Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. This is his blog. He talks a lot about writing. And food. And pop culture. And his kid. He uses lots of naughty language. NSFW. Probably NSFL. Be advised.
Okay let’s start with the most important news of them all: yesterday I took a photo of a red-tailed hawk firing a rocket of pee-poo out of its clearly weaponized cloaca.
Yes, I know, I know —
Seriously, I was sitting here in the shed and the hawk — who I assume is a lady, as she is ginormous, and the ladyhawks are bigger than the brohawks — flew right in front of my window, then landed in a tree across our driveway. I make a habit every day of bringing my camera out just to have it, and so I quick started snapping some shots…
When the tail lifts, and the bird exorcises a ribbon of ghost poo.
As captured in that photo, above.
The photo does not capture the sheer distance achieved, however.
Anyway, this is the news you crave, I know.
LET’S SEE, WHAT ELSE IS UP.
Well, a little movie based on some authorial shitposting is now available on Shudder, as well as on Amazon and iTunes — that’s right! You Might Be The Killer is now watchable at home. (I know this isn’t necessarily internationally true; I don’t control that.) You can buy it. You can rent it.
Also, I know that I didn’t do a Macro Monday post — hey, it’s the holidays, we’re all kind of flying a little loosey-goosey here. Expect one Monday. OR DON’T. You never know with me.
Finally, the sixth and final (gasp) Miriam Black book is out — Vultures. It wraps up the series, tackling the one outstanding mystery: who, or what, is The Trespasser? You can pre-order it in print or eBook. That’ll be out on January 22nd, with an audio edition coming, too. There’s also a new Miriam-universe novella, following the character of Wren with a story that takes place between The Raptor & The Wren and Vultures, and has a bunch of cool psychic slasher-killer stuff going on. That’s gonna be in the three-novella collection Death & Honey, alongside fellow penmonkey cohorts Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne. You can preorder a limited edition signed/numbered hardcover, or nab in eBook. That comes out February 28th, with a cover by Galen Dara.
The greatest dangers hide the brightest treasures in THE SALVAGERS, a bold, planet-hopping science fiction adventure series. A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY continues the adventure that began in June’s A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE.
The crew of the legendary Capricious are rich enough to retire in comfort for the rest of their days, but none of it matters if the galaxy is still in danger.
Nilah and Boots, the ship’s newest crew-members, hear the word of a mysterious cult that may have links back to an ancient and all-powerful magic. To find it, hot-headed Nilah will have to go undercover and find the source of their power without revealing her true identity. Meanwhile, Boots is forced to confront the one person she’d hoped never to see again: her turncoat former treasure-hunting partner.
* * *
1. Don’t underestimate the power of a zealous cause.
At the end of the first book, the heroes do their hero thing and bring home the titular Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. They expose a fundamental lie and the conspiracy of maniacs behind it. The galaxy sets about rooting out the remaining evil, and everyone lives happily ever—
—No, wait. Actually, within months, a group springs up calling our heroes frauds, then uses these claims to radicalize young people to their cause.
These cultists come from two places: positions of power and prestige, and those who feel they’ve been denied their birthright. When the cult asks more of them, it asks for their dignity or morality to provide them with a mere chance at greatness—and so many remain signed up.
I try to write villains a reader can respect. I want the reader to understand their motivations and ask, “Could I become that person in another life?” But over the course of writing A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, I kept watching the real world and wondering if my bad folks were evil enough. It’s getting harder to have sympathy for the devil, and that came to influence my portrayal.
2. Where you write alters what you write.
Composing a song on guitar will yield different results than composing on piano, because both instruments preferentially accent different chord structures. The same is true of the writing I do and the context in which I do it.
In early 2016, I got a traveling job that kept me away from home for weeks at a time. I’m a creature of habit, and I hated trying to write outside of my nice, established space at home. However, I also had three unwritten books under contract, so I was going to have to toughen up if I wanted to get the job done.
I found that different contexts created different results: writing fun scenes was easy outdoors, and no place is better to write a depressing scene than an airport bar. Cozy spots were good for the sweet bits, and fluorescent corporate breakrooms conjured horror. I could take my notebook to all these different places and plot my work, then drag it back to the hotel room like a prized buck for meat processing.
While I have never been as prolific on the road as I am in my house, writing in new contexts made for interesting results.
3. Building the puzzle is easier than solving it.
A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy is a heist story, and at the core of every heist tale is a puzzle that the heroes must solve along with the reader. The solution must be predictable enough to be satisfying, but twisty enough to be surprising. It’s balancing these contradictory goals that makes writing heists fun, and I originally found the challenge intimidating.
As it happens, the super-smart heist is easier to construct than I thought. Here’s the formula that worked for me:
Start with an obstacle: political, geographical, armed guards, crime families, whatever. Keep adding obstacles until the entire thing seems ridiculous: “Even if we could get in there, how would we get past the bipedal robo-sharks?”
Then cogitate. Give up. Shut your laptop and drink your booze in disgust. Complain to a friend. Take a shower the next day and realize that something you’d set up elsewhere on the story could change the equation. Repeat until you have enough exciting solutions—and throw in a final complication for good measure (“What do you mean the mayor is doing a publicity thing at the bank today?”).
When I wrote this heist, the eureka effect was my best friend. If you don’t think a shower will solve your heist problem, you haven’t seen the original woodcut of Archimedes screaming while he jumps out of the tub.
4. You can never go home again.
One of the hardest things to capture in a series is the imprint each adventure leaves on the characters. You can’t face down some of the worst the galaxy has to offer and emerge unchanged. It leaves scars. It erodes mental stability. What most believe to be your strengths may become weaknesses behind closed doors—stoicism turns into distance, alertness withers into paranoia.
When I first started the sequels, this kind of intimidated me. It was hard enough to create the arc for Nilah and Boots from nasty and selfish to heartwarming and familial. Now, I was expected to create two similarly-entertaining arcs with an overall theme stretched over them.
It turned out that my worries were unfounded. Once I was able to slow down and consider how their previous adventure impacted them, natural character interactions readily emerged. This book taught me to worry less and draw from my good ideas, without repeating them outright.
5. Writing a sequel feels awkward as hell sometimes.
I was so glad to find out most of my author friends deal with some variation of this one.
Writing your characters a second time around, as big heroes, feels self-aggrandizing. I had grown so accustomed to thinking of them a band of down-on-their-luck scoundrels. Describing them as heroes who’d already overcome a great evil against terrible odds was just strange.
To counteract this and return their humanity, I concentrated on the things my characters would hate about success. What problems weren’t fixed by loads of wealth, legal power and the ability to blast off into the stars at a moment’s notice? I started taking stock of their inherent psychological damages, using those to create double-edged interpretations of success.
There’s a reason that winning the lottery can be the worst thing that happens to some people.
* * *
Alex White was born and raised in the American south. They take photos, writes music, and spends hours on YouTube watching other people blacksmith. They value challenging and subversive writing, but they’ll settle for a good time.
I understand this because, for a very long time, I didn’t like mushrooms either, and when people were like, “Why don’t you like mushrooms?” I’d answer them with, “I don’t like eating little human ears,” because eating a mushroom was, I felt, roughly equivalent to exactly that in texture, taste, and general slime factor. (Why would ears be slimy? I don’t know. Maybe someone found them in a river or an old tree stump. Maybe they’re goblin ears. Leave me alone.)
Of course, my distaste for mushrooms comes out of my childhood, which is also the time that history will one day call, THE EPOCH OF THE ERA OF THAT TIME WHEN PEOPLE DIDN’T KNOW HOW THE HELL TO COOK VEGETABLES TO SAVE THEIR GODDAMN LIVES. It’s only been in my life since that collectively we (we = white people, probably) figured out you didn’t have to boil everything, that you could roast veggies, or put them on a grill, or heat them fast and quick in a skillet. I hated asparagus and Brussels sprouts and all that, because everything was either boiled or steamed. Mushrooms, too, were ill-handled — usually, they came out of a can, a whole damn can of little gooey elf ears, and blech, yech, ugggh. No thank you. So, I determined way back when that I did not like mushrooms, no way, no how.
I’ve since changed on that point.
(I’ve since turned around on nearly all things I didn’t like back then. Point of trivia, the only vegetable I currently still don’t like is eggplant. And I know! I know. You’re going to tell me you have a recipe or some heirloom varietal or a magic eggplant you stole from a giant, but it won’t work. I try eggplant every couple years and I’m still NOPE I DON’T LIKE IT.)
You’re going to like these mushrooms, I promise.
And that’s a money-back guarantee, so if you don’t like them, you can have your *opens an Excel spreadsheet, checks the ledger* zero dollars and zero cents back.
This is how you prepare the mushrooms.
Get some portobello mushrooms, which sound fancy but are just the mature form of some basic mushrooms. Now, I say portobello, but real-talk, I think this recipe is equally as good, if not a wee smidgen better, if you use shiitake mushrooms. You could use a whole variety of mushrooms for this — hen-of-the-woods are lovely and funky, chicken-of-the-woods taste like chicken, chanterelles hold up well. But you’ll have an easy time, I hope, finding portobello or shiitake, and if you don’t? BURN THE GROCERY STORE DOWN. Just burn it down. Tell them I told you it was okay.*
*do not do this, it’s not okay, put down the matches, firebug
How many mushrooms? I think for three people I used four or five caps. You’d need more if it’s shiitake, because they are smaller mushrooms. This is just science, and I learned it when I trained as a Food Scientist in Naples. Uhh, Naples, Florida, not Italy, sorry to disappoint.
Slice your mushrooms into strips.
Get a skillet or sauté pan.
Get it hot.
Temperature-hot, not sexy-hot. Though, you do you. If you wanna seduce cookware, I won’t judge you. As long as it’s consensual, I think we can agree you should get as kitchen freaky as you want.
Get some olive oil in there. Lube the pan. (Wait, this is getting sexy. Hm.)
Then, pop the mushrooms in there.
Here’s the great thing about mushrooms — you can’t really overcook them. Once they’re in the pan, give them a sprinkling of salt, and I like to use a little minced garlic in there too. The mushrooms are going to release their liquid (okay, though the phrase “RELEASE YOUR LIQUID” isn’t sexy, the idea kind of is?), and that’s fine — keep stirring, let them release the liquid, cook a lot of that liquid off. It’s okay that, like with meat, you start to think, these mushrooms are browning pretty good, because they are. Mushrooms like these are somewhat meaty, and it’s why you might wanna cook these in batches — you don’t wanna overcrowd the pan, because then you lose out on some of that yummy Maillard-slash-caramelization action going on.
Anyway, keep cooking them down until they’re brown and firm and mmm-licious.
Then, you’re going to add some liquid back into the party.
– the juice of one orange
– the juice of one lime
– the juice of one lemon
I call this THE CITRUS TRIO, which coincidentally is also the name of my super-cool daddy-o jazz trio, featuring Jeff Goldblum and Werner Herzog, and we will be playing the Sacramento Toot-Toot Club on January 7th mark your calendars.
(If the lime or lemons are weirdly huge, like large babies, then use the juice of halves, not wholes.)
Put the citrus juice in there.
Continue to cook down until the mushrooms are not wet, but saucy.
(Wow, still kinda sexy. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean for it to go this way.)
Now you can warm up your corn tortillas and have tacos. What else you put on those tacos is entirely up to you, but for my mileage, quick-pickled onion is pretty yummy, plus a little cilantro and a smear of mashed avocado — oh and don’t forget the Cholula’s green pepper hot sauce, which is the superior hot sauce for tacos, don’t disagree with me. Also good are quick-cooked strips of green bell pepper and caramelized onions, which you will see in the image below. I mean, honestly, anything is good in a taco. Oak leaves. Actual elf ears. Whatever.
I’ve seen on Twitter the whole thing going around and around — “How do you break into comics?” and a lot of really smart people like Mags Visaggio and Ed Brisson and Chris Sebela have been answering that question. So I figure, ha ha, oh ho, I should offer up my suggestions on this particular front, clearly laying out an easy-to-follow map that is guaranteed to WIN YOU A LIFELONG COMICS CAREER.
Buckle up. Let’s get comicky. Comicy? Colicky? Whatever.
STEP ONE: Don’t forget to take a selfie and turn it into something that vaguely looks like a panel from a comics book. This isn’t really essential, but it makes you feel cool, and feeling cool is definitely a part of writing the fuck out of some fucking comics. Example, where I took a usual shitty selfie and made it look like I’m some kind of BROODING ASSASSIN WIZARD:
STEP TWO: Write novels.
STEP TWO POINT FIVE: Have those novels published.
STEP THREE: Those novels will get the attention of someone at DC Comics and that someone says, “Hey, you should write an spec issue of Batman just to see if you’d be a good fit,” and then you write an issue in which Bruce Wayne gets cancer, which is a villain he can’t really fight, and then if I remember correctly he has to fight Anarky as Batman? Whatever.
STEP FOUR: Have DC Comics tell you, “We can’t give Batman cancer, the fuck is wrong with you?”
STEP FIVE: Know Alex Segura, who is a novelist, but also works at Archie Comics. Just know him. Know him well. Intimately. Hunt him in the night with night vision goggles to learn his habits, then ingratiate yourself into his life as a “friend.” When he has finally fallen for your ruse, it’s onto
STEP SIX: Alex will ask you to reboot an old comic called The Shield with your other good novelist friend, Adam Christopher, and you do it, and you gender-flip that shit, because why not. Then when they publish the comic they’ll put both of your last names on it, but it’ll look like one guy named CHRISTOPHER WENDIG wrote it. Anyway it’s collected, go buy it?
STEP SEVEN: Have a wonderful editor named Katie Kubert call you from Marvel, and she’ll ask you to pitch a comic. And she offers you to pitch for either a well-known comics called Agents of SHIELD or for a comic nobody probably wants called Hyperion, and you choose the latter because there’s more freedom in fringe projects (also less chance anyone is going to buy that series, but we’ll get there.) Also don’t forget to ask why they invited you to pitch in the first place. “Is it because I wrote this great comic called The Shield?” you eagerly ask and the editor answers, “What? No, it’s because I read your weird criminal underworld meets the literal monster underworld urban fantasy novel, The Blue Blazes, and I liked it.” Oh! Which reminds me, we need to rewind:
STEP TWO POINT SIX: Write a weird criminal underworld meets the literal monster underworld urban fantasy novel called The Blue Blazes and get it published, and then when the publisher goes south, engage in a year of shenanigans to get the rights back so you can self-publish the thing and its sequel, but don’t forget to make sure that the third book will never see the light of day, thus forcing the second book to end on a really weird bummer note. Okay, jumping ahead again…
STEP EIGHT: Pitch Hyperion. Get the gig as you land and turn on your phone to go hang out at Phoenix ComicCon. Get excited. You work for Marvel now!
STEP NINE: Have Hyperion canceled the day before the first issue hits shelves. Ha ha, comics are fun, L O L. Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did, because nobody’s even read your stupid comic yet! At least you got to work with Nik Virella, who is great.
STEP TEN: Have the very fine people at Marvel Star Wars ask you to write a Star Wars comic, in particular, the adaptation of The Force Awakens, which ends up being a thing you pitch as an adaptation but is a thing that they want to be, instead, “Just take the words from the script and put them in comic book format,” which means less an adaptation and more a direct translation, but whatever, it’s cool, and you do it, because it’s fucking Star Wars, and also it’s Jordan White and Heather Antos. Don’t forget to ask why they invited you to write it in the first place. “Is it because I wrote Hyperion?” And they say, “What? No, it’s because you wrote Star Wars: Aftermath!” Oh, which reminds me, another rewind —
STEP TWO POINT SEVEN: Write a trilogy of Star Wars novels. As to how you get to do that? Well, shit, I guess I need to rewind a little bit again…
STEP TWELVE: Get hired to write more Star Wars comics, whee, two more series —
STEP UNLUCKY NUMBER THIRTEEN: Congrats, now you live in a pseudo-fascist dystopian state where Donald Trump is president ha ha what that can’t happen OH YES IT FUCKING CAN, and that will make you very mad, as it should, because you’re human and not a goblin draped in human skin, so! You continue your usual pattern of rage-tweeting about the Current American Situation, like, for instance, when credible accusations of sexual assault are hand-waved away to make room for an untrustwothy Supreme Court Justice — don’t forget to do this just as you’re about to walk to New York Comic-Con for the day where they are going to loudly announce your new Darth Vader series.
STEP FOURTEEN: Get booted off those books for your vulgarity and your politics, neither of which are new, but hey. Bonus round: your being booted will be the result of a recipe of fun ingredients, including the butt-stung Comicsgate movement, a passel of right-wing clowndicks, and a glut of Twitter bots and sock-puppet accounts. Congrats, you were at the center of a miniature info-war! The future is now! And the future is really fucked up! Ha ha whee!
STEP FIFTEEN: Fuck it, go back to writing novel… and as to how you do that, well, shit, that requires us to rewind again, I guess? Time to nest a smaller map inside the larger map, HOW TO BREAK INTO PUBLISHING NOVELS:
STEP ZERO POINT FIVE: Spend a decade-plus writing freelance game design materials for pen-and-paper roleplaying games and then write five junk drawer novels and then win a screenwriting competition in the hopes of having the screenwriter help you adapt your piece-of-shit novels to the script page so you can then use the script as an outline to turn it back into a proper novel and along the way write a script with your writing partner that takes you to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and the following year you will have a short film premiere at Sundance and eventually you’ll co-write this cool thing called Collapsus and then eventually you’ll get a become a movie producer and help produce a movie on the SyFy channel based off of your shitposting tweets with fellow novelist Sam Sykes but that’s beside the point we were talking about novels right, okay, then you get an an agent and a publishing deal and you write 20-plus novels across a variety of genres and age ranges and also this blog god, jeez, don’t forget the blog and then that podcast and uhhh
And that is how you break into comics. And novels. And movies.
“A gritty, medieval fantasy full of enchantment” (Publishers Weekly), David Keck’s epic Tales of Durand trilogy concludes with A King in Cobwebs
Once a landless second son, Durand has sold his sword to both vicious and noble men and been party to appalling acts of murder as well as self-sacrificing heroism. Now the champion of the Duke of Gireth, Durand’s past has caught up with him.
The land is at the mercy of a paranoid king who has become unfit to rule. As rebellion sparks in a conquered duchy, the final bond holding back the Banished break, unleashing their nightmarish evil on the innocents of the kingdom.
In his final battle against the Banished, Durand comes face to face with the whispering darkness responsible for it all―the king in cobwebs.
* * *
Of Daughters & Day Jobs
I learned a little about writing and time while I worked but on The Tales of Durand. The final book, A King in Cobwebs, was a wee bit late — it really ought to have been published in the 1850s. And, for this inordinate delay, I would like to blame my family.
When I was an unattached, semi-employed youth, I had a special sort of time. There were whole days and evenings and weekends when time yawned like the sea and I could jump right in. If I wanted to work out ideas and build stories (or worlds) over months and months, I could do it. Magic. Now that I’m a proud parent with a real job and various responsibilities, I’ve noticed some fairly obvious things about writing in scattered fits and starts.
First, if you don’t keep nudging a story along on a nearly daily basis, the whole architecture of the thing tends to fade from the imagination. (I want to use the word “palimpsest” here, or maybe some metaphor with watercolors and drizzle, but I’d better not). When the interrupted writer returns to the work from a long break, the story has become a strange place. And it can take real time to find the blueprints and collect the tools. So, clearly, a monastic life of penury and solitude is the way forward. (Although now that I think about it, there are advantages to love and regular meals which ought to figure in the balance. You may wish to draw your own conclusions).
The Magic of the Jouster’s Armpit
The Tales of Durand is a harrowing story, but researching the books was a great fun. For me, the best finds were those telling, unexpected bits that make a person feel that the past is a real, weird, particular place you’ve never been before. They popped up everywhere. I remember reading a First World War memoir and gathering stories of mud and fleas. A crowd of school kids and I heard an old castle guide explain time (with sundials and bits of dangly jewelry). And modern day jousters? They use the internet to grumble about how a well-struck lance chews up the lancer’s armpit. How can you not collect these things?
I suppose the notion is that readers will, for a second or two, feel like they’re meeting the real people of some real place (at least as peculiar as our own).
Squashing My Orcs
There is great fun to be had in catching cliches, and I caught a few while I was working on Durand. (I imagine every writer fights with them). If you can spot one of these terrible things — and squash it — the resulting splatter of new and interesting ideas can be immensely satisfying.
Of course, it isn’t always easy to catch the things: they will often arrive disguised in little bits of superficial creativity. I remember, as a teenage writer, feeling quite proud of the unique qualities of “my orcs”, for example. And, to this day, I keep a forest of cunningly disguised elves hiding just off camera. Fantasy is full of such temptations.
But, when you do manage to catch a cliche, what fun you can have! I’d planned a scene where my hero would ride up to a strange castle and call for the man in charge. You can picture a castle wall. Guards on top. A big gate.
Fortunately, before I tried to reupholster scene, I caught myself. What if there was no one at the castle? What if everyone has vanished? What if they’d followed their leader into the hills? It could be a pilgrimage! What sort of holy place could it be? Why would they go? In the end, I was very pleased with the little world of motivations and repercussions that popped up when the story left the well-trodden path. (There’s a scene now where a doomed father grieves a lost but once-promising son in a strange gorge of hanging rags).
Time, Tide, and Disappearing Horses
In the future, I may write a novel set entirely in a single room.
In my favorite stories, the landscape is alive. It is its own character, and it has the power to conjure up boatloads of awe and dread and wonder. I’m thinking of the cold, claustrophobia of the Icelandic sagas; the majesty of the Tolkien’s broad spaces; Sherlock’s moors; or Shelley’s arctic wastes. It’s all good fun.
If you are going to take your readers through a few good landscapes; however, you are almost forced to put your characters on horseback and send them trotting all over creation. (This is unfortunate).
Horses are ticklish things. Anybody who knows anything about horses will tell you that nobody knows anything about horses. I gathered useful hints about personality and maintenance from guidebooks and handbooks and conversations with actual people, but no practical amount of research could ever do the job. There is a neat and frustrating divide among historians, for example, about whether a medieval charge was a galloping affair or only a grim and resolute canter full of razor sharp points. Worse, horses have a curious tendency to disappear from the pages of a novel. During the revision process of The Tales of Durand, horses popped in and out of existence more times than I am comfortable admitting. I suspect that this is where centaurs came from.
When there’s a lot of traveling, time soon becomes a challenge as well. In The Tales of Durand, time is measured by the movements of the sun and moon. In fact, the moon has a new name each month (based on timeless cycles of the agricultural year, because it’s a fantasy novel and people expect things). Sadly, all of this created a record keeping issue. Over the course of the series, I’m not sure how many times I put two full moons in the same month, two sunsets in a single day — and I’m still not sure I understand tides.
(Thank goodness for editors. Really).
Little Actual Exploration
The seed of this trilogy was a flawed little short story about a fellow who felt miscast in the role of hero. He did the job, but he didn’t feel that he deserved the accolades. That was the idea, but I’m not sure I could have told you precisely where the story was going; the notion of the doubting hero felt like something I wanted to explore.
Three novels in, I’ve started to see more clearly where my head was. The reader meets quite a number of tortured souls in these pages, and, typically, their wounds are self-inflicted. People hang onto their guilt or doubt or anger no matter how it hurts them. And, because we’re in an enchanted world, their suffering renders them monstrous and tears at the landscape. Thankfully, by the end, some of my favorite characters are beginning to come to their senses. (They might even have a chance at happiness).
Maybe what I’m saying, in several hundred thousand words is that we should cut ourselves some slack.
And be careful with our armpits.
* * *
David Keck is a New York based writer, teacher, and cartoonist who grew up in Winnipeg, Canada.
This novel in six parts is a look at the unlimited possibilities of biotech advances and the ethical quandaries they will provoke. Dayton shows us a near and distant future in which we will eradicate disease, extend our lifespans, and reshape the human body. The results can be heavenly—saving the life of your dying child; and horrific—the ability to modify convicts into robot slaves. Deeply thoughtful, poignant, horrifying, and action-packed, this novel is groundbreaking in both form and substance. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful examines how far we will go to remake ourselves into the perfect human specimen, and what it means to be human at all.
* * *
Writing a novel in six parts may be easier than writing a novel in one huge part
The six sections of this book are interconnected so that I consider it one complete story. Each piece can, to some degree, stand on its own, but not fully. The six parts are necessary complements that tell, in the end, one united narrative.
Because there were six sections, there was freedom to tackle each separately, as I would with a series of short stories. I wrote them out of order, however the whim took me, which happened to mean that I wrote the last section first and the first section last. This unintended sequence was serendipitous because A) it’s always helpful to know your ending when you write and B) and it’s much easier to write a good beginning when you already know how the rest of your story will unfold.
But it was more than writing out of order that made this book easier. There’s the mechanical factor that editing something short involves dealing with fewer “ripple effects” than editing something longer. This meant I could work on discrete chunks and not worry about the whole story for long stretches of time. This novel fits together like an extravagant domino pattern with enclaves that wouldn’t be knocked over by a general domino-pocalypse. Those enclaves were places I could work without all the other sections of the book peering over my shoulder, as it were.
I don’t know if this lesson is useful, because unless I’m planning to slice up all future stories into many distinct parts, editing this book was a surprise vacation that may never happen again.
Sometimes science fact is so amazing that you have to remind yourself why you’re writing science fiction
Writing about human genetic modification and medical advances that will allow us to rebuild ourselves and vastly extend lifespan…well it’s frankly such an enticing topic in real life that I found myself repeatedly up against the dilemma of what to include in the story. I’ve read hundreds of articles on CRISPR, growing human or human-compatible organs in livestock, advanced prosthetics, life extension, you name it. I’ve also interviewed researchers on the forefront of the science—people who are figuring out how to edit and reprogram our immune systems, for example, in order to combat or even cure diseases like HIV. Not in the distant future, but within the next few years. I mean, holy shit!
There were a days when I wanted to go back to school and study biology. And there were other days when I was absolutely certain that I needed to include some tidbit of medical reality in the book because it was so incredible.
I had to reel in my excitement about the reality and channel it into the imagined future. The medicine, the gene editing, the drastically extended lifetimes…they simply aren’t important in fiction, unless they are the context for an intensely personal story that allows you to follow a human being (or a version of a human being) that you care about. This was harder than it sounds and there are so many great ideas lying on my metaphorical cutting room floor. But they were abandoned in service of the six main characters and what mattered to them. Essentially I had to remember whose story this was—not mine but theirs.
A character will only do so much, unless…
And speaking of characters, I got to re-learn a lesson I’m taught in every book: a character will only do what she is meant to do intrinsically. If that doesn’t happen to include what you believe that character should be doing, then there are two possibilities: 1) the thing you’re asking the character to do doesn’t make a lick of sense and you should get your shit together and change things around or 2) you don’t know that character as well as you think you do.
For me, it’s 2 a surprising number of times. Trouble writing the story I see in my head frequently boils down to not having a true feel for who a character is, what made her the way she is, the formative experiences and relationships of her life, and what, if she ever took the time to think about it, would be her personal philosophy. A legal pad and nice pen and six or ten pages of backstory usually do the trick.
Sometimes it’s okay if the tail wags the dog
When I’m coming up with new ideas, I usually see the characters before I see the world they’re in. But in this book, I understood the world first. I knew I wanted to write stories that involved the genetic and medical future of humans as a race and the experience of growing up and discovering who you are when the very essence of ‘you’ is changing.
That idea wasn’t originally connected to any specific protagonists who would carry the story on their shoulders. Yet it turns out that these snippets of context were enough, and in a short time the characters began to show up to live in the house I was building. I guess the take-away here is that there are many potentially workable ways of staring at a blank page.
Write something meaningful to you, regardless of imagined commercial implications
This one is hard. As I began putting this book together, with its unusual structure and its potential for being categorized incorrectly as an anthology, I couldn’t help wondering: Who will buy this? Could a publisher get behind it or will it be too odd? Is this what I “should” be writing? Will this be a waste of a year?
I stopped asking. Or at least I tried to. Because the thing is, there aren’t valid answers to those questions until you’ve written the book. Unless your name is so huge that your publisher is going to buy whatever you pitch them, no matter how vague the idea, isn’t it better (I asked myself) to simply write the story you want to write? Then you can show people a completed novel. And it will speak for itself.
So that’s what I did. Because the simplicity is this: every publisher in every country of the world, and every reader who has ever existed, wants the same thing: a good book. That’s all. I don’t think I can write a good book if I’m writing to chase an idea of what people might want. And besides that, who wants to spend time on something that doesn’t make you want to jump out of the bed in the morning so you can get to work?
Happy writing to all of you!
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ARWEN ELYS DAYTON is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker Series, set in Scotland and Hong Kong. She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong and its islands, the Baltic Sea. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. You can visit her and learn more about her books at arwendayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Instagram and Facebook.
Hello! It is Friday. What happens on Friday? Oh, I dunno, maybe a hot fresh bucket of NEWS-FLAVORED NEWS NIBBLINGS, coming right atcha. Nothing particularly revelatory today, but just the same, buckle up —
And let’s ride.
1. New episode of Ragnatalk, featuring Max Temkin of CAH. Wait, what’s that? You’re not yet listening to Chuck & Anthony: Ragnatalk? Well, fix your shit and come correct.
2. If you wanted a terribleminds mug, like this Art Harder one, they are currently 40% off today (11/30) with code CYBRWEEKZAZZ. Or, I dunno, other mugs! And don’t forget the Gifts for Writers 2018 post is live in case you’re a penmonkey in need of gifts or a non-penmonkey in need of gifts for a penmonkey. Writers need love, too, is what I’m saying.
3. The collection of Star Wars short fiction, From A Certain Point of View, is $2.99 today for your ELECTRIZZIC BOOKENMACHINE or whatever, so go have it. It’s a series of stories based on many of the lesser characters from A New Hope, and my story is about the cantina barkeep, Wuher.
4. Invasive is $3.99 in eBook. Why? Because reasons!
Punk-rock runaway Charity Blake becomes a Harpy at night—a treacherous mythical monster who preys upon men just like the ones who abused her. Struggling through an endless stream of crappy coffee shop jobs, revolted stares, and self-isolation during the day, Charity longs to turn into the beast at night. Doing the right thing in all the wrong ways suits her.
But a Harpy’s life belongs in Hell—the gruesome Wood of Suicides, where the Harpy queen offers Charity just what she’s looking for: a home where she can reign supreme and leave behind the agony of her past. The choice to stay in Hell would be easy, were it not for a rock-and-roll neighbor who loves her for the woman she is—even when he discovers the creature she becomes—and unexpected new friends with their own deranged pasts and desires who see Charity as their savior. But salvation isn’t in the cards for Charity. Not when her friends see through her vicious attitude and fall in love with her power as the Harpy.
Struggling between the life of an injured outcast and the grizzly champion of a blood-red hellscape, Charity must thwart her friends’ craving for her power enough to fear her corruption—and determine once and for all where her salvation lies: in eternal revenge or mortal love.
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Shying away from the real horror is SHY and shy is stupid when writing horror or anything else.
The blood, the viscera, that’s all the safe part. Even the sometime setting of Dante’s Wood of Suicides in THE HARPY—which, I mean, wow—is partly safe. I mean, you’ve probably not been there. You’ve probably not been gored by a bird broad. The real horror in writing this book was knowing that some of my readers were runaways, were abused, were scarred in every way they could be. I pushed boundaries writing this book at all, but there were points when I asked myself should I? So many people will wince at Charity’s past and what’s leaked into her present. Is it too much? Yes, it is. It most definitely is. The horror in this book is in what Charity’s past has made her think of herself, what it’s done to her mind, her heart and soul. And that’s a horror that shouldn’t be shied away from, specifically because it is real. Exploring that, knowing the emotional flaying it will cause for some scares the smoke out of me for a multitude of reasons. But I want to be the kind of creator that is afraid of what I create. I want it to open doors that have been closed too long, to pull the skin slowly when the Band-aid comes off, for the novacaine to wear off just a little too soon… I want it not to just terrify, but to make me feel. I want that for my readers.
“Too cerebral” means “too stupid” and I refuse to believe that of my readers.
Though it’s fun, THE HARPY isn’t light reading. To make it surface would be disrespectful of the subjects it treats and it’s not the way I write. I didn’t get a college degree in English to not overcomplicate shit. I’m also a grand-standing advocate of giving kids books beyond their age group if they want them, because they want them. How do we learn if we don’t challenge ourselves? And what gives anyone the right to say who’s smart enough to take interest in any book? The interest alone says the reader is smart enough. When THE HARPY was rejected by one editor for being “too cerebral” after having been pitched to many by my agent, I knew it was time to change my publishing path. I will not now or ever dumb down my work because someone else thinks it’s too involved. If a reader doesn’t get it and wants to? They’ll read it again. They’ll dig deeper. Hopefully it will inspire them, teach them something new about themselves. Maybe it won’t work, but hell, I will not shallow-fy myself in any way because The Man or any man tells me to. Which leads me to…
There is no definition of “strong female character” because there is no end to the list of fights we fight.
Ah, the old “strong female character.” As though women are these amoeba-like crybaby gelatin molds that speak, and the examples of ones that can stand on their own should be pointed out. The strong female character needs to be defined by how much ass she can kick. She doesn’t need to be AMAZING. Charity has horrible self-esteem, does plenty to kick her own ass psychologically and physically. But not thinking she’s SUPER FUCKING AWESOME DOES NOT MAKE HER INTRINSICALLY WEAK. She can call herself a dirty Hell-whore, but you can’t. Is it self-demeaning, self-flagellating, unhealthy as fuck? Yes. But she faces this vision of herself head-on. This is how she feels, and she won’t hide it. Charity fights back just by getting out of bed every day. Her choices once she rolls out of bed suck. But she makes them, and she defends them. She’s a bastard on the outside to almost everyone she meets, and she’s afraid but she’ll never show it, and she’s hurt and lonely and thinks she doesn’t deserve any kind of happiness—but she keeps going. Day in, day out. That’s strength. Those of us who fight every day whether we lose more often than not, who are exhausted by existence for All the Reasons, who keep going though sometimes it might feel easier not to—that’s a hero. Charity’s acknowledgement of her dark and uglies, showing them to you whether you want to see them or not, that’s what makes her honest, and that hideous honesty is a type of strength that can’t be denied. Strength isn’t always what it looks like. Who she is isn’t up to you.
“Anti-hero” is still a label, and a real anti-hero doesn’t care what you think.
I love an anti-hero. Long live the anti-hero. But this character… This book isn’t about a hero or an anti-hero as much as it is about a woman. A woman who doesn’t need to be quirky and cute, thoughtful and kind. She can be Batman but more bitter. She can be the Crow but funnier. She can be Hannibal Lecter-esque with a sticky lipstick smile. She doesn’t have to be a nice girl, feminine or not feminine; she doesn’t have to be a rough and tumble, bitingly sarcastic bitch either. IT’S ENOUGH THAT SHE JUST IS. Like anyone who feels hopelessly beaten, she’s thrilled at the idea of release, of escape, of revenge, of winning something. Giving in to it doesn’t make her a weak woman, or a villain, or a hero. She’s a monster, but she’s human. Heroes, and women for that matter, can want revenge and still be called heroes. And she certainly doesn’t have to be everyone’s hero. She does right in the wrong ways though it doesn’t necessarily help her. And it’s not selfless. I think I like that I’m not quick to label her because she’s more than one thing. Aren’t we all? What matters is that she’s somebody, and someone who is ever-changing. Not a straight-shot change, either, but one with a lot of back-tracking and bumps and falls. If I had to say one way or the other, yes, I would say Charity is an anti-hero. But she would tell you to fuck off for asking.
Once again, there is no right way to write a book.
This is not a new statement, but it’s one that bears repeating. There are no rules to writing. I write because the rules don’t work for me. I make the rules and break my own rules pretty quickly. To write something brand new, I had to try something brand new, something I didn’t even know was possible. I can’t believe how smoothly it worked out. I say that, but it wasn’t luck either: I know what makes my writing mine, and I stuck to it; a tether to keep myself firmly in my world. First, I twisted mythology to my own devices. Second, I made the book scary on the outside, pretty on the inside. Third, I made sure that nobody else could tell this story but Charity Blake. But the weird thing I tried? I took a concept that I hold dearly and I stripped it naked. I live and breathe by the idea of building a room around a piece of art. Don’t buy the painting to match the couch; find the art you love and get the couch to go with it. The rug to go with the couch, etc… For THE HARPY I started with one sentence that came to me—I swallowed a Hell splinter—and I made it a chapter title. Who would say it? What would make her say such a thing? And what is the lie that she believes? I built a book that way. I shaped the story around the chapter titles I created. Of course, I did all the other stuff to make a book into a wonderful thing, but this was my strategy, and it was refreshing and fun and allowed me to explore words and concepts in a way that I would never have thought of in my usual context. So, you know—try stuff. Rebel against what you know. I like to say make your passion matter, it’s kinda my slogan. What I learned from writing THE HARPY is to make your passion bigger, different, moving. Be a mad scientist with your work and you’ll get something unexpected. And don’t be afraid of the scary stuff.
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Julie’s a mythology-twisting, pizza-hoarding karate-kicker who left her ten-year panty peddling career to devote all her time to writing. She is the author of Running Home, Running Away, The Wind Between Worlds, and now, The Harpy. Julie revels in all things Buffy, Marvel, robots, and drinks more coffee than Juan Valdez and his donkey combined, if that donkey is allowed to drink coffee. Julie lives in Plymouth, MA, constantly awaiting thunderstorms with her wildly supportive husband, two magnificent boys, and a reptile army.