The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

When, as a writer, you find yourself caught between two tropes, what do you do? And is it a bad thing that you’re confronting two separate writing tropes in the first place? In her series that began with the book Amberlough and continues now in Amnesty, the third book, author Lara Elena Donnelly confronts her tropes and finds a way through them.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY: 

For a long, long time, Amnesty was nothing but a big idea.

My debut novel, Amberlough, was meant to be a standalone. A tragedy with a bitter ending, the only hope in a burgeoning resistance driven by death and loss. A story about people who fail, over and over again, to communicate with each other. Who fail to stake a moral, political, or emotional claim early enough to make a difference.

The character who fails biggest is Cyril DePaul. Already back-benched when the book starts, after a botched mission that’s left his confidence shattered, every decision he makes has his own interests at its heart. Nobody else’s enter into it. Even his gambit to save the life of his lover is self-centered; who wants to save their own skin only to live on lonely?

When I first wrote Amberlough, Cyril perished on the page. I had read enough spy novels to know that the bad spy usually dies. It’s not a job you can half-ass or bumble around in and still expect to avoid a bullet in the back of the head.

But I had also read enough fiction to know that being queer is another way to end up dead by the end of the novel. Cyril’s death fell pretty neatly into the trope known as “Bury Your Gays.”

I was caught between two tropes: one I wanted to lean into, and another I had frowned over in many other media properties. And I had gotten myself there by thinking how satisfying it would be to queer such a macho genre as the spy novel (though let’s be honest: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had already done it, and done it well).

But all of this isn’t my big idea. My big idea came when feedback from my editorial team poked at the ending–both my agent and my editor earmarked the potentially problematic death. Could we not just make it a little more open-ended? Not quite so…death-y?

I was torn, and also confused and kind of angry. I had written this ending knowing full well the risk I ran, and chosen to keep it during submissions because it felt right for the story and the character’s arc. I also didn’t think I would have been urged to unkill a straight character.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about tragic queers. But as several friends have said to me lately, “complicated is good. Complicated means it’s worth discussing.”

I felt then–and still feel, a lot of the time–that often there is a pressure on queer characters and queer stories to combat the “Bury Your Gays” trope, or the gay villain trope, or any number of other tropes, by telling stories without death, without tragedy, without detestable people. And yes, the world deserves happy, heroic queer characters. But it also deserves nuanced stories about flawed and fully-developed queer characters who sometimes hurt others and are hurt themselves.

Queer characters have been dying in fiction for a long time: as moral censure, as motivation for straight characters, to lend tragic savor to the story of straight heroes. Often the queer character who dies is the only queer character in story, and death is the only end we see for them. And obviously that’s a problem.

Unfortunately, nowadays the labor of undoing the harm caused by these tropes usually falls on stories that center queer characters–often on stories by authors who are queer themselves. Many queer authors hesitate to write stories based in their own experience, wondering if they are too dark, if they perpetuate the tragic queer narrative. And many times, straight authors including queer characters in heroic, happy narratives write versions of queer people that feel disingenuous or flat; that don’t engage with the nuances of living with a queer identity, some of which can be complicated and yes, painful.

I don’t like the idea that tropes–even Bury Your Gays–should be avoided at all costs. It’s not only simplistic, it’s impossible. If you write fiction, you’re going to write a trope someday. My take on tropes is that when they show up in a story they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but interrogated, turned on their head, and shaken down for their milk money.

So, I wrote two more books. And here we come to my big idea. There are spoilers ahead, so be wary if you mind that kind of thing.

Removing an explicit death scene and replacing it with a much more open-ended culmination felt strange to me, as an ending for a standalone. And the idea that this simple elision addressed the tragic queer trope didn’t quite scan for me; the book is still a tragedy. It still features queer characters. Changing that final scene with Cyril was symbolic, yes, but felt hollow somehow–like it lacked the intended resonance of the original ending. It felt like avoiding a trope on a technicality.

Still, given the feedback, I began to envision a further arc to the story; if Cyril didn’t die, what would his life look like? As a bad spy, a poor communicator, a child of privilege, and a fascist collaborator burdened by guilt, where would he go in this world turned upside down by political upheaval? And, if he ever surfaced again, how would he be treated by his friends, family, lovers, and public opinion?

Essentially: if death was not the final note in a tragic character arc marked by personal failures, what could I replace it with? What was a fate worse than death, to and for Cyril DePaul?

Facing the music, of course.

In Amberlough, death was a consequence for a long string of bad decisions made by a desperate man with flexible morals. I started thinking of the stack of consequences Cyril would have to face if he lived. There were a lot of them, ten times more complicated than a clean death might have been. And they were harder for Cyril to take, as a character, which as any writer knows makes for rich material.

In essence, my big idea was, “If I avoid this trope, it won’t be on a technicality. It will be on my own terms. And those terms will be devastating.”

In the actual writing of the book, things turned out differently than I had envisioned when I set out. But I hope I still succeeded in turning the simple evasion of a trope into something much thornier, that has readers asking themselves questions about guilt and redemption and who is forgiven for what, by whom, and why.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Ashok K. Banker

For this Big Idea, Ashok K. Banker writes an epistolary essay to someone who is not me, about his new novel, Upon a Burning Throne. Who is the recipient of this letter, and why is sent to them? Read on.

ASHOK K. BANKER:

Hey there, Effie.

We’ve known each other a while, you and I.

That’s why I get to call you Effie. I know you don’t let anyone else call you that. It’s our special thing.

The folks reading this are wondering what I’m on about. Who the eff is Effie, they want to know.

John, whose blog this piece is appearing on, also wants to know What’s the Big Idea.

I’m getting there.

First, let me introduce y’all to someone who needs no introduction.

Epic Fantasy.

EF, in short.

But she’ll always be Effie, to me.

Effie and I have been close for a very long time.

In a sense, she was my first love.

I first discovered her in an encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. It was this set of oversized hardcover volumes bound in midnight blue cloth. In the articles on Mythology, I first came across the world of fantastic beings, demi-gods, legendary heroes, amazing quests, epic battles, incredible worlds.

Sure, it was called Mythology.

But even back then, I saw it for what it really was.

Epic Fantasy.

I devoured all those articles over and over. I tried tracing out the wonderful illustrations (mostly classic paintings reproduced) and coloring them so I could pin them over my bed. I was really young at this point, so young I don’t even want to admit how young I was, and reading those articles in that encyclopedia also made me aware of how easy and enjoyable this thing called reading could be. So much so, that it got me hooked to reading way above my age level, a practice that continued throughout my childhood and adolescent years. So in a sense, Effie was the one who got me hooked on reading for life.

Soon, I graduated to entire books about mythology, myths, fables, fairy tales, and inevitably, science fiction and fantasy.

You have to remember that back then, Epic Fantasy as a publishing label didn’t really exist.

Back then, people like Isaac Asimov were still arguing that all imaginative fiction was really fantasy, a view which (as I recall) didn’t go down well with many die-hard conservationists of “hard” science fiction. Tolkien was only just starting to be rediscovered by a whole new generation of readers in America. And most epic fantasy books tended to be really short standalone paperback novels a couple hundred pages long at most. They were put out by the same imprints that published SF and there was often an apologetic air about them, almost as if the publishers and editors were saying “Hey, here’s a side order of fantasy to go with your SF. Now, let’s get back to talking about our main course, Science Fiction, the big granddaddy of all genre.”

But I could always recognize you, Effie, even when they covered you up like a nun with a bad habit.

You went by many names, like a secret agent donning multiple disguises for a variety of undercover missions.

You were Mythology. You were Legend. You were Science Fiction. You were Adventure. You were Historical. You were Superhero. You were Speculative.

And always, you were Epic and Fantastic.

Effie, forever.

As time went by and Tolkien became a rage in America, setting off a feeding frenzy among readers, publishers, authors, all hungry for “more of the same but different”.

A rumbling army of writers went to work. Reprocessing Tolkien but with more American-friendly prose and dialogue. Reworking the tropes but tweaking them just enough to make them their own, but also undeniably more…American.

The Americanization of Effie began, even as people acknowledged that Effie herself existed.

The gatekeepers processed you through the Ellis Island of US Publishing and turned you into an Apple Pie version of yourself.

A lot of terrific books came out of it.

Some better than others, some truly awesome, others…not so much.

Always readable, occasionally brilliant, but always… American.

Even when there were orcs and trollocs, goblins and elves, stone castles on high mountains, sieges and battles, great roaring armies of the undead, dark lords and white knights, somehow it all read like it had been processed through a machine that marked everything with a “Made in USA” tattoo.

American hero in a strange land. Fantastical worlds that looked different at a glance, but were really just American versions of what were supposed look to like “other” worlds.

Gone were the inscrutable mysteries of cultures and minds that were so far removed from our own present day that they were truly different.

Gone was the magic of bygone eras that had never existed and probably never would.

Gone was the sense of wonder that came from discovering fantastical worlds perceived through genuinely alien eyes.

In their place were now the familiar characters, personalities, ways of talking, acting, responding, behaving, as any of the equally familiar puppets that moved their lips and hips in American TV shows and movies.

Everything was “relatable”.

The fascination of the unknown, the shock of the unseen, the delight of the never-before-experienced was gone.

Replaced overnight by doppelganger tropes that simulated the original ones but were really just super chain franchise product.

They pretty much effed you up, Effie.

Turned you into something that went against the very grain of what you were.

Even at its most diverse, its most inclusive, its most genre-bending, globalizing, all-embracing best, American Epic Fantasy was now painfully…American.

So here’s my Big Idea.

(Yeah, finally.)

I took this epic poem called the Mahabharata, composed in Sanskrit some thousands of years ago. Some say, it’s the oldest story ever written. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the biggest, and the most audacious, ambitious, mother of stories you’ve ever read. It’s truly a mothership of Epic Fantasy. Every genre, every trope, every plot, every character, every twist, every scene you could possibly think of, is in there, and then some.

There’s a line in the Mahabharata itself about itself – yes, this is an epic that spends a lot of time talking about itself, the ultimate self-aware sentient story cycle – that says “Everything you seek is here. What is not here, is nowhere else.” After decades poring over it time and again, I can pretty much confirm that with two thumbs up.

But I didn’t just take this epic and Effie it up.

No, sir.

I set out to write an original Effie that would not reference anything, anyone, or be in any way, American.

A genuinely “other” Epic Fantasy.

The result, Effie, is my love song to you.

It’s called the Burnt Empire Saga.

Like the title, it’s just a tad bitter at first taste, because, well, it’s not the usual fare served in America.

It’s spicy, as in, real Indian spicy – not the stuff that they serve up in (the wonderful) Indian restaurants here in the USA – the kind of Indian spicy that has sweat pouring down your face and all your mucus membranes (and I do mean, all) on fire for several hours, but is goddamn awesome. It sets your hair on fire and you will never again be able to settle for sugar-laced American chain food once you acquire a taste for it.

The first book is called Upon a Burning Throne.

It sets bookstores on fire on April 16, 2019.

And just to prove how un-American it is, Effie, let me give the readers of this piece a teensy-weensy example.

The main protagonist of the entire series only appears very briefly in this first book.

And she’s just a baby in that one chapter.

Her story actually begins in Book 2, A Dark Queen Rises, which comes out next year.

Because this is not an American Epic Fantasy.

It’s not even an Indian Epic Fantasy.

Sure, it’s inspired by Indian mythology, and the DNA of the Mahabharata is all over it.

But that’s like saying I’m Irish because my grandmother was Irish. (True.)

Or that I’m Portuguese because my grandfather was Portuguese. (Ditto.)

Or that I’m Sri Lankan. (Ditto.) Or Indian. (Ditto.)

I’m all those things and then some.

And the Burnt Empire Saga is a lot of things too.

But one thing it’s not is American.

Check it out if you want to see what that’s like.

As for me, I’m happy to take back Effie to her roots.

The unknowable, inscrutable, not-quite-human-yet-intensely-humanistic mythopoetic mystery realm of the forgotten, the never-was, and never-will-be.

That’s where you belong, Effie.

That’s my tribute to you.

Accept this offering with all my love and humility, Effie.

It’s yours now.

—-

Upon a Burning Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll to the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Michael Moreci

If you’re a writer, is it better to be the proverbial tortoise or the proverbial hare? And does either matter as long as you’re still running the race? Michael Moreci considers this topic today in his Big Idea, and how it relates to his newly released novel, We Are Mayhem.

MICHAEL MORECI:

Selling books is hard.

Now, I’m certain this isn’t news to most people who read this blog, or anyone familiar with the book market in general. It’s no secret that most books are not bestsellers. In fact, most books end up losing money for their publisher. I came into the book world from comics; when my debut novel, last year’s Black Star Renegades, was published, I already had a track record writing both original and licensed comic books. And, to be certain, comics and books aren’t all that dissimilar—especially when it comes to profitability. Still, I experienced a learning curve when entering the book world, and I’m still learning today.

I’ll never forget what my sales rep told me, soon after Black Star Renegades was released. We’d met by happenstance—well, happenstance and some assistance from my friend and bookseller extraordinaire, Javier—and she imparted a piece of advice that has stuck with me. She said: The important thing is for your book to keep selling; so many books come out, sell for a few weeks, and vanish. They never sell again.

I thought, at the time, this had to be hyperbole. I was wrong.

Weeks later, I was at a book signing, and I was seated next to another first-time author. Unlike me, she had a tremendous amount of publishing knowledge from her time working at one of the major book houses. She gave me the same advice as my sales rep, reinforcing the idea that for books to be successful, they have to stick around. She—and I don’t want to reveal her name, for the sake of her privacy—told me a story about a book that her publisher had paid over $100K to acquire; this book had been out for two months and had sold ~two hundred copies. The math on that, as you might assume, isn’t good.

From the day Black Star Renegades was released, I was determined to make it a success; I doubled my efforts upon learning these horror stories of books that get released and, massive advance or not, disappear weeks later. Look, being candid—I knew Black Star Renegades wasn’t going to be a bestseller. The trick, I figured, was to make sure it stuck around.

I forget the exact numbers, but I did something like 40 events in 2018, ranging from bookstore signings, book festivals, comic conventions, and library appearances. Granted, I love this stuff; I love being part of book clubs, leading library workshops, and talking about writing in general. But 40 is a lot. And I’m exhausted.

The results, though, are real. Between Black Star Renegades and its sequel, We Are Mayhem (just released this week!), I’m going to earn out my advance (meaning my publisher will recoup the money they paid me to write these books). Would I consider these books to be a runaway successes? Nope. But—there’s something to be said about finding success in longevity. Because that’s what publishing is, for many writers: the ability to stick around. It’s what my writing teachers taught me, and what I teach my own students. Making it in this field is a marathon, not a sprint, and the marathon doesn’t end when your book is out.

Getting to the actual books, having the temerity to stick around is something that’s often on my mind. At the core of both Black Star Renegades and We Are Mayhem is a story that centers around what happens when the messiah figure (and we all know the prevalence of the messiah complex in fiction, and in real life) is taken off the playing field. What happens when a magical someone isn’t going to fix all the world’s problems?

I volunteered for the Obama campaign back 2008, and I’ll never forget the day after he won, when everyone saw the campaign’s success as the end goal—they figured Obama was going to fix everything, and that would be that. But that’s not that. Like finding success as a writer, the goal of bettering the world is an ongoing effort. You have to endure. You have to be dedicated to your cause and strive and sacrifice to make things work. That’s what I wanted my characters to discover once their messiah is gone and their backs are pushed against the wall. They face tremendous odds in having to topple an evil galactic empire, and without any hope for a magical solution to help see them through. But in this vacuum, they find hope in unity; hope in the will to defy the ruling order and fight for what’s right. And I think that’s a story we all need in our lives (especially these days).

So, We Are Mayhem picks up where Black Star Renegades left off. The galaxy is at war. Ace pilot Kira Sen is leading a group of resistance fighters against the Praxis empire while Cade Sura wrangles with the destiny—in the form of a powerful, mythical weapon—that was shoved in his hands. The book is a little bit of Star Wars, a touch of Arthurian legend, and a whole bunch of space adventure fun.

We Are Mayhem: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

The people authors know in their life are often significant in their fiction, either through their presence or their absence. In discussing her novel The Luminous Dead, author Caitlin Starling reflects on a person in her life who is very important to her, and how that person has made herself known in Starling’s writing.

CAITLIN STARLING:

When I was nine years old, my mother died.

It’s strange, losing a parent that young. I was old enough to remember her, but young enough that while I knew she’d been sick since I was born, and had a name for her death sentence (AIDS) since I was two, I hadn’t understood. After she died, I insisted on going back to school within a day, maybe two. I finished fourth grade. I finished elementary school, middle school, high school, and to all appearances, I moved on. I didn’t cry more than a normal child, didn’t act out more, didn’t really think about her as I grew up.

And then she started appearing in my writing.

It’s a well-worn trope, the dead mother who is convenient for the plot. She provides motivation, as well as logistical handwaving. The character doesn’t go to her parents for help, because she has no parents! And look, she has something to be appropriately angry about when the plot calls for it, but otherwise we’ll ignore the messiness that sort of death leaves behind in the real world. I learned from that playbook, of course, but instead of convenient, the dead mother began to dominate my characters’ lives. In my fandom days, I would fixate on figures who had suffered loss, estrangement, guilt, shame, and I would pry into them until I might as well have been writing original fiction.

When I finally began writing The Luminous Dead, I went back to what I knew. Gyre, the main character, doesn’t have a dead mother, but she does have a hole in her life in the shape of that mother. She has a father she’s emotionally estranged from, thanks to that hole they both share. And then there’s Em, who (spoiler!) lost her father young, then watched her mother fade away and, ultimately, disappear. The Luminous Dead is a claustrophobic story, a thriller set in a cave with just two characters, but more than that, it’s an emotional psychodrama. Every inch of the plot is drenched in grief, before we even know exactly what’s been lost, exactly how that’s pushed and pulled at the characters until they’ve arrived where they are.

Grief is not simple. It is not predictable. It is not clean, but not quite the mess you expect, either. It strikes at unexpected moments; after years of barely thinking about my mother, she roared back into my life because I was angry, angry that she wasn’t here to know my spouse, or to read my book, or just to sit and talk with me so that I could know her as an adult, not just a confused child. And then she was gone again.

I have friends who lost their mothers as young adults. I have sat with older relatives as they became orphans in their fifties. Every response is different, shaped by the relationships lost and the lives lived up until that moment. Even my own, which I know so well, looks different in different lights, at different times of day.

I see the world the way that I do because she is no longer in it. I treat distance and death in much the same way; when I can’t see somebody in front of me, my conscious mind forgets them, to save me the pain of losing them. When somebody dies, they simply stop existing, until a dream reminds me that we will never talk again.

Each story I write is drawn back to this first loss, whether I intend it to or not, and each time, I find a different facet of grief to delve into, to tease apart, to use to express elements of my own pain in dramatic form.

It doesn’t heal, necessarily.

But it does help.

—-

The Luminous Dead: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Sometimes you think a book is going to go one way, and then it goes another, and that turns out — perfectly fine, actually! Elizabeth Bear had a bit of that experience with her new novel Ancestral Night. Here she is to explain the zigs and zags.

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Ancestral Night had a hard time getting born.

It’s not the book’s fault. It’s possibly the author’s fault—or possibly the fault lies in the stars. The world kept changing radically on me while I was writing it, you see—personally, politically, and profoundly. And as I and everything around me underwent those changes, the book wound up changing too.

I had originally envisioned something much more along the lines of an epic space opera with multiple points of view and a lot of focus on the politics. The politics were the big idea around which the world was built, after all. The idea of a massive, multi-species, basically benevolent but imperfect post-scarcity bureaucracy devoted to maintaining peace and the well-being of its citizens, however imperfect it could sometimes be in implementation, was appealing in 2014. I feel like it’s even more appealing now, frankly: it would be nice to believe in functional governments again.

I was inspired by Iain Banks and his Culture novels, but I wanted more detail on how a post-scarcity society and a completely novel form of government might work. The best, most egalitarian, fairest systems of government we have now are based on structures that are millennia old at their core. Democracies and republics actually use a series of bronze-age technologies to approximate some of the better aspects of group decision-making protocols that science shows us are the most efficient known way of getting stuff done, but the technology exists to remove even more barrier to making those protocols work.

And we live in an era when nationalism and factionalism and classism and bigotry are the biggest barriers we have to addressing existential threats so vast that they require species-wide cooperation, which is a thing we can’t quite seem to get our teeth into. And in that case, possibly the fault likes not in our stars, but in ourselves.

So what if we could fix some of the shortsightedness evolution has given us, now that it’s become maladaptive? What if the greatest weapon we have for enduring our survival into the future is self-awareness and the ability to look at ourselves and decide to be better people? Not just on a person-by-person level, but as a species?

What if we could decide to grow up and deal with our problems, instead of ignoring them and assuming somebody else will handle the cleanup?

In the universe of Ancestral Night, humanity made these decisions long ago—after we nearly died out as a result of not making them for too long. Our species made it to the stars, but in the wake of a near extinction event that left us with no options except to die, or to change. We developed a system of government without professional politicians, where decision-making is handled through distributed systems, simulation games, and advanced forms of modeling. Where people are called to serve as executives for a limited time, and it’s as annoying as jury duty.

The way the book turned out, however, all of this receded into the background. I found that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a narrative focused on adventures and the vast distances of space, where travel even at faster than the speed of light takes months and there’s no quick means of communication between remote points. I needed to show my protagonist racing to beat propagating information, and wrestling with massive ethical questions.

That was how, on my third or fourth attempt to write the thing, I wound up in the head of salvage operator Haimey Dz, getting her to tell her story herself.

It was an odd choice—I recognized that even as I was writing it—to tell this story about deep time and vast reaches of space and personal responsibility and dueling ideas of what it even means to be human through a single first-person narrator. But it’s also a story about the unreliability of personal experience and memory and what a pain in the ass our atavistic and uncooperative neurology can be when we’re just trying to get stuff done, and I think that was why diving deep into one character’s experience was the tack that finally worked.

The only thing I’m sad about is that it meant I got to spend less time than I planned with Mantis Cop. I hope you’ll forgive me, although I understand if you don’t. I acknowledge going in that Mantis Cop is totally the best, and the point of the whole novel, and all the pages that don’t involve Mantis Cop are wasted. WASTED.

But that one small point aside, I am pretty happy with the book I finally got, after years of wrestling.

I hope it works for you too.

—-

Ancestral Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

In today’s Big Idea for her new novel The Light Brigade, author and Hugo winner Kameron Hurley explains how a bit of family history is the root of her story of soldiers in the far future.

KAMERON HURLEY:

I grew up around stories of war.

My grandparents met in liberated France in World War II. He was an American GI. She was a young French woman who had lived in Nazi-occupied France.  While he talked very little about the war –one of his jobs after the liberation was driving trucks of the dead out of concentration camps – she had many stories about encounters with Nazis and living under fascism. She would proudly display the scar on the side of her head where a bullet from a dog fight overhead between US and Nazi aircraft seared away her hair and flesh. The bullet lodged in the wall of a building behind her, and she had dug it out and proudly displayed it. Her literal brush with death.

She and her friends once found a Nazi boot along the river – with a foot still inside of it – and she told us about their terror about it being found, because for every Nazi killed in her town, ten French people would be rounded up and shot. She and her friends chucked the boot into the river, praying it was never found. Her father was part of the French resistance, and the SS came to her home often to harass him. When she married my grandfather, she thought she had won a great lottery. They spent the first seven or eight years of their marriage in France as the Americans helped rebuild after the war. Her disappointment on finally arriving to the United States, unable to speak English and faced with the terrible reality of enlisted military housing in the 1950s, was palpable in every story she told us about her earliest days here.

These stories had a profound effect on all of her children and grandchildren. Many joined the military, several became career soldiers. Others married soldiers or joined the reserves. I grew up understanding that sometimes there was a greater evil that we all must come together to fight. It would take me far longer to realize that in the vast majority of wars, who was good and who was evil was a lot more difficult to sort out. The far more common war is not one of external aggression, but of politics and resource hoarding and colonialism.

I went on to study the history of war, revolution, and propaganda. My Master’s thesis explored the African National Congress’s use of propaganda in the recruitment of women fighters in the struggle against Apartheid. This line of research opened horrifying and fascinating new doors for me into the role of propaganda, storytelling, training, and politics all play in creating, uplifting, solidifying, and destroying human systems of government.    

The initial spark for this story began with the idea of exploring a near-future stepping stone to instant teleportation – busting soldiers down into light. But what makes this a complex piece of work is the real world research that went into the politics and realities of war. The Light Brigade has a lot of big ideas: time travel, interplanetary war, dangerous tech, propaganda and psychological manipulation of civilians and soldiers. It also has a lot of ideas crawling beneath the surface, thoughts on how war changes us and our relationships, how conflict breaks us down, how hope for the future can keep us going long after a pessimist would have stopped.

Even knowing what I do about the horrors human beings have committed to themselves and one another, I still believe in the future. I believe in the future because I understand that the war machine is not some innate human compulsion. It is carefully nurtured and celebrated by those in power. The firing rates of soldiers in the first two World Wars were abysmal by modern standards. They threw all of these kids into battle and only 20% of them would actually fire at another human being out on that field. The rest shot without aiming at anything at all, or shot at the ground, or simply did not fire. The US military completely transformed how it trained soldiers after World War II, with an emphasis on teaching human beings how to murder each other without hesitation. Using advanced psychological tactics, the US military improved firing rates from 20% in World War II to 97% in Vietnam. And once it’s been taught, there is no program that’s been designed to reverse that training.

I have stories like these and so many others to share. I’ve used first-person accounts from soldiers – my friends, my family, and those I’ve collected through my research –to create the intimate, beautiful and horrifying world of The Light Brigade. In truth this book is less about predicting the future because so many aspects of this future are already here. Instead, it challenges us to rethink our present, and everything that comes after it. What is the future we want to build? How are we going to get there? Because everything is constructed. We can teach ourselves to create any type of future we want. But first we need to understand how much of the present is simply social conditioning.  

That’s what I love so much about writing in this genre. It challenges us all to rethink our assumptions and expectations. It’s a journey I hope you’ll all take with me.  

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The Light Brigade: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Mallory O’Meara

As a film producer, Mallory O’Meara knows that the amazing designs you see in movies don’t magically appear out of the thin air — they’re the work of dedicated creators and craftspeople. So when O’Meara set out to learn more about the mind behind the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she discovered a story that was every bit as interesting and compelling as the creature design itself. Here she is to tell her what she found, and what she’s sharing in her book The Lady From the Black Lagoon.

MALLORY O’MEARA:

My elevator pitch for The Lady from the Black Lagoon is that the book is Julie and Julia… but for monsters. It didn’t start out like that, though.

This book started out simply as a biography of Milicent Patrick, an influential artist whose legacy has been purposely obfuscated for decades. She was an illustrator, a concept artist, one of the first female animators at Disney and the designer of the iconic monster from the 1954 science fiction film CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The press and attention that Milicent got as the designer of the Creature was the pinnacle of her career. It also caused her downfall. Her boss at the time was so jealous of her being in the limelight with the Creature that he fired her. Milicent never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood again and no one knew what became of her.

While I was researching and investigating her life, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write about what happened to Milicent Patrick without writing about why it happened to her. It’s easy to hear a sad story about a woman dealing with sexism in the 1950s and think, “Man, what a bummer. That’s just how things were back then!”

But it wasn’t just how things were back then. What happened to Milicent Patrick is still happening. It’s happening right now.

I know this because it happens to me. My job as a genre film producer brings me face to face with the same obstacles that Milicent dealt with. Working in the industry that she did – nearly seventy years later – gives me a keen insight into her story. As I wrote and researched, I found parallels between my experiences and Milicent’s.

That’s when I realized that the best way to show the urgency and importance of her story was to include stories from my own life as a female horror fan and filmmaker. Milicent Patrick’s body of work created a legacy that has had an incredible amount of influence on the worlds of art and film. (THE SHAPE OF WATER anyone?)

But the events that led to her credit being stolen left their own influence on the world. This influence is felt by female filmmakers and artists and writers everywhere, every day.

I saw this in action as I worked to uncover Milicent’s life. The difficulties I had finding out what happened to her perfectly illustrate the devastating and systemic effect bias and sexism have on us. So, I decided to also include an account of my investigation and the book morphed into what it is now. Part biography, part memoir, part detective story. What I found out about her life was even more astonishing than I could have imagined.

It’s also a call to action. I hope that someday, what happened to Milicent Patrick will never happen again.

—-

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Visit Mallory’s website or follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brett Frischmann

Author Brett Frischmann wrote a non-fiction book about the consequences of technology. But he wasn’t done with the topic yet, nor it with him — and that’s how his novel Shephard’s Drone came about. Here he is to explain what happened next.

BRETT FRISCHMANN:

Human beings have special powers. We can imagine things that don’t exist and communicate with each other in person, at a distance, and across time about imagined things. These powers allow us to develop shared culture, beliefs, laws, technologies, and others things essential to cooperation and modern civilization. What matters most is how we exercise these powers across generations to shape our world and ourselves.  This is how we engineer humanity.

Perhaps the most fundamental Big Idea we’ve engineered for ourselves over the past few centuries is the belief that despite the many environmental contingencies outside of our control that shape who we are and what’s possible, we can be authors of our own lives. We have some meaningful agency or degree of freedom. This freedom is not naturally given or inevitable. It is contingent. It can be taken. It can be lost. We can be drones.

In 2010, I began grappling with these ideas. I’m a professor who works at the intersection of multiple disciplines. So I was comfortable digging deeply into philosophy, artificial intelligence, and various branches of psychology, among others. What was new for me—and in hindsight, a bit insane—was deciding to write nonfiction and fiction books in parallel.

Last year, I published the nonfiction book, Re-Engineering Humanity, with philosopher Evan Selinger. We examine our digital networked world and the risks of outsourcing much of our lives to supposedly smart tech. Instead of worrying about the doomsday scenario of sentient AI enslaving humans, we focus on what we’re doing to ourselves. The more pressing concern, we argue, is techno-social engineering of humans who behave like dumb machines.

Throughout Re-Engineering Humanity, we use thought experiments to speculate about the near future. We tie ourselves to the mast of existing technologies and extrapolate carefully. For example, after discussing fitness tracking tech in my son’s elementary school (to be worn 24-7 mind you), we extend our analysis of techno-social engineering of children to hypothetical variations, including sensors that track mental attentiveness or mood. Our objective is simple: Help elucidate the path we are on so readers can determine whether they like where we’re headed and can consider paths to alternative futures.

Back in 2010, I sat in a bar with my friend Deven Desai. He’d written a short story and asked me to read it. It was excellent, and as Deven surely hoped, it got me thinking and after a drink that meant talking excitedly. I offered constructive criticism and suggested minor edits, but mostly I applauded his efforts. Then I told him, “You know what, Deven? I have a story you should write.”

I’d been reading a book about the ethics of genetic engineering after finishing a book about the philosophy of the extended mind. These books got me thinking about how people would choose between biotech enhancements (bio-mods) and digital tech enhancements (comp-mods). I imagined a near future world in which such a choice was necessary. Bio-mods on the East Coast, comp-mods on the West Coast, and unmodified humans in the Midwest. I began to see how such a world could come to be and what it would mean for the different societies. I explained all of this to Deven.

He listened patiently for a few minutes, but then he interrupted. “Dude, write your own book. It sounds cool. But I can’t write it. You have to.”

This seemed crazy to me. “I don’t write fiction,” I said. “You do, and well. You know how.”

Deven insisted. He gave me some pointers. I bought a bunch of books on fiction writing. I got up at 5am every morning and wrote for at least 2 hours. I did this for a few years. …

Initially, I thought Shephard’s Drone would be about the near-future world. In part it is, but not exactly in the way I anticipated. Writers and writing guides often say that stories have a life of their own, that things happen in stories that the author doesn’t plot or even intend. I always thought this was BS. But then I wrote a novel and realized I was wrong. Of course, I outlined, plotted, and planned intensely from the fine details to the macro themes. But as I wrote, some unintended things just happened. There was a push and pull between my control/freedom and that of the story and its characters. I was in the lead most of the time—at least, I think I was.

Shephard’s Drone is about Kate Genet and her struggles to understand her world and her place within it. Kate is a bio-mod geneticist, a superstar in her field. She’s always been in control and had a solid plan. That stable baseline changes in the first chapter when she witnesses the sudden death of an infant and knows something went horribly wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary. A tug-of-war between the rational and emotional parts of her mind ensues; it is both disorienting and liberating.

Kate is determined to figure out what happened. It’s a classic quest for truth, an adventure into the unknown, a road trip!

Kate’s journey leads to intriguing challenges and varied relationships in the different societies. It took a dozen or so rewrites to effectively describe her interactions with other bio-mods, comp-mods, and unmodifieds taking into account her own priors as a lens. This was probably the most difficult challenge for me in writing fiction. It is quite difficult to see, much less describe for others to see, how one’s prior experiences shape one’s perspective. This is especially true when it comes to the technological infrastructures and affordances we take for granted.

In Re-Engineering Humanity, Evan and I work hard to provide a nuanced framework to evaluate the relationships between technology and humanity. We deliberately avoid utopian and dystopian extremes. Often, we found that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. (Consider, for example, polling your friends about the quality of life for humans in the motion picture, Wall-E.) What’s important but quite difficult to identify and evaluate is when the world we’re building for ourselves, each other, and future generations fits one person’s or one group’s utopian vision at the expense of another’s.

For better or worse, Shephard’s Drone leaves it to the reader to decide what is utopian or dystopian. Kate’s experiences in bio-mod, comp-mod, and unmodified human societies provide conflicting perspectives and an opportunity to reflect on the Big Idea permeating Re-Engineering Humanity and Shephard’s Drone, which is the contingent nature of freedom in worlds governed by technology.

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Shephard’s Drone: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Howard Andrew Jones

In today’s Big Idea, Howard Andrew Jones muses on the nature of heroism, and what it means for his latest novel, For the Killing of Kings.

HOWARD ANDREW JONES:

I think a lot of us are inspired by heroism before we really know what it is. I still remember tuning into an original Star Trek re-run for the first time when I was five years old. Before long I saw Kirk and Spock stand against a horde of angry miners after they discovered that the creature everyone thought a murderous monster was simply defending its young from genocide. Those two faced their own prejudices and changed their minds when exposed to new information, then risked their lives to see the just thing done.

I wanted to be like THOSE guys. Episode after episode, even if they didn’t always have the right answer, even if they sometimes made mistakes, they struggled to do the right thing when there might be no reward but death. They risked everything for their friends, their allies, and those who had no voice.

Of course, at five, I didn’t quite get the weighty stuff, I just liked the adventure of it all. And I sure loved swashbuckling, probably because I imprinted on The Four Musketeers when I caught it in the theatre at about the same time. It may seem worlds away from Star Trek, but that movie and its predecessor, The Three Musketeers (which I caught later) were similar to my favorite TV show in the way that its characters stood as one against their foes.

Nowadays, when fame seems easily acquired by looking good, possessing a lot of money, or shouting loudly, heroism can be taken for granted, or seen as quaint: often the most celebrated modern figures are those who get away with things they probably shouldn’t, or those who act the most outrageously entitled. These are cynical times, I get it, and sometimes it seems that facts and truth are dead (along with irony) and that heroes are just people whose dark sides haven’t been scooped yet.

But I don’t think I’m alone in remaining fascinated with heroes, and wishing we heard more about them. Heroism can supersede our cultural wars because it isn’t about defending a narrow set of beliefs dictated by a few who want to stay in power. It isn’t defined by ideology, but by the selflessness of those who protect others. Above all, heroism stands in stark contrast with selfishness, that most common of evils that creeps into a person or a society too self-indulgent to keep it at bay.

Now that I look back on all my touchstones, both those early ones and later discoveries, like the accounts of brave soldiers and civilians in the Second World War, I’m not at all surprised that I’ve ended up writing about heroes. For the Killing of Kings takes the perspective of a corps of veteran soldiers as they stumble into a conspiracy that may lead all the way to the throne. Truths have been twisted, facts invented, and the less powerful silenced and ignored. When two of these warriors, sworn to lay down their lives to defend the realm, ask the wrong questions, they’re framed for murder, declared traitors, and are forced to flee for their lives, their own friends in deadly pursuit.

Over the ensuing pages their bonds strengthen as they best terrible dangers and cross terrifying lands. They have to make agonizing choices and risk everything both to learn the truth and to seek a just future for all. In short, sacrifices must be made. Sometimes, because of their actions, they discover allies where others would see only enemies. And because I loved the weird world building and the layers within layers I discovered in The Chronicles of Amber (a major inspiration for this series) they see plenty of peculiar sites and uncover multiple secrets.

Of course good heroes need good villains, but given that I want the unveiling mysteries of this book to be one of its draws, the real villains and their plans probably ought to remain hidden here – although I think the back cover mentions that an enemy invasion is taking place just as Elenai and Kyrkenall begin their journey into the shifting lands. The greatest heroes need the biggest challenges to rise above.

I love characters swathed in gray as much as the next guy, from Conan to Corwin of Amber to the Gray Mouser, and yet somehow I keep ending up writing about heroes. I just seemed programmed that way. I have an honest love of adventure stories, and I surely hope my fiction amuses and even thrills readers. But if my words can provide solace and, dare I hope, inspiration for someone to stand tall in the face of adversity, and to take right action when wrongs are being committed, why, that will be a pretty grand thing.

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For the Killing of Kings: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Books A Million|iBooks

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

The Big Idea: Tina LeCount Myers

In today’s Big Idea, author Tina LeCount Myers discovers that in writing Dreams of the Dark Sky, her conscious was writing one thing, and her unconscious writing something entirely different — and yet, it all came together in the same story. Here’s how.

TINA LeCOUNT MYERS:

Conscious Me: I wrote a story about invasive vs. native human-like species in a volatile environment.

Unconscious Me: Actually, I wrote a story about fate and free will, where I used my characters to work out my own existential uncertainty about these concepts.

Conscious Me: What do you mean? The story is about how humans and elves fail to coexist and the ramifications of their wars.

Unconscious Me: Perhaps on one level. But if you look deeper, you’ll see that both humans and elves must come to their own understanding of agency.

Whereupon, Conscious Me pauses, thinking, then appropriates what was unconscious, feeling self-satisfied with the deeper meaning it has come up with. Then, in a moment of insight, Conscious Me suggests: Really, Dreams of the Dark Sky is Freaks and Geeks meets Excalibur—the John Boorman Excalibur.

And both parts of me are right, except maybe for the John Boorman reference, which feels a little conceited and hyper-masculine even for the Conscious Me.

I started writing The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy with the idea to write a fantasy story with science at the foundation of the worldbuilding. Dark matter disguised as magic. Multiverses and string theory cloaked as portal realms in arctic Scandinavia. Evolutionary biology to posit the existence of sequentially hermaphroditic elves. But what I discovered was an even more profound interest in what makes us human, even if we are elves.

On the surface, Dreams of the Dark Sky, the second book in the trilogy, is about two human-like species struggling to coexist in a volatile arctic environment. But at its heart, the story is more concerned with how the two main characters, Dárja and Marnej, experience the complex love between parent and child, yearn to belong in their respective communities, and struggle to take control over their lives. They reflect the deep-seated, human questions that I have about my own life: my relationship with my parents, my sense of belonging—or not, and, most importantly, my conflicted experience with the concepts of fate and free will.

I have suffered the resentment of fate, where I must live with a decision over which I have no control. I have struggled with the paralysis of free will, where I am unable to make the “right choice”. I have no definitive answer on which is better or worse. So when Marnej, who is half-human and half-elf, asks, “Was I always meant to end up here? Or did circumstance and my own action bring me here?” it is me asking that same question of my own life. And when Kalek, the elf-healer, answers, “I do not believe the gods choose our actions. They may set the course of events, but it is we who decide what direction to go in,” it is my own unwitting compromise.

Dreams of the Dark Sky is about the aftermath of a struggle between humans (invasive species) and elves (native species). But it is also about the tension between conscious and unconscious choice and what that interplay reveals about not only the characters, but also the writer, and hopefully the reader as well.

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Dreams of the Dark Sky: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound |Powell’s
Visit the author’s site. Visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Charlie N. Holmberg

Immortality has been done in fiction, many times. But has it been done like Charlie N. Holmberg does it in Smoke and Summons? Holmberg is here to explain why the immortality found here may be unique after all.

CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG:

Once upon a time, my agent and editor got together behind my back, schemed, and then called me demanding I stop this standalone nonsense and write another series. This was in the middle of my California vacation.

GREAT TIMES.

I am a prolific writer (having no other hobbies, I have to spend my time doing something). I jump from idea to idea, and my brain likes to work in short and sudden chunks, thus the streak of standalones. I’d written one series, one time, and it was honestly a fluke. It started with a standalone that had more story to tell, so two more books almost accidentally happened. But that series outsold my standalones ten to one. So I wasn’t surprised to get pressure to do it again.

Problem was, I didn’t have any ideas big enough to encompass multiple books. And I needed a good, big idea, because I don’t like staying in one world too long. I needed to create something that could suck up about 300,000 words, be interesting, and be especially interesting to me.

I started going through my Pinterest boards, phone notes, and idea folders, pulling out literally anything and everything that sounded interesting. I’d figure out how to tie it all together later, hopefully. It was during this Frankensteining of creativity that I came across THE THING. Something I had written down about a year earlier. Something I didn’t even remember writing down. It was just two words in its own Word document.

“Immorality switch.”

And I knew I had my big idea. I only needed to look down at my hands to determine how I was going to create this immortality switch: fidget spinner. I was going to make a magical fidget spinner that let my character be immortal, but only for one minute each day.

This opened up a world of possibilities. What could a person do with one minute of immortality, where consequences were nearly moot? It could be used for crime, for gain. To save oneself at the last moment, or kept on hand as a safety net. It could be used to cure the terminally ill or mortally wounded. And how it would be used would depend on who was holding it at the time. Who would know about it? Who would have access to it? What happened if someone snatched the device from someone else mid-spin?

So I made it. I gave it a history and a value. And I gave it to a poor sewage worker who could use it to turn his life around. In fact, his new life depends on it, so when a woman on the run steals it, he’ll do anything to get it back.

The device is rare, ancient, and more special than anyone realizes; I was able to connect it to a bigger magic system, the secrets of which carry across a whole series. Eureka! And I called it an amarinth. An amaranth is an imaginary, undying flower; an immortal thing. But then my vegetarian friend told me amaranth was also a fancy grain and was likely to be the next hot and popping thing for healthy people, so I changed one of the vowels in my term. Super creative, I know.

Ultimately, when readers dive into the Numina world and learn about this device, I want them to ask themselves one thing.

What would I do with my minute?

—-

Smoke and Summons: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indiebound |Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.

The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

Night follows day, day follows night — or does it? It depends on where you live. And in The City in the Middle of the Night, award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders considers a world where neither follows the other, and everything that entails for her characters and their lives.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

Five or six years ago, I became obsessed with tidally locked planets.

These planets, where one side always faces the sun and there’s a permanent day side and a permanent night side, were turning out to be incredibly common in our galaxy. And it was looking as if any exoplanet our descendents might colonize would turn out to be tidally locked.

And this image, of living on a planet with permanent chilly darkness on one side, and boiling hot sunlight on the other, captivated me and took over my imagination. In my novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, direct sunlight is actually toxic, so humans can only live in the thin zone of twilight in between the day and night sides.

(I thought about calling my novel Twilight, or The Twilight Zone, but apparently those titles were already taken? Also, the strip of twilight is called the Terminator, so I thought about calling my novel The Terminator—but turns out someone already used that one, too.)

I grew up in the country, with no street lights anywhere nearby. So the nights were incredibly dark, and if you wandered far enough from my parents’ house, you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face. I used to play flashlight tag with some of the neighborhood kids, and we would run around in total darkness until one of us ran into the electric fence around the horse field out back. Good times.

So I loved the image of endless, total darkness, which humans can barely even explore because we’ve lost all of our survival gear and all-terrain vehicles. The City in the Middle of the Night started to click for me when I thought of it as the story of a girl, Sophie, who gets banished into the night side of her planet, and learns to communicate with the creatures who live in the darkness.

These creatures, the Gelet, have their own science and technology, but humans decided they were just dumb animals because we couldn’t understand them. And they can’t live in our light, any more than we can live in their darkness.

That image of a girl getting banished into total darkness, colder than the South Pole, led to a whole story. Sophie is a shy girl, who doesn’t talk to you unless she knows you really well —-in fact, she’s the opposite of a lot of the other heroes I’ve written. She stays in the background and never raises her voice, and she definitely doesn’t stand up at any point and give a rousing speech. But she’s still the hero of the story, and her courage inspires people and changes the world.

And Sophie goes on an incredible journey—-not just wandering into frozen darkness, but also traveling from one human city to another. She has to journey with a group of smugglers from her hometown to the city of Argelo. They cross the Sea of Murder, which is a whole ocean that is a solid ice shelf on one side, and on the other side is a scalding wall of steam that will cook you alive if you sail too close to it. And did I mention the Sea of Murder has pirates? And giant sea monsters?

The other thing I kept thinking about as I wrote this book is just how weird it would be to live without sunrise and sunset. If you couldn’t look up at the sky and see the sun changing positions, along with the shadows moving around and changing shape, how would you know when to sleep and when to work? How would you even know how much time was passing if the sun never changed its position?

In my book, “night” and “day” are places rather than times, and I avoided using any words like “minute,” “hour,” “second,” “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” (Thank goodness the amazing copy-editor caught a few places where I slipped up.)

And this becomes a huge social divide for the humans living on January, as different societies approach the problem of sleep and time management differently. One human city has a rigid curfew, and everyone sleeps and works at the same time, because they believe that if we don’t keep a strict circadian rhythm, then we stop even being human. But another city, known as the City That Never Sleeps, has a much more chaotic approach (and way better parties.)

This debate is about more than just what time to go to sleep, or how to structure your life: at its root, it’s an argument over the nature of humanity, especially when we’ve gone to live on another planet where we’re an invasive species.

And I guess that’s the thing I was obsessing about in general in this book. My fascination with tidally locked planets led me in a couple of different directions: 1) Communicating with radically different creatures who live in an environment we can’t even visit, and 2) The debate over when to sleep and how to organize our time, without sunrise and sunset. And both of those questions come down to: what does it mean to be human? Who do we think of as people? How do we understand each other as equals, instead of trying to control each other?

When never-ending darkness lurks on the edge of town and the sky offers no clues as to how much time has passed, “human nature” is up for grabs. I had a lot of fun exploring this bizarre world and the questions it raises, and I’m so excited to share The City in the Middle of the Night with you.

—-

The City in the Middle of the Night: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Keith R.A. DeCandido

In today’s Big Idea, Keith R.A. DeCandido is here to represent for The Bronx, and why it’s a fantastic setting for his new urban fantasy novel, A Furnace Sealed.

KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO:

Finding an urban fantasy novel that takes place within the confines of New York City is about as difficult, to quote that great philosopher Edmund Blackadder, as putting on a hat. Just in general, the Big Apple is a very popular setting for fiction, not just of the urban fantasy variety.

But when you say “New York City” to the vast majority of humans, what they think of is the Manhattan skyline. They think of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and the Freedom Tower. They think of the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge and the 59th Street Bridge (and then they feel groovy). They think of Central Park and the Theatre District and Greenwich Village. They think of Harlem and Chelsea and Chinatown.

In other words, they think of Manhattan south of 125th Street. To most folks, that’s what New York City is. Maybe, maybe they might throw Brooklyn in there.

A Furnace Sealed is my attempt to remind folks that there’s a lot more to the Big Apple than that. The city has five boroughs. There’s also Queens to the east and Staten Island to the south. There’s Inwood and Washington Heights, the northern tip of Manhattan that is often forgotten.

And there’s the Bronx, my home borough, the northernmost portion, the home of the Bronx Zoo and the New York Yankees, the only part of the city connected to the mainland.

The Bronx has a long and fascinating history. It also has an image problem, as the only image most folks can conjure is the South Bronx forty years ago. Fort Apache, the Bronx was released in 1981, Howard Cosell famously said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during the World Series in 1977, and all too often when I tell people I live in the Bronx, they think it’s still like that. “Do you carry a knife?” (I used to carry a Swiss Army Knife, but post-2001 airport security has gotten me out of that habit.) “Is it safe where you live?” (Very.) “Are you the only white people?” (No, and also, even if we were, so the hell what?)

But the Bronx has Little Italy (the real one, not the tourist trap in lower Manhattan), the aforementioned Bronx Zoo, City Island (a New England-style fishing village off the east coast of the borough full of great seafood and adorable crafts stores), several huge parks, the New York Botanical Gardens, Woodlawn Cemetery (where many famous personages from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Miles Davis to Fiorello LaGuardia are buried), the Bronx Museum of the Arts, several great universities (Fordham University, Manhattan College, Mt. St. Vincent, etc.), and very soon an independent bookstore, the Lit. Bar. It’s where Edgar Allan Poe spent the last years of his life and where break-dancing and hip-hop were born. Alan Alda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are all from the Bronx. And there’s so much more besides.

It’s because most of you reading this probably didn’t know most of what I just wrote about that I conceived The Bram Gold Adventures, of which the first book is A Furnace Sealed. Bram Gold is a Courser, a supernatural hunter-for-hire. He’s the guy you hire to wrangle a unicorn or babysit werewolves on the night of the full moon or get that pesky leprechaun off your lawn. And he works and lives in the Bronx. The first story I wrote with him appeared in the 2011 anthology Liar Liar, which had some fun with the history of the Marble Hill neighborhood, which used to be a physical part of Manhattan, then an island, and now is physically part of the Bronx (though politically still part of Manhttan).

The theme of the urban fantasy world I’ve created is that most of the creatures are not quite what you expect—much like the borough where the book takes place. Unicorns are, in fact, surly beasts any time they smell a male (which is why virgins can calm them—they don’t have man-funk on them). Vampires are total wusses who are pale and sickly and don’t like sunlight. Werewolves are mostly just people who turn into big dogs once a month.

And Coursers—and magic users, for that matter—are just people doing a job. In addition to letting people know that there’s a whole ‘nother part of the Big Apple to the north, I also wanted to make sure that I portrayed characters who need to feed and clothe and house themselves. Most people make decisions based on what they can afford, and fictional characters should do likewise. At one point in A Furnace Sealed, Bram has to put his investigation on hold because he’s working a shift at Montefiore Hospital. (In addition to being Bram Gold, Courser, he’s also Dr. Abraham Goldblume, who works two days a week as an ER doctor. He changed his name for the former job because if you want your nasty monster hunted, you’re not gonna hire a schmuck named Abe Goldblume. Bram Gold, on the other hand, sounds like he can get stuff done.) He has to work that shift, because he’s already called in sick too often, and if he does it again, he’ll get fired, and it’s hard to find more work when you’re fired for poor attendance at your only-twice-a-week job.

Back in 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to go to a lot of different parts of the Bronx. It was that work in particular that got the wheels turning about the manifold glories of the Boogie-Down Bronx, and I wanted to bring them to the world in a way that I hope youse guys (as we say in da Bronx) find entertaining. And if you do, rest assured, I’m already hard at work on Book 2 of The Bram Gold Adventures…

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A Furnace Sealed: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords

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

 

The Big Idea: E.E. Williams

It’s always delightful for me when I learn a compatriot from my journalism days branched out, as I did, into the literary world. In this case, it’s E.E. Williams, with whom I shared a newsroom twenty five(!) years ago, writing mysteries, of which My Grave is Deep is the latest. In this Big Idea, Williams delves into the making of his mysteries, and why they take the time they do.

E.E. WILLIAMS

It took me 25 years to write my first mystery novel, “Tears in the Rain,” so titled after the famous line uttered in the movie Blade Runner. It took another 17 years to write the second book, “Tears of God,” and another five to complete the third, “My Grave Is Deep,” which was recently published on Amazon.com. All three feature amateur detective, Noah Greene, who sacrifices everything dear to him to follow a dream of becoming a private investigator.

Why it took that long to write that first book is a mystery in itself because from the time my father handed me a book – a thick tome about a black stallion in the Arabian desert, the name of which has vanished on the winds of time – and told me to read it, it was my life’s goal to be an AUTHOR. I put that word in caps because I didn’t just want to write books. I wanted to be famous, and rich, and so successful Stephen King would call me for tips.

I had this vision in my head that I would live in an A-frame house in the Colorado mountains during winter, where I would hunker down over my typewriter (yeah, that should tell you just how old I am), pecking out my next bestseller, and then in spring, take the manuscript to my publisher, drop it off, pick up a fat paycheck and catch a plane for Europe where my wife and I would travel and eat at the world’s best restaurants, and where I’d be recognized and asked to sign autographs for my adoring fans. I’d return to the states just as the latest book hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and do a book tour that would take me from the East Coast to the West, and sell the movie rights to Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, before returning to Colorado and another winter of writing.

Oh, I was going to be a star. Excuse me. A STAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then, life happened.

I got married my senior year in college at Kent State. I graduated with a degree in journalism and got my first job at the Dayton Journal Herald, now defunct. From there I went to the Miami News, now defunct. And then the Dallas Times Herald, now defunct. (Yes, I was a serial newspaper killer.)

It was when I worked at the Miami News that I decided to get serious about writing the book I always wanted to write – a mystery. A surprise, that. After reading the book my father gave me, I started a strict regimen of Sci-Fi novels. I devoured everything written by Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Ursula K. Le Guin. (Now, of course, I devour everything written by Scalzi, James S.A. Corey and Richard K. Morgan.) I thought if my dream were to ever come true it would be writing Sci-Fi. But … before I hit the shift key for the first time, I read an Esquire Magazine piece that stated some of the best writing being done by novelists was in the mystery genre. They recommended Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald and John. D. MacDonald.

It was John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series that I first picked up. Travis lived on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, and did investigative jobs for hire. There was a color in each of the book titles. “The Deep Blue Good-by.” “The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper.” “Nightmare in Pink.” “The Dreadful Lemon Sky.” I was hooked. I devoured all 21 McGee novels like a starving man. Then chomped down Chandler, followed by Hammett, the other Macdonald and Robert Parker. I was fascinated by the stories of world-weary detectives overcoming long odds to turn back evil. That was the kind of book I wanted to write.

And so, I started a book that didn’t even have a title because Blade Runner was still off in the future. I wanted a McGee-like amateur hero, someone who loved movies with the same sort of passion as I did, and who lived in Miami because, well, that’s where I lived.

I dove into the book with gusto, determined to make it a bestseller. The gusto didn’t last long. I had a family – a wife and young son. Could I afford to take a risk on writing books, I asked myself. I was good at newspapering. What if I failed as a novelist? What if I failed my family?

So I put my energy and focus on writing about sports stars, and actors, and yes, other novelists. I did it well enough to keep getting promoted, a velvet fist if there ever was one. I bounced from one paper to another, – 14 in 42 years – working at some of the country’s biggest and best, including the New York Daily News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Fresno Bee (where I met the estimable Mr. Scalzi).

Oh, it wasn’t as if I didn’t work on the book. I’d write for a day or two, sometimes three, and put it in a drawer and go months before starting again. By which time, the thread of the plot was lost, requiring a do-over. I did a lot of do-overs. Then I lost the manuscript in one of those 14 moves (remember, everything was on paper, not in a computer). Began again. Moved and lost it again. My wife, once threw it out in the trash, something I prefer to chalk up to as a tragic mistake rather than a comment on the book’s quality.

The years stacked atop one another and when I looked up, 25 of them had passed. I told myself it was because I had that day job. And yet, so many of my friends and colleagues were successful novelists – John, of course, and Sherryl Woods and John Katzenbach – and they all had day jobs just like me. I was embarrassed by my own inability to do what they’d done. I decided it was either do what I always dreamed of, or stop dreaming.

Eventually, I found the will and discipline to drag “Tears in the Rain” over the finish line and get it published.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Still, I loved the characters I’d created and gave it another go with “Tears of God.” It’s a better book and only took me 17 years to write.

Stardom, fame and fortune did not follow.

Nevertheless, I continued to enjoy writing and seeing my characters grow, so out poured (can something that takes five years really be described as pouring out?) “My Grave Is Deep.” It is, I think, the best of the three.

If history is any indication, stardom, fame and fortune won’t follow. Regardless of its reception, I’ve started to write a fourth Noah Greene mystery and I have but one hope.

That it doesn’t take 25 years to write. Because, you know, death.

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My Grave Is Deep: Amazon

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The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson

It will be no surprise to learn Kevin J. Anderson has written a lot of novels — he’s one of the most prolific authors working today, not only in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, but in all of fiction. But he’s also written quite a lot of short fiction as well. Over the past six months has collected much of that decade-spanning output into a series of “Selected Stories” book, the (for now) last of which has been released today. Anderson is here to discuss the collecting, curating and publishing of those works — and because there are four of them, rather than do my usual thing of putting purchase links at the bottom, this time if you’re interested in one or more of the books, click the cover and it will take you to the Amazon sale page for the book.

KEVIN J. ANDERSON:

It’s not often that a writer gets to look at decades’ worth of their writing with an objective eye. I spent the last year and a half combing through all of my published short fiction—well over a hundred stories dating all the way back to 1978—so I could compile a four-volume set of my “Selected Stories.” (It’s the “selected” stories rather than the “complete” stories because even I don’t have copies of some works and, frankly, a few of those early pieces were better left buried in the contributor box.)

Simply gathering and rereading all of those works was quite illuminating. I remembered the stories, since they are my creative babies, but remembering them was different from reading them. I began the process of sorting the stories by genre, which proved to be a bigger than expected challenge, since I write widely and produce many different types of fiction. The collections sifted out into a full volume of fantasy, one of horror and dark fantasy, and two volumes of science fiction, the second of which was just released. In total, over 500,000 words of short fiction, 90 stories ranging from novella length down to flash fiction.

I didn’t want this to be just a bunch of random stories like a big bag of literary potato chips, but rather I intended it to be a real retrospective, giving readers some sort of context about the stories, what inspired each work or what sort of thematic connections they had with other tales. These works had been written over the span of four decades, but compressing the time scale and reading them all at once highlighted certain consistent concepts that I visited again and again, sometimes because I still had more to say on a subject, other times because the ideas wouldn’t leave my brain.

I wrote a brief introduction to every single story illustrating some technique or inspiration, maybe just an anecdote related to the piece. Readers going through the collection would have an interesting take on what was going on in my life at the time, how I approached the craft and art as a writer, my philosophy on certain things, and even little Easter eggs that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Now, that seemed like a good idea when I started the task, but then I had to come up with something to SAY about ninety stories. In doing so, though, I discovered parallels I didn’t even realize, subtleties that my subconscious (as coauthor) had slipped in without my forebrain’s knowledge.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, a rural farming community where my dad was the town bank president. I call it a cross between Norman Rockwell and Norman Bates, and it was definitely not a “nerd-friendly” place. I was the oddball kid who read comic books, Famous Monsters of Filmland, H.G. Wells, Andre Norton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I avidly pored over Vampirella magazine whenever I could get my hands on a copy, and my parents didn’t quite know what to do when their son was so interested the scantily clad, sexy space vampire, though in all honesty I was far more captivated by the monsters than the cleavage. I was picked on by the other kids, teased for getting straight A’s in school (because I would much rather read than go out and play). Remember the kid Ralphie from A Christmas Story?  That was me.  

I sought refuge in alien worlds, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comics, and then I would escape into my writing. When I was around ten years old I spent all the money I’d saved up to buy a Smith Corona electric cartridge typewriter, because I wanted to be a writer. Many of the early stories in these collections were plunked out on that electric typewriter. I published my first story when I was a Junior in high school, fifteen years old (and that story, “Memorial,” is included in Science Fiction, Volume 1).

Some of my small town experiences, and nightmares, became the basis for an entire sequence of Bradbury-esque dark fantasy tales set in the mythical Wisconsin town of Tucker’s Grove. Those 13 stories are interspersed throughout the fantasy and horror/dark fantasy volumes. Though I had many bad memories of small town life, my real Wisconsin childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as what I put my characters through.

Over the years I cowrote many stories with a spectrum of collaborators, sometimes as a learning exercise, sometimes by assignment, sometimes because I needed a person’s specific skills or experience. My coauthors include Brian Herbert, Doug Beason, my wife Rebecca Moesta (yes, we’ve collaborated on many stories and novels, and we’re still married!), Sherrilyn Kenyon, Mike Resnick, Dean Koontz, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Gregory Benford, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Grammy-award-winning singer Janis Ian and Neil Peart, legendary drummer from the rock group Rush. They’re all included in these collections.

A lot of the stories were done at the request of an editor, so that the writing became a sort of parlor game or an improv act. Like many Golden Age pulp writers, when an editor would show them the cover painting and instruct them to write a story to order, I was often asked to create a tale about solar sails or cloning or virtual reality or even purple unicorns, and I would say “I can do that!” One piece (“Controlled Experiments” in Science Fiction, Volume 2) was from an anthology in which every single story began with the line “There were rats in the souffle again.”  I’m sure literary divas shudder in horror at the very idea, but to me that demonstrates an author’s flexibility and creativity. Give me a challenge and I guarantee I’ll entertain you.

The hardest part of putting together these four volumes was the paperwork. Simply digging up original copies of all those initial publications, trying to track down copyright dates, then scanning and proofing those old stories—the sheer drudgery of compiling was the reason the project took a year and a half.

We released the four volumes through my own publishing house WordFire Press. Because these were my babies, I insisted on doing all the interior design and layout myself. Working with my brilliant graphic designer Janet McDonald, we created the covers. WordFire released them in ebook, trade paperback, hardcover and audio (so there’s no excuse not to get a copy).

I’ve published a lot of books—about 160 by my latest count—but putting these collections together gave me an unexpected overview of a lot of words, characters, settings, and ideas. It’s also inspired me to write a few more stories that have been hanging out on the back burner of my imagination.

It probably won’t be too long before I have enough for a volume 5.

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Visit Kevin J. Anderson’s site. Go to the Wordfire Press site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Django Wexler

Every hero has a journey — or so it would seem — but does that have to be the journey we expect them to take? Django Wexler asks that very question in this Big Idea for his new novel Ship of Smoke and Steel.

DJANGO WEXLER:

There’s a story we like to tell in science fiction and fantasy: call it the “journey to power”.

The parameters of it are so obvious they almost don’t bear repeating. Our protagonist (orphan farmboy, penniless waif, lowly ensign) begins in a position with no power or authority. Over the course of the story, they gradually improve their lot, often as a side effect of pursuing other, more altruistic goals. The farmboy becomes a master swordsman, the waif leads a revolution against the oppressive state, the ensign assumes command of the starship in a crisis. By the conclusion, they can look back from the dizzying heights and reflect on how far they’ve come, and perhaps laugh about how provincial concerns like local bullies seem on the eve of the Final Battle.

I’m being reductive, of course, but this thread or something like it is at the root of many, many SFF narratives, and for good reason. It’s immensely satisfying — the underdog who we identify with almost automatically slowly getting the upper hand. Often there’s a contrast between those in power at the start of the story, who abuse their authority, and the hero, who wields power justly and honestly. It’s a story most of us can identify with, because almost everyone knows what it’s like to begin at the bottom of some field, and we can all enjoy the fantasy of becoming powerful enough to give petty tyrants their comeuppance.

Let me stress that this is a good story, which is part of some of my absolute favorite works. It’s in Harry Potter, The Wheel of Time, and Star Wars. (The journey to power overlaps, but is not identical to, the more familiar Hero’s Journey of Campbellian fame.) I’ve used it in my own works, many times. Winter’s story, in The Shadow Campaigns, follows her journey from lowly ranker through sergeant, regimental officer, and finally commanding general, from the front lines to the heights of power.

In my middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, the protagonist Alice becomes a powerful Reader over the course of the series, accumulating contracts with magical creatures than increase her repertoire of abilities. In fact, one of my favorite moments in that series comes in the fourth book: having spent nearly all her time since encountering magic in strange alternate worlds battling monsters, Alice finds herself spat out, alone and penniless, on a Florida beach. (The story takes place in the early 1930s, so no cell phones or internet to the rescue …) She makes her way back to her home in Pittsburgh, and in the process discovers just how powerful her abilities make her in the “normal” world — she can go anywhere, do anything, and no one stop her. I like it as a moment of reflection, that pause just before the summit where we look down at how far we’ve come.

Ship of Smoke and Steel, my new YA fantasy, has a very long history in my archives. It was originally called Soliton (the name of the colossal ghost ship that is the primary setting) and it made good use of the journey to power. Our protagonists (originally there were two of them) were poor orphans, unaware of their magical abilities, who were abducted to be given to Soliton, which collects mage-bloods for mysterious reasons. Once aboard, they had to make their way in the dangerous, lawless society of the monster-haunted ship, gradually uncovering their own power along the way.

That first attempt never quite worked out — it was part of a somewhat ill-conceived Massive Worldbuilding Project, the sort of thing that starts with “Year 0: The World is Created by The Gods” and pages of maps on millimeter graph paper, and it collapsed under its own weight — and the ideas for Soliton lay dormant in my files for many years. (Writer pro tip: never throw anything away.) When I got the chance to return to them, after more than a decade and nine novels, I decided to take a different approach. (n.b. different as in “different from what I had done before” — I certainly have no claim to originality in the genre!)

Isoka, the protagonist of Ship of Smoke and Steel, is a powerhouse from the beginning of the story. She is an adept of Melos, one of the Nine Wells of Sorcery, the Well of combat and war, which grants her energy blades and nearly impenetrable armor. When we first meet her, she’s an enforcer in a criminal organization, laying waste to a gang of rivals. And while she learns a few new tricks over the course of the book, by and large this is not a story about her coming into her power — she’s already done that.

Instead, Isoka’s story is what you might call a journey to empathy. Apart from a younger sister, to whom she’s obsessively devoted, Isoka starts the book with a callous disregard for the feelings or welfare of others, happy to slaughter her way to the solution of any problem. Soliton, when she’s shanghaied on board, presents her with a situation that can’t be solved by cutting it to pieces, both physically (it’s full of giant monsters and other adepts) and emotionally (much to her surprise, she falls in love with a princess). Her struggle with this is the heart of the book.

Why do it this way? Some of it is just how the characters came to me, of course. Some of it, as I said, is just wanting to try something I haven’t done before. And I think some of it comes from the outside world — this book was written in 2017, and with times being what they are, it’s the journey to empathy that really speaks to me right now. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope it speaks to all of you, too.

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Ship of Smoke and Steel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David Mack

Author David Mack knows what you expect out of a book series. But with The Iron Codex, he’s making the argument that you should sometimes get something else than what you expect. Let’s read his thoughts on why this is.

DAVID MACK:

In the publishing industry, there are certain expectations that govern how a new book series is launched, promoted, and sustained. The Iron Codex was written to defy those expectations.

One of the most common bits of received wisdom that is imparted to authors when they embark upon the creation of a series of novels is that, while each book must tell its own story, each entry in the series should be very much like all the others under the same banner. They should share a core cast of characters. Employ the same settings. Evoke consistent themes and tones. And, above all, belong to the same easily defined and marketed genre or subgenre.

For example, if one launches a series whose first book concerns a grouchy, ghost-talking private detective solving a murder in Victorian London, one’s publisher and readers are likely to want the second book to feature the same main character, supporting cast, setting, and tropes. Moreover, it’s reasonable for them to expect that its plot will concern another mystery to be solved. Perhaps another murder, or maybe something else, just for variety. But the essential reading experience of each book in the series should be very much like those that preceded it.

It’s a logical and reasonable approach to crafting a series. It has a long track record of success.

It also was exactly what I did not want to do when I created my Dark Arts series.

I created Dark Arts to be something different. Its first book, The Midnight Front, was plotted and planned as a World War II-era secret-history war epic about demon-powered sorcerers waging secret campaigns behind the scenes of the real war’s events. But I had no interest in creating a series that simply hopscotched from one war to another. I didn’t want the progression of the series to be “World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq War, etc.”

What I’d envisioned was a series that would follow a core group of sorcerers through different eras and regions of 20th-century geopolitical history, by telling stories best suited to those times and settings. Consequently, book two of Dark Arts is a radically different style of novel from its predecessor. Instead of another war epic, The Iron Codex is a Cold War-era spy-thriller.

Just to increase my difficulty level, I decided that book two should also have a different main character than book one; I wanted the female lead from book one to take over as the heroine. The Midnight Front had been about Cade Martin’s journey from naïveté to jaded cynicism. I wanted The Iron Codex to chronicle Anja Kernova’s path from self-doubt to self-knowledge.

Of course, switching the main character from one book to the next has been done by other authors as they developed a series. (I’m looking at this blog’s esteemed owner’s own Zoe’s Tale as a sterling example.) But often those series were more consistent in style, genre, and setting than Dark Arts promises to be.

That’s not to say there are no through-lines connecting the stories that constitute my series. The magic system, which was extrapolated from the rituals of Renaissance-era ceremonial magic, is an essential element in every book. Subplots from book one are continued in books two and three (the latter of which I am still revising for final delivery to my editor), and my supporting characters have their own arcs that follow them through the series.

Will those links be enough to keep readers from abandoning my series en masse when they realize that each new book will be a different narrative flavor? Book three is going to be a paranoid conspiracy piece about betrayal, and I have notions of making book four a high-velocity heist thriller. Of course, it’s possible book four will never happen, because I might have just committed career suicide with this unorthodox approach to my series’ genre identity.

There are a lot of reasons why this experiment might not succeed. I knew that was a risk before I started. But on some level I genuinely believe that, just as I find it more interesting to write a series that changes up its approach with each book, there is an audience that will appreciate and celebrate it. My acquiring editor certainly believed it to be a worthwhile endeavor.

If that turns out not to be the case, future generations of writers will likely use my name in whispered tones as a caution to others. But even if this experiment fails to pan out commercially, I will defend my creative choice. (Though maybe not my business savvy.) I think the Dark Arts novels are fun and unlike much else out there. I’ve enjoyed writing them, and I can’t imagine having taken any other approach to telling the tales of these characters. Now, however, my role is done, and all I can do is hope that the books find their readership via word-of-mouth.

And so I cast my peculiar narrative bread upon the waters of public opinion … and hope that my reward proves to be more than just a handful of soggy gluten.

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The Iron Codex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read a prequel story. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brenda W. Clough

In today’s Big Idea, Brenda Clough explore the issues of power, and superpowers, and whether both are more trouble than they are made out to be — and how that affects her new trilogy, of which The River Twice is the first installment.

BRENDA W. CLOUGH:

I was born in Washington DC and have lived here, off and on, all my life. So a fascination with power comes naturally to me. All my novels revolve around power and the difficulties of acquiring and managing it, and my new time travel trilogy Edge to Center is no exception.

And what is time travel but the ultimate power? Think about it. Nothing is over, if you can go back and fix it. No battle lost, no relationship destroyed, no opportunity missed. You blew it big time. But you could go back and make everything right – couldn’t you?

Well … of course not. Who wants to read about Superman steamrollering all the opposition? The whole point about writing about power is to explore the dilemmas it generates.  My hero Jack Wragsland falls into every possible pit of knives his ability to manipulate time allows him to get into. A reasonably conscientious fellow, he does try to fix it. It does not go well.

But there’s more to power than tinkering with space/time. The main tool the human race has developed to manage untrammeled power is government. Only good governance separates Americans from Yemen or North Korea. There’s a reason people want to immigrate into the United States, and it’s not because of our climate. Living in a well-run nation allows you to get stuff done: useful things like staying alive and having a family and not starving to death, picky details like that. And writing books – are there any great novels you know of that written by a resident of Pyongyang? Think of how difficult it would be to start a decent theater project in downtown Lebanon today. If art is the fullest expression of a culture, it’s government that gives the space for that culture to flourish.

So the other protagonist is Calla Ang, heir to an (imaginary) country in Southeast Asia. The problem she has is how to manage her political power. God knows there are plenty of knife pits a ruler can fall into, and the misery this can generate is just as great as meddling with time lines. Which Jack helps her with, a couple times.

There is a solution within the story, one that both characters work towards. It’s a grown-up answer, not an action-movie solution, kind of Zen: that you don’t have to wield the sword. You can have the power, and hold it back. Sometimes the wiser path is to simply not use the maximal weapon in your hand. Of course you can dive in there, thrashing and trashing, and that makes (I trust) for a thrilling set of novels. But if you keep on throwing the big hammer, are you smart? Sometimes, as Tolkien told us, the answer is small and mundane.

I insist that my protagonists be smart. Jack and Calla make horrible mistakes, but they learn from them. They don’t keep on banging their heads against walls. They grope their way, eventually, to a solution that Marvel heroes would never fall into.

—-

The River Twice: Amazon|Book View Cafe

Visit the author’s site. Read the Book View Cafe blog.

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

Who tells the story of a novel? For her new novel The Widows, the question is not an academic one for Jess Montgomery — her story of 1920s Appalachia hinged on the right voice to tell the tale.

JESS MONTGOMERY:

A few years ago, we were planning our first trip to visit our younger daughter for her birthday weekend at Ohio University, in Athens County, Ohio. While searching for places to hike in the Appalachian foothills, I ran across a tourism website for Vinton County (just southwest of Athens County), which featured Maude Collins, Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925 after her husband was killed in the line of duty while writing a speeding ticket.  Maude worked as her husband’s jail matron in the small jail attached to the county-owned sheriff’s house, where they lived with their five children. So perhaps it was expedient practicality that led the county commissioners to ask Maude to fill out her husband’s term. In any case, she won election in her own right as sheriff in 1926—in a landslide.

My imagination immediately sparked at the notion of a woman in law enforcement at a time when that was nearly unheard of. (Women still represent a minority of officers in sheriff’s departments.) But I was also taken with the mix of attributes I saw in Maude’s expression in a photograph of her: toughness and tenderness. Sorrow and selflessness.

I was also drawn by the setting of Maude’s story—1920s Appalachia. So many 1920s stories and books are set in big cities. The pop image of 1920s femininity is a sequined flapper girl with a feathered headband. Both Maude and the setting went counter to stereotypical 1920s imagery.

What’s more, my family of origin is from Appalachia, with deep roots that go back generation after generation on both sides. I grew up steeped in Appalachian lore, dialect, food, attitudes, customs, crafts, music. When I was in high school, I wrote a musical, “Just an Old Ballad,” inspired by the Appalachian ballads I’d grown up learning. Amazingly, my school’s drama teacher allowed me to produce and direct it—and I cast in the lead male role a young man who I’d later date and marry. Thirty-plus years later, we’re still happily married—a pretty great outcome for a self-penned and produced high school musical!

A deep desire to write again in such a setting quickly came to the surface as I considered Maude’s story, time and place. And soon, I started asking the sort of “what if” questions that lead writers—and their characters—to interesting places. What if a 1920s Appalachian sheriff is murdered—but his young wife doesn’t know who did it? What if she fulfills his role, motivated by the burning need to find out who killed her beloved—and why? What might she discover about him? About herself? About her community?

Soon I’d developed Lily Ross and an inkling of plot. I started writing from Lily’s point-of-view, in the past tense.

The story fell flat.

I wrote forty or so pages incorporating the murderer’s point-of-view.

The story felt cliched.

I wrote a hundred or so pages from the point-of-view of Daniel, the murdered sheriff in my story.

The story felt forced.

But through all these misstarts, another character emerged—Marvena Whitcomb. Daniel’s friend since childhood. A widow herself, after her common-law husband died in a mine collapse. A unionizer. A moonshiner.

And as I wrote, I realized that Marvena and Lily were unlikely allies, destined to discover together who had murdered Daniel and why.

What’s more, I realized that the story’s Big Idea wasn’t woman-in-1920s-becomes-sheriff-and-solves-murder-of-husband.

The Big Idea was about relationships and community. How those can support us, yet betray us. How difficult it can be to balance individual desires with the needs of the community. What it can cost our humanity—or give our humanity—no matter how we tilt the balance, whether toward our individual wishes or toward the community.

I realized that though Lily is the main protagonist of The Widows because she has the greatest character growth and change, the story needed to be told from the point of view of both women. Together, they do so much more than solve the crime of the murder of the man they both love in different ways. Through them, so much comes to life. Daniel, in their hearts and memories. Their community, in all its many aspects, both wonderful and dark. The backdrop of their story—woven from worker’s rights, strife between union miners and management, women’s rights, prohibition, coal mining.

Once I realized that The Big Idea in The Widows is the relationship between Lily and Marvena, and how it develops, the story began to unfold and live for me.

I hope it does, as well, for readers.

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The Widows: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

Can a “big idea” be a bad idea? Author James L. Cambias (who has been one of my favorite writers since we were both at the University of Chicago together) grapples with this problem, and how confronting this issue made his new novel Arkad’s World all the better.

JAMES L. CAMBIAS:

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

— David St. Hubbins

Sometimes Big Ideas can be dangerous.* My new novel Arkad’s World was almost killed by a Big Idea.

The book is (in part) a love letter to boys’ adventure stories. As a tip of the hat to one of the greatest adventure stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I wanted to include an ambiguous villain — a Long John Silver type character, who would seemingly befriend my young hero Arkad, while pursuing a selfish hidden agenda.

My incredibly clever Big Idea would be that this slippery character would never actually say anything true. His statements would all be sarcastic, or jokes, or rhetorical questions; and when he actually seemed to be speaking in a straightforward manner he was lying. This pathologically untruthful villain would get hold of Arkad, and the two of them would search for a lost spaceship containing Earth’s lost cultural and historical treasures. Meanwhile, a seemingly menacing rival team (who are of course actually the good guys) pursue them and ultimately Arkad realizes he has been duped.

Sounds good, right? Very clever, right?

Okay, here’s the problem. My young hero is naive. He knows a lot about the world he lives on, but almost nothing about what’s going on elsewhere in the Galaxy. He doesn’t know how important the lost spaceship is. He doesn’t know the political background.

And the only character who can tell him all that important information is lying all the time. Which meant the reader can’t find out any of this stuff either.

For about six months in 2015 I bashed my head against this project, until I finally realized that my clever Big Idea was actually a really bad Big Idea. It was so clever that it crossed the line into Stupid. I had to scrap most of what I had written, redo my outline, eliminate my unreliable character, and start over.

The delay meant that I didn’t finish the manuscript until the end of January, 2016. I was about a week away from submitting it when I got the news that David Hartwell had died.

David was my editor at Tor. He “discovered” me and published my first two novels. He gave me encouragement and wise advice. I wanted him to see this book — not just because I wanted to sell it to him, but because I wanted his opinion of it. I wanted to impress him.

But because of my stupid clever Big Idea, he never saw Arkad’s World. I felt really bad about that.

His death also meant an emergency reorganization at Tor Books. Without David as an advocate, Arkad’s World kind of fell through the cracks, and the company declined to publish it.

In the end, it was someone else’s Big Idea — an absolutely crazy-sounding Big Idea — which finally got Arkad’s World published. In the Fall of 2017, at Gregory Benford’s urging, I went to the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Huntsville, Alabama. (You can read my account of it here.) The TVIW is a conference dedicated to actually building and launching an interstellar probe to Proxima Centauri by 2060. It sounds mad, but right now I wouldn’t actually bet real money that it won’t happen. The people involved in the project are very smart and very dedicated, and at least a couple of them are very wealthy.

On the third day of the conference I played hooky along with some other science fiction writers — including Allen Steele, Sarah Hoyt, and Toni Weisskopf, the publisher at Baen Books. We went on a tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, including a visit to the old Saturn rocket engine test stand from the Apollo program. Ms. Weisskopf and I were both disinclined to climb the rickety-looking stairs all the way to the top, so we had a little time to chat while the others made the ascent. I told her about Arkad’s World, and she asked to see it.

Pitching a science fiction novel to an editor when you’re halfway up a rocket test stand is pretty damned cool. I think the Rule of Coolness forced Ms. Weisskopf to buy the book. Which she did. And now it’s out, so everyone can see the Big Ideas I didn’t have to throw out.

*See the history of the 20th Century for examples.

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Arkad’s World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.