matter of taste. There are people and book groups who say this opened their minds to scifi.
Our Child of Two Worlds (out 14 June) opens with Cory no longer a secret. Humanity has the proof that we are not alone in the cosmos. The response is human – messy, diverse, complicated. Is Cory a messiah, a symbol, a forerunner of invasion, a key to power, or simply a hoax?
For the family, it’s personal. There are malign forces threatening the Earth so the stakes could not be higher. Are Cory’s people coming to rescue him? If they do, will they take Cory away from his parents, breaking their hearts? The arrival of aliens would be one of the most significant events in history… an idea often told in many ways. Yet not my wonderful aliens, and not told in my way. And Earthbound dangers have not gone away.
Again, this book needed to be ruthless and decide what story it was telling. The risk in the writing was even higher now the scope was broader. Everywhere I could, there had to be a focus on the family, and again I had to take time for the inner life as well as the wheels of the plot.
Finally, over the years I wrote the books, it became clear that to write honestly about the Sixties is to write about the hopes and challenges of our own time.