My Favorite Bit: James Alan Gardner talks about ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT
James Alan Gardner is joining us today with his novel All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Monsters are real.
But so are heroes.
Sparks are champions of weird science. Boasting capes and costumes and amazing super-powers that only make sense if you don’t think about them too hard, they fight an eternal battle for truth and justice . . . mostly.
Darklings are creatures of myth and magic: ghosts, vampires, were-beasts, and the like. Their very presence warps reality. Doors creak at their approach. Cobwebs gather where they linger.
Kim Lam is an ordinary college student until a freak scientific accident (what else?) transforms Kim and three housemates into Sparks―and drafts them into the never-ending war between the Light and Dark. They struggle to master their new abilities―and (of course) to design cool costumes and come up with great hero-names.
Turns out that “accident” was just the first salvo in a Mad Genius’s latest diabolical scheme. Now it’s up to four newbie heroes to save the day, before they even have a chance to figure out what their team’s name should be!
What’s Jim’s favorite bit?
JAMES ALAN GARDNER
SPOILER WARNING: This write-up discusses a pivotal moment in All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. If you’re the sort of person who hates spoilers, buy the book and read it before continuing. (Better yet, buy two copies of the book. Or ten.)
While writing, I sometimes reach a point when I realize a character might do something unexpected. It often takes place when I’m writing a conversation; the chance phrasing of a line almost begs another character to reply with a big revelation or to take the action someplace I never imagined. Simple example: a character says, “We’re arguing like an old married couple,” and suddenly there’s a real possibility of the other person saying, “Well then why don’t we get married?” even though that’s far far away from anything in the story outline.
It’s a lovely scary moment. You sit on the cusp of blasting the story open with a single line, heading off into an unknown future…and all because an accidental turn of phrase.
This happened to me while writing All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, and now I think it’s my favorite bit.
To understand the moment, you’ll need some background. The narrator of All Those Explosions is Kim Lam, a university student majoring in geology. Back in high school, Kim was the girlfriend of a boy named Nicholas. Nicholas came from a wealthy family, and in the book’s version of Earth, most wealthy people pay millions to be changed into “Darklings” when they come of age. Darklings can be vampires, were-beasts, or the like…so basically, all the rich and powerful people in this world are semi-immortal monsters with supernatural powers.
Nicholas had to choose between staying with Kim or becoming a Darkling himself. He chose the Dark and ended up as a powerful ghost. Kim was devastated; even though several years have passed, the wounds haven’t totally healed.
In this version of Earth, Darklings aren’t the only people with inhuman powers. There are also superheroes, perhaps created by Fate as a counterbalance to the Dark. Four years after being dumped by Nicholas, Kim acquires superpowers thanks to a lab accident…and almost immediately, Kim encounters Nicholas again.
Like any good superhero, Kim wears a costume and a mask. There’s actually a reason for that—it turns out that if someone super puts on a special outfit and adopts a codename, the universe guarantees anonymity. Your fingerprints literally change when you put on the mask. So does your DNA, your voice, and anything else that might make you identifiable. It’s essentially magic: you absolutely can’t be recognized, even if your mask is a ridiculous little thing that shouldn’t disguise you at all.
But there’s a caveat. You can ruin your guaranteed anonymity if you’re careless or if you deliberately reveal your civilian identity to someone.
So that’s the set-up, established early in the book. Kim takes the hero-name Zircon (because to geology students, zircons are awesome!) and she wears a spiffy white costume. (By the way, for someone as fashion-challenged as I am, being forced to invent costumes for a whole bunch of superheroes is one of the hardest parts of the series.) As Zircon, Kim encounters Nicholas several times, but because of the mask he never recognizes her.
Then, about two-thirds through the book, they meet again while investigating an up-scale B&B built by Darklings. Unbeknownst to either Kim or Nicholas, the rooms are protected by magical privacy spells designed to prevent spying and theft. Nicholas, with his ghostly abilities, accidentally backs up through a wall and triggers the enchantment. It temporarily nullifies his powers and blasts him across the room into Kim. Kim isn’t hurt—when she’s Zircon, she’s as hard as a rock—but she’s bowled over and they both go down in a heap.
So far, this was all part of my plan: a “lying on top of each other” moment that would awaken Kim’s memories and feelings about Nicholas. I started to write the ensuing conversation as they lay nose to nose, and liked how the banter developed:
Nicholas: Ouch! You’re hard.
Kim: Isn’t that supposed to be my line?
But after a brief interlude, during which Kim struggles with her emotions at being in close contact with Nicholas again, he heaves himself off her and complains about being bruised because she’s “as hard as marble”.
I wrote this as a casual toss-off line. But Kim is a geology student and a long-time rockhound. Throughout the book, she’s constantly correcting people about details of mineralogy. And so, hardly even thinking about it, I had Kim retort,
“Don’t be insulting! Marble is only Hardness 3. Zircon is over 7.”
It was such a Kim thing to say: a dead giveaway that Zircon was actually Kim…as if the character wanted Nicholas to recognize her.
But did I really want Nicholas to know the truth? It would cause me a ton of headaches to handle the repercussions. In fact, for reasons I won’t go into, Kim’s life would be in serious danger if Nicholas realized she was Zircon. The rest of the book and the series would go much more smoothly and painlessly if I backspaced a few lines and stuck to my original plan.
I sat at the keyboard and stared at what I had written. I asked, “Am I really going to go there?” Into spontaneous terra incognita?
It’s exciting to be taken by surprise. And for a writer, it’s unwise to flee from excitement. So I kept that serendipitous upheaval, even though it’s sure to come back and haunt Kim and everyone else around her. It immediately necessitated changes to the plot, and it will have major repercussions for the series.
But that’s why I love what happens by chance. Sometimes you kill your darlings, and sometimes you let them kill you.
James Alan Gardner is a writer and editor who has published nine novels and numerous short stories. His work has won the Asimov’s Readers Choice Award, the Aurora award, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, as well as being on the final ballot for the Hugo and Nebula. In his spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.