On Picking Reader Brains for Fun & Profit

We’re now in finals week at IMSA, where I have the pleasure of teaching sf and creative writing courses and working with some of the most interesting students you’re likely to find. Finals week means a retreat to a predictable pattern: long hours of grading, calculating revisions, writing final term comments. Cleaning my office. Drinking tea. Eating at my desk. Wandering in circles gnashing my teeth. More tea.

One of the best things in that predictable end-of-term pattern is my students’ joint blog in Speculative Fiction Studies. For several years, I’ve tapped into the lifeblood of sf publishing — through Twitter, #MSWL, and a growing collaboration of sf publishing professionals — to get my students talking to the creators of the work they’ve been reading, interacting with and contributing back to the sf ecosystem.

This year, I was fortunate to have the cooperation of my agent, Bridget Smith; my editor at Pyr, Rene Sears; and writers Max Gladstone, Carmen Maria Machado, and Naomi Kritzer in furnishing questions for my students to ask. The general theme was, “If you could pick smart, teen readers’ brains, what would you want to know from them that would help you do your job better?” The students’ final assignment was a short essay in blog post form, responding to any of the five pros they chose. The posts went live this weekend, and are up for anyone to read and respond to here: SFS @ IMSA.

You should stop by, whether you are a reader of sf, a writer, an editor, or an agent. These students have a lot to share about what they hunger for in their fiction, from greater diversity in representation of body size and nonbinary identities to more thoughtful pairing of linguistic and narrative style with plot content. They’re picky. They’re insightful. They’re the rising generation of readers who will shape what flies off the shelves in the years to come — and what’s likely to sit there and languish, instead.



Almost Run Out of Town by Penguins: A Post-Nebula Awards Roundup

Late Sunday afternoon, my husband and I returned from a long and very busy weekend at the SFWA Nebula Awards conference in Pittsburgh, and now that I’ve scraped myself together well enough to share some of my impressions, I find a lot of very good writers and writerly-folk have beaten me to the punch. Days behind others in offering insights into writing, being a publishing professional, networking, and otherwise growing in one’s life and career, I see no reason to compete with my betters. So instead, here’s a listing of what the Nebulas leaves me unpacking (and yes, that’s a hat tip to my pre-Nebulas packing post here, in my utter shamelessness).

More in the order of experience than importance, I have learned:

  • Pittsburgh has hills. Great and mighty hills. Hills that would likely make a proper San Franciscan snort derisively, sure, but I’m native to Chicago, city of Political Wind and No Topography of Any Kind. Our hills are a Pittsburgher’s speed-tables. A proper mountain range would likely make my capillaries burst on sight. I am  jealous of the amazing churches dotting Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, and yet endlessly grateful I won’t have to drive their hills iced-over in winter.
  • So, the title of this blog post is actually quite serious business. The Pittsburgh Penguins were playing in the NHL conference finals over the Nebula weekend, which meant that a loyal march of Penguin fans swept up every last hotel room, air BnB, motel room, and room-to-let in the surrounding zip codes. I had a booking with the Nebula con hotel which apparently dematerialized just in time for our arrival, leading to a mad scramble to snatch up two rooms for Thursday and Friday night, and no room in the proverbial inn at all on Saturday. Cue my pale, staring silence. Cue Mr. Townsend sliding into action with the calm only a certified scrum master can affect, ushering me upstairs as I muttered imprecations against myself, hotel, and fate. Behold, the power of penguins, which sent me fleeing to a (mercifully) much higher power…
  • The resourcefulness of Steve Silver and Nebula Con Ops. Remembering that I’d been told if anything goes wrong at a con “Find the Ops people” are words to live by, I went down to the conference floor to ask if anybody knew if there were cancellations for the weekend, maybe a room to let on Saturday? Enter Steve Silver, the Nebula con manager, and his immediate love of my Cubs world series t-shirt (*fist-bumps her fellow Chicagoan*) and desire to help sort out our room issues. He rattled off a half-dozen hotels to call and said he’d be in touch with management at the Marriott. The greatness of Steve under pressure is truly something to behold, in that it doesn’t look like a darn thing. One gets the impression he could match Ginger Rogers step for step at doing things backwards and in heels, if the spirit moved him. I don’t know how he did it, but by the next morning, there was a message on my room phone asking me to come downstairs with my key cards so they could be upgraded with a Saturday night stay. Remember this wisdom, friends: If you have a con problem, GO TO OPS, especially if ops = Steve Silver. He literally saved my Nebula weekend.
  • Sarah Pinsker can pick you a mighty fine con mentor. She matched me with Curtis Chen, author of Waypoint Kangaroo and its forthcoming sequel, Kangaroo Too (bonus points for excellent sequel naming there). This was an amazingly prescient fit, for about a dozen reasons. I’ll spare you and stick to the big three, though. First, Curtis is about a year out from being a debut author, and had to climb the same hill I am now — going from writing at your own pace to writing a sequel under a deadline. Second, I’d had Waypoint Kangaroo on my TBR list for some time, especially since first seeing its query on Janet Reid’s infamous Query Shark blog a few years ago. And third, Waypoint Kangaroo is a comic sf take on the spy thriller genre, and I grew up reading Ian Fleming and John Gardner’s James Bond novels, mixed with a steady diet of Monty Python. Needless to say, Curtis proved to be exactly my kind of people.
  • The Cajun food at Market Square’s NOLA is pretty great, and so is a conversation walking back from dinner with Michael R. Underwood, but be careful exactly how long you go on about the tension between genre romp and genre lit stylings, or you’ll miss two turns and get your whole dinner party back to the hotel late, lost in downtown Pittsburgh. Among the hills. So. Many. Hills.
  • When Sam J. Miller says he wants to help get you exposure, he means it. He’ll mention three times, while introducing you to an sf podcaster, that you’ve got a book coming out and are looking to do promo. He’ll turn that phrase into a form of punctuation. It will be the clause he suborns to half his comments, nudging you physically closer to the interviewer, angling for a bite. The podcaster (clearly very tired from a long Thursday of traveling) won’t get the hint, but you will emerge very impressed by Sam’s persistence, and share little “what can you do?” smiles and shrugs with each other the rest of the weekend when you pass in the halls. And that will feel special enough, you won’t worry about all those hints that buzzed the tower.
  • Sarah Gailey’s much-anticipated River of Teeth released yesterday and I got my pre-order copy on my doorstep, sure. BUT I SAW SWAG BAGS WITH THE HIPPO BOOK AT THE NEBS. Days early! I thoughtmight not have to wait! Why SHOULD I wait? I texted up to our room, where Mr. Townsend was napping to recover from our red-eye flight, and commanded that he COME DOWN RIGHT AWAY WITH SOME BOOKS TO TRADE FROM OUR BAGS. And, patient, good man that he is, he came, armed with a few titles less to our usual tastes, and I dove into the book bayou to search for my very own copy, ready to clean-and-jerk it up and drop something else in its place. To the credit of the seasoned, veteran ops team member who kept side-eyeing me as I crawled over the open swag bags like a Rhesus monkey, she didn’t try to stop me. Equally to her credit, she didn’t grin too much with the schadenfreude of seeing me come up empty-handed, either.
  • If you are down in the bar, and make eye contact with Amal El-Mohtar, having had occasion to meet her digitally and under pleasant circumstances, plant your feet. Go for a wide stance. She has a helluva tackle hug, and we ended up holding it for a breathless time (breathless both for joy and for having slightly winded each other, I think). “It’s really you!” she whispered in my ear. “You’re really real!” I countered. And other somewhat blithery things. Someday, there will be an Inspiring Teacher Movie based on us, starring an actress much lovelier than me taking my role, but actually starring Amal as herself, because one cannot truly be lovelier than Amal. (Sidebar: Amal ultimately won the Nebula for Best Short Story for “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” reprinted here in Uncanny Magazine. So she’s also my first hug from a Nebula winner, too, which makes the whole not breathing thing even more forgivable.)
  • My Office Hours sessions turned out to be very popular, with about half my visitors interested in working fight scenes and writing violence realistically. I’m sure at least a few people signed up just because they spotted me miming all the different ways you could deliver a knee to the solar plexus as a coup de grace and wanted to know what all the fuss was. If the Nebulas will have me again and cares to put Office Hours “on offer,” so to speak, I’ll be happy to oblige!
  • As much as I love my agent, Bridget Smith, and my agency siblings Julie Salmon Kelleher, Alex Yuschik, and Savina Rendina, AND a good hamburger. . . I discovered I don’t actually like spiked shakes. I’m sorry. I suppose I should turn in my author card now, since I can’t quite make myself believe that a stiff shot makes everything better. Fortunately, these lovely ladies DO make everything better. I’m lucky to have them in my life, and especially lucky to have met them all at once, for the very first time.

But of course, the most important thing I learned at the Nebulas was more a matter of relearning. Or maybe, just a reminder, a chance to sit in the knowledge in real time:  the knowledge that sf is my home and always has been. That it’s people are (with few exceptions) smart, caring, interesting, funny, and above all, kind. That they are always looking for new people to gather in among themselves, new branches to graft to the family tree. I’m proud to be one of them, and looking forward to seeing these fine people again soon — some of them, perhaps, at Readercon!

Before I go, though, I should mention (Art of Starving) that Sam J. Miller has a book coming out very soon (Art of Starving) and that you should really pre-order it (Art of Starving).


Things to ‘Pack’ When You’re Prepping for a Con

This Thursday at dark o’clock in the morning, I’ll be lugging myself and two (hopefully not badly over-packed) bags to the SFWA Nebula Awards Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Of course, I’ve yet to actually pack those bags, or arrange my house in a state where my children can be left with a sitter who won’t tear the place apart in a perfectly reasonable search for something innocent — say, their clothing — which will end empty-handed, with a side of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

But I have been thinking about packing a lot, and not just because it’s Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking about the things I’ll be bringing to the Nebulas that don’t exactly fit in bags. The things in bags are on the whole pretty easy. Clothes, toiletries, ibuprofen, and Pepto Bismol, and I’m basically good to go. But you pack your self – your actual Self – differently with every professional con you attend, I’m learning. Here’s what I’m having to make space for this year:

  • Complicated anticipation. Not just the anticipation of attending the conference, or attending as someone with a book on contract (my super-sekrit status last spring), but attending as someone with a debut book to talk up, a project to publicize, a face to put forward. And yet, without ARCs to thrust into anyone’s hands (…yet) or other projects to sign at the mass autographing, I know I have to be ready to balance coming onto the scene with absorbing the scene. Balancing authenticity with networking is hard, but easier when you remember that if you’re doing the first thing well, the second naturally follows.
  • Amusing anecdotes! [insert audio of bustling, chatter-y cocktail bar] “Oh, yes, I read that! In fact, when I was on a train going into Chicago, there was this guy sitting next to me, and he kept trying read over my shoulder, but my Kindle screen was too glare-y, and so–  Wait, where are you going?” Okay. Probably a good idea to have a better one than that. Fortunately, I have both small children and students, so I have a ready supply of ways to share my daily embarrassments, for the good of the order.
  • Some gorram good ideas. Did I mention I am doing Office Hours at the Nebulas? Did I mention that I’m signed up for three time slots on Thursday and Friday, and I’m available for both walk-ins and appointments? And that I’m a pretty fast draw with a story concept brainstorm, flash critique, workshopping advice, and all other kinds of shinies? Of course I did. And trust me, I’ll have a handy haversack full of things to talk about, if you’re coming and keen for a chat.
  • Confidence. Not to turn into a motivational poster on you (to my students’ chagrin, the hall leading up to office is papered with these guys, so that should tell you my general opinion of potable affirmations), but confidence matters. I am, by nature, a deep introvert with performative extrovert skills. Most people I know through various social engagements don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert. They’re too used to seeing me tell jokes, take bizarre risks in my classrooms, talk freely to strangers, and gather people into social circles to understand that these are actions I value and are pretty good at which run fundamentally counter to how I’m wired. I have to militate against the urge to seep into the wainscoting. One way I do that is by channeling false confidence, projecting exactly what I don’t feel in the presence of others. But just like I tell my students, both as advice and as a warning, if you tell yourself the lie enough times, you can make it become real. You just have to choose the lies that improve you.
  • Curiosity. Nobody wants to hang around with the person who can talk about themselves and their work endlessly but can’t be bothered to take an interest in others. That’s a cynical reason to cultivate curiosity, certainly, but the case for curiosity improves when you consider there’s no reason to show up to anything — a conference, a museum, a new job, a first date — that doesn’t in some way boil down to curiosity, the desire to explore an unknown and see what it holds for you.

Perhaps I’ll see you at the Nebulas in a few days — or at Readercon this July. I’ll be sure to pack a little extra of all of the above for you; we wouldn’t want to run out.

Oh, and I’ll be packing my banquet dress. If anyone has any advice about packing a satin, chiffon, and lace mermaid ball gown so it’s not a wrinkled mess, I’m all ears.


The Hive Mind of Book Recommendations

We’re in the final three weeks of the semester now, which means my mind has turned toward final assignments, and of course, final grades. Like a lot of schools, mine encourages teachers to write mid- and end-of-term comments, but let’s be honest: those end-of-term comments are hard, especially for graduating seniors. There’s typically little more to say than an Edward R. Murrow-style “Good night, and good luck.” Such gestures always strike me as pat and hollow.

I hate that, because if there’s one thing I’m good at in my teaching, it’s developing a rapport with my students. By the end of a semester, I want them to know I’ve been actively thinking about who they are and what makes them stand out in my mind. I want them to know they matter to me as an individual, enough to warrant some words meant just and only for them.

But still. End of semester, man. My drawer’s out of spoons.

So, to avoid mouthing platitudes at kids who deserve better, I’ve turned to ending Speculative Fiction Studies with a comment in the form of a science fiction or fantasy book recommendation. The rules are simple: I have to be able to articulate why I believe this particular student would like this book, and I’m not allowed to give any repeat recommendations.

One year, I had to write ninety of these.

This year will be easier, with just forty-five in total. And yes, I read a lot of sf, but I’m a big believer in the power of the sf fandom hive mind.

That’s where you come in.

In the comments section below, pitch me a science fiction, fantasy, or other speculative book you’ve read and loved and would happily recommend to another reader (particularly, perhaps, a precocious teenager). What jumped out to you about this book? Is there a particular type of reader it would appeal to?  Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read, fit into any genre sweet spots of yours?

Who knows — you may help me find, or remember, just the right fit for a student who’s a little hard to peg, or whose reading interests are very different from my own. And even if you don’t, we’ll get into a good discussion here.


The Author Is In: ‘Office Hours’ at the SFWA Nebulas Conference!

This May will mark my second trip to the SFWA Nebula awards conference, this year in Pittsburgh, PA, and my first experience being part of the programming.

So, what will I be doing? The answer is, maybe more than this, as the schedule is finalized, but for now, I’ll be part of their “Office Hours” programming. If you’re coming to Pittsburgh and looking for someone with a knack for the following, I’m your Huckleberry:

  • Insights into teaching sf/f & running successful workshop groups
  • Blowing up story concepts
  • World-building from a random theoretical premise (scientific or others; try me – you’ll be surprised)
  • Flash fiction critiques
  • Fight scenes & hand-to-hand combat
  • Refining dialogue
  • Tea (yes, tea is a skill set, and I have the receipts, my friends)

I hope to see lots of you there.

Look for a follow-up post from me in the coming weeks about programming I’ll be part of at Readercon this July in Quincy, MA. It’s going to be a very busy spring and summer!


Sometimes, You Need to Ask Better Questions

I was more than a little nervous, going into work on Thursday morning, April 20, because my Speculative Fiction Studies students were speaking with Amal El-Mohtar. I was excited, grateful, hopeful, and yes. Terribly, deeply nervous. I should point out that there’s nothing about Amal that should make anyone fearful, apart from her talent, her enthusiasm, her accomplishments, her erudition, her grace —

No, scratch that. I was anxious about my students – and, let’s be honest, me – having a good showing with Amal because she’s very much to be admired. One never likes to let down one’s heroes. So I told myself what my mother always told me about fear and success: “You only feel so awful because you care so much. It would be wrong if you didn’t.”

My students read Amal’s “The Truth About Owls” as part of their homework and were ready to speak to her through a Twitter AMA on the hashtag #AMALowl. It seemed a perfect plan: low-impact ‘face time’ between a writer and students familiar with her work, with the technology free and practically foolproof. But though the questions the students shared were thoughtful and sincere, and Amal dove into answers as fast as anyone could expect a lone writer on a mission to do, the disconnection of an asynchronous conversation felt a bit wrong.  In a previous, totally spontaneous AMA, Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander had been able to tag-team their way through half a class period of discussion. Two against twenty had worked out much better than twenty-to-one odds, as I might have realized if I had used my tactical brain more and my fangirl brain less.

Fortunately, in a quick DM session after, Amal raised the issue that would turn things around for the afternoon: “That was super cool! I hope the answers were ok! I’m sliiiightly regretting not actually doing this over skype because some of those questions definitely deserved more thought-through answers! . . .What do you think pedagogy-wise? I will totally do what’s easier for you / better for class!”

It was the right question — a better question than “Will this go okay?”, which had been the only place I could make my brain focus all morning. Instead, Amal asked what it would take to make the teachable moment itself better. She assumed (rightly) that it would be okay. And it had been. But she also sensed it could have been better.

So, we switched tracks and arranged a Skype call for the afternoon.

As the students on my side of the call gathered (freely sharing expectant looks, without a webcam to capture them all), they looked over the questions they’d written with Twitter in mind and started revising on the fly. More words, nuances, ideas. Amal was a gem, putting up with bad audio and not seeing her audience’s faces as if it was part of the fun.

I wish she could have seen the kids, because they were all smiling.

The conversation really broke open about five minutes in, when a student walked up to my laptop mike and asked, “Why did you decide to leave it ambiguous whether Anisa’s power is real or not?”

It was a joy to watch Amal’s face, already smiling, fill with a sudden light.

“That is. . . you know, that is actually a great question, because usually people want to know which it is –is there a power or not? And I don’t like to answer that because you’re right. I did that on purpose. And I guess it’s because. . .”

And on she went, the student nodding back at her the whole time.

If only she could have seen it.

It’s not often readers have the chance to ask a writer why they make certain choices. But that shouldn’t keep us from asking ourselves different, better questions as we read or work. The student could tell that if Amal had wanted her audience to have a clear sense of what was and wasn’t real in her story, she’d have written that way. She’s well more than capable. So the important question clearly wasn’t what’s the binary ‘truth’ in “The Truth About Owls.” The question was, what does the story gain in its ambiguity? What does it offer its reader, through whatever lens we pick up?

When I write, what questions am I asking myself, and how will they help me get to something beyond the next plot beat? What questions do I hope my readers would ask me, if I were the one on the other side of a chat screen? It’s something I’ll be thinking about tonight as I settle in to draft another chapter of The Nine’s sequel.

At that moment, with Amal almost laughing at the simple beauty of a better question, my daylong nervousness finally washed away.  Between Amal’s question about what would make things better for the students, and my students’ questions about what they’d read, it was clear everyone in the room had gone beyond the obvious to the essential.

That’s what the best writers coax their readers into doing.

Thanks for showing us that, Amal.



Finding Yourself in SF: On Dancing With Unicorns & Other Essential Experiences

Last spring, I attended the SWFA Nebula conference for the first time, spending three and a half days at the Palmer House Hilton in the company of some of the most charming, interesting, funny, and insightful people around: sf people. At a panel discussion of Octavia Butler’s legacy, I asked a question about introducing my students to her writing, looking for suggestions about where to start. As it turned out, how I prefaced the question would make me a little infamous that weekend. “I have the best job in the world,” I said. “I’m sorry, everyone else, but you can stop looking. It’s already taken.” And I told the panelists about my students, about teaching sff and creative writing, and less than ten minutes later had people introducing themselves to me by saying they wanted to meet the Lady with the Best Job in the World.

That title lasted the rest of the weekend: “Oh, hey! You’re the one with the best job in the world, right? I’m Lawrence.” And so on. No one questioned it. The people who used that ad hoc label accepted it as true and real, and by extension, me as true and real. It’s hard to express how much that meant to me, a writer with a brand-new book contract and very little idea of what the road ahead would look like.

In fairness, I don’t own the best job in the world entirely on my own merits. I have excellent students, a creative and supportive teaching staff around me, and some truly amazing professionals in my field to lean on. One of the ways I can confidently point to having the best job in the world comes around once a year, in the form of Michael Damian Thomas and Lynne Thomas of Uncanny Magazine.

Two years running, the Thomases have come to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, my professional home, and spoken to dozens of students in our Speculative Fiction Studies class. That by itself makes for a great day at the office, but the part that makes having Uncanny’s support so powerful — and the part that makes my day job the actual best job — is what they give my students. “Behind the scenes” knowledge about publishing and writing. Personal anecdotes about their struggles and failures, and the winding road that shaped them into editors of one of the most successful sf semiprozines running today. Memories of their own experiences as readers, and the power of writing as a teacher of empathy and humanity.

Most of all, Michael and Lynne give my students a sense of belonging every bit as powerful as the one I felt shaking hands with people at the 2016 Nebulas — authors and editors I admired so much, I was left fumbling in their presence. The Thomases, like the professionals who unironically greeted me as the lady with the “best job,” look my students in the eyes, listen to their questions, and talk (and get talked to) beyond reasonable human endurance, actively becoming allies to anyone and everyone in need of thoughtful support.

Here’s one story about such a moment from their most recent visit, Friday April 7, 2017.

After a long luncheon with some select students and faculty, and following a long morning of presentations, Lynne and Caitlin retired to the department offices we’d set aside as Uncanny Base Camp. Michael trailed after, surrounded by students like some sfnal philosopher at the Agora. They talked sf culture. Conventions. Networking. Contracts. How to build your voice and audience as a writer. Everything. Inch by inch, Michael managed to gain ground toward the English department door, but stopped just at the threshold with eight students gathered around, still full of questions, anxieties, and hungers. Once Caitlin was settled, Lynne came out, too, and it was all I could do to get them each a cup of tea, so few were the breaks in avid conversation.

An hour passed this way. Just standing in a hallway, filling the air with absolute enthusiasm for the genre and the industry. And, more importantly, rewarding my students for their enthusiasm by showing them it is normal and good to be curious and feel passion.

Once the student group finally realized there was a chance they were about to miss OTHER classes, they dispersed.

All except for one.

That student lingered another hour, suddenly converting what was supposed to have been a break for the Thomases into a spontaneous interview about his possible future as a writer of color who didn’t wish to be understood through color alone. That’s a tough topic for anyone to field, let alone in conversation with an almost complete stranger, but Michael and Lynne saw it as an opportunity rather than a landmine. They shared anecdotes about writers of color they’d worked with, experiences that united and (sometimes) divided them, ways these authors had framed their work in and out of the context of race and identity. They talked about college, and career planning, and not sweating the small stuff on the way to bigger stuff. At any moment, they could have looked at the clock on the wall and said, “Kid, we’ve been talking about three hours total here. We could use a break.”

But they didn’t, because for this student, this might be his only chance to have this conversation, and that took precedent. They saw him — really saw him — and knew both that he had value, and that he needed to understand that he was valued by them, specifically.

All of this happened because Michael and Lynne saw in the chance to spend a day talking to gifted high schoolers about sf a chance to invest in the genre’s future. Students of every background and description filled the auditorium where they spoke, waylaid them in the halls, and wrote them thank-you notes the Monday after, because they knew they’d been given a gift — one I get to take a tiny bit of credit for because so many in sf have been so generous to me.

I aim to pay them back, someday.



Inspirations for THE NINE

I have the great privilege of teaching creative writing professionally, which means I spend nearly as much time fielding questions about writing from my students as actually reading their work — or writing my own, for that matter.

Often, my students agonize over their work being “too much like” other things. If someone mentions during workshop that so-and-so’s short story reminds them of [Fill in the the Blank], there’s this automatic fear reaction from the author. They don’t want to be seen as derivative, un-creative, or (God forbid) a plagiarist. I’ve made the mistake of drawing parallels between x and y when talking about student writing, only to find the compliment I thought I’d carefully crafted sent the poor kid plunging into despair

I can get behind a mortal dread of and aversion toward plagiarism, certainly. But fearing the way your work has been shaped by other things you’ve read, or seen, or just plain loved? That’s one of the best parts about writing. It’s a change to talk about the worlds you’ve absorbed, to reimagine things in combination with your imagination.

There are many works I could cite as key influencers for The Nine and broader world. Some of them I had explicitly in mind as a wrote, and others simply insinuated themselves into my smallest writing gestures, the way you absorb the habits of an old friend as you talk over coffee, mirroring them without quite consciously realizing it.

Back-cover blurbs can only tell you so much about what to expect from a book, and with The Nine‘s release still far off on November 14, maybe you want to do a little homework and find out more about what’s in store. If you’ve liked or loved any of the following, then there might just be something in The Nine for you.

  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series –  Do you like vast political conspiracies with a theological twist? How about plucky orphans, shape-shifting soul mates, powerful witches, and giant sentient war bears? Treachery, love, Pyrrhic sacrifice, and battles waged across multiple layers of reality? If you don’t like these things, it’s safe to say I don’t understand you at all, because the collusion of theology and science that frames Pullman’s world was the inspiration for the Ecclesiastical Commission and the skullduggery that draws in the heroes of The Nine.
  • Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings – Not a novel by any means, and not a collection of short stories, Borges’ Book is a fantastical collection of coy, tantalizing encyclopedia entries about fantastical beings from all over the globe. Look up the entry on the Lamed Wufniks to see the first breadcrumb that sent me down this trail.
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen –  As a life-long comics reader (most especially the X-Men books from the late eighties to the early aughts), I have an indelible interest in super heroes and other characters living strange, secret lives in the margins of things. Moore and Gibbons’ story follows super heroes after they’ve put the life behind them (to varying degrees of success), exploring the damage they’ve done to themselves and the impossibility of outliving or running your past.
  • Joss Whedon’s Firefly – A space western science fiction television series? As an inspiration for a dark clockpunk fantasy? Yup. And here’s why: Whedon’s talent for snappy, bantering dialogue that offers tiny peeks behind the curtain of backstory has long been a model for me, and I’m a sucker for his theme (consistent across nearly every large-scale project he’s touched) of “found families.” You learn as much about these characters’ relationships from what they DON’T say as what they do, which remains a guiding principle in my own writing, years after I watched the series for the first time.
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels – There’s so much to love in Max Gladstone’s writing, it’s hard to sum up its influence over me in a few short sentences. It has so much to recommend it. Rich, multi-textured and multi-cultural settings across a vast globe we’ve yet to see explored to its farthest horizons, certainly. A brilliant, gutsy fusion of technology, magic, and law as the motive apparatus of government and economy, absolutely. But often overlooked, especially in the shadow of other authors who use vast casts of characters, like George R.R. Martin, is his ability to use a variety of point of view characters in close third person, bobbing the reader between and among different perspectives of the plot, with each character’s emotions and perspectives as clear and compelling as the last. My critique partners have compared by use of multiple third person perspectives to GRRM, but it’s really Gladstone I had most in mind.

There are, of course, a dozen other influences on my writing, large and small, I could name – Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards Sequence, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms all spring to mind. But the headliners of this post are truly where I’ve begged, borrowed, and been inspired most.