Tag Archives: fiction

Drown the Cat: Video Trailer

Are you ready, world?
My new and somewhat contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4, 2017. I chose to release the book on U.S. Independence Day because Drown the Cat is all about empowering writers to take back their freedom by questioning all the so-called “rules of writing”. Check out the awesome one-minute video trailer and turn it up!If you like the sound of this, the click here to pre-order the Kindle version and have it delivered wirelessly on Independence Day! Print and other retailer links will follow on release date.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from the book in which I address what may be the most misunderstood writing rule of all:

Show, Don’t Tell

The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.

The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.

Remember when we talked about narrative distance in the interiority chapter, and I pretty much said, “screw pulling back the camera, keep the narrative distance tight”? Well, strong interiority will feel most like showing to the reader, and pulling back so that the reader’s not tight in the PoV character’s head anymore will feel more like telling.

When you read, as any editor does, a lot of newer writers’ novels, you’ll find they’re often puffy, too long by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of words, with stiff, awkward scenes that stand out in contrast to the faster, free-flowing sections.

One major reason for this is that the poor author has had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors that they’re terrified to summarize in narrative things which don’t need to be dramatized. So they go ahead and build a “live” scene around every particle of information or setting they think the reader may require.

This perceived need to dramatize everything can, among other things, result in pointless scenes where characters talk about things for no reason other than to avoid a narrative passage. The scene isn’t doing anything else, and the characters who were so alive earlier have turned strangely wooden. At its worst, you have the dreaded “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a scene in which characters tell one another things they already ought to know.

Don’t do this. Ditch these scenes mercilessly.

[…] There, now—that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? No need for dialogue or having it all happen onstage, you’d have been bored to distraction. Narrative summary in viewpoint works just fine.

I’ll say it once again. The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling.


My sincerest thanks are due to Allison Rose for her spectacular work on the book trailer


 

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Filed under Books and Writers, Writing

INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with William Hertling

Hertling2012_headshot-200x300William Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, The Turing Exception, and the upcoming Kill Process. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), the coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must-read.”

Hertling’s Singularity Series novels have been endorsed by and received wide attention from tech luminaries including Harper Reed (CTO for the Obama Campaign), Ben Huh (CEO Cheezburger), and Chris Anderson (CEO 3DRobotics, former Editor-in-Chief Wired).

His first novel for children, The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, was published in 2014.

 Hertling grew up a digital native in the early days of bulletin board systems. His first experiences with net culture occurred when he wired seven phone lines into the back of his Apple IIe and hosted an online chat system.

 A frequent speaker on the future of technology, science fiction, and indie publishing, Hertling has spoken at SXSW Interactive, Defrag, OryCon, University of Colorado, Willamette Writers Conference, and many other conferences.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for doing this interview. Did you start off wanting to become a writer, or did you stumble into it?

WH: I very much stumbled into it, although, in retrospect, there were a few hints ahead of time. In college I helped write and publish a set of computer manuals. I started blogging in 2003, and also wrote a magazine article that year. In 2007 or 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo, and started a non-fiction book about the business use of social media. I abandoned that project about 35,000 words in, when I realized just how difficult non-fiction writing is.

Then in 2009 or so, I read two books back to back, Accelerando by Charles Stross and The Future is Near by Ray Kurzweil, that set my mind abuzz with thoughts of the technological singularity, the point where AI exceeds human intelligence. I noticed a gap in science fiction novels: some assumed strong AI existed, and others ignored the singularity entirely, but very few deeply explored the point of emergence and its impact on humanity.

I had the idea for Avogadro Corp over lunch one day, and daydreamed about it for six months. I took the month of December off work and wrote the entire first draft.

DC: Your four-novel Singularity Series, which began in 2011 with Avogadro Corp and concluded last year with The Turing Exception, is a deep dive and a wholly fresh perspective on the so-called technological singularity. The books in this series have sold 75,000 copies and racked up over 1,300 reader reviews with a 4.5-star average, putting you in the front ranks of success for a self-published indie author. How did you crack the tough nut of marketing and reaching visibility in a crowded marketplace?

WH: I reached out to friends and family, letting them know by any means possible that I’d published: email, Facebook, and Twitter. For these people, it was not so much selling them on the strength of the book, but conveying the excitement represented by this milestone in my life. Many people want to be supportive, but don’t know what an author needs, so I asked specifically for people to buy the book, tell friends, and post reviews.

Learning from those early experiences, I refined my website, book description, and how I asked for help. Then I reached out to more distant connections and potential influencers (other bloggers, for example). I created business cards, and handed these out at conferences. At this point I was selling 1-3 copies a day, maybe 150 books in total.

One of the most important elements of my marketing was using very finely tuned Facebook ads to reach fans of niche authors I was similar to in writing style and topic. I experimented with variations of text, images, Facebook targets, pricing, and landing pages until I finally hit on a few mixes that sold books at a profit. These ads sold an extra 5-8 copies a day, and I reached about 500 books in total.

Every success involves elements of luck and timing. But just as you can, for example, maximize the likelihood of meeting a movie star by moving to Los Angeles, you can also increase the odds of serendipity. This early phase of marketing, where you’re trying to push out a few copies a day, is mostly about maximizing the chance of acquiring a reader who is also a significant influencer.

In my case, that significant influencer turned out to be Brad Feld, a well known and highly regarded venture capitalist, who happened upon my book and blogged about it, letting a large number of about it. Soon afterwards, I was selling thousands of copies a month.

Since then I’ve continued marketing through newsletters, blogging, speaking at conferences, and experimenting with occasional ads on Bookbub and elsewhere.

DC: This series is high-intensity, core Science Fiction. It’s highly original, packed to bursting with ideas, and cracks along at a ferocious pace. But despite the series’ huge success, very few SF readers know your work, and most of your readers are people working in the tech sector. Why is that?

WH: I tried several marketing approaches that failed, including sending books to newspapers and soliciting reviews from mainstream science fiction reviewers. Both of these suffer from difficult competition because everyone wants to be reviewed there, so the actual chances of getting reviewed are quite low. Even if you do manage the occasional review, readers of the publication are inundated with daily book recommendations, so few purchase any given book.

When Brad Feld wrote about my novel, which led to other venture capitalists, CTOs, and CEOs of tech startups reading and talking about the book, I asked myself what these people had in common. It took a solid month of deep thinking before I realized the common thread was a deep interest in technology, especially where tech in going in the future.

So although my books are science fiction, and even more specifically science fiction about AI, I think of them really as exploring the theme of future technology’s impact on people and culture, whether that is AI or anything else. Once I had this realization, it helped me solidify my marketing. For example, I reached out to Brad Feld and offered him a guest post on my techniques to predict the future. The result, How to Predict the Future1, reached hundreds of thousands of people, and was the number one Google search result for that term for quite a while.

By focusing my marketing around on the themes of my writing, rather than the genre or specific topic, I’m tapping into a very different conduit to reach readers. That my book happens to be science fiction is somewhat besides the point –conceivably I could write about the same themes in a non-fiction book, and my readers would still be interested. In addition, since the influencers in this group aren’t out there recommending books every day of the week like a book review blog does, when they do make a book recommendation, it stands out, and more people buy it.

DC: A year ago, a number of leading figures in the tech and scientific community, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, publicly sounded alarm bells over the rush to develop strong AI, and suggested that we might be building something more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Where do you stand on this?

WH: The potential for danger is definitely there, although Terminator-like doomsday scenarios are at the bottom of my worry list.

At the top of my concerns is that AI becomes increasingly in control of the infrastructure of the planet, such that the impact of a widespread technology failure becomes much more significant. As time goes by, civilization becomes more technology dependent. For example, we can’t maintain the current standard of living for the current population based on 1950s technology, because the older technology is not efficient enough. Project twenty years into the future: if we’re dependent on AI to manage all our infrastructure to maintain a given standard of living for the population, and then we have a catastrophic failure of AI for whatever reason, we’ll be plummeted into darkness – quite literally.

Also worrisome is the scenario where AI becomes vastly more intelligent than us and decides the best way to keep us in check is to manipulate us. We’re already so vulnerable to manipulation by the media. Imagine how much more vulnerable we’d be if every communication is AI-mediated and altered. Look at Facebook’s experiment of how altering what stories were in a person’s feed affected their happiness. Very subtle stuff leads to significant impacts.

At the same time, there is potential for greatness from AI. The promise of nanobots for human health and longevity, custom DNA tweaks, and many other ultra-high-tech promises, including greater resource and energy efficiency leading to a sustainably-managed planet, are much more likely to be developed if we have strong AI here to assist us. So we can’t turn our backs on it either.

The problem is that, unlike nuclear weapons which we’ve succeeded in restricting to governments, strong AI will be accessible to anyone. Even if 99% of AI use is beneficial, it will take only one disgruntled hacker operating in their basement to build a malevolent AI. Look at the recent Microsoft AI chatbot that was unleased, where, within 24 hours, the community had managed to get it to spout racist propaganda supporting Donald Trump and Hitler.

DC: In your first, amazingly prescient book, begun in 2009, you posit the accidental emergence of strong AI from a language optimization program called ELOPe which was created to improve email. In the last few months, both Google and now FoxType have launched software to help users optimize their email. Given the current state of AI research and the hardware available and under development, do you believe strong, self-bootstrapping AI is a real possibility in, oh, the next decade, or even at all?

WH: I think it’s possible, although not particularly likely in the next ten years. Ray Kurzweil is well-known for his projections of when we’ll see AI which compare the processing power available in computer chips with the power necessary to simulate the complexity of the human brain.

I used his calculations as a starting point, and did my own comparing a wider range of input values. What I found is a variety of scenarios that depend on three key dimensions.

One dimension is complexity of the human brain. At one end of the spectrum is the assumption we can implement intelligence more efficiently than nature, and at the other end of the spectrum, that we can’t understand intelligence at all, but rely on brute force simulation of nerve cells. My perspective is that we’re not going to be more efficient than nature, at least, at first, so we’re looking at the more complex, brute force scenario.

The second dimension is processing power. One end of the processing power spectrum concerns itself with what an individual has available to them in their home, while the other end of the spectrum takes advantage of massive parallel computing power available at organizations with Google-like resources.

Finally, you have the dimension of time, and the increasing processing power available to us as chips get faster. (Aside: For those concerned about the end of Moore’s law, do a quick calculation of the total personal computing power an individual has, rather than that residing in a single processor chip, and you’ll notice the total is still increasing on the same curve it was before. It’s just distributed among more devices now.)

Plotting these three values, and looking at the extremes, we end up with an Avogadro Corp-like scenario around 2015, where all the computing resources of a big company are brought to bear on a single AI, and at the other end, a hobbyist implementing an AI around 2045 on the computing power available to them personally. I wrote an essay for IEEE several years ago about why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress2, like it did for recommendation engines with the Netflix Prize, so I’m again biased toward seeing faster AI development when the necessary computing power becomes available to the common person.

In sum, my two biases (believing we are unlikely to be more efficient than nature, and we need widespread involvement) make me think we’ll see the first true, strong general purpose AI sometime after 2030, but certainly by 2045.

DC: Your Singularity Series looks hard at the challenges of having biological humans and transhuman AI sharing a planet. If we arrive at strong AI by building machines that think and explore ideas and refine outcomes in the organic way humans do, using neural net and deep learning approaches as opposed to simple, linear software, do you think it inevitable that AI notions of ethics and morality will range across the spectrum from “good” to “evil”, just like our own? Or are we anthropomorphizing?

WH: If AI has free will and the ability to affect the world, it must embody some concept of ethical behavior. Even no consideration for ethical behavior is a form of ethics.

The trolley problem3 is a classical thought experiment in ethics. Pose the problem to different people, and you get different answers to what is the “right” behavior. There are hundreds of variations on that one problem alone, each representing more nuanced ethical considerations. And that’s an exercise in ethics that doesn’t take into account the messiness of real life.

You can look at the current state of American politics to see that two groups, each behaving ethically according to their own standards, thinks the other group is not merely unethical, but actually evil.

Since we humans have no one definition of ethical behavior, we certainly can’t expect AI to behave according to some absolute scale. Whatever ethics are designed into the AI by their human creators, we can be sure that some people will consider them good and some evil.

On the other hand, over time, AI may converge on a single definition of ethical behavior over time more readily than humans do, because I suspect they are more likely to rely on utilitarianism as a guiding principle.

DC: So, blue pill or red pill?

WH: Oh, red pill definitely. I can’t tolerate the notion of having reality hidden from me. One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in science fiction was from The Unincorporated Man, in which you get to see what happens when the entire human race takes the blue pill. I still have concerns over what happens when fully realistic, immersive virtual reality is created.

DC: When I was a teen, back in the late sixties and early seventies, it was widely predicted that increasing automation would quickly bring about a “leisure revolution”, and there was a great deal of concern about how people would adapt to working much less and having lots of free time. Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened and we’re all working much harder and seem to have far less leisure time than ever. What went wrong?

WH: As someone who is juggling parenthood, a day job in tech, and writing, it’s a little hard to get perspective on this question. I work hard partly because I must, and partly because I enjoy what I do. Leaving my personal situation aside, I think there are two trends that together create the current environment. One caveat: My answer is probably very US centric.

First, we have the rich taking a larger and larger percentage of the pie. For the majority of people, there’s no option but to work harder and longer because they aren’t getting paid a living wage for the work they’re doing.

Second, we have a higher standard of living including basic expectations that didn’t exist in any form in the sixties and seventies. We didn’t have cable, computers, or Internet, eating out regularly, prepared foods, or even one car per household, let alone person.

The default behavior for most people is to want it all, both materially and experientially, which crowds out any opportunity for true leisure.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people turn their back on our modern, consumer-oriented, entertainment-focused culture and live a much more basic lifestyle, and by doing so, they’re able to work part-time or live off savings. This voluntary simplicity requires a conscious, ongoing choice in a society that encourages consumption. It should be noted that this choice is a privilege of those making at least a reasonable income, although I’ve seen people at all levels of income, including part-time, minimal wage workers, make decisions that prioritize financial independence over more stuff.

In sum, I’d say the majority of people tend to prioritize material acquisitions and buying leisure experiences, like eating out, over actual leisure, like enjoying a home cooked meal with friends. Still, this choice is a privilege afforded to increasingly fewer people because of the ever greater diversion of wealth to the ultra-rich.

DC: As well as having three young children, you work fulltime in the tech industry and are a productive and successful author. What do you do for leisure, Will?

WH: Every writer juggles at least two different roles: the creative side of the house where they write new material, and the business side of the house, which is interrupt and deadline driven. Indie authors spend even more time taking care of the publishing side of things. One of the worst feelings is when I have a precious day free to for creative writing, and I end up burning it all taking care of overdue business tasks.

So doing the actual creative writing is one of the things that feels most like leisure to me, because I get so much enjoyment from it.

I’m also fairly delighted to be able to take a walk while listening to music, whether that’s an urban exploration or a nature hike. I also love connecting with the writing community in Portland in person. We have so many interesting people on all different stages in their writing careers with different objectives. It’s fun to get to know folks and celebrate their victories with them.

Other interests are on temporary hiatus, probably until I’m able to leave my day job. Some of these are live music, RC planes, and more involved video games. I’d also love to play with robotics.

DC: Are you a gamer? If so, which games do you enjoy?

WH: On and off. It depends on where I am in my writing, and how much else I have going on.

My favorite game of the last few years is Kerbal Space Program, which an insanely epic space simulation in which you get to build rockets and explore the solar system. I play in creative mode, set different missions for myself, and have just one rule: No Kerbal left behind. One specific Kerbal that’s my favorite has visited every body in the solar system.

I play with a life support mod that means the Kerbals will die if I don’t replenish their air, food, and water. I found myself playing what amounted to my own version of The Martian when a mission to Eve went awry, and rescue mission after rescue mission failed or led to more problems. Two Kerbals “volunteered” to leave the ship and walk off into the distance so as to leave enough life support supplies for the last Kerbal to live. I post journal entries to an online writing community that read like fan fiction short stories.

 DC: What do you read? Any favourite authors?

WH: Cory Doctorow is my favorite author by far, and there’s no greater delight than getting to read one of his new novels. I read mostly science fiction, although I also have a sweet spot for thrillers like the John Rain novels by Barry Eisler. I reread the classics of 1980s cyberpunk frequently. One of my favorite books of that era that’s often overlooked is Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired which has left me with visions of armored hovercars for decades.

Reading is unfortunately one of those things that’s taken a hit due to the time I spend writing, and probably also due to time spent on the Internet. I read some research a while back that demonstrated we train our mind to a certain length attention span. By doing so much short-form interaction on the web, we’re reinforcing the pattern of paying attention for shorter and shorter periods of time. This makes it really hard to sit down and read a novel.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend more time reading. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Maragaret Atwood, which is a very powerful, devastating novel. In light of the current Presidential candidates, I found it terrifying to read. Right now I’m reading Flatland.

DC: Tell us a little about The Case of the Wilted Broccoli.

WH: My kids begged me to write something they could read. As a kid, I had a particular fondness for detective novels like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I especially enjoyed novels in which the kids did everything and adults played only a minor role. So I knew these would all be elements of whatever I would write.

Then, a few years ago, the third element hit me when I was at my first Cory Doctorow appearance. Although adults probably form the bulk of his readers, Cory gears his books towards teen readers as well, and every one of his novels is an education on principles of technology, government, privacy, and power. At the event, there were several young teenagers in attendance, and several asked questions during the Q&A after his talk. It was really moving to see these people who had clearly been affected by his writing.

That made me realize that if I was going to write a novel for kids, I wanted technology to feature prominently in it, and the kids fully empowered as technology creators, not just users. So a subplot woven throughout is around the school science fair, and the kids use their project, a homebuilt drone to help solve a mystery.

DC: And your favourite food or meal is…?

WH: I’m especially fond of izakaya, which is Japanese bar food. I tend to put whatever food or drinks I’m passionate about at the time into my writing. If I happen to revisit an older book I wrote, it’s fun to remember oh yeah, this was when I was having a martini phase, or here’s where I started drinking whiskey.

DC: Although—or perhaps because—you work in tech, some events in your series, especially in book IV, The Turing Exception, suggest strong sympathies, even a yearning, for a simpler, back-to-the-land, communitarian lifestyle. Would you like to live in a simpler world?

WH: Around the turn of the millennium, I had an intense interest in environmentalism, especially the role of individual choice in our lifestyles, which was partly motivated by a series of fantastic discussion courses from the Northwest Earth Institute4. I was mostly vegan for a while, sold my car, reduced the amount of technology around me, and spent a lot of time with people looking for an escape from consumerism. I had several brief but amazing encounters with intentional communities.

Although I’m very attracted to all of that, I also can’t ignore the part of me that’s passionate about technology, the web, and online communities. At first glance, it’s difficult to embrace both perspectives. Many in the voluntary simplicity and intentional community movements want to minimize the role of technology in their lives, while many in the tech community embrace it whole-heartedly without any thought of what makes sense to bring into their lives.

I’d love to figure out the middle ground. I don’t think simplicity has to mean living in a cabin in the woods, although I see the appeal of that. It can mean being selective about what we choose to have in our lives.

Another possible model of embracing both comes from one of my favorite people, Gifford Pinchot III, who is a cofounder of Pinchot University, a sustainable business MBA program. When I first met him I noticed he had no leisure time whatsoever and worked every minute of the day. I asked him how he sustained that pace. His answer was that he worked very hard for ten months a year, and then spent two months a year living off-the-grid on a nature preserve in Canada, chopping wood, hiking, and drumming.

DC: How do we get there from here?

WH: I’m not sure. I have some hints of things I suspect are important.

Everyone needs some exposure to voluntary simplicity or intentional community. Even if they ultimately choose not to live that lifestyle, just being aware of it as an option, and having a vocabulary to be able to talk about it is important. Most people don’t even know that they have, by default, taken the blue pill. They’re in the matrix as defined by popular culture.

We also need to show up to anything we do as our full, authentic selves. Too often we go to work, where we spend the majority of our functional hours with other people, and we only permit ourselves to engage on a very superficial, very safe level. Which means we end up spending most of our lives having very superficial and safe conversations.

But you don’t get any meaningful change or connection at that level. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to show when you are afraid, to risk crying with someone or hugging them. One of the biggest travesties is the way work culture, by keeping everything “safe,” robs us of the opportunity for deep connection and meaningful engagement. I’d like to see people steal that back. We have to risk being hurt to also experience joy and love.

Tim Ferriss says many people keep themselves busy because they’re afraid of what happens if they suddenly have free time. They’re afraid of asking themselves if their life has meaning, if they know what they want to do with their lives, if they have the quality of relationships they want to have. It’s easier by far to stay busy and avoid those questions, and by all means, avoid making changes, which are scary.

Conversely, the more accustomed we become to addressing those issues, the less we fear them, because we eventually learn that usually things work out okay and we develop better skills for adapting to change. Then, from a place of less fear and greater competency, we can help the people around us go through their own life journeys.

You asked how we get to a life of greater simplicity, and my answer is we should all get to the life we want to live, whether that is simple or not, so long as we have the opportunity to be ourselves, to have meaningful relationships, and to do the important things we want to do in the world. Simplicity is one way to approach that, but it may not be for everyone.

DC: You’ve just completed a new novel, Kill Process, a tech thriller with a female protagonist, due to release in the coming months; I’ve read it, and it totally rocks. Can you talk about it a little to whet readers’ appetites?

WH: Angie Benenati, formerly a teenage computer hacker in the 1980s, is now a data analyst for the world’s largest social media company, Tomo. Struggling to cope with the aftermath of an abusive relationship she escaped five years earlier, she uses her access to everyone’s data to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them to free their victims.

This uneasy status quo is disrupted when she realizes that Tomo is, in effect, holding users’ social relationships hostage while systematically violating their privacy and control over their own data. Seeing too many parallels to the world of domestic violence, Angie decides she must eliminate Tomo by creating a new social network that ensures such a one-sided power dynamic can never occur again.

It’s a contemporary thriller with a blend of the startup world and computer hacking exploring themes of data privacy and ownership. The themes I explore stem from my interest in where power resides between people and companies, especially when the companies involved mediate our interpersonal relationships.

DC: Will, thanks so much. You’ve been a great guest and I really appreciate you taking this time with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WH: It’s been a pleasure for me, as well. Thanks so much. For anyone who has enjoyed any of what I’ve said, please check out my books or sign up for my monthly mailing list, especially if you’d like to find out when Kill Process is available.

 

Notes

1 How to Predict the Future

2 Why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress (IEEE essay)

3 The trolley problem

4 Northwest Earth Institute

 

Did you enjoy this interview with William? Let us know with a comment!

This concludes my Under the Covers interview series. Links to all the Under the Covers interviews are here

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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Ken Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Photo by Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu is one of the most prolific and highly regarded authors working in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) field today. In just the last five years, he’s published scores of high-quality short fiction pieces in publications ranging from the core SFF magazines to more scholarly venues such as Nature and The Atlantic Council. He is also the only author to have ever won all three of the field’s most prestigious awards—the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—for the same story, The Paper Menagerie (2011).

2015 saw the publication of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in Ken’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Ken has also translated several Chinese SF works into English, including Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.

Ken’s first story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released just this week, and the second volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, titled The Wall of Storms, is due out in October.

DC: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Although you published your first story as early as 2002, you really burst onto the scene with a spray of astonishing work beginning in 2010, and the standing ovation is still continuing. You’re living proof of the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.” What were you doing in those years between 2002 and 2010?

KL: Thank you, Dario! Always such a pleasure to chat about writing and books with you.

For most of that decade I was involved in the practice of law, first as a law student and then as a corporate lawyer. The legal profession demands a great deal from practitioners, both in time and mental energy, and there wasn’t much room left for fiction writing.

However, I was doing a great deal of writing—papers, memos, contracts, briefs—just not novels or short stories. Yet, in a way, the practice of law turned out to be good preparation for fiction: we like to think that abstract logic and cold reason should be the primary modes of persuasion in the law, but crafting a powerful narrative—telling a persuasive story—is just as important, and perhaps even dominant. Law students are often very good at legal reasoning, but learning how to tell stories that achieve the right result for your client takes a lifetime of dedicated practice. It was the sort of experience that came in handy later when I turned more of my energy to fiction.

DC: Your short fiction can best be described as literary, precise, and intimate. How did you go from being an English major with a passion for the Western Canon to writing Science Fiction?

KL: Ha! You know, the thing is, I’ve never thought of genre fiction as standing in opposition to “literature.” As a result, I’ve never been interested in efforts to carve out some special aesthetic claim for science fiction or fantasy.

To me, all fiction is speculative because all fiction is interested in a mode of rhetoric in which the logic of metaphors is more important than the logic of analysis. What gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy are typically just works that achieve their effect by literalizing their metaphors.

The advent of Modernism has resulted in an intense interiority being read as the (sole?) mark of psychological “realism”; writers who write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, however, can still get away with stories in which the interior drama is played out through literalized external manifestations.

I view science fiction as having a perfectly valid claim on the Western Canon—in the same way that the author of Frankenstein was consciously engaged in dialogue with Milton’s Paradise Lost throughout her text.

DC: Roots, memory and identity, the sense of straddling two cultures and the need to either reconcile them or commit fully to one, is a recurring theme in your short fiction. As an immigrant yourself—I believe you were ten when you arrived in the US—is this a process you still struggle with?

KL: Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.

I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities.

We live in a world that is defined by historical injustices, and it is a mark of privilege for someone to declare history to be irrelevant—the descendants of historical winners are the only ones who can afford to ignore history. I write stories that stubbornly—and perhaps unrealistically—cling to the hope that it is only by understanding and empathizing with the pains of historical suffering and accepting the burden of historical injustice that we can truly be free.

DC: As well as being an amazingly prolific author and translator, you have a wife and two young children, practice law as a litigation consultant, and write software as well. Assuming you don’t have a time machine, how do you do it all?

KL: Ah, you give me too much credit. My biggest problem is that I’m not very efficient. Almost every writer I know writes faster than I do, and context switching is expensive for me—I’m not a good multitasker at all.

I do think I’m pretty good about picking meaty, rewarding projects and saying no to everything else. I translate only stories that I’m enthusiastic about, and I write only when I think I can make an interesting, impactful contribution. When I take up a novel, as you know, I ended up writing a very big, very long book. (smiles)

DC: Given this incredible schedule, what suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?

KL: I wish I had more time to write software and play with technology! I used to be able to spend a great deal more time writing apps and simply exploring code. The combination of being under contract with a publisher as well as having a demanding day job means that I value time with my family even more, and I’ve had to give up my coding time.

Luckily, my daughters are getting old enough to be introduced to robotics and some basic programming, so I’m hoping I’ll be “forced” to do more playing under the guise of “teaching” them something.

DC: What do you do for relaxation?

KL: I play games on my Nintendo 3DS. I especially love puzzle games (Box Boy is wonderful).

DC: Your Epic Fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, which is a radical departure from your short fiction, has given rise to the wonderful term “silkpunk”. Can you define it for us, and tell us who coined it?

KL: That’s my term. It’s a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the novel as well as my literary approach.

Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western tradtions from Beowulf and the Aeneid.

The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In writing this book, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

DC: I know that your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, worked with you on creating the universe for this series. What sparked the idea?

KL: When I was looking for a subject for my first novel, Lisa and I had many conversations about what might be an interesting tale. One day, she said, “I’ve never read a story in English that gives me the feeling of those historical dramas in Hong Kong.”

Lisa and I both grew up imbibing Chinese historical romances as our foundational narratives (she did it by watching TV dramas, and I did it by listening to storytellers on the radio). This conversation sparked in me the thought that it would be interesting to transpose a foundational narrative in one culture—the founding of the Han Dynasty, for instance—into a narrative structure built with elements adopted from both the Western and Chinese literary traditions. It had to be done in a way that felt organic, lively, distinct, instead of being just another “magical China” story that merely validated the Western gaze.

It sounded like a tough challenge, which is also a sign that it was a project worth pursuing. Lisa and I discussed how such a world should be built and what it would look like and what sort of Orientalizing pitfalls had to be avoided to thwart the expectations of the dominant Western interpretive framework. She helped me to define the language, culture, and geography of Dara until it felt like a world that could support our dreams.

DC: This enormous landmark work (The Grace of Kings clocks in at around 650 pages) is eclectic, multilayered, and daring in so many ways. In approaching this story of upheaval and revolution you chose a narrative voice strongly reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, which carries echoes of Homer and other classical authors; the way these are blended is uniquely Liu. I was both engrossed and awed by how well you pulled this off—you own the narrative voice in these novels. What made you settle on this narrative strategy?

KL: Thank you! I’m so glad my choices paid off for you.

I wasn’t interested in writing a “contemporary” genre novel, by which I mean a novel whose narrative strategies are deeply influenced by Modernism, with a focus on psychological interiority and tight, intimate POVs. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more interested in exploring the idea of trans-cultural foundational narratives, the logic of metaphors, and playing with epic structure and omniscient POV. I wanted to tell a story that was self-consciously engaged in conversation with both Western and Chinese literary forerunners, both ancient and modern.

I don’t believe there is only one kind of “good story.” I wanted to write something that feels as different from the contemporary genre novel as a brush painting feels from an oil painting. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is closer to something like Moby Dick or the wuxia classics—I certainly ignored a lot of “rules” of genre writing.

DC: Looking at some of the reader reviews it’s clear than not all readers have either the background or insight to appreciate what you’re doing here, with some grumbling about too much exposition, too much telling and not enough showing. Did you know you were taking a risk with this approach?

KL: (grins) Did I ever! The Grace of Kings is a departure from much of my short fiction (as you alluded to earlier), and I knew going in that the choices I made wouldn’t work for every reader. I appreciate every reader who tried my book, and if the book didn’t work for them, I can only say that I’m sorry and I hope to write a book that will be more appealing to them in the future.

But in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, it was necessary to make use of a narrative structure and adopt techniques that melded the different epic traditions I wanted to converse with. I was sailing into the unknown, and taking risks is absolutely necessary when you are interested in terra incognita.

And I’m incredibly gratified by the many readers who have written to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what I did with Dara.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. What is it about this work that so appeals to you?

KL: I think Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language. In composing it, Milton was forced to create a new aesthetic that melded the Classical and Biblical epic traditions, and elevated vernacular English to a level formerly reserved for Greek and Latin. He was building a new world as well as a new language and a new set of narrative techniques, challenging reader expectations as he conversed with the literary traditions he claimed for himself and irrevocably changed them in the process.

 This is, as you might have guessed, a project that very much resonates with me.

DC: I believe you also write poetry, but I’m not sure in which language?

KL: I only write in English. My formal schooling in Chinese ended in elementary school, and though I can appreciate poetic Chinese writing, writing in Chinese at that level would take decades of dedicated practice. If I live to be a hundred and fifty, I might give it a try.

DC: Here in the US, the climate in the core Science Fiction community has become particularly toxic in the last few years, with a brutal internecine war that has caused deep and lasting divisions within the community. Despite having strong views and beliefs, you’ve wisely avoided making enemies. Why do you think people can’t have a civil dialogue over their differences?

KL: There’s a tendency in modern rhetoric to reduce complicated, multidimensional differences into simplistic, binary oppositions. The genre community is divided along many different dimensions, some aesthetic, some political, and others even more fundamental than either. Trying to flatten all of these differences into a matter of two “sides” or “factions” is, in my view, the reason why many of these debates just involve the participants talking past each other.

I do want to note that “civility” by itself is not a virtue. It is possible to be perfectly polite in discourse while utterly disrespecting the humanity of others.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in working on projects that interest me and pleasing readers who enjoy my work. Everything else is just noise.

DC: It’s not unusual to see SFF “insiders” openly slam the genre’s hugely popular writers—fantastic storytellers like Andy Weir (The Martian), Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), and, a decade ago, J.K. Rowling—as mere popular hacks lacking craft. Is SFF a popular art form or should it be the property of a highly educated elite?

KL: I think most writers would prefer their books to be both critically acclaimed and best-selling. Personally, I just don’t find it interesting to slam other writers for their success, even if what they write isn’t to my taste.

Whenever there’s a book that I don’t like—but whose fans are passionate—I try to learn why the book is so successful. Popular books inevitably do something really well and scratch an itch for their fans. It’s fascinating to figure out what that itch is.

DC: A few unkind reviewers familiar with Chinese culture have accused you of simply rehashing the Chu-Han struggle of Chinese history in your Dandelion Dynasty series. How would you reply to these critics?

KL: I’m actually not interested in replying to these critics at all. I don’t even bother reading my reviews. Writers who argue with critics rarely come out ahead. What matters is writing another book for readers who would enjoy my work.

But I will say to potential readers sitting on the fence about trying my book that Paradise Lost is also just a rehash of the first few chapters in Genesis, and Journey to the West a rehash of old oral traditions that came before it. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them so that we are transported to new realms.

DC: In stories such as The Man Who Ended History, The Reborn, and Ghost Days, you address some difficult themes—genocide, the destruction or assimilation of peoples and cultures. We should never forget, but should we forgive?

KL: I think we bear a responsibility towards history, and it’s our duty to construct a future that is better than the past.

When we speak of historical atrocities, it’s worth remembering that their effects still govern the lives of the descendants of perpetrators and victims. The past is not past.  “Forgiveness” is often touted as a way to lead to forgetfulness, and I’m leery of it when used in that way.

DC: Last year you were honoured at the Beijing Xinyun Awards with an award for special contribution to Chinese SF. What was that like for you?

KL: Incredible. The enthusiasm of the Chinese fans was deeply moving. I was deeply moved by how much Liu Cixin himself took the trouble to thank me, when I really didn’t do much of anything as a translator.

It was Liu Cixin’s powerful imagination and skill as a writer that allowed The Three-Body Problem to replicate its success among Anglophone readers. I hope that in the future, translation of works from Chinese into English would become so routine that no one will remember the translators.

DC: What’s the best part about being a dad?

KL: Seeing the world through fresh eyes! My daughters constantly make observations about the world that remind me how full of wonder everything around us is, and how miraculous is the universe. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of the infinite joy that fills every second of existence.

DC: Ken, thanks so very much for spending time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

KL: Thank you so much for having me, Dario. I love our deep conversations.

This is a pretty exciting year for me, as I have four books being released.

On March 8, 2016, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, came out from Saga Press. This volume collects some of my favorite stories as well as one previously unpublished story I wrote just for the collection.

In August, Death’s End, my translation of the third and concluding volume in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, will be released by Tor Books.

For fans of The Grace of Kings, the sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be coming out from Saga Press in October of 2016 (and it’s bigger and better in every way, with even more intrigue and silkpunk technology!).

Finally, in November, Tor Books will publish my collection of translations of contemporary short-form Chinse SF, Invisible Planets. This volume will contain translations of award-winning stories by such luminaries of the Chinese SF world as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, and others.

To find out more about my plans, readers can go to my web site (http://kenliu.name) and/or sign up for my newsletter (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/)

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Ken? Let us know with a comment!

 You can read my own review of The Grace of Kings (vol. I of the Dandelion Dynasty), here: https://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/review-the-grace-of-kings-by-ken-liu/)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with SARA ALEXI, bestselling author of The Greek Village series, live right here on Saturday March 19!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

 

 

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UNDER THE COVERS: Close and Personal with Six Hot Authors

AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES (March-April 2016)

A series of six weekly, in-depth interviews with six prominent and successful authors working in several distinct categories and genres. As both a reader and writer myself, I find it both fascinating and revealing to get a glimpse into other writers’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

What do these six authors have in common? First, they’re all terrific storytellers, which I view as the primary object of good fiction; second, each has attained a high degree of success and visibility in their chosen genre or category, including major awards and bestseller rankings on one or more lists; and third, they are all darned interesting people, with a lot to say.

This interview series digs in to find out what makes these authors tick: how each views the world, how they balance being a successful author with the demands of daily life, what drives their fiction and choice of genre, and how they found their success. In the process, I hope to interest each author’s current fans, as well as introduce them to you, my own readers.

Here are the links to each  Under the Covers interview on this blog.

March 5: Mandy M. Roth (Paranormal Romance)

March 12: Ken Liu (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

March 19: Sara Alexi (Literary Fiction)

March 26: Aliette de Bodard (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

April 2: Loreth Ann White (Romantic Suspense/Thriller)

April 9: William Hertling (Science Fiction/Thriller)

You can also sign up for my RSS feed (left sidebar)

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Sex, Magic, and Rocket Engineering: the Extraordinary Life and Death of Jack Parsons

In the course of writing a novel you come across some very interesting stuff. In fact, some of the research can be so interesting that it becomes a danger to your progress, consuming increasing amounts of time and attention far beyond what was necessary for the writing.

During the writing of my new novel, a supernatural thriller titled Black Easter, I needed to research the Waffen-SS, the legendary black magician Aleister Crowley (aka ‘The Great Beast’), and the internal workings of the Greek Orthodox Church in some depth. One particularly fascinating area of study involved life in the closed monastic communities of Mount Athos, an autonomous peninsula in Northern Greece entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Absorbing as all this material was, the most fascinating subject I came across was Jack Parsons, occultist, libertine druggie, explosives junkie, rocket engineer, and one of the founding figures of NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) right near my home in Pasadena.

Parsons (nearest on right) and colleagues preparing for a rocket engine test in Pasadena, 1936. (photo: JPL)

I stumbled across Parsons quite by accident when a friend, who knew I was doing some background research on occultist Aleister Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, mentioned him to me. After reading the Wikipedia entry on Parsons, I found a number of further articles about him and a biography. Despite being a key figure in the development of modern rocketry, Parsons’ extreme eccentricity has led to his being pretty much written out of NASA’s history.

Parsons developed a childhood interest in rocketry from reading Science Fiction. He and a friend founded a rocket research group which received National Academy of Sciences funding in 1939 to develop JATO (Jet-Assisted Take-Off) for the military. In 1942 they founded a new company, Aerojet, which just a year later became JPL.

Paralleling these material ventures were Parsons’ curious spiritual adventures. In 1939 he became a disciple of Crowley’s and adopted Thelema—Crowley’s magical teaching—as his religion. Just a couple of years later, at Crowley’s behest, he was running the Crowley-affiliated Agape Lodge (from the Greek, αγαπε, “love”, “love of man”, “highest love”) from his Pasadena home in Orange Grove Avenue.

Sex and magic were inseparable in the Agape Lodge’s rituals. Partner-swapping, orgies, and ritual masturbation in the performance of magic ceremonies were common practice, along with marijuana and cocaine use. This behaviour eventually led to Parsons’ expulsion from JPL.

Parsons’ pursuit of esoteric knowledge continued unabated. Somewhere around 1945, L. Ron Hubbard (who later went on to found the Church of Scientology) moved into the Lodge, and he and Parsons became close friends. After losing his girlfriend, Sara, to Hubbard, Parsons decided on a series of rituals he termed the “Babalon Working” aimed at bringing about an incarnation of Crowley’s Thelemite goddess Babalon on Earth. After the final ritual in the Mojave desert, he became convinced that Marjorie Cameron—a young unemployed artist who’d just come to visit the Lodge—was the incarnation of the goddess he had summoned.

Following further adventures, which included being defrauded of his life savings by L. Ron Hubbard, an unsuccessful court action, and finally unwelcome attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in the FBI’s revocation of his security clearance, Parsons returned to occultism with a vengeance. Working in a gas station and selling homemade nitroglycerin on the side to earn money, he wrote several occult texts, including The Book of AntiChrist, in which he prophesied that Babalon would manifest on Earth within nine years and bring about the downfall of the Abrahamic religions. Parsons and Cameron separated, and she went to live in an artists’ commune in Mexico.

Parsons was able to start working again after a closed federal court hearing resulted in his security clearance being reinstated. He was hired to design and build a chemical plant for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation, but was fired in 1951 on suspicion of stealing classified company documents and spying for the Israeli government.

Parsons and Cameron, now reconciled, moved into a former coach house in Orange Grove Avenue, where he converted a room to a lab. He brewed absinthe, held parties with members of the new Beat Generation, and started a new Thelemite group. He founded the Parsons Chemical Manufacturing Company, which specialized in making explosives and special effects chemicals for the film industry.

On June 17, 1952, Parsons received a rush order for explosives from a movie company and set to work in his little Orange Grove lab. There was an explosion, which destroyed the lower half of the building and cost Parsons his life. The Pasadena Police Department investigation concluded it was an accident caused by sloppy work habits and clumsiness. But a number of Parsons’ former colleagues challenged this, stating that he was always extremely cautious in his work. One chemical engineer insisted the explosion had come from beneath the floorboards (a suggestion the police department accepted as a possibility) leading to speculation that Howard Hughes had Parsons assassinated for stealing company secrets. A friend of Cameron’s believed Parsons died in a ritual intended to create a homunculus. In the end, Parsons’ demise was declared an accidental death owing to the lack of conclusive evidence. He was only 37 when he died.

When I started writing Black Easter, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was shortly after our move to Pasadena that I began to research Crowley and the Thelema Lodge, and came across the extraordinary story of Jack Parsons. When I discovered the Pasadena-Crowley connection, I experienced a serious frisson at the very odd synchronicity. And it’s not the only the only one this supernatural novel has triggered in my life.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the everyday sometimes supplies characters way larger than life. Jack Parsons was one of those. It makes me want to write him into a novel somewhere down the road.

My supernatural thriller, Black Easter, will be released on December 5, 2015. Read an excerpt here.

About Black Easter

It’s Resurrection Time.

San Francisco antique dealer Paul Hatzis sells his business and rents an old house on the small Greek island of Vóunos. What he doesn’t know is that the house, which has a sinister reputation with the locals, was previously owned by black magician Dafyd Jones who—along with his seer companion Magda O’Whelan, and Klaus Maule, a seriously disturbed colonel in the Waffen SS—made a deal with the demonic, culminating in their planned bodily deaths during the final ritual in 1944.

In return for a lifetime of service on the frontier of Outer Hell, where all the demons of Hell fight a desperate, eternal battle against inconceivable powers that would consume both the human and demonic spheres, Jones and his companions will be reborn on Earth as powerful immortals…if they don’t go mad first.

As Easter approaches, Paul is preparing to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Greek calendar with his girlfriend, Elleni, and Alex, his adored 18-year old niece. But with the biblical threescore years and ten now up, the magician and his two colleagues are being called back from Hell by the ritual artifact they buried deep in the cellar of Paul’s house.

And all they need are three living human bodies…

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Win a Free Audiobook of my novel, “Sutherland’s Rules”!

MAY 1 – EVERYONE’S A WINNER! OMG.

Since the number of entrants was actually under the free codes available, everyone who entered has won. All winners have now been notified; if you entered and haven’t received an email, try looking in your spam folder. Any problem with download, let me know. Happy listening!

Spring is here, the Sun is in Aries, and life is good. In celebration, I’ll be giving away TWENTY-FIVE free copies of my audiobook, SUTHERLAND’S RULES, produced and narrated by talented British character actor Andrew Cullum–and yes, he really has played Richard III!

Audiobooks are wonderful for listening to on your commute, on airplanes, while working out, or just relaxing at home. Just download onto your mp3 player or favourite device and you’re good to go!

To enter the draw for a free copy of this terrific 9-hour audio production, JUST LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. The winners will be decided by random draw on May 1st. Winners will be notified by email and will receive a free promo code  for an instant download at Audible.com (Audible.co.uk for winners in the UK).

Good luck!

(Note: commenting and entering will NOT get you on any lists–your privacy is absolutely guaranteed.)

Click here to listen to the free sample  and view the book description on Audible.com , or here for Audible.co.uk (UK readers)

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The Unplotted Plot

Recently I picked up a book by an author whom I’ve enjoyed in the past and which I was very much looking forward to reading. It was a big Science Fiction novel, and the author is one of those rare few who’s managed to break out of the narrow confines of SF and become a mainstream bestseller. His books, which often feature mysterious alien artifacts, are filled with wonder, his stories painted on big canvases–all stuff I love, unlike so much of today’s SF which I find either preachy, tediously dystopian, downright timid and petty, or all three together.

After enjoying the first few dozen pages, however, I found myself starting to become uncomfortable. Despite the great setup, fine writing, wonderful worldbuilding, and solid characterization, the story felt as if it was on rails. It was meticulous, precise. It was too damn plotted.

The more I learn about this craft, the more I understand how very different every writer’s M.O. is. There’s no right way to write, there’s only what works. Some people are plotters; I’m not. I write largely by the seat of my pants, but I learned some years ago–a hard lesson, the result of having painted myself into an impossible corner on several occasions where I began a story without any sort of preparation–that even a “pantser” needs some notes and waypoints from the outset.

So today, when I embark on a long work such as the novel I’m currently about, I make sure I have a few things down on paper when I begin: a good setup and a rough outline of the first few scenes to serve as a launch ramp; full notes and backstory on my principal characters, including some psychological profiles about their deeper goals and motivations; an understanding of the “flaw in the universe”, the core conflict that drives the plot; some vague notion of the development of the story; and an idea of my ending (all of which can, and likely will, change). But I don’t even attempt anything resembling a full outline.

When I wrote my novel “Sutherland’s Rules”, two authors I respect a great deal made comments (and rather nice ones) worth examining here. One told me he wished he could plot so well–which made me laugh, as all I’d done was set the characters free to act and react, then chased them around with maps, calendars, and finally stopwatches to make sure it was all possible! The second comment about the book was that I did a fine job of not telegraphing my intentions in advance; well, how could I? How was I to know what my characters would get up to from one minute to the next? All I do is watch, and write it down.

Notice I mentioned “plot” earlier, but only as a noun. The reason for this is that I don’t believe in plotting. Like Stephen King (I was immensely happy when he made this point in his book, “On Writing”), I don’t trust plotting in the sense of a detailed, premeditated outline of story events. Plot is something that occurs spontaneously, a hyperdynamic web of forces that, for me, needs to develop organically as the writer’s well thought-out and very real characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or that flaw in the universe the writer has conceived as the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, doesn’t have a verbal form–it’s a noun, and another word for story.

When I read a book where the author has mechanically plotted everything out carefully in advance (the generic MegaName thriller authors that turn out several books a year are egregious examples of this), I can quite literally feel–at least I imagine I can–the poor characters struggling to break free, to have autonomy, to do something spontaneous and unpredictable, all the while screaming, “I am not a character, I am a free man!” It’s painful. It’s boring. Now, I don’t know if this is the way is the way these authors work, but their books feel that way to me–choreographed and mechanical. And that’s the kiss of death for me.

If, on the other hand, the author has done their preliminary work well, and has some clue what he or she is about in terms of craft, their characters will act like real people in a real situation in the real world rather than like marionettes on a stage set. Oh, there’ll be some tuning, and they may need reining in occasionally, but I find that’s more a question of keeping control over their time in public view rather than limiting their actions. I mean, why would you want to do that?

I think also that when some authors talk of plotting, they’re often referring to a rather different process than the premeditated, scene-by-scene working out of story events I’m grumbling about. What I think some writers do is write an initial outline that’s effectively a barebones first draft and in which the characters are organically involved as actors, and then expand that more and more; and I think this is where a good deal of misunderstanding arises as to what plot and plotting are.

My personal belief is that the time to plot is after you’ve got the first draft down. Even then, plot in its verb form isn’t the right word–I like to think of it as outlining after the fact. And the reason for this is that when you have eighty or a hundred thousand words, dozens of chapters over hundreds of pages that have taken you several months even years to write, you need to get an overview of the whole. At this point, writing a brief summary of what happens in each chapter and scene is something that I find vital to help me see what needs doing in the rewrite.

But, plot from the beginning? No way. If I can’t trust my characters to act independently, I’ve probably not done a very good job on them, have I?

*     *     *

What do you think? Do you find some books just seem to be too obviously plotted? If you’re a writer, what’s your own process?

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