Fonda Lee: Five Things I Learned Writing Zeroboxer

A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm––a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way. 

As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices place everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.

* * *

Write the Idea That Makes You Pee Your Pants A Little

The inspiration for Zeroboxer didn’t come, as you might expect, from Rocky or Ender’s Game. I’d been working as a corporate strategist at Nike for several years and scribbling on the side, and the idea came to me to write an action-packed story that captured the expectations, money, and public emotion that we invest in celebrity athletes. My brain infused the concept with two things I love—science fiction and martial arts—and the premise took shape: a young man trying to make it in the world of zero-gravity prizefighting.

Zero-gravity prizefighting.

Every once in a while, a creative idea punches your buttons so hard you lose the power to speak and drool runs slowly off your chin. When an idea strikes your writerly pleasure center with that kind of force, you damn well move it to the top of your project list. Some books come easy and some come hard, but the ideas that make you wet yourself feel easier, no matter how thorny your plot problem of the day is. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could be at your door, and you would still run to your keyboard in the morning to work.

Marinate Brain Before Cooking

Before writing a single word of Zeroboxer, before even outlining, I made a list of the key elements in my nascent story idea: Mars Colonization. MMA. Genetic engineering. Living in space. Then I spent six straight weeks just reading and learning. I tried not to think too hard about how it would all fit in the story; I just let it all seep into my brain.

At the time, I was querying a previous novel without success. Imagine your spouse asking you about your day, and answering, “I picked up three new rejections this morning and then I spent the rest of the day watching UFC. How about you?”

When it came time to draft though, I felt so ready. Rarely did I need to stop research this or that, or feel unsure about how something would work. Those early weeks sometimes felt unproductive, like I wasn’t really writing, but I was.

Why Aren’t We On Mars Yet?

Seriously. There is a lot of information available on how we could feasibly do it. Like now. What is the hold-up?! Money and political willpower, you say? Dammit, I want my Mars landing and I want it yesterday!

(Yes, I know this is a long, potentially-contentious conversation, but I will give a nod to The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin and Arthur C. Clarke, Mission to Mars by Buzz Aldrin, and The Mars Society http://marssociety.org)

Write What You Want… But Mind the Gray Zone

Before Zeroboxer, I’d spent a year writing a YA fantasy. As a writer trying to break in, I followed many of the writing conventions that I thought were typically expected in YA novels. I had two alternating first person narrators, one girl and one boy. I tried to give them YA voices and teenage romances. I set it up as a trilogy, because you know, teens love trilogies.

When rejections started coming in, I said, “screw it” to all that, and just wrote Zeroboxer the way it came to me: as a standalone story, told in third person, starring an 18-year-old male protagonist who fights for a living and falls in love with an older woman.

The story felt right to me in every way. When it came time for submission, though, it ran up against several editors who praised it but said it “just wasn’t YA enough” for them. It wasn’t quite “adult” either, though. In writing what I’d wanted to write, I’d ventured into a gray zone between publishing industry boxes, and I got slapped around a bit because of it. Luckily, Zeroboxer landed with an editor and a house that loved it and supported it, but it was a lesson to me: sometimes there’s a trade-off between what you want to write and what the industry norms are. Make that trade-off carefully, but know that it’s there and you may well run into it.

Worldbuilding Isn’t About What’s Different. It’s About What’s The Same.

Zeroboxer has been garnering nods for worldbuilding, but the truth is, at it’s heart, it’s a sports story about one athlete trying to make it while navigating difficult choices. Despite the presence of space stations, Martian colonies, and widespread genetic engineering, what makes the zeroboxing world real for me, and hopefully for readers, are the recognizable things: the loud fight announcers, the excited fans, the trash-talking opponents, the sponsor ads, the dedication and training and strict diet regimens of the athletes.

The familiar, wrapped in the new. The experience of looking through a fantastical lens and still seeing ourselves, unmistakably. That’s the power and the lure of our genre.

* * *

Fonda Lee writes science fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. Zeroboxer (from Flux/Llewellyn) is her debut novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, an avid martial artist, a fan of smart action movies, and an Eggs Benedict enthusiast. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

Fonda Lee: Website | Twitter | Tumblr

Zeroboxer: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powells

6 comments

  • Zero-G Prizefighting! What an awesome concept! Thanks for sharing the bit about editors not knowing where to place it. That same thing happened to me with my middle grade book that was too adult and too long. Still in a drawer to this day because of it. But we press on!

  • Thanks. Interesting to see how you got to your story (the very ‘normal’ athlete story combined with sci-fi elements) and zero-g fighting sounds like an awesome concept.
    Cheers

  • While I don’t think going to Mars is a good idea, just because it takes our eye off the ball here on Earth and our imminent crises, I love the concept. But I think your point about the gray zone is not quite what you think it is. You wrote the book you wanted. It was in a gray zone, but ultimately, the book you knew in your heart and soul was the way it needed to be found a home, while the more “scripted” one didn’t. Sure, it took time, but would you have changed it after a couple of years getting beaten around to push it one side or the other of the zone, or kept holding out for that enlightened editor? I suspect you’d have keep seeking the right home for what you’d created rather than changing it very much… and you’d have been right – you were right in writing what you felt needed to be written.
    Like erikaviktor above, I had a children’s book that seemed too old in the writing style, too young in the concept (a boy who can see leprechauns!) for kids who could read to be interested, but it just got picked up by MuseItUp! They had already contracted a more “in the correct zone” YA paranormal, though… Keep on fighting!

  • “Worldbuilding Isn’t About What’s Different. It’s About What’s The Same” – love it! And completely agree, even if we’re reading a fantasy novel, we’re still looking for ourselves.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds