Five Things I Learned Writing Invasive

[So, I get to do one of these right? I think I’m allowed. Don’t look at me like that. IT’S MY BLOG AND I’LL DO WHAT I WANT. *kicks sand in your face* *and by sand, I mean ants* *fire ants*]

“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Hannah Stander is a consultant for the FBI—a futurist who helps the Agency with cases that feature demonstrations of bleeding-edge technology. It’s her job to help them identify unforeseen threats: hackers, AIs, genetic modification, anything that in the wrong hands could harm the homeland.

Hannah is in an airport, waiting to board a flight home to see her family, when she receives a call from Agent Hollis Copper. “I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies,” he tells her. Whether those bodies are all human, he doesn’t say.

What Hannah finds is a horrifying murder that points to the impossible—someone weaponizing the natural world in a most unnatural way. Discovering who—and why—will take her on a terrifying chase from the Arizona deserts to the secret island laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. Hannah knows there are a million ways the world can end, but she just might be facing one she could never have predicted—a new threat both ancient and cutting-edge that could wipe humanity off the earth.

* * *

The Three-Step Research Tango

Both Zer0es and Invasive are very research-intensive books. Not to say every book doesn’t require a little bit of research — but the further you drift into fantastical territory, the greater license you are given to say hey, fuck it, and then, barf up a glowing river of unicorn slurry and get on with your life. But these two books, not so much. Sure, I could just make everything up — fiction gives you a pretty long leash. But I wanted to get things right. Or at least so they felt right — authenticity being the illusion of truth.

So, that meant research.

With Zer0es, I researched by disappearing from my family for a year and joining a Russian hacker cabal. They called me Yuri, and I ended up in prison for a while, and got a bunch of really rad Russian prison tats. Then, for Invasive, I rolled around in brown sugar and slept on my lawn overnight until in the morning I was colonized by ants. I’m still colonized by them, even now. I feel the ants inside my face. I am not their queen but rather, their king. Ha ha ha, Ant #91,812, you’re tickling the inside of my nose! Ha ha ha. *sneezes* *ants everywhere*

Okay, maybe not.

For me, research takes three stages.

First stage is, read a lot about it. Scour the Internet. (Might I recommend beholding Alex Wild’s macro ant photography?) Read expert texts on the subject. (For Invasive, anything by Holldobler and Wilson. Journey to the Ants is wonderful. As is The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization By Instinct.)

Second stage is, talk to people who know things. Speak to experts. In this case, talk to entomologists. Make phone calls. Ask questions. Kidnap them. Force them to yield all their secrets to you. DISCOVER WHICH INSECTS CONTROL THEM. Wait, no. Just ask questions.

Third stage is, try to get hands on. Obviously, we have ants all around us — the ants outnumber us by an epic factor. (The Earth is home to roughly ten thousand trillion ants.) It was easy enough to watch ants at work, and present them with challenges — disrupt a pheromone trail or establish for them an American Ninja Warrior course. But also, that meant for me heading out to the wonderful Bug Barn at Purdue University under the care of Gwen Pearson. I got to see ants! And hold a tarantula! And behold the OBT, the Orange Bitey Thing, the Orange Baboon Tarantula. (You don’t touch the OBT without a hazmat suit.)

That third stage is one of the most important because you pick up things that are more impressionistic than they are fact-driven. Like, anybody can read about a subject. But to experience it — even in the tiniest way — gives you little bits of information that are all yours. And you can use them. (Example: in writing The Cormorant, I went to Florida to travel where Miriam was traveling. Way better than doing the same journey on, say, Google Maps.)

Research, Like Anything, Can Overwhelm The Story

The story is everything, and all serves the story. If something does not serve the story, then you must lay it upon the altar and chop off its fool head. The reality with research and the facts it yields is that you can first only use so much. When something doesn’t match the narrative — getting it to fit means cramming it, and nobody likes anything crammed anywhere.

Everything cannot be slave to fact. That’s not to say to try to get it right! But you can only get it so right before your story ceases to be possible and the whole thing just becomes non-fiction. Invasive involves genetic modification of a creature in a way that is not yet possible and may not ever be possible. The goal then is to support the outlandish sci-fi components with a backdrop of reality — it creates (as noted above) what I think of as authenticity. Authenticity isn’t fact or reality. It is a feeling of fact or reality. It feels true. It feels real. The other thing is that research is going to give you an overfull bounty, a veritable cornucopia of material. You can’t use it all. Bank it, and save it for later.

At the end of the day, you can’t let anything — research, worldbuilding, preachy thematic resonance — take over the narrative. All things buoy the story.

Otherwise, the story sinks beneath.

(Related: this also means you can’t be afraid to cut material from a book. Invasive‘s first draft was around, I believe, 120,000 words. The final was around 90,000 words. So, 30k hit the floor thanks to suggested edits from my agent, my editor, and my own cuts. Gotta be merciless when it comes to cutting the flab from the story. But not all the fat — fat provides flavor in small amounts. AND GREAT, NOW I’M HUNGRY.)

If A Story Is Told In The Forest And No One Can Hear It, Was Ever A Story Told?

It’s easy to line up all this big, crazy stuff — OMG ANTS AND GENETIC MODIFICATION AND HACKERS AND OH GOD WHAT IF THE WORLD ENDS, but all that is meaningless without a great protagonist. Character is everything. Character is the lens that focuses all these wild, erratic rays flashing around the room like you’re in a lightswitch rave. For me, pieces of this story were bobbling around the sensory deprivation tank of my own skull for a long time. The one thing that brings those elements together for me is the protagonist.

That is true here, too — Hannah Stander is the knot binding all these threads into one. She’s a character at the nexus of a lot of anxieties both personal and impersonal. As the daughter of doomsday preppers, she’s subject to a great deal of anxiety about how the world works and what her place is in it. Further, her line of work is literally to look to all the wonderful technologies and advances mankind is creating — then figure out how someone might use those things to kill us. I feel her pain, man. You look on Facebook or watch the news and it’s a very good way to feel like everything is collapsing, like we’re under constant threat from everything and everyone. It engenders this intense fight or flight response, and it’ll stir your anxiety like the wasps from a yellowjacket nest hit with a rock. Hannah is throttled by anxiety but desperate for hope.

Finding the right character is a way into the story. Every character is a door.

Let Yourself Into The Story

When I said above, “I can feel her pain,” I mean it. Every character is a way into a story, yes. And you’re a way into every character. I wrote about my anxiety a few months back without ever thinking I really would — but I did, and I’m glad I did. Another way to acknowledge my anxiety was to put it into this book. What exists there is a (fictional) embodiment of what I sometimes feel. And it’s what I sometimes see when I see other people who share anxiety.

We authors are bundles of emotional, intellectual baggage. We’ve got bullshit piled up to the rafters. We have fears and experiences and ideas. We have peccadillos and desires and secrets. All of those things glom together in a mounding, steaming heap. And in the act of writing a novel, we are given a shovel. And we are allowed to take as much or as little from that heap as we want, and use it to fertilize the story. Let yourself speak. That’s not to say the book should be overwhelmed by your presence, or that you should bury the book under that same steaming heap — but just as every character is a doorway into a story, every story is a doorway into you.

The lesson too is that it makes writing the story easier. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is, to me, an oft-misunderstood nibblet of advice. I never see it as a castigation — I see it as a challenge. We treat it like it’s a limitation instead of an opportunity to dig deep. It’s a challenge to take not just what I know up here *taps head* but also what I know here *taps butt* — WAIT, sorry, that was rude, I mean, *taps heart* — ah, yeah, there we go. Heart, not butt.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. If your story is a house, you get to live in the walls and haunt those who pass through the dwelling.

P.S. Ants Are Fucking Weirdsauce, Man

Ants are a bottomless well of weird. And given that we’re currently in the middle of a nationwide ant epidemic, seems like a good time to discuss just a teensy tiddle bit of that.

– Some ants taste lemony because of their formic acid (and yes, you can eat many ants — though I wouldn’t recommend just grabbing some from your lawn.)

– Honeypot ants store a food slurry (think bug bits, nectar, whatever) in their bodies, their butts (sorry, “gasters”) swelling up to the size of grapes. Other ants then tap them like living beer kegs to get the deliciousness out.

– Leafcutter ants do not cut leaves because they eat the leaves, but rather because the leaves will act as a kind of mulch on which they grow a fungus — meaning, they’re farmers. And it creates a kind of mutualism, because the ants need the fungus and the fungus need the ants.

– Many ants are mutualistic — some with trees or other plants, protecting them from other animals big and small who want to eat the plant. Ants milk aphids, and even carry them to new locations on given plants. Some ants suck sweet nectar from caterpillars in exchange for saving the caterpillars from other, more vicious ants.

– Ants have gained a reputation for being hard, diligent workers — and that’s true, as a colony — but up to 25% of a colony consists of ants who really don’t do much at all. That’s right — ant colonies have lazy-ass ant slackers. (And the story goes that if you eradicate the lazy ones from the population, the ratio remains as previous workers stop working to become lazy. Suggesting there’s more going on here than we grok.)

– Heck, I just learned that Argentine ants will purge their queens — over 90% of them.

Ants are weird. And fun. And in many cases, terrifying.

What I’m saying is —

You should check out Invasive.

OR I’LL COVER YOU IN BROWN SUGAR AND LEAVE YOU ON THE LAWN OVERNIGHT.

Invasive: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N | Goodreads | Invasive Photo Contest

20 comments

  • Oh God! Fire ants are the absolute bane of my existence. I wage war upon them and will not rest until I see them driven before me and hear the lamentation of their women.

  • Hey, Chuck, i have a question regarding first drafts. I hear people say to allow yourself to be bad before you get good. That it’s all about letting it out and then refining it, do you agree? And most importantly: How bad are your first drafts?

    • Totally agree.

      My first drafts are generally pretty good these days, but I’ve also been writing professionally since my early 20s, and in freelance I iterated quickly to get more work and to get paid. BLACKBIRDS, though, took me five years to sort out before I ever even really finished a proper first draft.

      — c.

  • Research is useful, but you are right – fiction runs on a long leash!

    When you are the actual RL expert sitting in a darkened cinema watching some ludicrous techplanation (it is a real word now, thank you) for why Mr Hacker against the forces of evil begat blah victory, or how alien cyberpathic something or other was cowed with *really great FM radio* – sometimes you burst out laughing without meaning to.

    …But it doesn’t matter one little bit, because the story is great, and what’s going on between the characters matters to you, and their interactions seem plausible …even when they aren’t human. I think the only time I’ve gotten stuck on technical errors was when the story magic wasn’t strong enough to distract me from them.

  • I agree. Ants terrify me. I’m just glad they don’t really know we’re here. And fungus. Did you get around to the cordyceps thing? Ew. Related: if they ever asked you to would you write an ant man comic? I don’t think they ever wrote the ants right in an ant man comic.

  • Research is a nasty, slippery slope down the rabbit hole. But must be done. I love this kind of storytelling where science is a floor mat for stepping from a tub full of fiction. It’s one of the reasons I read James Rollins…and will be reading Invasive. Of course the weirdest research I’ve come across in writing was when I was helping out a critique partner who had characters (the bad guys) who transformed into snakes (paranormal romance) and discovered that snakes have two, barbed peni. That actually got worked into the book, sir, believe it or not! Take that, research in my story turns it into weird awesomesauce.

  • “…but just as every character is a doorway into a story, every story is a doorway into you.” This insight is exceptional and obvious once you see it. I find these tidbits sprinkled throughout your blog which is why I keep returning. I think my favorite thing about writing is the practice of empathy, putting myself into the shoes of my characters and bleeding or laughing with them. It allows me the freedom to feel things I may have repressed or encountered and also acts as a lens to look inside, past the facade I create for myself and discover new things about me and this world and you people. Thanks for giving me a place to expose my art-on.

  • Janet Reid nailed it about research, she called it “the tang of authenticity.” Even if you’ve played fast and loose with some details, there is enough behind it to make me believe it could be true.

    And as someone who is very knowledgeable in a couple of fields, I know that we are nerds who are eternally grateful that someone wants to talk to us about it. Give us a chance and we’ll talk until you run and then we’ll chase you. The first rule of Nerd Club is to ALWAYS talk about Nerd Club.

    When I have a weapons question I always throw it up to the hive mind and end up with 50 nested-threaded comments with multiple replies that have more info than I could use in an encyclopedia. But I always learn something and can pick out the nugget I need.

    Today I helped crowdsource a question on how to land a blimp. Because blimp.

    One of those quotes that I should have written down said to the effect that editing a fact-intensive book is the act of cutting 100 pages in such a way that they are still there.

    I got my greatest compliment in a review when a well-decorated career Marine said that I included just enough about the weapons to make it sexy, but trusted the reader to not need a lecture.

    Terri

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