The Big Idea: Myke Cole

The Cover of Myke Cole's novel, The Armored Saint

For this Big Idea, author Myke Cole has some thoughts on how people find themselves governed and why — and how these thoughts have resonance for his latest work, The Armored Saint.

MYKE COLE:

Nobody trusts the government.

The single greatest casualty of the political chaos of the past year is our faith in our institutions: from our police to our bureaucracy to our press, scandal after scandal after scandal shakes our foundations. In the vacuum that follows, we routinely bandy around words like “revolution,” and “fascism,” and “dictatorship,” turning to any port in a storm. Teen Vogue surges to the fore of political reportage. Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway flirt with providing healthcare, and we find ourselves leaning on social media to disseminate our numerous cris de coeur.

It’s frightening, but it’s also justified. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, in the US or the UK, nobody can be faulted for saying that their government hasn’t been doing a very good job. Nobody can be blamed for cocking an eyebrow or casting a skeptical glance when the authorities come to town. These authorities have routinely abused their power, routinely hyped fear of the other in order to gain more. Bigger and badder weapons, more pervasive and ruthless surveillance, less and less accountability.

Why should we trust them with anything, ever?

But the truth is always more complicated. And even the most passionate resister will admit, when pressed, that the government we despise isn’t always wrong. That the authorities do protect us from enemies who seek to harm us. And that it is possible to stand up to the institutions that smother us, only to find something much worse lurking in the background.

And that’s the big idea behind The Armored Saint.

Heloise Factor has grown up in a world where the priesthood of the divine Emperor, the Order, keeps the devils confined to hell. The Order pitilessly slaughters anyone who they suspect of harboring those wizards whose dabbling in forbidden arts might rip the veil that keeps our world separate from hell, and set the devils loose among us. Riding under the uncompromising mantra of “Suffer no wizard to live,” the Order burns entire villages, leaving nothing alive, if there is even the hint of wizardry. Countless innocents are routinely caught up in their unthinking crusade, and the world simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Heloise is raised with a mantra as chilling as the Order’s, “that’s just the way things are.”

But she is an extraordinary young woman and refuses to live like this. In her brave struggle, she forgets one important possibility.

Just because the Order is cruel and corrupt, doesn’t mean they are wrong.

The Armored Saint was conceived before the present political maelstrom was upon us, but it was absolutely written in the midst of it, and as with all of my work, it has pervaded the text. It grew from a book about a young woman finding herself and challenging a cruel and immutable system into a story grappling with the feeling of being cut adrift in a world where it seems nothing can be trusted, where consequences have consequences, and life is often a succession of choosing between bad or worse. 2018 reminds me that our lives are lived out in the midst of a cascade of choices going back generations, chickens all coming home to roost at once.

I think all authors identify with their protagonists to some extent, but it is amazing how deeply entwined I have felt with Heloise all through this journey, and how with each passing event, I feel her presence more keenly. Like all of us, she is wrestling with a world-gone-mad. And like all of us, she is never truly sure if the decisions she makes are the right ones—if she is seeing far enough down the chain of consequences.

Whether she has or she hasn’t, Heloise is amazing. I have been privileged to know her and tell her story. You’ll be meeting her soon, and I hope you love her as much as I do.

—-

The Armored Saint: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.

KAREN HEALEY:

There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:

  1. Don’t use apostrophes in characters’ names.
  2. Don’t write a prologue.

Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.

But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.

About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.

They had apostrophes in their names.

We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.

(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)

“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.

“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”

We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.

“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.

Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.

We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.

This time, we left out the apostrophes.

The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.

And we had to cut it.

I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.

The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.

So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:

  1. Go ahead and write a prologue. But if it doesn’t help you tell the best version of your story, let it go.
  2. Seriously. Ditch the apostrophes.

—-

The Empress of Timbra: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt (at the Kobo site). Visit the co-author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.

SUE BURKE:

Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.

Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.

Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.

Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.

Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.

Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.

The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.

Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?

Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.

So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?

So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Jasmine Gower

Image of the book Moonshine by Jasmine Gower.

Tedium: Sometimes it’s an excellent motivator. Author Jasmine Gower explains how, and how it helped her novel Moonshine come to life.

JASMINE GOWER:

The appeal of fantasy is the satisfying escape into the truly impossible, unattainable adventures beyond the reach of even our most exciting moments in the real world. Fantasy provides an opportunity to bring magic and spectacle into our lives so, naturally, part of my upcoming fantasy novel Moonshine was inspired by perhaps the most unmagical thing that has ever happened to me.

I first conceived of the magical prohibition premise of my novel, Moonshine, way back in my high school days before setting aside the project for a number of years. While it was on hiatus, I studied the 1920s more in-depth, learning about the global reach of the flapper movement, the Lost Generation, early 20th century transgender activism, and the racism faced by legendary African American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Baby Esther.  A story about prohibition—magical or otherwise—has quite a bit of interesting history to draw upon, much of which goes ignored in favor of whitewashing and de-politicizing the events in the United States in the 1920s. (Strangely, TV and movies set during Prohibition rarely seem concerned with the motivations behind the Temperance Movement.)

After high school was also when I moved from my little agricultural hometown to Portland, Oregon, and in my daily life became exposed to the city’s historic 1930s brick architecture and horrible, soul-crushing gentrification. I learned about the histories of Portland’s immigrant communities, the college that fell into the river, and the little volcano located in the middle of the city. Modern-day Portland also provided its own fascinating and often horrifying inspiration for crafting a fantasy city of feminist activism, queer communities, dangerous ecology, and black market dealings. And while all of that ended up shaping Moonshine, for the story of Moonshine’s main character Daisy, nothing was quite as influential as my experience working a dull, repetitive, underpaid off-white-collar job right out of college.

It was a basic data entry position, completely unrelated to my English degree and nominally focused on processing workers comp claims, although in truth I didn’t (and still don’t entirely) understand the point of most of the work I did there. My employers must have been satisfied enough with my work, though, as a few months in they moved me from the dungeon-like concrete basement to the bright and airy second floor of our renovated art deco building. There, I was trained in a new task—auditing the work of overseas remote employees even more underpaid than me.

Once more, I was mystified as to the point of the task assigned me. It seemed that I was training the remote employees in my own job, which was strange given that my employer already had me to do my job. That had me on-edge, and I had never gotten on well with the rigid, chained-to-the-desk environment of that office. The tipping point, however, was when my manager threatened disciplinary action after I, following company procedure to the letter, called in sick for a single day after I had contracted scarlet fever. So, that was pretty much the end of that.

It wasn’t necessarily my worst job, but the particular badness of this job provided a compelling question: What does my place of employment even do? Or it would have been compelling, if the answer wasn’t almost definitely just “process workers comp claims and exploit employees,” but maybe for someone else it could have been a question with a more satisfying answer. Enter Daisy Dell, or an early concept of her, who got to be the surrogate in my “maybe my desk jockey job is secretly interesting” fantasies. Could the company be a front for a secret lab splicing superhero genes? Had they captured a werewolf for research on a highly volatile lycanthrope virus? Whatever it was, there was definitely weird science happening in the basement.

And that was when I remembered my magical prohibition concept from high school.

I suppose it stands to reason that the story I ended up writing was not informed necessarily by fantastical elements from my own life, which has a limited supply to pull from, but from the fantasy I built in my head to survive the mundanity. (There were fewer podcasts then, you see.) Daisy’s boring day job does indeed lead her to run afoul a magical moonshining operation, which turns out to be a stressful experience for her, but it was pretty damn fun for me during those long hours of data entry.

My job eventually led me somewhere, too, once I was on my path away from it. After the scarlet fever incident, I only stayed on long enough to cushion my savings to take a while off of work. And the day I was gone from that tedious, miserable day job? I started writing Moonshine.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: David Mack

What makes a hero? It’s a question that author David Mack had to confront in his novel The Midnight Front. It’s also a question he gives some thought to here in his Big Idea essay.

DAVID MACK:

Heroes are the ones who step up to take the hit for the rest of us.

I know it’s not a new idea in fiction or myth, not by a long shot. But it remains one of the most powerful and effective elements in storytelling. One of the most universal characteristics of characters who are considered to be inspiring or heroic is a willingness to sacrifice themselves for others.

There are lots of ways for characters to be heroic; not all courage involves physical peril. It can take just as much bravery to charge into gunfire as it does to oppose public opinion armed with nothing more than one’s principles. Some might argue the latter action is the more difficult; to die is the pain of but a moment, but to become a pariah, to risk being cast out of one’s community in the name of what’s right and fair — that’s a pain that can last a lifetime.

Ideas such as these guided my thinking as I developed the story for my new epic fantasy novel The Midnight Front. My main character Cade starts out as an ordinary man, one who has no aspirations to heroism. To motivate him into joining the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program, I resorted to a well-worn trope: Nazi sorcerers murder his parents as collateral damage in an attack that is meant to slay Cade at the start of World War II.

What I soon realized, however, was that while revenge can be an understandable and even a relatable motivation for a main character, it is not a heroic one. At its heart, revenge is a selfish motive, one driven by a desire to repay pain with pain, loss with loss. Characters who live for revenge often tell themselves that they are seeking justice, but the truth is that most of them care only about their own pain or wounded egos, and on some level they hope that inflicting retribution upon the ones who wronged them will somehow exorcise their suffering.

But that’s not really how it works, no matter what Hollywood might like us to believe. I love a good revenge story as much as anyone, but even the best vengeance-driven characters tend to wind up as antiheroes: Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter (or Porter in Payback, my favorite filmed adaptation of Stark’s novel); William Munny in Unforgiven; Wilson in The Limey. Except for the pulpy goodness of Payback, these stories came to tragic conclusions.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride is one, and both Alejandro Murrietta and Don Diego de la Vega in The Mask of Zorro — but in all three of those latter examples, our revenge-driven heroes learn before the end that they must fight for something more noble than assuaging their own pain. Montoya risks his life to save Westley; Alejandro puts the rescue of innocent lives ahead of his vengeance; and de la Vega knows that his true legacy lies not in his revenge, but in training a new Zorro to be a hero for the people.

Consequently, while I was willing to let revenge start Cade on his path in The Midnight Front, I knew that it wouldn’t be enough to make a hero of him. Because true heroism requires sacrifice.

My supporting characters teach that lesson to Cade by showing him what courage looks like. But it’s only after a taste of revenge leaves him feeling hollow that he realizes it is an empty raison d’etre. So it is that when Cade finds himself on a landing craft heading for Normandy on D-day, he understands at last that his parents don’t need and wouldn’t want to be avenged; they would want their son to honor them, by following a nobler path, a more difficult path. A hero’s path.

This is an old lesson that we watch heroes learn over and over again. In those moments when characters embrace their best selves during their darkest hours, we cannot help but be stirred:

  • when Tony Stark risks his life to stop the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers;
  • when the crew of Rogue One lay down their lives, one by one, to steal the Death Star plans for the Rebellion;
  • when Steve Rogers nose-dives the Hydra superbomber to save millions of lives at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger;
  • when Diana dares to charge alone across No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman;
  • when the reprogrammed Terminator tells John Connor to lower him into the molten steel to protect the future at the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day;
  • when Spock goes into the reactor room at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan;

…and, last but definitely not least,

  • when The Iron Giant flies toward his fateful rendezvous with a nuclear missile and defines his self-image with his final word: “Superman.”

These are the moments that define the heroes we love. The ones in which they’re asked to give their last full measures of courage and devotion, and they do so without hesitation or protest. In the end, this is what The Midnight Front is all about: teaching one man to take the fall — not for fame, fortune, or romantic love, but for one simple reason: because it’s the right thing to do.

—-

The Midnight Front: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brooke Bolander

The Cover to Brook Bolander's The Only Harmless Great Thing

I taught Brooke Bolander at the 2011 Clarion Writing Workshop, and while I would dearly like to claim credit for her development into an amazing writer, in fact the talent was always there. It comes to a fruition in the novella The Only Harmless Great Thing; here is Bolander to explain how radium and elephants and fable have all come together in this remarkable story.

BROOKE BOLANDER:

So, here’s a thing to think about the next time you get an itch in your getalong to ask a writer where they get their ideas from. Cool ideas for stories? They’re frickin’ everywhere. They live in science journals and history books. They’re written on sidewalks and subway cars and the faces of people waiting at crosswalks. Every single human being you push past on your way to grab a cup of coffee has a past that is a chain of potentially fascinating stories. We live in an age of unfettered, recklessly spewing information. The Internet is a cool idea fire hose that never, ever shuts off.

All of this is a very rambly, long-winded and onion-on-my-belt way of saying that the seed for The Only Harmless Great Thing came from a random comment on Twitter.

Mystical. How on earth do we do it?

Twitter is a lot of things. It’s a terrible distraction. Sometimes it’s just terrible, full stop. It’s also a great place to gather ideas, because when you throw that many disparate minds together and let them chatter like coked parakeets, you’re gonna come up with some wild stuff. It was 2013, so things were not, shall we say, quite as fraught as they’ve become in recent years. There was a lot more shooting the shit and a lot less dodging it as it was flung at our heads via government-issued trebuchet.

Another writer friend of mine, the talented and lovely Helena Bell, posted a poll asking what she should write about next. There were several choices, but the two I remember (for reasons that will soon become evident) were elephants and radium poisoning. I think painting might have been a choice as well, but again, this was in 2013. Recollections of the intervening years in my head look like they were drawn in crayon by Susie, Age 4. I’m pretty sure I rode a velociraptor to my job down at the Unicorn Fart factory back then.

“Why not combine both?” I said. And then, as ominous Foley board thunder crashed: “Wait, shit. Why don’t I combine both?”

Because in the moment it took to type that sentence fragment, my brain had just smashed two clown cars together to create a compressed, bloody, honking rainbow cube of a story idea. Figuring out which floppy shoe went to what polka-dotted limb would take a hell of a lot longer, but there it sat, composed of two terrible pieces of American history my subconscious had immediately (and disturbingly quickly) dredged up from the depths.

The story of elephants in the good ol’ US of A is, like the histories of many things in the good ol’ US of A, really, really depressing. The first, Old Bet, arrived from Calcutta in 1796 and toured with a circus for 21 years before being shot to death in 1816 by a farmer who thought charging townsfolk fees to gawk at an animal was ’sinful’. That pretty much set the tenor for the next couple hundred years of American/elephantine relations. Elephants were tortured, abused, and made to perform tricks and tasks until the stress broke their incredibly sensitive minds, at which point a rampage often ensued, humans died, and the elephant was shot to death, poisoned, or, on one horrifically memorable occasion, lynched. With the advent of electricity came a new and novel way to snuff the rebels out. A killer elephant in Georgia named Daisy was almost the first, but she was spared only to be shot to death by local police after breaking free to finish what she had started, namely Killing All Humans.

Which brings us to Topsy, who you may know about if only because of that one episode of Bob’s Burgers. Like Old Bet and Daisy before her, Topsy was a circus elephant driven to viciousness by cruel handlers and years of abuse. Her one confirmed kill involved a man burning the tip of her trunk with a lit cigar stub. Her owners sold her to the proprietors of Coney Island’s Luna Park, where she helped haul lumber and building materials for awhile until a handful of incidents involving a drunken trainer convinced management she was too much of a liability to keep. Her execution by electrocution in 1903 was recorded by a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing Movie Company and distributed under the title Electrocuting an Elephant. Contrary to popular legend, Thomas Edison appears to have had little to do with Topsy’s death; he was a notorious asshole for a lot of reasons you can read about elsewhere, but this time he was more or less blameless. Topsy wasn’t a victim of the Current Wars, which had more or less petered out some thirteen years earlier. She was simply the latest and most visible victim in a long and cruel system that had been exploiting her kind for centuries.

But the Edison name and the eerily silent footage of her slowly toppling, smoke billowing from her hide, would be enough to keep Topsy in the public memory for years to come.

So much for the elephant part of the equation. My brain has an encyclopedic knowledge of sad animal stories from history. One of my previous short stories involved Laika, so this wasn’t exactly a new development. An upcoming work involves Benjamin, the last thylacine, and it will hopefully complete the triptych so I can go off and write about happy people drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate under big fluffy duvets for a change.

The radium craze and the horrific story of the Radium Girls was something I already knew about, but I’m a history major, I know about a lot of things I’m later shocked to learn aren’t common public knowledge. In this case, the fact that more people don’t know that an entire factory of women were more or less poisoned to death by their employers within the lifetime of their grandparents makes me want to burn everything down with cleansing fire. Since arson charges are tricky and prison blows, I decided to write a book about it instead.

After the Curies discovered radium in 1898, it didn’t take long for the element to become a wonder additive applied to everything from soaps and chocolate to condoms. It was radioactive—nobody was quite sure what that meant yet, but it sounded pretty cool in marketing slogans—and when mixed with certain other phosphorescent dyes it made a paint that glowed a faint green in the dark. The advent of World War I and the dark, dirty business of trench warfare meant there was a suddenly a ready market for wrist watches with glowing dials that could be easily read at night. Factories were opened to keep up with demand, and girls were hired to paint them. It was, by the standards of the early 20th century, a clean, desirable job: You were working with an element that was said to be great for your health, it paid fairly well, and the paint was fun to work with. The girls would paint their teeth with it. Their skin glittered and glowed faintly from free-floating paint particulate in the air; they nicknamed them the ‘Shining Girls’ because of this. So long as you kept up your quota of dials painted each day, you were just fine. The fastest girls quickly learned how to ‘tip’ the paint brushes with their lips, bringing the bristles to a fine point. It meant swallowing a lot of paint, but again, for the past thirty years radium had been marketed as a cure for cancer, herpes, indigestion, and pretty much anything else that might conceivably make a quick buck.

Behind the scenes, the scientists manufacturing the paint wore heavy protective gear and were warned about the potential dangers of working with the stuff. The girls on the factory floor weren’t so lucky. The ones with worries were soothed, shushed, and reassured of their safety. Why? Because it was cheaper and more efficient to simply not tell them about the potential side effects, and ‘cheaper and quicker’ has always given capitalists a boner roughly the size of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. What they didn’t know wouldn’t slow the worker’s productivity. Why bother stirring the pot?

Until the girls at last began to sicken and die.

Even that didn’t put the brakes on management, at first. They blamed it on other things. They implied that the girls were contracting syphilis, in the time-honored and ever-ready tradition of the Whores Had It Coming. When a state safety inspector wrote a scathing report about the dangerous conditions at one of the factories, a massive cover-up ensued (it took a woman to eventually blow the lid off). Meanwhile, girls were still falling ill in rapidly growing numbers. Lawsuits came later, and trials, but the wheels of justice move glacially. By the time all was said and done and settlements paid, years had passed. Most of the Radium Girls were already dead.

The factories shuttered. Memories faded. The world moved swiftly on.

Acts of injustice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.

Sixteen years separated the death of Topsy and the employment of the first Radium Girls at a factory in Orange, New Jersey, making their stories more or less of a similar vintage. A little girl could have hypothetically been at Coney Island on that fateful January day as a toddler and grown up to wield a brush at U.S. Radium. All of them died for profit, to save their bosses an extra dollar and to make some in the bargain. Animals and women were considered expendable.

The more I thought about this, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I felt that these stories somehow needed to be told together. From an offhand comment on Twitter, something vicious was simmering.

It took another three years for the story to take a shape I was satisfied with, and by that time other things had been rolled up in my story Katamari: the history of uranium, the ongoing project to leave a marker for future generations warning of buried nuclear waste, the history of Coney Island itself. 2016 blew through like a shit hurricane and left me with even more to stew over. I thought a lot about history, how it’s perceived and how it truly is and who gets to tell the narratives that become the memories that become culture. I thought about it as a living, breathing thing that shimmies and shakes and causes ripples that often belie those carefully crafted narratives. I mulled over poison in the ground and in the marrow; how often we forget, the terrible lies we tell ourselves and are told for comfort’s sake. I thought about the ways in which capitalism exploits us, and what we have to gain when we come together in solidarity to fight. And I thought about women—women’s stories, women’s friendships, women’s anger.

I finally sat down and wrote the book very late in 2016. It took me two weeks. It involves an alternate timeline (maybe even an alternate universe) where elephants have been recognized as sentient beings. Of course, that hasn’t stopped their exploitation, because when has it ever? They can speak with sign language, but are not listened to. They can express themselves, but are still more or less slaves of man.

In the aftermath of the Radium Girls incident, circus elephants are bought on the cheap and put to use painting watch dials, being big enough to take a lot of radium before they die and expendable enough that nobody really cares. One of the elephants is Topsy. A factory girl, slowly dying of jaw cancer, is kept on to teach her animal replacement the ropes of the job that has sentenced her to a miserable lingering death. From mutual exploitation they strike up a kind of understanding. Things go from there. Terrible choices are made—choices that will have massive ramifications in an alternate present and a far-flung future.

Also there are wooly mammoth folk tales of the Furmother and an post-apocalyptic elephantine Greek chorus, because this is a deeply weird little puzzle box of a book. I can’t promise that you’ll like it, or that it’ll be your thing. It’s probably not an airport read. The language can be fiddly (I dig fiddly) and there are three different timelines & numerous POVs to spool up in your brainmeats. There’s every chance it might seem as tangly as Christmas lights upon first read.

But it’s short, and it’s angry, and it’s the book I needed to write, turns out, although I didn’t know that back in 2013 when Twitter initially lobbed those acorns at my head. We can only tell the stories we’re capable of telling and hope against hope they reach the people who need them the most. My dearest wish is that The Only Harmless Great Thing finds its people, and that maybe one of you will be one of them.

—-

The Only Harmless Great Thing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: S. Craig Zahler

S. Craig Zahler writes and directs films most of the time, but the story of Hug Chickenpenny was one that called out for written rather than cinematic form. But Zahler found there was a theme that ran through his book writing efforts that ran through all his other efforts as well. He’s here to tell you what it is.

S. CRAIG ZAHLER:

Perseverance is possibly the single most consistent quality that the protagonists have in all of my different pieces, whether science fiction, horror, crime, western, or just, let’s say, this gothic fairy tale that is Hug Chickenpenny.

I originally created this character probably about 20 years ago. At that time, I was reading a lot of Charles Dickens. Also, I was a big fan of David Lynch—and still am—and so I think those sensibilities are there. But, typically, my inspiration isn’t so much that I see something and want to emulate it, it’s more that I think of something I haven’t seen—perhaps in a genre that I have seen—and think of a new way to bring it to life.

So, in the case of Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child, I was interested in doing something that had a Dickensian scope—and it’s an orphan tale, so it bears that relationship—but, at the same time, I knew that I wanted the titular character to be different from any I’d read about, and for the world to be comparably unique. And so it really comes from a place of me wanting to read a story and write a story that I hadn’t quite seen before. But certainly Charles Dickens, David Lynch, and the incredible books by Mervyn Peake– The Gormenghast Trilogy– are all things that influenced what Hug Chickenpenny became.

So, certainly that’s there: Perseverance. Seeing how someone deals with trying situations and how they overcome them as things get harder and harder, whether it is Arthur with the broken leg in Bone Tomahawk still continuing to make the journey towards his wife, or the terrible prison situation that Bradley finds himself in in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

Hug Chickenpenny starts off in a situation worse than either of these people, and how his character develops through it– as well as the effects of his early relationships with George Dodgett and Dr. Hannersby and the other characters– says a lot about who he innately is. So perseverance is there throughout. I am on day 13 of a 28 day work streak, where every day is 14 to 16 hours. Just, in the last five days, I wrote eight soul songs with my songwriting partner that are going to go into a new movie.

And then, after working until 8 in the morning on Sunday through Monday, I came into the editing room, worked until 5 in the morning last night, and I’ll be here just as late tonight. So it’s something I do: I push hard towards the things that I want. I have a lot of drive, and that’s a common trait for the lead characters in pieces I do. Not all of them, but I’d probably say the most common trait is: they persevere.

—-

Hug Chickenpenny: The Pangegyric of an Anomalous Child: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Jason Franks

In his Big Idea piece for Faerie Apocalypse, author Jason Franks notes he didn’t want this fantasy novel to have a map — and as it turns out, in many ways, in the writing of the book, he found himself in uncharted territory as well.

JASON FRANKS:

A young man travels to Faerie Land looking for a woman based solely on her appearance or other genetic attributes. She has a magical heritage, or royal blood. Of course, she is also beautiful.  In the old days (most of these stories are set in a past era) this was, I guess, considered romantic. By today’s standards it’s creepy at best. What kind of a person does this? This was the Big Idea behind my new book, Faerie Apocalypse.

Initially, I thought it was a short story. I figured out what my protagonist really wanted and I sat down to write it… but once I had begun, I realized that the project was a lot more involved than I had anticipated.

I wanted the engage the sense of whimsy and wonder that makes fairyland stories such a delight for children, and to use that to bring out the darker impulses that makes these stories compelling for adults. I wanted to turn the tropes of the genre against each other.

I needed some distance from the characters in order to maintain sleight of hand and so I made the hard decision not to give most of them names. There’s a story-based reason for this (“Rumplestiltskin!”) but that made it difficult to show enough point-of-view to be engaging. This had knock-on effects that caused me to re-examine the way I write at a nuts-and-bolts level.

My usual prose style is pretty lean (one of my workshop buddies complains that it’s ‘skeletal’), and it didn’t work under these constraints. For this piece I needed something lush, but I didn’t want to let the style get in the way of storytelling. Cormac McCarthy’s work* gave me a good starting point, but mainly I solved this problem through hard graft. I worked it draft after draft, scene after scene, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, until I thought it was right.

As I built out the story I discovered new scenarios and characters. The story grew to encompass other characters with their own missions: a magician, looking for power; an urchin looking for his father; a wage-slave looking for meaning; a faerie queen who grows tired of being the object of someone else’s quest. It was tough to braid all of these stories together, but as I wrote the book I found connections I had neither planned nor expected.  I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what was really happening to the Realms under my protagonists’ trampling feet. (Hint: it’s in the title.)

It helped that I knew what I didn’t want the story to be. I didn’t want it to be old-timey. I didn’t want period characters—I wanted mortals originating in contemporary settings (1980s to 2020s). I didn’t want a Faerie Land that is just some adjacent reality—I wanted one that has a reflexive relationship with our own, built from our dreams and our stories. I didn’t want the Faerie Folk to be a bunch of gamebook-classifiable races—I wanted them to be as complex and diverse and perverse as humans. Their immortal lives, bound in storybook rules, make them both more and less than we are.

I also knew going in that I didn’t want a map. The geography and climate in this Faerie Land is mutable and will bend itself to accommodate the stories that play across it—or to the will of those who are powerful enough to influence it directly.

The book is quite short, but I wrote probably 50% again as much material as you see in this final version. The final shape of it is dense and non-linear and twisted. I think it’s a fast read, but a challenging one. I hope you’ll find it as rewarding—and unsettling—to read as it was for me to write.

* Fear not—the book is fully punctuated. Overly punctuated, if I’m honest. I hope you like em dashes and semicolons.

—-

Faerie Apocalypse: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Michael Moreci

Cover to Black Star Renegades

Today on the Big Idea: Author Michael Moreci, with his novel Black Star Renegades, shows you how to write a media tie-in that’s not a media tie-in and in fact becomes something else entirely in the telling.

MICHAEL MORECI:

A lot of writers will probably hate me for this, but the idea for Black Star Renegades was kinda given to me. But don’t worry, because this stroke of fortune was proceeded by years and years misery. I’ll explain:

I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Like, it’s unhealthy. I talk about it a lot (sorry to you, my lovely and patient wife), and I write about it a lot (on my own website and for StarWars.com). I even have the Rebel sigil tattooed on my forearm. My brother has the matching Empire sigil on his forearm, so I’m not alone in this. Anyway. One day, I received a call from an editor at St. Martin’s, the future editor of Black Star Renegades. His name is Marc, and Marc said, “Mike, you love Star Wars. Write me something that’s Star Wars.” My first impression was “Isn’t that illegal?” but Marc explained that he wanted something that captured the spirit of Star Wars—pulpy space adventure with a lot of heart, great characters, and boundless imagination. I agreed immediately. Even if Marc had been asking me to write an unsanctioned Star Wars novel, I still would have agreed.

Now, like I said: there’s misery to this story as well. Because the only reason I was on Marc’s radar is because I’d been pitching him for years. I can fill a graveyard with my rejected pitches (and, truthfully, that’s where most of those pitches belong). But that’s how most of professional goes—it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the trick is to stick around long enough (and be good enough) to one day catch your break. And that’s what happened with Black Star Renegades.

Marc’s phone call and my passion for the galaxy far, far away is what drove the book’s inception. But something strange happened along the way. The more I wrote this book as the stepchild of Lucas’s beloved creation, the less interested in it I became. Don’t get me wrong, Black Star Renegades has Star Wars imprinted in its DNA, and I totally embrace that. I love it for that reason. But I didn’t want my story to be just that. I wanted it to be more, I wanted to have something to say that was my own.

And that’s when it hit me: If I stayed the course and wrote a straight-up Star Wars book, I’d just be a knock-off trying to pass myself off as the real thing. I’d be that dude in the subway selling Versachi bags, and I didn’t want to be that dude in the subway selling Versachi bags.

So I did the only logical thing: I killed the real deal. In the book! I killed the real deal in the book.

But that’s how Black Star Renegades became interesting to me. See, I’ve always had trouble with the messiah complex. The idea that we should sit around and wait for an all-powerful someone or other to come along and save our butts from the fire isn’t a healthy one. It leads to bad places. Like when, oh, I don’t know, a tyrannical buffoon campaigns under the promise that he’s the only one—him alone—who can solve all the country’s problems. And people actually believe him. Because that’s what we’re taught. Iron Man will save us. Luke Skywalker. Katniss Everdeen. Harry Potter. Whoever. There’s a magical chosen one, and without this person we wouldn’t be able to do a darn thing on our own. Sure, we can play supporting roles, but at the end of the day, only one person can vanquish Voldemort or Vader

And that simply isn’t true. That narrative is exactly what I wanted to upend.

It’s funny, because there’s something in the water when it comes to deconstructing the chosen one myth-building, because that’s exactly what The Last Jedi is about. Luke says so himself when he asks Rey if she expects him to take on the First Order all by himself, just him and a “laser sword.” At the time, Rey’s answer would have been yes because that’s exactly what she expected. But she comes to learn, like so many characters in the film story, the dangers in relying on one person—good or evil—to save an entire galaxy. And that’s part of the beauty of The Last Jedi: It shows us that we’re all heroes. Rose, Finn, Poe, Rey—they all play a part in being the heroes of this story. And through their combined efforts, that’s when a difference is made.

Black Star Renegades is unquestionably a Star Wars book. But it’s also an anti-Star Wars book. It’s a galaxy where my version of Luke dies in the first act, and everyone else has to step up and fight back against the tyrannical overlord who didn’t get the memo that one person alone isn’t meant to rule everything and everyone. But the heroes did. They learn that real power comes in unity and togetherness, and that’s how they win.

That’s how we all win.

—-

Black Star Renegades: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Marieke Nijkamp

The Cover of Before I Let Go

We’re back with Big Ideas for 2018! And to kick us off, author Marieke Nijkamp talks to us of her new novel Before I Let Go, and takes us below the cold surface of a community that holds its secrets close.

MARIEKE NIJKAMP:

“Lost has created new legends since you left. It’s such a human thing to do. We tell stories about what we don’t understand.”

That is what Kyra, one of the main characters in Before I Let Go, writes to her best friend Corey. She never sends that letter, but Corey finds it, eventually, when she investigates Kyra’s death. She finds it along with Kyra’s other letters and other stories—and her hometown’s belief that it lost a prophet.

Stories and storytelling are at the very core of Before I Let Go. The stories we tell about the world, about each other, about ourselves. The stories others tell about us. And the tortured truth that exists somewhere in between.

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. For me, when I was growing up: the world. I was a physically disabled, autistic kid in pre-internet days. I didn’t have a clue how the neurotypical world functioned. So I bonded with fictional characters. I dove deep into their psyches and followed them on their emotional journeys. I would ask myself, unironically, What Would [insert character] Do? if I wasn’t sure about the correct response to a situation.

It was a flawed method of learning. Not in the least because I grew up a fantasy reader. And because I—disabled and queer and strange—didn’t exist with any likeness in those books, and I only learned to be other people, not myself. Still, I had entire worlds at my fingertips to study. It helped me pass as neurotypical magnificently, for as much as that’s a flawed concept too.

(I began to swap out passing as different for embracing who I am when, as a teen, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and role play. when I discovered creating and testing different characters, when I started to write like my life depended on it. And slowly, I learned that understanding is a quest, not a goal.)

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. It was my core tenet at college and grad school, where I spent my time with medieval manuscripts and the history (and politics) of ideas. I learned to ask questions: which narratives were we reading? Where did they come from? What were they trying to achieve? Which narratives survived the ages? Why did they survive the ages? Who tells a story? Why do they tell a story? What is the purpose of a word, a scene, the whole work, of its existence?

Who does a story belong to anyway? Both? Who do we listen to? Who do we trust? What was said in the tales that don’t exist any longer? What stories have we silenced? And whose voices do we silence still?

They’re good questions outside the realm of medieval manuscripts too.

We tell stories about what we don’t understand. That’s how Kyra went through life, and there is a personal truth to it too. That quest for understanding is why I’m a writer. All my books and short fiction start with questions, even those so deceptively simple as how, why, what if.

The answers are far more complex—and always purposeful. I manipulate narrative threads. I make decisions about what details to keep out and what to leave in. Every word, every scene is a conscious choice. Every silence, too. After all, sometimes the most important stories exist between the lines of what is told and untold.

The truth can appear malleable, even though facts are still facts. Manipulation influences interpretation. And stories are both the most wondrous type of magic and the most dangerous things in the world.

“We tell stories about what we don’t understand,” Kyra writes, before she dies, lost and lonely. “I just never considered what it would be like to be at the heart of one of those stories. I want to study myths, not star in one.”

And that’s the heart of it: the spark for this book. From there, Kyra’s legends, Corey’s storytelling, and the tales others weave around them never quite line up. At the start of her investigation, all Corey knows for a fact is that her best friend is dead. And the truth to why, how is yet to be uncovered.

Some might say that stories killed Kyra; others that they saved her. I say Before I Let Go is a love letter to storytelling—but maybe it’s a warning too. In truth, it may be all of the above. Let’s just say, it depends quite a bit on which side of the story you take.

—-

Before I Let Go: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

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.

The Big Idea: Molly Tanzer

Absinthe makes the brain grow more creative — at least in the case of Molly Tanzer, whose encounter with the spirit helped to inspire her novel Creatures of Will and Temper. Want to find out how? Sit back and pour a stiff one as Tanzer tells you.

MOLLY TANZER:

I’m delighted to do my very first Big Idea for my new novel, Creatures of Will and Temper, because I actually did have a “big idea” that sparked the project and then informed my entire approach to it.

This is the story pretty much as it happened: I was sitting on my porch one summer morning, drinking an absinthe cocktail and reading Oscar Wilde’s Victorian classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray, when I got to this part in the book…

[Dorian’s ] eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. … He flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

…and in my intoxicated state, bewitched by spirituous liquors and addled the strong rays of the sun, I thought to myself, What if Lord Henry Wotton was a diabolist and had given Dorian Gray a “yellow book” that was a demon-summoning manual instead of a novel? That would be dope.

This idea took hold of me like the ideas in the yellow book take hold of Dorian Gray, beguiling me and distracting me from what I was supposed to be doing at the time, whatever that was. I can’t remember—probably all that absinthe. Anyway, the important thing is that I started obsessing over what I’d personally want from a Dorian Gray retelling, were I reading it, not writing it, and that served me well.

I knew I’d need to gender-swap Dorian into Dorina Gray, since I like to write about women and women’s issues, and as I wanted to write something exploring the relationships between women, I knew I’d also need to gender-swap Henry Wotton, who became Lady Henrietta Wotton, aesthete and diabolist.

That put the project off to a good start; at least, I thought so. As I continued to think on it, I decided to focus on one of the less explored aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray—that of mentorship and its various consequences—and for that, I’d need a different take on the Dorian/Lord Henry relationship. In the original, Lord Henry Wotton is not an admirable character, so I decided to instead make Lady Henrietta the Platonic ideal of all the lady teachers I’ve crushed on hard over the years. Similarly, the rather repellent Dorian Gray became Dorina, a mosaic of the artistic young women I went to my small liberal arts high school and college with in prosaic south and central Florida.

But as a lifelong fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I knew I’d also need this motif to be repeated to drive it home—there had to be an “A” plot and a “B” plot that dealt with the same issue in different ways. Dorina’s arc needed a natural counterpart. Thus, enter Evadne Gray, Dorina’s elder sister and a character wholly my creation.

Evadne came to me all at once, just like the idea for this book. I realized that if I wanted to focus on women’s relationships, Dorina needed a sister, not just a mentrix—a sister who was similar to her in terms of her capacity for love and enthusiasm, but so very different in her interests that they’d always be at cats and dogs with one another. Dorina was to be enthusiastic, artistically minded, and socially adroit even while she possessed a healthy dislike of “society”; Evadne needed to be a bit of an awkward jock (fencing is her passion), reserved and concerned with the sort of restrictive propriety that is the last refuge of the born misfit. So often, people cling to that which does not serve them—that had to be Evadne’s core, as an athletic but awkward woman, in contrast to Dorina’s willful rejection of a world that was only too eager to accept her on the basis her youth and beauty, merits she rejects.

Two different misfits who both come to find two different mentors—Evadne finds a fencing tutor as apparently perfect for her as Henry is for Dorina, and every bit as secretly mysterious. And in that way, too, I tried to be “faithful but not” to Wilde’s original novel. Both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Creatures of Will and Temper are about what happens when someone is consumed by passion. In the end, I hope mine is a bit more forgiving of its protagonists, and a bit more hopeful, or at least less cynical in its conclusion about the fundamental nature of humanity.

—-

Creatures of Will and Temper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tracy Townsend

Take Borges, toss in a library, add a touch of sub-atomic physics, and what do you get? If you’re Tracy Townsend, you get her novel The Nine. Here she is to tell you how all of these came to be a part of her story.

TRACY TOWNSEND:

The best creative decision I ever made was to be bad at my first college job.

I paid for undergraduate in the usual way — a little bit of student loan, some scholarship, and a lot of work-study. I was lucky enough to score a job at the university library, where my employment somehow survived my plot to pretend at total incompetence in the Library of Congress system. There was a method to my madness, of course. When I disappeared for two hours with a single cart of returns, nobody would think twice about my painstaking pace. I mean, it had taken me three tries to pass the shelving exam. (I’d considered throwing the test a fourth time, but that just seemed like gilding the lily.) Truth was, I was dead fast and accurate at re-shelving. I could clear a double-decker cart of volumes distributed over three floors in just over a half-hour. For the remaining hour and a half of my shift, I’d creep to the farthest corner of the reference stacks and start browsing, secure in the time my feigned incompetence had bought.

I love reference books because they’re so eminently browsable. They don’t ask for a reader’s commitment. They’re perfect for those weary moments when you want to feed your mind something, but can’t process a narrative. It was in just such a moment that I picked up  Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings. There, I found an entry titled “The Lamed Wufniks.” (I’m embarrassed to admit it first grabbed my attention because I thought the name was cute – lamed wufniks! Poor little wufniks with bum legs! Little did I realize how mercurial Anglicized spellings of Yiddish words are, or that the words didn’t sound at all the way I sounded them out.) Here’s part of what Borges wrote:

On the earth there are, and have always been, thirty-six just men whose mission is to justify the world to God. These are the Lamed Wufniks. . . . If a man comes to realize that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and another man, perhaps in some other corner of the earth, takes his place. These men are, without suspecting it, the secret pillars of the universe. If not for them, God would annihilate the human race. They are our saviors, though they do not know it.

This mystical belief of the Jewish people has been explained by Max Brod.

Its distant roots may be found in Genesis 18, where God says that He will not destroy the city of Sodom if ten just men can be found within it.

The very idea of God carefully studying mankind in such a peculiarly precise, predetermined fashion appealed to every instinct in my lapsed Catholic body. It would make a hell of a story.

Some elements of it would have to go. I dropped the “lamed” portion of these holy test subjects’ name and invented a spelling of “wufniks” that actually reflected its pronunciation: vautneks. Thirty-six was too many characters. Remembering that nines and threes reign supreme across dozens of cultural mythologies, I pared it down to nine. The notion that God would hand-pick His representatives, knowing already they were just, and simply undo the world when He could no longer find the thirty-sixth man to fill up the game day roster just seemed too tidy. I was more interested in the notion of the experiment itself. Could a tiny, totally random sampling of humanity hope to represent the species well? Is there any way for human beings to know that a creator is studying us, and if we did, what would we do? Do we do “right” only because we don’t want to be caught doing wrong? And what, God help us, is actually “right,” anyway?

I teach at the Illinois Math and Science Academy – Hogwarts for Hackers, where students steep in an equal mix of ethical, humanistic sciences and caffeinated meme culture. It’s the right place for me because as much as I’m a child of the humanities, I’ve always been fascinated by the scientific impulse, the urge to know which is fundamental to human reason. Take physics. So much of its finest details still aren’t understood the way we understand the microscopic details of our own bodies. The idea that there is a particle we can’t actually pin down that’s responsible for why objects have mass is fascinating. Essentially, if we take for granted that everything in our universe is mass or energy (and translatable to one another), then the Higgs boson is a creator-particle, a particle that grants us existence itself, the capacity to be measured and judged and understood. It truly is the God-particle.

As a humanist, my work at a STEM-focused, logic-loving institution recalls the age-old tension tension between reason and faith. If the lamed wufniks were the inspiration for The Nine’s plot, then that tension inspired its world. It’s a world where humanity chains faith and religion to observable, measurable data, and transforms the worship of gained and ordered knowledge into the worship of its creator. I made that world to test my skepticism about the limits of empirical knowledge.

What better way to build that world, and to blow it all up, than to go a little Borges and prove to my character that yes, someone really is watching?

If God is an experimenter, a scientist in His own right, He’s got to keep notes somewhere. And that means someone’s bound to find them, sooner or later.

—-

The Nine: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble.com|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Matthew De Abaitua

Work sucks. In The Red Men, author Matthew De Abaitua has come up with an answer. Uh, maybe. He’s here to explain that whole “maybe” part.

MATTHEW De ABAITUA:

From an early age, I was terrorised by the prospect of getting a proper job. A summer spent working as a security guard on the docks convinced me that my intuition concerning work was correct; it was a desperate exploitative world and not for the likes of me. What if I could somehow accrue all the benefits of going to work – a salary and social status – without having to subordinate myself to its deadening routines?

The big idea of my novel The Red Men comes from this yearning, although it in no way solves it. The novel turns around the question of your collaboration with power, how much of yourself you can trade to get on in the world, or can you deny all attempts by the “real world” to control you and instead live freely and imaginatively.

To explore this question, I invented the Red Men. The Red Men are simulations of real people devised by an artificial intelligence. They are not copies. We will not be able to digitally copy consciousness. Mind cannot be separated from body in that way. Instead, our technology will tell stories about us, based on its observations of our desires and behaviours.

In my novel, these stories are The Red Men and – for a regular subscription fee – they will do your work for you: capable of processing data at light speed, and gifted with your way of seeing the world, your Red Man toils in an office job while you are free to profit from their salary and find more a productive way of using your time.

I was first attracted to the idea of a digital self because it promised an incorporeal immortality. Planning the novel out, I realised that a digital land-of-do-as-you-please wouldn’t work fictively. It would be like writing out a long dream. The readers wouldn’t care about what happened in a realm in which all harm can be undone, all damage reversed. I would need to find a way of making the readers care.

All virtual worlds suffer from being as inconsequential as a dream. That’s why, if you die in the Matrix, you die in the real world – its the only way to make the Matrix matter. The novel may have been born of my immature desire to live in a world governed by the pleasure principle but it could not be told from the point of view of a digital person. Rather, the point of view of the novel had to follow the real people who work with the Red Men, and who suffer from their interaction with simulated people. After years of idle planning, it was this realisation of the narrative point of view that kickstarted my writing.

The Red Men is told from two points of view: Raymond is a down-at-heel poet who is drawn into the customer service department managing the interaction between the Red Men and their subscribers; Nelson is more senior than Raymond, having worked for years for the company Monad that creates the Red Men. So Raymond’s point of view, new to this world, as he discovers Monad and its products, accords to that of the readers. Nelson, who is more steeped in Monad, provides insight into the back story of the technology. Indeed, it is Nelson who first devises the name of the Red Men when he first meets the company’s artificial intelligence, and it is Nelson who is tasked with expanding the program in the middle of the novel, when Monad decide to simulate an entire town to help them predict mass effects and reactions to government policies.

The novel is structured according to this question of whether it is possible to deny the imperatives of the “real world” of jobs, mortgages, health care payments and live in a realm of your own imagining and control. Chekhov once observed of Tolstoy that while he didn’t have the answers, he asked the right questions. A novel shouldn’t be didactic, it is a more exploratory form. Power it with a good question rather than your idea of an answer. The question runs through the heart of Nelson’s relationships – whether he should allow work to take him away from his family – and through Raymond’s troubles, as he is drawn into the work of Monad’s rival company Dyad, which specialises in technology that exploits and inhabits the human unconscious.

When I found my emotional connection to the big idea, I was finally able to write it. Only after I’d spent a few years toiling in an office, subordinated to nonsensical corporate cant and bullshit imperatives, having had the shit bored out of me, was I able to put my big idea on a stage crafted by everyday frustrations and yearnings.

—-

The Red Men: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Leanna Renee Hieber

Yes, my friends, the 80s are back! No, not the 1980s: The 1880s, where author Leanna Renee Hieber has spent much of her creative life, culminating in her new novel The Eterna Solution, the third book in her Eterna Files series. And what has Hieber been doing, back there in the 1880s? Just you wait.

LEANNA RENEE HIEBER:

The big idea behind The Eterna Files series came from my desire to fashion two 1880s X-Files-esque and MI-5 kind of departments chock full of interpersonal drama and lively characters. And then set them against a huge, paranormal evil. Phantasmagorical fireworks ensue.

This is my third Gaslamp Fantasy series and one of two connected series with Tor Books, a house that has been actively reissuing my award-winning and bestselling- but previously out of print- Strangely Beautiful saga.

The Eterna world embraces the importance of personal magic and the resilience of the human spirit. Beloved Gothic traditions are all present but reimagined; Ghosts! Adventure! Mystery and Drama! But for all my Sturm und Drang, I wanted to craft small, practical, meaningful moments of magic. When imbued with personal spirit and private meaning, tiny gestures have a huge protective quality. The quest for understanding, for meaning, for purpose and calling drives all of my characters. That’s what makes their embrace of personal, localized magic very powerful. This is a saga of Wards.

My Eterna Files trilogy culminates this week in the brand new The Eterna Solution. The series features a huge cast of quirky, inclusive characters from London and New York, in an 1882 timeline very much like our own, but in which paranormal aspects dominate the lives of a select few. The first book (The Eterna Files) is a parallel narrative following two teams in New York and London that entwine by the second book (Eterna and Omega).

Spiritualists, policemen, circus performers and secretaries join forces as the Eterna Commission in New York and the Omega Department in London, both created to focus on pursuing immortality, become allies when they realize they’ve been pitted against one another by a vile, secret cabal dealing in foul, malevolent magic.

I started my first novel when I was a pre-teen and it was set in 1888. I’ve been writing about this decade for most of my life. It’s not just a penchant, it’s a calling that drives me on a level that defies even my own understanding. Perhaps I’m like one of the many Spiritualist mediums in my work; channeling an age that whispers its hopes and dreams to me and wants me to tell its stories, all of which feel deeply, inexplicably personal.

Clara Templeton, one of the series stars, was one of the hardest characters I’ve ever written, because she’s the closest to me and there’s a danger there. I had to separate her out from me like untangling a knot of woven hair in order to have any kind of objectivity. The heart and soul of her remains deeply intimate. Alternately, her foil, my stoic London detective Harold Spire is a fierce skeptic and almost a curmudgeon, and yet such an effective teammate despite polar differences. I grew to love him all the more for his opposite nature.

As a New Yorker of over 12 years, and having spent months across many years researching in London, the power of a place is the core of my personal, Ward-driven magic. As a New York City tour guide for Boroughs of the Dead, Manhattan’s highest rated ghost tour company; I tell the stories of New York ghosts as friends of mine, haunts I visit every week. They’re the immortal story my characters seek, and the stages of New York and London are such rich characters in and of themselves.

My characters are unapologetically themselves and seek to be treated with respect and full rights in a society that was extremely limiting, restrictive and compartmentalized. They find allies and community, found families and fellow travelers. Contrary to the rare reader who thinks I, as a modern writer, force feminism, orientation and/or racial equality on my characters in some sort of anachronistic take, my characters’ attitudes reflect actual historic evidence and tracts that date back far earlier than my 1882 setting.

My characters don’t gloss over inequalities in any way, however they have been raised with the idea of respect and inclusion for generations. (Just as one historical example, Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872, a decade prior than my setting, with Frederick Douglass (doing great things) as her running mate. She came up from within the broad Spiritualist movement in which I have embedded my main characters, a collective that was entwined with suffrage and civil rights.)

The punk in Steampunk is only earned by questioning power dynamics and institutions, and I’m in the related/parallel genre as a Gaslamp Fantasy novelist. (To make the genre delineation clear: Steampunk is Steam-powered-era Science Fiction in which characters solve problems with SciFi tropes and innovative technology, Gaslamp Fantasy is gas-lit-era Fantasy where characters solve problems with Fantasy tropes and spectral, magical conventions). My characters question their world, chafe against strictures, and seek to be reformers just as many movements did.

Since I’m working in a covert branch environment, paranormal aspects carve out space for all my characters to have as much agency and self-determination as they all deserve and the secret departments allow for workings around societal restrictions. The era itself is rife with conflict, which is always great for storytelling, and as the 19th century was rather obsessed with ghosts, séances, pseudo-sciences and occult goings on, my Eterna world is a phantasmagorical reality not far from our own, and I dearly hope you’ll come along for the action, fancy outfits, adventure, tidbits of actual history, and plenty of murder and mayhem. Cheers and Happy Haunting!

—-

The Eterna Solution: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: K.C. Alexander

Books can take a lot out of you as a writer. And sometimes, as K.C. Alexander explains for Nanoshock, you go through a lot to get to the end of them.

K.C. ALEXANDER:

So here we are, you and I. Back again some year and change later. Last time, I talked about Necrotech, and how writing it inspired me to come out genderqueer—all challenge and angry and defiant.

I chose the Big Idea to do it then because the rage of being taught I was not enough had fueled 110,000 words. At that point…how could I avoid the truth when it was repeatedly jabbing me in the brain? With an ice pick. The Ice Pick of Truth, as it turned out.

So, Riko. Me. Life is art is life.

And another ice pick for the brain.

I got drunk to write this. This will inevitably be the title of my memoirs, but until then, we have the Big Idea. And Nanoshock, Riko’s next installment, and probably the hardest thing I’d ever had to (wanted to) write.

Did you know that I was a year and some change late on this book, too? Maybe a mild exaggeration… but close enough. My editors at Angry Robot Books were extremely, overwhelmingly supportive, and my agent bent over backwards to keep me reassured, but I was late, late, late. The White Rabbit fucking gave up on me, I was so damn late.

Did I mention I got drunk to write this?

A memoir.

You can laugh. It’s totally okay.

Nanoshock’s Riko is an asskicker, but those who live by the ass die by the… wait. Let me start over. Riko is an asskicker, but those who are violent only beget violence, and so she spends much of the previous book bloody. With her memories savaged and her reputation in tatters, Riko’s now dealing with a whole new level of BS: she must figure out WTF went down in those missing memories, WTF she’s the one hauling this shit around, and—to make matters worse—WTF sold her out.

For those of you who need the help: that’s “what”, “why” and “who”, respectively. And a lot of “the fucks” added.

“Sounds like fun,” you say. “What could go wrong?” Well. For Riko? Lots.

For me?

More than I thought would.

Let’s make an abrupt left turn and meander down a different road. Let’s talk about trauma. More specifically, let’s talk about non-combat PTSD.

You know the acronym—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you’re like most, you associate it with survivors of war, soldiers returning home, victims of incredible abuse or an accident survivor. You think blood and gore and broken bones and bullets flying and fists and whatever else comes at one from the ugly side of things.

I think… a man’s raised voice, laced with focused intention. …the pressure of somebody behind me. …sexual advances when I am struggling with my depression. …the subtle unweaving of my success, my confidence, my wants and my needs.

I remember fear in the dead of night and razor blades at dinner. Basically? I am Jessica Jones, and I don’t even have the raw strength to fight the battles I need to.

Listen. There’s a thing called “complex PTSD”, and it’s a disorder caused not by one single event but by the stacking of many. “Non-combat PTSD” is when you have all the same symptoms—flashbacks, panic attacks, disassociation, bone-deep fear, paranoia and more—but you didn’t pick it up at a battlefield or a crime scene or a car crash… You just…

You just lost. You lost everything. Your confidence, your physical safety, your emotional and mental balance. Each brick of your foundation chipped and whittled and shaped into what something else, somebody else, demanded of you. Until one day something happens, something breaks, and if you’re lucky, you surface from that sleepwalking hell into the stark, cold, terrifying reality: you are not the person you thought you were. You aren’t even in the same dimension.

And you aren’t worthy of anything better.

I wish I was Riko. (A smooth shift back onto the main road!) Riko’s coping mechanisms, while unhealthy, are so much easier for me to understand. What I’d give to be able to channel all this bottled in rage and fear and shame and explode it all over some motherfuckers what need educating. I have a list. I’d feel so much better if I could just tick off each line, one by one. “Exploded, bloodied, broken, dead.”

I announce for the cheap seats: I am a struggling buddhist.

Except…

Those who live by violence beget violence. Those who rely on the punch receive more in kind. In my first draft of this book, Riko—my violent, angry, bloodied bitch—became an extension of me. And it wasn’t great.

See, after Necrotech, Riko found herself at the bottom of the food chain. Her life, her sense of security, had been thoroughly shredded. (Spoiler alert: there is blood. So, so much blood. And fleshy, wobbly bits, mostly unattached.) Starting with nothing is daunting at the best of times, but as Nanoshock opened under my furiously typing fingers, I realized:

I, too, was starting over from nothing. Everything I’d built had been stripped away, and not least of which had been my pride as a human being, my sense of self, my confidence, and yes, my voice. Like waking up from a dream I hadn’t realized was so violent in its calm, extremely slow pace, I suddenly surfaced into the real world and saw, felt, understood that I had nothing.

Because I was only allowed to have nothing.

And here I was, trying to set Riko on the path to rebuilding her own life when I didn’t have the first idea of how to rebuild mine. I couldn’t even face my own trauma—and like Riko, I didn’t want to.

Nanoshock is late to the shelves because it took me two years—two years—to fight through the bloody wounds and ragged scars and sheer fucking shame that comes with PTSD. First, I had to acknowledge it.

And then I had to get help.

Two years. I’m still in therapy, and I will be for a long time. It’s like I had to reach this point to understand where Riko needed to go. And I understand enough about her to understand that it’ll take her a lot longer than the time she has to get to where I am working so hard to be.

Sometimes (often?), an author has to know the answers first before they can reverse engineer it back to the beginning.

The schematics of trauma are a mess. But having been there, and struggling every day to cope with the sense of violation, fear, programmed responses and cold uncertainty, I feel so much better equipped to write Riko’s struggle (and by god, it is a struggle).

You see, although it’s taken me years, I have finally been allowed—encouraged, given sanctuary for it—to own my trauma. I can work through it. I can face it head on and slowly, sometimes painfully, take the teeth out where I can.

But Riko? Riko’s journey is harder. A narcissist, proud of her place, having fought tooth and bleeding nail to earn it, and stubborn as all get out, she doesn’t have the support network I needed to resurface. Won’t take it. Won’t bend, won’t forgive. She’s got a lot to learn to deal with. That could have been me.

So here we are, you and I. Back at the Big Idea, where I share all the aspects of my world that fuel the rage and pain and violence and motherfucking demand for hope that makes up Riko’s stories. Redemption for us both on the page; pain all around for free.

Riko’s journey is only just beginning. It seems funny, when I look at it, to think it took me this long to claw my way back into my own skin just to rip Riko out of hers. And unlike me now, but very much like me then, Riko is unable to own her trauma. Until she does, she can’t mend the wounds.

Until those wounds are mended, she will bleed out—bit by bit, emotionally and mentally and yes, even physically. Wounds on the body help. They bring peace. Riko knows this, and it’s an ugly kind of truth.

Does she have the strength to overcome this as she punches, shoots, swears at and otherwise rocks every obstacle in her path?

Well. I did. Sort of.

If I can, then Riko can. And if Riko can, then you can.

See how this works?

Nanoshock, where the darkest shit is yet to come and still, even still, holding on for another day means another day of hope, redemption, and a sense of self.

I got drunk to write this.

A memoir, yes. But also, acknowledgment. Of self and of the arc of trauma. Of the grit that nobody likes to see—not really, not the gritty, filthy, infected stuff that oozes over the veneer and smells like rot. But also, acknowledgement that there is a way back to the light. Grab it where you can. Tomorrow, nursing the hangover, follow through on what it takes.

We got stuff to do, you and I. We have things to accomplish. If I can do it, Riko can.

And if Riko can?

Well, you see where this is going…

As for me? I’m going to therapy. And Riko? She’s going to kick some ass. Between the two of us, there will be a lot of drunk nights. You see, drunk, high, or otherwise jacked up makes the nightmares easier to face.

But sobriety always follows. We’ll fight and fall and claw at the ledge, and there will be some tears. But you know what? That’s okay, too. Growth fucking hurts. But hey. We survived, right? (It’ll take her a bit to realize that… She, unlike me, doesn’t have two years to do it.)

As Riko would say, zen it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: James Alan Gardner

I’ll start by saying James Alan Gardner’s new novel has my favorite book title of the year. But, of course there’s more going on in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault than a great title. Gardner’s here to tell you about a world of super beings and what having a world full of them means for those beings, and everybody else.

JAMES ALAN GARDNER:

Superheroes. They’re super and they’re heroes. That’s the Big Idea.

I have loved superheroes since I was seven years old and laid out all my comic books on the front sidewalk, so that my friends and I could admire how many there were. It was one of the few times in my life when I’ve made what anthropologists might call a “status display”. I don’t remember how many comics I actually had at that time, but probably less than twenty. On the other hand, AVENGERS #1 was part of the collection, so what I lacked in quantity, I made up for with quality.

At any rate, I’ve been buying and reading comics since the early days of the Silver Age. They were my gateway into science fiction, fantasy, and geekdom; they taught me about science, myth and morality; they demonstrated how to tell stories, and why stories were important.

Perhaps most importantly, the letter columns in the back of comic books made me aware that these stories didn’t miraculously appear out of nowhere. The stories were created by specific people who essentially just made stuff up. If the creators chose to do A rather than B, it wasn’t because A was true and B was false. It was simply because they thought A was more interesting than B. They charted their course by what they believed would appeal to readers, not by fitting the story to events that actually happened.

This revelation put me on the path to becoming a writer too. However, it was years before I decided to write a superhero book. I did so after I’d published a number of science fiction books, but in a period when my work wasn’t selling any more. Because doing the old stuff looked like a dead end, I asked myself what I’d rather be writing instead…and the answer was superheroes.

They’re super and they’re heroes. What else do you need?

I couldn’t set the book in any of the well-known superhero universes—I didn’t want to make the acquaintance of lawyers from DC, Marvel, Image, etc. So I had to invent my own universe, which suited me just fine. All I had to do was bear in mind the Big Idea of superheroes: they’re super and they’re heroes.

The “super” part was straightforward…but what is a hero these days? What makes someone heroic? Not just beating up criminals. Surely a hero should aim higher: fighting larger injustices. But many of the injustices we face are systemic, not just the deeds of individuals. Could I find some way to dramatize that, while still allowing space for super-ness (i.e. explosions, fisticuffs, and firefights)?

I could. I designed a world where the people in power were clearly a problem. I didn’t want them to be unambiguously evil—that’s too simplistic and would make moral choices too easy. On the other hand, I wanted the people at the top to be enough of a threat that the world would need superheroes.

So here’s the set-up I created for All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. In 1982 (not coincidentally the Reagan years), vampires, werewolves and the like finally ask, “Why are we being so secretive? We’re sitting on a marketable asset.” They offer to make any human into a Darkling like themselves in exchange for ten million dollars. Fast-forward a few decades, and virtually everyone in positions of power around the world are Darklings. Supposedly, they all obey the law—no killing or using supernatural powers for nefarious purposes—but let’s just say there are suspicions of covert misdeeds.

Then, in 2001, superheroes show up…almost as if Fate decided that a counterbalance was needed. Unlike the rich buying their place in the Darkness, any old schlub may become a superhero. All you have to do is touch a glowing meteor, fall in a vat of weird chemicals, or get bitten by a radioactive spider. Heck, you might just be born that way, and discover what you are sometime in your teens.

So in this world, the 1% are Darklings and the 99% are protected by superheroes. It’s a situation guaranteed to create conflicts, but neither side is certain to be right or wrong. Super-folk (generally called Sparks) are ordinary people from all walks of life; they aren’t always good guys, any more than the Darklings are 100% bad.

Once I had this background, all I had to do was write a story in it. Hey, no problem. But again, the Big Idea applies. Super. Heroes. I wanted my lead characters to be truly heroic. Of course, they’d have flaws, but their hearts had to be in the right place. I didn’t want antiheroes; I wanted smart decent people whom I’d care about.

I also wanted heroes who represented the 99% in all its wondrous variety, as opposed to the relative monoculture of the 1%. So I came up with a diverse team of four university students who gain superpowers in a classic lab accident, and who find themselves thrust immediately into dealing with a Darkling conspiracy. The students are each heroic in their own distinctive way. Over the course of a four-book series, I hope to have fun exploring those different versions of heroism…

…while also blowing a lot of stuff up. Because the “super” part is important too. Flashy fights and excitement. A rationale for costumes and masks. Banter. Many jokes. The best of what comics can be.

Over the past few years, more and more superhero books are appearing on the shelves. Some are re-examinations of the genre, asking serious questions about what superhero fantasies say about our culture. Fair enough…but there’s also a place for books that glory in the four-color spectacle.

That’s what I was going for: superness and heroism. I hope the two can still bring the fun.

—-

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Fonda Lee

Family: It’s a thing, for most of us, most of the time. And it certainly for Fonda Lee and her newest novel, Jade City, in which family issues aren’t just fodder for holiday get-togethers, but could determine the future of a nation.

FONDA LEE:

I had a strong vision for Jade City from the start. I knew it would have gangsters and martial arts and magic and culture and history—but I also knew that, at its core, it would be about family. This is the story of the Kaul family. Because family—its history, pressures, obligations—is what ultimately drives these characters in their most selfless and most ruthless moments.

It would seem, upon reflection, that the topic of family and how it shapes personal identity is a recurring one in my work. Jade City is my third novel. (As a former management consultant, I declare that three data points is all you need to start making sweeping generalizations.) I’m noticing unintentional patterns in my own writing, common themes and ideas.

Carr Luka from Zeroboxer, Donovan Reyes from Exo, and now the Kaul siblings of Jade City are extremely different characters, but they all grapple with who they are and what is important to them once they realize that how much the course of their lives has been decided by people and factors outside of their control. They’re torn between gratitude and resentment toward their parents, they’re conflicted about how others view them, they’re weighed down by their own expectations and those of others, and above all, they try to find the strength to make their own decisions (whether those decisions are driven by duty or desire) while also making peace with the fact that much of fate is driven by circumstance.

I suppose this thematic thread in my work shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a second generation Asian-American, the child of a broken marriage, a corporate strategist who left to become a science fiction and fantasy writer, a woman and a mother who’s been the lone female minority in the finance meeting and in the MMA viewing party and on the science fiction panel. I know a bit about conflicted identities and the struggle to carve out who you are against outside pressures.

In Jade City, that struggle becomes a tragic commonality between all the main point-of-view characters—four siblings who are expected to lead the clan their grandfather built but find themselves fighting for survival in a bloody clan war that will determine the fate of their country.

There is something undeniably compelling about family dynamics in a culture where violence is the legitimate and often preferred way to solve problems (as it is among the jade-wielding Green Bone warriors of the fictional island of Kekon). Within the popular genre of mafia stories, The Godfather and The Sopranos stand out as being especially popular and beloved. We forgive, indeed cheer, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano’s violent acts because they’re family men; they act not out of greed but out of love, duty, and vengeance for their respective clans. For similar reasons, stories of family feuds have a powerful hold on our imagination. The Montagues versus the Capulets. The Hatfields versus the McCoys. I think it’s because we all recognize that sometimes family can be so infuriating you really do feel like killing someone.

At the end of the day, though, you’d do anything for them. You would go to war.

Upon reading a draft of Jade City, one of my beta readers astutely pointed out that each of the Kaul siblings struggles with their place in the family. At times they’re close to each other, and at other times, worlds apart. They’re each forced, in ways that seem subtly inevitable, into doing things or taking on roles they didn’t want to. They do it anyway, and they own their choices, even the ones where its seems, given the circumstances, there was no choice at all. Because that’s the Big Idea in Jade City: family and personal identity can’t be disentangled.

As the Green Bones say: the clan is my blood.

—-

Jade City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Hank Early

Hello, folks. This fine day, author Hank Early would like to talk to about Hell. And the End Times. And Heaven’s Crooked Finger. The last of these being his new novel. But the other two of which had some influence on its writing.

HANK EARLY:

When I was eleven, I buried a large, club-like tree branch out on the sixty-four acres my grandmother owned in rural North Georgia. I was with my cousin and we’d spent the day discussing the Book of Revelation and how long we might have left until Jesus came back. We knew the rapture was going to happen sooner than later, and we knew before it happened, things were going to get really, really ugly. Ugly enough that the modern world would collapse, and we’d have to turn to the land, to the old ways for survival. Which was why I was burying the stick. One day—probably in just a few short years—my eleven-year-old self reasoned, I’d need it as a last-ditch way to fend off the hordes of unbelievers who would seek to pervert me.

I wrote my first Earl Marcus novel, Heaven’s Crooked Finger, without thinking even one time of that buried stick. I only remembered it today as I sat down to write this blog post. Yet, I believe it’s a memory that speaks to the impetus and heart of the novel. 

I grew up believing in all manner of dread-inspiring events—the rapture, Armageddon, the coming anti-Christ, and the inevitable mark of the beast. I also believed in the physical reality of hell. 

My grandmother’s preacher saw to that. 

Most of the preacher’s words are lost to me today, all except one: hell. I remember that word the way a cancer survivor remembers chemotherapy, the way a recovering alcoholic remembers morning hangovers. 

Hell, hell, hell, hell, like a bludgeon. Like a harbinger. Or maybe just a slow wind, the kind that whispers words of terror as it rattles the trees.

The preacher must have said that word a hundred times that Sunday, punctuating each utterance by slamming his foot down on the stage hard enough to splinter wood. I don’t pretend to know if he believed in the hell he screamed about or if he simply liked the idea of such a place. What I do know was I believed in it. Like the rapture, I’d learned to believe in hell. I’d learned to believe in it so fully, I would later spend nights lying awake in bed worrying—not about the existential questions, but instead about the existential answers, those that I’d come to see as irrefutable.

Those answers terrified me. Questioning did little good. Any number of true believers in my extended family were quick to point out the obvious signs:

“The blood moon over there. That’s an omen. The Lord is coming back soon.”

“See this symbol on this toothpaste? That’s the mark of the beast.”

“If the Lord would have returned in the middle of our argument, we’d have both gone to hell.”

“Better get right with the Lord. Better not backslide like (fill in the blank with some distant relative’s name).”

Most of these quotes can be attributed to my grandmother, one of the women to whom I dedicated Heaven’s Crooked Finger.

I can see you’re perplexed. Shouldn’t I feel animosity toward the woman who made me fear backsliding as much as I feared death? There’s a long essay right there, but the short answer is no.  

Like my novel’s protagonist, Earl Marcus, I went on my own journey away from fundamentalism and fear. Mine was far less dramatic than the one described in Heaven’s Crooked Finger, but it was no less enlightening. It taught me something crucial, something that all the foot-stomping, tongue-speaking, and end-of-days-prophesying never could. It taught me to forgive. Not only to forgive, but to understand.

Until you’re raised in it, until you’ve sat through those tense and fearful moments as a young child while the world and its foundations shook all around you and until you’ve waited with bated breath, absolutely sure that the skies would part at any moment and when they did, you’d be left behind with all the sinners because you knew somewhere deep inside that this wasn’t working for you, that you wanted no part of this damnation, these convulsions, this kingdom built with bricks of fear and guilt and, yes, even some kind of perverted love. No, until you’ve felt that, and more importantly until you’ve feared that, you can’t understand how hard it is to step away, to turn your back on it all, to become the backslider that you’d been warned about so many times.

Before she was the person who made me fear hell and plan for the imminent rapture, Granny was the woman who loved me unconditionally, the woman, who despite what the scriptures might say about a man being the leader of his household, actually showed me how a woman could do anything a man could do and do it better. Later, when the fear of her faith had begun to lose some of its power over me, she was also the woman who, at 80, left her rural mountain home to move in with me and my mother and father, both of whom were dying of cancer. She took care of us all, and I saw God in that act bigger and brighter and more real than I ever saw Him before. So, there’s the messy truth about Granny, and maybe about us all. And that too, is the big idea of the Heaven’s Crooked Finger. In the end, people are damned complicated, and even the ones that would condemn us to a fiery hell in one breath might love us with the same heat and passion in the next.

Even so, I contend the scars inflicted by our own families are the hardest to overcome, not only because of the ambiguity behind them (the perpetrators nearly always love their victims, sometimes fiercely) but also because of the frequency and ubiquity of the assaults. To walk away from a faith he couldn’t abide, Earl also had to walk away from his family. His home. Heaven’s Crooked Finger tells the story of a return home and a struggle to deal with not only the fallout, but the enduring mystery of that faith and what, if any, truth might be gleaned from it. It’s a mystery that asks far more questions than it answers: Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why, in our most genuine efforts to rise above this earthbound misery, do we saddle our children with such heavy burdens? What happens to our communities when those burdens are shrugged off at last, and the belief in heaven and hell becomes secondary to the love that binds us together in the first place?

You’ll have to decide for yourself how well the novel addresses these issues. The only thing I know for sure was that it was cathartic for me to write. As was this essay.

The best thing to come of it all happened when I was talking to my wife while taking a writing break recently, many of these same issues still fresh on my mind. My fifteen-year-old daughter overheard our conversation and piped up with a question that warms my heart:

“Dad,” she said, “what are the end times?”

Progress.

—-

Heaven’s Crooked Finger: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Tim Pratt

When you get known for writing one thing, it can be a blessing and a curse — a blessing that you have an audience for your wares, but a curse in that you can sometimes feel like you’ve written yourself into a corner. Sometimes making a change in those cases requires a leap of faith. Tim Pratt has made that leap with The Wrong Stars, and today he’s going to talk you through that leap and what came after.

TIM PRATT:

Insofar as I’m known at all, I’m known as a fantasy writer. I’ve published an eleven-book urban fantasy series, written a bunch of sword and sorcery, and done zillions of fantasy short stories. When I’ve dabbled in science fiction it’s mostly been set in the modern era – stories about people traversing the multiverse, a little bit of time travel, weird alien visitors, and the like.

I grew up on widescreen space operatic galaxy-far-away sorts of science fiction, though, from Star Trek to Star Wars to Edmond Hamilton’s Star Wolf to Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers, and I never lost my taste for the stuff. As an adult I devoured Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract and Peter Watts’s Blindsight, not to mention shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica and GalaxyQuest and The Expanse, video games like the Dead Space series, and more.

I always held the desire to write a space opera series deep in my secret heart, but that kind of science fiction is so different from my usual fantasy work, and I hesitated. Could I write something so far outside my wheelhouse? Would people come with me if I jumped genres that way?

A couple of years ago, as I began winding down my Marla Mason urban fantasy series after over a dozen years, I asked myself: what should my next big project be? What do I want to be the centerpiece of the next decade of my writing life, if all goes well?

It seemed like an important decision. I turned 40 last year. I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years. I am probably in the fullness of my power as a novelist, such as it is. If not now, when? So I decided it was space opera time.

I sat down and made a list of everything I love about spaceships-and-aliens science fiction. There should be a diverse crew of interesting people on a cool spaceship. Bizarre alien technology that violates the known laws of physics for fun, profit, and mayhem. Colony worlds, cosmic threats, weird artificial intelligences, posthumans, space stations, big dumb objects, big smart objects, mysterious inhuman ruins on uncharted planets, space pirates, vast ancient engineering projects of uncertain purpose, baffling but friendly aliens, cold and hostile aliens, murderous robots, biotech monstrosities, first contacts, cryo-sleep chambers, seed ships, and silent explosions.

I wanted to explore space opera themes I love, too: especially what it means to be human in a universe of extreme body modification, intelligent aliens, and far-flung colony worlds. What are the essential things that bind us together as a culture, or even a species, when that culture is spread throughout the galaxy, when we’re changing our bodies in fundamental ways, and when our common experiences have become increasingly uncommon?

I began to sketch out a world six centuries in our future: a network of colony worlds connected by wormhole gates and organized into various corporate, religious, and utopian polities, with a place for outsiders of every variety. There are weird aliens, a species we call “Liars,” who tell contradictory and sometimes patently false stories about themselves and the nature of the universe, but also trade us useful technology. I wanted a vast, looming background threat for my characters to gradually discover and grapple with throughout the series, and created the Axiom — an undiscovered ancient alien race, engaged in long-term universe-altering plans, capable of crushing humanity utterly if they ever noticed our existence and found us inconvenient.

I had a world worth exploring, but it wasn’t enough to put all my influences together to create an enjoyable sandbox. The beating heart of my stories is always the characters, and once I had a sense of the kind of weird, complicated future I wanted to play with, I started creating people who could thrive and strive and fight and suffer in such a world.

My novel The Wrong Stars is about the crew of the White Raven, skip tracers and freight haulers and wreck salvagers operating out on the fringes of our solar system. The crew is captain Callie Machedo, who probably has a heart under her no-nonsense exterior, though it would take a plasma torch to cut your way through; doleful XO and ship’s doctor (and adherent of a mind-altering-chemical-based mystery religion), Stephen; their engineer, a cyborg advocate of radical self-improvement, Ashok; pilot and navigator Drake and Janice, who had a run-in with a bizarre sect of Liars and came out forever changed; the lovelorn ship’s AI, Shall; and the catalyst for the novel’s action, Doctor Elena Oh, cryosleep refugee from the 22nd century, whom the crew discovers in the wreck of a seed-ship launched 500 years earlier.

When they find Elena’s vessel inexplicably floating on the edge of our solar system instead of light-years away, and hear Elena’s harrowing tale of why she’s the only human left on board, the crew discovers a terrible threat to all intelligent life in the galaxy, and for various violent reasons, they’re the only one who can stop it. The Wrong Stars is about dealing with that immediate threat… and the next books in the series, The Dreaming Stars and The Forbidden Stars, will explore more of the endangered universe as the gravity of the threat posed by the Axiom becomes clear.

I love these people. I hope you will, too. I get to write at least three books about them, so far. With luck, there will be more, because there’s a great big universe to explore, full of terrifying wonders and wonderful terrors.

I hope you’ll follow me out into the stars. It turns out I really like it here.

—–

The Wrong Stars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.