Eliot Peper: Five Things I Learned Writing Veil

When her mother dies in a heat wave that kills twenty million, Zia León abandons a promising diplomatic career to lead humanitarian aid missions to regions ravaged by drought, wildfires, and sea level rise.

What Zia doesn’t know is that clandestine forces are gathering around her in pursuit of a colossal secret: someone has hijacked the climate, and the future of human civilization is at stake.

To avoid a world war that appears more inevitable every day, Zia must build a coalition of the powerless and attempt the impossible. But success depends on facing the grief that has come to define her life, and rediscovering friendship, family, and what it means to be true to yourself while everything falls apart.

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Follow Your Curiosity

A few years ago, I listened to a podcast interview with award-winning journalist Charles C. Mann in which he described scientists researching how to intentionally manipulate the global climate to offset the worst impacts of climate change.

While geoengineering proposals range from seeding the oceans with bacteria to sucking carbon dioxide directly from the air, only one approach is practical with today’s technology. You fly planes into the stratosphere and spray inert dust that makes the Earth ever so slightly shinier, reflecting a tiny bit more incoming sunlight back into space, thus reducing the amount of energy entering the Earth system and cooling the planet. The kicker is that it would only cost two billion dollars a year to offset the current rate of global warming. That means that any country and even a few wealthy individuals could decide to create such a program all on their own.

This scenario raises so many questions that will define the coming century: what does it mean to exist within an environment in which we ourselves are the primary agent of change? What will the future look like when technologies like nuclear weapons, CRISPR, the internet, and geoengineering can give a single human being the power to literally change the world? How can we harness our own natures in order to leverage such technologies to actually make the world better?

Holy shit, I thought. Someone needs to write a novel about this.

And Veil was born.

Don’t Try to Be Original

The more I learned about the science of geoengineering, the more I pressured myself to construct a story as intricate as the climatology models I was reading about. Part of it was wanting to honor the source material, but there was also a less honorable aspect: wanting to impress readers with an original science fictional take on an important issue.

We’ve all experienced the joy of appreciating a truly original work of art—something that opens new worlds for us. But is the originality we experience the result of the creator striving to be original? My best work emerges when my ego gets out of the way, when a story flows onto the page as if I am no more than a conduit. Veil refused to get going until I stopped trying to be clever and just wrote what seemed obvious.

Don’t try to be original. Just do what comes naturally. Others will call what comes naturally from you “original” because *you* are its source, your nature informed it. But you know the secret: you did what was obvious, and that’s what made it inspired.

Don’t Let Routine Get In Your Way

As we shelter in place to flatten the curve of a global pandemic, it feels like a lifetime ago, but last year at this time my wife and I were embarking on a pilgrimage. The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route, a network of paths across Europe that lead to the purported resting place of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. My wife and I aren’t religious (only about half of the pilgrims we met were Catholic), but we love walking, and over the course of five weeks, we hiked five hundred miles along the mountainous northern coast of Spain.

I was supposed to have finished writing Veil before we started.

I hadn’t.

So after spending all day lugging a heavy pack through pouring rain, howling wind, or baking sun, I would sit on my bunk in the converted gymnasium of a remote village albergue—volunteer-run shared sleeping quarters for pilgrims—and write a chapter, or a scene, or a sentence, before passing out.

So often, I trick myself into thinking that I can’t write unless the conditions are right: a large block of time, hitting a minimum word count, a quiet place to work, having eaten the optimal breakfast, an ample supply of inspiration, etc. But routine can hinder as well as help. I finished the rough draft of Veil on the Camino because I didn’t let routine get in my way. I wrote whenever, wherever, and however I could, and you can too.

Choose the Rollercoaster

Writing Veil was an emotional rollercoaster. Here’s the 1980’s montage version: bursting with ideas and enthusiasm—>thinking “wow, this one is different in a good way” as I whiz through the first few chapters—>insidious doubts gather in my mental shadows until—>somewhere around the halfway point I have an existential crisis that this book won’t, can’t work—>after extensive struggle, the crisis resolves into a new understanding of the story itself—>momentum builds until I’m experiencing the excitement of reading the climax even as I write it—>etc.

It turns out that this doesn’t get easier. It’s a rollercoaster I board ever time I write a new novel. The only difference experience makes is that now I know that I’m buying a ticket when I sit down to draft a new story. The rollercoaster is an integral part of my process. I choose the rollercoaster.

Realizing that the rollercoaster is a choice is crucial. It means I’m signing up to do the work. It means that when things get tough, I recognize that the struggle is the work. It means that when fear rears its ugly head, I face it—clear-eyed and even-keeled.

Find the Heart of the Story

I only ever figure out the heart of the story as I’m writing it. Rather than executing a clever plan, working through a manuscript sentence by sentence feels like hacking through dense undergrowth, following an overgrown path that might or might not lead out the other side.

As I explored this particular jungle, patterns began to emerge. Zia took on unexpected depth and started making decisions that surprised me. Her circle of friends came into focus. Strange loops connected choices, objects, locations ever more tightly—opportunities to increase the story’s density of meaning, a pocket universe reflecting itself.

But it wasn’t until a long train ride through Italy—interrupted by a wildfire on the tracks during which conductors handed out plastic water bottles to sweating passengers—that my wife posed the ultimate question: why are you writing this story in the first place?

Only by answering did I realize the answer. I was writing this story to take readers on a journey that would challenge them to reflect on life in the Anthropocene. I was writing it because the characters’ personal losses echo how we have all lost capital-n-Nature—the ability to draw a clear line between humanity and our environment. By coming up with ever more ingenious tools that extend our reach from the subatomic to the cosmic, we have lost a neat metaphor for explaining the world to ourselves. The cast had to find the courage to face their grief, to reconcile, to figure out a way forward. That is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with respect to the Earth system: we can no longer afford to pretend that our actions don’t have consequences or that it’s possible to turn back the clock. However difficult it may be, we must take responsibility for the extraordinary powers we’ve developed, and use them to build a better future together.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, the Uncommon Series, and the Analog Series. His novels have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, Popular Science, San Francisco Magazine, Businessweek, io9, Boing Boing, and Ars Technica. He has helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil’s Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Verge,  Tor.com, TechCrunch, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has been a speaker at Google, Comic Con, SXSW, Future in Review, and the Conference on World Affairs.

Eliot Peper: Website | Twitter

Veil: Amazon