Jeremy Szal: Five Things I Learned Writing Stormblood

 

Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper: an elite soldier fighting for Harmony, against a brutal invading empire. Harmony made him elite by injecting him, and thousands of other Reapers, with the DNA of an extinct alien race, altering his body chemistry to make him addicted to adrenaline and aggression, making him stronger, faster, and more aggressive and more powerful. And it worked. At a cost. Because alongside their supersoldiers, Harmony created an illicit drug market that left millions hopelessly addicted to stormtech.

Disgusted and disillusioned, Vakov walked away when the war was over.

Only, Harmony never took their eye of him. He may want nothing to do with them, but when his former Reaper colleagues start being taken out, Vakov is horrified to discover his estranged brother is the prime murder suspect, and has to investigate. Even though the closer he comes to the truth, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes.

WRITE WHAT YOU’RE PASSIONATE ABOUT

Sure, you can write what you know. That’s easy. It’s also methodical. Clinical. I wrote that way up until STORMBLOOD, where I decided that I was going to cram the pages with as much cool and wacky and absurd stuff as I could.

I decided to write what I was passionate about.

A character-driven, first-person space opera? Pierce Brown did it, so can I. Seedy alien drug dealers and smugglers? Sure. An entire asteroid, filled with hundreds of cities stacked on top of cities like the floors of a building, each with their own style, class and visual aesthetic? Go for it. A protagonist who wears a full suit of armour pretty much everywhere he goes?  Sounds great. Space cults? Why the hell not? AIs that create avatars that look like animals they’re fond of? Who says I can’t?

In the past, I sometimes felt inclined to gravitate towards the common genre tropes. The done things. The things successful people were writing about. With STORMBLOOD, I decided to screw the rules. I was going to write exactly what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a voice-driven, first-person protagonist who literally gets high on the alien DNA pumping through his body. I wanted to make it intense, delightfully weird, in your face, and a little bit gross. I wanted this book to ooze passion and craziness. I wanted this book to be me.

And it worked.

WRITE FROM THE HEART, NOT THE BRAIN

I was a plot-driven guy. For a while, at least. When I started creating the character of Vakov Fukasawa, I was more interested in his story. Rather than letting the plot dictate the course of events, I let his emotional state drive the narrative. How trauma has turned him into someone filled with rage.  How his childhood, and his relationship with his brother, his Reaper colleagues, has shaped his personality. Why loyalty and family and brotherhood mean so much to him. And how much it truly hurts to see the damage being done to them.

I wrote about these themes because they matter to me. I gave Vakov Fukasawa these values, these emotional soft points, but they’re my values. When I wrote about the pain, the loss, the heart-break, and the determination to do better, to do right by the people you love, I wanted them to come from a place of truth, from the heart. Not just from him, but from me. I wanted to believe what I was writing. When I went for the gut and for the throat, I wanted it to mean something.

I learned that, at the end of the day, I want my writing to touch the heart of anyone who reads it.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO THERE

I’ve always liked fiction that was confronting, unexpected. That got you sitting up straight, lighting shooting through your veins, and a knot tightening in your stomach.

But doing that means taking a risk, and I don’t think I was brave enough to take it. Looking back, some of my fiction was a little passive. Inoffensive. But as STORMBLOOD started to take shape, I wondered how far I could go. If I was prepared to take risks with my characters and world-building. If I could really weird it up.

So I did. Given that the protagonist has an alien organism sniffing inside his body, there’s no lack of mentions about sweat prickling his back, his body hairs going stiff, or the alien DNA slithering down his ribs. What it’s like to really get high on an adrenaline rush, to feel an alien organism cranking your senses up to eleven in all its maddening and sticky glory (as well as the very messy after-effects). I threw my protagonist into terrifying, dread-filled situations, either where truly horrible things are done to him, or he’s forced to do horrible things to survive. Wasn’t sure if I had the skill to do justice to those scenes. If I wanted to damage my character in this way. If writing a protagonist who did and said these things would make him unlikeable. But I learned it’s necessary to push myself, to step out of my comfort zone and see if I could cook up a smorgasbord of insanity that really got the reader wondering what the hell they just read.

I won’t lie; I had a lot of stuff cooking up bizarre things to include that went the extra mile. Gothic Victorian space stations. Spaceships designed like cathedrals. Insane AIs used in interrogation that look like monsters. Suits of armour that like being worn. Drug dealers who have fused their DNA into the walls, turning entire rooms to an extension of their own body. Aliens who sell their own keratin and spinal fluid.

Go big or go home.

THE DARKER THE STORY, THE MORE IMPORTANT HOPE IS

STORMBLOOD is about war, trauma, domestic violence, drug abuse, human exploitation, and suffering on a galaxy-wide scale. Characters are not treated kindly. As the themes started to take shape, I knew if I screwed this up, this could be a relentlessly bleak ride. But soon, I saw the way to balance the scales. By developing relationships between the characters.

There’s some dark moments, to be sure. Characters get put right through the ringer and back. But I learned never to slip into nihilism or wallowing. The characters always had to be there to support each other, to have each other’s back no matter what. There had to be moments of peace and quiet. Where characters get to talk about their passions or relate a happy memory. Even when a very real threat was hanging in the air, Vakov and his best friend Grim had to have banter, little moments of comradeship and empathy (like having a drinking game and getting smashed in an alien bar. I’d fill a whole book of those, if I could). And when things got really dark, I learned to have moments where the characters reminded themselves who they were fighting for. Why their friends and family mattered so much to them, and why they’d let that hope, that love, give them courage to do the impossible. That darkness makes the light of hope that much stronger, and having characters be apart of that hope gave my narrative a human subtext.

VOICE IS EVERYTHING

I’m a sucker for loving descriptions of tech. I write space opera, so obviously world-building is on the table. And we already know how important character is to me. I went to great lengths with my previous projects to make every paragraph sing off the page.

But it wasn’t until I was editing STORMBLOOD that it hit home what I’d been doing wrong. None of that mattered unless it was infused with a strong voice. And by voice, I mean the protagonist’s voice. I want every word of these books to be filtered, coloured, and tainted by my protagonist’s mind. Sure, that’s a great description of a spaceship, but what does this spaceship mean to him? What’s the emotion, the history? It’s about how he sees things, the way he’d describe them with his dark and morbid sense of humour. More than that: I realised the prose, the sentence structure, needed to reflect his personality, as if he was speaking aloud. That meant going back and downgrading some of the language, making the narration more conversational, more terse and in your face. I chopped out any flowery phrases or pretty adjectives, made the language more visceral and gutsy.

That meant undoing many, many hours of work. That meant having a turn of phrase that’s rough around the edges. But I learned that, more than anything else, it was worth it. The book feels more organic, more raw than anything else I’ve written, because every sentence is drenched to the bone with the character’s voice. Hell, it even smells like him.

So if you don’t like it, blame him, not me.

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Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 in the outback of Australia and raised by wild dingos. He is the author of many short stories and the space opera novel, STORMBLOOD, which was published by Gollancz in 2020 as the first of a trilogy. 

Jeremy Szal: Website | Twitter

Stormblood: Amazon | Authors Website