Alex White: Five Things I Learned Writing A Bad Deal For The Whole Galaxy

The greatest dangers hide the brightest treasures in THE SALVAGERS, a bold, planet-hopping science fiction adventure series. A BAD DEAL FOR THE WHOLE GALAXY continues the adventure that began in June’s A BIG SHIP AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE.

The crew of the legendary Capricious are rich enough to retire in comfort for the rest of their days, but none of it matters if the galaxy is still in danger.

Nilah and Boots, the ship’s newest crew-members, hear the word of a mysterious cult that may have links back to an ancient and all-powerful magic. To find it, hot-headed Nilah will have to go undercover and find the source of their power without revealing her true identity. Meanwhile, Boots is forced to confront the one person she’d hoped never to see again: her turncoat former treasure-hunting partner.

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1. Don’t underestimate the power of a zealous cause.

At the end of the first book, the heroes do their hero thing and bring home the titular Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. They expose a fundamental lie and the conspiracy of maniacs behind it. The galaxy sets about rooting out the remaining evil, and everyone lives happily ever—

—No, wait. Actually, within months, a group springs up calling our heroes frauds, then uses these claims to radicalize young people to their cause.

These cultists come from two places: positions of power and prestige, and those who feel they’ve been denied their birthright. When the cult asks more of them, it asks for their dignity or morality to provide them with a mere chance at greatness—and so many remain signed up.

I try to write villains a reader can respect. I want the reader to understand their motivations and ask, “Could I become that person in another life?” But over the course of writing A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, I kept watching the real world and wondering if my bad folks were evil enough. It’s getting harder to have sympathy for the devil, and that came to influence my portrayal.

2. Where you write alters what you write.

Composing a song on guitar will yield different results than composing on piano, because both instruments preferentially accent different chord structures. The same is true of the writing I do and the context in which I do it.

In early 2016, I got a traveling job that kept me away from home for weeks at a time. I’m a creature of habit, and I hated trying to write outside of my nice, established space at home. However, I also had three unwritten books under contract, so I was going to have to toughen up if I wanted to get the job done.

I found that different contexts created different results: writing fun scenes was easy outdoors, and no place is better to write a depressing scene than an airport bar. Cozy spots were good for the sweet bits, and fluorescent corporate breakrooms conjured horror. I could take my notebook to all these different places and plot my work, then drag it back to the hotel room like a prized buck for meat processing.

While I have never been as prolific on the road as I am in my house, writing in new contexts made for interesting results.

3. Building the puzzle is easier than solving it.

A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy is a heist story, and at the core of every heist tale is a puzzle that the heroes must solve along with the reader. The solution must be predictable enough to be satisfying, but twisty enough to be surprising. It’s balancing these contradictory goals that makes writing heists fun, and I originally found the challenge intimidating.

As it happens, the super-smart heist is easier to construct than I thought. Here’s the formula that worked for me:

Start with an obstacle: political, geographical, armed guards, crime families, whatever. Keep adding obstacles until the entire thing seems ridiculous: “Even if we could get in there, how would we get past the bipedal robo-sharks?”

Then cogitate. Give up. Shut your laptop and drink your booze in disgust. Complain to a friend. Take a shower the next day and realize that something you’d set up elsewhere on the story could change the equation. Repeat until you have enough exciting solutions—and throw in a final complication for good measure (“What do you mean the mayor is doing a publicity thing at the bank today?”).

When I wrote this heist, the eureka effect was my best friend. If you don’t think a shower will solve your heist problem, you haven’t seen the original woodcut of Archimedes screaming while he jumps out of the tub.

4. You can never go home again.

One of the hardest things to capture in a series is the imprint each adventure leaves on the characters. You can’t face down some of the worst the galaxy has to offer and emerge unchanged. It leaves scars. It erodes mental stability. What most believe to be your strengths may become weaknesses behind closed doors—stoicism turns into distance, alertness withers into paranoia.

When I first started the sequels, this kind of intimidated me. It was hard enough to create the arc for Nilah and Boots from nasty and selfish to heartwarming and familial. Now, I was expected to create two similarly-entertaining arcs with an overall theme stretched over them.

It turned out that my worries were unfounded. Once I was able to slow down and consider how their previous adventure impacted them, natural character interactions readily emerged. This book taught me to worry less and draw from my good ideas, without repeating them outright.

5. Writing a sequel feels awkward as hell sometimes.

I was so glad to find out most of my author friends deal with some variation of this one.

Writing your characters a second time around, as big heroes, feels self-aggrandizing. I had grown so accustomed to thinking of them a band of down-on-their-luck scoundrels. Describing them as heroes who’d already overcome a great evil against terrible odds was just strange.

To counteract this and return their humanity, I concentrated on the things my characters would hate about success. What problems weren’t fixed by loads of wealth, legal power and the ability to blast off into the stars at a moment’s notice? I started taking stock of their inherent psychological damages, using those to create double-edged interpretations of success.

There’s a reason that winning the lottery can be the worst thing that happens to some people.

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Alex White was born and raised in the American south. They take photos, writes music, and spends hours on YouTube watching other people blacksmith. They value challenging and subversive writing, but they’ll settle for a good time.

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