The Big Idea: Ctein


What do you do when you have a great idea for a story, but it’s an idea that a little outside your usual remit as a writer? In the case of John Sandford and Ctein and their new novel Saturn Run, you take a tip from the Beatles: You get by with a little help from your friends.


Once upon a time…

… because all good stories begin that way …

John Sandford, a best-selling cop-thriller novelist, had an Idea for a mainstream science fiction novel (he’s an SF fan, but had never written any). Actually, he had two ideas, and one of them was nuts.

The first — What would happen if a starship entered the solar system and proceeded to entirely ignore us. Not, in and of itself a new idea; see Rendezvous with Rama. An unknown starship could be an incalculable threat or boon. We don’t know which, but we know how the story plays out: Humanity will unite in what is undeniably a common cause, as it has so many times in the past, and set out to investigate…

… Wait a minute. Rewind. Is this us we’re talking about? Because, y’know, history might suggest we’re not so good at this unification thing.

Right. There’d be a mad scramble, with every side trying to figure out how to gain advantage, because it would be really, really important that the Good Guys benefit from this and not the Bad Guys, a.k.a. Us vs. Them. It’d be a new space race––get to the aliens first (are there even aliens???), assess the threat, grab what goods are to be got, and make sure the Bad Guys don’t get any.

There are catches. The clock’s ticking down, so no leisurely decade-long mission plan. Design and construction have to be hurried. The ship needs to get to Saturn in less than half a year. Oh yeah, and this has to be done in secret.

The whole mission comes off on budget, on schedule, on point, and all goes well. Because, y’know, that’s just the kind of story that makes for a good thriller.

Suuure (insert maniacal authorial laughter here).

That Big Idea led to a Big Problem. How the hell do you get a ship to Saturn in under six months, not to mention building it in under two years? No “wantum mechanics” (Greg Benford’s wonderful term for totally-made-up science shit); it’s not much of a hard bolts-and-rivets thriller if people know you’re faking it. It wasn’t an unsolvable problem. John could research it. In his former life he was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and has written forty or so thrillers, so he knows research. It’d just take several years of his life to get himself fully up to speed, that’s all.

The hitch was, John’s steady gig is turning out two novels (plus change) each year like clockwork. His readers expect it. He can’t take off a couple of years to explore himself as an author. This led to John’s second Big Idea, the crazy one.

Why not write it jointly with his friend, me? We’re both professional authors, who’ve made good multi-decadal careers out of generating words for money. We’re both disciplined and know how to meet deadlines. I already knows a whole lot about science fiction, and those Physics/English degrees oughta be good for something. John figures I’ll be able to solve the Big Problem(s).

Except for one little detail, which made it a crazy idea. I’m strictly nonfiction. Never written fiction, never wanted to. We’ve discussed this. Still, nothing ventured. John rings up Ctein:

John: I have a proposition. Hear me out before you say no. That science fiction novel? It’s not happening. You should write it.

Ctein: I don’t do fiction. It’s way too much like work.

John: Yeah, yeah. Look, just think about it. I’ll send you what I’ve got so far. It’s not much. There’s no pressure; take as long as you like. It’s not going anywhere for me. If you want to try your hand at it, you’ll be pretty much writing the whole first draft on your own.

Ctein: You’re not making this sounding more attractive.

John: I’ll help when you need it. I’ll do the first rewrite, we’ll both polish it up, my agent will sell it, and we’ll split the money.

Ctein: Money’s OK. Working for it, not so much. ‘Sides, I’ve heard it’s the root of all evil. Well, some of it, anyway.

John: Lotsa money.

Ctein: All right… I’ll probably say no. Actually, I’m pretty certain I’ll say no.

John: Whatever. First thing is, we need a spaceship and we need one that can get built fast. I figure our future US will have a pretty decent space station…

Ctein: That won’t work. I don’t think there’s any good way to turn a space station into a spaceship.

John: You’ll figure something out.

End of phone call. I read over the files and went to bed. The next morning I thought, “Waitaminit, I know how to turn a space station into a spaceship.”

I was probably doomed at that point, but it took me months to come to terms with that.

Six months later, I had done everything a skilled and experienced professional non-fiction author could possibly do. The office was a hell of a lot cleaner. Heaping stacks of papers had been properly sorted and filed. Even the computer desktop was reorganized. It was either tell John to forget it, go after the bathroom tile with a toothbrush, because, damn, that grout was dirty…or start writing.

I opted for door number three.

Four days later I sent John a rewrite of his original first chapter plus a brand-new chapter of my own. One nail-biting day later, there was a short e-mail from John: “This is okay. We can work with this.”

From that halting beginning, we went on to write the saga of the great race between the United States Spaceship “Richard M. Nixon” and the Chinese “Celestial Odyssey.”

The funny thing is, John’s nutso Big Idea actually worked. It really is both of us in the book. We each wrote about two-thirds of what’s in the final version (large chunks got rewritten so many times by both of us that it would take a forensic librarian to figure out who wrote what).

And that, kids, is how some books get born.

P.S. Oh, yeah, really — the USS Richard M. Nixon.

Because? Bwahahahaha…


Saturn Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit John Sandford’s site. Visit Ctein’s site.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

Hey! Kameron Hurley’s fantastic Worldbreaker series has a new installment, Empire Ascendant! And she’s here to tell you about it! I’ve used up all the exclamation marks I’m allowed for the month now! Here’s Kameron!


What would you sacrifice, to save everything you’ve ever known or loved?

What happens when what you need to sacrifice is… everything you’ve ever known or loved?

It’s this question that plagues the heroes and villains of Empire Ascendant.

In the first book in this series, The Mirror Empire, rifts opened between parallel universes, and the people of the world called Raisa found their countries overrun by their own dopplegangers, each of them fleeing epic environmental and magical catastrophes on their own worlds. The catch? Your double can’t flee to an alternate world unless their counterpart on the other side – you – is already dead.

Cue the backstabbing.

While The Mirror Empire focused on bringing together our merry band of assassins and pacifists, rebels and blood mages, to face the coming threat, the big idea behind Empire Ascendant was to explore what would happen when a far superior hierarchical force finally confronted a small, pacifist country with no real central leadership.

My academic background is in the history of war and resistance, and I drew deeply on this when developing the series.

We know that a larger, more technologically advanced force has huge advantages over a smaller, less organized one. But history also has plenty of examples of what can happen when a larger force tries to overwhelm a small, passionate group of people on their home turf (Vietnam, Iraq, every war in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary War).  In Empire Ascendant I wanted to see how these overwhelmed societies would react, and chart what would end up being one world’s attempt to avert its own genocide.

What this means for the people in Empire Ascendant is that the tactics employed in this conflict must be more ruthless. The “rules” of war – whatever they may have been – are suspended or simply discarded. Wars of attrition rub off the façade of “just conflict” that we like to drape over the narrative of particular types of wars (especially those in which our own country is the aggressor), and reveal it for what it is: nasty, brutish, inhumane.

When you have everything to lose, you often find that you are tougher than you ever imagined. War is celebrated for this: go to war to learn what you’re really made of!  

But are you the hero, or the villain?

In Empire Ascendant, every character can be both.  

This is the story of your survival. And your destruction.


Empire Ascendant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ann Leckie

And now, for Ancillary Mercy, the third book of a trilogy that began with the ridiculously successful Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie ditches the usual “Big Idea” format for something else entirely. And why not!


So let’s be real. Ancillary Mercy is the concluding book of a trilogy. Trilogies are often (though of course not always) very large single works. So in a lot of ways the “big idea” of Ancillary Mercy is a logical extension of the big idea of Ancillary Justice. And really, if you haven’t read Justice yet, Mercy probably isn’t the best place for you to start. Though, you know, you can if you want to.

So instead of going over the AJ stuff again–what is a person? Who is anybody anyway?–I instead give you the Ancillary FAQ. These are all questions I’ve actually gotten (or oveheard) at one time or another.

Q: How can you possibly wrap the story up in one more volume? There’s too much going on; I don’t see how you could manage it.

A: The easiest way for me to answer that is to actually do it. Which I have, and you can see the answer for yourself wherever fine books are sold. Or at a library near you. I love libraries. They’re awesome.

Q: Will there be more books after this one?

A: There will be more books, and certainly more books in this universe, but not books about Breq. Nothing against her, I’ve had a lovely time these past three books, but it will be nice to do something different.

Q: What is it with you and tea?

A: I love tea! Tea is the most frequently consumed beverage on this planet, next to water. I can’t imagine we’d go far from our solar system without finding a way to take it with us. Also it’s partly a very respectful bow to C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series.

Q: There was not enough Seivarden in Sword. Will you be remedying this in Mercy?

A: I have to admit the strength of some readers’ affection for Seivarden caught me by surprise. I mean, I love her, of course, I made her. I just didn’t expect her to be quite so much of a favorite.

In answer to your question, I present two Wordles for you to compare. If you’re not familiar with Wordles, it’s a thing where you take a bunch of text–in this case two novels–and plug them in and you get a graphic where the most frequently used words are larger and the less used ones are smaller.

First, the Wordle for Ancillary Sword. Note the relative size of “Seivarden.” A little difficult to find, huh?

And now, the Wordle for Ancillary Mercy.

Q: I notice the word “translator” in that Mercy wordle. And that only reminds me that Translator Dlique was onstage for far too short a time in Sword, and now I am sad.

A: I myself was sad when I realized how short a time Translator Dlique would be onstage. But there really was no way around it.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently, and saying that I’d heard from some readers who were very unhappy with the all-too-brief appearance of Dlique, and she frowned at me and said, “But what about…oh, wait! They haven’t read Mercy yet!” And then she started laughing.

Q: I really think the second book ought to have been called Ancillary Mercy. There wasn’t a whole lot of “sword” in it. Why is the second one Sword and this one Mercy?

A: Originally the titles of the three books were going to be Justice of Toren, Sword of Atagaris, and Mercy of Kalr. My agent knew nothing of this–well, except the title of the first book–and thought Justice of Toren wasn’t a particularly fabulous title. He suggested Ancillary Justice and I agreed, pleased that my Justice/Sword/Mercy scheme could remain in place.
As often happens when I write–I gather this happens to lots of other writers as well–Sword of Atagaris ended up not being quite as prominent a character in the story as I’d originally planned. But I still didn’t want to switch the titles. For one thing, I think Justice/Sword/Mercy makes a better overall arc. For another, well, read the book.

Q: I’m really hankering for some Imperial Radch fan art. Is there any?

A: There sure is! And it’s fabulous.

Q: And fanfic? What’s your fanfic policy?

A: Fanfic is awesome. My fanfic policy is “I won’t read it, please don’t try to sell it, but otherwise you have fun.” And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, having people write fanfic of your book is right up there with winning awards.

Q: What sort of tea would the Radchaai drink? Is it like some kind of tea we have here on present-day Earth?

A: I’ve actually answered that question here.

Q: No, but seriously, Ann, at the end of Sword you left us with a damaged space station, a resentful and mutinous warship that has every reason to hate Breq, a mysterious ship on the other side of the Ghost Gate whose nature and motives we know almost nothing about, a civil war in progress, and possibly angry and very dangerous aliens going to turn up at some point–

A: That’s about the size of it, yes. And the only way to find out what happens next is to read it.


Ancillary Mercy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David J. Peterson

Here’s a word for you: “Conlanger.” Do you know what one is? And what one does? And how they relate to some of your favorite fantasy and science fiction movies in the last several years? David J. Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention, will catch you up on all the details — and they’re very cool details, to be sure.


I am a conlanger.

If this were the year 2000, one in every ten thousand or so people would know what that meant. Now in 2015, I’d say one in every four or so people have an idea what that means. That’s huge. And for those of us that are conlangers (or language creators, for the other three quarters), the notion that language creation is now a publicly discussed, if not understood, phenomenon is still surreal.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that conlanging as an activity was still quite obscure. The rise in notoriety of language creation wasn’t gradual, but exponential. Starting with James Cameron’s Avatar at the end of 2009, and followed closely by Game of Thrones in 2011, conlanging’s star has risen more dramatically in the past five years than it had in the previous 900.

The meteoric rise of conlanging coupled with a sea change in how we interact with the internet (younger folks especially) has left us with a strange reality. Scores of new would-be conlangers are coming to the craft specifically because of examples they’ve encountered in film and television in the past five years. Further, because of how they use the internet (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—essentially media sharing and microblogging platforms), they’re finding each other, and finding discussions of well-known conlangs, but aren’t finding the older crowd—the original conlanging community.

The reason is simple enough. The older conlanging groups are housed on e-mail–based listservs or phpBB bulletin boards—platforms that were hugely popular in the 90s and early 00s, but which don’t seem to enjoy a lot of use anymore. Additionally, most conlangs by older conlangers are presented on personal websites—often with hand-coded HTML and CSS—which are all but invisible now that webrings and link lists are passé.

Now don’t think for a moment I’m bemoaning the current state of the internet—far from it! Sharing/resharing has changed the world, and changed it for the better. Reddit has really filled the hole that the death of newspapers had left in my morning routine.

The problem lies not with new conlangers, but with the old guard—those that aren’t transitioning to the new internet. Unfortunately, it’s the new conlangers who are suffering for it.

Going back to the year 2000, I was a brand new conlanger who didn’t know anything about the craft or anyone else who created languages. After a year of fumbling in the dark with my first language I found the original conlanging community, and that’s where I learned everything I know today. That’s basically what everyone did back then: Found the community, listened in, shared, received critiques, and improved.

The best part was, as a community, we all got a lot better at creating languages. Whether it was a language for a fantasy novel one was working on, or a “what if” project to test the limits of our linguistic capacity, the projects that came out of that period were stellar. And it makes me sad to think that while conlanging is currently at its zenith, much of this work is more obscure than ever.

With The Art of Language Invention, my purpose was twofold. The first was to give the uninitiated a window into the world of conlanging: to see what it’s all about, to see the work that goes into creating a language, and, maybe, to see if it’s for them. The second, though, was to build a bridge between the original conlanging community and the conlangers to come.

Obviously, the most visible part of this bridge-building is sharing the conlanging strategies, tips, and tricks I’ve learned over the years and included in the book. These, of course, are not my own invention: they come from the education I gained as a member of the early conlang community. Beyond that, though, I wanted to advertise the fact that other conlangers have done great work, and they have a lot to share—and a lot to teach.

The reason this is so important to me is that I hold no illusions about the position I occupy in the world of conlanging and how I got there. I was fortunate to be born when I was born, and fortunate that, after creating my first language, I found the early conlang community. After putting in ten years learning how to create languages, I was fortunate to hear about the competition to create the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones (not all conlangers did), so when I got my shot, I worked my choyo off to get the job—not just because I wanted it (I did), but to honor those that helped to inform my understanding of the craft.

Because outside the accidents of history, I am one of the old conlangers. You can still see my old website with hand-coded HTML and CSS here (and, yes, I like those colors, and I’m not changing them!). Some of my old languages were just okay; some were pretty good. No one would have heard of them, though, just as few have heard of Kash, created by Roger Mills, who died this past September. He put a lot of work and a lot of love into that language, and it’s quite impressive (I love Kash’s reciprocative reduplication pattern). Work like this is worthy of study and admiration and deserves to be remembered.

So, since I got the opportunity to write a book on language creation—to write about the art that has been my passion for over a decade and is now my livelihood—it was my big idea to let everyone know exactly what’s behind some of the conlangs you hear and see on the big and small screen, and to acknowledge and celebrate the conlangers who came before me and helped me to become who I am today.


The Art of Language Invention: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer

Poets: Can they change the world? And what kind of world would it be if they could? Ilana C. Myer poses this question in her Big Idea, for her novel Last Song Before Night.


It began in a college class—long enough ago. The topic was poets in Celtic myth. The text was “Guaire’s Greedy Guests,” the tale of a man who suffers from guests for whom the term “imposition” is an understatement. The host must accede his guests’ every demand, is too scared to do otherwise, for one reason: they are poets. Poetry, in those myths, had power. With words they might bring any disaster on him they choose.

The idea of a terrifying poet is incredible to anyone who has lived in our world for five minutes. Even our Poet Laureate’s greatest power is, likely, to acquire a prestige position at a university. Yet here in Celtic myth was a different concept of the poet altogether. Kings sought the blessing of poets, feared them. A life might be transformed, or destroyed, through song.

There in that class was planted the seed of Last Song Before Night. I asked myself: What would it be like to live in a society where poets were powerful? Where they posed a threat even to the king?

Immediately I thought, first of all, as personalities they would be less like poets of our day and more like rock stars. The combination of charisma, skill, and societal clout would make someone larger than life. But they’d have the pitfalls of rock stars, too—the ego traps and rivalries that characterize the arts as a whole, especially near the top. And with such characters as protagonists, the conflicts must center first and foremost around questions of art: What it means, what it makes of us, how it connects us to the world. How through art we can craft illusions to hide from the truth of ourselves, or else discover it—at times in ways acutely painful.

When Last Song opens, poets are enjoying fame and wealth although their enchantments are long gone. They reap the rewards of being rock stars without the responsibilities of true power. Ultimately the protagonists will be forced to recover their lost enchantments in order to avert cataclysm—and this can only be done at great cost.

While Celtic myth provided inspiration, I was equally intrigued by the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, with their intricate codes of honor and problematic ideation of women. That I ended up writing the book while living in Jerusalem, a city of near-eternal summer and Middle Eastern culture, was an influence that crept in through the back door.

Beyond the influences of myth, place, and history, what shaped this story was an intense drive to create something even when there didn’t seem to be a point—everyone knows it’s hard as hell to get published. Dedicating years and making significant life choices around the completion of this book always seemed, in light of reality, a form of madness. Inevitably, the questions I was forced to ask myself over the years—why I was doing this, what art means to me—became an undercurrent in the writing.

I had hoped, starting out fresh out of college, that through the process I’d discover concrete  answers. I can say honestly that this didn’t happen, but what opened up to me instead was infinitely more valuable in the end. I am excited to share it with you.


Last Song Before Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Tade Thompson

For today’s Big Idea, Tade Thompson takes the immigrant experience, plus the problems that crop up when you tell a little lie at the wrong time, and puts them together for his novel Making Wolf. What do we find out? It’s here, below.


Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever moved from one country to another, going back is always a fraught experience. Migration must be worth it, so when returning to the home country you must show off success either in terms of money or status, preferably both.

So what happens if you’re a lowly store detective, but you have to go home for a funeral? You lie. It’s harmless, right? Usually. But in my story the protagonist Weston pretends to be a homicide detective without attending to his audience. He’s kidnapped by a rebel faction and asked to solve a cold-case, a politically radioactive murder that nobody really wants solved unless the finger points at someone else.

What follows is a weird, violent and frightening journey through a country that has become unfamiliar and alien. The amateur sleuth is a time-honoured tradition in crime fiction, but it is usually voluntary. Weston has to solve a murder to keep himself alive. Then there’s Church, his guide in this journey, a personification of the chaos, who might just be responsible for executing Weston should he fail.

I had to create an alternative time line and an imaginary country because Making Wolf is based on aspects of my own childhood in Nigeria and I don’t want to offend individuals who may be identified. The way memory works tells us that what we think we remember is mostly fiction, so the Nigeria I think I’m remembering may no longer exist, or never have existed in the first place.

If I could not write about these matters, I’d have to make everything up, transforming people and places beyond recognition. My speculative fiction background kicked in and I threw worldbuilding at the problem. I created an alternative time line in which the Nigerian civil war had a different outcome, and I created a new country between Nigeria and Cameroun. I was good to go.

What I do remember accurately is the experience of danger, the pervasive paranoia and the constant negotiation of relationships with powerful people. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The threat of sexual violence was omnipresent, and if you threw a stone, you’d find a victim.

The ingredients were there for a noir narrative: a disconnected detective, a baffling milieu, an ambiguous relationship with the police force, a femme fatale, a murder, and a conspiracy. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were staples of my childhood literary diet, and it was fitting that Making Wolf emerged as first-person and gritty. Weston is not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, but they do share similar experiences and some DNA strands.

Speaking of DNA, the usual CSI techniques are not available in my narrative. It’s a brute-force investigation depending on leg work, brain power and dumb luck.

At its heart, crime fiction is about the social contract. We agree to live in peace with one another, and if someone comes along who won’t play nice, we sanction them. We use crime fiction to tell ourselves that no matter what happens, if someone breaks the contact, we will find the person and break them. This doesn’t happen all the time in real life, but we would like to believe it does, and so we tell ourselves stories about it.

Making Wolf is one of those stories.


Making Wolf: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Douglas Sun

And now, just to shake things up, here’s a Big Idea about a video game — which is based on a book, so don’t panic, we’re not going too far afield. Today, Douglas Sun talks about some of the challenges of a adapting a literary work into a video game: Veiled Alliances.


When it comes to adaptations of novels, it’s a given among readers that the movie won’t be as good as the book. The movie is going to leave out a lot of cool stuff, because it just won’t fit. Movies don’t have the same narrative flexibility and depth as novels. Games are great in and of themselves, but for most readers, it’s rare that you’ll find a one that’s as satisfying as the great (or even good) book on which it was based.

Kimberly Unger and I are working on a Big Idea dished out in small pieces, and our goal is to create adaptations that are just as cool as the book. We aren’t making movies as such. Instead, we’re going to use video game technology to combine the visceral power of moving images with the psychological and intellectual depth of literature. We call it our “subtext engine” — just as video games use a software engine to drive 3D animation, we’re using a software engine to create movies that will have the richness of books.

Our first step in testing this idea is the pilot episode of a 12-part adaptation of Kevin J. Anderson’s novella, Veiled Alliances. This 6-minute “appisode” is embedded in an app for tablets and smartphones that will house and play the remaining appisodes in the series. I’ll admit up front that it’s a test run, and it won’t have the full set of features that we eventually want to include. We’re still looking for the resources that we need to fully flesh out our vision.

But we know that using a video game engine to drive the animation will open up new features that don’t exist in conventional cinematic narrative. The action plays out in a fully three-dimensional environment and you’ll be able to interact with it. You’ll have the freedom to move the camera around, so that you can view the main action from any angle you want, or even just explore the background. Additional features will use sound effects, audio tracks (think mini-soliloquies that overlay the action, instead of stopping the action) and dynamic visual symbology. In its final form, the subtext engine will produce machinima, but richer and with more contextual depth than a typical machinima (or animation, for that matter).

You’ll be able to customize your experience, so that you can turn off or ignore features that don’t interest you. You can just watch the video straight through, with nothing fancy going on, if that’s what you want. But we think this cognitive multitasking will create a richer experience that you’re used to getting with visual narratives — one that captures the feel of literature more than any other graphic or cinematic form.

Veiled Alliances turned out to be a fortuitous vehicle for testing the subtext engine. Kevin J. Anderson allowed us access to this prequel to his Saga of Seven Suns series because our experiment in multilayered narrative interested him, and it’s a good fit. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface of the story — as a prequel, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that hangs over the characters’ hopes and dreams, and there’s a lot of intrigue, where characters conceal as much as they say to each other. This is particularly true of Chapter 14, which we chose to adapt for the pilot. In it, a prince of the Ildiran Empire and a colonial governor with responsibility for a group off human refugees, returns to his homeworld to discuss what is to be done about them, only to find that the Emperor (his father) and the heir-designate (his brother) have cold-blooded plans for this newly-discovered alien race. It’s one of those scenes where what the characters say only touches the surface of what they bring to the discussion.

In writing the script, I had to make the usual decisions that come with adapting prose fiction to a visual medium. Not every little action or line of dialogue made it in. But the subtext engine will allow us to take much (if not most) of what gets edited and work it in through the interactive features, so that everything that the characters and their world bring to the present narrative moment can co-exist as they do in novelistic storytelling.

The modern novel (and its sibling, the short story) is an extraordinarily supple artistic form. It combines showing and telling to capture how the human mind multitasks, regarding itself at the same time as it reaches outward in space and time to give context to the here-and-now with unique grace. Kimberly and I are familiar with video game engines because we’re both hardened game geeks and industry pros, but our backgrounds are also literary — we’re both English majors (I followed that path all the way to the tenure track at Cal State Los Angeles before leaving the academy), we both harbor dreams of writing the Great Futuristic American Novel, and so for both of us, literature is that first love you never forget. Working on the subtext engine and creating the Veiled Alliances app completes the circle for us, combining literature with machinima to bring out the strengths of both.

We’re pleased with what we’ve accomplished so far, and excited about what we expect to accomplish in the future, given sufficient resources. Our adaptation of Veiled Alliances will be available in the iOS store and Google Play, and will work just fine on either tablets or smartphones. We’ll also put a playblast trailer on our YouTube channel. Check it out; let us know if you think we’re onto something.


Veiled Alliances: Visit the game’s site.

The Big Idea: Christopher Barzak

For today’s Big Idea, Christopher Barzak takes you to the family farm and explains how a little bit of his own personal history informs his latest novel, Wonders of the Invisible World.


Wonders of the Invisible World was an attempt to save my family.

Which is a little ironic, because the protagonist of the novel—Aidan Lockwood—is also charged with the duty of saving his family. Specifically, he’s charged with the duty of saving them from an ancestral curse that has been brought upon them by a decidedly nasty act of hubris that his great-grandfather commits nearly a hundred years prior.

My attempt to save my family wasn’t so much to rescue us from an ancestral curse, so much as to rescue us, somehow, from the passage of time, from the way anyone’s family fades over time, as the shadow of mortality grows ever closer, until it eclipses not only individual lives, but the life of a family unit.

I was thirty years old when I began writing this novel. I’m forty now. In between the span of those ten years, I published two other novels and a collection of short stories. I moved to Japan to teach English. I earned an MFA while teaching full time at a university after I returned. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever clear away enough time and space for a continuous span of concentration I need to complete a novel. But I continued to work on multiple drafts of this book, because it was a story in which I was preserving details from the landscape of my childhood: my grandparents’ farm, where I grew up among a large, extended family that all made their homes either on the farm or nearby it.

No, Wonders of the Invisible World isn’t necessarily about my family. The Barzaks aren’t cursed like the Lockwood family is. But when I was thirty and began trying to write a novel that might capture some of the essence of my family life, it was because, at that point, every time I’d visit my family, I’d see another piece of our shared past fading away. I watched my grandfather unstring the barbed wire fences that outlined his various pastures and orchard. I saw the last tree standing in the orchard cut down. I watched as his remaining stock of cattle were sold off, and I watched as my grandparents’ farmhouse itself, well over a hundred years old now, begin to crumble around them before they themselves passed away in recent years.

The big idea for me was to capture the essence of a way of life, rural and agrarian, before it passed away completely. So the setting of Wonders of the Invisible World is largely based on my family home. The orchard, the creek that flows through it, the pastures and the cornfields. Even the farmhouse in which the Lockwood family lives. I’ve often used the places where I’ve lived for a long period of time as settings for my books, but this time it was more personal, acting as a totem of sorts as I wrote the book.

The big idea, though, that I wanted to capture for the reader, who has no interest in my personal connection to the story necessarily, was to capture the essence of the passage of time, of a young man—seventeen year old Aidan Lockwood—who discovers an ancestral family secret, and in the process of reclaiming memories of his own childhood that have been magically obscured by someone trying to protect him, discovers parts of himself that he’d never known before.

In a lot of ways, discovering one’s family history is a way of discovering yourself. So many things about the formation of our personalities and processes for thinking are determined, to some extent, by the families that create and shape us. Wonders of the Invisible World is a young adult novel, and in this way I felt like the plot I invented reflected, literally, the way a young adult begins to see the members of their family more clearly as they come of age. To see Mom and Dad as more than the role they play as parents. To see grandparents as people who have shaped their own parents. History, at least for me, only came alive as I became a late teenager; and in discovering more about my own family, I felt like I was discovering myself, my place within the story my family inhabits.

Ten years is a long time to work on a novel in stop and go fashion. It wasn’t ideal. It made me question the story every time I came back to it, when some small amount of time for that kind of work became available. I wrote three drafts, threw them all out. Started from scratch on a fourth, and finally found the shape of the story I needed to hold everything I wanted to address inside it. What was the key turning point? Realizing that in order to contain all of the bits and pieces I wanted in the story, I would have to make my protagonist suffer from a spell (a literal one) of forgetfulness, in order for the act of remembering to become a magical event in and of itself.

There are so many more bits of magic in this novel than those I’ve mentioned. There’s a white stag, the specter of a man in a black suit, harbingers of Death, a voice that comes from a dead apple tree, visions and dreams that come to Aidan Lockwood unbidden. It’s a personal story that pushes outward into the epic, encapsulating a hundred years of his family life. I’m not sure if I really did, in the end, manage to save my family by writing this book, much as I tried (perhaps pure memoir would be better for such an act), but I do know that Aidan Lockwood manages to save his. And after ten years of struggling with him throughout his journey, seeing this story contained in the bound pages of a book feels at least a little bit like redemption.


Wonders of the Invisible World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Kent Davis

For his Big Idea piece today, Kent Davis explains how a mental image, and some experience writing role-playing games, ended up being the foundation for his novel A Riddle in Ruby.


I had this picture in my head. It clanked around, bumping into the furniture and leaving oil stains on all the brain-curtains. Certainly it wasn’t the most heroic of images, but it hung on, badgering and rattling and poking for days that turned into weeks.

A girl, shoulder-deep in a large whiskey barrel. The girl wears a battered tricorne hat, and the barrel stands atop articulated metal ostrich legs.

Yeah. Random. But somehow charming. And oddly compelling, too. Why a tricorne? Why a barrel? Who is this girl? And what’s the flippin’ deal with the metal ostrich legs? The picture clamored to be explained. It wanted to be lit up. So I tore it apart.

The battered tricorne beckoned first. I’ve always had a thing for the North American colonies, but in the time before the War of Independence. Like, half a century before. Holding for dear life onto the edge of the East coast, rife with both pluck and gumption, pocked with colonialist warts, watching the Age of Reason unfold from the continental kiddie table? That’s my jam. Frontier cultures have a special attraction for me—I live in Montana—and I love the idea that in earlier times the borders of the known world (at least for the Europeans) lay mere miles from isolated little settlements like Philadelphia or New Amsterdam.

Then came the barrel with legs—articulated, gawky, powered by means unknown! The whole contraption gave off more than a whiff of steampunk, but I didn’t want to give up the colonial feel, or the pluck, or the gumption. Besides, the story needed magic, and I was searching for something a bit more exotic than steam. I came to understand, however, that the necessary magic was not the pointy-hatted, wand-ridden, unicorns and elves kind. It required arcane mysteries suited to the beginning of the Enlightenment, practiced not by Gandalf or Glenda, but by the Bacons and Germains and Newtons of that historical moment. What if a kind of science that produced its own miracles could be the magic engine of the story? Like chemistry, for example?

I’m the co-creator of a tabletop RPG that sports a magic system for alchemy, where arcane scientists essentially nudge the laws of chemistry in spectacular and sometimes even miraculous ways. Stone walls change into glass. Frozen lakes puff into clouds of superheated steam. That sort of thing. What if this magic/science manifested in the setting? It would make for a very short walk to the land of antimony ostrich legs.

But this magic wouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It couldn’t help but change the course of history. The ripples spread, and more questions got answered. Applied chemystry—now sporting a sexy “y” instead of its conventional “i”—would quickly allow artisans to leap forward in their manipulation of materials to create great works of chemystral craft, pushing technology and manufacturing forward to levels only seen in our 1800s. Of course, that kind of change would topple all manner of political and economic dominoes, not to mention give rise to an array delectable bonuses: alchemycal automatons, clocklock pistols, cobalt gearbeasts. This nascent world suddenly began to offer up its own ideas! That’s when the dancing around the room began.

However, the final and arguably most important component of this Big Idea remained: the girl.

What kind of hero lives in this chem-driven and slightly batty world? I thought perhaps one built to fit a society on the brink of social revolutions: imperfect, a little bit odd, bold to the point of endangerment, gifted but a touch lost. A scrapper. Her name is Ruby Teach, and she is an apprentice thief, a smuggler’s daughter, and a repository of secrets. She’s thirteen, and she is not the Chosen One of high fantasy. No prophecies have been written about her. A noble lineage is hers neither in public nor in secret. She’s common. She bears a secret, true, but even it does not belong to her. This riddle makes her a sort of carrier. In her words, she’s the baggage.

But she has a mind and a will of her own, and when her world is turned upside down she takes action in courageous, reckless, and sometimes even ridiculous fashion. She acts. She does not wait to be told, and she often spurns the advice of those who think they know better. She wants to discover the truth for herself, even if it hurts. I tried to write a girl that my wife would have loved as a kid, and I tried to write a girl that I would have loved as a kid, one lost in the clanking tinker towns and forbidding frontier forests of the Chemystral Age. I hope your kids might love her, too.

Or you. I mean, you might like her. Sure. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?

So. The tricorne, the ostrich legs, and the girl. That image went the way of many big ideas: dissected, chopped up, and blended into an alchemycal stew far more exciting to me than the original.

By the way, the barrel shows up, too, but the when of it is a surprise. Ruby shouldn’t be the only one who gets to have secrets.

A Riddle in Ruby: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Seth Dickinson

In this Big Idea for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, author Seth Dickinson wants you to give up a cheer for the villain. Will you? I’ll let him try to convince you.


My master plan would’ve changed the course of history! I put my life into this — I leveraged politicians, I conjured up shell corporations, I put puppets on every throne and agents in every council. I built something! I had a vision!

And they call you a hero. What did you do? You stumbled in at the last moment and broke everything.

If heroism means standing up for the status quo, then I’ll have no part of it. The world’s full of suffering. Someone must act.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant is the story of a young woman trying to tear down a colonial empire, avenge her fathers, and liberate her home. The Masquerade wants to rule the world, so that they can fix it. Baru can’t beat them from the outside, killing them one by one with a sword the way Luke Skywalker or Aragorn might — unlike most evil empires, they’re smart people who take sensible precautions. Baru wouldn’t stand a chance against a single Masquerade marine.

Being surpassingly clever and excitingly ruthless, Baru decides to destroy the Masquerade from the inside. She’ll join their civil service, prove herself as a really awesome operative, and secure enough power to get what she wants. (She thinks Luke should do the same thing.)

Baru will, in short, become an evil overlord: a brilliant superspy plotting triple-cross operations right under the noses of her masters, conspiring to topple nations with banking schemes, daring heists, ornamental men, secret alliances, private armies, napalm, pirates, and the occasional sword duel, when absolutely necessary. An evil overlord working for good!

And man, was I excited to write an epic fantasy book about an overlord.

Do you have the same frustration with heroes that I do? They’re happy to sit around whuffling like a big fat seal until they get hit with an Inciting Event, and then the story has to convince them to go uncover the villain’s plan and stop him (usually him, alas) right in the nick of time.

But not the villain!

The villain’s the one who wants to change the world. The villain’s the one who constructs mountain lairs and secret cabals and schemes with threatening names and legions of snappily dressed goons. The villain gets to do stuff while the hero’s still scrambling around in confusion. Secret bank accounts! Strike teams! Blackmail! Disguise! Research into the forbidden arts! Dominating every conversation with radiant authority!

I don’t want to watch some lunk stumble his way to survival with swinging fists. I want to see — heck, I want to write about the character driving the action. The character who actually wants to be in this story. You can tell because she’s the one who woke up one day and said “I’m going to work really hard to change the world.”

If you want to protect how things are, get a hero. But if you want to change the world — if you want to shake the titanic, interlocked systems of civilization until they bend into a new and better shape — get an overlord.

And I do want to write about changing the world. The world’s not a good place yet. We should work hard to fix it, and that means working for change.

I wrote this book because I kept hearing an argument repeated: ‘a woman/a queer person/a person of color could never be the hero of a fantasy story. They’d be too oppressed to do anything. That’s just how things were.’

So Baru lives in a world where she’s targeted by awful oppression — racism towards people from her home island, sexism that denies her control over her own body, and homophobia that will see her maimed or killed if she makes a move on the wrong woman. Baru is the protagonist, and she refuses to be denied power and agency. Locked away in a Masquerade school? She’ll perform so well on the merit exams that they have to notice her. Exiled to a distant province as a mere accountant? She’ll take over the whole economy and dictate terms to royalty. Frozen out of government? She’ll build her own shadow government.

That’s the big idea in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: a protagonist who uses a villain’s tools for heroic endsBaru is a shark, an incorrigible bastard, a menace and a delight. She loves power. She’s going to get as much of it as she can.

She’s going to use that power to fix her world. And nothing — not even her own hopes and qualms — will stand in the way.


The Traitor Baru Cormorant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Pamela Sargent

It’s no surprise that writers live in their own worlds, and occasionally let you see those worlds in our books. But as Pamela Sargent explains, with regard to her novel Season of the Cats, sometimes before we can let you visit our worlds, we have to… tidy up a bit.


By the time I conjured up the central idea for Season of the Cats, I had wrestled with a number of “big ideas” as a novelist, among them human immortality, the life and conquests of Genghis Khan, and the terraforming of Venus. Those undoubtedly qualify as big ideas, but the central situation in Season of the Cats concerns a somewhat dysfunctional early twenty-first century couple who have dreamed up an imaginary utopia of cats. Is that a big idea? Perhaps it is if that imagined world, appropriately dubbed Catalonia and consisting of a quite civilized feline society, leaks into the so-called “real” one and threatens the couple’s marriage, their sanity, and possibly their lives.

But when I first started playing with this novel, more than two decades of being a published writer, along with personal and professional setbacks, had led me into a deadly morass of self-doubt, burn-out, depression, and writer’s block. (The euphemistic terms for this state are “being on hiatus” and “lying fallow.”) The cure that I found for myself, partly by accident and partly through economic necessity, was writing on a smaller scale, concentrating mostly on short fiction and also honing my craft by collaborating on a few Star Trek novels with my partner in life, George Zebrowski. The rest of the cure, which came a little later, was writing the first part of what became Season of the Cats, with no idea of where the story was going or what, if anything, would come of it. I needed an escape during some dark times and a way of entertaining myself while trying to rediscover the joy and satisfaction the act of writing and shaping a story had once brought to me.

I began with the two central characters, Gena and Don, who lived in a place that resembled our former neighborhood, and their cat Vladimir, who was modeled on our beloved Spencer, a small long-haired tuxedo cat who lived a long and largely happy life of seventeen years before finally succumbing to kidney failure. I indulged myself in this cheery fable, making light of Gena and Don’s troubles in order to escape my own while having no idea of where the story was going or any thought of publication. Any writer knows that if a story doesn’t interest you, then it’s unlikely to interest any reader, but here I was so intent on entertaining myself that I had completely forgotten about any other reader. By the time it occurred to me that maybe, with a manuscript in hand, it might make sense to try to get the novel published, a couple of more objective readers had to give me the bad news, namely that the story I’d found so diverting was a self-indulgent and unappealing mess.

You can write and publish for a lifetime and still make mistakes, still have to relearn what you thought you already knew. I set this novel aside to write other work and returned to it later, always a good idea if a piece of writing isn’t working; the passage of time has a way of illuminating your earlier errors. And when I did my rewriting, I followed a method the late science fiction writer Frederik Pohl had recommended, which may sound drastic to anyone young enough to have never used a typewriter: Fred’s advice was to print out the text, destroy any electronic files, and begin rewriting with only your printed text as a guide. Otherwise, he told me, you get lazy and just do touch-ups instead of a complete overhaul.

He was right. My own overhaul, which involved several of these drastic rewrites, included reworking the plot, digging into the darker aspects of the story that I’d avoided before, among them an entity that threatens several of the main characters, and adding details, drawing on my own experience as a foot soldier in a local political campaign and at a disagreeable temporary day job, that yielded more interesting plot twists and more desperate situations for my characters. I was still entertaining myself but also keeping the reader in mind. As Fred also put it, “Your reader is some guy in Cleveland at three in the morning,” and that seems as useful an image of a reader as any. Figuratively speaking, we’ve all occasionally been that guy in Cleveland at three in the morning.

Like Gena and Don, I had lost control of my own imagined world and had to face my own struggle, which is obliquely reflected in the pages of Season of the Cats. Whether my characters win or lose their battle is for readers to discover.


Season of the Cats: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Wildside Press

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

Oh look, Here’s Greg Van Eekhout, wrapping up his terrific Daniel Blackland trilogy with Dragon Coast. Perhaps it will have dragons in it? And possibly a coast? Seems likely on both counts. Let’s have Greg give you a couple more specifics on it.


Look, the title is Dragon Coast, there’s a dragon right on the cover, and the dragon’s in the very first paragraph of the book. Obviously, the big idea for the conclusion of my Daniel Blackland trilogy was this: Have fun.

To review, the first book, California Bones, is about Daniel Blackland, a young wizard-thief who gets his abilities by consuming the remains of magical creatures, such as griffins and basilisks and dragons. Because of family history and the politics of a magical Los Angeles, he finds himself constantly pitted against other osteomancers who want to eat him. At its spine, the book is a heist novel, but the flesh and blood is about created family, sacrifice, and exploitation, weird magic, and transforming familiar cityscapes. I had a fun time writing it.

The second novel, Pacific Fire, has Daniel acting as guardian to his arch enemy’s  magically generated clone, who’s trying to sabotage the bad guys’ weapon of mass destruction, a patchwork dragon. And, gosh, did I ever have a ball working on this book. We’re talking pizza-party level fun with a side of air hockey. Kish-kosh-kish! (Those are my air hockey noises.)

With the third novel, I found myself looking at the prospect of writing what might be my final story in this world and my last ride with these characters. So. What would be most fun?

Dragons. Dragons are fun. So Dragon Coast has a huge Pacific firedrake wreaking destruction across California.

Heists are fun. So someone steals the dragon and Daniel has to masquerade as the brother he killed and steal a powerful bone in front of the assembled aristocracy of Northern California, including the most powerful osteomancer in the world.

Shipping is fun, or so many readers have told me, so Max and Gabriel (Maxriel) are back.

For me, though, the most fun thing of all, the reason I wanted to write this book and the place I inevitably arrived at, was discovering who my characters are now, having spent two books fighting and adventuring and bantering and hating and loving and snacking. After hundreds of pages, how have their scars changed their bodies and brains and hearts? Who are they to each other, to their enemies, to themselves?

In Dragon Coast, Daniel’s pretending to be the brother he killed in the last book. That’s going to leave a mark. Gabriel Argent, the chief hydromancer who’s always been nervous about wielding power, has to decide if he wants control of a weapon of mass destruction. And his ever-loyal assistant, Max, has to decide if he’ll let him. Cassandra Morales has to decide if she’s willing to do unthinkable things and alienate her friends forever in order to save their lives. Someone has to pilot an out-of-control dragon from the inside and face an evil at the very nucleus of his being. And poor Moth has to learn how to make jewelry.

In short, the dragons and the heists are the conspicuous fun, but pushing the characters toward their ultimate ends was the most important fun. And with Dragon Coast, that was my big idea: Have the most fun ever. Kish-kosh-kish.


Dragon Coast: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Sarah Prineas

Happily Ever After… but why? And to ultimately what end? Author Sarah Prineas considers this in Ash & Bramble, and she’s not the only one who asks.


The story of Ash & Bramble, which is more an exploded fairytale than a retelling, arose out of two Big Idea questions.

The first question came out of this experience I had back in grad school when I was reading a lot of Marxist theory and joined a student group that staged a sit-in to protest that the university basically relied on sweatshop labor to produce school-mascot t-shirts and hats and backpacks. What I learned was that our stuff comes from somewhere.  We don’t have fairy godmothers who wave their wands and new t-shirts appear, wallah!—even though shopping online can be like that. But no, an underpaid, overworked laborer somewhere far away from where you live probably made the clothes you are wearing right now. She made the clothes I am wearing right now, too (pajamas from Target).

That led me to wonder: there’s all this stuff in fairytales: a dancing slipper made of glass.  A poisoned apple. A sharpened spindle. A glass coffin. And of course, the gorgeous, glittering ball gowns.

So where do all of those story elements come from? Who makes it? I mean, there’s no in Fairytalandia, and the stuff has to come from somewhere, right?

The logical conclusion is that the Godmother has a kind of fairytale version of a sweatshop, full of shoemakers, bakers-of-gingerbread, lace-makers, Jacks-of-all-trades, seamstresses…

My stitches march on, inevitable, a straggling, wandering line of foot soldiers, with here and there a casualty where I accidentally prick my finger on the needle and the tiny bead of blood is blotted by the cloth. My fingertips ache; my hands grow stiff. 

The seamstress of Ash & Bramble is the one person who dares look up from her work and ask, “what is all this stuff for?”

The answer is, it’s for Story. And this Story gains power every time it gets another Happily-Ever-After.  It’s the Godmother’s job to set stories up, to get the wheel turning by forcing people to play their designated roles, to provide the spindles, the glass slippers, the etcetera.

And our seamstress—her name is Pin, as far as she knows—to stop her from asking dangerous questions, the Godmother decides to put her into one of Story’s most powerful stories, Cinderella. According to Story, Pin is supposed to want the gorgeous gown, the prince, the insta-love, the marriage. Except for Pin, the glass slipper doesn’t quite fit, and she refuses to settle for one of Story’s pernicious happily-ever-afters.

She asks the second big question:

What if the Stories tell us?

And if they do, how can we escape?


Ash & Bramble: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Signed copies from Prairie Lights

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

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

There’s a new publisher called Serial Box, which has this wacky idea that maybe, just maybe, you’ll enjoy fiction in serialized form — stories with new, regular installments that keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to find out what happens next. It’s an idea that goes back to the times of Dickens and Dostoevsky, and seems ripe for a digital renaissance. In today’s Big Idea, Max Gladstone, one of the writers of Serial Box’s first series Bookburners, talks a bit about the series and why this story works well in this particular format.


Bookburners makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Consider: our world’s a small island in a sea of weirder stuff.  Sometimes monsters crawl up the beach from the water.  Sometimes springs and fountains of weirdness erupt from the sand.  People drown.  People get eaten.  People turn strange.  Of course there would be groups dedicated to managing the weirdness.  Not destroying it—how bloodthirsty can you get?  No, just—taking strange things and putting them in a box for a while.  Studying them.  Deploying top men.

All of which seems reasonable enough on the surface.  But, peer deeper.  Once weirdness is contained, studying it safely requires immense resources—and after containment, said weirdness isn’t, by definition, an urgent problem.  Your archive of the weird develops piles of barely catalogued cruft.  “Man-eating quarto, c. 1730, France.  Title unknown.”  You’re protecting people on the day to day—but you sit on top of vast resources that could transform the world.  If you just picked them up.  Used them.  Listened to them.

The archives whisper to you at night.

Bookburners is a supernatural procedural about agents working for the Vatican running around the world trying to save people from being murdered, possessed, transformed, and otherwise messed with by magic—if you like Warehouse 13, Shadow Unit, the X-Files, the Men in Black movies, odds are you’re ready to pick up what we’re putting down, dig what we’re shoveling, etc.  But the notion of “defending the earth from the scum of the multiverse” has always sat oddly with me.  Why hide the cool stuff?  Why not let things get crazy?

A few possible answers: “It’s for the public good.”  To which: I mean, possibly.  But our species doesn’t have a great history with people in power deciding what’s for the public good.  “People aren’t ready for this knowledge.”  Which seems a bit… disrespectful, to be honest, though, given human history of dealing with outsiders, it might be accurate.  “The cool stuff kills people.”  Hard to argue there—though humans do a fine job of killing themselves without magic.  That said I’m willing to allow there’s a difference between killing ourselves and being turned inside out by monsters.  “We’ve always done it that way.”

Fair enough.

Charles Stross has observed that organizations which outlive their founders tend to do so because their focus shifts from their original mission, to self-preservation.  The Men in Black, as an institution, care primarily about the upkeep of the Men in Black.  Which is not to say that individual Men in individual Black don’t care about protecting the earth from the scum of etc.  Or even about reforming the system of which they’re a part!  But systems are big, and change slowly.

We bear histories on our backs.  As we go to school, as we enter the world and make friends and vote and serve, we’re beneficiaries and victims both of an awful lot of choices, some of which—many of which—we’d have made differently.  Checking out is an option.  Pretending we can ignore history is another.  But history has a nasty tendency to hunt us down wherever we run, and rise from whatever grave in which we try to bury it.

Our main characters in Bookburners got into the fight for personal reasons—they’ve been hurt by magic; they’ve lost friends and family; they want to help people.  Some of them are more convinced the right approach to magic is locking it away; some aren’t.  They’re working within an organization that’s made a lot of decisions about how to manage magic in the world, some of which are more defensible, some less.  How can they deal with that?  Reform?  Revolution?  Doing the best they can from the inside?

The more I thought about this idea, the more I realized that what made Bookburners uncomfortable for me also made it valuable.  Sal and Grace and Liam and Menchú and Asanti are all making the same choices we all make, moment to moment—how to do things we care about in a complicated, and probably compromised, system.

This angle also makes Bookburners an ideal serial story, since serials support more expansive storytelling.  An episode can focus on one side of Our Heroes’ mission, pose one sort of moral question, while the next episode takes an entirely different tactic.  Having a room full of writers—Mur Lafferty, Margaret Dunlap, Brian Slatterly, and myself—contributing episodes also helps, since everyone has their own perspective on the characters and their compromises.  We talk these issues out among ourselves, and then, since we’re all storytellers, we rework those conversations on the page.

In Bookburners, we’re monster-punching our way to organizational change.

Join us for the ride.


Bookburners:|iTunes|Amazon|Kobo|Google Play

Read an excerpt. Visit the Serial Box site. Follow Max Gladstone on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Updraft is a world of cloud and bone, songs and silence, where danger hides on the wind and secrets bind a city. Author Fran Wilde is here to talk about the book, and about finding her voice in a wind tunnel.



At its heart, Updraft is about speaking, about being heard, and — in turn — about hearing others; it is about challenging, vocally, secrets, assumptions, and established beliefs. It is about singing and memory; about argument and politics.

(Updraft is also about monsters, in case you’re worried that it’s all talk. Invisible monsters that you don’t see until their mouths open right in front of you in the sky. And it’s about gravity and wind. Two more kinds of monsters. But the big idea is voice.)

When I began to write Updraft, it was as a short story called “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” where two people battled for the right to speak.

… While flying.

… In a wind tunnel.

The short story was all action and eye-candy. Not just the human kind of action – I like building worlds, and “Bone Arrow, Glass Tooth,” featured an entire world pre-crammed into five thousand words. I do that a lot. Gets crowded in there.

This story also had a number of questions left unanswered: what kind of society would set its citizens against each other like this? What are the real stakes, beyond this current challenge? Who the heck are these people, and where did that wind tunnel come from?

Answering those questions gave me Kirit Densira, a young woman still living with her birth family, and happy there. Kirit’s aspires to become a renowned trader — an important job in a city of towers of living bone that rise far above the clouds. But before she can do so, Kirit breaks a law, and must pay the consequences… even though she does everything in her power to get past them.

Answering the questions raised by the short story also gave me a city that utters discord in its own way, and a citizenry desperate to appease it.

There are many voices in Updraft, and I realized early on that there were many stories I could tell, from many different perspectives.

There’s the voice of the city. The voice of Laws and tradition. The voices of those the community has set aside. The voices of the dead.

I chose among characters one whose voice resonated — roughly — and who sometimes spoke out of turn; who learning the ins-and-outs of negotiation as we all have to, learning and re-learning.

For Updraft, I didn’t want an expert. I didn’t seek someone who knew their voice and could use it perfectly. I wanted rough-edged and reaching. Someone who thought they were prepared, that they knew all the right words, but who didn’t, not yet.

For that character to find strength in their voice, to learn to control that strength, to learn when to shout, and when to stay silent: That’s the Big Idea.


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

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

The Big Idea: Stephanie Diaz

Next time you can, go look at the moon. Pretty innocuous, right? Not for Stephanie Diaz and her Extraction series of books, of which Evolution is the latest installment.


For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of having adventures in outer space. In fact, the first original words I remember writing were the lyrics of a short song: “Stephanie goes to outer space and all the way! Stephanie goes to outer space at dinner time.” I was six years old at the time, and I already knew I wanted to be an author. (Or an astronaut. But math proved to be too annoying of a subject for me.)

Now I’m twenty-two, and I still dream of someday boarding a space ship and traversing the outermost reaches of the galaxy. Yet in my first eighteen years of scribbling stories in notebooks and on school papers, it never occurred to me to try writing a science fiction story. I think I sort of figured I didn’t know enough science, or maybe I simply didn’t have an intriguing enough plot for a story set in space. Until the idea for the Extraction series (which ends with the upcoming Evolution) fell into my head.

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I’d been toying with the idea of writing a dystopian novel. I’ve always loved exploring the dark side of humanity, the situations that lead individuals to make impossible choices of death and destruction. But with the market so flooded with dystopian works, I knew I needed something to help my story stand out from the rest. The Star Wars/Firefly geek inside me tugged me in the direction of space and galactic wars.

But it really all started with a moon.

Earth’s moon is pretty cool. It looks super lovely and it works with the sun to create ocean tides, which is great. But one day I started wondering how the world would be different if the moon had a bigger effect on our day-to-day lives—and not just any effect, but a deadly one.

What if the moon were poisonous?

And so Kiel was born, a planet somewhere out in the far-off reaches of the universe. A planet orbited by a giant moon with acid leaking off its surface and swirling down into the atmosphere of Kiel, threatening the lives of the planet’s citizens. Those citizens with more wealth and privilege were able to live in societies underground, while the unprivileged working class lived in concentration camps closer to the Surface, and fought to prove they deserved an escape. I dropped a spunky sixteen-year-old girl on the most dangerous part of the planet and wove the story around her, following her from her escape of one of the concentration camps to her realization that everything she thought she knew about her home world was wrong—including the dangers of the moon.

When I started writing Extraction, I honestly didn’t know where the story was going. But about halfway through I realized there was a twist in store that opened up the possibilities for sequels. See, I’d read other science fiction stories about planets where humans suffered from trauma due to the sun’s radiation, or where supernova exploded and led to an end of a civilization, but they were all a result of natural phenomena. I decided it would be most interesting if the poisonous moon in my story weren’t something natural at all, but a weapon of war. And hardly anyone on Kiel knows it.

The first and second books of the series, Extraction and Rebellion, explore the massive cover up in play on the planet Kiel, and follow Clementine’s attempts with a rebel group to sabotage the leader at the head of the cover up. In Evolution, the warriors behind the moon’s weaponization appear on the stage and the final showdown begins, complete with space ships and aliens and a galactic war on the scale I always wanted.

Extraction started with a poisonous moon. How the story ends…well, you’ll have to read Evolution to find out.

As for me, I’ll probably never get to board a space ship and have adventures on a planet far, far away, but the Extraction series let me have adventures through Clementine and the rest of her rebel crew. And that’s pretty shiny.


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

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

The Big Idea: Zen Cho

Sugar for your tea? While you have both, Zen Cho is here to explain a little about their physical origins, and why they matter for her novel, Sorcerer to the Crown.


When I started writing what was to become my first published novel, I’d already written two novels. I had to throw them away because they did not work. I was tired of launching upon a new project buoyed by optimism – this will be the one! – only to come crashing down when it turned out to suck.

So I decided to write a book that would definitely not work. At least I’d be prepared for the inevitable tragic end. I would take the Regency romance – a genre I love, exemplified by Georgette Heyer’s spectacularly entertaining novels – and use it to tell a story about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain. Also there would be magic. And dragons. And vampiresses who weren’t really vampiresses …

What do I mean about the centrality of the colonial territories to Britain? When you read a Jane Austen novel (which you can’t really describe as a Regency romance, but is sort of a deity of the genre, influencing it but residing in a firmament above), or a true Regency romance like one of the classic Heyers, you enter what seems to be a hermetically sealed world. This is a world where the riots of poor men and agitations of politics are never mentioned save in passing; where the wars with France appear to impinge only slightly on the lives of the protagonists; and where the colonies might as well not exist, save insofar as they send back wealthy men to marry the heroines.

It is a world of balls, decorous visits, country pursuits, London intrigues, gossip, and a total absorption in the niceties of polite society. It is a partial view of the world as it was. It has influenced fantasy authors from Susanna Clarke to Kari Sperring, because, seen through modern eyes, it is as much a nice self-contained fantasy world as Middle-earth or Narnia.

But that self-contained quality is deceptive. The tea Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet drinks would have come from China via India. The sugar she puts in it would have been from plantations worked by enslaved Africans. Kashmiri shawls were a popular status item: Lizzy Bennet might not have been able to afford a dress made from them, which wealthier women wore, but she might have had a European-made replica.

I’ve obviously never been a slave or grown tea or woven a paisley shawl, but still, to someone from a former colony who grew up reading the books of authors like Austen and Heyer, these are interesting scraps of history to learn. I have always felt, with these books I love, like a ghost hanging around at the back of the room, peering interestedly at scenes, but conscious that I am out of place. To understand this history is to know that I always belonged in those books. I was a central part of the proceedings all along – whether that was a good thing or not.

Sorcerer to the Crown is about the sort of people whose labour and territory were exploited so that Lizzy Bennet could have her tea with sugar. Only it’s about those people benefiting from the resources of Empire – the wealth, the balls, the magic, the superiority complex, the self-serving imperial guilt. Protagonist Zacharias Wythe is Britain’s first black Sorcerer Royal and he is an emancipated slave. His counterpart, female magical prodigy Prunella Gentleman, is mixed race – one of her parents was Indian. They have their problems, but they both have OK lives, on the whole. It’s fantasy in more than one sense.

So that’s the big idea of the book: making visible what was invisible to a young me, reading Austen and Heyer in an ex-colony. But it’s also about balls, visits, intrigues, gossip, hijinks, and playing with the niceties of polite society. Plus dragons. (I haven’t explained why I included dragons, since the world is made up of people who need no explanation for dragons, and people who will never understand the need for dragons whether you explain it to them or not.)

And it is the book that worked, against all expectations. That is, it worked well enough to get me an agent and eventually a book deal. But whether it actually works is, of course, down to readers to decide.


Sorcerer to the Crown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Cindy Pon

When Cindy Pon turned in her Big Idea for her novel Serpentine, she had titled it “A Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy,” with the notation “Maybe the titles of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.” Why would she think that? Read on for the explanation.


When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching, Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.

My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching, Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.

I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading–and reading a lot–it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!

I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.

It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.

Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.

When I began writing Serpentine, which will be published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.

I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.

  1. “Too many Asians”

My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.

  1. “Always the handmaid, never the princess”

I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.

  1. “Sisters before misters”

I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.

  1. “Different but not that different”

I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers  found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.

As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.

So I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to talk about Serpentine. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.


Serpentine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s|iTunes

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

The Big Idea: David Walton

And now, for your Labor Day delight, here’s David Walton and his book Supersymmetry, explaining how what appears like a detail in one book can become a big idea in the sequel.


It’s time to tie your mind in knots a second time . . .

Only five months ago, John was kind enough to let me chat here about the Big Idea for Superposition, my quantum physics murder mystery that came out in April.  I compared its mind-twisting layers to the film Inception, and described the real-life jury trial I was on (faked death! Russian mobsters!) that prompted the idea in the first place.  I told you about a technology based on the crazy properties of quantum physics that allowed objects to jump through walls, bullets to diffract, and people to exist in more than one place at a time.

But Superposition was a complete story, a stand-alone novel.  That Big Idea has already been told.  So why am I here, only five months later, telling you about a sequel?

Easy.  At the very end of Superposition, in the very last scene, I left behind an Idea.  The Idea was so fascinating to me, I couldn’t just leave it alone.  One of the characters—a teenage girl named Alessandra—ended the book split in two, with two alternate versions of herself alive at the same time.  It wasn’t a loose end, exactly.  It gave her a twin, a friend who could really understand her, something she had always wanted.  The story was complete.  I hadn’t intended to write a second book.  But I couldn’t let that idea go.

It’s something we can all relate to, at some level.  We wonder what would have happened to if we’d chosen a different school, a different job, a different spouse.  How would our lives be changed?  Would we even be the same person?

I wondered: What would it be like to grow up with a sister who was you, but not you?  A twin, of sorts, but one who, until the age of fourteen, had been the same person?  I imagined both Alessandras looking across the breakfast table every day and seeing the girl each would have been if her life had gone differently at just one point.  How would that affect how they viewed themselves?  Would they get along?  Memories are notoriously malleable . . . what if they started remembering things differently?  What kinds of different choices might they make?

And of course, the biggest question of all… what would happen if the probability wave resolved and they became one person again?

Supersymmetry begins fifteen years after the end of Superposition, when the girls—Alex and Sandra—are twenty-nine, leading two separate lives and following different careers.  Each of them secretly fears that the other is the “real” Alessandra, and that the wave collapse would mean her own annihilation.  Enter Ryan Oronzi, neurotic physicist, with a quantum technology that could make American soldiers invincible in the field.  Before long, the Secretary of Defense is assassinated, it’s Alex who’s holding the gun . . . and her sister is the only person in the world who might believe her.

The story stands alone, so even if you haven’t read Superposition, I hope you’ll give Supersymmetry a try!


Supersymmetry – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | Powells | iTunes

Supersymmetry – Canada: | Indigo

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

The Big Idea: Bradley Beaulieu

If there’s a way to encapsulate the thoughts of Bradley Beaulieu with regard to his new novel Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, they might be: “Dying is easy. Tragedy is hard.” Learn what this means below.

Years ago, like any new writer, I was working through ways I might portray tragedy and loss in my stories. Strengthening new muscles, as it were. To the young writer it may seem as though death itself is the ultimate tragedy, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the actual death isn’t what matters most. It’s the grief left behind, the feelings of loss and impotence and anger. What death leaves in its wake matters so much more than the death itself.

Like a prick from a dirty needle, tragedy can infect the tissue surrounding it, and this got me to thinking. What other types of loss might have the most impact on a reader? Like ticking off topics on a list, my mind worked through the most obvious. Betrayal. Personal failure. Drifting slowly but surely apart from someone you love. Robbing a child of the potential to be great.

Like so many, I’ve been affected by the events of 9/11, the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, Arab Spring, the civil uprisings in Syria, and on and on. Society marches forward or backward on those events. They are the hinges of our history. But I cannot think of those larger events without also thinking of the terrible human loss wrapped inside them. I’m fully aware that I’ve grown up in a place where my way of life is protected. I can only wonder what it would be like to live in a place where so much that I take for granted is threatened.

That, in a nutshell, is what I wanted to explore in Twelve Kings, not merely individual or personal loss, but familial loss, societal loss, cultural loss. What grows in soil sown with so much grief? What pain might that new growth lead to? Are there things that might be saved even in terrible tragedy? Things that might be reborn? Is there joy to be found?

When I was first embarking on Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, I had already decided it would be set in a vast desert, that there would be wandering tribes who sail every corner of the desert on sandships, that there would be a melting-pot metropolis ruled by twelve cruel kings. I also knew it was going to be a series, and I wanted a through-line to help guide me toward the end of the first book and beyond. I didn’t want it to be about only big canvas stuff, though. I wanted the larger events to be felt in a such a way that it speaks to the things we all share. Something recognizably human. I wanted, in other words, to marry the the broader, earth-shaking events with deeply personal ones.

The main character in Twelve Kings is a woman named Çeda. She loses her mother at a young age when she’s killed in vicious fashion by the twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai. Çeda vows revenge, but revenge is a short-lived thing if not fueled. Years later, now a pit fighter in Sharakhai’s seedy west end, Çeda finds that fuel in the form of riddles hidden in the book of poems her mother left her. They open the door to much larger secrets, secrets the kings tried to bury on the fateful night long ago when they made a dark bargain with the gods of the desert to secure their power. Their desperation to keep those secrets hidden gives hint to just how terrible that bargain was. And yet the kings have had centuries in which to alter history. It won’t be easy for Çeda to uncover the truth.

As the story moves on, Çeda’s initial thirst for revenge is replaced by a desire to uncover what was lost, and in this I finally felt like I’d found what I was looking for. Çeda’s hopes and fears became very personal for me in the writing of this tale, but I also broadened the lens to give some sense of scope to the things she’s playing with. It made the story so much brighter for me, and I hope it does for you too.


Twelve Kings in Sharakhai: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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