Spencer Ellsworth: Five Things I Learned Writing Shadow Sun Seven
A galactic empire falls… and a secret directive rings through the stars: kill all the humans.
A Red Peace left Jaqi and Araskar fugitives- the Resistance, the Empire’s remnants, and the insectoid Matakas want them dead, especially now that John Starfire’s upped the price on their heads. Nowhere is safe, but Araskar has a secret, and he uses it to make a deal with the Matakas. From the stolen high-level intel in his memory-sword comes a name: Shadow Sun Seven.
This hidden Imperial prison holds a cache of hyperdense oxygen, a priceless rarity from the Empire. It also holds a mysterious prisoner who knows secrets about the monsters in the Dark Zone, and thus Jaqi’s destiny. If Araskar and Z can survive a prison pit fight, while Jaqi and her dodgy allies break in, they can stop John Starfire’s genocide.
1- The Great Secret Idea Source Is… Fun
My stories come from a specific place. Not a magical unicorn’s butt, or any other magical butt, but from a three-foot square of Kool-Aid stained carpet.
Said carpet is occupied by a little kid who still lives in my head, despite years of boring adult stuff. He sits cross-legged with a bunch of toys loudly shouting:
PEW PEW PEW!
This is pretty much what happened with my first novel A Red Peace. The kid provided space bugs. Memory-swords. Cyborg planets. Sun-eating spiders. You know, the stuff that goes KABLOOM. I added what I’ve learned from writing short fiction about character, pacing and satisfying the audience, and wrapped it up in a story about totalitarianism and one’s conscience. Once A Red Peace was drafted and done, the kid SKREEKAPLEWed a quick skeleton of events for the sequels.
But the kid’s attention turned elsewhere after that, and that was fine, because the book was in submission limbo, hanging out in the Great Vortex of an editor’s desk.
2- …The Great Idea Source Will Not Have Fun on Command
And then Tor bought A Red Peace.
Not just A Red Peace, but two sequels! I had a genuine contract for Unnamed Starfire Book Two and Solve For X Starfire Book Three.
Victory. Novel deal. It called for a serious RASHKLAPOW!
Or so I thought. I presented the contracts to the kid and he…
Ran away and hid.
When I tracked him (mentally) down, he said, “Wait! Here’s ten other ideas I like better!”
Kid. Come on. I have a deadline.
3. Don’t Look At The End Product (Even Under Deadline), But Figure Out What Kind of Story You’re Writing First
We did this for a while. Several months in which the kid would give me any idea except the one I was contracted for. The kid simply couldn’t ignore the external pressure and play; SHROOKABOOMBUM was not achievable when I stood there yelling “this needs to be X amount of words, and as good as the first!”
Finally I stood back, took the limits off, and offered the kid just one suggestion. We could blow our deadline, we could write a piece of crap, we could put it all in iambic pentameter… it would all be okay, as long as we had some fun with this idea.
“Okay,” he said, little face furrowing in suspicion.
A Red Peace had been an extended chase sequence. The sequel, turning the tides, would be a caper. Subterfuge. A daring break-in. A mysterious prisoner.
The kid got a little excited. A caper? What’s the break-in? Wait, I’ve got it. It’s a prison built in the guts of a giant space tick. There’s someone who has living guns. There’s blob people and scorpion things and a tower in the middle of the desert and an alien crime queen bug… SKA-PLOW-WHAM!
The problem with writing on commission is this: you have to get your head out of the end product (sequel that moves story X distance, with Y wordcount, for Z deadline) and go back to the part where things were fun. This is most difficult when you haven’t actually written on commission before, and writing has always been an exercise in all-fun, few consequences.
So don’t start from the limits. You can worry about that in rewrites.
4. Big Fascist Bullies Will Make You Feel Bullied…
The kid and I, of course, both stopped in horror when a piss-haired fascist monster was elected President halfway through writing the book.
My agent called to check on me and said “Half my clients are frozen with anger and panic, and half are writing more furiously than ever, to kill fascism with their art.”
I don’t know if I felt either. I (and the kid) felt like we were right back at Scout Camp, getting picked on and missing our toys and our square of carpet. But it turns out…
5. …You Can Punch Right Back With Words
Given that my books are about the downfall of a galactic despot, the kid and I found that SHA-BLOOM could be rather therapeutic, after all, as long as we included some marching and a lot of calling our elected reps. In some ways, it was easier to say “Someone might read this and stand up to fascism” for both me, and the kid, and that made us even more excited for the THIRD book, when fascism gets what’s coming to it.
What’s that? You, yourself, like a little SKRAPLOW? You want to know who the mysterious prisoner is in the heart of the space tick prison, and what’s up with the living guns, the blobs and the tower? You too want to stick it to a galactic fascist? Shadow Sun Seven comes out November 28th from Tor.com, and if you haven’t please take a look at A Red Peace, out now, to SKREEKABLOOIE, er, pretty great reviews.
Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. His short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and at Tor.com. Over the years, he’s worked as a wilderness survival instructor, paraeducator in a special education classroom, and in publishing; he currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.
Spencer Ellsworth: Website