S.L. Huang: Five Things I Learned Writing Zero Sum Game

Deadly. Mercenary. Superhuman. Not your ordinary math geek.

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower . . . but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem . . .

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

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1. It’s far too easy to make assumptions (or, how I didn’t end up maligning the Hell’s Angels).

I try to avoid making assumptions about the types of characters I write.  But unquestioned stereotypes are so freakin’ easy to fall into; they sneak in and breed like warty little gremlins, cackling with glee as they wait to embarrass the author. Case in point: My main character gets attacked by a motorcycle gang, and when I first wrote that scene, I painted their violence as being entirely unremarkable.

Then I ended up working on a film with a bunch of actual Hell’s Angels. (My “day job” is working in Hollywood.  Yes, my life is awesome.)

It turns out they were all very nice guys.  Tough, yes, and I DEFINITELY wouldn’t want to cross them, but if you didn’t fuck with them, they weren’t going to fuck with you.  And they were great people to work with: respectful and on the ball and dedicated to doing the best job they could.

And one of them said to me when we were shooting the breeze off set — he told me about how much it bugs them, the way they’re portrayed in the media, and how they’re trying to fight against that.  Show the world that’s not who they are.

I said, “Oh.  Um.  Yeah.”  Then I went home and completely switched around the way my main character responds to the biker attack.

It’s so fucking easy not to question things.

2. Write what you love.  You can get the haters to love it, too.

As someone who was essentially writing mathematical fiction — which is even further down the Mohs scale than hard scifi — I was terrified that NOBODY WOULD ENJOY IT.  After all, hating math is practically a meme.

What happened: My non-math betas not only loved it, they demanded I add MORE MATH.  And they told me over and over again, “Your audience is not just math nerds.  This has much wider appeal than you think it does.”

Well, that was more luck than anything, I admit.  But I am now utterly fearless about writing pretty much whatever I feel like — because if it’s possible to make a book about math entertaining to math-haters, then hell, it’s possible with anything!

3. Sometimes you have to fuck the research.

I’ve always been a research fiend.  Get everything right.  Down to the smallest detail.

I researched the shit out of everything in Zero Sum Game.  And I remember very clearly the moment I found out a very minor detail of law enforcement procedure, sat down to fix it, and realized (1) I COULD fix it, but (2) fixing it would utterly fuck up my pacing. It would make the book less enjoyable.

After much agonizing, I fudged things a little and left it the way it was.

And a part of me died a little inside, the super-obsessive-research-fiend part of me.  (That part of me still can’t believe I did it.)  But I’ll stand by the decision, no matter how guilty I feel admitting it — because it was what the story needed, and the story had to come first.

I now understand better why some creators take the liberties they do.

4. Good editors are amazeballs.

I write super clean prose and I had four ridiculously good beta readers and an expert linguist who copyedited dialect for me.  I’d been told professional editing would still level me up, but I’m not sure I truly grokked how much until I started working with my editor.

Boy howdy, then I got it.

My editor’s name is Anna Genoese, and she was incredible.  Many of her changes were seemingly tiny — a suggested comma here, moving a paragraph break down one sentence there.  But the difference was like the difference between a nice, serviceable handgun versus one with a retouched trigger pull and customized sights and fancy custom grips that fit in your hand like they’re growing out of your palm.  One you might look at and say, “Yeah, cool, this is a solid piece of work,” but the other one you say, “OMG I’M SO TURNED ON I WANT TO LICK THIS WEAPON.”

. . . it’s possible I’ve been writing about guns for far too long.

Anyway: Love your editors.  Love them like the godlike beings they are.

5. Community matters.

Once I finished the rough draft of Zero Sum Game, I decided I needed some sort of online presence . . . thing.  So I started a blog and joined Absolute Write.

Holy motherfucking crap.

The knowledge on those boards was like drinking from a firehose.  I learned more in my first month on AW than I’d learned in all of my prior research combined.

And then I started to develop relationships.

Friends.  People I bonded with about writing like we were covered in barnacle glue. Writing began eating my life whole even more than it already had, because it became something I was doing with my best friends.

Now we gather in a chatroom every morning and do writing rounds together.  We beta for each other and brainstorm with each other. We also support each other and mock each other and recommend books and make sex jokes and more often than not devolve into depravity.  They’re immensely talented people, to the point where I look at myself and say, “Self, I am so knock-down jealous of you for having such cool friends.  You do not deserve these people.”

Granted, a lot of this was luck, but if I’d known beforehand how awesome it would be, I would’ve done everything in my power to make it happen, including rewriting the laws of the time-space continuum to make sure I met them. Because if I look at before I had a writing community versus now, it feels like I went from eating only gruel to discovering the world contained PIZZA AND MANGOS AND BACON AND CHOCOLATE.

Plus, you know, now I know at least nine people will buy my book.

* * *

SL Huang majored in mathematics at MIT. The program did not include training to become a superpowered assassin-type. Sadly.

S.L. Huang: Website | Twitter

Zero Sum Game: Available March 31st, 2014 | Add on Goodreads