The Big Idea: Walter Jon Williams

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but a cover can still tell you a lot about a book. When I saw the Quillifer cover, I felt like I already knew more than a little bit about Walter Jon Williams‘ titular character. In his Big Idea, Williams confirms my suspicions. Read on to find out who Williams has imagined, and how he fits his illustration.


Ideas for my fiction never arrive from a single place. Some come from my reading an article in a newspaper or magazine; some come from a brainstorming session with friends. Some ideas come from reading other fiction– either I think to myself, “I believe I have discovered an aspect of your premise that you have not considered,” or maybe I get annoyed and think, “Oh my god, I can do better than that!”

Two novels came from dreams– one a brief flash lasting only seconds but setting into motion the first of a series of tumbling imagination-dominoes that resulted, later that day, in the complete plot of a novel. The other novel, Implied Spaces, was the result of the only lucid dream I’ve had in my life– I dreamed the first 100 pages or so, and then awoke with a pretty good sense of where the rest of the book was going.

Quillifer came about because I took a pleasant autumn walk. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, a strip of bright green drawn down the brown, arid expanse of New Mexico. My neighbors are ranchers and farmers, and their fields are irrigated with water drawn from the river. A walk along the irrigation ditches is a perfect way of clearing the mind, ambling along while enjoying the trees, green fields, horses, cattle, and the frogs and fowl that live in the water.

So one afternoon, about ten years ago, I set out for a walk while listening to an audio book of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare. And by the time I came home, some ninety minutes later, I came back with six books plotted and the name of my protagonist.

I have no idea how any of that came about: there must have been something about the day, the trees and the fields and the frogs, and my receptive mind, and Shakespeare, and maybe Peter Ackroyd. But one thought was foremost in my mind as I recorded my ideas later that day.

If I write this, it will be a lot of fun.

There were a number of good reasons why I couldn’t have that fun right away. I was contracted to write some other books before I could start anything new. Then Ralph Vicinanza, my long-time literary agent, passed away, and I had to look for a new agent.

But more importantly, I was known as a science fiction writer, and the six books of the Quillifer series were secondary-world fantasy. (Now I thought that my novel Metropolitan was high fantasy, but readers disagreed– they seemed to think it was some kind of weird science fiction.)

I could toss off one fantasy novel, maybe, without endangering my career as an SF writer– but leaving my primary career for five or six years, while I wrote in another field, would probably put a stake through my SF career, and I wasn’t entirely ready to risk that.

But by and by, I succumbed to the temptation of having a lot of fun, and I started to write. And then I sold the first three books to Joe Monti at Simon & Schuster.

But I hadn’t sacrificed my SF career after all, because I also sold three more books of my far-future Praxis series to another publisher. Fortunately both publishers were willing to let me alternate deliveries of the books, so I’d be writing fantasy and SF in alternate volumes.

Now I could start enjoying myself.

Whether the reader enjoys Quillifer or not will depend entirely on whether or not they find the hero congenial, for the book is narrated entirely in Quillifer’s voice. Quillifer is a young man, lowborn but bumptious and roguish and on the make, an apprentice lawyer and serially in love. Though he finds himself in war and peril, he prefers to skate through life on brains and charm.

In fact he’s the smartest guy in the room. His problem is that he won’t shut up about it. He will cheerfully and eloquently offer solutions to every problem under discussion, and a great many that aren’t. He mocks his enemies, laughs at their pretensions, sleeps with their wives, and satirizes their failures.

Naturally some of these people are not inclined to appreciate his gifts. His cleverness gets him into at least as much trouble as it gets him out of.

But for the most part he has fun. I’m betting that readers might want to have fun along with him.

Fun has been a little hard to find in fantasy of late. Post-Game of Thrones and its well-deserved success, shelves have been so flooded with works that concentrate so exclusively on violence, violation, and despair, that the term “grimdark” has become a commonplace. I decided to provide an alternative.

Not that Quillifer is without tragedy. Its protagonist faces one harrowing situation after another. But I strove for balance, because I simply don’t find it convincing to write a world where only bad things happen and where happiness is impossible. Tragedy and misery may be part of the human condition, but so is laughter, song, and romance, and Quillifer finds his share of all these things.

In his adventurousness youth he is a useful guide to his world, which is not of the Middle Ages but more akin to the Northern European Renaissance. The printing press has ended the monopoly on literacy enjoyed by nobles and monks, and gunpowder has made a common soldier the equal of a knight. Quillifer intends to discover whether, in this changing world, it is possible for a clever, educated commoner to rise in the world. He’s not a lost prince looking for a lost throne, he’s a charming high-flyer looking for the main chance. This brings him into conflict with the established order, much to the latter’s dismay.

Not that Quillifer’s spending all his time on the hustle: there’s a whole world to explore. And I pride myself on some fairly thorough worldbuilding– if there’s one thing taking nearly a decade to write a book will do, it’s being able to think about it a lot, and to do tons of research. (And as an SF guy, I love me some research!)

Though I pride myself on my imagination, the research kept turning up bizarre things that turned out to be far stranger than anything I’d been able to think up on my own. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as fairly static and simple, and of Medieval society as consisting of a number of orderly classes like royalty, nobles, knights, and serfs. In reality the Middle Ages were complicated and weird, as I discovered when I visited Gdansk and discovered King Arthur’s Court, complete with a high gothic building, a round table, and the coats-of-arms of Arthur’s knights.

I had always assumed that King Arthur belonged somewhere in Britain and not in Poland, but discovered that King Arthur’s Court was built in the mid-Fourteenth Century by wealthy local burgesses, who dressed up as knights, called each other by made-up knightly names, and held feasts, fairs, entertainments, and jousting. They were very much like our Society for Creative Anachronism, except that in their case it was Creative Realism. They were cosplaying the Middle Ages during the actual Middle Ages!

Forgive me for thinking that was pretty strange.

People also tend to think of the Renaissance as a period of art, poetry, and humanism. Which it was, but it was also a period where millions of people were killed over the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Enlightenment and invention had created better and more efficient ways of slaughtering people.

What the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had in common was that both eras were great roiling masses of change. People who view the Middle Ages as static forget that the Middle Ages produced eyeglasses, the spinning wheel, the windmill, the blast furnace, the clock, the magnetic compass, distilled liquors, gunpowder, the printing press, and ultimately the Renaissance.

So who can thrive in an era of change? Someone who’s smart, flexible, informed, free to act, and unhampered by obsolete dogma.

Someone not unlike Quillifer.

“Well,” I can hear you thinking, “so far you’ve got a fine historical novel, but I believe this is supposed to be a fantasy.”

Well, yes, I provide fantasy stuff, too, and it’s fantasy stuff that I had nearly a decade to think about, so it’s about as thick and layered as everything else. I don’t want to go into it in detail, because that would easily double the length of this essay, but suffice it to say there are fantastic beasts, exotic humanoids, magic, a cursed weapon, and one tempestuous, vengeful, beautiful goddess whose relationship with Quillifer is, umm, fraught. (It’s one thing to challenge the earthly establishment, but challenging divinity is much harder to do.)

I hope you can tell that I had a lot of fun creating this book. I did my best to make the fun as contagious as I could.

I am sufficiently modest not to praise myself in the terms which I feel I deserve, but egotistical enough to let someone else do it. I shall conclude, therefore, with a quote from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, who very kindly provided a blurb that graces the cover.  “Walter Jon Williams is a visionary of tremendous power and originality . . . He kills every damn time.”

You know, I probably should have led with that.


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

Visit the author’s site.

A Brief Addendum to “Word Counts and Writing Process”

Done up in Twitter form, and archived here for posterity.

PS: The piece this is a follow up to is here, if you’ve not already read it.

The Big Idea: David Walton

You want thrown gauntlets? David Walton throws one in the first sentence of this Big Idea piece for this novel, The Genius Plague. Read on to see it, and whether you agree.


Zombie books just aren’t creepy enough.

They’re exciting, don’t get me wrong. When some drooling dead guy is breaking down your door to sink his teeth into your flesh, it’ll get your blood pumping. But the thing is, he’s dead. He’s not a person anymore. You can shoot him in the head and not even feel guilty about it.

But what if the zombies weren’t mindless? What if they were smarter than you? What if you let them into your house because you didn’t know there was anything wrong, because they didn’t even know they were zombies, and when they stabbed you in the back and infected your family, they truly believed they were doing the right thing?

My zombies aren’t really zombies at all, not in the classic undead sense, although they’ve been infected with a fungus that sends microscopic tendrils to set up shop in their brains. The fungus doesn’t turn them into moaning, decaying corpses, though. It’s much more subtle than that.

At first, it even seems to be beneficial. The fungus streamlines certain pathways of the brain and makes the hosts smarter, with better memory and learning ability and communication skills. Researchers think it could cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. Kids start taking it as a drug to do better on their exams.  But the more beneficial the fungus appears, the more committed its hosts become to protecting it and spreading it to every human on Earth.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s a good thing, right? And if they have to kill anyone that gets in their way, that’s just what’s best for humanity. Or for the fungus. Whatever.

My zombie horde is spreading the plague on purpose, and they’re smarter than you are.

I first thought of this idea when I heard the suggestion that from an evolutionary perspective, wheat is the most successful organism on Earth. After all, wheat has taken humans that used to roam wild and domesticated them, getting them to spread its seeds all over the globe, and then enslaved them to weed out any competing plants and eradicate pests. All so stalks of wheat can grow tall and strong by the trillions.

It’s an amusing notion, and it’s not exactly wrong. But I realized that fungus is even better suited to using humans than wheat is, not because we want to eat it, but because fungus already directly manipulates animals to spread its spores. The zombie ants are the famous ones, of course (go watch the Planet Earth video if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but there are various other ways that fungus subverts animals to do its bidding. And fungus is smarter than you think — some single organisms create vast networks of microscopic tendrils that spread through an entire forest and pass information about where the moisture and nutrients are, basically acting like a giant Internet. Or a giant brain.

So what would you do, if there was a drug that could make you smarter? Or cure your dad of Alzheimer’s? No need to be squeamish about a little fungus living in your brain — you already have trillions of microorganisms living in your mouth, throat, stomach, lungs, and all over your skin. You won’t feel a thing. It’s a simple choice, really, given all the problems you have in your life. There’s not much at stake: just the free will of every human on Earth.


The Genius Plague – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Powells

The Genius Plague – Canada: | Indigo

Visit the author’s site.  Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Amish on the Highway

I often joke to people that in Bradford, where I live, a traffic jam is three cars behind an Amish buggy. It’s not actually a joke; when you see a line of cars going five miles an hour, you know there’s a buggy up on the front of that line. It is not actually a problem, mind you. Eventually the cars pop around the buggy and it’s fine. But it’s a reminder than not everyone lives on Internet time. I think that’s a good reminder to have, now and again.


The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas and Molly Tanzer

Drinking and writing: Two activities that have gone together famously (and occasionally, infamously) over the years. Now here’s Nick Mamatas, co-editor of Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), to add a twist to this celebrated concoction. Yes, I just made a pun. No, I’m not sorry.


It’s actually a little idea: very short fiction celebrating cocktails, with recipes and flavor text. There are plenty of cocktail books organized around literary themes, and plenty of fiction titles that include recipes, but the exact formulation of ingredients in Mixed Up Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) is brand new.

Mixed Up is designed for the food/beverage section of the bookstore, featuring classic and new cocktail recipes, and flash fiction by a cross-genre selection of writers including fantasists Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, crime writers Jim Nisbet and Libby Cudmore, thriller authors Robert Swartwood and Benjamin Percy, and literary fiction authors Jarret Kobek and Cara Hoffman. (And, as book covers say, “many more.”)

What’s the big idea? Well, once upon a time, there was fiction everywhere: in the magazines full of household tips, and the ones about hot cars and hotter pin-ups. Junior’s little weekly school magazine had short fiction in it, and so did the coffee table magazine for the whole family. Daily newspapers ran occasional fiction as well. And that’s almost entirely gone now, having been replaced by listicles, bullet points, and pie charts. You know, content. My co-editor and I wanted to bring fiction back as an equal partner to non-fiction.

And there’s plenty of good non-fiction being written about cocktails. The origins of the drinks, and their ingredients, are utterly fascinating, as are the life stories of the people who invented and poured them. And of course the tales of those fueled and felled by alcohol are also endlessly compelling.

What’s been missing is the ineffable something that only fiction can provide. Anecdotes tend to simply evaporate before offering an epiphany; historical gossip lacks for climaxes, except for the tragic classic: “And then the famous author drank so much he stopped writing and just died.” We wanted to offer something different—compelling narrative as the central ingredient, not just the garnish.

Mixed Up was not easy to place with a publisher, because it was so…mixed up. Recipes and essays about drinks? Sure! But fiction?

“Where would it go?” editors wanted to know. How do you sell such a book to stores; they’re definitely not going to put it on all applicable shelves at once. Other anthologists twisted up their faces at the idea—“Yeah, but how can you sell to SF and crime and literary readers at the same time?” Our answer was simple: Mixed Up is a cocktail book, and a gift book. We’re reclaiming space for fiction to exist outside the fiction shelves.

We want thirsty readers to open our book and discover not just the amazing recipes perfected by co-editor Molly Tanzer, but also a family of fire-breathers, a midnight crime spree among the kiddie play structures in a suburban backyard, an illicit flask in the hands of a pregnant woman attending an art exhibit, and that really amazing East Village party Vladimir Putin secretly attended back in the year 2000.

We think you’ll like it. And if not, have one more round of your favorite drink, then read the stories again.


Mixed Up: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the co-editor’s Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

2017, Word Counts and Writing Process

Today I wrote 1,850 words on Head On, my novel which is coming out next year. In any year previous to 2017, 1,850 words from me in a single day would be an okay day — slightly below my general average of 2,000 or so that I can reliably pump out on a daily basis, but not so far below that I would worry about it. The 2k daily goal is fungible. Some days I’ll get 1,850 words, some days I’ll get 2,300, and over time it all comes out in the wash. I get a novel done in roughly three or four months, a span of time which leaves room for false starts, snipping out dead ends, and otherwise revising and fixing the novel as I go along.

Here in 2017, 1,850 words on the novel in a day — 1,85o usable words — is an actual goddamned miracle. I started Head On in January with the plan to be done in the first half of the year, to leave the rest of the year open for other projects, including getting a head start on the next book in the Interdependency series. And here we are in October and I’m still not done, and generally speaking I’ve been lucky if I’ve gotten a few hundred usable words out of a writing day. I have never had as hard a time writing a novel as I have had with this one.

Not because this particular book is hard to write. The novel, which is the sequel to Lock In, is complicated — it’s got a mysterious death and lots of twisty and turny bits — but I’ve done complicated before. Complicated is not inherently difficult to write. It just takes attention to detail, which normally I’m able to do just fine. When I write on it — when I have those stretches of being able to write — it all works. The plot flows well, the characters are doing their thing, and everything chugs along. What I’m writing is good. There’s just so much less of it than usually happens for me.

I’m not trying to be mysterious about what it is about 2017 that is different. The answer is obvious: Trump is president, and he’s a peevish bigoted incompetent surrounded by the same, and he’s wreaking havoc on large stretches of the American experience, both in his own person and by the chaos he invites. But to say “well, Trump,” is not really to give an answer with regard to what’s different. We’ve had terrible presidents before — George W. Bush springs to mind — and yet my ability to create work was not notably impacted. When Dubya was in office I wrote five novels. The Dubya era was a crappy time for America (recall the wars and the Great Recession) but from the point of view of productivity, it was just fine for me.

The thing is, the Trump era is a different kind of awful. It is, bluntly, unremitting awfulness. The man has been in office for nine months at this point and there is rarely a week or month where things have not been historically crappy, a feculent stew of Trump’s shittiness as a human and as a president, his epically corrupt and immoral administration, and the rise of worse elements of America finally feeling free to say, hey, in fact, they do hate Jews and gays and brown people. Maybe other people can focus when Shitty America is large and in charge, but I’m finding it difficult to do.

Here’s one way to put it: Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the US Government flubbed its response and hundreds died, I was so angry and upset that I almost vomited in sadness and anger. It’s not an exaggeration, by the way — I literally felt like throwing up for a couple days straight. I eventually had to write “Being Poor” because it was either do that or go crazy. That was a week of feeling generally awful, and it wrecked me for another week after that. It took two weeks for me to get back on track with the novel I was writing at the time.

Got it? Okay, listen: 2017 has been me feeling like I felt when Katrina hit every single fucking month of this year.

Because, well. Pick a month, guys. Every month of 2017 has been a treat. Travel bans, white supremacists marching, awful health care repeals that just wouldn’t die, and not one, not two, but three historically massive hurricanes and the scouring of Puerto Rico. Russia. Fucking Russia, man. Not to mention Spicer, Scaramucci, Flynn, Price, Bannon, Gorka and the rest of that ridiculous cast. Any one of those is enough to get me (and not just me, lots of people) spun up and distracted. And it’s not just any one of these things. It’s that all of these things keep on happening. When you’re already spun up, it doesn’t take all that much more energy to stay spun up and distracted.

Well, just unplug! Well, see. Here’s the thing about that: I have. And I’ve found out it doesn’t really work like it used to. The world gets in anyway, because the world is in worse shape and wants you to know. It’s not just a matter of unplugging from social media, although it does help to get away from that. But short of building a Faraday cage around my house and then never, ever leaving it, the news of the day arrives.

Now, I want to be clear: It’s not just the news. It really is also me. I have never not been politically engaged — remember I wrote an opinion column when I worked in newspapers, and that I was writing here on Whatever for years before Old Man’s War was published. It’s hard for me to disengage; more than, I suspect, many other people. In a very real sense, this is part of who I am and what I do. I find it difficult to walk away from it, because I know it doesn’t stop just because I’m not paying attention to it.

(And also, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the fact that even if it is hard for me to tune this shit out, I could tune it out, with relatively little penalty to me. In Trump’s America, if you’re a straight white rich dude, none of his bullshit is aimed at you personally. Meanwhile lots of people I know can’t tune it out, because the bullshit is aimed right at them. It’s not accurate to say I feel guilt about this. It is accurate to say that I feel uncomfortable not standing with my friends and others who don’t have the luxury I have, of tuning out when it’s inconvenient to be tuned in. Note also this is also about me — I know folks who have to tune out in order to stay outside of a depression spiral, and I encourage them to do so. This about my own struggle with this stuff, not anyone else’s.)

What 2017 has been doing for me is making me realize that I can’t do work in the same way I used to. It’s too hard to tune out what’s going on in the world, and because of it I have to make some changes — to my workflow, to my understanding of what’s a good writing day, and in allocating time to get work done. In effect, I have to learn how to change my swing in order to work effectively in this chaotic new environment. It’s taken me longer to figure this out than I would have liked; I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to get make the old workflow function rather than reconfiguring my process to the new facts on the ground. Part of this was, simply, hoping things would settle down and get back to normal. But it’s October 2017 and it’s time to face the fact that, at least as far as my writing process goes, the old “normal” is gone.

Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now. Well, and maybe it is. But, speaking as someone who spent an hour retweeting pet pictures today to break up the horror of mass shooting news in people’s tweetstreams, sometimes frivolity helps. And for all writers (and probably other creative people as well), knowing that you’re not the only one having a fucked-up world messing with your process might make you feel less alone.

(Yes, yes, Scalzi, solidarity with writers and all, but what does this mean for Head On? From the reader point of view: Nothing. The book will be written in ample time for the April release date. And it will be excellent — like I said earlier, what I’m writing is good. It’s just slower this time.)

So, yeah, writers: this gig is harder here in 2017. It’s not just you. And I feel you. I really do.

RIP Tom Petty

This was the song that made me a Tom Petty fan and got me to buy my first album from him and the Heartbreakers. He’s gone now but leaves a hell of a fine musical legacy. Go listen to it.

Update: Apparently early reports (by reputable news sources, grrrr) were incorrect; not confirmed dead. We’ll see what happens now.

Update 2: Confirmed now by his family.

Emergency Pet Pictures Deployed

Because here in the US, it’s a day for them.

Because today is a day when we will hear about thoughts and prayers being offered, here are my thoughts on thoughts and prayers, from July 2016, in the aftermath of an event all too much like the event we’re dealing with today.

New Books and ARCs, 9/29/17

Well, September went pretty quickly, didn’t it? To send it off, here’s a stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Tell me what speaks to you from this stack, down in the comments.

The Big Idea: Jon McGoran

What’s the next step beyond gnarly tattooing? Jon McGoran has an idea, which makes up the central conceit of Spliced. But how he got there is another story entirely.


I came up with the idea for Spliced while researching my book Dust Up, an adult thriller about biotech in big food and pharmaceuticals. Researching science thrillers is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun—sometimes too much fun, especially when you’re under a tight deadline and find yourself absolutely engrossed by some little nugget that is only tangentially relevant to the story that you should, at that very moment, be writing.

One topic that I came across, which I knew was only slightly relevant to the book I was writing, but which I also knew I would write more about later, was bio-hackers. Much like the people who built computers in their garages in the seventies and eighties, these amateur scientists are doing basement biotech in their own homes. Some of them know exactly what they’re doing; others not so much.

Part of a long tradition of citizen-scientists, I found it fascinating and compelling, but also vaguely terrifying in an, “Oh, so that’s where the plague that kills us all is going to come from,” kind of way.

I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this somehow. The most obvious idea to me was that plague, mentioned above. But I wanted to do something a little subtler, and slightly more removed from the garage science aspect of it.

That’s when I thought about gene splicing as a form of body modification: people splicing animal genes into their own to change themselves in subtle or drastic ways, to become chimeras. Given some of the extreme forms of body modification out there, and the ubiquity of tattoos and piercings, it seemed to me almost obvious that if such technology was available, there were those who would use it. Then I started to explore why.

One of the great aspects of writing science fiction is the opportunity to build and explore worlds of your own design, and when writing about the near future, I find especially fascinating the combination of outlandish and familiar, the changes both expected and unexpected, intended and unintended.

But when I decided that I would be writing in about a future several decades from now – enough time for gene splicing to become a low-tech, garage-based procedure – I realized it had to be a world dealing with much more acute effects of climate change. To ignore that in the future would be too much like denying it now.

It was a fascinating aspect of writing the book, made easier by a devastating series of rain and snow storms that repeatedly knocked out power infrastructure and crumbled roads in my area.

While climate change and gene splicing were initially separate but coincident aspects of the same future, I came to realize more and more how much one informed the other. For many of the chimeras, getting spliced wasn’t simply about a certain look or an act of rebellion, it was a statement – about oneness with the natural world, or separation from a humanity that so disregarded it, or even an homage to one of the many species rapidly going extinct.

As I continued to flesh out the world in which the story would take place, I quickly realized that the central premise—young people getting spliced and becoming chimeras—would have an impact on the world in which it took place, and would provoke a reaction from that world. Looking at the world around me –  even back in the quaint, naïve days of a year or two ago – I knew that reaction would not be entirely pretty, and that the bigotry and intolerance I saw wouldn’t likely have disappeared by the time Spliced takes place (although, to be honest, I had hoped it wouldn’t have gotten so much worse so quickly).

That reaction became the final major component of the premise of Spliced—a religious and political backlash of intolerance against chimeras that coalesces around a law—The Genetic Heritage Act—that defines anyone whose DNA is not 100 percent human as no longer legally a person. It’s a stupid law, written by ignorant people, but with devastating effect. And as we’ve seen too many times in human history, when people define other people as less than human, it opens the door for wrongdoings of the most horrific kind.

With the themes and ideas and setting of Spliced largely in place, I was able to focus on the story itself: Who are the people involved, what do they do and say, how do they drive events and how are they impacted by them. Those fundamentals of story are obviously incredibly important to the book, but they are also incredibly important to me as story-teller, and as a person who spends more time with imaginary people than real ones. I absolutely develop emotional attachments to my characters (which is one reason I’m so fond of writing series).

But apart from the joy of bringing these characters to life, one of the things I love most about writing the books I do is the intellectual journey from cool idea to cooler ideas to deeper meanings, and wrapping it up in a believable world, compelling characters, and, hopefully, a kickass story.


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

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

In When Tinker Met Bell, Alethea Kontis is working in the universe of another author. How does she do it? As it happens, she drew inspiration from another universe entirely, one she visits once a year.


In 1996, fresh out of college with a Chemistry degree and absolutely no idea what to do with the rest of my life, the manager of the Waldenbooks where I worked convinced me to accompany her to my very first SF convention. It was called “DragonCon.”

Jennifer Kelley changed my life that year.

There, among the misfits and geeks from all walks of life, I found my tribe. Publishers, authors, artists, actors, and everyone in between—our common ground was that we just loved being fans. As DragonCon grew, I grew with it, evolving from t-shirt wearing fangirl to tiara-wearing professional. Every Labor Day weekend, Atlanta, Georgia is my home away from home. There, I am Katniss. I am the Anarchy Cheerleader. I am the Princess. I am Wonder Woman.

Fast forward to 2015. My friend, neighbor, and fellow writing group member Kristen Painter has this series called Nocturne Falls. They are sweet (read: no sex), funny paranormal romances, set in a small town in Georgia where it’s Halloween 365 days a year, to mask the fact that vampires and werewolves and witches really exist. (The first book—The Vampire’s Mail-Order Bride—is permafree across all platforms, if you’d like to check it out.) The first handful of Kristen’s books sold so well that she just couldn’t write them fast enough to satisfy her fans. So she set up her own publishing company and graciously selected a few authors to play in her universe.

I was one of the chosen few.

Now, I’ve worked in other worlds before. The Dark-Hunter Companion I wrote with Sherrilyn Kenyon hit the New York Times list back in 2007…and then the Dark-Hunters got so tangled up in movie contracts and rights grabs that I wasn’t able to work with Sherri again until a decade later. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Kindle World IP of another local writer, Roxanne St. Claire. The contemporary romance novella I set in her Barefoot Bay was so good, my editor told me to change nothing. (This never happens.) But the book released last October, right before the election, and subsequently got buried.

I would be an idiot to try this again, right?

Only…I know Nocturne Falls. Once a year, I essentially live there.

I know what it’s like to get up every morning and put on a costume and glitter and go to work. I know the pain of the ill-fitting tiara and the 12-hour corset. (I know to never sacrifice your feet, no matter how cute the shoes are.) I have hosted sideshows and walked in parades. I know how it feels to have a crush on someone in costume, without any idea who they are in “real” life. I know how freeing it is to dance your face off at a rave while standing between a fairy, a stormtrooper, and a guy in BDSM gear.  I know how easy it is to almost step on a camouflaged Carpet Commando, and how jealous I am of every person who gets to drive Ecto-1.

And because I was raised at DragonCon, many of the staff and volunteers and track directors are like family to me now. The microcosm of ODCers (Original DragonCon) has much of that small-town vibe about it. We follow each other on Facebook, mourn pets, see children start new years at school, and exchange holiday cards. We hug each other when we can at con, exchange gifts, and then go to work entertaining the tourists and looky-loos. We name awards after each other when we die.

I know these things. And everyone tells us that we’re supposed to write what we know. So I accepted Kristen’s offer.

The Truth About Cats and Wolves debuted in the first Nocturne Falls Universe launch. I made sure a few of Kristen’s characters appeared as cameos, but mostly I stayed in my wheelhouse. I kept the characters YA, because I will always be YA at heart. I made my heroine a Greek girl whose magically-inclined parents work at the best diner in town. Again, not so much of a stretch for me. And then I gave Kai a best friend named Bellamy Larousse, a happy-go-lucky, over-the-top southern belle cheerleader who also happened to be a barista…and a fairy with giant wings.

I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted my follow-up book to be called When Tinker Met Bell. Happily, my first book performed well enough to get me invited back.

R.L. Stine is the only other author I know who comes up with a title before plotting out any of the book. But I did have a few other tidbits in mind. Like, Bellamy was a terminally optimistic fairy, so Tinker would have to be a pessimistic goblin. And despite the fact that goblins and fairies can’t be friends, Tinker and Bell make it work anyway. My story would feature large helpings of Shakespeare (star-crossed lovers, you know), Dungeons & Dragons, and Labyrinth. But unlike Sarah, Bellamy would get her Goblin Prince, come hell or high water.

Because that is what we nerds do when we get the chance: we rewrite history.

Well, my history, anyway, the one with Yule Balls and Robot Wars, parades and masquerades. Because this is the world I know. And in my world, everyone—every misfit, misplaced geek who comes to town—deserves a happy ending.

Even more, we deserve to have one heck of an adventure getting there.


When Tinker Met Bell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo

Hear an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Piece I Wrote For This Evening is Totally Not Relevant Anymore, So Please Enjoy This Cool Picture of a Stick Bug That Was On My Sliding Glass Door Instead

I love these things. They are so cool looking. And the multiple reflections going on are pretty nifty too.

That’s So Weird + A Couple of Big Idea Updates

My Big Idea schedule says I was supposed to run the Big Idea for Fran Wilde’s Horizon today, but I already ran it last week. Which means that I screwed up, because today is the release day. So: If you missed the Big Idea when I posted it early, here it is today. Also, congrats to Fran for the release of her third book!

Also, a small public service message: Hey, if you ever want to just see Big Idea posts, there’s a way to do that: Use the URL. It works! Try it!

Also, also: I’m sending out my final batch of October Big Idea slots today. If you sent me a request for October and have not yet heard from me, check your email accounts. If you haven’t heard from me by the end of the day, I’m all slotted out.

Sunset 9/25/17

I may have bumped up the saturation levels a bit in this one.

I regret nothing.

Can You Tell My Earnings From My Amazon Sales? Spoiler: Nope, Not at All

There was thread over at Metafilter this week talking about book sales and author earnings, including a link to a study that purported to chart author earnings, based on sales at Amazon.  I have to admit I had a bit of a giggle over it. Not because it was attempting to guess author incomes, which is fine, but because the methodology for estimating those earnings came almost entirely from trying to estimate sales of the authors’ books on Amazon, and extrapolating income from there.

Here’s the thing: For non-self-published authors, the correlation between annual book sales and annual “earnings” as a writer can be fairly low. As in, sometimes there is no correlation at all.

Confusing? Think how we feel!

But let me explain.

So, I’m a writer who works primarily with a “Big Five” publisher (Tor Books, which is part of Macmillan). For each of my books, I’m given an advance, which in my case is paid in four separate installments — when I sign the contract, when I turn in the manuscript and it’s accepted, when the book is published in hardcover and when the book is published in paperback. This is fairly typical for most writers working with a “traditional” publisher.

Once the advance is disbursed, my publisher owes me nothing until and unless my book “earns out” — which is to say, the amount I nominally earn for the sale of each unit (usually between 10% and 15% of each hardcover, and 25% of the net for eBook) exceeds cumulatively the amount I was offered for the advance. Once that happens, my publisher owes me for each book sold, and that amount is then usually disbursed semiannually…

usually. There could be other complicating factors, such as if the royalties of the books are “basketed” (meaning the contract was for two or more books, and the royalties are not disbursed until the advance amount for every book in the “basket” is earned out), or if some percentage of the royalties are held back as a “reserve against returns” (meaning that some books listed as sold/distributed are actually returned, so the publisher holds back royalties for a payment period to compensate).

Bear in mind that most publishers try to offer as an advance a sum of money they think the book will earn, either over the first year in hardcover, or across the entire sales run of the work. Which means that if the publisher has guessed correctly, it will never have to shell out royalties. Sometimes they guess poorly, which means either they paid too much for an advance or not enough; in the latter case, that’s when the royalty checks come (please note that even if a publisher pays “too much” and the advance isn’t earned out, it doesn’t mean the book wasn’t profitable for the publisher — their bottom line is not necessarily heavily correlated to the author’s advance — nor does the author have to pay it back).

So what does this all mean? Well, it means that for a non-self-pubbed author, often none of their annual earnings from a book are directly related to how many of those books sell in a year (or any other specified time frame). In fact, depending on how the advance is paid out, three-quarters or more (even all!) of the author’s earnings from a book are disbursed before the book has sold a single unit.

Like so:

Book is contracted: 40% of the advance (“signing installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0.

Book is turned in and accepted: 20% of the advance (“delivery and acceptance installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0

Book is published in hardcover: 20% of the advance (“hardcover installment”) goes to the author. Books sold to date: 0 (there may be pre-orders, but the sales don’t usually start being counted until this time).

Book is published in paperback: Final 20% of the advance goes to author. Books sold to date: Hopefully some! But even if the number is zero, the final installment gets paid out (if so few books are sold that the publisher foregoes the paperback release, there’s still usually the contractual obligation to pay out).

Note these advances can be paid out over more than one year — I once got a final installment for an advance roughly six years after I got the first installment (it was a complicated situation). Likewise, once the book starts selling, it can be years — if at all — before the author starts earning royalties, and even then, thanks to the reserve against returns, what the author gets in those semi-annual royalty checks is not 1:1 with sales for the period the check covers (note: this sometimes works to the benefit of the author). Also note: Those semi-annual checks? Often cover a period of time located in the previous fiscal or calendar year.

All of which is to say: For a “traditionally published” author, at almost no point do what an author’s yearly earnings for a book directly correspond to how the book is selling in that particular year.

(Is this bad? No, but it needs paying attention to. Authors tend to love advances because they’re not directly tied to sales — it’s money up front that doesn’t have to be immediately recouped and can help tide the author over during the writing and the wait for publication. But it also means, again, that it can be years — if at all — before money from royalties comes your way. Authors need to be aware of that.)

To move the discussion to me directly for a moment, if someone tried to guess my annual earnings based on my yearly unit sales on Amazon (or via Bookscan, or anywhere else for that matter), they would be likely be, well, wildly wrong. At any moment I have several books at various stages of advance disbursement — some contracted, some completed but not published, some published in hardcover and some published in paperback — a few all paid out in advances but not earned out, and several earned out and paying royalties.

Add to that audio sales (another set of advances and royalties) and foreign sales (yet another) and ancillary income like film/tv options (which are not tied to sales at all, but sales help get things optioned) and so on. Also note that not all my sales provide royalties at the same rate — a lot will depend on format and how many were previously sold (if they are in print or physical audio), unit price (if they are eBook or audio files), and on other various bits that are in contracts but not necessarily disclosed to the wide world. Oh, and don’t forget my short fiction and non-fiction!

Basically, my yearly earnings as an author are a delightful mess. I’m glad I have an accountant and an agent and a very smart life partner to help me stay on top of them. These earnings have almost nothing to do with unit sales in any calendar year, and more to the point, never have, even when I was a newbie book writer with a single book contract to my name. I signed my first book contract in 1999; since then I have yet to have a year when my earnings from being an author approach anything like a 1:1 parity with my book sales in that same year.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are, for example, trying to extrapolate what “traditionally published authors” make based on their annual sales, and are then comparing those “earnings” to the earnings of self-published authors. It’s ignoring that these are entirely different distribution systems which have implications for annual earnings. I don’t think one is particularly better than the other, but a direct comparison will give you poor results. Note also that’s true going the other way — applying “traditional publishing” income models to self-published authors will very likely tell you incorrect things about how they’re doing economically in any one year.

(And as a further note: Do likewise be aware of the caveats for anyone trying to extrapolate self-pub/indie annual author earnings from Amazon as well. It misses direct sales, which for authors who ply the convention circuits can be significant, and also may not fully incorporate how Amazon deals with payments in its subscription models, which are handled rather differently than actual sales, and which (unless it’s changed very recently) come from a pre-determined pot of payment rather than a straight percentage of sales. Hey, it’s complicated! Almost as complicated as the “traditional” model.)

Here’s one thing I suspect is true: It’s possible to make money (sometimes a lot of it) as a traditionally published author, or as an self-published/indie author — or as both, either in turn or simultaneously, since, as it happens, there’s no deep ideological chasm between the two, and generally speaking an author can do one or the other depending on their project needs, or their own (likewise, it’s possible to make almost no money either way, too. Alas). It’s not an either-or proposition.

But yes: Here is a grain of salt. Please apply it to anyone who tells you they know how much any author (traditional or self-pub/indie, but especially traditional) is earning in any year, based on Amazon sales, even if they’re  limiting it to Amazon sales. They’re just guessing, and you have no idea how far off their guesses are. And neither, I strongly suspect, do they. Only the actual authors know, and most of the time, they’re not telling.

Out For the Weekend

But don’t worry, Spice is here to keep you company.

See you on Monday (or maybe Sunday evening, if I feel frisky).

New Books and ARCs, 9/22/17

Just in time for the weekend, a new batch of books and ARCs at the Scalzi Compound for you to peruse. Which would you want to give a place in your own “to be read” stack? Tell us in the comments.

The Collapsing Empire an Audible Deal of the Day

And being an “Audible Deal of the Day” means you get to spend very little to get the book — in this case something like $3. The deal as far as I know is limited to the US and maybe Canada, and it’s only for today. So if you want it at this price, you need to jump on it. It’s perfect for the folks who love audiobooks, or for the folks who have never tried audiobooks but would be willing to give them a chance at a low price point, or for the folks who simply want Wil Wheaton to read to them in those dulcet tones of his.

Here’s the link to the audiobook. Enjoy!

The First Sunset of Fall, 2017

Featuring an Amish gentleman on a recumbent bicycle. As all the best first sunsets of fall do.

So long, summer. You did all right.

Today is International I’m Busy So Here’s a Picture of Krissy Day

And as luck would have it, I happen to have just the picture for such a day! What are the odds?

(Spoiler: They are in fact very good.)