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.
Hey, I guess I should post my San Diego Comic-Con schedule, huh? Well, here it shall be, for your perusal. Also don’t forget I’ll be at Mysterious Galaxy the following Monday with Adam Christopher. We’ll be signing books and engaging with various shenanigans.
A lethal virus is awoken on an abandoned spaceship in this incredibly fast-paced, claustrophobic thriller.
They thought the ship would be their salvation.
Zahra knew every detail of the plan. House of Wisdom, a massive exploration vessel, had been abandoned by the government of Earth a decade earlier, when a deadly virus broke out and killed everyone on board in a matter of hours. But now it could belong to her people if they were bold enough to take it. All they needed to do was kidnap Jaswinder Bhattacharya—the sole survivor of the tragedy, and the last person whose genetic signature would allow entry to the spaceship.
But what Zahra and her crew could not know was what waited for them on the ship—a terrifying secret buried by the government. A threat to all of humanity that lay sleeping alongside the orbiting dead.
And then they woke it up.
* * *
Trial and error is part of writing
I suppose this is a lesson I’ve learned with every book, but I feel like I learned it extra double well this time around. Maybe it will stick this time! (Probably not.) But even if it once again slips from my mind like morning mist chased away by the first rays of the dawn, it is important enough to keep learning again and again.
This is the lesson: I have to spend a long time thinking about a novel before I can write a novel.
It is a necessary part of my writing process. Sometimes that thinking involves writing thousands of words toward a dead end, words I inevitably delete, on a version of the story that looks nothing like the final book.
I wrote tens of thousands of words on a wrong version of this book before I admitted it was wrong and started over–and that’s not all that unusual for me. I do that a lot. It feels terribly inefficient, but I’ve learned time and again that this is part of what I have to do. No matter what I think I know ahead of time, no matter how certain I am this time will be different, I don’t truly know what I want to write until I’m writing it. I don’t know what my story is until I’m telling it to myself.
Fast pacing and strong atmosphere are not in opposition
Before I wrote Salvation Day, nobody had ever accused me of writing fast-paced stories. The pacing of my previous novels tend toward measured and leisurely. Mostly by choice, to be clear, because I write stories that I would want to read, and when I read I want to sink into a book thoroughly, to luxuriate in the depth of its world and characters, to revel in the strangeness of taking a wander through an unfamiliar world–whether that world is fantastical kingdom ruled by magic, a sentient spaceship a million years in the future, or a misty English village beset by murders. I love to create atmosphere when I write; I want readers to feel the story wrap around and draw them in with every one of their senses.
But I kept running into a tiny little problem while writing Salvation Day: there is no time. There is no time for luxuriating in the setting, for wallowing in the senses, for exploring the world. There is no time for anything. I very cleverly handed myself a plot that takes place in an extremely limited environment (a single spaceship) and an extremely limited time frame (a single day), and on top of that I decided to put my characters in a new kind of mortal peril on every page.
It took me a while to figure out that didn’t mean I had to abandon my love of richly atmospheric stories. I just had be more smarter about it, which is a skill that I’m glad to have finally acquired, even though it did take four novels and some dozen-plus stories. But, in all fairness, I did also cheat a little bit, because a story set on an abandoned literal spaceship full of literal corpses rather provides its own moody, intense atmosphere. I just had to describe the corpses.
Which I did. With great frequency, in great detail.
Gravity: still my favorite fundamental force
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who hates writing action scenes because I’m not very good at them. Then (ref. clever decisions, cited above) I decided to write a book that is basically nothing but action scenes. Oh, and those actions scenes all take place in the microgravity of a very distant orbit around Earth. Mostly involving people who have never been in space before.
Now, I have a fairly strong science background. I have a PhD in geophysics. I know enough to know where and how I need to research. But, man, did I run into some unexpected problems while writing action scene after action scene in microgravity. Time after time I caught myself having characters stand up, or set something down, or even bleed or cry the way people normally bleed or cry, and none of that works the same without gravity. It was an epic and ever-evolving learning curve for me to remember, on every single page, that the rules of movement were different.
(But maybe I didn’t learn my lesson after all, because I’m currently working on a novel that takes place on a small, irregular asteroid, where gravity gets even more complicated! I love you, gravity.)
That old man in that one scene in The Avengers was right
You know that scene in Marvel’s The Avengers when Loki shows up in Stuttgart and tells everybody to kneel and one of man stands up and, deeply unimpressed, dismissing the bratty trickster by saying, “There are always men like you”?
You know that scene? That scene is correct. There are always men like that.
Men who want people to kneel before them. Men who rant and rage and splutter and demand obedience and loyalty and admiration. Men who get those things, and declare it’s not enough, and demand more. Men who claim to have the answer to all of humanity’s problems, an answer nobody else could provide, an answer they alone are capable of delivering. There are always men like that.
I did a lot of research into cults as I was writing this book, and the one thing I learned that surprised me–although perhaps, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have–is how very ordinary the infamous, terrifying cult leaders of history seem once you learn about them in any depth. They are pretty much all cruel, petty, narcissists with delusions of grandeur who want people to cower before them. They rant and rage and splutter. They might gather a handful of followers, or hundreds, or they might be elected president, but that doesn’t make them extraordinary. There is nothing more ordinary, more mundane, more common, than a cruel, petty man who rants and rages and splutters and wants to rule the world.
Trust your gut when it comes to both your stories and your career
I was about halfway through the first draft of Salvation Day when I had to make a pretty huge decision about it. The publisher I was with at the time wasn’t interested in it; they wanted another book from me, one I had pitched but hadn’t started writing beyond a few sample pages. I had to make the choice between the sure thing of staying with the publisher who’d handled my first three novels, or turning down their offer and taking the chance that somebody else would want my grim little sci fi nightmare about a spaceship full o’ corpses.
It was the sort of decision I had always assumed must be hard for authors to make. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t a difficult decision at all. I knew what I wanted to do as soon as the choice was before me. I knew I had a good thing going with this book. I knew I would regret setting it aside to work on something else, something I wasn’t fully invested in yet. I made myself pause and breathe and look at the more practical consideration–and talk to my agent–about the risks and challenges of changing publishers, changing genres and age groups, turning down certain money now for uncertain money in the future. But in the end in came down to the fact that I felt good about this book and what it could become. My gut instinct was that I wanted to write it, because it was worth the risk.
Writing stories is the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it is basically a never-ending series of jumps into the unknown. I don’t know if I’ll be in the same position or have the reasons to make the same choice again in the future, but I’m glad I learned that I could take that jump when I needed to.
* * *
Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Salvation Day is her first novel for adults. She is also the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees, the middle grade fantasy City of Islands, and short stories that have appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.
WELP, Wanderers Week is over, and now (well, tomorrow), I hop on a series of planes and go to a series of places where there are, ideally, my books and people who want me to devalue them with my signature. I’m told the book did okay out there in the wild? It seems like a bunch of you are reading it and maybe even enjoying it, so that’s really nice. This has been the nicest launch week I’ve had in a long time, in part thanks to Del Rey, the bookstores that hosted me, the sites that featured the book, and of course, ALL Y’ALL. For being rad. For being readers. My readers, in particular. *freeze-frame high-fives all around*
If you can? Keep yelling about the book. Keep leaving reviews. Keep gesticulating wildly about it. Not just to me! To all of them. If the book is gonna maintain, I need people to talk about it. Share the book-love, if you’re so inclined to do so.
“Wendig takes science, politics, horror, and science fiction and blended them into an outstanding story about the human spirit in times of turmoil, claiming a spot on the list of must-read apocalyptic novels while doing so.”
“Wanderers is a book resolutely, powerfully of its time, and it is this sense of urgency and verisimilitude that places it firmly on the shelf of epidemic classics including Stephen King’s The Stand, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.”
Let’s be clear: book release week is weird. You spend a year-ish writing a book. You spend time selling it. Then there’s time piled on top of time in order for the publisher to wind up the pitch and let the ball fly — and the ball flies slow, as marketing ramps up and people get galley copies and, and, and, and then the day actually happens —
And it can feel a little anticlimactic. That’s nobody’s fault — it’s just how books are. When a movie comes out, everybody gives a shit. Lots of press and box office reports and interviews and lights and sound and candy and also probably mountains of cocaine? I don’t know about that last part. I just assume if anybody is out there still just railing on cocaine, it’s Big Hollywood.
(I kid, of course. They’re not doing cocaine. They’re gently sipping kombucha-charcoal smoothies micro-dosed with artisanal psilocybin.)
But books aren’t that. Your new book isn’t launched from a trebuchet into the sky for all to see. They are (hopefully) unpacked gently from boxes, and placed on shelves during release day, and then… people maybe buy them, maybe they don’t right away, maybe they never do. Obviously, this is different if you’re releasing a new Harry Potter novel, but since most people are not releasing a new Harry Potter novel, it can feel a little bit less like the dramatic pop of a Champagne cork and more like the ginger, hesitant unscrewing of a screw-top wine bottle.
So, that’s what I expected here, with Wanderers.
I expected poorly.
I mean, okay, no, we weren’t sucking down hallucinogenic smoothies or whatever, but you all made this release week feel like something special, and that’s been great. It’s honestly been nice to see the enthusiasm for people both going out and getting the book — and then following along on the journey as people are reading it. Further, the book seems to be doing okay, too, which is really nice to see. It’s been bopping around the Top 20 on B&N (where you can still get a signed copy, by the way) and I’ve heard of libraries ordering more copies and bookstores running out. Not that I want anyone to run out of the book, obviously, but as an indicating it’s maybe selling okay? I’ll take it.
Thanks, all, for checking out the book, if you have. And if you’re able to go and crow about it and put up reviews at Amazon or Goodreads or wherever, I’d be in your eternal gratitude. ETERNAL GRATITUDE, I SAID. YOU WILL HAVE ENSURED THE SERVICE OF MY SPECTER ACROSS ALL OF SPACE AND TIME oh am I yelling again, sorry.
Also don’t forget, I’ll be bopping around the country in my Writer Shed, which has spontaneously grown a giant pair of chicken legs, and —
Oh! Oh. Haha, I’m just going to using planes for this trip. Cool.
But I’ll be at —
Atlanta/Decatur (Eagle Eye!), then Austin (BookPeople!), Houston (Murder by the Book!), Seattle (Elliot Bay!), Portland (Powells in Beaverton!), San Diego (SDCC, then Mysterious Galaxy!), and finally, Denver (Tattered Cover!). Starting next week. Details here.
And just to clarify, you don’t need to wait to purchase your book until my visit — I’ve reminded some folks you can go buy the book from the store in question now, then visit me at that store on the date of the appearance. As for what to expect at each appearance? I’ll mostly do a short introduction about the book, then do a Q&A, then sign some books. Plus some general mayhem and unmitigated pantslessness. There may even be a pants-off dance-off.
(There will be no pants-off dance-off, it’s fine.)
And that’s it.
Thanks again to all the writers and readers and followers who have shouted about this book. It means a lot — to me personally, and for the book’s chances to make its way in the world. And thanks to the two launch stores who helped me flail and shake the book around — Let’s Play Books and Doylestown Bookshop.
Gonna do a brief Wanderers-related news/review round-up, and then I’m off.
BLACK SWAN SAYS BYE
* * *
“Wanderers doesn’t just settle for a plot twist or two. He plot twists the plot twist then plot twists the plot twist’s plot twist. Reading his books is like standing super close to a painting and seeing only the smudges of paint then taking a step back to see those brushstrokes form a flower. Step back again and now you see the flower is in a vase. Another step back and the vase is in a room. One more step and the room is in a house and the house is on fucking fire and there’s blood everywhere and people are running and screaming… the book is 800 pages and I read it in two sittings. I forgot to eat. Twice. I sat on the couch enraptured by the story. It’s that good. No, it’s that incredible.” — Alex Brown, Tor.com
“It’s a rare find: an 800-page novel about the end of the world that manages to be riveting and prescient while delivering thrills like a big summer blockbuster.” — Ardi Alspach, B&N SFF Blog
“Wanderers is a few things: a tense mystery; an Outbreak-style medical thriller; a sprawling, Stephen King-esque epic. But mostly it’s a book about America right now—and much like America right now, it’s a potent blend of fear, confusion, and guarded, fragile hope.” — Erik Henriksen, Portland Mercury / The Stranger
“The true success of Wanderers, though, is not just in its ability to show us the grim scenarios that could play out across a divided nation; it’s in its heart. Whether he’s writing about rage or faith or the faintest glimmer of light, Wendig brings a sincerity and emotional weight to his prose. That’s why the scariest parts of Wanderers work, but it’s also why the most hopeful ones do, too.” — BookPage (starred review)
“Maybe my favorite read of the season. “Wanderers” reminds me of the books I loved to read years ago for all the right reasons: Mainly pure, unadulterated, page-turning fun. Mash up ideas from “The Stand,” “The Hot Zone,” and every classic Crichton thriller and you get “Wanderers.” It’s every bit as good as those classics, but Wendig has created a (terrifying) world solely his own.” — Tom Beans, The Source Weekly
Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.
Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….
* * *
Look at that! What a thing! Calloo callay! The cover of my very first traditionally-published novel. How shiny and bloody—and I didn’t have to lift a finger this time. That’s the incredibly talented Leo Nickolls up there with the dark devilly masterpiece, and you can find more of their stunning work here. I am a particular fan of the covers for For a Muse of Fire, Rotherweird, City of Crows, Damselfly, Anassa, Ariadnis, and, and . . . hell, you know what? I love all of them. I can’t believe they paired me with such an amazing artist.
Hi, I’m Sam. You might have heard of me, you might not. I’ve been creeping around the internet self-publishing fantasy since late 2012, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a bit of a deathmarch, plodding through the desert of obscurity with my wordslinger sixgun and a swig of water in my canteen.
Up until now, I’ve been doing all my own covers, dragging photo after photo into Photoshop and chiseling away at raw photos until I reveal something serviceable. If you know anything about book covers and commercial psychology you might say, “Gosh, that’s a bad idea, pardner,” and normally I’d agree with you, but after a lot of banging my head against the wall they eventually turned out all right. I learned a little something about commercial psychology, at least where it concerns book covers and literature marketing. For a while I even did covers for other authors on commission—enough to pay a few bills!
One of the things that I learned along the way, other than that the real treasure was the friends we made, was that whether it’s in the Kindle section of Amazon, or the fiction section of your local Books-a-Million, every single time someone picks up your book and skims it, that is a job interview.
You have walked into that person’s metaphorical office and you have sat down in front of them on a squeaky-farty leather chair and smoothed out your shirt, ready to be questioned and weighed, ready to demonstrate to that person why you deserve to earn that person’s money.
Your back catalog, the books you’ve already written? That’s your work history.
Your Amazon reviews? The blurb on your front cover, and the snippets of praise trickling down the back? That’s your professional references.
And your cover is your interview suit. Neatly pressed, squared away, laced up and gleaming. Four-in-hand cranberry tie, or razor-sharp makeup. It’s how you communicate your integrity, your fortitude, your competence, your cleanliness. It’s how you let people know I’m here, I know what I’m doing, I know what you need, and I know how to make it happen. And maybe a little glitter in your eyeshadow or colorful dress socks, as if to say, I might be a professional but I’m not boring stick-in-the-mud turtles all the way down.
So it’s nice to have that taken off my hands for a change. Instead of having to tailor my own outfit from scratch, Tor Books graciously took me to get fitted for a professional suit—and boy howdy, it turned out great.
When my editor, the talented Diana Pho, first described what she had in mind—a simple silhouette in strong colors like the one on Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol—I have to admit I was a little worried at first. While that style worked well for Malerman’s dirt-road supernatural thriller, evoking the old-timey gunslinger dime-novels like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Max Brand, I wasn’t sure it would translate well to a rock-and-roll dirty-south horror-fantasy like Burn The Dark and its sequels. To my astonished surprise, however, what we got was something more like Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds covers, with less of an avian bent and more of a Satanic tone.
Other than the three-quarters-turn Robin centerpiece and her blue hair and stony glare, I think one of my favorite parts of this cover is also one of its more subtle aspects—the vascular tree-branches worming into the image’s outer limits, insinuating both arteries and roots, evoking the central concept of the tree.
As I zoom out and look at the image as a whole, I’m quite satisfied with the heat and intimacy of it. The artery-branches enclose the viewer’s eye, fencing it toward the center of the image, and the warm colors lend the whole thing an almost biological claustrophobia, as if you were looking at the splayed-open chest of a body, and the organs inside. I’m really looking forward to seeing how all these reds and purples look on the book’s physical jacket.
S.A. Hunt is a non-binary U.S. veteran, speculative fiction author, and Winner of Reddit.com/r/Fantasy’s “Independent Novel of the Year” Stabby Award. They live in Petoskey, Michigan. Burn The Dark is the first volume in the Malus Domestica series.
* * *
Excerpt from Burn the Dark:
OVERGROWN GRASS AROUND A lemon tree, shadowy front porch with no porch light. A rocking chair lurked in the gloom.
The girl in the video crept up the front walk of the tract house.
Hoo, hoo, hu-hu.
Halfway across the yard, she paused and turned to point the camera up into the branches of the lemon tree, the aperture whirring as she zoomed in on it.
A snowy owl perched in the masterwork of shadows some eight feet up, throat pulsing, hoo, hoo, hu-hu. The camera zoomed out as the owl took flight and left the screen stage right.
“Hello, honey,” croaked a subtle voice.
She whirled around and the world whipped to the left, revealing the front of the white tract house and its shadowy porch, arrayed with boxes of junk, chairs, yellowed and fraying newspaper. A tribunal of cats sat on their haunches all over the porch, fifteen or twenty of them: calico, tortoise-shell tabbies, midnight-blacks, two Siamese, an orange Morris with brilliant green eyes.
Someone stood behind the screen door, a smear of gray a shade lighter than the darkness inside the house.
At the top of the faint figure was the gnarled suggestion of a face. “What brings you round at this time of night, young lady?” An old woman, her voice kind but deliberate, with a hint of accent. British? Irish? Whatever it was, it wasn’t midwestern or southern.
Motionless cats reflected the streetlight with their lantern-green eyes.
Neva Chandler, said a voice-over from Robin. The self-proclaimed King of Alabama. Her voice was soft, introspective, an inside-voice that belonged more at a funeral than a YouTube video. Tinged with a faint southern twang.
The girl threw a thumb over her shoulder. “Ah, my car broke down. I . . . I was hopin’ I could use your phone.”
“Ah.” The old woman paused. She might have been folding her arms, but it was hard to tell. “I thought all you young ladies these days carried those—those cellular phones, they call them. With their tender apps and GPS-voices. Go here, go there, and so forth.”
“No, ma’am,” replied the girl. “I’m kinda old-school that way I guess.”
The old woman scoffed. “Old-school.”
“Well, if you’re going to come in, it would behoove you to do so, and get clear of the street,” the old woman said in a warning way, even though the girl was fully in her front yard by then. “It’s a dangerous place for dangerous people.”
The stoop leading up to the porch was made of concrete painted in flaking gray, and the porch itself was as well. Columns of wrought-iron curlicues held up the roof. At Robin’s feet was a china bowl with a few pebbles of dry cat food.
Stepping up onto the porch, she tugged the screen door open with a furtive hand. The old woman behind the mesh faded into the darkness like a deep-sea creature and Robin stepped in behind her, filling the video window with black.
Click-click. A dingy bulb in an end-table lamp burst to life, brightening a living room positively crowded with antiques.
A grandfather clock stood next to an orange-and-brown tweed sofa, tiny black arms indicating the time was a few minutes to midnight. Four televisions of progressive evolution clustered on top of a wood-cabinet Magnavox, rabbit-ear antenna reaching over them for a signal no longer being broadcast. No less than three pianos filled one end of the room, two player and one baby grand, all covered in dust.
All of a sudden the smell hit her, a wall of rotten musk. Boiled cabbage, farts, cigarettes. Dead old things, burnt hair, burnt popcorn. Cat shit.
Gangs of unlighted candles stood atop every surface, halfway melted into the saucers and teacups that held them. Lines of runic script decorated the windowsills and, apparently, the threshold of the front door between her feet.
Another cat sat on top of a piano, running its tongue down the length of one leg. Robin let the screen door ease shut. “I’m so sorry to bother you this time of night.”
Chandler shuffled over to a plush wingback chair and dropped herself into it, crumpling. She wore a pink bathrobe, with steel-gray hair as dry as haystraw tumbling down the sides of her Yoda face. A whisper of mustache dusted her upper lip. She could have been a thousand years old if a day.
An old glass-top coffee table dominated the space in front of the sofa and armchair. Occupying the center of the table was a wooden bowl, and inside the bowl was a single pristine lemon.
“No bother at all, my dear,” the old woman said, peering up at Robin with the baggy, watery eyes of a basset hound. “I’m usually up late. No bother at all.” As she spoke, she flashed black gums and the pearlescent brown teeth of a lifelong smoker. “Ah, the phone,” she wheezed, curling a finger over the back of the chair, “over in there, in the hallway, on the little hutch. Do you see it?”
The camera soared past the armchair and toward a doorway in the back of the furniture-crowded room.
As it did so, Robin softly interjected with a pensive voice-over. Sometimes when the witches have completely drained a neighborhood down to the bones and they’ve used it all up, all the—whatcha call it, the “life,” the soul, there ain’t nothing left to move with. They can’t migrate to a new town, they get stuck, and slowly wither away. They starve. They die from the inside out. The deadness slowly makes its way to the outside. Heinrich and I think that’s what happened here.
The old woman’s telephone turned out to be a rotary phone. Robin picked up the handset and pressed it against her ear, listening for a dial tone. She put it against the GoPro in her hand.
After a while they’re just a rotten corpse in a living-human costume.
Nothing came from the earpiece but a muted ticking, as if she could hear the wind tugging at the lines outside.
Death masquerading as life.
“So what is a beautiful young lady like you doing in a trackless waste such as this? This is a hobby town—there’s nothing to do, so everybody has a hobby. Painting model airplanes, collecting stamps, making meth, doing meth. Can’t be that, though. You’re not around to buy drugs.” The decrepit crone sat up, leaning over to pluck the lemon out of the bowl with one knobby monkey-paw hand. “No, Robin dear, ohhh, you don’t look like the others. You don’t look like shit.”
“No, ma’am, I don’t do drugs. I mean, other than medication.” Robin put the handset down. “I’m from out of town, visiting a fr—”
Chandler’s breathing came in phlegmy gasps and sighs, tidal and troubled. Sounded like she’d been running a marathon.
“How did you know my name?” asked the girl.
“Oh, honey, bless your heart,” said the crone, “I been expecting you all day.” She pricked the rind of the lemon with a thumbnail and peeled part of it away, revealing not the white-yellow flesh Robin had expected, but the vital and fevered red of an internal organ. “It took you longer to get here than I expected. But then Birmingham is rather Byzantine, isn’t it? I remember when I was a child, when it was all gaslights and horse-drawn carts, the layout was so much simpler then.”
Blue veins squirmed across the lemon’s surface in time to some eldritch beat.
The lemon had a pulse.
Lifting the thing to her mouth, Chandler bit into it, spritzing fine droplets of blood into the air.
Ferocious wet devouring-noises came from the other side of the chair, like wolves tearing into the belly of a dead elk. More blood sprayed up, dotting the wallpaper, the lampshade. The remains of the lemon’s rind dangled from the crone’s hand like a fresh scalp, bloody and pulpy.
Red dripped on the filthy carpet.
“My last lemon,” said Chandler, twisting slowly in the chair.
One twiggish hand slipped over the back, gripping the velvet and cherrywood. “I’ve been saving it for a special occasion, you know.”
Rising, she stared Robin down, eyes that flashed with a red light deep inside. Her teeth were too many for her mouth, tiny canines, peg-like fangs. The wrinkles across the bloody map of her face had smoothed. Her schoolmarm hair had gone from corn silk to black rooted in steel. “You think you’re the first to seek me?” asked the witch, her lips contorting over the bulge of teeth. The longer she spoke, the deeper her voice got, dropping in pitch like a toy with a dying battery. “My trees are composted with the rot of a dozen just like you.”
“There ain’t nobody like me, lady. I eat assholes like you for breakfast.”
The monstrous witch blinked. “You eat assholes?” She giggled, which coming out of her throat sounded like a horse.
“If you’re gonna be a witch-hunter like your friends, you need to work on your one-liners!” Chandler spidered over the chair, pink bathrobe flagging over her humped back.
“Shit!” Robin ran. “Shit shit shit!”
Darkness swallowed the camera, shredded by light coming in through the witch’s window blinds. The image went into hysterics as Robin pumped her arms, running through the house.
Tripping over something, she went sprawling in a pile of what sounded like books. “Goddammit! Aarrgh!”
The witch came through the house after the girl, her bare feet thumping the carpet, then bumping against the linoleum, meat clubbing against wood. “God won’t save you. You’ll not have me, little lady,” gibbered Chandler, invisible in the dark. “You’ll not have me, you’ll not have me.”
Robin pushed through the back door of a kitchen, bursting out into a moonlit backyard. Turning, stumbling, she aimed the camera at the house.
Shick, the sound of metal against leather. Robin drew the silver dagger.
The back door slapped open. Something came racing out, a wraith shrouded in stained terrycloth, the lemon-heart blood coursing down her chin and wasted xylophone chest—and then the old woman was gliding across the overgrown yard, reaching for her with those terrible scaly owl-hands.
“Hee hee hee heeeee!” cackled Chandler, instantly on her, shoving her into the weeds. Both went down in a heap and Robin lost the camera.
Whirling around, the video’s perspective ended up sideways on the ground, peering through the grass, barely capturing the melee in one corner of the screen. Neva Chandler landed on top of the girl’s belly cowgirl-style and raked at her face with those disgusting yellow nails, deceptively sharp chisel-points, laughing, crowing in her harsh raven-rasp of a voice.
Even though Robin was fighting with everything she had, she couldn’t push the old crone away. An astounding strength lingered in those decrepit bones. Tangling her fingers in the girl’s hair, Chandler wrenched her head up and down, bouncing it uselessly against the grass.
“Get off me!” shrieked Robin in her thin, high video-voice, thrusting the silvery dagger through the pink bathrobe and into the witch’s ribs—SHUK!
Time seemed to pause as the fight stopped as suddenly as it had started. Chandler’s arms were crooked back, her fingers clawed in a grotesque parody of some old Universal movie monster. Her face was twisted and altered by some strange paranormal force, her mouth impossibly open until it was a drooping coil of chin and teeth. Robin withdrew the dagger, releasing more of the black syrup. Then she plunged it deep into the old woman’s chest again, shuk, and twice, and thrice, and four times, shuk shuk shuk.
Black liquid like crude oil dribbled out around the blade of the dagger. The witch exhaled deep in her throat, a deathly deflating.
“Knife to meet you!” shouted the girl.
Not my best, said the voice-over. I’m learning, okay?
With a shrieking snarl, “Grrraaaaaagh,” the witch leapt backward—propelled, more like, as if she’d been snatched away by some invisible hand—and scrambled to the safety of her back stoop, cowering like a cornered animal. A stew of red and black ran down her sloped chin and wattled neck. “That won’t work!” she choked through a mouthful of ichor. Chandler had taken the dagger away, and now it glittered in one warped claw. “It’ll take more than bad puns and pigstickers to—”
Hands shaking, Robin produced the Gerber jar full of water and threw a fastball.
The jar went wide, whipping over the old woman’s head.
Glass shattered against the eaves, showering her with the contents. Chandler flinched, blinking in confusion.
“This ain’t The Wizard of Oz, honey, I ain’t going to melt. You was having more luck with the dagger.” She flourished the dagger as if she were conducting a symphony with it. “You want this back? Come get it, little girl!”
The witch-hunter reached into her jacket.
She whipped out a Zippo, the lid clinking open.
“What you got there?” The witch sniffed the arm of her bathrobe and grimaced. She looked up. “Oh hell no.”
Flick, a tiny flame licked up from the Zippo in Robin’s hand, brightening the backyard. “Get away from me!” the witch shrieked, trading the dagger to the other hand and flinging it overhand like a tomahawk. Robin recoiled. The blade skipped off the side of her collar, inches from her throat, a sharp pain just under her ear as the blade nicked her skin.
Chandler turned and ripped the back door open, scrambling through. Robin snatched up the GoPro and followed, camera in one hand and lighter in the other. She caught the witch just inside the threshold, touching the Zippo’s tongue to the edge of her bathrobe.
The terrycloth caught, lining the hem with a scribble of white light, enough to faintly illuminate the grimy kitchen.
“Oooooh!” screeched Chandler, tumbling to her hands and knees. “You nasty, nasty girl! You trollop! You tramp!” The witch stood, using the counter as a ladder, and fumbled her way over to the sink, smearing black all over the cabinets. Raking dirty dishes out of the way, Chandler disturbed a cloud of fruit flies and turned on the faucet. “When I get this put out, I’m going to—I’m going to—” She tugged and tugged the stiff sprayer hose, trying to pull it out of the basin.
Flames trickled up the tail of Chandler’s bloody bathrobe, but they were going much too slowly for Robin’s liking. She reached over and touched the fabric with the Zippo again. This time the alcohol on Chandler’s back erupted in a windy burp of white and orange. The flames billowed toward the ceiling, a cape of fire, whispering and muttering.
As Robin lunged in to ignite her sleeve, Chandler reached into the sink with her other hand and came up with a dirty carving knife.
She hooked it at the girl, trying to stab her and spray herself with the sink hose at the same time. Robin jerked away. The plastic nozzle showered the witch’s head with cold water, soaking her hair and running down her face, washing away the blood and oil-slime. Chandler maneuvered around, trying to spray the fire on her back, but all she could seem to manage was to half-drown herself and shoot water over her shoulder onto the floor.
“Help me!” cried the flame-ghost, water arcing all over the kitchen. “Why would you do this to an old lady like me? What have I ever done to yoooouuuuu?”
“You witches killed my mama!”
Flinging the refrigerator door open, Robin flinched as condiment bottles and a stick of butter clattered to the floor at her feet. Reaching in, she grabbed the neck of a bottle of Bacardi. The last bit sloshed around in the bottom.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Chandler shoved the fridge door closed, almost on Robin’s head. “HELP ME!” roared the slack-faced creature in the bathrobe. Her jaw had come unhinged, and two rows of tiny catlike teeth glistened wetly in the pit of her black maw. Her eyes were two yellow marbles, shining deep in bruise-green eye sockets. “HELP ME OR YOU’LL BURN WITH ME!”
Pressing her ragged stinking body against Robin’s, Chandler wrapped her arms around the other’s chest in a bear hug.
Prickly, inhuman teeth brushed against the girl’s collarbone.
So, people do their “what I learned writing MAH BOOK” guest posts here and so I thought, well, hell, why shouldn’t I do one, too? So, here we go, a five things I learned post, this time about what I learned writing that big-ass apocalyptic book, Wanderers.
Let us begin.
I Have No Idea What I’m Doing (And That’s Maybe A Good Thing?)
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: I do not know how to write a book. By which I mean, I do not have a reliable way to write a book. I thought I did. We begin as authors, I think, to take in and accept certain truisms — if not about Writing In General, than about Our Individual Processes. We just say, “Well, this is how we do this. I outline the book, I think up some character arcs, I pray to the Dark Goat Slorgath, I pour a phial of demon saliva in a cursed inkwell, and then I write the book, two thousand words a day until it is done.”
This book just didn’t conform.
It was big and wiggly.
(That’s also the name of my Morning Zoo radio show. Big and Wiggly 97.5! BIG AND WIGGLY ON YOUR FM DIAL. Wait. Are there still Morning Zoo shows? Is there still an FM dial?!)
This book just didn’t conform to the way I thought I did things. The words came steadily, but in great swings of word count amounts, and sometimes the words came in huge fits and starts. I didn’t even outline it the same way: it was more I wrote a series of chapters and then kinda filled in the blanks. And there came a point where I was coming up on deadline and… wasn’t anywhere near finished. When that happened I snapped into freelance mode and was like, “Boom, I can hit deadline, just let me do a time jump and we’ll get to the third act and I can make it work with some killer thriller pacing and–” And blessedly, my glorious editor, Tricia Narwani, told me not to do any of that. She just said to write the book. Let it be long, we can always edit it down later. Forget the deadline: just get the best book I could out of it. And I think that’s what happened. I think this is my best work, and it was done by doing almost everything… differently.
I don’t mean to suggest we’re not, in a way, experts at what we do. And I think we do need to sometimes trust the process. But sometimes we need to go beyond that, outside that, and trust ourselves more than the process. The process is not the book, and the book is not the process.
Size Doesn’t Matter, And Neither Does Time
It’s a big book. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s 800 pages, ~280,000 words. And surprisingly, we didn’t cut much out of it. Maybe 5k, and mostly as line edits. And it took four years for the idea to marinate, six months to write, six months to edit, a year to shelves.
Books are gonna be what they’re gonna be. They’re gonna be as big as they gotta be and take the time that they need to take. That’s not to say every book should be this — and I don’t want you to think that the book is somehow sentient and will defy editing wisdom in order to stay a THICC, LORGE BOOKSON. And real talk: in most cases, if you’re a debut author, you’re not gonna have an easy time securing an agent with a 400-billion-page book. But sometimes, you just know what a book is, and what it has to be, and this book had to be what it is. Which is to say, a bonafide bison bludgeoner that took a long time to get here.
The First Steps Direct The Journey
In the first round of edits, there was one big problem with the book — one of the main characters, Benji Ray, a CDC EIS investigator, felt off. He was too together, too competent. He was too good and there wasn’t much struggle in the story beyond external circumstances. He felt more a mouthpiece than anything without much story to call his own. But characters need stories of their own; they must have agency and problems unique to them and separate from (if eventually intertwining with) the Bigger Story. Benji felt hollow, sadly.
Turns out, stuff like that nearly always cascades from the very beginning: stories can suffer from step on a butterfly here, make a hurricane there problems, and turns out, if you point the story in the wrong direction, even subtly so, from the get-go, you end up way off the fucking mark.
Took some changes at the beginning to his story to lock his whole narrative in, and braid it with the rest. And that change — which was adding the “disgraced” part to his role as “scientist” — lent not only him clarity, but also clarity to other aspects of the plot, complicating the entire moral dimension of the thing. This is a riff on the old saying that third act problems are really first act problems, and it’s true, to a point: sometimes you just have to fix the beginning to fix the ending.
A Good Editor Is Everything
Apropos to a number of these things I learned is a thing that I did not learn so much as was reminded of consistently through this process: a good editor is gold. Tricia is an astonishing editor. Her edit letters nail that perfect balance between being kind and brutal, and they aren’t afraid to really get into what the book is doing and what it’s saying. It means so much to have someone there who you trust with the story as much as, if not more than, yourself. Especially in those curious, vulnerable times where you’re just not sure what to do or where to go.
Trust me when I tell you: you won’t always have great editors. But when you do — it’s revelatory.
Light and Dark
In a book about the end of the world, you run a real risk of just being too damn dark. A ceaseless, grimdark parade. THINGS ARE BAD. DID YOU KNOW THEY’RE BAD? BAD BAD BAD BAD.
But I just can’t have that. I can’t have that first because I don’t want you to have to endure that kind of book, and also, I don’t wanna write that kind of book. Obviously, it’s not going to be a wacky fun-fest, writing the End Times, but my goal is to see that darkness and crank up some serious candlepower to blast a hole through it. And that means writing the darkness away with hope and heart and even humor. A campfire to push back the night.
The horror I like to write isn’t the kind where the horror wins. I think evil can be beaten — if only temporarily, and only after a vicious, sometimes Pyrrhic victory. I just can’t give into nihilism. Not now. Not with all that’s going on — both in the book, and off the page.
Part of the thing with this book is, it’s full of anxieties, right? My anxieties, but I’m betting, yours too. (I mean, have you read the news?) But I don’t want those anxieties just to be there on the page, running rampant, only there to scare your pucker shut. I want to treat it like a summoning circle: I’m summoning the demon and trapping it into the circle —
Because there, we can kill it.
Or at least wrestle it. Learn from it. Maybe even calm it down a little.
So, for me there’s value in bringing the darkness in —
And then pinning it to the floor with a spear of light.
You can’t beat all the darkness.
But you can beat back a little of it. And I hope Wanderers manages to do exactly that.
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.
Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and are sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.
For on their journey, they will discover an America convulsed with terror and violence, where this apocalyptic epidemic proves less dangerous than the fear of it. As the rest of society collapses all around them–and an ultraviolent militia threatens to exterminate them–the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart–or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.
* * *
This is it.
It’s out. (Well, it’s out tomorrow. Tonight if you come to the Bethlehem, PA pre-launch. And the 11th if you’re in BREXITLAND.) But this week, this big sprawly apocalyptic (not dystopian, not post-apocalyptic, but apocalyptic) book hits shelves. Er, hopefully it doesn’t hit them because it might break them? One hopes it gently lands upon shelves, like a graceful pelican.
There is. I’ve concealed it behind a ROT13 filter so that those who desire the warning can simply unscramble it by c/p’ing the encrypted text into the window at rot13.com.
Pbagrag jneavat: fhvpvqny vqrngvba, fhvpvqr, gbegher, enpvfz naq ovtbgel, qvfphffvbaf bs zragny urnygu naq zragny vyyarff, tha ivbyrapr, naq n tencuvpny qrfpevcgvba bs Z/Z encr (sbhaq ba cc 434-435 bs gur uneqonpx, ng gur raq bs puncgre 50).
Who will like this book?
YOU WILL, OF COURSE. You, specifically you. *stares unswervingly*
More seriously, this book is for fans of things like The Stand, Station Eleven, Lost, Swan Song, The Passage, The Strain, The Hot Zone.
Is this part of a series?
It is a standalone. (Though it’s big enough for 3-4 novels, I guess.) There could be a sequel if sales and attention warrants it — but it is a complete story.
What genre is it?
I don’t know. I mean, I guess technically it’s either “speculative fiction” or “science fiction,” but I also wrote what I feel is implicitly, if not explicitly, an epic horror novel. Thankfully, genres are just a thing people made up. So what narrative taxonomy works for you!
What if I can’t afford the book?
Then I slyly but pointedly direct my gaze at Your Local Library. Libraries are where the free books — and essential community services! — live. If they do not carry the book, you can always contact them and ask them to, or perhaps request it through ILL (inter-library loan).
What can I do to support the book?
The story goes that what is most likely to convince someone to read a book is not me telling you to, or advertisements, or a blog tour, or a tweet, or, or, or — but rather, word-of-mouth. Meaning, the best thing you can do is talk about it. Online, in meatspace, wherever, however. Reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. Tweets, blog posts, incoherent wails of joy. Tell friends and family and random strangers and cherished villains. If you read it, and you like it, and you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic, that’s the best way to help — just try to get other people to read the ding-dang thing. That’s the hardest part, and I really can’t do it. This part falls to you. If, of course, you like it (and me) enough to do so.
And that starts tonight, at the Bethlehem Public Library, 6:30PM. Books for sale. I’ll sign. Pre-launch party event featuring… I dunno what, actually, it’s a bit of a surprise for me. I’ve been kept in the dark. I assume food, drink, elves, various fires, a bag of possums, and a series of smaller and smaller robots.
Y’know. The usual.
What if I can’t be there but I want the book signed?
THEN TOO BAD
ha ha just kidding
A number of the print links above will take you to signed copies — probably the fastest route to that is to order from Let’s Play Books or Doylestown Bookshop, as I’ll be at both places over the next couple days and can sign/personalize accordingly, and they can ship directly.
Are there Easter Eggs?
There are, indeed. Lots of references to other books, other authors, my own books, and so forth. A hundred points to the Hogwarts House that finds them all.
Summer 2020, The Book of Accidents. It’s about… well, I don’t know how to talk about it yet. Creepy coal mines and alternate universes and a boy who can see other people’s pain and cycles of abuse and spirals and trauma and families maybe a serial killer. Still in edits.
Anyway, that’s it, I think. For now, at least.
I’ll add one last thing: this is a very spoilery book, with lots of twists and turns and switchbacks and oubliettes, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to preserve those, but just in case: please do.
Wanderers is one of those books that’s been with me for a very long time. Some books are *snaps fingers* lickety-quick — they appear fast, get on the page even faster, and next thing you know, that book is on shelves and you’re moving onto the next thing. But the sheer size of Wanderers parallels its presence in my life: it’s been a book I thought about for four years before I ever put a single word down about it, and once I started writing it, it still took a long time to write, to edit, and now, to launch. The long launch time is good, of course — the first excerpt from the book appeared last Halloween, at Entertainment Weekly, thus officially beginning the slow-and-steady march to publication. That’s in part because, if a publisher has some faith in the book and the author, giving it a lot of time to breathe and come to life gives it more chances to get on people’s radars, to become a thing in their mind, to pique interest and, in a perfect world, outright desire. (Or, a cult formed in the author’s honor. Which hasn’t happened for me yet, but one day. One day.)
So, that long, long wait is nearly here.
A book years in conception, making, marketing, and publication.
And it’s in one week.
So, in doing my due diligence here, a CHECKLIST OF VITAL REMINDERS, which will in turn be followed up by a PROMISE OF INK AND BLOOD —
1.) Hey, People Seem To Like This Book
This book, at present, has four starred reviews. (No book of mine thus far has ever had more than one.) Those starred reviews come from:
Kirkus: “Wendig is clearly wrestling with some of the demons of our time, resulting in a story that is ambitious, bold, and worthy of attention.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “This career-defining epic deserves its inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand, easily rising above the many recent novels of pandemic and societal collapse.”
Library Journal: “A powerful story about humanity, technology, and the survival of the world. Comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand are warranted, as Wendig shatters the boundaries of speculative and literary fiction…”
Bookpage: “It’s not easy to write the end of the world. With Wanderers, Chuck Wendig has mastered it.”
Other reviewers have said:
“Unexpected and enthralling . . . Approach Wanderers like it’s a primetime television series, along the lines of The Passage [or] Lost. Break it up into 70-page segments that you can devour like candy for an hour each evening. Let it unfold across your summer. . . . Make Wanderers a summer reading priority; you won’t regret it.” — BookRiot
“Wanderers is OUTSTANDING. Wanderers excites me. You want well-developed characters and complex relationships? Read Wanderers. You want grounded sci-fi that ranks up there with bookstagram faves like #Recursion and #StationEleven? Read Wanderers. You want twists and turns and edge-of-your-seat action? Read Wanderers.” — Jordy’s Book Club
“An imaginative and absorbing work of speculative fiction.” — Booklist
“Wanderers is THE epic of the summer and you need to make sure you have it on your wishlist. This book is an electrifying marvel and deserves your attention, so make it a priority.” — Fan Fi Addict
And, in both honor and sorrow, reviewer Frank Errington before he passed wrote a wonderful review of the book at Cemetery Dance: “Wanderers is so damn cool, right from the get-go. Instantly fascinating. Wanderers is a big read. Actually, it’s a huge read, but it’s a comfortable one. If you’re looking for a book to get lost in for a while, this is an epic journey.”
It’s also earned unholy good blurbs from the likes of: Erin Morgernstern, Rin Chupeco, Harlen Coben, James Rollins, Meg Gardiner, John Scalzi, Peng Shepherd, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Golden, Charles Soule, Delilah S. Dawson, Richard Kadrey, Adam Christopher, Peter Clines, Fran Wilde, Kat Howard, and Scott Sigler. (Blurb thread here.)
So, pre-ordering a book is good for like, the entire book ecosystem, and here’s why: it sends a signal to the publisher that Author Is Good, it tells the bookstore to order an appropriate number of copies (and also sends the Author Is Good signal), it ensures you get a copy, and it contributes to first week sales, which are good. Plus, it makes me feel all ticklish inside.
You can pre-order from a wide, wild variety of locations:
Libraries will also carry this book, and libraries are rad. You can always check with your local library to see if they’ll have copies, and if you can reserve one early.
3.) And You Should Get That Pre-Order Swag
Swiggity-Swooty, you want that booty.
And in this case, the booty is a rad Shepherd highway sign pin.
Go to this page, enter pre-order info, and ta-da! IS YOURS.
4.) Put My Beardy McWeirdface On Your Schedule
I’m coming around to a whole lot of cool places in support of the book, so you should check out my Appearances page and see where I’m popping up like a bewildered gopher. You will find me on tour at — Bethlehem, PA; Doylestown, PA; Atlanta (Decatur), GA; Austin, TX; Houston, TX; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; San Diego, CA (Comic-Con and a MG signing); Denver, CO. Plus some other dates later in the summer.
5.) The Promise Of Ink And Blood
A long time ago my father, somewhat mysteriously, told me not to get a tattoo, because “that’s how they’d find me.” Presumably meaning, if I ever had to do something bad, the… authorities? would find me that way. (He also once stopped me on the stairs going up to the second floor of our house and he told me, “If you ever have to do something, you know, that you regret? Call me first. I’ll help you fix it.” I don’t know what this means, though I vaguely assume he was suggesting he will help me make and/or hide a body? That’s parental love, folks. I mean, it’s also a crime, but whatevs.) So I have long committed to not ever getting a tattoo because I assume it would upset his ghost (he passed away a decade ago), and I don’t have time for restless spirits.
But! I think enough time has passed where I’ll make this deal:
If this book hits the NYT Bestseller List, I’ll get some ink.
The ink I’ll get is a drawing done by my son — I feel like the best way past the SPECTRAL HEX of my father’s demand that I never get a tattoo is by deferring instead to my son, who has a piece of cool art that obliquely has some resonance with Wanderers. (I’ll show that drawing if all this comes to pass.) I might split the drawing in two and get it on the inside of each forearm? Not sure, yet.
Now, a couple caveats:
This book is unlikely to make list, I suspect. Genre doesn’t often ping the list easily, and it’s sort of a weird, fiddly, curated experience — the NYT list isn’t just “hey who sold the best?” So, the likelihood of this is, to me, not high. Though this book definitely has some spec-fic lit-fic crossover, I just don’t ever want to expect it’ll hit a list. It’d be nice! But who knows?
Further, the only real way that it hits list is by folks buying the book through independent booksellers. (Print list, at least. The combined e-book/print list is… I mean, I have no idea how that’s curated. I assume gremlins do it.)
So, I figure, that’s a good promise of ink and blood.
It hits list, I get ink.
INK FOR THE INK GODS
6.) And After That…
If you get the book — or if you’ve already read the book via an ARC — then I hope you’ll be kind enough to spread the word. Booklove is a viral thing — what I do here, trying to market the book? It makes a dent, but it isn’t what really moves copies. If you like this book or love it, if you could tell some friends, your family, a beloved pet, a cherished nemesis, whatever. Leave a review, too, at the place of your choice: social media, Goodreads, Amazon, a blog, or screamed into the blowhole of a magic dolphin. The book ecosystem is strengthened when we’re willing to talk about our books, and share the experience, and even show photos of us reading the books.
Since I’m kinda on a bit of a schedule here (or in the UK, a SHED-YOU-ULL), I’ll make this brief with some quick news dips and dots, plus some photos, and then I’m outtie like belly button. Do the kids say that? The kids don’t say that? Well, shit.
• FINALLY, another starred review from BookPage! “It’s not easy to write the end of the world. With Wanderers, Chuck Wendig has mastered it.” (That brings the total to four starred reviews! Maybe this book doesn’t suck?)
A long time ago, I read an interview from David Foster Wallace, and in it he talked about how writers are told to write what they know and what that means. He’d been taking a little bit of flak, apparently, for his reliance on modern/pop culture and its ephemera in his opus novel, Infinite Jest. Long story short, but Wallace said that his hyper-referential writing style was a product of his experiences. Like most of us, Wallace grew up on TV and video games and paperback novels. That’s the tapestry of our lives, just like the tapestry of Emerson’s life, or Thoreau’s life, was the naturalistic world. Atari and Saturday matinees, Wallace said, were his Walden Pond, and his writing couldn’t be anything other than a reflection of his experiences.
The thing is, we’re living in a weird time, creatively. Our world isn’t Emerson’s world; we’re smothered in information and art—through social media, through nonstop streaming options, wildly accessible entertainment, so on and so forth. In a sense, we’re influenced by influence. Let me give you an example:
I’ve written two novels—Black Star Renegades and its sequel, We Are Mayhem—and I like to sometimes joke that they’re just Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off. Now, like any joke, there’s some truth to this: The story is very, very much inspired by Star Wars. I’m a Star Wars fanatic. Thinking in Wallace’s terms, if you look at the tapestry of my life, it’s Star Wars, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and a whole bunch of comic books. And I was lucky to grow up in a house that supplied me with all these things, and from a very young age. My parents were not only supportive of my weird interests, but they were also liberal about my entertainment intake. I watched Halloween when I was five years old; I saw A New Hope when I was four. And my mom, bless her, used what little extra money she had to get me comic books and paperback novels from garage sales whenever she could. I was never short on supply when it came to absorbing pop culture, and that absorption was (and still is) a big part of my life.
Getting back to Black Star Renegades, there’s no way I could deny that it wasn’t influenced by Star Wars (Lucasfilm, in fact, has hired me since, and I’m currently writing many of the all-ages Star Wars Adventures comic stories). I embrace that fact, fully—Black Star Renegades wouldn’t exist without Star Wars. But, there’s two things to say about this.
First, like I said before, we’re influenced by influence. Yes, you can jab at me for being so apparent with my influences, but Star Wars is also a sum of its influences. From classic sci-fi pulps to Kurosawa movies to silent films and a whole bunch of other stuff in-between, George Lucas’s space opera opus was the sum of many parts—all the things that influenced him. And all those things can then be traced back to various influences as well. This isn’t a groundbreaking revelation, of course; what’s important, though, is allowing your creative self to be okay carrying forth the DNA of other works. I’ve seen so many stories from talented writers wither on the vine because they were concerned with how much their work echoed things that have already been made. Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun, and in my opinion that’s true (to a degree—if you dropped Solomon into our world, I’m sure he’d say “Holy shit! Look at all these new things under the sun!”). It’s so remarkably rare—like one in a million—to create something that’s nothing like anything else. We know it when we see it, and these rare instances are cherished, as they should be. And while striving for that is a noble pursuit, it’s also—and I’ve seen this with my own two eyes—the path to creative madness.
Of course, though, we can’t just go ripping off the things we love. That’s why I’m comfortable saying Black Star Renegades is a Star Wars knock-off—I know, in reality, it’s not. Here’s where the important trick comes in, a trick I’ve learned writing not only these two novels, but many, many licensed comic books.
So, as a comic book writer, I’m oftentimes asked to write stories for existing characters. I’ve written Superman, The Shadow, Cassie Hack, Adam West Batman, Nightwing, and more. And the thing I’ve learned in telling these stories successfully is this: You have to embrace the stories and their traditions for what they are. Nightwing is a sexy, fun version of Batman. That’s it. Therefore, when writing a Nightwing story, it wouldn’t really work to make him dark and tortured like Bruce Wayne—that’s not who he is. The job in writing for Nightwing is to write a story about a young, sexy dude who fights crime. But that’s only part of the puzzle. The other part, the most important part, is finding a way to embrace the core thing and make it your own. That’s the key. At the end of the day, the Nightwing story has to be a story that only I can tell—it’s my voice, it’s my point of view that the story is filtered through. Yes, I am embrace Nightwing completely—but I balance that with filtering everything he is through my own POV.
The thing is, the same goes for original creations. It’s the same balance of embracing your influences while maintaining your own voice. If you want to tell an epic fantasy but feel like it’s too much like Robert Jordan, remember that it’s you telling the story in your unique way. And the more you write, and the more your story takes shape, I’m confident that it’ll sounds less and less like Wheel of Time and more like your own thing. The same thing exists in Black Star Renegades. The Star Wars DNA is all over that book, but so is my DNA. There’s a lot of love for the galaxy far, far away in those pages, but there’s also a deconstruction of the messiah complex, and that dominant aspect of the book is all me. That’s my voice coming through, and it’s what makes that story what it is, and not just a Star Wars rip-off.
Now, this isn’t an endorsement of plagiarism—that would be bad. But we live in a world of influence that’s been influenced from other influence. There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, owning it and making it your own.