Archive for the ‘My Favorite Bit’ Category

My Favorite Bit: Ashok K. Banker talks about UPON A BURNING THRONE

My Favorite BitAshok K. Banker is joining us today with his novel Upon a Burning Throne. Here’s the publisher’s description:

From international sensation Ashok K. Banker, pioneer of the fantasy genre in India, comes the first book in a ground-breaking, epic fantasy series inspired by the ancient Indian classic, The Mahabharata

In a world where demigods and demons walk among mortals, the Emperor of the vast Burnt Empire has died, leaving a turbulent realm without an emperor. Two young princes, Adri and Shvate, are in line to rule, but birthright does not guarantee inheritance: For any successor must sit upon the legendary Burning Throne and pass The Test of Fire. Imbued with dark sorceries, the throne is a crucible—one that incinerates the unworthy.

Adri and Shvate pass The Test and are declared heirs to the empire… but there is another with a claim to power, another who also survives: a girl from an outlying kingdom. When this girl, whose father is the powerful demonlord Jarsun, is denied her claim by the interim leaders, Jarsun declares war, vowing to tear the Burnt Empire apart—leaving the young princes Adri and Shvate to rule a shattered realm embroiled in rebellion and chaos….

Welcome to the Burnt Empire Saga.

What is Ashok’s favorite bit?

Upon a burning throne cover image

ASHOK K. BANKER

Upon a Burning Throne is a fairly short book. Almost a novella. Barely a morsel. Only 246,000 words. Why, I’d call it a short story. Or a flash. A fragment, really.

Heh.

It gets worse.

It’s only the first of a nine book series called The Burnt Empire Saga. And the later books in the series are considerably longer than the first. So much longer that, depending on the publishers, paper costs and binding technology at the time they’re published, they might even be split into two parts apiece. Which is what the Indian publishers of Upon a Burning Throne have done for their edition.

Honestly, I think the length is nothing at all, especially if you love exciting, immersive epic fantasies.

It’s such a teensy weensy thing, a pupper of a story, a wee kitten.

In fact, my favorite bit in the book is what I left out.

Not out-takes, or the short stories, novelettes, and novellas I excised from the original draft and which have been published on Lightspeed Magazine as Legends of the Burnt Empire.

Those are more on the order of important backstory as well as origin stories of key characters and relationships that impact the main plot of Upon a Burning Throne. In a sense, they are part of the Burnt Empire Saga as a whole.

I don’t mean those parts.

I mean the parts that literally don’t exist anywhere in print or pixels. They only have a life in my mind.

I’m talking about the things I’ve left unsaid in the book.

Like the two key chapters at the very end of the book where two minor characters suddenly do or say things that are wholly unexpected. In one case, it’s even arguably out of character – though that particular person has shown himself capable of being uncharacteristically earlier in the book as well, so even that’s arguable. (They’re both male-appearing characters so I’m not giving away any spoilers here.)

Those two chapters and characters and what they do in one case, and say in the other instance, change everything that is to follow, turning the whole book on its head, so to speak, or pulling the rug out from under everyone’s foot – the other characters’ feet, and, if I’ve done my job right, the readers as well.

But it’s what I don’t say in those chapters that is the part that makes it work. The part that will (again, if I’ve done my part correctly) make the reader go “WTF? OMG!”

Similarly, in the beginning of the book, the main opening sequence, the long set-piece broken into several smaller chapterlets, the main “hero” or chief protagonist of the entire series and story is introduced, but this person is only just a baby at that point.

And I mean that literally, by the way. A baby as in a diaper-wearing milk-suckling babe, although of course they didn’t have diapers in the Burnt Empire or anywhere else in the world of Arthaloka, which is probably why said character is wrapped in a blankie. (There are always blankies in every world, just as there are always babies; any high fantasy world without babies and blankies is not a world worth contemplating leave alone writing about and I refuse to entertain the very idea of such a blankie-less, babe-less wasteland. Pshaw!)

That baby in a blankie will turn out to be the main protagonist of the Burnt Empire Series, or hero, if you will.

But I never say so openly in Upon a Burning Throne. I’m only saying it here, on Ms Kowal’s lovely online soap box, because it’s my favorite bit in the whole book.

I introduced the hero of the entire series as a baby in a blankie in a single brief scene in Book 1, and then never said a word more about that person in the rest of the 246,000-word book!

Again, this isn’t a spoiler. Anyone reading about Upon a Burning Throne will soon learn that the sequel A Dark Queen Rises follows lickety split on its heels. Just a year later. And as that second book’s title so blatantly and shamelessly reveals (major spoiler now) that protagonist is, of course, the eponymous dark queen.

The same one whom you were introduced to briefly but memorably as a baby in a blankie in Book 1. Yes, the very one. Gadzooks.

And I never told you that when she first came on the scene. Or at any point thereafter. In fact, I never even hinted throughout that entire 688-page hardcover volume (beautifully designed, bound, with a delicious cover and a simply sumptuous map, by the way) that she was even going to be the protagonist!

Like I said before, I left that bit out.

Deliberately, wilfully, knowingly, with full knowledge and intent.

I wrote an entire BFF (Big Fat Fantasy, not to be confused with Best Female Friend, though those are awesome too) without letting on that the main protagonist doesn’t even take center stage until book 2!

Because all heads turn when the hunt goes by. And the Queen, especially the Dark Queen, never leads the hunt.

She arrives in style, heralded and ushered, the path well beaten and cleared, the crowds assembled, the trumpets echoing across the vale.

And that’s it.

My Favorite Bit.

LINKS:

Upon a Burning Throne Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Ashok K. Banker is the pioneer of the speculative fiction genre in India and the author of 60+ books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana series. His works have all been best-sellers in India, and have sold around the world.

My Favorite Bit: Lara Elena Donnelly talks about AMNESTY

Favorite Bit iconLara Elena Donnelly is joining us today to talk about her novel Amnesty, the conclusion of the Amberlough Dossier. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In Amberlough City, out of the ASHES of revolution, a TRAITOR returns, a political CAMPAIGN comes to a roaring head, and the people demand JUSTICE for crimes past.

As a nation struggles to rebuild, who can escape retribution?

Amnesty is a smart, decadent, heart-pounding conclusion to Lara Elena Donnelly’s widely-praised glam spy trilogy that will have readers enthralled until the very end.

What’s Lara’s favorite bit?

Amnesty cover image

LARA ELENA DONNELLY

There are a lot of satisfying things about wrapping up a trilogy. And there are a lot of satisfying things about Amnesty in particular. I could talk to you about my calculating neo-liberal lesbian power couple. I could talk to you about designing severe, sexy, pseudo-Balenciaga gowns for Lillian DePaul, or about the power politics of sex scenes. I could mention the delight of writing a disaffected thirteen-year-old, and how useful it is to have a character who can play adult or child as necessary (read: as inconvenient and emotionally taxing for his parents as possible).

I put a lot of what I loved and wanted into this book. But I’m going to talk to you now about one tiny scene, insignificant to the plot, that demonstrates a huge truth about writing I try to impart during every panel I’m on, in every class I teach. I’m going to talk to you about verisimilitude. And also, about shooting skeet.

Okay, you got me: I said skeet for comic effect. I’m actually going to talk about shooting trap. And now we’re already getting into the details of how to write with deeply-developed verisimilitude.

There is a scene in Amnesty, during the Most Awkward Holiday House Party of All Time, in which a few of our heroes(?) are outside in the snow, wearing their tweeds, shooting at clay pigeons. I love this scene. Nothing happens except some very subtle character relationship development, but. I. Love. It.

It was a chance for me to flex my descriptive muscles to the max, and also meant a lot of texting with my mom to double-check details. She shot trap and skeet as a kid. And that’s one of the details I had to confirm: what’s the difference?

Not like it would matter to most people. And in fact, the differentiation didn’t make it into the book, because it’s a very informal set up we’ve got going on here: just one guy throwing targets by hand, a couple of other guys shooting. No houses, no proper slingin’ machine. Another detail: is throwing these things by hand feasible? Yes. But your character’s arm will be sore later.

When I first wrote this scene, I mined my own memories of my brief stint shooting as a kid. I mostly used a rifle, for shooting at static targets. The one time I tried to shoot trap, I remember the shotgun was so heavy I could hardly lift it twice, let alone track the target. I also remembered watching my cousin and grandfather out the window of the front room in my grandparents’ farmhouse, shooting clay pigeons over the front pasture. The one-two of the double barrels discharging, echoing in waves.

But I wanted to make sure I had nailed the sport as neatly as possible, so I sent the scene to my mom, who had a lot more experience than I did, and she helped me clean it up: A shooter with weak arms doesn’t struggle beneath the weight of the gun; their body bows around the stock so they can’t lift the muzzle high enough to shoot the pigeon. The pigeons don’t shatter when they’re hit dead on: they disappear in a trailing puff of smoke. The pigeons come in twos, because that’s how many shots you get in a double-barrel shotgun. In trap they come from the same house. In skeet they come from different houses, so it’s more challenging to aim.

And so on. And so on.

Like I said: do I think a lot of people reading this book will have shot trap before? Not particularly. But it was deeply pleasurable to write this scene knowing I had gotten as close to real life as possible, leaning into the sensory details. And also knowing if anyone who has shot trap before reads this scene, they will feel a spark of recognition.

Verisimilitude in writing is important because otherwise it can become derivative, stale, rote, other words that mean boring and bad. In her craft book Storyteller, Kate Wilhelm cautions that writers should never use fiction for research, because it results in a distorting game of telephone. I have a dead horse I often beat about writers drawing on things they’ve seen before in other books, in movies, in TV, and getting everything about everything wrong: how long it takes to drown, what happens when you get knocked out, what it’s like to live with a particular marginalized identity.

When you write things you have seen, experienced, researched, and know, it comes through in a way that’s hard for readers to put a finger on, but that they feel in their bones. It is, as my mom says: “The detail that makes it real beyond imagination.”

LINKS:

Amnesty Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the vintage-glam spy thriller trilogy The Amberlough Dossier (Tor), as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny.

A graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, Lara has also served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF. Lara is currently a guest lecturer in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and a teacher at the Catapult classes in New York City.

My Favorite Bit: Jaine Fenn talks about BROKEN SHADOW

My Favorite BitJaine Fenn is joining us today with her conclusion to the Shadowlands duology, Broken Shadow. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The sky is falling, and only one dilettante scientist can save the world, in the startling finale of the Shadowlands duology

Rhia Harlyn risks death for science. Accused of heresy for promoting an unorthodox cosmology, she must defend herself, her work and her House alone. If only she could rely on her feckless brother Etyan, transformed through the combination of an occult scientist’s experiments and the harsh rays of the skyland sun. But she knows she cannot.

When Dej, Etyan’s half-alien lover, finally uncovers Etyan’s dark secret she runs off into the perilous skyland. She is looking for peace in a world that has rejected her; what she discovers instead will change everyone’s lives.

Meanwhile, overhead, the very stars themselves are shifting. Rhia is about to find herself proved disastrously right…

What’s Jaine’s favorite bit?

Broken Shadow cover image

JAINE FENN

It probably comes as no surprise that I found it hard to pick a favourite bit from my latest book. Most authors have several – ideally many – moments they love in their novels; we spend a lot of time shaping these stories, so if we aren’t loving what we do – at least some of the time – then that’s a sad state of affairs.

In this case, there is also a higher-than-average risk of spoilers. Broken Shadow is the second of two books in a science fantasy duology and although I’ve done my best to make it stand alone, there are certain plot-threads set up in the first Shadowlands book, Hidden Sun, which pay off here.

My first choice favourite bit would probably be when Rhia, my enquiring and unorthodox  protagonist, wakes up about two thirds of the way through the book to find that overnight the world has… yeah, that’s a massive spoiler, so whilst I loved writing that scene of realisation and reaction feeding into action only she would take, I can’t really share it here.

The bits I love most in Broken Shadow most are character moments – again, probably true for most authors – when these people we’ve spent so much time with implement their cunning plan or find out what’s really go on or pull off the seemingly impossible. And if I have to pick a non-spoilery favourite bit for Rhia it would be her heresy trial.

In Hidden Sun, Rhia discovered something about the universe that the reader already knows to be true but which no one else in her world believes. Now, the Church is challenging her over it.

In writing Rhia’s trial I took a lot from the real world. Firstly, as straight plunder: I shamelessly copied details from the real-life trial of Galileo, though I upped the stakes for Rhia. Rather than house arrest and having her book banned, she faces a brutal execution and the suppression of her ideas before they’ve even been made public. Secondly, explorations of what truth is versus what people choose to believe have been at the forefront of my mind for a while. They say you can date any SFF book to within a decade regardless of when and where it is set and this book is definitely a product of a ‘post-truth’ world.

Rhia values knowledge above else, and wants to believe that if you can prove a truth, it will be accepted. This refreshing if somewhat naïve view already puts her in a minority, as this exchange early on shows:

“Calculations produce proofs that cannot be argued with!”

Francin’s response was gentle, “Or, sadly, understood. Not by most people anyway.”

At her trial she rests her defense on trying to prove her theory, whilst also demonstrating that it doesn’t challenge the extant religious teachings. And she’s right of course. However, I took a perverse pleasure in sharing her slowly dawning realisation that too many people see ‘truth’ not as a provable concept with objective reality but merely as a tool to further their own ends. The irony for Rhia is that if her theory is ruled not to be ‘true’ then it can hardly be considered heretical, an argument which unfortunately only works when dealing with rational people.

Having finally been forced to acknowledge the truth about ‘the truth’, and to face the consequences of daring to challenge it, for Rhia to then wake up and find that the world has…done what it has done…well, that goes beyond irony.

LINKS:

Broken Shadow Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Jaine Fenn studied linguistics and astronomy before becoming a full time writer. Her first book, Principles of Angels, started the Hidden Empire series of character-driven space opera novels. She won the British Science Fiction Association’s Shorter Fiction Award in 2016 for Hidden Empire, and now divides her time between original fiction, teaching creative writing, and writing for tabletop and video games. She lives in Devon.

My Favorite Bit: Caitlin Starling talks about THE LUMINOUS DEAD

Favorite Bit iconCaitlin Starling is joining us today with her debut novel The Luminous Dead. Here’s the publisher’s description:

A thrilling, atmospheric debut with the intensive drive of The Martian and Gravity and the creeping dread of Annihilation, in which a caver on a foreign planet finds herself on a terrifying psychological and emotional journey for survival.

When Gyre Price lied her way into this expedition, she thought she’d be mapping mineral deposits, and that her biggest problems would be cave collapses and gear malfunctions. She also thought that the fat paycheck—enough to get her off-planet and on the trail of her mother—meant she’d get a skilled surface team, monitoring her suit and environment, keeping her safe. Keeping her sane.

Instead, she got Em.

Em sees nothing wrong with controlling Gyre’s body with drugs or withholding critical information to “ensure the smooth operation” of her expedition. Em knows all about Gyre’s falsified credentials, and has no qualms using them as a leash—and a lash. And Em has secrets, too . . .

As Gyre descends, little inconsistencies—missing supplies, unexpected changes in the route, and, worst of all, shifts in Em’s motivations—drive her out of her depths. Lost and disoriented, Gyre finds her sense of control giving way to paranoia and anger. On her own in this mysterious, deadly place, surrounded by darkness and the unknown, Gyre must overcome more than just the dangerous terrain and the Tunneler which calls underground its home if she wants to make it out alive—she must confront the ghosts in her own head.

But how come she can’t shake the feeling she’s being followed?

What’s Caitlin’s favorite bit?

The Luminous Dead cover image

CAITLIN STARLING

I grew up (as I suspect many of us born in the late 80s and onwards) on my computer. AIM, MSN, Skype, MMOs, BBSes– I grew up forming relationships with people I’d never seen, many of whom I only knew through text. I told stories with them, honing my writing skills without consciously noticing it, until I was co-writing epics hundreds of thousands of words long. I was also falling in love, having my heart broken, learning that not everybody was kind or trustworthy, and practicing how to read between the lines of what was written to suss out somebody else’s heart.

So of course my first book is that, writ large.

The two characters in The Luminous Dead are strongly opinionated, twisty, aggressive women with very different approaches to getting things done. They don’t trust each other. They don’t like each other. But these two women, diametrically opposed, are dependent on one another and, most importantly, they aren’t even in the same physical location. Gyre is alone in a massive cave system, and Em is only a voice on her radio.

My favorite bit is how I got to take that complication – that cornerstone plot piece – and play with exactly how they communicate.

Gyre and Em’s relationship begins with a contract, negotiated through an intermediary. It grudgingly moves on to verbal communication, stop and go conversations as they begin to feel each other out. When Em is willing to talk to Gyre becomes almost as important as what she says—  and when she’s able to talk to Gyre becomes terrifyingly relevant as Gyre descends farther and farther away from the surface and any other chance of human contact.

Keeping dialogue fresh when there aren’t any physical cues for one of the participants was a definite challenge, as was keeping the content from feeling repetitive as they go back and forth over many of the same disagreements from different angles. I had to create a distinct voice for Em, as well as find ways to drop subtle cues as to what she might be doing while speaking. Pauses, dead air, are as important as the words spoken. So many of us have had the experience of waiting, anxiously, desperately, for the next text, email, DM. Not knowing when our companion will respond, or if they ever will. Watching the “…” blink for minutes, hours, days as we wonder what their response will be. Where does Em trail off? Where does she keep talking, when somebody else might have let Gyre get a word in edge wise?

Em also has more at her disposal than just her voice. The contract gives her control over the suit that keeps Gyre alive, and granted me another suite of tools— tools that are powerful, but also risky. Em can move Gyre’s body without asking permission, freeze her in place, or even end a conversation with a well-timed dose of narcotics. I couldn’t use those actions often, or they’d lose their efficacy, but I had to balance that against ensuring that when I did use them that their meaning was clear and concise. I couldn’t afford a break in rhythm to explain how an interaction physically functions; it had to feel as natural as breathing, as indisputable as a punch. It had to feel as instantly, naturally devastating as your brand new ex-girlfriend blocking you before you can respond to her break-up message.

All this carefully balanced back and forth, the constant shifts of power and understanding and vulnerability leaves Gyre and Em in very different situations than they began. But to see just where the obsession their limited communication produces takes them, you’ll have to climb down into the cave yourself.

LINKS:

The Luminous Dead Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, comes out from HarperVoyager on April 2, 2019. It tells the story of a caver on a foreign planet who finds herself trapped, with only her wits and the unreliable voice on her radio to help her back to the surface. Caitlin also works in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and is always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia. Find more of her work at www.caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.

My Favorite Bit: Timothy Jay Smith talks about THE FOURTH COURIER

Favorite Bit iconTimothy Jay Smith is joining us today to talk about his novel The Fourth Courier. Here’s the publisher’s description:

It is 1992 in Warsaw, Poland, and the communist era has just ended. A series of grisly murders suddenly becomes an international case when it’s feared that the victims may have been couriers smuggling nuclear material out of the defunct Soviet Union. The FBI sends an agent to help with the investigation. When he learns that a Russian physicist who designed a portable atomic bomb has disappeared, the race is on to find him—and the bomb—before it ends up in the wrong hands.

Smith’s depiction of post-cold war Poland is gloomily atmospheric and murky in a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Suspenseful, thrilling, and smart, The Fourth Courier brings together a straight white FBI agent and gay black CIA officer as they team up to uncover a gruesome plot involving murder, radioactive contraband, narcissistic government leaders, and unconscionable greed.

What’s Tim’s favorite bit?

The Fourth Courier cover image

TIMOTHY JAY SMITH

The minute I learned that my challenge for this blog was to select my favorite bit in my new novel, I knew what it would be. The Emma scene. Chapter Six. Rarely has a scene been so much fun to write—and relive, because it’s based on a journey I took some forty years ago.

Two strangers—Dr. Sergej Ustinov, a genius Russian physicist, and Emma, a plump and lustful Russian-American on her way to visit relatives—by lucky chance have a first-class compartment to themselves in a train crossing Russia. While my real-life journey and scene in the book end differently, most elements are exactly the same: the cans of soup falling out of Emma’s duffel; a greasy bag of dried fish that they share; and finally, complaining about her feet hurting, she drops a foot over Sergej’s thigh urging him to massage it. There’s a lot of humor in the whole scene, and pathos, too. (Lina Wertmuller-ish for those who know her movies.) Here’s a taste of it:

Of course he couldn’t exactly ignore her foot resting on his leg, nor entirely block her squirming toes from view. Her nails were painted cherry red, which he realized did make her feet attractive, certainly more attractive than the coarse yellow nails his wife hadn’t painted since their first anniversary. Oh, why not massage her foot? he decided. It might be fun, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d touched someone’s foot other than his own. Tentatively he wrapped his fingers around her arch and squeezed. “Is that where it hurts?” he asked.

“Oh yes . . . but harder . . .”

He gripped her foot tighter and massaged it with his thumbs. He found he rather enjoyed it; there was an unfamiliar sensuality to it, and as a bonus, from this angle he could peek up her skirt to where her heavy legs disappeared in a dark shadow. Gradually his fingers migrated to her toes, which they worked vigorously, rooting down between them, and bending them to crack them. For the first time he understood why some people sucked toes for sexual pleasure, and if his back had been more limber, he might have dared to bite hers.

Emma sighed. “I can tell you are professional. Yes . . . oh yes . . .”

Suddenly the situation, and certainly his fantasies, seemed ludicrous to Sergej. He released her foot and said rather coldly, “I hope it feels better.”

The sense of scene is crucial to my writing. It’s how I think about a story. Before I start new work, I always have the opening and closing scenes in my head, and then I fill in everything else. I think it comes from growing up in a house where the television was never turned off. We kids were even allowed to watch TV while doing homework if our grades were good. Later in life I’d joke that canned laughter was the soundtrack of my childhood.

I haven’t owned a television for many years, but growing up with it exposed me to scene-driven notions of how to tell a story and be efficient with dialogue. When I completed my first novel, by chance I took a workshop with Sebastian Junger who had just sold the film rights to The Perfect Storm. When he said he would have nothing to do with writing its adaptation, I immediately decided to study screenwriting. I wanted to be knowledgeable enough to have some artistic input into that process, should I ever be fortunate enough to have the chance. That training reinforced my natural inclination to visualize my stories in scenes, which is also why my readers say they can see my stories as they read them.

I worried about selecting Emma’s scene as my favorite bit because of “Chekhov’s Gun”— the notion that every element in a story should contribute to the whole. I knew Emma would only be in one scene. Was that sufficient? Did she deserve so much space on those few pages? Could I make her appear again? Ultimately I decided she didn’t need to. It’s Emma’s scene only because it’s her only scene. It’s even more Sergej’s scene, especially because it’s the first time readers have the chance to begin to understand his psychology.

LINKS:

The Fourth Courier Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-days crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.

These experiences explain the unique breadth and sensibility of Tim’s work, for which he’s won top honors. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel. He won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012. Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His screenplays have won numerous competitions. His first stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.

My Favorite Bit: Arkady Martine talks about A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE

Favorite Bit iconArkady Martine is joining us today to talk about her novel A Memory Called Empire. Here is the publisher’s description:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

A fascinating space opera debut novel, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empireis an interstellar mystery adventure.

What’s Arkady’s favorite bit?

A Memory Called Empire cover image

ARKADY MARTINE

Building a world large enough to be the host for a space opera universe, a world full of multiple interplanetary systems, an empire, several religions, a couple of sorts of aliens, and a few radically different cultural choices – and then conveying that enormity, that lushness and detail, to the reader in a way that neither bores nor confuses them – well, that was the hardest part of doing revisions on A Memory Called Empire. But, when I finally came up with a way to do it, it also ended up being my favorite bit of the finished book.

Here’s the amusing and/or horrifying secret about my writing process that I genuinely didn’t know about until I wrote a novel: I underwrite by about 30%. The book my agent and I sold to Devi Pillai at Tor was maybe 95,000 words long, if you squinted and gave it the benefit of the doubt. My edit letter – the first one – consisted of around five bullet points and the instruction go write the other 40k of the book, Arkady. This was both exactly the edit letter I needed, and utterly terrifying. Because, well – how do you put in all the worldbuilding and richness and complexity of a giant space opera universe, while still keeping the pacing and tension of your political thriller spy novel?

What I came up with, eventually, was epigrams. Chapter epigrams, which were quotes from in-universe texts I’d created for just this purpose. A customs form, a tourist guide, a pilot’s manual, portions of contradictory histories written about the same event from different cultures’ points of view, a transcript of a news program, a propaganda poster (and what it was defaced with), a request for supply requisition, a bunch of different poems, an instruction sheet on how to apply for a particular job training scheme, a flyer for an intramural handball game … anything and everything, the ephemera of a real world that produces real texts. And half of the texts were from Teixcalaan – my space empire – and half of them were from Lsel Station, my protagonist’s home, which is in constant danger of being absorbed into said space empire.

I’m pretty sure I stole this trick from Dune. Thanks, Princess Irulan. You fixed my worldbuilding, and made my editor like me.

But my favorite bit – my favorite set of epigrams to write – was the set which ended up being a pair of contrasting scripts. The Teixcalaanli one is basically a shooting script for a soap opera; the Lsel one is a script for a graphic novel. I loved these specifically because popular culture tells you so much about what a society values, and I got to write some really popular popular-culture bits … and because it was an opportunity to briefly write in formats I don’t usually write in. Here they  – they open Chapter 14, which is a chapter about loyalty and making dangerous choices, like whether you’re going to risk back-alley neurosurgery.

28. EXT. DAY: chaos and smoke of the BATTLEFIELD of GIENAH-9. Track in past TANGLED BODIES marked with carbon scoring, churned mud, to find THIRTEEN QUARTZ lying half-conscious in the shelter of an overturned groundcar. HOLD on THIRTEEN QUARTZ before cutting to

29. EXT. DAY: same as before only POV of NINETY ALLOY. Pull back past NINETY ALLOY’s shoulder to watch as they FALL TO THEIR KNEES beside THIRTEEN QUARTZ — who OPENS THEIR EYES and SMILES FAINTLY.

THIRTEEN QUARTZ (weak)

You came back for me. I always…knew you would. Even now.

(Track around to see NINETY ALLOY’s face.)

NINETY ALLOY

Of course I came back. I need you. Where else am I going to find a second-in-command who can win half a war on their own before breakfast? (sobers) And I need you. You’ve always been my luck. Stand down, now. I’ve got you. We’re going home.

— shooting script for Ninety Alloy season 15 finale

 

Panel Three: long shot of Captain Cameron on the bridge of his shuttle. All eyes are on him; the rest of the crew look terrified, eager, impatient. Cameron’s consulting his imago, so have the colorist emphasize the white glow around his hands and his head. He is looking at the enemy ship, floating in black space, super ominous and spiky – the ship’s the focus of the panel.

CAMERON: I learned to talk to Ebrekti, back when I was Chadra Mav. This isn’t even going to be hard.

— graphic-story script for THE PERILOUS FRONTIER! vol. 3, distributed from local small printer ADVENTURE/BLEAK on Tier Nine, Lsel Station

… there’s also a small easter egg in the latter one of these, which is one of my favorite tiny things I put in just for me: Captain Cameron, the hero of the Lsel Station graphic novel series The Perilous Frontier!, shares a name with CJ Cherryh’s protagonist of the Foreigner series, Bren Cameron, for extremely deliberate reasons.

Those reasons being that a lot of A Memory Called Empire is a love-letter to Foreigner and that whole universe, anyway. So getting to put in a tiny tribute was definitely one of the reasons this epigram-set is one of my favorite bits.

LINKS:

A Memory Called Empire Universal Book Link

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BIO:

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, comes out in March 2019 from Tor Books, and is available here. Find Arkady online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

 

My Favorite Bit: Marshall Ryan Maresca talks about A PARLIAMENT OF BODIES

Favorite Bit iconMarshall Ryan Maresca is joining us today to talk about his novel A Parliament of Bodies. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Mixing high fantasy and mystery, the third book in the Maradaine Constabulary series follows Inspectors Satrine Rainey and Minox Welling as they track down a dangerous murderer.

The city of Maradaine is vexed by the Gearbox Murders: a series of gruesome deaths orchestrated by a twisted mechanical genius. With no motive and no pattern, Inspectors Satrine Rainey and Minox Welling–the retired spy and untrained mage–are at a loss to find a meaningful lead in the case. At least, until the killer makes his most audacious exhibit yet: over a dozen victims in a clockwork deathtrap on the floor of the Druth Parliament.

The crime scene is a madhouse, and political forces conspire to grind their investigation to a halt. The King’s Marshals claim jurisdiction of the case, corruption in the Constabulary thwarts their efforts, and a special Inquest threatens to end Minox’s career completely. Their only ally is Dayne Heldrin, a provisional member of the Tarian Order, elite warriors trained in the art of protection. But Dayne’s connection to the Gearbox Murders casts suspicion on his motives, as he might be obsessed with a phantom figure he believes is responsible.

While Satrine and Minox struggle to stop the Gearbox from claiming even more victims, the grinding gears of injustice might keep them from ever solving these murders, and threaten to dismantle their partnership forever.

What’s Marshall’s favorite bit?

Parliament of Bodies cover image

MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA

Let’s not mince words: The Maradaine Saga is epic. The latest book, A Parliament of Bodies, is the third book of the Maradaine Constabulary series, but it’s also the ninth book set in the city of Maradaine, and the Maradaine Constabulary is one of four series telling the wider, grander story of that fantastical city. This means I have four sets of protagonists and the secondary characters in their respective orbits, which translates to hundreds of characters that populate the city.

You can’t do that without some favorites emerging.

It’s funny, because two of my favorites were not originally part of my plan, when I wrote the outlines and rough drafts of the first books of their respective series. For example, in the rough draft of A Murder of Mages, Inspector Minox Welling was a loner in all regards, living in a boarding house and largely keeping to himself in all matters outside of his vocation. But I had also implied that he had come from a family with long, deep roots in the Constabulary. In my editing process, I asked myself, “Where is that family?”, and made Minox’s home life radically different, where he now lived in a large house with three generations of extended family.

From that came Corrie Welling, Minox’s devoted, salty-mouthed sister, who served in the constabulary horsepatrol on the night shift. She would be there to ground him when he was pushing too hard, and give him perspective of how he’s seen by the rest of the constabulary, all while still loving him as only a sister can.

Writing her was so much fun that she became an integral part of the cast, and her role expanded in An Import of Intrigue and A Parliament of Bodies.

Similarly, in the first draft of The Way of the Shield, the first book in the Maradaine Elite series, the focus was almost entirely on Dayne, and it wasn’t working. I knew I needed another voice, one with less experience than Dayne who could also serve as a foil, and that’s where Jerinne Fendall, Initiate in the Tarian Order came from. She brought a new energy to that story, and she quickly became another favorite for me to write.

And since A Parliament of Bodies is not only a Maradaine Constabulary novel, but also crosses over with the Maradaine Elite, that meant I got to write scenes where Jerinne and Corrie are working together.

Corrie drew out her crossbow, looking up to those top floor windows. Arrows were raining down on her, but she might still get one shot off before they took her down.

Sorry, Mama.

Then a shadow passed over her, and those arrows became a series of metallic drumbeats.

Nothing had hit her.

Instead she was pulled to her feet. That Tarian girl was in front her, shield high. “Can you run?”

Corrie didn’t even realize what had happened. “Blazes, yes,” she said.

“Then stay with me.” Jerinne drew out her sword and tore forward to the tenement, keeping her shield overhead. The storm of arrows didn’t touch her, didn’t slow her down as they pummeled her shield. Corrie stayed right with her—under that shield was the only safe spot on the street. They got to the front of the tenement, and Corrie and Jerinne pressed flat against the brick wall.

“At least nine shooters, third and fourth floors,” Jerinne said.

“And Tricky’s on her own in there.”

“Probably on the fourth floor. The lieutenant and his folks aren’t going to make it in until we stop that barrage of arrows,” Jerinne said. She noted Jace and Saitle, behind their cart fifty feet away. “They might make a dash if I cover them.”

“That’s still only four of us,” Corrie said.

“They won’t stand a chance,” Jerinne sent back with a wink.

That, dear reader, was an absolute delight to write.

Of course, I have so many other characters who are also “my favorite”—each in their own unique way. Part of the fun of this epic story, deconstructed into easily consumable pieces, is how I can combine discrete elements of the different series into new permutations. The Corrie/Jerinne team up is just one of them, and each new one I get to do as the saga progresses is another expression of joy.

LINKS:

A Parliament of Bodies Universal Book Link

Website

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BIO:

Marshall Ryan Maresca’s work has appeared in Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction and Rick Klaw’s anthology Rayguns Over Texas. His novels The Thorn of DentonhillA Murder of MagesThe Holver Alley Crew, and The Way of the Shield each begin their own fantasy series, all set in the port city of Maradaine.

My Favorite Bit: K. A. Doore talks about THE PERFECT ASSASSIN

Favorite Bit iconK. A. Doore is joining us today to talk about her novel The Perfect Assassin. Here’s the publisher’s description:

A novice assassin is on the hunt for someone killing their own in K. A. Doore’s The Perfect Assassin, a breakout high fantasy beginning the Chronicles of Ghadid series.

Divine justice is written in blood.

Or so Amastan has been taught. As a new assassin in the Basbowen family, he’s already having second thoughts about taking a life. A scarcity of contracts ends up being just what he needs.

Until, unexpectedly, Amastan finds the body of a very important drum chief. Until, impossibly, Basbowen’s finest start showing up dead, with their murderous jaan running wild in the dusty streets of Ghadid. Until, inevitably, Amastan is ordered to solve these murders, before the family gets blamed.

Every life has its price, but when the tables are turned, Amastan must find this perfect assassin or be their next target.

What’s K. A. Doore’s favorite bit?

The Perfect Assassin cover image

K. A. DOORE

Between all the intrigue, mystery, rooftop fights, quiet contemplation among stacks of scrolls, my favorite bit in writing the Perfect Assassin is:

The weather.

Okay before you run for the doors, please at least take a sip of water and hear me out. I lived in Tucson, Arizona for six years and it was the quintessential enemies to lovers relationship. We arrived in August, at the height of monsoon season, and it was muggy and awful and hot. August in Tucson is all the sticky, exhausting heat of Florida without a single spot of shade.

Needless to say, I was not impressed.

My second August in Tucson, however, was much improved. And by the August we moved again, I had a newfound appreciation for the dreariest of summer months that I’d never had in all my growing-up years in Florida.

You see, in Arizona there’s this saying: it’s a dry heat. The saying’s been ridiculed and parodied to all out because anything above 90 without a/c is gonna suck, that’s just the truth of it, but there’s a warning embedded in the saying. As if the heat being dry is supposed to make it any easier to bear. As if you should be thankful for that heat. As if it could, in fact, be worse.

Yeah I don’t think anything can really make 120 degrees bearable.

Anything… except knowing it’s gonna break. Anything, except seeing those storm clouds building on the horizon. Anything, except those gorgeous clear and wide skies, stars shimmering like mirages. Anything, except the smell of rain-touched dust on the wind.

May and June are a long, indrawn breath before the exhalation that is July and monsoon season. But you can’t have one without the other. So I learned to appreciate June’s impressive heat – and I also learned not to go outside after 6am. But that didn’t mean June was dead; far from it. You just had to look for life at night. Then you’d see the bats bursting from beneath the bridges, the coyotes stalking the wash, the javelina nosing their territories, the tarantulas claiming their rocks.

I knew from the very beginning that The Perfect Assassin would be set in a place just as hot and just as dry and just as full of life. I knew I wanted to explore the implications of that heat, the way it’d shift daily life indoors and at night. The way a whole year might be structured around those few weeks when it finally – finally ­– rained. The way a people might distrust, even fear, the water that came from the sky and rely instead on their wells.

I wanted to wrap up everything I’d learned to love about those endlessly dry and hopelessly hot months before monsoon and shove it into a story. And when you’ve got a murderer to apprehend, what better deadline than the very physical and incontrovertible arrival of the storms?

After all, the storms always come.

Throughout the story, the heat has been building along with the tension until finally, both break, leading to one of my favorite bits – both in the story, and in the desert:

The downpour had thinned to a drizzle. Amastan walked slick streets, his wrap growing sodden and heavy once more. Torches glowed like lonely outposts in the gloom, their light dimmed by haze, their glass smeared with condensation. The streets were empty, save for bits of roof and broken glass, but he could hear laughter and loud conversations bursting from homes as he walked by. Occasionally, a child darted out from a door, screaming in delight at the illicit sensation of wet skin, hair, clothes.

But it wasn’t safe to be out in a storm, even its tail end, and so inevitably an adult would run after the child and drag them back inside. Lightning could still strike. A gust of wind could finish the job of tearing a roof apart that the storm had started.

So Amastan walked alone.

The rain stopped all at once, there one moment, gone the next. The stars blinked through a gap in the thick blanket of clouds. A gentle breeze cooled his skin and closed the opening. For the first time in months, the city didn’t smell like dust. Instead, it smelled alive.

LINKS:

The Perfect Assassin Universal Book Link

The Perfect Assassin Excerpt

Website

Twitter

BIO:

K.A. Doore grew up in Florida, but has since lived in lush Washington, arid Arizona, and cherry-infused Michigan. While recovering from climate whiplash, she’s raised chickens, learned entirely too much about property assessment, photographed cacti, and now develops online trainings. The Perfect Assassin is her debut novel.

My Favorite Bit: Kameron Hurley talks about THE LIGHT BRIGADE

Favorite Bit iconKameron Hurley is joining us today to talk about her novel The Light Brigade. Here’s the publisher’s description:

They said the war would turn us into light… 

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief–no matter what actually happens during combat.

Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think it is.

Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero–or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.

A worthy successor to classic stories like Downbelow StationStarship Troopers, and The Forever War, The Light Brigade is award-winning author Kameron Hurley’s gritty time-bending take on the future of war.

What’s Kameron’s favorite bit?

The Light Brigade cover image

KAMERON HURLEY

When I was very young, my grandmother admonished me for complaining about how long it was taking to make lunch. “You’re very lucky, you know,” she said. “Your grandfather grew up during the Depression. And me, I was in France during the war! There was never enough to eat. When your grandfather found an injured seagull at the beach, they took it home and ate it for dinner.”

I would remember this story again when I rescued a bird from my grandmother’s cat not long after. Were we going to eat it? What would happen to it? I hid it in a shoebox for a while, until my cousin discovered it, and then we showed it to my grandmother. She made us keep it outside. It didn’t recover. But at least we didn’t eat it.

It’s interesting to me what types of stories stick with us from our childhood, which impressions. My novel The Light Brigade has a lot of big ideas: time travel, interplanetary war, dangerous tech, propaganda and psychological manipulation and a lot more. But while those big ideas may draw one to dive into a story, the beating heart of many books isn’t the big idea, but the smaller, emotional ones. The ordinary people caught up in something extraordinary.

My memory, and the emotions attached to it, became my protagonist Dietz’s memory. It’s the memory that haunts Dietz all through military training, hungry, exhausted, and missing a family taken too soon by war. It became this:

I remember scavenging on the beach of a sludgy river called the Tajo Luz, me and my cousins. My brother was too young, still slung across my mother’s back. She walked ahead of us, scraping at the beach with a homemade rake, uncovering bits of discarded junk.

Farther up the beach, where the sand turned to scrub, a flash of movement caught my eye. I climbed the shallow dunes. Nestled at the top was a twisted mat of plastic ties, broken twigs, aluminum shavings, and synthetic fibers. A baby pigeon rested there, half in and half out of the nest. One wing lay outstretched, flapping uselessly. I took the poor little creature into my hands.

“It’s all right,” I murmured. I ran my finger over its quivering head. Its heart fluttered against my palm.

I slid down the dune and ran to catch up with my mother. I was barefoot, but the rough ruins of the beach hardly bothered me anymore. My feet were dirty, calloused things, hunks of sturdy meat.

“Mama!” I called. She turned, her dark hair blowing back over her shoulder. The sun rose behind her, thick and runny as fresh egg yolk.

“Mama,” I said, holding up the injured bird. “It’s hurt. Can we help it?”

“Let’s get that home,” she said, and she smoothed the hair from my face. It reminded me of how I had stroked the bird’s tiny head.

I beamed at her.

We took the baby bird home along with six mollusks, some copper wire, and a meter-long metal hunk that bore the faded gray circles of the NorRus logo.

I slept that night next to the baby bird. In the morning, my mother boiled off the bird’s feathers and cooked it whole. I’d like to tell you I had no stomach for it. But if you think for a minute I didn’t want to shove that weary bird down my gullet despite having sung it to sleep the night before, then you have never been hungry.

My mother ate the bird herself, to ensure she made enough milk for my brother. I sat across from her on the floor and watched her consume the entire fledgling in three crunchy bites.

I didn’t cry until she left to greet my father, just home from an expedition to the dumps of medical waste outside the nearby military training academy. Until Teni needed more pilots for the war with Mars, years later, we were nobodies. Ghouls. Just like everyone else there.

I clutched my knees to my chest and cried because I was so hungry. I cried because I wanted the pain to end.

I had a realization about my mom and how she relates events to us. She often tells exaggerated, inaccurate tales of encounters and experiences. I wouldn’t say she is intentionally lying. As my father put it: she is conveying the emotion of the experience as it feels to her, not the blow-by-blow of the events. The “logical” truth of a thing is not her emotional truth.

This is what many writers do. We take moments from our lives and the lives of others, and we ferret out the core emotion of those moments, those stories. Then we retell them, we fictionalize them, but because the emotion itself is true, the story feels real as well. It’s a bit of a magic trick.

The Light Brigade is the best book I’ve written to date, and I can’t wait for others to dive into this world: big ideas, small ideas, messy emotions, real truths, and all.

LINKS:

The Light Brigade Universal Book Link

Website

Twitter

BIO:

Kameron Hurley is the author of The Light Brigade (March 2019), The Stars are Legion and the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Locus Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science MagazineLightspeed and numerous anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Writers Digest, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, Bitch Magazine,and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at KameronHurley.com

 

My Favorite Bit: Jack Skillingstead talks about THE CHAOS FUNCTION

My Favorite BitJack Skillingstead is joining us today with his novel The Chaos Function. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Olivia Nikitas, a hardened journalist whose specialty is war zones, has been reporting from the front lines of the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. When Brian, an aid worker she reluctantly fell in love with, dies while following her into danger, she’ll do anything to bring him back. In a makeshift death chamber beneath an ancient, sacred site, a strange technology is revealed to Olivia: the power to remake the future by changing the past.

Following her heart and not her head, Olivia brings Brian back, accidentally shifting the world to the brink of nuclear and biological disaster. Now she must stay steps ahead of the guardians of this technology, who will kill her to reclaim it, in order to save not just herself and her love, but the whole world.

What’s Jack’s favorite bit?

The Chaos Function cover image

JACK SKILLINGSTEAD

I’m not a fan of intentional literary symbolism, but if I stumble over some juicy examples in my own work I might (or might not) play with them. Usually I don’t. These kinds of games are fun for writers, but readers tend to ignore them. That’s cool. Anything that distracts from Story counts as a misstep in the design. So, for me, the rules for symbols are that they should be unobtrusive and accidental. Once the accident happens, it’s okay to tweak it, if the desire moves you.

Save the cat.

Everybody’s heard of this, right? It’s a Hollywood thing. Your character is rough around the edges, so you show her being nice to an innocent creature in trouble. Voila! Your character has a soft heart, even if she keeps it hidden behind a granite exterior. My protagonist in The Chaos Function, war reporter Olivia Nikitas, saves a cat in the first scene. However, it’s not really a Hollywood style save-the-cat moment, because we’ve just been introduced to Olivia, and there’s nothing about her yet that needs softening or redeeming. Also, Olivia is only saving the cat because she is trying to save a little girl who has put herself in a dangerous position as a consequence of her efforts to save the cat. If anything, Olivia is cranky about the cat. I like the scene because it riffs on save-the-cat without really being save-the-cat.

Anyway, that’s Cat Number One.

Cat Number Two turns up at almost exactly the midway point of the novel. Actually it’s the same cat, only slipped into a dream of blood and chaos. In this novel, sometimes, dreams are more significant than simple mind movies. When I wrote this brief dream sequence, all I wanted to do was call back to a few images from earlier in the book and place those images in a different context. I didn’t give it a lot of extra thought. Intuitively it seemed right, so I went with it.

Cat Number Three makes her appearance at the very end of The Chaos Function. This time the little beastie is lounging on the back of a sofa in the window of a house in Jaipur. You could say the house represents Home with a capital H, which is what Olivia has spent much of her life both avoiding and longing for. I won’t tell you whether Olivia is actually in the scene—that would spoil the journey.

So…

Cat Number One explores the wreckage of a world barely entering reconstruction after years of war. The same can be said of Olivia.

Cat Number Two slops around in a dream chamber of blood and chaos, which is what the world has become as a result of Olivia’s trying to restore the timeline she has unintentionally warped.

Cat Number Three, finally, appears when the world, to the extent that it can be, is restored.

I didn’t plan this sequence of feline appearances representing the state of Olivia’s interior world—at least, I didn’t plan them consciously. But in the rewrite I noticed them, and they delighted me. If you write enough fiction you develop an instinct for recognizing lucky coincidences. What you do with those coincidences is up to you.

By the way, why cats? I’ll tell you. There is a significant cat I haven’t yet mentioned: Schrodinger’s Cat. This is a novel of about the power to choose different superpositional end points. My theory is that the unconscious does a significant amount of writing. While I’ve spent weeks, months, or years thinking about and then typing a novel, I’ve also been feeding my unconscious collaborator, and it’s the collaborator who comes up with some of the best stuff. Images, character detail, it’s even pretty good at untying plot knots. And sometimes it gets cute and provides a few cats to act as narrative and thematic sign posts. So my Three Cats of the Apocalypse(s) are my favorite bit. Today, anyway.

LINKS:

The Chaos Function Universal Book Link

Website

Facebook

Twitter

BIO:

Jack Skillingstead’s Harbinger was nominated for a Locus Award for best first novel. His second, Life on the Preservation, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. He has published more than forty short stories to critical acclaim and was short‑listed for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His writing has been translated internationally. He lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress.

 

My Favorite Bit: Michael R. Johnston talks about THE WIDENING GYRE

My Favorite BitMichael R. Johnston is joining us today to talk about his novel The Widening Gyre. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Eight hundred years ago, the Zhen Empire discovered a broken human colony ship drifting in the fringes of their space. The Zhen gave the humans a place to live and folded them into their Empire as a client state. But it hasn’t been easy. Not all Zhen were eager to welcome another species into their Empire, and humans have faced persecution. For hundreds of years, human languages and history were outlawed subjects, as the Zhen tried to mold humans into their image. Earth and the cultures it nourished for millennia are forgotten, little more than legends.

One of the first humans to be allowed to serve in the Zhen military, Tajen Hunt became a war hero at the Battle of Elkari, the only human to be named an official Hero of the Empire. He was given command of a task force, and sent to do the Empire’s bidding in their war with the enigmatic Tabrans. But when he failed in a crucial mission, causing the deaths of millions of people, he resigned in disgrace and faded into life on the fringes as a lone independent pilot.

When Tajen discovers his brother, Daav, has been killed by agents of the Empire, he, his niece, and their newly-hired crew set out to finish his brother’s quest: to find Earth, the legendary homeworld of humanity. What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.

What’s Michael’s favorite bit?

The Widening Gyre cover image

MICHAEL R. JOHNSTON

Writing is hard.  Some days, it’s only as bad as pulling twice your weight across the room.  Other days, it’s like trying to juggle fifteen balls while singing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. But sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the fates smile on you, the heavens open up, Calliope wipes her soothing hands across your brow, and the words flow like perfectly clear and cold water, and for a little while, you feel like this writing thing is easy.

When I was writing The Widening Gyre, one scene flowed that perfectly.  It is, in the current draft, almost exactly as I wrote it the first time. One of my beta readers called the scene “beat perfect.” My editor had little to say about it beyond some of my weird writer tics that had to be squashed flat.

It’s a heist, and while it goes very quickly, that was intentional.  I didn’t want to bog the characters down in a long subquest; I wanted them to get in, get screwed, find out they were screwed, and then calmly shoot their way out in style while cracking wise at each other and, for a brief moment, having fun.

The secret about Tajen and Liam is that they love their lives. They’d never admit it, but being deep in the shit, outgunned and outflanked, is when they feel most alive.  When things go south, they’re in their element, a smoothly operating team of grade-A smartasses. Meeting each other has only made them embrace that part of themselves. So, when they get captured and subjected to their captor’s ranting, neither of them can take it entirely seriously, even though they’re well aware of the danger:

Liam glanced sidelong at me and sighed. “You know, I’d pay good money for you to shut him up.”

“Why me?” I asked.  “You’re the infantryman. I’m just a pilot.” I shrugged.  “You do it.”

“Excuse me,” Simms said. “I’m standing right here, asshole.”

“He is,” I said.

“True,” Liam said. “I can fix that, though.”

Simms pulled a blaster pistol from his jacket and shoved it into Liam’s face, the muzzle pressing into his cheek. “Do you want to know why you’re not dead yet?”

Liam tsked. “Because the safety’s on?” he asked.

The one complaint I got about this chapter from every reader was that a character introduced in the chapter is never seen again; she remains behind when the characters leave. So here’s a secret, something only my editor knows so far—Seeker will be back in book 2, and she’ll be far, far more important than you’d think.  I’m not done with her yet.   But in the meantime, Tajen and Liam will be snarking their way into and out of danger, one quip—and a well-aimed blaster—away from destruction all the way.

LINKS:

The Widening Gyre Universal Book Link

Website

Twitter

Instagram

BIO:

Michael R. Johnston is a high school English teacher and writer living in Sacramento, California with his wife, daughter, and more cats than strictly necessary. He is a member of the 2017 Viable Paradise class.  The Widening Gyre is his debut novel.

My Favorite Bit: Dan Stout talks about TITANSHADE

My Favorite BitDan Stout is joining us today to talk about his novel Titanshade. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Carter’s a homicide cop in Titanshade, an oil boomtown where 8-tracks are state of the art, disco rules the radio, and all the best sorcerers wear designer labels. It’s also a metropolis teetering on the edge of disaster. As its oil reserves run dry, the city’s future hangs on a possible investment from the reclusive amphibians known as Squibs.

But now negotiations have been derailed by the horrific murder of a Squib diplomat. The pressure’s never been higher to make a quick arrest, even as Carter’s investigation leads him into conflict with the city’s elite. Undermined by corrupt coworkers and falsified evidence, and with a suspect list that includes power-hungry politicians, oil magnates, and mad scientists, Carter must find the killer before the investigation turns into a witch-hunt and those closest to him pay the ultimate price on the filthy streets of Titanshade.

What’s Dan’s favorite bit?

Titanshade cover image

DAN STOUT

My debut novel TITANSHADE is a noir fantasy thriller set in an oil boomtown where magic is real, disco tops the charts, and good cops are hard to find. This combination of secondary-world fantasy with 1970s police procedural results in over 400 pages of fights, explosions, false accusations, and murders. It’s massively fun and massively over the top. But in all that chaos, my favorite bit is a single paragraph where one of the characters decides not to change the radio station.

This simple act occurs near the end of the book, and is the payoff of countless early arguments between a pair of detectives over what music gets played in their car. These conflicts may have been about a radio, but they’re also about two different people with two very different ways of viewing the world. As these partners ride into a life-or-death final showdown, seeing one defer to the other’s taste in music shows how close they’ve grown in a way that pages of exposition could never have captured.

As a writer, it can be tempting to confuse “upping the stakes” with making things flashy and explosive. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good explosion! But sometimes it’s small details and quiet moments that have the most power. In this case, a simple gesture provides closure to a long-running argument while also giving a glimpse of emotional vulnerability between two fairly hard-nosed characters. And that makes the danger they’re headed toward even more meaningful.

It was an extremely satisfying section to write and — I hope! — just as satisfying to read. If I did my job, the book is a series of ‘loops’ such as this, each of them opening and pulling in the reader before closing in a satisfying fashion.

Sometimes closing these loops involves big dramas, like explosive fight scenes, or explosive love scenes, or explosive… explosions.

But not all loops are best resolved with big set pieces. Some are quiet acts, almost tiny. Like letting the radio dial sit where it is, even if you hate the music.

If I did my job right, the climax at the end of TITANSHADE is the closing of many loops of different size and intensity, the prose version of the grand finale at a fireworks display. It’s a climatic round of violent beauty that leaves the reader stunned and satisfied, with an ache in their chest and a smile that won’t go away. But it all starts with a moment of calm, and a radio that isn’t touched.

And hey…  if that doesn’t work, I can always add in another explosion.

LINKS:

Titanshade Universal Book Link

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Goodreads

BIO:

Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His prize-winning fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.

My Favorite Bit: Amber Royer talks about PURE CHOCOLATE

My Favorite BitAmber Royer is joining us today with her novel Pure Chocolate. Here is the publisher’s description:

In a galaxy where chocolate is literally addictive, one celebrity chef is fighting back, in the delicious sequel to Free Chocolate

To save everyone she loves, Bo Bonitez is touring Zant, home of the murderous, shark-toothed aliens who so recently tried to eat her. In the midst of her stint as Galactic paparazzi princess, she discovers that Earth has been exporting tainted chocolate to the galaxy, and getting aliens hooked on cocoa. Bo must choose whether to go public, or just smile for the cameras and make it home alive. She’s already struggling with her withdrawal from the Invincible Heart, and her love life has a life of its own, but when insidious mind worms intervene, things start to get complicated!

What’s Amber’s favorite bit?

Pure Chocolate cover image

AMBER ROYER

Pure Chocolate is, in many ways, a telenovela laid out on the page.  I write comedy, so I’m playing with the genre’s overdone tropes.  You need someone who’s presumed dead but really isn’t?  Check.  You need an evil twin?  Check . . . sort of.  A character who doesn’t know her own true identity?  An over the top conversation that gets taken entirely out of context?  A tense courtroom drama?  A touch and go operation?  Check, check, check and check.

But at the same time, the Chocoverse is solidly space opera.  Structurally and thematically, telenovelas are a whole different world, sometimes in ways that are going to surprise a reader of more traditional space opera.  Bad guys don’t get destroyed.  Mostly, they get redeemed.  In fact, telenovela heroes sometimes look like space opera villains.

Many novelas run on two very specific character arcs.  You have a strong heroine who is marked in some way – poverty, personal shame, disfigurement – and thus endures many trials, learns from them to turn that drawback into a strength and is then rewarded with both plot triumph and true love.  And the hero is often a rich businessman, ruthless and cold, who learns from the heroine that people are more important than things and arcs hard to become worthy of her.

In the first book, I subverted that expectation.  Brill’s character type in a novela usually provides contrast to the actual hero, and conflict as a romantic rival, before (sometimes) dying nobly so the happy couple can be together guilt free.  Obviously, since Brill’s alive and well and standing with Bo on the cover of Book 2, we’re off script.  Only . . . are we?

Look at Bo’s relationship to her home world, that out-of-balance Earth determined to hold onto an economic place in the galaxy no matter who gets hurt.  Do you start to see a familiar character?  This series is in first person because Bo’s the only one with enough unselfish love and inner strength to potentially change the heart of an entire planet.  If she can only manage not to die in a very space-opera-ish way first.  And if said planet isn’t destroyed by a Zantite invasion fleet.  And if she can learn a number of specific lessons about the nature of love along the way.

One of my favorite bits in Pure Chocolate is near the beginning.  Bo was taken off the beach as a prank on/dig at one of the other characters.  Now, being confronted by the cops, she faces a dilemma: should she tell the truth, even though the context of the situation will be ignored?  Or should she lie and show mercy?  Keep in mind while reading it that the Zantites are giant, somewhat shark-like aliens.

I lean in towards Murry and ask, “What’s the penalty for kidnapping here?”

“If the victim was put in physical danger – as Tawny is insisting happened — it could be death.  Or maybe just assignment to a warship.”  Which is a life sentence. . .

I’ve said so much to Tawny about how horrible it is to lie.  Pero, this time, if I tell the truth, my abductor might not leave this room.  Who’d have to kill him?  On the warship, that honor had gone to the highest-ranking officer.  Dghax seems to be in charge here, so it’s probably him.

Dent Head swallows visibly and goes a bit greener.  His hands ball into fists at his sides.  And yet, he’s not trying to escape this.  There’s a hint of hero to him after all.

Dghax holds out a voice recorder.  “Did you see the face of or speak with your abductor?”

. . . He takes a step forward, about to confess.  My heart lurches, as I picture his neck meeting Dghax’s teeth.  I don’t want to see Dent Head die for one drunken mistake.

“No!” I say, mostly to him.  Pero I smile at Dghax and repeat more calmly.  “No y no.  I remember being on the path, then I remember being in the tree.”

LINKS:

Pure Chocolate Universal Book Link

Pure Chocolate Excerpt

Pure Chocolate Book Trailer

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Twitter

BIO:

Amber Royer writes fun science fiction involving chocolate, aliens, lovesick AIs, time travel, VR, and more. She’s the author of the CHOCOVERSE comic space opera series (FREE CHOCOLATE available now, Book 2, PURE CHOCOLATE, coming March 5, 2019 from Angry Robot Books). She and her husband have also co-authored two cookbooks, one of which is all about chocolate). She teaches creative writing in North Texas for both UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas. If you are very nice to her, she might make you cupcakes.

 

My Favorite Bit: Dan Moren talks about THE BAYERN AGENDA

My Favorite BitDan Moren is joining us today to talk about his upcoming novel The Bayern Agenda. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Simon Kovalic, top intelligence operative for the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, is on the frontline of the burgeoning Cold War with the aggressive Illyrican Empire. He barely escapes his latest mission with a broken arm, and vital intel which points to the Empire cozying up to the Bayern Corporation: a planet-sized bank. There’s no time to waste, but with Kovalic out of action, his undercover team is handed over to his ex-wife, Lt Commander Natalie Taylor. When Kovalic’s boss is tipped off that the Imperium are ready and waiting, it’s up to the wounded spy to rescue his team and complete the mission before they’re all caught and executed.

What’s Dan’s favorite bit?

The Bayern Agenda cover image

DAN MOREN

Ask any writer: beginnings and endings are easy. At the beginning of a story, everything’s fresh and new, brimming with potential and passion. Likewise, the end is often a roller coaster plunge as you tie together all the threads you’ve been laying for the story, wrapping it up in a hopefully satisfying conclusion.

Middles, though…middles are tough. That’s where the hard work happens, the careful intertwining of those threads you laid out in the beginning as they progress towards that inevitable end. (If you’ve ever watched The Great British Bake-Off and seen somebody mess up braiding a loaf of bread, you’ll appreciate the challenge of weaving all your plot points and character arcs into an attractive whole.)

So it’s as much a surprise to me as to anyone that my favorite bit of my latest novel, the sci-fi spy adventure The Bayern Agenda, is right smack in the middle of the book.

While on a mission on the planet Bayern, accidental Commonwealth agent Eli Brody has found himself roped into attending a black-tie soirée at the embassy of the Illyrican Empire, the Commonwealth’s rival superpower—and, as it happens, the very government that he himself deserted some six months prior.

My love for this whole sequence runs deep. Embassies are, of course, a staple of espionage stories, because they provide a space that is tantalizingly liminal in a number of ways. First, physically: you’re in the domain of the enemy, even though that domain is itself on foreign ground. Then, emotionally: this kind of professional environment requires a veneer of civility between rivals, of conflict blurred into fake camaraderie. Or is it real camaraderie? After all, the foot soldiers of a galactic conflict may have more in common with one another than with those calling the shots. Finally, politically. There’s a dichotomy of the overt and the covert at play here: an embassy is ostensibly all about diplomacy and good relations, even as hidden agendas lurk beneath. In short, it’s a setting ripe for subtext and tension.

Plus, of course, it’s dangerous.

Especially for Eli, a novice spy who’s been forced to learn the dos-and-don’ts of espionage in a hurry. Who can he trust? Is that pleasant civil servant he meets really all that he seems? What happens when the mission he’s been sent on takes a sudden and dire left turn? Throw in Eli’s fraught relationship with the Illyricans—who will not hesitate to arrest and perhaps even execute him if they discover who he really is—and it makes for (I hope) a tense scene that gets readers’ blood pumping.

As a writer, I have fond memories of putting this scene together, because I found myself rejoicing in the time-honored tradition of dunking your character deeper and deeper into hot water. Needless to say, Eli Brody’s situation gets only more dire as the lavish party progresses. Then, just when you think he’s in as deep as he can get, he makes a truly inspired—and truly ridiculous—choice: the kind of move that only an amateur spy would think is a good idea, since it leaves him with that hot water firmly over his head. And, as a bonus, it’s the kind of thing that makes even a reserved writer cackle in glee as everything clicks into place.

All in all, it makes for the kind of high-stakes cocktail party that you won’t soon forget.

LINKS:

The Bayern Agenda Universal Book Link

Website

Twitter

BIO:

Dan Moren is the author of the sci-fi espionage thrillers The Bayern Agenda and The Caledonian Gambit. By day, he works as a freelance writer, hosts technology podcasts Clockwise and The Rebound, and talks pop culture on The Incomparable podcast network. By night, he fights crime while dressed as a bat. He could use some sleep.

My Favorite Bit: Keith R.A. DeCandido talks about A FURNACE SEALED

My Favorite BitKeith R.A. DeCandido is joining us today with his novel A Furnace Sealed. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Bram Gold is a Courser, a hunter-for-hire who deals with supernatural creatures, mystical happenings, and things that go booga-booga in the night. Under the supervision of the Wardein—his childhood friend Miriam Zerelli, who is in charge of all magical activity in the Bronx, New York—he’s who you hire if you need a crazed unicorn wrangled, some werewolves guarded while they gallivant around under the full moon, or an ill-advised attempt to bind a god stopped.

The Bronx is the home to several immortals, who are notoriously hard to kill—so it comes as rather a surprise when one of them turns up murdered, seemingly by a vampire. In addition, binding spells all across New York are either coming undone, failing to work, or are difficult to restore. As Bram investigates, more immortals turn up dead, and a strange woman keeps appearing long enough to give cryptic advice and then disappear. Soon, he uncovers a nasty sequence of events that could lead to the destruction of New York!

What’s Keith’s favorite bit?

A Furnace Sealed Universal Book Link

KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO

The trick with A Furnace Sealed, the first in The Adventures of Bram Gold, is that I don’t have a single favorite bit, but rather the whole notion of writing about my home town of New York City in general and my home borough of the Bronx in particular is one that appeals to me. I rarely pass up an opportunity to write a story set in the Big Apple, whether original or tie-in.

To be more specific, though, I love writing about the people here. The Bronx is one of the most fascinatingly diverse places you’ll find. In 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to see so many different places and things and people.

My favorite was going to a Buddhist monastery, located in an old two-story house on a side street near Kingsbridge Road. From the outside, it looked like just another house, but inside I was greeted by a wizened old monk and his acolyte. They gave me tea, and for half an hour, I felt like I’d been transported to a secluded region of Asia rather than the middle of the Bronx.

The team I supervised for the main Census operation included people who were from (or whose ancestry traced back to) western Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Cambodia, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Ireland.

It was a joy and a privilege to be exposed to so many different cultures and points of view. And when I sat down to write A Furnace Sealed, I tried very hard to reflect that. The people in this book include the Jewish main character (Bram Gold), his Italian-American best friend (Miriam Zerelli), and lots of people from a variety of ethnicities and skin tones, including a wizard named José Velez, a magic shop run by someone named Ahondjon, with his nephew Medawe, and several of Bram’s fellow Coursers: Bernabe Iturralde, Hugues Baptiste, Sal Antonelli, Dahlia Rhys-Markham, and more. The four werewolves living in the Bronx spend the other 27 days of the month as humans named Anna-Maria Weintraub, Katie Gonzalez, Tyrone Morris, and Mark McAvoy.

While there are some neighborhoods in New York that default toward a particular ethnicity, even those have plenty of other folks living there—I myself am an Italian living in a mostly Irish neighborhood that also has a hefty number of dark-skinned folk from Central America and India—and most neighborhoods aren’t nearly that segregated. You’ve got folks all living mushed together ’round these parts, and it’s glorious. (It also occasionally results in culinary weirdness, like a Japanese-Cuban restaurant that I have yet to have had the courage to try.)

Variety, so the cliché goes, is the spice of life, and I for one prefer my life to be spicy. I tried to reflect that aspect of my home borough in this novel that takes place there.

None of that is really a favorite bit, so I’m just gonna close with this little bit of dialogue from Medawe, who helps his uncle Ahondjon run a magic shop on Jerome Avenue, talking with someone on the phone:

“Nah, he ain’t here,” Medawe was saying. Unlike his uncle, he was born in the Bronx, so he didn’t have Ahondjon’s thick West African accent. “It’s Sunday, he’s in church.… Nah, I ain’t telling you what church.… What, you telling me you found Jesus now? Bullshit. Just gimme the message, I’ll let him know when he gets back.… I don’t know when, I ain’t found no Jesus, neither. ’Sides, you know how he likes talking to folks. Could be hours.… Yeah, well, fuck you too.”

Shaking his head, Medawe pressed the end button on the phone.

“Another satisfied customer?”

Medawe snorted. “Yeah, somethin’ like that. What’cha need, Gold?”

“I need to talk to Ahondjon. He really in church?”

“Hell, no. Only time his ass goes into a church is to deliver their holy water.”

I blinked. “Wait, churches buy holy water from him?”

“They do if they want the shit that works.”

 

LINKS:

A Furnace Sealed Universal Book Link

Website

Blog

Facebook

Twitter

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BIO:

Keith R.A. DeCandido has written a ridiculous amount of fiction, or an amount of ridiculous fiction depending on your POV, for 25 years. His bibliography includes a metric buttload of media tie-in fiction in 35 different licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as original novels and short stories set in the fictional cities of Cliff’s End and Super City and the somewhat real cities of New York and Key West. Recent and upcoming work, besides A Furnace Sealed, includes the Alien novel Isolation (which is partly a novelization of the same-named videogame, partly Ripley family backstory), Mermaid Precinct (the fifth novel in his acclaimed fantasy/police procedure series), four Super City Cops novellas (about cops in a city filled with superheroes), a graphic novel adaptation of Gregory A. Wilson’s Icarus, and short stories in the anthologies Unearthed, Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals & Gizmos, Mine!: A Celebration of Freedom and Liberty For All Benefitting Planned Parenthood, They Keep Killing Glenn, Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, Nights of the Living Dead, both volumes of Baker Street Irregulars, and Release the Virgins!